I try and ignore the solid presence of him at my side. The effort becomes easier as the carriage jostles forward, plodding down the long tunnel and emerging into the sunlight at the far end. I push aside the heavy velvet curtains, pressing my nose to the glass as we emerge along the winding road between the fields I’ve seen for weeks from the windows of my room.
“Here,” Eldas says. He leans over me and what was once the touch of his thigh is now half his body. I press against the far wall and windows, pretending to focus on the scenery more than his dexterous hands tying back the curtains. Eldas shifts back in his seat and retrieves a worn journal from the small satchel he brought into the carriage.
“What’s that?” I ask.
He chuckles. “I thought you were more interested in the scenery?”
“I’m most interested in you.” As soon as I say those words, I contrast them with a sudden jerk of my head back to the windows to hide the deep scarlet blush rising up my neck, rounding my ears, and painting across my cheeks. I wait for him to make a smart remark back. But he spares me. Though I do hear the soft huff of a chuckle that turns my midsection to jelly.
“Would you believe me if I said that the queens aren’t the only ones to keep journals?”
“I’d believe it.” My face is starting to cool as I’m distracted by the meandering landscape. Fields line up against pastures with farmhouses wedged between them. In the distance, I can see the land rising up into hills. There’s the faint silhouette of a keep on the crest of one in the distance.
“My father impressed on me the importance of cataloging my thoughts and keeping journals,” Eldas continues. “I’ve actually been comparing the journals of the kings against the queens to see if I can glean anything important for our research.”
Our research. Not mine alone. Not anymore. He really has committed to this mission. I bite at the insides of my cheeks and wait before speaking for my stomach to untwist itself.
“So, what I hear is that you’ve been holding out on me?”
He laughs again. I have never heard Eldas laugh so much before. As the gray and hollow castle shrinks behind us, it seems the empty void in his chest—the cold and bitter pit that I couldn’t traverse when we first met—is vanishing to nothing.
“Yes, Luella. I have been holding out on you. After all I have given you I thought it would be good sport to deny you something now.”
“I knew it.” I shift in my seat, trying to find a comfortable position after bumps in the road jostle the carriage and nearly place me in Eldas’s lap. “Why have you given me so much?” I ask softly.
“Hmm?” Eldas’s pen has stilled. I’m amazed he could write anything at all with the swaying.
“I never expected you to be the doting husband.”
“And that is the true crime in all of this, isn’t it?”
I’d meant to make him feel better with the remark. But his sour and tired response has me looking for his eyes, his face. What expression was he wearing when he said that? Whatever it was, I missed it. I was too focused on my skirts and now Eldas is looking out the windows of the door at his left.
“Well, this isn’t exactly a normal situation.”
“Not for you,” he admits. He’s been training for this his whole life. Though, little good that seemed to do in actually preparing him for a Human Queen.
“No, not for me…” I bite back a sigh and look out my own windows. If only the throne hadn’t been trying to kill me. If only I hadn’t been at the end of a three-thousand-year line of queens. If only I had been stronger, or more prepared, or was still able to wish to be queen like someone trained for this from a young age might. “I wish everything was different,” I whisper aloud.
I hadn’t meant for him to hear. But, with those long ears, I should have known better.
“I don’t,” Eldas says, just as soft. I have to strain to hear him over the creaking carriage.
“You don’t?” I look over to him, but he’s still turned toward the window.
“If things were different, you wouldn’t have been you.” He finally looks back to me. His once icy eyes are now tepid pools as inviting and warm as the creeks I would strip bare and swim in underneath the redwood trees deep in the forests around the temple. “And I’ve found I’m very fond of exactly the woman you are. I wouldn’t change a single thing.”
I don’t know how to respond to that, so I don’t. I peel my eyes away from his and look to the window. Eldas returns to his journal. And I silently thank the carriage for being noisy enough that I think it’ll hide my racing heart.
“Luella,” Eldas whispers. “Luella, we’re here.”
At some point I dozed off. With how exhausted the throne has made me, I can’t seem to sleep enough these days. I blink slowly and near darkness greets me. Eldas must’ve pulled the curtains because they are now shut tight. What light sneaks through is honey colored and dimming. The copy of the journal Eldas made me is in my lap, mostly unread still.
