Morana was already waiting for us on the steps that lead to the palace when we passed through the gate. She looked up from the dagger she had been sharping, a smile spreading across her face. We got off the horse and handed it over to a stable boy who had hurried towards us. Stepping down, she wrapped her arms around me.
“It’s good to see you again,” she said, pulling back. “Even if it might not be under ideal circumstances.”
“I’ve missed you, too,” I said, offering a smile.
Morana turned to Lian then, twisting the dagger in her hand. “And you.” She pointed the blade’s tip right under his chin. “You’re late, I’ve been waiting an hour too long.”
“Are you threatening a prince?” His voice was calm with a hint of amusement.
“Prince?” Morana’s façade broke as her lips curved. “All I see is an arrogant Fae who thinks he has the right to knock up my friend.”
I tilted my head as I watched them. They appeared to have gotten closer in my absence to be joking in such a manner. Lowering the dagger, Morana sheathing it back on her hip. She patted his shoulder before beckoning us to follow her.
“Come on, you must be exhausted,” Morana said as she started to walk up the steps. Much like the town, the palace was made of a combination of dark wood and metals with decorations of flowers and greenery. In the middle of the entrance hall, right between the two large staircases that led to the separate wings, hang a chandelier made of nothing but twigs and leaves, the light coming from the many fireflies that danced around it.
While admiring the architecture, I almost tripped as two children scurried by, running after one another. They laughed loudly, not seeming to have noticed me at all as they were too caught up in their game.
“Gunni! Raimo!” Morana called. The children came to an abrupt halt, turning to her. “We have guests, show some courtesy.”
Both of them followed her gaze to where Lian and I stood. The little girl, Gunni, resembled Morana a lot. With messy red curls braided back and large, round eyes. She smiled, showing her missing teeth and dipped her head at me. I nodded at her in response, returning a smile I hoped was as bright as hers.
Raimo didn’t spare me a second glance before rushing over to Lian, wrapping his arms around his leg. “Lian, you’re back!”
Ruffling his bright orange hair, Lian kneeled down. “Have you been nice to your sisters?”
Puffing his chest, Raimo nodded. “Can we sword fight?”
“Maybe later.” With his thumb, Lian brushed away some dirt that stained Raimo’s dark green skin before standing. He took hold of my hand, squeezing it gently.
Waving her hand, Morana dismissed them. “Go play in the garden.”
Raimo took Gunni by the hand and together they ran off. Just before they turned a corner, Gunni glanced back at Lian, her cheeks darkening as a shy smile played on his tiny lips. I laughed softly, covering my mouth with my palm. Lian raised his brow as we continued to follow Morana up the stairs.
“What is it?”
I shook my head. “They are adorable is all.”
“They are little nuisances, that’s what they are,” Morana called over her shoulder. “They have taken quite a liking to Lian whenever he came by. Did you know he is rather good with a sword? He’s beaten most of my guards.”
I pressed myself into his side, holding onto his arm. “I haven’t had the chance to see him in action, no.”
Morana hummed. Our steps were muffled against the thick carpet that stretched out along the middle of the hall. The ceiling, much like the chandelier, was made of nothing but leaves, twigs, and branches. Instead of torches or candles on the walls, the halls were lit by more fireflies, roaming freely. As much as the interior looked like a forest, so did it smell like it. The tender smell of bark with a slight hint of pine.
Stopping before two dark-wooden doors, Morana turned the knob and opened them. “I hope it is to your liking. Unlike the Crystal palace, we do not have rooms that accustom themselves to your taste.”
Placing my hand on Morana’s arm, I smiled at her. “It’s perfect, you’ve done more than I could have asked for.”
Sadness clouded her eyes for a brief second as she blinked and looked away. “I shouldn’t have left.”
“You had no choice—”
“I did,” she snapped, her gaze turning to Lian’s before returning to mine. “If I had stayed, Jelena would still be here.”
If I hadn’t been so selfish she would still be here. If I had just spent my evening with her instead of letting myself being swept away she would still be here. I was the only one to blame for her death. It was the queen, my aunt, who wanted her dead, it was me who hadn’t stopped Parris when I could, it was me who hadn’t figured out Daneel’s plan sooner.
