Eldas stands before a great hearth. There’s a table between us that looks like it could comfortably seat four but is set for two. Food glistens in the low light—roasted meat, trays of vegetables, and some kind of round, iced cake with what I hope aren’t actual butterfly wings decorating the top.
I can only inspect the food so much before my eyes wander to the man I’m actually here to see. Eldas is wearing a tufted tunic the color of midnight. Tiny pearl buttons are sewn at the center of Xs across his breast and give the appearance of scattered stars. His complexion is in contrast with his dark clothes, making him look like a king of starlight, rather than death.
“Is the crown really necessary?” I blurt, completely disarmed by his mere appearance. It almost looks like he made an effort for me.
“Excuse me?” Surprise disrupts his schooled expression and his hand flies to the dark line of iron on his head. Eldas drops his hand suddenly, as if embarrassed by the motion. “I am a king, why would I not wear my crown?”
“Because it’s just me you’re meeting with.”
“All the more reason. I am your king. Why would I not look the part?”
Your king. The words rumble in contrast to “your queen.” If I am his queen, does that mean he is my king? Is it, rather than him owning me, that we own each other? We share each other?
For the first time, I wish I spent a little more time on all this relationship and romance business at the academy, rather than being singularly focused on herbology. Maybe I would be less awkward and less inclined to over-think everything.
“I…” Words fail me. Instead, I walk over to him and feel his eyes trail over me with every step. Hook waits behind, as if he somehow knows I need to do this on my own. “I came here as myself, as Luella.” I hold out my hands and let him look at the high-waisted skirt and billowing top I chose—simple fabrics, simple designs, what I would wear back in Capton. “I was hoping that I might—”
I reach up and he flinches away. I hold out my hands and wait. Eldas settles and allows my fingers to curl around his crown. It’s heavier than I expected, so heavy I wonder how he holds his head up at all.
“—meet with Eldas, and not the Elf King.” I set the crown down on the mantle, grateful I didn’t drop it.
“The Elf King is who and what I am. There is nothing else.”
Those words mirror things I’ve said many times before. He didn’t intend for them to wound, and yet they do. Internal tremors try to knock my bones together. Nerves are attempting to get the better of me because I have never felt more vulnerable.
For the first time, I realize the clothes, the crown, that horrible, echoing throne room…they’re all different forms of armor for him. They shield him from anyone seeing whoever the man is without them. And, now, I’m all the more curious about who that man actually is.
“I understand,” I whisper.
“You don’t.” He looks back to the fire as if he can’t handle my scrutiny. As if he knows the realization I’ve made.
“I do,” I insist. “Because I had my own armor. I had my shop, my job, my duty. I had it keep me from everything because if I put myself out there for a moment then maybe I could be hurt—maybe I could lose control.”
His eyes flicker back to me. The fire cracks and a log falls.
“Little good that did me,” I murmur. Even trying to protect myself, Luke dealt a near mortal blow to my heart. His gaze softens further. “So I’m not going to retreat. Well, I’m trying not to. I want to get to know you, Eldas.”
“Why?” He seems shocked someone would.
“What kind of a question is that?” I laugh breezily. Yet his tense shoulders indicate it was genuine. “I’m technically your wife.”
“Only a formality… And I forced you to take those oaths.” He brings a crystal cut glass to his lips. It barely hides a grimace. “I am sorry for my actions in the temple at Capton. I should have apologized earlier.”
A sincere and unprompted apology? I barely refrain from letting out a shocked gasp. Progress, this is real progress.
“Thank you for your apology.” I purse my lips. Part of me doesn’t want to forgive him. Yet… “Honestly, without your help, I probably would have puked on your shoes.”
Now he doesn’t hide the grimace. “Maybe I am less sorry.”
I laugh lightly. It’s a fragile sound to pair with our delicate explorations. “What’re you having?”
“This?” He swirls the glass. Ice clanks. “It’s faerie mead. It was sent with their king’s apologies for the incident in Quinnar.”
“May I try some?” There’s a narrow bar with an additional glass set out and a bottle of liquid the same color as what’s in Eldas’s glass.
“I didn’t think you would want to since it’s of fae make. I only opened it because it’s strong and because tonight…I needed some strength.”
“You needed strength around me?” I lift my eyebrows.
