His navy eyes flash a glacial blue in response—something I have come to associate with the Knowing. He just tried to find my true name, and I shudder to think what he might have done with it. Harrow scowls and looks to the labradorite ring on my hand. I ball my fingers into a fist. I didn’t expect the enemies Eldas mentioned to be inside the castle.
“My brother, detailed as ever and perpetually good at ruining my fun.” Harrow sighs. “Well, get up.”
“I said, get up.”
“Can’t what?” He arches his eyebrows. “Order you? What will you do about it? Do you even know how to use your magic?”
I purse my lips.
“You’re not the only one who wears a crown in this castle.” He taps the iron circlet on his forehead for emphasis.
“No, I’m not. Eldas does as well. And his crown is far more impressive than yours.”
Anger flashes through his eyes, so fast I almost miss it. But it’s quickly cooled by laughter and replaced with wicked amusement.
“Good, you’re not a wet rag. It’d be boring if you were. Now get up; I’ve agreed to let a few honored members of your court get a sneak peek of their new queen.”
“Your court can rot.”
His eye twitches. “Get up or I will make you.”
“Get out of my room.”
He’s right. I have no idea how to use my magic. And even if I had a way to contact Eldas, I doubt he’d be on my side, or care about my plight. He was the one who had me sit on the throne without warning and then washed his hands of me after. I’m alone here.
“I thought so.” His smile widens. He turns to my bedsheets and his eyes flash again. The sheets wrap around me like a cocoon and I am hoisted into the air. I fight against the constricting linens but they’re too tight. My arms are trapped; my legs are rail straight.
The magic alight in Harrow’s eyes fades as he puts me down, upright, in front of the closet. The sheets fall harmlessly in a puddle around my feet.
“Will you get dressed on your own? Or do I have to make your clothes dress you? Your call.”
With one last glare at him, I try to march into my closet with as much dignity as my exhausted body will allow.
Harrow calls this place the lunch nook. Which is an inappropriate name since the room seemingly has nothing to do with lunch or nooks.
It’s large. Of course it’s large. Just as grand as everything else here.
Gilded mirrors line the wall to the right on entry, reflecting off the heavily curtained windows that overlook the city to the left. There are five tables spread throughout the room, four smaller ones set for four people and a large center table set for six.
This is where three people sit. All of them promptly ignore the tower of cakes and snacks in the center of the table to face me.
“Don’t let me distract you.” I approach ahead of Harrow and grab one of the glistening fruit pies off the top tier. “I’m not nearly as fascinating as this food.”
“We wholeheartedly disagree.” A woman with straight black hair to her waist leans forward, placing both elbows on the table.
“Perhaps we should take her at her word. She surely has the authority on how interesting she is.” A brown-skinned man adjusts his thick spectacles and takes a sip of tea from the dainty cup before him.
The third doesn’t raise his eyes from the book he’s reading.
Harrow sits and kicks up his feet onto the vacant chair. “Your Majesty, meet my friends. Jalic is the fine specimen of a man with the glasses.”
Jalic rolls his eyes.
“Our strong, silent type is Sirro,” Harrow continues.
The man looks at me through his long lashes and waves of brown hair. He must ultimately decide I’m less interesting than his book, because he eagerly returns to it.
“And last, but certainly not least, is the loveliest acrobat in all of Lafaire, the one and only—”
“Ariamorria,” she finishes with a snaggletoothed grin. “But call me Aria. Charmed to meet you, Your Majesty.”
“Yes, the pleasure is mine,” I lie, and stuff the small pie in my mouth. I was expecting the taste of cherry. I was not expecting it to be also laced with some kind of pepper so hot steam comes out of my ears. As quickly as the cake went in my mouth, it comes back out. I spit it on the floor and fan my tongue.
“She looks like a dog!” Aria shares in a laugh with Harrow.
“I guess she really is the true queen if Midscape’s food doesn’t taste like ash.” Jalic tries, and fails, to hide his amusement behind the teacup. Even Sirro chuckles.
I race to pour myself a cup of tea. It’s near boiling, but I’m ready to scald off my taste buds to stop the burning from the spices. The room spins and I lean against one of the chairs.
“I think you put too much,” Aria says to Harrow. “She looks faint.”
