After the coronation was officially complete, the celebrations began in earnest. Most of the crowd was directed off into the Great Hall or the fountained courtyard, but the high-ranking members of the court remained in the Throne Room. As soon as Cassie descended the steps of the dais, the court gathered around her, lining up to kiss her hand and congratulate her. Finn slid off to the side of the room where the servants were setting up long trestle tables filled with food. She pinched off a bunch of grapes from a nearby platter and turned to face the room.
Truly the court of the Craftlings was the oddest assortment of creatures that she could ever have imagined. While looking down from the dais, Finn had counted more than ten species that she didn’t recognize, along with many that she had thought existed only as drawings in fairy tale books. She wondered how the Phoenixes’ tails didn’t set people around them on fire, and how the dwarves got up on top of their bear mounts in the first place. While she was pondering the clear wings of a faerie woman, she noticed a small figure approaching her.
It was Gaenish, dressed no finer than his brown suit and matching cap. He was cleaned up, shaved and pressed, and seemed much cheerier than the last time she saw him. Still, remembering his resistance to their plan, Finn was a little nervous when he stopped beside her. “Secretary Gaenish,” she said with a polite nod, “It’s good to see you again.”
“You as well,” he said. “On such a fine occasion, everything is good.” Gaenish stopped a servant headed to the table behind them and took a large chunk of meat on an oily napkin from the platter. He offered Finn some but she refused silently, content with her grapes. “You looked lovely up there, you know,” Gaenish said casually. “Almost like one of us.”
Finn made herself pause long enough to eat a grape, making sure her response wasn’t sharp. “Thank you. I know that I’m not physically a Craftling, but I’d like to think that I can still be one, in a way. Whether or not people here accept what I am, they’ll have to judge me by my work in the end, and I plan to work very hard. Results matter almost as much as appearances in court, I’m told.”
“Well at least you know where you stand,” Gaenish said. “Seems you are as intelligent as they say.”
“Is that what they’ve been saying of me? Thank god, I thought it was something bad.”
Gaenish laughed heartily. “And observant as well. You make it hard to hate you, Lady Morgan.”
“Well I hope you’re not trying too hard.” Finn tried to sound light about it, but the look in his eyes worried her.
Gaenish took a large bite of his meat, grease running down his chin as he chewed thoughtfully. When he swallowed, he wiped his mouth and sighed. “It’s not that I hate you. You are young. As is our new queen. You cannot be blamed for this. The young believe that everything is possible, that all things can be changed. But that’s not how the world works.”
Knowing it only made her sound as youthfully naïve as he claimed, Finn insisted, “It could be.”
Gaenish shook his head knowingly. “‘As it is written, so shall it be’. That is the way of the Craftlings. And you, my dear, are written nowhere. This position you have been granted is a high honor. It is worthy only of the bravest and truest of Craftlings. Not fit for a girl who has yet to prove herself, and for a Malcoh least of all.”
“I am the one who convinced Cassie to take the throne,” Finn said. “I figured out how to fix your broken realms and restore power to the Craftlings that they haven’t had in five hundred years. All that proves nothing to you?”
“It proves you are ambitious. Like a true Malcoh.” Finn waited for him to chew the rest of his meat and continue. “As I said before, this plan is no saving grace. It’s a suicide mission based off an old bedtime story. You claim that the end of times is coming; you claim that the vast and complex structure of the universe can be altered like the flip of a switch. If you want your work to prove your worth, this is a more than risky way to start off. You have managed to excite my fellow secretaries, young upstarts like yourself, but that’s hardly an achievement. Those two think that everything that drops out of Kenneth L’Athea’s ass is made of gold, and he’s the one who’s been parroting your words as if they were the word of god. Tell me, Lady Morgan, do you speak the word of god?”
“Depends on which god.”
“Well whoever that is, the rest of the Consulate is less impressed.” He wiped his hands with the napkin, rubbing grease all over them. “You have been here less than three days. How could you know what our prophecies mean, what our people need? You do not know us. You cannot save us.”
“Well you know nothing about me.” Finn was starting to get very tired of this little man. “And you know nothing about what I’m capable of. I know you’re not used to having a Second that actually does anything, but this is more than just a medal of honor to me. I came here to protect my best friend, and I mean to protect all of you too whether you want it or not.”
