I had my back to the room as I stared out the window. It was a trick I’d learned from my mother to make me seem more in control. Elora had given me lots of tips the past few months, but the ones about commanding a meeting were the most useful.
“Princess, I think you’re being naive,” the Chancellor said. “You can’t turn the entire society on its head.”
“I’m not.” I turned back, giving him a cool gaze, and he lowered his eyes and balled up his handkerchief in his hand. “But we can’t ignore the problems any longer.”
I surveyed the meeting room, doing my best to seem as cold and imposing as Elora always had. I didn’t plan to be a cruel ruler, but they wouldn’t listen to weakness. If I wanted to make a change here, I had to be firm.
Since Elora had become incapacitated, I’d been running the day-to-day activities of the palace, which included a lot of meetings. The board of advisers seemed to take up a lot of my time.
The Chancellor had been voted into his position by the Trylle people, but as soon as his term was up, I planned to campaign against him as hard as I could. He was a conniving coward, and we needed somebody much stronger in his position.
Garrett Strom—my mother’s “confidant”—was here today, but he didn’t always attend these meetings. Depending on how Elora was doing that day, he often chose to stay and care for her instead.
My assistant Joss sat at the back of the room, furiously scribbling down notes as we talked. She was a small human girl who grew up in Förening as a mänsklig and worked as Elora’s secretary. Since I’d been running the palace, I’d inherited Joss as my own assistant.
Duncan, my bodyguard, was stationed by the door, where he stood during all the meetings. He followed me everywhere, like a shadow, and though he was clumsy and small, he was smarter than people gave him credit for. I’d grown to respect and appreciate his presence the last few months, even if he couldn’t completely take the place of my last guard, Finn Holmes.
Aurora Kroner sat at the head of the table, and next to her was Tove, my fiancé. He was usually the only one on my side, and I was grateful to have him here. I didn’t know how I would manage ruling if I felt completely alone.
Also in attendance were Marksinna Laris, a woman I didn’t particularly trust, but she was one of the most influential people in Förening; Markis Bain, who was in charge of changeling placement; Markis Court, the treasurer for the palace; and Thomas Holmes, the head guard in charge of security and all the trackers.
A few other high-ranking officials sat around the table, all of their expressions solemn. The situation for the Trylle was growing increasingly dire, and I was proposing change. They didn’t want me to change anything—they wanted me to support the system they’d had for centuries, but that system wasn’t working anymore. Our society was crumbling, and they refused to see the roles they played in its breakdown.
“With all due respect, Princess,” Aurora began, her voice so sweet I could barely hear the venom underneath, “we have bigger issues at hand. The Vittra are only getting stronger, and with the truce about to end—”
“The truce,” Marksinna Laris snorted, cutting her off. “Like that’s done us any good.”
“The truce isn’t over yet,” I said, standing up straighter. “Our trackers are out taking care of the problems now, which is why I think it’s so important that we have something in place for them when they return.”
“We can worry about that when they return,” the Chancellor said. “Let’s deal with saving our asses right now.”
“I’m not asking to redistribute the wealth or calling to abolish the monarchy,” I said. “I am simply saying that the trackers are out there risking their lives to save us, to protect our changelings, and they deserve a real house to come back to. We should be setting aside money now so that when this is over, we can begin building them real homes.”
“As noble as that is, Princess, we should be saving our money for the Vittra,” Markis Bain said. He was quiet and polite, even when he disagreed with me, and he was one of the few royals whom I felt actually wanted to do what was best for all the people.
“We can’t pay the Vittra off,” Tove interjected. “This isn’t about money. This is about power. We all know what they want, and a few thousand—or even a few million—dollars won’t matter to them. The Vittra King will refuse it.”
“I will do everything in my power to keep Förening safe, but you are all correct,” I said. “We have yet to find a reasonable solution for the Vittra. That means this might very well turn into a bloody fight, and if it does, we need to support our troops. They deserve the best care, including adequate housing and access to our healers if they’re injured in wartime.”
“Healers for a tracker?” Marksinna Laris laughed, and a few others chuckled along with her. “Don’t be ridiculous.”
“Why is that ridiculous?” I asked, working to keep the ice from my voice. “They are expected to die for us, but we aren’t willing to heal their wounds? We cannot ask more of them than we are willing to give ourselves.”
“They are lower than us,” Laris said, as if I didn’t understand the concept. “We are in charge for a reason. Why on earth should we treat them as equals when they are not?”
“Because it’s basic decency,” I argued. “We may not be human, but that doesn’t mean we have to be devoid of humanity. This is why our people are leaving our cities and preferring to live among the humans, letting their powers die. We must offer them some bit of happiness, otherwise why would they stay?”
Laris muttered something under her breath, keeping her steely eyes locked on the oak table. Her black hair was slicked back, pulled in a bun so tight her face looked strained. This was probably done on purpose to draw attention to her strength.
Marksinna Laris was a very powerful Trylle, able to produce and control fire, and something that strong was draining. Trylle powers weakened them, taking some of their life and aging them prematurely.
But if the Trylle didn’t use them, the abilities did something to their minds, eating at their thoughts and making them crazy. This was especially true for Tove, who would appear scattered and rude if he didn’t find constant outlets for his psychokinesis.
“It is time for a change,” Tove said, speaking up when the room had fallen into annoyed silence. “It can be gradual, but it’s going to happen.”
A knock at the door stopped anyone from offering a rebuttal, but from the beet-red color of the Chancellor’s face, it looked like he had a few words he wanted to get out.
Duncan opened the door, and Willa poked her head in, smiling uncertainly. Since she was a Marksinna, Garrett’s daughter, and my best friend, she had every right to be here. I’d extended an invitation for her to attend these meetings, but she always declined, saying she was afraid she would do more harm than good. She had a hard time being polite when she disagreed with people.
“Sorry,” Willa said, and Duncan stepped aside so she could come in. “I didn’t mean to interrupt. It’s just that it’s after five, and I was supposed to get the Princess at three for her birthday celebration.”
I glanced at the clock, realizing this had dragged on much longer than I’d originally planned. Willa walked over to me and gave the room an apologetic smile, but I knew she’d pull me out kicking and screaming if I didn’t put an end to the meeting.
“Ah, yes.” The Chancellor smiled at me with a disturbing hunger in his eyes. “I’d forgotten that you’ll be eighteen tomorrow.” He licked his lips, and Tove stood up, purposely blocking the Chancellor’s view of me.
“Sorry, everyone,” Tove said, “but the Princess and I have plans this evening. We’ll pick up this meeting next week, then?”
