“You didn’t have it easy.” Sorrow wells in me. It’s as though I’ve finally penetrated through the overwhelming wall of permafrost that surrounds this man and caught something real, something warm—pain. “You couldn’t go out. You were the heir from the moment you were born and groomed as such. Your father was in a complicated situation between your mother and his queen. Being between him and her and Alice couldn’t have been easy—”
“Alice was my savior,” he interrupts. “Without her, I would’ve gone mad.”
“Oh.” All his past mentions of Alice take on new meaning.
“She was good to me. My mother knew that I was destined to be king and that destiny would take me from her. From the moment I was born she handed me off to the wet nurses and washed her hands of me.”
Family dinners flash before my eyes. I can still hear the echoes of my parents tucking me into bed, assuring me that there were no monsters lurking in the corners of our attic. I remember the first time my mother took me out into the fields to show me what she knew of herbs and plants. Her wails as I left fill my ears and the sight of my father’s red eyes flash before my eyes.
Did Eldas hate me then? Did he hate me for the family I had that he was denied? Did he rip me from them so callously because of spite?
The questions sting my tongue as tears sting my eyes. It’s likely true. I should likely hate him all the more now.
But…I don’t. I can’t. Something in me is shifting now that I’ve seen him like this and know what I know. It’s shifting more than it did from kisses against a wall. I may never be able to look at him the same way again.
Maybe I don’t want to. I feel for him deeper than I ever expected and I don’t dislike it.
“Alice took pity on me when no one else would,” he continues, oblivious to my turmoil. “She was the best thing I had. And I mourned her death daily for far too long.”
Just like I mourn your departure when it hasn’t even come to pass—I can almost hear the unspoken words and I wonder if I’ve fabricated them entirely.
“Where is he?” A curt voice cuts through the air as the door to the main room snaps open. Speaking of mothers… “Where is my darling boy?” A woman with sharp features and eyes just as cold as Eldas’s storms in, curtains fluttering behind her. I wonder if part of the reason why she couldn’t tolerate Eldas was because of how much he looks like her. “What have you done to him?”
I blink, realizing her attention rests solely on myself. “What? Me?”
“You come into this castle and have caused my sons nothing but torment,” she scolds and rounds the other side of the bed. “You’re not even supposed to be in the East Wing. Keep to your side, queen.” She says queen like an insult.
“Mother, Luella has been helping Harrow,” Eldas says curtly, standing from the edge of the bed. “Without her—”
“Without her my baby boy would not be in this turmoil; just look at him.” She smooths away Harrow’s dark hair from his sweat-slicked face.
I want to pity this woman. I want to find sympathy for her as I have for Eldas. I try and imagine myself in her position. She’s in effect the mistress of the former king with no real title. From the first moment she pursued a relationship with Eldas’s father, she must have known her firstborn son would be taken from her. I try and reach deep for compassion, but her murderous glares in my direction make it very hard.
“You know what Harrow will need next,” I say to Eldas. “If you need me or have questions, you know how to find me.”
“Yes, thank you, Luella.” The way he says it leaves no doubt that he means it.
“He will not have anything that girl has made.” The woman glares at my nightstand of supplies.
“She is, what? Eighteen?”
“Nineteen,” I correct calmly.
“A child. Get Poppy.”
“I am unable to do that,” Eldas says coolly. “I have sent Poppy away on an important mission that will take at least two months still; and I will not call her back. So if you wish for Harrow to receive care you will allow Luella to—”
“Poppy’s grandson. Even that mouse of a man would be better than her.”
I see Eldas’s hands tighten behind his back to the point that his knuckles are paper white. The muscles in his jaw tense. But his eyes are full of sorrow and longing, even as he speaks with all the bitter ice I’ve ever heard the man muster.
“I am the king, and what happens in my castle is my sole discretion.”
“‘Your castle.’ You do not lord over me. I am your mother.”
“A shame you have failed to ever act like it.”
“Eldas.” I touch his elbow lightly, trying to snap him out of this.
“How dare you speak to me that way.”
“How dare you speak to my wife that way!” Eldas’s words reverberate through me. They ward against the ever-rising chill and generate a warm heat that flushes up my arms and settles in my cheeks.
