I quickly return to my food, changing the topic to learn more about the upcoming springtime rites. Eldas is eager to tell me, especially about his part in them. He lingers on his duties as the Elf King—how he opens and closes the ceremonies, how he is seen as presenting the queen as the bringer of spring. I can’t help but smile as he goes on and on.
He’s genuinely excited to be king, to finally rule. And yet…we’re working on ending the cycle. I will not be here to see these springtime rites. I will not be presented.
As we talk, we help ourselves to the spread. Eldas is a proper gentleman, almost to the point that I’m uncomfortable. He makes it a point to see my drink is refilled whenever it’s low—which is often, since the mead is sweet and effervescent. He serves me when I express interest in trying something.
As we tuck in, I’m not surprised to find everything is delicious. The food in Midscape is its own sort of magic. All the flavors seem brighter, more unique and rich. Had I truly tasted anything before coming here?
“I hear you’re helping in the greenhouse.” Eldas makes an attempt at small talk.
“Willow has been good to me.” I instantly rise to his defense, even though there was nothing in Eldas’s tone that would suggest I couldn’t be assisting. “Not only has he let me help with the plants, but he’s given me access to the past queens’ journals and taught me more about elf magic.”
He tilts his head slightly when I bring up the journals. “Yes, I’ve heard you’ve made the place your own. Even to the point that rumor of the queen’s ability to heal ailments has spread through town.”
“I’m sure I’m not the first queen to do so.” I think back to the small poultice I crafted for the cabinetmaker.
“Queens do not have an interest in meeting with the common folk of Quinnar, or common folk in general.”
I snort at the remark.
Eldas sets down his fork and arches his eyebrows. “Did I say something amusing?”
“It’s not that queens don’t have an interest, but they haven’t been allowed to have an interest.”
“That is untrue.”
“Oh?” I grin. The expression slips across my flushed cheeks a little too easily. What number glass of mead is this? “Perhaps you should read some of the past queens’ journals. You may find their lives enlightening. If you’re making an effort to get to know me, then you could do the same with them.”
“I made an effort with Alice.”
“Did you really?” I grin, but abandon the expression when his tone becomes unexpectedly thoughtful.
He hesitates, voice suddenly heavy and sad. “She… She was a kind woman.”
“I have her journal, if you’d like to read it,” I say gently.
He stills and an almost child-like excitement flashes in his eyes. “I’d like that very much.”
“I’ll lend it to you; I’m finished with it.”
“That’d be very kind of you.”
“I want to be kind to you.”
Eldas busies his mouth with a long sip of his liquor and then focuses on the food still on his plate. Perhaps it’s just the firelight. But I think I see the faintest of flushes on his cheeks. I yield, turning back to my own food.
“You’re right,” he says without looking up from his plate. It’s good because he won’t see my surprise. I’m right? “I have never taken the time to properly enlighten myself on the past queens beyond Alice, and that is something that I should remedy if I am to be an effective king both to you, and to my future heir.”
He’s still operating under the assumption that I will be here longer than two more months. I barely refrain from pointing out the fact. Tonight has been cordial and there’s something that makes me sad about the thought of leaving right now.
No sadness that a bit more mead can’t fix.
“I’ll recommend passages to you beyond Alice, then,” I say, finally. “Some on the life of the queens. And some about interesting tidbits surrounding their magic that I’ve discovered that may help us end this cycle.”
“You still think you can remove the need for a Human Queen?”
“My plan hasn’t changed.”
Eldas stands and moves over to the fireplace again. He leans against the mantle, his towering form striking a dark line against the firelight. I scratch Hook behind the ears, watching—no, admiring him.
The light hits his cheekbones in just the right way that it makes them sit even higher. His eyes are highlighted, hauntingly beautiful. And the hidden rainbows of his raven hair have never been more noticeable.
“It’s for both of us, you know,” I say gingerly, standing, glass in hand as well. The room sways and nearly draws a giggle from my lips. But now is not the time for giggling. I still have enough of my wits to know that. “As well as for the benefit of everyone to follow. Think of what we could change, Eldas. Dream of how your heir’s life could be different—how your life might be.”
