“Beautiful, my queen.”
The pin fell from my fingers into the overflow of silk in my lap as I gazed at the reflection behind mine in the mirror.
Truin smiled, closing the doors. In a gown of pale blue, her hair out and pressing heavy over her thin shoulders, she walked across the room.
Plucking another pin from the table, she clasped the braid that’d fallen from my head and carefully spiraled it into a loop that met the other. The pin gently dug into the strands, holding it in place, and then her hands fell upon my shoulders.
Brown eyes shined. “You cannot throw a party this big and expect me not to attend.”
That was precisely why I’d thought she wouldn’t.
Knowing that, her eyes dropped, and the scent of citrus wafted as she rounded where I sat to the jeweled crown of thorns perched upon a pillow inside the glass cabinet. “I miss my friends, I miss noise, and I miss being unafraid.” Pulling her shoulders back, she said with steel, “So I am ready to stop missing those things. To try harder.”
Her fingers pried the glass into the air, and she set it down on the bureau before picking up the crown. The silver glinted in the shadowed light of the room. Truin turned to me. “Are you ready?”
Staring at the thorns, the twisting branches that weaved together amongst emerald jeweled leaves to make a heavy piece of metal seem more than, I found I could not answer.
I didn’t want to wear it. The crown. The same one that’d been worn by my father, my grandfather, and my great-grandmother, and countless royals before me.
It was riddled with ghosts, their transgressions, their greed, their failures, and their bloodstained success.
I had no room, no desire, to drape the souls of those before me upon my head for all to see.
“A queen does not need a crown for all the land to know who she is.”
Truin’s lips twitched, pursing. “Be that as it may, you must wear it for the tedious welcome at least. Oh, and the speeches.”
“I’ve a mask.” My fingers swept out to stroke the black feathers that would shield half my face. “It will clash horribly.”
Truin laughed, and the sound ignited a smile.
My cheeks tingled, and I huffed. “Fine.”
I watched in the mirror as she carefully situated the crown around my braided one, and then reached for the mask. It slid into place with pins that caught my hair behind my ears, shielding everything but the tip of my nose, my lower cheeks and chin, the blood red of my lips, and my eyes. They appeared brighter, a sky blue, my dark lashes cresting the confines of the mask to curl against it.
“There,” Truin said, barely a whisper.
When I stood, my gown fell to the floor in a waterfall of black feathers, the tight bodice inlaid with silver beads catching the light and spraying it outward.
I offered my arm, and Truin’s pale pink lips parted, her eyes bouncing to mine.
Then she looped hers through it and slid her own mask, blue with butterfly wings sprouting from either side, into place.
Together, we left my rooms, the doors closing and locking with an echoing thud and clang as we slowly walked downstairs.
The halls were already shaking with noise—laughter, chatter, and singing—causing my heart to pound. We meandered through them, and a few cooks, maids, and servers stopped to bow and gape as we strode past.
Raiden was waiting at the top of the stairs leading to the ballroom in a gold jacket and gray pants that shimmered when the light caught them.
I snorted when I saw his mask. A fox.
He held out his hand, and a flame danced before our eyes, igniting his alluring smile and causing a few onlookers below to gasp.
Before my hand touched his, the flame disappeared, though its stifling heat could still be felt on his skin.
Truin curtsied, and then waded down the steps into the rapidly swelling crowd below.
A part of me wanted to call for her to come back. When I finally gave my attention to Raiden, I found his own crown of curling gold snakes and branches, ruby leaves glinting atop his head.
“I’ve yet to see you wear it before now,” he said, his voice soft, but his eyes hard on the silver crowning my head.
“I’m not fond of it,” I admitted, then gestured with my eyes to the crowd.
“A crow?” he asked, studying my dress and mask.
My smile bit into my cheeks. “A midnight eagle.”
Our guards moved closer, flanking us on all sides.
“Ah, but of course,” he said. “Dark and deadly.”
In answer, my chin tipped up.
Raiden’s eyes danced, and then he nodded, tucking my arm within his as we began to descend the stairs.
The guests, most of them wearing masks, fell silent. The entire room, large enough to fit a small army, filled with nothing but the roaring of my heart in my ears.