“I’m going to see the seamstress,” Aria announces, puffing her chest slightly. “It’s such an honor to be dressed by the same woman who dresses the queen.” She pets Harrow’s arm lightly. There’s no question as to who brought this “honor” about.
“Good, the seamstress seems very talented,” I say mildly, and find a small delight in watching Aria’s expression tilt toward disappointment at my lack of ire toward her being dressed by the same person as me. “In fact, I think you should all get your clothes for the coronation made by her.”
“I’m not getting something for the coronation.” The way Aria stretches her neck, as if she’s trying to compete against my height, is evocative of how I imagine a territorial swan to look. “I’m getting something for the Troupe of Masks.”
“Oh, right, you mentioned Aria was performing somewhere. Carron, was it?” I glance at Harrow.
“You told her? That was my surprise,” Aria hisses. Then, quickly collects herself. “It’s a high honor.”
“Thank you, Your Majesty.” She acts as though I just awarded a medal to her, bowing with a dramatic flourish of her hands. “I will be going on tour soon with them. But don’t you worry, we will be back for the coronation night. I’m sure it’ll be a performance worth remembering.”
“I can’t wait to see it,” I lie. Even if I wasn’t trying to leave before the coronation, I have no interest in anything to do with Aria.
“Good.” She smiles thinly. “Let’s be off; we don’t want to keep the queen from…whatever it is she does.”
Rinni takes a step forward but I don’t move, still blocking the entrance to the salon. “I do a lot of reading, actually.” I meet Aria’s eyes.
“Good for you.” Her smile is quickly becoming a sneer.
“Carron is not far from Westwatch, isn’t it? Right along the wall that borders the fae wilds?”
“Your grasp of Midscape geography is astounding,” Aria drawls.
“Will you be seeing any family there?”
Aria narrows her eyes as her whole body goes tense. It’s a subtle shift that she quickly corrects with the poise of an actress. But that was a glimpse of something real.
I’ve gotten too good at catching when people’s guards are down, in large part thanks to Eldas.
“All the family I associate regularly with is here in Quinnar, Your Majesty. If you’ll excuse me, I’d like to be respectful of the seamstress’s time.” She seems too eager to dismiss the whole topic of conversation. “The hour is late already and we have a soiree tonight.”
“A soiree?” I glance to Harrow.
“Here, in the castle,” he says, giving me a knowing nod. Then, his voice reverts to the more careless and somewhat cruel tones I first heard from him. “I doubt you’d be interested.”
“Yes, nothing you have to worry yourself with. We already know that you humans don’t find the same sorts of things amusing as us elves,” Aria says somewhat snidely. I can’t help but wonder if she means glimmer.
“I have other, more important matters to attend to, in any case.” I grit out a smile and step aside. “Enjoy yourselves.”
The four go into the salon, closing the door behind them. I promptly reach out a hand and Hook is at my side. I scratch behind his ears, staring at the door.
“Rinni, take me to Eldas.”
“Now,” I say firmly. Then add, softer, “Please. There’s something I need to urgently discuss with him.”
“Very well.” Rinni nods and starts down the hall. She doesn’t seem cross with me, and yet a brief sensation of discomfort passes over me.
For the first time, I gave someone in Midscape an order, like a queen would.
And they listened.
Rinni takes me to the secret passage overlooking the throne room. I act surprised for her benefit. She places a finger over her lips and we move silently, staring down.
A screen of iron has been erected in the center of the room, bisecting the space. Eldas is on one side, sitting on his iron throne. On the other is a man dressed in lush velvet and mother of pearl. The screen is intricately woven, mostly obscuring Eldas’s appearance. He continues to seclude himself, as much as possible, even as he is forced to rule due to the delay in coronation.
“This is how he’s governed for the past year,” Rinni whispers in my ear. “While he waited for you.”
All I see is a cage. A physical barrier separating Eldas from any kind of real connection with anyone beyond Rinni, Harrow, Sevenna, Poppy, or Willow. I wonder what it must’ve been like to finally escape the castle when he marched to Capton. Was that the day he broke? The day he could take the all-consuming loneliness of his hall no longer?
