And all of them were bowing to him.
As they lifted their heads, Walter could see tears streaking several of their faces. The elderly especially turned their blue eyes to him with the aching realization that--
--their savior was truly there.
"UrenUres, Merines! MenWelUres, Merines!"
It was an ancient chant, hailing back from the times of the Kingdom of Terises.
Live long, Shining One. Shine forever, Shining One.
The Merines was and had always been the spiritual leader of the Ferines; the Merines could not possibly be everywhere at once, and the leaders that had existed before their savior's coming would not simply disappear after.
Right now, the battered and decimated Radiants needed someone to unite them, to turn to when the world had changed irreversibly before them. They needed the comfort and guidance that a leader would give them.
And the Merines, long thought dead, stood in all his regal glory before them.
There were few among them that knew just what kind of lie had been woven; Stella and Maurits were the only survivors from the Merines' village, and both had agreed that it would be in the Ferines' best interests to believe that their savior had survived. His grandmother had sworn secrecy over the situation, expressing her pride at her grandson's willingness to give up so much -- his time, his past, his name -- for the Ferines. Norma, Senel, and the others who had traveled with him would always know that he had not been born with a butterfly teriques, and that the wings that had stretched across the sky had not in fact been his own. Even the Holy Sovereign of the Rexalian Empire, Lady Musette, knew of the decision, and had smiled that deceptively-calm smile of hers the entire time; as a nation's leader, she could empathize.
Musette nodded at him as he climbed up the dais, their standing basically equal in the eyes of the gathered Orerines and Ferines. She was flanked by Curtis and Isabella, while Walter was joined by Maurits and Stella.
Stella, Maurits, and he were the only ones who had heard the will of the sea. He knew he would find himself confiding in both of them long after the ceremony, long after Maurits began governing the eventual Ferines nation and Stella commited to the Rite of Feriyen with her beloved Senel.
It was Shirley's, and Nerifes', wish that her teriques continue to inspire the world. Even if she could not be there herself, Shirley wanted to see the world that Crusand had so brutally torn apart healed. It was Shirley's grace and selflessness that had led to him agreeing to his new role.
And it was Shirley's will that filled him as he faced the audience.
"It's been a long time since I've seen so many Ferines in one place. And it's been longer still since I've seen Ferines willing to stand with Orerines. I am grateful and honored to stand here with all of you, Orerines and Ferines, today." He paused, his neutral expression wavering as he saw Jay's 'brothers' waving at their race's exclusion. "It's been ... a struggle, I know, and not everyone here will understand my sincerity as I speak.
"But what we have here now is a partnership that was once thought impossible. Together, we not only managed to quash an evil none of us could settle alone, but we decided that there were greater things worth fighting for than our racial identities." Fenimore and Thyra, standing to the front of the Ferines congregation, visibly glanced over at where Senel was standing.
"It's something that we should take pride in, because we are all stronger because of the partnerships -- the friendships, the relationships -- that we form." Senel's passive stare shifted, and he smiled at Stella. "And there is no greater partnership than the one we undertook to take back the peace of this world." The many fighters that had set aside their differences, among them Chloe, Will, and Moses, nodded or smiled or loudly cheered.
Walter's gaze flitted through the crowd, trying to find his best friend. But the yellow ensemble that Norma had always favored was easily missed with so many blonds around. "I stand before you today as one of you, a human of this planet of water and land. We're not that different at all."
His teriques came unbidden -- Shirley's will still held a certain sway over it -- and formed as the transparent blue wings that the world had seen deliver them from the Nerifes Cannon's wrath. And even as the last words left his lips, an ethereal blue glow washed over the hall as the Ferines responded.
"I am the Merines, Walter Felques. I want to know each and every one of you."
The field of gold was replaced by a shining sea, and the Orerines looked from the Merines to the applauding Ferines next to them. Before long, a deafening cheer joined the applause.
But Walter wasn't paying attention to them anymore. His eyes were focused beyond the crowd to the brunette who had until then been hidden. Norma stood with her hand on one of the farthest double doors, staring right at him.
Are you leaving now? Is this goodbye? He couldn't ask that --- not now, not when there were hundreds of eyes on him. Don't leave, Norma.
She wasn't crying now. Her gaze once again had that wondrous passion he had seen over over. She had places to go, ruins to explore, foods to eat, and people to meet.
He couldn't deny her those dreams. What kind of friend would he be? How could he possibly ask her to stay?
Norma tilted her face to the sky. It was awfully poignant amid the ovation. There was no way she could have heard his thoughts or read his face across that distance.
But she let go of the door handle and smiled heartily at him.
There was nothing that could stop him from smiling back.