Elaina was special. I knew it as soon as I saw her. She was going to be my last companion. She was sweet, a little reluctant, and I had to convince her, but, looking back, I fell for her right on day one. Love at first sight isn’t supposed to be real. You’re supposed to spend time getting to know each other and slowly fall in love. But that’s not always true. Elaina stayed. She became my friend. She became the love of my life. She thawed my mother, who started calling her the Queen of the Garden of Girls. I hate the title, but Elaina thinks it’s funny. We’re keeping the garden, for now, at least. I’m glad I never have to plant another rose bush again.
Roderick Hall was open. At least, a little. It had been a long time since it had hosted anyone other than a Roderick, a companion, or a staff member, but Rose had to admit it was nice.
James and Poppy Linden, Lily, and Camille were a start. And, goodness, she had some catching up to do with them and the young women’s families. But that could be saved for another day.
No, today was to thank them for their role in helping to keep the Rodericks alive.
The ballroom hadn’t been opened in, well, Rose couldn’t remember. But it had been a long time since they’d hosted any balls or truly formal parties. She hadn’t spared any expenses or any staff for the cleaning, decorating, and serving. The party was small in such a big room, but it had the best light as it faced the expansive gardens, and her son’s blasted garden of girls. Today was going to be a special day, and only the ballroom would do.
Elaina had willingly and charmingly acquiesced to wearing another ball gown. Rose had yet to tell her the significance, but knowing about the world linked to theirs was a start. The land of fairy tales was opening to the bookworm, and she needed to dress her part. Of course, the girl had been confused when Rose had insisted on white, but she’d let Elaina decorate and accessorize as she wished.
Robert had surely never seen a more lovely girl in his life. Elaina had kept her hair long and loose, small white flowers woven among the curled strands. A string of pearls, from her mermaid mother, circled her throat, and a few glass charms were threaded into the hem and waist of her gown, catching the light and casting rainbows. A true princess of the Glass Kingdom, though she would never rule.
A solo harpist was set up near the food, plucking out sweet, low melodies while Robert and Elaina and James and Poppy danced. Lily and Camille were eating their fill of desserts. Nigel was standing stiff as usual while the rest of the staff, few as they were, fluttered around the tables, dressed in their uniforms, but invited to indulge. Rose herself stood to the side in a pale blue ball gown, a box clutched in her hands.
It was time for her to hand it over. Hand everything over. But her son and his chosen bride were blissfully happy, holding on to each other, knowing so clearly how ephemeral life was.
She was ready to hand over the reins, ready to plunge back into the unknown and have a chat with a dragon even though she’d lost the right to love twenty-six years before. But the happiness, the blissful unawareness permeating the room had her pausing. Just a little while longer.
“Mother,” Robert said, drawing her out of her thoughts. “Come join us.”
She smiled and let him lead her over to where the pile of desserts had been most seriously diminished. She met Camille’s eyes, but the young woman subtly shook her head. The edge of a smile creased one side of her lips, there and gone, as a response as Camille practically swallowed a tiny cake whole.
“I know this isn’t at all like the garden parties,” Rose said, making Lily chuckle a little, “but thank you for coming. I admit it’s a little scary having people in the Hall again, but I believe it’s time.”
“We’re not prisoners anymore?” Robert asked.
Rose laughed. “No, Robert. But it is time for a different kind of imprisonment.”
Stillness and silence fell like a curtain in the room. Rose pretended not to notice as she drew up the top of the box in her hands. A white gold band set with a rainbow of tiny gems was nestled inside.
“Being Gate Keeper is more than just a job,” Rose intoned quietly, as though reading from a long-standing script. “It’s a duty not lightly given and not lightly taken. Your home will be Roderick Hall, but you serve the people of two worlds.” She raised her eyes and looked from Robert to Elaina, who clutched at Robert’s arm. “Are you ready to give your souls into service as the Gate Keeper and his wife?”
“Now?” Robert asked.
“The duty should have passed to you when your father died. Now that you have a bride, I cannot remain the custodian of your duty.”
Robert swallowed and she watched as he and Elaina exchanged a glance.
“What does this mean?” Elaina asked softly.
Rose carefully plucked the ring from the box and handed it to her son. “For many years, I wore this ring. When given by a Roderick to his or her life partner, it seals the union. In your case, as there is no standing Gate Keeper, it will also transfer the powers and duties of Gate Keeper immediately. Are you ready to take this responsibility?”
Robert had no choice in the matter; her question was directed at Elaina. She met the other woman’s eyes. There was a streak of uncertainty, a little fear, a bit of excitement, and a lot of nervousness.
“Do you think I’m ready?” Elaina whispered.