“You’re going back to work next week?” Laris looked appalled. “So soon after your wedding? Aren’t you and the Princess taking a honeymoon?”
“With the state of things, I don’t think it’s wise,” I said. “I have too much to get done here.”
While that was true enough, that wasn’t the only reason I’d skipped out on a honeymoon. As much as I’d grown to like Tove, I couldn’t imagine what the two of us would do on one. I hadn’t even let myself think about how we would spend our wedding night.
“We need to go over the changeling contracts,” Markis Bain said, standing up in a hurry. “Since the trackers are bringing the changelings back early, and some families decline to do changelings anymore, the placements have all been moved around. I need you to sign off on them.”
“Enough talk of business.” Willa looped her arm through mine, preparing to lead me out of the room. “The Princess will be back to work on Monday, and she can sign anything you want then.”
“Willa, it will only take a second to sign them,” I said, but she glared at me, so I gave Bain a polite smile. “I will look them over first thing Monday morning.”
Tove stayed behind a moment to say something to Bain, but he caught up with us a few moments later in the hall. Even though we were out of the meeting, Willa still kept her arm through mine as we walked.
Duncan stayed a step behind us when we were in the south wing. I’d gotten talked to many, many times about how I couldn’t treat Duncan as an equal while business was being conducted and there were Trylle officials at work around us.
“Princess?” Joss said, scampering behind me with papers spilling out of her binder. “Princess, do you want me to arrange a meeting on Monday with Markis Bain for the contracts?”
“Yes, that would be fantastic,” I said, slowing so I could talk to her. “Thank you, Joss.”
“You have a meeting at ten a.m. with the Markis of Oslinna.” Joss flipped through the appointment section of the binder, and a paper flew out. Duncan snatched it before it fell to the floor and handed it to her. “Thank you. Sorry. So, Princess, do you want to meet Markis Bain before or after that meeting?”
“She’ll be going back to work just after getting married,” Willa said. “Of course she won’t be there first thing in the morning. Make it for the afternoon.”
I glanced over at Tove walking next to me, but his expression was blank. Since proposing to me, he’d actually spoken very little of getting married. His mother and Willa had done most of the planning, so I hadn’t even talked to him about what he thought of colors or flower arrangements. Everything had been decided for us, so we had little to discuss.
“Does two in the afternoon work for you?” Joss asked.
“Yes, that would be perfect,” I said. “Thanks, Joss.”
“All right.” Joss stopped to hurriedly scribble down the time in the binder.
“Now she’s off until Monday,” Willa told Joss over her shoulder. “That means five whole days where nobody calls her, talks to her, or meets with her. Remember that, Joss. If anybody asks for the Princess, she cannot be reached.”
“Yes, of course, Marksinna Strom.” Joss smiled. “Happy birthday, Princess, and good luck with your wedding!”
“I can’t believe how much of a workaholic you are,” Willa said with a sigh as we walked away. “When you’re Queen, I’ll never see you at all.”
“Sorry,” I said. “I tried to get out of the meeting sooner, but things have been getting out of hand lately.”
“That Laris is driving me batty,” Tove said, grimacing at the thought of her. “When you’re Queen, you should banish her.”
“When I’m Queen, you’ll be King,” I pointed out. “You can banish her yourself.”
“Well, wait until you see what we have planned for you tonight.” Duncan grinned. “You’ll be having too much fun to worry about Laris or anybody else.”
Fortunately, since I was getting married in a few days, I’d gotten out of the usual ball that would happen for a Princess’s birthday. Elora and Aurora had planned that the wedding would take place immediately after I turned eighteen. My birthday was on a Wednesday, and I was getting married on Saturday, leaving no time for a massive Trylle birthday party.
Willa insisted on throwing me a small party anyway, even though I didn’t really want one. Considering everything that was happening in Förening, it felt like sacrilege. The Vittra had set up a peace treaty with us, agreeing not to attack us until I became Queen.
What we hadn’t realized at the time was the specific language they had used. They wouldn’t attack us, meaning the Trylle living in Förening. Everyone else was fair game.
The Vittra had started going after our changelings, the ones that were still left with their host families in human society. They’d taken a few before we caught on, but as soon as we did, we sent all our best trackers to bring home any changeling over the age of sixteen, including most of the trackers serving as palace bodyguards. For anyone younger than that, our trackers were supposed to stand guard and watch them. We knew the Vittra would avoid taking them because they couldn’t do so without setting off an Amber Alert. Still, we felt that every precaution must be taken to protect the most vulnerable among us.
That left us at a horrible disadvantage. To protect the changelings, our trackers had to be in the field, so they couldn’t be here guarding the palace. We would be more exposed to an attack if the Vittra went back on their part of the deal, but I didn’t see what choice we had. We couldn’t let them kidnap and hurt our children, so I sent every tracker I could out into the field.
Finn had been gone almost continuously for months. He was the best tracker we had, and he’d been returning the changelings to all the Trylle communities. I hadn’t seen him since before Christmas, and sometimes I still missed him, but the longing was fading.
He’d made it clear that his duty came before everything else and I could never be a real part of his life. I was marrying someone else, and even though I still cared about Finn, I had to put that behind me and move past it.
“Where is this party happening anyway?” I asked Willa, pushing thoughts of Finn from my mind.
“Upstairs,” Willa said, leading me toward the grand staircase in the front hall. “Matt’s up there putting on the finishing touches.”
“Finishing touches?” I raised an eyebrow.
Someone pounded violently on the front door, making the door shake and the chandelier above us tremble. Normally people rang the doorbell, but our visitor was nearly beating down the door.
“Stay back, Princess,” Duncan said as he walked over to the entrance.
“Duncan, I can get it,” I said.
If somebody hit the door hard enough to make the front hall quake, I was afraid of what they would do to him. I made a move for the door, but Willa stopped me.
“Wendy, let him,” she said firmly. “You and Tove will be here if he needs you.”
“No.” I pulled myself from her grip and went after Duncan, to defend him if I needed to.
That sounded silly, since he was supposed to be my bodyguard, but I was more powerful than him. He was really only meant to serve as a shield if need be, but I would never let him do that.
When he opened the door, I was right behind him. Duncan meant to only partially open the door so he could see what waited for us outside, but a gust of wind came up, blowing it open and sending snow swirling around the front hall.
A blast of cold air struck me, but it died down almost instantly. Willa could control the wind when she wanted to, so as soon as it blew inside the palace, she raised her hand to stop it.
A figure stood before us, bracing himself with his hands on either side of the doorway. He was slumped forward, his head hanging down, and snow covered his black sweater. His clothes were ragged, worn, and shredded in most places.
