“Eldas, am I wrong?” Rinni cuts him off with the deadpan question and a harsh stare.
She’s not, I think. I don’t know what I’d do if Eldas tried to run to me and apologize right now. I’d like to think I’d accept it. But part of me wants him to stew a bit more over what he just did, make sure he’s really sorry before accepting an apology.
“Fine,” he mumbles. “I’ll apologize tomorrow.”
I doubt he will. I doubt it strongly.
“I think that’s wise,” Rinni says.
Eldas drags himself over to his throne, sinking onto it heavily. “First the fae, now her. The Fae King has made it clear that he thinks I am softer, weaker than my father. He wants land returned to them and wants recognition at the Council of Kings.”
I lean closer to the openings. I watch as Eldas angles himself, slumping onto an elbow. He props his head up with his hand, as though his crown is suddenly too heavy to bear. He looks weary…vulnerable.
He looks nothing like a king right now. He looks like a man. A tired and weary man.
Then I remember how he used my true name against me to treat me like a puppet and any sympathy evaporates.
“Waiting for her this last year was a mistake. I stayed too long secluded in the castle, keeping everyone away, waiting for the coronation,” Eldas murmurs, so softly I almost don’t hear it. “My people think I abandoned them. The other kings of this land think I’m weak.”
“You stayed secluded in the castle because you were waiting for your queen and her coronation—to introduce yourself to Midscape as one with the Human Queen. It wasn’t a mistake; you were honoring our customs,” Rinni says gently and reassuringly. “The people will understand as everything returns to normal.”
Eldas was secluded? Waiting for me? He mentioned something about that yesterday, but it was lost amid all the excitement. My nails scratch lightly against the stone. I’ve only thought of him as a powerful Elf King—cold and unfeeling. I’ve thought of him as lording over this castle in delight.
But…what if he’s as much of a prisoner to this terrible system as I am? The thought betrays me, sparking sympathy that I don’t want to harbor for this man.
“The seasons have returned and the people are rejoicing. Preparations are already beginning for springtime rites,” Rinni continues. “At the coronation, the other rulers will see her power and they won’t question you.”
The bud of sympathy promptly withers at the reminder of my role to him. I am a tool. I gave his world spring and now I’ll reinforce his reign. My purpose here will never have anything to do with what I want.
Eldas sighs. “I hope it’s true.”
“I’m certain it will be.”
Eldas stares off into a far corner of the room. Rinni continues to stand, expectant. She sees something I don’t. I would have taken this as the end of the conversation. But she lingers.
“Rinni,” he says, finally, his voice thin. “You are the only member of the fairer sex who’s ever dined at my private table. You have been at my side longer than any of my counselors or magistrates. You—” Eldas chokes slightly on more emotion than I thought him capable of. “—You’re the only friend I’ve ever had.
“Tell me what I should do? Spring is here, yet winter’s gusts blow from the Veil. If she doesn’t learn to manage her power, I fear the worst. I fear I will fail her. I fear she will only know this place as I have—as suffering. And through it all the coronation grows near. I would like her to find her place before then.”
I push onto my toes, leaning against the wall for a better view. I wish I could see his expression. I want to know if the worry and sincerity I hear in his voice is genuine.
Rinni slowly approaches the throne. I watch as she reaches forward and rests her hand on the king’s cheek. My stomach knots for a reason I can’t quite explain.
Eldas raises his gaze. He looks up at her with yearning eyes. Rinni doesn’t remove her palm from his face and Eldas makes no motion to move her away. I doubt he would do the same if I were the one touching him. Then again, the first time I did touch him, my husband, was to strike him.
I shouldn’t be seeing this. Yet I can’t take my eyes away.
“At your core, you’re a good man, Eldas. But you’re very rough at your edges. You know that.” Her thumb strokes his cheek. Something about them looks good together—looks right. It makes my stomach even more upset. “She doesn’t understand why because you won’t let her. And you aren’t making an effort to understand her, either.
“I admit I had the same shortcomings. I was bitter toward her for hiding and for what her absence caused you to endure this last year. For her to have forced you to expend so much power maintaining the Fade and still see it weakening as Midscape dies.
“But none of it was her fault. I believe that, and I know you do too. You can’t blame her for Midscape’s or your circumstances. I’m trying to know her now, and you need to also.”
