“Do they all look like that? Deer horns and dragonfly wings?”
“Many do, yes. Though their features will vary. However, oftentimes they’ll glamour themselves to look like something else.”
I shudder at the thought that those creatures might be lurking anywhere. For the first time, I’m grateful the castle is so empty. I press forward. Talking is helping to erase the sight and sound of that man’s death.
“So they could be anyone?” I whisper.
“Fresh water washes away fae glamour,” Eldas says reassuringly. “The border with the fae is blocked by a wall and water. The only bridges are heavily guarded. Fae don’t get into our lands without us knowing.”
“But the fae delegation—”
“I sent them away,” he says curtly. “I could not bear to look one second longer at them. And if they had anything to do with this plot I would not want them in my territory. No one else will come in or out until your coronation or until…until you’re back in the Natural World. Rinni will see to their removal personally.”
I barely resist asking him not to be too harsh. But then that horrible sound fills my ears and I’m fighting trembles. This is not my world, or my justice.
“How did they steal you away from Rinni?” Eldas asks.
“I lagged behind her, for a moment…it all happened so fast,” I murmur. As much as I don’t want to think about it, something else surfaces from those crimson-stained memories. “Aria was there,” I whisper.
“What?” Eldas scowls. “With the kidnappers?” he asks quickly.
“No, no… I saw her speaking with the horned man just before.”
“Are you certain it was the same man? Are you certain it was her?” Eldas shifts to look me straight in the eyes. “You must be absolutely certain.”
I try and sort through my memories, but after spending the day pushing them away and blacking them out… I shake my head. “I think so? No. It must’ve been her. Maybe that was how they identified me, since Harrow allowed Aria, Jalic, and Sirro to see me before the coronation.”
Eldas is silent, staring into the fire. He sees something I cannot.
“Do you think she was involved?” I dare to ask. I don’t like the thought of someone who could possibly have been involved in a kidnapping attempt being allowed in and out of the castle. After a minute of more silence, I press, “Eldas?”
“No,” he says, finally. “I doubt she is…”
“But how do you—”
“Aria is the niece of the current Fae King.”
“She’s fae?” I blink, startled.
“Only half. And her elf side is far more dominant. The current Fae King’s brother was her father, though he died when she was young. Aria was raised in Quinnar with her mother.” Eldas shook his head. “The benefits to diplomacy for not a great deal of risk on our part are part of why I permit Harrow’s friendship with her. We vetted her thoroughly when they first became friends years ago. She’s trouble, yes…” He sighs. “But the sort of trouble Aria can be is beneath kidnapping the Human Queen. Her trouble manifests in misguiding my somewhat impressionable brother to stay out too late or drink too much.”
“Can you be certain?” I can’t help but ask.
“If she was involved in a plot to kidnap you, she would be acting against her family and her own self-interest. If the Fae King was involved, then any standing he hopes to have with the elves is lost. And, Aria looks after herself. Trying to hurt you would severely limit her prospects,” Eldas explains. I consider this. It makes sense, I suppose. And what do I know of Midscape’s politics? Precious little. I’ve been so focused on learning my magic and looking for a way to break the cycle that I haven’t had the chance to dive too deeply into everything.
“If you’re sure,” I murmur.
“If she was involved, I will see to her myself,” Eldas swears to me.
I quickly change the topic, not wanting to think of Aria being torn limb from limb. “The man said something about wanting his land—giving it back. What did he mean?”
Eldas runs a hand through his hair. I watch as the silky curtain falls effortlessly back into place. “When the fae began their infighting, it was years of bloody squabble that spilled over into the surrounding area. There were attacks made on elf settlements when the borders of our land were blurrier than they are now. Most were unprovoked—the fae looting for resources or simply catching our people in the crossfire. That prompted swift retaliation.”
“Retaliation by your father?” I wonder where Eldas inherited his brutal streak from.
“No, well before him.” Eldas stares into the fire. “Eventually, the elves erected a wall—the one lined with fresh water for its entire length.” I remember what Harrow had said about their brother, Drestin, receiving some honorable position on a wall somewhere. “The wall was an effort to keep the fighting out. But when the dust began to settle and the clans grew weary of their wars, it was discovered that the wall had encroached upon a large swath of formerly fae territory.”
