“Whenever is fine with me,” I said.
“Good.” Willa set her glass on a nearby table, some of the bubbly pink liquid sloshing over the top. She looped her arm through mine, more to steady herself, and we left the room.
“Well, that went well,” I sighed, plucking a black flower from my hair as we went down the hall.
“Really?” Tove asked. “Because I thought that went horribly.”
“I was being sarcastic.”
“Oh.” He shoved his hands in his pockets as he walked beside me. “It could’ve been worse, I guess.”
“You should’ve drunk more,” Willa said. “That’s how I made it through that thing. And you’re lucky you’re my best friend, or I wouldn’t have gone at all.”
“You need to start doing more stuff like that, Willa,” I told her. “You’re so good at handling people, and someday you might need to do it.”
“Nope, that’s your job,” she smiled. “I lucked out. I’m free to be the naughty drunk friend.”
I tried to argue with Willa about the merits of being a good Trylle citizen. She schmoozed much better than I ever could, and she was a great ally, when she put her mind to it. But right now, she was too tipsy to see reason in anything.
She was giggling at something I’d said when we reached the rotunda. Garrett was coming down the stairs, but he stopped halfway when he saw us. His hair was a mess, his shirt was untucked, and his eyes were red-rimmed.
As soon as his eyes met mine, I knew.
“Elora,” I breathed.
“Wendy, I’m sorry,” Garrett said, his voice thick with tears, and he shook his head.
I knew he wasn’t lying, but I had to see it for myself. I pulled my arm from Willa’s and lifted my black gown so I could race up the stairs. Garrett tried to reach out for me, but I ran past him. I didn’t slow at all, not until I got to my mother’s room.
She lay in bed, her body more of a skeleton. The sheets were pulled up to her chest, and her hands were folded neatly over her stomach. Even her hair had been brushed and smoothed, shimmering silver around her. Garrett had arranged her the way she would’ve wanted him to.
I knelt down next to her bed. I’m not sure why, except I felt compelled to be near her. I took her hand, cold and stiff in my own, and that’s when it hit me. Like a wave of despair I hadn’t even known I was capable of, I began to sob, burying my face in the blankets beside her.
I hadn’t expected to feel this much. Her death felt as if the ground had been pulled out from under me. Epic blackness stretched on forever to catch me.
There were things her death would signify, consequences I wasn’t ready for, but I didn’t even think about that. Not at first.
I clung to her, sobbing, because I was a daughter who had lost her mother. Despite our rocky relationship, she did love me, and I did love her. She was the only person that knew what it was like to be Queen, to give me advice, to shepherd me into this world, and she was gone.
I allowed myself an afternoon to really feel the loss, to feel the new hole that had been torn inside of me. That was all the time I had to mourn Elora, and then I had so much more I needed to do. But for that one afternoon, I let myself cry over everything we’d never been able to have, and the moments we’d shared that were worth treasuring.
Willa eventually pulled me away from Elora’s body so Garrett could begin the funeral arrangements, and she took me to Matt’s room. He hugged me and let me cry, and I’d never been more grateful for my brother. Without him, I’d feel like an orphan.
Tove stayed with me in Matt’s room, not saying anything, and eventually, Duncan joined us. I sat on the floor with my back leaning against the bed, and Matt sat beside me. Willa had sobered up rather quickly, and she sat on the bed behind me, her long legs draped over the edge.
“I hate to leave you like this, but I think I should I go help my father.” Willa touched my head when she stood up. “He shouldn’t be doing this alone.”
“I can help him.” I started to push myself up, but Matt put his hand on my arm.
“You can help tomorrow,” Matt said. “You’re going to have a lot to do. Today, you can be sad.”
“Matt’s right,” Willa said. “I can handle this for now.”
“Alright.” I settled back down and wiped my eyes. “We need to keep this to ourselves if we can. Keep her death quiet, and hold off on the funeral for as long as possible. I don’t want the King to find out.”
“He will eventually,” Willa said gently.
“I know.” I rested my elbows on my knees and turned to Tove. “How long do I have until I’m Queen?”
“Three days,” Tove said. He leaned back against Matt’s dresser, his legs crossed at the ankle. “Then somebody has to be coroneted.”
“So we have three days.” I let out a deep breath, my mind racing with all the things that had to be done.
“We’ll keep this quiet,” Duncan said. “You can arrange a private funeral.”
“We can’t keep the death of the Queen secret forever,” I said. “We have to begin to prepare now.”
“I’ll be back as soon as I can,” Willa said, offering me an apologetic smile. “Take care, okay?”
“Of course,” I nodded absently.
She gave Matt a quick kiss before leaving. Duncan came over and crouched down in front of me. His dark eyes were sympathetic, but I saw a fierce determination in them too.
“What do you need me to do, Princess?” Duncan asked.
“Duncan, not now,” Matt said sternly. “Wendy just lost her mother. She’s not in the right frame of mind.”
“I don’t have time to get in the right frame of mind,” I said. “We have three days before I’m Queen. If we’re lucky, we have four or five days until Oren comes to claim his prize. I’ve already taken too much time crying over Elora’s death. When this is all over with, I can mourn her. But now, I need to work.”
“I should tell Thomas,” Tove said. “He needs to have the trackers ready.”
“Yes,” I nodded. “When Willa gets back, she needs to talk to the refugees from Oslinna. I’m sure some of them will want to fight against the Vittra that killed their families and destroyed their town.”
“What are you going to do?” Tove asked.
“I still have to find a way to stop the King,” I said, and I looked up at Duncan. “And Duncan’s going to help me.”