He is chained by the traditions of his station, and suddenly I want to free him of the cycle just as much as myself and all of Midscape. What would he be like without the shackles of duty? He said he’s never allowed himself to dream…what would he find he wanted, if he allowed it? Would he want me? a treacherous voice whispers.
The two men discuss matters of the fields surrounding Quinnar.
“The plants do not grow. The soil is like ash,” the lord says.
“The queen has only just recharged the throne,” Eldas replies calmly. “Give things time.”
“Queen Alice did not need time.”
“Queen Alice had one hundred years to perfect her abilities.”
“We might not have one hundred years before Quinnar starves if the fields don’t become viable.”
“I know these are tense times. But you must be patient.” Eldas’s voice remains calm, but I hear a protective edge.
“Tell that to the people who have hunger gnawing at their stomachs. Who have been foraging in the barren landscape for nuts and edible roots for months!” The man throws out his hands. Then he pauses, and bows low. “Forgive me, Your Majesty, for speaking out of turn.”
“Do not let it happen again,” Eldas says with dangerous softness. I lean toward the wall as I catch a glimpse of the type of ruler he is—of the harsh man I first met. “I will open the granary stores of the castle. You’ll have an allotment of three wagons. Divide as you think best.”
The man steps backwards, bowing and mumbling thank yous the entire way to the back exit. Rinni squeezes my hand and we slip out and down the stairs. She doesn’t hesitate before opening the side door to the throne room.
“Your Majesty?” she says.
“Rinni? You know I—” Eldas’s eyes shift and the initial scowl he wore drops the moment he sees me. Hook bounds past, rushing over to the throne. Eldas frowns slightly, but his hands bury into the fur on either side of Hook’s face. “What’s happening? What’s wrong?”
“I need to talk with you about something.” I approach him. Eldas’s eyes flick to the back doors that are obscured by the iron screen. “I know you have other people you’re meeting with, but—”
“You are my priority,” he says, almost like it’s a decree. I fight a blush. “What is it?”
“Two things. Foremost, Aria.”
“What has she done now?”
“Nothing, explicitly… But I don’t trust her,” I start.
“I looked into Aria personally following the incident in the city,” Rinni says.
“I know. But it’s something other than that. I think she’s—” I stop myself short. I promised Harrow I wouldn’t betray his trust. Eldas arches his eyes. “I think she’s perhaps involved in something.”
“I don’t think she’s capable of attacking the crown.” Rinni frowns.
“Maybe nothing that serious, but still serious?” I dance around the topic. “I don’t know what. But she seems suspicious.”
“Luella,” Eldas says thoughtfully, descending from the throne. His hands are folded behind his back. He’s the model of a king but the voice of a friend—of… I dare not think of what else my name on his tongue sounds like. “You are still tired from the throne. I know it’s a toll.”
“That’s the second thing…but I’ll finish the first by saying, look into Aria, please. She’s going to Carron. She has connections with the fae. And ever since the fae delegation was here, bad things have happened to the royal family—Harrow’s suspicious illness, my kidnapping.”
“Your kidnapping was performed by a rogue fae group—Acolytes of the Wild Wood—that’s trying to claim the fae throne. They’ll do anything to show their power…except exposing where their leaders hide,” Rinni says.
“And Harrow has always been trouble. His illness is hardly more than a night of too much indulgences.” Eldas sighs with a note of finality. I want to scream. I don’t know how else I can spell it out for them.
“I don’t think Harrow’s—” I don’t get to finish before Eldas keeps speaking.
“Now what is the second thing related to the throne?”
I hadn’t come here for this. But after what I heard, I can’t ignore it. “I need to sit on it again.”
“Now.” I lock eyes with Eldas and see apprehension tempered with what I’d dare say is admiration. “I overheard the discussion. Your people need fertile fields and forests filled with game.”
“You’re still too weak.”
“I’m strong enough.”
He takes a step forward and his hands release from his back to scoop up mine. I’m shocked he’s touching me in front of Rinni. The tender expression on his face is one I never thought I’d see in the daylight, and certainly not around others.
“I can’t risk something happening to you.”