The metal twitched, a hard jerky movement that Willa took as a sign of success. It opened to her, enough that she felt like she’d made enough progress to take her hands off and guide the metal with the force of her magic.
The tungsten’s energy vibrated through her, happy for the first time. She didn’t know any other verses of the lullaby, so she sang her directions in the same tune as she coaxed the strand to come away from its fastenings.
“Precious metal, come to me, free yourself from this cage.”
With the stiff movements that spoke to the metal’s brittleness, it inched its way free from the shape of the cage.
She kept singing. “Show the others just how strong you are, as you leave them far behind. With this freedom you will rise, bright and new and beautiful. Bright and new and beautiful.”
The tungsten continued to disengage from the other metals, but there was no way this strand would curl itself around Willa’s wrist. She had no idea what Wyndellia had done in order to braid this difficult strand with the silver and gold, but that level of magic was beyond Willa’s ken.
A new sound trickled through Willa’s concentration. Someone else was singing. She looked up. Not her mother, but her mother’s angry gaze pointed out the culprit.
Willa’s sister stood arched over her wood platform, hands curved around her egg, voice belting out a song in faeish that Willa didn’t recognize.
Kyanna shot Willa a haughty glare as if to say, “Thanks for the help.”
The titanium was nearly free.
Heart pounding, Willa went back to the tungsten. Another inch, inch and a half, and the strand would be loose, and the entire braid of metal would have been removed. With the braid gone, there would be plenty of room for Willa to slip her hand in and extract the crystal.
Please, she begged the tungsten. All the way out now. Free yourself. Show the crowd how amazing and—
A shout went up from beside her. Zane’s voice. A shout of triumph. Of victory.
Willa slumped. She didn’t need to look to know that Kyanna had separated the titanium in its entirety. She felt like crying. Instead, she cajoled the tungsten the rest of the way out, doing her best to block out the cheers and boos from the crowd.
But the amount of noise they were making was almost impossible to ignore. Maybe asking for an audience had been a dumb thing to do.
The tungsten slipped free and lay in her hand, a stiff, worn-out strand of metal. She placed it gently on the wood platform and risked a glance at Kyanna.
Her sister smiled, a stretched, unpleasant grin that made Willa want to slap her. “Looks like you lost, sister dear.”
Kyanna stuck her hand into the cage, grabbed hold of the crystal and pulled it free. She hefted it over her head. “Behold your new queen—”
The crystal shattered into a thousand pieces, raining down over Kyanna like glass and tinkling to the floor in a cacophony of disjointed clinks and clangs. She brought her hand down and stared at the bits left in her palm. Then she spat out a curse and hurled the remnants of the crystal into the audience. “This was rigged.”
“Silence,” Gerard called out. “It was not rigged. The eggs were designed so that the crystal had to be removed properly or shatter. The warning was built in. And since you failed to heed that warning, All Seer Kyanna, you have been disqualified.” He shifted his gaze to Willa. “The crown is now yours to lose, Willa Iscovian.”
The crowd sucked in a breath, and all eyes turned to her. She felt the weight of their stares pressing down. Then the murmuring started. Speculation, no doubt, about how she would remove the crystal without shattering it the same way Kyanna had.
But just because Willa had heard the crystal’s warning didn’t mean she had any better idea about how to remove it.
She stood there, staring at the crystal that still floated in the center of the cage. There was only one other way she could think of to remove it from its prison. And it was something she’d never attempted before.
The weight of the idea almost buckled her knees. She grabbed hold of the platform and leaned on it like it was a crutch. She stared at the crystal. She should test her idea. See if it was even possible.
She focused on the crystal. Let herself sink so deeply within its clear structure that the hard lines of reality blurred. Her focus was on and in the shard. She became part of the shard.
Then she willed it to turn.
And it did.
She held her breath. No one else seemed to notice what she’d done. Except Gerard, whose eyebrows gave the slightest twitch. Had she just figured it out? Maybe. Hopefully. Because she was out of ideas and her energy was nearly spent.
She braced herself on the platform, locking her arms to keep herself upright, then went back into the trancelike state she’d just been in. Reality blurred away until all she saw was clear crystal, icy in its perfection.
She imagined the shard loose and free of the magic holding it inside the cage. Imagined it being controlled by a string of pure energy that teased it out through the narrow gap in the metal strands. In her mind, it slid through with only a hair’s breadth of space on either side. Her eyes watered, and her arms shook like she was on the verge of a seizure. She blinked to clear her vision and saw that the crystal was now outside of the cage.
Tears streamed from her eyes, but she held on, slowly lowering the shard to the top of the wooden platform. It came to rest with a soft thunk and lay there, whole and perfect.
With a hard exhale, she released her magical grip on the shard and let herself relax. A wave of dizziness hit her. She panted for air, sucking in deep gulps in an attempt to keep herself from passing out. She lifted her head enough to look at Gerard, hoping he could read the question in her eyes without her having to speak.