A breath is a fickle thing—easy to hold and easier to lose. I exhale as I smooth my hands over the golden lace bodice, hoping to loosen the knots twisting within my stomach. My fingers trail over the silk ties keeping the bodice closed. In the corner of the floor-length mirror, I glimpse at Gracen standing behind me, her forehead creasing with worry.
“Is it too tight, Your Majesty?”
The frail hemline swishes silently over the marble floor as I spin to face her.
“No. It’s perfect, thank you.” I offer a weak smile and return my view to the mirror. “It’s just my nerves.”
Gracen takes a step forward, her hands folded neatly in front of her. “If you’d like, I could get you a cup of tea from the kitchen? Jasper has a fresh stock of chamomile. Or maybe peppermint?”
I lower my eyes to the floor. No amount of herbal tea could ease the gut-wrenching torment within me. If only it were as simple as drinking a tonic to make all my problems go away. After a moment, I lift my head and our eyes meet again. “That won’t be necessary.”
I cross the room to the vanity with Gracen following behind. She pulls the stool from under the table and absentmindedly sweeps her hand over the cushion. Dust never settles around here. Once I’m seated, her hands are in my hair, a brush gliding down the length.
“Earlier,” she says, braiding the hair at my temples, “the Lord Commander was determined to see you.”
My hands clasp tighter in my lap. “What did you tell him?”
“That you were busy, shoulders-deep in audiences with diplomats.” A soft chuckle escapes Gracen’s mouth, and it vibrates through to her fingertips. “He almost had half a mind to go room to room searching for you, anyway.”
“He does have half a mind. I’m still trying to figure out where he keeps the half that works.”
At this, Gracen’s full laughter carries throughout the room. It’s a pleasant sound to hear. There’s not much amusement in the castle anymore. She pins the plaits to the crown of my head, then moves to gather the rest of my hair. I reach up, and she pauses when I touch her hand.
“I think I’ll wear it down today.”
She nods, then uses her fingers to fan out my hair along my back. When she’s satisfied with its placement, she rests her hands on my shoulders. “I wish I could take this burden from you.” Her voice is faint behind me. “Your mother despised attending as well. And she, too, wore her hair like a blanket on these days.” She pauses again. “I suppose it brought her some comfort.”
My eyes sting at the mention of Mother. I press them shut, hoping to will the tears away. It’ll only do more harm than good for the Council to see me with puffy, bloodshot eyes. Gracen’s hands fall to her sides when I turn around to face her.
I clear my throat, pushing back the emotion from my voice. “That’ll be all, Gracen. Thank you.”
Gracen drops her head into a bow, her graying hair falling forward in front of her face. It’d been thrown up in a tight chignon at the start of the day, but loose strands have escaped during her morning chores.
She shuffles out of my bedchamber, the thick maple door closing effortlessly as she exits. There aren’t many people I like around here, but she’s one of them. I hate that I’ve been keeping her at an arm’s length recently, never allowing myself to feel the maternal value she once gave me. Now that my mother is gone, it feels like a betrayal. Still, she’s one of the few people within these castle walls who doesn’t smile with kind eyes in my face only to utter their dissatisfaction of my reign behind my back. She’s an honest soul, more truthful than those whose allegiance should’ve been sworn to me. The others follow me only out of necessity, not support.
Six months have passed, and this has gotten no easier to stomach. When I claimed the throne, the nobles didn’t rejoice at my coronation. They looked on in polite disinterest, muttering words they thought I couldn’t hear as I passed. Mother warned me that might happen. I’ve held onto her hope that I could be the leader the country needs, a queen who could soften the firm edges of a man’s world. The country is entombed in its traditions—its games—and the nagging thought pulls at the corners of my mind.
A breeze rushes in through the open balcony doors, carrying with it the spicy scent of the lilac gardens below. There’s warmth in the springtime air, yet an icy chill grabs my spine, leaving me paralyzed for a moment. Once the sensation passes, I walk over to the bedchamber doors and hold on to one last deep breath before pulling it open.
The guard posted outside in the corridor stands an entire head taller than me, and still, his body stiffens at attention when my eyes land on him. He peers down at me, eyes wide, as he waits for my instruction.
I give him a curt nod. “I’m ready.”
A thunderous crowd grows louder with each step I take toward the arena. They’re chanting, not my name—no. The word fight echoes like a ricochet around the coliseum.
Everyone’s waiting, and when I step into view, the crowd falls silent. I pull my shoulders back as I emerge from the tunnel that leads to the monarch’s gallery. A crimson chenille canopy, pulled tight between four stone columns, bucks when the wind catches underneath it.
I march past my Council, six men whose judgmental glares are lost against the other hundreds of eyes directed toward me.
My feet carry me to my chair, though they’d much rather had taken me somewhere else—anywhere else but here. I’m numb, my vision focused in front of me, with only the crowd’s expectations driving me forward.
I hate this.
I hate the dingy stench of the arena, an odor that comes from hundreds of years of use. I hate looking upon the masses, knowing that they find enjoyment in their lack of humanity.
But none of that matters now, as I am here.
I stand in front of my seat for a moment, letting the noon sun caress my face and the tops of my shoulders. It’d be such a beautiful day, if not for the dread looming over me like a shadow. I lower myself onto the chair, and a booming vibration rattles the structure as the crowd cheers.