Elva is a particularly interesting character. She’s the classic version of what a woman “should” be. Quiet, demure, capable of handling a court system and the man who runs it. She’s beautiful, she’s cruel, and she is completely lost. Tragic is a way to describe her, although I cannot wait to start writing her discovery of herself. She has a hidden strength that takes a lot of courage, but sometimes it also takes a bit to release it.
A royal was reflected in the mirror before her. Pale pink fabric, light as flower petals, hugged her curves. It billowed and smelled faintly of roses as wind brushed through her window. The curtains stirred, heavy fabric shushing as though her world was not ending.
Elva smoothed her hands over the golden threads embroidered across her bodice. It was too tight. The corset dug into her ribs and bruised her delicate skin. Her feet were pinched in slippers too small but designed to make her more attractive. More fragile. More what he wanted.
Dappled sunlight skittered across the marble floors, blinding her. Golden vines tangled up the walls, hanging from the ceiling, their flowers made of rubies and leaves made of emeralds. Diamonds sparkled in the chandelier which merrily sang in the slight breeze.
She was one of the nobility. A Fae woman, born with a silver spoon in her mouth.
Clacking footsteps echoed in the hall outside her room. There was no door to give her privacy. No armed guard for protection. The House of Brigid had no need for such trivial safeguards. None would dare attack the ancient and respected house.
Her mother’s voice reminded Elva of glass. She had once broken a glass stemmed goblet and sliced her palm open. The ache before the pain was eerily similar to the clenching feeling her mother’s voice always caused.
“Are you ready?”
“I believe so.” Elva smoothed a hand down her bodice once more, ensuring that no strands had been caught by the rings decorating her fingers. Every strand of hair was perfectly in place. The golden mass would never dare loosen from the curls falling to the tops of her thighs.
Her mother circled her. Elva had always been intimidated by her Máthair. Matron of House Brigid, royal blooded, and effortlessly cruel, she was perfection personified. Everything Elva lacked, her mother did not.
A harsh tug yanked the strands of Elva’s corset tighter. She saw stars.
“You’ll have to do.”
“Please.” Like doves released from a cage, the words flew from her lips towards the sun. “Máthair, I do not want to do this.”
“And yet you will. Your entire life has been leading to this moment, and you will not fail your family.”
“I have met him,” Elva whispered. “He is cold and cruel-hearted. I am afraid of him.”
“He is a king. They are all frightening in their own way. Would you have preferred it to be his brother?”
No. No, she would not have liked wooing the warlord prince. Although he had been banished centuries ago, his legacy still remained. A sword had never touched his flesh until his twin lifted his blade.
“No,” Elva said, “ I do not.”
“Then you will convince the king that you are his only choice. Danu knows we have waited far too long for him to decide he wishes a consort. And consorts can become queens.”
“I do not want to be queen.”
“But you will be. Your father and your people depend upon it.”
Their lands were dying. Her father was a foolish man who spent coin on material objects. He emptied their coffers long before taxes were due. The more pressure he put upon their lands, the more their people suffered. They needed money and a king was the definition of money.
“I remember, Máthair.”
“Good. Elva, your innocence is your power. Use it to your advantage. Men have never been able to resist tainting something pure with their fingerprints.”
Elva remained still as her mother touched her cheek with the back of her hand. She did not know what her mother’s fingers felt like. Elva had never been touched with anything other than cold knuckles.
Deep breaths stilled her thumping heart. She lifted her golden butterfly mask and affixed it to her face.
Tonight she would catch herself a king.
Lies made the air taste acrid and bitter. She expected nothing less when so many notorious Fae were trapped in a ballroom together. Mead flowed aplenty, but even the honeyed drink could not cause tongues to loosen.
Although she lived in opulence, Elva had never seen such a ballroom. Gold made the floor a mirror. Marble figures danced in a wave up the walls to the hand painted ceiling. Enchanted faerie lights bobbled in the air, sending sparkles of golden light cascading upon the Fae.
Her hand was shaking. Elva set her drink upon the tray of a passing servant, refusing to allow even the slightest weakness to show. She would not bow underneath the pressure of this crowd.
“Elva, the little one from Brigid.”
She straightened her spine, placed a hand upon her aching ribs, and turned gracefully. “M’lord Tadhg, it has been too long.”
He lifted her hand and pressed thin lips to her rings. She was relieved it was this dark-haired Fae. He was known for his quiet disposition and thoughtful countenance that was both shrewd and kind.
“It is a lovely night for ball,” he murmured as he straightened.
“Indeed. And a lovely ball at that.”
Tadhg clasped his hands behind his back, mischief turning his eyes bright green. “I am surprised to see you here. Your Máthair rarely lets her blossom out of her tower.”
