“I’m sorry,” Ridley said, staring off at the empty field beside us. “I shouldn’t have come. Mina knew I would lead her right to you. It’s my fault.”
“She tricked you,” I said. “She’s tricked all of us. It’s what she’s good at.”
He set his jaw. “I should’ve known better.”
“It’s okay. We’re all okay. You’re the one that got hurt the worst.”
His skin had been red and raw, but it was starting to darken as bruises began to form. He just shook his head. “You guys need to leave me here and go on without me. They could have more people tracking me. You won’t be safe with me.”
“Ridley, I’m not going to leave you on the side of the road. And even if they do track us, they’d follow us straight to Storvatten, where they plan on attacking anyway. We’ll be fine.”
He lowered his eyes, swallowing hard. “I’m sorry, Bryn. I shouldn’t have come. I just . . .”
“You just what?” I stepped closer to him, and he lifted his eyes to meet mine.
“I just had to see you. I needed to know that you were all right.”
I wanted to ask, Then why are you pushing me away? If you just wanted to be with me, why are you being so distant?
But I didn’t think he would answer, so I just looked up at him, wishing I understood the pain in his eyes.
A car door opened and Konstantin leaned out. “We should probably leave before backup gets here.”
This was the first time Tilda had been to Storvatten, and her eyes widened as she took in the palace. With luminous walls tinged in aqua, curving to mimic waves, it rose from the still waters of the great lake like an enchanted sapphire.
Thick fog had left the palace hidden from the shore, since it sat several miles out in the water. Ridley, Konstantin, Tilda, and I walked almost halfway out on the dock that connected the palace to the land before it started to take shape, a shadow looming behind the gray.
And then there it was, in all its glory. Tilda—who wasn’t easily impressed—actually gasped when she saw it. While I still found it magnificent, all the events of the past few weeks seemed to have left me somewhat numb to its magic.
As we approached the large wooden doors of the palace, they opened before we’d even reached them. The entrance glowed pale white as we walked toward it, and an imposing man stepped forward, reminding me of an alien overlord descending from the mothership.
He was tall and broad-shouldered, especially for a Skojare. They tended to be more petite in frame—Mikko and Kennet Biâelse aside. His blond hair was cropped short, and he was clean-shaven.
The uniform he wore was that of the Skojare guard—a frosty blue, embellished with the insignia of a fish on his lapel. Even without the uniform, there was something very military about him. He stood at attention, with his head high and his blue eyes locked on us.
“I’m Baltsar Thorne.” He greeted us formally but politely. He bowed his head slightly, and I noticed the thick black outline of a fish tattooed on the back of his neck. “I’m the new head guard for the Skojare.”
Already he looked like a vast improvement from their last head guard, and I’d only just met him.
“It’s really you!” Linnea squealed, and I heard her voice echoing through the main hall before I saw her. She dashed across the glass floor, her blue gown billowing around her, and she practically dove at me, hugging me.
When she let go, she stepped back to appraise me. Smiling broadly, she said, “It’s really you. The guards at the shack at the end of the dock called up and said you were coming, but I didn’t believe them.”
“Your Highness,” Baltsar said, carefully trying to wedge himself between us. “She has been accused of killing our Prince. It seems prudent to—”
“Oh, she didn’t do it.” Linnea waved him off, then she took my hand. “Let’s go inside and get out of the cold, so we can talk. And you bring your friends—”
It was the first time she’d stopped to look at who was with me, but as soon as she saw Konstantin, her jaw dropped and her already large eyes widened.
“It’s you,” she gasped and let go of my hand. “You saved my life.”
Konstantin lowered his eyes and shifted his weight from one foot to the other, already uncomfortable with her praise. Then she ran over to him and threw her arms around his waist, embracing him tightly.
For his part, Konstantin stood frozen in place with his eyes nervously flitting around. His arms were stiff at his sides, like he was afraid to even touch her.
“My Queen, it’s not advised to . . . hug guests before we have a chance to vet them,” Baltsar tried unsuccessfully to reason with her.
Incensed, she stepped away from Konstantin and glared at the guard. “This man saved my life! He’s a hero! He doesn’t need to be vetted! They’re all guests of the kingdom, and they’re all welcome inside.”
Baltsar sighed, apparently realizing the futility of arguing with her. “If it’s as you wish, Your Majesty.”
“Come in, come in, everyone!” Linnea motioned for us to follow her as she walked inside the palace, her platinum curls bobbing as she walked. Her dress was cut very low in the back, to just above her waist, and it compensated for that by having a long satin train that flowed out behind her.
Baltsar bowed slightly again and gestured for us to enter, so I smiled politely and followed Linnea inside.