“Teach me my place, indeed,” Vesper muttered, plunging a tunic into a basin of icy water. The soap stung her cracked knuckles. “Perhaps I’ll scrub a hole right through this cursed fabric and I’ll be dismissed.”
Vesper tossed the soap into the basin with a thunk. In the ripples of water, her sage eyes blazed. She tossed waves of marmalade hair behind her pointed ears with a sigh.
The only good thing about her demotion to laundress was spending her morning in the servants’ quarters of the garden, watching the glow of morning. The magenta sunrise twinkled with pixie-flies that glittered over the dew-kissed blooms of the palace gardens. The iridescent wisps flickered and spiraled through the trellises into the vertical gardens. Their tiny, staccato voices buzzed incoherently.
“Hard at work, I see.”
Vesper spun on her heels.
A black-furred wolf grinned from the shadows of the shed. He stepped into the light and shifted into human form. Tufts of fur receded like ebbing water, leaving a mane of black hair and a hulking frame draped in an undershirt and breeches.
Her heart lurched into her stomach.
He smirked, striding toward her on broad bare feet. “I didn’t scare you, did I?”
Vesper rolled her eyes. “Why would a seven-foot giant who shape shifts into a werewolf scare me?”
He had scared her at first. Mortifying as it would be to admit, she thought werewolves were feral creatures who would eat anything at the slightest pang of hunger. It was no wonder the palace enlisted Cosmo to guard the grounds at night. He was all muscle and bristle. With his brawny physique, sharp jawline riddled with scruff, and the seam of a scar that puckered across his cheekbone, he was the last creature a miscreant would want to encounter—as a wolf or a man.
But those eyes. They were pale blue, like a ring around the moon.
She turned away.
Vesper sighed. Jasmine steeped the air. The gentle hum of harp flower warbled as wind spun through the garden. The low-growing vine, native to her home in Elvenvale, grew tight little fronds that sang with the right slant of breeze. The chartreuse vine with its indigo buds had sprouted along the rock wall a few weeks after her arrival. Perhaps another elf worked at the palace.
Cosmo drummed the side of the basin. “I heard about your little subversion with Hebble.”
That wasn’t a surprise. The story circulated back to Vesper by a pageboy who didn’t know who she was.
Hebble, the royal dressmaker, had ruffled Vesper from the start with her incessant critiques and condescension. But when Hebble denied her the privilege of attending the Solstice Ball and then ordered her to make a dress for Hebble to wear to the event, Vesper’s rage seethed. In retaliation, Vesper gathered webs from glow spiders and painstakingly wove an image of an ogre into the bodice of Hebble’s gown, which only appeared under the glow of candlelight on the night of the ball. After much berating, Hebble demoted Vesper to laundress.
Despite the punishment, her chest still glowed with the memory of laughter undulating down the halls and the grimace on Hebble’s face when she stormed into the servants’ quarters. An ogre wasn’t far from reality.
Vesper glanced up from her washing.
Cosmo’s crooked smile matched her own. “Very crafty. But are you trying to get yourself dismissed?”
Vesper dried her hands on her apron. “I miss home.”
It had been three months since she left, conveyed in the royal carriage to study under Hebble. The Fairy Royals prized Elven women for their impeccable vision and skilled needlework, and somehow, Vesper’s praises had reached the palace.
Cosmo flipped the water bucket and sat, his massive form ridiculously oversized for the seat. “What do you miss most?”
Vesper shook her head.
She had already prattled on about Elvenvale countless times since they met. She missed it all. The soaring forests of Moon trees and the wild dragons who feasted on their treetop fruit, the inlet beaches sparkling with mermaid shells. Their tiny cottage with a leaky roof. Ma and Fa, most of all.
Vesper’s heart squeezed with longing. She blinked away the tears, though her giant eyes would betray her childishness.
Cosmo’s steady gaze encouraged her.
“Everything,” she answered.
Cosmo leaned against the stone wall beside the basin. “We all miss home. I would enjoy more company for my moonlight guard, but few fairies prefer night to day. Or elves.” He grinned. His eyes softened. “You are talented. You should be proud to work at the palace. Someday, you could be the royal dressmaker.”
Vesper slackened against the wall. “Oh, the joy of endless stitching for the beautification of spoiled fairies.” She wrinkled her nose. “They flap their pretentious wings around, as if their superiority stems from their elevation above the ground.”
Cosmo laughed huskily, his sharp cuspids gleaming. “Don’t do it for them. Do it for Elvenvale. For your family. Make them proud.”
He knelt and retrieved something from the ground by the rock wall.
Vesper’s heart drummed faster as he ambled beside her, closer than before.
Cosmo took her hand, his calloused fingers cupping hers. “And when you miss home, find the things that make you feel close.”
In her palm, he dropped a delicate frond of harp flower.
Her eyes ticked up to his, trying to find a way to ask how he knew, and in the same moment realizing from his canine smirk that he had planted the flower.
Her stomach flipped with something like homesickness, only sweeter.
“You better get washing, Vesper, dear. You have a royal dressmaker to usurp.”
Cosmo settled onto the stool and doused another gown in the basin. His eyes met hers with a playful flash.
Vesper recovered the soap from the water, her cheeks burning.
Perhaps there were no other elves in the palace.
But there were also no Cosmos in Elvenvale.