“You killed him!” Aria screams. “My love, my love…” Her words devolve into sobs. I’m not sure if she stops talking, or if my mind stops paying attention to her—focusing instead on keeping me conscious.
I really was made to bring life, and not death. Even using the latter as a method to achieve equilibrium demands a high toll. Waves of magic roll within me like a choppy sea and I sway slightly. I’m slimy all over, slick with sweat, as if my body is trying to expunge the uncomfortable sensation of making the earth barren.
“I’m fine,” I say as Eldas kneels next to me. I look up at him and then back at Aria. She now stares numbly at the world around her, my vines sinking into her flesh at multiple points. No matter what, I couldn’t kill her. It’s just not in me. So I’ll leave it to Eldas and his justice to decide what happens next. “You deal with her. I’ll take care of Harrow.”
“I’m taking both of you back to Westwatch,” he declares. “I will return and deal with them when I know you’re safe.”
“They’re not going anywhere for the next five minutes.” Eldas gives a nod to the thickets surrounding us. “You truly are incredible,” he murmurs as he slips his arm under mine and around my shoulders. With Eldas’s help we stagger over to where Harrow is. He’s in some kind of daze; his eyes are glossed over and half open, unfocused. Eldas’s mouth is set in a grim line.
“I’ll help him,” I say.
“I know you will.” Eldas leans forward, resting his palm on Harrow. He adds with a slightly bitter murmur, “Helping him at all costs seems to be one of your strengths.”
The shadows thicken around us before I can comment on his remark and then are promptly chased away by the lights of Westwatch’s entry. Two guards startle at our sudden appearance. Eldas barks orders and disappears once more, leaving Harrow and me behind. I notice that Hook didn’t join us and selfishly hope he’s looking after Eldas back in the fae lands as Eldas deals with Aria and the aftermath.
At my request, Harrow is taken to a room not far from the laboratory. Every step is harder than the last, but the clanking of the concoctions in my bag keeps me moving. Harrow needs the medicine I made and so much more.
Sevenna is nowhere to be found while I’m treating Harrow—a blessing. I can move alone and unhindered for the first hour of his treatment. After that, I’m swarmed by other healers. Harrow is stable enough, and I make my escape before whatever is holding back Sevenna gives way.
My rooms are cold and vacant when I return to them shortly after dawn. I look over to the bed but the idea of sleeping alone without Hook or Eldas to keep me warm is unappealing. Instead, I bathe, washing away the night’s events, and then curl up on the sofa of our parlor, drifting asleep despite myself.
Half the day has burned away when I wake. Eldas is the first thing to come into focus. Lilian’s journal is on his knee, split down the middle. Even with his superhuman reading speed, he likely didn’t sleep if he’s that far along.
“You’re awake,” he says without so much as looking up.
“So it seems.” I pull myself upright. Every muscle screams in protest. I could sleep two more days easily. “How’s Harrow?”
“They say he’s stable. The healers cleared up the…what did you refer to it as to them? Fever he got from being out in the rain? Though he has yet to wake.” Eldas’s eyes finally flick up to me.
“I figured you wouldn’t want everyone to know about the glimmer,” I say gingerly.
“So many assumptions you make.” He closes the journal slowly. “You assume I wouldn’t want people to know about my brother being involved with glimmer.”
“Was I wrong?”
“You assume I shouldn’t know.”
“I was trying to respect his wishes,” I say calmly.
“He clearly couldn’t be trusted to have an opinion on what was in his best interest if he was using glimmer!”
“That’s not my choice to make.”
“You assumed”—every time he says it the word becomes more of an accusation—“you could navigate a situation you were woefully unequipped for.”
“Eldas,” I say softly but firmly. His eyes are haunted and tired. Now is not the time to be having this conversation. I take a deep breath and try and start from the beginning. “I didn’t tell you about the glimmer because I didn’t want to betray Harrow’s trust. I doubt he’d told anyone about it—save for maybe Jalic or Sirro, who might be in on Aria’s plot too. I don’t know. If I betrayed the trust he placed in me, he likely would’ve retreated further and kept that secret guarded to his grave.” A grave that could’ve come far too soon if last night had ended differently. “I genuinely feared for him, Eldas. And I was worried that if I gave him reason to push away the one person he’d begun to open up to, that would be far more detrimental than anything else. I’m sorry I couldn’t imagine any of this happening.”
