The knight paused, uncertain what to make of that invitation.
He did not wish to infringe upon the elven lord’s meeting with his liege. While there was no camaraderie or genuine friendship between the men, they were careful not to interfere with one another’s business with the queen. As such, he glanced the elf’s way.
Lord Azul did not provide the knight with any cue as to what to do. The man had already preoccupied himself with the invisible layer of dust lying on top of a quaint wooden table on the porch . This table would become the resting place for the lantern he carried.
Elisa and the knight stood nearby, watching the elf from a few feet away. Azul adjusted his sleeve before he stretched out his right hand and flexed his fingers for a moment. He would repeat that same movement with his other arm before he returned his gaze to the lantern. When he extended his arms, the light within the lamp began to flicker and grow dim. Around them, the ambient noise in the garden stilled. Not even the birds sang.
Twice the elf tapped on the lantern’s glass face. Then he tilted his head, leaning close to the table as if he was listening to the small box. If it answered, only he knew. But he smiled brilliantly as a cup suddenly appeared on the palm of his hand.
Elisa’s expression wavered slightly as she looked at the swan-shaped vessel he offered for her approval. She nodded once and kept her eyes fixed upon it as it came to rest on the table before her.
Lord Azul returned to his silent deliberations with the lantern, not too concerned by how odd he might appear to his fellow guard. More than once, he had mockingly described himself to others as her court magician. Several of her guards took his claims at face value. They presumed that since he did not choose to change his own shape that he only had a talent for illusions and sleight of hand. They did not know that it was vanity that kept him from doing so; he had no desire to change form for he was content with simply being an elf.
But the woman knew that beneath those parlor tricks lurked a magic power. She could only feel its presence; the nature of his talents she could not discern. As hard as she might see the truth behind the mage, his magic blocked her gift.
For the moment, he continued to surprise and entertain his small, polite audience. With a wry grin, the elf apparated a humble wooden chalice out of the air. He offered it to the knight, who studied it for a moment before accepting it.
The knight’s caution was warranted. All her guards knew he was sent by his elven king as a spy and a messenger for a king obsessed with Elisa. Azul had declared it himself to each of them. And oddly enough, he did not seem to try very hard in furthering his king’s wishes. The elf mage seemed quite content to linger at the queen’s side as the resident storyteller, advisor, and diplomat.
That the queen had allowed him to stay here in service was both whimsical and dangerous. Although she did not understand what exactly the elf wished from her, she put great trust in the garden. It had first allowed him in. Its children, the fairies, delighted in being around him. Based on this, she permitted him to stay as long as she believed him to be truthful.
She was a kind queen, not compelling him to use his magic in her service. Rarely did he choose to do so and when he did, usually he created small comforts such as a warm meal and a delightful tea.
The elf’s fingers reached for air again and mysteriously found a black heavy bowl. His pleasure at this small ritual was evident as he carefully placed it on the woven mats of grass that appeared on the table’s surface.
With a certain flair, he offered a hand to his queen so that he could seat her in a chair. Gracefully he took his and looked pointedly at the knight, who complied by taking the last seat at the table.
Dainty items began to slowly appear and the knight grew vastly uneasy. His discomfort with these fragile breakable things did not go unnoticed; the queen laid her hand over his. Reassured by her touch, he rewarded her with a small hint of a smile.
This exchange did not go unobserved. The elf raised an eyebrow and responded by placing even more strange and novel things before his queen, shortly ensuring her attention returned to him.
Only then, did Lord Azul conclude his presentation. From the folds of his voluminous sleeves he drew out several packets of brightly colored paper. With two hands he held them before her. “A present for you, my dear queen.”
She inclined her head slightly as if to smell them. In spite of her restrained response, her voice betrayed that she was eager to know its contents. “What have you brought back this time?”
A large pot materialized from the air in front of her. A small trail of steam signaled that it had arrived full of hot water. “This tea my friends claim comes from across the ocean in a place not unlike this one. They were willing to trade this to me for a swatch of cloth from your loom.”
“Those things?” The woman’s cheeks grew pink as she watched the man prepare the tea. “So you found a use after all.”
The knight looked startled at the look of pleasure on his lady’s face. His forehead creased a bit as he considered his queen employed in work. “My queen, when have you had the time to weave cloth? And with what?”
