The Rites of Inheritance (Book 1)

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A Royal Legacy

Resigned, Cassie and Finn returned to the royal suite. Cassie indulged herself with a bath and Finn set about the task of brushing out her hair. There was still at least an hour before sunset when there was a knock on the door.

“We still have time!” Finn said as she opened the door, expecting Morris or the servants. She found Kenneth smiling down at her instead. He’d cast off the t-shirt, jeans, and baseball cap he’d worn for the past couple of days and was finally dressed like everyone else at court in smart black trousers and a long blue tunic. Most surprising of all, though, was his hair. It was a medium shade of brown that seemed dusted with a violent beige color throughout. Relatively short, it was, well, spiky. Errant locks fell down over his forehead but the rest pointed in every direction, defying gravity easily. It didn’t look like he’d used any kind of product; in fact his hair looked quite soft and natural. Finn had to fight the urge to reach out and touch it. Instead she said, “You look…different.”

Kenneth laughed. “It’s the hair, right? I kept the hat on because you two have been pretty spooked since you got here and I didn’t want to look too…alien. Outside of Athea people tend to think our hair is…weird. But I can’t wear a hat tonight. It doesn’t freak you out too much, does it? I just bathed and this is, well, how it dries.”

“No, it doesn’t freak me out. I just…didn’t think hair could do that. Do people really make fun of you?”

“Not to my face.” Finn couldn’t help but smile at him for that. “Eventually you’ll get the hang of court, which means a lot of talking behind people’s backs.” Quickly, he added, “But I’m sure you’ll impress them. You certainly look the part.” He gestured to her robes. “Very…religious.”

Finn lifted the skirts of the robe, revealing the thin white slippers she wore. “Really? Well I guess that’s good. I didn’t understand too much of what I’m going to be saying. I hope this ceremony doesn’t make me part of some weird religion. I already had a bat mitzvah.”

“I think you’re safe,” Kenneth said. “You’re just going to swear your allegiance to the Queen and the Order.”

“Well that I can do,” Finn said happily. “Cassie’s still getting dressed but you can come in and wait if you want.”

“Actually,” Kenneth rubbed the scar on his arm uncomfortably, “I came to see you. Will you take a short walk with me? I’ll take you to the temple and Morris is still coming for Cassie. There’s something I want to give you.”

“Ok.” Finn hurried to the bathroom to tell Cassie where she was going and was back in a moment, following Kenneth out of the Royal Suite and through the twists and turns of the Palace halls. He didn’t say anything for a while as they walked. They went up a couple sets of stairs and down a long gallery before Finn finally asked, “So…what was it you wanted to give me?”

Kenneth paused at the railing. They were looking down into the main courtyard with its tumbling fountain. “I spent a lot of time today talking about you,” he admitted. Finn raised an eyebrow, but didn’t say anything. Kenneth went on. “The Councils met today, in preparation for the Consulate day after tomorrow. I sit proxy for my father on the Council of Lords and, well, none of them are very happy. They think that you shouldn’t be allowed to be the Queen’s Second since you’re not a Craftling. The Sages haven’t said a word yet but Tom says that the scholars aren’t exactly thrilled about it either. I wanted to ask you before you do something you can’t undo…is this really what you want? I mean, in a couple of weeks you could return to Earth, go back to your own life. Can you really give all that up?”

Finn looked down into the courtyard where the water flowed in an endless cascade over the stone bowls. It was the same question she’d been asking herself the past couple of days. She leaned against the railing and spoke without looking at Kenneth. “You want to know what the life I left behind is like? All I have is a 5.0 grade point average, a French horn I haven’t touched in months because I’ve been so obsessed with marching band, and a bunch of friends, other than Cassie of course, that barely know any more about me than my name. In a year I’ll go off to college and spend the next six to eight years of my life studying, playing music, working, and hanging out with more people I don’t like until I get my PHD. Then, and only then, will my life really start.”