“Can we help you?” Duncan asked.
“I need the Princess,” he said, and as soon as I heard his voice, a shiver shot through me.
“Loki?” I gasped.
“Princess?” Loki lifted his head.
He smiled crookedly, but his smile didn’t have its usual bravado. His caramel eyes looked tired and pained, and he had a fading bruise on his cheek. Despite all that, he was still just as gorgeous as I remembered him, and my breath caught in my throat.
“What happened to you?” I asked. “What are you doing here?”
“I apologize for the intrusion, Princess,” he said, his smile already fading. “And as much as I’d like to say that I’m here for pleasure, I . . .” He swallowed something back, and his hands gripped tighter on the door frame.
“Are you all right?” I asked, pushing past Duncan.
“I . . .” Loki started to speak, but his knees gave out. He pitched forward, and I rushed to catch him. He fell into my arms, and I lowered him to the floor.
“Loki?” I brushed the hair back from his eyes, and they fluttered open.
“Wendy.” He smiled up at me, but the smile was weak. “If I’d known that this is what it would take to get you to hold me, I would’ve collapsed a long time ago.”
“What is going on, Loki?” I asked gently. If he hadn’t been so obviously distressed, I would’ve swatted him for that comment, but he grimaced in pain when I touched his face.
“Amnesty,” he said thickly, and his eyes closed. “I need amnesty, Princess.” His head tilted to the side, and his body relaxed. He’d passed out.
Tove and Duncan had carried Loki up to the servants’ quarters on the second floor. Willa went back to help Matt so he wouldn’t worry, and I sent Duncan to get Thomas because I had no idea what we should do with Loki. He was unconscious, so I couldn’t ask him what had happened.
“Are you going to give him amnesty?” Tove asked. He stood next to me with his arms folded over his chest, staring down at Loki.
“I don’t know.” I shook my head. “It depends on what he says.” I glanced over at Tove. “Why? Do you think I should?”
“I don’t know,” he said finally. “But I will support any decision you make.”
“Thank you,” I said, but I hadn’t expected any different from him. “Can you see if there’s a doctor that will look at him?”
“You don’t want me to get my mother?” Tove asked. His mother was a healer, meaning she could put her hands on someone and heal almost any wound that person might have.
“No. She would never heal a Vittra. Besides, I don’t want anyone to know that Loki is here. Not yet,” I said. “I need an actual doctor. There is a mänks doctor in town, isn’t there?”
“Yeah.” He nodded. “I’ll get him.” He turned to leave but paused at the door. “You’ll be okay with the Vittra Markis?”
I smiled. “Yes, of course.”
Tove nodded, then left me alone with Loki. I took a deep breath and tried to figure out what to do. Loki lay on his back, his light hair cascading across his forehead. Somehow he was even more attractive asleep than he was awake.
He hadn’t stirred at all when they’d carried him up, and Duncan had jostled and nearly dropped him many times. Loki had always dressed well, and while his clothes looked like they had once been nice, they were little more than rags now.
I sat down on the edge of the bed next to him and touched a hole in his shirt. The skin underneath was discolored and swollen. Tentatively, I lifted his shirt, and when Loki didn’t wake, I pushed it up more.
I felt strange and almost perverse undressing him, but I wanted to check and make sure there weren’t any life-threatening contusions. If he was seriously injured or appeared to have any broken bones, I would summon Aurora and make her heal him, whether she wanted to or not. I wouldn’t let Loki die because she was prejudiced.
After I pulled his shirt over his head, I got my first good look at him, and my breath caught in my throat. Under ordinary circumstances, I was sure his physique would be stunning, but that wasn’t what shocked me. His torso was covered with bruises, and his sides had long, thin scars on them.
They wrapped around, so I lifted him a bit, and his back was covered with them. They crisscrossed all over his skin, some of them older, but most of them appeared red and fresh.
Tears stung my eyes, and I put my hand to my mouth. I’d never seen Loki shirtless before, but I knew there had never been scars on his forearms. Most of this had happened since I’d seen him last.
Worse still, Loki had Vittra blood. Physically, he was incredibly strong, which was how he’d pounded at the door so hard it shook the front hall. That also meant he healed better than most. For him to look this terrible, somebody really had to have beaten the hell out of him, over and over again, so he wouldn’t have time to heal.
A jagged scar stretched across his chest, as if someone had tried to stab him, and it reminded me of my own scar that ran along my stomach. My host mother had tried to kill me when I was a child, but that felt like a lifetime ago.
I touched Loki’s chest, running my fingers over the bumps of his scar. I didn’t know why exactly, but I felt compelled to, as if the scar connected us somehow.
“You just couldn’t wait to get me naked, could you, Princess?” Loki asked tiredly. I started to pull my hand back, but he put his own hand over it, keeping it in place.
“No, I—I was checking for wounds,” I stumbled. I wouldn’t meet his gaze.
“I’m sure.” He moved his thumb, almost caressing my hand, until it hit my ring. “What’s that?” He tried to sit up to see it, so I lifted my hand, showing him the emerald-encrusted oval on my finger. “Is that a wedding ring?”
“No, engagement.” I lowered my hand, resting it on the bed next to him. “I’m not married yet.”
“I’m not too late, then.” He smiled and settled back in the bed.
“Too late for what?” I asked.
“To stop you, of course.” Still smiling, he closed his eyes.
“Is that why you’re here?” I asked, failing to point out how near we were to my nuptials.
“I told you why I’m here,” Loki said.
“What happened to you, Loki?” I asked, my voice growing thick when I thought about what he had to have gone through to get all those marks and bruises.
“Are you crying?” Loki asked and opened his eyes.
“No, I’m not crying.” I wasn’t, but my eyes were moist.
“Don’t cry.” He tried to sit up, but he winced when he lifted his head, so I put my hand gently on his chest to keep him down.
“You need to rest,” I said.
“I will be fine.” He put his hand over mine again, and I let him. “Eventually.”
“Can you tell me what happened?” I asked. “Why do you need amnesty?”
“Remember when we were in the garden?” Loki asked.
Of course I remembered. Loki had snuck in over the wall and asked me to run away with him. I had declined, but he’d stolen a kiss before he left, a rather nice kiss. My cheeks reddened slightly at the memory, and that made Loki smile wider.
“I see you do.” He grinned.
“What does that have to do with anything?” I asked.
“That doesn’t,” Loki said, referring to the kiss. “I meant when I told you that the King hates me. He really does, Wendy.” His eyes went dark for a minute.
