“I’m sorry for the extra work they must have to do by being short-handed.” Though, they do have their wild magic, I suppose. What might take a human two days likely takes an elf an hour.
I must have exhausted the conversation, because Rinni doesn’t say anything further.
Behind a doorway is a sitting area that connects with yet another sitting area. We pass through open doorway after open doorway in a seemingly endless string of rooms with no obvious purpose but to exist. After the fifth or sixth room, there’s a hallway with a stairway at the end. We ascend three flights and come to a wide landing with only one door.
“These are your apartments.”
Rinni opens the door and I blink into the light that floods the room. The ceilings are the height of the first and second floor of my family’s brownstone, and rows of windows line the back wall. Rinni waits as I do a quick round of exploration of the main room and attached bedroom—a closet larger than the attic I made my room back home, a bathroom bigger than my shop, and a bed that could easily sleep five.
“Why is everything giant?” I ask, reemerging into the empty main room from the bedroom.
“Giant?” She arches her eyebrows.
“The doors are large, the ceilings are towering, what furniture there is takes up more space than a small carriage.”
“Everything is appropriately sized for a castle. You’ll grow accustomed to it. And if there’s furniture you don’t like, then you can procure a new piece. The queen usually furnishes her apartments with what she chooses. Eldas has decreed that you will have full access to the royal purse strings to order anything that will make your stay here more comfortable.”
That’s unexpectedly nice of him. Yet, at the same time, I don’t want his money. It was hard enough to take Capton’s charity and that was from people I spent my whole life with—from people I swore an oath to help and heal for my entire life in gratitude. Moreover, I’m wary of any gifts that might have caveats. And money from the Elf King must have a thousand strings attached.
I miss my shop already, and earning my own money…what little money it was, since I did most of my work for free to pay back the investment Capton made in me.
“That explains why it’s so empty.” I look around, wondering what Alice chose.
“We’ve delayed enough; come, we have to dress you for the king.”
“You may have married King Eldas in those rags, but you will certainly not sit on the redwood throne in them.” Her words ooze disgust.
“Excuse me?” I look down at what I’m wearing. “My clothes are practical.”
“For a peasant, perhaps. But now you are a queen and you will dress like it, even if you do not act like it.”
After an hour of being poked, prodded, and pulled at, I’m something that Rinni deems “suitable.”
I stare in the mirror that leans against one of the corners of the bedroom. A strand of pearls—longer than I am tall—is wrapped around my neck. Rinni made an attempt to tame the knots and waves of my hair into submission and failed. My dress is cut from a fine silk the color of autumn leaves; the boning in its top keeps my back rail-straight. I don’t usually wear warm colors because of my hair. But seeing me now, I look fierce.
At least until I look at my eyes.
Beneath them are dark shadows that have never been there before. I lean toward the mirror to get a better look. They’re the same hazel color they’ve always been, but a hollowness has taken up residence where I imagine determination used to be.
“Who are you?” I murmur to the woman staring back at me. I don’t know this woman whose dress is more put together than her life. I’m accustomed to having things under control. I’ve always had a plan—from childhood to academy.
Now…I’ve gained a castle and a crown I never asked for and lost everything I ever wanted.
Be strong, I insist to myself as I stare into the streaks of green in my hazel eyes. I have to try and make the best of this. I’ll find something I can do here, some purpose. Even if I wanted to escape—no, don’t even think it, Luella.
“Here.” Rinni emerges from the closet after a long period of rummaging. I straighten away from the mirror. She holds a crown of gilded redwood leaves in her hands that she settles on my brow. “Now you at least look like a queen. You could even fool the court if you don’t open your mouth.”
“I heard every last curse word as I tamed your mane. Half of them I didn’t even know, and I’ve been in the barracks since I was seven. Come along.”
“Is my entire existence going to be governed by you telling me where to go and when?” I ask, unmoving.
“I certainly hope not,” Rinni calls, already in the other room. “I have more important things to do than babysit you. So please grow quickly into your new station.”
“Babysit? Is that any way to speak to your queen?” I say, stealing one last look at myself in the mirror. The queen. I am the queen. If I tell myself it enough times, maybe I’ll believe it. Maybe it’ll sink in that this whole situation is my new reality.
