They were saying yes, I realized. They were voting. Even though I’d slept with Henry, by some miracle I hadn’t failed completely. But when the vote reached James, my breath caught in my throat, and I was sure he would shake his head.
Without meeting my eye, he, too, nodded. The others continued to vote, but I stared at him, and when at last he looked up, I mouthed a simple thank you.
“So it has been decided,” said Walter when the vote reached him. “Katherine Winters will be granted immortality, and she will be wed to our brother, to rule the Underworld with him as long as she so chooses.” And then he smiled, his ancient eyes twinkling. “Welcome to the family. This session of the council is adjourned.”
The finality in his voice confused me, and dumbfounded, I waited as the council stood and headed toward the door. Some—Ella, Nicholas, Irene, Sofia, even Xander—squeezed my shoulder or gave me a word of encouragement as they passed. Ava grinned widely. Others, particularly Calliope, said nothing as they left. James, too, passed by without a word, his shoulders hunched and his head bowed. Remembering his nod and thinking of what it must have cost him to give it, I wanted to reach out to him, but I was frozen on my stool, unable to move in fear all of this would shatter and reveal itself to be nothing but a dream.
Soon only three of us remained. Me, Henry and my mother. She stood once the others had left, and without a word she enveloped me in her arms, hugging me gently. I rested my chin on her shoulder and buried my nose in her hair. Apples and freesia. It was really her.
I don’t know how long she held me, but by the time we let go of one another, my chest ached and I’d slid halfway off the stool. She helped me right myself, but it was Henry standing a few feet away from us who caught my eye.
“Was—” I paused and cleared my throat, hating how small my voice sounded. “Was that a good thing or a bad thing?”
Henry stepped beside me, and both he and my mother gently helped me stand. “You passed,” he said. “I hope you are pleased.”
Pleased wasn’t exactly the word for it. Confused, yes. Reeling, sure. And I wasn’t going to be pleased until I understood what had happened. “He said I failed,” I said, wobbling on my feet. “How could I pass after I failed?”
“It was the seventh test, sweetheart,” said my mother. “You did not fail lust. Even if you hadn’t loved him, Henry made sure we were all aware of what happened. This was the only way the council had to test you on your pride. In accepting your failure despite wanting to stay, and in respecting the council’s decision, you showed humility.”
“And by showing humility, you passed the final test,” said Henry.
“So—” I stopped, hating that I felt so slow and stupid, but it felt too good to be true. “What does that mean? What’s going to happen now?”
Henry cleared his throat. “It means, if you agree, we will be married at sunset.”
Married at sunset. What had felt like a far-fetched fantasy hours ago now pressed against me, an impending reality that was hurtling toward me faster than I could run away.
Not that I was running. This was what I’d wanted, wasn’t it? Not to be anyone’s wife, but to give Henry a chance. To give him the same hope I’d wanted for myself, and now with my mother here, even if she wasn’t exactly the same, we’d both won, hadn’t we?
No…not all of us. Calliope hadn’t won, and neither had James. In order for Henry to be alive and happy, in order for me to have my mother back, they had to lose. Calliope had brought it on herself, but James—what had he given up for me to have this?
With a start, I realized both Henry and my mother were staring at me. We’d somehow made it across the ballroom, and now we were stopped between the heavy double doors that were opened wide enough for the three of us to exit.
“Yes, of course,” I said, my face reddening. “I’m sorry, I wasn’t hesitating, I was just—thinking, and—of course I still want to do this.”
It wasn’t until Henry relaxed that I noticed how tense he’d grown. “I am glad to hear that,” he said, his relief plain in his voice. “May I ask what it was you were thinking of?”
I didn’t want to tell him that I was worried about James, in case it was still a sore spot for him, so instead I asked the question that had been burning in my mind ever since Ava had walked through those doors. “Was it all a setup?”
There was an awkward silence, and this time I saw Henry and my mother exchanging looks, as if all they needed to communicate was a glance. It wasn’t so impossible, really, and I bit the inside of my cheek, irritated they weren’t sharing.
“Yes and no,” said my mother. We continued slowly down the hallway, each step more painful than the last, but my injuries were the least of my concerns. “After the decades Henry spent searching for a new queen, when it became apparent his search wasn’t yielding the results we needed—”
“I was going to give up,” said Henry. “Each girl failed before they’d begun, or if they showed any promise at all, they turned up dead. We know what was happening now, but I cannot tell you how heart-wrenching it was to watch those young women die, knowing it was my fault. I could not bring myself to put anyone else in such danger, and I was determined it would end.”
“And I was just as determined that he try until we had no more time left,” said my mother. “So we compromised. Persephone…” Something in her expression changed, and for the briefest of moments I saw shame. “Persephone was my daughter. Your sister. It’s my fault she was never happy, and because of that, Henry was never happy either.”