Instead of telling her this, however, I wrapped my arms around Morana’s shoulders, pulling her into a tight hug. “We couldn’t have known.”
After a moment Morana sighed and pulled back, nodding to the room. “Go rest up, we’ll discuss our next move at dinner.”
“Alright.” Letting go, I stepped into the room, all too eager to let myself fall onto the furs that covered the bed.
“And no funny business,” I heard Morana say, turning to see Lian raise his hands with the most innocent look on his face.
“I wouldn’t dare.”
Sitting down, the mattress dipped under my weight, and a sigh of relief passed my lips. The soft click of the door shutting sounded, bathing the room in silence. Closing my eyes, I took a second for myself. My limbs felt heavy now that I could finally relax them. Sleep was more than tempting, and for a brief moment, I was already slipping away.
The sound of Lian unbuckling his belt jolted me back into consciousness. Blinking, I watched as Lian put his sword down onto the dresser at the end of the bed, followed by the dark brown cloak that had been draped around his left shoulder.
“Would you like to join me for a bath?” he asked, catching my eyes as he started to unbutton his shirt. “I promise it will be warmer than the river.”
“You’ll have to carry me,” I mumbled. “And there might be a chance I’ll fall asleep halfway through it.”
“That’s alright.” With a few long strides, he came to stand before me, offering his hand for my head to rest in. “I’ll take good care of you.”
“Okay,” I hummed.
“Can you undress by yourself?” Breathing a laugh, I nodded. “Too bad.”
Leaning in, he pressed a kiss to my forehead before he made his way to the bathing room. Pushing myself to my feet, I took off my sack of a dress, catching my reflection in the large mirror that was tucked away in the corner beside the ceiling-high window.
All I could seem to focus on was the small bump that was starting to show. I’d felt it, but this was the first time I actually saw it. Trailing my fingers along the length on my middle, I shivered at my own touch as I reached my bellybutton. In only a few months I would be a mother. The Human mother of the child of a Fae.
I wondered what he would look like. Would his ears be as pointed as Lian’s, or rather be only slightly pointed like those of an Elf? Would he have antlers? His hair brown or white? And his eyes, soft, light blue or golden-green? He would be a handsome little thing either way.
“Are you ready?”
Turning to face him, I nodded. He was leaning against the doorway, arm outstretched for me to take with only a towel wrapped around his waist. Taking hold of his hand, Lian led me to the pond like bath that was dug into the back corner of the room. The stone floor transcended into moss, covering the steps and the sides of the bank.
Lian went in first, having discarded the towel. A bit hesitant, I lowered my foot to the first step and was surprised to find the water a comfortable warmth. Relishing the welcoming lapses as I stepped in farther, I couldn’t help the grin on my face. As my feet hit the soft, mossy bottom, Lian pulled me to him.
Around us, the room started to fill with steam. Between the moss tiny, pink flowers started to emerge and bloom right before our eyes, giving off the sweetest scent one could imagen. Small lights danced between the steamy clouds and hopped from petal to petal.
“Beautiful, isn’t it?” Lian said, his voice low and soft as if to match the atmosphere.
“I didn’t even know bathing rooms like this existed.”
“I was equally surprised.”
Resting my head against Lian’s chest, I sighed contently, his steady heartbeat lulling me to my much-awaited sleep. “You and Morana seem close.”
His chest rumbled as he chuckled. “Jealous?”
I shook my head. “I’m glad.”
Cupping water into his hand, Lian washed the dirt off my back and shoulders, rubbing my muscles until they loosened up. Brushing away my hair, his movement stopped. I glanced up, seeing a frown had furrowed his brow.
“I’m so sorry,” he whispered, his fingers lightly trailing over a tender spot on my neck. A bruise. I must be covered in them underneath all the filth. “I should have gotten you out sooner.”
Lifting my head, I kissed his cheek. “You came, that’s all that matters.”
Wrapping his arms around me, he pulled me tighter to him, burying his head in the crook of my neck. I held onto him just as tight, my fingers digging into his back.
“I’ll never let you go again.” Lian kissed my bruise. “Never.”