“Good.” I know that’s all he can do. Hopefully, he’s still toward the top of the slippery slope he’s sliding on. But the sooner I act, the better. “I should be going.”
“Yes, get out of my room, human.” Even the word “human” lacks all bite.
“Gladly, prince.” I say the word with offense, but Harrow grins at me. An expression I mirror—like we now share a secret.
I suppose we do.
The door to his room closes behind me and I’m flipping through my mental catalog of herbs as I start down the hall. I’m so focused on finding a good starting point for Harrow that I don’t notice someone in my way and I nearly walk face-first into Eldas. He stops me with a strong hand on my shoulder, which jerks me out of my trance.
“Oh! I-I’m sorry.”
“It’s all right.” He smiles—smiles! It’s like the sun rose on his face. But the clouds quickly roll back in and the expression vanishes as he releases me, as if catching himself. “I was actually coming to look for you.”
“You found me.”
“I did.” He glances over my shoulder. “Where’s Hook?”
Even if the beast is a part of him, I can’t help but be warmed by the fact that he’s asking after my wolf. “He’s with Willow. I thought he’d enjoy it much more there than attending Harrow with me.”
“Ah, how is my brother?”
“Well enough to be trenchant.” A shadow crosses Eldas’s expression. His jaw is set instantly. I hold up my hands. “No, no, it was fine. I know his quips mean he’s getting better.” I laugh. “Plus, I’m getting used to him.”
“You’re…getting used to my brother?”
“People can drink poison if they take it in small enough doses for long enough,” I retort.
Eldas snorts, another flicker of amusement crossing his face. I do like amusing him. I like his small smiles and mischievous looks.
“How is he doing?”
“He’ll be fine. He just needs to enjoy the nightlife less. I told him he should stay in the castle for a while and rest—no going out.”
“Hopefully he’ll listen to you. He certainly doesn’t listen to me,” Eldas mutters.
“We’ll see… But I’m not confident I’ll have much success.” I glance over my shoulder and back toward Harrow’s door. Really, I’m keeping an eye out for Sevenna. I can only acclimate to so much poison at a time and I have no energy for her withering stare today. “In any case, I should get back to work.”
“As should I,” Eldas says. Yet, we both linger. “Oh, I almost forgot, I wanted to return this.” He holds out a familiar journal. “It took me a little longer than the last one to get through.”
“You still got through it in record time.” I take the journal with both hands and stretch my fingers in search of the jolt that happens when our skin touches. But the tome is too large, and our hands don’t meet.
“Yes, I’ll need another,” he says thoughtfully, his voice low. “Would I…” He clears his throat and it dislodges some of the gravel in his voice. I rather liked the gravel. “Would it be all right if I were to come and retrieve another from your apartments later?” Eldas asks with all the primness and propriety expected of a king.
I bite in a laugh and smile. “Of course, Eldas. You’re welcome anytime.”
“Good.” He nods and breezes past as if things haven’t just fundamentally changed once more between us. “I’ll see you later, Luella.”
There’s something about the way my name rolls off his tongue, or the husk of his voice as he passes, that has me standing in place, toes curling into my boots, long after he’s disappeared into Harrow’s room.
I take dinner from my desk, more determined than ever to scour through the queens’ books. Specifically, I look for information on the heartroot. Harrow’s recovery has, in both instances, exceeded my expectations. Since all the other herbs are ones I’m familiar with and have used many times over before, I can only assume that the variable is in the heartroot.
To my delight, Willow joins me for dinner and we spend late into the evening discussing heartroot and its magical properties. He helps me skim through journals in search of the first queen to work with the rare herb. The only thing we find is a single mention in the journal of the queen who brought that heartroot from the northern marshes—the same queen who spoke of ending the cycle. I search to see if the two are connected in some way, but when the hunt yields nothing I know I’m just seeing what I want to see.
Willow sits in a chair across from me, occupying one half of my desk. I sit at the other end, food forgotten as we scour. Hook is curled up between our feet, gladly accepting scratches with our toes.
The clock I ordered chimes nine and I’m broken from a trance. I look up for the first time in hours and rub my bleary eyes. Hazy, pale shadows dance outside the windows of my room.
