Jess tumbled through the mirror and sprawled across the cold stone floor of the dimly lit catacombs within the Crypt of Spires. She tried to ease her fall but slipped and hit her head as she fell. Her heart pounded. It took a long moment to gather her senses and clear her vision.
Keelan hadn’t followed.
She was alone.
As she finally caught her breath, she realized she was bracing her weight on the cold stone of her great-great-grandfather’s ornate sarcophagus. She yanked her hand away and clutched it to her chest while her eyes darted about the room trying desperately to orient herself.
The Crypt should’ve felt familiar, somehow safe, but she’d never liked the place, with its creepy magical torches casting dancing shadows across the marble prisons of the dead. Her father had brought her down here when he’d wanted to impart some deep lesson about the weight of the Crown and their sacred lineage. She knew she should revere the sacred ground, but it was hard to get past the idea of walking through rooms full of dead kings and queens who were likely more dust than flesh. To calm his disquieted daughter, Alfred would point out the place where he would rest, then where she would follow. It just made her skin crawl more. What child wanted to think about where they’d be interred?
She rose and took her first steps. The flickering torch flames made no sound, released no smoke. In the stillness of the chamber, her thoughts boomed like thunder in her head.
Keelan tried to kill me.
She remembered the crazed look in his eyes as he’d held her down and knew it wasn’t the noble Guardsman glaring down at her. Someone—something—had taken him over, commanded his actions. But knowing that truth didn’t make seeing his face in her thoughts any easier or help douse the fear coursing through her veins. She tried replaying the last moments before she’d Traveled to the Crypt, tried making sense of what had happened.
She’d been sleeping soundly. Then Keelan had been looming over her with wild eyes and a knife. He’d been talking to himself—or wrestling with himself—she couldn’t tell. In the end, Atikus had tried to pull the hulking man off of her but had been slammed into a wall for his effort. She hoped the kind old Mage was alright.
She’d barely squeezed out of Keelan’s grip before he’d lunged across the room and had pinned her against the shelving, his razor-sharp knifepoint quivering inches from her chest. She could still see the torchlight glinting off the silver blade. He’d struggled, fought against whatever commanded him to act. She wondered at the strength it took for him to resist such Compulsion, especially for a man with such a passive Gift. He’d shown remarkable ability to defend his own mind against powerful intrusion.
She wasn’t sure how she’d ended up flying through the mirror, and she didn’t remember breaking from his iron grasp, but somehow she’d gone from inescapable death to hurtling toward the safety of a room full of dead royalty. If it hadn’t been so frightening, the irony would’ve made her laugh.
The Crypt wasn’t large, only a dozen chambers connected by a wide central walkway. Two bronze doors loomed at one end leading to a room she’d never visited. At the other end, plain gray stone doors mirrored their golden counterparts. The walls were polished smooth and held only golden plates memorializing ancient monarchs. As she approached the towering doors at walkway’s end, she looked to her right into the last grotto, the one that would soon allow her father his eternal rest. Her step faltered and she froze, staring blindly into the empty, unlit room. Its darkness mirrored her thoughts as images of her father’s face rose to the fore.
He smiled, and his hand brushed her cheek. He held her in a tight embrace, his warmth flooding into her.
With all she’d been through over the past few weeks, she’d yet to grieve or even focus on her father or brother—or even her mother—all of whom were lost to her now. Her younger brother Kendall was all the family she had left, and he was only eleven. In the silence of the stone chamber, surrounded by the kings and queens of old, Jess realized the weight of the Crown, her Crown, and that she now bore it alone.
Tears she didn’t know were dammed broke free, and she slumped to the floor.
– # –
A half-hour later, Jess gathered herself, wiped streaks from her face, and stood. She reached for the wooden lever to open the doors, but a tiny voice in her head stilled her hand.
No one here knows I’m Queen now. That means they don’t know about Father, or Justin, or Mother, or the invasion. Will they believe me when I tell them? What if they don’t want me as their Queen? Am I ready for this? Where do I even start?
Tears threatened again, but she sniffed them back and stiffened her spine.
I am Queen now. I can’t act like a scared little rabbit. What would Father do?
