“Well, I didn’t think you liked me much.”
“I like you fine.” Rinni’s eyes fall to Hook at my side. “You’re not bringing that beast into the throne room.”
“You want to try and tell him he can’t come?”
Hook tilts his head at Rinni. His eyes say, “pet me.” But his long muzzle full of razor sharp teeth says, “try me.” It’s only been a day, but I think finding Hook was one of the best things I could’ve done. It’s like we were meant to be together all along.
“Fine, but if Eldas asks, I said he should stay in your room.”
I shrug. After last night, I’m already more confident around Eldas. As long as he keeps up his end of the deal, maybe there’s hope.
Maybe, somehow, we got through to each other. A little?
We walk through the main room of my apartments. It’s still barren, and getting furniture slots higher onto my to-do list. It’s solidly underneath “figure out my magic” and “stop the cycle of the Human Queen.” But it may be more attainable than either of those goals and, moreover, having a furnished apartment might make me more comfortable during my—hopefully short—three months here. At the very least, it’d be nice to have an actual desk to read journals and take notes at.
We go down the same path to the throne room. Just like before, Rinni listens at the door before opening it. “Your Grace, Her Majesty and…Her Majesty’s wolf.”
Eldas stands before the great window behind the two thrones—one crafted by nature, the other by mortal hands. His hands are folded behind his back and his long silhouette is cut sharply against the morning light. I think I hear the echo of a sigh.
“Thank you. You may leave, Rinni.”
Rinni bows and departs through the side door we entered through.
Eldas turns to face me, looking down his blade-like nose. His face is so severe that I wonder strangely if it would be painful to kiss it. I already know his words are sharper than glass. Would his tongue match? I push the thoughts from my mind. I’m here to work.
His gaze shifts to Hook.
“The beast is still here.”
“His name is Hook.”
“Very well.” He shakes his head, resigned. “We have work to do, wolf or no.”
I summon my courage and say, “Yes, we do.”
“Come here.” He senses my hesitation and adds, “I’m not going to force you to sit on the throne.”
“Really?” This is already going much better than the last time.
“Truly. It’s obvious we need to start with the bare minimum. We’ll begin with you exploring your powers and becoming familiar with them. We need to learn just how much of the past queens’ strength you inherited,” he instructs as I cross over. “Close your eyes.”
I oblige him. With my eyes closed I’m somehow more aware of his presence. I hear his footsteps. I’m keenly aware of the exact moment he crosses the line of my personal space. He’s achingly close and the air shifts as he moves around me.
A low growl breaks the trance. “Hook, shh,” I hiss. Maybe Rinni was right about leaving him behind.
Is that a soft chuckle I hear? Eldas smothers the pleasant noise quickly. I peek through my lashes, but he’s not in front of me any longer.
“Reach within you.” The resonance of his voice behind me, nearly close enough to move the tiny hairs on the back of my neck, makes me shiver.
Get yourself together, Luella.
“Feel the power that’s there.”
“I feel nothing.”
“You’re not going to master anything with sixty seconds of effort,” he says dryly. I can’t help but smirk. “Try harder.” His hands rest on my shoulders, feather light. I shiver again as he trails his fingers over the velvet that covers my arms. “Feel the magic being drawn in through the air, the power that gathers in your hands. Feel it as your feet root to the earth.” His hand slips around my hip. I let out a gasp as his fingers spread across the flat plane of my stomach. It’s as if with every caress my magic activates, eager to respond to him, as if my power could arc from me to him. “Do you feel it? Gathering within you? A wellspring of life waiting to be unleashed?”
“I…” I feel something, all right.
“Shh,” he says, a little too gently. “Keep your focus, Luella.”
Why does my name sound so much better when he says it in that deep voice of his? I press my eyes tighter and try to shift my focus. The only things I’m feeling well up in me are dark desires I certainly am not about to admit to anyone—myself included—anytime soon.
“Breathe,” he whispers. I do as he commands. “Exhale.”
I’m putty under his hands. Breathe in, breathe out, focus. Eldas stands behind me, one hand on my stomach and the other resting lightly on the backs of my fingers. He breathes in time with me. And, slowly, the carnal urges he woke with his touch fade away.
We breathe together as one and, in the darkness, something new is blooming.
