“Nothing. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ll be late and Eldas will—” I try and move for the door but Rinni blocks me. Hook growls up at her but I stop him with a hand. Rinni knows Hook well enough by now that she’s not intimidated in the slightest.
“Yes, you don’t want to be late. So out with it; how did last night go?”
“It was fine,” I say a little too quickly.
“Fine?” She arches her eyebrows and repeats, “Fine? You’ve wrung your hands at least fifty times on the way here. Something happened.”
I groan and bury my face in my hands. The anticipation of seeing Eldas again has been prickling me all morning to the point that I couldn’t sit still. I had to read my journals while pacing before the sun was even up or the restless energy in me might spark lightning.
All night, the sight of his silhouette outlined in raw blue magic illuminated my mind. All night, I heard the whispers of the softer tones of his voice; his more delicate expressions haunted me. The phantom sensations of his lips on mine had me sighing and gasping in ways that embarrassed me come dawn.
“Really, it went fine. We’ll just have to see how the rest goes from here.”
Rinni studies me for another long minute. But then finally eases away from the door. “All right. But if you want to talk about anything, I’m here.”
“Thank you.” Though Rinni would likely be the last person I talk to about wanting her king to press me against a wall and do obscene things with his fingers somewhere between my—stop with those thoughts right now, Luella.
“If it’s any consolation, Eldas seemed out of sorts this morning.”
I bet he was, I bite back and enter the throne room.
Eldas is seated on his iron throne. His right ankle rests atop the opposite knee. Balanced on his thigh is a familiar journal. His chin rests lightly on his fist as his eyes dart across the page.
I walk silently over and stand right in front of him. But he doesn’t look up. His strong cheekbones frame his thin lips, pursed slightly in thought to match the slight furrow in his brow. I know what those lips feel like now—not cold, not cutting, but velvet.
I wonder if he doesn’t know I’m here. It would seem impossible, but with such a look of intense focus…
“I believe I need to thank you,” he says, finally. I nearly jump out of my skin as the words echo through the throne room.
“For what?” My mind is still on last night.
Eldas holds up Alice’s journal. “Telling me this existed. I went to retrieve it from the laboratory last night.” He stands and stretches out his arm. “Here. If you don’t mind returning it to the laboratory for me?”
“Did you…finish it?” I ask, crossing over and taking the journal from him. He’s acting normal. But also not. There’s a kindness here, a warmth that wasn’t there before.
Does he want to kiss me again? I can’t tell and I hate that. I want to know him so well that I know every time he wants to kiss me and every time he’d let me kiss him. Do I want to kiss him again? I can’t seem to get my thoughts in order.
“That must’ve taken you—”
“All night.” Yet he doesn’t look any different than normal. His skin is the same shade and no dark circles line his eyes. If looking refreshed after spending all night reading is some elf ability, I am going to feel extremely shortchanged as a human. “It completely enraptured me.”
“Really? I mean, I’m glad.” I try not to let my surprise give him the wrong impression and force a smile. Everything is awkward.
Eldas regards me with a guarded expression. “I would care for the next one you recommend.”
“You had others, correct?”
“Yes, but—” Eldas is already crossing the room. “Wait, where are you going?”
“To your apartments,” he says, as if the fact is obvious.
“The other journals are there, yes? I would like to start the next one you recommend. I admit I glossed over some of the more detailed notes on plants, however. So please give me one with more margin notes and personal anecdotes alongside the herbology.”
“All right,” I say, as if this conversation is totally normal. “Actually, come this way.” I start for the door in the back of the throne room.
“There are two specific ones I want to recommend to you. Well, three, but I’m not finished with the third yet. The last one I have in my apartments, but the others I’ve already returned to the laboratory.”
“Very well, lead on.”
If he’s trying to be normal then I will also. If he doesn’t want to address last night, then I don’t need to either. Ignoring it is the best, healthiest, most mature response, right? Right.
Hook pushes past me as I open the door. The wolf scampers halfway up the stairs, stopping to look back at me, as if frustrated I’m not going fast enough. He clearly already knows where we’re headed.
“Go on ahead,” I encourage. “We’ll be right behind.”
