Eldas’s face hardly moves. Even though I whacked him, he continues to stare down at me. But his expression is now a blank slate.
His pale cheek isn’t even red.
I had come here with the best of intentions. I had come here willing to learn. And yet he throws it back at me.
“Don’t insult me again,” I say firmly. “You know nothing about me. You don’t know what I’ve done, what I’ve fought for, what I earned. I spent years studying, learning, and practicing at the expense of wanting anything for myself. I earned the respect of my community and patients enough that they gave me their hard-earned money to get an education so I might better serve them.
“My life might not have looked like much to someone who came from a grand castle. But you know what, Your Majesty?” I sneer. “I worked for what I had and worked every day to keep it—to keep the esteem, respect, and trust of my community. I worked for it because it was what I chose for myself.
“You know nothing about me and yet you insult me at every turn. Fine, two can play that game, Your Majesty. What did you do to earn this castle? Be born? What have you done for your community? Breathe? Forgive me for not being impressed with your grand sacrifices.”
Strangling silence settles around us. He continues to look at me with that guarded expression of his. But I can see angry sharks swimming in the cool pools of his eyes. I’d take a step away from him if my body would move. His radiant anger has me pinned to the spot.
“Strike me again, and it will be the last thing you freely do,” he whispers, deathly quiet.
“You can’t control me.”
“Are you certain?”
His eyes flash blue. The word—the name—Saraphina echoes in my mind. My blood turns cold. Gooseflesh prickles my skin as my arms go rigid at my side.
Eldas flicks a finger, pointing toward the redwood throne. With jerky, forced movements I march toward it.
No! I want to scream, but my mouth is sewn shut with invisible thread. The name Saraphina must be my true name, and he wields it against me crueler than any blade.
I try and walk backwards, to no avail. I fight against the unseen hands that push and pull me along. It’s no use. I am helpless.
If only I could steal my name from his mind. If only I could take it back. I was Luke’s metaphorical puppet for years and now I am Eldas’s literal puppet.
Be different. The words resonate within me. Something else, anything else!
All at once, I’m freed. I collapse to the floor gasping for air. I look up to Eldas’s stunned eyes. There’s the shimmer of something I would dare say is impressed.
“You…you changed your true name. You’ve already managed the Being.” A smile slithers across his lips. “So there’s hope for you yet, when pushed. Maybe you’re even stronger than I first thought,” he adds hopefully.
The Being? I know the Knowing is when an elf finds a true name by magic sight. What does that make the “Being”? I don’t even bother asking for clarity when I know there is none to find with him. I don’t even want to find it from him. That was the final straw.
I stagger to my feet. “We’re done.”
“Come back,” he demands. “We are done when I say we are.”
I begin walking toward the door. His footsteps clop across the hall. Now who is the horse?
“Touch me to perform the Knowing again”—like he did at the town square in Capton to bypass the labradorite’s protection—“and I will never even attempt to forgive you for this!” I spin and shout in his face. Unlike with Harrow, I might actually be strong enough to make good on my threats. “I came here willing to learn, willing to make an effort, and what you just did has burned to the ground any hope of a productive relationship between us.”
He staggers, startled, as if no one has ever spoken to him this way before. I wonder if this is the first time he’s suffered consequences for his actions. “First you strike me, now you…” He can’t seem to form coherent words and I’m deeply satisfied by the fact. “I have a right to know your true name.”
“You have a right to nothing of mine that isn’t freely given.”
“I am your king.” Eldas takes a step forward and I lean back. But he’s still too close. His long form is oppressive. He looms over me.
I plant my feet and refuse to let him make me feel small. I will be the bud that sprouts from the gray rock of this place. I will be the flower that blooms even despite his shadow.
“You are a moody prince glorified with a thorny-looking, iron crown,” I snap back. “You’re selfish and self-centered. You have no idea how to speak to people or relate to them. Any compassion and effort you exert to know someone is nothing more than a ruse to get what you want out of those around you.”
“I am above compassion and relationships,” he seethes. “I do not have a reason to lower myself to the emotions of the rabble. I walk above them.”
“If you’re always walking above people you risk walking on them, Eldas. And that’s how you make enemies.”
