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       Reign, p.15

           Chanda Hahn
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  Lucian smiled and addressed the girls. “Thank you for coming. We are honored by your presence, but as you know the choosing ceremony is only just beginning. Some of you have traveled a great distance to be here for the betrothal. Your families believe you possess a beauty and qualities that make you worthy of being the future queen. But no matter the qualities for which your families praise you, we are searching for someone with very specific traits. You must meet all of our royal requirements. Your journey here will end right now unless you can prove yourself with a few tests.”

  Mina wanted to scoff and roll her eyes. This sounded like that reality TV show Nan watched obsessively. She looked around, wondering where they kept the roses. But only briefly. She couldn’t afford to take any of this lightly. If she didn’t pass whatever tests the Fates had set up, she would be escorted out of the palace. She’d been given a chance at stopping Teague here, and—though this wasn’t the way she’d planned to get in—she’d be a fool to waste it. Her heart sped up and she found herself craning to see around Annalora, to get a better view of—she didn’t know what exactly.

  Maeve stepped forward and held out one long finger, pointing to the crystal bowl on the pedestal. “Here is your first test. Trial by blood.”

  That didn’t sound good. Mina glanced around. More than a few of the girls looked a little unsure and scared.

  “On the pedestal is a knife. You must prick your finger and let a drop of your blood mingle in the water. Blood is power, and the water will sort out the weak from the strong. Also it will determine your heart and your reasons for being here.”

  The room fell silent. Mina swallowed. Her anxiety had just quadrupled.

  The crystal bowl of water sat ominously on the pedestal waiting to decide the future of the twelve girls.

  It was Annalora who asked the question that was plaguing everyone’s mind. “How?”

  “Your blood will make the crystal bowl or the water react in different ways.” Lucian stepped forward, picked up the palm-sized dagger, and pressed it against the tip of his finger. When a small drop of blood pooled there, he let it drip into the bowl. Immediately, the water within the bowl swirled and began to flash and sparkle.

  After a few seconds, the flashing stopped and the water settled. King Lucian placed the knife back on the pedestal and motioned with his arm for the girls to proceed.

  Mina searched Teague’s face, trying to see behind the indifferent mask he wore for everyone.

  Annalora approached first—probably hoping that by being brave and showing confidence, she would make an impression on the Fates. She winced as the knife pricked her finger and quickly, without hesitating, shook a small drop into the bowl. The crystal bowl turned gold and glittered like a snow globe newly shaken. Annalora couldn’t hide the pleased smile that bloomed across her face. She looked to the Fates and waited for their verdict.

  “Very good, Annalora. Follow Wilsey through the doors, and he will take you to the prepping room.” Her confidence paid off.

  Annalora curtsied. Then, with her head held high, exited through the doors they had entered.

  Mina would have given anything to be in her shoes at this moment. It didn’t even matter if she got to complete the quest. She just didn’t want to be caught and executed for being an imposter. Could this test prove she wasn’t Fae?

  “All right. Who’s next?” Lucian called out.

  Ever raised her hand, and the girls stepped out of her way as she moved to the crystal bowl. She picked up her knife and pricked her finger, eagerly moving it over the bowl. The water turned a deep blue, but—although it glittered—it wasn’t with the strength of Annalora’s blood. Ever’s face flushed red, and she looked up at Teague hopefully. He seemed pleased.

  Lucian nodded his head and motioned to the door. The servant Wilsey stepped in again and beckoned for Ever to follow him out. The girls that were left gathered themselves into a line, and Mina was stuck in the middle of the pack. Would it be considered rude if she made everyone else go in front of her? Two more girls passed the test and left the room, leaving eight girls to face the blood trial. The seconds were dragging by and Mina was finding it very difficult to not stare continually at the exit door.

