I am trying to keep my hands from shaking while I’m holding the test strip. There’s one pink line, and I’m waiting to see if there will be two. I think I already know the answer, but I’m holding my breath like it’ll make time go faster anyway.
If I ever imagined this moment, which I don’t remember ever doing, but if I did, I would have imagined it like the commercials that would run in the background when my mom would watch tv while she cooked dinner. If those were to be believed, I was supposed to be in an all-white, pristine, upper-middle-class bathroom, gasping with tears of joy while I hid my pearly white smile behind trembling fingers. My partner would be hugging me from behind, elated and definitely not about to make any crude jokes about the virulence of his sperm.
None of this is happening.
I am in a Target bathroom stall, surrounded by Target-red walls. Cardan, my husband and the High King of Elfhame, is on the other side of the red walls, trying to distract himself with the automatic paper towel dispensers. He’s waving his hand in front of it every couple of seconds; I can hear it each time the motor dispenses paper. I wonder how long of a trail he’s created at this point, but it’s the least of my worries.
“Cardan, you’re wasting paper,” I tell him anyway. He does it again once more; I can practically feel his petulant glare through the wall.
“How long is this meant to take?” he asks.
“It’s only been thirty seconds,” I tell him. “It takes two minutes.”
“I will die of old age by then,” Cardan mutters to himself, which I know he finds funny, because he’s immortal, and he waves his hand by the paper towel dispenser again.
I think I’m going to have a nervous breakdown.
Cardan had not been keen on this particular trip to Target, which is saying a lot, because he’s usually so fond of it. He had wanted to cut our trip to the mortal world short, head back to Elfhame and its royal healers and midwives and have me submit to their inquiries and tests, as all queens and lovers of the High Kings of Elfhame have before me.
But I just needed a minute to think. I needed to process this, with Cardan alone, and face the impossibly difficult questions we’ve been avoiding since this became a question. And if this is true, if I really am with child, with Cardan’s child, I don’t want the first people to know to be a bunch of faerie midwives. I want to tell Vivi and Heather. I want Taryn to know first. And I am filled with loathing when I think about how protected and insulated I’m about to become when the healers and midwives know. How the people will cease to see me as their High Queen and rather as the incubator for their Prince.
I want to eat an entire pint of Ben and Jerry’s. This is all happening so fast.
I glance back at the test strip. Stand and flush the toilet. Step out of the red walls.
Cardan’s raised his dark eyebrows, his hand arrested halfway to the paper towel dispenser again.
“Well?” He looks guarded, unsure of how he’s supposed to be reacting. I hand him the test and step up to the sink, turning on the water to wash my hands. I can see him in the mirror behind me, in his tight pants and boots, The Ramones T-shirt he’s borrowed from Vivi. He’s turning the test over and over in his hands, like he can’t tell which way is up. Same, honestly. My head feels like it’s detached from my body.
“It’s yes,” is the only dumb thing I manage to mutter as I soap up my fingers. Just like the commercials.
“How can you tell?” Cardan’s only looking more confused.
“The two lines.” I turn off the water and tear off part of Cardan’s paper towel train. “The two pink lines mean yes.”
Cardan looks up at me. His chest is hitching in shallow breaths.
“We should be celebrating,” he says, but it comes out like he’s trying to convince himself. So he tries again, squaring up his shoulders with a bit more enthusiasm. “We should be celebrating.”
“Mhmm,” I try to agree with a tight nod. I think I’m going to be sick. Again. Cardan searches my face, his gold-rimmed eyes flitting over the lip I’m worrying away at.
“You do not appear to be particularly celebratory,” he points out, but, then, neither does he. His cheekbones are tingeing red.
“It happened so fast, don’t you think?” My voice sounds almost breathless. It feels like a relief to point out, and that relief is contagious. Cardan’s shoulders sag a little bit as he lets out a breath.
“Lightning fast,” he agrees. He’s white-knuckling the pregnancy test.
“Careful -- I peed on that,” I point out, and, as if I’ve instead told him it’s on fire, Cardan hurls it into the trash with a disgusted huff.
