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Outside the great hall crowded a throng like Lew had never seen. People churned and chattered beneath Pando’s hundred-foot canopy. At the edge of the great hall itself, a furry torrent of rats poured into irregular holes in the walls. Certainly Francis was among them. Lew called out his name, but received no response. Before she could try again, Bat-face urged her forward. The crowd covered the grounds, and Lew could see someone flying in circles on a hippogriff trying to figure out where to land the huge beast. Ignoring Bat-face’s urgent tugs, she waved until she caught the rider’s eye and pointed him to the pen a tenth of a league away. When he nodded and flew off, she let her servant lead her forward once more.
Even for a Greenwarden coronation this was a special event. Hundreds of people from all over Pando had gathered to see the youngest Greenwarden ever to be named. Surely no one knew that her father would be giving up his staff before last night. Let alone to his own daughter. She didn’t even know until Francis brought her a sheet of scrawled instructions for the ceremony just as she was about to go to bed. She had stayed up all night practicing her lines.
How many people had canceled their plans to come see the precocious young honoree, expecting to be wowed by her poise and diction? Lew saw the eyes on her from all sides as Bat-face led her to the entrance. Not all of the gazes were kind. Some of the voices were even less so. She pulled Bat-face close. He may have been ugly, but he was a foot taller than her, and made her feel a little safer.
Stepmother stood outside the door to the great hall with an enormous smile on her face, but when Lew stopped to smile back, she darkened and jerked her head towards the entrance. Lew could think of nothing but her underpreparation. As she entered the hall and saw the gathered, her heart began to race. She clutched at Bat-face’s arm, but he wrenched himself free of her grip and dashed away. She had half a mind to turn and follow him out, but the next voice she heard arrested her whole attention.
“Lewellyn!” Alisair stood regal and severe in his robes. His pedestal made him a foot taller than any of the five other Greenwardens standing on either side of him. On anyone else, the unprecedented combination of the High Greenwarden’s silver necklace and the purple robes of the High Elder would look absurd or even obscene. But for Alisair, for whom stabbing a sacred gryphon to death in front of a crowd of people was only the beginning of twelve years of shattering ancient accords, it was fitting. Under her father’s gaze, Lew felt unprepared, unworthy. She was the wrong age. She had the wrong hair. She would say the wrong lines. Or she would say them the wrong way like a stupid commoner that don’t got no surname. Then everyone would think she wasn’t a real Greenwarden. She couldn’t handle disappointing Father again. If I leave, they’ll have to postpone. I’ll take the time to really learn my lines. She stepped back towards the door.
“No one’s going to hurt you, child,” said Melaani in her sweet, singsong voice, “please, won’t you rehearse with us?”
Lew looked up at Melaani, one long braid wreathed around the top of her head in the style Lew was supposed to be wearing. She realized how foolish she was being and took another deep breath. She began to walk forward once more.
“You look beautiful in that robe,” offered Lyris next to Melaani. Her waving golden hair framed her delicate face. She had been named the youngest ever Greenwarden before, twelve years ago at age twenty-five. Lew had been born the next day. Lew walked in front of her father, swallowed, and said “I have come to answer the call to serve Pando.”
Melaani beamed and Alisair nodded. On his left, Osyris raised a hand to his angular face and coughed. Kallen, the oldest by far, flicked his staff and knocked the younger man in the back of the head so hard he nearly fell off his stand. Then he gave Lew a curt nod of his own.
“Pando hears your answer,” intoned Alisair, “Do you swear to uphold our laws and virtues as far as they align with His will?”
“I swear,” corrected Alisair.
“Oh! I – I swear.” Lew stammered.
“You’re doing great, sweetheart,” murmured Melaani, shining with kindness.
Alisair raised his stick above his head with both hands. “This is my staff,” he boomed, “given to me when Lemuel Greenwarden left this earth. Now I give it to you. My claim has ended, though my duties shall not.”
Lew knelt on the barkcloth cushion before her and brought her head down and her hands up. “I accept the burdens that all bearers of this staff have borne. They shall stay with me on,” Lew cleared her throat, “on past my death until the end of time. I shall carry the duties as Lemuel and Alisair before me, and those before them.”
