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       Reign, p.14

           Chanda Hahn
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  Mina’s curiosity got the better of her. She couldn’t help but stare out her window at the bright colors and strange steeds that pulled them. Truly, there were rhinoceros-like creatures, unicorns, and tamed griffins. One carriage was even pulled by forest trolls. Her driver seemed to be aware of what was passing, and he let every carriage pull in line in front of theirs.

  Over the next fifteen minutes, the line became a caravan. Twelve carriages rode toward the palace.

  The closer they came to the familiar snowcapped mountain, the more hands she saw pointing into the sky from the carriages. Mina didn’t need to look to know that the griffins patrolled the skies. But she wondered if she alone knew the glory of the palace—suddenly visible—at sunrise and sunset. The sun had not set yet to reveal the splendor of the white palace. At all other times it was nestled, hidden, on the far side of this mountain lake. Its only access was a single stone bridge that led across the lake and ended in the glamour.

  Mina shivered when she saw the bridge, because she knew that hungry trolls lay in wait underneath it, a siren statue stood guard deep in the murky water, and giants guarded the front gates. They were all there to protect the Royals from intruders, from attackers, from assassins—from her.

  The first carriage in the caravan began to cross the bridge to the middle of the lake. Unlike the last time she’d been there, when the giants tossed a carriage and driver into the lake, these guards let the carriage pass without a second glance. The carriage disappeared into a protective veil. The second carriage passed the giants and then the third.

  Curiosity drove her to continue peering out between the curtains, and she saw a young girl with long midnight-black hair looking out of the white and black carriage.

  Her hair was much longer, but there was no mistaking the petite features and easily irritable face of Ever. Mina sucked in her breath and was about to yell and wave in her direction. Then she remembered this was before Ever knew her. Everything was becoming more surreal with each passing minute. This was what Ever had been hinting about but refusing to tell her.

  Ever’s coach passed through the veil.

  Mina sat back and found herself holding her breath and squeezing her eyes shut as her own mouse-drawn carriage followed the others. For the second time in her life, she felt the buzzing and pop as she passed through.

  The glamour dropped, and she was once again seized in the moment. How beautiful the Fates’ castle was with its shimmering walls, arched gold and silver gate, tall towers, and artisan-carved sun and moon symbol throughout.

  The carriages pulled up into a long receiving line hosted by two beautifully adorned individuals—the sun and moon themselves. The Fates were waiting on the steps. Queen Maeve, her raven black hair sparkling like starlight, wore a dress of deepest blue which made her pale skin look even paler. A crown of silver rested upon her brow. Her delicate hand was entwined with her husband’s. King Lucian was dressed in the same blue, with gold suns embroidered along his sleeves, his crown golden. Where his wife was pale, he was tan, and his honey-wheat beard and hair seemed to soak up the rays of the sun. He honestly emitted a warm glow.

  Even from a distance you could feel their love for each other radiate from them. Next to them, standing tall and looking extremely dashing, was Teague. His own royal garments complemented his parents’, the slightly lighter tint highlighting his nervous blue eyes. His gaze flickered over the awaiting coaches and then back to his parents. His expression was entirely opposite theirs. He looked forlorn.

  King Lucian smiled and waved a footman forward to open the first coach’s door. A young woman stepped out and walked forward to be presented before the Fates.

  “Miss Annalora Goldfind,” the footman hollered out, his voice echoing across the lake.

  The young woman smiled sweetly and curtsied before the Fates. Then an escort led her into the palace. As the carriage drove off, the next one took its place in line. The footman opened another door and a woman with pink skin and deeper pink hair stepped out in a startlingly pink dress. Mina thought she heard the name lady Fuchsia. Like the young woman before her, she was presented and led indoors.

  She needed to get out of the princess receiving line before she the Fates realized she was not from their plane and imprisoned her for life. Arriving at the palace on her terms, not the giants’, was the wise approach. Mina reached for the handle of the door on the side of the coach facing away from the Fates. She opened the door to jump out, but her way was blocked by a troll.

