Undraland, page 15
Jens was regaining consciousness and Uncle Rick was looking cross as he lectured me, testing my arms and legs for any signs of circulation.
The heat was delicious. It soothed my anxiety as it spread through me like honey, warming and healing as it went. My eyes closed as I enjoyed the blissed-out sensations coursing through my body. I went from rigid to oddly boneless and laid down on the ground contentedly once the weight of Jens was lifted from my lap. Uncle Rick was shouting something, but I was too cozy to care. I closed my eyes and smiled. If this was death, I would welcome it.
First Human Female in Elvage
The fingers in my hair were pure bliss, and when I stretched my body, the bed beneath me was the softest I’d ever felt, like sleeping on a cloud. The warmth in the room was a welcome respite from the cold of the dank cave’s floor. I took in a deep, cleansing breath and found that this Heaven smelled just like my room. When I finally opened my eyes, I realized my nose was buried in Jens’s leg. The familiar smell was him, and in that moment between sleep and waking, I took great comfort in the scent that always followed me.
“Lucy?” Jens chuckled.
“Not yet,” I protested, snuggling his leg like it was a teddy bear. I was so comfortable, and still in a hazy peace I did not want shattered so soon. The fingers in my hair gripped the locks and gently tugged, stimulating the roots and making me almost drool on his thigh. “That feels so good,” I purred.
Touch was one thing I craved and did not get much of. Sure, Tonya and I hugged. There was the occasional brush of the shoulder against a stranger, but other than those few things, no one touched me after my family died. I tried not to miss it, but I did. As Jens ran his fingers over my cheek, it connected with a part of me I had tried to kill off in my attempt to survive.
“You finally awake?” he asked, a smile in his tone. “Sorry about that. Our medicine works different on humans than it does on us, I guess. It killed the spiders, which is the important thing, but we didn’t count on it knocking you clean out.”
I turned into his leg and wiped my drool off on his pants. After everything we’d just been through, I figured he could take it. My eyelids were heavy when they opened. I rolled onto my back to squeeze out every bit of enjoyment I could from the cloud-like bed as gold dust sparkled around me. “Beautiful!” I breathed, entranced by the shimmering glitter in the air. “Am I dead?” It was the only explanation I could think of. I lifted my arm to brush my hair from my face and found that I was wearing foreign clothes. I wasn’t even mad that someone dressed me without my permission. I was too content in the most comfortable bed in the universe. Too happy watching the gold dance around me as it floated weightlessly in the air. Too cozy lying next to my own personal guardian angel.
His voice came back to me less relaxed than it was previously. “No, you’re not dead, but you almost were. Why didn’t you tell me you got bit?”
My hand swished in slow motion through the air, separating the glittering particles that each went off on their own little dance in the world. The room we were in was painted cream and gold with pale blue accents. There was a vanity with gold trim in the corner that was so fancy, it looked straight out of an antique shop. Nothing felt real, so I enjoyed playing with the gold glitter hanging in the air. “What could you have done about me getting bit?”
Jens was silent while he thought on this. Finally, he responded with, “I don’t know, but you should’ve told Foss. And when Alrik got there, you should’ve told him first thing.”
“If I’m going to start telling Foss things, I’ll start with a big long lecture on women’s rights.” I sighed. “I had one tiny bite, Jens. You had a billion. Not to question your stamina, but you looked like you were at death’s door. You needed more of the mulch paste than I did. It’s okay to say that I was right.”
“No. We need you for the human gate. The portal needs to be destroyed by its own kind. What use would I be for that?”
I shrugged, unperturbed by his argument. “Hire a demolition expert.”
“It’s a little more complicated than that, smartass.”
“Hey! I’d be nicer to me if I were you. I just saved your life by sending Foss to fetch Alrik.” I grinned when he had no response to this. I was still on my back next to his knee, staring in bewilderment at the floating gold. “That’s right. I’m leveling the playing field.”
“How’s that?” Jens asked uncomfortably.
