“Did you plan for this all along, Lilian?” I murmur. A human woman who negotiated peace with a warring Elf King. She was clever. She pulled the heartroot intentionally into just Midscape. She made the worlds out of balance. Lilian built in a way out for the Human Queens for when the time was right—when peace was stable and Human Queens were no longer needed as trophies. She left the clues behind—starting the tradition of journals, the statue, using the heartroot that would trap memories of her—hoping someone would find them.
I’m going home.
Rushing back into the laboratory, I put the plant down and sweep Willow up into a tight embrace. He goes rigid, startled, and just as he moves to return it I’m already pulling away. “Thank you, thank you,” I say.
“What?” He blinks.
“It’s because of you, because of the heartroot, because—oh, never mind. Listen, I need you to do something for me.”
“All right.” Willow nods slowly. “What?”
“Take this.” I carefully snip one of the flowers. His eyes widen. “And make it into an elixir for Harrow.” The heartroot has helped in my healing of Harrow to date. The flower will be just what he needs—a merger of the plant’s body and mind properties.
“The flower, but it’s for…” He trails off.
“Poison, I know. I can’t explain why I think it’ll help,” I say apologetically. “Please just trust me because I need to focus on my other work.”
“Oh…okay.” Willow slowly begins to move, doing as I instruct. Meanwhile, I’m running through my plans. I search the laboratory for everything I might need to sacrifice to equilibrium to make the heartroot propagate faster.
My hands pause before the magic pours from them. If this works…I’ll be headed home before nightfall. I’m dizzy from excitement and apprehension.
Then, another thought crosses my mind. If this works, it will be the last time I see Eldas. My fingers tremble and I swallow hard.
The cycle must end, I remind myself firmly and get back to work.
Before I know it, I’m standing before the door to the throne room. Rinni has made herself scarce this past week. Maybe it’s because I’ve been locked away in my room. Or perhaps it’s because Eldas finally told her everything and I was right in thinking she’d take his side. Perhaps, when I’m gone, she and Eldas will try again at romance. The thought makes me ill and I focus instead on the heartroot in my hands.
“You’re late,” Eldas says curtly as I walk in. “I summoned you to sit on the throne an hour ago.”
“I know.” I meet his eyes and my chest squeezes further. Those icy eyes are the same that looked to me in the darkness with such longing…with what I had dared think might be love. “But it doesn’t matter. This is all about to end.”
“You figured it out,” he whispers, not even a corner of his mask slipping out of place.
“Yes, I’m leaving tonight.” I wait to see a flicker of emotion on his face. There’s a flash in his eyes, but one not even I can read. It could be just as easily relief as regret. And, because I don’t know, that’s how I’m certain I’m making the right decision. None of this will be clear to me until I’m back in a world I know, a place that makes sense, and I have some amount of freedom to sort through this mess of feelings trying to strangle me.
“Then I will grant you passage through the Fade,” he says slowly, “and hope that you never return.”
It’s so late that only the very first haze of dawn has begun to kiss the sky.
Only Willow and Rinni have come to see me off. Eldas allowed me to depart into the night without so much as a goodbye. He dismissed me from that vast, lonely throne room with little more than a wish of good luck. No one else will see me off because this mission is still our great secret. If I succeed, Midscape will rejoice in a security it’s never known; it will no longer rely on a single person for the wellbeing of its lands. If I fail…Eldas will come to collect me before the coronation and no one will know his queen “tried to escape him.”
I am like a lump of coal, slowly being crushed underneath everything that surrounds me. Though I do not know if I’ll become a diamond…or dust.
Willow stares at me with bright red eyes, sniffling. “I thought… I had no idea you were leaving. Not like this… I would’ve… I would’ve…”
I pull him in for a tight embrace, one he returns without hesitation. “It’s all right. I’m sorry I kept it a secret from you. But I had to.” Willow was my one insistence to Eldas and Rinni about this departure—he would know where I went and he would be here. He’s been far too good to me for me to just leave without so much as a word to him. And he’d notice I was gone and raise an alarm otherwise. So keeping it a secret from him wasn’t an option any longer.
“It’s all right,” he says with a quivering voice. “I’m not mad, I—there’s so much more about Quinnar and Midscape I wanted to show you. I wanted you to be here for springtime rites, and then harvest festivals, and Yule.”
