Cassie called a meeting the next morning to announce her decision. Or rather, she asked Morris if she could talk to him about it and he set up an official meeting. Whatever she had decided to do or not do, he said, it was the official business of the State. Cassie wasn’t so sure about that, but she decided that she’d have to get used to talking to these people eventually. Still, when she walked into the meeting room her stomach didn’t seem to have come in with her.
The room was large and airy, more like a conference room than Cassie had expected of this palace. As proxy for his father, who was head of the Council of Lords, Kenneth was allowed to be there, and he gave her and Finn an encouraging smile. The Secretaries were seated already on one side of the table. These were the representatives of the three Councils, Morris claimed, although Cassie was still unsure what exactly the Councils were. Still, she was glad to see that two of the Secretaries turned out to be Tom and Carlton DeRenneas, who had already heard some of this plan from Finn and Kenneth the night before. The brothers looked tired, but happy. The third Secretary was a small man who didn’t look quite human. He sat on a cushion to bring his head on level with the others, his legs dangling over the edge of the chair. Standing he’d be near to four feet tall, stocky through his chest and arms and steady on thick, straight legs. He looked different than human dwarves, a face with a long nose and chin and wide brown eyes, his ears overlarge and a little bit pointed. He was clean-shaven except for a thick pair of sideburns that showed streaks of grey in his black hair. His hands were oddly big, like spades, tapping long fingers on the table. He wore the same suit of office that the DeRenneas brothers did, his in brown.
Cassie nervously took a seat at the head of the table. Morris wrestled Kenneth for the spot on her right, and Finn took the one to her left. From next to Morris, Kenneth plopped a thin black book on the table. He looked a little better, although he seemed to have slept in the clothes he’d worn the day before, and his hat was crooked and half-off his head. Still, he seemed confident and gave Cassie an encouraging smile. She took a deep breath, looking around at everyone gathered there for her. “Thank you for-for meeting me here today. I know that there are some things you all expect from me, and some things that have to be done no matter what. And so I—well Finn and Kenneth really—have come up with a plan that I think is going to work for everybody.”
Everyone was silent as she laid out the idea. Kenneth and Finn chimed in at the right parts; Morris even made Finn read the entire prophecy twice. When they were finished, it was the dwarf who spoke up. “It won’t work,” he said.
“You can’t know that,” Kenneth shot back immediately.
“No,” Morris said, “Gaenish is right. Your premise is flawed here. Look, Cassady,” he said, turning to her, “I’m thrilled that you want to accept the crown, but this isn’t a responsibility to be taken lightly. You can’t just be a placeholder until the situation changes. If it ever does.”
“And you have no heirs,” Gaenish the dwarf pointed out. “If you die in this endeavor, we’ll be worse off than we are now.”
“If the Dacruum summon the Ultimate Power, everyone will be worse off,” Cassie said. “Don’t you think I should at least try to stop it?”
“But if you aren’t the heir of Mercutio, then you can’t anyway,” he said. “There is not enough evidence to be sure of any of this. Our time is better spent with a Queen on the throne doing her job, letting fate bring out the heir when the time is right.”
“You think fate just happens on its own?” Kenneth said. “We take control and fight to bring it about. I was there when Audrey discovered the Dacruum movements. She died to confirm this intel. They are trying to summon the power, I can assure you of that. If ever this prophecy was going to come about, it’s now. As it is written, so shall it be.” Cassie was a little moved by his words. Charlotte had told her that Gran died from a stroke, but it certainly seemed more fitting for her to go down fighting. No wonder Kenneth had been so obsessed with the Ultimate Power.
“Elysiaa wasn’t the only one who left writings behind,” Finn said. Her voice wavered a bit, but she did her best to sound confident. “Mercutio wasn’t born knowing how to perform the Rite. And he would have known that his heir would need to learn what he did. We just have to retrace his steps carefully, and we can undo them without going to war with anyone. The prophecy says the trial is to stop the Ultimate Power, maybe this is how.”