“Start acting like a queen and I’ll start speaking to you like one.” Rinni’s voice is more distant. I hear the door to my apartments open. “Now, unless you know your way to the throne room, I suggest you hurry up.”
Hiking up my skirts to my shins, I do so.
We wind back down the stairs and through another endless series of rooms, up another set of stairs, through a library, across a hall, then up one final set of stairs into a small antechamber. Rinni presses her ear against the door.
“Eavesdropping is unbecoming for a general—or knight—what are you again?”
She shoots me a glare. “I’m making sure he’s not in the middle of something important.” Rinni opens the door and waves me in.
The throne room of the fortress is at its center, above the main atrium, so far as I can tell. The back wall is made of the same stained glass as the atrium below. But the careful latticework of lead branches out around wider panes here. I can see the hills and valleys beyond.
As far as the eye can see is brown and gray. The forests are as barren as the fields. The trees are just as withered as those I saw in the city. I lay eyes on a cold and cruel world.
The panorama is obscured by two large thrones. The throne to my right is made of redwood. It’s organically shaped, as if a tree rooted into the stone of the room and grew into the shape of a chair.
The redwood is in sharp contrast to the cold iron throne at its side. A man, as harsh and unfeeling as the chair in which he sits—as the crown on his brow—stares down at me. Eldas drags his eyes over every inch of my body in judgment.
“You did well, Rinni. Even the roughest stone can take to polish, it’d seem,” Eldas says finally. I rotate the labradorite ring around my finger. It’s as though I’m standing on trial.
“I’m glad I meet your standards,” I say dryly.
He purses his lips. Tension radiates from him in a tide that almost knocks me over. “I’d appreciate it if you begin to keep your remarks to yourself.”
“There is much to be done, and the most important thing for you to remember is that the queen has one duty, one job.” He motions to the throne next to him. “Let’s see what you can accomplish… Sit.”
I grip my skirts so tightly that I leave wrinkles when my fingers unfurl. But I keep in my frustrations at the notion that I am merely here to exist like a doll. I’m too tired to argue. I can keep my mouth shut and look pretty for a while as the king holds audiences, or makes decrees, or watches jesters dance on their heads, or whatever it is that Elf Kings do.
The heels of my shoes clop loudly on the floor as I trudge over.
“Queens should float, not walk like a horse.” So he’s allowed to make remarks but I’m not? I tilt my head to the side, pressing my lips shut in a firm line. He smirks, understanding my silent game. “Good, I’ll take the horse. At least they’re silent.”
I whinny to spite him and I think I see his eye twitch.
I twirl, my skirts billowing around me as I stand before the redwood throne—my throne—and sit.
The second I am seated on the throne, I burn with invisible flames. Magic overcomes me for the second time in one day, scraping me raw. My vision tunnels, blurs, and then expands wider than I’d ever thought possible.
I see the roots of this throne—this tree—snaking down through eons of stone and mortar. They sink deep into the earth, penetrate the bedrock, and stretch into the very foundations of the land itself.
My head spins. I want to throw up. I try to scream. But I don’t think I move. At least, my body doesn’t move.
My mind continues to spread through the soil and rock. One root touches another. I’m in the trees of the city, then the barren forests far down below the castle. I feel the grasses in the fields, brittle and dry.
Dying. The world is dying.
Nurture. Life! every plant and animal cries out to me with a singular voice. Give it to us.
Their roots are in me, their wooden points pushing under my nails, into my abdomen, snaking up my throat. The world itself is groping for me and I am helpless to stop it.
The land is thirsty, and I am the rain. The beasts are hungry, and my flesh is their food.
They will consume me, all of me, far too quickly.
There’s not enough for me and for them. There’s not enough in this world. Everything is dying and screaming to me for help—a help I don’t know if I can give. I don’t know how to give.
Two hands wrench me free. The clutches of the earth curl away and shrivel, silently screaming in protest. Light returns to me. Eyes—my eyes—I can see again. But the world is hazy. Things are too bright and moving too quickly.
The world tilts and I tilt with it. Bile rises up my throat and splatters on the floor. It’s the first sound my ears can hear. Now I hear talking, cursing, feet moving.