Her mother stares lifelessly at the pillow beside her, where her father used to sleep. A single, grey brown hair rests on it, marring the smooth, white surface.
Katie squeezes her hand, hoping that maybe the sheer force of her will might draw her back to the land of the living. An angry tear rolls down her cheek and onto the white bedlinens. Why does this have to fall to her? She’s not prepared; She’d never wanted this. “Wake up, mom. Please, come back for me.”
Her mother blinks slowly, and sighs. Her tangled hair falls into her face, and Katie sighs before brushing it back. She’d hoped that maybe today her mother would finally hear her, might actually wake up and wear her crown again today, but obviously the gods must hate her, because she is just as comatose as she had the day before, and the day before that. Katie dips her head, pressing her forehead into her mother's soft side. She can feel her chest move with every breath, filling up with air, and then spilling it out again.
“I'm too young, I'm unprepared,” She sniffs. “I don't know how I'm supposed to replace you guys. I'm not ready.”
Katie’s the second born child, so it had never been more than a vague, and distant idea that she might one day have to step up. Since no one had ever expected her to have a chance to rule, she’d had free reign of her education. While she had studied alchemy and medicine, and how machines ticked and computed, her brother had memorized the traditions of their allies, and learned civics, and how to actually run their country. Katie can’t regret it; she loves knowing what she knows, but still, she wishes that she had’ve bothered to learn something, anything, so that she wasn’t so clueless.
“Mom, please.” She pleads, her voice barely a broken whisper.
Behind her, the door slides open.
“What?” Katie asks, her voice sharp enough to draw blood. Whoever it is doesn't speak until she dabs her eyes dry and turns to face them.
Shiro is waiting by the door, watching her with guarded eyes. He’d known her since she’d been a child, snot nosed, and with a penchant for getting herself covered in mud and grass stains. He’s practically her only friend, the only person in this castle that she trusts to see her mother like this, and to see her cry.
She sniffs and sinks back down onto the bed, her ceremonial dress weighing on her shoulders as if it’s been sewn together with threads of lead. “Sorry. I just- I-” Katie takes a deep, shaking breath. “Is it time?”
Shiro nods, and offers his right arm. His right arm, taken from him just like Matt had been taken from her. He was lucky enough to come back; Matt was not. “It’s time. Are you ready?”
Not at all.
To accept the crown is to admit that her family is broken, and comatose and dead, but as her advisor had told her, to continue being stubborn, to continue funding expeditions into Zarkon’s territory that only lead to more missing, more dead, would lead to the court thinking her unfit of ruling, and she would have a rebellion on her hands to deal with.
Katie slips her arm through his. Her sleeve doesn’t do much to soften the metal of his arm, but she doesn’t care; it’s grounds her, keeps her from running away like she wants to. “Of course.” She lies, her voice shaking. “Of course I am.”
Shiro leads her through the winding halls in silence, shooting her concerned glances as often as he dares. The halls are empty, spotless. Almost every servant employed by the castle is in the main hall, or in the kitchen preparing the feast, and attending to the guests. It’s strange, not passing anyone by in the more public halls. He stops her in front of the grand oak doors, and pulls her into a bone crushing hug.
She sinks into his familiar grasp as he whispers into her ear, “You may be my Queen now, but you are still a girl who’s just lost her family. You can still mourn them.” He pulls away, and adjusts her dipping collar before resuming his proper position beside her.
They continue forward, and Shiro presses the switch on the wall, and the doors spill open, welcoming her into a room filled with heady scent of expectation. The chairs at the end of the hall are filled with the few commoners deemed worthy of witnessing this event- war heros, and off-duty guards- and their eyes feel like spotlights trained on her. Katie can feel the back of her collar start to grow damp with nervous sweat. She can’t let it get to her. She can’t mess this up now.
Katie sets her gaze on the throne at the end of the walkway, and starts to walk. The throne is beautiful; a creation grown rather than built; pruned and guided into the high backed chair it is now. Gold fills in the cracks and holes, and lines the green cushions pressed into the seat and backing. Her father used to sit in this chair, she thinks, and now she will. The emerald carpet stops just before the steps begin, a small lump there where the carpet has been pushed up. She takes a deep breath and turns around.