Hook lets out a small bark and bounds away.
“I started doing some other research last night,” Eldas says.
“Other research?” I laugh. “You had time to research something else and finish that whole journal?”
“I already told you I skipped the sections of herbology,” he says somewhat remorsefully, as if the very idea of not reading every word in a book is embarrassing for him.
“Fair. What is it that you researched?” I assume he wants me to ask. Otherwise, why bring it up?
“If there have been any other instances of Fade beasts wandering into Midscape.”
“It’s not entirely unprecedented. But, usually, they do not linger this long. Fade beasts are the animals that were caught between when the worlds pulled apart. They might look and feel mortal…but they are part of the Fade itself.”
“Part of the Fade itself,” I repeat. “So every animal, tree, creature, was trapped in place when Midscape split from the natural world?”
“The Fade is almost like a creature unto itself, then. Isn’t it?”
I pause on the stairs, noticing Eldas has fallen behind. He stares up at me with his shining blue eyes. He stares at me in a way I haven’t had him look at me before. Yearning, if I had to describe it.
“That is correct,” he says gently. “The Fade is very much like something living, breathing, thinking.”
“And trapped in stasis.” Somehow, I pity that dark, primordial mist.
“No one has ever recognized that before,” he says with a note of surprise.
“I’m sure someone has.”
“No, they haven’t,” he insists and takes another step toward me. I wonder if he’ll kiss me again. I wonder how it’ll feel with both of us sober and sensible. I’m doing a very poor job of ignoring these thoughts. “It gives me hope that you’re so fond of something from the Fade.”
“Because it speaks to your capacity for compassion if you could care for something of the Fade. It is a cold place.”
Cold like me, I realize is what he wants to say. If the Fade comes from the Elf King, and I care for something of the Fade, does that mean I care for him? Is that what he sees? Is that the truth?
“The Fade…” That seemingly sentient wall is a part of Eldas. “I thought the first Human Queen helped make it?”
“Yes, the Human Queen’s magic, her gift from the earth, and the Elf King’s powers bestowed by the Veil. It took both of them.”
“See, we’re stronger when we work together,” I murmur. I’m against the wall again and he looms over me.
“Perhaps you’re right.” Eldas wears a small smile and continues up the stairs. I breathe a sigh of relief. I don’t know what I would’ve done if his attention was on me like that for a moment longer.
When we arrive at the laboratory, Willow is on his knees, knuckle deep in the most rigorous belly scratches I have ever seen. Hook is clearly loving the attention with tail-wagging, body-wriggling delight. “Who’s the best Hookie? You’re the best Hookie! Best boy gets his tummy scratched. Yes he does. Yes he does.”
“Oh, Hook, my fierce defender, what am I going to do with you?” I laugh and cross back to the bookshelf. Willow hardly acknowledges me. “You spoil him, you know.”
“He’s the best boy and deserves to be spoiled,” Willows says defensively. “Oh, I’ve been working on the biscuit recipe. Let’s see if we can’t find something you’ll finally eat.” Hook has had no interest in food, much to Willow’s dismay. Whatever Fade beasts eat, it’s not anything Willow has concocted. At best, Hook has politely indulged him for the sake of more scratches. “They’re right over—oh. Oh! Your Majesty!”
I glance over my shoulder to see Willow bowed at the waist before Eldas. Hook continues to lie on his back, as if satisfied by embarrassing the poor man. I roll my eyes.
“I see this is how my resources are being spent,” Eldas says, suddenly brisk again. “To make biscuits for creatures of the Fade.”
“I… Well, that’s… You see…” Willow still has yet to straighten. I can see him almost trembling.
“Leave him alone, Eldas,” I scold and step down from the stool, journal in hand. Crossing, I hand it to the Elf King. “He’s the best healer this castle will ever have and you know you’re not going to get rid of him just because he wants to spoil my wolf. Especially not when Poppy is away.”
Eldas narrows his eyes at me but says nothing. I dare to grin up at him. I can almost see him fighting a smile.
Movement behind Eldas catches my eye. Any retort I had in mind fades into a soft, “Oh no.”