I think for a moment about fishing it back out again, the only bit of evidence that I have that what’s going on inside of me is real. That the legacy we wished first wished for together in the dark, in each other’s arms, not even a month ago, is happening now and fast and there’s no going back. The time for second-guessing was over.
But a disconcerting combination of nausea and hunger hit me in the gut all at once, and I’m reminded that I have plenty of evidence and I’m only going to get more. If I really want to, I’ll just pee on another stick later.
“I need Starbucks,” I spout at the same moment Cardan sighs, “I need a drink.” And we share a quick smile.
At there’s still this. This has not changed.
And I should be enjoying that as we leave the bathroom and Cardan lifts the glamour he’d left at the door to give us some privacy. The “Out of Order” sign vanishes. But instead, I’m thinking of everything that is going to change. Of everything that ought to change, immediately, if at all possible.
I find myself unconsciously reaching for Cardan’s hand, and when I grab his palm and entwine our fingers, he’s squeezing mine back, hard. He knows. The worries and arguments past are resurfacing in his mind, too, and, for a moment, he wordlessly anchors himself to me.
We’re walking past customer service, following the alluring scent trail of coffee and baked goods, as I began to look at the other moms shopping. Their cute messy buns and their athleisure, pushing expensive strollers while their kids gnaw on the season’s latest teethers. And I’m struck, once again, by how much I don’t know.
Really, what are we doing here? Of all the people in all the realms, I think we are the last two people who ought to be becoming parents.
For one, I am an unrepentant murderer. Raised by an unrepentant murderer. Who murdered my own mother in front of me. This is not a person who ought to be cradling newborns.
And Cardan? The twice-cursed High King of Elfhame? Raised by house cats, beaten nightly by his own brother. Simultaneously spoiled and neglected. Is such a person even capable of cradling newborns?
And we’re about to be parents. I need to be reading more, I think. I need to have a plan. We never made a plan. We hadn’t had time to make a plan.
I pause a moment near the checkout lines, pulling Cardan to a stop beside me.
“I’m going to buy a few things first,” I decide in that moment. “Vitamins. Maybe some parenting books.”
“I don’t see the point,” Cardan retorts, straight-faced. “We have plenty of house cats.”
I narrow my eyes up at him as he smirks.
“That joke will be hilarious in a few weeks,” he tells me. “Just you wait.”
“I really doubt it,” I frown, and he’s still smirking when he drops my hand, stepping in front of me.
“My darling Jude,” he cups my face in his hands, and for a moment, his face is all I’m seeing. His expression is soft and tender across his beautiful features, and if our child is even half as good as looking, I am going to struggle to not let it have its way in all things. Or I’m going to want to strangle it. Some days, it’s a coin toss.
“You are the most fearsome and glorious creature I have ever had the privilege to behold,” Cardan is telling me. I’m struck once again by the marvel that he can’t lie and what he is saying must be true. In our five years of marriage, it is still sometimes hard to believe.
“And you will be the most fearsome and glorious mother,” he goes on. “I could not conjure up a more perfect mother for my offspring if I tried.”
“I think that says more about your lack of imagination than anything else,” I quip, but my cheeks are smiling in his hands regardless. He smirks back and quickly kisses me on the lips, once, twice.
“I am happy at this news,” he reassures me, as if he has sensed this whole time how overcome I am.
“I am, too,” I say, and I mean it. Truly. I’m a mixing bowl of emotions. My gaze drifts toward the store. “But we do need parenting books…”
Cardan kisses me quick one last time before releasing my face.
“I will procure your coffee,” he says, taking a step back, and it’s impossible not to look him over, his long, lean body in tight, black pants and worn t-shirt, his messy, black curls around the points of his ears. I have modern science to thank for keeping my womb empty these last five years. Chastity certainly had nothing to do with it.
“And Cardan?” I call after him. He turns. “A cake pop, too?” I ask, already in the clutches of a craving.
He looks intrigued.
“Is that what it sounds like?” he asks.
“Ball of cake on a stick,” I explain, kind of gesturing with my hands as if it will help. Cardan nods, determined.
“Then we will be needing several,” he declares before heading off toward the smell of coffee.