She turned back to Kenneth with a rare serious look in her eyes. “I don’t want to wait ten years to be somebody; I want to be somebody right now. Cassie may be the queen and the savior of your people, but I still get to be a part of that story. And I want my parts to be interesting.”

Kenneth smiled at her. “Somehow I doubt that anything you could do would be uninteresting. Don’t get me wrong, I didn’t expect you to back down, I just wanted to be sure this was what you really wanted before I gave you this.” He reached into his pocket and took out a square jewelry box. He handed it to her. “Go ahead, open it.”

Inside was the most beautiful brooch Finn had ever seen. It was an oval about as wide as her palm and carved entirely out of white gold. In the center a seven pointed star with a sword and staff crossed over it was circled by an infinite chain made up of tiny studs of jet, shining pure black against the gold. “I…I don’t know what to say.” Finn looked up at Kenneth incredulously.

“Second isn’t an important position anymore,” he said, “but once it meant more than any of the other positions at court. When they said ‘second in the order’ they meant it. The Second protected the queen, advised her, worked with her, and sometimes even ruled the Order in her stead. They were champions and scholars and…and heroes. That brooch last belonged to a man named Sagar Brewell. He was Second to Queen Aurora, and she married his brother. Ever since he died, the brooch has been sitting in a display case gathering dust. Most of the court can’t even name who Audrey’s Second was. They all talk a big game, but none of them know what’s really at stake. If we’re going to pull this off, Cassie’s going to need you. And…well I think you’ll be up to the task. So I wanted you to have that, to show everyone what it really means to have a Left-Hand of the Queen again.”

Finn fastened the brooch onto her robes, squarely over her heart. “Thank you,” she said to Kenneth. “I’ll try to live up to it.”

“I’m sure you’ll have no trouble.”

A few minutes after Finn left with Kenneth, there was another knock on the door. Cassie was dressed at this point and searching through the vanity for a hair dryer. Expecting Morris, she got up hurriedly and opened the door. She froze when she found herself face to face with her mother.

Charlotte gave her daughter the same smile she always had, the kind smile Cassie had come home to as a child. She’d changed the wrinkled clothes she’d been wearing when Cassie saw her last for a simple sundress. Her auburn hair was braided in a long coil down her back and she wore the agate amulet that was the twin of Cassie’s. Cassie quickly glanced behind her at her own amulet still sitting on the bedside table. She tightened her grip on the door as if preparing to slam it. “Mom, what are you doing here?”

“I know I’m not who you want to see right now,” Charlotte said, “but I was really hoping we could talk, just the two of us.”

“Why now?” Cassie said bluntly.

“Cassady…” her mother started, but Cassie cut her off again.

“No. When Kenneth asked you to come to the meeting yesterday, you told him that you’d rather die than come back and see me ‘throw my life away’. You wouldn’t even hear me out. And now it’s over. I made my decision and you can’t change my mind.”

Charlotte sighed heavily. “I didn’t come to argue. I want to apologize. You have to understand, this is exactly what I’ve been trying to prevent since you were born. It’s…hard for me to deal with. You’re right, I should have been more honest with you, and in some ways this is my fault. But you’re my daughter. I only want to protect you.”

“I can protect myself now,” Cassie said, unwilling to yield just yet.

“I hope you can,” was Charlotte’s answer. “I really hope so.”

Finally Cassie couldn’t stand the sorrow in her mother’s eyes any longer. She opened the door and stepped back. “Come in, Mom.”

Charlotte entered slowly, looking around the room. With great care she sat on the end of the bed, smoothing the coverlet with her hand. “I used to sneak in here at night after my father died. I was so young. It seemed like I was floating on an ocean of blankets, just me and Mother.”

Cassie sat down in the vanity chair, turning it around to face Charlotte. “That’s right,” she said. “You grew up here.”

