Author's note: yom: Nope, not quite yet! And thank you :)
Katya: Thank you! :)
A big thanks to all those who reviewed. CAUTION: This is the final chapter, so if you haven't, please review and tell me what you think! I'd love to hear from you :)
Annette was about to wipe her clammy palms on her dress, but stopped herself just in time. Her heart beat so hard, it threatened to rattle her chest. Her stomach twisted in knots and the world began to swirl around her. She leaned against the wall for support. Breathe. She inhaled slowly, held it, and then exhaled. The slightly muted song of many silvery, melodious voices flowed through the room next to her. The sweet, fragrant smell of incense permeated the air. She clenched her fists to keep from tugging at her dress. If she had any idea a coronation was so costly, she probably wouldn't have requested Alaric for one. But it was too late now.
The thought made her catch her breath. She had no option but to go forward. There wasn't time to second-guess herself. She glanced down at her arm, finally free from a cast. Now all that remained was some soreness, which was fading with each passing day.
"You look a little pale," Alaric noted.
She glanced towards him and offered him a tight smile. "Just… nervous."
His warm hands enveloped hers and his lips curved upward in a small reassuring smile. The voices finally ebbed into silence. It was the end of the opening song, their signal to enter. Alaric tucked her hand into the crook of his elbow and strode forward. She wished she had half of his confidence. Annette held her head high and attempted to glide across the floor like she'd seen so many noble ladies do. The door to the throne room swung open, revealing a vast sea of people, split down the middle by a velvety red carpet.
A new song began. Alaric led her forward. Suddenly, her legs began to wobble and her knees threatened to buckle. Her grip on Alaric tightened. His arm briefly tensed beneath her hand, the only sign he'd sensed her fear. She glanced up at him, hoping to draw from his strength. His head was held erect. The soft, traditional lighting of candles cast a gentle glow on his face, drawing attention to his high, proud cheekbones that tapered to a strong jawline. Alaric looked stunning and majestic. Annette straightened and forced her gaze forward, hoping to emulate him.
They came to a stop in front of the thrones. Alaric breezed past her and seated himself on his throne, just as the ceremony dictated. A slender, elegant man stood off to the side. Long robes cascaded from him down to the floor. His expression was completely serene and stoic. If his skin wasn't flesh colored, Annette would have thought him a statue. She recalled Alaric telling her that he was the Prelate.
The man straightened—if that was even possible—and revealed his full height. "I present to you High Queen Annette, for what reason we gather here today. Are you, people of Torva, willing to pay your homage to her?"
"Long live Queen Annette!"
The joyful cries filled her ears. She strode to take her seat at the throne.
The Prelate strode towards her, the long train of his robe streaming behind him. "Your highness, are you willing to take the oath?"
Annette drew in a deep breath. "I am willing."
"Will you solemnly promise to govern the Peoples of Torva, including it many kingdoms, according to their respective laws and customs?"
"I solemnly promise to do so."
"Will you promise that you will use your power to administer justice and law?"
"And in your decisions do you agree to respect the Council of Torva?"
"Bring forth the ceremonial cup."
A young boy shuffled forward and presented a golden goblet to Annette, embedded with jewels at the rim.
"This cup represents all responsibilities and commitments towards the Realm of Torva you have taken upon yourself."
Annette rose. "These things which I have here before promised, I will perform and keep." She plucked the goblet from its cushion and delicately sipped at it before placing it back. She seated herself.
The Prelate began reading various texts from an ancient Torvan book. Annette knew they contained words of wisdom and the importance of virtue, but as the reading continued, she found herself drifting. Her eyelids slid shut and she forced them back open. The choir sang an occasional song. She found it all rather relaxing.
"And may this crown grant you the righteousness and wisdom necessary to rule Torva."
She blinked several times and stood. A cold circlet was place on her head. It was much more delicate that Alaric's crown, barely a crown at all. The crowd cheered, repeating 'Long live Queen Annette' again and again, until it rung in her ears and she feared the words would be permanently stuck there. Alaric stood as well and jerked his head. She followed him to the balcony. Commoners flooded the courtyard, but this time they weren't protesting. The mass of people erupted into cheers and more cries of 'Long live Queen Annette' filled the air. She smiled and waved until her cheeks and feet ached, throbbing in synchrony. Alaric finally led her back to her throne and the people began to pay her homage.
They knelt before her, pleaded their fealty to her, and offered her gifts a fine fabric, jewels, or exotic spices. The peasant's gifts were much more humble. They often consisted of crops from their labor, farm animals, or animal skins. One little girl offered Annette her raggedy doll, making tears sting her eyes as she accepted it. Time trudged on and an endless flow of people streamed in and out of the Palace. When the ceremony finally came to an end, she slumped against the back of her throne, forgetting her queenly posture. The coronation had been physically and emotionally exhausting. She didn't regret it, but she was glad it was over.
"Wow, I'm glad that's only a one time thing," she muttered.
"As am I," Alaric agreed. He strode towards her and knelt by her throne, taking her hand in his. He brushed the fabric of her sleeve with his fingertips.
The dress was—once again—tastefully designed. It was made of a shimmering purple fabric that hugged her body before flaring just above her knee. The neckline gently followed the curve of her collar bone and ended just off her shoulders. The sleeves were long and clung to her arms, coming to a point at the back of her hand. The dress trailed behind her, long enough to be elegant, short enough to be practical.
"Did you help with the dress again?" Annette flashed him a smile.
He cleared his throat and tugged at the collar of his tunic, as if it'd grown too tight.
She kissed his cheek. "That was sweet of you."
"I didn't say anything."
"You didn't need to."
Elmir cleared his throat, causing both of them to swivel towards him. "Forgive me for interrupting, your highnesses, but I wanted to make you aware of my departure."