“I’ve long since grown past the age of dreaming.” His haunted, cold eyes speak only truth around the statement.
“Maybe you should try starting again. It’s easy: just dream, Eldas, and then follow those dreams.” I touch his elbow lightly and it summons his eyes to mine.
“I am not made for dreams. I am made to rule.”
“I think you’re made for whatever you want to be.”
“You don’t know me in the slightest.” Worry drifts in and out of his words.
“I think I’m starting to. I know I want to.” My fingers trail down his arm to his hand. They dance across his smooth skin, playing with the cuff around his wrist, asking for more. “What did you want as a child? Tell me your hopes?”
Eldas looks from my touch to my eyes. He inhales slowly. His pupils are blown wide.
“My whole life has been training to be the king. To serve my people, to protect the Human Queen and the cycle. My father never warned me…”
“She would be the one trying to destroy that cycle?” My chest tightens.
“She would be the one I needed to protect myself from.”
“I only struck you once.” A light giggle escapes and I bring the glass up to my lips, grateful he seems amused as well. “Sorry again for that.”
“I’m sorry for insulting you. Shall we call things even between us?”
“Even is a start.”
“The start of what, exactly?” When did he get so close? We lean like trees in a windstorm, back and forth, both of us edging on each other’s personal space until there’s hardly any gap at all.
Hook nudges my lower back. Wasn’t he curled up in the corner a moment ago? I was already too off balance. I stumble forward. My drink spills down Eldas’s luxe tunic only for me to land against the damp spot now covering his chest. His hands catch me. But he doesn’t push me away as I would’ve expected. He stares down at me, red faced in a way that makes me dizzy.
The hard line of his lips is suddenly softer, glistening with faerie mead. The light on his face washes him in gold, not marble. I wonder what he would taste like if I were to kiss him right now.
Is this what I’ve been running from my whole life? Is this what it’s like to care for someone else? The rogue thought wanders across my mind as I stare up at him. How could I have wanted to hide from this?
“Sorry,” I murmur. “I didn’t mean to. It was Hook’s fault.”
A lazy smirk crosses his lips. He knows something he’s not telling. That’s what that expression says. But I don’t get to probe. He distracts me with a hand on my face, his thumb dragging across my lips.
“Apologize to the drink. Because rather than being on your tongue it’s now merely on my clothes—a sorry demotion.”
“Eldas,” I whisper thickly. My head tilts slightly into his palm. I have an ache in me, a deep need I’ve never yielded to, and everything in me tells me that giving in is the worst idea possible. But I can’t think straight. Between the mead and his touch, I don’t want to.
“Luella?” My name is a question. What is he asking?
“Yes.” Whatever it is, yes.
His grip on me tightens; he pulls my face upward. My mouth meets his. His arm tightens around me, yanking me even closer. We smell of honey and taste of forgotten dreams. We move like desperation.
The glass I was holding falls, shattering, nearly breaking this trance with it. But Eldas runs his tongue along my lips and I let out a whine I didn’t know I could make. I allow him entry into my mouth and his tongue slips against mine gently—so gently.
Yet his movements are somewhat rough and needy. He’s a man of contrasts. Soft and hard. Cold yet he sets me aflame.
My back is against the mantle by the fireplace. My shoulders arch and I press against him. He holds my face to his until we both are lightheaded and gasping, coming up for air.
Eldas stares at me, lips shining and parted. I meet his gaze with as much shock and awe. The fire burns as blue as his eyes. The shards from my shattered glass are now rose petals.
“We… I…” He breathes heavily. Then, without warning, Eldas steps away. There’s panic in his eyes and fear in his movements. “You’re leaving.”
“I’m right here.” I reach for him; all better judgment has left me.
“No, you’re leaving Midscape. Leaving me. We… I can’t.” The truth sobers us both. “I must go.”
He’s gone before I can say more than his name. The fire burns orange once more and the only traces of the king are wisps of the Fade he just fled through.
The walk to the throne room is very, very long the next morning.
“Are you all right?” Rinni asks, pausing right before we enter.
“What? I—yes, of course I am. Why do you ask? I’m perfectly fine.”
“Uh huh.” Rinni abandons the door and folds her arms over her chest. “What’s going on?”