“I’m sure it will be. But I don’t think I’ll be able to quiet my mind enough for bed yet.” My thoughts are still pinned on Eldas and me here, in a scenic spot, together, alone…with one bed.
“Then perhaps a nightcap of some sweet wine will help dull any racing thoughts?” Eldas heads into the kitchen.
“Wine, not mead?” I cross over, resting my elbows on the worn butcher’s block countertop. I’m momentarily entranced by Eldas rolling up his sleeves to his elbows, exposing muscular forearms beneath.
“Faeries make mead. Elves make wine. And it’s a crime you’ve yet to try the latter.” Eldas gives a wink. A wink. I have to sit on one of the stools so I don’t fall over with shock. Is this the same Elf King I met weeks ago? Gone is the marble and here is the man and all his glory. I hope he stays.
“Well, whose fault is that?” I ask playfully.
“Yet more blame you can lay at my feet. I will need a lifetime to make up for my previous transgressions against you.” But I only have a few more weeks, I hear unsaid.
Eldas retrieves a dusty bottle from a lower wine rack. He moves nimbly through the kitchen. He knows exactly where the corkscrew and glasses are. His movements opening the wine are fluid, as though he’s performed this task a hundred times.
“I wouldn’t have expected a king to seem so…natural in the kitchen,” I appraise.
“Even kings have hobbies.” Eldas pours generously. “Alice was an incredible chef. I learned from her.” I remember the plethora of cooking-related notes in her journal.
“Yet you looked so offended when I asked if you cooked our dinner a few weeks ago.” That was the dinner when he kissed me. I can almost see the moment Eldas has the same thought as his movements slow to a brief pause he quickly recovers from.
“Things were different then.”
“Things change quickly with us, it’d seem.”
“Maybe it’s because we don’t have very much time.” He meets my eyes as he sets down the bottle next to the glasses. There’s desperation there. I know the look of a man who wants something. But I’ve never felt my body react in such a way to that look. I’m aflame, heat pouring into my lower stomach faster than wine from the bottle. Every part of me is so sensitive that just the shifting of my clothes is almost too much.
“You—” I clear my throat. “—you came here with Alice?” I try and guide the topic back off us as I accept my glass from him.
The wine within is a deep plum color that seems to swirl with twilight as I tilt my glass. I wonder if a normal human would find it ominous. I wonder if I should. Instead, I’m entranced.
What grapes went into this? What other fruits? What process gave it that magical color? I have a twinge of regret when I realize I likely won’t be in Midscape long enough to even scratch the surface of this magical world.
“I did, as often as I was allowed. It was one of my few retreats as much as it was hers.”
“I still don’t understand… Why do the elves insist on keeping a young man locked up just because he’s an heir?” It seems so unfair.
“There are logical reasons, such as protection or ensuring he doesn’t shame himself by getting into trouble. Most likely because that’s just how it’s always been done and whatever reasons might have been there originally have been lost to time.” Eldas shrugs easily enough, but I’ve seen the ghostly scars on his spirit left behind by those years in solitude—his mannerisms, his looks, his hesitation and awkwardness in how to handle someone new coming into his world.
“Just like elves follow in the footsteps of their parents?” I reference Willow and Rinni.
“Humans have odd enough customs themselves. I hear you are actually allowed to have your own dreams and study for what it is you want to do, regardless of your parents and their wishes or wisdoms. Seems a bit selfish, doesn’t it?” He gives a coy smirk.
I burst out laughing. “Fair. One can be just as odd as the other. Though I think the humans win on this one.” Eldas chuckles and holds out his glass of wine for a toast, and I raise mine to hover next to his. “What’re we toasting to, this time?” I ask.
He thinks a moment. “To tomorrow.”
“Everything. May tomorrow hold every possibility. And may we be bold and hungry enough to take them for our own.”
The toast is sincere and unscripted, unlike the last time, and I gladly clink my glass against his. The wine is warm on my lips and complements the warmth in my stomach from his sentiments. Eldas gives me a sly smile from behind his glass, one I return.
For the very first time since coming to Midscape, I realize, in this moment, I don’t want to be anywhere but here.
Dawn breaks clear and crisp. It winks at me through the small second-floor window opposite the foot of the bed. I roll over, yanking the covers around me.
