His eyes widen slightly and, for the first time, his walls don’t immediately come up. He studies me and I keep myself open, bare before him. This is the last chance I’m giving him, though I don’t say so outright.
“The Human Queen is our link to the Natural World and the redwood throne is her link to the foundations of Midscape. The magic flows through her, and from her, to nurture the earth and give it life. This connection is something that must be nurtured. You don’t sit once and that’s all.”
“Wait, are you saying that I’m to be magically leeched by the throne regularly?” I say in horror.
“Yes, you charged the earth of Midscape, but the magic you put in will fade over time. So you must continue to sit on the throne to keep fortifying the land.”
“That’s too much…” I wrap my arms around myself, fighting off the phantom sensation of the throne grabbing for me.
“Yes, eventually you will be depleted. As your strength wanes over the year, Midscape will cool, and the earth will wither.”
“Then you cast me aside because I am no longer useful?”
“No,” Eldas says sharply. “You truly think so little of me?”
“You haven’t given me a lot of reasons to think positively of you,” I admit.
He grimaces. “Your magic will grow thin, but you will return to the Natural World when it is most strong—midsummer—to recharge and reaffirm your bonds.”
When I arrived, it was a deep winter here in Midscape. After I sat on the throne, spring bloomed into existence. Summer will come next. As my power fades, so too will the earth.
“Seasons,” I realize. “You’re talking about the seasons.”
“When I leave for midsummer in Capton, it will be winter again in Midscape because my power will have grown too weak to keep charging the earth.”
“It will be Yule, specifically. Midscape will swing closer to the Veil than the Fade—closer to death than life. But this is part of a necessary cycle to sustain our world that mirrors yours, but in reverse. We are in the process of resetting the balance now, but it will find its equilibrium soon and everything should be better then.”
Nature requires balance, I think. I feel more powerful than I ever imagined. It is because of me that the seasons will turn in Midscape—there can be life itself.
“Our time apart will also be when I reaffirm my power,” Eldas says.
“You are my antithesis, Luella. You are the queen of life.”
“And you are the king of death,” I whisper, staring up into his frozen eyes. Not for the first time, a twinge of fear blooms in me at the power this man holds. Of course, like the completely sane person I am, I decide to turn it into a joke. “Good to know that we were never meant to get along.”
A flicker of amusement alights his eyes. It’s the first real emotion I think I’ve seen in him and it brings a smile to my lips. At least until he steps forward; then my expression falls.
But Eldas brushes past me to stand before the large stone tablet. A pulse of magic thrums through the air like a winter’s wind as his fingers lightly sweep across the etched words. Liquid silver magic, mixed with the deep blue of twilight, spills across the carvings and pushes back the moss. The air around us grows thicker.
“So you understand, now,” he says. It takes me a moment to realize he doesn’t mean whatever magic he just performed. “You cannot be free of this any more than I can. We are held in tandem, you and I. That is why we must learn to live and work together, as you so aptly put it.”
“No, I don’t understand,” I say.
He looks at me incredulously, as if he can’t believe I could be that dense.
“Well, I do. Sort of. As much as I think I can understand the high-level explanation of an ancient power forged thousands of years ago. What I don’t understand is why everyone has just gone along with it this whole time?”
“Maybe because none of our predecessors wanted to condemn an entire world to be consumed by the death of the Veil?”
“Of course I don’t want to condemn anyone to die. But what if there’s another way?” I say.
I’m heartened by the flicker of interest in his eyes. I think of my father’s discussions around the dinner table, talk of the council lamenting how there was no alternative to the treaty—wondering if there is another way to be free. The memory of his impassioned voice emboldens me. “Why don’t we try to both be free of this?”
“There is no way to be free of this.”
“Have you ever tried?” I ask. He’s silent. “Has anyone?” More silence. “Why don’t we work toward a solution that doesn’t involve Midscape dying and the worlds being thrown out of balance and one that doesn’t involve war breaking out between wild magic and natural magic? A solution without Human Queens?”
