By K. M. Wray
(This story is from Nix’s point of view. If you don’t like spoilers or you like to read stories in chronological order, this story is best read after book one, Twilight’s Curse and before book two, Twilight’s Child.)
Nix flipped the royal pendant between his fingers. The small circular piece of jewelry was something his sister, Zyanna, and he wore as children. While the royal tree, where they lived, connected with their inherent magic, the pendants served other purposes. But now as king of the Twilight Realm, Nix wore the royal symbols, a circlet that served as crown, a ring and the sovereign’s pendant. His childhood pendant was his one link to his sister, who was tucked away in the Night Realm by her childhood nurse who had fled there the night the Royal Tree was breached and Nix’s parents, the former king and queen, were killed.
A sigh escaped Nix’s lips. He’d been sovereign for eight months now. He’d discussed searching for his sister with Nate, his royal advisor, and they’d agreed to wait until the Twilight Realm was more firmly under Nix’s reign before looking for her. The regents, who controlled the realm for over a decade, were ruthless and the citizens needed a stable monarch ready to serve them instead of running after his own desires even when that desire was his sister.
A soft knock disturbed Nix from his brooding thoughts.
“King Phoenix.” Derek, Nix’s personal attendant and guard, entered the king’s office carrying a small square envelop in his hand. “This is the invitation for the spring ball.”
“Thank you.” Nix took the envelop and ran his hand over the smooth surface. He’d personally write Zoe’s name on the front and hand deliver it to her. Since becoming king, his life was no longer his own and he didn’t have the luxury to see her as often as he would have liked, and as a result, a few months had passed since their last meeting—a simple stroll in the forest around the royal tree—and he missed her company. His time was filled with reports, meetings and attending one function or another. It left very little free time for socializing, friends and spending time with a certain female elf his heart longed to know better.
Derek shifted his weight and cleared his throat.
“Anything further?” Nix asked.
“No, Sire. I believe the training session with Commander Adothlin will be finishing soon.”
Nix’s face relaxed into an easy smile and nodded to Derek who offered a respectful tilt of his head and left the room. Once alone, Nix chuckled at Derek’s insight. The guard knew that Nix wanted to speak with Zoe hence the bit of information about Commander Adothlin’s training schedule. The commander had enlisted Zoe’s help train teenaged recruits and Derek’s own daughter, Yarissa, was one of those presently training. Nix grabbed his stylus and elegantly wrote Zoe’s name across the front. He fanned the envelop assisting the ink to dry quicker as he made his way to the door where Derek was waiting.
“To the training grounds?” The guard’s eyebrow perched in question.
Another grin slipped across Nix’s face. Something about knowing he’d see Zoe had lifted his dismal spirits.
Derek’s lips quirked as he suppressed his pleasure at his sovereign’s good mood and the two made their way out of the royal tree.
Once in the forest, the cool air of the end of winter greeted Nix. The temperatures weren’t near freezing, but the air held a chill. Nix stuffed his hands into the pockets of his loose trousers. The thick weave of his clothing created a barrier against the brisk air and kept out the chill.
“You seem to be in a good mood, Sire.” Derek’s voice broke the sound of their steps crunching over dried foliage that covered the forest’s floor.
“It’s good to be out in the fresh air.”
“No doubt. You spend too much time in your office as is. But I wonder if there might be another reason your mood has improved.”
“A walk in nature is good for the soul.” Nix didn’t want to give too much away. While he trusted his guard with discretion, his heart was a private matter he wasn’t ready to share. Though his insightful guard had most likely guessed Zoe had something to do with Nix’s eagerness.
“And a meeting with a pretty elf-maiden,” Derek stated sounded more like a question.
Nix narrowed his eyes. He was too transparent.
Derek hastily looked away. “No offense, Sire. I did not mean to overstep.”
“None taken.” Nix clasped his hands behind his back. The loss of his privacy was another aspect of being king he didn’t like but had to get accustomed to.
