Eldas merely grins.
When we’re finished, Eldas loads the dishes into a deep sink and sends me upstairs to dress. I try and move as quickly as possible. My mother always insisted that whoever cooked in the house didn’t clean. But I’m too late. By the time I’m back downstairs in my own shirt and trousers he’s drying his hands on his apron, a slightly smug satisfaction alight in his eyes.
“Cooking and now cleaning?” I arch my brows. “Are you really the same Eldas as in the castle?”
“Here I am free of the castle and free of its burdens. This place is an escape for me as well.” He stands a little straighter, as if no longer crushed by the weight of his position or trauma those walls haunt him with. I narrowly resist saying that he should just live here, for good. “I think it’s time to show you the grounds.”
We leave through the double doors at the back of the kitchen. Creeping vines cover the entirety of a pergola, offering a shaded area over a patio. The pavers spill over a ledge, down a staircase, and wrap around a pool of sparkling blue. I walk over to the low stone wall next to the stairs.
“This place is…” The words escape as a whisper.
To the left of the pool is a copse of trees surrounded by gardens. They terrace upward and into the mountain until they’re entirely claimed by the forest at the mountain’s foot. To the right of the pool is a field of wildflowers have taken over. There are more gardens at the far edge and I can see the sheen of water between the rows of plants that I suspect will only grow in swampier environments.
“It’s yours,” Eldas reminds me again. His breath moves the edges of my hair at the nape of my neck. My whole body aches at the sound of his voice so close.
Before me is a garden I couldn’t have dreamed about if I tried. Behind me is a house, simple and comfortable. A house that I would’ve longed for if I’d ever thought of moving to the countryside.
“I’m glad you like it. The Human Queens have tended it alongside the Elf King. These plants were transplanted from the Natural World. Alice said they always helped restore her power when she couldn’t return to the Natural World.”
“You can transplant things between worlds?” I arch my eyebrows.
“It takes significant magic and tending, but yes. The Natural World to Midscape, and the reverse.” Eldas nods. “Hidden away in the Natural World is a mirror of this garden. Alice told me it keeps the plants alive here and can help rejuvenate the Queen—why I thought coming here might help you. She always said a bit of the magic from her world flowed through, enough to make her strong.”
Mirror—balance, is what he means. It’s natural magic—the queen’s magic—suspended between the worlds. Could this somehow be used for the seasons? That’s a lot more magic than just keeping some plants alive. But it could be a start…couldn’t it?
The palm of his hand lands on the small of my back, distracting me. I stand a little straighter.
“Go on, explore.”
We spend the entire day wandering the grounds. It takes all of my energy not to tear apart the cottage for a clean journal so I can begin cataloging all the various plants and noting their needs. This is a dream, I begin to tell myself. It’s a beautiful dream that I will, eventually, wake from. But for now, I will enjoy it. I will delight in the lush gardens, the wild overgrown brush, and the magic that seems to hang as happily in the air as the eager pollinators buzzing from flower to flower.
“What’s up there?” The gravel pathway that snakes between raised beds winds between the trees, slipping into the dense forest and shadow of the mountain in the late twilight.
“The last thing I would like to show you.”
“What is it?” I demand, somewhat firmly. The path reminds me of the temple and that long walk that took me across the Fade.
“It leads to the Fade.” He affirms my suspicion without realizing.
“But I thought that Capton was the only entrance of the Fade?”
Eldas sighs. It’s the only indication I have that he’s shouldering a burden of worry I don’t understand. “Capton is where the Human Queen is chosen from. The act of doing so honors the ancient pact made between the elves and humans, as the first queen’s home was on that isle and the first keystone was placed there—where the Fade itself unfurled from. However…that is not the only point where the Fade can be crossed.”
“Really?” I’d heard whispers in Lanton from time to time…traders spreading rumors about vampir attacks to the south or ships going down in the north due to beasts with wild magic terrorizing the seas. But I thought those stories were like all the other stories of magic from my childhood—grossly exaggerated and grounded in more fiction than fact.
“May I show you?” He holds out his hand. “I will Fadewalk us there, if you’ll allow? Otherwise, it’s a long trek.”
“You may.” I take his hand and the dark mist that is his power envelops us both.