“It wasn’t always so bad, not in the beginning.” Charlotte said. “I understand the allure of the Palace of Light better than anyone. I wanted to prove myself, to show everyone that I could be the kind of ruler my mother was, my grandfather was. Our family is powerful, but that power, and the duties that come with it, tend to blind you. It makes you feel…invulnerable, the protector of the weak. And then you forget that you can be just as weak as they are. And just as powerless.”

“Someone has to protect the weak,” Cassie said. “Maybe I’m not as strong as Gran was, but someone has to do something.”

“I know,” Charlotte agreed. “I didn’t come here to change your mind. Although if I thought there was a chance I could…” she shook her head. “Morris is right—there is too much of me in you.” Charlotte looked fondly at her daughter, her smile sad. “I thought that if you are to be Queen of the Order, there are some things you should know. About our family, about the Craftlings. You should know before you take your vows tomorrow.”

“I’ve read some of our histories,” Cassie said. “All the way back to the creation of the Order. They’re brave, our ancestors. And they’ve done some amazing things. Not all of them died early. Gran was in her sixties.”

“That’s young compared to most, especially in this Realm,” Charlotte said. “‘Sixty-three and in the prime of life’ she’d say. God, she was proud. Just think of what she died for. Confirming a rumor about the Ultimate Power.”

“It’s true though,” Cassie said.

“Maybe. It would have been worse if it wasn’t. But that’s not the point. Queens aren’t supposed to do reconnaissance like that. But Mother felt she had to, to protect everyone. See, that is the real legacy this Order leaves behind. The greater good isn’t just a concept, it’s like a god. And to serve it, you are required to give up all of yourself, to sacrifice everything. Craftling traditions and rituals disregard the people who have to perform them. It’s all for the greater good.”

“I guess it’s possible to go too far,” Cassie agreed slowly, “but serving the greater good is supposed to be the point of governments and rulers. If one person has to sacrifice so that millions can live, shouldn’t the choice be obvious?”

“It certainly seems so when you’re young,” Charlotte said. “But that only makes it worse, in the long run.” She sighed. “Cassady, I have only lied to you outright twice that I can remember. When I told you that Mother died of a stroke, and when I told you about your father.”

Cassie’s breath caught in her chest, and she could feel her muscles tightening in anticipation. Her mother hadn’t exactly told her much about her father in the first place. His name was Saul Cahill, and he was kind and strong. There weren’t even pictures of him anywhere. Gran once said that Charlotte had destroyed them all, but Cassie had never understood why. Most of what Cassie knew of her father, she’d invented in her own mind.

Charlotte spoke as if the words were heavy, costing her with each one. “If anyone wanted to preserve the greater good, it was your father. That’s part of why I fell in love with him—his dedication, his strength. Loyal to a fault.” She shook her head. “We were young, barely older than you. Saul was a nobody from Klannar. He came to Renalia dreaming of knighthood. By the time he was twenty, he’d made it into the King’s own guard. My grandfather introduced me to him. He sent Saul as my bodyguard on a trip I was taking to tour the greater universities. By the time we returned to Renalia, I knew I was in love. Grandfather took pity on me and allowed our marriage. He said he would sleep better at night knowing I lay next to one of the greatest warriors in the universe.

“But as much as Saul was a sword of the realm, I was a princess. And I had to save the world in my own way. You see for the Craftlings, even noble blood doesn’t give you what you haven’t earned. If you had grown up here, you’d be doing this in a few years yourself. It’s a ritual, hundreds of years old now. You know about Aurora’s Blessing, that shield over the city? There’s one in every major city across the realm. But in order to anchor that enchantment, there needs to be an object outside the shields to act as a connective source. It’s a gem called Aurora’s Tear. Normally it’s hidden in a place none of our enemies can reach. I don’t even know where that is; only the Ahrra does.

“But, before a prince or princess can be crowned heir in full, they must take Aurora’s Tear and go on a pilgrimage to all the major temples of the Realm. And if they can keep both the Tear and the Realm safe the whole time, then they are worthy of the crown.”

