The journey to the Solstice Palace had been both entertaining and difficult. Half the time I spent walking alongside the carriages that carried nobles with my maids and the various other servants. Guards surrounded us on foot and horseback as townspeople received word of the king’s decree. Owen was sitting inside a carriage, with Niro safely settled on his lap.
It had taken longer to get there at our slow pace, and by the time we had gotten to the Solstice Palace, guards and coachmen had already rushed from the palace to meet us half-way to assist us.
After our arrival, many retired, filling the palace’s empty chambers. By the next morning, the King and all those who were attending Prince Gareth’s wedding had set up to leave.
“Promise me you will come back,” I whispered to Owen.
“Melanie, do not fear this love will end, fear for the person who dares come between us.” He grinned down at me and I laughed at his words, feeling it envelop me with an internal strength.
Giving him a quick kiss on his cheek, I pulled away from Owen and watched him turn and walk into the carriage. I wished silently for he and the others to return back safely and swiftly.
For the rest of the week, I was busy trying to keep order in the palace. It had occurred to me then just how big the Solstice Palace was; there were enough chambers for the incoming nobles and in the servant quarters and kitchens to house the extra help.
After some days, the guards began looking at me for their orders and guidance. I was overwhelmed by their attention, feeling slightly stranded with my new authoritative power. Despite this, I felt a sense of need from them as their future sovereign, putting my full attention on what needed to be done for both Tenebris and the upcoming wedding.
In the near three weeks that it had taken for Owen and the others to come back, I managed to keep an eye out for Niro —who I had learned was a baby eagle and was healing exceptionally well— as well all the incoming affairs that had risen during their absence.
I had especially looked into aiding the towns farthest from the Palace, remembering the nurse’s words about their maladies. I helped to restore my former home and its surrounding houses, granting anyone who had lost relatives a claim to the land, including Selenah. She had been horrified by the news of our parents’ death and with Connor’s magic, she was able to aid in the reconstruction.
Above all, I was able to call for Tiran to take Conner’s place as Captain of the Guard as Connor was willing to give up his title to ensure Selenah’s recovery. And although my dreams were no longer haunted by the Shadow Reaper, I had made it mandatory for Selenah to be on constant watch from a Royal Guard —namely Connor— should he appear in her dreams, too.
In the days before Owen’s arrival, I had opened the doors of the Solstice Palace for villagers to come and request audience. It had originally been set for their local lords to counsel the King, but I decided to change it, my maids —now Ladies in Waiting— had strongly advised me to do so. Many of those who visited were women and young children, voicing concerns or thanking us for the help they had received.
When the golden carriages did roll through the palace gates, my maids and I, along with the remaining nobles, were anticipating their return.
The palace itself seemed to glow brighter with its stones polished and redone, and its entrances covered in lightly powdered snow. The brown leaves shuddered in the winter breeze.
King Liason was the first to step out of the carriage. We curtsied as he neared, but I quickly looked over his shoulder, hoping to see Owen. He stepped out after the King and grinned widely as our eyes met.
I rushed over to him, throwing my arms around his neck. Owen pulled me close, kissing my cheeks. The familiar sensation of longing swept within me as I gazed up at him.
“Forgive me for returning so late,” he said after we pulled away. “Uncle was adamant on visiting every city and announcing the news of a new king and a future queen.” I shook my head, smiling.
“Owen, you are home. That is all I could have asked for.” Owen watched me for a moment, head tilted. “What is it?”
A small smile spread across his face.
“You seem changed,” he replied as we both began walking after the King, who seemed quite gleeful by the Solstice Palace’s refurnished look. I raised an eyebrow at Owen. He chuckled. “I can assure you it is a compliment.”
I tugged on his arm. “Come, Niro would love to see you again,” I said, the necklace I wore warming once more.
“And his mother? Is she not happy to see me, too?” Owen asked, winking.
“You can find out yourself when she is your wife,” I answered, smiling.
Owen offered his arm and I took it, entering the chamber I had dedicated to Niro. Here, cushioned chairs and soft rugs littered the ground and hanging rings swayed in the air. They served as a way of movement throughout the chamber as bird-like as possible for flightless Niro.
