As the other men watched, Azul did not do anything more save bring the fingers on the queen’s outstretched hand to his lips.
In doing so, his greeting had now become a spectacle — a show unto others that he would formally declare his suit. The guards stood by helplessly, bound by protocol to simply watch and wait.
If they looked unhappy it was because they were reminded the prince would be the first of many to soon clamor for their queen’s hand.
Queen Elisa would have dismissed the elf’s flirtatious greeting had she not heard the intensity in his words. Elves were not known for impassioned speeches.
The warmth of his hand upon her back flustered her. Still, she remained polite and was careful not to snatch her hand away. Instead she found her rescue in a fairy that had tumbled onto his shoulder and clung awkwardly in place. She made a noise and the prince reacted, catching the poor thing in his hands.
Elisa reclaimed the fairy from the prince’s hands and then withdrew to a nearby patch of flowers.
She watched as the fairy sat on top of a flower and promptly sneezed. Behind her, Azul waited for her to look back his way.
She had no forewarning of his arrival, no hint from the fairies that the garden itself had opened its veil of magic for him. Elisa took her time to compose herself as she studied the fairy rubbing its eyes and went to sleep.
While she was perturbed by this power, it was his words that had most unsettled her.
Even so, she turned back his way and smiled politely. “You are a bold player, Prince. A gambler.”
But she was not as composed as she would have liked to think. Her look of confusion revealed that her heart was not so impenetrable after all. And that vulnerability made her even more beautiful to the elf. He cleared his throat. “I do not mean to play games.”
A spot of color formed on her face. “You know what I said before.”
He did not seem surprised or discouraged by her protests. The prince took one step forward. “I don’t think you understand. I do not seek to become king by marrying you. Your hand is not the proof I need. Still I seek it, because I wish for it.”
She had been told elves were clever with words. And he was using them to appeal to her. “If I were a young woman, how that would make me smile. But I am not. And my purpose–”
“Elisa,” he stepped forward.
She held up her hand. “Please!”
The others had been silent during the elf’s application for Elisa’s hand. But the mages saw the warning signs of an imminent fight. One tall female elf stepped forward. “Princess — we have met previously. I am Moirae, the one you met who told you of the tales that script your life. It is true. The child is his proof, his claim to the title he seeks. The boy you called Conn is a unicorn and as elves will say, a herald to a king. Azurite does not need your hand to become the next king.”
Elisa had little knowledge of elven tradition. Her eyes drifted around the meadow. She saw Hahn’s strange expression. Slowly he nodded.
The prince took pity upon her. “Elisa,” he drew close and spoke lightly. “Before we speak further, perhaps your men can prepare quarters for the mages. They are old and have walked far today.”
Her men understood. As she nodded,the guards dispersed.
But the mages remained. “We would rather enjoy this evening. It is a beautiful place and one that we have not been to before.”
Azul sighed while Elisa bowed to the mages. “It has been many years. Thank you for coming. I had heard of your appointment, Master Isra. Your presence here is fortunate.”
The elven prince interjected wryly, “Indeed. I’m glad they have for I fear you would have tossed me out by the swamp had they not.”
The old man shook his head. “Our princess has become so cold.”
Her smile disappeared, earning a scolding from Azul. “Now I was teasing. Please don’t attempt to help matters.”
“You’re not helping yourself anyways, prince.”
Elisa might have found this back and forth conversation diverting if she allowed it. But she was tired and anxious to tend to the boy. “You have asked me to send my men away. Please tell me why. What can you say now that you would not before?”
“The prince is not here to cause trouble, princess,” the other twin spoke. “But he is correct. He can claim the title now.”
“Then so be it,” Elisa shook her head. “I did not come here to be queen.”
“And therein is the problem,” Isra shook his head. “Stories run their course. That book we sent with you long ago told many a tale. And now there is but one left — one that speaks of the thousand year curse ending at this lake. Your brothers will hurry back.”
“But if that is true,”her voice shook in relief, “Then I shall see them soon. I can ignore the suitors and all the silliness this one time. We will soon be free.”
“No,” Azul sharply interrupted. “That is not how it ends.”
Moirae restrained the prince, lest he throw something valuable at the ground in frustration. “Princess, unlike the other variations of your tale we read and then discarded, this story ends with your death. All of your deaths. Time returns to normal and you will all turn to dust.”
Inside the cottage, a clock began to chime. With each passing second, the courage within her began to drain away. “Well,” she started and then faltered until the clock had no more to say. “It has been a long time, I suppose. My guards. Will they be alright?”
Her reaction was not what the elf had expected. He had expected tears and anger, not resignation. “Leave us,” he said sternly.
Wisely the mages disappeared as the prince closed the gap between himself and the Queen. She sank heavily on the porch steps, overwhelmed by the verdict the mages had bestowed upon her.
Azul sat next to her, his eyes watching to make sure she would not faint in shock. But he did not touch her. If he did so, he was afraid she might flee inside her home.
