Fated Queen by Traci Lovelot

Chapter 2

Gloriana

We spent the night at the palace tree before leaving Una and her Guard behind. Una still needed time to recover from the Unseelie poison, but after that, Roq informed Lyall that they might go back into hiding somewhere far from both the Tree of Life and the palace tree. Lyall agreed that keeping us heirs apart was a good idea. We also left Nolan behind under guard like a prisoner.

We made better time than we had on our previous trip, camping in the forest instead of stopping at the village where we usually overnighted. Given that Angel, Kenji, Fen, and Valente were away, and we’d left Nolan back at the palace tree, a half complement of the Guard followed me across the desolate Edge and back to the veil between worlds early the next day. It was the same passage we’d used the last two times I’d crossed between realms. Fortunately, Veela patrolled the Edge, protecting their ancestral homelands, so we didn’t have to worry about walking into an Unseelie ambush.

Stepping through the veil, I blinked a couple times and took a deep breath — it was always a little disorienting. Emerging into the crisp mountain air after having traveled through the stifling heat of the Edge was literally a breath of fresh air. I hadn’t expected it to be so dark, but how many times had people told me time passed differently in the two realms? To my surprise, it was also quite warm despite it being nighttime, making me wonder what month it was out here. It felt like summer. Had it really only been May when I’d been here last?

The sky brightened enough for me to see the increasingly familiar area around the veil between worlds in the middle of the Indian Peaks Wilderness. From here we would make our way to some abandoned and closed roads and then back along some mountainous roads to civilization.

When we took a few steps in the direction of those closed roads, a giant sign blazed between trees, pointing like an arrow away from that direction. I gasped and jumped back, wary of a trap, as every member of the Guard raised their weapons.

“What’s that?” I managed to utter as I cowered back.

When nothing else happened, I took a closer look. The arrow pointed through the spruce and fir trees. Its edges sparkled with magic, but it was an overblown, flamboyant arrow that we couldn’t ignore. Its length ran longer than Lyall’s height, and it hovered at eye level.

“Fen or Kenji left this here for us,” Lyall said, motioning to proceed in the direction it indicated. “But we should still remain cautious. Jovanka and Lauren, you two keep watch at the veil.”

“Yes, guardleader,” they said at the same moment, their weapons at the ready in case any Unseelie somehow followed us through.

Lyall led the way forward, his long rapier out at the ready. He was a foot taller than me, so seeing around him wasn’t easy.

Another arrow blazed ahead, and Lyall continued following the trail. Next was a giant X in the air, and Lyall held up a fist, telling all of us to pause. We stood in silence a few yards back from the X with nothing but the usual forest sounds around us — a chipmunk or squirrel rooting around on the ground, birds in the trees, and the wind rustling through needled branches.

Listening closely, Lyall glanced in every direction and muttered, “I wish a Duwende had joined us.”

I wished Nolan were here too, though my reasons were different than Lyall’s — there was a low-key, nagging fear in the back of my mind that Nolan might decide to become Una’s consort after all, and while I was gone. It wasn’t logical or likely, but the possibility irked me nonetheless.

“Rorik, go on ahead and investigate,” Lyall commanded.

Without a word, Rorik passed by us both. He scanned the forest, dual axes in hand.

“Erynn, follow at a distance,” Lyall said several moments later.

“Yes, guardleader.” Erynn blurred past us to keep an eye on Rorik. I soon lost view of him, but Erynn came to a stop and moved a little left and right to keep him in her light of sight.

The winds picked up, and the tree branches overhead whipped back and forth, raining down a few needles. I’d been around Rorik enough to know that this was a sign of his anger or agitation, which had me worried. What had he found?

“Is he okay?” I asked in a low voice.

“You may want to cover your ears, Glori,” Lyall said. “He’s using Veela magic to find any other clues.”

I did as he suggested, along with the rest of the Guard. Soon enough, Rorik joined Erynn, and they walked back toward us at a normal speed. I dropped my hands, and the Guard took up their weapons again.

“When separated,” Lyall explained as they returned, “we often leave messages for each other that require multiple Seelie races to decipher. This helps foil the Unseelie, who only have Elven magic at their disposal.”

Rorik held out a plain piece of folded paper and handed it to Lyall.

As Lyall read it, Erynn continued the explanation. “Fen knew we might not have a Kitsune or a Nixie with us, and couldn’t necessarily count on a Duwende, but she could assume at least one of the Veela in the Guard would still be in your escort.”

I nodded. It was brilliant, really.

Lyall’s eyes scanned the page. “We’re going back to Boulder.”

