Bitter cold tears flow down my cheeks. I’m suddenly hot. I’m molten fire in a world that has become ice.
The king finally releases me and I stumble backward, landing on my bottom, arms back to brace myself. The moss grows over my fingers. Tiny vines spring forth, grabbing my wrists. I yank my hand away and grip my shirt over my chest, panting. My red hair curtains my face around my jaw and I use it for a brief second of privacy as I press my eyes closed.
That can’t have been real. Tell me this is all a nightmare, I want to scream.
But as I straighten, I can’t help but see. The square has become something out of a storybook. Plants and humans pulse with a greenish light. Inanimate objects are gray.
I blink several times, watching the auras fade in and out of my awareness. Everything around me is awash with the same color…except for him.
The king is a pale blue. The aura that surrounds him is unlike the still, orderly magic of life. His magic is writhing, angry, and violent. Much like the scowl on his face. Whatever vision I was granted fades as I continue to gape at him.
He stares down at me, eyes unreadable, brow furrowed.
“What…” I rasp, trying to find my voice. “How?”
He tilts his head to the side. “So you truly did not know.”
“I…” My throat closes and I choke on air.
Know I am the Human Queen, he means.
“Tell me what’s happening?” I manage, but am ignored.
“So the question becomes, who?” The king turns, sweeping his eyes across the square. The people I once knew, my friends and family, gaze in shock and awe. “Who hid her? Who gave her this?” the king demands, holding up the necklace he tore from my throat.
“That…” The moment I speak, the Elf King’s eyes are back on me, accusatory and oppressive. Even if I had the capacity to lie, I couldn’t. My eyes have already betrayed me as they dart over to my caged childhood friend. “Luke. It was a gift from Luke.”
“How dare you,” Luke seethes at me. His face is ugly, horrible. It is the face of hatred. The eyes I’d dreamed about—eyes that, hours ago, looked at me with admiration as he declared he would marry me—I now can’t recognize. “I loved you, I wanted to protect you and now you’d condemn me?”
“It…it would’ve come out anyway.” I defend my actions by instinct. It only makes him scowl deeper. Can’t he see the best possible way forward is honesty? I’m sure this is all some kind of misunderstanding. It has to be.
“What is the meaning of this?” the Head Keeper demands.
“What did you do?” another one of the Keepers asks.
Luke says nothing. He continues to dig daggers into me with his eyes alone, holding me to the ground as if I am nothing more than dirt to him.
He said he loved me.
The king marches over and the stone prison containing him melts away. He grips Luke’s face so tightly his nails dig into his chin, drawing blood. “Tell them what you did,” the king growls.
“I did nothing,” Luke claims.
The Elf King casts Luke into the center of the square, in a circle created by all those gathered. Luke staggers, spinning, searching for someone to take his side. We can all hear the lie in his voice. His eyes land on me. They beg for something I don’t know if I can give. I might have been able to, once, but not anymore.
“Tell her what you did,” the king commands.
“I tried to take you away,” Luke breathes. I can see his eyes are red, tears welling in them. “Why didn’t you leave with me?”
“How did she get this?” The Elf King shoves the necklace Luke gave me in his face.
“Someone, help me, why won’t anyone help me?” Luke turns, begging the townsfolk.
No one comes forward.
“What happened?” I finally find my voice. Using what remains of my strength, I stand, collecting myself and my satchel from where it fell at my side. “Tell me,” I demand.
He crumples. “I… I never meant for you to get hurt. I never meant for any of this to happen.” I can see the lie in Luke’s shifting eyes as he speaks. Lies, lies, lies. “I thought…I thought we could find another way.”
“What’re you saying?” I whisper. Luke’s eyes come back to me.
“Do you remember the day I went with you and Emma to the forest? When we were twelve? It was the first time she had one of her attacks and you made her a potion.” I do remember, exactly as he says. “I saw it then—how you wielded magic without realizing it. How tiny flowers sprouted in your footprints among the grasses behind you without you ever knowing. How the trees seemed to rustle in greeting as you passed and yet you always thought it was the wind.”
The forest had seemed so alive when I was a child, like it was its own person—a friend, as much as a place. I thought it had just been something that vanished with age and maturity. But now I’m not sure.
“I knew you were the queen,” he admits. The townsfolk gasp.