“It’s just good for you, Sire. That’s all. You have no family with you in the royal tree and the Lady Zoe…”
“Is a friend,” Nix answered hastily. He didn’t want his feelings to become gossip and he particularly wanted to protect Zoe from the life of court. He knew her feelings about court and knew the chances of her attending the winter ball were slim, but he had to try to invite her regardless. He had precious few opportunities to connect with her and the less he saw of her, the more he felt chances of pursing a deeper relationship with her were slipping away.
Derek strode quietly beside him and Nix was glad when they reached the training grounds. His steps quickened and his heart fluttered in anticipation of seeing Zoe. Derek was correct in his guesses.
The royal guard and soldiers were milling around the training grounds which was an open field with areas marked off for weapons and combat training. The grounds were surrounded by strong magic so any elf or creature who shouldn’t be there would not see beyond the protective magic, and they’d have a desire to leave the area. The protections had served Commander Adothlin and his soldiers and guard well during the days of the regents. This place had remained undiscovered, and a refuge for those loyal to the royal family.
As Derek and Nix walked through the grounds, the guards and soldiers stopped and bowed then resumed their duties once Nix had passed. It was a common response—that he was immediately noticed—from the citizens wherever Nix went, and he was growing accustomed to it though he did miss his life of anonymity. How nice it would be to slip in and surprise Zoe. Unfortunately, his presence was probably already announced as soldiers and guards nodded, whistled and wordlessly communicated their monarch’s presence so those present would stand at attention as their king passed.
Derek paused at the training field where the youngest and newest recruits practiced but it was empty except for a a young trainee arranging the practice gear and wooden swords.
“Excuse me, Yarissa,” Derek called out to his daughter.
The girl, probably mid-teens, glanced up, “Father! Your majesty!” And dropped the sword in her hand. A sharp intake of breath hissed from her lips as the practice weapon struck her toes, but she flopped over into a bow at the sight of King Phoenix.
“Your majesty,” she said again in a more somber tone. The red in her cheeks peeked through strands of her hair that fell around her face.
“Please relax. Can you tell me where your trainer is?” Nix asked. If there was one aspect of the attention he disliked, it was how uncomfortable elves became around him.
“Commander Adothlin is most likely in the safe tree.” Yarissa still hadn’t recovered from her bow.
Nix shifted his weight unsure of how to get Derek’s daughter to relax. He glanced at his guard.
“Yarissa, you may stand now.” Derek tapped his daughter on the shoulder and she slowly straightened.
Nix attempted a practiced grin to set Yarissa at ease. “And Zoe?”
“I assume she’s returned home.”
“Thank you.” Nix bent and picked up the fallen sword and handed it to the young elf. Her eyes popped but she took the practice weapon.
Nix strode from the girl feeling very uncomfortable with the experience. Everything in him wanted to help her with tidying up the equipment, but he’d learned that the more he tried to help his citizens, the more they became nervous. It was easiest to walk away and let life return to normal after his disruptive presence.
“Sorry about that, Sire. She’s just nervous.”
“No doubt. Why is it my people are so uncomfortable with me?”
“It’s your station. The regents made everyone afraid.”
Nix let out a long slow exhale as they left the training grounds and turned towards Nate’s house and Zoe’s home.
“I’m not the regents and I’m their king.”
“And a good king, no doubt, but it’ll take time for your people to see that. And they are seeing it. There’s a mixture of hope and adoration the citizens have for you. It’s not fear as you think but a desire to please you.”
Nix rubbed his face. “It’d please me more if they’d treat me like a person.”
Derek’s brow wrinkled and he pursed his lips probably unsure of how to respond.
Nix was looking forward to his visit to Nate’s home and the tension in his shoulders lessened some. Beyond his desire to build a deeper relationship with Zoe, he liked that she treated him like Nix. Not the king who made her nervous, but a friend. After all the attention in the training grounds, he was ready for some normalcy that Nate’s would offer. The royal advisor had raised Nix after his parents had died, so going to Nate’s was like going to a second home. His steps quickened.
At the familiar sight of Nate’s tree, Nix’s chest loosened and he nearly skipped with anticipation. He ran his fingers over the envelop on his pocket and a smile tugged at his lips.
