The heat rushed to Elisa’s face as she contemplated the mortified elf standing before her. To mistake the Crown Prince — the future king of the elves — for a lowly artisan was a grievous offence. She pursed her lips — all too willing to give the man the apology he was due. However, as she began to do so, the prince circled around her once again.
The prince pulled at the fingertips of his gloves absently, betraying his agitation. “Can you possibly that unobservant, human?” The prince’s voice dripped with distaste. “Everyone knows who I am. My portrait hangs everywhere in this city you have been in for more than a fortnight.”
Elisa folded her hands in front of her skirts, trying to keep her poise in spite of the elf’s haughty demeanor. “Your excellency,” she began in tones soft enough that he had to stop his pacing in order to hear her. “I have not been allowed outside. My brothers received the impression from your father’s guards that I should be sequestered here as much as possible for my safety and well-being. You have seen that my opportunities to expand my knowledge of your people and your customs have been limited.”
For a moment, he appeared slightly mollified. Elisa continued. “I was told I would meet many of the king’s family. However, I did not expect to be given the privilege of meeting you. I was told you were busy at the summer palace.”
In fact, she had heard he was more than busy. The ministers’ wives were all too open about the projects the prince had undertaken at this palace, demanding all sorts of cataloguing and assistance with the collection of works that had been housed there when the elves first arrived on this continent. But the wives whispered that it was the prince’s latest lover that kept him tethered there. Brianne had implied to her that the prince refused to extricate himself from the woman, declaring himself too busy for a run-of-the-mill princess.
Elisa was polite enough not to mention this rumor. She curtseyed deeply. “In my homelands, I am called Elisa, the caretaker of wild swans.”
A click of his tongue signified some further displeasure on his part. The prince fully removed his gloves while he corrected her protocol. “You should never bow that low.” His eyes flicked her way. “You are a former princess of Schwan of the southern regions, former wife to the fourth King of Artois. My people claim you not to be just the Queen of Swans — as foretold in legends — but now the Queen of Fairy. That makes you my peer. At best you should offer me your hand. Save my father, the others should receive a nod at most.”
“It is not our custom for titles to drive how we treat one another.”
“A strange custom. But even so, let us pretend you used some combination of these titles in your introductions. Otherwise, our introductions shall never be properly completed. Then you might need to be jailed for such impertinence.”
“Indeed!” Elisa felt a pang of annoyance at how easily the crown prince and his elven sensibilities were offended.
“That was said in jest.” The prince took her hand and pressed it to his lips, his eyes never leaving her face as he did so. “But a private tour of my jailhouses could be arranged.”
Elisa felt a cold thrill inside her, an awareness of danger and power behind that fair countenance. She firmly withdrew her hand from his possession.
The elf’s eyes turned bluer as he studied her. “I am second son to King Arin the Wise. First born child of Weth of the Ice clans. Champion of House of Alberich in the succession trials and Crown Prince to the throne. Before that I was the not merely a painter but formerly the master in residence. But since you offered me your personal name, Elisa… you may call me Vincens.” With a half-smile he mused aloud to himself. “My introduction now matches yours in number of titles. But unlike you, I am not afraid of declaring who I am.”
His words reflected such privilege and arrogance. Elisa’s conscience told her to ignore the spoiled prince’s words but she took the bait and found herself correcting the elf. “I believe you used at least six titles, sir.”
“And I believe you are wrong, princess.” Duly he pointed out how he had arrived at his own calculations by pointing out the title of Crown Prince and champion were one, not two. “It is only by being declared the champion of the succession trials that I am the true Crown Prince over my numerous brothers and sisters. Even over my eldest brother who had no gift for magic. Magic was what swayed the council to my side.”
“You claim to use magic and for such purposes?” Elisa said sharply. “You used it against other elves to coerce their favor?”
His light-colored eyes came to rest upon her face. “It is a tool that can be used for whatever purpose its wielder thinks best. Do you think otherwise? Perhaps your experiences lead you to believe it, in all its applications, is evil.”
“I have only seen it used for evil,” she answered him directly. “It is wicked that you also use it to manipulate others.”
Her indignation was met by a silvery peal of laughter. “Oh my dear innocent Elisa. You assumed I put thoughts in their minds? No,even if I did possess that skill, I am an elf and know that act leads one down the path of black magic. I meant simply that possessing magic proved I was of an old bloodline. The council chose me over my otherwise popular brother just as you appear to have been chosen by the garden. But this goes against what we believe and I, as the council’s champion, have been testing the claims about you.”
