- Crystal Kingdom
“What are they? What happened?”
“I just don’t want to talk about it.”
“Ridley.” I moved closer to him. I lifted my hand, meaning to put it on his back, but I was afraid he’d flinch again, so I let it fall to my side. “Please stop shutting me out. What happened in Doldastam after I left?”
He looked at me over his shoulder. “Can you pretend like nothing happened in Doldastam? Can we just forget about it? At least for tonight?”
“If that’s what you want.”
Ridley turned to face me, and held out his hand to me. I hesitated for a moment, but then I took it and let him pull me into his arms. For a moment, when I lay my head against his bare chest, with his arms strong and sure around me, I closed my eyes and tried to pretend that it was the way things were before.
But there was a stiffness in his muscles, a resistance that hadn’t been there before.
“Even though you’re right here, in my arms, you still feel so far away,” I murmured, and saying it aloud hurt so much I could barely speak. “I can’t do this.”
“What?” Ridley asked, sounding startled as I pulled away from him and stepped back.
“I can’t do this. I want to be with you, but only if you’re actually here with me. I don’t know what’s going on with you or with us.” I swallowed hard. “I can’t keep doing this if you won’t let me in.”
He lowered his eyes and didn’t say anything. I waited, hoping that he would finally say something real to me. But he didn’t, so I turned and started walking away.
“Mina captured me as soon as I came back in the gates,” Ridley said when I reached the door, his voice strong but flat. “The guards hauled me off in front of everyone with my arms in shackles.”
I faced him, with my hand still on the door. His mouth twisted up as he spoke, and he kept his eyes locked on the floor.
“She tied me to a rack,” he said thickly. “That’s a medieval torture device. They tie you up by each one of your limbs, and then they pull. Slowly. Agonizingly slow.” He motioned to his arms. “But that wasn’t enough. Mina burned me—holding hot pokers to my flesh.”
That explained the ridges on his arms, the ones I’d touched earlier.
“The worst part about it all,” he said, shaking his head, “she never asked me anything. I wouldn’t have told her, but she didn’t even ask. She wasn’t torturing me to find anything out—she was doing it because she could.”
“Ridley,” I breathed. I went over to him and reached out to touch his face. He leaned into my palm and closed his eyes. “I’m so sorry.”
“No, Bryn, don’t be sorry.” He put his hand over mine. “Don’t ever be sorry. Not about this.”
“I don’t know what else to say.”
“You don’t need to say anything.” He lowered his hand, then stepped back, away from me, so I let my arm drop to my side. “It’s late, and we have a long day tomorrow. You should probably head back to your room and get some sleep.”
Startled by the abruptness, I didn’t say anything at first. Then I nodded slowly and turned to leave Ridley standing alone in his room, wondering if I had failed him so much that we would never be able to reconcile again.
That’s not good enough!” Tilda barked, standing over a sweaty Skojare guard.
I’d been sparring with a different guard, but I stopped what I was doing to look over at her. For training today, she’d done her best to look every bit the part of a captain. Her hair was pulled back in a smooth ponytail, and she’d even gotten her hands on a frosty blue Skojare uniform. It fit her well, except that the jacket had to be left open to compensate for her growing belly.
Baltsar had set us up in the ballroom of the palace, since it had the most space. It was an opulent round room with white marble floors. Above us, the ceiling was domed glass, making this one of the few places I’d seen in the Storvatten palace that let in natural light.
The wallpaper had this magical quality, with a pale bluish sheen and a silver design etched into it, but when you looked at it, it seemed to move, like waves on the water. It was unlike anything I’d ever seen before. Every twenty feet or so, the wallpaper was broken up with a marble half pillar.
Baltsar and Ridley had organized the training today, separating the guards into groups based on their experience. Since taking his position a few weeks ago, Baltsar had already begun to rework the guard and hired thirty new recruits. On top of that, with the threat of war, many commoners and even a few of the royals had volunteered to join the makeshift army being built.
Tilda had been tasked with commanding the group of new recruits and volunteers, and she was running them through their paces like a drill sergeant. When they’d first been assigned to her, I’d heard the recruits snickering about how easy they’d gotten it because she was pregnant and a girl. None of them were snickering now.
At the back of the room, Baltsar was commanding his troop. While Tilda focused on more basic endurance and strength training, just trying to get them into proper physical condition, Baltsar was working on sword skills, while Ridley focused on hand-to-hand fighting.
For the most part, Konstantin and I just floated around, sparring with people and helping to show them proper form as needed. Right now Konstantin was standing with Ridley, discussing what to work on next, while Ridley’s group ran laps around the ballroom.