“Oh, there’s more, shocking.” I fold my arms. Is that the ghost of a smirk I see on his lips? I’m rewarded once more with a twinge of amusement, bolder than the last. If he keeps giving me sly smiles and shimmering eyes I’m going to think he’s beginning to like a determined and slightly bold Luella.
“Furthermore,” he continues. “You will not tell anyone else of this plot. I cannot and will not deal with the rumors of the woman who is supposed to rule at my side trying to escape me like I am too weak to win her over. I’ve already had my rule cast in enough shame by how long it took to find you.”
The wolf seems restless with Eldas’s agitation. He paces between us and I hold my hand out. He quickly trots over and I scratch between his ears until he settles.
“Eldas, I never meant for you to endure hardship because of me.”
“Spare me your fake pity.” Anger flashes in his eyes, though it’s not directed at me. I can tell that much.
“It isn’t fake,” I fire back. “I’m sorry. Truly.”
My sympathy stuns him. He staggers, taking so long to compose himself that I worry I’ve broken him.
“You?” I encourage.
“I’m sorry as well, for what you’ve endured.”
A smile splits my lips. “Was that so hard?”
Eldas grimaces. “You really can be annoyingly insistent, you know that?”
“I’ve been told, usually by my patients.” I can’t help but laugh. “Though I prefer calling myself tenacious.” He snorts and, for a brief second, something I’d dare call peace flows between us. I’m hesitant to break it. But I must… “Is there anything else for the terms?”
“Yes. You will not attempt escape again for much the same reasons. The Human Queen isn’t meant to be seen before her coronation. It’s tradition, but also for your own safety so that no one might perform the Knowing on you or any other magic—especially before you have control of your powers and can defend yourself.”
“I can agree to that.” Though I think less sequestering would be better for everyone.
“Finally, you have until the coronation in three months to break the cycle.”
“Three months? What can I do in three months?”
“I look forward to finding that out,” he says, somewhat coyly.
Three months, I’ll have three months to find a way to free myself. “If I don’t succeed in three months?” I dare to ask.
“Even if I wanted to give you more time, I can’t. At the coronation you will be fully accepted by the world of Midscape—you will be part of Midscape more than the Natural World. Only our food will nourish you. Only these lands will be your home. While you will still return to strengthen your magic, it will be limited. Too much time beyond Midscape will kill you.”
“You’re saying after this coronation there is no going back,” I whisper.
“Save for a few days at Midsummer for the sake of your magic, yes.”
A shiver rips through me. I succeed, and am free. I can return to Capton. I can help the people I’ve sworn my life to.
I fail, and I’m trapped for the rest of my life. At least this way, there’s a chance. There’s hope.
Eldas’s eyes bore a hole into my skull, as if trying to gain direct access into my brain and see what my thoughts are. I’m torn between the urge to look away, and being stuck entranced by whatever magic his gaze has. “Tell me, do you accept my terms?” he asks, voice deep and ominous.
“All right, Eldas, you have a deal.” I hold out my hand. His long, chilly fingers clamp around mine. I barely resist a shiver at the jolt of magic that dances under my skin at his contact. Too late I think about the fact that I gave him the opportunity to perform another Knowing. But, in shocking respect to my wishes, his eyes don’t flair. “But I should warn you; I’m a very hard worker. Three months is going to be plenty of time. I will be free of this.”
“I dare say I am looking forward to what you can accomplish.” There’s an implication of respect there that steals my breath. “Let’s return you before anyone has a chance to notice you’re gone.”
Before I can react, a sudden jolt of power freezes me in place. I panic, thinking he performed the Knowing after all. Dark mist steams off Eldas, mingling with the Fade. It pools at our feet, encasing us. I want to scream, but I can’t. I can’t move at all. The only light in the darkness is the glow of his eyes.
The world shifts around us.
The stale air of my castle room fills my lungs as I exhale the Fade in plumes of black smoke. Tremors wrack my body, causing black ice to fall off my shoulders. The condensed magic evaporates to steam, dissipating.
“W-what?” I say through chattering teeth. I grip my knees, trying to catch my breath before righting myself. Eldas is unfazed. “What was that?”
“Fadewalking. It’s a skill very few are capable of.”