“The Vittra King did this to you?” I asked, and my stomach tightened. “You mean Oren? My father?”
“Don’t worry about it now,” he said, trying to calm the anger burning in my eyes. “I’ll be fine.”
“Why?” I asked. “Why does the King hate you? Why did he do this to you?”
“Wendy, please.” He closed his eyes. “I’m exhausted. I barely made it here. Can we have this conversation when I’m feeling a bit better? Say, in a month or two?”
“Loki,” I said with a sigh, but he had a point. “Rest. But we will talk tomorrow. All right?”
“As you wish, Princess,” he conceded, and he was already drifting back to sleep again.
I sat beside him for a few minutes longer, my hand still on his chest so I could feel his heartbeat pounding underneath. When I was certain he was asleep, I slid my hand out from under his, and I stood up.
In the hall, I wrapped my arms around myself. I couldn’t shake the heavy feeling of guilt, as if I somehow shared responsibility for what had happened to Loki. I’d only spoken to Oren once, and I had no control over what he did. So why did I feel like it was my fault that Loki had been so brutally beaten?
I wasn’t in the hall for long when Duncan and Thomas approached. I’d wanted to alert as few people as possible to Loki’s presence, but I trusted Thomas. Not just because he was the head guard and Finn’s father. He’d once had an illicit affair with Elora, so I thought he was good at keeping secrets.
“The Vittra Markis is in there?” Thomas asked, but he was already looking past me into the room where Loki slept.
“Yes, but he’s been through hell,” I said, rubbing my arms as if I had a chill. “He’s going to be out for a while.”
“Duncan said he asked for amnesty.” Thomas looked down at me. “Are you going to give it to him?”
“I’m not sure yet,” I said. “He hasn’t been able to talk much. But I’m letting him stay here for now, at least until he heals and we can have a conversation.”
“How do you want us to handle this?” Thomas asked.
“We can’t tell Elora. Not right now,” I said.
The last time Loki had been here, he’d been held captive. We didn’t have a real prison, so Elora had used her telekinesis to hold him in place, but that had weakened her so much it nearly killed her. In fact, she hadn’t recovered from it yet, and there would be no way she could do it again.
Besides that, I didn’t think Loki was really capable of causing trouble. Not in his present state, at least. And he’d come to us of his own free will. We didn’t need to hold him.
“We need a guard stationed outside his door at all times, just to be safe,” I said. “I don’t think he’s a threat, but I won’t take any chances with the Vittra.”
“I can stand watch now, but somebody will have to relieve me of my post eventually,” Thomas said.
“I can take over later,” Duncan offered.
“No.” Thomas shook his head. “You stay with the Princess.”
“Do you have any other guards you can trust?” I asked.
Most of the guards seemed to be gossips, and when one of them heard something, they all knew it. But there were very few guards around to tell anymore, since most of them were out protecting changelings.
Thomas nodded. “I know of one or two.”
“Good,” I said. “Make sure they know they cannot tell anybody about this. This all needs to stay quiet until I figure out what I’m going to do. Is that clear?”
“Yes, Your Highness,” Thomas said. It always felt strange hearing people refer to me as Highness.
“Thank you,” I told him.
Tove arrived shortly after that with the mänks doctor. I waited outside the room while he examined Loki. He woke up for it, but offered very little explanation for his injuries. When the doctor was done, he concluded that Loki didn’t have any serious ailments, and he gave him medication for pain.
“Come on,” Tove said, after the doctor had gone. “He’s resting now. There’s nothing more you can do. Why don’t you go enjoy your party?”
“I’ll let you know if there’s any change with him,” Thomas promised.
“Thank you.” I nodded, and walked down the hall toward my room with Tove and Duncan.
I hadn’t felt like having a party before Loki crashed the palace, and I felt even less like having one now. But I had to at least try to have fun so I wouldn’t hurt Willa’s or Matt’s feelings. I knew they had gone to a lot of trouble, so I would play the part of the happy birthday girl for them.
“The doctor thinks he’ll be okay,” Duncan said, responding to my solemn expression.
“I know,” I said.
“Why are you so worried about him anyway?” Duncan asked. “I know that you two are friends or something, but I don’t understand. He’s a Vittra, and he kidnapped you once.”
“I’m not worried,” I said, cutting him off and forcing a smile. “I’m excited for the party.”
Duncan directed me to the upstairs living room. It had been Rhys’s playroom when he was little, and they’d converted it into a place to hang out when he became a teenager. But the ceilings still had murals of clouds and childish things, and the walls were lined with short white shelves that still held a few of his old toys.
When I opened the door, I was bombarded by streamers and balloons. A banner with the words “Happy Birthday” in giant glitter letters hung on the back wall.
“Happy birthday!” Willa shouted before I could step inside.
“Happy birthday!” Rhys and Rhiannon said in unison.
“Thanks, guys,” I said, pushing a helium-filled balloon out of my face so I could go in. “You guys know my birthday isn’t actually until tomorrow?”
“Of course I know,” Matt said, his voice a little high from inhaling helium. He had a deflated balloon in his hands, and he tossed it aside to walk over to me. “I was there when you were born, remember?”
He’d been smiling, but it faltered when he realized what he’d said. Rhys and I had been switched at birth. Matt had actually been there for Rhys’s birth, not mine.
“Well, I was there when you came home from the hospital anyway,” Matt said and hugged me. “Happy birthday.”
“Thank you,” I said, hugging him back.
“And I definitely know your birthday,” Rhys said, walking over to us. “Happy birthday!”
I smiled. “Happy birthday to you too. How does it feel to be eighteen?”
“Pretty much exactly the same as it does being seventeen.” Rhys laughed. “Do you feel any older?”
“No, not really,” I admitted.
“Oh, come on,” Matt said. “You’ve matured so much in the past few months. I hardly even recognize you anymore.”
“I’m still me, Matt,” I said, shifting uneasily from his compliment.
I knew that I’d grown up some. Even physically I’d changed. I wore my hair down more now because I’d finally managed to tame my curls after a lifetime of struggling with them. Since I was running a kingdom now, I had to play the part and wear dark-colored gowns all the time. I had to look like a Princess.
“It’s a good thing, Wendy.” Matt smiled at me.
“Stop.” I waved my hand. “No more seriousness. This is supposed to be a party.”
“Party!” Rhys shouted and blew into one of those cardboard horns they use on New Year’s.
Once the party got under way, I actually did have fun. This was much better than if I’d had a birthday ball, since most of the people here wouldn’t be able to go.