Rose smiled gently and took Elaina’s hand, clasping it tightly. “No partner of the Gate Keeper is ever really ready, but you’ll be wonderful. Just try to curb your exploration of the other world. Your duty is here, at the Hall, guarding the portal with the Gate Keeper.”
Elaina licked her lips and nodded. “I’m ready.” She paused. “Does that mean, when Robert puts that ring on my finger, we’ll be married?”
“In terms of the powers, yes. But we’ll also have a wedding. It’s tradition to have people from both worlds present.” Rose grinned. “It’ll be absolutely nothing like a garden party, but it’ll be wonderful. I have several binders we can go through together in my study.”
“And she has a mother who has been dreaming of her wedding day since she was a baby,” Poppy put in.
Rose smiled over at Elaina’s parents. “Of course. I suppose none of the merfolk will be present?”
Poppy’s lips thinned. “That would be an understatement. We’ll be lucky if they recognize the union.”
Rose barked a laugh. “They’ll have to if they want free travel between worlds again.”
“As long as I don’t have to put up with the royal family again, I can live with that.”
“But I am getting the final say in everything wedding-related, right?” Elaina asked, looking between her mother and Rose.
Poppy reached out a hand and brushed a lock back from Elaina’s face. “Of course, sweetheart. It’s your wedding, and this union will be your only one, so our job is to make it a dream come true for you.”
Elaina looked up at Robert and held out her hand. “I’m ready.”
“I suppose I am, too,” Robert said, his voice full of nerves.
But he slipped the ring on her finger anyways.
Elaina didn’t know what to expect when Rose led them all around the outside of the Hall to an unassuming door. The air had been heavy with solemnity when she’d taken a key and unlocked the door, ushering them into a dark room. The late afternoon light streamed in at an angle through the open door and was just enough to hit a tall, covered object in the middle of what looked like an otherwise empty room.
“What is that?” Elaina breathed, clutching at Robert’s arm as sconces suddenly flamed to life to illuminate a room.
She heard Lily gasp behind her at the sudden light and she was sure she’d drawn in a deep, sudden breath as well. Her eyes searched the room, but, other than stone flagstones and the thing in the middle, the room was bare and chill.
With a serious air about her, Rose strode to the object and pulled off the cloth, tossing it into a corner.
What looked like a mirror stared back at them, but the gray surface was a cloudy storm. It rippled this way and that, sometimes in lazy waves and sometimes in fierce storms. Faint colors were distorted as they were swirled around the surface. Around it was a simple silver frame, an elegant scroll design making it’s way all the way around it. The only strange thing about it was that it hovered mere centimeters above the floor.
“Is it…a mirror?” Lily asked, voicing Elaina’s own question.
“No,” Rose said, her voice as crisp as ever. “This is the portal. The frame keeps it in place, otherwise it would be free floating and not a nice thing to step in or out of.” She gestured to Elaina and Robert. “All you need to do to activate it again is to touch it.”
Elaina gripped Robert’s arm tighter as he slowly led her over to it. He seemed to be taking all of this in better stride than her, but she supposed he also understood this is what his father really meant to leave him, the family business he was really meant to run. He’d been prepared for it for years despite never knowing what it truly was.
“I’m scared,” she whispered.
“Me, too,” he whispered back. “But this is what Dad meant for me to do. I have to honor him.”
Elaina looked up at him, at the determination etched into his face. But she knew him enough to see the apprehension, the nerves. So, she squeezed his arm and held out her hand. He nodded and did the same.
“One,” he said, “two, three.”
As one, they placed their palms to the surface. Elaina could feel the resistance, could feel the ripples, but it was also solid under her hand. Slowly, the stormy gray became ordered into a soft wave rippling from top to bottom. The faint colors swirled together to show an image of a similar room, but one with red velvet seats and golden pillows.
“Is that…?” Elaina asked, pulling her hand away.
“The room on the other side,” Rose said. “On the other side is a replica of Roderick Hall. It’s also called Roderick Hall over there and is located in an area called The Spindle, which is the center of the world linked to ours and from where the fae rule the lands.”
Elaina put her hand to her temple. “I hope you don’t intend on abandoning us to this right away. I think there are a few things you still need to explain.”
“Certainly,” Rose said briskly. “You need to learn everything you can about the world, how it operates, it’s geography. Everything. You will need to know what kind of creatures can safely pass through and which are not allowed to cross. This is your responsibility.”
Elaina nodded as silence fell on them. Robert appeared to be mesmerized by the ripple, and she was just in awe of what was before her. There certainly wouldn’t be a library job waiting for her, but there was a whole world of fairy tales that literally just opened up under her hand.
Suddenly, breaking the silence, a soft, questioning voice could be heard, making every head turn in the same direction, surprise on almost every face as a piece of rounded glass hanging from a chain was pulled from under a soft blue gown.
“Camille? It’s been years, but I still hope to hear your voice. Please answer me.”