“I had no idea,” Father says.
“I know. I didn’t either.” We’re all in this terrible spot together, about to be ripped apart for good, and it’s all Luke’s fault. I might have always been destined to go. But he took a proper goodbye from me. I hope he rots in a cell forever for all he’s done.
“I’m sorry we didn’t ready you for this. Had we known, we would’ve.” Mother squeezes me tighter. If she keeps holding me that firmly, she’ll squeeze out the tears I’m holding back.
“I know,” I repeat and pull away. “Don’t cry, it’s all right,” I try and soothe as my own voice is cracking at the sight of my mother’s tears. “I know you would’ve let me prepare to be the queen. You didn’t know. None of us did. It wasn’t any of our faults.” I swallow hard, trying to drown my emotions. “But now I can go and I can make a difference. The Weakness will come to an end. It’s not as I wanted, but I can still help Capton.”
I squeeze both my parents tightly once more and stop trying to hold back the tears. I draw quivering breaths and weep with my family. It feels like the last thing we’ll ever do together.
“Midsummer,” Mother says.
“I’ll try.” I think of what Mister Abbot says. And about how I never heard of the Human Queen leaving the temple before. Hopefully I will be different.
“Luella.” The Elf King’s unfeeling voice breaks us apart. “We must leave.”
I hastily turn back to my parents. “Both of you, stay safe, all right? I’ll try and send letters. I love you both so very much.”
“Don’t go.” Mother grabs my hand.
“She has to.” Father wraps his arms around his wife, as if holding her back from me.
I take a step away, and then another. My mother’s fingers curl around mine, grasping like the vines that grew in the square. We separate and a chord of emotion snaps in me. It will never resonate with sound again. The sight of my mother’s face, the sound of her sobs, have muted whatever that happy feeling was for good.
“I’m sorry,” I whisper. Sorry for more than I can possibly comprehend in this moment.
Putting my back to them and the world I knew, I slowly trudge up to the man who is king, husband, and stranger to me.
“Thank you for giving me that,” I say begrudgingly.
“Let it be known I am kind,” he says gruffly and reaches out for me. His eyes remain normal—no bright flashes—so I hesitantly take his hand and walk willingly with him deeper into the woods along the path that snakes toward the base of the island’s tallest mountain.
The sound of my mother’s sobs fades. The echo of my father’s outburst of emotion as he broke down with her rings only in my ears. It’s long since stopped bouncing between the trees.
The elf legion follows us into the dark shadows of the deep woods. I move into the great unknown that is the Fade as a stranger queen. The path becomes broken and more overgrown than not. Cobblestones are now stepping stones.
Soon, there’s not a path at all. I have gone farther into the forest than ever before and the darkness of what I assume to be the Fade closes in around me.
The thick, shadowy mist blots out the trees. It curls around us and in the darkness I see the outlines of figures, wandering in the distance. Some look human, and others like beasts. I shudder, not entirely from the chill.
My fingers close a little more tightly around the king’s.
Surely, we must be at the foot of the mountain now? I look behind me and see nothing but elves and darkness. The deep woods thrum with anxious energy. There’s power here, pulled taut all around me, thrumming under the tension.
Then, in the distance, I see a glimmer of light. The inky blackness becomes tunneled. Trees are wedged so closely together that they form an almost perfect wall. Vines and branches arc overhead as the light grows.
Blinking, I emerge onto the other side of the Fade for the first time, and take my first steps into the city of the elves.
We stand at the top of a long staircase—though not half as long as the steep path that leads up from Capton to the temple grounds. Behind me, a wall is cut into the mountainside. The only opening is the dark blemish in the smooth stone that we just emerged from.
Below us, a gray city sprawls in a valley nestled in a basin formed by mountains. Winter winds howl through the buildings and barren trees, racing to nip at my skin. It looks cold and closed, off-putting, and nothing like the warm cheer that I always imagined hovering over Capton.
“Welcome to your new home,” the king says, sounding anything but welcoming.
“It’s not what I would’ve expected.” My voice is cracking and tired from the rolling waves of emotion I’ve been sailing on.
“What would you have expected?”