A contented sigh escaped Derek. “If I didn’t know better, I’d think you were a man on a mission.”
Nix held back an eye roll but liked hearing the lightness in Derek’s tone. “I’m just delivering an invitation.”
“If it was just a matter of delivering an invitation, then you could have passed it on to Royal Advisor Ignatius Elek or one of the royal brownies.” Derek’s lips twitched. Was he holding back a smile?
I ground my teeth irritated at how well Derek read me and how much I missed my private existence.
Ignoring Derek’s amusement, I strode up to the tree and rested my hand on the entry marker. The tree still registered me even though it had been reset a few months ago when the tree had been breached. Elven tree homes were attuned to the magic of the elves who lived there and despite not having lived here for a number of years, the tree still welcomed me as one of the inhabitants. The door peeled back, and I entered followed by my guard.
Nate’s spacious living room was filled with comfy chairs and a soft couch. A throw blanket was tossed over the arm of Nate’s favorite chair and a book lay open on a table next to it. The royal advisor, if not here, was in his office, but before I could head in that direction there was a soft pop in the air and Cocoa, the former head brownie of the royal house, popped into view. She had long brown hair that hung to her waist and looked like a ten-year-old child but she’d been the head brownie of the royal tree when my parents were alive, so despite her appearance, she was probably over two-hundred-years-old.
Derek smothered a started cry. He wasn’t used to brownies—who seldom revealed themselves to anyone—because they were secretive creatures who liked to clean and care for households whose inhabitants they deemed to have a good heart.
“King Pheonix.” Cocoa paused for a bow then straightened. “Are you here to see Nate?”
“Not today, I came to see Zoe. I heard she was here.”
A mischievous smile crept into Cocoa’s features. I held back an eye roll. The mischievous brownie had opinions about Zoe she had yet to share with me but I had a good inkling that they mirrored my guard’s intuitions. “The Lady Zoe was here briefly but she left with Dasha to go to Haven.”
I fingered the envelope in my pocket. I could leave the invitation with Cocoa. She’d ensure Zoe would receive my invite, but then… I scowled. Derek was right. It wasn’t about giving Zoe the envelop. I was using this as an excuse to see her and so far my attempts had been thwarted. Twice. I held back a growl of irritation for being read so easily and because my plan was proving more difficult than expected. I considered the small city of Haven. It wasn’t far and there was still time.
“Thanks, Cocoa. I’ll try to find her in Haven. Do you know where she went?”
Cocoa shrugged. “I’m not sure but I think Dasha said something about needing more material. The orphans are constantly growing out of their clothes and what they don’t grow out of often needs mending.”
I nodded. Zoe had made it her mission to find every orphan in the Twilight Realm and care for them along with the brownies. Nate didn’t seem to mind his home being used an orphanage and Dasha, Zoe’s first rescue, along with the brownies supported her completely.
Derek and I left and my feet moved quickly over the earth. The sun was lowering in the sky. Already it was late afternoon. I hadn’t realized how much time had passed in my quest to find Zoe. I hadn’t expected the delivery of a simple invitation to turn complicated.
When we reached Haven, a groan nearly escaped my lips as my shoulders slumped. It was that time of day where everyone decided to come shopping and the small city was packed with elves.
Haven had gone through a bit of a transformation since the regents were no longer in power. The regents, in their attempt to modernize the Twilight Realm, had started to build structures of stone and cut trees. Elves traditionally lived in trees and it was the magic that made the trees liveable. Some of the regent inspired structures had been taken down and new trees had been planted to replace the ones that had been uprooted. Older trees had been newly homed and the cobbled street had been dug up to leave the way for soft earth. Not everyone had made the change but the air felt alive and elven magic was in free use again. Under the regents, elves lived in fear of using their magic but a fruit vendor organized his display with a swipe of an arm. At an outdoor eatery, the elf cleaned tables with a wrist twist and finger snap. The dishes were gone—they probably suddenly appeared in the kitchen sink—and the tabletop was wiped clean and ready for the next patron.