“You speak of things you don’t understand.” He looks back to the stone grimly. “Our only hope is to preserve this arrangement as long as possible.” He mumbles under his breath, “Which may not be possible for much longer…”
His hesitation gives me hope. “And you know this because you’ve looked for an alternative?”
He sighs dramatically. “Luella, I know you look at me and see a regular man—”
“Nothing about you is regular,” I say quickly. His lips part briefly and the severe expression vanishes from his face, making him all the more handsome. I purse my lips together and fight a stirring I don’t want to have when looking at Eldas.
“You see me as a mortal,” he rephrases. “But my power stretches beyond your imagination.” He motions to the stone he was examining. “This is a keystone of the Fade. Do you even know what that means?”
I shake my head.
“It’s the cornerstone of Midscape, a foundation for the Fade. Can you see its power?”
I shake my head again.
“Can you comprehend the intricate magic woven all around you, tethered to this rock? Magic that splits worlds?”
“No.” He opens his mouth to speak again, but I’m faster. “Can you comprehend what it sounds like to have a thousand, a hundred thousand, millions of living things screaming for you? Can you imagine what it’s like to have the earth clawing under your skin, scraping your bones for life and power? Will your mind recreate the torture of knowing they would gladly eat you alive if given the chance?”
He blinks. There’s that slightly startled expression once more. I’m finding I like the softer, unguarded side of him much more than the severe edge. If I can just keep him off balance maybe we could get somewhere…
“You’re right,” I continue. “I can’t comprehend your magic because, as you put it, I am your antithesis. But that means you can’t understand mine, either. And maybe none of the other kings ever gave their queens a chance to really explore their power. Perhaps there’s something I can make, or do, like your keystone, that would tether Midscape’s seasons to the Natural World’s without a Human Queen. Hmm?”
He says nothing as his expression hardens once more into something passive and unreadable.
“All I’m saying is…give me a chance—a real chance,” I beg. “What do we have to lose?”
“Everything, if we’re not careful.” There’s not a hint of levity in his voice.
“Then help me. My power, your knowledge, we can do this together if you let us.”
Eldas’s lips press firmly into a line. I search the deep waters of his eyes—search for something human. I have no reason to think he’d help me. But I have to at least make an attempt. I owe Capton that much.
“Why is this so important to you?” he asks, finally. There’s a trace of hurt. It’s the shadow of something lurking in the deeper currents of his personality. I think about what Rinni said—about him secluding himself. “Help me understand.”
Here’s hoping he listens.
“I had a life. You’re right, I’m not like all the other queens. I wasn’t groomed for you, for any of this. I had my own dreams and plans. I had people who depended on me and I swore to protect and serve them as best I could. They gave their precious little coin for my education and I gave my skills, my years. Capton needs me just as much as Midscape does; I’m the only herbalist they have.
“So maybe that’s why none of those other queens dared to question if there was a way out. They didn’t have any expectations to be anything other than what they were because they were identified as queens young enough that being the queen was their dream. But I’m not them. I am questioning for myself and every other young woman who comes after me.”
The king looks between me and the stone, as if he’s choosing either me or the world he’s always known. I don’t even bother holding my breath. I know what he’ll pick and it’s not my wild idea.
“All right,” he says.
“What?” I gasp.
“I agree to let you pursue this.”
“Truly?” I round over to his side. “You mean it genuinely? No more agreeing to teach me and then acting like a right ass?”
He cringes but nods. There’s an urge to take his hand and squeeze it, almost like I would do to a friend. But I quench the notion before my body can act on it.
“There are terms to this deal.” He regards me warily.
“Of course there are.” Still, this is progress. “What are they?”
“The first is that you must keep me appraised of your work. You might not care about Midscape’s fate, but I am its sworn warden.”
“I never said I didn’t care—”
“I will not have you accidentally unraveling the fabric of my world,” he finishes, completely ignoring my objection.
“Fine, that’s fair.” Not like I wanted to do any unraveling.