Cassie interrupted, her voice quiet. “But I thought that the blood of the royal family was irreplaceable. If only Brewells can inherit, then you would have been the only option, magic gem or not. How can they have a test like that if it doesn’t matter if you fail?”

“To fail would be to die,” Charlotte said bitterly. “But I suppose if someone survived without completing it, the heir would still be the heir. The people wouldn’t respect them as much, though. As I said, the right blood might be necessary, but it doesn’t mean you’re worthy. This particular tradition may be a formality, but it reassures the people in their next ruler.”

“And you did it.”

“I tried,” Charlotte said. “Your father and I hadn’t even been married a year. But after my grandfather died, I wanted to reassure my mother that she could still count on me. The Dacruum are perfectly aware of this ritual. It’s their opportunity to attack the royal family head on. I knew they would be coming for me in earnest too, since I was the only heir to a widowed queen. But I was determined. And I was a fool.”

Cassie almost didn’t need to hear the rest of the story. The pieces were starting to come together now. Without a word she got up and went to sit beside her mother on the bed.

Charlotte took her daughter’s hand as she continued. “Your father and my uncle Bernard came with me as an honor guard.” Cassie remembered the man from Gran’s old photo albums. Her younger brother, Bernard, who had died before Cassie was born. He’d looked so stern, as if his face were carved of stone. “We made good time,” Charlotte said, “fought off the first few squads that came for us relatively easily. But as we went from temple to temple, we couldn’t exactly maneuver the way we needed to because…well because I was pregnant with you.”

There were tears in Charlotte’s eyes now. “I didn’t even know until after we’d started. And then, well, you can’t transport a fetus while it’s growing. Or at least, you shouldn’t. So when they came on us in that little town, we tried to make a stand instead.” Charlotte’s voice started to break. “For the sake of that stupid stone, my husband and uncle were slaughtered like animals. An old healing woman gave her life so that you and I could have enough magic to transport away unharmed. I went to Earth because I knew the Dacruum couldn’t track me there. And I stayed because the traditions of this family and the honor of the Order cost me everything.” She touched Cassie’s cheek gently. “And it almost cost me you.”

“But I turned out ok…right?” Suddenly Cassie worried that she had some massive defect she’d never noticed.

Charlotte smiled. “Of course. The gods were with us that day. And I learned the true cost of my pride. After you were born I returned here for the last time to officially renounce my blood rights. I guess I was the first to fail without dying, but the ritual did its job either way. It proved, to the world, and to me, that I was never meant to sit on that throne. So I left, and I put everything I had into a protection spell, praying every day since that it would be enough. Because I vowed that I would never let honor or traditions or especially war hurt you ever again.”

Charlotte took her amulet off and dug a nail into the side of the silver. It popped open and Cassie realized it was a locket. Charlotte handed it to her and Cassie looked down for the first time at the face of her father. There was Cassie’s dark hair, short and messy on him. His eyes were grey but lively, like they held a wonderful secret. Cassie recognized bits of herself in his chin and the way he smiled, his brown skin and long legs. He was so handsome, frozen forever in this photograph. Had he really died to protect the cities of the realm? Was that even the reason he’d gone on that journey, honor guard to his beloved wife and unborn child? Charlotte might think she knew the answer, but looking at this picture Cassie had to wonder.

“I failed in that though,” Charlotte was saying. “They all warned me that I couldn’t hide forever. And they were right. You can’t keep the blood of the Craftlings from its rightful place.” She squeezed Cassie’s hand tightly. “But I would give anything to be able to do so.”

“You act like I’m going to war, not sitting on a throne,” Cassie said. “I was going to tell you yesterday. If we can find Mercutio’s research, we can reseal Creation and there won’t be any more of these rituals. And if the Ultimate Power still tries to come, we know exactly what we need to find to get rid of it. I know you’re worried, but I’m not here to fight any battles.”