  The next girl, the fuchsia-colored fairy, cut her finger a little too deep and dropped more than a few drops into the bowl. The water stilled. The bright red blood pooled along the top but failed to make either the bowl or the water react. The girl plunged her hand into water and swirled it around, leaving a ribbon like trail of blood. Despite her desperate efforts, there was no reaction. She waited and watched the bowl, tucking her bottom lip between her teeth. Her eyes flickered between the Fates and the bowl. It had returned to its crystalline state.

  “I’m sorry, Fuchsia, but you will not be chosen.”

  Her face scrunched up with unshed tears as she tried to keep from breaking down. One of the girls in line behind her gave her a quick parting hug, which set off the waterworks before she was escorted out of the room. Teague seemed annoyed with the tear-filled goodbyes happening in front of him.

  That was it? Suddenly, a failing test didn’t seem so bad to Mina. There was actually hope. Twice more the crystal bowl performed, showing off the girls’ power. Shaya’s blood made the water rise out of the bowl and dance. Estellya’s made the water freeze.

  Ferah, a beautiful young elf with red hair and pointed ears, approached for her test. She seemed calm and collected, but during her test, the water turned black.

  Unlike they had in reaction to Fuchsia’s failure, the Fates rose up in alarm. “An assassin,” Lucian announced.

  Ferah pulled a small knife from the folds of her dress and lunged toward Teague.

  “Watch out!” Mina cried, rushing forward and grabbing for Ferah’s wrist. She tried to wrestle the knife from her hand, but couldn’t get her to drop it. Instead, acting on instinct, she pulled the girl toward her and spun, using her hips to flip the girl onto the tile floor in a pile of tulle and silk.

  The knife skittered across the floor.

  Seeing that she was defeated, Ferah got up, gathered her skirts, and ran for the door.

  “Guards, guards!” Maeve shouted.

  The doors burst open and two giants entered, blocking her escape. The elf-girl turned, aware that she was trapped. Reaching within her dress, she pulled out two more blades. She scanned the room searching wildly for her targets, but the Fates had disappeared.

  Teague had disappeared.

  Mina felt a brush of cold air across her skin and realized that Teague at least had never left. The candelabras blew out as something large passed in front of them, leaving everyone in near darkness.

  By the dusky light coming through the window, Mina saw a shadow beast materialize behind the terrified girl.

  Ferah turned, screaming, stabbing at the darkness that merely dissipated. Her knife pierced nothing.

  The temperature dropped and the girls whimpered when their breath became visible. The beating wings of the creature grew louder, and the girl slowly backed herself into a corner. Her chest rose and fell in panic, and her knives whizzed through the air as she continued to stab at any shadow that passed close to her.

  Mina could feel the girl’s terror radiate outward and spread to the girls behind her. Knowing how deadly Jared was and knowing that Teague was even more so, her first priority was to protect the innocent girls.

  “Give me your hand.” She reached out to the girl closest to her, not knowing if they’d even listen. But a trembling hand latched onto hers. Mina felt around and found another arm. They formed a chain, and Mina pulled them to the side of the room away from the action. The girls huddled in a corner with Mina in front of them, her arms held out as a human shield.

  The young assassin regained her composure and dashed to the middle of the room away from the approaching beast. The shadow creature moved, materializing as it touched down on the floor. But the darkness was evident even in Teague’s handsome form. His eyes were dark with anger, his
hair tousled from flying. He must have made a sound because the girl spun.

  Her dress didn’t seem to hinder her as she leapt into the air and let the knife fly toward Teague, followed quickly by a second blade.

  Teague moved so fast he blurred as he dodged the knives, but they continued their trajectory.

  They were heading straight toward the clump of girls. As Ferah saw her mistake, her eyes widened and she reached out as if to stop their course.

  “No!” Mina shouted. She held her hands over her face. The last thing she saw before she closed her eyes was the glint off the silver knives flying toward her.

  Chapter 23

  The knives never made contact.

  Mina waited a few seconds, opened her eyes, and dropped her hands to see the steely knives suspended in midair, mere inches from her face. Unwilling to take any chances, in case they continued on their trajectory she sidestepped the knives.