“You are perhaps the one thing in Midscape I find terrifying.”
I chuckle as I help myself to some liquor. As I pour, Hook takes my spot at the fireside. Wolf and man regard each other warily as I return and hold my glass out to Eldas, distracting him from Hook.
“To strength, tonight.”
He stares at my gesture long enough that I’m uncomfortable.
“Do you toast here?”
“We do.” For the first time, his chilly gaze seems inviting. His eyes are cool, but like a brisk winter morning that you’re ready to greet. Eldas lifts his glass. “To this world. To the next. To the people we meet between and the bonds we share.” He lightly clanks his glass against mine and drinks. I do the same.
“Is that an elvish toast?” I ask.
He doesn’t seem to know how to respond to the compliment so he deflects instead. “I see the beast is still insistent on roaming my castle.”
“Hook,” I correct gently. “Yes, he still stays with me.”
“You must return to the Fade eventually,” Eldas scolds lightly. Yet, despite his tone, he leans forward and reaches for Hook. The wolf tenses but permits Eldas to gently scratch him between the ears.
“He goes back and forth as he needs. Sometimes he runs off of his own accord, but he always comes back. And he’s a good companion whenever he’s here.” I don’t want to think about Hook leaving me for good, as Eldas’s tone implies.
“Good. This castle can be lonely.” Eldas purses his lips slightly, as if that were something he hadn’t intended to say.
“You would know, wouldn’t you?”
“As much as you would.” Eldas turns the sentiment back on me and I’m silenced. We take long sips of mead.
“Did you really stay locked away here while you were waiting for me?” The question comes out weakly. I’m afraid of the answer.
“Rinni told you, didn’t she?” He doesn’t look at me when he says it. I doubt he likes feeling vulnerable. But I’m not going to apologize for taking an interest in his wellbeing.
“She did. Don’t be cross with her.”
“You continue to tell me who I can and cannot be cross with.” Eldas glances at me from the corner of his eye. I can almost see him fighting a smirk and that brings a smile to my lips.
“Consider my advice like any other counsel: recommendations.” I take another sip as the conversation lulls. I wait. Nothing. “You didn’t answer my question.”
“I did continue to sequester myself. I wanted to present myself to the world at the same time as my queen but…” He runs a hand over his hair and shakes his head. “Nothing is going according to plan. Then there was you…and your nature shredded the last notion of my carefully concocted designs. You really are nothing like I expected.” Before I can remark on the almost tender sentiment, he turns to the table. “Shall we eat?”
“Very well.” I am quick to abandon what Eldas expected of me. I’m almost afraid of what I might find is the answer. No…not that…I’m afraid of discovering what I hope is the answer—I’m nothing like he expected in a way he might be enjoying. A feeling that’s dangerously mutual. “Did you cook all this?”
He scrunches his nose in disgust. “Of course not. I have someone who does that.”
“Yet the castle seems so empty.” I take my seat, and he takes his. “I’ve wondered who does all the cooking.”
“There are inner passages. Think of them like a castle within a castle. The servants operate there. Very few can be seen on this side.” He pauses, eyes flicking to mine. “Magic helps as well.”
“Magic helps,” I repeat with a laugh. “I suppose it would.”
“Well, I know you cannot summon a rack of lamb with a thought in your world.”
Before I can finish, Eldas lifts his hand, motioning to the corner of the room. A blue mist collects on his fingers, mirroring a small cloud in the corner. With a blustery burst, it condenses into—sure enough—a rack of lamb.
“Enjoy, Hook.” Eldas leans back in his chair, swirls his glass, and takes a swig. When he catches my stare he bursts out in laughter. “You didn’t think I could.”
“I learned the true name of that rack of lamb, and I can create duplicates of it.”
As he speaks, Hook gnaws on the offering.
I have a thousand questions, but all I can muster saying is, “You must really like lamb.”
Eldas blurts out laughter and quickly covers his mouth with a hand. His embarrassed expression leads to my own outburst. Suddenly, we’re laughing together.
“How have there ever been any food issues in Midscape if that can be done?”
“Only elves can do it, and very few among us possess the skill. And that food is not nearly as nourishing as something natural—something real.” He stares at me over the top of his glass as he takes a swig. Something about the muscles in his throat contracting is oddly entrancing.