She looked down at the table, her face still flushed. “I have a new loom. It has taken a long time to put it together piece by piece, but now that it is done… perhaps I might be able to finish weaving that last sleeve. I have been practicing a bit and Lord Azul asked if he might take them to test the foreign markets. ”
The knight’s expression spoke of his discomfort with that idea.
The elf lord quickly intervened. “We have been careful, knight. I would not do something as reckless as presenting them as her items. She labored for this tea. And it is a good sort that is said to keep one young. You, in particular, should drink your fill.”
The knight furrowed his brow at the insult lurking behind those words.
The queen held out her cup with a smile. “I should like to start. I will need to drink at least three cups.”
Azul inhaled sharply before he launched into a mass of apologies for suggesting anything wrong with her appearance.
She laughed at his horrified look. “Stop it, please. I might be a dragon considering how old I have become. Let us move on to topics other than keeping oneself beautiful and young.”
Lord Azul sighed, more than happy to forget his blunder. He served the tea and put the pot aside. His expression sharpened as he prepared to offer his queen some real news. “The archivists have done as you asked and come to a conclusion regarding that image you saw in the lake of a man with grey eyes. It is entirely plausible that it could be the same person.”
They chewed their food silently, considering what she had told them about the man who had come to regularly appear on the lake’s surface. He was a man with dark hair and distinctly light-colored eyes. She sounded awed when she again spoke. “That would make him at least a hundred years old, maybe more. And yet his appearance was unchanged.”
The lord rested his chin on the palm of his hand. “The most likely explanation is that magic is involved, good or bad. But it could also be explained if we understood his parentage.”
Elisa wrinkled her brow. “A wolf most likely by his appearance. Do I recall correctly that there a peculiar type who often frequented with elves?”
The elf coughed. “It is not unnatural for halflings to seek out our kind. They fare better with elves than men, as you may know, my queen.” He paused. “But there were a few villages that often came close to the wolves. But that was a while ago. Our elves have long returned to this side of the Silver River. And those that did who recalled those elves who lived alongside wolves spoke of misfortune.”
The knight spoke up. “The wolves are said to be unlucky. Many died off in the previous eclipse.”
She took another sip of tea while she considered this. The lake had not said anything of them for many years. “They have not come to seek counsel at this lake in a long time. It is as if they did not wish for us to interfere. But still — perhaps we should not have let this continue. The lake might be asking us to intervene. So many other creatures are gone now. Perhaps the lake regrets its silence on their behalf.”
Both men looked distinctly uneasy at her statement. She had not acted in a while and certainly should not when their numbers were under strength.
The mage jumped in. “The lake simply showed you a face. Could it mean something else? And we cannot do much with us three alone.”
“Of course,” she closed her eyes and sat back in her chair. Her eyes were slow to reopen. “Let me think this over a bit longer. Perhaps I can coax the lake to show me more.”
“My lady,” the knight could not keep silent much longer. He recognized the signs she was exhausted. “ It is time to rest then. Perhaps you will leave the child to the two of us.”
“Ah, yes,” Lord Azul was quick to support the knight. “I do have a good place to keep the child. Unless of course you keep the child here and I’d be more than glad to stay with you my lady.”
“In which case, I also stay here,” the Knight responded tersely.
Somewhat crossly she interrupted them before they could bicker further. “You’re both welcome to sleep on the porch if that’s your intent. But none of that is necessary or comfortable. If you think you can do a better job of tending the boy, Azul, please do.”
The lord inclined his head. “I have had plenty of years tending my siblings. A small one won’t be difficult to manage.”
“Yes, of course,” she said as she stood slowly. She reached for the cup on the table, intent on taking it inside for cleaning.
“Leave them.” The elf’s tone was firm. “Dinner tonight is not yet done. The little ones want some too.”
She turned her head, seeing the small sprites hiding nearby, peeking around the porch railings and through the flowers in the grass. She swiped at her eyes, doing her best to keep them open while she glanced their way. Of course they would want tea and cake. It was the one thing they could not make themselves as hard as they tried. “Will you not make them another pot then? What we have left is cold. But please keep it weak or they will not rest.”
