Page 55

“No, it’s not okay.” He gave me a hard look. “It is my job to protect you, Princess. Not the other way around. You need to stop getting so caught up in my safety.”

We reached the staircase at the same time a booming knock came from the front door. Nobody ever knocked. They always rang the doorbell, which sounded like very loud wind chimes.

Stranger still, Elora came into the rotunda and walked toward the door, the long black train of her dress dragging on the marble floor behind her.

We were still on the second floor, and Elora was directly below us. I ducked down behind the banister before she saw me, and Duncan did the same. Through the wooden lattice, I saw Elora clearly.

She was by herself, and before she opened the front door, she paused and glanced behind her. Her face was smoother and younger than when I had seen her the other day, but her hair had two additional streaks of bright white running through it.

“Why is she answering the door?” Duncan whispered. “And she’s without a guard.”

“Shh!” I waved a hand to shush him.

With the coast appearing clear, Elora opened the front door. A gust of icy wind blew inside the hall, and Elora had to grip the door tightly to keep it from slamming back.

A woman slid inside as Elora pushed the door back, fighting it with as much grace as she could muster. A dark green cloak hung over the woman’s head, shielding her face from us. Her burgundy dress appeared to be satin, and the hem pooled around her feet, looking tattered and wet from the elements.

“So good of you to make it in this weather.” Elora gave her a smile, the tight condescending one.

She smoothed her hair, making it lie so it covered up the white streaks better. The woman said nothing, and Elora gestured to the second floor, which didn’t make sense. The south wing on the main floor was where all business was conducted. Elora was directing the guest to her private quarters.

“Come,” Elora said as she and the woman started walking. “We have much to discuss.”

I grabbed Duncan’s arm and dashed across the hall before Elora began ascending the stairs. The only thing at the top of the stairs was a small broom closet, and I opened the door as silently as it would let me.

Once inside, I shut the door almost all the way, leaving a small gap for me to peer through. Duncan was pressed against my back, trying to peek out the crack too, and I elbowed him in the stomach so I could have some room to breathe.

“Ouch!” Duncan winced.

Quiet! I snapped.

“You don’t need to shout,” Duncan whispered.

“I di—” I was about to tell him I hadn’t shouted when I realized I hadn’t said anything at all. I’d merely thought it, and he’d heard me. I’d done the mind-speak trick that Elora always did.

Duncan, can you hear me? I asked in my head, trying it out, but he didn’t say anything. He just stood on his tiptoes and looked over my head.

I would’ve tried again but I heard Elora reaching the top of the stairs, and I turned my attention to her. Elora stood between her guest and the broom closet, so I couldn’t see the other woman’s face. Besides that, she still had that green cloak up.

I waited a few beats after they passed before pushing the door open. I leaned out, looking down the hall at their diminishing figures. They walked past the tracker standing watch outside of Loki’s cell, but that was the only guard on the second floor.

The main floor was crawling with guards. I usually had one or two in my vicinity, but otherwise, the second floor was empty.

“Why would Elora bring someone up here?” Duncan asked, stepping out from behind me to watch them.

“I don’t know.” I shook my head. “Do you know where they’re going?”

“No, the Queen doesn’t invite me into her personal space,” Duncan said.

“Yeah, me neither.”

I decided that I needed to trail the Queen and find out why she was being so secretive. I slunk along the wall, staying as close to it as I could. Duncan came with, and we looked like a couple of Looney Tunes characters trying to hide behind skinny trees and small rocks.

Elora pushed open the massive doors at the end of the hall, and I froze. That was her bedroom, or at least that’s what I’d been told. I’d never actually been there before. I pressed myself as flat as I could against the wall, and when Elora turned to shut the doors behind her, she didn’t look up.

“What the hell is she doing?” I asked.

“I could ask you the same thing,” Loki said, catching me off guard.

His room was only a few doors down from where Duncan and I attempted to hide. Loki leaned on the doorframe, as far out as he dared go anymore, and his guard glared at him when Loki spoke to me.

With all my attention on Elora, I’d forgotten Loki was up here. I stepped away from the wall and stood up straighter, smoothing out my damp curls as best I could.

“That’s really none of your concern.” I walked closer to him slowly and with purpose, and he smirked at me.

“It’s all the same to me, but you and your friend there”—Loki nodded to Duncan—“look like a couple of Acme Spy School dropouts.”

“I’m glad it’s all the same to you.” I crossed my arms over my chest.

“But I am curious.” Loki’s forehead crinkled with genuine interest. “Why are you stalking your own mother?”

“Princess, you needn’t answer his questions,” the guard said, giving Loki a sidelong glance. “I can shut the door, and you can be on your way.”