My soul is soaring over the roof. Yet my feet are rooted deep in the land of the people I’ve vowed to serve.
“You know I can’t,” I whisper.
“But you love me.”
“Then let’s go.” He tugs at my hands.
“I can’t.” I’m unbudging. His expression falls into something I don’t recognize. “I want to, Luke. I wish I could go with you. But I can’t just leave. This town has invested so much in me; I must be here when they need me.”
The people of Capton paid for my years at academy when my parents could not afford them. They bought me room and board. They supported me at every turn with the hard-earned and scraped-together change at the bottoms of their pockets.
“Besides,” I continue, softer. “If the Human Queen isn’t found, and the council can’t sort things with the elves, there’s nowhere we could run. All of humanity is doomed at that point. I would rather stay here with our people and face whatever may come.”
“We could find a way,” he insists. I shake my head. “If you love me, truly love me, then that’s all you need. Our love is enough.”
“But—” I don’t get to finish.
In a wide step, he closes the distance between us. One arm snakes around my waist. The other cups my cheek. He tilts my face upward and I don’t fight him. I don’t want to.
Luke’s lips meet mine as my eyes close.
The stubble that lines his lips is rough on my face. But I hardly notice; my sole focus is kissing him. How much movement is too much, and how much is too little, when it comes to kissing?
Unexpectedly, I desperately wish I’d given in to the boys at the academy and allowed them to “teach me kissing” when they found out I’d never been kissed before. I had been waiting for this moment. I’d been waiting for these lips.
Yet…as he pulls away, I’m left awkward and unfulfilled. None of this is quite how I imagined it would happen. I’m not soaring. My heart isn’t fluttering. Something in me is detached and…sad?
A soft ahem comes from the doorway behind us. Luke turns. My face is hot as I meet my mother’s grinning eyes—the same shade of hazel as mine. To make embarrassing and awkward matters worse, my kettle begins to hiss and the sleeping draught I was making is now boiling over my counter.
“Oh!” I rush over, beginning to mop up the mess.
My mother crosses with a laugh, helping lift the kettle off the heat. “Luke, it’s good to see you; would you like to stay for breakfast this morning?”
“I would love to.” He gives a dashing smile. Hopefully the need to fill his stomach distracts him from his insane notion of leaving. And when he’s full, he’ll have a more level head.
“I have work to do,” I needlessly remind them both.
“And doing it on an empty stomach is pointless.” My mother tucks wayward strands of fiery hair—the same bright hue as mine—back into her bun. “Take a break, hardworking daughter of mine. You are not going to be saving a life in the twenty minutes it takes you to eat a scone and a boiled egg.”
“One of your scones sounds lovely, Mrs. Torrnet.”
“It’s Hannah, Luke, you know that.” My mother titters and I roll my eyes. “Now, come upstairs, both of you.”
A plate of scones is in the center of the table—lavender and orange. It’s incredible the number of different plants that grow on Capton’s island. Too many. So many that it should be impossible. But the main water source for the island flows through the Fade itself, making the impossible possible here.
Father is seated at the head of the table. His glasses hang on the tip of his nose as he looks over paperwork—no doubt going over speeches before the town hall today.
“Good morning, Luke,” he says without looking up. Luke has been coming around since we could walk and is as much a staple in this kitchen as my mother’s iron pot or my potted herb garden in the back window. “Surprised to see you today.” He pauses. “Though I suppose today is the usual day you escort Luella to the forest.”
“I thought we could get it done with before the sun was up. That way I could get back to my duties as Keeper,” Luke says cordially as he sits, helping himself to a scone. No mention of trying to steal me away, thankfully.
“What are the Keepers doing about all this?” Mother asks from where she works a skillet behind me. Our kitchen runs the length of half the brownstone—galley style, the sailors would say.
“We’re doing our best to find the Human Queen,” Luke says calmly.
“Well, maybe there shouldn’t be a Human Queen,” Mother huffs.
“Hannah,” Father cautions.
“It’s true, Oliver, and you know it. The Capton Council is just as bad as the Keepers.” Mother is as aggressive as the boiling water she pulls eggs from.