He smiled at her kindness. “Of course.” He paused for a moment, his voice velvet and honeyed as he trailed after her. “And my lady, I know this is an inopportune time to ask but I shall not be coming back this way this evening. Is there any change in your answer to my king’s request?”
No,” she said sternly. “As long as they are still out there, I cannot.”
The elf ignored the knight’s presence, his eyes gleaming as his fingers reached out to brush a crumb off her lips. “Of course. I understand.”
* * *
That mysterious exchange between the mage and the queen later prompted an unusual action on part of the knight.
The man was shocked by what he had observed. He was not usually privy to the nature of the conversations that occurred between his queen and that specific retainer. So he was startled by the familiarity and intimacy that appeared to have developed between the two.
The knight was tasked with protecting her from every danger. However, he had not considered danger came in forms that did not threaten her life but only her heart.
He was uneasy as he roamed the garden. Eventually his troubled mind took him to Lord Azul’s temporary quarters — a tent covered platform that sat in the middle of one of the ponds in the garden. This was no crude outdoor residence. In fact, the elves were expert in making the best of any situation — his tent was comfortable and airy all year round.
The lord was already waiting for him, having been alerted of his approach through the sound of water splashing everywhere. He opened the flap of his tent and smiled tightly at the knight. “Perhaps you have come to kill me?”
The knight did not comprehend the sort of humor that afflicted the elf. He looked past Lord Azul at the child, rolling about on some cushion. “I have to come to ask you about the foundling. You never did say what you thought he might be.”
“Ahhhh,” the elf chuckled. He was amused by the knight’s question. “Well it is hard to make much progress when the child continues to sleep like a rock. But it is not unicorn nor is it bear.”
A strange look crossed the visitor’s face.
Azul’s voice turned soft and sympathetic. “I see you are disappointed. A cub would not be dangerous at all. They are incredibly devoted creatures aren’t they? Such a halfling would not defy her or trouble her by flying away. He would be loyal and loving and distract her from the affairs of the world. Is that your wish, knight?”
“You presume too much about my motives,” the knight said sharply. “You distract her. You soften her. Tempt her with things of the outside world. We may have a common goal at the moment, but I see now the outcome you plan for differs.”
Azul shrugged. “It will be her choice what happens when that time comes. But for now, I have answered your question. The child is no threat. There is no curse or dark magic attached to the poor child and he poses no hypothetical danger to our queen. The responsibility for keeping watch over him will be mine. The responsibility for the queen’s future is hers and hers alone.”
The other gentleman did not agree. “The others will not like her engaging with the outside world. I cannot argue with the queen about the use of the loom. But is it wise to allow what she makes to be sold abroad? “
“I have taken great care to make sure it cannot be traced to her. She must have something to occupy her thoughts while the trail appears to run cold. But what she does might work, sir knight. By repeating the ceremonies of the past, perhaps she can will it to happen once more.”
“You seem intent on speeding up everything as much as you can.” The older man’s eyes flashed. “Does your king grow impatient?”
Azul’s mouth did quirk slightly at the unusual display of anger on part of the guard. “He has. He has begun marrying off his sons to other women. And when he is done with them, he will demand his grandchildren continue to seek her hand. She is the Queen of this garden and therefore of the fairies. He cannot ignore tradition.”
The knight’s eyes flickered but the man did not comment on the king further. Instead he bowed politely. “I’ll return to my watch.”
“And I will to mine,” the mage answered with an even more graceful bow.
The elf remained on the platform, watching the knight as he disappeared across the pond. While he had not known much about each of his fellow guardsmen when they arrived here, they were not very good at guarding themselves against his curious mind and silver tongue.
The knight, however, did not interact with them except when needed. And rarely did he show any hint of emotion or weakness. However, the knight had revealed too much this evening. It would seem obvious to him that the man’s weakness was the queen herself. Azul was certain the knight would deny it if asked, but the elf felt he understood the human very well. The man was in love with the queen.
Azul felt concern take root within his mind.
In this last visit to the outside world, the archivists had unearthed a story of a knight whose story bore an uncanny similarity to this knight. He had come as a champion for a young princess. And this knight had come to help her in whatever she asked. Their goals were, in fact, not alike at all.
For now, he and the knight could work without too much conflict, provided he was careful.
But someday, he was certain their destinies would clash.
Incentive:Just what is the story Lord Azul fears?