“And now they want it back?”
“They have for centuries. But by the time they made their claim clear, our people had long since settled on the land. Even if we gave it back to them, it’s uncertain who would take it and who would rule. The fae delegation that was here arrived to discuss absolving the tithing to enter elf territory for the fae—they feel that if their ancestral land couldn’t be returned, they should at least be able to enter it freely. But after today, I doubt I’m going to ever—”
“Don’t let today change things,” I say quickly. “That man paid for his crimes. Unless he was acting on behalf of the Fae King…don’t let all of the fae people suffer because of his choices.”
Eldas studies me so intently that I shift and pull the blanket tighter around me, as though I might guard myself from his probing stare. “You would have me not turn them away?”
“I would have you rule fairly, with strength, and with honor.”
A tired smile curls the corners of his lips. “You remind me of her, sometimes.”
“Who?” I imagine some lover he gave up before I entered the castle.
“Alice.” Certainly not who I was expecting.
I clutch the blanket tighter. “You must’ve known her well, didn’t you?”
A shadow crosses his face and Eldas shakes his head, as though he regrets saying anything. I can feel him retreating mentally well before he retreats physically. I watch as he stands, fighting the strange urge to pull him back before the fire with me.
“You should get some rest,” he says softly but firmly.
“I’ll see you in the morning to practice your magic.”
“But—” I don’t get to finish. He’s out the door, retreating with a haste I’ve never seen from him before. I look to Hook, who gives a low whine and tilts his head at me in response. “I don’t understand him either.”
The wolf stands, stretches, and then comes to sit where Eldas just was. I lean against him for support and the beast gives a soft huff. But he doesn’t move. Hook stays even as I fall asleep on his furry shoulder.
The next morning, Rinni arrives as usual. She says nothing of finding me sleeping on the floor. In fact, she’s eerily quiet.
Hook still seems drowsy from yesterday and I tell him to stay in my rooms. He doesn’t put up a fight and I’m already thinking of what I can make him later in the laboratory with Willow that might make my companion feel better.
“Rinni, about yesterday…” I start as we walk to the throne room. She doesn’t so much as turn my way. “I want to apologize to you.”
“You were right,” I continue with every bit of sincerity I have. “I was wrong. We should have stayed in the castle.”
“I will be waiting for you when you have finished with the king to take you to Willow,” Rinni says, her words void of emotion. Anger would’ve been easier to handle.
“I can just go and meet Willow on my own.”
“His Majesty has instructed me that you are not to be without escort, even in the castle. I’d like to make haste with this jaunt, however, as I have matters to discuss with the other head knights regarding city patrols and security.”
“Eldas seemed to think the castle would be safe now that the delegation is gone.”
“It is the will of our king.” Rinni stops before the door to the throne room. “And it is not our place to go against his wishes.”
Rinni doesn’t give me the chance to say anything else before I’m ushered into the throne room for another morning of magic practice.
Eldas is distant once more. It’s as though any time he even remotely gets close to me he overcompensates for it the next time we meet. He stays several steps away from me at all times. Which only makes me think all the more about his earlier caresses when we first started working together.
I would’ve thought the space would make me feel better. This is a man who tore someone else apart. But the gap between us only makes me cold. It’s somehow more of a reminder of what he’s capable of. I want the tender man who came to me last night. Yet I don’t know where or how to find him.
My magic matches my emotions. At times, it heeds my will and his instruction. I continue to explore the redwood throne, trying to figure out what that dark place is. All I can uncover before my magic fails me is that the throne seems to have grown out from that spot.
As soon as Eldas deems us finished, he departs without a word. I’m not even given the chance to discuss yesterday. Wrapping my arms around myself, I head to the laboratory, Rinni escorting me silently.
Thankfully, at least Willow is normal.
He hears me out as I talk about the incident in the city, allowing me to air all the confusing feelings I’ve had knotting me up since yesterday afternoon.