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“Yeah, he is, but…” I licked my lips and looked over at Loki. He’d sat up a bit and composed himself some, but his face was still drawn. “He was good to me when I was there. He didn’t hurt me, and he actually helped me. So … we should at the very least show him the same respect here.”

“Is that true?” Elora asked him.

“Yes, it is.” He sat on his heels so he could stare up at her. “I’ve found that I get what I want more often with basic decency than unnecessary cruelty.”

“What’s your name?” Elora asked, unmoved by his statement.

“Loki Staad.” He held his chin up high when he said that, as if he was proud.

“I knew your father.” Elora’s lips moved into a thin smile, but it wasn’t a pleasant one. It was the kind someone would have after stealing candy from a small child. “I hated him.”

“That surprises me, Your Majesty.” Loki smiled broadly at her, erasing any sign that he’d been in agony moments ago. “My father was a stone-cold jerk. That sounds like your taste exactly.”

“It’s funny, because I was going to say you remind me so much of him.” Elora’s icy smile remained frozen in place as she descended the rest of the stairs, and Loki did an admirable job of not letting his falter. “You think you can use your charm to get out of anything, but I don’t find you charming at all.”

“That’s a shame,” Loki said. “Because, with all due respect, Your Highness, I could rock your world.”

Elora laughed, but it sounded more like a cackle when it echoed off the walls. I wanted to yell at Loki, to tell him to stop baiting her, and I wished I could do that mind-speak Elora did all the time.

Right now I had to make sure that Elora didn’t kill Loki. He’d helped me in Ondarike, risking his own life. We’d only spoken a little, but he’d put himself in jeopardy for me.

Before we left the Vittra palace, there had been a moment when I’d almost asked him to join us. I hadn’t, and I wasn’t sure if I’d made the right decision or not. There was something about Loki that I couldn’t explain, a connection I shouldn’t feel.

Oddly, the thing that struck me the most about what Loki had done when he’d let us escape was that he’d disobeyed orders. He’d been put in charge of keeping guard over me, with insubordination punishable by death.

Yet Loki had chosen me over duty, defying his monarch and his kingdom. That was something that Finn wouldn’t even do.

Elora stopped in front of him. Loki remained on his knees, looking up at her, and I wished he’d get rid of that stupid grin on his face. It only antagonized her.

“You are a small, insignificant creature,” Elora said, staring down at him. “I can and will destroy you the moment I see fit.”

“I know.” Loki nodded.

Her dark eyes were locked on his, and she stared at him for some time before I realized she was doing something to him. Saying something or controlling him somehow. He wasn’t writhing in pain, but his grin had fallen away.

With a heavy sigh, she looked away from him and motioned to the guards.

“Take him away,” Elora said.

Two of the larger guards came up behind Loki and grabbed him by his arms, pulling him to his feet. Loki was out of it after whatever Elora had done to him, and he couldn’t seem to stand.

“Where are they taking him?” I asked Elora as the guards dragged him away. Loki’s head lolled back and forth, but he was still awake and alive.

“It’s none of your concern where they take him or what happens to him,” Elora hissed at me.

She cast a glance around the room, and the other guards dispersed to do their job. Duncan lingered, waiting for me, and Tove stood a few feet back. Tove would never be intimidated by my mother, and I appreciated that about him.

“Someday, I will be Queen, and I should know what is done with prisoners,” I said, reaching for the sanest argument I had. She looked away from me and didn’t say anything for a moment. “Elora. Where did they take him?”

“Servants’ quarters, for now,” Elora told me.

She glanced over at Tove, and I had a feeling if he wasn’t here, this whole conversation would go much differently. Tove’s mother Aurora wanted to overthrow my mother, and Elora didn’t want Tove or Aurora to see any sign of weakness or unrest. And as much as I disagreed with her methods, I saw the need to respect her wishes here.

“Why? Won’t he just leave?” I asked.

“No, he can’t. I saw to it that if he tries to leave, he’ll collapse in agony,” Elora said. “We need to build a proper prison, but the Chancellor always vetoes it. So I’m left holding him myself.” She sighed and rubbed her temple again. “We’ll have a meeting to see what should be done with him.”

“What will be done with him?” I asked.

“You will attend the meeting to see what being a Queen entails, but you will not speak up in his defense.” Her eyes met mine, hard and glowing, and in my mind, she said, You cannot defend him. It will be an act of treason, and your minor defense of him now could get you exiled if Tove reports this to his mother.

She appeared even wearier than she had before. Her skin was normally porcelain-smooth, but a few wrinkles had sprouted up around her eyes. She held one hand to her stomach for a moment, as if to catch her breath.

“I need to lie down,” Elora said, and she held out her arm. “Duncan, please escort me to my chambers.”