“Something more…lavish.” The houses are simple, no nicer than what we have at Capton, albeit a different style of construction. Our homes are more pragmatic and boxy. These buildings have thatched roofs and offset second and third stories that make them look like teetering houses of cards.
Even though it is different, it is…dull. I had hoped for a world teeming with life and magic. But what I’m greeted with looks like a dreary painting where the artist forgot they had more colors than just blue and gray.
“Why would you think that?”
“Elves seem fancy enough. Based on the goods the Keepers always kept under lock.” I shrug. The sentiment reminds me of my few meager possessions in my attic bedroom—of the elvish teapot still in my shop. I clutch the satchel I took with me to the town hall this morning. At least I have something of home. Thank goodness I never leave without my journal and essentials.
He snorts and says nothing further on the matter, settling for a simple, “Come.”
I follow him down the steps with chattering teeth. The legion marches behind us. Even though it was a balmy dusk in Capton, it is a brisk winter’s dawn here. The city is waking up. The streets are still mostly empty. Everything is unnaturally quiet and covered with a frost to match the gray sky.
At the center of the city is a large lake. A river runs out from it to the mountain behind us, presumably into Capton. In the center of this lake is a sculpture of an elf man and human woman.
I pause. The king stops as well, as does the legion, several paces behind. “Is that the first Human Queen?”
He hesitates a moment, as if debating if he should answer. “It is. And one of my long ago predecessors.”
“Predecessors?” I look to him. “You’re not the Elf King?”
“What a strange question.” He narrows his eyes at me. “How could you doubt after all that has transpired?”
“No, I…” I pinch the bridge of my nose and sigh. It has been a very long day. “I thought all the Human Queens were married to the same Elf King.”
He tilts his head back and laughs. It would be a lovely sound if not for being at my expense. “You think one man has been alive for three thousand years?”
“The rumors of elves’ life spans are greatly exaggerated in your human stories. We elves live about as long as the humans of Capton do.” The king stares down at me. “Our lives became tied to each other from the moment we were wed. When you die, I will be marked for death not long after.”
“Then, your father was the king married to Alice?”
He goes rigid, tense. The muscles in his jaw bulge as he fights back whatever his first instinct told him to say. “He was.”
Without another word on the matter, we continue forward. Though I would’ve given anything to stop and probe the depths of the emotions he was trying to hide. What was Alice to him? And what was her place in this world really like?
I look back to the statue of the first Elf King and Human Queen. The king holds a large tablet in his hands, hoisting it upward. The queen is on her knees before him. Hands pressed into the ground at his feet, as if in servitude.
I study the timeworn details of the sculpture, trying to glean what information I can from it. But the appearances of the king and queen have faded and are covered in frost and snow. Still, I want to find something to feel toward her—the first woman to willingly put herself in my position for the sake of peace between humans and the creatures of magic beyond the Fade.
Her magic is in me now, if the stories are true about the magic being passed down from queen to queen.
“How could you tell I was the queen?” I ask as we approach a castle in the distance. It’s wedged between two mountains, the castle spanning the entire width of the opening that connects this valley to whatever world is beyond. The king glances at me and I can’t tell if he’s annoyed I broke the silence yet again or not. I continue anyway, “I understand that the necklace was trying to conceal me—my magic—but how did you know before you took it off?”
“I saw you performing magic.”
“But didn’t the black obsidian hide my magic?”
“Some people can never be hidden; they are meant to be seen.”
“You were certain,” I persist, not taking his vague, poetic answer.
“I touched you,” he says simply.
“You knew from a touch?”
“You heard earlier, the necklace was labradorite and black obsidian. The black obsidian was to conceal your power. Labradorite is a rare stone mined here in Midscape that can prevent me, or any other elf, from performing the Knowing. Usually, labradorite blocks both the Knowing from sight and by touch. However—”
“Wait, what is the Knowing?”
He sighs, as if the conversation is quickly becoming tedious. Too bad for him I don’t care about being a pain. I care about answers.
“The Knowing is when an elf identifies the true name of an object, creature, or person. A true name is sound given to the raw essence of what something is—something unique to every creature and thing. Elves perform the Knowing by sight, or touch, and our innate magic,” he says. “Once a true name is known, the elf can manipulate the creature or thing at will.”