Gaenish shook his head with a condescending tsk of his tongue. “So forceful. But it will do you no good. This Order is of the Light, and it will be run so. I am trying to be kind to you. The others, at least their blood may help them through. But you will be on your own, and the rest of the court will not find you as difficult to hate as I do. You should leave here now, before something happens that cannot be undone.”
Finn squeezed the grapes in her hand so hard that a couple of them burst against her palm. “You talk about honor and bravery, but you don’t even have the courage to give me a chance, or the honor to respect the decision of your queen. Did you not just swear faith and loyalty with everyone else? ” She pointed to the dais. “I meant the vows that I took up there, and I will keep them no matter what.”
“Don’t you presume to lecture me on loyalty, girl,” Gaenish growled through clenched teeth. “I know what the loyalty of Earth is worth. You are no different from any of them—so full of dreams and promises. It always amounts to nothing in the end. Leaving before you destroy anything is the only honor to be had here.”
“And you would be the hero, getting rid of the foreigner. You shouldn’t speak out against Earth. Don’t forget, your queen was born there too.”
“She is the blood of the ancient line of the Order,” Gaenish said firmly. “When she has learned our ways and become a true queen, she will be unrecognizable to you.”
“Obviously you don’t know Cassie,” Finn said.
“And you don’t know what you’re up against. When the people of Earth come against trial they balk every time. This task is more than you can handle. You will kill far more people than you could ever save.”
“Earth is not what you think it is, and neither am I.” Finn met him glare for glare. She hoped she could make her eyes as stony as his were.
He laughed again. “Perhaps you are not as smart as I thought you were. Do you know how much my people suffered to save your meek little planet? The dwarves, we sacrificed more than anyone. And when it was all over, when the blood was spilt and the smoke cleared, what did the people of Earth choose to do? They gave up. Their responsibility, their loyalty, none of it mattered to them. And the worse part, was that after they had thrown away everything we had worked to give them, they chose to forget that any of it had ever happened. Centuries later now and where did it get them; you tell me that.
“You want me to trust you and give you a chance when that is the stock you come from? Earth is no more than a pit filled with lazy cowards with more respect for their own shit than the balance of the universe. And you are one of them. That you cannot change, no matter how many books you read or plans you make. And I will not stand by while you sit beside our queen and play at being a servant of the Light.”
It took every ounce of Finn’s strength not to lunge forward and choke Gaenish’s perfectly groomed head off his little body. “I may not be a Craftling, but I am certainly better than a man who would dismiss the only person who can save him from his ‘bedtime stories’. And your queen, who grew up right beside me, knows that too. When the smoke clears this time, we will have fixed this world. Then you’ll be begging me to choose to forget this conversation.”
Gaenish would not let her have the last word. “You think you’re invincible. You think you can write the wrongs of the past and make your name among the great men. But whatever you do, wherever you go, you will always be a Malcoh, blood of the mudmen of Earth. And no pretty words can save you from that. Blood will tell. It always does.”
Cassie found the gryphons very hard to understand. Sometimes they screeched and cawed like birds and other times they would mewl and growl like cats, all punctuated by a continuous clicking of their large curved beaks. Mostly she nodded politely as their Sage, whose name was unpronounceable, clicked to her about something or other and let her eyes wander over the group of gryphons behind him.
They weren’t just lions with eagle heads, not all of them. Some of them had the bodies of tigers or panthers, others were small like lynxes and mountain cats. Their heads were snowy eagles and bald eagles, but also a giant raven and a watchful crow. Apparently the gryphons filled out most of the palace guard. Cassie remembered the feathers and claw marks by the gate and suddenly felt quite safe within the palace walls. Sage screechgrowl was on the Council of Sages with Yuan, and he seemed to be telling Cassie that he echoed the unicorn’s loyalty to her. His body was that of a tiger, with a tail that seemed to be always in motion. His head was hawk-like but the feathers were pure white and his eyes burned orange. Cassie was glad to have his loyalty; she hated to think what might happen to his enemies.
All of a sudden Morris and Baely were at her shoulder. “Excuse me, Your Grace, I hate to interrupt.” Morris said.
“Is everything ok?” Cassie asked.