Excitement rose within me and I couldn’t keep a grin from my face. “My old stomping ground!”

Suddenly my bond with Kenji and Angel snapped into focus. They must have been sleeping up until this moment. My excitement fed theirs. They knew from the renewed strength of our link that I must be here in the human realm, no longer separated from them by the veil between worlds.

“And they’ve left us a vehicle.” Lyall led us back toward the abandoned roads, commanding Erynn to have Lauren and Jovanka bring up the rear.

As dawn faded, I marveled at how the forest seemed so strange and yet familiar after spending so much time amongst the trees in the Encante. These certainly didn’t have glowing berries lighting the path from above our heads. Traveling at an easy pace over the gently sloping ground, we passed a grove of aspens, and I noticed none of their leaves showed any signs of turning colors. The same went for an oak we passed. That didn’t narrow down the timeframe much — it could still be anywhere from July through September. We probably wouldn’t find out until we met up with the others.

We emerged from the forest onto the faintest ruts of a road through the woods. One way led back toward Beaver Reservoir, but in the other direction, I wasn’t sure where it had originally been intended to go. Deeper into the wilderness to where?

On the grass-covered tread marks of the forgotten road ahead sat an old GMC truck from the 80s. Fortunately, it was a crew cab and had dual rear wheels — enough space for all of us and less likely to get stuck on the overgrown road. I wondered if the truck had been placed under an illusion to hide it from human eyes or if they’d decided no one would come this far out into the wilderness to find it.

“I’ll drive,” Thressa said, and Lyall let her go ahead.

Lyall and I joined Thressa in the front of the crew cab, while Lauren, Erynn, Rorik, and Jovanka piled in the back. I giggled as I saw the four warriors sitting shoulder to shoulder in this very human vehicle. Sometimes seeing the Guard in the human realm disoriented me, but at the moment it was just funny to see their muscular shoulders all scrunched together.

“What’s so funny?” Erynn poked me over the seat as Thressa put the old diesel into gear. “This thing must be older than you are!”

“You’re right.” I laughed. “I’m not ancient like you all.”

Thressa navigated us easily over the forgotten road until we reached the dirt road leading to Beaver Reservoir. We’d once camped near here, but so much had happened since then. The Guard lapsed into silence as we picked up speed over the dirt road. The sky lightened still more, the sun coming up directly ahead of us.

“Too bad they didn’t leave you sunglasses,” I said to Thressa.

She grunted by way of reply, apparently focused on the task at hand, all of her eager solicitude from yesterday gone. I could have chalked it up to her general dislike of me, which she’d made very clear from early on, but I couldn’t shake my earlier suspicions about her. Something about her just didn’t feel… authentic.

My eye caught sight of motion in the rearview mirror, and I glanced over to find Jovanka leaning toward Erynn. She nuzzled Erynn’s pointed Elven ear, making her grin. Erynn turned and kissed the Veela directly on the lips. Thressa ground through the gears, making the truck lurch. I narrowed my eyes at Thressa. Had she done that purposely to break their kiss? Everyone told me that jealousy wasn’t really a thing among the Fae, but it would explain several things about Thressa’s behavior of the last several weeks.

Glancing back in the rearview again, I saw Jovanka wink at Erynn, then turn to the other side and regard Rorik. Unlike Erynn, Rorik didn’t turn toward her. His eyes were fixed on a distant point through the windshield ahead, somewhere over Lyall’s shoulder.

Jovanka grabbed his chin, turning his face toward hers until he was forced to meet her gaze. She didn’t release his chin as she leaned in for a passionate kiss, which — despite his earlier distraction — he enthusiastically returned.

The way Jovanka treated Rorik and how he put up with it always surprised me. There had been enough comments since I fell in with the group that I understood Rorik liked… more domineering partners, but the muscular guardsman always gave in to her rough treatment. I couldn’t help but wonder what their time alone must be like, but I quickly redirected my thoughts elsewhere.

No doubt sensing my embarrassment through the bond, Lyall took my hand and squeezed it, giving me a reassuring smile. Lyall’s forest-green gaze pierced my heart, making me glad he was mine. Since I was sitting next to Thressa, I restrained myself and didn’t kiss him, lest she send the truck lurching again. But I wanted to.

My stomach clenched. This would be the first time Kenji and Angel saw Lyall and me together. What would they think? Lyall had explained the need for five consorts long ago, but logic and feelings didn’t always go hand in hand.

Thressa didn’t stay on the Peak to Peak Highway long. I was surprised when we went north instead of south and turned off not long after.

“I thought we were going to Boulder?” I asked.

“I’m just following the directions.” Thressa kept her eyes on the curvy road ahead.