Niro was by the windowsill where the curtain was parted to allow the morning sunlight to shine through. He had turned at our entry and squawked out a greeting.
“Good morning, Niro,” I said, dropping Owen’s arm to walk forward. He hopped off the sill and used the furniture and low hanging rings to come closer.
“His wings have not healed?” Owen asked, gently running a hand over Niro’s bent wings. They had been clipped together to allow his broken bones to form properly. I shook my head. The wounds on his chest had been cleaned and mended, but I had not been able to heal his wings. “A shame. Do you know when, if ever, he will be able to fly?”
I shook my head again, watching Niro as he hopped out of Owen’s reach and onto my forearm. I smiled, running my fingers through his feathers. I hoped one day Niro would be able to fly, but right now, I was content with him staying within the palace walls. With us.
“Ah, here you two are,” the King’s voice boomed behind us. We turned to face him as he walked in, taking in his surroundings. “Hmm, a Kennel now Falconry,” he touched one of the hanging rings by his head. “Perhaps this would be nice addition to the Palace. I suppose it takes a queen to realize such things,” he mused aloud before turning to fully face us. “Owen, I am hosting a hunt with your father. Do join us.”
“Uncle, I have just returned,” Owen said. “Might I rest a bit before we go?”
“Of course, of course. I expect you be ready at noon.” Owen nodded as King Liason turned and left.
“A hunting trip sounds wonderful,” I said, leading Niro to his feeder. “Do not let me stop you.”
“Would you like to accompany me?” Owen asked, watching as Niro followed my every move.
“Accompany you on chasing an innocent animal through the woods?” I scoffed. “Thank you for offering, but I shall politely decline.” Owen chuckled and pulled me away from Niro, wrapping his arms around my waist and pressing my back against his chest. I leaned back, closing my eyes.
“You know I love you,” he whispered into my ear. I smiled.
“I do, and I love you too.”
The warm pulse that had lingered from my necklace cooled as Owen traced his lips along the back of my neck. A spark ran down my spine as he continued. Owen stopped, breathing above the necklace’s chain.
“You have never removed that necklace since you received it,” he said, more a statement than question.
“Why would I?” I asked.
Owen shook his head before he began to pull me out of the chamber.
“I think we require more private quarters right now.” I grinned at the mischievous glint in his eye.
“Just for a little bit,” I agreed, entwining my fingers with his.
As I turned to go with Owen, Niro let out a sharp call, propelling himself onto me. With a laugh, I caught him, letting go of Owen’s hand to hold him close.
“It seems that Niro is not used to sharing my attention,” I said, smiling over at Owen. He raised an eyebrow. “I suppose all the time I spent caring for him meant something to the poor thing.” I lifted Niro onto one of the higher rings. He hopped onto it, trying to flex his injured wings, but could not.
Just then, the chamber door swung open and my maids rushed in.
“The tailor arrived!” Ayah exclaimed before either of us could speak. “Oh, and the dresses she has!” I could not suppress a smile at her excitement. “There is just so much to choose from,” she gushed.
“Tell her I shall be there as soon as I can,” I said, feeling thrilled myself. The four of us had been waiting for the tailor to arrive for the past week now.
“She will also need the Archduke for his fitting,” Blaire added. Owen nodded, taking me by the hand. They smiled as I said farewell to Niro and walked out with Owen.
We were so close to our happily ever after. Just a few more weeks and everything would be ready for the coronation and our wedding.
The weather had quickly turned from small flurries of snow to blossoming flowers by the time everything had been set. In that time I had learned what to say and do during the ceremony, as well as smaller customs about royal weddings.
The dress I would be wearing was a pure celadon silk gown; its sleeves were netted and sewn in with floral patterns, it had a plunging v-neckline, and its skirts were ruffled. My maids would wear a dress of deep lavender, to match the hanging garlands that now decorated the palace walls and entrances.
I gasped at my reflection when the tailor had stepped away, pleased with her work. I had seen this reflection before, of a happy, beautiful me. It was the Shadow Reaper’s image of myself with magic.
