For the first time in my life, I’m acting without a plan and without a duty to guide me. All I’m listening to is that frantic beating of my heart.
I now stand at the edge of the Fade once more. I’m risking everything here. But what else is new?
I take a deep breath and step into the Fade; a finger of ice runs down my spine. Bringing my fingers to my lips, I let out a whistle that echoes in the unnatural silence.
“Hook?” I call and call again. Just when I’m about to give up, Hook’s golden eyes blink at me from the darkness. “Hook!” He bounds over to me and I fall to my knees. The wolf licks my face and I waste no time. “I need to get back. I need to get to Eldas. Can you take me there?”
Much like the first time in the Fade, Hook tilts his head left and right before finally stepping away. He trudges off into the darkness and I gather my strength to follow behind, hoping he’s not going to lead me back to a keystone. The moment I see soft moonlight yawning into the mouth of a cave, I begin running.
Hook bounds at my side with a happy bark. I give him a grin and he seems to almost skip around me. Welcome back! his movements seem to say.
I skid to a stop and overlook Quinnar. The spring air is warm now, even at night, and is almost sticky compared to the chill of the Fade. Flowers hang on the breeze, rustling on the trees. They complement the streamers and pennons that have been splashed across the city.
Music soars through the air. People are in the streets, dancing, laughing, and drinking. Sparks of magic are flung about and I see paper beasts and birds come to life and rejoice among the revelers. I smell the cakes Rinni and I tasted. I see acrobats spinning on hoops suspended impossibly midair over the lake.
I see a city in celebration—as if they somehow knew I was about to return. The world I first saw as dead and gray is now in full bloom. It’s magical, and looks like something I could call home.
Hook’s warm muzzle presses into my hand and I crouch down to scratch him behind the ears. “Thank you for leading me through the Fade. Go off and play, I don’t want attention right now.” He whines. “I’ll whistle for you again,” I promise.
Hook sits, insistent.
“Oh, fine. Come along then.” I laugh, part nerves and part a joy I didn’t expect to know again.
I start running down the staircase, nearly tripping over myself. Luckily, I changed into my trousers so that when I do nearly tumble face-first at the bottom, I don’t end up with my skirts around my ears in front of nearby revelers.
“Wait—” an elf woman says “—you just—”
I don’t wait for her to finish. I begin sprinting. Hook knows, like always, where I am running toward. He charges through the crowd, barking and howling people out of the way, and I try hopelessly to keep up.
We make it to the tunnel entrance of the castle, blocked off by a row of knights. I skid to a stop before them. Hook rounds my back, keeping the encroaching crowds at bay.
“I…I need…” I wheeze and reach into my satchel. I didn’t leave the shop unprepared. I take a swig of fortifying drought I brought and stand straighter, breath caught. “I need to see the king.”
“But you’re a—”
All the guards seem to talk amongst themselves at once. They’re silenced by a familiar voice.
“Let me through!” Rinni barks, pushing her way forward. She stops, blinking at me until a sly grin works its way across her cheeks. “You’re almost late.”
“Sorry to keep you waiting.” I smile. “I lost track of time on the other side of the Fade. Did I miss the coronation?”
“Not yet.” Rinni guides me into the tunnel. I hear the rumbling of a mass of people on the other side of the castle doors. Rinni opens them with a flash of her eyes.
I step into the castle and, for the first time, I see color. Tapestries of bright blues and vibrant greens stretch from ceiling to floor, hung along the wide columns that support the large entryway. More garlands of flowers are hung from the railings of the mezzanine.
Vases of flowers line the great hall behind the gathered crowd. Men and women of all colors and shapes are here and all their eyes swing from where the Elf King stands on the stairs—presumably having just been giving a speech—to land on me.
But his eyes are the only ones I focus on. His mouth is slightly agape. Shock has shattered his usual mask and he stares in a stunned silence.
I know there are important people here—lords and ladies. People of his kingdom, our kingdom, if he’ll let me share it with him. I know I’ve come before them with dirty knees and in what they’d consider pauper’s clothing. I know that I had one chance to make this first impression count and I ruined it. I have ruined Eldas’s years of planning, sacrifice, and suffering leading up to this moment. None of this has gone according to plan.
I didn’t even think of what I was going to say. So I open my mouth and say the first thing that comes to mind. I let my words echo to the top of the hall.
