The cabinetmaker’s shop is filled with showpieces and books with diagrams of intricate furniture. Sawdust floats in from the woodworking room in the back, resulting in the cabinetmaker fastidiously dusting his counters. I decide on a few pieces that he already has pre-fabricated, rather than going for anything too custom.
“I suspect he knows who I am,” I say to Rinni as we leave the shop.
“Maybe, likely, especially after seeing me with you, but he’s from a long line of cabinetmakers,” she says. Why am I not surprised? “They’ve been working with the castle for generations, so I trust his discretion. I wouldn’t have brought you there if I didn’t.”
We’re halfway back to the castle when she pauses. “Oh, here, there’s something I want you to try.”
We navigate through the flow of people out on the street. In the daylight, Quinnar is a completely different city. Elves bustle about, carts line up in front of shops: people selling everything from food, to jewels, to suspect potions that have me curling my nose.
Rinni leads me to a cart where a woman is grilling dough on a flat griddle. Rinni orders two and the woman takes the small cake, slices it in half, and fills it with cheese. After another minute on the grill, the melted concoction is handed over to Rinni.
“Here. They’re one of my favorites to grab whenever I’m out patrolling the city in spring,” Rinni explains as we head over to the lakeside, sitting on a bench. “They start making them leading up to springtime rites.”
“What are springtime rites?” Harrow mentioned them before.
“A large festival of the arts to welcome back spring to the world. Usually the borders of the kingdom are opened…likely why the delegation from the fae is here. There will be music, and dancing, performances, singing and poetry.” Rinni sighs wistfully. “You’ll love it. And then, on fire night, the sky itself is the canvas and the Elf King paints blazing colors across it.”
“Literally?” I can’t help but ask.
“Of course.” Rinni laughs. “Eldas is the closest to the Veil and the strongest among us. There’s almost nothing he can’t do.”
I try and imagine Eldas painting with fire in the sky, his nimble hands commanding magic with the skill of a weaver on their loom. Rinni looks up, as if she can already see the glowing strokes. There’s admiration in her eyes. It makes my stomach twist, a sensation I promptly ignore.
“When does it happen?”
“Usually a week or two after the coronation.”
“Oh.” I stare at the food in my hands and suppress any glumness. I don’t need to see Eldas make fire sky paintings. I need to go home. I need to tend my patients. In fact, I don’t want to see the springtime rites. Because, if I do, I’ve stayed in Midscape too long and I can never really return to my world again.
“Is something wrong with it?” Rinni asks, pointing to the fried dough and misreading my expression. “I promise it’s good.”
“Oh, I’m sure.” I quickly take a bite. The cake is crisp on the outside but soft and fluffy on the inside. The charring on it adds a nice bite to what tastes like the corn base of the dough. The cheese strings between my mouth and the cake as I try and tear off a bite, prompting laughter from both Rinni and I.
For a moment, I forget who and where I am.
By the time I realize I’ve forgotten, the cheesy griddle cake is gone and the carefree moment with it. But, briefly, things weren’t so bad. They weren’t bad at all. I was eating delicious food and laughing with a friend. We were enjoying the weather and the quiet bustle of the city around us.
It was accidental happiness. A brief glimpse of what my life could’ve been like…maybe should have been like, if I had been prepared for this all along. If I had come here ready to be the queen, I wouldn’t be spending my time looking for a way to break the cycle. Instead I would be finding ways to explore and enjoy my new circumstances.
I sigh as my gaze drifts back to the opening in the mountain that leads through the Fade.
“We should get back to the castle,” I say.
“Yes, before someone sees you.”
We start heading back in earnest. Until something catches my eye, stopping me in my tracks.
There, in the back of an alley between two buildings, is Aria. She talks with shifting gazes and nervous glances to a lithe creature that has two deer antlers sprouting from the top of his head and dragonfly wings. I see the horned man hand over a small pouch to Aria.
Then, her eyes meet mine. She freezes and I quickly turn away to take several quick steps and catch up with Rinni.
“Are you all right?”
“Yes, fine.” I lightly pat the brim of my hat, feeling for any stray strands of hair. There’s no way she noticed me in this getup, right? “I thought I saw something strange. But there are many strange things here, for me.” I force a smile and Rinni grins.
“We’ll be back in the castle soon.” She nods at the looming castle ahead of us and takes two eager steps ahead. “That’s at least a little familiar—”
A blur in the corner of my eye solidifies into the weight of a shape behind me. A hand clamps a wet cloth over my mouth before I can say anything. The scent of something sharp and tangy fills my nose and I quickly hold my breath on instinct.
