The true queen of Weirandale has returned.
Cerulia has done the impossible and regained the throne. However, she’s inherited a council of traitors, a realm in chaos, and a war with Oromondo.
Now a master of her Gift, to return order to her kingdom she will use all she has learned—humility, leadership, compassion, selflessness, and the necessity of ruthlessness.
A close-by church bell broke the early morning silence with a single chime. Ding. Then again. Dong.
“Go!” shouted Gunnit, as bells throughout the city picked up the reverberation, so that the first bell spread from one church to another, throughout all of Cascada. DING, DONG; ding, dong; ding, dong; ding, dong.
Captain Yanath and Shield Pontole rammed their shoulders into the small wooden door, breaking the latch in their first attempt. The corps dashed through the small entry, Gunnit bringing up the rear. They sprinted across the large ballroom, where the left-over disarray from yesterday’s party flashed at them from the mirrored walls, heading for the nearby Throne Room. Ahead, the boy heard shouts and the clash of swords.
A furious combat between palace guards and the New Queen’s Shield commenced both around the exterior of the Throne Room and inside the hall. Gunnit saw Pontole struggling to overmaster a burly soldier, their swords crossed in a stalemate between their chests. Pontole broke the standoff by butting his antagonist in the forehead. A mariner swung a mace that shattered the sword arm of another guard. Branwise already had a bloody nose, but he hacked the legs out from under an enemy. In moments the Throne Room guards all lay dead, injured, or on their knees with their hands in the air, taken by surprise by the fierce attack. Nonetheless, reinforcements—many in various states of dress—poured in by the score, brandishing their weapons as they came.
Nana had told Gunnit that the palace boasted more than two hundred guards; the troop he had just ushered in hadn’t a prayer of defeating them by force. They needed reinforcements.
Gunnit slipped into the Throne Room through an open side doorway. Around the room, blue capes crossed swords with white or red sashes; he was surrounded by the clash of metal on metal, grunts of effort, and shouts. A sword that had been knocked loose from someone’s hand flew through the air, and Gunnit ducked. He ran after it, picked it up, and steeling himself, cut the hamstring of a nearby palace soldier from behind.
In the midst of all this mayhem, Gunnit spied Water Bearer. She held a kitchen knife at the throat of a soldier who stood very still in her grasp. And Nana was not the only person using an improvised weapon: Gunnit saw footmen brandishing pokers and maids swinging brooms. The palace workers had joined the fray. Were they the needed reinforcements? The fight was so chaotic, he could not tell which side a given servant favored.
Called by the bells, scores of people of all stations continued to scurry into the Throne Room, including administrators and gentry. The gentry appeared mostly in their nightshifts, thronging above on the first and second balconies. A few soldiers appeared on the balconies too, including archers who took advantage of their strategic height to skewer the New Queen’s Shield whenever the surging combat gave them a clean shot.
Heedless of all the chaos around her, Cerúlia walked to the central dais, flanked by four mountain lions. She climbed up the six steps.
At that moment, Lord Matwyck, half-dressed, burst through a door onto the second balcony. “Shoot her! Shoot her!” he shouted. “A fortune to the man who shoots her!” An archer near Matwyck aimed at Cerúlia, but his arrow flew wide. The lady seamaster with the New Queen’s Shield raised her own bow, and an arrow blossomed from the enemy archer’s stomach.
Gunnit saw Lord Matwyck wrestle the bow from the dying man.
“Shields!” Gunnit yelled, pointing at the danger.
The instant Matwyck turned back to face the floor, Pontole let fly; his arrow caught the lord in the meat of his thigh. The Lord Regent bellowed and staggered from the blow, but held himself upright by grabbing on to the gallery’s banister.
There, thought Gunnit, that was why the Spirits sent me here.
Cerúlia now stood next to the Fountain and the Basin.
She raised her hands over her head and shouted, “Cease!” When the fighting continued, the four catamounts roared as one, a horrific noise that echoed off the walls.
The fighting paused, mid-strike. Two or three hundred people stared at the small figure on the dais.
“Though I have gone by many names, I herewith claim back my true identity,” she called out in a ringing voice, stretching her arms wide. “I am Cerúlia, the daughter of the late, brave Queen Cressa the Enchanter and the heroic Lord Ambrice.
“I. Am. Your. Queen.”
A chorus of shouts rang out, but Gunnit couldn’t tell if the speakers were joyful or dismayed.
“I order all of you to cease this fighting.”
An underfootman yelled, “But yesterday, you was a village gal from Wyndton.”
Another voice yelled, full of reproach, “If you’re the queen, where have you been all these years?”
