I let out a laugh. But the levity is cut with the lingering thoughts of Eldas struggling against his fate. I’m imagining him young, and awkward. My smile fades with a sigh.
“Rinni, I know I’ve asked a lot of you today. But may I ask your help with something?”
“It’ll take more tarts.”
“Done.” I chuckle and continue, “I want to get to know Eldas better.” I think of what Rinni said in the throne room about Eldas not making an attempt to get to know me. But, in fairness, that goes both ways. “I’d like to have dinner with him.”
I’d like to sit at his private table.
Rinni arches her eyebrows as a somewhat delighted smile creeps across her lips. “All right, I’m sure that can be arranged.”
“I don’t want it to be anything formal.” I think of one of the massive banquet halls in the castle and the illustrations I saw in books as a child. “I don’t want to be the king and queen sitting at far ends of a table that’s so long we may as well be in separate rooms.”
Rinni laughs. “I know what you’re saying.”
“Good. Will you ask him? I’m worried if I do it Eldas will say no.” Given how he seems to retreat after every time we get close, he just might. “And I’m also worried that the throne room has become either a classroom or a battle ground for us. If we meet there then we’ll—”
“Be unable to relax,” she finishes for me. “Say no more. I can make this happen.”
“Thank you.” I cross over and pull Rinni in for a quick hug. She’s stiff and just as awkward as the first time I hugged Willow. But she seems to warm up to the idea a little faster than my healer friend.
“Of course, Your Majesty,” she says, somewhat awkward as I pull away.
“We’re well past formalities.” I start for the door. “Call me Luella.”
That night as Hook curls up at the foot of my bed, I stare up at the ceiling. In a week I’ve secured two friends and a wolf. If I’m being honest, none of this is going as badly as I expected.
But the largest hurdles remain—genuinely befriending Eldas and, with his help, figuring out a way to break the cycle.
I yawn. “One step at a time,” I murmur before rolling over and falling asleep.
Eldas and I don’t meet the next day, or the day after, so I occupy myself with the journals and with Willow in the laboratory. Even if Eldas won’t help me, I will continue to search for a way out of this cycle—for myself, for him, and our worlds.
I worry that Rinni has asked him about dinner and it just went more horribly than I could’ve expected. On the third day, Rinni informs me that he’s taken up some new negotiations with the fae and that’s what’s distracting him.
I think of our conversation and I wonder if these new negotiations were, in part, inspired by me. I dare to think they might have been. Which fills me with an effervescent sensation, like I am some bubbly beverage, held under pressure.
Luckily, I’m distracted on the fourth day when my furniture arrives. The cabinetmaker makes the delivery personally and sees to helping Rinni and me set up the furniture in the space. He’s a sweet old man and I can’t help but notice him massaging his creaking fingers by the time we’re done.
After everything is settled to both our standards, I take him up with me to the laboratory and give him a poultice similar to what I made for Mr. Abbot. Blessedly, neither Willow nor Rinni tells me that helping a “commoner” is “beneath me.”
The cabinetmaker is bashful, but at Willow’s encouragement accepts the gift. The rest of the day I spend working with Willow, experimenting with my magic and learning from the books left behind by past queens.
I take my dinners in my room, alone save for Hook. My wolf curls up under my new desk that overlooks the windows in the main room—rather than the doors. I delicately skim the fragile pages of the women who came before me in search of clues. The oldest journal is just over two thousand years old. There are no records left behind by the original queen or her immediate successors. So I’m learning from women who were just as much in the dark as I was.
On the evening of the fifth day, I finally find something that may be useful. It’s about midway through Queen Elanor’s journal—four queens before me. Apparently, I wasn’t the first person to think of breaking this cycle.
With every new queen, the redwood throne takes a greater toll. Our power seems to be dwindling generation over generation. It’s possible that soon enough, there will not be a Human Queen.
I suspect that the throne itself is seeking balance with the other side of the Fade—with the Natural World. The Human Queen is not balance enough on her own. The laws of nature are stretched too thin.
If there was some way we could bring the two worlds in balance, then maybe Midscape would no longer need a Human Queen. But I have no way to prove this theory…
The next morning I’m getting ready to head to the laboratory when I hear Rinni’s distinct knock.