My head throbs a bit. Likely a little too much elf wine last night. I thought I was drunk on conversation. But I know now that I was just a bit drunk. Unfortunately, unlike last time, there was no drunken kissing to be had.
I crack open my eyes, remembering where I am. This room evokes memories of my attic back home. From the exposed wood of the floors and walls, to the dust that hangs in the air like what I once imagined faeries to look like.
Five more minutes, I would’ve begged back then. Sleeping in for five minutes was a pleasure. I had work to do those days. There would be fishermen who would come and pick things up for themselves or their families before heading out to sea for the morning. I knew when every customer would show up and always had to be preparing for the surprise walk-ins throughout the day.
Now… I’m not sure where I’m meant to be.
Is it the throne? Is it Capton? Is it with Eldas? The uncertainty fills me with shame. I should know unequivocally where I belong; I always have. The duty I’ve always trusted guides me. So many have sacrificed for me—my friends, parents, all of Capton. Any hesitance feels like a betrayal.
“Don’t do this,” I quietly beg my heart. I press the heels of my palms into my eyes until I see stars. I didn’t ask for this, for any of it. And now…now there’s a part of me who doesn’t entirely want to give it all up. Half of my heart is growing roots here, as deep as the redwood throne’s. There’s so much of this world I have yet to see and explore. So much magic that I could delight in if I dared.
I hear the sizzle of something hitting a hot pan and drop my hands. The second the smell of bacon hits my nose, my stomach growls loudly and I’m out of bed. If I must berate myself, I can do so on a full belly.
Wrapping a silken robe around my nightgown, I tiptoe down the stairs. I knew the house was too small for any kind of attendants. I also knew that Eldas said he enjoyed cooking. But there’s something entrancing about actually seeing the man working in the kitchen.
He’s in a simple cotton tunic, thin and humbly made. It has a wide neck and exposes his strong collarbones. Of course, it’s long sleeved, but he’s once more rolled the sleeves up. A canvas apron has been tied around his narrow waist, colored by stains old and new alike. It hides the tight-fitting black trousers underneath. Inky strands of hair have freed themselves from the knot he’s placed half his tresses in to frame his jaw and neck. The other half of his hair moves in sheets of midnight.
I rest my chin in my palm and watch him move. He’s graceful, unhesitant, and easy. Comfortable, I realize at once. This is the look of a man in his element. His brow isn’t weighted by the iron crown, but rather furrowed slightly with focus. Eldas’s eyes are intent and intense. But he wears a small smile on his lips as though every turn of the spoon and flip of the spatula delights him.
It’s almost impossible to imagine that this is the same severe man I first met in the temple all those weeks ago. And he’s your husband, I remind myself. That prompts me to take yet another look at him in yet another way.
He’s as agonizingly handsome as I’ve always known him to be…as I’ve rarely allowed myself to appreciate. His attractiveness has disarmed me on many an occasion. But permitting myself to appreciate it as a wife would has my thighs tensing.
Some women would kill to be you. To have all this, I scold myself. And you want to run away.
It’s as if he senses my turmoil. Because he looks at me with those stunning blue eyes, startled to find me. I try and plaster on a smile and nonchalantly continue down the stairs, as though I weren’t just shamelessly admiring him.
“Good morning,” he repeats. “How did you sleep?”
“Very well. The past queens were right; this place is surprisingly refreshing after the redwood throne.” I neglect to mention the dull throb in my head. The last thing I want is for him to suggest we skip the wine tonight, given how delicious it was. “And you?”
“Excellently.” He smiles.
I glance at the couch. I have my doubts about that. Sure, it would be fine for a boy. But there’s no way he can spread out there. “You can have the bed tonight. We can swap.”
“It’s only fair.”
Eldas has a mischievous glint to his eyes. “I am the king; I think I decide what’s fair.”
“I think you’re wrong. The queen should have a say as well.”
“If she insists, I’d be a fool to fight her.”
“Glad you’ve finally realized.” I assume the same seat as last night, admiring the spread he’s prepared. “You weren’t joking about enjoying cooking.”
“It’s not much.”
“Humility doesn’t suit you.” I flash him a teasing grin and begin to dig in. There are rashers of bacon, fried eggs, hunks of sourdough grilled on the skillet, and every thing tastes better than the last.
“Slow down, no one is going to take it from you,” he says.
“I can’t help but notice you piling your plate just as heavy.”