“It’s not always your choice,” Charlotte said. “The Dacruum came for me when I was visiting temples. If you have something they want, they won’t care how peaceful you are. And a Queen not even come into her magic? They’ll only see you as an opportunity. The second you leave these walls you will be on a battlefield.”

Cassie squeezed her mother’s hand back. In a small voice she said, “This plan of Finn’s will work. The Dacruum have to know that it will benefit them too. As long as we’re careful, we’ll be all right. Won’t we?” She looked up at Charlotte expectantly, eyes large and hopeful as a child’s. Charlotte said nothing, but she gathered her daughter into her arms. Cassie could feel the silent flow of tears as Charlotte’s cheek touched hers. She didn’t know which of them was crying, but it didn’t matter anymore.

Cassie had a lot to think about during that night’s vigil. She and Finn knelt before the holy altar in the palace’s temple, the seven stone faces of the gods looking down at them. Cassie couldn’t remember the names of most of them, or what they supposedly had power over. She did remember stories of old kings and queens who had met these gods in person. They talked about white wastes of nothingness, vast fields somewhere between life and death where the gods appeared to them. Once Daya the Valiant had lain dying and the god Harteyus had resurrected her and bestowed her with the legendary sword, Lumeres. King Benjamin the Wise had begged the help of all seven gods to raise the Palace of Light even as enemies marched toward it.

The stories had seemed so wonderful before, their heroes brave and admirable, but now Cassie feared that her mother was right. The traditions of the Order were cold and demanding, and even the greatest of legends began with death and sorrow. Charlotte, Kenneth, even the Watchers had tried to warn her about the harsh reality of war, but Cassie hadn’t listened. War was a distant thing in the pages of history books or taking place in a faraway land. It wasn’t something that happened to you; it was something people chose. But now she realized how foolish that was. The more she did to save the Order, the faster war would come for her.

Finn, beside her, knew nothing of the dark thoughts that filled Cassie. She held on to the brooch that Kenneth had given her and tried to remember if she’d read about any other Left-Hands of the King in the past couple of days. It seemed the only time they were mentioned was when they died bravely. The faces of the gods made her nervous, and soon her Hebrew school training kicked in and she found herself reciting the Shema Yisreal to keep away the ghosts of foreign gods.

Outside the temple, Kenneth sat next to the door like a lost pup, waiting out his own vigil. His eyes scanned the hallway as if he expected soldiers to round the corners at any moment. He ran his hands through his hair so often it stuck out like porcupine quills and by the time dawn lightened the windows, his eyes had faded to a weak beige in exhaustion.

All three of them appeared in Ferdi’s preparation room tired, with red-rimmed eyes and pale faces. It was the same dressing room they had used for the measurements, and both girls immediately availed themselves of the plush couches beside the mirror. Ferdi clucked at them disapprovingly. “What should I do with three tired babes when I’m meant to turn forth lords and a queen?”

“We just sat a night’s vigil,” Cassie complained. “If the people of the Order can’t abide a tired queen then they’ll see an angry one.”

Ferdi didn’t respond to the slight threat. He turned and snapped his fingers. At the cue, his assistants sprang out from behind curtains and around doors, carrying the coronation outfits with quick care. They gave Cassie, Finn, and Kenneth each a neat bundle of clothes and ordered them into the changing room one by one. Both Finn and Kenneth would be standing up on the dais with Cassie during the ceremony. Finn as the new Second, and Kenneth as the representative for the Council of Lords. Someone from each of the Order’s High Councils would speak during the ceremony, swearing the loyalty of the people they represented. Cassie had no idea who Morris had chosen to represent the other two councils, but she was glad that one familiar face would be up there with her.