“If she faints again I’m sure my brother will just pull her off the floor like he did last time. Perhaps we’ll begin calling her the fainting queen? We could have half the city adopt the title before the coronation if we tried.”
More laughter. I grip the chair with white knuckles and struggle to find my voice.
“Why?” I look to Harrow and then swing my gaze to the rest of them. None of them have the decency to even feign guilt.
“Oh, don’t look so murderous.” Harrow pats my hand. “Just a little test is all, to make sure you’re the real queen.”
“I thought my sitting on the redwood throne was enough?” I motion to the windows keeping back a spring day. “Isn’t that enough?”
“You brought us spring after years of winter. What do you want, a medal?” Harrow arches his eyes. “That’s your job, human.”
The Human Queen’s job is to exist. The words repeat over and over again and each time I gain another level of truth. At first, I thought that meant that the Human Queen was ignored and pushed off to the side, a pawn for the lasting peace treaty. Then, after speaking with Willow, I thought the Human Queen had to exist to “recharge” the nature of Midscape. I thought, foolishly, that it came with some amount of respect or even reverence.
They don’t care. I’m just a tool to them to make their flowers bloom and fields fertile. I’m a walking bag of manure in their eyes.
“Thank you for this test. I’m glad I could put your doubts to rest.” I straighten away from the chair. My mouth is still on fire and my head is starting to throb. Pain splits my temples and I don’t know if it’s from fever or the blisteringly spicy food. “I’ll be going now.” I move to leave.
Harrow catches my wrist. “No, stay. We’re not done with you yet.”
“It’s rare for people to get a preview of the queen before her coronation—a true honor!” Aria says. “We want to get to know you.”
“By torturing me?”
“Stop being so dramatic.” She narrows her eyes. “Really, if you can’t handle a bit of dark amusement you won’t survive here in Midscape.”
“Just wait until she sees her first bear brawl. I bet she will faint then. Let’s order several as a coronation present?” Jalic rests his chin in his palm and circles his spoon in his tea. I don’t even want to know what a “bear brawl” is.
“I’m leaving,” I say once more and wrench my wrist from Harrow’s grasp.
“I doubt she’ll survive her coronation.” Aria giggles and the sound splits my head wide open.
I refuse to let them goad me. I’m going to be the bigger person and leave.
Harrow has other plans. The doors magically snap shut in front of me. “Stay. We must fill you in on the details of your coronation, and springtime rites, and before you know it, it’ll be midsummer. You don’t want to embarrass yourself by not knowing the staples of elven customs, do you? Especially not after you already made my brother look a fool by hiding for a year.”
“I didn’t make anyone look a fool.” I keep my back to them and clench my fists.
“Oh, you did. Not that I minded,” Harrow continues. “It was a good show to see it. Eldas is so rarely out of sorts.”
“Let me leave.”
“I don’t think I will.”
I spin, storm back over, and slam my hand on the table so hard the dishes clank loudly. One of the vases set out and filled with fresh-cut roses nearly tips over.
“Oh stop with the scary face.” Aria waves her hand through the air like I am an annoying bug.
“If you don’t let me go—”
“Let me reiterate what I said earlier.” Harrow leans forward. “What are you going to do?”
My arm swings out before his eyes can flash. I grab one of the roses from its vase. My intent was to throw it in his face—to throw the whole tangle of thorns at him and then smack him over the head with the vase.
But the thorns cut into my own flesh first. Blood drips on the white tablecloth and there’s a tug through my palm. It’s subtle, like a whisper, an unseen friend who’s ready to do my bidding.
Magic, I realize a second before it’s too late. That pull is magic.
The roses on the table are suddenly writhing like serpents. They burst from their vase and Harrow lets me go in shock. Aria practically backflips out of her chair to avoid the water and vines. Sirro’s book is on the floor.
I step back, the rose slipping from my fingers. The roses on the tables are already alive. They grow in size until the rosebuds are as big as saucers and the thorns are small daggers. The vines snake throughout the room, searching to cut deep into these cruel folk.
“What the—” Harrow curses.
“Open, Harrow!” Aria begs him. The doors open.
“Time to go!” Jalic flees the room before the vines can close over their escape route. Sirro is close behind.
“Harrow, let’s leave the queen be.” Aria yanks on him.