The crowd in front of her is a blur of color and movement, and she can’t tell where the chairs begin and the people end. The priest steps away from his position beside the throne, and stands beside her. His wizened, old hands clasp around hers. “Princess Kathryn, of the Holt and Sutton lines, do you stand before me, ready to take on the burden that your father has passed down to you?”
She swallows. “Yes, I am.”
The Priest coughs into his shoulder, turning the dark, red fabric a shade darker. “Yes, yes. Now,” He coughs again, louder, and then looks up to meet her eyes. “Will you recite the ritual rites?”
Katie nods. She’s known these words for years, since she was young enough to recognize them under her father’s breath when he had to deal with something hard, or echoing in her brother’s room as he practiced the words, over and over until they flowed like water from his mouth. The words come to her easily, but still feel like a mockery as she says them.
“The new gods killed the old, and bestowed upon us the power to rule ourselves. For the burden of this power was too much for the common man, Aphelia bestowed this power upon her son, and henceforth, the royal family has ruled Terra. As I ascend, I promise as my father's father has promised, and his father before him, that I will put my country above my own heart's selfish wishes. The life of my country is my own, and I will serve you because we are one.” Katie bows her head, and the priest sets the heavy crown upon her head. Rather than a pretty ornamental piece, like the type the Alteans wear, the Terran crown is made of heavy iron, meant to weigh upon its wearer’s head to remind them of the weight of their decisions. The crown is heavy; it feels like she’s being forced to the ground, and already, she hates it.
She straightens up, and turns back to her father’s throne and climbs the stairs, each step in tune with the pounding of her heart. Katie takes her seat. Her dress takes up most of the room in the seat, it’s many layers of satin and silk spilling around her. She looks up at the crowd staring back at her and meets the eyes of new Empress Allura. Her pink eyes are bright, set on Katie’s dress and throne and crown with curious eyes. Out of anyone in this room, she might be the only one here who is just as new to this as she is. The Altean Kingdom had been silent for nearly two hundred years, and had only joined the coalition after the Western war began again five years ago.
Katie’s father had attempted to become allies, if not friends, with the Alteans but his efforts had come to a halt when King Alfor was murdered in cold blood. Katie had only met Allura once or twice before, and that was before she was fluent in the common tongue, but she had seemed nice, and eager enough to make friends with her. She notices that Katie is watching her, and smiles, dropping her hand from where it’d been intertwined with the King of the South, Lance’s hand.
On the opposite side of the isle sit the Galran Princes of New Daibazzal, Prince Lotor and Prince Keithian. Prince Lotor watches her watching him with an amused look in his yellow eyes. He smiles, and his fangs glint in the light like swords. She shifts her gaze to Prince Keithian, who’d been a close friend of hers before the war had began. He’d been Keith to her, no titles between them, and she’d been his Pidgeon. It had been a relief to be around him, to be no one important except for being his friend. It’s been years since they’ve spoken, but nevertheless, seeing him offer a tentative smile is enough to banish the remaining butterflies in her stomach.
The Priest steps aside, and calls out to the crowd, “Praise be to our new sovereign, Queen Kathryn of Terra!”
The crowd cheers, the royals clap and grin, and Katie realizes that the easy part is over, and that the worst of it is just about to begin. The other royals, her peers, are supposed to present her with gifts, which often foreshadow their future relationships with one another, and are supposed to represent her becoming one of the ruling class. It’s going to take hours to receive every royal in this hall, which means hours and hours of forced social interaction on which the future of her kingdom and the success of her reign depends on. Of course, her brother would’ve found this part easy, fun even. Talking to people, remembering how to accept gifts depending on the culture, and figuring out which words to say? That was his thing. He was nice, and easy to get along with, and would’ve loved the festivities today. The only part of the day that he would’ve had trouble with was the incantation, because as well and as long as he had known it, he still somehow managed to mess it up whenever he recited it to someone else.
“Empress Allura, and the Southern King Lance of Altea!” The Herald calls as the applause dies down.
Katie fiddles with her hands, hidden behind the flowing curtains of her skirts, as Empress Allura stands, her dress flowing off of her body like water. Her dress seems more comfortable than Katie’s fluffy green monstrosity, but she still curtseys stiffly, as if trying not to displace her outfit. A strand of curly, white hair escapes from her bun as she straightens up, and she quickly brushes it back behind her ear. “It was a pleasure to witness your ascension, Queen Kathryn. I do hope that our kingdoms may continue to work toward our shared goals of peace and innovation.” Her words are warm, but crisp, and have a slight lilt, marking her as a foreigner. But beyond that, she speaks in the voice of a monarch, one who has seen too much, too young. This is the voice that Shiro’s been telling her she has, whenever she switches from her easy vernacular to the proper one demanded by the court. Katie can tell that there is a girl inside of her who’s just as nervous as she is.
