“What?” I turn to face her. My mother wears a tender but otherwise unreadable smile. “But I’m back…”
“And you’ve not been the same.” She tucks some hair behind my ear. “What was it that you wanted?” she repeats her question.
“I wanted to live up to everyone’s expectations. I didn’t want to let the people of Capton down after they invested so much in me,” I say. “I wanted freedom. I wanted purpose. I wanted…”
“You wanted?” she encourages.
“I wanted to know if what I felt for him was real,” I admit, both to her and myself at the same time. The words are small and fragile, as if saying them aloud might shatter these trembling feelings in my chest.
“Him,” she says softly. “You mean the Elf King?”
“What did you feel for him?” Her expression is unreadable. Will she be mad if I admit to finding a way to love someone she has only known as a brute of a man? Could she understand that even though he took me from her, there’s a gentle and thoughtful side to him? That he sent Poppy back, and stayed with me when I was weak after the throne because he cared, and cooks bacon, and does that thing with his tongue that I—
I blush and turn back to the ocean, the heat reaching all the way to my ears. “I don’t know.”
“What do you think it was?” Mother isn’t letting me get out that easily.
“Love,” I admit.
“Tell me why you think that?” she says in that plain voice, void of any clues as to what she might really be thinking.
I take a deep breath, and tell her about my time in Midscape. Unlike the Keeper, who got the necessary overview of basic facts, I tell my mother everything but the moments we shared at the cottage that still make me blush. She hears of every ugly, beautiful, and improbable emotion I discovered within those gray castle walls.
My voice is as raw as my heart when I’m finished and stars are blooming in a distant sky.
“I see,” she says thoughtfully.
The silence that follows is heavy in my throat and hard to swallow. I stew in agony and my mother has an enigmatic smile on her face as she looks out over the dark waters that span between us and Lanton.
“What’re you smiling about?” I finally ask.
“Many things. I’m smiling because I’m still very proud of my daughter, for being strong and capable. For doing something that’s so impressive I can hardly comprehend it.” Mother had been a little lost when I tried to explain the Fade, redwood throne, and seasons both the first time and this time. “I’m smiling because I’m happy my daughter found somewhere she belonged and could be happy. Really, that’s all a parent ever wants to hear.”
“But…” Was I happy? The image of Eldas floating in the water of the pool at the cottage while I tended to the garden drifts across my mind. I think I was.
“So, what’re you going to do now?” She ignores my hesitation.
“I’m not sure,” I admit.
“Are you going to go back to Midscape?”
I draw my knees to my chest and wrap my arms around them. “I can’t leave.”
“I can’t leave you and Father.”
“Darling one…” She wraps an arm around my shoulders. “Every child must eventually leave. Sometimes, it is to a house down the street. Other times, it is to somewhere very far away. But if that child ends up where they belong, and are happy and loved…that’s all a parent wants.”
Her words sting in a nostalgic sort of way. It’s the same feeling as when summer ends for a child, the same feeling I had when I looked at my old room. It hurts because of how happy I was here, yet know I can’t be any longer.
“I can’t abandon Capton’s needs.”
“Capton will be fine,” she insists.
“You had Poppy.” I look at her with a bit of an accusatory stare. “Poppy is gone and she won’t be coming back. Now who will look after the elderly of Capton? The sick? The wounded?” Mother opens her mouth but I continue hastily. “And don’t say that people will just be happy for me. They deserve to get back what they invested in me. Everyone sacrificed so much—you and Father too. If I left, I wouldn’t be putting the academy education everyone bought me to use.” I’d let you down, I want to say, but can’t bring myself to.
She takes a deep breath. I can tell just from the way she inhales that she has a lot of thoughts she’s about to share. I brace myself.
“Firstly, it sounds to me like you already put that education to use by saving all of Midscape and stopping the cycle of future queens. That’s a pretty good outcome of your studies. If anyone has earned a rest, it’s you.”
“But that’s not…”
“Not what you went to school for?” Mother arches her eyebrows in a don’t mess with me, young lady sort of way. “Not explicitly, but a worthy application and outcome of your studies, don’t you think?”