Matt wasn’t even supposed to live in the palace, and since Rhys and Rhiannon were mänks, they would never be allowed to attend a ball. Duncan would be let in, but he’d have to work. He wouldn’t be able to laugh and goof around like he did now.
“Wendy, why don’t you help me cut the cake?” Willa suggested while Tove attempted to act out some kind of clue for charades. Duncan had guessed everything under the sun, but judging by Tove’s comically frustrated response, he wasn’t even close.
“Um, sure,” I said.
I’d been sitting on the couch, laughing at everyone’s failed attempts, but I got up and went over to the table where Willa stood. A cake sat on a brightly colored tablecloth, next to a small pile of gifts. Both Rhys and I had specifically asked for no gifts, but here they were.
“Sorry,” Willa said. “I didn’t mean to drag you away from the fun, but I wanted to talk to you.”
“Nah, it’s okay,” I said.
“Your brother made the cake.” Willa gave me an apologetic smile as she sliced through the white frosting. “He insisted that it was your favorite.”
Matt might be a very good cook, but I wasn’t sure. I dislike most foods, especially processed ones, but Matt had been trying hard to feed me for years, so I pretended to like a lot of things I didn’t like. My annual chiffon birthday cake was one of them.
“It’s not horrible,” I said, but it kind of was. At least to me, and Willa and all the other Trylle.
“I wanted to let you know that I didn’t tell Matt about Loki.” Willa lowered her voice as she carefully put pieces of cake on small paper plates. “He would just worry.”
“Thank you,” I said and looked back over at Matt, laughing at the ridiculous miming Tove was doing. “I suppose I’ll have to tell him eventually.”
“You think Loki will be around for a while?” Willa asked. She’d gotten some frosting on her finger, and she licked it off, then grimaced.
I nodded. “Yeah, I think he will be.”
“Well, don’t worry about it now,” she said quickly. “This is your last day to be a kid!”
I tried to push all of the fears and concerns I had about the kingdom, and Loki, from my mind. And eventually, when I let myself, I had a really good time with my friends.
My dreams were filled with bad winter storms. Snow blowing so hard I couldn’t see anything. Wind so cold I froze to the bone. But I had to keep going. I had to get through the storms.
Duncan woke me up a little after nine the next morning. Usually I got up at six or seven to get ready for the day, depending on what time my first meetings were. Since it was my birthday, I’d slept in a bit, and it felt nice but strange.
He wouldn’t have woken me at all, except Elora had requested to eat breakfast with me today since it was my birthday. I didn’t mind being woken up, though. Sleeping in that late made me feel surprisingly lazy.
I didn’t even really know what I would do with the day. It’d been so long since I’d had a full day that was free of plans. Either I was working on things for the kingdom, helping Aurora with the wedding plans, or spending time with Willa and Matt.
I met Elora in her bedroom for breakfast, which was usually where I saw her. She’d been in decline for a while, but even before Christmas she’d been on bed rest. Aurora had tried healing her a few times, but she was only staving off the inevitable.
On my way to Elora’s chambers in the south wing, I walked past the room Loki was staying in. His bedroom door was closed, and Thomas stood guard outside. He nodded once as I walked by, so I assumed everything was still going all right.
Elora’s bedroom was massive. The double doors to her room were floor-to-ceiling, so they were nearly two stories high. The room itself could easily fit two of my bedrooms in it, and my room was quite large. Making the room look even larger was a full wall of windows, although she kept the shades drawn most of the time, preferring the dim light of a bedside lamp.
To fill the space, she had several armoires, a writing desk, the largest bed I’d ever seen, and a sitting area complete with a couch, two chairs, and a coffee table. Today she had a small dining table with two chairs set up near the window. It was all laid out with fruit, yogurt, and oatmeal—my favorite things.
The last few times I’d visited with her, Elora had been in bed, but she sat at the table today. Her long hair had once been jet-black, but it was now silver-white. Her dark eyes were clouded with cataracts, and her porcelain skin had wrinkled. She was still elegant and beautiful, and I imagined she always would be, but she’d aged so much.
She was pouring herself tea when I came in, her silk dressing gown flowing behind her.
“Would you like some tea, Wendy?” Elora asked without looking up at me. She’d only recently begun calling me Wendy. For a long time she refused to call me anything but Princess, but our relationship had been changing.
“Yes, please,” I said, sitting across from her at the table. “What kind is it?”
“Blackberry.” She filled the small teacup in front of me, then set the teapot on the table. “I hope you’re hungry this morning. I had the chef whip us up a feast.”
“I’m quite hungry, thank you,” I said, and my stomach rumbled as proof.
“Go ahead.” Elora gestured to the spread. “Take what you’d like.”
“Aren’t you eating?” I asked as I got myself a helping of raspberries.
“I’m eating some,” Elora said, but she made no move to get a plate. “How is your birthday?”
“Good, so far. But I haven’t been awake that long.”
“Is Willa throwing you a party?” Elora asked, picking absently at a plum. “Garrett told me something about it.”
“Yeah, she had a little party for me last night,” I said between bites. “It was really nice.”
“Oh, I assumed she would have it today.”
“Rhys had plans today, and I don’t have that many friends, so she thought it would be better to do it last night.”
“I see.” Elora took a sip of her tea and said nothing more for several minutes. She only watched me as I ate, which would’ve made me self-conscious before, but I was starting to realize that she just enjoyed watching me.
“How are you feeling today?” I asked.
“I’m moving about.” She gave a small shoulder shrug and turned to look out the window.
The shades were open slightly, letting the brilliant light shine in. The treetops outside were covered in a heavy blanket of snow, and the reflection made the sun twice as bright.
“You look good today,” I commented.
“You look nice today too,” Elora said without turning back to me. “That’s a lovely color on you.”
I glanced down at my dress. It was dark blue with black lace designs over it. Willa had picked it out for me, and I did think it was really beautiful. But I still hadn’t gotten used to Elora complimenting me.
“Thank you,” I said.
“Did I ever tell you about the day you were born?” Elora asked.
“No.” I’d been eating vanilla yogurt, but I set the spoon down on a plate. “You only told me that it was hasty.”
“You were early,” she said, her voice low, as if she were lost in thought. “My mother did that. She used her persuasion, and convinced my body to go into labor. It was the only way we could protect you, but you were two weeks early.”
“Was I born in a hospital?” I asked, realizing I knew so little about my own birth.
“No.” She shook her head. “We went to the city your host family lived in. Oren thought I was interested in a family that lived in Atlanta, but I’d chosen the Everlys, who lived in northern New York.
“My mother and I stayed in a hotel nearby, hiding out in case Oren came after us,” Elora went on. “Thomas watched the Everlys closely until he saw the mother go into labor.”
