The King of Eldarlan hates parties. Superficial conversations and social niceties never come easy for him. When cursed to host human princesses at a party every night, he considers it mild torture until an unusual princess appears one night. Wrapped in a worn robe with bare feet and tousled hair, she intrigues him immediately
Kate had been a princess only a matter of hours before being pulled from her bed by a magical spell. It drops her in an enchanted garden populated by silent elves and princesses of various ages. Attempting to avoid the unsolicited advice of her new peers, she retreats to the dark hedge maze where she encounters her host.
She turned around. Wide-eyed, she searched the shadows where I stood, offering me the perfect opportunity to examine her without her knowledge. Barefoot and bundled in a worn velvet robe the color of emerald moss, her form was obscured by the plenteous fabric. She was a tiny thing, even for a human. Was she even full-grown? Mentally measuring her against the adult princesses infesting my palace grounds, I knew for certain she wasn’t nearly as tall. Had I gained yet another child princess to care for?
“My apologies. I was told I could explore. Was that incorrect?” Her dark eyes watched the hedge a little to my left. A slight frown pulled at her generous mouth. She peered into the wispy shadows that I had gathered around me when she had first intruded on my haven. Not a hint of fear flickered among the interest in her inquisitive gaze.
“That depends,” I answered.
Her eyebrows, slender wings of darkness against her pale skin, rose. “On what?”
“Who you are.”
She considered this for a moment, tilting her head slightly to the side. Her eyes glinted beneath dark lashes. I couldn’t discern their true color, but they were alight with intelligence and a flicker of amusement. “There is something exceptionally odd about introducing oneself to a hedge. Might I see your face?”
I let my shadow form to slip slightly, allowing her to see the outline of my figure against the backdrop of leaves.
She gasped softly and took a half-step backward. “You are taller than I thought.”
“You are short for a human,” I observed. “Are you full-grown?”
Instead of acting offended and running off, the reaction I had come to expect from my other guests whenever I had spoken to them, she laughed softly. “At thirty years, I am unlikely to grow anymore. I am not familiar with your kind, sir, whatever you are, but humans usually attain their full height before they reach twenty years.”
I nodded. “Then you are full-grown.”
“And quite acclimated to it.” She flashed me a cheeky grin before turning away to move back toward the statue in the center of the space. “Who is this?”
“Why do you wish to know?”
She glanced over her shoulder. “The statue is interesting. Is he an ancient king, a war victim, or perhaps some stuffy politician?” She considered the statue with a slight frown as she tightened the belt of her robe and plunged her hands into the pockets.
“None of those, I hope,” I responded. “Are you cold?”
She shook her head. “What do you mean, you hope?”
Dropping my shadow form, I stepped into the halo of light around the statue. “Because it is me.”
She turned to confront me. “But you look nothing—”
My heart faltered in my chest. A shadow elf stood where the wispy creature had lingered before. A creature no more tangible than a bundle of smoke was far less intimidating than a living, breathing shadow elf straight from my childhood nightmares.
“Is it a passable likeness?” A sardonic, inky-black eyebrow arched slightly higher than the other brow as he gazed down at me.
A strange mixture of trepidation and intrigue warred within me. On one hand, he was very tall, well over six feet, and magical power radiated from him so that my skin tingled with an uneasy desire to flee. Magic meant danger. I shivered. In contrast, he struck me as amused and not cruelly so. With coppery-hued skin, ink-black hair, and striking silvery-blue eyes beneath sooty lashes, he was quite handsome as elves went. What was I saying? It wasn’t as though I had ever met an elf before, let alone a shadow elf.
“Nod if you can hear me.” Humor laced his deep voice as he regarded me with a slight twitch at the corner of his mouth.
“My ears didn’t stop working just because you scared me.”
“Neither has your mouth, it seems. All other parts of you still in working order as well?”
I nodded as I inched away from him. “All except my heart. It stuttered a bit. It isn’t every day I come face-to-face with a creature from my nightmares.”
“My apologies. I didn’t know my reputation had spread to the extent that I was terrorizing young women’s dreams.” He inclined his head to me graciously, the movement far too graceful to be human.
