Whether he had decided to reveal his motives out of some foolish romantic notion or to save his neck, Azul had certainly undertaken an enormous gamble.
His fellow guards, as expected, were immediately incensed by his words. His declaration went beyond chivalric protocol. Their queen’s knights did not aim to be king.
Thankfully protocol kept him still alive and breathing. To draw a sword and risk blood could defile the garden itself and, at least, risk banishment for those who quarreled. It was also understood that a declared suitor could not barred from entry as long as the garden permitted the gentleman’s presence.
The three guards who surrounded him knew they must simply watch and wait. Not all knew what would happen. The younger of them waited to see if the elf might suddenly be whisked away by an enraged horde of fairies or fall through an open hole in the earth.
Neither scenario would come to pass. Instead, a gentle breeze stirred in the garden — scented with the salt and heat of the west.
The guards shifted uneasily with the change of winds, knowing full well it was evidence of something at work. While their attention drifted away from the elf, the queen’s scrutiny did not. She watched the elf’s face and weighed out the truth of his words while she waited for the garden to give its own verdict.
In the end, the garden did nothing. Elisa’s lips parted for a moment, as if she might speak. But instead she closed them again and held her counsel for a moment longer.
The elf could do nothing except calmly stand inside the circle the others had formed around him. He could do so without fear; he was the queen’s peer, after all.
When she finally spoke, she sounded more pained than relieved by the apparent truth of his claims. “Why would you, after all this time, lower yourself to such foolishness, prince? You yourself have heard me say multiple times that I have no desire for or need of a lord or a lover. Moreover, you do not love me. “
As the fairies slowly drifted into the meadow, the elf prince began to sort out his response. He offered her a wry smile. “I do not profess to understand your concept of human love. I have come to simply understand that this place cannot manage itself like this indefinitely. It is true that you yourself have proven to not require a companion. But this garden itself needs a Queen of Fairy. By tradition, it also requires a king.”
Several fairies settled on his shoulders, as if to emphasize that last point.
A look resembling pity fell upon her features as she considered the plight of those small fairies, clinging to his hair and to his cloak, their small hands keeping them close to him when the wind began to gust again.
She held out her hand and a few more floated over to explore it. As they poured over her fingers, looking for candy that wasn’t there, the queen did not need to be convinced that the fairies needed both a champion and protector.
Her voice was kind as spoke. “They are precious creatures. If such a king existed who could ensure their survival and prosperity, I might have entertained such a proposal years ago. There may be a King of Fairy someday. But–” her voice hardened. “I cannot be that queen for such a king. I shall not be Titania to someone’s Oberon.”
The guards were familiar with that sound of steel in their queen’s voice. She would not be swayed.
“My lady.” One more time the prince folded his hands together. The elf would not plead but simply press the case further. “The mages say your time in this place is finite. Your brothers are certain to return to you. They believe it as you do. However, once you are reunited they believe you will never be able to return to this place.”
The lady smiled crookedly. “You are a very kind prince to worry over me. I love this place but I love my brothers more. Even if I am banished, I will know that is the cost of their complete freedom from a wicked curse.”
His look of abject dejection moved her. The queen reached for the elf’s shoulder, causing the fairies that rested upon it to alight on top of his head. She spoke again. “As for the mages, they can only speak to you of what they have read. Even then, they rely on too many scrolls and books to advise those who would listen. In the beginning I tried to make sense of what they said but they proved to be too flabbergasted when I could not honor all their conflicting advice. Don’t let the mages paralyze you into doing what they want with their talk of past or future lives. You will be unhappy, prince, should you put yourself under their power.”
The elf knew very well he could not sway her this moment. “Forgive me, my queen,” he knelt before her. “You are correct. My people filled my head with grandiose ideas and worries. I shall sever my ties with them and content myself with serving as your resident magician.”
“Azul,” the queen spoke sharply. And then she shook her head, as if to correct herself. “Prince,” she stated more politely. “How could I accept your service given your status? Your power is too great to serve as a lowly courtier in a place like this. This quiet life is not suitable for one with your lineage or potential. I have no riches, no titles, or land to offer.”
The elf grasped the direction this was taking. “I wish to stay. There is much I can learn here from you.”
Her eyes were once again turned to him, sifting through his motives and his feelings. “Dear prince, if you truly think of me as a wise person, then come with me to the lake. Let us ask it to advise you.”
She held out her hand with the authority of a queen, one who could not be refused.
Azul took her hand, unable to deny her this privilege.
The guards followed them down to the lake, bewildered and uncertain of what exactly was transpiring. Their queen pulled the elf towards the water. Standing at the edge of Mirror Lake, Elisa took water from the lake and anointed the elf with it.
She took his hand and pulled him in farther until they stood knee-deep. She looked across the way, her eyes looking for something before she asked the lake to listen. Her voice was very soft as she murmured a short phrase before asking the lake to speak to the mage.
At first, nothing save the fairies dancing above the surface and the trees at the shore reflected on the water. The elf felt an enormous sense of relief; he believed his path was still to be found within the garden itself. But as they waited in the water, a light began to slowly grow from within the lake itself. Slowly the light began to etch out images. They blurred and shimmered in the unsettled water, but in time he could tell they were not familiar faces and places but from the strange world far from both this garden and his homeland.
Elisa tugged at his hand, shaking him from his stunned silence. “Your calling is not here.”
He swallowed once and nodded. His feet automatically followed her back towards the shore where the others were waiting.
