Not more than a few hours passed before another set of attendants arrived at Elisa’s door. They swept inside Elisa’s room, their arms full of boxes, and told her to expect the dowager elf shortly.
Lady Ardin had become the dowager by simply outliving most of her other female relatives. She was King Arin’s eldest living sibling and, prior to his ascension to the throne, the favorite of all her siblings to become Queen.
But for reasons she never revealed, she withdrew her name from the short list of succession candidates in the final hours before the council’s vote. Many believed that she refused to swear an oath to the council and thus removed herself their influence. Some who knew her well believed she had first competed then left the race in order to smooth her brother’s path to the throne.
If Arin was a gentle and kind soul the dowager was a fierce and dominating presence. She strode into the room without asking permission and stood in front of the surprised Elisa. Her rich, gravelly voice skipped the pleasantries. “No sooner does my great-niece tell me that you require a replacement does my great-nephew also request to join our table tonight. Queen Elisa, these children of my brother play a game, one that I assure you I had no knowledge of.”
She did not understand these elves and their intrigues. Politely Elisa offered the lady a seat. “I believe even Lady Brianne did not quite understand what her brother wished to do. I am sorry for the trouble I have caused you.”
Lady Ardin seemed more energized than irritated, however. “Well the Crown Prince is very tricky. I have come to ask you how you wish to play this game of his.”
“And I must admit that I have no talent for such things.” Elisa folded her fingers in her lap. “Nor any desire to do anything except repair what harm I may have caused.”
The old woman motioned at her attendant who quickly brought her mistress a small box for inspection. Once its contents had been approved, the maid placed the box on the table between where she and Elisa sat. “To him all things are a game and you are one of them. If he was truly angered, you would have been dealt with then and there. But he leaves you be and goes off to sulk a bit in the baths. He might have wandered off from there but when his sister runs to find him and inform him of how she was disposed of, he immediately comes to me with some pretext of missing my company. He finally gets to the point and asks to join my table for dinner. I, of course, cannot deny him this favor.”
“I have created trouble for you,” Elisa lowered her eyes and looked at her lap. “In this case, I should like to ask you to advise me on how to apologize. I will take care of this right away before it grows worse.”
“You shall do no such thing,” the dowager said sharply. “If you now grovel he will never take you seriously. If he spoke to you today it was because he saw something that forced him to admit you might not be a trick or a pretend guardian of the garden. ”
Elisa wrestled with this assessment. Her face colored as she recalled the unpleasant nature of their encounter. “He did make it seem like I had intentionally tried to deceive everyone. But I never asked to be called a Queen nor demanded the elves bow and pay tribute.”
“He would not know that until he studied you.” Ardin leaned back in her chair. “He did not know Maeve like his father or I did. He would not trust her decisions like we would. After all, she was but a distant figurehead by the time he came of age and joined the pool of succession candidates. But he is an intelligent young elf and can see you are not some grasping princess, looking for kingdoms and titles. But he does not understand you — and so he tries to bully and tease you to see how you might respond. He used that tactic often with his brothers and sisters. And he always won.”
As much as the dowager criticized the Prince, she seemed rather proud of these flaws she attributed to him. “He is very good at managing them. But you– he tried and failed. And so he comes tonight to try something else. The game is still on, my dear. And you must play it well, my Queen, if you wish to secure his forgiveness and our future king’s friendship.”
“This game you speak of. He was proud of his magic. Would you be able to teach me something to impress or frighten him?”
The woman laughed. “If I had magic, I would have singed his hair long ago. The fool spends too much time on it as is.” Her hand reached across and clasped Elisa’s hand in her own lap. “Sadly I have no talent for it. My brother was the only one among us who shows that gift. And now his son. But as for this game,Elisa, we will help you. My great-nephew is a prince but he is also an elf, one who loves his intrigues and beautiful things. You understand don’t you?”
Elisa nodded reluctantly, eyeing the bed where a pile of soft garments had been laid out for their inspection. “I leave myself to your tutelage.”
Lady Ardin stood, pleased.
