“Perhaps you could tell my healers of this knowledge from the Natural World. I need any assistance I can get.”
“I’d be happy to make it for you myself, if the supplies are here.”
“Just Luella, please,” I remind her, not for the first time.
“Luella,” she says sheepishly. “I wouldn’t want to trouble you.”
“It wouldn’t trouble, it would delight me.” I beam.
“It’s best not to fight her when she’s made up her mind,” Eldas adds with a small smile. I remember not too long ago helping others was “beneath me” as the queen. Now, it’s unquestioned.
“Then perhaps after dinner I will show you the healer’s laboratory.” Carcina rests her hand on mine. “Thank you, Luella.”
“You’re very welcome.”
Dinner is an intimate affair. Since Harrow and Sevenna have yet to arrive, we adjourn to a smaller, more informal dining room that I first caught a glimpse of on our way to the lounge. It reminds me of the first dinner Eldas and I shared.
Usually, the thought of that dinner would have me fighting lingering fantasies of him pushing me up against a hearth. But not tonight. Worry for Harrow and what could’ve held him up nags the back of my mind.
However, selfishly, I am grateful for the absence of Sevenna. It gives me an opportunity to get to know Carcina and Drestin. And for them to get to know me without Sevenna’s opinions poisoning the air.
After dinner, the men decide on a nightcap while Carcina and I make our escape to the Westwatch laboratory and gardens. It gives the brothers an opportunity to catch up, and me the chance to find my way to the stash of healing supplies in Westwatch. Paranoia has now taken residence in the back of my mind as there’s still no word from Harrow.
Something is wrong and the air is thick with whatever it is.
“Here we are.” Carcina lights the lamps of the room with a sweep of her hand and flash of her eyes. Little things about wild magic make me envious of its blatant disregard for logic.
The laboratory is similar to the one in Quinnar. Instead of a conservatory attached, it opens through arched doorways to a terraced garden facing the city of Westwatch. The layout is somewhat different, but a quick sweep of the room yields where the healers here are keeping similar supplies.
“Everything we should need is here,” I say as I poke my nose in cabinets. “I could bring it to you in the morning?”
“I wouldn’t want to leave you alone here.”
“Is it unsafe?” I can’t help but ask.
“We have added extra security for your visit.” She smiles proudly.
“Then it’s fine. I’m used to working alone. It’s how I would work in my shop. My favorite hours were first thing in the morning before anyone could disturb me.”
“I had a shop I opened up after I finished academy.” It seems like years ago now. Time twisted as I passed through the Fade. It must pass faster in Midscape because the memories of my worn counters and rough-hewn bowls are leaving my fingers. It seems as though I’ve been in Midscape all along.
The fading of those connections terrifies me. I have to go back. I can’t know who I really am or what I’m feeling until I do.
“I see.” She’s clearly confused, but accepts the remark in stride and doesn’t probe further.
“In any case… If it doesn’t bother you to have me working alone in your healers’ laboratory, I don’t mind doing so. You look tired and need rest.”
“This child hasn’t even come into the world and he’s already sapping my energy and patience.” Her body emphasizes the point with a yawn.
“Go and rest; I’ll have it ready by breakfast.”
“Thank you again, Luella.” She goes to leave but pauses just before. “I didn’t know what to expect of the Human Queen. I admit…I was a bit nervous. But I’m glad that it is you.”
I can think of no response before Carcina excuses herself for the night.
As I work, I try and place the wrenching, restless feeling that’s propelling my hands with frantic purpose. Guilt, I finally realize. I feel guilty. But for what?
I frown at the liquid bubbling in a small cauldron. I have nothing to be guilty over. I’m doing the right thing for both our worlds and for us. I could never stay with Eldas and be happy, not truly, unless I know I’m staying of my own volition.
“Is it more effective when you make that face at it?” Eldas’s voice cuts through my thoughts. My body jerks, startled, and I face him. He’s lounging against a table, arms folded, looking delightfully smug.
“How long have you been there?”
“Long enough to see you work.”
I must’ve been truly lost in my thoughts to not notice Eldas come in.