Alisair spoke again, “As the High Elder, it is with my approval that this passing down occurs.” Kallen rolled his eyes and shook his head. Alisair dropped the staff back to his side and whispered to Lew, “Now you have the staff.” Lew pantomimed holding a staff in her hand. She stood and turned to the empty hall. “Turn towards me, girl! You’re forgetting the necklace!” Lew felt her face turn red as Alisair pantomimed placing a necklace on her. Then she turned to the empty hall. “Y’all are my charge.” Lew stiffened and glanced at Osyris, whose straight face grew wider and who inched away from Kallen’s staff. “You all are my charge. I shall protect you and Pando with the strength and courage that He gives me.”
“Very good, child,” murmured Melaani as Lew took her place next to Lyris and Kallen assumed Alisair’s place on the podium. Now it was Kallen’s turn to address the invisible audience. “As the High Greenwarden, I declare the passing of the staff complete. This concludes the ceremony. Thank you for coming.”
“Ok, Lewellyn, out you go!” whispered Melaani, making a sweeping motion with her fingers.
After a grueling one minute ceremony, Lew couldn’t say if she had done a good job or not. As far as she could tell, she did everything right, so why did Kallen look so angry? Father’s face had remained flat throughout. Stepmother Aerith in a front row seat glowed with pride as long as Lew wasn’t looking directly at her. Nothing had burst into flame yet, but somehow, that wasn’t a great comfort.
Outside the great hall, the crowd had largely dispersed. A hippogriff rider launched away over her head and she looked up at the waning sunlight shining through the bright green leaves on the trees, glowing drops of sun forming and sinking into them. The staff was heavy in her hands; it felt like something on which the fate of Pando would rest. Indeed, it stood a head taller than her, and she wondered how she’d ever be able to use something so ill-fit to her size. She felt a chill as she thought again of fire.
Bat-Face met Lew at the door. He nodded and grinned as if it had been him who had just been given a lifetime position of the highest honor. He reached out his arm for Lew to take.
“You left me,” she scowled.
The grin flew from Bat-face’s face. “I weren’t supposed to be in there,” he sputtered, “You didn’t see the look yer dad gave me? Coulda scared the feathers off a ‘griff!”
“Bat-face, if you insist on continuing to talk like that, you shall never receive a surname,” Lew scolded, lifting her nose and enunciating her words.
In the next moment, her heavy staff became light. Then it zipped up through her fingers and out of her grip. “What?” Lew exclaimed.
Bat-face stared in awe at something behind her, and he fell to one knee and looked to the ground. “High Greenwarden, Sir.”
Lew spun and stared at the wrinkled face of Pando’s brand new High Greenwarden. He lived in Zalatha and she had never met him, but she’d seen him scowling and hitting people with his staff enough to get an idea of his personality. Now he stood in his green cloak and silver necklace, one sacred staff in each hand.
It made no sense. She had done everything that was asked of her. She had sacrificed her sleep and humiliated herself in front of a thousand people, all for Pando. Now she had not only earned this staff, but promised that she would keep it safe. How would it look for her to wander Candon with a Greenwarden robe and necklace and no staff? “I’m not supposed to give my staff to anyone else.”
Kallen’s wrinkled mouth quirked. “You didn’t give me anything, Eldersdaughter. I took your staff. If you were ready to wield it, I would not be able to.”
Bat-face grabbed at her arm to lead her away, but she wrenched from his grip. This old man declared her a failure before she even had a chance to try. It was too much, and her empty hand curled into a fist. She wanted to spit Chichu curses at this stupid old man, to grab her staff and try to wrench it back from his grip, but she remembered her place.
“High Greenwarden, my apologies. I ask only to understand. How am I to do my duty to protect the staff if you take it back to Zalatha?”
Kallen sneered. “ActuaIly, I live here in Candon now. Or do you and your father think that you still need both the High Greenwarden’s Cottage and The High Elder’s Palace?”
Lew pursed her lips. She and Stepmother Aerith had lived in the Elder’s palace for as long as she could remember, but the High Greenwarden’s cottage was cozy and remote. Perfect for studying or just to get away from needy servants and pushy stepmothers. It didn’t seem right that her coronation would mean that some old man would take that away from her.
She smiled and took a deep breath, as she had often seen Stepmother Aerith do, reminding herself that all went well when she behaved. She looked up at Kallen. “When do I get my staff back?”
His scowl softened. “You shall have it when you are ready.”
Lew couldn’t help herself. How could she never question authority when her father had made a career out of it? “Sir, I have been selected for the staff. The law of the land has deemed me ready.”
Kallen shook his head. “And I have deemed you wanting. Until the staff will be safe in your hands, my duty to Pando is to keep it out of them.”
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