The Head Keeper steps forward. “How dare you.” She says what everyone is thinking.
“But I couldn’t give you up. I wouldn’t. I loved you then as I love you now,” Luke continues, speaking only for me. “So I found the necklace in the Keepers’ stores and gave it to you. I thought it would keep you hidden and when we were old enough I would—”
“Take me away,” I finish with a whisper. He swallows thickly and nods.
As if on command, the king throws the necklace he ripped from my throat to the stage. It lands at the feet of the Head Keeper.
“Elvish make, an old style of token. We have not traded goods of this like with Capton in centuries, so I have no doubt it was buried deep. Black obsidian to mute her powers and labradorite to protect her from the Knowing should she encounter any elves who attempted to discover her true name.”
I look to the necklace and then back to Luke. “You said it would protect me.”
“I was trying to spare you,” Luke pleads with a high-pitched, whining voice that I’ve never heard from him before. “I thought I could save you from a terrible future.”
Luke’s actions, my abilities to heal, the fact that I always felt duty bound, it all makes sense now. Terrible, horrible sense.
“Luella.” Luke staggers toward me. “I loved you, even then. I was made for you, and you were made for me.”
A willowy arm blocks Luke’s path, preventing him from drawing any closer to me. I never thought I’d be grateful for the Elf King. But I don’t know what I’d do if Luke dared to touch me right now. It’s hard enough to have him just look at me.
“No,” I breathe to Luke. “You don’t love me, you never did.”
He tries to step around the Elf King. But the king continues to position himself in Luke’s way, grabbing Luke’s wrist.
“You must believe me. All I did was try and save you from this wretched future.”
“You tried to save me at the expense of everyone I loved! You would see them all suffer and die because you wanted to keep me hidden for yourself.”
“Because of love!”
“This isn’t love!” I allow my voice to echo to the mountaintops. The trees shudder at my rage. Their roots quake the foundation of the earth deep below my feet. The wind howls and storms close in on the horizon. “Love is choice,” I continue before he can get another word out. “You—you wanted to own me. You wanted to keep me for yourself regardless of how I may have felt. You never even allowed me to make the decision on my own and now our town, our people, have suffered because of your selfishness. I shudder to think what might have happened to our whole world if you had gotten your way.”
Every funeral we attended of townsfolk, dead before their time from the Weakness, flashes before me. Luke, standing with the other Keepers, mourning for their loss as though he actually cared—as if his actions hadn’t led to their deaths. His tears meant nothing then and his remorse means just as much now.
“Stop,” I whisper. “Never say my name again.” I barely stop from wishing the earth would open up and swallow him whole. With how I feel right now…it just might heed my command. “Get rid of him. I want him gone,” I ask no one in particular. I don’t care who does the deed.
It’s the Elf King who heeds me. He rips off Luke’s Keeper bracelet without a second of hesitation. His eyes flash a bright blue, he crosses his arms before him, and then slowly pulls them apart—as though he’s stretching taffy between his hands. Luke goes rigid and he hovers on his toes unnaturally. The king’s fingers tense further, pulling. A pathetic, whining sound escapes Luke as he contorts. Popping fills the air. The townsfolk begin to scream.
“No! Don’t hurt him!” I rush over to the Elf King and grab his arm. He looks at the contact with an air of shock and offense. “I don’t want him dead.” My heart is being torn apart; I can’t bear witnessing Luke being ripped in two. The Elf King tries to shrug me off but I hold fast, digging in my heels. “He must be tried by the Capton Council. He must atone for his crimes as is fair and just.”
The Elf King narrows his eyes at me in a scowl and, for a moment, I think he might ignore me. I don’t release him. What more can he want to take from this town? He already has my life. If I am the Human Queen—and I am, there’s no denying it after that display earlier—he should need nothing more.
“Luke doesn’t matter to you,” I say, my voice thin. “My people will see justice done. You have me, let him go.”
The king releases Luke and he crumples to the ground, gasping. Two Keepers step forward and grab him underneath his arms. They begin to drag him away, Luke begging and muttering apologies the entire time.
None of the townsfolk listen. They glare openly at him, their faces cold and closed.
The Elf King turns to me. “Come, Queen, we must depart immediately. You are needed across the Fade,” he says gravely.