“Thank you,” I said, meaning it. “Do you regret marrying my father?”
“I try not to have any regrets,” Elora said wearily and picked up her paintbrush. “It’s unbecoming of a Queen to have misgivings.”
“How come you never married again?” I asked.
“Who would I marry?”
I nearly said Thomas, but that would only enrage her. She couldn’t have married him. He was a tracker, and he was already married. But that wasn’t where her anger would come from. I was sure she’d be incensed that I had learned of the affair.
“Garrett?” I asked, and Elora made a noise that sounded like a laugh. “He loves you, and he’s a distinguished Markis. He’s eligible.”
“He’s not that distinguished,” she said. “He is kind, yes, but marriage isn’t about that. I told you before, Princess, that love has nothing to do with marriage. It’s an alignment between two parties, and I have not had any reason to align myself with anyone else.”
“You don’t want to marry for the sake of doing it?” I asked. “Don’t you ever get lonely?”
“A Queen is many things, but alone is never one of them.” She held the brush, poised right above the canvas as if she meant to paint, but she didn’t. “I don’t need love or a man to complete me, and someday you’ll find that’s true for yourself. Suitors will come and go, but you will remain.”
I stared out the window, unsure of what to say to that. There was something noble and dignified in that idea, but something about it felt a bit tragic. Believing that I would end up alone, that I would die alone, was never comforting.
“Besides that, I didn’t want Willa in line for the crown,” Elora said and began painting again. “That is what would’ve happened if I’d married Garrett. She would’ve become a Princess, a viable option for the throne, and I could never have that.”
“Willa wouldn’t be a bad Queen,” I said, and I was astonished to find that I actually did think that.
Willa had really grown on me since I’d been here, and I think she’d grown up as well. She had kindness and insight I’d initially thought her incapable of.
“Nevertheless, she won’t be Queen. You will.”
“Not for a long time, hopefully.” I sighed.
“You need to be ready, Princess.” She looked over her shoulder at me. “You must be prepared for it.”
“I am trying,” I assured her. “I’ve been training and going to all the meetings. I’ve even been studying in the library. But I still don’t feel like I’ll be ready to be a real Queen for years.”
“You don’t have years,” Elora told me.
“What do you mean?” I asked. “When will I be Queen? How long do I have?”
“Do you see that painting?” Elora gestured to a canvas I’d seen in her room before, resting against a shelf.
A close-up of me looking much as I did now, except wearing a white gown. On my head, I had an ornate platinum crown filled with diamonds.
“So?” I asked. “I’ll be Queen someday. We both know that.”
“No, look at that picture.” She pointed at it with the handle of her brush. “Look at your face. How old are you?”
“I’m…” I squinted and crouched in front of it. I couldn’t be sure exactly, but I didn’t look a day older than I did now. “I don’t know.” I stood up. “I could be twenty-five, for all I know.”
“Perhaps,” Elora allowed, “but that’s not the feeling I get.”
“What is the feeling you get?” I asked. She turned her back to me, not giving anything away. “How do I become Queen anyway?”
“You become Queen when the reigning monarchs are deceased,” Elora said matter-of-factly.
“You mean I’ll be Queen after you die?” I asked, and my heart thudded in my chest.
“So you think…” I had to take a fortifying breath before I could continue. “You’re dying soon.”
“Yes.” She painted on, as if I’d just asked her about the weather instead of her impending death.
“But…” I shook my head. “I’m not ready. You haven’t taught me everything I need to know!”
“That is why I have been pushing you, Princess. I knew we didn’t have much time, and I needed to be hard on you. I had to be sure you could do this.”
“And now you’re sure?” I asked.
“Yes.” She faced me again. “Don’t panic, Princess. You must never panic, no matter what obstacle you face.”
“I’m not panicking,” I lied. My heart wanted to race out of my chest, and I felt light-headed. I sat on the couch behind me.
“I’m not dying tomorrow,” Elora said, sounding slightly annoyed. “You have more time to learn, but you need to focus on all your training. You need to listen carefully to everything I say, and do as you’re told.”
“It’s not that.” I shook my head and stared at her. “I only just met you, and we’ve finally started getting along, and now you’re dying?”
“Don’t get sentimental, Princess,” Elora chastised me. “That we do not have time for.”
“Aren’t you sad?” I asked, tears stinging my eyes. “Or scared?”