Nick fell into step beside her, wishing he could tell her how impressive she was, but he didn’t want to undermine whatever it was she was setting up. If he was supposed to be the dutiful personal guard, controlled by her lapidus powers, he could do that.
Especially because it was pretty much the truth.
Willa hadn’t been in the castle since her seventh birthday, after she’d been tested and discovered to be lapidus. She’d been presented to the court and her life pledged to serve it. Gifted to the court was the common phrasing, but really she realized now that was a nice way to say her parents had done what was required of them.
She understood they’d had no choice. There would have been some kind of punishment if they hadn’t. But once the testing was done, there was no hiding who she was. The choice of presenting her to the court or not was out of their hands at that point.
How had Shay made it through the testing undiscovered? Their parents must have coached Shay on what not to do and how not to react. It couldn’t have been easy. Not to mention the risk if they’d been discovered.
That sacrifice only added to her turmoil about them.
She glanced over at Nick. His words had gone a long way toward softening her feelings about her parents, and the realization that they may have been unable to help her made an impact, too. Forgiving them wouldn’t be the easiest thing, but she was getting there. Especially as the bulk of her anger was now focused on Kyanna and her greedy plans. Still, Willa couldn’t think about her parents without feeling sad and disappointed. She wasn’t sure those emotions would ever go away.
The great hall opened before them. It was just as grand as Willa remembered. Its gilded ceiling still glowed with the soft aura of the gold and silver leaf covering it in a pattern of tiny, painstakingly applied squares. Tall arching windows held a multitude of precious stones set among the crystal panes of glass. They spilled streams of clear and colored light onto the long rows of polished bleached wood benches and tables.
Chandeliers of crystal and mixed metals hung at regular intervals leading up to the king’s dais. Throughout the space, workers cleaned, while other fae gathered in small groups to talk. Children ran through, playing games. The great hall was open to all, except when closed by the king’s decree for special events.
Nick didn’t seem to be paying much attention to anything but what was directly in front of them.
The king’s throne was empty as expected, but Zane lounged on the edge of the platform like he’d been sitting there for hours waiting on them. He waved away a serving girl with a tray of drinks as they approached. “Took you long enough.”
“It took us exactly as long as it needed to.” She was done with her brother’s attitude. Nick came to a stop beside her. “Where’s Kyanna?”
“Waiting for you in the king’s private quarters.” He stood. His frown seemed permanently affixed, but then Willa was about to take his place, wasn’t she? And she might not be more powerful than Kyanna, but she was definitely more powerful than Zane.
“Let’s go then. I’m ready to do this.”
His frown flattened into a thin hard line. Had he expected her to change her mind? He lifted a finger at Nick. “The gargoyle stays here.”
“Like hell he does.”
Zane sighed indifferently. “Whatever.”
He started walking toward the far end of the hall and an entrance protected by more guards. She and Nick kept pace with him. “You don’t seem pleased with my decision.”
He turned to look at her. “Should I be?”
“We’re family, aren’t we? Or doesn’t that matter to you?” She suspected she already knew the answer.
He snorted out a breath. “Of course it matters, but you might as well be a stranger to me. I never knew you growing up. Just the shadow of you. You were always Willa, the one who ran. And now here you are, the prodigal child returned home to—”
“The prodigal son came home on his own.” She glared at him. “You kidnapped me.”
“So you wouldn’t be here any other way?”
She glanced back at Nick. He shook his head, confirming her thoughts that answering that question truthfully would do her no good. She chose another route. One that could test his loyalty to Kyanna. “Aren’t you upset that I’m about to replace you as Kyanna’s right hand?”
He laughed. “You’ll never really replace me.”
She pushed harder. “I’m sure you’ll always have some kind of job in the kingdom, I just thought—”
He spun around, eyes glinting with anger. “Why do you want to join us? Don’t you have a life worth fighting for back in that crazy human town of yours?”
“I do. But this is such an…interesting opportunity.”
With a snarl, he stopped at the doors and jerked his head at the guards. They opened the way and stepped back. Zane went through, Willa at this side and Nick behind her.
She glanced at her brother. “Don’t pretend like Kyanna would have just let us go if I’d refused.”
He nodded but didn’t look at her, his gaze straight ahead and icy. “I won’t. Because she wouldn’t have. Kyanna gets what Kyanna wants.”
“And so here we all are.” It occurred to her that Zane was not a hundred percent happy with his place in court and that chink might be widened. Maybe not soon enough, however.
“Indeed.” He smiled, but it seemed forced. “And isn’t life grand?”