* * *
Elisa emerged from her chamber and into the outdoor spaces of the palace, following the escorts the dowager had commissioned on her behalf.
She floated across the stone paths and along the parapets, finding her way back into the hanging gardens that adorned many of the palatial rooftops.
The fairies did come to her, attracted initially by the sight of a large brilliantly colored flower moving higher and higher up the maze of palace buildings. When they saw that the flower was actually a human, they kept a shy distance from her.
She did not raise her hands for she had been told that would bring them swarming towards her. The dowager had told her not to do anything with the fairies until she had found the statue of the lion.
It was not hard to miss this statue for it blocked her way into the courtyard that marked the inner palace where the Lady Ardin resided. Elisa laid hands on it for a moment, pressing her lips against the noble nose of the stone creature as instructed.
A cough indicated her act of respect had not gone unobserved. A tall, lithe form stepped out from behind a column and approached. The elven crown prince pursued his lips slightly while his eyes lingered over her dress. “So it seems that it is dusk that Titania favors.”
She glanced down, uncertain exactly what he meant by such a statement. She realized then it was the changing colors of her gown he referred to. She lifted her head to thank him but instead her eyes drifted to his cheek to see if the mark she had left on his face was still there. To her relief, it was gone. However, the longer she gazed at him, the more his brow creased.
Elisa turned her head away, quelling the urge within her to apologize to him. The dowager had advised her to say nothing of the earlier events. Instead Elisa found something else to say. “Good evening, your highness.”
To her surprise he said nothing more.
She rested her head against the cool surface of the statue, uncertain of what to do next.
Her silence drew him closer towards her. “Are you unwell?”
She swallowed, aware of his presence on the other side of the statue. He was being careful as was she, staying out of reach in case she might still be angry at him. “I thought this statue was rather cool. And yet the stones we stand on are still warm from today.”
The prince lightly touched the statue. “The one who carved it did not choose a stone from here. It has its own seasons my great-aunt claims. It is always cold. She said it also has its own luck.”
Elisa peered around the lion’s nose, having forgotten her fear of the prince. She thought to ask him more about the statue but her sudden movements drew the attention of the fairies.
Prince Vincens sighed as they inevitably began to circle around them. “Do they always follow you?”
“Not always,” Elisa said awkwardly. “Are they not supposed to be here?”
“They do not usually come this high up. There are few flowers to interest them in the hanging gardens. Nor do most of the housestaff like them. The windows are always open here and they can get inside quite easily. Once they enter a house, they generally have a bad habit of never leaving.”
“I do not think they mean to create trouble,” Elisa answered the prince gravely. “They are curious and social. But if it will bother the others– I shall ask them to stay outside.” She raised her hands, enticing the bolder ones to drift over and cling to her fingers. She rewarded them with a gentle touch and a kiss, before telling them what their prince had requested.
They whispered among themselves. As word spread of what the prince was worried about the fairies all turned their heads to look at him. Those closest to him blinked a few times, as if weighing out something about him. A few grinned impishly at him before darting off.
The prince scratched his nose and watched as the flock of fairies moved away to circle another unoccupied rooftop. “Now if you could only also send Taliesin away as easily. Of all the evenings to emerge from his tower, he would pick tonight to join my great-aunt for dinner.”
If he was annoyed, Elisa was pleased. “I am glad. It is not often one’s company includes a talented and wise man.”
The prince arched a brow. “Yes, I believe you are correct in that regard. I suppose it is your presence that draws him. You have met him before, I heard.”
Elisa nodded. “A personal matter, your highness.”
With that gentle warning, the prince could not press for details.
The two were not kept waiting long. Whatever business Taliesin had with the dowager, neither of the two revealed what that might to the young queen and the future king.
Dinner began immediately. Elisa was quickly ushered to a seat next to the dowager, leaving the two other guests to sit on the other side of the table.
The dowager had made sure not to allow the prince to sit beside her guest. But whatever distance had been put between them did not prevent him from studying Elisa. The young woman’s eyes and hands often spoke for her — telling when something delighted her or something displeased her — even when she was reluctant to speak. And the prince was in a mood to entertain, telling stories that made Elisa smile, his great-aunt snort, and amuse the long-lived and cynical Taliesin.
