The countdown is well underway! 3 days to our first author reading: Jennifer M. Zeiger, here to read from her recently released YA Fantasy novel Quaking Soul on Monday, January 25th!
Chapter Twenty-One, continued
“What’s with the Jekyll and Hyde thing?” Robert demanded.
Elaina was wondering, too, but, even though Rose looked more approachable, it didn’t seem like something she should say. Fortunately, she knew Robert had read that book just the week before, so the idea behind it should have been clear enough in his sometimes addled brain.
“Who are you?” Robert continued. “Has the last eight years just been an act? What’s going on around here?”
There was a wounded look in Rose’s eyes, but Elaina also got the sense Rose expected it, knew the accusations would be flying. Her heart softened a little more towards the woman who had largely been unfriendly for most of her stay at Roderick Hall.
“I’m sorry, Robert,” Rose said, her voice still brisk, but with a tender layer Elaina had never heard before. “And I’m sorry to you, too, Elaina. But let me explain before you judge me.” She took a deep breath. “Your father should be doing this, but, thanks to Colette, it now falls to me.”
Thunderclouds lowered over Robert’s brow. Elaina quickly reached out to grip his hand, urging caution and offering strength. But, she hoped, mostly caution. She wanted answers, too, but Robert’s anger, no matter how justified, wouldn’t help them get a straight story out of Rose, who also looked like she was bristling a little.
“Please, Robert,” Elaina said softly, her eyes pleading.
“But, Elaina, after everything she’s put you through. Put me through…”
“Do you want the truth or not?”
Robert pressed his lips into a thin line, but nodded. He pulled his hand from Elaina’s and sat back, crossing his arms. Elaina sighed inwardly. But it was the best she was going to get out of him.
“We’re listening,” Elaina said, turning her attention back to Rose.
The woman nodded once, business-like, as she flicked a lock of hair behind her shoulder.
“There’s no easy way to easing you into this,” Rose started. “But I understand, Elaina, that Robert had told you some of the bed time stories I told him when he was a child.”
Elaina nodded. “He has. They were a…very different.”
Rose sniffed. “I should say so. They’re the true stories.”
“Mother,” Robert said warningly.
“No, Robert. You need to listen. Every story I told you is true.”
“But they’re fairy tales!”
“That’s what this world would have you believe. With the way they jumbled and elaborated and changed, they may as well be fiction.”
Elaina was clenching her hands around her napkin, her mind spinning. As an avid reader, she’d always wished the stories she read could be true, that she could visit some of those worlds. Could the land of fairy tales actually be real? Could she go there?
“There’s a land of fairy tales, isn’t there?” Elaina burst out.
Rose smiled, a genuine smile that lit up her eyes. “I knew you were the one, Elaina. I’m sorry I was so hard on you, but I had to be sure. Not just any woman can marry my son. Not with the responsibility I’m about to put on his shoulders.”
“But there is a land of fairy tales?” Elaina persisted.
“Yes, there is. It’s nothing more than a parallel world, one that’s been tied to this one for so long that it’s become the land of fairy tales. But the people there are really no different than the people here. There are just other creatures like mermaids and giants that make their home there, too.” She smiled at Elaina. “It’s where all fairy tales originated.”
“Is that why you were always so insistent that the stories you told me were the true ones?” Robert asked.
“They are the true ones,” Rose said firmly. “And the Roderick family serves as the Gate Keeper.”
“The what now?” Robert asked.
Elaina smiled to herself as she caught on faster than he did. “Your father must have served as the intermediary between our world and the world of fairy tales. I imagine there must have been free travel between the worlds at some point, but, with your father’s death, it stopped because you were not yet ready to take the mantle of Gate Keeper.”
“Very close,” Rose said approvingly. “My husband was, in every sense of the word, a gate keeper. He was the only one who could move beings between worlds. As his wife, I can travel back and forth, but I cannot bring anyone across in either direction. He guarded the gate, the portal, keeping track of who went where. With his death, that was no longer possible.
“When I was certain Elaina was the one, I went to the other world to take stock of what was happening, what you would need to know. I’m pleased to say all is well, though some are itching to come back here since many were trapped when my husband died.”
“What does that have to do with Elaina?” Robert asked, the animosity finally leaking out of his voice.
“It dates back to when the portal was forged. It was created using the blood of a Roderick and her husband so it requires marriage for the Gate Keeper to be able to formally take his or her duties. Robert cannot usher anyone between the worlds until after he has married.” Rose sighed. “Before now, the worlds have never been cut off. But Robert was simply too young when his father died, and, really, had no significant other in the wings.”
“That’s why there was a neverending parade of women?”
“You needed to find a wife at some point.” Rose shrugged. “Or husband. But you never showed any romantic interest in a man.”
“Then why were you always scaring them off?”
“Robert, there are very few who can handle the responsibility of being married to the Gate Keeper. As the wife of the last, I know it first hand. I had to test them to make sure they had the mettle to put up with the crazy things the beings of the other world will bring.” She smiled at Elaina. “And now that you have met my approval, I can let down my hair, figuratively and literally.”
“But I don’t remember you being warm and motherly,” Robert said. “I don’t remember you being much different than what you have been for the past eight years.”
