A Deal with the Elf King

Page 4

No matter what the reason, I’m glad my gifts can be of service. If my hands must be the ones to make the brews to have them work, then so be it. Yet another reason why I must stay in Capton.

“The town is so busy today.” Mr. Abbot looks out the large front window of his home. He lives down by the docks, not far from the large square where town halls are held.

“The elves are coming,” I remind him.

“Ah, right.”

“You should stay home, you don’t need that kind of excitement,” I encourage.

“If ordered by my healer, I suppose I must.” A frown crosses his lips before he brings the mug I hand him to his mouth. His eyes seem to be staring at a distant memory. “They’ll take another young woman, won’t they?”

“Unfortunately.” I run my finger along the top edge of my mug, thinking of the conversation at the breakfast table. “Yet none of the women of Capton have displayed any magic tendencies.”

“The Keepers are usually watching closely for any signs.”

I remember when Luke was assigned to me for three years—fifteen through my eighteenth birthday. He and my parents kept an eye on everything I did whenever I was in Capton. Luke even came to Lanton a few times to observe me.

My mother once suspected even that my herbology gifts were magical manifestations. But Luke assured her it was just good training at the academy.

“They still do.” I take a sip. “But they haven’t found anyone who might be the Human Queen.”

He sighs. “This whole business is a wound that never heals.”

“What is?” I think he’s talking about the treaty. I’m wrong.

“Losing your family to the elves. They take a daughter, a sister, forever.”

“The Human Queen can return to Capton every midsummer,” I needlessly remind him. He’s lived in this town far longer than I. Mr. Abbot is pushing one hundred and twenty.

“They’re never the same after; Alice wasn’t.”

Alice… That was the name of the last Human Queen. Surely, it couldn’t just be coincidence…

“Who’s Alice?”

He turns his milky eyes toward me. “My sister. And before you ask, yes, she was.”

“Your sister was the last Human Queen?” I ask anyway. He nods. How did I never know this? Why was it never taught or mentioned? Mr. Abbot has been coming into my shop every other day for a year now. I was making him poultices and potions long before I had any formal training. “I had no idea,” I say, feeling somewhat guilty.

“One thing you will soon learn is that the name of the bride quickly disappears off the tongues of the people. Whoever leaves will be forgotten as ever being a part of this town. She will become the ‘Human Queen’ for stories and nothing more.”

I shudder. We learn about the Human Queens in grade school. Even before then, there’s not a resident of Capton who doesn’t know the stories. Seeing the queen leave is a rite of passage for a generation. And it isn’t until this conversation—until the last Human Queen becomes someone more than just an idea to me—that I even realize Alice must’ve come back on midsummers and I never once saw her.

“I think people do it, consciously or not, out of kindness,” Mr. Abbot continues with a weary smile. “As if, by saying her name less, it will hurt less that she is gone. As if a person can be expunged so neatly from a family and community.”

“I never thought of it that way,” I whisper.

“Keeping the peace between worlds is an ugly business.” His hand shakes as he raises his cup back to his mouth to take a timid sip. When he brings it back to the saucer, however, his movements are much smoother. I’m relieved to see the draught is having the intended effects.

“Did you meet with her, during midsummer?” I ask, genuinely curious. I try and imagine him with a Human Queen, sitting at this same scuffed and scratched table as we are now.

“Yes, and corresponded with letters.”

“Can letters cross the Fade?” A thousand questions burn my tongue as they swirl in the scalding tea.

“No, but the elves can. They brought the messages to the temple, usually when they came for last rites or to trade with the Keepers.”

“What did she say it was like beyond the Fade?”

“Not much.” He shook his head. “Alice said that her role as queen was merely to exist.”

I stare into my teacup.

The elves will come and they will take a woman from her family and home to fulfill a treaty that they could just as easily call off. They’ll sit her on a throne to do what? Exist? To have no power or responsibility?

What is the point of the deal the elves struck if all they wanted was a puppet? Why take one of us at all?

To remind us we are nothing, my mind answers. They hold all the power. What the elves want, we are here to give them. I’m sure they would tell us to be grateful that all they take is a woman every century. That it is a kindness.

My stomach turns molten and I have to leave or risk saying something that would upset the kind old man.