We step through twilight and into a realm of swirling darkness. Every time I walk with Eldas across the Fade it becomes a little easier than the last. Still, this place between worlds—not quite one or the other—makes invisible bugs scuttle across my skin.
I do not belong here, and the entity that is the Fade makes the fact known.
“I recognize this place.” It’s the same mossy clearing I stumbled on with Hook. A circle of smaller stones rings a large tablet at the center of a small rise.
“You think you do,” Eldas corrects. “You’ve never stepped foot here before.”
I look at the stone and its faded writing. “Another keystone of the Fade?”
“Indeed.” The shadows swirl around Eldas as he moves toward the stone. They reach for him hungrily. Tendrils curl around him with eager embraces.
No, I realize. The Fade does not reach for him. It resonates from him. I was blind to the fact the last time we were here. But now that I understand his magic, I can see the corona of midnight darkness that radiates off of him in waves with his every movement.
Eldas reaches a hand to the stone and a pulse of magic thrums out from him. His power no longer rattles me with fear. It echoes in a hollow, needy portion of me that cries out to be filled.
A starry twilight illuminates the engraved words. Writing I don’t understand shines in tandem with Eldas’s eyes. The power sinks into the earth and the Fade around us thickens.
He pulls his hand away and his shoulders sag slightly.
“It is the Elf King’s obligation to tend all the keystones across the Fade. We charge them with our power to ensure that the Fade remains strong. The keystones weaken with time, and when they are weak…the Fade can be crossed by lesser creatures.”
“One man can’t keep up with all the keystones.” I surmise that’s how the rumors of magical creatures wandering my world from time to time were started.
Eldas shakes his head grimly. “Midscape is a fragile balance, pulled taut with time. Generation after generation, we hold our breath wondering if these will be the final years of peace. Most kings focus on the Veil. Keeping the order of life and death is far more important than keeping humans in the Natural World and those of wild magic here.”
“Let me help,” I offer before I can think better of it.
He chuckles and his tired eyes sweep from the stone to mine. “Certainly, right after you somehow manage to break the cycle of queens by creating naturally occurring seasons in this unnatural world. And then fundamentally change your magic to become something that can manipulate the Fade.”
I purse my lips, not wanting my gut to get the better of my brain. Eldas stands before me, his eyes fading to their natural shade of blue as the spike of magic dissipates. He lifts up a hand and slowly traces his fingers down my jawline.
His hair is a cascade of night, blending in with his clothes, becoming eclipsed by the living darkness around us. The dusty pallor of his skin has grayed, as if the shroud of death has covered him. He has one foot in the Beyond. I have one foot in the world of life.
The only thing that is linking us together is that trailing touch igniting me.
“Besides, you will leave me the moment you are successful. You wouldn’t be able to stay and help.”
You could stay, the voice in my mind is now screaming. Stay with him!
Is this what I really want? Or am I swept up in the moment? Perhaps he has truly transported me to yet another new world with a mere carriage ride; he’s taken me to a place where my guard is down and I can pretend this will all work out. Somewhere I can ignore that I am allowing my heart to be set up to be broken.
Or do I actually feel nothing for him? Is all of this yearning and gnawing desire somehow the magic of the Human Queen trying to ensure its own preservation by driving me to stay with him?
I press my eyes closed and take a quivering breath. I don’t know the answers. But I want to. I need to. If I stay in Midscape, it must be my choice. I must finally make a choice, of my own volition, free of the influences of any man, with where I stand. I have to take my own advice and choose what I want for myself, not what others want for me. And it can never be my choice if I don’t succeed in breaking the cycle. What I really want might not even matter if I fail.
“I’m here now,” I whisper, finally opening my eyes to look up at the face of my antithesis. “Kill the thoughts of tomorrow. Let’s live for today.”
I don’t entirely know what I’m saying. But I know what I want in this moment—him. Eldas’s eyes widen a fraction and that’s how I know he hears.
I tilt my head up slightly. His hand still hovers on my skin. His knuckles hook my chin.
“Kiss me again,” I demand breathlessly. “Kiss me like you did that night in the castle. Let’s give in to this waking dream, Eldas.”
“No,” he murmurs. Everything in me shudders at his denial. But then he pulls me toward him, snaring me with the lightest touch imaginable. “I will not kiss you like I did then.” My breath hitches. Through the fan of my lashes I watch him lean forward. “I will kiss you better.”