“I am of age.”
“You have been of age for hundreds of years.”
She no longer had a glass to hide the smile quirking her lips. A fan would have been useful, but Máthair had insisted no woman born to be consort of a king would lose control over her features so easily.
Maybe he wouldn’t notice her icy control slipping.
“I have not been graced with such a smile since my young days. I thank you, beloved of Brigid.”
Her cheeks did not stain red, nor did she flinch. Elva had trained to have small outward reactions only when the time was right. But inside, her heart began to beat fast.
He pressed his hand against the small of her back, turning her away from the crowd and towards a statue of Brigid holding a bundle of flowers. “Now, if you are here to find the king like all the other beauties, you will need to be a better trickster than they.”
“I know why you are here. I know why they are here. But it is you I find particularly favorable.”
He reached forward, hooking a finger around the bloom of a rose. She heard the distinct sound of grating stone and exhaled as Brigid moved to reveal a hidden corridor.
“Why are you helping me?” she asked.
“Because of all the blossoms here, you are the only one I believe has thorns. The king is not a kind man. He is not a good man either, but if anyone could change him, I believe it to be you.”
She did not want that. Elva was no different than any other woman in the ballroom. Yet, his words took root in her hardened heart and flourished in the sunshine of her soul.
It would not be proper to reply to his treasonous words. Instead, Elva merely searched his eyes for a lie. There was none to be found.
Inclining her head in thanks, she slipped behind the statue and disappeared from the ballroom.
No cobwebs caught at her hair, no rats skittered past her toes. This was a well cleaned corridor, lit only by the weak light of the castle filtering through grates and revealing the partygoers.
She did not linger to watch hidden trysts, political quarrels, or wardrobe malfunctions. She walked to the very end of the corridor and pressed her palms against cold stone.
Moonlight turned the hidden garden silver. Flowers of every species made the air sticky and coated her lungs with sweet smells. Her soul lifted to flight, spinning lazily in the air.
She nearly forgot herself. Elva had always been close to Brigid, closer even so when a garden was laid out like a banquet before her. She lifted a hand to ghost a fingertip over a bright purple bloom.
“I wouldn’t do that.”
Her heart froze solid, finger hovering in the air. She knew that voice, toneless and feather light as it coiled around her senses.
“Your Highness,” she rasped.
“Did you expect someone else?”
She heard him move closer and closer until his hand shifted hers away from the flower. His hair slid over her shoulder in strands of white, tangling in her fingers and around the violet petals.
“That is a very dangerous flower,” he murmured in her ear.
“Is it poisonous?”
“Only at night.”
“You keep poison in the palace gardens?”
“I prefer to keep dangerous things close so I might know what they do next.”
His heat blanketed her. From shoulder to knee, she could feel him. Every inch of silken fabric and barely leashed aggression. Her mind shrieked danger but her honor reassured he would not harm her.
“What dangerous thing did I find growing in my garden tonight?” he asked.
“I am not dangerous, Your Highness.”
He released her hand. Elva panicked, knowing this was her one moment to catch him. That was what Tadhg had done for her. A single moment of time where she was the only woman in his path.
Like a whip, she snapped out her hand and caught his wrist. The movement spun her around until she was staring up into his cold gaze.
Her fingers convulsed around him, but she did not let him go.
He tilted his head to the side. “Not dangerous?”
“Not to you. If I do not please you, you may mold me into whatever creature you desire. I am yours.”
The words stung in her throat, hooking barbed thorns into her soul and spreading a bleak darkness. She had sealed her fate.
He lifted his free hand, brushing his fingertips over her bare throat. She was certain he saw her shiver, hoped he thought it desire rather than fear.
“And who are you?” he asked while he familiarized himself with her warm flesh.
“I am of the House Brigid.”
“And do you take after your deity? Do I find myself holding a woman with many faces?”
Elva swallowed. “I will awaken by your side each dawn, filtering light upon your face. I will heal your body from all wounds and sing you to sleep each night.”
“You make no mention of her third face.”
“I am no warrioress. I renounced Brigid’s smithcraft a long time ago.”
He tangled his fist in her hair, tilting her head backwards to bare her throat to his lips. “I find I do not believe you. I think you hide silver and steel beneath this pretty facade.”
“I would not lie to you,” she gasped.
“Flowers sometimes do not know they are poisonous,” he whispered the words against the beat of her heart.
The mask upon her face shuddered as she felt the icy touch of his magic. Gold melted, dripping down her face and tangling in her hair.
He straightened, searching her face for beauty as she had known he would. A king of the Seelie had no outward imperfections. She would be expected to have nothing less.
“I’m going to keep you,” he declared.
Elva trembled in fear.