“Thomas?” I asked.
“Yes, Thomas went with us,” Elora said. “That’s how I met him, actually, when we were on the run from my husband. Thomas was a new tracker, but he’d already proven to be very resourceful, so my mother chose him to help us.”
“So he was there when I was born?” I asked.
“Yes, he was.” She smiled at the thought. “I gave birth to you on the floor of a hotel bathroom. Mother used her powers on me, induced labor, and made it so I wouldn’t scream or feel pain. And Thomas sat at my side, holding my hand and telling me it would all be fine.”
“Were you scared?” I asked. “Giving birth like that?”
“I was terrified,” she admitted. “But I had no choice. I needed to hide you and protect you. It had to be done.”
“I know,” I said. “You did the right thing. I understand that now.”
“You were so small.” Her smile changed, and she tilted her head. “I didn’t know you would be so tiny, and you were so beautiful. You were born with a dark shock of hair, and these big dark eyes. You were beautiful and you were perfect and you were mine.”
She paused, thinking, and a lump grew in my throat. It felt so strange to hear my mother talking about me the way a mother talks about her children.
“I wanted to hold you,” Elora said at length. “I begged my mother to let me hold you, and she said it would only make it worse. She held you, though, wrapping you in a bedsheet and staring down at you with tears in her eyes.
“Then she left,” she continued. “She took you to the hospital to leave you with the Everlys, and brought home another baby that wasn’t mine. She wanted me to hold him, to care for Rhys. She said that it would make it easier. But I didn’t want him. You were my child, and I wanted you.”
Elora turned to look at me then, her eyes looking clearer than they had in a while. “I did want you, Wendy. Despite everything that happened between your father and me, I wanted you. More than anything in the world.”
I didn’t say anything to that. I couldn’t. If I did, I would cry, and I didn’t want her to see that. Even as open as she was being, I didn’t know how she would react to me weeping outright.
“But I couldn’t have you.” Elora turned back to the window. “Sometimes it seems to me that that’s all my life has been, a series of things that I loved deeply that I could never have.”
“I’m sorry,” I said in a small voice.
“Don’t be.” She waved it off. “I made my choices, and I did the best I could.” She forced a smile. “And look at me. This is your birthday. I shouldn’t be whining to you.”
“You’re not whining.” I wiped at my eyes as discreetly as I could and took another sip of my tea. “And I’m glad you told me.”
“Anyway, we need to talk about switching the rooms around,” Elora said, brushing her hair back from her face. “I plan to leave most of my furniture in here, unless you’d like to change it, which is your prerogative, of course.”
“Switching what rooms?” I asked, confused.
“You’re taking my room after you get married.” She motioned around us. “This is the wedding chamber.”
“Oh, right. Of course.” I shook my head to clear the confusion. “I’ve been so busy with everything else that I’d forgotten.”
“It’s no matter,” she said. “It shouldn’t be much work to move things around, since it will only be personal items we’re moving in and out. I’ll have some of the trackers move my things out Friday, and I’ll be staying in the room down the hall.”
“They can move my things in then,” I said. “And Tove’s things too, since he’ll be sharing the room with me.”
“How is that going?” Elora leaned back in her chair, studying me. “Are you prepared for the wedding?”
“Aurora is certainly prepared for it.” I sighed. “But if you’re asking if I’m prepared to be married, I’m not sure. I guess I’ll wing it.”
“You and Tove will be all right.” She smiled at me. “I’m certain of it.”
“You’re certain?” I raised an eyebrow. “Did you paint it?” Elora had the ability of precognition, but she could only see her visions of the future in static images.
“No.” She laughed, shaking her head. “It’s mother’s intuition.”
I ate a little more, but she only picked at the food. We talked, and it was strange to think that I’d miss her when she was gone. I hadn’t actually known her for very long, and most of that time our relationship had been cold.
When I left, she was climbing back in bed and asked me to send someone up to clean the mess from breakfast. Duncan had been waiting outside the door for me, so he went in to take care of it.
While Duncan was busy with the dishes, I stopped by Loki’s room to see how he was feeling. If he was better, I wanted to find out what was going on.
Thomas was still outside, so I knocked once and opened the door without waiting for a response. Loki was in the middle of changing clothes as I came in. He’d already traded his worn slacks for a pair of pajama pants, and he was holding a white T-shirt, preparing to put it on.
He had his back to me, and it was even worse than I’d thought.
“Oh, my god, Loki,” I gasped.
“I didn’t know you were coming.” He turned around to face me, smirking. “Shall I leave the shirt off, then?”
“No, put the shirt on,” I said, and I closed the door behind me so nobody could see or overhear us talking.
“You’re no fun.” He wrinkled his nose and pulled the shirt over his head.
“Your back is horrific.”
“And I was just going to tell you how beautiful you look today, but I’m not going to bother now if you’re going to talk that way.” Loki sat back down on his bed, more lying than sitting.
“I’m being serious. What happened to you?”
“I already told you.” He stared down at his legs and picked at lint on his pants. “The King hates me.”
“Why?” I asked, already feeling indignation at my father for doing this to him. “Why in god’s name would he do something so brutal to you?”
“You clearly don’t know your father,” Loki said. “This isn’t that brutal for him.”
“How is it not brutal?” I sat down on the bed next to him. “And you’re nearly a Prince! How can he treat you this way?”
“He’s the King.” He shrugged. “He does what he wants.”
“But what about the Queen?” I asked. “Didn’t she try to stop him?”
“She tried to heal me at first, but eventually that became too much for her. And there’s only so much Sara can do to counter Oren.”
Sara, the Queen of the Vittra, was my stepmother, but she’d once been betrothed to Loki. She was more than ten years older than him, and it was an arranged engagement that ended when he was nine. They were never romantic, and she had always considered Loki more of a little brother and protected him as such.
“Did he personally do that to you?” I asked quietly.
“What?” Loki looked up at me, his golden eyes meeting mine.
He had a scar on his chin, and I was certain he hadn’t had that before. His skin had been flawless and perfect, not that the scar detracted in any way from how handsome he was.
“That.” I touched the mark on his chin. “Did he do that to you?”
“Yes,” he answered thickly.
“How?” I moved my hand, touched a mark he had on his temple. “How did he do this to you?”
“Sometimes he’d hit me.” Loki kept his eyes on me, letting me trace my fingers on his scars. “Or he’d kick me. But usually he used a cat.”
“You mean like a living cat?” I gave him an odd expression, and he smiled.