Willow looks up as well, turning from me to the windows behind him. He pauses, lips pursed, studying the falling snow with as much intensity as he was the journal moments ago.
“Snow in spring, warn the king. Snow in summer, the queen yet slumbers.”
Willow repeats himself at my question.
“No, I heard you…what’s that?”
“Oh, it’s an old rhyme.” He turns away from the window. “Snow in spring, warn the king—I think it implies that there may be something wrong with the queen. Because we shouldn’t have snow once spring comes. Snow in summer—”
“The queen yet slumbers,” I finish. “Meaning, she hasn’t come back yet. The last queen is dead and it’s winter when it should be summer.” Willow nods. I stare at the fat, falling snow, apprehension filling my gut. It mocks the bright spring weather here mere hours ago. “I think you should go.”
“Are you sure?”
“I need to see Eldas.” The words hurt to say and the pain of them will only be the beginning of tonight’s agony.
Willow sighs and closes the journal he was thumbing through. The notes he was taking are tucked inside. He stands and Hook stands with him. Willow gives the wolf a scratch between the ears.
“I’ll see you tomorrow, Hook. And you too, Luella.”
I wish he didn’t sound slightly worried and doubtful saying that. “I’ll see you tomorrow.” I hope.
“If you need me, summon me no matter the time.” Willow departs and I pace my room several times in front of the large windows.
I’m not surprised when there’s a knock on my door.
“Come in, Eldas.”
The door opens and I don’t even bother looking. But, sure enough, his voice cuts through my rampant thoughts. “How did you know it was me?”
“Lucky guess.” I glance over my shoulder with a shrug.
“I haven’t made it a habit to come to your room in the evenings.”
“Well, given that it’s snowing…”
His gaze shifts, as though he saw only me from the first moment he opened the door. A frown pulls on his lips. His eyes are hard and severe. “So it is.”
“You weren’t coming here because of that?”
“I was coming for a new journal. But you are correct in that this is a more pressing matter.”
“I will have to sit on the throne again, won’t I?” I worry the labradorite ring on my right hand nervously.
“You will.” He sounds apologetic, the words rife with worry.
“Let’s go, then.”
“Now?” He seems startled by the idea.
“When else? It must be done, and I’d rather get it over with when I have all night to try and recover.” More like, while I have my courage together. Before the fear really sets in.
“Luella, you’ll be fine.” Even he doesn’t sound convinced.
I shrug. I know what I’ve read. The throne doesn’t get easier. Queens just get used to it. I have no choice but to endure the world trying to drain every drop of life from me.
“Luella.” The soft note in Eldas’s voice brings my eyes up to him. “You have had more time to allow your magic to settle and to acclimate to Midscape. You know what’s coming.”
“I just want to get it over with,” I say faintly. “Please, take me there.”
“Very well.” He obliges.
In what seems like no time at all, we’re in the throne room. It’s almost so cold that my breath clouds and I fight a shiver. I’m in a simple shift dress—long sleeved, luckily—but the cotton isn’t nearly thick enough for this.
“At least when I sit on the throne again, it’ll get warmer.” I make an attempt to grin, but Eldas doesn’t mirror the emotion so it quickly falls from my face. He exudes worry with every step.
“I’ll be here the entire time,” he says as we pause before the throne. “I’ll pull you out like last time, if need be.”
Last time. The thought has my body aching. I square off against the throne. If I can leave home, go to Lanton, become an herbalist, become the Human Queen, and manipulate the earth, then I can do this. I refuse to let a throne control me.
“Let’s get this over with,” I say, sounding more stable than I feel.
Turning, I tip backwards and allow myself to fall into the seat. If I try to ease myself down, I may pull away at the last second. Fear could get the better of me and turn the inevitable into something more unbearable than it already is.
Right before my body hits the throne, I look up and all I see is Eldas.
I’m here, his eyes seem to say. I’ll be here.
I don’t get a chance to thank him. The air is sucked from my lungs and I’m plunged into darkness. Keep your wits about you, Luella, I command myself. I know what’s coming and I’m not going to let the shock steal my senses.