Their parents and Shay were given a close spot and seats made available to them. Nick stayed by the corner of the roped-off area with Willa. Neither she nor Kyanna had made any move to step inside it yet.
Bells rang, and with noticeable effort, the king stood. “The hour of the challenge is upon us. I wish both parties good fortune and look forward to crowning one of them queen very soon. My steward, Gerard, is the master of this ceremony and as such, I give the floor to him.”
The king sat and Gerard moved to the front of the dais. His posture was straight and proud as he spoke in a loud, booming voice that carried through the hall. “The challenge for queen is officially underway. Citizen Willa Iscovian challenges the All Seer, Kyanna Iscovian, for the privilege to wear the crown. All others please be seated.”
Nick didn’t need to be told twice that he was one of the others. He leaned forward and whispered in Willa’s ear, “You can do this. I love you.”
She nodded, strong and steady. “Me, too, you.”
He glanced behind him, but there wasn’t a seat available. Beyond the makeshift bleachers, the crowd stood packed to the walls and all the way to the door. He frowned and looked at the other side.
Then a hand grabbed his and tugged. Shay.
She looked up at him. “Sit with me,” she whispered.
He lifted his head. The space next to Melinna was empty. She patted it and smiled.
He gave Willa’s hand a quick squeeze with his free one, then let Shay lead him back to the bench. Melinna moved over to make more room. He sat, and Shay immediately climbed into his lap, wriggling around to face the center of the room.
Willa grinned, genuine happiness shining in her eyes.
On the other side of the room, Zane had forced someone out of their spot and now sat, preening at his perceived specialness. Nick really wanted to pop him in the mouth. Just once. That’s all it would take anyway.
A pair of the king’s guards strode forward, unhooked the silk cords and held them open.
Gerard nodded at Willa and Kyanna, then gestured to the arena. “Please enter the challenge area and stand in front of one of the platforms.”
Willa shot Nick a hopeful look, then walked through the rope. Kyanna came around from the other side, entering after her sister.
Gerard spoke again. “Because both challengers are lapidus—” A murmur went up from the crowd, either because not everyone had been aware of Willa’s gifts or because Gerard had just confirmed the rumor of what she was. “The king asked me to design a challenge fit for their powers. As such, I researched our history and have come up with something very fitting.”
He turned back toward the interior doors and called out, “Bring forth the queen-makers.”
Another set of royal guards walked out, each carrying a tall rounded object with a flat base. They were draped in white fabric so it was impossible to make out any other details. They could have been vases. Or giant eggs. Nick had no idea.
The guards each set one on the platforms before Willa and Kyanna, then stepped to the side while keeping a hand on top of the object and their eyes on Gerard.
He gave a quick nod, and the guards pulled the fabric off.
The assembled crowd took a sharp inhale, and the buzz of whispers reverberated through the hall. A slight smile curved Gerard’s mouth at the sound. But Willa’s face had gone unsettlingly pale.
Kyanna just looked confused.
Nick still had no clue what the objects were, but apparently he was in the minority. To him, they looked like strange bird cages, except they were egg-shaped and the wires were about as thick as his pinky finger and made of all different kinds of metal twisted together. The bottom of each cage balanced on a circle of polished marble. There didn’t seem to be any kind of pin or screw holding the cage there, it just…was.
Inside, instead of a bird, floated a large, perfect spear of clear crystal. Maybe a foot long and six inches around. The largest he’d ever seen.
“Those are pretty,” Shay whispered.
He nodded. “Mm-hmm.” But pretty could very easily turn deadly.
Gerard walked through the ropes and dismissed the guards, then turned in a slow circle to address everyone present. “Behold two of the greatest artifacts from our nation’s treasury. The Oracle’s Eggs. Designed by the greatest lapidus our kingdom has ever seen, the All Seer Wyndellia, who went on to become queen. She built one as a show of her power, then she built the second to show the first was no trick.”
He swept the audience with his gaze. “She also gave her permission for the eggs to be used as needed.” His smile took on a satisfied quality. “Perhaps she foresaw a day like today.”
After a dramatic pause, he turned to face Willa and Kyanna, putting his back to Nick’s side of the room. “On my word, the challenge will begin. The first lapidus to open her egg and remove the crystal is the winner.”
Willa’s eyes rounded slightly, and she swallowed. Beside her, Kyanna chewed her bottom lip, the first crack in her bravado.
“Any questions?” Gerard asked.
Both women shook their heads no.
“Good.” He turned to face the audience and did another three-sixty as he spoke. “For those of the more skilled among us who might be thinking about offering a little magical assistance, I’d suggest you not. The silk cord surrounding our two challengers is threaded through with silver and crystals of black tourmaline and charged with enough reflective magic to give you a good jolt.”
Sounded like the fae equivalent of an electric fence, and based on the comments around him, it would deliver a bigger shock than what Gerard had indicated.