It was only 1947 when the call came, racing along the roads like lightning, snapping up along her spine and filling her veins with a live-wire crackle that made it impossible to do anything but move. And so she moved - hit the road and walked, dropping down to the routes known only to the denizens of the twilight, understood only by the routewitches. Even on those roads, it was a long, hard trip - some journeys, she knew even then, would learn anew later, couldn’t be anything but long and hard. The trip had to be worthy of the prize.
Everyone knew before they hit the Rest Stop. That sort of call, every road in North America singing that sort of message - there wasn’t a routewitch past two days on the road who wouldn’t understand. What they didn’t know, not immediately, was why. The King had life and strength left to him yet, had served the Ocean Lady faithfully. There’d been no whispers, no rumours, nothing that should call for a succession.
But the message was already out, which placed him five steps down that road already, long past turning back. And so the Rest Stop was done up like a mad carnival funeral, because there wasn’t a routewitch past two days on the road who didn’t know exactly what abdication meant, either. It was the next best thing to suicide, the severing of everything that was every routewitch’s identity beyond the point at which they heeded the call. Some held it worse; a suicide would still die in midnight, still return to walk the ghost roads, if as something far more disturbing than any hitcher or phantom rider could ever be.
They knew what, but they didn’t know why, or who.
The naming of the King’s successor came as a surprise to some; others, who were there in 1941, who were there to see the King’s regret, weren’t quite so surprised. The young routewitch out of Manzanar wasn’t the oldest, and she wasn’t the most powerful, and she wasn’t the most widely travelled - but she heard the road’s song in ways others who might be at a glance more fitting never had. She had her start in darkness, and understood it - the base, mortal kind - in ways most wouldn’t want to. She’d take training, but much of that would pass with the crown, and when she made mistakes - and she would make mistakes, because even as close-married to the Ocean Lady as the North American monarch is, each one is only human - she would make her own.
Even knowing that some roads, once started down, could never be left, she tried to convince him not to do it. To keep the crown until the Ocean Lady declared his term done. He smiled at her, and kissed her cheek like one doting on a favoured granddaughter, for all that he looked no more than twenty years her elder. And then, in the King’s trailer, which would by sundown be the Queen’s, he taught her the first real lesson on what it meant to rule.
The crown was never a physical thing. Even so, when she walked out wearing it as the sun sank below the horizon and twilight covered the stretch of the world that was the Atlantic Highway, every soul gathered at the Rest Stop knew. Knew better than she did, with her head still humming with years of lessons and understanding passed along with a mantle of power that linked her inextricably to the Ocean Lady. Knew better than she did, with her veins still pulsing with lightning and the greatest of the North American ghostroads’ grief. Knew better than she did, with her heart still twisting with that first, and last, and most important lesson.
“Justice,” the king said, and then waited pointedly for her to drink her tea, black and more bitter than she liked it, the flavour not truly lightened by the touch of honey, “doesn’t belong to the ghostroads. It doesn’t belong to the Ocean Lady.”
She opened her mouth to protest, and he held up a hand, forestalling her. “The ghostroads, all of them, read dedication, determination. That’s what matters to them. That’s what gets a man to the crossroads, what lets us learn what the routes have to say, and to ask our questions. But dedication and determination don’t say anything about intent. That’s where we come in - it isn’t simply our place to look at a petitioner’s drive. We have to look at their hearts, look at what they intend to do with their answers. Justice doesn’t matter to the ghostroads - it’s a human concept, and no matter how they speak to us, they aren’t human. We don’t have that excuse. We have to look into the darkness - not the midnight, but that in human hearts - and make our judgement on what is right, not just what is striven for.
“That’s where I failed. That’s where you won’t.”
The old routewitch who stepped forward to meet her had tears in his eyes: the Ocean Lady’s or his own, she wasn’t sure which. She could barely hear his voice over the cacophony in her veins, but she knew the ritual, and answered with numb lips. Her pledge, to serve the ghostroads. Her pledge, to serve the routewitches. Her pledge, to protect them both, to tend the former and judge the latter and give what succour she could when either’s end came.
He asked her name at the last, not the one she was born with, but the one she would reign by. And finally, the lightning quieted and the frost receded from her lips, and she gave the only answer that could honour the old King’s reason and his charge. “Apple.”