  “Going s-s-somewhere?” He sneered cruelly.

  “Yes, anywhere that’s not here,” she answered. Her frankness only elicited a raucous laugh from the troll, startling the mice. That caused them to dance into the carriage in front of them, jostling it around.

  Ever’s head popped out and she tried to soothe her horses. She shot an annoyed glance—utterly and oddly familiar—at Mina and the troll whose laugh had started it all.

  “You’re funny,” the troll acquiesced.

  “And you’re funny smelling,” Mina said. He laughed again, but he refused to budge from her door.

  “Nice try. Sit.” He pushed her in her chest with one of his ginormous fingers. The force of the impact sent her crashing backwards into the opposite door and causing it to open. As the carriage rocked, she held tight to the doorframe. The door swung open, smacked the side of the coach, and then swung back inward to nail her on the behind.

  “Yeouch!” Mina yelped. She grabbed the door, slammed it shut behind her, and ducked to the ground, as if she could hide from her own stupidity. Every eye there—including the Fates’—must be on her at the moment. She peeked through the parted curtain and saw that—though the royal couple didn’t seem to be looking her way—a frowning Teague seemed to have noticed the commotion with her coach.

  More girls entered the castle, and it was almost time for Mina’s coach to pull up. What would happen? Would they open the doors and immediately arrest her for trespassing? Would she be fed to the trolls under the bridge?

  She quickly ran her hands through her hair to pull out the stray leaves and tried her best to brush off her skirt. The coach dipped as a footman stepped up and asked for her name.

  What in the world was she supposed to say? She couldn’t very well tell them she was from another dimension. Or give them her real name. She bit her lip and tried to think of something, anything. Then it came to her.

  The Story was pushing her this way. She might as well play her part in it. “Cin—uh…I mean Elle Cinder.”


  What would Mei Wong tell her to do? She’d probably say stick as close to the truth as she could. Immediately, an image of a where she used to live popped into her head. The small apartment above the Wong’s Golden Palace Restaurant.

  “Elle Cinder from the lands of the Golden Palace.”

  He leaned closer and whispered back at her harshly, “There is no such place.”

  “Where I come from there is.” She tried to make her voice drip with arrogance.

  Frustrated, the coachman poked his head through the curtain and gave her a glare. His long pointed ears were turning red at the tips. “Do you expect me to lie to the Fates?”

  “No, but who’s to say that I’m lying?”

  He shook his head and gave her a long look. “Your neck, not mine.” He leapt nimbly down and stood in front of the coach as another footman opened the door. He cleared his throat and seemed to rethink the announcement, but finally raised his voice loudly. “Miss Elle Cinder from the Lands of the Golden Palace.”

  Mina took the offered hand of a third footman and let him help her down the steps. Her nerves got the better of her and she almost tripped, but she recovered before anyone noticed. Her body moved on its own, and she found herself standing in front of Queen Maeve and King Lucian. She could feel the moment Teague recognized her, because his gaze bored a hole through her.

  He continued staring, and she was afraid to look, afraid to make eye contact. She curts
ied before the Fates and was about to rise when King Lucian stopped her.

  “Elle Cinder,” his strong self-assured voice repeated. There was no question in his voice. He seemed to be repeating it so he could remember.

  “Yes, your—” What was she supposed to call him? Majesty? Highness. Her mouth went dry and she finally spit out, “Royalness.”

  Lucian smiled and slowly rubbed his beard. Queen Maeve gawked at her, judging her. Mina noticed the moment when the Queen dismissed her, because her gaze moved past her and beyond.

  Mina’s legs began to quiver from staying low in the curtsey.

  She was doing great so far at not making eye contact with Teague. His black leather boots had not a single spot of dirt on them. Suddenly that black boot started to tap impatiently, as if trying to draw her attention upward. Was this it? Had the giants brought her all this way so Teague could send her to prison?

  Knowing the moment was at hand, and it was no longer avoidable, Mina looked up and her breath caught in her throat.

