“Ballroom of old queens’ furniture?” He tilts his head to the side.
“Don’t tell me…first the journals and now I know something else about this castle that you don’t?”
“It’s a very large castle.” He gives a nod to the box. “Are you going to open it?”
“Perhaps. Say please?”
“Kings don’t say please.” He looks at me through his long lashes with a lazy smirk, arms folded across his chest. I lament all the previous opportunities I’ve missed to appreciate the way his muscled arms strain against the tight tailoring of his sleeves up close.
“Technically, you just did. So close enough, I guess.” He rolls his eyes at me and I tear away my gaze, trying to focus as I open the box.
“A necklace and a journal… May I?” His hand hovers over the necklace.
“Go ahead. The journal is very fragile, though. I brought it back so I could transcribe whatever I can before the pages disintegrate.”
“You won’t need to worry about that.” Eldas turns the necklace over in his hands and sets it aside. I can’t tell for certain, but I suspect he doesn’t feel the same sensations I did when my fingers came in contact with the polished wood. The only explanation that I can think for why is that the necklace holds some of the queen’s magic—intrinsically different from Eldas’s.
“And why is that?”
Rather than answering, Eldas stares intently at the journal. His eyes flash a pale blue and the temperature in the room plummets. As he lifts his hand, a blue shimmer traces the outlines of his fingers. It condenses in a blink. One second, his hand is empty, the next his fingers have closed around an identical journal.
“True name duplication,” I say, taking the journal from him and remembering the rack of lamb he created during our dinner.
“You may need a couple to get through all the pages. But this way you won’t destroy the original.”
“Thank you.” It’s a thoughtful gesture, one I deeply appreciate.
“It’s the least I can do.” A frown tugs at the corners of his lips. He shakes his head. More strands of hair slip out of the loose knot at the nape of his neck and I barely resist the urge to tuck them behind his ear. “I’ve tried to read all these journals to understand your magic, but I still have yet to grasp even the beginning of it. Which means I have no idea how to help you.”
“You’re such an enigma to me, Luella,” he whispers longingly.
There are volumes there in that simple statement. We hold each other by gaze alone as my heart threatens to rip itself from my chest and fall at his feet like a humble offering. I take a slow, tense breath.
“Eldas, you do more than enough,” I whisper.
Eldas, his lean frame washed in moonlight, a shadow given form and outlined by the soft glow of my room’s lamplight… As I look at him, I’m reminded once more that he really is the most handsome man I have ever laid eyes on. And I have wasted half my time with him frittering away my hours on projects and missions that will keep me from him.
Would it be so bad if you stayed? a tentative voice in the back of my mind poses. You could stay here, with him, forever.
But then I see the redwood throne picking at my bones, scraping me raw until I wither and there is nothing left to be with him. I see a life hollowed out until I don’t even have the energy to want him any longer.
I see my mother and her tear-streaked face as I left. I see my parents alone at their table. I see Emma on the ground, dying from an attack that won’t abate. I imagine kindly Mr. Abbot coming to my shop on instinct, only to remember I’m gone. All of Capton, my home, my patients—my duty to them and, by extension, Midscape—pull on one side of my heart.
Eldas pulls on the other.
No matter what, I won’t survive becoming the Human Queen intact.
“I had an idea of something I’d like to do for you—something that might help you.”
“What is it?” I shift to face him. It places me a half step closer. My attention drifts toward his lips. I can think of several things I’d like for him to do to “help” me.
His every touch these past few weeks has been agony. Agony because my skin is ablaze from the redwood throne. Agony because I can feel him holding back coupled with the stinging memory of his kiss. I can feel him shying from whatever it is growing between us.
“My brother, Drestin, his wife is with child,” he says awkwardly.
“Oh, congratulations.” I try not to let my surprise at this sudden revelation, and shift in tone, diminish my sincerity. This wasn’t where I was hoping things were headed.
“Yes, he’s very excited.” The ghost of a smile crosses Eldas’s mouth. Longing taints any sweetness there is to it. I wonder if he’s imagining himself as a father-to-be. “In any event, his wife will come to term right around the coronation. Naturally, they won’t be coming.”
