Mikko cast his severe gaze on me. “What’s become of Ridley Dresden?”
“Give me a minute with Bryn,” Konstantin said. “Baltsar, fill the King in.”
Baltsar cleared his throat. “The Omte surprised Ridley and Bryn as they were retreating . . .”
I didn’t hear anything he said beyond that because Konstantin had started pushing me out of the tent. When I tried to resist, he put his arm around my waist and carried me away.
“Put me down! What are you doing?” I demanded, but I didn’t really fight him. After everything that had happened that morning, I didn’t have the strength to defy him on things that weren’t life-or-death.
He set me down once we’d gotten far enough from the King’s tent and the campsite that we could have some privacy. Bright white snow swirled around us, getting caught in his raven curls and eyelashes.
“I’m saving your ass,” Konstantin said finally.
“How was that saving me?” I shot back.
“You were about to go in there and demand the King send a rescue mission after Ridley, even though you know that’s suicide. Look around!” He gestured to the growing snowstorm. “We can’t conduct our men in this, not if we want to win the war. And a rescue mission would only get us caught.
“Right now Mina only knows about me, you, Ridley, and Baltsar,” he explained. “She already knew you, me, and Ridley were working together, and she’ll likely assume that Baltsar is just someone else we picked up along the way. Even capturing Ridley, she hasn’t found out anything new.
“But this army—” He pointed back to the campsite. “That’s news to her. And if we go in with the kind of team we’d need to rescue Ridley, she’ll figure out that we have a lot more muscle behind us.”
He stepped closer to me, his gray eyes locked on mine. “Right now she has no clue what we’re really up to, and we can’t let her find out until it’s too late.”
I wanted to argue with him. I wanted to grab bigger weapons and gather all the men I could and storm the palace, tearing it apart until I found Ridley. But no matter how much the truth hurt, I knew Konstantin was right.
“I know it’s hard setting your feelings aside to do the right thing.” He smiled bitterly. “Believe me, I know better than anyone. But you can’t let your feelings for Ridley—or for anyone—cloud your judgment right now.” He paused, still looking down at me. “We need you, Bryn.”
I breathed in deeply, relishing the way the cold air stung my throat and lungs, as snowflakes melted on my cheeks.
“I can’t leave him there for very long,” I said thickly.
“She won’t kill him,” Konstantin assured me, and with a gloved hand he gingerly wiped away the melting snowflakes from my face. “Not yet. She’ll want to find out everything she can from him, and then she wants us to fall into a trap trying to rescue him. Ridley is strong and smart, and he’s still alive. I promise you that.”
I lowered my eyes. “He came back for me. It’s all my fault.”
“It is not your fault,” Konstantin growled in anger, startling me into looking up at him. “Ridley chose to go back, and he wasn’t paying attention in that alley either. You can’t always take the blame for everything, Bryn. Sometimes bad things happen for no reason and sometimes they happen because other people fucked up. It’s not always on you.”
He sighed. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to yell at you.”
“No, it’s okay. I think I needed to hear it.” I brushed my hair back from my face. “So what do we do now?”
“You should go get your parents settled in. The snow will have us hunkered down for a while.” He squinted into the oncoming storm. “Things are only going to get worse before they get better.”
I wasn’t sure if he was talking about the storm or the war, but it was true either way.
The tent was sagging low on me again, and I knew I would have to go out and scrape off the snow soon before it collapsed on me entirely. The batteries were going out in the little electric lamp, making it flicker dimly, but I tried to ignore that.
I lay on my back with one arm underneath my head, buried under my sleeping bag, with Ember’s letters spread out around me. The snow hadn’t let up yet, so the rest of the camp had gone to bed.
Everyone else around me was probably sleeping, but every time I tried to close my eyes, all I could think about was how last night Ridley and I slept curled up against each other, and tonight he was being held in Mina’s torture chamber. The very last place on earth he wanted to be.
So I lay awake, reading through Ember’s letters over and over again. It was my fifth time through reading her final letter, and it still made my stomach twist in knots. To read about how Doldastam had slowly collapsed, becoming a twisted dictatorship under the harsh rule of a paranoid madwoman.
It also made me realize how much I’d missed out on in Ember’s life, and Tilda’s, my parents’, and Ridley’s. So much had befallen them, and I hadn’t been able to help them with any of it.
I also missed Ember terribly. She had been shouldering such a huge burden these past few weeks, with Tilda reeling from Kasper’s death, and Ridley dealing with the trauma of Mina’s torture. Not to mention that Ember had taken time out to check on my parents when nobody else would. And all the other trackers and royals she was trying to train so they could protect themselves.