Somehow I kept moving. Before I could process what all was happening around me, we’d reached the platform, and Calliope was helping me up the steps under the guise of dealing with the long hem of my dress. Once I was standing upright on my own at the top, Henry approached me, bowing his head in greeting.
“Kate.” His soothing voice did nothing to calm me. “You look beautiful.”
“Th-thanks,” I stuttered, attempting to curtsy. It didn’t work too well. “I see they didn’t make you wear a dress.”
Henry chuckled. “Even if they had, I wouldn’t have looked nearly as lovely as you do.”
He held out his hand, and I took it, having no other choice if I didn’t want to fall flat on my face. Henry led me to the center of the platform, our backs facing the audience.
“My family,” he said with a vague gesture toward the thrones.
“Are they invisible?” I whispered.
He gave me a wry smile. “No, they are among us. They wish to remain anonymous.”
I nodded and forced a grimace, hoping it would pass for a smile. So I wouldn’t be meeting them face-to-face after all. That was infinitely more frightening; it meant every single person I met tonight would be a potential tester. Maybe passing out wasn’t such a bad idea.
I spent the evening seated next to him on another smaller platform, watching everyone else enjoy themselves. I worried someone might jump out and try to choke me, and I didn’t dare take any of the food or drink that was passed around, but as long as Henry was there, I felt safe. Or at least as safe as I could be. I stayed quiet, refusing to look over at the empty thrones. I could do this, whether or not they liked me. I had to.
I watched Ava dance with the dark-haired guard, who seemed to enjoy himself more than someone on guard duty should have. He was cute, but I had a sneaking suspicion that the only man I’d be allowed to date was sitting next to me, not making a sound. I shied away from the thought. Our agreement was that I’d stay here, not that I’d do something as ridiculous as marry him, queen or not. Though the more I thought about it, the more I wondered if being his so-called queen meant marrying him, too.
“Who is everyone?” I finally said. No one approached Henry and me, but occasionally someone would stop in front of the platform and bow. I was instructed to nod my head in return, once and as regally as possible. I was too scared to do anything else.
“My subjects,” said Henry. “Some asked to come so they could meet you, and others have been good to me in the past.”
“Oh. They’re dead?”
“Yes, though obviously not in the way you define it.”
I watched them, fascinated, trying to pick up any hint that they weren’t exactly the same as the living. Some danced archaically, but other than that, I couldn’t find a single difference. Looking around, my eyes fell on Ava. At least she looked happy to be there.
“And one of them wants me dead,” I said. Henry stiffened beside me, and that was all the confirmation I needed.
“Do not worry,” he said. “You are safe with me.”
“Do you know who it is?” I said, and he shook his head. “What about the person who’s supposed to take over for you if I fail? Could it be him? Or her?”
He grimaced. “Somehow I think not.” And that was all he’d say on the subject.
It was nearly midnight when Henry stood and everyone fell silent. My backside was killing me, and even though I hadn’t taken a step in hours, my feet ached from the heels Calliope had forced me to wear. I was ready for this whole thing to be over, but instead of leading me toward the door, Henry steered us back toward the stage. My legs shook underneath me, and it was a miracle I managed to stay upright.
“This will be easy,” he said quietly. “All you have to do is say yes and accept the seeds.”
Bemused, I followed him up the stairs, nearly falling flat on my face when we reached the top. Luckily he caught me, and I steadied myself, waiting for him to speak.
“Katherine Winters,” said Henry in a booming voice that made me flinch. “Do you agree to stay at Eden Manor for the autumn and winter, to take the tests as given to you by the members of the council, and should you pass, accept the role as Queen of the Underworld?”
Everyone inside the ballroom was silent. No pressure or anything. “Yes.”
A small plate appeared in his hand, with six seeds arranged carefully in the center. I took the first one in between my fingers, looking at Henry for approval. He nodded encouragingly, and I put the seed in my mouth, trying not to make a face. I hated seeds—I didn’t even eat watermelon because of them. Unfortunately mythical seeds didn’t taste any better.
I swallowed them rapidly, trying to ignore the slimy feeling as they slid down my throat. I wanted to gag, but I managed to keep my mouth shut. After the sixth seed was down, the crowd erupted into cheers, but that was nothing compared to the way Henry was looking at me, his expression strangely gentle. Whatever this was, it meant more to him than I understood.
That’s when they finally put me out of my misery. Ella and Calliope were at my side and helping me down the stairs before I realized what was happening. The crowd parted to let us through, and hands I couldn’t trace back to bodies reached through the walls of shoulders and torsos to touch my hair, my dress—even a few managed to touch my face. Eventually my guards joined us, shielding me from them. It was humiliating.
“Oh, Kate, he’s so cute!” said Ava excitedly as she, Ella, Calliope and I made our way back toward my bedroom. “He said his name’s Xander, and he’s gorgeous and smart and funny and cute—”