“I am the king’s right hand.” The mention gives me pause, bringing back the memory of Rinni cupping his cheek. I can’t help but wonder if there’s more there. Harrow had mentioned something about the Elf King taking lovers… “But that’s precisely why he has me guarding you. There’s no one else he trusts to keep you safe.”
I barely refrain from asking if there’s anything she can do about Harrow.
“Well then, I’d like to furnish my room today. You said it was something the queens got to do.” I emerge from the closet. Rinni tilts her head in an uncanny mirror of Hook. I barely resist laughing at them both.
“Yes, but usually they do it after their coronation, when they can go into the city.”
“So I’m stuck without furniture for three months?”
Rinni purses her lips. “I have an idea—I believe the furniture of the past queens is stored somewhere in the castle. You could start with that for the time being?”
“All right, lead the way.”
We wander through the lifeless castle to a back room. It’s clearly being used as a storeroom, but it’s the size of a small ballroom. The only dancers are tarp ghosts propped up by furniture underneath.
“All this…belonged to past queens?”
“By my understanding.”
It’s like a graveyard. With morbid curiosity, I peel up the first sheet and reveal a chaise covered in supple brown leather. It’s just a piece of furniture, I try and insist to myself. But I can see the outline of where the queen sat.
I shiver and lower the sheet. The room is suddenly ten times colder.
“I think I want to pick out my own.”
I turn back. “Isn’t there a way we could sneak out? I can cover my head, tuck my hair, and—”
“Your eyes,” Rinni interrupts.
“Your eyes give you away. Elves have blue eyes.”
I curse under my breath. “I can’t use any of this…” I shake my head. “It’s a good effort, thank you, but I can’t… It’d be strange. As though I’m living with ghosts.” Rinni gives a sympathetic sigh. At least she seems to understand why her suggestion won’t work. “Are you certain there’s no way I can go into the city to get furniture of my own?”
She pauses, curling and uncurling her fingers around her sword.
“Perhaps there could be a way, if we’re very careful.” Rinni’s eyes are shifty, as if she’s doubting herself for saying anything.
“Oh?” I encourage eagerly.
“I’ll tell you as we walk.” Rinni motions for me to follow her and I quickly fall into step.
The plan is fairly simple.
Rinni takes me back to her room and there I change out of the gown and into some of her clothes. She has a modest apartment—the racks of weapons I expect. The painting supplies I do not. Rinni says nothing about her hobby, so I follow her lead. I don’t know if it’s supposed to be secret that the right hand of the king is also an artist. Either way, I don’t want to risk the peace we’ve found.
I carefully tuck my hair underneath a cap. Even though no one knows me yet, Rinni says the red is too distinct a shade to have flowing freely. Though a few red-orange sparks float stubbornly around my ears.
The final bit of my ensemble is a pair of green-tinted glasses. Apparently, elves all having the same eye color has given rise to some thinking it fashionable to wear spectacles of varying tints. It’s like I’m wearing one of the stained glass windows from the Keepers’ temple on my face, but I’ll accept it if this is the way I get out of the castle without issue.
“I think this’ll work.” Rinni appraises me one final time. She’s changed out of her usual military garb into plain clothes.
“It’ll be great.” I appraise myself in her tall, skinny mirror. “Shall we?”
“One last thing.” Rinni looks to Hook. “He has to stay here.”
I purse my lips. “Hook is—”
“Hook is going to quickly become identifiable as the queen’s wolf.” Rinni folds her arms over her chest. “If your hair can’t be shown, then neither can Hook.”
Sighing, I turn to Hook. “You’re going to have to stay here.” He whines. “No, I insist. Rinni is right, there’s no other way.” A bark. “Do not take that tone with me. You are headed back to my quarters, now.”
He gives a defiant yowl and hops about the room. Before I can stop him, the air shimmers, the shadows lengthen, and the wolf slips between them into the void. Rinni is as startled as I am.
“What did you do?” she whispers.
“I… I don’t know.” Panic claws its way up my throat and is let out as a soft, “Hook?” Nothing. “Hook, come back.” I raise my hands to my lips and let out a shrill whistle. The wolf comes bounding back on command and I bury my fingers in his fur. “Good boy. Did you hear my whistle? You really are the best of boys!”
