“For the sake of Midscape?” I smile weakly.
“For…” He hesitates. I wait expectantly, but whatever it is he intended to say, he’s not going to be forthright with it. So I retreat to where the topics are safe—our responsibilities.
“This is my duty,” I say softly. His eyes widen slightly. “As much as looking after Capton, it is my duty to look after Midscape.”
“Very well, but sit for only a little,” he relents.
I give a nod and he releases my hands. I brush past him and I think I see him twitch, as though he’s resisting the urge to reach for me. Something in me aches for him, to allow Eldas to envelop me in his arms so that I can leech whatever strength I’m able.
But I don’t stop.
I head right for the throne and brace myself for the pain that’s about to follow.
For two weeks, I dance with the throne.
I wake and take breakfast in my room as I try and read through the journals. But by the second week, I’m too tired for reading. Eldas begins to eat breakfast with me as well, reading nonstop. I wonder if he’s compensating for my fatigue. He never says much—as though he knows I am too tired for pleasant conversation—so I hope he somehow knows I am grateful for his silent, reassuring presence.
On the days that I am strong enough, I return to the laboratory. Willow expresses worry for my sunken cheeks and the slowly lengthening shadows underneath my eyes. But I make no complaints.
I don’t want anyone to know just how empty the throne is leaving me. I can hardly trust Eldas with that truth. Every time I am honest with him, his expression darkens, and I can almost see more worry blooming in the grim gardens of his mind.
No matter what, I make sure I am strong enough to keep good on my promise to Harrow, crafting jars of teas and powders to help with his constitution. As I suspected, he was in worse shape after the night with Aria. But he’s defensive the moment I try and even make a pass at the topic.
I never find out if he gave in to glimmer again.
At the end of the second week, I lie in bed awake, staring up at the ceiling. My skin is too heavy. My joints ache. My hair has lost its luster.
The throne is killing me. It is making up for what I don’t have in magic with my life itself.
“There has to be a way to stop it,” I whisper into the air. “I have to stop it.”
Repeating that mantra, I free myself from the warm covers of my bed and shuffle out to my desk. The journals are spread across every flat surface in the main room of my apartments. Notes in both my and Eldas’s script scribbled between them. But there’s nothing useful there. We’ve been through them countless times now and have found nothing.
I think of the statue, of the first queen who made the redwood throne and helped make the Fade. If only I had her journal—or the journals of those who came after. Perhaps I’d be able to piece together the final part of this grand picture I’m missing.
Then, an idea strikes me.
A knight is posted at my door. I vaguely recognize him from the legion that came to collect me from Capton. Rinni has been pulling people from her core squadron to guard me whenever she cannot due to duty or necessity—like sleep.
The man startles at my presence, but dips his head.
“I’m going for a walk,” I declare. “Hook, stay here and guard the room.” The wolf obliges and the guard follows behind me as I lead us to a large hall occupied by ghosts.
I stare at the tarps placed over every piece of furniture purchased by the past queens. Someday, my desk, my chair, the small table, and the settee Eldas slept on will be neatly stacked in here and covered like forgotten tombstones. Moonlight streams through the high windows of the ballroom. Where the light lands is washed bone white. Where it doesn’t is shrouded in an eerie gray.
The knight stands at the entrance as I wander into the maze of furniture. Around halfway through, I grab a fistful of fabric, yanking it off. Dust rises in a plume and I cough.
The glittering motes settle back on the couch, shimmering in the moonlight, almost like the frost of elf magic.
I discard the tarp on the floor and keep moving back. It’s as if I’m revealing these forgotten queens once more to the world. They sacrificed too much to be pushed into a corner of the castle and a lone shelf in the laboratory. I find desks, dining tables, sofas of all shapes and sizes. The fashions change from the utilitarian style the cabinetmaker crafted for me to more ornate, gilded swirls. I walk back through time as told by the changing design sense of Quinnar.
Dusty confetti rains around me as I yank at the tarps. I finally make it to the back of the room, where a final piece is pushed against the far wall. If there’s any lingering old journals of the first five queens, this is the last place I could think to look for them. A line of fabric litters the floor behind me, furniture exposed. Taking tarp in both fists, I pull and expose a long writing desk.
A loud creaking fills the air. The desk groans as if the tarp was the only thing holding the time-worn and worm-eaten wood together. With a snap, the wood comes apart and the whole piece comes crashing down.
