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It wasn’t until Tove said it that I realized that’s exactly what it was. The trackers were little more than slaves. I felt sick.

“But you do need guards,” Tove went on. “Every leader in the free world has bodyguards of some kind. Even pop stars have them. It’s not a horrible thing.”

“Yes, but in the free world, the bodyguards are hired. They choose it,” I said. “They’re not forced.”

“You think Duncan was forced? Or Finn?” Tove asked. “They both volunteered for this. Everyone did. Protecting you is a great honor. Besides that, living in the palace is a sweet deal.”

“I don’t want anyone getting hurt over me,” I said and looked directly at him.

“Good.” His mouth curled up into a smirk. “Then learn to defend yourself. Move the tarp.”

I stood up, preparing to conquer the tarp once and for all, but a blaring siren interrupted everything.

“You hear that, right?” Tove asked, cocking his head at me.

“Yeah, of course!” I shouted to be heard over it.

“Making sure it wasn’t just me,” Tove said.

That made me wonder what it sounded like inside his head. I knew he heard things everybody else didn’t hear, but if that included things like blaring sirens, I understood why he always seemed so distracted.

“What is that?” I asked.

“Fire alarm, maybe?” Tove shrugged and stood up. “Let’s go check it out.”

I put my hands over my ears and followed him out of the ballroom. We’d barely made it out into the hallway when the alarm stopped blaring, but my ears kept ringing. We were in the south wing, where business was conducted, and a few of the Queen’s associates were out in the hall, looking around.

“Why is that blasted thing going off?” Elora shouted from the front hall. Her words echoed from inside my head too, and I hated how she did that mind-speak thing when she was angry.

I couldn’t hear the answer to her question, but there was definitely a commotion going on. Grunting, yelling, slamming, fighting. Something was going down in the rotunda. Tove kept walking without hesitation, so I picked up my pace.

“Where did you find him?” Elora asked, but this time I couldn’t hear her inside my head. But we were close enough to the front hall that she sounded quite loud.

“He was hanging around the perimeter,” Duncan said, and I hurried at the sound of his voice. I wasn’t sure what he’d gotten himself into, but it couldn’t be good. “He’d knocked out one of the guards when I saw him.”

When I reached the front hall, Elora was standing halfway down the curved staircase. She had on a long dressing gown, so I assumed she’d been lying down with another one of her migraines when the alarm went off. Rubbing her temple, she surveyed the room with her usual disdain.

The front doors were still wide open, letting an early snowfall blow in. A group of guards were in a struggle in the center of the rotunda, and the wind gusted in, shaking the chandelier above them. Duncan stood off to the side, much to my relief, because the fight did not seem to be going well.

At least five or six guards were trying to tackle someone in the middle. A couple of the guards were really huge muscular dudes too, and they couldn’t seem to get a handle on this guy. I couldn’t get a good look at him because he kept slipping between them.

“Enough!” Elora shouted, and a pain pierced my skull.

Tove put both his hands to his head, pressing against it hard, and continued to do so even after the pain in my head stopped.

The guards backed off as Elora commanded, leaving ample room for the guy in the center, and I finally saw what all the fuss was about. His back was to me, but he was the only troll I’d seen with hair that light.

“Loki?” I said, more surprised than anything, and he turned to me.

“Princess.” He gave me a lopsided smirk, and his eyes sparkled.

“You know him?” Elora asked, her words dripping with venom.

“Yeah. I mean, no,” I said.

“Come, now, Princess, we’re old friends.” Loki winked at me. He turned to Elora, attempting to give her his most winning smile, and spread his arms wide. “We’re all friends here, aren’t we, Your Highness?”

Elora narrowed her eyes at him, and Loki suddenly collapsed to his knees. He made a horrible guttural sound and clenched his stomach.

“Stop!” I yelled and ran toward him. At the same time, the front door slammed shut and the chandelier above shook.

Elora took her eyes off him to glare at me, but fortunately, she didn’t cause me to writhe in pain. I stopped before I reached Loki. He’d doubled over, his forehead resting against the marble floor. I could hear him gasping for breath, and he turned his head away from me so I couldn’t see how much pain he was in.

“Why on earth would I stop?” Elora asked. She had one hand on the banister, and her knuckles grew white as her grip tightened. “This troll was trying to break in. Isn’t that right, Duncan?”

“Yes.” Duncan sounded uncertain, and his eyes flitted over to me for a second. “I believe he was, at least. He looked … suspicious.”

“Suspicious behavior doesn’t give you carte blanche to torture someone!” I yelled at her, and her expression only got stonier. I knew I wasn’t helping the situation, but I couldn’t contain myself.

“He’s Vittra, is he not?” Elora asked.