Elisa eyed Prince Vincens warily as he began to slowly pace around her. “I am no sorceress, I can assure you.”
His eyes appraised her. “Your youth suggests otherwise. No human can stay unchanged without magic or some other bloodline running through them. And you have repelled each magic trick I have already tried against you. You present a most bewitching sort of problem to me.”
The young woman felt a rush of anger. “Do you mean you have been using magic against me?”
He chuckled as he hovered near her, his fingers brushing against her skirts as he circled around her once again. “Ah. Did you not notice it earlier?”
She glared at him as she recalled that cold sensation she felt each time he had touched her. “What did you do?”
“Oh Elisa,” he laughed softly at her angry response. “I did not try anything so vile as shape changing you against your will. I had simply tried a few small spells to charm you. I had hoped for a kinder, softer response from you.”
Coolly, she responded. “I cannot be cursed, Prince Vincens. Please stop this nonsense.” She eyed him as he lingered around her, keeping his hands in sight. “Lest I petition the king about this harassment.”
“Would you truly do that?” He leaned in, his hand snaking quickly around her waist.
Without thinking, Elisa struck her palm flat against his cheek. She would have hit him again but mercifully the prince let her go.
The sound that resulted from such an act resonated inside the garden, finally bringing Brianne to her. “My lady. Oh–” The elf stopped short of Elisa and dropped a deep bow. Brianne’s fear was in evidence as she realized the object of the lady’s wrath. “Prince Vincens! You are supposed to be with your mother. And magic– you know what the rules are!”
The Prince raised his hand to his cheek. His eyes glittered as they passed over the woman who struck him and he addressed the attendant. “Brianne — as always you are correct. What little I have used is of no concern to the mystics or to you. Our guest has proven immune to several grades of magic.And also immune to my efforts to persuade her. Forget what you see and tend to the Queen. I have tired her out.”
“And your face–”
“It is fine,” the prince said irritably. “Do as I say. And keep her away from my brothers as you promised me.”
Startled, Elisa glanced at her attendant. “You promised him–”
“My lady, please,” Brianne took her arm. “Assaulting the prince is a serious offense if discovered. We must depart.”
Elisa was shuttered off into the hedges away from the sound of the prince’s advancing guards. Only once Brianne had them safely locked within her quarters did the elven female look ready to talk. “Now you have done it, princess. You cannot understand what a mistake that was–”
“I will not allow some man to treat me so poorly ever again.” Elisa rested her back against the wall while her companion paced anxiously about the room. The young queen looked up at the ceiling. “I do not care if he is the king of a hundred nations or of none. Nor do I believe in letting someone experiment with my life.”
“Of course,” the elf muttered. “What he did was forbidden. It is not allowed to use magic on others outside the confines of the sanctuary unless it is for official reasons.”
“He claimed it was,” Elisa crossed her arms over her chest. “But why did you not come sooner? I thought you were to help me ensure that things like that did not happen.”
Brianne fidgeted. “He is the Crown Prince. He will be king. And I was told to keep my distance from him.”
“You cannot honor the dowager mother if you do that. If you serve him over her, then I prefer you find a reason to resign your post before my brothers return. I must tell them what happened.”
Brianne winced. “If you must tell them, please understand that the Crown Prince does not mean to hurt you.”
“How can you say that?!” Elisa’s sense of calm dissipated quickly. “You know nothing of me and what hurt we have experienced so far. And you claim to know the prince’s motivations? His inner feelings?”
“I do.” Brianne spoke passionately. “If he wished to hurt you, he would have turned you over to his guards. You do not understand — he is as influential as our father when it comes to decisions that would be made by the entire council. He would see you all expelled or even punished.”
Elisa’s heart sank as she realized why Brianne defended the prince so vehemently. “Your father. Meaning you are the prince’s sister.”
Brianne stood up straight. “Yes. Vincens is my full-blooded brother. And believe me when I say that he seeks to protect you from our brothers.”
A cold shiver ran down Elisa’s spine as she began to clearly see the layers of intrigue unfolding before her. “Why?”
“Because if you are truly the Queen of Fairy, he means to marry you.”