“Can we just have a nice breakfast, please?” I beg. I’m so tired of hearing about the Keepers pointing the finger at the Capton Council for not being more aggressive in trying to find the Human Queen by interrogating the townsfolk, and the council pointing the finger at the Keepers for not sharing more of their elvish relics or histories that could help identify the Human Queen.
Father thinks there must be something the Keepers are hiding. Luke claims otherwise and says the council doesn’t share enough information with the temple. They both look to me to take their side and it takes all of my effort to remind them that all I care about is keeping the people of this island healthy—I have no horse in their race.
“If there’s no Human Queen then all of humanity dies a horrible death as they use their wild magic to peel our skin from our bones, turn us into beasts of the deep woods, curdle our blood, and worse; I think it’s safe to say none of us want that.” Father flips through his papers.
“We’re dying now.” Mother situates the eggs on a platter and sets it on the table. “You’ve heard about the Weakness. Men and women are falling where they stand. We are dying like any regular human on the mainland.”
“Once there is a Human Queen the order will be restored and the treaty will be fulfilled,” Father says. “No more of this Weakness.”
“Is that true? Do we know that things will return to normal for certain?” Mother turns to Luke.
“So the texts that outline the treaty say.” Luke peels an egg.
She sighs and grabs a scone, tearing off a hunk and mumbling, “While I hate the notion of this Human Queen business, if it must happen then let it be done with. My heart bleeds for the family whose daughter will be taken though…” Mother squeezes my hand. I’m too old—historically the queens have displayed magic tendencies at sixteen or seventeen. I remember a few years when my parents watched me like a hawk. Thankfully, there’s not a trace of magic in me. “What a grim circumstance to see your daughter get married under.”
“Speaking of weddings,” Luke says casually. “Has Luella told you both yet?”
My parents exchange a look with me. I glance nervously between them and Luke. I’ve no idea what he’s talking about.
“Told us what?” Father is the one to ask.
“Luella has agreed to marry me.”
I spit the gulp of water back into my cup with a sputter.
“Luella, you should have told us!” Mother gasps and claps her hands together. “This is wonderful news!”
“I thought you were too busy with your shop to think of courtship?” Father arches his eyebrows. I’m still coughing up a lung. He adds, “Are you all right?”
“Well, I…” I cough. “Sorry, water in the wrong pipe.”
Marry him? When did I agree to that? Oh, right, I didn’t. I look at Luke from the corner of my eye. He’s beaming from ear to ear.
I can’t marry anyone. I’ve told him that. I’ve told everyone that just so my mother’s friends would stop digging their noses into my affairs.
I don’t have time for marriage. I don’t have time for whatever it is Luke and I have already been doing. I’ve never even thought of marriage.
For the entirety of my nineteen years, I’ve known I was destined to be married to trees and herbs and duty before a man. I have been content—fulfilled, even—with that alone. But marriage? Motherhood? Wifely duties?
I have more important things to focus on…like keeping people alive.
Standing, I say, “Mother, Father, please excuse us. I have rounds to make before the town hall and I don’t want to keep Luke from his duties.” I catch Luke’s eyes with a pointed look. “Shall we head to the forests now?”
“Yes, we’ll clean up, go and enjoy yourself.” Mother is beaming. Father, however, gives me a knowing, wary look.
I feel bad making my parents clean when they cooked, but I need to escape. I need to talk to him and sort this marriage thing out. I practically drag Luke back downstairs, into my shop, past his stupid bag still by the door, and out into the crisp Capton morning.
“What was that?” I whirl on him as we emerge onto the street. “Marriage?”
“You said you loved me.”
“I may be inexperienced with all this but saying ‘I love you’ is not the same thing as ‘I’ll marry you.’”
He tilts his head with a gentle smile and rests his hands on my shoulders. “Isn’t this what you’ve always wanted?”
“You and me, together. We love each other, Luella, we have for years. There’s no one more perfect out there for you than me.”
“That’s not the point,” I mutter.
He hooks his arm with mine, beginning to lead us down the road lined by brownstones of the residential area of town. “You need to stop holding back and stop being so focused on your work.”
“My work makes me happy.”