“Yes, this matter of healing. Foremost, we did manage just fine and will continue to with or without you. Luella, you are talented, and an amazing help, but the town doesn’t need you to survive.” Her sad but strong words shake me to my core. I grow still, trying to just focus on the grass swaying around me and the ground beneath me. I have wrapped up everything I thought I was and needed to be in this town. If I’m not needed…then what do I do? “But if you are that worried, then you should know your father and the council got word this morning from Royton.”
“Royton?” I echo. The Royton Academy is known for producing some of the best herbalists in all the land. It’s farther down the coast, nestled in warmer, more tropical lands where all kinds of plants can be grown year round. “What about Royton?”
“There’s an academy student they’re sending. She’ll be here within the week to assist with anything Capton needs as you settle—for however long that takes. It says she’s been paid in full for at least one hundred years and we can use her services for as long or as little as we like.”
“But Royton is days away…” My fingers tremble.
Eldas did this. He got the news to Royton. He saw that someone came so I didn’t even have to worry as I settled in. He paid them a king’s sum to serve this small town. There’s no other explanation for how a graduate of Royton knew and why they would come here of all places.
What was Eldas thinking when he arranged for this new healer?
The cynic in me would say that he was trying to prove that I wasn’t as necessary to this community as I once thought. He did it to take my purpose from me and force me to stay in Midscape. But, if that had been his intent…he would’ve no doubt told me before I left.
He was giving me choice—the choice to stay in Capton, or leave, no matter if it was for Midscape or not.
Love is choice.
Just dream, Eldas, and then follow those dreams.
I have to go to know.
Words I said to him that I didn’t know got through echo back to me. He listened. Time and time again. That man is imperfect and stinted. He can be cruel and cold. But he’s willing to try and hear me. Somehow, he heard things I didn’t even know I was saying. He listened…and I didn’t do the same.
Our interactions flash across my mind. His looks, his touches, even in front of others. The way he held me in the night. The way our magic resonated together. The promises he made me.
Eldas, what do you feel for me? My question echoes back and now I can see between the lines. He loves you more than anything, you idiot.
“Luella.” My mother’s gentle voice startles me back to the present. “The one thing that has always been most important to your father and me has been your happiness. Where will you be most happy?”
“Will everything be okay?” I don’t just mean with them, or here in Capton, without me. I want her to tell me everything will be all right.
“I know you. You’ll make it okay if it’s not.” She gives my hand a squeeze.
“If I go back…if they’ll have me…I’ll become more a part of that world than this one.”
“But you can still visit from time to time?” she asks. I nod. “Then how is it different from what any parent endures? Children are meant to grow and live their own lives. If you want to, Luella, go.”
“Even if I wanted to go back…I can’t.” Panic is rising in me. I should have asked for a way back. Why didn’t I find a reason to ask Eldas to give me his blessing to return?
“Because the only one who can traverse the Fade—or give others the ability to—is Eldas himself.” Even as the Human Queen, I couldn’t find my way out of the Fade when I tried to run away. I was lost, turned around, hopeless until he came to rescue me. “The two times I passed through were either with the blessing of his magic, or with him as a guide.”
A guide. Rinni had said I had a guide through the Fade. Hook. Rinni meant Hook.
“Wait,” I whisper to the horizon. “I can get back.”
My mother smiles as if she’s known the whole time. “Then what’re you waiting for?”
“Go,” she insists a final time. “Go and be happy.”
My heart thrums in my ears so loudly it nearly drowns out my parents’ voices downstairs as I’m packing a bag. Mother takes charge on explaining things to my father. I strain my ears, listening for his reaction. His soft voice rumbles up to me, but I can’t make out what he says. By the time I walk downstairs, satchel over my shoulder, he has a weary but genuine-looking smile.
They wish me well and hold me so tightly my bones pop. I tell them that I might be back in ten minutes. But it’s also possible I’m not back for a week, a month, or a year. I’ve no idea what changes my return may cause in Midscape. I’ve no idea if Eldas will even let me stay, or if the coronation will make me one with that world to the point that I can’t return. The magic has changed, and I’m gambling with the results.