For an uncomfortably long moment, her accusation hung in the air unaddressed. The garden was silent, devoid of the singing of birds or the gentle humming of the fairies. All waited for the elf to respond.
Azul’s face became blank. Whether he was affronted or amused was impossible to tell for those who gazed upon him.
His fellow guards felt a glimmer of fear and horror. In all the years they had served the Queen of the garden not one recalled any guard being cast out as an intruder. And yet one word from the queen and any of them would find themselves on the other side of the mountains, staring at an impenetrable rock wall.
“Who are you, elf?” She repeated. Her voice had grown cool but her eyes remained alert. “Who do you serve?”
The elf cursed inwardly to himself, knowing he had committed a mistake. One evening back in her presence, enjoying her girlish laughter, and he had already forgotten his place. He had lost sight of her age and knowledge of the world. It was not she who had grown soft but he. He forgot the truth. Long before any of them entered the queen’s life, the garden had been the one to care for her and before that, she had cared for herself.
His return to the Golden City had addled his mind. The people there still talked of the merry girl Elisa — a queen of faerie. They would not understand the Queen of Swans — who had suffered for a thousand years, who stared upon the lake with old and wary eyes.
The elf cast aside pretty words that he might have used to flatter her then. Such an old woman would not let the elf gloss over a convenient display of magic.
Briefly, he contemplated throwing himself at her skirts and begging forgiveness. Or perhaps he ought to laugh and play the foolish magician.
But she would see through both acts too easily. She knew his temper and likely understood that his true self was not much for bowing and scraping. Azul ignored the other guards. He walked towards the queen with a princely grace, making sure to hold her gaze.
His demeanor befuddled her other guards but not the queen. The terrible look in her eyes relented slightly as if she was satisfied. She spoke. “And now I meet the real Azul.”
Her comment amused him. “How do you know that is my name? Perhaps you speak to his doppelganger.”
To her credit, she stood her ground even while her guards drew in closer out of unease. Elisa matched his mischief with sternness. “I know you are the same person — for the garden would not allow an imposter inside. But you clearly have a great power at your disposal. This power is far beyond the skills of a court magician in the employ of the Elven King.”
He shook off the temptation to shrug. His bent towards sarcasm would not do with such an earnest woman. “My queen,” he said with all seriousness. “If my king knew the power I had, I would be immediately reassigned to the inner palace and never leave the city. Only as a lowly magician could I keep my freedom. And so I have done nothing to change his impression of me. I have no desire to be cloistered in the inner palace. It is an absurdly boring place full of shriveled old elves who sit around reading and chanting all day.”
Her mouth twitched suspiciously at such a damning statement. The woman had visited the kingdom long before the current king took his throne. She might be able to understand of what he spoke. But to Azul’s disappointment, she shook her head and disagreed. “You speak disrespectfully of the inner court. It would have been a great honor to you.”
“Well,” he chuckled. “It isn’t so much a matter of honor as required service and patronage. And unfortunately the inner court does need offerings and coin to enable a lifestyle devoted to leisure and study. As a member of a very large and poor branch of the family I would only be allowed a menial job under a minor mage.” His eyes did not leave her face as he continued. ”This situation here proved much more attractive in many ways.”
She did not appear to be flattered by his subtle praise of the garden or her, for that matter. Nor was she angry, merely flabbergasted. Likely his elvishness was overpowering her more mundane sensibilities. The queen crossed her arms. “Then you admit to deceiving your king for selfish reasons. ”
He took the time to look at a flower at the side of the path before he looked back the woman’s way. “Indeed, my reasons are selfish. I did it for myself.”
She seemed uncertain how to respond.. “If your being here is the better alternative to a life in service in your own city, then I understand. But I can only state that with such an answer your loyalty will always be in doubt.”
“I have never betrayed you unwillingly or willingly,” the fair elf answered. “Yes, I do serve my own interests but you are one of them.”
“You silver-tongued fox.” The queen raised her eyebrows at his sudden flattery. “So that your fellow guards are not surprised by your actions, I’m afraid I must ask you to disclose more fully what you can do.”
The elf was a bit relieved by her response. She did not intend to cast him out or jail him after all, it would seem. But he found this matter a bit distasteful. He spoke in a softer voice, forcing her to lean towards him. “Magic is not something we elves speak of too openly. It is an intimate knowledge passed between those who are close to one another.”
“Azul,” she scolded him immediately The tips of her ears burned red. If she had misunderstood him earlier, it was quite evident now that he was flirting heavily with her. “We don’t have secrets here.”
He smiled at her words. “I am glad, my queen. And I shall hold you to your word. So I shall go first and brag heavily about my gifts. Hahn knows very well I have mastered transformation to such an extent that I can change others. And then there, of course, is the ability to cast illusions and break curses. And then there is the lantern which I use to assist in displacement and apparition.”
A curse dropped from one of the nearby guards. “You’ve been holding back on us,” the guard grumbled. Given the choice of crude expletives that followed, Azul knew very well it was Hahn who had broken his silence.
“I thought so,” the queen answered somewhat wearily. “And you have a gift for weaving words and stories as well. Given how well you have hidden these, perhaps you also possess a gift for enchantments.”
“Perhaps,” Azul chuckled. “But your garden does not permit them. Nor do the fairies. Both are quick to undo any such mischief if it were attempted. Otherwise, my dear queen, a greedy wizard might have absconded with you or your predecessor long ago. As for my words, I weave just as well as any elf in my king’s court. It is a matter of pride and survival for us.”
She exhaled loudly. “With all that, how am I to trust you? You deceive one king willingly by obscuring the lot of skills. You claim to serve me but do all those gifts truly serve me?”
At this he stopped smiling. “You are the one chosen by this garden. As its queen, my loyalties to you trump whatever I owe to my king. He may be a ruler of a great city but the old ones believe this place holds the true throne.”
She had heard this before. “He insists I must marry into his bloodline to make things right. I, a human, here on a fairy’s throne. But tell me, court magician, if I ordered you to stop asking me to give his family a marriage oath, would you?”
To the surprise of the others, he laughed. “You know I cannot. This is the the one thing I have been asked by my king to do. The only thing, really. But fear not — his latest decrees have changed the nature of things considerably. His sons may be too old and grey to give him the legitimacy he wants through you but his grandsons will journey here in large numbers to seek your hand.”
She shook her head at the elf. “Foolish king. It is not time.”
“No, it may not be.” Azul chuckled. “But perhaps he is not foolish. Perhaps he gambles.”
Her azure eyes turned to him, startled by such an admission. “Don’t tell me you think his idea wise.”
The elf’s smile shone even in the dusk. “Not wise at all. The man who obsesses over a woman for hundreds of years cannot be called that all. However, he is clever. You ask who I am, my lady. And I do admit to being discontent with this role of court magician and occasional liaison to the Elven king’s favorite queen. I admit now to being his grandson — an elf who wishes to prove his value to his king’s most sought after ally, an elf who hopes to secure the lady’s hand the moment she is free to choose a different path.”