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       Reign, p.16

           Chanda Hahn
 
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  “She won’t talk? I bet she’d talk to one of the Reapers,” Teague said, and the room collectively gasped in surprise and horror. He looked to his parents, and they nodded in approval.

  “Yes, fetch the Reaper, Captain Plaith. We will have a hunt,” Lucian agreed. The guard who stood at the Fates’ side turned on his heel and strode from the room.

  Mina’s stomach tightened as bile rose in her throat. She wanted to cower and hide. The king was calling the Reapers—the hunters of all things evil. And in the future, the hunters of the Grimm. Her family. For centuries to come, the Fates would send Reapers after her family line if they got close to finishing the quests.

  Summoned, the Reaper stood before the Fates, dressed in a long black leather cloak. “My Fates.” He pulled two hand held scythes from beneath his cloak, bowed, and waited for his orders. This Reaper was different than the one who hunted her. He was tall and muscular, but—where her human culture portrayed the Reaper as white like death—this one was as dark as sin with yellow eyes. Mina knew that Reapers were not a race of Fae, like fairies, nixies, or giants. A Reaper was a job description. And the position could only be held by a true murderer, for they liked to toy with their victims. They were the cleanup crew for the Fates.

  Maeve’s voice rang out calm and collected. “Take her to the woods. Let her feel terror on her heels as you hunt her down and kill her. It will send a message to all who dare to try and kill one of us.”

  “No, no not that,” Ferah begged. The guards dragged her from the room kicking and pleading for mercy.

  When the double doors thudded closed behind her, the room seemed to come alive again.

  “What’s going to happen to us now?” Tawny murmured. Her heavy eye makeup had run down her face, leaving trails of black. “Are we going to have to continue with the test? Or can we choose to leave? We can’t possibly be expected to stay after what we just witnessed.” She whispered to the girl next to her, but since no one else was speaking at the moment, her voice echoed loudly.

  Teague heard her fears and turned, his face red with fury. “By all means, leave if you cannot handle what just happened. There lies the door and your salvation. Do you think being a Royal is without its drawbacks? It is not all pastries, dresses, and parties. This is real. Ruling our kind is dangerous, and I will not ask someone to stand by my side if I cannot trust them to defend me with their life. As I would do the same for them.” His chest rose and fell with passion, and his eyes shone black with anger.

  Tawny, embarrassed, was ready to cry. Her hands covered her mouth and she quivered with fear.

  Mina understood Teague’s desire for a partner, someone he could trust to protect him in return. But his attitude! He needed some lessons in diplomacy.

  Tawny ended up staying, though Mina didn’t expect her to last long. The room was put to right, and everyone gathered around the crystal bowl.

  Everything felt rushed and less formal. The Fates stood farther back from the bowl, and Teague paced like a caged lion. He didn’t look like he would settle down anytime soon.

  Thankfully, Mina ended up toward the end of the line again. Tawny came forward to continue with the test, but when she picked up the knife, a door slammed loudly.

  Teague was no longer in the suddenly cold room. It seemed he didn’t care about the outcome of the remaining girls and their test results. Which meant only one thing. He didn’t think they were worthy, and he’d probably already narrowed down his choices to those in the first group.

  She felt a pinch in her throat, and had to swallow back her hurt feelings. It was fine. She didn’t need his approval. She wasn’t here to become his next wife. She just needed to make it through to the next test so she could stay around. Then, hopefully, she would be the one to save the Fae plane and her own.

  Tawny’s test revealed a strong red glow to complement her blushing cheeks. The others also passed with flying colors.

  It was finally time for Mina to approach the crystal bowl. So much had happened in the last half hour that she wasn’t really sure how to feel about taking the test. She wasn’t as apprehensive as before, because she’d used magic. But what would it do, since she wasn’t even Fae? Would it perceive her heart—know that she was an imposter—and turn black like Ferah’s test? Would nothing happen?

  She picked up the small knife and studied it. Even though it had been used on multiple girls, there wasn’t a hint of blood on the tip. More Fae magic?