But it’s too late.
I don’t know what concoction the rag has been soaked in but it’s not good. My muscles begin to go limp and my vision blurs. My lungs are already burning from holding my breath. But I can’t take another gulp of air. If I inhale any more, I’ll slip out of consciousness.
I lose sight of Rinni as I’m dragged between two buildings.
I’m not even able to scream.
Farther and farther, I’m dragged off the city streets. The bright sunlight of the day is dimmed. A silhouette appears before me—horns and sharp angles, gossamer wings that stretch unnaturally out from his back.
That creature I saw with Aria.
“Keep holding, she’s still awake,” a man snarls.
I blink slowly and fight every instinct to inhale gulps of air. My lungs are revolting. I’ll have to breathe soon. Hopefully, if they think I’ve passed out, they’ll remove the rag.
As naturally as I can manage, I finally shut my eyes and allow my body to go heavy. Eldas had said there were enemies. Why didn’t I listen? Why didn’t I take it more seriously?
The movement stops as I hear shouting in the distance. It’s garbled, frantic words. The darkness behind my eyelids is quickly becoming more than pretend. I will pass out soon.
Yet, right when I think I’m about to lose my battle for consciousness, the rag is removed. I fight every urge to gasp in fresh air, instead inhaling slowly so I don’t alert my assailants.
“Go and throw them off the trail.” My eyes are still closed, but I can recognize the horned man by voice alone. “I’ll hide her.”
“You don’t have any ritumancy prepared,” another voice hisses, so low that I can barely hear the words. Ritumancy was the wild magic of the…fae?
Is it Aria? I think the speaker is a woman…but I can’t be sure. There’s more movement. Are there three, or four people here now?
My heart thunders in my chest. I want to call for help—for Eldas. He walked through the Fade itself and found me when I had tried to run away. I don’t know how the Fade works, but he’ll come if I call, right? I doubt it…there’s no way he’d hear me. He thinks I’m still safely tucked away in his castle.
Yet the thought sparks an idea.
Rinni has to have looked back and noticed I’m gone. The commotion I hear rising in the distance must be her leading knights to me. I just have to hold on and put up enough of a fight that they can’t take me too far away.
I can do that much, can’t I?
Two hands grab me, hoisting me up. I hear the buzzing of mighty wings. My stomach sinks as I’m suddenly weightless.
Are we flying?
I crack open my eyes and see the blurred flapping of the horned man’s dragonfly wings. He’s going to fly away with me, I realize. I take a deep breath and think of the square in Capton. I used my magic to turn what human hands made back into the natural world. I turned iron into trees. I turned stone into moss. I can do something to save myself.
It’s now or never. I open my eyes wide and look up at the face of the horned man. He has yet to notice I’m not as incapacitated as he thought. I’m surprised at how human his face looks, despite his wings and horns. But I don’t allow myself to get distracted.
I reach for the beaded necklace around his neck and curl my fist in it. He looks down, nearly dropping me. A hiss and a curse escape him.
Transform, I command, change into vines, tree branches, anything! The beads shudder, nearly coming alive. He jostles me in his arms, straining his neck away. I try and focus on my magic, but I slip from his grasp.
The necklace breaks and I fall back to the ground, landing with a hard thud. Luckily, I wasn’t too high up yet. But I was high enough that the impact steals the wind from me.
He lands next to me, stalking over with a snarl. “How dare you, human.”
I don’t even waste my breath on engaging. My magic might still be too ineloquent for me to command at whim. But I know something else that will heed me.
Bringing my fingers to my lips, I let out a shrill whistle. “Hook, come!” I shout. The horned man lunges for me as I see the air beside him shimmer. Hook bounds from between the shadows. “Hook!”
My wolf lets out what sounds almost like a roar rather than a growl and charges toward the horned man. My attacker barely has a chance to react before Hook is upon him. Hook sinks his teeth into the man’s wings and he lets out a scream of agony.
I scoot away until my back hits one of the dingy walls of the buildings. “Hook,” I call weakly. The beast has become nothing but rage and teeth. Hook rips one of the man’s wings clean off. “Hook, stop!” I push myself onto my feet.
He attacked me. He tried to kidnap me. And yet, just like with Luke, I can’t bring myself to see him maimed by Hook’s vicious attacks.