Kenneth emerged from the dressing room resplendent in what looked like a military uniform. He wore a dark grey surcoat with blue trim with the L’Athea coat of arms embroidered in white on the breast. The coat split at his waist to show a skirt of mail covering the tops of his black trousers, which were immaculately sewn and gathered just above his shiny black boots. He even wore a pair of embroidered black gloves that disappeared under his sleeves. Standing with his shoulders back, he managed to wipe the exhaustion from his face until his eyes were the same stalwart grey as his coat. Ferdi tried to tame his bright hair but it still jutted up like a crown atop his head.

Finn’s gown was similarly utilitarian but singularly beautiful. It wrapped first one way, then the other, the skirt trailing out from a fitted waist to twirl like fairy wings around her legs. The fabric was a deep midnight color with lines of sky blue following the different directions of bodice and skirt like lightening forked across the sky. There were no sleeves to the dress, but Finn had been provided silver gloves that went up past her elbows. Ferdi braided Finn’s thick golden hair and let it hang over her shoulder. Finn had threaded her Second’s brooch onto a silver chain, and Ferdi couldn’t deny that it looked beautiful resting against her collarbone.

Cassie went last. As she pulled on the dress in the changing room and one of Ferdi’s assistants helped her to zip it up, she felt nervous, as if she were dressing for her wedding day. She stepped out from behind the curtain awkwardly. “What do you think?” she asked, arms raised.

First one, then all of Ferdi’s assistants took to their knees and bowed their heads. Kenneth, smiling, did the same, a fist over his heart. “My Queen,” he said.

Finn walked up to her friend and took her hand. “You look beautiful,” she said.

Cassie looked in the mirror and was hardly sure it was herself she saw there. The dress was indeed like a wedding gown—a vision of white. Lace lined the sloping neckline and traced over her shoulders into the scalloped sleeves. The bodice was fitted but not tight, with some parts of the fabric sheer, showing more white cloth underneath. At her waist under the v of the bodice the skirts blossomed like an overturned flower, a train of silk embroidered with white petals flowing out behind her. Tiny beads were sewn into the skirt as well and where they caught the light they shimmered. Ferdi ran something that looked like mousse through her hair, making it shine and fall obediently along her neck in gentle waves. He pulled out a box with an assortment of jewelry for her to pick from. While she accepted a pair of earrings with small silver disks, she waved the rest away and re-donned her agate amulet. Cassie only hoped that her mother would be there to see it and know she might still be protected.

It wasn’t long before the doors of the throne room swung open and the coronation began. A crowd larger than Cassie had ever seen filled the Throne room all the way to the arched ceiling. Humans pressed against each other, dressed in their finest and crying blessings to the new queen. A wyvern, longer than twenty feet with small claws and gaping jaws, stuck above their heads like a sea-monster above the waves. Dwarves sat on the backs of giant bears in all colors and unicorns shown like spots of glitter here and there. Even the gryphons with their sharp beaks and sharper talons stood closed in, their tails flicking against their backs. There were insects the size of eagles that looked like dragonflies with stingers, and Cassie even thought she spotted a blue-skinned faerie with wings as sheer as gossamer. And above them all floated a host of phoenixes, their tail feathers burning brighter than the lanterns suspended beside them in the air.

Cassie walked slowly down the center aisle, her dress rustling behind her like water. The thread that Morris had lined the carpet with was shining bright silver, like moonlight lining her way. She felt like she floated on a cloud all the way to the dais.

The head priest, Baely, from before—whom Cassie had since learned was the Ahrra her mother had mentioned—stood dead center before her. Today his dhoti was plain, white cloth tied with a white sash. He wore no shirt, but he had a band of silver around his left bicep and a gold medallion around his neck. He was a slight man with shrewd brown eyes and an easy smile. His bald head glistened, newly polished.

