“How dare you,” he whispers as he’s being dragged to the door.
“How dare you,” I repeat back, seething. “Get out and never bother me again.”
Even though they retreat, my rage fuels the unruly vines even more. A thorny net spreads across the doorway and creeps over the walls and the ceiling. Roses the size of umbrellas now bloom like chandeliers.
I fall to my knees, gasping for air. I try and release the magic but it has as much of a hold on me as it does the vines.
The windows are completely covered and I am left in the darkness. I hear the sentient foliage, crunching over furniture, breaking the glass mirrors. The slithering continues, approaching me like serpents. The vines slide over my legs, leaving deep cuts in their wake. I don’t even cry out; I’m too tired to care.
Death by vines. This wasn’t how I expected to go. I close my eyes and sigh.
No… If I die now, I’ll never be able to return to Capton. If I die, another young woman will be chosen because the power passes on. She might be like me and have goals and dreams of her own. She will be taken from people who need her. This wretched cycle continues.
If I live, I could have a chance to end it, couldn’t I? The rogue thought is like a flash in the darkness. A quiet thunder that almost sounds like my parents’ voices, murmuring late at night about the unfairness of this whole system, chases behind the thought. My eyes open again.
Maybe my father was right. Maybe there’s a way out of this prison that’s been imposed for centuries on the women of Capton. If the elves can separate worlds, can’t we find a way to link the natural world with Midscape? Has it ever been tried?
Even if I fail, I can’t return home if I’m dead. Capton still needs me. Somehow, I’ll still find a way to help them. I swore to my friends and kin I would.
“Enough,” I attempt to command the vines. “That’s enough.”
I try and wrangle my magic to get it back under control, but the power is as much of a thorny beast as the plants feeding off of it. I push the vines off my legs, letting out a cry of pain, and try and stand.
If my magic made them, my magic can control them. I have to believe that’s true. I made it off the redwood throne somehow, didn’t I? And the world had me in much deeper clutches then.
This isn’t the throne that’s steeped in thousands of years of magic. These are just some flowers. They only have power I gave them.
Rather than retreating and curling in on myself, I extend my will out to the vines. Slowly, they begin to contract.
That’s it. I don’t know if I’m encouraging myself or the vines. Smaller; let me see the day. Light winks through the windows as the plants retreat, little by little.
All at once, they shudder. I watch as the magic withers, stolen from my grasp. The life within the vines vanishes. They shrivel, turn brittle, black, and then collapse to dust that fades away as smoke.
In their wake, the room is a wreck that stinks of roses, and standing in the doorway is a scowling Eldas.
“Can I not leave you alone for a day?” he scolds.
“This wasn’t my fault.” I sway, exhausted. My cheeks burn, but I don’t know if its from fever or embarrassment.
“Who else here could’ve done this?” Eldas stalks over to me. “Some other Human Queen with the power to manipulate and control life itself?” He continues speaking before I have a chance to answer. “Because for all my life I was told I was waiting for just one woman. But if I spent my years sequestered and alone for nothing, then please let me know. I’d love to know what options I have.”
Sequestered and alone? The words stick out to me. But I know he’d only roll his eyes at best if I tried to ask. A question for Willow, maybe?
I take a deep breath and say as calmly as possible, “All this was Harrow’s fault.”
Surprise streaks across his face, chased by anger. He quickly pushes the emotions away—back under that cool and indifferent mask that I’ve seen him wear more often than not.
“Harrow was the one who ripped me from my bed—quite literally. I had no interest in being here.” Eldas opens his mouth to speak, but I continue over him. My blood is beginning to boil at the mere memory of Harrow. I shove my finger in his face, nearly touching his nose. “And you know what? I took his goading in my stride. I could handle them having a laugh at my expense. I could even handle their little prank that they decided to pull on me. But when he tried to hold me here against my will I couldn’t handle it.” I am so tired of being controlled by men like him, and Luke, and you, I narrowly stop myself from saying.
His eyes darken in a way that I’d dare say is…protective? Surely, it must be my imagination. “What did he do?”
“Locked me in here using his wild magic.”
Eldas looks to the windows. Some of the glass is shattered and a bracing wind sweeps through the room. He scowls deeper.