He’s not defending you, Luella, not really. I’m just an easy opportunity for him to jab at his mother. I look away from them, hiding my face as I try and lie to myself.
“Harrow needs his rest,” I say quietly.
“Yes, we’re leaving.” Eldas turns and his large palm rests on the small of my back as he ushers me out of the room. He’s silent as he leads me all the way back to my apartments.
The entire time, his hand remains on my person. It’s warm, for such a cold man. I make no effort to step out of his reach.
Hook is already back and he lets out a soft whine the moment he sees us, lifting his head from his paws.
“Sorry about sending you away,” I apologize to Hook and finally step away from Eldas to crouch down and scratch the wolf behind both ears. “I didn’t want to risk Harrow waking up and being mean to you.”
“No one in this castle will harm Hook. If they did, they would have to face my wrath.”
I look up at Eldas. He seems to sway slightly. Exhaustion is creeping in at his edges and I resist the urge to run to the laboratory and make something to help him relax and sleep deeply.
“Because he is part of you?”
“No, it has nothing to do with me—because you care about him. You, and anything that is yours, are my responsibility to protect.”
“Responsibility,” I whisper, chasing it with a sad laugh.
“Are my honor to protect,” he clarifies without hesitation.
“Thank you,” is all I say. What else can I say to that firm declaration? It brought the heat right back to my cheeks.
“Thank you, Luella.” His eyes linger on me, almost expectantly. “For…” He shakes his head, as if he can’t come up with the words.
“For last night?”
Panic flickers in him. Eldas seems to lean forward, as if drawn to me by the memory of our kiss. I wouldn’t mind if he kissed me again, I finally admit to myself. The thought stirs my own panic and I swallow hard. Seeing it, he instantly pulls away.
“Last night is better left at the bottom of the bottle of mead,” he says finally.
“Is that your way of saying you were drunk?” I ask. Disappointment floods me. I try and erect dams before it can overtake me.
“We both had too much.”
And that’s his way of saying he regrets it. Eldas studies me from the corner of his eye, clearly waiting for my response.
“Right, we did,” I force myself, albeit painfully, to agree. If he wants to back away then I’ll let him. I’m trying to leave anyway.
He has his duties. I have mine. Ignoring last night and anything that might be simmering between us is for the best. We’re only destined for heartache if we continue.
Yet, Eldas seems to deflate some. But he quickly corrects the hunch in his shoulders, no doubt arriving at the same conclusion as me.
Without another word, he departs. I watch him go before taking Hook into our apartments.
For the first time since finding Hook, it feels lonely in the vast landscape of my chambers. For the first time, and despite every last bit of sense telling me not to, I wonder what it would be like to have Eldas stay.
“You’re up early,” Willow says as he enters the laboratory.
“Yes, well, I wanted to get a few things sorted before I go and check on Harrow.”
“How did all that go?” Willow hops up onto one of the counters. He’s more interested in me than starting his duties for the day—more interested in me than scratching Hook’s belly, and that’s saying something.
Hook is not amused by this change in events.
“I…” My hands hover over the basket I was loading. “It was strange. Harrow is fine, or he should be. We’ll know soon.” I quickly recap the events of yesterday, leaving out some key details of intimate family tensions and the odd push and pull going on between Eldas and me. The former I doubt he or Harrow would want me to talk about. The latter I’m not ready to talk about.
“So you met her, Heir Mother Sevenna.”
“Sevenna. Just the name sounds severe.” It suits the brisk woman I met yesterday.
“They call her the castle wraith in town,” Willow confides in me.
“The castle wraith and the ice king. Quinnar certainly has strong opinions of their royal family.”
“Other people’s words, not mine,” Willow adds hastily. “I’ve never interacted with the royal family much, despite being here.”
“You’ve said as much. And even if those were your words, I wouldn’t report you to Eldas.” I give a wink at Willow and watch him relax once more. He flashes one of his earnest smiles. No, I wouldn’t do anything that could harm Willow, not after all he’s done for me.
“She doesn’t leave the castle much. Well, ever. They say she died with the last king and it’s now her ghost that wanders the halls.”