She glanced at Gerard, checking his face for any adverse reaction, but he just gave her a slight nod. She took it for approval and went on.
“As my first royal decree, I hereby abolish all forms of slavery in this kingdom.” Heads nodded in response. “From this day forward, the creation of slave bracelets is forbidden and a crime against the kingdom, punishable by exile. Slavery is an abomination and nothing that should ever be associated with this great kingdom again.”
The slow clapping of a solitary person answered her. She looked around, and her gaze landed on Nick. Her parents and Shay quickly joined him, and the entire audience did the same.
She waited for the applause to die down, then stood and stepped to the edge of the dais. She held out her hand to Shay.
The little girl grinned and ran up onto the platform to stand with Willa. She beamed out at the crowd, not an ounce of shyness in her. That was good. Being shy was not going to help her now.
Willa squeezed Shay’s hand, then stared out at the crowd again. “This is my little sister, Shay. She is also a lapidus and stands behind me in the line to the throne, which means someday, she’ll be queen.”
The crowd smiled, jovial and amiable to the moment of intimacy with their new queen’s family. A gentle applause filled the room.
Willa smiled down at her little sister. This was going to be easier than she’d thought.
As soon as Shay left his side to go up on the dais with Willa, Nick slipped back into the crowd. The time for him to leave had come. Willa and Shay were both safe, both set for the future.
His job of protecting Willa was complete.
As soon as he was in the courtyard, he’d shift. Then he could fly back to Nocturne Falls and get on with his life.
The ache of that thought blurred his vision. He pushed blindly through the crowd, caring less about being polite than getting out of the great hall before his emotions got the best of him.
Willa’s voice rang out over the audience as the applause died down. “I hope that means you approve of her, because I hereby abdicate the throne and name Shay my successor, effective immediately.”
Nick stopped, and the thump of his pulse filled his ears. What had she just said? Judging by the utter silence in the hall, Willa’s words hadn’t quite registered with anyone else either. He turned, about halfway to the door, and looked back at the platform where she and Shay stood.
She held her hand up, even though there was no racket to be silenced. “I know this comes as a shock. Please don’t mistake my decision for flippancy. The weight of what has been bestowed upon me is great. Which is why I know I am not the best queen for you.”
She glanced at Shay. Nick’s gaze followed hers. Shay looked a little shaken, but was holding it together admirably.
Then Willa’s gaze went back to her parents. She frowned. She was looking for him. Wondering why he was gone, maybe. He started working his way back toward her, the possibility that something amazing was about to happen too great to ignore.
She kept looking while she spoke. “I’m sure you want to know why, and I feel you deserve an explanation, so I’m going to give you one. I also think this is a moment when the plain truth is the best choice.”
He was only a few rows from the front when she located him and smiled.
“The reason I’m abdicating is I am in love with a man who isn’t from here. He’s from the town where I’ve created a life for myself, and that life, with him in it, isn’t something I can walk away from. It’s not something I’m willing to walk away from. If I stayed, you’d never have my full commitment, because my heart would always be there, with him.”
He put his hand over his heart and nodded at her, happy he didn’t have to say anything, because he wasn’t sure he could have managed more than a grunt.
She’d given up the crown for him. Had she been planning this all along? The level of the sacrifice wasn’t lost on him. To become the ruler of the very place she’d run from and then to walk away from that for him…it staggered him.
The crowd began to realize he was the one she was talking about. A small circle formed around him.
She nodded. “Yes, that’s right. He’s a gargoyle.”
A few small gasps and mutters went up, but nothing like what he’d expected.
The man standing closest to him clapped him on the back and smiled. “You better take good care of her.”
Nick nodded and found his voice. “I will.” It was all he wanted to do.
Hands pushed him toward the stage. “Go on up,” they persuaded him. “Go, join her.”
The crowd parted, and he walked forward to the dais. He leaped onto it and stood beside Willa.
She took his hand, grinning madly as tears shone in her eyes. “This is Nicholas Hardwin. The best man I’ve ever known. Nick, meet the citizens of Rhoswynn.”
Two thousand fae waved back.
Nothing in the Rangers had quite prepared him for that.
Willa laughed softly. “You look like a deer in headlights.”
He gave her a short nod. “I feel like one, too.”
She held tight to his hand, but turned back to her subjects. “I hope you’ll all understand my decision and not hold any hard feelings toward my sister because of it. I know she can be the queen you need, or I wouldn’t have made this decision.”
Gerard stepped up to stand on the other side of Nick and bent forward so he could see Willa. “I suppose another coronation is in order then?”