  Mina pressed the point into the tip of her finger on her left hand. She expected there to be a sharp pain from being pricked, but she didn’t feel a thing. The shock of not feeling even the pressure against her skin made her accidentally press it farther than necessary into her finger. A very large drop formed, and she quickly held it over the bowl, praying as it fell into the water. The surface rippled.

  She held her breath and waited and watched.

  Nothing happened.

  She let out the breath she was holding and looked up to the King. He seemed a little disappointed in the outcome himself.

  Mina waited for the verdict. For the words “imposter” or “fake” to come. For the doors to open again and another Reaper to enter, gunning for her blood. She desperately looked toward the bowl again. Please, do something.

  The King opened his mouth and raised his finger to give an order, when a soft ringing noise was heard. He dropped his hand, and everyone turned to look at the crystal bowl. It didn’t change colors, sparkle, or flash—it moved. The water inside the bowl swirled in a circular motion, causing the crystal to sing. The peal grew in intensity and volume, and Mina had to cover her ears from the pain that followed.

  “Ouch, make it stop!” Silene demanded from behind her.

  She wished she could, but this had nothing to do with her. It was a Fae creation. Finally, the crystal’s song fell silent and the relief was almost audible.

  “Never before has the crystal sung,” Queen Maeve announced, giving Mina a curious look. “You are an enigma. It will be interesting to see how you approach the other tests.” The way she said it made Mina cringe with worry. “Please follow the others out of the room.”

  Mina was so relieved to be dismissed that she almost ran the first four steps. She caught herself and slowed her steps to what was expected of a princess.

  She was escorted to a waiting room where the girls who passed the test were waiting. Annalora was reclining on a settee, her dress spread out around her. Ever stood by the window staring outside.

  Tawny was the center of attention as she was relaying the whole story of the attack, reveling in being the one with the news. “And Ferah is to be hunted down by the Reaper and killed,” Tawny rushed out.

  “Serves her right.” Annalora spoke up from her reclined spot. She didn’t seem at all unnerved with the assassination attempt. “She was about to ruin my chance of becoming future queen.”

  Ever turned and spoke up a bit heatedly. “Don’t you mean ruin any of our chances of falling in love and marrying Prince Teague?”

  Annalora shrugged. “That too, but it’s not what they’re hoping for. They are looking for family lines and power. If Teague knows what’s best for him, he’ll choose me.”

  “You seem awfully confident about that.” Ever confronted her, hands on her hips. The wind in the room began to whip as her wings fluttered, mirroring the temper that was about to get the better of her.

  The two girls bickered back and forth while Mina paced, biting her knuckle with worry. This wasn’t good. She hated waiting, knowing that at any moment, she could be sent spiraling into the future without having solved a thing.

  Pretending her feet were hurting, Mina sat on a cushioned chair and slid off one of her mirrored shoes to rub her foot. She turned the shoe over and held the mini hourglass toward the light to see if her time was running out.

  Annalora stomped past Mina snapping her attention back to the room full of young women. “I’m of royal gnome blood which means I do not have a pointy head,” she fum
ed, pointing to her perfectly coiffed hair. “Only the mining gnomes have pointed heads.”

  Ever raised her chin and dripped sarcasm. “Oh, that’s right. I forgot your kingdom lies deep underground. No wonder they think you’re beautiful.”

  “You insubordinate”—Annalora snatched the glass shoe out of Mina’s hand and approached Ever, threatening her with the heel—“poor, pathetic excuse for a pixie. Someone should teach you manners.”

  Mina gasped and immediately jumped up and ran after the gnome to grab the shoe. Her hand grazed the smooth glass side. She almost had it when Annalora turned, abruptly yanking the shoe out of reach.

  Her attention was fully on Mina, and she grinned when she realized that she had her in the palm of her hand. “What? Do you want this?” She held the slipper high in the air, just out of Mina’s reach. Mina swiped for the shoe, but with the other still on, her balance was less than stellar.

  Annalora laughed at Mina’s attempt to get the shoe back. “Ah, ah, ah. If you want it back you need to get on your knees and beg.”