“You’ll have to be more convincing than ‘maybe’,” Morris said. “If you really intend to do this, you’ll need the Consulate’s approval. That’s all three councils that speak for the whole of our Order. You’ll need to appoint someone to rule us in your absence, and to take over when you die.”
“When?” Cassie repeated.
“What you seek to do is dangerous,” he said. “Your mother herself would let you be Queen if it meant you didn’t take on this insane task.”
“Someone has to. ‘All of Creation shall fall’, remember? It’s not just the Dacruum and the war that endanger you, but it’s this dependence you have on bloodlines and paper-thin enchantments. The Craftlings aren’t free. And they aren’t safe. You want me to wear the crown, I’m offering to do it. But these are my conditions. Let me try to make a difference, try to really help the people. And if I die, we all die anyway.”
The room was silent for a long minute. Finally, Gaenish spoke. “If you ascend the throne, you will have to remain Queen at least until all of this is settled. And if you don’t succeed, or if you aren’t the Heir of Mercutio, you won’t be able to abdicate your duties at all. Are you truly prepared for that?”
“Prepared to fail?” Cassie said, looking into the dwarf’s cold eyes. “I won’t ever be prepared for that. But this is my responsibility. And if I’m wrong, if this isn’t my destiny…then I won’t let the people down.”
Morris touched her arm sympathetically. “All right then. If you are truly ready, we will help you in any way that we can. Your Majesty.”
As soon as the decision was official, things began to move very fast. Kenneth went off to the temples to alert the priests and Tom, Carlton, and Gaenish headed in opposite directions to inform the council members of the decision. Morris insisted that a meeting of the Consulate happen immediately after the coronation, and the coronation itself was to go off as soon as possible. “The day after tomorrow I should think,” he said, “if we keep to a tight schedule.
“That soon?” Cassie said.
“A celebration is easy enough to put together,” said Morris. “The actual coronation really only requires the Ahrra of the High Renalian Church, who lives here in the palace. The rest is simple ceremony. We could do it even sooner, but most people won’t be able to come until tomorrow anyway. Today is The Day of the Auspices.”
“Anyu mentioned that. It’s a holiday?”
“A local one, but quite widespread. When a nearby planet, Klannar, crosses into the same orbital pole as Renalia, its moons align with ours. People say it is a time of omens and new beginnings. They make pilgrimages to Klannar to pray for revelation.”
“A time when paths open up,” Cassie repeated Anyu’s words. “Maybe it’s a good sign.”
“Yes,” Morris said. “Let’s hope others will see it that way as well.”
He led Cassie and Finn from the meeting room to the Throne Room two flights down. There they met Roderigo Ferdinand (whom everyone addressed as Ferdi) and his army of seamstresses, designers, and assistants with clipboards full of page after page of notes. According to Morris, Ferdi would handle everything but the actual coronation rite, including food, decoration, and wardrobe. It seemed like too much to lie on one person, but in the twenty minutes he’d known about the coronation so far, Ferdi had already done an impressive amount of work. By way of greeting, he declared, “This will be most spectacular event that the Craftling world has ever known,” and he herded Cassie and Finn back upstairs to a fitting room somewhere in the newer parts of the Palace. The whole way he rattled on about themes and draperies and floating lights, all of which was scribbled down onto clipboards as they walked. He seemed to be asking Cassie’s opinion, but all she could do was nod and jog to keep up.
“You, stand here,” Ferdi ordered Cassie, pointing to a small platform in front of the three-way mirror. Finn sat down on an ottoman nearby and tried to give her friend an encouraging smile. Ferdi pulled Cassie’s hoodie off so quickly she worried he dislocated her shoulder. “A princess should dress like a princess even before she’s crowned,” he commented disdainfully.
“I’m not a—ow!” Cassie squeaked as Ferdi pulled both her shoulders back into a straight posture and slapped his measuring tape open across her shoulders.
“Sorry,” he said, not sounding sorry at all. “But with less than two days to make all these outfits, I only have time to measure once.”
“How many outfits do you have to make exactly?” Cassie said, holding her arms out obediently.