To the priest’s left stood Finn and Morris. Finn looked beautiful with the lights shining on her yellow hair, and Morris was somberly dressed all in navy blue. On the priest’s right stood the representatives from each of the three bodies that made up the Consulate. Kenneth was there, back straight and looking not a bit tired, in the name of the Council of Lords. Beside him was the unicorn lord, Yuan. A ring of golden medallions draped around his neck and head, he held his horn high for the Council of Sages. Next to him, Professor Hickins from the Council of Scholars reminded Cassie of a fictional wizard. He wore gold robes dotted with silver moons, and while his shock-white hair was no more than a semicircle around the back of his head, his beard hung past his belt and his eyebrows stuck out like an owl’s.

Finally Cassie reached the dais and the room fell silent. She was thankful to put the thousands of staring eyes at her back as she mounted the steps and stood before Ahrra Baely. He smiled reassuringly to her and began the ceremony just as they had practiced it the day before. Cassie spoke slowly and surely so that she did not stumble over the strange language. She swore her unwavering dedication to the people of the Order and promised to uphold the traditions and honor of her predecessors.

Then Baely held out a large gem to her. It resembled an uncut quartz, pieces jutting out from its center, but was harder and clear in color. Baely had told her the stone was corennite, which was apparently the best gemstone for magical purposes. This particular one was called the Flame of the Order. Cassie would touch the crystal and fill it with her power, and if she was the rightful Queen it would burn with the fire of the royal house until her death. Now was the moment of truth. A couple of attendants rushed up to settle her train behind her as she took the gem in her hands and turned around to face the people. The Flame was large, about the size of a soccer ball and much heavier. She held it close to her chest and closed her eyes. After yesterday’s practice, it was almost easy to pull forth a strand of her magic and let it flow into the crystal.

A cheer so loud it shook the painted ceiling went up at the sight of the glowing gem. Cassie let out a breath she hadn’t known she’d been holding. She lifted the Flame up for everyone in the hall to see, a genuine smile on her face. Baely came up behind her and lowered the Crown of the Order onto her head. It was only a circlet of white gold inlaid with a band of moonstone, but it felt heavy as it settled onto her brow.

She handed the crystal back to Baely and he stepped aside so that she could take his place in the center of the dais. Then, one by one, the others around her came forward to swear their fealty. Each representative vowed, in the name of their Council, to uphold the duties of the Consulate and judge justly and fairly on all matters put before them. Morris swore, as he had to her grandmother and great-grandfather before her, to follow Cassie and serve with all the honor and loyalty he possessed until his death.

Then it was Finn’s turn. Perhaps Cassie imagined it, but the Hall seemed to grow extra quiet when Finn stepped forward. Still, Cassie smiled as Finn spoke her vows in flawless High Renalian, swearing to stand by her queen in triumph and defeat, to provide only true and honest counsel, and to guard the monarch from all dangers. Finn smiled confidently and pledged without hesitation her life in loyalty to Cassie and the Realm.

Then at last, it was over. The others stepped back and Cassie walked slowly up to the edge of the dais. Cheering broke out again. Cassie thought she could hear “gods bless and keep Your Majesty” and “long live the queen” amidst the cacophony. Even the bears looked happy, eyes glowing and teeth bared in brutish smiles. The unicorns sang and people threw flowers in the air. A couple gryphons knocked those around them to the ground as they jumped up, wings spread, cawing triumphantly.

Cassie remembered what Kenneth had told her only a few days ago about being Queen. That her grandmother had described the power of the crown as a spirit channeling through her, a force that was at once her own and yet completely foreign. These people, Cassie realized, were a part of that. They, each and every Craftling, were part of the energy that was the power of the realm, the energy that was now hers. Despite all the doubt and all the fears that had brought her here, when the blood of the Craftlings hummed in her veins, in that moment Cassie felt like a queen.

Cassie didn’t see it, overwhelmed with the sights and sounds of her moment of glory, but Finn did. A shock of auburn hair quickly covered by a hood, hands shielding the only face to be masked in sorrow that day. Charlotte looked up to gain what she hoped would not be the last sight of her daughter, and then she disappeared.

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