“Yes, and as the brother of the king, he has leeway in such matters that other lords may not be given.” I resist the urge to say that any lord should be allowed to be home for the birth of his child. Luckily, Eldas continues before I risk insulting his people and their ways. “But he has offered to host us at Westwatch before the coronation. It’s his way of an apology, and trying to endear himself to the new queen.” Eldas glances at me. “I haven’t told him that you will be gone soon.”
Don’t look at me with such longing, I want to beg. I can already hear the stress fractures forming in my heart. They crackle like ice too thin. They crackle like the feelings he wove in me without me realizing.
“You think I’ll actually manage to do it?” I run my finger along the spine of the journal.
“If anyone can, it’s you,” Eldas says softly, his voice deep with emotion. “And you’re right in that it must be done. The queen’s power is diminishing… I cannot take another day of you dying before my eyes. The cycle must end and you have to leave.”
My breath catches in my throat. He worries for me. He’s doubled down on his support of my mission to end the cycle. Yet the way he says those words, almost expectant, almost waiting to see if I contradict him—like there’s some way out of this that will allow me to stay…
A voice whispers in the back of my mind, This is what you wanted, isn’t it?
Well, Luella, is it?
“In any case, I don’t have a good reason to reject my brother,” Eldas continues in the wake of my silence.
“Will the throne be all right if I leave?”
“We’ll charge it once more before we depart,” he answers solemnly. “But regardless of Midscape’s situation, you need a break from it. You won’t be effective if you keep pushing like this.”
I can’t argue. Just like I still can’t bring my eyes to his. “I’ll pack my things. When do we leave?”
“In a week.” One week more to work, then we travel for who knows how long. Another week, maybe? That will only leave me about two more weeks before the coronation and my deal with Eldas running out. “Unless…”
“Unless?” I look to him and he seems startled by my sudden eagerness.
“Unless you and I leave a little early,” he says gingerly, eyes searching.
“Where would we go?”
“There’s something I think you would enjoy and that should rejuvenate you.”
“Is that all you’ll tell me?”
“Yes, I think so.” The corners of his lips are pulled into a smile. “I was denied showing you my castle. Willow beat me to sharing the conservatory with you.” I resist informing him that he could’ve shown me the castle at any point in those early days. But things between us were different then. It’s astounding how much they changed in a handful of weeks. “I would like to share this with you.”
His fingertips trail lightly from my shoulder to my elbow, resting there as he waits for my response. I shiver, but not from the cold. Suddenly I’m burning. I realize I want that lazy touch of his everywhere. I want his icy fingers on my arms, my legs, my stomach…
“Yes.” The word is almost a croak. My tongue has gone heavy and useless. “I would like to see this surprise.”
His face lights up brighter than the dawn rising on his cheeks the morning he stayed on my settee. “Then we will leave in the morning.”
“In the morning? That soon?”
“It’ll take about a day to get there. And then another day out to Westwatch.” Eldas steps away, starting for the door with almost giddy strides. My chest bubbles at the sight of him like this—knowing that I had a part in making him so happy. “And I think you’ll want to spend more than a night there.”
“All right.” I can’t help but laugh. “I’ll pack my things tonight.”
“And I will see you at first light.”
A gilded carriage awaits us in the long tunnel that stretches underneath the castle and through the mountain range surrounding Quinnar. Eldas informed me when he came to collect me that we would be riding by carriage. “I want you to know how you could get there without me,” he explained when I questioned why we wouldn’t just Fadewalk.
It only made me more curious as to where “there” is.
I’ve brought only one bag with me—a piece of luggage I found in my closet. My single bag is loaded by the footmen onto the back of the carriage on top of several others.
I cast a look Eldas’s way but hold comment until we’re in the carriage. “Do you think you packed enough?”
“I suspected you would pack too little. So I was certain to have the servants pack extra for you, just in case. You can thank me when you’re appropriately dressed in Westwatch.” Eldas settles into his seat and I stifle a laugh at his playful smugness. The carriage looked large enough on the outside. But, somehow, our thighs are still touching on the bench within. There’s another seat opposite, but he chose to sit next to me.