“H-hello!” Elia said, shocked.
“Hello, Elia. I’m glad to see you made it.” The woman bowed deeply as everyone nearby looked on, which made Elia want to grab her shoulders and pull her upright.
But Reth was staring between them. “You know each other?” he asked, surprised.
“Yes, last night,” Elia explained. “When I woke up at the Rite, Candace tried to help me.”
Reth turned to the woman and bowed over her hand as well. “Thank you, Candace. You have the gratitude of your King,” he said softly, meaningfully.
Candace fluttered a hand at her chest and blushed. “Oh, it was very little, Majesty. I assure you.”
“Still,” Reth insisted, “it was a kindness that was much needed. You’re an example to the Kingdom. Thank you. Since you have such a kind heart I could ask you another favor?”
“Of course!” Candace’s thin face brightened.
Reth smiled. “I have to meet with the security council. Perhaps you could show Elia around the city center, and explain some of our customs?”
Candace’s smile froze, but she didn’t hesitate to bow and assure Reth that she was happy to do it.
“Thank you,” Elia said. She could feel her cheeks heating, though. It was so obvious this woman didn’t want to babysit her, but was doing it to please Reth. Couldn’t he see that?
“Thank you,” Reth repeated and turned back to his meal. As someone placed a plate of food in front of Elia and she started shoveling into her mouth, she heard a small snort and Reth nudged her.
She turned, her mouth full of the crusty bread, and met a very serious Reth, staring down at her. Oh no, what had she done? Was there a prayer she was supposed to say before she ate, or some other odd tradition?
Reth leaned in and she swallowed hard to get rid of the mouthful. His lips brushed her ear when he whispered, “As Queen, we won’t allow you to run out of food, I promise.”
She slapped his shoulder as he chuckled and her belly spun. She loved that deep, warm sound.
When he was finished laughing, he held her gaze, his eyes wrinkled by his smile. “Good morning, wife,” he murmured.
She blinked at the name and stared at him. “Good morning,” she said breathlessly. “Did you sleep okay?”
He grunted and shrugged. Judging by the dark shadows she could now see under his eyes, the answer was no. But when she remembered, why, she winced and changed the subject. “You should have woken me. I would have come to the meal with you.”
He flapped a hand and took another mouthful of food. “I wanted to let you rest.” But he didn’t meet her eyes as he said it.
Elia’s heart sank.
They ate in silence for minutes, Elia desperately searching for something to talk to him about, but constantly stunned as she looked around at all she saw—the people who looked entirely human, but moved and sounded differently. The food, which all looked familiar and delicious, but only some of which was actually recognizable. And the clothing that was somehow refined, but also sparse—no shoes, only natural linens and leathers, feathers or flowers in the hair of the women…
Then she turned to look at Reth and for a moment she was struck again with the sense that she’d seen him before—that she knew him. Only now she wasn’t overwhelmed by the events, or the smoke.
Now, the feeling of a familiar face, a known friend, wouldn’t leave her—and chewed at her insides when she couldn’t place him. He took a mouthful of food just as she cleared her throat.
“You said you’d been to my world—the human world. Did we ever meet when you were—?”
Reth coughed and almost spat a mouthful of food across the table. The next minute was full of him choking, one of the guards slapping him on the back, and nervous faces staring, waiting to make sure their King wasn’t about to suffocate.
Eventually, he raised his glass towards those seated at the ground level and croaked through teary eyes. “All is well!”
She frowned at him. “I said, when you were in the human world did we ever—”
“Majesty! I apologize for the interruption, but we need your ear, immediately.”
Elia and Reth both turned to find a young man standing behind them. Elia didn’t recognize him, but Reth obviously did. “Of course, of course, son. Don’t worry. I’ll come. Elia, dear, my apologies to leave you alone this morning, but there’s some things I have to deal with from yesterday. Candace will show you around, and I’ll see you at the evening meal.” He cupped her face and smiled, but before she could respond, he was gone.
Like he was glad to have gotten away.