My heart breaks a little for everything I won’t get to see. But I still wonder if those fractures will be smoothed over the second I return to Capton. Will all of the longing and kinship I hold toward this magical world vanish when I’m no longer operating under the assumption that I must be here?
“I would’ve loved to see them with you. And, who knows, I just might. All this might fail. I could be back for the coronation in two weeks.” Eldas made that much clear to me before I left—our deal was for three months. It doesn’t matter if I’m in Midscape or in Capton. If the timer runs out without the cycle being broken, I will be at the coronation.
We break apart and I rub his shoulders. The man is barely holding back tears and that prompts my own eyes to sting. I never imagined when I started hunting for a way out that leaving would become so hard.
“Besides,” I say, cementing my brave face. “With me in Capton, you’ll have Poppy back. You won’t be so overworked.”
“I was managing,” he mumbles. Then, in an uncharacteristic display, Willow wraps his arms around me tightly. “You stay safe, Luella.”
“You too.” When we step back this time, I turn to Rinni. Her face is more twisted by emotion than I expected. Just when I thought she was beginning to abandon any friendship we might have forged.
“This is a mistake,” she finally says.
“No, the line of queens is getting weaker. Lilian never intended for it to go on this long. We must—”
“You leaving him is a mistake,” she interjects. Willow stares at his feet, clearly wishing he wasn’t here for this particular conversation. “He loves you, Luella.”
Then why didn’t he say it?
Why didn’t I?
I force a smile through the deep sorrow that’s rooting around my heart. For now, the roots are as thin and spindly as the heartroot that I’m bringing back with me. But, over time, they’ll thicken with resolve or regret. I hope for the former.
“Some things just aren’t meant to be.”
“That’s a pathetic excuse and you know it.”
“Rinni,” Willow says with a note of scolding.
“You’re running from him because you’re afraid, because you know it’s real.” Rinni skewers me through, staring me down. “You were brave enough to come here with your head held high. You were bold enough to try running away when you first arrived even though you had no idea what we’d do to you for it. You were strong enough to take on Acolytes of the Wild Wood for Harrow—of all people—’s sake.”
“But feeling something real is what you run from.” She speaks over me. “Why?”
I shake my head. “I don’t expect you to understand.”
“Good, because I don’t.” Rinni surprises me by stepping forward and tugging me to her. The hug is rough, as if she hates herself for doing it, but would hate herself more if she didn’t. “Listen,” Rinni whispers. “The Fade only responds to Eldas and his magic. His blessings on you are what will allow you to get back. But once you’re there, remember you have something very few ever do—a guide. When your better sense catches up to you, we’ll be waiting.”
“Now, go and fix things.” Rinni almost pushes me toward the archway. She turns and doesn’t watch as I walk through. She’s already heading back to town. Willow lingers. His sad eyes are the last things I see before the Fade surrounds me.
Eldas’s magic is wrapped around my ankles as I walk into the darkness alone. I grant you passage, he said, and bestowed the magic on me like I imagine a king to bestow knighthood. But this mantle on my shoulders is cold and lonely.
A low whine breaks my thoughts.
I stop and turn to the source of the noise. Hook is perched on a boulder. The darkness merges with his fur and all I can see are his eyes. But I know it’s him.
“Come here.” I crouch down and Hook bounds over. He looks at me sadly, as if he knows. As if he can smell the sorrow on me. “I have to,” I whisper to the first part of Eldas I ever loved, long before I even knew Hook was an extension of him in a strange yet beautiful way. “Please know, I have to do this. There’s no place for me in Midscape, not really. This is for both our worlds, and for all the young women who could come after me.”
Hook whines again and I hang my head. The wolf moves closer and my arms slip around his furry neck. The dam I’ve built against the tears breaks. I sob into Hook’s fur.
I mourn for the loss of time. I mourn for all that could’ve been. I mourn for the sweet memories I will never have a chance to make because the love I might dare say bloomed between us was doomed by circumstance before it could ever truly begin. I mourn his skin underneath the pads of my fingers, his silky hair brushing over me, the gravel that could rumble in his voice. I even find I already miss the view of Quinnar through the castle windows, and the festivals I never got to see.