  Her mouth was dry and her heart felt like it was beating a path out of her chest.

  Wailing began behind her, and she turned to see that—of the six girls left—four of them had broken down into sobbing piles of color on the floor. It seemed they no longer cared about wrinkling their dresses. The two not crying were pale in the face, and one looked like she was going to toss her cookies at any moment.

  “Are you all right?’ Teague came to stand next to her, his face full of concern. Two giants had grabbed Ferah and were now holding her in a kneeling position in the middle of the room. King Lucian and Queen Maeve materialized and stood in front of the young assassin. She had quit fighting and seemed to be slowly accepting her fate.

  “I’m fine. Just a little shaken up,” Mina answered Teague. Her body was humming from head to toe, and she tried to get her emotions under control. “That was a little too close a call.”

  “You defended me.” He smiled, one corner of his mouth lifting in a bit of a smirk. “Not that I needed your help. But I think it’s kind of cute.” He crossed his arms and continued smirking at her.

  Which only irritated her. Here was the snarky Jared-side she was used to dealing with. “Well, I don’t know. You could have been distracted by all of the pretty skirts in the room. Who knows where your mind was?”

  “Skirts? Why would the material of their dresses be distracting? I can tell you that I’m in no way interested in what they are wearing. Who’s wearing it is what matters.” He raised his eyebrow, and Mina rolled her eyes.

  “You can calm down now. The danger is over,” he added.

  “I know that,” she huffed.

  “Well maybe you do, but my parents not so much.” He gestured with his chin to the Fates who were looking their way very pointedly. They were obviously still worried and upset about something, and it looked like it was Mina.

  “What’s going on?” she asked. Apprehension rose within her once again. “Why do they seem angry?”

  “It could be because they see you as a threat.”

  “Me? A threat? I haven’t done anything,” her voice rose in fear. Had they somehow figured out why she was here?

  “Well, you’re the one who is armed.”

  “What?” She couldn’t breathe.

  Teague shook his head, reached out, and grasped her forearms roughly. Mina winced from the pressure and started to panic, pulling away from him.

  “You have about ten seconds to calm down and release the knives from whatever spell you control them with, or the Fates will have no choice but to dispose of you, and there’s nothing I can do about it.”

  “Knives?” She snapped out of her reverie and eyed the two knives that were still suspended in midair.

  “Yes. Knives. Right now you are holding a weapon in the midst of the Royals. It’s treason. Unless you drop it, your punishment is death.”

  “I didn’t know. I don’t know if I can. I’m not sure how I stopped them there in the first place.” The words jumbled out of Mina’s mouth and she could feel herself beginning to lose control. She was the one who’d stopped the knives? It was her? How?

  Teague shook her roughly, and her knees knocked together. Over his shoulder she saw the large double doors open, and more Fae guards entered with swords drawn. They circled around Mina and Teague but kept their distance. The knives slowly turned toward Mina again, making Teague’s back the perfect target now.

  Fear was making her freeze up. Her eyes started to water. She didn’t know how she stopped the knives, and if she couldn’t undo it, she would be killed right here on the spot. It was instinct on the human plane when she’d pushed Nan and Ever out of the way of the truck. It was instinct that made her try and save herself here.

  It wasn’t instinct to stop doing what was coming naturally and unbidden.

  “Help me,” she breathed out as a tear escaped down her cheek. She was desperate. “I don’t want to die.”

  He looked a little irritated at her lack of understanding, but he seemed to see her fear as genuine. When he realized she couldn’t do it, he jumped into action.

  “Look at me.” He pressed on her arms and she struggled to drag her eyes away from the soldiers and their swords.

  “Look. At. Me,” he demanded again, but slower.

  Her eyes locked onto his dark blue eyes as if he were her anchor. She was too scared to look away now. She knew that she was accessing the Fae power, but she knew nothing of how she’d done it.