I shoulder the bag I borrowed from Heather and then stuff my hands into the pockets of the yellow sundress I’m wearing, one of a few mortal things of my own I keep at Vivi and Heather’s for visits. I’m on my way to the books section when I start to slow down near a display of newborn onesies.
It isn’t as though I never wanted to be a mother. I supposed there would come a day when I would have acquired all the knowledge one needed to be a mother, and then I would, I don’t know, award myself a medal or a pin and be declared Ready.
Taryn hadn’t been Ready. She would be the first to admit that. Not that I don’t love my niece with my entire heart. But Taryn’s daughter was a handful. Little Eva had been colicky and prone to getting her days and nights confused. For that entire first year, every time we saw Taryn, it seemed she faded a little more: the bags under her eyes greying, her auburn hair growing longer and frayed, everything but her breasts shrinking in size. Of course, it wasn’t permanent. Eva learned to sleep eventually, and to walk and eat and use a toilet, and, now that she was a robust and energetic five-year-old, Taryn was more like herself than she’d been in years.
Still. That first year, though.
Time and time again, Cardan and I would exchange glances while Eva squealed and squalled. It was always a silent No, thank you, please passing between us. We’re just fine without, thank you. Between the battle for the crown and undoing a curse, we’d had quite enough excitement, and so I eagerly welcomed Vivi regularly smuggling me little moon-shaped packets of pink pills from the mortal world. I took them each morning, like clockwork, with relish – it meant I could enjoy my freedom, our freedom as long as I wanted.
I’m not sure what happened in me. One day, I was calling it freedom. The next, it felt like an empty vessel.
We’d gone to visit Taryn and Eva at their estate for a summer solstice brunch. Vivi and Heather had come, and The Ghost was there, too, swapping stories and laughing with Vivi. I’d stepped out onto the terrace to call in Eva for food when I’d spotted Cardan. He was helping Eva climb up a tree, holding her hand while she balanced on a branch. Her wild fox hair was blowing in the late morning breeze that carried her giggle up to the house. Then she leapt at him with a delighted squeal, and he caught her and spun her around so that she squealed some more. And that look of sheer joy on his face when she did. His unguarded laugh echoed up through the grassy hills. I felt my heart crack open.
No, thank you, please suddenly felt very unadvised.
“What have I done to deserve such a face?” Cardan asked me, leaving a lingering kiss close to my ear. I guess I was looking a little amorous when he and Eva came inside. Little Eva was trotting off to the kitchens as I wound my fingers against the buttons of Cardan’s doublet, keeping him close for a moment longer.
“You looked happy,” I said as his hands slid around my waist. I looked up into his dark eyes, warm only for me, and saw he was smiling. “You looked like you liked doing fatherly things.”
He pulled me a little closer, a little tighter.
“I think I did,” he admitted, perhaps hardly believing it himself.
And then it happened. The unspoken shift, the change in the air. It seemed to crackle in the space between our gaze, and it took a fair bit of restraint to not pull him into the nearest coat closet and tear off his clothes. Taryn was calling us anyway. The servants had set the table, and no one would be seated until we had taken our chairs, even in this little family arrangement. Taryn was set on Eva learning courtly manners by example.
Courtly manners. By example. Taryn had the best intentions for Eva, but the phrases make me snort even now while I peruse baby clothes in Target. What example did we set in Faerie? One of murder and deceit and betrayal and lewd behavior.
The same day that I’d watched Cardan play with Eva, he abruptly ended dinner in the palace’s great hall to hoist me into his arms and carry me out, away from every one’s gaze, away from even the guards.
“What has gotten into you?” I kicked my feet and pounded at his shoulders – not particularly hard. Look, I’m not going to pretend this isn’t a game now. I could cause damage if I wanted to. I don’t.
Cardan set me on my feet, only to seize my waist in one arm. We stumbled into an alcove in the wall as his head dipped to my neck, his other hand catching us against the wall. Delighted shivers danced down my arms as his lips brushed the spot below my ear, and I couldn’t hold back a gasp.
“You couldn’t lie to me now even if you wanted to, wife,” Cardan murmured, kissing my ear. He wasn’t wrong. I ran my hands up his deep blue velvet doublet to his shoulders, and bent into his embrace. His hands began to roam my waist, my hips, pulling at my skirts.