I didn’t know what she was annoyed about, but I assumed it was coming back to the human realm at all. She generally seemed to look down on everything human, including me, Kenji, and Angel with our human upbringing.

“It looks like they got a house somewhere on the outskirts of Boulder,” Lyall told me. “More toward the Boulder Reservoir.”

I nodded. That made sense. It was far north of Boulder proper, and was likely a more secluded area where a bunch of Fae who couldn’t use electricity or modern technology were less likely to draw attention. Not that they would, with Fen’s illusions in place.

We rolled down the foothills and traveled along back roads on our way toward the reservoir. The country roads soon straightened and the full circle of the sun blazed directly ahead through the trees.

At last, Thressa pulled onto a dirt road and came to a stop in front of a run-down, two-story house. It looked completely abandoned and decrepit. Leafy trees choked the land around the house, their limbs brushing the roof, making the lot seem dark and dreary even with the morning sun shining strongly overhead. It looked like it hadn’t been maintained in years, maybe not this decade. Thressa turned off the engine.

“Are you sure we’re in the right place?” In the early morning light, it was a creepy place.

“Remember, two Kitsune live there,” Thressa sneered at me as she threw open her door.

The rest of the Guard all got out, so I followed along. As soon as we stepped toward the house, my perspective changed. The trees towered well above the roof, letting through plenty of sunlight. The building was much bigger and broader than it had appeared moments ago.

And in its front doorway stood Kenji. I grinned, happy to see him at last. It had been so long. His long, silver-blond hair was swept back from his pale face in a ponytail. His hazel-amber eyes sparked with happiness the moment he caught sight of me. The lightning bolt of joy in our bond nearly knocked me off my feet.

“I felt you coming through my illusion,” he said as I rushed up the wooden stairs toward him.

“Your illusion?” I smothered him with kisses, not giving him the chance to reply. His lips felt amazing beneath mine, and I wanted to hold him close and never let go.

“Maybe we should let the others go inside?” Kenji suggested, easing his face away from my assault after a few moments of bliss, and I turned to find the rest of the Guard standing there waiting beside the truck.

I laughed in embarrassment and stood aside as Lyall, Thressa, and Jovanka filed through. Rorik, Lauren, and Erynn stayed outside on guard duty, though Kenji said, “I’ll keep the illusion going.”

“It’s amazing!” I told him. “I was completely fooled. I couldn’t believe anyone would live here.” He must have had plenty of time to practice his Kitsune magic here in the human realm while we’d been apart.

“Thanks.” Kenji gave me another kiss. “Merc is asleep, but Angel and I woke up as soon as we felt the strength of your bond. Speaking of which, he’ll kill me if I keep you from him for much longer.”

Joy expanded my heart as I realized this break had given him and Angel the chance to accept how things were between the three of us, and evidently they were completely happy to share me.

The moment I stepped inside the door to find myself in a living room with couches, Angel slammed into me, crushing me in a hug. His curly brown hair tickled my face, and I was surprised to find he wasn’t wearing his usual fedora hat.

“I missed you, too,” I said. He turned his face to mine and we shared a passionate kiss. Except in this case, Angel covered me in kisses, all over my face and down my neck. I laughed and pushed him away, “Not in front of everyone!”

Jovanka smirked at us then turned as Valente emerged from down the hall. I was grateful to see him, too. Valente and I hadn’t gotten to know each other very well in the Encante, but I cared about him as a member of my Guard. He and Angel were both dressed in bright fabrics compared to Kenji’s more reserved attire.

Valente’s enchanting, electric blue eyes lit up when he saw us, then he frowned. “What are you doing here?” Belatedly, he nodded to me, revealing the blowhole in the top of his head, much like Angel’s. It was closed over by a muscular membrane. “My lady.”

Taken aback, I looked to Lyall to answer. He came into the living room and motioned for everyone to gather round. “Let’s debrief.”

Angel whispered to me, “Fen and Valente take shifts overnight. Fen was on guard duty, but we let her rest once we felt your bond. We knew we couldn’t sleep until you got here. We didn’t get a chance to warn Valente you were coming since he was asleep at the time. Did Kenji tell you Merc’s asleep?”

I nodded as Angel led me over to a couch and pulled me down to sit as close to him as I could without sitting on him. Kenji cuddled up to me on the other side. It felt good to have them so close to me, their legs pressed along the length of mine, their fingers entwined with mine. I wanted to squish into both of them and cuddle them for days. I didn’t realize how badly I’d been missing them until now.