“Yes, everything is fine,” he assured her, “it’s just a small change in plans.” He glanced accusatorily over his shoulder at Baely, who raised his chin indifferently. “You see there is bit of ceremony that needs to be done. I thought you’d be doing it tomorrow, but the Ahrra here insists it be performed now.”
“Excuse me” Cassie said to the Sage before her. She nodded to the line of retainers that stood behind him, all waiting their turn in groups to congratulate her, and pulled Morris and Baely over toward the empty dais. “How come I wasn’t told about this ceremony earlier?”
“It is not a part of the coronation,” Baely said before Morris could answer with a quip. “And it requires no preparations. But it has to be done before midnight tonight. I suggest before the feast—that will last until the small hours at least.”
“What is it that I have to do?”
“You will come to the vaults to choose your ornament of office.” Baely said.
When she still looked confused, Morris explained, “It’s traditional for the monarch to bear a single, iconic weapon, as a symbol of their ability to protect the realm. Better than a scepter, and more useful. You’ll probably enjoy this part, actually.”
Cassie glanced back at the indecipherable gryphons. Behind them was the single wyvern, its back feet so close to its front that its tube-like body curved up in a giant arch. She didn’t think he would be much easier to understand. “Well if you say it has to be now, I’m sure everyone will excuse me.”
“Of course they will, Majesty.” Morris said. Still, he didn’t seem happy about changing his plans. “I’ll let them know where you’ve gone, and instruct Ferdi to hold the feast until you return.” He turned to Baely. “She is First Discipline. Help her to choose a weapon that suits her.”
Baely bowed. “Of course, sir.” Cassie wasn’t sure if she heard mocking in his voice or not. She followed him out of the room, weaving in and out of the guests until they reached the safety of the wide corridor.
“What did Morris mean, I’m ‘First Discipline’?” Cassie asked as they walked.
“You have yet to study your magic, My Queen,” he said brusquely. “Each Craftling is born with a certain set of abilities, of which there are seven. We call these the disciplines: different studies into different kinds of magic. If yours is the first, then you are what we call an Enchanter, a wordmage. You will command the magic of spells and enchantments, songs and concoctions.”
“Like the song that transports you,” Cassie said, remembering.
“Exactly such,” Baely nodded. “The right weapon will only make things like that easier.”
Cassie wasn’t quite sure how that would work, but she trusted the Ahrra’s knowledge. Of everyone she’d met here at the palace, he seemed the most at home. Perhaps, as a priest, he was simply more at peace with his surroundings, but there was something about Baely’s jovial smile that belonged here. He led Cassie back toward the Palace temple, but instead of the back rooms where she had held her vigil, they entered from the front doors. The temple was a building all its own, nestled between three taller towers. The main room was large and airy, with seven long walls and a ceiling made entirely of painted glass. It looked almost like a regular church, with candle offerings and rows of pews.
Baely led her past the altar to a plain wooden door on the right. They stood at the end of a long, curved corridor lined with doors, but Baely turned away from them. A few feet and the hall ended at an iron door reinforced with thick bars. It had no handle. “This is the vault?” Cassie said.
“There are many vaults,” Baely said. He laid a hand in the center of the door and the iron started to glow red-hot. The bars retracted and the door swung open without a sound. “This particular vault must lie directly beneath the temple. The treasury needs only mortal guards, but these weapons are protected by the gods.” He stood aside and allowed Cassie to descend the steps before him.
The staircase was long and steep, descending far into the earth. Finally they reached the bottom and another iron door. This one had no bars, but in the center was set a gemstone as big as Cassie’s head. It was pure and perfect, a polished moonstone larger than anything on Earth. Baely came up beside her. “You need only touch it, as with the Flame of the Order.”
Cassie lifted her hand and pressed her fingers gently to the cold stone. It was becoming easier to call up her magic, if only to make gemstones light and bring a tingle to her fingertips. The moonstone glowed so brightly that Cassie had to shut her eyes as the door swung inward. When she opened them she nearly stumbled backward in awe at the sight.
The room was the stone twin of the temple above. Seven large globes floating in the corners of the ceiling flared to life when the door swung open, their light pure and steady. In the center of the floor, dozens of display stands, pedestals nearly as tall as Cassie, stood in neat rows, light shining up from their tops to illuminate the weapons that rested on them. Along the walls more weapons were hung, also lighted like museum displays. Each weapon bore an obsidian plaque beneath it, carved with Renalian writing.
