Layla shines so bright next to Kerym that I can’t help but smile. Even if my heart is breaking, too.
“Isn’t it gorgeous?” She comes up behind me and I whip around, wrapping her in a hug.
“Yes, it is!” I beam as I lean back to take her in. I truly am happy for my friend to have her love back in her life. I’d never want to take that away from her. “And so are you.”
Layla grins at me. “You know,” she says in that sing-song voice of hers as she leans in. It’s rare I see her this giddy, and it makes my heart leap. “Kerym has a lot of really good friends here… Ones that still need a mate.”
I roll my eyes, even as my heart twists painfully. “You know I don’t need that. I have enough going on with Addy.”
Her lips curve down in a soft frown. “I just want to see you happy, and I know that you don’t want to be alone forever.”
“I didn’t say forever.”
Layla’s eyes narrow. “You know what I mean, Harper.”
I sigh softly. “Stop making this about me. I am happy. For you. You should be doing other things at your mating ceremony besides trying to set me up.”
As if on cue, Kerym appears behind her. Gently, he runs his hand down her back, resting it on the small of her waist, and she tips her head back to smile at him. Again, my heart throbs, but I refuse to let my smile fall.
“Harper, are you enjoying yourself?”
I nod eagerly. “I am. I am so glad Adelaide and I were able to come.”
Kerym winks at me. “It helps to know people in high places.”
“It does.” I giggle. “Thank you.”
He waves me off. “In return, can I steal mymate?”He leans in and nuzzles the side of Layla’s face, making her laugh. “I promise to let you have all your fun the rest of your stay.”
“Of course. Take her. I…” Loud laughter and a sharp scream draws my eye as blond hair whips past me. “Should probably check on the kids anyway.”
“Thank you,” Layla tells me as Kerym pulls her away. I told her I’d keep an eye on Jasper so they could probably celebrate.
As I turn away, I let my body relax. I do wish that I could have something like this. More than anything I wish Adelaide could have met her father. He was…
Tears pinprick at my eyes and I stop the train of thought. I never can stomach the thought. Even after all these years.
A flash of light draws my attention as I make my way toward the kids. Jasper has been learning to use his magic, and Kerym has been thrilled.
But as I break through the crowd, I see a flash of purple, and my breath catches in my throat. Jasper’s magic is blue, like his father’s, and purple is…
“Adelaide!” I hiss, grabbing her and pulling her back from following Jasper.
She turns to me with wide eyes. I know that anyone else in the room will think the magic was Jasper, but I know it wasn’t. And I can’t risk anyone else realizing it, either. I’ve spent so long trying to conceal my daughter’s half-elf heritage, and I fear what will happen if that comes out.
I was barely willing to come back to this continent.
“What?” she whines. I wish I had known the kind of sass a three year old could pack before she hit this age.
“You know you aren’t supposed to use your…” My voice dips down low. “Magic.”
Her face sours, her lips twisting in disappointment. “But why? Jasper uses his magic!”
My heart hurts as I take in the frustration lining her face. I know it has to be hard for her, but there is no way for me to tell her that exposing us could sell me into slavery. More so than I already am.
I brush back her blonde hair, just like mine. In fact, everything about her is a mirror image of me. Except her eyes. Why is it always the eyes? Jas has his father’s violet eyes, too, but thankfully, Adelaide’s navy ones aren’t a uniquely elvish trait.
“You know that you can only use that when we’re home by ourselves. Other people don’t need to know about your magic, love.”
She crosses her arms and stamps her food. “But Jasper can use his! Why? Is it because he has a daddy now and I don’t?”
Fuck, that hurt. Her words hit me hard, and I recoil, pain written clearly on my face, I’m sure. My reaction is so much that my daughter softens, her arms falling limp.
I gather her up against me, smoothing out her hair. “No, no. It’s nothing like that.”
But the lie is bitter on my tongue. I know that it is a large part of the reason because if her father was here, he’d be teaching her how to use her magic. He’d be so proud of her, always showing her off. He never concealed his love for me, and I just know how much he would have loved sweet Addy.
“It’s just not safe for little girls to have magic,” I finally tell her, begging not to get the dreaded why when I don’t have an answer. I wish I could tell her why it’s so terrible for her to be half-human or for people to find out. But the truths of this world would be too much for my sweet girl.
I pull back to cup her face. “You remember where you got your magic?”
Adelaide nods slowly. “My daddy.”
I fight against the sting of tears. “That’s right. Your daddy. He gave you a precious gift, and you are so strong and so powerful, just like him. And because he was so strong and so powerful, we have to keep it a secret or bad things could happen, remember?”
She nods solemnly. This isn’t the first time we’ve had this talk. It’s not even the first time this week I’ve had to remind Adelaide about the dangers of her heritage. I understand at just three and a half she’s not going to grasp the gravity of such a situation but I try to put it into terms.
“So what does Mommy need you to do?”
“To be secret,” she mumbles.
I squeeze her tight, giving her a big smile like it’s the greatest, coolest thing in the world. “That’s right. I need you to be the best, most secretive spy you can be. It’s important, and it’s hard, but I know you can do it, love.”
Adelaide sighs, looking wistfully at where Jasper is waving at her across the room. “I’m sorry for using magic,” she mumbles softly, and I’m glad that she has the sense to keep quiet now. My heart’s been pounding relentlessly, even though we aren’t close enough to any dark elves for them to hear us.
Nor would they care enough to listen into our conversation.
“Okay. You can go play, now, and remember-”
“Be good!” she shouts over me as she takes off toward Jasper.
Heads turn as she whips through the crowd, but none of the dark elves say a word. She’s best friends with the Lieutenant’s son, so they all know to keep their mouths shut.
I sigh as I stand, brushing off the lap of my dress and adjusting my hair. I won’t stray too far from the kids, but I could use another drink. A small part of me is struggling with being back on the big continent, with all the memories it’s dredging up.
Even Layla doesn’t know about my past, and I didn’t want to burden her with it. So, I’ve been shouldering the weight of my old home alone, trying to make it through it.
And I know I will miss Layla and Jas when we go back to Zerva, but it will be good, too. I feel so heavy here, so overwhelmed. I miss the lightweight and freeing island with its salty air and its lack of heartbreaking memories.
Turning toward the drink station where one of the zagfer is filling glasses, I inwardly recoil. But I tell myself that I can do this, and I breath slowly through my nose as I take a drink for myself and move toward the children.
It’s not until I’m on the more deserted side of the room, an area of empty seats that overlooks the gardens below, that I really survey the room. Not that I will know anyone else her–
My eyes catch on long, white hair perfectly straight and hanging down a muscular back. Sharp, handsome features that I can just make out with his back turned mostly to me. And the cut of miou uniform that I recognize all too well.
I used to press that uniform.
My heart pounds painfully in my chest, and the room tilts. I worry I’m going to collapse and I sink slowly into an abandoned seat, my eyes never leaving him, even as he turns so I can longer see his face.
I never got a good look at him, but my heart knows. Or maybe it hopes. Because it is the foolish thing that has held out for four years when it should have given up a long time ago.
But yet, here I am, breaking all over again as I stare at someone who can’t be here.
Because he is supposed to be dead.