And my head…
I straighten quickly. “Sorry,” I mumble. At some point I slouched in my sleep and my temple ended up on his shoulder.
Eldas gives me a wry smile. “It’s all right.” That’s all he says and yet I find myself trying to read between every word.
Get yourself under control, my mind commands. But I’ve already discovered my heart is a poor listener.
The king knocks on the door and it swings open. He steps out first and then turns to assist me. I take his cool hand, noticing that his touch is no longer bitter and icy. Perhaps something has changed in him. Maybe I’ve become accustomed to his magic. Or maybe it’s just the fact that I’ve come to want those cool fingers against my skin.
“Where are we?” Gravel crunches under my feet as I step down.
The carriage is parked at the apex of a wide arc of a lane. Tall hedges round all sides and continue along the edges of what I assume is all a single piece of property. They stretch down one side of a tree-lined road.
In front of us is a quaint cottage. The thatched roof is in good condition and the wide porch in front has been freshly sanded and repainted. There’s the same tang in the air that the temple has every midsummer when the Keepers spruce it up before celebrations.
“This is yours,” Eldas says, guiding me forward. As we walk away, the footman gets back in the driver’s seat and spurs forward the horses attached to the carriage. “There’s a town only about an hour’s drive away,” Eldas answers my unspoken question. “The footman will stay there since there’s not room for him here.”
“I see…” No servants. No attendants. Alone with Eldas in the middle of rolling hills and creeping forests nestled against the shade of a mountain that almost reminds me of home.
“Go ahead,” he encourages, motioning to the door as we walk up onto the porch. “It’s yours, after all.”
“You keep saying that.” My hand hovers on the doorknob. “But what do you mean?”
“This is the queen’s cottage.” Eldas smiles proudly. “It was gifted three queens before you as a private escape for Her Majesty. Close enough to Quinnar that you can make the trip within a day. Far enough that it feels like an escape. And, as I mentioned earlier, no need to depend on a king’s Fadewalking to get you here. However, myself and past kings have put up strong wards around this place, so even though it is away from the castle, it is just as safe.”
I open the door and behold the most adorable cottage I have ever laid eyes on.
It’s like the oil paintings I would see sometimes in the Lanton markets of idyllic countrysides, promising a world most people never know. Wide beams stretch across the ceiling. I see hooks for drying herbs lining each of them, begging for greenery. The downstairs is split by a center staircase. To the left is a kitchen of large brass pots and ruddy tile; the right is a living area with seating framing a large hearth.
The wood of the banister glides smoothly under my fingers as I head upstairs. The second floor is smaller than the first and I see immediately why Eldas said there was no room for the footman. This is another single room…with a single bed.
“What do you think?” Eldas asks as I appraise the quilted blanket covering the bed.
“There’s only one bed.”
My remark is met with roaring laughter. “Don’t worry, I’ll be sleeping downstairs.” He smiles, oblivious to the twinge of disappointment that stabs my side. I try to ignore the sensation too.
“But, shouldn’t you—”
“I slept on the couch as a boy when I would visit Alice here.” He starts downstairs again. As I follow, I notice that my bag and an extra trunk were carried up here and his things are situated in the corner of the living room.
“But you’re not a boy anymore.”
“And yet, I’ve still slept on a couch for you before.”
I think back to the settee. “I didn’t ask you to.”
“You were weak after the throne and I was worried. What if you needed something? What if the throne sapped more power than we thought?”
I don’t have a response, especially after how I was the first time I sat on the throne.
“You didn’t need to ask me to look after you. I should have been doing a better job of it all along.”
“I never thanked you for that.”
“You never needed to thank me.”
“Thank you,” I insist on saying anyway.
“You’re welcome.” The smile that graces his lips is brief but warm. He looks out to the doors that line the back of the cottage. “Unfortunately, I think the grounds will be more impressive in the daytime. Shall we turn in for the night?”
“I’m still a little tired,” I admit. Gone are the days when a long nap could keep me up all night.
“That is why we’re here, so you can rest. Past queens have said they find this place rejuvenating.”