The town hall is held four hours later, in the late afternoon. It’s enough time that I can go home, restock my basket, and freshen up. I’m not the only one with the idea of conducting business before the meeting. Some of the fishermen have brought their hauls. I see a few townsfolk displaying needlepoint. Everyone is all too happy to have something else to focus on—or pretend to focus on—beyond the impending elf arrival.

Yet, rumors and theories buzz in the air around me like bees in a field. I hear the whispers and speculation. What will happen? Will the queen be found?

I ignore it all, focusing on my duties. There is no way war will break out after three thousand years of peace. That’s what I’ve settled on to keep my hands steady as I pass out my jars and pouches.

“Hear ye, hear ye, citizenry of Capton,” the town crier shouts from the stage at the far end of the square. A group of weary men and women line up behind him—my father among them. “We call to order this meeting of the Capton Council.”

I stop with the rest of the townsfolk, listening to the various announcements. There are some clerical matters to get out of the way—a few disputes over fishing territories with Lanton, an agreement for tearing down an old warehouse. But everyone is just listening for the important part.

“Regarding the matter of the Human Queen,” my father says. He stands with the head of the Keepers. “The council has heard your concerns and decided to—”

He doesn’t get to finish.

“Look, there!” someone shouts.

All heads turn in the direction of the long stairs that head up from town to the temple. On them, a small legion marches. They’re led by a man who rides a horse made of shadow, its form writhing and fading like mist with every movement.

His long, raven hair fans across his shoulders. I can see a shimmer of what looks like purple, or blue, in the withering sunlight. Bands of iron weave around each other almost organically around his temples, before jutting up into a fan of sharp points at the back of his head—almost like oversized thorns—to make a crown. His ears extend away from his face into points that match the spears of his crown. When he and his soldiers are at the edge of our square, I can see that his eyes are a brilliant cerulean, nearly the same shade as the pillars of the temple.

He is nothing like the ancient, gnarled monster I imagined or the stories made him out to be. The only thing those stories seem to have portrayed accurately is the sheer power that radiates off the man.

The Elf King’s face, ethereal, handsome, youthful, as hard as diamonds, is as handsome as it is terrifying. He is like a poisonous flower—stunning and deadly. This, I realize as his eyes flash an even brighter blue, is the face of death.

Chapter 3

The Elf King sits atop his steed of shadow, looking down on us as though we’re nothing more than ants. A legion of elves, armored and armed, stand behind him. Though he is surprisingly unarmored.

As he dismounts, I realize I have never witnessed a more perfect study in contrasts. His physique is cut from marble, but his movements are as fluid as the silken fabric that drapes from his shoulders. His long-sleeved, silver tunic is tailored tightly to his body and pressed so stiff that it almost gives the illusion of hammered steel. Yet, I can imagine my fingers gliding over the silky fabric across the smooth plane of his broad chest.

I quickly stare at my toes, willing away whatever magic spell he’s glamoured over himself. But my eyes are drawn back to him against my will. I can’t not look at him. Not when he dismisses the horse as though it were nothing more than smoke on the breeze. Not when his armored knights begin to move. And certainly not when he marches up onto the platform the Head Keeper, council, and my father are standing on.

“Your Majesty.” The Head Keeper’s voice quivers as she bows low. “We were expecting a delegation, an ambassador, or some—”

“You have had a year,” he says slowly, displeasure dripping from every word. “I have been patient. I have sent a delegation to the Keepers’ temple. Yet I do not have a queen.”

“We were—”

“Silence.” He seethes, leaning close to her. “Have you forgotten who I am? You will speak only when you are spoken to.”

The elf knights move around us, circling us as though we’re cattle. I see some go off in pairs down the streets of town. What’re they looking for? Stragglers?

I bite my cheeks and resist the urge to say something. Surely they wouldn’t rip a man from his sickbed just to terrorize him in the streets…would they?

“I will have my queen, here and now. We can afford no more delays,” the king continues. He turns to face the citizenry of Capton. “I know you have hidden her, tampering with forces you do not understand.”

“Your Majesty.” The words sound awkward from my father’s mouth. I wish he would stay silent. The last thing I want are those emotionless, elven eyes turning to him. “Perhaps there is no queen this year?”

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