“Yes,” shouted a man Gunnit recognized as Matwyck’s secretary. “No one should accept her just at her word. And even if . . . Well, Cerúlia deserted us, while the Lord Regent kept us safe.”
“Listen,” Cerúlia commanded. “After Matwyck the Usurper tried to assassinate my mother, I kept in the shadows, hiding from him and his powerful allies. I grew to maturity in Androvale. As Fate would have it, I was sheltered and protected by the very Wyndton family this palace feted yesterday.
“I was forced to flee the Eastern Duchies when the Lord Regent’s hunt for me came too close.”
She turned to address Matwyck directly and pointed up at him on the balcony. “Your relentless pursuit caused the death of my foster father, Wilim, the peacekeeper of Wyndton, who—once my mother’s Enchantment weakened—sacrificed his own life rather than betray my secrets. This is just one of the multiple crimes I will demand you answer for.
“Since I left the realm,” Cerúlia continued, her voice growing stronger with each sentence, “I have pursued retribution. I traveled far and fought Weirandale’s enemies.
“I will hide no longer. I have come to take my rightful place on the Nargis Throne.”
“She’s a fake!” Matwyck yelled. “A fraud in a blue wig or colored hair. An imposter. A witch.”
“Not so!” contradicted Water Bearer, her voice squeaky with outrage. “Iknow her. She is our own princella, finally returned to us.” Faces turned doubtfully from one speaker to the other.
“No! No!” shouted Matwyck. “Will you listen to a doddering nursemaid? Shoot herbefore she poisons your minds with more of her lies.” He gathered his strength and continued in a reasonable, persuasive tone. “Everyone in this room knows me; I have governed well. Everything I’ve done, I’ve done for Weirandale. She is a stranger, tainted with foreign ways—some inexperienced female—I am your rightful ruler.”
“Really, Matwyck?” Cerúlia asked sarcastically. “But you should know, if you are a faithful regent, that the hallmark of a true Nargis Queen lies not in her hair,” said Cerúlia, deliberately tossing her long hair over her shoulder, “but in her Talent.”
“Ah!” shouted Matwyck. “But Princella Cerúlia was never Defined, was she, Sewel?” He pointed at a small, well-dressed man standing amidst the chaos on the ground floor. “She never went through a Definition! Sewel! Tell the truth, now!”
“Alas,” the man called out. “’Tis true she was never Defined—”
“Ah, Chronicler Sewel,” Cerúlia interrupted, inclining her head. “It is nice to see you once more. Do you nowrecognize my Talent?”
“Aye, Your Majesty,” he said, and he knelt. “And I pray you forgive my earlier ignorance. Thou art Cerúlia the Gryphling.”
“What?” Matwyck shouted. “What kind of Talent is that?” With purposeful mockery he forced himself to laugh and looked around, inviting others to join in. “No one even knows what that means. This is not one of the recognized Royal Talents. Note, my friends, that this imposter doesn’t even claim to be an Enchanter or a Warrior. Did I hear you correctly? Did you say, ‘gryphling’or ‘piffling’? This pifflinggirl, and her band of—of—overdressed mercenaries, have caused a great deal of ruckus and a great deal of unnecessary bloodshed this morn.”
His voice deepened and grew stern. “I demand that you lay down your weapons and surrender to the proper authorities. You are under some sad delusion, so you will be dealt with mercifully, I give you my word. Order will be restored.”
A duke shouted, “This breach of the peace is a scandal. If this woman has a claim, let her come before us and the Circle Council will judge her story. Only an imposter would assault the Throne Room by force!”
Watching the room, Gunnit saw doubt creep into some people’s eyes. Gentry on the balconies shouted comments supporting Matwyck. Many palace guards gripped their weapons with renewed intent.
Instead of answering Matwyck or appealing to the onlookers, Cerúlia remained silent. In fact, she closed her eyes.
Then she motioned with her hands as if she were conducting the musicians who had played at the wedding feast yesterday.
First, the crowd in the Throne Room heard the dozens of dogs in the palace kennels. Every dog began to howl or bark. But the kennels stood some distance away, and while the noise surprised everyone, it struck them as more curious than distressing. Then, every horse in the stable started a frenzied neighing, a sound so loud it penetrated the building, especially when it was accompanied by a tremendous clatter, as if the horses kicked against their stalls. The next moment, a flock of birds of all kinds—hundreds, maybe thousandsof birds—landed on the stained glass roof of the Throne Room in a crashing wave, blotting out the sunlight with their numbers. They sang, cawed, shrieked, and tapped the glass with their beaks as if they would break it. Finally, the four mountain lions within the hall jumped up to the dais. At this point no one could hear their roars, but their wide-open mouths and claws slashing the air presented a terrifying sight.