“I’ll tell you whatever you like if you’ll keep doing this,” I whispered back, flushing. When he pulled back from my throat, there was a wicked, sneaking smile on his reddening lips.
“You don’t despise the thought of bearing my children,” he said, like it’s a revelation. I blinked. Had he been thinking about our previous exchange all day?
“I despise the thought of bearing any children,” I clarified. “It’s not some honor unique to you.”
Cardan gasped as if he was wounded.
“You could not have cut me deeper,” he teased, as I wound my fingers into the soft hair at the nape of his neck. “I thought I was special.”
“You are,” I said, tugging at his hair. “Because if I’m to bear any children at all, I would like them to be yours.”
The smile that spread over his face then was far from wicked. Cardan was flushed and delighted in a way few got to see, and his arms squeezed around me, lifting me to him as he crushed his lips to mine.
“Cardan,” I laughed against his fevered kisses, my cheeks hurting. “I didn’t mean right this second.”
His lips were swollen when he pulled back, the pupils of his gold-rimmed eyes blown wide.
“Then practice with me,” he said, his breathing ragged. “Like swordplay. You’re always saying I’m rubbish at practicing.”
“You really are,” I gasped against his mouth.
In the last five years, I’ve grown no better at resisting the pull of his desire. If anything, I’m only worse. I couldn’t think straight there in his arms. I wanted to drown in his contagious idealism. I wanted to be set aflame by his soft lips and his body against mine.
With my arms thrown over his shoulders, his lips slid against mine, over and over, our hearts pounding in time together. And then he lifted me off my toes so that he could push us both through our bedchamber door.
A shoe slipped from my foot, and he stumbled over it, kicked it to the side, without releasing my waist. Only when the back of my legs pressed against the bedframe did he pull back from my mouth, breathless. And then he pushed me back onto the bed.
I stretched out on the lush duvet, my whole body thrumming as my heart battered my ribcage. But when I looked up at his face there at the foot of the bed, his expression had darkened in the candlelight.
“What is it?” I pushed myself up to my elbows. “Why are you stopping?”
Cardan suddenly looked as if he was at war with himself. Even though his chest still heaved, he inched to the bed and stepped back again, his dark brows furrowing together.
“Cardan…?” I sat up, alarmed at his hesitation.
“Do you think I would be any good at it?” he blurted out. “At being a father,” he clarified, and winced as if he already knew and hated the answer.
I slid to the edge of the bed and reached for his belt. Pulled him closer.
“You are as equipped for the task as I am,” I said, looking up at him with what I hoped was a provocative smile. He slid his long fingers into my hair, and I needed him closer. “If you’re terrible at it, then I will probably be worse.”
I meant it in jest. He’d always liked this side of me before, my dark, warped cruelty. But this time, his fingers tightened suddenly in my hair.
“Shit.” The word slid out of him like it was being dragged. His hands dropped from my hair, and he stepped back to look at me. He drew in a sharp breath.
“You think I would be a terrible father,” he said, which was hardly fair. That wasn’t what I said at all. I sighed hard, ruing the direction this was going – further from the bed.
“I think neither one of us knows what a good father looks like,” I said. Cardan only gave a painful chuckle.
“We are both quite familiar with terrible fathers,” he said. “I think you, of anyone, would be able to recognize a terrible father when you saw one.”
“And that is the last time you will compare yourself to Madoc,” I said, in horror. “If that is the standard for terrible fathers, then you’re angelic.”
But Cardan gave me a look of slit-eyed skepticism, so I stood from the bed and stepped to him.
“And, really, what does it matter right now?” I asked, lowly, holding a hand to his face. He leaned against it. I was almost ready to start begging. “I am not falling pregnant tonight. We have time to learn these things, if we want to learn them at all.” I lifted onto my tip toes, brushing my lips to the hollow of his cheek.
“Just come to bed,” I whispered there, and I saw his eyes fall shut, his dark lashes against his sharp cheekbones, as he turned to meet the slant of my lips.
“I want to be good at it,” he murmured against my mouth, as I dragged him toward the bed.