“Yours, your steward’s, the attending representatives, and of course she needs a proper gown,” he pointed to Finn.
“What?” Finn waved her hands in objection. “I don’t need a gown. I’m just in the background.”
“Are you not the Second?” Ferdi asked. He turned back to Cassie, “Who is your Second?”
“Second? I don’t even know what that is.” Cassie looked at Morris.
“I assumed the Lord Kenneth would be your Second,” he said with a shrug. “You seem to like him enough. It’s more of a ritualistic role, technically called the Left-Hand of the King. I think it used to be an advisory position, or maybe a guardian one. Now it has no duties at all, they don’t even need to be part of the court.”
Cassie looked over at her friend thoughtfully. “Well, why can’t it be Finn?”
“Why?” Morris repeated. “Because she’s not a Craftling.”
“Is that really a requirement?”
“Well it’s not written—“
“Then it’s not a requirement,” Cassie said. “Besides, I promised Finn she’d be by my side through all of this. I’m going to need her if I have any hope of pulling this Rite of Creation off. So, maybe she should have a position in the court.”
“Cassie I don’t need—“
“Yes you do,” Cassie said with finality. “This was your idea, remember? If you’re going to be the brains of the operation I’m going to need you up front and center. You said the Left-Hand was an advisory position right?”
“Technically,” Morris said through a clenched jaw.
“Well maybe if the past kings had made real advisors out of their Seconds, you all wouldn’t be in such a mess. Maybe I should get a different steward too.” Cassie grinned at the affronted look on Morris’ face.
Finally he grimaced and admitted defeat with a small bow. “Whatever you wish, Your Grace.”
“All right,” Cassie said brightly. “I officially name Finnia Morgan as the Left-Hand of the Queen, Second in the Empire.” She looked back at Morris for confirmation, “is this an empire?”
Morris looked on the verge of banging his head against the wall. “We’re an Order. The Order of the Craftlings.”
“Fine then. Second in the Order.” Cassie lifted her chin, quite pleased with herself.
Ferdi took his last couple of measurements while she was standing straight. “Well if that’s all settled then, scoot.” He patted Cassie on the behind. “I’ve got a Second to dress.” He motioned Finn forward and she took her place on the pedestal.
The next few hours were a blur of cloth samples and design motifs and a book of recipes thicker than the Tome. Finally, once they broke for lunch, Ferdi dismissed them for the day, saying that he would now proceed to take care of everything. Cassie convinced a servant to bring them sandwiches instead of braving the main dining hall, and she and Finn headed off to the Library. They made a nice picnic in the courtyard under the light of the Star of Rhiath. Whenever Finn touched it, the orb flared and sparkled like fairy lights over their meal.
After that they set up shop in the same circular room where Finn had found Kenneth the night before. “Do you really think the answers we need are just sitting in the library?” Cassie asked as they compiled a stack of books written in or about Mercutio’s lifetime. “Wouldn’t they already have checked here?”
“Not if they never looked,” Finn pointed out. “I think that once everyone had to deal with the aftermath of the Rite, they didn’t really care how Mercutio pulled it off. Besides, if he did write anything useful down, he would have hidden it in some way.”
“Which begs the question, wouldn’t he have found somewhere better to hide it than his own library?”
“Probably,” Finn said. “He most likely hid it with magic. But you don’t hide anything without leaving a treasure map. A trail only his heir could follow.”
“You really think so?” Cassie said, looking doubtfully at the volumes they had gathered.
“If he didn’t, Elysiaa did.” Finn seemed absolutely certain on that point. She pulled out the thin black book that she had read from at the meeting that morning. “In here Elysiaa says that Mercutio spent the last years of his life like a man possessed, convinced that the Rite was the only solution. I have no idea what problem he thought he was solving, but according to this he disappeared for six months and then all of a sudden the universe was changed forever. Whatever happened during that time, whatever he discovered, one of them would have left record of it. Especially since Elysiaa knew that there would be an heir one day who would have to know.”