  He was frowning, but then the corner of his mouth lifted in the hint of a smile that he was trying to hide. Her eyes traced a line from his lips and his angular jaw up past his nose to make contact with his deep blue eyes. Which were alit with—relief?

  He bowed. “Elle,” the name rolled off his tongue, and she shivered.

  She was certainly thankful he wasn’t furious at her, but she could tell he wanted to say more. He held her gaze and flicked his eyes to the right. She glanced in that direction. There wasn’t anything over there.

  He did the motion again, and she realized she was supposed to head up the steps and follow the other girls inside. She was standing there like a goof staring at the prince.

  “Oh yeah, that’s right.” She lifted her skirt and proceeded up the steps. When she got to the top, she hesitated again. There were two options. She started to go left.

  “To the right,” Teague whispered.

  “I knew that,” she said into the air, refusing to look back at him. His laughter followed her down the corridor. When she was out of his line of sight, she started to run—not down the hallway toward where the other girls were waiting—but for an exit. An escape route. She found a smaller hallway and followed it around to another side door. Thinking this must be a servant’s entrance, she opened it and dashed inside.

  Only to come face to face with beautiful girls in a waiting room.

  Eleven hateful gazes greeted her.

  Chapter 22

  “Hi,” Mina said meekly. She waved her hand in a wide arc in good old American fashion. Which was obviously not the thing to do, because the scowl grew deeper on the girl closest to her. Apparently, waving was not in their etiquette book or something.

  “Who are you? I don’t know you. Why are you here?” The questions vaulted out of the one called Annalora’s mouth, one after another. Annalora’s dress was deep amber, which complemented her gold blonde hair and hazel eyes, and she was petite.

  Mina couldn’t help but liken her to a small, aggressive Chihuahua.

  “I’m here for the food, of course.” A snarky comment felt like the best course of action. She didn’t feel the need to elaborate.

  “I knew it,” Annalora huffed. She turned and sat down next to Ever, crossing her arms and casting an annoyed look toward the others. “I heard there were only eleven, but she makes twelve.”

  Another beautiful girl in an emerald green dress approached her. Her skin was tanned, and her hair a dark green piled high and woven with leaves and vines throughout. Her reception was much kinder than Annalora’s—the girl clasped her hand gently and gave it a warm squeeze. Mina noticed that her skin, though soft, had an odd pattern to it.

  Oh. It wasn’t skin, but very soft, supple bark.

  “I’m Dinah, a wood nymph. Welcome, and I’m sorry for Annalora’s reception of you. After all, she’s part gnome, and we all know gnomes have no manners.” There was no hidden malice behind Dinah’s comment. She’d stated it as fact.

  Mina glanced over and watched as Annalora just gave a shrug of acceptance and looked away. Other than Annalora’s stature, there was nothing similar to what she’d envisioned a gnome to look or act like. The girl was not rosy cheeked or good natured. In fact, she was quite mean.

  “Come sit with us. You must be nervous.” Dinah motioned to a long padded bench.

  Mina sat next to her, studying the girls, while Dinah gave quick introductions. Her head spun as she tried to match the names with the faces and races. She finally settled on trying to go by the color of the dress—or in some cases, the girl herself. Fuchsia, a pink fairy, had small iridescent wings. Shaya was a nixie with green skin and dark waist-length hair. She sat closest to the fountain with her shoes at her side, dipping her toes in the cool water.

  Ever was the most surprising; she was so different from modern-day Ever. Her jet black hair fell in soft curls down her back. Her pale blue dress was trimmed with silver lace. Her face showed hints of mixed anticipation and anxiety. She kept clasping and unclasping her hands, reaching up to tuck a stray strand of hair behind her ear, but her expectant eyes never left the door. She wasn’t paying the other girls any attention, even seeming to tune out most of Annalora’s complaints.

  Mina was about to move and try and speak with Ever, but the door opened and a page entered, clearing his throat. The small talk died immediately as all eyes zeroed in on the young man. “Follow me, please.”