“Then you will be,” I insisted just before he cradled the back of my neck, sinking into our kiss as we tipped toward the mattress.
We have time. It’s an easy lie to tell when you’re in Faerie. Time stretches on, limitless and unending. There shouldbe time, endless amounts of time, to learn all you need to know – about anything. There should be time to become the person you’d always wanted to be.
I had had two months since that first conversation. Even less time since the others. In Faerie, that’s hardly a lunch hour.
I am reeling. I’m in Target with a red basket full of prenatal vitamins and snacks and pregnancy books, and I am absolutely reeling.
After I check out, I find Cardan sitting on the curb with a Starbucks bag that’s the size of a large gift bag and two venti Frappuccinos. The one he’s nursing is strawberry-pink and looks full of cream.
“They didn’t have wine,” he tells me, handing me mine. It’s drizzled in caramel, and I’m not sure it’s what I would have ordinarily chosen, but right now, it smells perfect.
“Probably for the best,” I say, and hazard a glance at his expression. It’s dark and troubled again as he squints against the sunlight. His legs are drawn up, and he’s resting his elbows on his knees, like he’s hunched under a weight. Reality’s given him a hard jolt since he kissed me in front of the newborn onesies.
I take a long sip of the Frappuccino through the green straw.
“Cardan, if you don’t want to do this--” I start, and his head jerks up.
“I have always wanted this,” he snaps, looking defensive, and then he’s looking at his boots again.
“Okay.” I sit back, extending my legs.
How do I do this? I have no blueprint for this. Floundering, there’s only one rope I know to pull, the one that’s always saved us: honesty.
So, I go on.
“I’m terrified, too,” I say. I spread the yellow fabric of my sundress over my knees. “If that’s any consolation. I think I’ll be happy eventually, but right now, I’m completely freaking out. I can hardly form a coherent thought. How many cake pops did you get?” I cock my head at the large Starbucks bag.
Cardan shifts it in my direction.
“All of them,” he says, glumly.
I raise my eyebrows as I peer in the bag. Oak will be excited, at least.
“I hate myself for being so terrified of a thing I desperately want.” I look up at Cardan’s confession to see his face twisted in loathing, and my heart twists right along with it. I know this pain, the agony of fearing what you love.
I could lie to him; I probably should. I should tell him right now that I know without a shadow of a doubt he will be a perfect father, that he’s beyond everything that had been done to him, that none of it had ever touched me either. But I don’t lie to him anymore.
Instead, I hand him a cake pop.
“That strikes me as a waste of energy,” I say, and nudge him with a coy smile. “There are so many other things you could hate yourself for.”
He gives me a wicked smirk and, instead of taking the cake pop I’ve offered, he seizes my other wrist and takes a large bite out of the one I’d claimed for myself. Feigning exasperation, I stab at him with the leftover stick.
“Does this not strike you as problematic?” he asks a moment later, his cheek still full of cake.
“Yes.” I reply with a stoic nod. “The fact that you just ate a pregnant lady’s cake pop is both striking andproblematic.”
“I mean this repartee you and I enjoy.” He wipes at a bit of icing at the corner of his mouth with his thumb. “A child ought to know his father loves his mother and vice versa, should he not? I would think that sort of thing helps.”
I feel the heartbreak behind his words as if it were my own. In his mind, he’s now on an endless search for every moment in his childhood that went wrong, every little action he ought to do the opposite of. I know. My mind’s been doing it, too.
I scoot a little closer, nearing his warmth, so that I can lean against him. He rests his head on top of mine.
“But you’re my nemesis,” I say, softly.
“Jude,” he says it like he’s scolding. “Not in front of the children.”
“Do not say ‘children’.” I jab him again as he presses his lips to the top of my head. “Your wishes are too powerful, and there is room in here for only one.”
Cardan’s slipped an arm around me, and I tilt my head back to look at him. The corner of his mouth is tugging upwards, slyly.
“Tell me I’m too powerful again,” he murmurs as he kisses my cheek.
“Later,” I promise, and I reach for another cake pop.
There will be time for all that later.
It’s a lie I get used to telling.