“I am.” Oh, she was more prepared than he could imagine.
Trumpeters sounded. Gerard stuck out his arm. “My lady, if I may?”
She glanced at Nick. He smiled back. She took Gerard’s arm and let him lead her onto the dais. He bowed and left her standing there alone. Her heart was pounding, and an even greater hush fell over the gathered audience. She smiled down at her family. Nick in particular. He stood out among the sea of tall, delicate fae like a mountain of strength and determination. Her nerves were threatening chaos on her insides, but looking at him gave her an amazing sense of calm.
Love was the most curious thing.
The trumpets sounded again, this time accompanied by the interior castle doors being thrown wide. The king made his way in, again on the wheeled chair pulled by his guards.
She bowed along with everyone else. Once he was seated, she took her place in the smaller seat beside his throne.
He gazed out at the crowd. “Good people of the kingdom of Rhoswynn, as you know we are gathered here today to crown our new queen. You know the circumstances of my family and the circumstances of the challenge that has brought Willa Iscovian back to us.”
He took a breath. Then a second. “It should also come as no surprise that my health is failing.” Murmurs answered him, but Willa knew the response was for the king’s benefit. His state of health was no shock. “Because of that, I do not wish to leave the kingdom ungoverned, and therefore, today, I am abdicating the throne to Willa Iscovian.”
He stood slowly and with effort.
Willa got to her feet with almost the same movements. The intensity of the moment pressed on her like a weight. She turned toward him as he turned toward her.
With one hand leaning heavily on the arm of the throne, he used the other to unclip a shining gold key from the chain around his waist. He held it out to her. “I offer you the key to the Crystal of Ardwynn-Rhos and charge you with its protection and the knowledge that its power becomes your power.”
She nodded and took the key. It sang with promise and power and an almost stunning amount of joy. She blinked back the wash of emotions and tucked the key into the pocket of her dress. She raised her head and looked the king in the eyes. They were rheumy but kind and a little relieved. She gave a short nod. “I accept and understand.”
He smiled and whispered, “Very good, child.”
Then he stepped back, and she moved to stand before the throne.
The weight of the many gazes upon her was a palpable thing. Gerard walked onto the dais carrying a silk pillow in the same purple as the runner she’d walked in on.
On top of the pillow was a crown of platinum set with amethysts, diamonds and iolite. It must have belonged to the last queen. Gerard presented the pillow to the king with a deep bow.
The king lifted the crown and held it close to his body before addressing the crowd. “The crown of Nualla. Last worn by Queen Wyndellia.”
A gasp went up from the crowd. They knew that the same queen had designed the eggs used in the challenge. Full circle, Willa thought.
The king smiled. “From one lapidus queen to another. Seems very fitting.”
The crowd nodded, agreeing.
He turned toward her. “Willa Iscovian, I present you with the Kingdom of Rhoswynn and the Crown of Nualla. May your reign be long and prosperous.”
She bent to receive the crown.
The king’s trembling hands laid it on her head gently, as if he was wary of hurting her. A sense of peace trickled through her at the platinum’s touch, and she smiled, understanding instantly that the peace was a gift from Queen Wyndellia to her successor. The metal carried the same signature the egg had.
In that moment, Willa knew everything she had planned was going to work out fine. She straightened and faced the crowd.
The king held out his hand to her. “It is my great honor to present to you Queen Willa.”
The crowd erupted in such deafening applause that she was almost thrown back by it. The king looked a little unsteady on his feet. She reached out and took his arm, leaning in so he could hear her. “Please, let’s sit. I can’t take another moment on my feet.”
He nodded. “You’re the queen, my dear. We’ll do whatever you like.” But he came around to take the smaller chair beside the throne and sat.
She settled onto the throne. It was larger than it had looked from the floor of the great hall, and she felt a little like a child who’d been seated at the adults’ table for the first time. She snuck a glance at Nick and her family.
They all looked happy and proud. Her mother was crying. Shay was jumping up and down, her little hands grasping Nick’s. He was smiling down at her.
Love filled Willa, as large and vast a thing as she’d ever experienced.
She smiled out at the crowd for a moment, then let the seriousness of the moment bring her back to the task at hand. Her smile faded away. She took a breath and spoke to her subjects, however brief they were going to hold that status.
“People of Rhoswynn, I thank you for your presence here today and for your faith in me. It wasn’t my lifelong dream to become your queen, but when I saw the plans the All Seer had for Rhoswynn, I had no other choice but to step forward and accept the challenge. Up until a short while ago, even that choice would have been foreign to me.”
She looked at Nick. “But a very smart man gave me the courage and belief in myself.”
The barest of smiles played on his mouth.
She swept her gaze across the audience again. “Because of that courage, and this power that you have bestowed upon me, there is more that needs to be done for Rhoswynn.”