Elisa revealed a great more than she had intended to. And so did the charming prince, working hard to entertain her and never failing to be attentive to her needs throughout the eleven courses they sat through.
It was at the twelfth course the bard cleared his throat and addressed the prince. “The summer palace renovations go well I presume. I have heard that several of the mages will be returning soon.”
Vincens reluctantly shifted his attention to the bard. “Yes. I think we have addressed some critical problems with the design. But it is not yet suitable for receiving guests for at least another year or two. But if you would all like to see it, something can be arranged.”
The prince turned his gaze to the human guest at the table, ignoring the pointed looks the wiseman and Lady Ardin exchanged at his expense.
Elisa puzzled over the intense look on Prince Vincen’s face. He, who had mocked her, now sought her favor. She did not understand this.
Taliesin spoke up, sparing Elisa from the trouble of sorting out how to respond to the invitation. “The princess’ brothers were waiting on the delivery of something before they departed. But the situation has changed and tomorrow they begin their preparations to leave. It would be unwise to plan a journey to the summer palace.”
Elisa felt her spirits lift at such news and gave the bard a warm smile. “I should like to return to the garden. We left a young unicorn in charge of it while we were here. We promised him we would be there before the first snows fell in the mountains. He worries we will not otherwise make it back until next spring. And he would be lonely without us should we not return soon.”
“And what of I?” The prince leaned across the table and offered Elisa a soft, pliant look. “Will I not be lonely?”
“Vincens!” Lady Ardin scolded her kin. “Your joking will mislead others into thinking you have intentions towards her.”
The young man planted his elbow on the table and rested his cheek upon the palm of his hand. His lips turned up at the corners. “She might be a suitable Titania . What say you, Bard, if I ask for your blessing?”
Taliesin’s expression darkened. “This is not something decided so casually. And it is not my decision to make either.”
The prince seemed rather amused by the bard’s irritation. “True. Then I would like some privacy then with our guest. It seems her brothers will imminently be whisking her away. This small talk must cease.”
“Crown Prince,” Lady Ardin’s took on a warning note. “She is a lady and you know we cannot leave you two here alone.”
The young elf scowled as he abruptly stood from his chair. He proceeded to round the table to where Elisa sat and bowed dramatically. He held out his hand to Elisa. “I believe that the garden below is a safe place to wander. Every window of Lady Ardin’s residence has a clear view of it.”
“Yes it does,” Lady Ardin stood, ignoring the prince’s sarcasm. “And it is a safe enough place for you to talk. You may both go ahead. We will join you shortly.”
With that assurance, Elisa warily took the Vincen’s hand. She was still not sure what to make of the mercurial elf. But she had no reason to deny the prince the favor he had requested of her. Whatever game he played now, he would reveal to her in short order.
Outside, the moons began their slow ascent into the night sky. It was still dark enough that she needed his help navigating the garden path. Her eyes were not as sharp as his. Elisa leaned upon the prince’s arm as he guided her to a small bench facing the statue she had earlier admired.
He seated her but did not join her. “Earlier I claimed I possessed the gift of magic, Titania, and you did not demand proof. Would you like to see it now?”
Gravely, she answered him. “I do not require it from you to believe you. But if it it pleases you and will not cause you or I any trouble or harm to others, then I would like to see it.”
With a smile and a slight of hand, he revealed a small ring with stones that glinted in the darkness. He slipped it on and then placed his hand on the statue.
As soon as he did so, strange colored lights began to unevenly shimmer throughout the garden. Some lights glowed among the stones on the ground. Others ran up alongside the hanging vines while others seemed suspended in the air.
Elisa found the effect to be lovely. Her eyes shone as brightly as the lights in the garden.
The fairies could not help but return, drawn by the sight of magic. They inspected the strange magic lights, experimenting with each of them. Tiny fists knocked against the milky pale stones shining in the path. Others climbed vines to inspect the red ones that had bloomed from the hanging flowers. As for the lights that floated in the air, the creatures circled around them endlessly, not able to answer for themselves how they remained suspended.