“If she only—”
“Don’t make excuses,” Rinni says firmly, dropping her hand. “Get to know her. Alice wasn’t what you expected once you opened up to her. Maybe Luella will be the same.”
Eldas considers it and for a moment his face is soft and thoughtful. A mask of marble has given way to a man. But he retreats behind the walls he’s built the moment he must realize he’s exposed. Eldas shakes his head and pushes himself off his throne. He catches Rinni’s hand in both of his, giving it a squeeze.
“I respect your council, Rinni. You know I do… But Alice was a rare thing. I am not meant for love—”
“Those are your mother’s words,” Rinni says cuttingly.
Eldas ignores her remark. “I was born for one thing: my duty to Midscape.”
“And those are your father’s words.” She sighs.
“Anything else is a distraction,” Eldas finishes, completely ignoring Rinni’s objections. “I cannot give her what she had in Capton. I cannot give her family and community. I can’t give her what I’ve never known. But perhaps I can teach her to manage her magic and navigate this brutal world; I’ll do my best to give her that much.”
I watch as Eldas departs and then I ease away from the perforations in the wall. My calves have cramped from standing on my toes and I shift my weight from foot to foot. It serves to work out some of the nervous energy in me.
Part of me wishes I hadn’t been privy to that conversation. I don’t know what to think of Eldas now. I find a corner of my heart is already aching to be sympathetic toward him. That is tempered swiftly by the other part of my heart that bleeds for Capton and everyone I miss more by the hour—bleeds from his cruelty.
He was right. Midscape is brutal and it is a world I wish I could have none of.
Your duty, I remind myself on instinct. Whenever times were tough, I would focus on my duty to the people of Capton as their healer. But now…that duty is gone and without it I am little more than Eldas’s puppet wandering the halls of the castle.
I don’t want my purpose to be fortifying his rule with my mere existence. Everything in me yearns to do more. But what can be done? My place here feels shallow and empty.
Slowly, I trudge up the stairs. I don’t know where I’m going, but I follow along the hallway the top step leads me to. I wander from room to room until the scent of peat and earth tickles my nose, stealing me from my thoughts.
The smell is like a lightning strike on a clear day—seemingly out of nowhere. This cold, gray castle is void of life, so any signs of it spark my curiosity. I follow the aroma down a stretch of connected rooms that open up into a space I would best describe as a laboratory.
Shelves packed with jars line the walls above counters filled with colored beakers, bubbling cauldrons, and herb-drying racks. Tall tables flank me on either side, stools around them, tools scattered atop. The far wall is made of glass that steams with humidity. Greenery is blurred by the fog.
Sweat instantly dots my skin as I enter the attached conservatory. The greenhouse takes up the whole width of the castle. There’s stone below, stone above, and glass on either side facing north and south. Plants grow along trellises, arcing up to the ceiling. There are shelves of pots and aboveground planting beds.
Here I smell lavender and dandelion mixing with rose—which nearly makes me gag after the incident in the lunch nook—and the earthy aromatics of sage and rosemary. I spy elder shrubs, valerian, primrose, mint, and lemon balm. There are plants I’ve never even laid eyes on before and some I’ve only ever seen in books.
“Oh.” I startle, stopping in my tracks. The man I’ve spotted jumps to his feet. I’ve nearly scared him out of his skin. “Hello, Willow.” I smile.
“Luella.” He breathes a sigh of relief. “What’re you doing up here?”
I shrug, not ready to open up about what happened with Eldas. “I was wandering.”
“A good place to wander to; welcome to the royal greenhouse.” He pulls off his gardening gloves and puts them in the basket at his side. Pruning sheers and bushels of peppermint accompany them. He smiles brightly. “Would you like a tour?”
“Very much,” I say without hesitation. Anything to distract me.
He shows me their intricate watering system and their compost bin in the far back corner. Willow is especially proud of the organization of the gardening shed and drying rooms. But my attention remains where the plants are growing.
I am aware of them as I walk by in a way I’ve never experienced. Their aura is like a subtle greeting, a nod that they’re aware of my presence. The sunflowers turn to face me instead of the sun as we pass. I’m as eager to meet them as they are me.
“What’s this one?” I stop at a plant with a black, bulbous base and red, waxy, heart-shaped leaves.
“Heartroot.” Willow steps beside me. As he speaks he checks the plant, looking for bugs.