“King Eldas, I love you!”
The silence is deafening. I could hear a cherry blossom petal land it’s so quiet. I don’t know what everyone’s reactions are. The only person I’m focused on is Eldas. The only person whose opinion even remotely matters to me here is him.
His shock fades into something I’d dare say is warm. After the initial horror at my outburst—at how none of this is in line with his traditions—fades away. There are the eyes I recognize. Eyes I fell in love with and have been longing to see while back in the Natural World.
“And I love you,” he says, finally.
Four words, and things click into place. I have a lot I need to figure out here. There are a lot of unknowns surrounding what I will be to this world now that a Human Queen is no longer needed to make the seasons turn. But I’ll figure everything out, because the man standing before me is every possibility I want to embrace.
“If—” Eldas clears his throat “—if you will all excuse the queen and I for a moment.” Eldas holds out his hand and I cross the room to him, trying my best to glide and hold my head high.
I might not look like the queens they know. But maybe in time they’ll embrace the different sort of queen I already am. I slowly ascend the stairs and Eldas’s fingers curl around mine. My magic calls out to his and invisible sparks fly between our skin, leaving me breathless.
He escorts me up the stairs and into a side room, closing the door quickly behind us.
Eldas rounds on me. I might have expected him to be slightly cross for how I handled things, but there’s a fire in his eyes that isn’t angry in the slightest. His hands are on my face, cupping my cheeks. “Say it again,” he whispers like a sigh of relief he’s been holding ever since I left.
“I love you,” I repeat from earlier, but this time only for him. “I’ve loved you since the cottage. Since…I don’t know when. Somewhere along the way I fell in love with you. You and I…these circumstances we met under have been a bit of a mess. But I love you despite them all.”
“Then why did you stay away?” he whispers. “Why didn’t you tell me before you left?”
“Because I was a coward,” I admit aloud for my sake and his. “I was afraid that I only thought I loved you because I had little other option. I thought the love was fabricated for my own survival, since I thought there was no other way out—that I would be stuck here forever. I was afraid of a love that came from a lack of choice. I was afraid I didn’t even know what love was because I don’t think I’ve ever felt it before.”
“But when you had your way out…when you had the choice you desired…you came back.” Eldas trails his eyes over me now and I tingle with delight. A look has never been more intimate. I’m stripped with a gaze alone.
“I had to come back. I found my answer while I was in Capton—I love you for all you are and all we are together. It is not my imagination; it isn’t survival. Yes, Eldas, I had freedom and choice and I choose you. I know none of this came about in a conventional way, but it’s genuine. And I thought that, maybe, we could give this another try.”
“A try?” He arches his dark eyebrows and I laugh softly.
“We went about this backwards, you know. We got married, tumbled into bed, fell in love. Usually it’s the other way around.”
“I liked how we went about this,” Eldas says. His voice is auditory silk. It brushes over my skin and my body tenses. “Because it led me to you.”
“I think I can agree with that,” I breathe.
He crushes his lips against mine with a restless kiss of pent-up desire and longing caresses. He presses me against the door, groping at my rear, pulling at my hair. For the first time in my life, I hate that I wore trousers.
I kiss him with equal fervor. I run my fingers through his raven hair, shamelessly spilling it over his shoulders and curtaining it around our faces. I caress his cheek as his mouth moves against mine. I taste his tongue over and over and hope it is merely the first taste of many I get of him today.
And when he pulls away, I am weak in the knees and relying on the door behind me for support. I am ready to tumble on the floor with him naked. I am ready for that whole room to hear my cries of ecstasy so long as it means I would have him moving within me once more.
“So what now?” I breathe, glancing between him, the floor, and the door behind me.
Eldas pulls me to him and his other arm slips back around my waist.
“Now,” he growls over my lips. His fingers have slipped into my hair and I tilt my head back to give him full access. “Now, my queen, my wife, I will take you to bed.”
“But the people—”
“Let them wait. We are the king and queen, after all. Our coronation will occur when it is meant to.”
Two days slip through my fingers like the ease of Eldas’s fingers through my hair when we’re in bed. The outburst has been the talk of the town and speculation has been firing left and right about why the Human Queen came rushing in, what it had to do with Eldas’s announcement about the seasons, and why the Human Queen was wearing such plain clothing. There’s even been some speculation that our love itself was what broke the cycle of the Human Queens.