“Tell me, Luella, do you love me?” His voice takes on an almost begging note.
I press my lips harder together, fighting every instinct. My mind is at war with my heart. My better sense of duty to Capton and Midscape against an impulsive streak these feelings have brought out in me. Silence is the best thing for us, even if he doesn’t see it now.
“Tell me now or I will wash my hands of you for good.”
How can I make him understand? “Eldas, I—”
“Yes or no, do you love me?” His voice raises a fraction.
I watch as he shatters under my silence and hesitation.
“No. Of course not. Who could?” He chuckles sadly and shakes his head. “I already suspected you didn’t, given the secrets you chose to keep.”
“Eldas, it’s not that simple.”
“But it is.” He skewers me with a look and I can’t breathe. “It’s a simple question, with a simple answer. Your actions and everything you can’t say have told me all I need to know.”
“I wanted to—our situation is—we can’t be certain—I have to go to know—” It’s impossible for me to form a cohesive sentence. The world is rumbling under my feet. I hear the groans and stress fractures spiderwebbing out around me. Make him understand, I have to make him understand. But when I need words most, they all fail me, even the frantic kind. “Eldas—”
He shuts the door behind him. The soft click of the latch engaging strikes me like a drum. I sway and then rush to the door and yank it open. But I already know what awaits me—an empty hall.
Eldas returns to Quinnar alone. He Fadewalks without so much as a word to me. I find out through Drestin that he’s gone and that’s really the biggest jab of them all. The carriage back is as cold and lonely as the castle halls that await me. Not even Hook’s presence can ward off the chill. I spend the hours having a long debate with myself on what I could have, or should have, done differently along the way.
When Quinnar’s castle is visible in the distance, rising up in line with the mountaintops and towering over the fields, I’m not sure of what I feel. A part of me is oddly nostalgic for the place. Another part of me would rather be anywhere other than this carriage, drawing nearer and nearer.
Rinni is waiting for me as the carriage comes to a stop before the castle’s tunnel entry.
“What happened?” she asks—no, demands.
“I know what happened with Harrow. I am Eldas’s general, so of course he told me about that.” Rinni steps over to me, hooking her elbow with mine and leading me to the doors. Hook follows closely behind. Her voice drops to a hush as she glances back, looking to make sure the soldiers that rode on the outside of my carriage aren’t following. “What happened between both of you?”
“Nothing happened,” I lie.
“That’s what he said and it’s obviously false.”
“I’d started to see changes in him—changes for the better, Luella. I started to see a warmer, gentler side of him. It gave me faith and hope in the man that leads us.” We come to a stop in the large entry hall. The grand stairway arches upward on the opposite end, splitting to the empty mezzanine. It brings back memories of when I first arrived.
Incredibly, I think everything was simpler then. When Eldas was nothing more than a king. And I hardly understood my role as queen.
“But ever since he’s been back… He’s his old self again,” Rinni finishes. “And I know that must mean something happened between you two.”
“I can’t change him, Rinni.” I shrug as if the weight of the world isn’t pulling on my shoulders. If Rinni believes I don’t care, maybe Eldas will too, then maybe I will. And somehow this unbearable spot I’m in might become easier.
She blinks, startled. “I’m not asking or expecting you to. He was changing himself because he believed he could be a man worthy of love—your love.”
I can’t take her words. I don’t want to hear them from her. I wanted to hear them from Eldas. No, I didn’t want to hear them at all. It’s impossible, we can’t love each other. Not under these circumstances, not so quickly.
But what do I know about love? What have I ever known about love? Nothing, and that’s why I messed this up so badly.
I need to return to what I understand and what won’t hurt me—my duty.
“Sorry, Rinni, I think you might be mistaken. But I don’t really have time to discuss it. The days are getting cooler and I have work to do. Hook, come along.”
Rinni stares listlessly at me as I start toward my room. She eventually shadows behind me, but I can tell it’s only out of obligation. She doesn’t say anything else as I tuck myself away to plot and work.
I hope she ends up taking Eldas’s side…he needs her a lot more than I do now.
Eldas doesn’t speak to me for three days. By the fourth, he breaks the silence with a letter. Four simple, emotionless lines, nothing more.
It looks like it will snow again soon.
