“Luella, it’s really you.” Mother futilely wipes her eyes as we pull apart.
“The Keeper said you’d returned, but we couldn’t believe them,” Father says.
“I understand. But it’s me. And I’m here to stay,” I say. But the words tumble awkwardly from my mouth.
How can I be so happy and so sad at the same time? I wipe my own cheeks and embrace my mother once more.
“This is truly a cause for celebration,” Father says.
“I couldn’t agree more.” The Head Keeper nods. “I was thinking we should honor Luella’s return with a grand soiree in the town square.”
“The town square? But I—”
“We’ve fixed it up.” Mother smooths my hair from my face.
“Mostly by embracing your ‘landscaping’ and turning it into more of a town park than it used to be.” Father chuckles. I choke out a laugh as well. He turns back to the Head Keeper. “I’ll discuss it with the council.”
“I don’t think a celebration is entirely necessary,” I object weakly.
“Of course it is!” Father claps a hand on my back. “You have done something amazing, Luella. The whole town will want to honor you.”
“The town has done enough for me.”
“They will want to celebrate that no more of their young women will ever have to endure the title of Human Queen and cross the Fade ever again.”
“Right.” I bite back a sigh.
“What is it, Luella?” Mother asks.
“Nothing.” I force a smile. “I’m just eager to return to my shop is all.”
“In due time,” Father encourages. “For now, enjoy a well-earned rest.”
Three days later, I stand once more in my old room in the attic of my family’s brownstone. “It’s not much, but it’s mine,” I whisper. That’s what I used to say.
There’s the hay mattress, my books lined up in a corner, my chest of clothes, and everything that I once viewed as my life—save for my shop—neatly in one place. This is the first time I’ve seen it all since returning from the grandiose halls of Midscape. I expected to find it comfortable and comforting. And it is comforting…but in a nostalgic kind of way. Like an old pair of shoes, broken in just right, yet still unusable once you outgrew them.
“Luella?” Father says, climbing up the narrow stairs that wind to the loft. He holds two mugs in his hands. The familiar scent of the mint tea blend I made for him years ago fills the air. “I thought you might want something to calm your nerves.”
“Thank you.” I take one mug and sip.
“Your mother and I got something new for you to wear today.” He nods at the dress laid out on the bed. It’s a pretty sundress of bright yellow cotton, strung together with white silk ribbon. “Of course, it’s likely not much compared to the gowns you got to wear as the Human Queen, but I suspect you’ll have a lot more fun in it.” He chuckles.
“I’m sure I will.” All I want is my canvas trousers. All I want is my shop. All I want is to be normal once more.
But I don’t know what normal is anymore. I don’t know how to find something I can’t recognize.
“You’ll love the new town park.” Father sips his tea, beaming from ear to ear. He wanted to show me on the way, but the Keepers didn’t want to risk my being seen before the “big reveal.” So we came right home; that way I could get ready in my own room, with my own things—as my mother insisted. “The council is even talking about naming it Luella Park.”
I laugh softly. “What’s next, a statue of me there?”
“Funny enough, the idea was floated and it seemed well received.” Father laughs as well, but I’m silent.
A statue of the first queen in Quinnar. A statue of the last queen in Capton. The balance is maintained in yet another way. It makes sense I would stay, that I would leave Eldas, when I look at it from a perspective of the natural order. The first queen stayed with her king. I left mine.
My nails dig into my cup.
“What is it?” my father asks, noticing my heavy silence.
“Nothing.” I shake my head. “You were right, I’m a little nervous; that’s all.”
“It’ll be fine. Everyone will be so happy to see you. A perfect resolution after all the ugliness Luke brought on us. It’ll be closure for everyone.”
“I hope so,” I murmur.
“Leave her be, Oliver,” Mother calls up from downstairs. “She needs to get ready. As do you!”
“Coming, Hannah!” Father gives me a kiss on the crown of my head like he would when I was a girl and goes to leave.
“Father,” I say timidly, stopping him. “After today, everything will go back to normal, right?”
He stares, confused. “Why wouldn’t it?”
“Nothing. Good. That’s all. Thanks again for the tea.” I sip as I watch him leave, hoping he’s right.