Annette suddenly bolted to her feet. "Departure?!"
"Yes, your majesty, I am to become a knight errant."
"But hasn't Alaric offered you a position here."
"He has most generously offered me a position, but I fear my place is not here."
Annette hated that he acted so formal towards her, but after everything that had happened, she wasn't surprised. "But… where will you go?"
He shrugged. "I do not know. Wherever there is need for a knight, I suppose."
She sighed. "I guess I can't stop you from going but… I'll miss you." She cast a questioningly glance at Alaric and he nodded grudgingly. She raced towards Elmir and wrapped her arms around him, ignored the armor that poked her. "Take whatever you need before you go and know that I'll be praying for you."
He awkwardly patted her twice and she stepped back from him. "I thank you for the provisions and the prayers, your majesty." He swallowed and glanced at his toes. "Before I depart… there is something else." He lifted his head and gazed directly at Alaric. "Your highness, I have a message that I am loathe to give, but I feel it's my duty to do so."
"As Duke Koertio was dying he told me this. He admitted to murdering your parents, as well as framing your father, then Queen Vidya. He says the Queen was much too close to discovering his plot to murder your father."
His brows slammed downward. "Why would he want me to know this?"
"I believe it was meant as one last attack. To twist the knife, so to speak. He told me to remind you that no matter how much you kept, he has already taken more. And for you Queen Annette, he said, 'There are consequences to unburying the dead.'"
Annette stumbled backwards and swayed slightly.
Alaric wrapped his arms around her waist, supporting her. "Do you know what this means?"
She buried her head in his chest and nodded. "Yes. I once found a slim book that recorded Queen Amara's death. It contained the warning: Don't unbury the dead."
Alaric fell silent for a few long moments. "He must have left the book for you. But why?"
"I… think I know. When I was captured, he was constantly reminding me of how he was relying on my curiosity, since I'm a human. I think that was part of his plan to lure me away."
Alaric nodded. "And what consequences do you think he refers to?"
Annette shrugged. "I don't know. Maybe someone's alive who can carry out his plan?"
She fell silent for a moment. "Exis. It must be him."
"But would he do that?"
"I don't know."
"In that case, we shall keep watch for the boy." He turned to Elmir. "Sir Elmir, I thank you for your continued service, particularly in protecting Annette. My prayers will be with you also."
Elmir bowed and thanked them before turning on his heel and leaving. Annette watched him go. "I still have one more question. Who is Queen Vidya?"
Alaric smiled. "I've been meaning to introduce you. Come, allow me to show you. I believe she's currently in the gardens."
Alaric didn't reply. He led her through the palace corridors by the hand until they reached the gardens. Evening light spilled across the sky.
"Vidya!" he called.
The voice was silky and had an elegant flowing quality to it that Annette envied. It sounded vaguely familiar. Alaric led her towards the source of the voice. He stopped in front of a willowy woman, who held herself regally.
"I would like to present Queen Vidya."
Annette felt her jaw drop and she was surprised it didn't hit the ground. Her eyebrows rose in shock. "Th-this isn't Queen Vidya! It's the Healer!"
Alaric's eyes twinkled, but he said nothing.
The Healer sunk into a curtsy and rose. "I believe congratulations are in order. You are officially the Queen of Torva."
Annette shook her head and laughed. "I-I'm not sure I believe you."
The Healer offered Annette one of her serene smiles. "I apologize for not telling you sooner. I work as the palace healer for protection. There are still many who would seek my death."
Annette blinked several times. "But… No. You can't be!"
"Annette, why would a mere healer be charged with teaching you queenly etiquette?"
"Well… I don't know! Because Alaric said so?"
The Healer—Queen Vidya—smiled. "Likely answer, but not the correct one."
Annette studied her for several long moments. "You really are Queen Vidya, aren't you?"
"But you're supposed to be dead! No offense," she added.
Queen Vidya's musical laugh flowed through the air. "Yes, I suppose I am. My death was faked. After all, you can't kill someone who's dead."
"So, ever since then you've been the palace healer?"
"Yes, I have. I've lived through many generations of queens and kings."
Annette shook her head and leaned against Alaric for support. "Wow."
Queen Vidya's eyes sparkled and she smiled. "I'll leave you two alone. I believe you have some things to discuss." She curtsied again and seemed to glide away.
It was only after she'd left that Annette realized it was she who should be curtsying, not the Great Queen. "Wow."
Alaric chuckled. "You should sit." He led her to a bench. When she sat, he draped and arm over her shoulder and held her to his side. When she still remained quiet, he began to stroke her cheek. "Perhaps this is too much for one day. We should discuss our marriage later."
His last sentence shook Annette out of her thoughts. "No! It's not too much." She turned towards him.
He froze and several minutes passed as he scrutinized her. "Annette, I want you to have a family."
"And we will have a family. Together."
He sighed. "Yes, we will. But I can't offer you the same type of love your sister and father can."
Annette shrugged. "That's alright. I only need you."
His disbelief was evident in his expression. She leaned forward and pressed a soft kiss to his lips, trying to persuade him. His eyes slid shut and he clutched her to him. Her hands trembled as she buried her fingers into the depths of his hair. He suddenly drew back and nudged his head underneath her chin before he began to nuzzle her neck with sweet kisses that made her gasp and sigh. He moaned and stopped, but didn't draw away.
"A full marriage then?" he whispered against her skin.
"With my father's blessing," she teased.
His chuckles were husky and deep as he drew her onto his lap and kissed her thoroughly.
Author's Note: Omygoodness! Omygoodness! WOW! It feels so good to have the first draft finished. I can't thank you guys enough! Though I intend to do it properly in 'Acknowledgements,' which I will post soon. Thanks again for all of the reviews and support!