A familiar movement caught my eye and Zoe turned a corner with Dasha.
“There.” I pointed to Zoe. “I think they’re headed to the market.” My steps thudded over the soft earth and Derek was quick on my heels.
“Your majesty,” the fruit vendor called out and waved me over.
“Hello.” I plastered a practiced friendly smile on my lips and nodded.
“It’s good to see your majesty here. Can I offer you fresh fruit?” The vendor waved at a stack of oranges and proudly stuck his chest out.
It was the season for citrus fruits. I nodded at Derek. “We’ll take two.”
The vendor’s smile grew and he filled a small cloth bag with eight oranges.
“That’s too many my good sir.” I dug out a coin purse and handed him more than enough currency to cover the purchase.
The vendor waved my hand away. “I could not take from you. You saved our people and it is my way of thanking you.”
I inwardly groaned. Zoe had disappeared and my search for her would have to start all over again. “Please, I insist.” I thrust the money into the man’s open hand. Perhaps a little too forcefully. The vendor’s lips turned down. “I appreciate your generosity but I cannot take what I have not paid for.”
“It was a gift.”
My heart sank and I remembered Derek’s words from earlier. The kindness of the Twilight Realm elves had been great towards me when I’d become their king, but I didn’t like taking from them. Fortunately, there was ways to ensure the man received his pay.
“Forgive my insensitiveness. You are a worthy servant of the Twilight Realm and I’m confident these are the best oranges I will ever taste.”
The man’s smile returned. “It’s my pleasure, your majesty.”
I nodded to the man and handed the bag to Derek. The brownies would return later during the night and ensure the proper amount of coins were left in the vendor’s coin purse to cover the charge.
I strode away and more vendors called out as I passed. I nodded but tried to avoid being pulled over again. Too much time had already passed and I all I wanted was to find Zoe.
The elves crowding the street parted before me and Derek but not before pausing to bow. I grumbled and decided that the next time I came to Haven, I’d wear a disguise. I was too noticeable and at this rate, Zoe and Dasha would leave the market and return home.
I turned the corner and was relieved to see Zoe and Dasha carrying bulging cloth bags and leaving the tree of the cloth materials merchant. I made my way through the street.
A dog barked and a child’s voice called out. “Come back!”
Something large plowed into my side. I tripped and lurched to the side. Derek was next to me in a moment.
“Is he alright?”
The murmured voices of the elves filled the street. Looking down, a dog with long brown hair plunked his hind quarters on the ground and his tongue hung out of the side of its narrow mouth as it panted happily.
“Hello there.” I ruffled the hair on the dog’s head. The animals replied with a bark.
I glanced back where I’d last seen Zoe and she and Dasha had disappeared into the crowds. My heart sank and finding her. Had I lost my chance? Again?
“Your majesty.” The young boy ran up next to us. He was thin with barely enough clothing hanging on his thin frame to keep him warm.
“Is this your dog?”
“Yes, your majesty. I’m sorry, King Phoenix. He got loose. It’s my fault.”
Despite the irritation over missing Zoe, again, I smiled at the child and dog. This was a moment to show the citizens they could trust me. “No harm was done. You have a fine animal.”
“Thank you.” The boy had forgotten to bow and I found myself liking the child. It was the first time, in a long time, someone had forgotten I was a king and treated me like a person. An idea formed in my thoughts.
“I’m wondering, it is close to dinner time. Would you and your animal like something to eat?”
The boy’s eyes grew round and his mouth dropped. I wondered when he’d last had a good meal and was already making plans to ensure the brownies provided better clothing for the boy. I’d make sure that his family, if he had family, were taken care of as well. And if he didn’t have a family, I knew Zoe would take care of him. The thought warmed my heart.
“What say you, would you like to have dinner with me?” I asked again when the child hadn’t responded.
“Yes. If it’s no trouble. Can I bring my sister?”
“Of course. This is Derek and he’s my guard. We’ll be at The Misty Inn. Do you know the place?”
The boy nodded.
“Good, then you run and fetch your sister. We’ll go straight there so don’t keep us waiting.”