Katie takes a gamble, and drops the proper script to speak like she normally does, like she would to a friend. “Me too, Empress. I hope that we can be friends more than anything. I know I sure could use one.”
Allura’s polite smile spreads into a warmer grin. “As could I.” She steps aside, and Lance rises from his chair to join them.
King Lance is already wearing a warm smile, as he steps in front of her, and bows. As he stands, his blue tunic seems to shimmer in the light, like a lapis lazuli spun into cloth. “A pleasure, your Majesty. You look beautiful.” He steps aside, and gestures at the servants behind him. “I hope you like our gifts, though I doubt that anything that we could offer can rival your beauty.” He winks dramatically, and grins.
Allura rolls her eyes, but his words make her cheeks burn with embarrassment.
Two servants stand from their seats, and carry a simple metal chest over, holding it out before the three of them. Allura presses the glowing teal button on the front, and it pops open to reveal a folded dress made of the same Altean silk as Lance and Allura’s clothes are made of, dyed in the colors of the Terran flag: Emerald green, yellow, and white. It’s beautiful, and undoubtedly expensive, and Katie has no idea how to wear something as beautiful as that without feeling self-conscious, but she likes it anyways.
“Thank you, Empress. King Lance.” Katie says. “That was- That was beautiful. Thank you.”
Allura merely smiles, and nods, and then she and her court recede like the tide going out to sea.
“Prince Hunk, and Queen Shay of the Balmera.” The Herald calls. A man dressed in a simple yellow tunic and brown overcoat stands up, hesitating at his seat before the Balmeran woman beside him, Queen Shay, she presumes, whispers something encouragingly. He nods and then heads up to the throne, carrying a small chest in his ungloved hands.
The Balmerans had been enslaved under Galran rule for nearly a hundred years, and they had only recently been freed during the turmoil that had resulted from the recent split within the kingdom. She remembers now, Katie thinks with a start. Prince Hunk had been a lowly commoner who’d gone to the Balmera to trade. When he’d gotten there, he’d ended up invited to their ball, and just like a fairy tale, fell in love with the Queen, and she with him. It had been the subject of court gossip for months; how could she forget?
“Your Majesty.” Prince Hunk bows a little too deeply, and then straightens up, offering the chest to her as casually as one would offer a glass of mead. She looks at him curiously, and then unlatches it. Inside is a collection of vials and bottles, all labeled in meticulous and large handwriting. She catches a couple words- crystal shards, quintessence- before she closes it, and passes it over to a servant hovering nearby.
“An alchemy kit?” She guesses, some of her excitement leaking through her voice.
The Prince smiles sheepishly, and fiddles with the dull ring on his finger. “Well, uh, yes. I’ve heard many things about your work, about your personal library and the discovery of the new quartskill medicine system, and I thought that you might enjoy trying out this branch of science. I hope I didn’t overstep.” He adds.
“Oh, no, of course not. I love it, Prince Hunk. I’ve heard that you’ve made some innovations of your own. Perhaps one day I’ll be able to see them?” Katie really wishes that their audience would disappear; asking excitedly about machinery and mechanical carriages is not becoming of a new sovereign ruler, but that’s all she wants to do now that she realizes who he is.
Hunk smiles more confidently, and bows again before hurrying back to his seat. His wife smiles at him proudly, one of her hands resting on her pregnant stomach.
“Prince Lotor of West New Daibazzal.”
Prince Lotor stands, his cape swooping behind him in a cascade of purple. His hair is pulled up into a high ponytail that seems to rival Allura’s locks in length. Katie doesn't know him too well; their ages were far enough apart for him to avoid interacting with her whenever she came to visit, but the few memories that she does have of him are enough to back up the various rumors she’s heard floating around. Cocky, proud, full of himself, and a liar with a tongue of honey.
He bows before her, and kisses her hand. There are a strange lack of servants trailing behind him, and for that, she is suspicious. “Your Majesty, it is an honor to be here today, and to bask in the brilliance of your beauty. Please, enjoy the many gifts of my people. There are breathtaking, but never so much as you.” Prince Lotor moves to stand beside her, taking his place in the small gap between her and Shiro. She hears Shiro sigh exasperatedly, and then the quiet click of his boots as he steps aside.