I decided that the more space between us, the better. However, as I attempted to inch around the statue base under the guise of continuing to study it, he followed me.
“I have always hated this statue,” he muttered as he walked behind me. He maintained the four feet required by politeness, but that didn’t ease my awareness of his presence.
“Why?” Pausing to peer up at the figure’s features, I tried to distract myself by studying them. “The statue is appealing enough.”
“Ah, but so misrepresentative.”
Curious, I turned to examine his face. Lean lines, pronounced cheekbones, arresting eyes, they were all there in the stone representation—well, all except the coloring. Some of the effect was lost without the contrast between the vibrant blue of his eyes and the darkness of his complexion. “The artist represented you fairly well, considering the constraints of his medium.”
“He said the same thing. Sounded like an excuse to me.”
“You have all four of your limbs. The face is similar, and he depicted your height well enough. What is your complaint?”
He peered at me perceptively. “Do I detect a note of defensiveness? Were you misrepresented in some point?”
Warmth flooded my face at the memory of the royal portrait painted before the coronation. The artist’s attempts to disguise my faults had resulted in a portrait of another person entirely. “You didn’t answer my question,” I pointed out, turning to face him boldly.
He met my gaze steadily, studying my features long enough for me to wonder if he would answer at all. “I am neither cold nor distant. He made my feet too small, and I wouldn’t stand that way.”
I looked down at his feet, glanced over at the statue’s, and laughed. “He did.” Then, realizing what I had done, I clapped my hand over my mouth. “I am so sorry. I shouldn’t have laughed. That was rude.”
“Don’t apologize.” He regarded me with amusement lightening his eyes to silver, but, strangely, he didn’t smile. “It is funny. You are the first to react honestly to it since its installment forty years ago.”
I frowned up at him. “How old are you?”
He laughed then. A soft chuckle that was so fleeting I wondered if I had heard it at all. “We haven’t even exchanged names yet. Discussing ages before names seems a bit forward, don’t you think?”
Emboldened by his lack of offense at my bluntness, I shrugged. “We have discussed far more unmannerly topics already. My height, your feet, and my rudeness, a discussion of ages would hardly be amiss. Besides, I have already told you mine.”
“My name is Emrys Elian Iston.”
“That is quite a mouthful,” I observed, feeling strangely bold.
“I have three additional names, but I keep them a secret from everyone.”
“To keep the very situation we are in now from becoming worse.”
Then it dawned on me. “You are the elf king!” Horror stole my breath. Sitting down on the edge of the pedestal, I attempted to breathe normally in order to calm the erratic flutter of my heart. Not only had I been bold and rude, but it was to the elf king. Oh! My brother was going to lose his mind and possibly his throne.
“I am. You are just realizing it?”
His hand settled on my back between my shoulder blades. Radiating warmth and a strange tingle, it made my heart thunder all the harder. Specks danced along the edges of my vision as I prayed I wouldn’t pass out. Fainting came frequently enough that I had become somewhat accustomed to it. However, dropping senseless at the feet of the elf king I had just insulted by not recognizing him would be a new low, even for me.
“Your heart isn’t beating normally for a human,” he observed.
My chest hurt. My vision was darkening. “I know,” I gasped. “It happens.”
The tingling coming from his hand intensified. Then, almost as though something was forcing it to behave, my heart settled into a regular rhythm. Then it slowed.
“Better?” he asked.
I nodded, not trusting my voice yet.
“Does this happen often?”
I lifted my head, preparing to reassure him it wasn’t anything to bother about. I had dealt with these episodes my whole life. But when I met his concerned gaze, I hesitated. “At least once a week, of late. There is nothing our healers can do. Usually, I pass out. When I come to, I feel better by the next day.”
He nodded gravely. “I will summon an elven healer then.” The king rose to his feet.
“No, please!” I followed him, stumbling in my haste to stop him. To my utter humiliation, he caught me by my upper arms before I could fall. “I can’t.”
“Why?” His features tightened.
“My brother has forbidden me from seeking outside help. You shouldn’t even know. He doesn’t want anyone to suspect I might not be completely healthy.” I closed my eyes against the shame. “He is hoping I will marry and produce his heir.”