Jumping back and coughing, I try and avoid the bugs that scuttle out, dashing across the floor. As the sawdust settles, I look at the pile of broken wood and splinters.
“Sorry.” I’m not sure if I’m apologizing to the once desk, or the memory of the queen. A wave of sorrow passes through me, as if this desk was the last thing holding her presence to this world. “I wonder whom you belonged to,” I murmur.
This far back, it must’ve been a very early queen, pushed away and forgotten by time. I don’t know what I was hoping for. Anything that survived her would be little more than sawdust by now.
Crouching down, I pick through the wood, trying to find some signifier of which queen it may have belonged to. Though I know the mission is futile. Or, at least, I think it is, until the moonlight glints off a small metal box in the framework of what once was a drawer.
Lifting the box from the wreckage, I open it with delicate fingers. There’s a small journal inside next to a necklace. I inspect the necklace first.
Wrapped in silver filigree is a shining black stone. Or I think it’s a stone at first because of how brightly polished it is. When my fingers smooth over the pendant, I find it warm to the touch. Wood. A dense, black wood, polished and carefully set as a pendant on a silver chain.
Magic lives in it. Memories make my mind tingle and the back of my head itch as the power dances underneath my fingertips—a glimpse of woman and then I’m buried. I’ve seen these memories before, haven’t I? There’s a hazy, uncomfortable quality to the thoughts evoked by the pendant. I quickly put it down and pick up the journal.
The pages inside are at the point of crumbling under my fingers, and I abandon the idea of inspecting it here. I need to get it back to my room. I’ll copy whatever notes are still legible into a fresh journal.
I carry the box with both hands and walk lightly back to my room, careful not to jostle it. The knight is silent all the way back. At least until we return to find my door slightly ajar. The man puts a hand on his sword, inching forward toward the door.
“You’re dismissed.” Eldas’s voice breaks the cool silence. The guard bows his head and departs.
I push through the door and find Eldas on my settee, his nose in a book and one hand lazily scratching Hook’s stomach. The wolf is splayed out on the floor alongside him, tongue lolling. “Some guard dog you are.”
“Hook knows he has nothing to fear from me,” Eldas says without looking up from the journal. I can tell he’s about to finish yet another. Between us, we’ve almost read everything there is twice, which makes the contents of the box all the more exciting. “And hello to you too.”
“To what do I owe the honor of your presence, Your Majesty?” I use the title with a bit of jest and Eldas doesn’t bother hiding his amusement. It quickly wavers when he looks up at me. I imagine I’m a bit harrowing to look at right now.
“I came to check on you,” he says smoothly.
“Check on me?”
“I’ve done it once or twice, I admit. Usually when I have something keeping me awake that I wish to discuss. Or when I’m plagued with nightmares of fae kidnappers stealing you from your bed.” I shudder and banish the thought by admiring him. There’s something about Eldas tonight. Something… Oh, his hair is pulled back. He’s corded it loosely at the nape of his neck. Fine strands slip the tie and frame his face, resting lightly against his collarbone and chest. “Fortunately, I heard you coming up the hall and let myself in.”
“Do you make a habit of letting yourself in when you come to check on me?” I arch my eyebrows.
“You did say I would be welcome anytime.”
“I did, but I didn’t think you would be stepping into my room when I’m sleeping.” I give him a pointed look that earns me a chuckle.
“I assure you, most of the time I come to talk in the off chance you’re awake, or just to reassure myself no one has spirited you away. I don’t linger and I’ve never touched you while you slumbered.” He considers this, then adds, “Well, once, the blanket had slipped off your shoulders and you looked cold.”
“I see.” I wish I had a better response. I suspect I should be more disconcerted by the notion of him checking in on me, but I find it reassuring. The idea of a fae spiriting me away in the night is now in my mind, too. I cross to the desk. I hear him move behind me as I gently set the box down.
“What did you sneak off to steal from my castle?”
“I didn’t steal anything,” I insist quickly.
He laughs and the sound makes my toes curl. It’s a rough and unused sound. But not unpleasant in the slightest. “Everything in this castle is yours, Luella. You can’t steal from yourself.”
My nails dig lightly against the metal. Everything here is mine. There’s too much in those four words to unpack right now.
“In any case, I found it in the ballroom of old queens’ furniture.”