“An elf can do anything to something or someone they have a true name of?” I think of Luke, contorting painfully.
“As long as an elf has a true name, they are limited only by their own powers and imagination.”
I try to suppress a shudder and fail. “And you know my true name now?”
“Yes. I could sense your true name despite the labradorite when we touched—something I shouldn’t have been able to do. The labradorite should have protected you. But I could sense your true name because you are the Human Queen and were destined for me since birth. And as I’ve said, even if I hadn’t touched you, I saw you perform rudimentary magic without realizing it.” His feet slow to a stop as we near a square before a giant portcullis. “Speaking of labradorite, you will need this for your time here. Your hand, please.”
I oblige. He pulls out a ring made of the same rainbow stone—what I now know as labradorite—and slips it on my left ring finger. I fight the urge to rip it off. All I see is another token of that terrible stone which a man has put on me, trying to claim me. All I can think of is Luke.
“Must I?” I whisper.
“Yes,” he says firmly. Though the Elf King hesitates just before letting my hand go. “If you wish to change the finger it’s on, then you may do so. I hardly care if you wear it as a symbol of our marriage. It is merely to protect you from other elves performing the Knowing on you. Should someone else learn your true name, it could be dangerous.”
“Would someone hurt me?”
“No queen or king is without enemies,” he answers gravely, nodding back toward the legion behind us.
“Who—” Before I can get the question out I’m silenced by what looks to be a general approaching.
Her skin is a rich brown and her long tresses are black, streaked with bright blue. Her eyes are the color of churned-up sea. A sword is attached to her hip and her movements are clipped and rigid. Three cords are attached to embellished pauldrons on her shoulders. Decorative buttons are pinned over her breast.
The buttons remind me painfully of the ornate pin my father was given when he first became a council member. I take a deep breath, trying to choke down a sudden wave of emotion. I’m struggling to find my footing in a new world. I can’t have some buttons be the thing that has me a weeping mess in front of the Elf King and his soldiers.
“Your Majesty.” She bows her head.
“Take the queen to her apartments and see her dressed as is fitting of her station. We can’t wait a moment longer. It grows colder by the hour.” The king’s words condense into white puffs as if for emphasis.
“Yes, my liege.”
The Elf King wastes no time leaving me in his dust with this woman.
“Wait!” I call after him. He pauses, glancing over his shoulder. One dark eyebrow arches. “What’s your name?”
The thin line of his mouth splits into a smirk, as if he also can’t believe he married someone who didn’t know his name. “You may call me your king, or your majesty, or your liege.”
I’m not taking that answer. No. Not for a moment.
“What would I call you if I was your friend?” My question gives him pause; his face relaxes into something I’d almost say is vulnerable.
“I don’t have friends,” he says faintly. Others may interpret the tone as cool indifference. But I hear a hurt I don’t yet understand drifting through his words.
“Your subjects then?”
He grimaces at that, but finally relents. “King Eldas. I will see you in an hour. We will begin then.”
“Begin what?” I ask. I know his tall ears can hear me. But he doesn’t stop again. He turns a corner in the dark tunnel ahead of me and is gone.
I am now alone with an unfamiliar elf, who leads a legion of more unfamiliar elves, in an unfamiliar land of wild magic. The Human Queen merely exists. It seemed so unfair. But now that the butt that’s in that throne is mine, I’d be happy to just sit and catch my breath.
It’s been a long, long day.
However, if I’m only meant to sit…what “work” is there to do?
“Come along, Your Majesty.” The way the elf general has to force the formality through gritted teeth tells me that, even if she knew the Human Queen would arrive, she’s not exactly pleased to be answering to a human now. “I’ll show you to your royal apartments.”
As she goes to leave I notice a gash, gnarly and scabbed over, on the hand she rests on the pommel of her sword. Infection reddens its edges. “I can look at that,” I say, without thinking.
The general stops, blinking several times at me. She finally asks, “Look at what?”
“Your hand.” I’m already rummaging through my satchel. I used up some supplies with Emma, but I should still have—
“It’s merely a training accident,” she says dismissively.
“Well, it’s getting infected and it won’t be any trouble for me.” I find the jar of salve I was looking for. It’s good for minor injuries.