“No, it’s actually called a cat-o’-nine-tails. It’s like a whip, but instead of one tail, it has nine. It inflicts more damage than a regular whip.”
“Loki!” I dropped my hand, totally appalled. “He would do that to you? Why didn’t you leave? Did you fight back?”
“Fighting back wouldn’t do any good, and I left as soon as I was able,” Loki said. “That’s why I’m here now.”
“He held you prisoner?” I asked.
“I was locked up in the dungeon.” He shifted and turned away from me. “Wendy, I’m glad to see you, but I’d really rather not talk about this anymore.”
“You want me to grant you amnesty,” I said. “I need to know why he did this to you.”
“Why?” Loki laughed darkly. “Why do you think, Wendy?”
“I don’t know!”
“Because of you.” He looked back at me, a strange, crooked smile on his face. “I didn’t bring you back.”
“But . . .” I furrowed my brow. “You asked to go back to the Vittra. We bartered with the King so he could have you.”
“Yes, well, he still thought you would come around.” He ran a hand through his hair and sat up straighter. “And you didn’t. It was my fault for letting you go in the first place, and then for not bringing you back.” He bit his lip and shook his head. “He’s determined to get you, Wendy.”
“So he tortured you?” I asked quietly, trying to keep the tremor from my voice. “Over me?”
“Wendy.” Loki sighed and moved closer to me. Gently, almost cautiously, he put his arm around me. “What happened isn’t your fault.”
“Maybe. But maybe this wouldn’t have happened if I’d run away with you.”
“You still can.”
“No, I can’t.” I shook my head. “I have so much I need to do here. I can’t just leave it all behind. But you can stay here. I will grant you amnesty.”
“Mmm, I knew it.” He smiled. “You’d miss me too much if I left.”
I laughed. “Hardly.”
“Hardly?” Loki smirked.
He’d lowered his arm, so his hand was on my waist. Loki was incredibly near, and his muscles pressed against me. I knew that I should move away, that I had no justifiable reason to be this close to him, but I didn’t move.
“Would you?” Loki asked, his voice low.
“Would I what?”
“Would you run away with me, if you didn’t have all the responsibilities and the palace and all that?”
“I don’t know,” I said.
“I think you would.”
“Of course you do.” I looked away from him, but I didn’t move away. “Where did you get the pajamas, by the way? You didn’t bring anything with you when you came.”
“I don’t want to tell you.”
“Why not?” I looked sharply at him.
“Because. I’ll tell you, and it will ruin this whole mood,” Loki said. “Can’t we just sit here and look longingly into each other’s eyes until we fall into each other’s arms, kissing passionately?”
“No,” I said and finally started to pull away from him. “Not if you don’t tell me—”
“Tove,” Loki said quickly, trying to hang on to me. He was much stronger than me, but he let me push him off.
“Of course.” I stood up. “That’s exactly the kind of thing my fiancé would do. He’s always thinking of other people.”
“It’s just pajamas!” Loki insisted, like that would mean something. “Sure, he’s a terrifically nice guy, but that doesn’t matter.”
“How does that not matter?” I asked.
“Because you don’t love him.”
“I care about him,” I said, and he shrugged. “And it’s not like I love you.”
“Maybe not,” he allowed. “But you will.”
“You think so?” I asked.
“Mark my words, Princess,” Loki said. “One day, you’ll be madly in love with me.”
“Okay.” I laughed, because I didn’t know how else to respond. “But I should go. If I’ve given you amnesty, that means I have to go about enacting it, and getting everyone to agree that it’s not a suicidal decision.”
“You’re welcome,” I said and opened the door to go.
“It was worth it,” Loki said suddenly.
“What was?” I turned back to him.
“Everything I went through,” he said. “For you. It was worth it.”
My relaxing birthday turned into a meeting frenzy because I’d granted Loki amnesty. Most people thought I was insane, and Loki had to be brought in for questioning. They had a big meeting in which Thomas asked him lots of questions, and Loki answered them the same way he had for me.
But truthfully, he didn’t have to explain much after he lifted his shirt and showed them the scars. After that, they let him go lie down.
I did have a nice, quiet dinner with Willa and Matt, and that was something. My aunt Maggie called, and I talked to her for a while. She wanted to come see me, but I’d been stalling the best I could. I hadn’t explained to her what I was yet, but she knew I was safe with Matt.
I’d wanted her to come out for Christmas, and I’d planned on telling her about everything then. But then the Vittra started going after the changelings, and I thought they might go after her to get to me, so I postponed seeing her again.
She’d been traveling a lot, which was good, but it didn’t keep her from wondering what was going on with me. I couldn’t wait until this all calmed down so I could finally have her in my life again. I missed her so much.
After dinner, I went back to my room and watched bad eighties movies with Duncan. He had to stay with me sixteen hours a day, then the night watchman took over. I’d wanted to study, since Tove was teaching me Tryllic, but Duncan wouldn’t let me. He insisted I needed to shut off my mind and relax.
Duncan fell asleep in my room, which wasn’t unusual. Nobody said anything, since he was my guard, and it was better that he was with me. He probably wouldn’t be able to sleep in my room after Saturday, which made me a little sad. I slept sprawled out in my bed, and Duncan was curled up on the couch, a blanket draped over him.
“It’s Thursday,” I said when I woke up. I was still in bed, staring at the ceiling.
“It certainly is.” Duncan yawned and stretched.
“I only have two days until I get married.”
“I know.” He got up and opened the shades, letting a wall of light into my room. “What are you doing today?”
“I need to stay busy.” I sat up and squinted in the brightness. “And I don’t care what anybody says about me needing to relax and take time off. I have to keep active. So I think I’ll train with Tove today.”
Duncan shrugged. “At least you’re spending quality time with your fiancé.”
Whenever I thought about the wedding I got a sick feeling in my stomach. Sometimes, if I thought about it too much, I actually threw up. I don’t think I’d ever been so afraid to do anything in my life.
I showered and ate a quick breakfast, then I went down to Tove’s room to see if he wanted to do any training. I’d mostly gotten the hang of my abilities, and they weren’t something I wanted to lose, so I practiced often to keep them strong.
Tove had moved into the palace after the Vittra had kidnapped me, to help keep things safe. He was actually much stronger than any of the guards here, and he may have even been stronger than me. His room was down the hall from mine, and the door was open when I stopped by.
A few cardboard boxes were scattered around the room, some of them empty, one with books overflowing from it. Another sat on the bed, where Tove was putting a few pairs of jeans in it.
“Going somewhere?” I asked, leaning on the door frame.
“No, just getting ready for the move.” He pointed down the hall toward Elora’s room—our new room. “For Saturday.”
