“Let’s not delay,” Eldas declares.
A pang of longing constricts the muscles around my heart as I step over the threshold of the cottage. I can imagine the curlicues of the vines wriggling for me, reaching like the hands of children. The land itself begs for me with a whisper I feel more than hear. It resonates through my feet.
With one last look at the queen’s oasis in a desert of wild magic and gray castles, I step into the coach.
We’re silent for most of the way to Westwatch. The silence is a comfortable third companion, someone we met one night while sweaty, tired, and satisfied, and now know well. Eldas’s journal is back on his lap and we spend most of the journey writing and reading. I finally have a few hours uninterrupted reading time when I’m not too distracted by his presence to focus.
“Oh,” I exhale. My eyes are stuck to a page. I know whose journal this is. My heart races. Perhaps this journal was waiting in that desk, holding itself together for this moment. My searching that night was rewarded.
I’m holding the journal of the first queen.
“We’re here,” Eldas says with a note of affirmation. He misinterpreted the sound I made. I jerk my head upward, about to correct him, but am distracted as the coach rolls slowly across a wide drawbridge. Eldas points over my shoulder at a wall that stretches upward into the sky and sprints toward the horizon east and west. “That’s the elf border,” he says. “My great, great grandfather was the one to build the wall to keep out the fae fighting and other agitators from elf lands. There’s the river I told you about as the added protection.”
“The fae lose their glamour whenever they come in contact with fresh water, right?”
Talk of the fae brings back that day in the city. I suppress a shudder and focus on the other thoughts fae mentions give me—thoughts of Harrow and glimmer. I’ve only been away a few days, but it seems like too long.
“Harrow will be here too, right?”
“Yes, and our mother as well, since it’s a family trip,” Eldas says with a note of apology.
“If she’s civil then I will be too.” I’ve long since learned that it’s impossible to make or expect everyone to like you. Of course, I would’ve preferred if Eldas’s mother, of all people, at least tolerated me. But if my suspicions are correct, her hatred lies with Alice, not me, and whatever dynamic Eldas’s father and Alice had. The best I can hope for is that in the future, if I stay—if I return—then she can learn to accept me. But, for the time being, I put Sevenna aside.
“We shall see.” Eldas doesn’t sound too hopeful.
Across the expanse of water is the arc of a city. When the city could no longer build out, it built up. I see the familiar architecture of Quinnar here in the towering buildings and gray stone. At the heart of the city is a large keep nestled within the wall. Much like at the castle of Quinnar, a many-gated tunnel snakes through the base of the keep—the only entrance and exit, I presume, to the fae lands.
We step out of the carriage and a wave of servants bows to greet us. I walk at Eldas’s side, adjusting my skirts. I wish he had helped me by suggesting I wear something slightly more formal. Wasn’t that why he packed so much for me? Perhaps my mission to get him accustomed to the clothes I usually wear was a little too successful.
Eldas’s brother, Drestin, is the odd man out of his siblings. He didn’t inherit his mother’s black hair. His is, instead, a dark shade of brown that I presume belonged to their father. It’s cut even shorter than Harrow’s and gives him the distinct air of a military man.
Drestin’s wife, Carcina, is ready to pop at any moment. The entire way to our room she ambles alongside us with one hand on her very pregnant stomach, apologetic for being unable to curtsy or bow properly. I assure her not to worry, but that only seems to fluster her more.
“What do you think of them?” Eldas asks the first moment we’re alone.
“They’re pleasant,” I answer honestly.
“They are a delight.”
“Might I ask something about them?” I take off my traveling cloak, draping it over a settee situated near a hearth.
“Carcina is Drestin’s wife.”
“And she’s the mother of his child?” I ask somewhat timidly.
“Why wouldn’t she be?”
“Well…” I’m not sure why I’m dancing around this topic. I clear my throat and collect myself. “I know the Human Queen wasn’t your mother. I know Elf Kings usually take lovers. I know the elves value tradition, but I’m afraid I still haven’t sorted out what ‘tradition’ is when it comes to elf lords siring their heirs.”
“Ah, that’s right. Talk of heirs has never really come up.”
A fact I was all too ready to leave to the side when I’d first arrived, as even the thought of being intimate with Eldas was unfathomable. But now… “I don’t mean to imply you and I, that I was going to—” I start to add hastily, thinking of our past few days. He cuts me off with a laugh.