My kingdom needs you to sit on the throne, or break the cycle.
Which will it be?
How much longer until you’re done and gone?
Done and gone. He wants to wash his hands of me. Rinni was wrong; he doesn’t want love any more than I do. We’re not built for love. We were made to focus on our work.
So that’s what I do.
On the fifth day I’m up in the laboratory, Willow is with me, stealing worried glances until I can’t take it any longer.
“Go ahead and ask,” I say without looking up from my journal. I almost have my plans outlined. There’s just one more thing to be done. I can spare a word for Willow. He’s been kind to me, and none of this is his fault.
“What really happened in Westwatch?” His eyes are tender, gently probing. “You haven’t been the same since you came back.”
“Nothing changed,” I answer placidly. Nothing did. Eldas is still the icy Elf King. I’m still forced to be his Human Queen. Whatever we found in that cottage was a dream, a moment, as fragile as butterfly wings.
“Something did.” He frowns and sits across from me. “Is it what happened with Harrow?”
“How’s he doing?” I ask, continuing to allow Willow to think that my general malaise originates from the incident with the fae. Since we’ve returned, Willow has taken over Harrow’s treatment. But the youngest prince still hasn’t woken. That’s another thing for Eldas to resent me for. I’ve no doubt he blames me for the non-responsive state of his brother since it was I who first treated him.
“He’s fine, but still no changes.” Willow pats my hand. “I’m sure he’ll come out of it soon.”
“Yeah…” I finish looking over the last of my plans. There’s only two weeks left before the coronation. I bite my lip and sigh. There’s something I’m missing to achieve the balance, I know it. But my thoughts are scattered like dandelion seeds on the wind.
Part of me can only think of Harrow—worried for his recovery and wondering why he has yet to wake. Part of me wonders if I’m making the right choice. I wonder if there’s any other choice to be made. Then, there’s Eldas…
“I need to grab a few things from the conservatory,” I say, slipping out before Willow can probe again. I’ve become too fragile. I’m teetering on the edge of spilling all the feelings I’m carrying at once just so someone else can see them all—so I no longer have to carry them alone. Yet I can’t. It’s better to pretend none of this exists.
The heat clings to me from the second I step into the conservatory and doesn’t let go. I inhale deeply the now-familiar scent—the unique aroma of the plants that grow here, the moss, the earth, the compost Willow fastidiously tends in the back.
“Be good when I’m gone,” I say softly to all of the plants. They seem to rustle in reply.
I wander the rows of planters, looking for what I might want to take with me. I need to find something that will mirror the strength of the redwood throne. Something that can grow deep roots in the natural world and provide a counterweight to the throne in this world. I thought about taking a trimming from the throne itself, but another queen tried that once for other reasons and the throne was impervious to all knives and chisels.
The first Human Queen planted something to make the throne—I believe that’s what the statue in the center of Quinnar is showing. The Fade and throne, made at the same time in a magical process, almost like a ritual. But what can I plant that could possibly mirror the throne in might? What is still outstanding in the balance?
Then a small, bulbous plant catches my eye. I stare at the heartroot, blinking several times. It’s as if I see it for the first time.
“The heartroot remembers,” I whisper, echoing Willow’s words.
There’s the seed of space that my consciousness goes to within the throne. It’s the seed from which the throne was born. In that place I felt the life of past queens, the energy of the world.
Lilian wrapped a piece of dark bark—bark that mirrors the heartroot and that seed at the core of the redwood throne—on a necklace with filament. It was the necklace she hid in the box. A necklace of magic that Eldas couldn’t understand.
She commissioned her statue at the center of Quinnar to have her kneeling. Not because she intended queens to be subservient, but because she was showing the way everything came to be…and how everything would end.
The two flowers that bloomed instantly when I first touched the plant seem to wink at me, as if overjoyed that I’ve pieced it all together. Carefully, I scoop up the pot cradling the unassuming plant. I can almost see the phantom memories I first witnessed when I touched it, reaching out to me.
I saw Queen Lilian taking the heartroot and planting it the first time I came in contact with it. This is what she was planting in the statue. I know it. I feel it with every part of me. This was what the redwood throne grew from, and what will help bring balance in the Natural World.