Their cries of amazement fueled the look of intense pride and satisfaction on the prince’s face.
“Now,” he sat next to Elisa. “For a more ordinary trick.” He withdrew a handkerchief from his outer garment and crumpled it between his fingers. The contents were scattered about the ground, distracting the fairies from their frenzied inspection of the magic lights. They ran and flew in, their wings and feet carrying them all over the ground as they stuffed the crumbs into their mouths.
Elisa did not laugh. Instead, she looked at them with compassion.
Her reaction disappointed the prince. “I had thought to prove I, too could master the fairies.” The prince said lightly. “I did not think by doing so I would earn such a troubled look from their queen.”
She watched the fairies scurry away to eat the prized food. “It is not that I disapprove. It is that these ones seem so desperate for everything — whether food or affection. The fairies look to the elves as their elder kin.” She touched the prince’s arm. “Please ask your subjects to be kinder to them.”
He did not respond to her request. For a while, he gathered his own thoughts before he turned his attention to a nearby column where a flowering vine had established itself. He plucked a flower in full bloom from it, choosing to bury his nose in it and enjoy its fragrance before finally placing the flower behind his companion’s ear. “Maeve supposedly let them run wild. It seems that Titania will tame them.”
A red color washed over her cheeks — fueled by his gesture of intimacy and then inflamed by his words. She appeared angry. “I do not mean to tame them.”
“Oh?” He leaned in to inspect the flower by her ear. “Then what will you do?”
“I will love them and care for every creature that comes to the garden while I am allowed to live within it. That should please Maeve, shouldn’t it?”
He glanced away, as if pained by her earnest response. “You would strive to become such a queen — worshipped by creatures great and small. Your kind of magic is pleasing– a small, quiet type as befits an elegant swan. Maeve chose well.” Vincens sighed and withdrew his hand from her hair. He looked down at it and began to toy with the ring upon his fifth finger. “I accept you as the guardian of the garden and the fairy queen. And as such, I must ask you if you would consent to make me the King of Fairy.”
Elisa had been warned by the elf Brianne that her brother had possessed some intentions towards her. Still, she spoke slowly as if she could not believe what he asked. “Through marriage?”
He laughed. “Yes, that is how it usually works, even among the elves. It is not because I desire to command the fairies or some other foolishness. But I carry the blood of Alberich within me — the original King of Fairy. My magic and your station means a marriage would align a Titania and an Oberon together. A marriage between us could please the gods that watch over this world and bring magic back to my people.”
She bowed her head, alarmed and stunned by such a proposal. The elves were entranced by their stories, some even willing to allow them to inform decisions so important as matrimony. Even her most romantically inclined of brothers would call such a proposal a foolish fancy. The prince wanted to gamble with fate with the hopes that some of what the mages said within the tower might prove to be true. “I am not free to make any such vows, your highness.”
The prince frowned, still tugging at the ring on his finger. “He, like your human kings, has remarried. Whatever arrangement you had could not possibly bind you– ”
His careless statement hurt her delicate sensibilities. Her voice tightened and she affixed her attention to the statue, unwilling to be drawn into an argument with an elf she barely knew. “It is not that vow that holds me. I have one I must fulfill to my brothers. Until they are free from their curse, I cannot be more than Elisa of the Swans. I have nothing of myself to give to any other purpose.”
His fingers touched her chin, coaxing her to look at him.
Reluctantly she looked up catching the moon, hovering above him in the sky, crowning him with a pale white light.
But it was not that sight that made her tremble. Rather it was the look of honest pity on his face as he addressed her. “Such a bitter fate you hold to. And yet you remain determined to see it through, do you?”
“I love them,” her eyes began to fill with tears. “And I cannot rest until I have freed them.”
“Then I will help you,” he answered her, pulling her towards him to allow her to weep freely against his shoulder. “I, too, am a determined individual. And I shall not give up on you, my Queen of Fairy.”