Cassie considered this. “Maybe. But you know where it would really be, if it’s anywhere? The Tome. That thing supposedly records everything that ever happens ever, right?” Cassie stood. “You start in, I’ll go get the Book and be right back.”
By the time dinner rolled around the girls had gone through nearly every book on the table, but still produced little more than what they already knew of Mercutio and his life. Cassie’s attempts to read the Tome were slow-going. While Finn’s theory of willing a subject to appear worked well enough, Cassie couldn’t make the Tome tell her what she couldn’t picture herself.
Around sunset Kenneth and the DeRenneas brothers showed up with a basket full of food. Kenneth claimed that Morris had cornered him as soon as his duties were over and told him to make sure the girls ate something, but Cassie had the feeling it was just his excuse to get in on the research. The three boys were much better at navigating the library than Finn and Cassie had been able to, and together they started in on the subject of universal theory. The dusty volumes all contained much more physics than Cassie was prepared to handle, but Finn drank in every word greedily.
Cassie stuck with the Tome. Mercutio might have used these books to start his quest, but Cassie was sure that record of it would be in here. Still, every history of the royal family that she cam across was very terse and close-mouthed about Mercutio. Everyone who mentioned him did so angrily, in letters and journals dealing with the aftermath of his actions.
All Cassie really managed to learn was the history of her family. Not just back to Elysiaa—kidnapped from her home on Rhiath and eventually married to King Mercutio—but all the way back to the first monarchs of the Order, who united the seven kindreds and communed directly with the gods. It was long lineage full of bravery and sacrifice, commitment, love, revenge, everything. Less than informative, it was greatly intimidating. By the end of the night, the many names and titles jumbled together in Cassie’s mind until she started to lose track of where she belonged in the family tree.
When Kenneth’s head slipped from his hand and hit his book with a thud, Finn decreed that they should all go to bed. They parted ways outside the library and Finn and Cassie wound back through the dim corridors to the Royal Suite. Cassie paused outside the door to the suite to examine what she’d thought to be a torch, but instead it was a stick of iron that had somehow been enchanted to glow with a bright, steady light.
The servants had laid out nightgowns for them to wear. Void of anything else, the girls put them on and climbed into the monstrous bed feeling like they were wrapped in silk tents. Finn managed to fall right asleep but, tired as she was, Cassie found herself staring at the window, unable to close her eyes.
She had started off this day hopeful, but all the preparations for the coronation had made her nervous again. Had she really chosen the right path? The stories of her ancestors depicted kings and queens with courage and wisdom. She may have made her choice now, but she felt neither courageous nor wise.
Carefully, Cassie sat, leaning against the headboard. When the chain caught against her throat, Cassie moved automatically to straighten her amulet. But this time she paused, the stone in her hand. The spell was broken, she remembered, and her mother was gone now. Half on impulse, Cassie reached up and, for the first time in her life, unclasped her amulet. She let it fall on the bedside table, the chain pooling like water across it. Nothing happened. Without it, her throat felt naked, but she was unchanged.
As she watched first one moon rise and then another, Cassie remembered the voice of the watcher in her vision. A great destiny lay before her, he said. A destiny worthy of the Royal Line. But she couldn’t shake the sight of the golden farmlands and glistening cities, the tiny mining towns on distant moons and the vast reaches of land that made up the Craftling Realm. All this, he said, is yours. And all this is at stake should you fail.
The next morning dawned as bright as any day on Earth. Finn was eager to get back to the library, but now that the court had returned from their holiday, it was time to begin setting up for the coronation in earnest.
When they walked into the Throne room, it was completely transformed. Streamers already hung between every pillar, white with a strange iridescent glow about them that Ferdi must have been responsible for. Someone had moved the throne away, and the dais was getting a thorough polishing. A plush purple runner, like a Hollywood red carpet, led from the double doors across the whole length of the room.
Ferdi was arranging the placement of a series of tables hidden behind the pillars and ready to bring out as soon as the coronation was over. Morris, who seemed engrossed in running twine along the edges of the purple carpet, pointed Cassie over toward a group of men in the center of the room who seemed to be waiting for her.