People shrank from the noise in terror, putting their hands over their ears. All had a sense of the tremendous army of creatures—an army capable of destroying every person in the Throne Room, every person in the palace—controlled by the slim woman with her eyes closed and her arms raised. If any still harbored doubts that this woman wielded a Talent granted by Nargis, such doubts fled.
Cerúlia moved her hands again with a flourish, and the roar of the animals abruptly cut off. The birds lifted off and light streamed back in.
The abrupt silence was equally awe-inspiring.
Someone standing on the balcony took advantage of the moment to situate himself behind the Lord Regent and deliver a mighty shove. As watchers screamed, the lord teetered at the balcony railing, tumbled over, grabbed at a vertical baluster with one hand, held onfor a moment, and then lost his grip, hitting the marble floor with a stomach-turning thud.
Cerúlia regarded the crumpled man for a moment. Then she raised her gaze to the balcony.
“Whoever did that, you have done us no service. You may have deprived the realm of the chance to learn the truth about the assassination attempt on Queen Cressa and the full extent of the Lord Steward’s treachery.”
A guard close to the crumpled figure exclaimed, “He’s alive.” Another voice called, “Where are the healers?”
Cerúlia displayed no interest in her injured enemy; she was intent on a different goal. She looked around the room. “Is there a Brother or Sister of Sorrow with us?”
“Brother Whitsury is nigh, Your Majesty,” called out Water Bearer. “It’s fitting. ’Twas he who officiated at Your Naming when you was just a wee babe.”
Gunnit recognized Brother Whitsury, slim and serious in his gray robe, from all the messages he had furtively taken to the abbey. The Brother pushed his way through the crowd and climbed the six steps. He walked to the Dedication Fountain.
From centuries of Weir lore, the crowd knew the rituals of a Dedication. With a collective sigh of satisfaction, everyone knelt, one knee on the floor, the other leg bent at the knee, hands resting on the bent knee, head bowed low. If members of the crowd still supported Matwyck, they feigned devotion so as to blend in.
Gunnit alone—who was not a Weir, who served another Spirit— stood erect, intent on observing every detail of the ceremony.
Brother Whitsury placed both of his hands in the spray of the water that spewed over the enormous, jagged quartz rock. He took the water he had gathered and trickled it over the young woman’s head, saying, “By this anointing with Nargis Water I pronounce you Queen Cerúlia of Weirandale. Do you Dedicate your life to the welfare of the realm and to the security of its citizens?”
“I do Dedicate my life,” Cerúlia answered.
“Do you Dedicate yourself as the champion and protector of all Weirs, young and old, lowly or high, poor or wealthy?”
“I will Dedicate myself,” she vowed.
“And do you Dedicate yourself to safeguarding her Waters, the Waters that grow our food, quench our thirst, and grant us life?”
“I do Dedicate myself, from now until I perish.”
Then Cerúlia walked over to the waist-high golden Basin that continually caught the flowing water and continually let it overflow its rim. She plunged her right hand into its swirling pool. She pulled out of the water something small and shimmering.
This was a piece of Nargis Ice. The new queen held it aloft for a long moment, showing it to the hushed assembly. It flashed in the sunlight that shone through the stained glass. Gunnit saw a figurine that was part eagle, part lion, hanging from delicate threads.
Cerúlia handed the symbol to Brother Whitsury; he fastened the transparent chain about her neck. The figurine nestled in the hollow of her throat, shimmering slightly, lighting up her face.
She turned her body slowly around on the dais, facing first east, then south, then west, then north, so that all the people in the Throne Room could see her wearing her token of Nargis Ice. A majority of guards flung down their weapons. Quite a few people, including Water Bearer, began to weep.
The church bell began chiming again, now with a continuous peal, and the sound echoed slowly through the room and throughout the city.
As Cerúlia turned around once more, her eyes happened to meet Gunnit’s. His heart soared at the expressions of surprise, recognition, and happiness that swept across her face. She brought two fingers to her forehead in a jaunty salute.
But out of the corner of his vision, Gunnit, who was practiced at keeping an eye out for threats to his flock, saw an arm that extended from a shadow on the second balcony behind her nock an arrow. For the second time that morning he screamed a warning. “Watch out!”
Cerúlia startled at his shout, but the arrow was already in midflight. It struck the newly anointed queen, who fell down with a muted cry.
At that same instant Gunnit registered a dog barking loudly and the acrid smell of smoke.
Copyright © Sarah Kozloff 2020
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