“You’re no longer this almighty force, and I’m not the weak human idiot you got stuck watching. I officially helped save your life.” I batted at a few more particles, watching them dance like ballerinas through the air. “I rock.”
Jens laughed through his discomfort. “Yes, I suppose you do. But no more. That gets to be your only time saving my life, got it? Next time, it’s my turn to save the day.”
“Whatever. You’re my pretty princess. Just admit it.”
He said nothing, but reached down and put his hand in my hair again, leafing through the tangles and making me swoon. Now that I was more awake, it dawned on me how weird it was that we were this close already. That it would occur to him to tickle my scalp, and that I would let him do it. Yes, it was strange, but part of me felt more at home with him than I usually did when I was all by myself. He was sitting up in the bed, leaning against the tall headboard, and I was content where I lay, snuggled up to his side.
“Jens, what would...” I stopped short and bolted upright, whipping my head around like a crazy person. “Henry Mancini!”
Jens laughed. It was the only sound that could distract me from my alertness. “I think you might be the first person this century to call out his name like that.”
“Where’s my dog?” I slipped off the bed, and for the first time, actually looked at what I was wearing. “And what is this? I know for a fact I have a proper change of clothes in my green backpack, which is somewhere in the abyss of your red bag.” I was bathed and dressed in a cream-colored gown that kissed my bare feet. It was fitted up top and flowing on the bottom. Would’ve been pretty on anyone else. “Britta?” I asked warily, finally glancing up at Jens.
Jens nodded, his smile more laid back than I thought it should be, given the audacity of the crime at hand. “She’s afraid you’re going to be mad at her.”
I shook my head. “Why am I dressed for a Renaissance fair? And where’s my dog?” I examined his clean black t-shirt, jeans and boots. “And why do you get to look normal, but I can’t?”
His legs swung off the bed. He made his way over to me in the room with golden swirled walls that were so fancy, I was afraid to touch them. “You’re dressed like this because this is Alrik’s home, and you’re wearing the clothes of his people. You’re the first human in Elvage, so he’s expecting a fair amount of visitors once you’re ready. Important ones.” He motioned to his jeans. “I get to look like this because guardian gnomes can dress how they like. No one cares if I’m ready for a ball. They care if I can scale a mountain in a pinch.”
“Great. Where’s my dog?” I looked around the room and tried not to get distracted by the glitter. The vanity and wardrobe were made out of blonde wood to match the flooring, but other than that, the room was bare.
“Your wolf is outside with Tor and Foss.”
“Henry Mancini’s a wolf?”
Jens sighed. “Do we really have to call him that?”
“Only if you don’t want me to call you Jennifer. Of course you have to call him that. It’s his name.”
“Jens isn’t short for Jennifer. It’s our version of John, which is a man’s name. If we were in Sweden, it’d be pronounced ‘Yens’.” He pointed to his chest. “Man.” Then he did something that made me stop breathing. He wrapped his arm around the small of my back and drew me to him, pressing my body to his in a way that was firm and forceful. “Woman,” he said, clutching me tight to him. He took my hand and placed it on his tattoo, the corner of his mouth lifting at my obvious swoon. “And don’t you for
I felt like I was on the cover of one of those dog-eared romance novels you always see at used bookstores. Gorgeous man, blonde woman in a dress with her curls swirling out behind her. Bells rang in my brain when he leaned closer to me, lifting me to my toes so he could stick his nose in my neck.
Delirium closed my eyes and anticipation made my heart flutter as he smelled my skin. In all my romantic fantasies, I never really thought much on a man’s nose buried in the crook of my neck, but my legs turned to jelly when Jens kissed my collarbone. He moved his mouth up my neck and kissed my jaw, further melting me with his touch. My body formed easily to his, and my hand wound into his messy hair possessively. I had never been kissed like this. I had never been seduced, but my body understood the dance as my brain turned to mush.
A knock interrupted our moment. I wished I could unhear it so I could remain in the haze, but Jens stiffened.