Power flows between us. My magic is more like a wide, shallow lake than a deep well; he stands on the far edge. We look toward different skies, broken by the other’s silhouette.
Our power is connected, but we see that power differently. And because we understand it differently, the power functions uniquely for each of us.
I see life. He sees death. Two sides of the same coin. Two halves that require the other to exist.
I imagine myself kneeling at the lake’s edge. Yet my eyes never leave him. Not even as I dip my hands into the water.
It’s not wet, as I would’ve thought. The water is warm and swirls around my fingers with a faint glow. When I take my hands from the lake, they have the same green shimmer on them.
“Little by little,” Eldas murmurs.
Does he see the same thing I do? Is this vision beyond my own mind? Is it actual, or just how I’m comprehending the shifting power that pulls between us like helpless tides trapped between two moons?
“The magic responds to you, Luella. You are its master. It is not the master of you. It exists to serve you and you are its sole commander; never think otherwise.” His hands leave my body and I bite back an inappropriate groan of frustration. My skin is flushed, hot under where he touched. “Open your eyes.”
I pry my eyes open as he walks around me. The light of the throne room is too bright. I blink several times, returning my mind to the here and now—the physical world.
“Was that real?” I ask.
“That was how your mind is attempting to comprehend your magic.”
“Did you see it too?”
He seems startled I’d probe for his experience. “I saw…something.” Eldas turns away from me, hiding the expression that accompanied those words. I take a step forward, drawn toward him as he moves away. He speaks before I can probe further. “Come to the throne.”
The gentle heat that filled my body vanishes. The redwood throne stands before me, tall and imposing. Threatening.
It’s softened only slightly by Hook’s presence. The wolf has curled up at its foot. His chin is on his paws and he looks up at me with golden eyes. Somehow, even the animal seems to expect something from me when it comes to this throne.
“You said I wouldn’t have to,” I whisper.
“This is your power,” Eldas says delicately. “You must commit to learning it. Especially if you want any hope of breaking the queen’s tie to the throne.”
It takes only two of his wide strides for him to be before me again. Eldas slowly moves for my hand and I allow him to take it in his. Somehow, this touch is sturdy and reassuring.
“You can do this. You must.”
I shiver and force my body to move. It’s just a throne. A throne that nearly killed me the last time. Nothing to be worried about. Right. Maybe if I tell myself that enough I’ll believe it.
Eldas guides my palm to the throne, holding it just above the corner of the armrest.
“Just this, for now. Greet the throne and its might without giving yourself to it.”
I am frozen in fear.
“Are you ready?” he asks softly.
“Just one more minute.” My voice quivers slightly. He gives me the time and then some, standing patiently, holding my hand in his. When my composure is gathered, I nod and he presses my hand against the wood.
There’s a spark sizzling under my skin. Popping crackles my ears. But I stay grounded in my body. This time, I’m not pulled deep into the magical clutches of the redwood throne. I blink and breathe slowly. Hook lets out a low whine.
Eldas has unhanded me. I continue pressing my palm to the throne of my own accord. My connection with it is stable and calm this time. I can once more sense those deep roots fanning beneath me in the foundation of worlds.
“What do you feel?” he whispers. His hands are behind his back again and yet the ghost of them is still on my body.
“I feel it…stretching, reaching. I feel the earth, mighty and solid, coiled in the roots’ grasp. I feel…” Rock. A hard layer of rock that the roots can’t penetrate. Instead, they cluster just before it, around something, like a cage. I can’t tell what that “something” is. It’s a black spot in my awareness—a place where my limited senses go to die. I don’t remember it from the first time…but that whole experience is just a jumble of pain in my mind now.
“When you’re ready, close your eyes.”
I take a deep breath and do as he instructs yet again.
“Feel the Fade you crossed, just south of the city; we’re right at the edge of Quinnar. Traverse the plains and hills to the eastern mountains. Feel their white-capped and snowy ridges. Enter the deep forests of the fae. Find, at the water’s horizon, far, far to the north, where the Veil separates our world from the Beyond. See, but never touch.”
As he speaks, I go on a journey behind my eyelids. I’m jerked around from place to place. It’s as if I race between one location and the next to keep up with his words. As my thoughts change, so too does my awareness.