“And what a sight it is.”
“What?” I say the word on an exhale, already trying to fish out all the complex emotions he’s somehow fit into the small pools of blue that are his eyes. There’s admiration, a note of sorrow, longing, resignation? More I can’t name.
“You were born to do this,” he says.
“You’ve seen me work before.” I run my finger along the top of a jar before putting it away.
“I have, but I never truly watched. I never paid attention.” The sorrow I saw in him is given sound. “Luella…if we are unable to break the cycle before the coronation…I would do whatever I could, even then, to help you manage the throne. Whatever you needed, I would give you. Perhaps we could even find a way for you to work as a healer in Quinnar too. Maybe, even though you would be a part of Midscape, we could even explore options for you to visit Capton more than just midsummer.”
My stomach twists and when I speak I can’t look at him. I know he’s trying to help. But this conversation dredges up the tangled mass of emotions that I can’t completely pick through when it comes to thinking of my life before, my life now, and whatever awaits me in the future.
“Wouldn’t that be unconventional for a queen?”
“Yes, but convention is always new at one point. I’ve read the journals too. Others have longed for something similar—for a purpose beyond the redwood throne. Helping the healers wasn’t enough. It’s too late for them, but for you, for future queens…” He runs a hand through his hair and looks away. I watch him from the corner of my eye. “If there are future queens, that is.”
“Speaking of all that.” I turn and lean against the counter. “There’s something I need to tell you.”
“Yes?” Eldas is clearly startled by my sudden shift in mood.
“The journal I’ve been reading…I figured out today whose it was.”
“Lilian,” he whispers. He’s no doubt heard the name from stories he was told all his life. “The first queen. Then—”
I nod, knowing what he’ll say next. “I think I know how the seasons, the redwood throne, and the queen’s magic are tied together. I think I understand what the first queen and king did and how it all works.” I’ve figured out a great mystery. I should be happier. And yet I watch with dread as Eldas rises to his feet. We’re standing on an edge from which there’s no going back. “I need to read more, and research, of course. And just because I understand how the Fade was made and the seasons turn doesn’t guarantee I’ll be able to do anything with the information, but—”
His hands clasp around my shoulders. Eldas wears a bright smile. But his eyes are heartbreakingly sad.
“This is excellent. If anyone can figure it out, it’s you. I’ve said it all along and now you have what you needed.”
“I know, but…”
“But?” He falters.
Don’t be happy about this, I want to say. I don’t want him to even pretend to be happy about me leaving. The fact that he would be swells my heart to the point of pain. The smile on his face mocks me and I find myself doubting the traces of hurt in his eyes; are they real, or am I just imagining them to be because I want them to be?
“Eldas, what do you feel for me?” I dare to ask, small and afraid.
“What?” His hands fall from my shoulders. Perhaps that’s answer enough.
“What do you feel for me?” I ask again, louder and more certain.
“When you say—”
“Do you love me?”
He looks as if my words materialized and struck him between the ribs. Eldas’s mouth opens and closes several times. Perhaps he had run the numbers in our equation and arrived at the same result as I—that it was better not to think about what these feelings truly were. It was better not to ask or know, for both of us.
As he stares at me now, deathly silent, I want the thick night air to envelop me. I want it to take me away and carry me through the Fade here and now. I can’t handle waiting for his answer.
If he says he doesn’t love me, then my heart will be crushed. If he says he does, then my heart will still be crushed if—when—I inevitably leave. And, if I don’t leave…I will wonder if his feelings, like mine, could’ve been somehow manipulated by magic or circumstance. If they were ever real at all, or a twisted survival of the heart. I will question everything forever and that alone would be our undoing.
“Don’t answer that.” I shake my head. “It’s better if you—”
Neither of us get to finish. Drestin comes sprinting in. He’s panting as if he’s been running for some time. His eyes sweep over me and land on Eldas.
“It’s Harrow,” he pants out. “There’s been an attack.”
“An attack?” Eldas repeats, looking somewhat dazed. I have whiplash as well from the sudden shift in conversation.