Rose’s face dropped and she suddenly couldn’t meet her son’s eyes. “It’s my fault, but I had a good reason.”
“I can’t wait to hear this,” Robert muttered.
“Robert,” Elaina softly admonished.
“No, Elaina,” Rose said with a sigh. “He should be upset. He never knew. I never explained. The only other people who knew what I did were my husband and Colette.”
“And how did you even know about her and Dad?”
“Your father and I were matched. His mother, you late grandmother, hand picked me, but I loved someone else. I ended up losing him to the other world where he got into a bit of trouble with a dragon and now finds himself in eternal servitude.” She shook her head. “But that’s not really important.
“Your father and I were fond of each other, but couldn’t find any love between us. It was made harder by the fact that I failed to conceive an heir. Desperate, he and I went to the other world and sought out a fairy. As you know, everything comes with a price. In order to have the child I so desperately wanted, I had to give up my heart. I wouldn’t be able to love you or my husband or anyone else ever again. But it was worth it. In my own way, Robert, I’ve loved you and I’ll always love you. But I couldn’t be motherly. I couldn’t love you like a mother should. I can’t even be affectionate. The price sometimes feels too high, but your father needed an heir born from his wife.”
Rose took a deep breath. “Colette was brought in as your nanny. She’s given you a mother’s love. I can’t lie and say it didn’t cut me to the core, but we all have our roles. I even encouraged your father and Colette to form a relationship. I couldn’t love him, so why deprive him of the love he deserved?” She clenched her hands together. “But Colette got a little too greedy. She wanted to be the Gate Keeper’s wife. But my husband had made a vow to me and was determined to keep it considering everything I had given up to ensure the Roderick line would continue.” She dipped her head towards Robert. “You know what happened.”
“And…Colette?” Elaina ventured, shooting a look at Robert. She remembered him being certain he had gotten her away, but, since Rose had known everything, it was impossible to tell who knew what anymore, and which was truth.
“She’s gone,” Rose said softly. “After your father’s funeral, I offered to let her stay on, but she was devastated by what she’d brought onto herself and the Roderick family. I’m sorry, Robert, but she died not long after. I was hoping to keep her on since you were so attached to her, but she loved my husband more than she loved my son.”
“But I thought I got her away, hid her from you,” Robert said softly.
“You did,” Rose said simply. “For a time. I’m sure she must have been frightened and heartbroken and perhaps even a little fearful of me. You did hide her away, but she came to me. By then, I knew the whole story, and she knew I knew.” Rose shook her head. “It was the first time I was every grateful for not having a heart. Seeing how devastated she was…”
“Mother, what happened to her?” Robert’s voice was low, tinged with fear, and Elaina couldn’t help but feel her own heart kicking up from trepidation. Her hand reached for his and he clung to it like a lifeline. “How did she die?”
“Roderick Hall is not just the home to the portal between our world and the other. It’s also something of a museum, something of a dungeon.” Rose’s lips twisted in distaste. “Sometimes things arise in one world or the other than proves to be a threat. Those things are removed and kept in storage here at the Hall, hence all the locked doors.” She sighed heavily. “Some generations ago, there was an evil queen. Her vials of poison were confiscated and stored here. Colette no longer had the will to live, and neither did she want to return to the other world. She begged for something to give her peace. I offered a potion.” Her eyes met her son’s, unblinking. “I swear that’s all I did. The choice to drink it or not was her own, and she did not die in the Hall.”
The breath left Robert’s lungs in a whoosh. His hand pulled from Elaina’s as he sat back heavily, his eyes dazed and unfocused. He would not be rejoining them for some time, Elaina was sure. Which left her and Rose on their own.
Rose smiled sadly at Elaina. “I’m sure you must have other questions.”
“Why tell us this now? Why not, I don’t know, when we’re married or engaged?”
“Because you need to take all of this into consideration,” Rose said simply. “My role will pass to you immediately. I wish I could protect you from it a little while longer, but it has been eight years since the portal was opened. You need to think on it, to decide for yourself if this is a role, a duty, you’re willing to take on for a lifetime, or until you and Robert pass the duty to your heir.” She offered a thin smile. “Should you decline, the NDA will not allow you to say anything of any of this.”
Elaina nodded. “I understand.” She glanced at the immobile Robert. “Thank you, Rose.”
Rose nodded and pushed to her feet. But, before she could make another move, Nigel entered, his face impassive as always. Rose only raised a questioning bow, seemingly waiting for something, but Nigel only nodded once before vanishing from the room.
“Rose,” Elaina called out before the other woman could leave.
Elaina took a deep breath and stood to fully face Rose. “I’d like to make a request, though I certainly understand if you won’t allow it. But I’d like to see my parents. It’s been several months, and I dearly miss them.” She held out her hands. “But I swear I’ll abide by the NDA and I will be back.” She glanced over at Robert. “I do need to think things over, but I also love Robert.”
Rose pursed her lips, but gave a single, sharp nod. “Three days, Elaina. Enjoy some freedom, but do think over whether being Robert’s wife is something you can be.”
A smile bloomed on Elaina’s face and she gave an eager nod. “I will. Thank you.”
Rose nodded, back to business though her hair now swung free. Then she left, her stockinged feet whispering over the floor.