“Of course.” The boy ran off into the crowd. His dog barked once then followed.
Derek’s eyebrow peaked again. “The Misty Inn? Are you giving up on delivering your invitation?”
“The child needs a meal and I have a feeling Zoe and Dasha have returned home. Come, I haven’t seen Nyla and her daughters since the night Zoe and I saved them from the regents’ guards.”
Derek’s jaw dropped. “You saved them, Sire?”
“Yes, it was before I became king when no one knew who I was. It feels like a lifetime ago.”
There was a pause in the conversation and the crowds again parted as we passed. I smiled at the citizens and saw the looks of appreciation and hope reflected in the friendly reactions. Derek was right, the elves didn’t fear me and their displays of respect were a good thing. I just wanted to be more comfortable with it.
“It was a kind thing you’re doing for the child, Sire.”
I chuckled. “He, and mostly likely his sister, need a good meal. Let’s learn of their situation and see what we can do for them. I don’t want my citizens to starve.”
“You’ve a good heart, Sire.”
Derek opened the door when we arrived at The Misty Inn and Nyla nearly dropped the tray she was holding when she saw me.
“Your majesty.” She folded into a quick bow and I resisted rolling my eyes. I chose to smile instead.
“Nyla, how are you and your daughters doing?”
Her cheeks blushed and her skin gave off a soft ethereal glow. The night I’d helped rescue her, she’d told me about her family’s light magic and her twin daughters unusual polar light magic that allowed them to appear invisible. I didn’t really understand how it worked, something with light and shadows, but they needed each other to make the magic work and it had shocked me when they were there one moment and gone the next.
“King Phoenix, to think you’ve come to my inn all these years for a meal and I never knew who you were.”
“That was the point, Nyla.”
She swatted me playfully with a towel she’d use for cleaning tables then a look of dread crossed her features. Her eyes darted nervously back and forth between me and Derek.
“Sorry, your majesty.”
I winked at her and she relaxed. I was enjoying the casual way she treated me and made a mental note to visit her more.
The inn wasn’t too full and the few patrons who were there tried to not appear like they were looking at me though some were outright starring. One man missed his lips with his spoon full of stew and the meaty mixture landed on the front of his shirt unnoticed. His wife dug her elbow into his ribs pulling his attention away from me.
“We’d like to have a meal, if that’s all right,” I said as my eyes landed on the table in the back, the one I’d sat at the last time I was here. The regents’ guards had tricked me and if it hadn’t been for Zoe, I might have become their prisoner.
“In my humble establishment?” Nyla clutched her rag to her chest then flapped her arms around nearly smacking me in the face with the rag. “Sit wherever you wish, King Phoenix.”
“A young boy and his sister will be joining us,” I said before heading for the table. I sat with my back against the wall so I could watch the room and wait for our dinner guests. Derek settled next to me.
“There’s a story I’d like to hear.” Derek smirked. “The woman knows you enough to forget you are king.”
I was about to respond when the door opened and in walked two familiar elves. Zoe and Dasha. I fingered the envelop in my pocket and my eyes softened when they settled on Zoe. She was scanning the dining area and her gaze settled on mine. Her head tilted slightly as if questioning my presence but then she shrugged it off and moved towards a booth with Dasha. I sighed. It was so like Zoe to treat me like I wasn’t anyone important. And it both confused and intrigued me. I didn’t want her to start treating me like a king, but a friend would be nice and wouldn’t a friend come over and join our table? Unease settled in my stomach. Did she feel the same way about me that I did about her? And if not, could I help her see that I’m not such a bad elf?
With those thoughts running through my mind, I made my way over to her table. She’d most likely ignore the invitation to the winter’s ball, but surely she wouldn’t resist an invitation to eating together. As she watched me approach, a slight smile softened her features and she hadn’t drawn her daggers. Both encouraging signs.
Yes, Derek was right. Inviting Zoe to the ball was merely an excuse. All I wanted was her, to get to know her and spend some time with her. She was the most captivating female elf I’d ever met and if we could just spend a bit of time together, maybe I’d find out if she felt the same way.