“Miss Lucy? Are you well?” Jamie called from the other side.
We broke apart as if struck by lightning, both of us wary of the other. “I… I…”
Jens waved off my mumbling. “Forget about it.” He turned away from me and shook his arms out, as if doing that would make his body comply with whatever his mind was telling it to do.
When sense reentered my brain, I moved past Jens, but paused before opening the door. “Is this decent?” I asked him, unsure if I was wearing a dress or an undergarment of some old Colonial variety.
Jens leaned on the wall next to the door, feigning ease and mocking me with a touch of the lust in his eye he tried unsuccessfully to mask. “This is what we call a dress. Or what you refer to as a Halloween costume.” When I glared at him, he rolled his eyes. “Come in, Jamie.”
Jamie entered with Britta, who looked like she was afraid I might shout at her. “Miss Lucy,” she said with a dip of her head. She was well over six feet tall, but her subservient demeanor made her seem smaller. She looked from my blush to her brother’s avoidance and did her best to swallow a delighted smile.
“Um, thanks for letting me borrow your dress, Britta. And thanks for cleaning me up and everything.”
“It’s no trouble.” Britta’s shoulders relaxed. “Alrik bought the dress for you, actually. He said to let him know if you need anything at all.”
“Where is he?”
“He’s in the observatory, entertaining guests who are all anxious to meet you.”
“Why?” My nose scrunched and that familiar pit in my stomach churned. I always felt sick to my stomach on the first day at a new school. I usually ralphed just before first period in the ladies’ room. “You guys are the ones with the magic. I’m a normal person.”
“Yes, but you’re the first human woman they’ve ever met, so you’ve drawn quite the turnout.” Jamie stood in the doorway, as if entering a woman’s chambers was unbecoming to him. He wore a blue fancy George Washington-style coat over his clothes and had the posture of an old-fashioned gentleman. It was a little intimidating.
“May I fix your hair?” Britta asked in her mousy voice. Her dark green dress had an apron over it, and she wore her long brown hair in two clean braids on either side of her head under her white bonnet.
I ran my hand through the tangles, never having cared much what it looked like. “Um, sure. Is it a disaster?”
Her lie was easy to spot. “Oh, no! I just thought you might want your hair in the style of your uncle’s people.” She motioned to the vanity, and I sat obediently while she made sense of my blonde hair with a pearl-handled brush. She let it hang loose and tied silver and pink ribbons through loops she knotted in my hair.
Jens and Jamie were talking in hushed tones that made me nervous. I didn’t like surprises, and everything about this place would be one.
When Britta was finished, I thanked her and turned to look at myself in the concave and cloudy mirror. I was astonished. With no product whatsoever, she’d made me look like a Renaissance princess. Or a fairy. Or whatever those women at the fairs were supposed to be. “Whoa! Is one of your magical powers hairstyling? How’d you do that?”
Britta smiled by way of an answer.
Jens extended his hand to hoist me up out of the chair, but when I stood, I did not drop his hand. Part of me held onto him because I was nervous. The other part… I wasn’t ready to look too close at that yet. Suffice to say, Jens and I had been through enough in the past couple days to be at the place where we could lean on each other a little. He gazed down at me and gave me a look with a thousand emotions flickering through it, tinged with a hint of teasing. “Are you gonna hurl? You’ve got that look.”
“Well, aren’t you a charmer?” I straightened, trying not to feel like a child in the midst of the three tall people. Jens led the way down the golden hallway, down a flight of blonde-colored stairs, down three more hallways and to a set of doors that was shut. I could hear commotion on the other side.
Jamie held out his arm for me to take, but I did not move toward him. “I’m fine. Thanks.” I looked to Britta, who was grinning at the place where my hand was still joined with her brother’s. “But Britta needs an escort. I mean, a woman walking around without a man? What would the neighbors say?”
Jens dropped my hand and took a step back from me. “No. Do what you’re told and go with Jamie.”
