“Breslin, they’re ready for you now.”
I nod and smile at him. I hold up my dress so it doesn’t drag on the floor and walk the steps towards the Great Hall. I’ll be presented in front of everyone. All the government officials. Those who work for dad. Those who live in the castle. And then I’ll read my passage. My stomach flip flops, causing me to worry I might throw up at least three times on the walk over there.
I stand behind the grand double doors, closed until my name is announced. One last moment to gather my thoughts. To breathe deeply. In and out. I tighten every muscle in my body for ten seconds and then release, hoping all tension goes with it. Before I can decide if it does, I hear someone yelling, “Breslin Black!”; watch the double doors pull back; and stare into the faces of thousands of people. I struggle to put a name to even one of them.
My heart slams inside my chest. And then, before my body can shut down, I take a step. And another, and another, until I find myself halfway down the red carpeted center aisle. Applause thunders around me. I head straight towards my parents. Dad sitting in his thrown. Mom sitting beside him. I see an empty chair in front of them, where Colton will sit. People’s faces blur past me. Finally, I make it to the front where the podium with my passage sits, and I turn. My throat feels rough. As the applause dies down, I do my best to produce saliva in my mouth. Then, waiting for my cue, I plant my eyes on the words below me and never take them off. From beginning to end, my eyes remain glued to the passage. I do all that I can not to cling to the podium for strength. Mom insisted I keep my hands at my sides. I compromise and wring them in front of me. Finally finished, I turn and sit in a chair on the other side of dad, who says nothing to me. I won’t know if he fully approves of my reading until later, but at least I didn’t botch it up too badly. I wait now, as everyone waits, for the next person to walk through those doors.
The doors had been shut behind me and when they open again there is dead silence. For a split second I fear Colton’s bolted. Left the castle with his sword and paints. But he soon appears in the entryway. His clothes are so frilly and formal that he doesn’t look like himself. I know he must feel incredibly uncomfortable as he walks down the aisle. People all around begin to applaud again. Colton gives a few smiles, which to me look entirely fake, but others don’t seem to know. Dad shifts in his throne. I wonder if he knows.
Finally, he comes and takes a seat at the front of the room. A woman, large, hunched over, with hair that hangs long around her like a cloak, appears from the side of the Great Hall. She wears a simple dress and nothing ornate. She has the same mystical aura about her she had last time she was in this room–reading my name.
It’s the Reader.
No one is said to know her name. Or where she lives, except deep in the forest outside the village. No one ventures there. But for every Royal Naming, from years back, she comes from her home to the castle to read names. She must be hundreds of years old, something only Readers are capable of doing. I look at her, thinking she might make some notion with her face that she recognizes me. Instead, she barely glances in my direction, as if I were a troubling piece of road kill she’d rather not look at.
Colton fusses in his seat, trying to get the too long jacket smooth out from under him. Dad stands and with a small cough, stills him.
“Ladies and gentlemen. We appreciate your arrival for this very special occasion, the 500th Royal Naming–the Naming of Colton Black. We welcome our Reader, as we do every year a Naming occurs in the royal family. And offer our thanks,” he says, gesturing to her while the entire room applauds.
The Reader gives a sharp nod, barely acknowledging the king. Was she like this before? It was such a different experience, sitting in that chair where Colton is. Everything seemed to happen in slow motion. Everything seemed blurry. Everything seemed to press down on me so much I could barely breathe. Now, as I watch, I have an odd bird’s eye view on the entire situation. Something I feel dad doesn’t remember. If I ever tried explaining to him how hard it was to sit there, and how Colton might be feeling the same, he wouldn’t listen. He’d make up an excuse as to why I felt that way. And so I’d agree with him.
Dad continues to address the room, discussing how honorable names have been in the past. How honorable they’ll be in the future. How everyone in this castle has received a name worthy to be proud of. As he talks he doesn’t even look at me. He barely looks at mom. Mostly, he’s speaking directly to the audience–and Colton. It’s as if he’s willing the name to be what he wants it to be.
“So please, let the ceremony begin,” he says, and I realize I spaced out during the rest of his speech. Come on Colton, I say to myself. He looks entirely too young to be holding the weight of dad’s wishes. I can see him shrink down slightly in the chair as the Reader approaches him. She circles him, piercing him with her clear grey eyes. Chills climb down my arms as she pauses for a moment and circles again.
Finally, after several long, excruciatingly quiet minutes, she removes a piece of parchment from a small pouch on her waist and lays it on the podium. A feather quill dipped in ink appears beside it. If I had blinked I would have missed it. She picks up the quill, shuts her eyes–then lets the pen move on its own across the parchment. Lets the ink speak for itself.
I tear my eyes away for a second to look at Colton. He’s sitting stock still now. The next few pen strokes will determine everything. I can barely catch my breath. I grip the arms of the chair and brace myself for what comes next.
Quickly, the Reader sets the quill down and snatches the parchment in her hands. No one, not even she knows what the ink wrote. It’s waiting to reveal itself to Colton. Who at this very moment looks ready to puke.
She walks to him, no emotion on her face. No hint of anything. Colton stretches his hand out and takes the parchment in his. I shut my eyes. I swallow. And for a few seconds, I tell myself everything will be okay. His name will be everything dad wants it to be and more. I almost seem to calm myself down in this very moment.
“Colton Black,” I hear my brother say, loudly.
I nod to myself. Yes. Read us the good news.
A beat too long from Colton, however, forces my eyes to open. And I’m suddenly so nervous, I do all that I can to keep myself from shaking as I hear what follows.