“May I come in?”
“I’m decent,” I call back.
“What are those clothes?” Rinni asks the moment she lays eyes on me.
“They’re something Willow helped me find.” I run my hands over heavy canvas trousers. “Don’t tell me, the day I finally dare to not wear a dress, Eldas wants to meet with me?”
I groan. “It’s true, isn’t it?”
“It is, but you have until this evening to change.”
“He accepted my invitation to dinner?” I can’t tell if the flapping in my stomach is the wings of butterflies or hornets. Am I excited or nervous? Both. There’s a whole war of the winged bugs going on in there.
“He did, finally,” Rinni mutters. She raises a hand to her mouth and coughs, as if trying to hide the fact that the last word escaped. I do her a favor and don’t comment. “Yes, he has. You’ll dine in the East Wing tonight.”
“Ooh, the mysterious East Wing.” I wiggle my fingers in the air. “How exciting and illustrious.”
“It is; only the royal family is usually allowed there.”
It’s not lost on me that I’m not considered part of the “royal family.” I may keep Midscape alive, but I clearly don’t deserve the honor of being seen as one of them. My thoughts wander to Harrow. I still haven’t seen him since healing him. Which I should be grateful for, but I’m oddly worried.
While Eldas didn’t seem too worried about Aria, I can’t help but think she might be up to something… No, that’s just my fear surrounding the horned man coloring my opinions of her.
I push the thoughts away. Harrow is just another reason why I’m glad to not be a part of that family. I’m leaving in two months and counting.
“Thank you for letting me know. What time should I be ready by?”
“Eldas expects you at eight.”
“Oh good, I can get a full day in the laboratory then, and still have time to change.”
“Would you like me to help you get ready this evening?”
I think about taking her up on the offer. There are definitely dresses that I can’t reach all the clasps of by myself. “No, thank you,” I ultimately decide. If Eldas is going to get to know me, he should get to know the real me—not whatever hairstyle or dress Rinni thinks is appropriate.
“Then I will return at seven forty-five.” Rinni gives a bow and leaves.
The day is an odd mix of too long and too short. The hours seem to drag on while I’m in the laboratory. Every time I look at the grandfather clock, I’m certain half the day has passed and it’s been five minutes.
I can hardly concentrate.
But all too soon, I’m back in my room and Rinni is knocking once more.
“Enter,” I call.
She appears at my bathroom door. “You chose that to wear?”
“It’s non-negotiable,” I declare. “He meets with me in this or he doesn’t meet me at all.”
“Very well.” Rinni has the ghost of a grin as she leads me away. Luckily she doesn’t comment on Hook following. He’s become my shadow in the castle since I’m much more at ease with him around. At this point, getting to know me involves getting to know Hook.
We cross through the throne room to get to the East Wing. I assume it was a more direct path than going down to the main atrium. Rinni leads me through the door Eldas usually disappears into. She traverses silent halls, cramped with intricate suits of armor, pointed stones on pedestals, tapestries, and portraits. There’s less open space here than in the West Wing. Less ballrooms, dining rooms, rooms for the sake of having rooms. They’re replaced by spiraling staircases and an infinite amount of doors that block my prying eyes.
Finally, we reach our destination, a door that looks much like any other. Rinni gives a soft knock.
“Your Majesty,” she says. “Your queen is here to join you.”
I freeze slightly at the words, “your queen.” I worry the labradorite ring around my finger, suddenly aware of its presence once more. I don’t want to be anyone’s. I don’t want to be owned. I nearly break out running, but manage to keep myself in place.
A sense of ownership is not what those words were intended to imply. I came here of my own volition. I wanted this to see if the kind man I’ve caught glimpses of is truly there. If he can trust me. If maybe our partnership can shore up its footing so that we might actually manage to get Midscape out of the bind it’s in. I’m not here out of obligation, or fear, or because he commanded me to be.
“Send her in.” The bass of Eldas’s voice resonates right through me.
The door swings out into the hall and Rinni steps to the side. I enter and try to walk tall, one hand buried in Hook’s fur for strength. As the door clicks behind me, the hornets win over the butterflies in my stomach and I press my lips together, trying not to let nervous words buzz out.