“Come again?” I can’t recall the last time someone ordered me so rudely.
“Go with Jamie. He’ll bring you out and present you to the elves. His stamp of approval will help them accept you. Set you off on the right foot.” When I didn’t move away from his side fast enough, his tone turned sharp. “You can’t hold onto me like that, Lucy. People are gonna get the wrong idea about us.”
I recoiled from his acerbic tone. “What wrong idea? In the bedroom, you were just –”
“You were imagining things.” He gave me a look of warning not to test him. “What? You really think you could keep up with someone like me? Come on, Loos! Rumors fly like crazy around here, and I don’t want anyone in my business, least of all you.”
“Jens!” his sister scolded, her face cross. The same emerald eyes stared daggers at him, angry and ashamed at his harsh words.
I wondered if Jens had a girlfriend. Everything he was saying was pointing to either to him being ashamed of me, or wanting to hide me to keep his options open. Solid guy. Boy, do I know how to pick them. “It’s fine. Whatever. Pass me around.” I tried to brush it off like a joke, but I could not keep the hurt out of my words. People certainly had gotten the wrong idea about us, if “people” meant me.
What had I been thinking? I knew next to nothing about Jens. We weren’t even the same species. I took Jamie’s arm without looking up at him and waited like a good little puppet for him to move us forward. I could tell he was watching me, but I ignored him.
“He’s right, you know,” Jamie said, bending down to speak quietly to me.
“Gotcha. I wouldn’t want to ruin his game. Far be it from me to… whatever. It’s fine. Loud and clear. Lucy Kincaid is bad for business.” I slid emotionlessness onto my face, lest I let my hurt feelings be known. “I thought I wasn’t supposed to hold onto you, though. That Freya chick isn’t going to off-with-her-head me, is she?”
Jamie shook his head. “Elvage isn’t Tonttu. You were a rarity there, but Alrik wants your status elevated here. It’ll give us more opportunities if he presents you as the leader of your kind. We’re both royalty now, and this is normal for that kind of thing.”
Jamie started explaining the rules of proper Tomten courting, making excuses for Jens, but I had no patience for it. I felt a little bad when I interrupted him mid-sentence with, “You know, I don’t really care. Jens is bipolar. Message received.” I forced out a laugh that made me cringe at its obvious fakeness when I heard it. “Boy, do I know nothing about men.” I finally looked up at Jamie, who had that infuriating pity in his eyes. “Let’s ripcord this nonsense.”
“What?” Jamie asked.
I heard Jens huff behind u
I whirled around on Jens, shoving my finger in his closed-off face. “Give me some space and quit messing with my head. Go do your garden gnome thing and don’t interpret for me. You’re off-duty. In fact, you’re fired.”
Jens glared at me and postured, using his intimidating height to tower over me and gain the physical advantage in the conversation. “I don’t answer to you.”
I threw up my hands. “Well, you seem perfectly happy to answer for me.”
“That’s because no one can understand you here!”
“No kidding!” I yelled. “No one understands me at all anywhere! I’ve got nothing and no one, so quit being in my face!”
“You make absolutely no sense!”
I used wild hand gestures to make my point. “Get away from me! Is that easy enough for you to grasp?”
“You know I can’t do that!” Jens shouted. His anger was a little frightening, but I maintained my ground with a sneer that matched his. “It’s my job to keep you alive.”
“Get away from me,” I snapped, turning my back on him. “I wouldn’t want to soil your perfect reputation, almighty troll-slayer.”
“Let’s go, Jamie.”
Jamie pushed Jens lightly in the chest to shove him backwards, giving his best friend a look of disapproval.
The double doors opened, and Uncle Rick came out, an air of secrecy about him as he shut the entrance at his back. “Lucy, a word?”
Uncle Rick motioned for me to follow him down the hallway, so I obeyed. When Jens made to follow me, I barked, “Back up, guard. I’m allowed to talk to my uncle.”