Within a few hours, the messages came. Azul’s kin — both near and distant — had heard the rumors of his unexpected return to the city.
He did not answer any, instructing some hapless novice elf to write back that he had taken ill and was isolated for several days. Azul did not feel all that guilty perpetuating such a lie when he knew very well that they did not seek him but information.
Instead he chose to spend the next few days in the bowels of the tower with the two weird sisters as they reexamined the books that had once been shown to the lady of the lake and her brothers. He watched as they discarded the ones that no longer had any bearing upon the unfortunate queen.
On occasion he would leave them to their gloomy stories and watch Isra as he oversaw the preparations for the journey back to the Garden.
Isra was following some secret instruction that had been passed within the tower for years. He ordered the young novices to carry out old treasures up to the courtyard. Twelve items were placed around the tower in a circle. None were alike.
Among them was one rumored to have been touched by the Queen of Swans herself on a visit to the old King Arin. Both Azul and the small boy he carried could not help but stare at the weathered statue of a mythical lion plucked from a long gone garden.
The old man joined them under the stone beast. He patted his stomach. “It is the last one now. It is a good thing it was rescued from its former home.”
The young boy reached out with his hands and slapped them against the lion’s feet. He giggled as he roughly patted the creature.
The seer’s eyes blinked at the wizard elf and child, amused by the irony of unicorn meeting lion. “Well, can you guess why I have gathered these here?”
Azul had already studied the statues. But where no statue stood another object had been left behind to commemorate them. He saw an old sword, a talon, and small pieces of treasure. There were twelve in total, encircling the tower. He understood by their number that the items were intended to represent the ancient races. “A Round Table.”
The old man hummed to himself as he himself pet the statue of the lion. “Yes, and with you at its center– carrying the proof that is needed to guide you.”
Azul still did not understand the deep animosity the residents of the tower had developed for their current king. Their fate could be far worse than being ignored. He kept an eye on the child, still fondly playing at the lion’s feet. “What do you get out of this, seer? Why help me so directly when you know this will upset the nobles?”
The old man clapped his hands together in glee. “Everyone tells us what must be done, what will happen, and that everything is immutable. Everyone is mired in rules that no one knows why they exist. But traditions,” he grinned, “are boring.”
The elf wizard pinched the bridge of his nose and then dramatically shook his head at such trivial reasons. “Entertainment is not a strong enough motive.”
“You did not know your grandfather. Although he was a serious man, he was still fun. And if I help you, it’s because I like gamblers. I want to gamble upon what comes next from an elf with a magic that is shady and used without rules.”
Azul chuckled. “You flatter me. I think.”
“No, I dare you,” the old man beamed. “Flattery is for fools.”
* * *
When the first sliver of morning light appeared over the distant mountains, the ritual began. With the sleeping boy secured to his back, Azul watched as the young apprentice mages stood outside the circle and placed small yellow stones in shallow impressions in the ground.
The three siblings were still conferring with the other mages who had come out to observe the ritual.
While the sunlight began to reach into the courtyard, Azul fidgeted. Finally, at precisely the right moment, he spoke. “Please step outside the circle.”
And so the elves stepped outside, save the three siblings who had decided to come with him. Between them, they carried nothing except one book — the tale that told how Elisa’s life would end.
The sun began its climb and Azul began to recite. He chanted the name of his father and the fathers before him. The air began to change while the sun began to warm the stones upon the ground and feed the twelve artifacts with energy.
“Once we begin to move,” Azul told the three siblings as they drew close to him. “You must stay near me. Should we find ourselves elsewhere, do not move beyond my voice.”
He could see the excitement on the old seer’s face as the sun began to feed the intricate array of magic and heat the ground beneath them. Azul knew this light — the light that connected disparate places to one another — the same light that allowed him to bring things from one place to another.
And now this magic would do more than move objects but people.
The child wriggled as the faces of the elves outside the circle began to fade away into a whiteness. “We go home?” The boy sounded hopeful.
“Yes, shh, Conn,” the elf answered. “Let me concentrate.”