  Dresses ruffled and shoes clipped along the marble floor as eleven anxious girls and one terrified interloper followed him out into the hall. Mina picked up her pace and cut in line to squeeze next to Ever, receiving a scowl from one of the girls with star white hair—Stella, Stellya—or something.

  Mina stared at the back of Ever’s head, willing her to look over her shoulder and recognize her, but the pixie never did. She knew that Ever had fallen for Jared and that they’d been friends for years. She’d just never realized until now how many years, since the Fae aged differently than humans. Of course, it could’ve had something to do with how immature Ever acted on the human plane. Like when she was thieving French fries from Mina’s tray at lunch.

  Something soft brushed against Mina’s face, and Ever jumped and turned around, her eyes filled worry. “I’m so sorry,” she said. “I didn’t mean to bump you with my wings.”

  Mina paused as Ever’s long pointed wings shimmered into view. They were more spectacular than Fuchsia’s wings. The fine spirals of iridescence created a mosaic of color.

  “Why are you hiding them? They’re beautiful. You should be showing them off proudly,” Mina said softly.

  Ever’s cheeks filled with color as she blushed and stammered. “It’s because I can’t control them. They reflect my mood. When I’m excited or angered, they flutter uncontrollably. And right now, I’m extremely excited. I’d die of embarrassment if the Fates saw me like this. I mean, who knows what kind of tests we will have to go through before he gets to choose one of us.”


  “You didn’t think the next queen would be selected on beauty alone did you?”

  “Queen?” Mina knew she was starting to sound like an idiotic parrot who repeated everything. But Ever didn’t hear her and kept on talking.

  “We’ll be weeded down to a few based on certain requirements, and only then will one of us be betrothed.” Her cheeks flushed a pretty pink again, and her wings fluttered, causing a stir in the air. “Oops, see? There I go again. It’s so embarrassing.”

  “I think they’re beautiful.” Mina tried to process what Ever had said. She quickly looked over the girls in front of her and couldn’t help but feel sorry for Ever. She seemed so hopeful, but Teague—and then Jared—were obviously not in her future.

  “Thanks.” Ever’s face lit up with joy. “I think they’re pretty special too. I’m Ever.”

  “Nice to meet you, Ever. I’m M—” A towering set of double doors opened with a sharp crack, and it was a good thing. She’d almost blow
n her cover.

  They were ushered through the doors into a room that Mina had been in before. It was hard to hold back her tears as she glanced around at the tall glass ceilings and the white pillars lining the room. She looked past the fountain by the windows as she searched for the golden cage she knew wouldn’t be there.

  There. Right there was where her brother had been held captive. In the future. Mina froze and caused a bit of a traffic jam as the girls behind her suddenly had to stop, dresses swishing. When Mina didn’t budge, the others quickly bypassed her to gather around a large pedestal in the middle of the room. In years to come, it would hold the Fae book; right now it held a small crystal bowl filled with water.

  But Mina’s mind was plagued with guilt-inducing memories and terrifying thoughts. She had messed up and was the reason that Jared ceased to exist. The self-loathing she’d been fighting to keep deep inside of her—that she’d been ignoring for weeks—roared to the surface. She started to quiver as silent tears formed.

  No, that wasn’t true. It wasn’t her fault. It was Teague’s.

  It was his fault Jared was gone. He was the reason her brother was kidnapped; he was the reason that her father had died. When she turned to face him like the other girls had already done, she’d see that same disarming smile. But the packaging didn’t matter. She knew what he would become. She knew the evil that was inside of him. This handsome charmer was a façade. Her hands shook in anger, and she clenched them within the feathers of her dress. She sniffed back the tears and refused to let anyone see her cry. She had a job to do, and she couldn’t be distracted by emotions. Not when so much depended on her having a level head.

  She turned slowly, trying not to draw attention to herself. The Fates and their son stood behind the pedestal and bowl. Teague had a definite air of confidence about him, but she could also see the nervousness he was trying to mask. He kept shifting his weight from foot to foot. It was hard for her to equate the Teague that plotted the destruction of her family to the young man standing in front of her.

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