  Mina felt hampered by her beautiful feathered dress and a single shoe. Annalora tossed the glass slipper Tawny, who threw it to Fuchsia. Then Annalora got it back and smirked at her. It was a triangle of insanity.

  “Stop it, Annalora. Just give her the shoe back,” Dinah said.

  “Oh hush up, you nymph. I’m just teaching her a lesson.”

  Mina didn’t have time for games. She slipped off her other shoe, gathered it in the folds of her dress and snuck up behind Annalora. She tapped her on the shoulder just after she caught another toss from Tawny. The gnome turned to look over her shoulder, and her cocky expression fell mere seconds before Mina’s fist made contact with her face.

  “Sorry, but school’s out,” Mina sneered.

  Annalora fell backward into a cushioned footstool and slid to the ground in an ungainly heap. She was too shocked to say anything but put a hand over her eye.

  Mina picked up the slipper from the floor and hurried away from the now-recovering drama queen. Any minute she would either wreak havoc here or call for the guards.

  Mina quickly checked the slipper for damage, inwardly chewing herself out when she saw a small crack along the heel. Did the timer still work? She wasn’t sure.

  Part of her wanted to break down and cry, the other part wanted to get back up and give Annalora a second black eye.

  Annalora had gotten up and was red in the face with fury. Tawny ran forward, her sympathy making her sound like an injured bird.

  The others whispered quietly and gave Mina a wide berth.

  But Ever started laughing and came over to sit by her. “That was phenomenal. I’ve wanted to do that to her forever. Only now, I don’t know if I want to be in your shoes. She’s going to have it out for you. There’s no way you’ll make it to the end. She’ll make sure of that now.”

  “It doesn’t matter. I won’t be chosen anyway. It’s not in my cards.”

  “Why do you say that? Is that one of your gifts? Can you see the future?”

  “Sort of,” Mina grumbled. She slipped the un-cracked slipper on her foot.

  “Did it break?” Ever asked, pointing to the shoe. “They’re beautiful. I would love to have a pair like that. If I owned those I’d never take them off. These ones I’m wearing are killing me.”

  Mina had to stifle a laugh, because in the future, Ever preferred black army boots. It seemed she would eventually choose comfort over fashion.

  “You’re laughing at me? You’re the one who was hobbling around on one shoe while you took on Annalora. You looked like a gimp, by the way.”

  “What did you say?” Mina snapped. “Why would you say that?’

  “Relax, I’m a pixie. I call it like I see it. And speaking of ‘see it,’ will you tell me my future?”

  “No.”

  “Oh please, puh-lease,” she begged. “At least tell me if I’m going to end up with Teague or not. I know it’s a silly request, but play along with me.” Ever leaned forward with a huge, eager smile on her face.

  She didn’t want to break her heart, but the last thing she wanted to do was lie to Ever. Mina took a deep breath. “Ever, you will grow closer to the prince and spend more time with him in future than any of us ever will.”

  She sat as still as a statue and then her wings went crazy, blowing Mina’s hair all over the place. “Oh, that’s a good one.” She laughed and then settled down a bit. “But wait, you didn’t say marry him. If you’re going to make up a lie, you could have at least made it a good one.”

  Mina didn’t laugh or continue the banter, which only made Ever more suspicious. Her brows furrowed and she gave Mina a curious glare. “You’re serious about this, aren’t you? You’re not joking.”

  Mina felt horrible. She just shrugged her shoulders and didn’t make eye contact.

  Ever cleared her throat and pretended to straighten her dress, but she was really moving farther away from Mina. As if she were already severing the physical and emotional connection with her.

  Mina sighed and rubbed her forehead. It was probably for the best.

  Someone, she wasn’t sure who, felt bad enough for Annalora that they got a wet cloth for her eye. But the way Annalora kept glaring at her out of her one good eye made Mina very uncomfortable.

  ***

  Only one more girl was sent home—leaving a total of eight girls out of the original twelve. Even though it had only been a few hours ago, it felt like Mina had been here days. And much to her dismay, two more days remained before Teague’s betrothal would be announced. She was no closer to finding the reason she’d been sent back to this time. She had yet to find or hear of any clue with which she could save her family.

