“No, you’ll be fine,” I assured him as I jumped out of bed.
I ran to the closet to change my clothes. I didn’t look bad, but if I was gonna see Finn, I had to look good. Duncan kept groaning about what an idiot he was for telling me anything. I tried to calm him, but my mind raced too much.
I couldn’t believe how stupid I was. I’d imagined that as soon as he was unassigned from me, Finn had been sent to track someone else. But now I realized he had to have some turnaround time before his next job, and he had to stay somewhere. If he wasn’t living at the palace, his parents were the next logical choice. He’d spoken very little of them, and it never occurred to me that they might be neighbors.
“Elora will find out. She knows everything,” Duncan muttered as I exited the closet.
“I promise. I won’t tell anyone.” I looked at myself in the mirror. I was pale, scattered, and terrified. Finn liked my hair better when it was down, so I left it that way, even though it was messy.
“She’ll still find out,” Duncan insisted.
“I’ll protect your job,” I said, but he still looked skeptical. “I’m the Princess. I have to have some pull around here.” He shrugged, but I could tell I’d managed to alleviate some of his fears. “I’ve gotta go. You can’t tell anyone where I am.”
“They’ll freak out if they don’t know where you’re at.”
“Well…” I looked around, thinking. “Stay here. If anyone comes looking for me, tell them I’m in the bath and can’t be disturbed. We’re each other’s alibis.”
“You sure?” He raised an eyebrow.
“Yes,” I lied. “I have to go. And thank you.”
Duncan still didn’t seem convinced this was a good idea, but I’d left him with little choice. I raced out of the palace, trying to be as inconspicuous as possible. Elora had a few other trackers wandering around to keep watch on things, but I slid past them without any notice.
When I pushed open the front doors, I realized I didn’t even know why I was in such a hurry to see Finn. What did I plan on doing once I saw him? Convince him to come with me? Did I even want that?
After the way things had been left between us, what was I going after?
I couldn’t answer that for sure. All I knew was I had to see him. I hurried down the winding road, going south, and tried to remember Duncan’s directions.
The gravel road wound down at a steep incline. I wouldn’t have known I was going the right way if I hadn’t heard the goats bleating.
When I rounded the bend, I saw the small cottage nestled into the side of the bluffs. Vines and bushes covered it so much that I might not have noticed it if it weren’t for the smoke coming out of the chimney.
The pasture for the goats leveled out a bit more than the rest of the bluff, so it was sitting on a plateau. A wooden fence kept them enclosed. The long fur on the goats was dingy white.
The overcast sky and the chill in the air didn’t help bring out the color, though. Even the leaves, which had turned golden and red, appeared faded as they littered the yard around Finn’s house.
Now that I was here, I wasn’t sure what I should do. I wrapped my arms around myself and swallowed hard. Did I go knock on the door? What did I even have to say to him? He left. He made his choice, and I already knew that.
I looked toward the palace, deciding it might be better if I went home without seeing Finn. A woman’s voice stopped me, though, and I turned to Finn’s house.
“I’ve already fed you,” a woman was telling the goats.
She walked through the pasture, coming from the small barn on the far side of the field. Her worn dress dragged on the ground, so the hem was filthy. A dark cloak hung over her shoulders, and her brown hair had been pulled up in two tight buns. The goats swarmed around her, begging for a handout, and she’d been too busy gently pushing them back to notice me right away.
When she saw me, her steps slowed so much, she nearly stopped. Her eyes were as black as Finn’s, and while she was very pretty, her face was more tired than any other I had seen here. She couldn’t be more than forty, but her skin had the worn, tanned look that came from a lifetime of hard work.
“Can I help you?” she asked, quickening her pace as she came toward me.
“Um…” I hugged myself more tightly and glanced up the road. “I don’t think so.”
She opened the gate, making a clicking sound at the goats to get them to back off, and stepped outside of it. She stopped a few feet in front of me, sizing me up in a way that I knew wasn’t approving, and she wiped her hands on her dress, cleaning them of dirt from the animals.
Nodding once, she let out a deep breath.
“It’s getting cold out here,” she said. “Why don’t you come inside?”
“Thank you, but I—” I started to excuse myself, but she cut me off.
“I think you should come inside.”
She turned and walked toward the cottage. I stayed back for a minute, debating whether or not I should escape, but she left the cottage door open, letting the warm air waft out. It smelled deliciously of vegetable stew, something hearty and homemade and enticing in a way that food hardly ever smelled.
When I stepped inside the cottage, she’d already hung up her cloak and gone over to the large potbellied stove in the corner. A black pot sat on top of it, bubbling with that wonderful-smelling stew, and she stirred it with a wooden spoon.