“It’s a fair question; I didn’t think you meant to imply anything.” Eldas unbuttons his coat, distracting me for a moment with the elegant movements of his fingers. “The Elf King is permitted to take lovers and the Human Queen is as well. It has been tradition for the Elf King to sire his heir with a lover—like my mother—because it ensures the Elf King will be wholly elf, and his deep connection to the Veil wouldn’t be at risk.”
“I see.” I mull this over. “So there’s never been a child of an Elf King and a Human Queen?”
“No. It’s not—”
“Traditional?” I finish with a slight grin. I meander into the bedroom, coming to a stop as I take note that there’s only one bed.
“I figured it wouldn’t be a problem.” Eldas’s voice is deep with a hint of mischief. He leans against the doorframe, his silvery tunic like liquid metal over his lean shoulders. “My brother offered separate rooms, however…”
“Of course not.” I gasp with a mask of mock offense. “How dare you suggest we inconvenience them further!”
“No, we wouldn’t want that, now would we?” He smirks, hands sliding around my waist, tugging me to his hard body.
“Though I must insist that I have time to get some work done in the evenings.” I retrieve the small journal from my coat pocket, trying to show it to him.
Eldas has none of it. He pushes the journal away and hooks my chin. “Very well, but it’s not evening yet,” he growls over my lips. “Which means I have every right to distract you now.”
I shiver, body responding to him, journal forgotten. I’m helpless, putty as his hands slide up my sides, grabbing my breasts through my clothes. I inhale sharply and he crushes his mouth against mine.
I’ve so much I need to tell him. There’s so much work to be done and things to worry about. This journal is the key we’ve been waiting for. But his caresses as he leads me to the bed we’ll share smooth away all thoughts of leaving.
The colors of the world around me blur and smear under his gentle palms until he is the only thing in focus. We tumble back onto the duvet and spend the afternoon focused solely on each other.
“Harrow and Mother should have been here by now.” Drestin looks to the tall grandfather clock wedged between full bookcases in the lounge we’ve collected in for drinks before dinner.
“The rain might have held them up.” Eldas stands by a blazing hearth, the orange light casting his form in shadow. Outside, rain pounds the glass.
“This is not the rain. Harrow is still up to his antics. I hear the rumors of the youngest prince even out in Westwatch. I’ve no doubt he’s the cause of this delay.” Drestin takes a long swig of his drink. Mine is mostly unfinished. “We need to be done with it, marry him off and give him land. The sooner he gets real responsibility on his shoulders, the better.”
“He’s not ready,” Eldas protests.
“I wasn’t ready when you gave me Westwatch and was only a year older than Harrow is now. It was the best thing that could’ve been done for me.” Drestin’s bright blue eyes flick over to Carcina. She’s seated next to me on the couch and looks significantly more comfortable than she did at our earlier meeting. “Best thing, aside from meeting you, of course.”
“You don’t have to flatter me. I know I was merely a requirement with the title,” Carcina says with a playful grin.
“Ah, yes, forgive me. That’s all you are, mother of my child, light of my world, goddess among women—merely another box that I had to check.” Drestin jests back and I’m pleased to see genuine fondness in his eyes. Those eyes flick over to me and then back to Eldas just as fast. It was only a glance, but I know what he’s thinking.
A marriage made of necessity but sustained by genuine love that grew against all odds. I take a sip of my drink to avoid saying anything on the topic. If Eldas is even aware of the undercurrents, he says nothing.
“We should have dinner,” Eldas suggests, looking to the clock once more. “Carcina, you shouldn’t go this late without eating.”
“I’m fine.” Carcina pats her stomach. “Perhaps if this babe is hungry enough, it’ll come crawling out at the table and demand food.” She laughs. “I’m ready for it to be over with.”
“Most women are at this stage,” I say. She looks to me with an inquisitive stare. “Back in Capton—in my world—” I clarify, not knowing how much they know of the other side of the Fade, “I studied at the academy to be a herbalist. I didn’t specialize in midwifery, but I worked closely with those who did. There are many balms and draughts that you can have to help with various ailments at this stage…such as swollen feet or aching back.” I took note of both when she was hobbling with us to our rooms.