“I’ll speak with my brother. In the meantime, I’ll post Rinni at your room…at least until Harrow grows bored of you. She’ll be more discouraging than Poppy or Willow.”
“Poppy did try to tell him not to,” I say, not wanting the kindly woman to get in trouble for something that was certainly not her fault.
“I know. Poppy was the one who fetched me and I came immediately. Believe it or not, I know my brother and his antics.” His frown deepens.
“Then you should keep him under better control.”
“I should keep many things in my castle under control yet they seem to delight in trying my patience.” He brings his eyes back to me. “Starting with your magic.” Eldas rounds me, as if I am a sculpture to be inspected for flaws. Based on what I know of him so far, I suspect he’ll find many. “Magic is not that difficult. I expected you to have a little command.”
“Really? Because I didn’t expect to have magic at all.” I meet his eyes again.
“The throne was hungry and you couldn’t stop it from feeding off you. Your magic is weak and the fact nearly killed you. These vines would’ve done the same to feed on your power.” His eyes drop to my shredded skirt and my still-bleeding legs. “Luella, you are a beacon of life in a world that is closer to the land of death. Midscape draws ever closer to the Veil and the Beyond than it does the Natural World.” I remember what Willow said about how the elves draw their power from the land of the dead. “That makes you an easy target here—we all desire that which we cannot have, even magic itself. And you are the embodiment of all that has been taken from this world.”
“I would’ve appreciated this explanation from you earlier,” I mutter.
“It is not usually the king’s job to give.”
“Nothing about this is usual!” I throw out my arms and gesture to the room around us. The motion sets me off balance and I sway. Doing anything more than standing is doing too much. I take a step backwards. My knees buckle and I try to figure out how I’m going to ease myself to the ground while preserving any remaining scraps of my dignity.
Eldas is at my side in a breath. One arm wraps around my back. He leans forward and tucks the other underneath my knees. My stomach sinks into my pelvis as I’m hoisted up.
He’s stronger than he looks.
I stare up at the man. He turns his gaze to mine and neither of us say anything. My cheeks turn red and I can’t blame it entirely on the fever…not when the strong muscles of his shoulders and neck are underneath my hands. I wonder if he feels the same tingling sensation when we touch? We both fall silent; I am captured by his hands and he seems captured by my stare.
“Eldas,” I say softly. “I need someone’s help here. I don’t have many options. Regardless if it’s your job or not…please, teach me?”
His eyes darken at the mere idea of helping me. “I have duties that can’t be ignored.”
I try and shift uncomfortably. It only presses me closer to him. The tingling sensation overtakes me and I’m dizzy, but not uncomfortably so. I try and keep my focus.
“I know about duty.”
He regards me skeptically.
“I do,” I insist. “It might not have been the same as all your duties as a king. But I had my own duties back home.”
He doesn’t believe me. I can see that much. I’m getting nowhere trying to reason with him.
Let’s try another approach, Luella. “If we’re talking about duty… Wouldn’t one of your duties as king be helping the Human Queen transition into her role?”
He sighs heavily and shifts his grip on me. His strong muscles ripple underneath me. I’ve never been held like this before. The few times I was in Luke’s arms they held me more like a cage. I didn’t feel it then, but I can see it now. Eldas’s hold is surprisingly sturdy, safe—as if I could wriggle out of his grasp any time I wanted, but while he has me I have nothing to fear. I’m here only as long as we both want me to be.
“Please.” I can’t meet his eyes as I beg. I hate that I’m so helpless here. But it’s not the first time I’ve had to rely on the kindness of others to find an education and it certainly won’t be the last. “I need something to do here, some kind of purpose.”
“Very well.” He says it so gently I wonder if I imagined it.
“Really?” I ask skeptically. I didn’t expect to get my way. I think I should be excited, but apprehension strangles the emotion.
“For now, let’s put you back to bed. You’re not learning anything in the state you’re in,” he says almost tenderly. I feel his voice as much as I hear it. The sound rumbles across his chest and reverberates through my side. Heat spreads from my head down, pooling in my lower stomach.
Get a hold of yourself, Luella. He may be the most attractive man I’ve ever laid eyes on. He may also technically be my husband…but he resents this marriage as much as I do.