Page 8

“The King is asking for you, Your Highness,” The Prime Minister says.

I look to Thomas beside me and his kind green eyes offer me comfort. I’ve got you, they say. I’m with you.

And none of it feels real. It’s like a foggy dream. A day I knew would come but didn’t really believe ever would.

The inner room is as well-equipped as any hospital’s. Beeping monitor wires and pain-relieving tubes stick out from beneath Father’s papery skin. His doctor, the King’s Physician, is here; he bows to me before stepping back to a respectful distance.

If a praying mantis and a human had a baby, the result would be Oscar Pennygrove. He’s a tall, emaciated man with strangely long fingers that give the impression of two spiders attached to the ends of his arms. He’s the Home Secretary—an official witness to assure the country and Crown that there is no trickery or foul play at the births and deaths of any royal in the line of succession. He was in the room when I was born, and he was at Miriam’s birth too. He was present at the births and deaths of the siblings before me, and he stands silent in the corner now, like one of those portraits whose eerie eyes move when you do.

I put my hand on top of Father’s.

“It’s Lenora, Father. I’m here.”

Slowly, his eyes open and a moist rattling sound comes from his chest. His lips are blue-tinged and chapped, but they smile at me.

“Lenora.” His voice is reedy, so thin I lean forward to hear him. “I love you, my dear girl.”

You do?

It’s the first thought that springs into my head, and though I don’t say the words out loud, he reads them on my face and his fragile smile falters.

“You didn’t know. I should have done better by you. There was so much to teach you . . . but I should have done better.”

I take his hand in both of mine, holding it gently and close. Because I see it now—I understand. This man may have not given me everything I wanted—tickles and cuddles, laughter and pushes on the swing—but he spent his life giving me everything I will need.

And I won’t let him die thinking he failed me.

“No, Father. No . . .” My throat constricts. “You did wonderfully by me, I promise. I’ll make you proud. I’ll serve Wessco with dignity and honor, and I’ll make you so proud of me.”

He squeezes my hand back.

And though his breathing is ragged, he tells me, “I have always been proud of you. Do not serve . . . Lenora. Reign. With an iron grip . . . and a velvet touch. Trust . . . only . . . yourself. And reign.”

I nod, and though my eyes are full, I don’t let any tears fall. I hold them back, for him. To prove that even now, especially now . . . I can be strong.

His eyes close, and for many minutes the only sounds in the room are the beeping machine and Father’s frail breaths.

Alexander Bumblewood steps up beside me. “Would you like to return to the antechamber to wait, Princess Lenora? They’re having tea.”

Of course they are. Because tea fixes everything.

“No. I’ll stay with him.”

Kings are men . . . they die like any other man.

And this one will not die alone.

I get to my feet, lean over and kiss Father’s rough, leathery cheek. For the very first time, and the last. Then I sit back down, hold his hand, and in my head . . . I talk to him—telling him all the things I can’t say in front of the doctor and Prime Minister and Pennygrove.

I tell him about Thomas and the trouble we’ve gotten up to through the years. I tell him about my hopes and dreams for Wessco—ideas I didn’t share before, because I wasn’t sure if he’d approve. I tell him about me—a side he’s never seen that can be silly and wild. I tell him how desperately hard it is sometimes to be me—how awfully lonely—and then how stupid I feel for feeling that way, because I know I’m the most fortunate girl in the whole world. I say how grateful I am for all he’s given me—his support and attention and guidance.

I say . . . goodbye.

And still, none of it feels real. It doesn’t seem like he’s gone.

Not when the monitor stops beeping, or when the doctor checks for breathing and a pulse, and finds neither. Not when the time is announced or the sheet is drawn up or when the Home Secretary tells the Prime Minister to formally certify that His Most Royal King Reginald William Constantine II has passed from this life.

“Your Majesty . . .”

I don’t look up; I don’t move.

“Your Majesty . . .” Oscar Pennygrove says again.

And it’s only then that I realize he’s speaking to me. There can be several royal highnesses in a bloodline, but there is only ever one ruling majesty at a time.

Pennygrove offers me his bony hand. I take it as I stand and the bedroom door is opened, and I step into the room full of waiting, watching aristocrats—their eyes fixed on me.

Pennygrove’s proclamation is crisp and definitive.

“The King is dead. Long live the Queen.”

Like their ancestors before them, the lords reply in one resounding voice.

“Long live Queen Lenora!”

And that’s the moment. The moment the fog clears and the circumstances of who I am—what I am—becomes as real as real can be.

Queen Lenora.

Ready or not . . . here comes the crown.

Two months later

St. George’s Cathedral

The day of my coronation is bitterly cold—long, shining icicles hang from every corner of the palace and breaths come in exhales of puffy white bursts. My gown is a masterpiece of ivory satin, long in the back, cinched at the waist, with the Rose of Wessco intricately embroidered in silver filigree across the skirt. My lips are ruby red, my lashes sooty black. Glistening diamonds—my mother’s—dangle from my earlobes and the coronation robe rests on my shoulders, stretching out behind me in yards of pristine white fur.

It makes me feel like a mythical arctic huntress . . . a Winter Queen. A ruler of snow and ice.

When I emerge from the carriage—the same one my father rode in, and his father before him—in the shadow of St. George’s Cathedral, the camera flashes go off like fireworks and the endless crowd gathered along the streets roars. I hear them, but I don’t look their way. With my head held high, I ascend the stone steps, focused on the sacred ceremony before me. There will be massive celebrations—a coronation is a joyous event—but they will come later.

I stand in the atrium, alone, surrounded by only the vivid prisms of color shining from the stained-glass windows. The double doors open, and the members of the packed congregation rise to their feet, as the drums begin to pound out a deep imperial rhythm.

It’s the same beat that was played when royals were marched to the chopping block.

My ancestors enjoyed irony.

While I stand in the doorway, I experience a moment of terror, when it feels like my knees have disappeared. The faces of the lords and ladies all bedazzled in their best formal-wear seem to morph into some dark goblin nightmare—their eyes demon-black and their teeth-baring grins sharp and menacing.

I close my eyes.

And my mother’s lilting voice whispers in my head.

Breathe, my darling. Just breathe.

My father’s voice joins hers—an echo of his final command.


And my knees return, solid and sure. Because I was raised for this.

Born for this.

I take my first step down the aisle, shoulders back, spine straight. In my periphery, I spot Thomas and Alfie and Miriam—and I know they are there for me, that they have my back. But it’s only now that I realize no one will ever be there to guard my front again. To shield me, to step before me.