She thought back to the endless hours she’d sat in Council with her father listening to boring men droning on about taxes or land, farming or constables, fishing rights or disputed Ducal decrees, or a thousand other tedious topics thrust before the King. She’d tried paying attention, but most of it had felt so distant from anything she’d need as a teenager. And yet here she was at seventeen—the Queen.
Father always said to surround yourself with wise men and listen to their guidance. I might have to amend that to include some wise women, too. At least this gives me a place to start so I don’t look completely lost. Start with the Council.
She looked down at the rumpled riding clothes and shook her head, then she ran a hand through her tangled hair. She smelled the grime left on her fingers and winced. It had been weeks since she’d bathed and there was no way she’d look—or smell—like a queen until she had a bath and change of clothes. Her steely eyes and upturned chin would have to do. Her father always told her those were more powerful tools than the Crown, though she never fully understood the comment until now.
Without thinking further, she pulled the wooden lever and heard powerful mechanisms begin to creak. Sunlight began as a sliver, then grew into a flood of light as the doors opened.
“What—” she heard from someone outside.
Jess couldn’t stop the chuckle as a startled cleric, bent with age, stumbled backward.
“Father, I have risen,” she blurted out without thinking.
The man’s eyes widened, and he tripped, landing on his backside.
She barked a laugh, finally realizing what the man must’ve thought given her backdrop was a tomb. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean . . . Oh, never mind. Please escort me to the Palace?”
– # –
As the priest’s cart approached the Palace gate, a bored-looking guard sitting in the shack nearby did a double take, then snapped to attention.
“Highness, welcome back. We didn’t know you’d returned from your . . . journey,” the man said, his eyes never leaving some distant point. She might’ve been a teenage princess, but the guards knew better than to make eye contact unless it was absolutely necessary.
“It’s alright, William. Would you have the Chancellor’s office assemble the Privy Council? I need to speak with them in an hour,” Jess said.
The guard’s brow quirked. Jess grinned inwardly. She’d never used any of their names before. She never cared enough to learn most of them—and she was never kind or considerate to them. She’d heard the men often joked about how she’d been raised by the palace staff but refused to lower herself to learn their names. Her father tried to teach her the value of her people, if she’d only listened. She’d have to work on that if she was to become the Queen she’d envisioned as a girl.
“Um, Your Highness—”
“I know it’s an unusual request. I’ll explain everything to the Council.”
She turned to the cleric before William could reply. “Thank you, Father. I don’t think I could’ve done that long walk tonight.”
The priest bowed respectfully and watched as Jess strode purposefully into the Palace grounds.
By the time she reached her chamber, the palace was abuzz with speculation regarding her unorthodox Council summons. Guards, servants, and even a few cooks scurrying to ready the kitchens for the return of their charge all whispered in corners about the Princess’s sudden reappearance and mysterious demands.
One of her maids greeted her at her chamber door—the middle-aged woman. “I had a hot bath prepared as soon as I heard you’d returned, Highness. Will you want your ladies to help you bathe and dress?”
Jess placed a hand on her shoulder. “Thank you, Tena. I’ll be fine on my own tonight. Would you please ask the kitchen to make refreshments for the Council in the throne room? We’ll be meeting in an hour.”
The woman couldn’t hide her shock—or delight—at Jess’s pleasant demeanor. She smiled, curtsied again, and scurried off.
Jess closed the door without looking back and slumped to the floor. Her head dropped into her hands and her chest began to heave.
– # –
An hour later, two green-and-gold-liveried servants opened the double doors to the audience chamber as Jess approached. She entered to the side of the thrones and walked directly toward the Council table where the Ministers were already assembled, at least those still living in the capital while the Kingdom pursued its war in the east. Only four of the eight Privy Counselors stood behind their high-back chairs awaiting her arrival, representing Trade, Foreign Affairs, Justice, and the Crown Treasury. Notably absent were High Chancellor Thorn, Minister of War Bril, High Sheriff Wilfred, and General Marks. At the far end of the table, a tall, thin man Jess didn’t recognize stood; his long blue robes lined with one band of gold rustled as he bowed. The other men had their backs to the door and startled at her arrival, quickly turning and offering their own respects.
She approached the table and rested a quivering hand on the chair at its head.