A dozen Craftling priests descended on Cassie and Finn, speaking rapidly in Renalian and gesturing excitedly. They wore white dhotis each lined in different colors under plain wrapped jackets with flowing sleeves and a seven pointed star embroidered on the breast. Not one of them had hair on their heads. Cassie did her best to understand their chatter, but they talked so fast and in such thick accents, she wasn’t sure a native speaker could follow them completely.
There was one priest who spoke understandable English and seemed to be a leader among them. His dhoti and jacket were lined with red and he boasted a small, square hat. Cassie kept missing the word for his title, so she just assumed he was the head priest. His name, however, seemed to be Baely.
Together they went over the coronation ceremony, slowly and with much repetition. The other priests gathered around Finn and showed her where she would enter and stand. Baely went over Cassie’s movements during the coronation with her, which were surprisingly complicated.
The rest of the day was spent learning the ceremony itself. All of it was in High Renalian, and even if Cassie could understand it, she still couldn’t pronounce most of the words. Finn did all right for a while, but it was like running on ice for her—once she stumbled, the words tumbled over themselves and she lost the rhythm entirely.
Perhaps the worst part was that Cassie had to use magic for the ceremony. When she protested that she didn’t know any magic, the priests waved their arms and attempted to give her advice that she didn’t understand.
“A little help here, Morris?” she begged. He was still kneeling on the floor playing with string.
“You used magic before,” he said with a shrug. “Just try and remember what that felt like and duplicate it.”
Cassie thought back to that night in the fiery bubble, but all she could remember was the Tome warm in her hands and a fervent singing in the back of her mind. She closed her eyes and tried to feel something, but everything inside her was as un-magical it had always been.
Finally, Baely put a kind hand on her arm and said, “Magic, it comes from within, always a part of us. It is the soul of being. Breathe deep, find your life energy, spread it throughout your body. This is magic.”
“My soul…” Cassie repeated uncertainly. With a long breath, she closed her eyes again and tried to think back over all the magic she had experienced so far. When she’d sung the song to transport them here, her skin had tingled. And when she’d touched the book for the first time, the shock that had run through her body had certainly been forceful. At the pool of the watchers, it was more like slipping into a hot bath, filling her up like steam fills a room. If all of that was magic, then there must be a way to connect to a common source. Some reservoir of power inside of Cassie herself, like a well filled with light or a cauldron of molten lead.
Once her mind was clear of everything but black, it was easy to sink down with each outward breath. Somewhere in the bottom of her mind, or was it in her chest, it started to get warmer. A few more breaths and she felt it, even if she couldn’t see it. The seed at her center, the last burning coal, sharp and bright as a copper wire. Eyes still closed, Cassie lifted her hand as if reaching out to touch something. Within her, the core sparked to life.
When Cassie opened her eyes, her hand was glowing. “I did it!” she screamed. The light went out immediately, but even that couldn’t quell her excitement. “I did magic on my own!”
The priests exclaimed and bowed happily. Then of course they drilled her over and over until she could do it consistently. After a while the magic became easier and Cassie and Finn were able to at least mimic the priests’ words, if not totally understand them. Morris and Ferdi interrupted less and less as the decorations and cooking got fully underway and by the time everyone broke for dinner, it seemed like they really would pull off a fabulous coronation in only two days.
Cassie was actually willing to eat in the great hall today, but the priests insisted that there wasn’t enough time.
“Why?” Cassie asked, suspicious.
“You have to sit vigil tonight,” Morris explained before the priests could. “Sundown to sunup.”
“Wait, are you saying we have to stay up all night?” Finn asked.
Morris nodded. “That is what a vigil is. You sit before the altar of the gods and ponder the oaths you are about to take.”
“Someone could have mentioned that earlier,” Cassie said. “I don’t even believe in your gods. Is this really part of the coronation?”
“Yes,” said Baely. “You cannot receive the crown magic without it.”
“I had the servants bring proper robes for both of you to your chambers,” Morris told them. “You’d best hurry, there’s only an hour or so before you need to be in the temple.”