Lyall locked gazes with Valente and filled him in on everything — well, nearly everything — that had happened since we’d returned to the Encante while they stayed in the human realm to care for Merc, who’d been terribly wounded by Janneth in an attempt to make me give up my queenhood. Now, Janneth would never harm me or mine again. Lyall glossed over us forming the consort bond, which I was selfishly glad about. I hadn’t had a lot of time to think about how to share that news with Kenji and Angel, but I knew it wouldn’t be easy.

Valente’s face fell as he listened to Lyall’s tale. How we’d traveled with Una’s Guard and tried to find the Duwende and failed. How we’d been ambushed by the Unseelie and how two of Una’s consorts had fallen in battle. How we’d come to realize most of the Elf settlements near the Tree of Life had succumbed to Unseelie influence. How we’d fled after word that Caci survived and might bring reinforcements down on us.

Valente bowed his head, his wavy hair falling forward. Then he raised his enchanting Nixie eyes to me. “Glori and Una yet live. There is still hope.”

I didn’t feel very hopeful, and as I gazed around the room at Lyall, Jovanka, and Thressa, they looked as hopeful as I felt.

“Tell me about Merc,” I said before we all gave into hopelessness again.

“She’s recovered well over the past few months,” Kenji said. “I think she’s nearly back to normal, though she is still weak and dizzy from time to time.”

My heart dropped as I imagined what that must have been like for Merc. “Wait, months?”

Kenji’s hazel-amber eyes met mine. “It’s August now.”

I raised my eyebrows and said the only thing that made sense. “Time passes differently in the Encante.”

Kenji chuckled. “Let me guess, it only felt like a couple weeks to you.”

I nodded vigorously.

“Merc had to stay in bed a lot at the beginning.” Angel drew my attention over to him, his melodic Brazilian accent suddenly somber. His sapphire eyes were troubled as he remembered the early days.

Kenji took over and squeezed my hand. “She’s doing much better now, Glori. You’ll see when she wakes up. She’s still taking iron supplements, which upset her stomach, but she’s nearly back to normal.”

“Physically,” Angel pointed out.

Kenji nodded, sending his long silver hair sliding past his shoulders. “Physically. It was traumatic for her, and I imagine the emotional wounds may be the hardest to deal with. She’s been getting help with that, though, too.”

I took a deep breath and let it out. I understood that all too well. I was dealing with my own emotional wounds after my actions on the battlefield. I didn’t regret them, and in some ways, that bothered me more than anything.

“I can’t wait to see her,” I said in a small voice.

Kenji smiled gently at me. “I’m sure she’ll be thrilled to see you when she wakes up. We always try to let her rest as much as she wants.”

“Have you seen any signs of an Unseelie presence since we left?” Lyall asked, looking at Valente.

The Nixie shook his head. “No. We believe they all followed you back across the veil.”

Lyall glanced over at me, his expression guarded. I felt along the bond to try to sense his emotions, but they swirled and tumbled over each other. I couldn’t get a good read on him.

Shock came from Kenji’s bond as he glanced between me and Lyall. “Is there any other news you want to tell us?”

I bowed my head, letting my long hair hide my face from Kenji. I should have told him before he had to ask. I felt chastised, something I hadn’t felt since Janneth and Caci still pretended to be my mothers.

“Lyall is now my consort.” I didn’t meet Kenji’s gaze.

He instantly let go of my hand, and my heart dropped into the pit of my stomach. Angel squeezed my hand on the other side and sent a pulse of reassurance through our bond. Meanwhile, Kenji’s bond betrayed a mix of anger, resentment, and confusion.

“Glori is now the heir with the greatest chance of success to revive the Tree of Life,” Lyall said, oblivious to Kenji’s reaction.

“That’s why I’m surprised you brought her here,” Valente replied.

“We needed to regroup and throw the Unseelie off our trail,” Jovanka reminded him.

Kenji got up from the couch, and I wordlessly stared up at him. Was he really this upset? With his lips pressed firmly together, he stepped between Lyall and Valente and headed back down the hallway from which Valente had emerged. Resentment dominated all other emotions in our bond. I stared after, wondering if I should go to him, explain things. But what was there to explain? When I’d left, this had basically been the plan, though back then, I’d been adamant that I’d find a different way. And he’d apparently made his peace with sharing me with Angel. I couldn’t understand his reaction, but I regretted that I’d hurt him nonetheless.

“Give him some time,” Angel whispered.

Lyall and the others continued talking as though nothing had happened. My entire world felt canted to one side, and they were oblivious. Or maybe they were just pretending to be oblivious, to give me a modicum of privacy in a house that was now overfilled with Fae.

“C’mon.” Angel pulled me to my feet. “I have something to show you.”