When my mug is empty, I put on the dress my parents picked out. It’s to the knee, loose in the skirts, with charming front laces and capped sleeves. I feel worlds better finally out of Midscape clothes and borrowed robes from the Keepers.
Wandering downstairs while I wait for my parents, I take a turn around my shop. I can see Poppy made some adjustments while I was gone. I’ll need to put a few things back into place.
I can also see the ghost of Luke, standing in the doorway. But even that hateful memory isn’t as bitter as it once was. For all he risked, for as foolish as he was…maybe it was because of what he did that Eldas and I could finally see eye to eye. If I wasn’t so desperate for a way out, I might have just accepted Eldas as he was. Not as the man he was becoming.
The phantom sensation of his hands on my skin gives me a shiver. But the memory is immediately chased away by my mother’s voice.
“Are you ready to go?” She and Father stand at the bottom of the stairs.
“Yes,” I say, and we head off.
We take the long way through town and end up behind where the stage used to be. I can see signs of the new improvements made in this area. There are cuttings of the vines that grew over buildings piled up in the street, waiting to be burned or used for compost.
Father leads me around the side of the stage. I catch a glimpse of the entire town—the people I came back for. The people I love and owe. I take a deep breath.
“Let’s go,” he says.
I’m ushered onstage before I can collect myself. I think I was announced by the Head Council member, or Head Keeper? Maybe both? I stare out, standing where Eldas did months ago, looking out at the faces of everyone I once knew.
My heart is in my throat, trying to strangle me. Wrong, this is wrong, something in me screams, the Human Queen isn’t meant to be seen before her coronation. I’m not in the right place, I realize. I’m not meant to be here, with these people. For all I love them, and even though they will always be a part of my heart, I will never fit in with this world again.
With all eyes on me, I turn and run.
I run through town, heart racing well before I’m winded. I run with skirts tangling around my knees, hair loose to the wind, tears streaming down my cheeks. But I don’t know what I’m running from—or toward. I don’t know why I’m crying.
All I know is there is this hurt deep within me, deeper than I’ve ever known. It’s gnawing, insatiable, and impossible to describe. Even though I have calmed the redwood throne, its roots are still in me, calling me back.
No, these aren’t the roots of the redwood throne. These are roots of my own making. These roots have grown from something I never asked for and never wanted. They’ve shaken the very foundation of my world—my duty—and now I’m falling into a deep abyss from which I might never escape.
I sprint beyond the edge of town, slowing as I reach the rolling hills by the woods. I see the river that runs through the forest, winding through the Fade. I think of following it, but Eldas’s magic is no longer on me. I would be just as hopeless at navigating the Fade as I was the first time I got lost.
I can’t bring myself to go into the forest, either. I don’t belong there. Those trees grow too closely to my memories. I look over my shoulder and back down at town. Most people are still in the square. I can imagine their confusion and hurt.
My damp face burns. They’ll be angry with me. After all they invested in me, after all I did to return to them. I ran.
And I ran because…because…because I don’t have a place in Capton any longer. My former position in the community is still here, but nothing seems right. This place isn’t my home anymore. Am I to spend the rest of my days here, longing? Making potions with half my heart? I turn to the sea, wandering toward the cliffs, and stare out over the horizon line, looking at the vast expanse of land beyond Capton.
I could explore this world now, I suppose. If I don’t belong here anymore, and didn’t belong in Midscape, then maybe I’ll find where I belong out there. As I think those thoughts, guilt rises up in me, drowning them.
My chest tightens and I let out a strangled hiccup. Not quite a sob, not quite a laugh. “Well, you got what you wanted, Luella,” I mutter with a note of self-directed anger. “Now what?”
“And what did you want?” My mother’s voice cuts through my thoughts. I turn, surprised to see her standing there. Her fiery red hair is struggling to escape its braid in the sea breeze.
“Mother…” I say weakly. “I’m so sorry.”
“Don’t apologize; you’ve been through a lot and I suspect the Keepers—while kind—didn’t properly check in on you,” she says gently. “May we sit?”
“Sure.” I sit on the grasses where she motions.
Mother sits next to me, pulling her skirts around her as I do the same. “I told your father it was too much, too soon for you. He’s been worried about you. Funny enough, I think he’s more worried for you now than when you left.”