He nodded, smiling and proud. Then he turned to face the crowd, thrusting his arms skyward with an unmistakable joy. “Ladies and gentlemen, the challenge is ended. Behold your new queen!”
Kyanna’s screams were drowned out by the cheering crowd. Willa smiled. And was vaguely aware of Nick and Shay and her parents rushing toward her.
Then she passed out.
Chaos swirled around them, but Nick blocked all of that out. All that mattered was the woman in his arms. Nick cradled Willa as her lids fluttered open.
She looked at him and blinked a few times before she spoke. “What happened?”
“You’re awake!” Shay answered before he could. She crouched at his side, her little face masked in worry. “You fainted.”
Nick nodded. “You went down like a stone. Your breathing is back to normal, so that’s good. How do you feel otherwise?”
She gave Shay a little smile as she answered. “Wiped out, but that’s how I should feel.” She did her best to sit up. “All that magic took it out of me. How long was I out?”
“Not long. Thirty seconds maybe. You want to stand?”
“Yes. Help me.”
He put his hands on her waist and lifted her, maybe more help than she wanted, but he wasn’t taking any arguments over it.
Shay grabbed Willa’s hand. “You did great.”
“Thanks.” Willa stared at Shay for a long, hard moment. Then she bent and kissed her little sister on the cheek.
Her parents walked up, her mother teary-eyed but beaming. “We’re so proud of you, sweetheart.”
Her father nodded. “Well done, Willa. Brilliantly done.”
“Thanks.” She held on to Nick’s arm and looked around. “It’s crazy in here, huh?”
The guards had let Nick and Willa’s family through the ropes, but the rest of the crowd remained outside them. Barely. A very celebratory atmosphere had taken hold of them.
Except for Kyanna and Zane, who huddled in the far corner of the stanchioned area, glowering at Willa.
Jarrel sighed. “I need to speak to Kyanna. And Zane.”
Melinna put her hand on her husband’s arm. “I don’t know, Jarrel.”
“It’s got to be done. Enough is enough. She must face this new reality with dignity. They both must. I know it’s not what she—”
But before he could say another word, Kyanna stormed toward them, eyes blazing with anger. She stabbed a finger at Willa. “You cheated.”
Jarrel shook his head. “Kyanna, the challenge is over and you must accept—”
Kyanna turned on Jarrel. “You stay out of this.”
Willa made a face and stepped between her father and her sister. “How do you figure I cheated?”
“Your crystal didn’t shatter.”
“That’s because I listened to the warning that you ignored.”
Kyanna scowled. “What warning?”
Willa crossed her arms defiantly. “It was the first thing I heard when I laid my hands on the egg.”
Kyanna’s chest heaved with indignation. She searched the crowd until she found whoever she was looking for. “Gerard! Gerard, get over here now.”
The steward was talking with a group of guards, giving directions for the rest of the day, Nick supposed. Two of them headed off toward the castle’s interior.
Gerard strode toward Kyanna. “Yes, All Seer?”
She spat out a breath. “I should be queen. You gave me a defective egg.”
“I did no such thing. The challenge was perfect. As were the eggs and the warning contained within. Whoever removed the crystal in one piece would become queen.” He nodded at Willa. “Your sister achieved that.”
“No.” Kyanna’s shout made it over the sound of the revelry. Those in the crowd closest to the ropes turned to look. “I should be queen.”
Melinna glared at her. “You’re behaving like a child.”
Zane tugged at Kyanna’s arm. “Let’s go.”
She shoved him away. “No.” Then she pointed at Nick. “You. Let’s go.”
He laughed. “I don’t think so.”
She stared at him. “You can’t refuse me. You’re wearing my bracelet.”
He lifted the arm wearing the slave cuff and looked at it. “Am I?” He shook his wrist. “Doesn’t seem to be working.”
“Of course it’s working. Any other option is impossible.” She snarled and stepped closer to him, her voice a gravelly whisper. “Kill Willa. Then fly me out of here.”
“Like hell I will.” He held her gaze. “Guards, this woman just ordered me to kill your new queen.”
Kyanna’s eyes rounded. “You ignorant fool.”
Willa slid in beside Nick as the guards rushed forward. “You’re the fool, Kyanna. He’s wearing my bracelet.”
“But I—how is that possible?” Kyanna’s mouth hung open as the guards took hold of her.
Willa lifted her chin. “And once I’m officially queen, I’m banning slaves for good.”
“Pathetic,” Kyanna spat. She struggled, but the royal guards kept a firm hold of her.
One of them asked Willa, “What should we do with her, Your Highness?”
“Take her to the dungeon. The wooden cell that isn’t busted.” She held her hand up. “Take Zane, too.”
Her brother cursed at her. “What have I done?”