“…get… Poppy will… No…stay…”
Two strong arms are around me. They tighten as I shudder violently. I’m against something stable—more solid than the land itself.
“Saraphina.” The word is whispered to me by a familiar voice. No, it’s not a word. It’s a name. It’s my name. I don’t know how I know that, but nothing has ever resounded with more truth. “Saraphina,” the voice repeats, sinking deep into my soul. “Calm. Calm.”
The word settles on my bones with an icy chill. It spreads across my body, not unfamiliar, but also not unwelcome this time.
Freeze me, I want to beg. Encase me in ice, in cold, in something that will make this horrible fire that burns underneath my skin vanish. Freeze me, or I may die.
“Saraphina, stay with me.”
I can’t oblige. The world fades to a cold blackness and I slip away.
But this time, there is no pain.
I crack my eyes open and face the dawn bitterly. I’m back in my chambers on the massive bed. Feathers poke out at my cheek and eye through the pillowcase.
When I go to sit up, I find that I can’t. My arms refuse to support my body. I can’t even straighten my elbows.
With enough wriggling, I manage to flip onto my back and let out a monumental whine. I feel as though I’ve swum the wide, choppy strait between Capton and Lanton. I’m a beached whale, heaving, and begging for life.
Begging for life.
The violent echoes of the needy earth come back to me. I groan and bring my hands up to my ears. It’s futile to try and block out the whispering demands; the sound is coming from within me. The hungry cries reverberate in my marrow.
“You’re awake,” a man says from my bedside.
I crack my eyes open and my hands fall limply on my pillow. At first glance, my mind deceives me and I’m back in my bed. My father sits beside me, wringing a washcloth out to put back on my forehead. I blink and the illusion is gone. Nothing more than a memory of comfort I will never know again.
“Who are you?” I rasp.
“The name suits you.” He’s all arms and legs, waif-like and as spindly as a willow tree. The man’s eyes are a sad shade of blue and he looks at me with a heavy gaze. “I don’t want your pity,” I mutter.
“Like it or not, you have it.” He wrings out a cloth in the basin at my side and returns it to my forehead.
“Am I fevered?” I ask.
“Mildly. It’s breaking. The king won’t tell us your true name, so we’re limited in what we can do for you,” he says in a way that tells me the fact is a point of contention. Anyone who stands up to King Eldas is a friend of mine, I decide. “So we have to use more traditional medicines.”
“Potions, salves, whatever herbal remedies we can concoct.”
“You say it like those things are insufficient.” I glance up at him, perhaps with an expression a little sharper than I realize judging by his reaction.
“I didn’t mean to offend you.”
“Well, you did.” I try and push myself up a second time. Willow helps situate me against the massive, carved headboard, placing one of the several hundred pillows behind my back so the intricate designs don’t dig into my spine. “What are you giving me?”
“Obviously.” I roll my eyes. “What’s in it?”
“An infusion of basil, ginger, and elderberry.”
“You’re not even using your namesake?” I arch my eyebrows at him as I sink back, trying to find a comfortable position. It hurts to be in my skin. “White willow bark, don’t even bother with cinnamon for the taste. Some bridewort, if you have it.” He continues to stare at me. “Let me assure you, I know what I’m talking about; I went to academy for this. It’s my job.”
Was my job. The mental correction leaves me hollow. I had a life, a purpose, and now it’s…gone.
“Fine.” Willow barely refrains from rolling his eyes and goes back to a long table that’s at the foot of the bed. I don’t remember it being there when I first investigated my rooms.
“How long was I out for?”
“About twelve hours,” he says as though the fact were nothing.
“Twelve hours…” I repeat. My attention drifts to the window. “What happened?” I whisper.
My bones creak and muscles scream as I turn back the heavy comforter trying to pin me down. My bare feet touch the floor, sleeping gown falling around my calves.
I ignore Willow’s call and movement. My sole focus is the window. I stagger over to it and peer out at the land below.
The gray world that first greeted me has found its color.
Wildflowers bloom in patches along now-green fields. I see new growth in the forests beyond. Some trees already have springtime buds on their boughs. I can make out farmers beginning to till soil. Even the sky has changed from winter to spring overnight.