I wonder what other incredible feats he can perform. Before I can ask, the air at Eldas’s side writhes like heat off a brick street. From between the shadows and light, a wolf bounds forth. The now-familiar beast happily trots over to me, rounds my feet, and sits at my side.
“What the—” Oh, good, Eldas is as confused as I. The king scowls at the creature. “Yet another sign the Fade is weakening. It’s becoming unruly,” he mumbles. Then, louder, “Go, beast.”
The wolf tilts his head to the side.
“By the order of the Elf King, you are a creature of the Fade, and there you shall remain.”
The wolf wags his tail and I don’t bother suppressing a giggle. “I guess he does what he wants.” I bury my hand in the wolf’s fur.
“Like someone else I know.” Eldas gives me a side eye and somehow I laugh. For the first time, it feels as if we’re working together—as though we’re equals.
“If it’s any consolation, he didn’t listen to me either.”
Eldas looks up to the heavens as if silently beseeching the gods for assistance and then heaves a monumental sigh. “He’ll go back soon enough. He was likely just following our scent through the Fade.”
“Fadewalking seems a lot less impressive when an animal can do it too.” I can’t help a grin. Eldas narrows his eyes at me, but his scowl has lost some of its bite.
“He can Fadewalk because he is of the Fade—a creature caught in the rift when worlds were severed.”
“He’s a good boy, that’s what he is,” I coo to the wolf.
“Fine. It is now my choice to allow this beast to stay as long as it pleases.”
I don’t know if he’s saying that to me, the wolf, or himself. “Of course it is your choice.”
“If you destroy anything in my castle, I’m sending you back by force,” he says sternly to the beast.
“I’ll look after him.”
“Don’t get too attached. He’ll be gone before morning,” Eldas grumbles, and starts for the door. “And you, Luella, we will practice your magic again tomorrow.”
“You’ve given me even more incentive to learn,” I say earnestly. He seems somewhat startled by my shifted tone and gives a small nod. I bite back the urge to tell him that if he gives kindness, he’ll likely get it back.
Eldas yawns. “Now, I will make an effort to get some sleep, if the Human Queen will stay put long enough to let me.”
“I’ll allow it, I suppose.”
He clearly wasn’t expecting me to answer. A smirk pulls on the corners of his lips. Eldas puts his back to me before I can enjoy the expression.
“Eldas,” I say right as his hand falls on the door handle.
“What is it now?”
“Thank you for our agreement… It’s a good start in proving that you’re not so terrible, after all.”
As soon as I say it, I dip my head and focus on petting the wolf to hide my smile. I don’t want to make him even more uncomfortable. The sight of his icy facade crumbling at someone else’s gratitude is satisfaction enough.
He says nothing and slips out of my room, leaving me and my unexpected new companion alone.
Rinni cracks the door. “Your Majesty? Are you ready?”
“Yes.” I’m perched at the edge of my bed. Alice’s journal is balanced on my knees and I’m scouring through for any information that could give me a starting point for how to approach my predicament.
I’ve already managed to figure out that the “Being” is the mirror of the “Knowing” in that it is the essence of existing rather than just understanding existence. It’s a tricky concept, but the important bit is that I now know my powers can change the true name of something.
A useful discovery to dedicate my morning to.
Rinni says nothing. The silence drags long enough that I glance over to her. Her eyes are focused on the wolf that’s taking up nearly the entire foot of my bed. She has a confused, bewildered, and slightly afraid expression.
“Rinni, meet Hook.” I named the wolf after the hook shape of his one, damaged ear.
“Hook… You have a wolf?”
“Yes, and his name is Hook.” I close up the journal. “Before you ask, yes, Eldas knows Hook is here. And yes, he’s all right with it.”
“Eldas… I’m missing something.”
“Maybe.” I smile sweetly and saunter over to the closet. I feel better than I have in days. “Hold on just a moment while I get dressed.”
Rinni studies me when I emerge.
“What? Did I pick poor clothes for a queen?” I ask.
“It’s not that. I like that you went with green again. It complements your hair. Perhaps you do have a bit of fashion sense to you.”
I gasp. “Rinni, did you just say something nice about me?”
She rolls her eyes. “You say it as if it’s a shock.”