  The remaining girls were each given their own room, and a meal was sent to them. Mina received a plate of mixed greens, berry, and a spiced fruit drink. A porter came to her room and apologized profusely, because someone seemed to have misplaced her trunks. Mina didn’t have the heart to tell him that she hadn’t brought any. She simply said it would be fine. She’d survive.

  That seemed to take him aback. He stared at her, clearly perplexed.

  Mina looked around the room and realized she’d been here room before. It was a sitting room not far from the bathing room. It had barely changed in a few hundred years, but nevertheless, she’d been here. Teague had presented her with a dress that day, and she’d used Fae magic to change what she was wearing. There was the screen in the corner with the same large mirror. She had never opened the doors to see what was beyond the sitting room.

  She did now. A large, impossibly inviting four-poster bed graced a bedroom with a wardrobe and window. Mina went back to the mirror and studied her dress. It had seen better days. The feathers were scattered every which way after being torn loose from her scuffle with Ferah, which saddened her. She really did love this dress.

  Taking a deep breath, Mina closed her eyes and tried to concentrate on the electric hum of Fae magic in the air. The air was so thick with it, she could almost taste it. The tough part was gathering it into large enough forms that Mina could harness and direct it. Like when she unintentionally sic’d it on Nan and Brody, causing them to end up in the car accident. And when she’d changed her dress into pants. And every time the Grimoire would shift and change at will for her. Maybe she’d always been the one doing it.

  “Sleep clothes.” Mina spoke aloud but was unsure what to do. Her white dress softened and became a long-sleeved high neck chemise. “Oh, um, no. How about pajamas?” she whispered, picturing her favorite set from home. Her dress shrank, slowly shrinking into a pair of pink shorts with hearts and a matching tank with the words heartbreaker on them. Mina was giddy with excitement. She looked down at her glass slippers. Dare she take them off to sleep? It seemed irresponsible to even consider it, but what would happen if they took her back to the present in her sleep? She’d reappear wearing glass slippers and her pajamas. That’s what. But then she might not get back again.
r />   She decided to take the slippers off and crawled into the large four-poster bed, sliding under the covers. She put the slippers on the wooden table with a pitcher of water and a cup. Hopefully she’d see their flashing if they were about to head to the future again, and she’d have time to magic herself into some appropriate clothes before she went with them.

  She curled up in the blankets and buried her head in the soft pillow, but realized she’d failed to extinguish the candle on the nightstand. Instead of sitting up and blowing it out, she decided to practice. She waved her hand at the candle in an attempt to extinguish it.

  Nothing happened. Really? She fumed.

  “Okay, why can’t I blow out a candle?” She wiggled her fingers, but still nothing happened. Frustrated, she crawled from underneath the covers and kneeled in front of the candle. Bringing her hand within centimeters of the burning flame, she felt the heat run along the pads of her fingers. The barest hint of pain ran along the underside, matching the tingling of power from Fae magic. Again, she concentrated and tried to put out the flame.

  “Fine. If I can’t stop it, I’ll change it.” This time she imagined the wick dark, cold, extinguished. She thought she saw the flame flicker as if it was going out, but it continued just as before.

  She sighed.

  A window in the room blew open, extinguishing the candle, leaving her in complete darkness. Goose bumps rose along her arms. She didn’t need light to know Teague was in the room.

  “Do you sneak into all the girls’ rooms?”

  “No. Only those who try and protect me one minute, and punch a princess in the face the next. From what I heard, it was over a…shoe.” He saw the slippers on the table and reached for them. Mina dove for them and grabbed them before he could.

  “Well, if you already know, then you should know better than to mess with a girl’s footwear.” She tucked them behind her, which drew his attention to the odd clothes she was wearing.

  The candle reignited, and Teague stood next to her bed, dressed in dark colors. She would have called them black, but it seemed that he had changed and was wearing dark shades of gray. He frowned at her. “What are you wearing? I’ve never seen such clothes. Is this what you wear in your kingdom? Do you wear your title proudly upon your chest? I didn’t know that there was such a thing as a breaker of hearts.”

 
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