The doors at the opposite end of the room wing open, and a procession of servants step into the hall. The guests turn around row by row and gape at the bounty that they carry. Shields that glimmer in the light, swords and knives and daggers inlaid with jewels and cast in silver and gold. Scepters that seem questionably phallic-shaped, and armor, so pretty and thin that it’s practically useless except for decoration. Katie isn’t sure how long it takes before they finally stop, but by the end of it, there are mountains of stuff around her, and her servants are barely making a dent as they hurry to take it away. She glances over at Allura, and she is positively fuming. Her ears are a bright red, and her glare looks like it could kill, if Lotor would ever look over at her. Shay looks mad too, although she does a better job of hiding it behind a stony expression.
They’re not wrong to be mad. Prince Lotor has outdone just about everyone with his show of wealth. His wealth which comes from the subjugation of so many people, especially the Alteans and the Balmerans.
Still, Katie knows better than to make a scene and deny his gifts, or to say something about his underhanded insult. “Thank you.” Katie says as Lotor bows before her once more. “I appreciate your generosity.”
“Nothing less would do for a lady as fair as you.” He says smoothly, before returning to his seat.
Keith glares at Lotor as he sits down beside him, but his brother’s smile doesn’t shift an inch.
“Prince Keith of East New Daibazzal.” The Herald calls.
Keith sighs heavily, and stands, his crimson overcoat dragging on the floor behind him. None of his servants, or his court follows him as he walks up to her throne. His hands are empty. His gait is slow.
Katie knows him well enough to understand that he doesn’t want to be here. He tries to avoid his brother whenever he can, and to be forced to interact with him civilly during the duration of the festivities, well that’s almost too much to ask. Beyond that, she senses that there’s another reason for his unease, although she can’t tell what.
Keith stops before her throne, and bows. “Your Majesty. I-” He stops, and pushes aside his crimson tunic to pull a knife from his belt. Most of the room cannot see it, but the front row can, and their eyes go wide at the sight. It’s his mamoran blade, the knife that’s supposed to ‘hold his heart’. She’s not well versed in Galran culture, but even she knows the significance of him drawing it. He turns it around, and grips the blade, offering the handle to her. “I would like to ask for your hand in marriage. I offer you my blade, and my kingdom, and a life of love. Would you accept?”
Katie feels her heart stop.
Marriage? As in, marrying Keith?
She’d known that a proposal would be a possibility; she’s a single girl, of marrying age, sitting on a mountain of wealth and power. Who wouldn’t want to capitalize on her vulnerability while they had the chance? She just hadn’t expected it from Keith of all people. Shiro is tense beside her, and she knows that he can sense her confusion. What should she say? What should she do? Katie doesn’t remember the protocol for this. She doesn’t know what to say.
“Pidge?” Keith calls quietly, the nickname pulling her from her thoughts just as easily as it had when they were kids. “I know this is sudden, but, please. I’m trying to protect you. Please let me. Please trust me.”
A husband, and another kingdom to worry about; she doesn’t want anymore responsibility, but it keeps finding her anyways. The Terran Kingdom has been weakened by the war, by the loss of the royal family. Insurgents have already sprung up in the south, and Shiro has had to stop three assassination attempts in the last week alone. Katie is just a girl; she’s not ready, she’s nervous, she’s bad with people; but to marry Keith, that would be something that her parents would approve of, that her brother would urge her to do. Of all the choices that she has to make, this one should be the easiest.
Katie reaches out tentatively, wraps her hand around the hilt, and pulls it from his grasp. The blade is made of that strange, purple metal that only the royals ever use, and an oval gem is embedded in the hilt. It feels strange. It feels like him.
She lifts it high, high enough for the whole hall to see. A cascade of gasps runs through the room. “I accept your proposal.” Katie says clearly, her voice unwavering despite her nervousness. “I will marry you.”
Keith smiles, and bows to her once more. A hint of a smile flashes across his face before he looks away, avoiding his brother’s angry gaze. “Did you ever think we’d end up like this?” He asks as he turns around, heading back to his seat.
Orphaned, engaged, the rulers of their kingdoms. No, she hadn’t expected that at all.