“I won’t be lectured by a human who entered my world days ago. And certainly not by one who has never ruled a day in her life.”
“Good,” I say. “Because I have no interest in lecturing a man who won’t listen.” I spin on my heel and start for the door again. Blessedly, he doesn’t follow.
“You will respect me!” Eldas shouts.
“Be someone worthy of respecting first!” I slam the door behind me.
I have gone the wrong way, I realize instantly. There are six doors in the throne room, three on each side. I usually enter from the far-left door, farthest from the thrones. But he made me so angry I turned myself around.
Did I go through the middle or far right door? I’m not sure.
I’m face-to-face with a long, quiet hallway. Doors are on the left, windows on the right. Every door at my left has a heavy padlock. At the end of the hall is a stairwell.
Up the stairs? Or back? That’s not really a question. I’m certainly not going back and risking running into him. Up it is.
On the next floor there’s a landing that has a single sofa and small table at the far end in front of a lavish tapestry—likely a waiting room for those anticipating an audience with the king. I’m about to move on when a glint catches my eye.
I pause, shifting my weight back and forth. Something is shining in the bottom fringe of the tapestry. I cross over quickly, crouch down, and reach forward to investigate. The tapestry gives way to my hand. I pull the heavy fabric aside to reveal an opening and crawl through.
The glint I saw was sunlight from a skinny window at the end of this impossibly narrow hall. I have to side step as the walls try and crush me. But as I do, I notice there are small perforations in the stone. It is as if the builder didn’t completely fill in every gap with mortar.
Through these holes, I get glimpses of the throne room below. Voices echo up to me. Eldas paces the floor before the thrones, hands gripped so tightly at the small of his back I’m surprised his bones aren’t shattering. Rinni is there too. She’s relaxed before the raging king. This is clearly nothing new to her.
“How can I do this, Rinni?”
“If anyone can, it’s you, Eldas.”
“She will not listen. I cannot work with her. I waited for the queen I was promised and did not get her.” Eldas stops, slipping his long hair over his shoulder. “Her power is only a fraction of Queen Alice’s. It’s further indication that the line of queens is diminishing. If the power of the Human Queen dries up entirely, then our world is doomed.”
“That is a concern for the future. Focus on the here and now,” Rinni advises calmly.
“The here and now is that she might be the last Human Queen.”
“You’re being dramatic,” Rinni says. It’s accurate, yet there’s the ghost of doubt drifting around her words. “You’ve only just begun working with her. Give her a chance.”
“How can I ‘give her a chance’ when she delights in disrespecting me?” Eldas stops, turning to face his knight with a palm on his cheek. “She actually struck me.”
The full spectrum of emotions runs across Rinni’s face. I see her brow furrow with worry. Then her lips part in shock. I see her close them quickly to hold back what looks like laughter.
“About time, Eldas.”
“She’s won you over already? She’s even stealing my allies.” Eldas scowls and resumes his pacing.
“You’ve become unbearable these last few months.” Rinni doesn’t mince words and folds her hands together smugly. “Someone needed to put you in your place, and I certainly wasn’t getting through to you.”
Eldas pinches the bridge of his nose and hangs his head, raven hair slipping over his shoulders and shielding his face. “I suppose I have been somewhat curt.”
Rinni snorts. “Somewhat?”
My words exactly. I’m not sure if I’m relieved that Eldas is admitting it or all the more angry. If he knew he was being an ass then why allow himself to act that way?
Eldas comes to a halt, staring at the door I left from. There’s a murky expression clouding his gaze. I can’t make out the depths of it all…but dare I say it? Is that remorse?
No, it can’t be. He was cruel and he knew it. Those facts trump everything else. Yet, the longer I stare at him, the cloudier my own feelings become. Your heart is too soft, Luella, I scold myself.
“I wonder if…” Eldas murmurs.
“If what?” Rinni presses.
“If she’s all right,” Eldas finishes. I was right, there is worry in his eyes. “I should check—”
“Don’t.” Rinni rushes over and catches his elbow. “I don’t know exactly what you did, but I suspect it might be best to give her some space. You’re likely the last person Luella wants to see right now.”