This is more than just twelve hours of change. It looks as if months passed. As far as the eye can see, the world is lush and alive.
“What?” My knees give out and Willow is at my side. He’s stronger than he looks. His arm is around my shoulders and he supports me back to the bed. “What happened?”
“Do you not know?” he asks.
“I don’t know anything,” I reply curtly.
“My queen…you happened.”
Willow sighs and runs a hand over the tightly spun, black curls that are cropped nearly to his scalp. His bright eyes flick between me and the window. Eventually, he retreats, continuing to mix the concoction as I instructed. I stare out the window, resigning myself to remaining in the dark. No one here will—
“It took a year to find you…a long, cold, abnormal year. There was some kind of mistake, wasn’t there?”
“Just a large one named Luke,” I mutter. His eyes are on me and I think we’re maybe on the cusp of an understanding. “You’re right. I wasn’t trained as a queen should be. I didn’t know. My magic was hidden from me before I should have realized.”
It wasn’t my fault, I want to say. It wasn’t. So why do I blame myself for Luke’s actions? He was the one who did this to me…in the name of love.
I grimace and look back, more bitter than the dawn. I spent years pining over that pathetic man who did nothing but make me feel inept and weak—who tried to cage my abilities. Capton suffered and lost their only healer because of him. It’s enough to make me want to scream until my throat is raw.
If I never think of love again it will be too soon. Everything Luke did because of “love” affirms every reason why I knew it was a bad idea to involve myself with him—with anyone. Love is a dangerous distraction from duty.
“It doesn’t sound like you had much say in the matter. Well, not that any queen has a say in her fate. I meant to say, you didn’t have much of a say in your magic being concealed. You can’t blame yourself for someone else’s actions.” Willow pours his concoction into a glass and carries it over.
“I didn’t have a say in anything. If I had, things would’ve been different.” I brace myself and down the potion in a single gulp. I shudder at the taste. But it’s exactly as it should taste. I think back to every remedy I made by taste alone. One drop on my tongue, and I knew what herbs were at play—magic I never saw. “So no, I don’t know anything. I should have been taught whatever the heck the Keepers teach for years. But I wasn’t and now I’m in the dark here.” I look wearily up at the tall man. He’s my only lifeline. “So any help beyond potions would be greatly appreciated.”
Willow takes the cup back from me and holds it in both hands. “What do you want to know?” he asks finally. “The true natures of the king and queen are kept closely guarded…but I’ll tell you what I can.”
“Let’s start with what in the Forgotten Gods’ names happened when I sat on that throne.” I motion to the window but it’s hard to even lift my arm. “Then we can move on to how the seasons changed overnight. And maybe somewhere along the way you can tell me why I feel like I’ve fallen down several flights of stairs while running a mind-numbing fever.”
“The basics, then.” He puts the cup back on his table and then sees to settling me in bed. I want to wave him away and say I can do it myself. But the fact is, I can’t. Moreover, there’s something calming about his aura. Something I don’t want to push away. “Do you know how the Fade was made?”
“I know about the peace treaty between the humans and the elves.” Know is rather a strong word. I’ve heard it in folktales and songs since childhood. “I know that the elves live behind the Fade with all the other folk—non humans—who wield wild magic. And without the Fade to protect us magickless humans, our world would be ravaged.”
I realize that “us” magickless humans is no longer quite accurate. I am the Human Queen and because of that station I have inherited magic. I have powers not one other human could ever dream of, and rather than feeling strong, I am…lonely. I no longer fit neatly with my people and yet I’m not quite one of the folk on the other side of the Fade. I’m trapped between, destined to never really belong to either until the end of my days.
“Somewhat true.” He half sits, half leans on the edge of his bed and folds his arms. “From what I understand…there was only one world, long ago. That world was then split into two—the Realm of Mortals and the Beyond—with what we call the Veil. Then, the realm of mortals was split in two again, creating Midscape and the Natural World.”
“There’s three worlds total? The Beyond, Midscape, and the Natural World?” I clarify.
“Yes, and you come from the Natural World.”