The sight was breathtaking. These weren’t ordinary weapons. Bows, swords, staves, spears, they were beautiful, every one shining with power and glory, decorated and ornate but deadly. Each piece was unique and awe-inspiring in its own way. Even a pair of gloves lying on a stand was more impressive than any rendering of Excalibur Cassie had ever seen. She walked forward slowly, feeling unwelcome in this sacred place despite the crown on her head.
“Twice in my life I have entered this room now,” Baely said as he closed the door behind them. “I feel the luckiest man in the universe, to have done so.”
Cassie looked back at him. His bald head shimmered in the light as he smiled at her, pride in his eyes. Pride in her, she realized. Nervously she looked back at the displays around her. “You really must be.”
She stepped up to the closest pedestal, near the center of the front line. The dagger that sat upon it had a thick blade honed sharp enough to cut the air. She couldn’t tell what it was made of—not glass, maybe some kind of stone—but it was perfectly clear. If she squinted parts of it seemed almost to fade in and out of sight. The handle was pure-white bone, smooth but for the few symbols carved into it. They were magical sigils. Cassie tried to read them but they were astoundingly complex.
“I don’t know if I can use any of these weapons,” she said to Baely.
“I do not think that particular one would suit you,” he said politely. “Burmar II crafted this dagger when he was sixteen. With it he later assassinated all three of the Dacruum Triumvirs. He was an…interesting man. They say he could turn invisible.”
Cassie whistled softly. “I don’t doubt it. Did all the past monarchs make their own weapons?”
“Not all of them,” Baely said. “Many of these have been used more than once. Your mother used to say she would claim Lyanna’s gloves the second she was crowned. Because she said they, ahem, ‘kicked ass’.”
The gloves were on the end of the first row. They looked like archer’s gloves with thick guards at the elbow and no tips to the fingers. It seemed they were made out of a white animal skin, but it was hard to tell because embroidered sigils covered them so densely that they were almost solid blue with thread. Cassie leaned close to try and discern individual symbols, but the stitching blurred in her vision. She got the feeling that only the owner would know what these gloves were capable of.
“My mom had an old bracelet that looked kind of like this,” Cassie said. “She never wore it, but I found it when I was looking through her jewelry box. It was woven so tightly out of thread and leather with these tiny beads in it.”
“I remember,” Baely said. “If she had continued to use it, add to it, it might have sat here one day.”
Cassie turned back to the Ahrra. “What weapon did my grandmother use?”
He led her toward the center of the rows to a sword. It was thick as a broadsword but much shorter. Cassie recognized the gem in the cross-guard from a book she’d read the other day. “This is the magic sword of Daya the Valiant. It was made for her by the gods.”
“Lumeres,” Baely named it. “Tempered in the blood of the divine. Queen Audrey died with it in her hands.”
Cassie reached forward to touch it but stopped, her fingers just short of the grip. She shook her head, lowering her arm. “You know, people keep telling me all these things about Gran. How kind she was, how brave. But I feel like they’re telling me about a stranger. I didn’t know that woman. I knew this sweet old lady who would tell me elaborate stories and sneak me spending money behind Mom’s back. I knew someone who like to bake and still thought Menudo was a popular band. I never met this warrior queen who died with a magic sword in her hands.”
Baely put a gentle hand on Cassie’s shoulder. “There is no way to know all that there is to a person. Part of life is developing these sides to yourself, of discerning the different facets of your personality. The grandmother you loved is no different than the queen they remember.”
“Maybe,” Cassie said. “But I don’t understand how a person’s ‘facets’ can be so separate. Gran, my mother...I only have one side, and it’s not very complicated at that.”
“You are young,” Baely said, smiling. “In time you’ll be a hundred different women in one.
Cassie turned away from the sword and from Baely, walking down along the row of pedestals. “I’m not sure that’s such a good thing,” she said.
The Ahrra laughed. “Your mother said something of the kind to me once.”
“She did?” It was hard to imagine.