  “That’s good. Good. Listen to my voice. Listen to me,” he soothed. “You’re safe. Nothing’s going to harm you. I’m safe. Nothing’s going to harm me. You’re not going to harm me. At least I don’t think you want to harm me, do you?” He winked.

  Her soul cried out at those words, and a little sob escaped her lips. Teague thought it was because he was holding her arms too tight, and he loosened his grip. His thumb rubbed the underside of her arm, quite an intimate gesture at the moment. After all, she was still a stranger.

  “Take a deep breath,” he coached again.

  She did, and then she took another one, focusing on his eyes. On the color. She had to clear her mind.

  “Close your eyes,” he said. “Think of somewhere safe.”

  Home. Home was safe, or at least it was until she became involved with the Grimm curse.

  Finally, a picture formed in her mind. A picture of Jared. He was a safe place. He’d been her protector. He looked out for her. It took a while, but she’d come to realize that whenever she was with him, she would be safe. She pictured his strong jaw, his dark tousled hair, and his stormy gray eyes. A smile slowly formed on her lips.

  “Jared,” she whispered under her breath. She heard the sound of metal clanking on tile and knew that she’d released the knives. It still blew her mind that she’d been able to save herself like that.

  She knew she was beaming from ear to ear, but she opened her eyes to see Teague’s frustrated face.

  “Who’s Jared?”

  “A boy,” she replied, immediately wishing she hadn’t. Teague dropped her arms coldly and turned away from her.

  He moved to stand next to his parents, and she could hear him giving curt answers. Something about her being scared and not being able to control her powers.

  Queen Maeve seemed skeptical, and Mina was able to catch bits of what she was saying. “What Fae girl of her age can’t control her powers? Maybe we should send her home now, before we test her. We certainly have cause. Besides, her results are sure to be weak, even without using the bowl.”

  Her words dug deep beneath Mina’s armor and wounded her. She’d just done something great. She saved her own life as well as the six other girls’. Coming off that high only to be treated as worthless was a huge kick in the stomach.

  King Lucian rubbed his golden beard. “Perhaps, but you must admit, these were not normal circumstances.”

  “What if she’s an assassin as well?” the queen asked.

  “Hardly.” King Lucian laughed. It felt great to get his vote of confidence at least. “She was the one who saw the danger first and
warned us.”

  “I’m still not sure about her. Something feels off.” Queen Maeve didn’t soften her blows simply because Mina was within earshot. Why should she? She was, after all, queen.

  They turned to address Ferah. At least for now, the topic was dropped.

  “You, Ferah, have committed an act of treason with your assassination attempt. Your punishment will be doled out quickly and without mercy. What have you to say for yourself?”

  Ferah held her head high and glared angrily toward Teague. Mina was surprised by her stoic bravery in the face of death. “He will destroy us all. The prophecy has foretold our impending doom.” Her finger did not waver as it pointed to Teague.

  Anger and turmoil rolled off Teague in waves.

  If anyone knew the truth behind Ferah’s words it was Mina. She knew the outcome. Knew that Teague would quickly break off his betrothal and try to destroy the kingdom, which would force the Fates to split his power—his very self—in two. Part of her actually wanted that to happen, because she wanted the Jared she had known and loved to exist. The person who stood before her was not him.

  “Take heed, Fates. United he will destroy you. Divided he will fail.” Her voice had taken on an otherworldly quality. She looked around the room until her eyes met Mina’s. They widened for a fraction of a second, and then she smiled. Ferah began to giggle. Her head fell to the side and she continued to laugh at a joke only she knew the punch line to. “I see that I have failed. But there is another who will not.”

  “What is the meaning of this?” King Lucian growled. Captain Plaith and a guard lifted Ferah off the ground so only the tips of her shoes skimmed the tile.

  “I am not your only hope. It seems there will be another who comes to finish what I have started.”

  “Who? Who dares to try to murder our son? Answer me, you miserable excuse for a Fae!” he roared.

  Ferah pinched her lips together in a firm line. She met his accusing glare with steel and refused to say another word.

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