‘You’re fidgeting, newbie.’
‘Of course I’m fidgeting!’ Stef whispered. ‘Everyone is looking at me.’
‘Slash-serious doesn’t cover fidgets?’
‘The word fidget is losing all meaning.’
Curt smirked. ‘It lost it five minutes ago. Fidget. Fidget. Fidget.’
‘Gah!’ she said quietly.
‘Just smile, and relax.’
She forced a smile.
‘Ok, maybe don’t smile.’
She glared at him, and leaned against his arm, then looked left at Ryan. ‘Aren’t you going to tell me not to slouch?’
‘It’s your gala, young lady, you can slouch in front of royalty if you want.’
She stood straighter and tucked a few loose strands of hair behind her ear. ‘Dammit, why are you so good at all the dad speeches?’
He leaned down and kissed her on the head. ‘It’s my job.’ He bent to her level and adjusted the crown on her head. ‘You’re doing fine, Stef.’
The guards lining the edges of the grand staircase snapped to an even more rigid attention, and a lone cellist played a short piece of music.
The Queen of fairies walked down the stairs, her husband at her side. She was beautiful. Her dress was white, flowing but simple. Three large blue diamonds hung on a chain around her neck, reflecting Nonsuch’s beauty.
Her husband was far shorter than she was – at least part fairy, or so his wings seemed to indicate, but a halfbreed of some description, maybe a-
The prince-consort’s purple and green wings flared, catching all the lights in the room as they reached the bottom of the stairs.
The Queen looked at her and smiled. ‘Step forward, darling.’
Curt squeezed her hand and let her go. Ryan put a hand on her shoulder, and gave her the slightest push forward.
She swallowed the lump in her throat and stepped forward. She felt hundreds of eyes tracking her every single movement. Every bead of sweat forming on her hairline. Every half-formed breath failing to fill her lungs. Every panicked contraction of her irises.
Judging her. Seeing her. Really seeing her. Seeing she wasn’t good enough to be the girl who saved the world. Just an agent. Just a hacker. Just a crazy girl.
Every tiny step towards the Queen seemed to reverberate through her whole body, make her heart shake, fuel the need to run.
She could run. She could run. She could run. She could run. She could run. She could run. She could run. She could run.
The Queen touched a hand to her purple hair, and gave a slight nod as she took another step closer.
The ground shook, and she squeaked as she took a step back, stumbling as she stepped free of the raising platform.
She felt her face burning.
Please, please, please kill me.
The Queen chuckled as the section of the floor moved back down. ‘Shall we try that again?’
No. I’ll just wait for the floor to eat me.
She could run and no one would stop her. It was her gala, and she could do whatever she wanted. And that included running away. They could nominate someone else as saviour and-
She looked back at Ryan, and he gave her a little smile.
She turned back, and stepped onto the platform.
I still want the floor to eat me.
Well, if you’re really good and pray to Santachrist, maybe it’ll happen next Cookiemas.
Oh shut up.
You first, Spyder.
The Queen smiled, then opened her hand and released a tiny light. ‘I’ve had time to consider what I’d say tonight,’ the Queen said, her voice amplified by light hovering in front of her. ‘Of speaking to how this is nearly cheating Death herself, of the magnitude of the tragedy that we so narrowly avoided.’ She paused for a moment. ‘Hundreds of thousands of others have already said those words in public spaces, far better than I ever could. Nam Acle’s speech has been inscribed in part on at least a dozen statues and repeated everywhere across the internet. We’ve all had the conversation without family, with our friends, with those we work with.’
She paused for a moment.
‘Everything,’ the Queen said, ‘has already been said. There is one thing, however, that I do want to say in this space, on this night, the one thing that everyone is thinking.’ The Queen turned to her and bowed her head. ‘Thank you.’
The prince-consort’s wings folded. ‘Thank you,’ he said, and bowed his head.
‘Thank you.’
Voices behind her.
‘Thank you.’
Voices above her.
‘Thank you.’
She turned, and saw the crowd bowing, kneeling, hands across chests, thumbs to foreheads, hands turned into single flowers.
‘Thank you.’
The cellist began to play music again.
‘Thank you.’
Some of the crowd began to clap.
‘Thank you.’
The rest of the band joined the cellist.
‘Thank you.’
You should probably do something, Spyder.
‘Thank you.’
She stepped to the front of the podium, and took a bow.
The crown slipped from her head.