The negotiation between this human and this elf had always been a delicate matter. She was as proud as he was and was always determined not to be a burden to others. But time for her had become short. He needed to try again. “As the true queen legitimized by the King of Fairy, nothing for them would change. In fact, it would grow easier for them.”
Her shoulders rounded under some invisible weight. “But what of my brothers?”
Her mind was too full, too preoccupied with them. The elf held out his hands and pulled out a cup from the air.
And as he anticipated, the little boy reappeared in a flash to claim both the cup and the scone that rested inside it.The boy greedily devoured the treasured morsel and asked for more.
Elisa picked up the boy and scolded him. But Azul complied, playing magician and summoning all manner of toys and sweets.
The child giggled as he greedily grabbed the presents offered to him. He would clutch them until he fell asleep upon the woman’s lap.
Elisa rested her hands on the boy’s head. “No wonder he loves you,” she murmured as the treats magically disappeared with a wave of Azul’s hand. “You spoil him terribly.”
He leaned back, resting his hands on the porch floor. “I spoil those who are precious to me.”He offered Elisa a lazy smile. “I believe they should always be happy, my lady.”
She did not let herself be swayed by his effortless charm. She was still angry with him, after all. “When you left — did you know what he was? Tell me you did not!”
He was startled by how she had misunderstood him. “My lady. No–”
She blinked and turned her head away . “Tell me– tell me I can trust you.”
Her past made her doubt him. His hand sought hers. “I know you have intuition, Elisa. Read me. I was unaware until the mages revealed it to me. And even then I did not fully believe it until I saw what the boy could do with my help.”
The cicadas whirred in the silence that followed. Elisa was indeed studying him. And when she listened, she believed him. Her blue eyes looked his way, hopeful and forgiving. “What is to become of this boy now? Is it true then you will protect him no matter where he goes?”
“He wishes to be here,” Azul had not let go of her hand. “And I do as well. You know why.”
Her other hand floated to the small child sleeping on her lap. “You know my answer must be no. Death is a natural part of life,” she concluded. “Death makes way for new lives to be born. ”
“Elisa,” he sighed morosely. “It would be pointless for me to strive to be king if you were replaced.”
“Azul. Gloom does not suit you,” she was starting to smile.
His attempts to convince her were failing. But mercifully a chilly wind elicited a sneeze from the child.
She started to rise. “He should be inside.”
The elf was more swift than she. Before she could blink, Azul had scooped up the child and disappeared inside the cottage door.
She bit her tongue and followed him inside the small home that had been built for her by her brothers’ hands. She had only the light of fireflies straying in from the garden to guide her while she chased the elf, gleefully turning around in the various rooms that were normally forbidden to him.
“Where shall I put him, princess?” Azul sounded pleased. “Perhaps I shall go to your room and anger your guards a bit more by loitering there.”
She caught up to him then with a lamp that she was trying desperately to light. “They will not kill you,” she said. “Unless you give them reason to.”
“You tempt me,” he chuckled to himself. “Right now, I think all of them should like to kill me.”
The fairies buzzed about in alarm as they discovered the prince alone with their queen. They hastily lit the lamp and began to swarm about the elf.
“Buggers,” he said crossly at the fairies. “One minute they pet you and then the next they bite you.”
“It’s alright,” she flushed, aware of what the fairies thought. “Come this way,” she turned the corner and led him into a room.
The fairies stopped at the door and hovered, watching them with envy.
Elisa saw his eyes search the room they had entered — full of flowers and small presents the fairies deposited for her on the bed and tables.
“Please, this way,” she pressed as she showed him a door to a small room. “This used to be my closet– but the fairies have made it much more livable and bright.”
His eyes continued to examine his surroundings. “And it seems like they have done a very nice job. You were expecting him, I see.”
She would not lie to him. “Yes,” she said simply. “I knew you would find him. And in spite of how angry I was at you for your lies, I still believed you would come back.”
He said nothing as he lightly placed the child on the makeshift bed and drew the coverlet over the boy’s legs. But when he straightened up and turned to her, his eyes were dancing. “Woman,” he grinned. “You are far too kind. A good elf would never have uttered such a thing.”
She did not know why she amused him so. “Well, what would an elf say?”
His mouth twitched slightly. “I don’t know. Being the bad elf that I am, all I can think of is how I’d like to kiss you.”
Amidst the fairies cheers, he closed the gap between them and pressed his lips against her cheek. The lamp in her hand disappeared — freed by the fairies that had decided to intervene.
She did not protest as he kissed her forehead and then, more boldly, her lips. A part of her had known something like this might have happen once she had allowed him inside.
Elisa –lonely Elisa– had allowed it and embraced him now.
But it was the queen inside her that forced herself to step back and push him away.
His eyes glittered at her in the darkness, not angry, but frustrated at her indecisiveness.
Elisa said nothing. Instead she trembled at how she had almost caved under the weight of his offer. He would promise her both life and pleasure in this garden if she would put the past behind her.
But in the end her conscience prevailed. Before she became too tempted to proceed down the wrong path, she had to tell him the truth. “You are too late!” she cried. “There will be a new king, but it will not be you.”