“Oh,” I said. “Right.”
“Do you need help with anything?” Duncan asked. He’d followed me down to Tove’s, since he followed me everywhere.
Tove shrugged. “Sure, if you want.”
Duncan went in and pulled out some of Tove’s clothes from the drawer. I stayed where I was, hating how awkward everything felt between us. When we were training or talking politics, everything was good with Tove and me. We were almost always on the same page, and we talked openly about anything having to do with the palace or work.
But when it came to our wedding and our actual relationship, neither of us could ever find the words.
This may have had something to do with what Finn had told me a few months ago—namely, that Tove was gay. I had yet to bring this up with Tove, so I couldn’t say that it was true for certain, but I believed that it probably was.
“Did you want to train today?” I asked Tove.
“Yeah, that’d be great, actually.” Tove sounded relieved.
Training helped him a lot too. The palace was so full of people, and Tove could sense their thoughts and emotions, creating loud static in his head. Training silenced that and focused him, making him more like a normal person.
“Outside?” I suggested.
“Yeah.” Tove nodded.
“But it’s so cold out,” Duncan lamented.
“Why don’t you stay in here?” I asked. “You can finish packing up some of Tove’s stuff.” Duncan looked uncertain for a second, so I went on, “I’ll be with Tove. We can handle ourselves.”
“Okay,” Duncan said, sounding reluctant. “But I’ll be here if you need me.”
Tove and I headed out back to the secret garden behind the palace. It wasn’t really secret, I guess, but it felt that way since it was hidden behind trees and a wall. Even though a strong January storm had been blowing the last few days, the garden was peaceful.
The garden was magic. All the flowers still bloomed, despite the snow, and they sparkled like diamonds from the frost. The thin waterfall that flowed down the bluff should’ve frozen over, but it still ran, babbling.
A drift of snow had blown over the path. Tove simply held out his hand, and the snow moved to the sides, parting like the Red Sea. He stopped in the orchard under the branches of a tree covered with frozen leaves and blue flowers.
“What shall we do today?” Tove asked.
“I don’t know,” I said. “What are you in the mood for?”
“How about a snowball fight?” he asked with a wicked grin.
Using only his mind, he threw four snowballs at me. I held up my hands, pushing them back with my own telekinesis, and they shattered into puffs of snow from the force. It was my turn to sling a few back at him, but he stopped them just as easily as I had.
He returned fire, this time with even more snowballs, and while I stopped most of them, one of them slipped by and nicked me in the leg. I ran back, hiding behind a tree to make my counterattack.
Tove and I played around, throwing snow at each other, but it became increasingly hard as it went on. It looked like a game, and it was fun, but it was more than that. Stopping a slew of snowballs helped me learn to quickly stop multiple attacks from different directions. I tried to return fire even before I stopped the snowball, and that helped me learn how to fight back while defending myself.
Those were two completely different tasks, and they were difficult to master. I’d been working on this for a while, but couldn’t get it down. In my defense, neither could Tove, but he didn’t really think it was possible. My mind would have to be able to hold something back and throw something at the same time, which it could do, but doing both things at the exact same time was impossible.
When we were both sufficiently frozen and exhausted, I collapsed back in the snow. I’d worn pants and a sweater today because I knew we were training, but all that exertion always left me overheated, so the snow felt good.
“Is that a truce, then?” Tove asked, panting as he lay down in the snow next to me.
“Truce,” I said, laughing a little.
We both lay back, our arms spread out wide as if we meant to make snow angels, but neither of us did. Catching our breath, we stared up at the clouds moving above us.
“If this is what our marriage will be like, it won’t be so bad, will it?” Tove asked, and it was an honest question.
“No, it won’t be so bad,” I agreed. “Snowball fights I can handle.”
“Are you nervous?” he asked.
“A little.” I turned my head to face him, pressing my cheek into the snow. “Are you?”
“Yeah, I am.” He furrowed his brow, staring thoughtfully at the sky. “I think I’m most scared of the kiss. It will be our first time, and in front of all those people.”
“Yeah,” I said, and my stomach twisted at the thought. “But you can’t really mess up a kiss.”
“Do you think we should?” Tove asked, and he looked over at me.
“Kiss?” I asked. “You mean when we get married? I think we kind of have to.”
“No, I mean, do you think we should now?” Tove sat up, propping himself up with his arms behind him. “Maybe it will make it a bit easier on Saturday.”
“Do you think we should?” I asked, sitting too. “Do you want to?”
“I feel like we’re in the third grade right now.” He sighed and brushed snow off his pants. “But you’re going to be my wife. We’ll have to kiss.”
“Yeah, we will.”
“Okay. Let’s do it.” He smiled thinly at me. “Let’s just kiss.”
I swallowed hard and leaned forward. I closed my eyes, since it felt less embarrassing if I didn’t have to see him. His lips were cold, and the kiss was chaste. It only lasted a moment, and my stomach swirled with nerves, but not the pleasurable kind.
“Well?” Tove asked, sitting up straighter.
“It was all right.” I nodded, more to convince myself than him.
“Yeah, it was good.” He licked his lips and looked away from me. “We can do this. Right?”
“Yeah,” I said. “Of course we can. If anybody can, it’s us. We’re like the most powerful Trylle ever. And we’re neat people. We can handle spending the rest of our lives with each other.”
“Yeah,” Tove said, sounding more encouraged by the prospect. “In fact, I’m looking forward to it. I like you. You like me. We have fun together. We agree on almost everything. We’re going to be the best husband and wife ever.”
“Yeah, totally,” I chimed in. “Marriage is about friendship anyway.”
“And it’s not like people in our positions get to choose who they want to be with,” Tove added, and I think I heard a hint of sadness in his voice. “But at least we get to be with someone we enjoy.”
We both lapsed into silence after that, staring off at the snow, lost in our own thoughts. I wasn’t sure exactly what Tove was thinking. I wasn’t even sure what I was thinking.
I guess it didn’t make much of a difference that Tove was gay. Even if he wasn’t, it didn’t change my feelings for him. We could still form a strong union and have a meaningful marriage in our own way. He deserved nothing less, and I could give that to him.
“Should we go in?” Tove asked abruptly. “I’m getting cold.”
“Yeah, me too.”
He got up and then took my hand, pulling me to my feet. He didn’t need to, but it was a nice gesture. We went into the palace together, neither of us saying anything, and I twisted at my engagement ring. The metal was icy from the snow, and it suddenly felt too large and heavy on my finger. I wanted to take it off and give it back, but I couldn’t.