Baely nodded. “It was right after I became the Ahrra. Charlotte was only just old enough to start attending things like ceremonies and fetes, and she remarked to me how odd it was to see her mother so formal, almost cold. I told Charlotte that a queen is expected to act a certain way around her subjects, especially at special occasions, and she found that unacceptable. She was six or so at the time, you understand. But she declared that when she was queen she would never be anyone but herself.” His smile faded a bit. “I suppose in the end she did exactly that.”
“You’re the only one who seems to have good memories of my mother,” Cassie pointed out, pausing before a double-headed war axe with a handle like a whip. She looked back at Baely who was still looking down at Lumeres with nostalgic eyes. “Everyone else just sees her as ‘the deserter’.”
Baely touched the nameplate of Audrey’s sword fondly, like greeting a familiar animal. “They remember,” he said, “better maybe than me. I am simply the first person you’ve met that has forgiven her.” He turned to Cassie, blue eyes sorrowful. “She was beloved more than any princess before her. They thought she would save them all, but instead she broke their hearts. Such things take time to mend.”
Cassie thought back to what her mother had said about protecting the weak. “She wanted to,” Cassie said. “She wanted to save them. But it was too much. She couldn’t sacrifice what she needed to for them.” The greater good was like a god, Charlotte had said. A god who demanded blood.
Baely nodded. “The strength of the royal family is in her, same as Audrey, same as King Emir before her. But people don’t see it because she didn’t use it for them.” He met Cassie’s eyes straight on. “She used it for you.”
A shiver snaked down Cassie’s spine. She turned away from the Ahrra and walked back along the row of pedestals. “Royal strength,” she repeated softly. The weapons alone boasted of that. A mace carved in the shape of a screaming skull, a bow staff that when strung had ivory-colored wings. Whatever she picked would be the symbol of her power to protect the realm. It might also be her only way to protect herself. “Do you really think that kind of strength can be inherited?” she wondered aloud. “Or is it more that everyone in this family is so desperate to live up to these ridiculous expectations that they make themselves strong?”
“You think the people’s expectations are ridiculous, do you?”
“I think people expect too much of their leaders. They assume the position has the power to fix everything that’s wrong with the world. And what happens when they can’t? Whose fault is it when a leader turns out to be no more than human?”
“Are you still talking about your mother?” Baely said.
“I don’t know,” Cassie said. “Maybe no one. Maybe everyone.” She looked back at Baely, eyes pleading. “What if I don’t have the royal strength? What if I’m not the heir of Mercutio? What if the Ultimate Power comes and I can’t do anything to stop it? What kind of queen will I be then?”
The Ahrra only shrugged. “I suppose you’ll be whatever kind of queen you are. You’ve only been queen for an hour or so, after all. I think there’s time yet to decide your legacy.” Cassie gave him a petulant look in reply and he laughed. “Come here,” he said, taking her by the shoulder and leading her toward the wall. Hanging there was a knife as long as her forearm, designed like a miniature saber. Everything about it was thin, from the blade to the scuffed leather handle. The crossguard was barely enough to cover one’s knuckles, made from hard steel burned black. Beneath it hung a harness that Cassie guessed would strap the knife to the arm, hiding it until it was needed.
“This is the weapon of Joanna the Blessed,” Baely said. “She was Fourth Discipline, so she wasn’t much for battle, but she was famous for her ingenuity, and that blade got her many things in many places.” Cassie imagined a woman dressed all in black, the thin blade sliding out from under her sleeve to slit a man’s throat in the night. It was an odd image for someone called “the blessed”. Baely continued speaking. “She was queen many hundreds of years ago, but you can still see bits of her in you, if you think about it.”
“I think it’s been too many generations for me to inherit anything from her,” Cassie said.
“As I said, you have to think about it,” Baely insisted. “Joanna was the first queen of the Order. She was very young when she was crowned, about your age I think. Originally, she was a descendent of an ancient royal line, but a usurper slaughtered her family and stole their throne. Joanna’s mother alone survived by hiding among the slaves. So Joanna grew up in slavery, and it was only when she was older that she learned she had magic at all. But once she knew it, she used it. She struggled and she sacrificed, but she learned. She became the queen she was meant to be. And when the people needed her, she was able to protect them.”