“Now that’s useful,” Rinni says in awe. “A Fadewalking wolf… I’ve seen everything.”
“Okay, Hook, go back and play in the Fade. I’ll call you later.”
He heeds my command and Rinni and I set off through the back halls of the castle. All paths lead back to the main atrium, and the two doors that Rinni unlocks with magic.
I take a deep breath the moment we enter the city. As if I’m welcoming spring with a big hug, I reach my arms out, over my head, and rise to my toes. The days are becoming undeniably warmer, even if they’re still a little too cold for my taste and frigid at night.
“You seem happy,” Rinni finally comments as we walk around the great lake in the center of the city.
The frost has vanished off the statues and their details are clearer. The queen wasn’t merely kneeling…it looks as though she’s burying something. Perhaps? I see a large mound under her hands and maybe a small sapling that almost looks…familiar? I’ve seen those leaves before, haven’t I? But the significance of her burying something, or what she might be burying, is lost on me—something to search for in the journals.
It’s likely just the queen planting a commemorative tree, or something similar. I quickly shift my focus back to Rinni.
“It’s nice to get out of the castle.” I keep an eye on her face, looking for any sign that she knows about my escape two nights ago. I see no indication.
She thinks about her response for several steps. “I can see how it might seem that you’re some kind of hostage, especially before the coronation. But once you’re introduced properly to Midscape, you can explore Quinnar at your leisure. Past queens would even make trips out to the various strongholds and lands throughout the Elf Kingdom…or to the royal cottage. And, of course, you’ll cross the Fade every year to commune with the Natural World.”
I purse my lips. I can see where she’s coming from—how her logic is set up. I look up toward the long stairway leading into the mountain tunnel that crosses back to the Natural World.
“Rinni, why did you want to become a knight?” I ask.
“I… Because my father was a knight and I was his only child,” she says, tension raising her shoulders slightly.
“So it was always assumed of you?” I reason. She nods. “If you could be anything you want…what would it be?” Based on what I saw in her room, I suspect I already know the answer.
“A knight, like my father, and his father before him. I come from a long line of knights who have served the Elf Kings for centuries.”
“No.” I stop walking and Rinni does as well. “What do you want? Forget your family. You’re an orphan for one minute and have no idea who your parents were or what they did. What would you be?”
Rinni purses her lips. I can tell the question is uncomfortable for her. But she seems to be making an effort nonetheless.
“A painter,” she says, finally. “But—”
“No buts,” I interrupt. “You want to be a painter. You’re a knight because it’s what’s expected of you. And that’s fine.” I try not to judge her for it. Willow comes to mind as well, following in the steps of Poppy and Poppy’s grandparents before. Elves seem to enjoy doing things for tradition’s sake. “But you didn’t make that choice for yourself, not really. You made it because it was assumed you would and because, I’d guess, it would create tensions in your family if you hadn’t become a knight.”
She sighs and starts walking again, as if she can leave this conversation behind. I’m not ready to quit yet. But I do shift the focus.
“I’m not trying to attack or upset you,” I say.
“I wouldn’t let you upset me,” she mumbles.
“Good!” I laugh and smile at her. I see the tiniest smile in return. “I’m just trying to say…we’re not so different. And, maybe, because of that, you can understand how I feel. I had my own dreams, too, Rinni. I had a shop. I wanted to help people with my talents when it came to herbs and potions. The whole town depended on me and invested in me so I could do it. That profession—herbalist—was my painting. But the world wanted me to be something different.
“So, no, I’m not held hostage in the literal sense. But it can feel that way, especially because the life I planned for myself is out of reach.”
Rinni sighs and runs a hand through her blue-streaked hair. “I suppose, phrased like that, I can understand.”
“Thank you.” I nudge her and Rinni looks at me in surprise. I flash her a bright smile. “I appreciate the effort.”
A faint blush crosses her cheeks. Is she shocked by someone paying her a compliment?
“In any case,” Rinni says hastily. “We’re here.”
“The best cabinetmaker in Quinnar.”