If her brothers had any suspicions or concerns, they did not voice them to Elisa.
It was easy to forget the mystics and clerics in the days that followed. There was almost too much to do in the Golden City.
They were kept busy with meetings and meals. Elisa could see that her brothers– especially the younger brothers– tired of the endless ceremonies in the palace. They were keen to explore the marketplace full of novel tools and spices. At least one or two wished to roam the streets, seeking to confirm the reputed charm of elven women.
However, the Swans were not merely exploring adventurers. As king’s heirs, even banished ones, they were to be discouraged from moving freely throughout the city without escort. Her brothers asked why this was so and were told that there was no danger to them. There were no hidden resentments against humans. Rather, the human Swans were curiosities and would be swarmed by fairy folk and city residents if left unattended.
But the brothers’ preferences for the outdoors became known. Soon the letters from the king’s extensive family were numerous. The invitations changed from offering meals and performances to sailing and other outings.
Elisa might have liked to accompany her brothers as they explored the city but this very idea unsettled them and the guards. As such, Elisa chose her invitations carefully — deciding to keep to affairs that generally were attended by the king’s many wives and female relatives.
In this way, the siblings’ time was divided.
Because she came without any manner of maid or servant, the dowager elf — the eldest female relative to the king — assigned her a companion to keep her company when her brothers were not about.
This companion, attired in rich colors symbolic of the royal household, introduced herself as Brianne. She explained to Elisa that she would accompany her everywhere.
In vain, Elisa tried to protest.
But the attendant was not shy or all that obedient. Brianne flipped her braid over her shoulder and informed the guest that she was ordered to ensure that no man other than her brothers would bother the Queen of Swans.
What motive lay behind that statement was unclear to Elisa. Nor could she shake the title they had coined for her. The King’s children had made it standard practice. Often they would address correspondence to her via title instead of her name.
The ladies of the court were always polite and formal to her. But a few of the younger ones were curious enough to inquire about Elisa’s life and why she was not married off to some prince.
The young queen was not the sort of person to lie. But her feelings towards her marriage were too raw and fresh to speak of without emotion or discomfort. Elisa would sit, frozen and silent.
The elves did not mean to be cruel. Simply put, they could not commiserate with her. The elves, Brianne would have to explain to her, married to facilitate the production of heirs and to cement alliances. The idea that her heart could grieve as such for one person did not make sense to them.
Eventually those who regularly gathered to see her came to understand that the topic of her husband was taboo. And so the topic was never discussed in the company of the king’s wives and relatives.
Among the royal elves attending her would often be other lords and dignitaries. However, Elisa also became aware of a small handful of scribes who kept to the sides of the room documenting conversations or thoughts for some future record.
They spoke little, these scribes. And she was told to pay them no attention. One day, however, a young elf appeared with a pad of paper in hand. In the crowded salons, he would sit in a corner just out of reach of the window. Often he would be intently sketching. Other times, he would watch something outside. And almost always, he spoke to no one.
His disinterest in the conversations around them made him stand out. But it was his hair, shining gold in the sunlight, that drew Elisa’s attention his way.
Once she let her eyes linger too long upon him. His light-colored eyes caught her , burning into her until she found herself being forced to look away. When she looked back, she found him holding his pencil up in his hand as if he were trying to measure her.
Elisa realized this might be the master painter himself. She had heard the man was idiosyncratic and preferred to see his subjects in a more natural environment before they sat for him. She presumed the sketches he worked on would inform his later paintings. She gave no further thought to him.
Rather, she was happily occupied with other matters. Elisa’s brothers who had seemingly neglected her for many days returned bearing many stories. Then for a few days, they took her away from the palace, keen to show their youngest sister the best of what they had discovered on their outings thus far.
They did not return to the palace again until the king’s second and most beloved of wives sponsored a musical concert on Elisa’s behalf.
This was less a concert than audience with the good fairies, many of whom had daily petitioned for a glimpse of the young queen. The king’s second wife was known to be a lenient elf and arranged the event as an outdoor affair, timed with the opening of one of the private gardens to the public. The fairies who wished to perform would believed to be too numerous and difficult to manage inside one of the salons.
It was midday when the fairies were finally corralled into place. With the sun bright overhead, Elisa sat beneath the shade of flowers dangling from a long trellis with the other elves.She closed her eyes and listened as hundreds of fairies young and old sang a lovely tune describing some story behind their creation.
She did not understand all of it. But the elves applauded enthusiastically and she did as well.
Cheered by their reception, the fairies then eagerly dined on the honey and flowers offered to them by the elven queen’s household. It seemed that they were very conscientious beings, unable to enjoy a meal without having properly earned it.
Elisa gladly received those that weren’t too shy to approach her, allowing them to all shake her fingers in greeting. They were clearly ecstatic to see her, although she did not fully comprehend why. But she played with them while the garden began to empty of its guests.
They would have loitered indefinitely in the garden if a wolf pup had not suddenly tumbled through the hedges. The sudden interloper scattered the fairies that had come to her. They ran away from the wolf, playing with it until they tired. The more mischievous ones hid in the flower beds, frustrating the pup who seemed determined to rid the garden of their presence.
Elisa watched, both mortified and fascinated by the creature. Such was the attitude of an innocent woman unacquainted with wild things. She thought to end this game and floated towards the wolf, her hands reaching out to touch the exhausted beast.
A voice full of soft politeness arrested her in place. “The Queen of Swans.”
Elisa stepped back and found the master painter standing too close. She spoke coolly as she folded her arms across her chest. “Was there something you wished to ask of me?”
The elf held his sheaf of paper in hand and did not bow or smile per their custom . Instead he simply gazed at her, his light-colored eyes studying her for a long, uncomfortable moment. “You did not like the performance today? You yawned several times.”
Elisa raised her fingers to the back of her neck, suddenly cold. She rubbed it while she tried to think of an explanation that would not be misinterpreted. “No, in fact, I liked the fairies very much.”
“They like you as well.” He quirked his mouth. “Perhaps you truly are the Queen of Fairies as the others say.”
Elisa was not rattled by the contempt in his voice. She offered the artist a polite smile. “Thank you for inquiring after my well-being. Please give your master my regards.” She heard Brianne fussing with fairies somewhere behind the hedge and began to turn in that direction.
The elf paced about her, walking a circle around her that kept her in place while never dropping his gaze. Without warning he reached in, his fingers touching her skin as he held her wrist. “My master? The Fairy Queen chooses to insult me, does she?”
Elisa frowned at the coldness to his touch. She was unaware of what protocol she might have violated. “I am neither she nor a woman who gives insults freely save to those who offend her. I believe I hear my attendant. I bid you good day.” She pulled her hand away and picked up her skirts, determined to be rid of him.
But the elf was once again swift, blocking her way. “Do not be so quick to turn your back on the Crown Prince, Queen of Fairy.”