The smile on my face faded and I looked over my shoulder, half expecting to see the Shadow Reaper standing there. I exhaled in relief, seeing only my maids adding their finishing touches to each other’s gowns. My fingers gripped the bird-shaped charm on my necklace as I took deep, slow breaths. The necklace was the only thing I had not seen in the Shadow Reaper’s vision.
“Mistress, it is time!” Blaire’s voice brought me out of my thoughts. I gave her a brief smile and turned to face my maids, each wearing their identical silvery purple gowns that shimmered from the decorated corset. All three held a bouquet of assorted purple and white roses.
I threw my arms around them, thankful for such wonderful and steadfast companions. We pressed each other close, our heads tipped downwards. And for those moments, the fear within me was gone.
“I am ready if you three are ready,” I whispered.
“We are ready,” Yana said firmly. As I began to lead the three out of the chamber, Yana added, “to meet our own future husbands.” I grinned as Ayah giggled and Blaire scolded her.
The four of us made our way through the palace and neared the side entrance to the Throne Room where Tiran stood. He smiled and held out a sword to me, still sheathed. I took it from him, doing my best not to drop it as I gazed at the gilded designs and jewel encrusted hilt. It was the King’s Sword.
Taking a deep breath, I gave Tiran a firm nod. He bowed his head and slowly opened the door, bright light flooding into the hall.
As I walked in, I cast my eyes down, trying to ignore the whispers that began immediately at my arrival. And not all were in my favor as I had hoped. I closed my eyes for a moment before raising my head to embrace it. This was my day.
My maids took position, each one of them standing on the dais steps. Breathing deeply, I took my stance in the first pew beside the Lord and Lady of Herington. They did not take notice of me, rather, they watched as King Liason and the King’s Adviser crowned Owen. He had caught my gaze as I walked in and smiled before he turned to face the King. The room hushed as the King spoke.
“I, King Serim Liason of Tenebris, hereby bestow my title to my rightful born nephew, the Archduke of Herrington, and grant him the highest honor of leading Tenebris and her people.” He knelt before Owen, bowing his head.
The King’s Adviser tentatively took off his crown and placed it above Owen’s brow. I smiled, seeing it tilt sideways. Owen truly looked like a king, dressed in white attire, embroidered with gold threading.
The former king then unfastened the dark green cape he wore and draped them across Owen’s shoulders before he stepped aside. The King’s Adviser then addressed everyone.
“No king shall take his burden alone, for with every challenge he endures, he will have his queen at his side. And for every gain his kingdom receives, he will have his queen to thank,” he paused, now addressing Owen. “And with whom will our Glorious King share his rule with?”
I shut my eyes briefly, squeezing the sword in my hands as Owen turned around to face me.
“Duchess Melanie will be at my side as the next Queen of Tenebris.” I felt my heart skip a beat as he said my name aloud, giving me a bright smile.
Walking forward, I held the King’s Sword outstretched before me and dipped low, bowing my head. I swallowed, praying I would not mess up on my vows as I glanced up at him through my eyelashes.
“To my King I surrender my heart,” I said, just above a whisper, “and to my kingdom I surrender my loyalty.”
Owen lifted the sword from my hands and unsheathed it. The sword rang in the air and shone in the glittering light from the chandeliers above and the framed glass windows.
“I accept your devotion, Duchess Melanie,” Owen placed the sword’s cold edge below my chin and slowly lifted my face to look at him. My heart warmed at the sight of his smiling face. “May Tenebris flourish under her Queen,” he finished, putting the sword onto his belt. A sigh of relief left my lips as a guard taking the scabbard of the King’s Sword from me.
The moments now would change my life forever.
Owen stepped down from the dais, a crown in his hands. I remembered its gold sheen and emeralds when I had first seen it in the King’s Castle Throne Room, unused. I held my breath as he secured it atop my head with a radiant smile.
The audience behind us applauded, and I heard Selenah’s shout in happiness above all else.
Taking my hand, we walked down the aisle to meet the people of Tenebris with a hopeful future.
The rest of the day was a blur of serenity. I could not remember the last time I had been so happy.
Owen and I spent those hours speaking with townspeople, receiving wishes of goodwill and longevity.
When night had finally come, I was exhausted and quite full from the amount of food that had been forced upon me by my ladies. But I was blessed. Blessed with comfort in a life that had always brought me down.