“Goodbye, prince Azul,” the queen said softly as she let go of his hand. “Until we meet again.”
They had gathered in such large numbers inside his tent that he finally had to order them to the shore. They continued to call to him with questions while he settled down to tend to some paperwork.
Their shrill chatter signalled the approach of someone coming towards his way. He heard the lapping water and did not bother to look up as the Knight came to the wooden dock and stood outside the tented opening to Azul’s residence.
The elf continued to sit at a low table, furiously scribbling on several parchment scrolls. He did not look up at his visitor. “Come in. If you’re going to gloat, at least do it where you won’t be blocking the light.”
The knight had to lower his head as he stepped inside the tent. He was out of place inside this vibrant, luxurious abode. He awkwardly fell onto a pile of cushions on the floor, his armor making a distinct sound as he tried to find his seating. But once he had settled in, a cup of steaming tea appeared at his hand — apparently summoned by his host.
In spite of the situation, the elf had not forgotten to show a bit of courtesy. “If you are going to gloat, please get it all done at once. I have much to do.”
The knight was not ruffled by the elf’s display of temper. He spoke solemnly. “I came to see what assistance I could provide, prince.”
Azul glanced the other man’s way and frowned at the use of such a title. “We have both been too long in the lady Elisa’s service to now stand on such formality.” The elf stretched his hand to the chaotic appearance around him. “This mess will be gone in a matter of minutes. A wave of my hand and it all goes into the lantern I carry. There will be no sign I was ever here.”
“You mistake us all,” the knight looked about the tent. “As angry as the younger ones are, they do not wish you to go. We do not wish the lake had spoken as such. Our duties grow far more difficult without magic in her service or someone to speak reason to her.”
The elf raised his eyebrow, surprised. He had thought the knight would be relieved to have him gone. “The lake did not tell me to leave. It simply showed me many things of interest. It was her verdict that meant I could not stay. As for having someone speak reason to her, that has never been my job. That is yours.”
“I speak of military matters or who to send where. I am equipped to speak of safety and mundane things. However, I do not know what is in her heart.” The knight looked down at his cup. “I do not know her favorite tea. I do not know how to make her laugh. The younger ones also are also equally incapable of speaking to her the way you have.”
The elf let out a frustrated sigh. “And yet it is because I did that I am packing my things. If only I weren’t so impatient or so blunt.”
“You made her uneasy, I agree.” The knight took one long sip of his drink. “She has no room now to gamble. You threatened her idea of peace in this garden. Perhaps that is why she spoke as such.”
The elf laughed bitterly and then returned to brooding. “This was my mistake. I had every intent of biding my time to tell her who I was. I would win her over slowly first, softening her with small presents and soliloquies on her many charms. Had that child not appeared, I might be sitting having tea with her right now instead of with a knight.”
A depressed elf was not all that pleasant a sight to see. The knight cleared his throat. “You have not been exiled from this place. And the garden will admit you once more, of that I feel certain. For the moment, you can still serve out your purpose and find sufficient reason to return.”
“I know,” Azul stated wearily. He knew very well that he could provide aide to the guards who had already departed or to bring news of places that had long gone without being visited. “But when I return, will she be here? The mages said beyond her brothers’ return there is nothing further to see for this queen.” He hit his fist on the table. “They say it without actually having the courage to actually state what they really believe. They chant endlessly how a life without any path is purposeless or a life that goes without purpose is a form of death. By that logic, she will die once her brothers return.”
The knight could not profess to understand the elven ways. He listened while the elf cursed a few more times before returning to furiously scribbling on the parchment on the table.
When the elf was done writing, he began the careful process of folding and rolling the various pieces of paper. He sounded tired as he began to push the pile of them the knight’s way. “I’m leaving you these incantations. You need do nothing more than take them out and offer them up to the garden or a nearby fairy. Both will honor them. The rolled scrolls are easy spells — illusions, magical flames, and elemental spells. Those papers that are folded can only be used sparingly and, if possible, by Hahn. He has enough elf in him to make them work very well. These are mostly temporary spells of alteration and transformation. He is not very creative, so you may need to guide him or make Raven his keeper.”
The elf continued to mutter to himself. “She might guide him as well except I do not think she trusts my magic. ”
The knight put down his cup at that last statement. “Elf, I believe you are too harsh when it comes to the queen. Now that I understand your situation I believe it only fair I tell you of mine. This may help you understand and even forgive the queen in time.”
Azul almost smiled. “Nameless knight, what secret have you been hiding? Are you, too, a rejected suitor from some far away kingdom? A king in disguise?”
The older man took another sip from his cup. “When I first met the queen, she tried to run away. But I was bound to provide aid and did so. Why she kept trying to push me away I did not understand until she revealed that an elven mage had filled her head with stories of the Swan Knight.”
“They told me of that as well,” Azul admitted. He laughed sharply. “So you are he? And do you serve her as the stories say?”
“No,” the knight said emphatically. “We are not married. We are not lovers. Nor has she ever even seem interested in asking for my name. This queen is determined not to go down that path — one that she knows does not end well for those who would take it. She strives for something else — something none of us can fully see. I thought you might know.”
The elf shook his head. “Had I, would I be in this predicament now?” The elf stared off in the direction of the small cottage where the queen resided. “I’m afraid,” he said ruefully. “Our queen might trust her guards with her life, but Elisa locks away all her secrets. She has chosen not to reveal herself to me. And now, my path must lead away from hers.”