“Thank you for coming. A lot has happened—is happening—in the east, and I don’t know—I’m not sure, how much news made it through to you.” She took a deep breath to calm herself and pulled the chair back to sit.
Foreign Minister Barcas cleared his throat and motioned with an open palm. “Highness, why don’t you start with why you called us here. It is most unusual.”
Treasurer Dask crossed his arms and frowned, clearly disgruntled by the presumption in the Princess’s summons.
Jess nodded and took another deep breath. These men had never made her nervous before. Why was her hand shaking now?
“My father . . . the King . . . he’s dead.”
The room was suddenly filled with sharp intakes of breaths and groans. Barcas ignored protocol and dropped into his chair while the others stared open-mouthed at the teenager before them. No one spoke.
Jess looked from one face to the next and fought the urge to run from the room. Their eyes said it all. They didn’t want her on the throne. In fact, she thought a thread of fear ran through their expressions. She decided to take Atikus’s advice and play to their paternal instincts.
“No one feels this loss more than I do. It’s been weeks since his passing, but it feels like yesterday.”
“Weeks?” Dask exclaimed. “How are we just hearing of this? Why was no messenger sent to inform this Council?”
Jess sat in the High Chancellor’s seat at the head of the table and stared into the glossy wood surface.
“After my mother killed my father—”
“Spirits, no!” Minister Carver said before covering his mouth with the ridiculous lace handkerchief he carried everywhere.
Jess looked up, and the tear she was holding back finally broke free and trailed down her cheek. Her eyes drifted to her hands and she sucked in a breath to steady herself, then looked up.
“Why don’t you sit? There’s a lot we need to discuss.”
As the counselors took their seats, Jess looked up at the Mage. “Sir, please introduce yourself. I don’t know you.”
The man bowed deeply again. “Your Highne—forgive me—Your Majesty, I am Mage Dane Ernest. Since the High Chancellor is in the east with our troops, Minister Barcas thought it would be helpful to have another Mage offer counsel.”
This was the first time anyone had addressed her by the monarchical title, and a surge of nervous energy tickled its way up her spine. This will take getting used to.
Then the Mage’s mention of the High Chancellor sank in, and she pursed her lips. Was this another snake like Thorn? She knew the other men at the table, but could she trust this one?
Before she could speak, Minister Barcas leaned toward her and whispered, “Majesty, he’s a good man. Not one of Thorn’s if that’s what you’re thinking.”
“How did you—?” Of course, he knew how she felt about Thorn. The other ministers had witnessed her reaction to Thorn’s smooth talk at hundreds of Council meetings. Her dislike for the Spymaster was well known. She’d have to be more careful about how she let others see her true feelings moving forward.
She looked up and nodded once to the Mage, and the man took a seat near the table’s far end.
A moment of silence hung in the air as everyone waited for their queen to address them. She looked at each man before finally beginning the speech she’d rehearsed a dozen times.
“My Lords, the King is dead. Prince Justin is dead. My mother, the former Queen, is thought to have killed them both in an attempt to take the crown for herself. Even now, she leads our troops in an unjust war against our Melucian neighbors—in the name of justice for my kidnapping. We have incontrovertible evidence that she was behind my kidnapping and attempted murder as well.”
She paused as shock flooded into her advisors anew. The massive audience chamber held its breath. Each statement sounded more outlandish and devastating than the last, yet they all knew the truth when they heard it. Everything they thought they knew only moments earlier was radically outdated. Their entire world had changed.
“The Children, the ancient cult based in the village of Irina’s Pass, were responsible for the Gifted kidnappings that plagued both our nation and Melucia. They kidnapped me on my mother’s orders and would’ve sacrificed my life on the altar of their evil plans if not for the bravery of our soldiers and two . . . others.” Her voice broke with the next statement. “Prince Justin was lost during my rescue.”
She steeled herself before her grief could take control. This was no time to show weakness.
“That’s everything I knew before fleeing my mother’s men. Your turn, gentlemen.”
No one spoke. They just stared at her trying to absorb everything she’d told them.
In that moment, an odd sensation tickled the back of her neck, and a familiar voice whispered in her head, “Jess, it’s Atikus . . .”