“I know what you’re trying to say but—“
Baely finished for her, “but you don’t think you have the time to learn? Do not make the mistake of thinking that. No matter what, there will always be time. Unless of course you die, and then it doesn’t really matter what happens, does it?” That provoked a smile out of Cassie. Baely said, “You are a good girl, and you can be a good queen. Just be patient. And cautious. And always listen to the guidance of others, even if you do not follow it.”
“How do you know which guidance to follow?” Cassie asked.
“You don’t,” was all Baely said.
Cassie turned around to face the room again, taking a deep breath as she did so. The display lights wavered in her vision and she almost felt like she was in the white nothingness that the godspoken described. If ever she felt the burden of her family, it was here. Not the visions, or the Watchers, or anyone else could make her feel the power of the royal lineage more than seeing the last remnants of their power gathered here. The weapons still held a part of the people who used them, and that strength, the royal strength, must somehow pass to her. If she could choose one. Cassie had received a lot of guidance over the past few days, but one thing stuck out to her now.
Anyu had told her, almost offhand, that in the end it didn’t matter how much she learned, her choice would come down to faith. Which choice he’d been referring to was anyone’s guess, but Cassie could see more truth in it than he’d intended. Her mother had made that bracelet with her own hands, trusting herself to protect what she cared about. Gran took on the sword of the gods to defend her loved ones. Had they really put thought into those decisions, or had they been guided by something else? An instinct born from fate?
Cassie walked slowly along the walls, looking at each weapon carefully. These were older, from the beginning of the Order. Some of the plaques bore multiple names, having been reused by kings over the years. Cassie didn’t feel any particular attachment to the different weapons she passed; they were all a bit intimidating. Then, next to one of the corners in the wall, Cassie paused. Hanging there was a short rod carved from very dark wood. It was a little thicker around than her wrist and almost as long as her forearm, as polished and unmarked as if it were brand-new. One end was capped with silver and three curved prongs made a kind of circle extending outward. The tips were sharp enough to cut glass, but more interesting was the stone that sat in the center of the prongs, nestled in the bow of the curves. It seemed to be the same kind of gem as the Flame of the Order, but it was round and smooth like a pebble on the beach. If she looked close, she could see her own reflection in it. And if she looked closer, she could see the future and its endless possibilities.
The plaque beneath the weapon had no name, simply the word “Aingath”.
Cassie looked back at Baely hesitantly. “What weapon is this?” she asked.
“A wand,” he said. “From some five hundred years ago. I believe there are glyphs on it that only its owner can utilize. With them, it extends into a staff, reinforced for fighting.”
Cassie took a breath to prepare herself and then reached up and lifted the wand off its rack. The wood was warm to the touch, and the grip easy in her hand. Cassie examined the surface of the wand carefully. The wood was unmarked, but if she closed her eyes and ran a finger down the edge of the wand she could pinpoint where the glyphs were. She touched one with her thumb and sent a spark of magic into it. Without so much as a click the wand extended another three feet. “Oh my god I did it!”
Cassie hefted the now heavier staff with two hands, turning it back and forth to feel the balance. “Is staff fighting a thing?” she said curiously, turning back to Baely. “Or is it more for magic, like splitting the red sea?”
“I guess you could part water with it if you wanted,” Baely said in all seriousness. “But staff fighting is similar in some ways to sword fighting. Very good for multiple enemies and defense, but it has its flaws of course. It depends on your skill.”
Cassie looked around her at this room full of weapons and then down at the staff in her hand. By activating the same glyph near one end she shrunk the staff back into a wand. She smiled. “Well, I guess there’s no point in making it complicated. I’ll take this one.”
The Ahrra nodded and touched the plaque. Beneath the wand’s name, Cassie’s own appeared as if it had been lovingly carved into the obsidian. “Impressive,” she said. “Why is it named Aingath anyway?”
“It was named by the previous owner, King Mercutio,” Baely said. “It means ‘the strength who stands with me’. He carved it himself when he was young, and left it with his wife before he disappeared. No one else has touched it since. And now I suppose it’s where it belongs—with his heir.”
Cassie held the wand close to her chest. “As it is written, so shall it be” the Craftlings said. The Watchers told her that her destiny was predetermined. Now, more than ever, with the crown on her head and Mercutio’s wand in her hands, Cassie realized that this was where she had been heading all along. In the end, they were all right. This was where she was meant to be.