In spite of the warning, however, the baby sang a giddy tune — unfazed by the fog that had overtaken them.
The light inside it was intense, bright and overwhelming. And in this light, Azul sought out a flickering yellow light. He saw one — blinking faintly in the distance. But he knew to turn his head away and to search out a stronger signal arranged in a shape of his own design.
Before he had left the Garden, Azul had scattered the stones in a safe place in the meadow. He had told the fairies not to touch them — knowing very well how much they liked to dig at the soil for shiny things. He warned them not to for it might be the only way for him to return.
But now his worries were for nothing — for as soon as they had entered the magic path he had created, the boy was tugging at his hair, pointing out what direction he wanted to go.
“Conn? I want to find that woman Elisa. I want to find the pretty lake.”
The boy jumped up and down in the carrier on the elf’s back. “Yesyesyes! Run run run!”
“Where ?” Azul asked, slightly exasperated by the lack of specificity the child offered.
“It doesn’t matter where!” shouted the old man behind him. “I think it never did. Just go until he says stop.”
Azul took one look at the siblings and wondered exactly how this was to be accomplished with them so old and frail. “No running, Conn.” He warned the young boy. “They can’t keep up with legs like yours and mine.”
“No!” The child shrieked. “We go! Home!Home!”
Azul took one look behind him and saw the expression on the child’s face. It was not merely a look of impatience — but a look that he identified as a child in urgent need to relieve himself. He groaned. “Not now Conn. After we get there.” And with another shout, he urged the siblings to hurry. “Stay close. Do not dawdle!”
They moved through the strange white fog that covered up the pale shapes of trees and roads that spanned the world between the Golden City and the Garden or Paradise. The world moved in a blur as if the travelers five flew like the wind.
The elves kept silent, uncertain what to make of such a sight. This was true magic — one that had been lost years ago.
How many minutes or hours had passed on this journey, they did not know. But when the fog dissipated and the five looked about them — they saw the sun was already well overhead in the sky.
It was late afternoon. And they were in the garden once more.
Yellow lights flickered in the meadow where Azul often met his Queen for tea. He saw them blink out before fairies descended upon them. And then heard the sound of swords drawn by the guards that followed.
He saw their opened mouths. The men who served their human queen were confused by the intruders in their garden. But the baby on Azul’s back burbled in joy and the look of anger and confusion faded slowly away.
“You scoundrel!” scowled Hahn. “What’s this just showing up without warning? And who do you have with you?”
“Calm yourself, rooster,” Raven shuddered in reply. He bowed low and mumbled. “They are the wise ones.”
The irascible redhead bowed immediately.
As for the nameless Swan Knight, he sheathed his sword and offered no other greeting save one. “You found the child.”
Conn wriggled once again, reminding Azul that the child needed to be loosened from his back. “Yes, I found him playing in random ponds and fields outside. But it is this one he prefers over the rest.”
As if to prove his point, the elf wizard gently undid the wrap that held the child close and planted the boy on the ground.
The others watched as the child furiously waddled towards the cottage. The fairies chased him from behind as he found the steps that would lead inside. But the child paused.
They quickly saw why. Azul glimpsed the woman standing in the shade of the porch, waiting to receive the child with open arms. And Conn flung himself at the queen who rewarded him with a kiss on his forehead.
The image the woman and child made startled them.
Azul blinked, startled by the beauty present in that unguarded moment. Once she let the boy run inside the house, she looked up and her mask slipped back in place.
The woman was gone. Instead it was a queen who approached him. Azul furrowed his brow as she offered him a cool greeting. “So you have done as I asked.”
And he confirmed what he had thought before. She was still angry with him.
But she offered her hand to him as was the elven custom. “And you bring others. Azul–”
She had not noticed that he had not yet bowed. Too late, she realized that he did not intend to kiss the hand she offered. Instead, he had grasped her hand and pulled her close.
The guards were slow to move as he corrected their queen. “It’s Prince Azurite,” he whispered into the woman’s ear. “I have come to claim the throne. And you.”