The king purses his lips and looks to the window. He rests an elbow on the arm of the wingback chair he’s sitting in and brings a hand to his lips, as if he’s physically trying to force himself not to say something he’ll regret. “The fae were part of a group called the Acolytes of the Wild Wood. One benefit of them not being able to lie is it can make them easy to interrogate after a point.”
I remember Rinni saying the name once before and ignore his remarks on interrogation. I don’t think I want to know what he means.
“Aria was helping them infiltrate her uncle’s court. That was how they could sneak in with the dignitaries but without the Fae King being aware. I can’t believe I allowed her into my home.” Eldas directs his frustration inward. He doesn’t even seem to be speaking to me.
“What did you do with Aria?” I have to ask. I might not entirely want to know, but I need to know.
“She will be locked up and the key misplaced for a while,” Eldas says, finally. “I might have wanted to kill her then and there. But she’s still the Fae King’s niece; he should be the one to decide her fate. Allowing him to will be a display of good will and will show me if he is serious about our kingdoms’ relationship or not.”
I grimace at the idea of having to pass judgment on a family member—on someone I love.
“And the rest of the group?”
“Those I could hunt down faced my justice.” There’s not a hint of remorse in his voice. Dead, then. I swallow thickly and try not to judge Eldas for what he must do as king. “Hopefully this long-planned plot of theirs being thwarted will push them back for a while. Then, when we end the cycle, that will really put an end to their claims of elf favoritism from the Human Queen and the land dying. What we’re doing will help everyone…even if they don’t know it yet.”
“Speaking of, I think I know how to do it—break the cycle,” I say. He arches his eyebrows. “I think the solution is simpler than we could’ve imagined. It’s a matter of restoring balance between Midscape and the Natural World—like the queen’s garden.” I can see the solution begin to light up Eldas’s eyes as I speak. “I think with something like the fae’s ritumancy, we can assemble the necessary requisites to find equilibrium. Which can make sense—the Human Queen’s magic is more like the fae’s than the elves’…likely because the fae are closer to the dryads and all that.” I believe my logic checks out, since the fae were descended from dryads and the dryads later made the humans, but it’s been a while since Willow and I discussed the history of Midscape.
“Good.” Yet he contradicts his word with a shake of his head as he stands.
“You don’t seem happy.” I watch as he faces the crackling fire in the hearth behind his chair.
“Of course I am not happy,” he murmurs darkly.
My chest tightens. I expected him to be angry. But I didn’t expect how painful it would be. “Eldas, I—”
“My brother could’ve been hurt. You could’ve been hurt.” He looks over his shoulder.
“I didn’t know the extent of the situation, not really. I just thought your brother was in a tough spot. I didn’t think about the politics that might be involved.” I slowly rise to my feet, allowing the world to spin and settle. My magic and body are both exhausted.
“It’s for the best,” he murmurs.
Eldas turns and his expression is unrecognizable. I haven’t seen those frigid eyes since our wedding. “That you’ll be leaving soon.”
“Do you mean that?” I whisper.
“Of course I do. It’s what you wanted, isn’t it? You have an idea and based on what I’ve read of that journal, you’re not far off.” Eldas stares down at me. “You’ll no longer be needed here and you can go—be free of me. No king will ever have to suffer with a Human Queen again.”
“Stop this,” I whisper. Every word is like a physical wound, cutting me deeper than I thought possible. I’m shocked the floor isn’t bloody. “I know you’re upset and…you have a reason to be cross with me. But Eldas, I—”
“What do you feel for me?” He turns to face me as he turns my question back on me. I lean against the chair for stability. Otherwise I may be bowled over by his stare.
“You never answered that either,” I remind him weakly.
“If you asked, then you may have some kind of idea of what I might feel.” Eldas gathers his height. “But I want to know about you, Luella. What do you feel for me? Do you love me?”
Every pore, every raw part of my essence screams, yes! But my lips don’t move. They quiver silently and my eyes burn. Yes, say yes, Luella. But if I say yes now…I will always doubt myself.