“We have a castle healer for such things,” the general says before I can even get the jar from my satchel.
“Yes, but I have—”
“You are a queen,” she interrupts me in a low and intense tone. Her eyes dart back to the knights still several paces behind. “Healing someone like me is beneath you.”
Beneath me? Healing and helping is…beneath me now? The words grate against everything I’ve ever known.
Suddenly, the grays of this place are darker, more shadowed. Everything takes on a dingier and duller edge, if that were possible. I’ve been taken from my home, my people, my family, and now they’re going to take me from the one thing I’m good at? The one thing I’ve worked toward?
I try and work up my courage, opening my mouth. But I don’t get a word in.
“Now come this way, please.” She has to grit out the word “please,” as if my offer was that shocking, or troublesome to her.
Only a sigh escapes my lips. I can’t fight any of this. Focusing too much on that will overwhelm me with everything that’s been taken from me. The best thing I can do, for now, is try and survive.
I can’t pass judgment on this life until I try and live it. Hopefully it will surprise me. And, if it doesn’t…I just have to remember that my presence here has put an end to the Weakness in Capton and has ensured another one hundred years of peace.
The castle is more of a fortress that’s been built directly out of the mountainside, and I wonder what it’s meant to keep out. Cut through the fortress’s center is a single pathway of stone, two portcullises on either end. The cobblestone road has been smoothed with time; deep ruts from carts span the length of the path.
This is the only entrance in and out of the city, I realize. If the city is to be taken, the castle must be taken first.
A third portcullis is between the two entrances of this long tunnel. Behind it is a small underground courtyard lit by torches mounted on soot-stained walls. They illuminate two heavy doors.
“What’s that way?” I point to the far end of the tunnel.
“None of your concern.” The woman stops, hand on her sword. “We’re going this way.” She motions to the doors.
“Is it beyond the city?” I ask anyway.
“Yes. Which is none of your concern. Now come.”
Her soldiers must’ve heard an unspoken command to them; the legion now surrounds us in a semi-circle as if they’re guarding from invisible attackers.
Left with no other option, I follow her up to what must be the castle’s entrance. The guard’s eyes flash a bright blue at the doors and then she turns to me. “These doors are magicked shut. It’ll do you little good to try and flee.”
“Why do you think I’ll have reason to flee?” I ask, as if the thought hadn’t already crossed my mind…more than once.
“Hopefully you won’t.” That answer isn’t exactly promising. She pushes on the doors and they open up to a landing at the foot of a long stairwell.
“What is your name?” I ask.
She seems to debate telling me. Perhaps forcing Eldas to admit his name is what forces her to concede. “Rinni.”
“Are you a general of some kind?”
“Are you always this incessant with questions?” Her words are sharper than my pruning shears.
“Maybe.” I shrug. Then repeat, “So, you lead the soldiers?”
“At times,” she says finally. “I am considered King Eldas’s second by many.” I could almost see her weighing her options and what it would mean for her not to answer my inquiries. It makes me wonder how much sway I have here.
I may be a human in the city of elves, but I am their queen. I have magic that the Elf King himself and a legion of his elves came to Capton to get. I glance at the ring on my left hand. It weighs a thousand stones.
At the top of the stairs is a room with soaring ceilings weighted down by heavy iron chandeliers. Candles drip stalactites of wax toward the dark wooden floor we now stand on. Two more stairways, one on either side of the room, arch up to a landing and then out to a mezzanine balcony that circles the hall.
Between the stairs is a wall of leaded glass. Intricate designs have been painstakingly woven between the thousands of tiny shards. They cast a lacy pattern on the floor. It’s the only thing that’s soft, or bright, in this cold, drab place.
“Come, your chambers are in the west wing.” She walks up the left stairs and I follow her up to the balcony.
“Is it always so quiet?” I whisper so I don’t have to hear my voice echoing in this cavernous, empty space.
“What about people who care for the castle?”
“There are some servants.” She doesn’t look at me when she answers.
“Just because you do not see them, doesn’t mean they’re not here. It’s improper for common folk to see the Human Queen before her coronation. So the staff here is kept extremely small and out of sight.”