“He is the highest-ranking Markis in the entire Kanin now,” Ridley said, thinking aloud. “Until the King and Queen have a child, Linus is actually next in line for the throne. We don’t know what Black wanted with Linus, but it can’t be good. He could have been planning an assassination.”
“Or it could’ve been a plot for ransom. Both Konstantin and Bent have been exiled,” Dad said. “Konstantin has been on the run for years. He has to be in desperate need of money.”
The King nodded. “Until we learn otherwise, I think we should treat this as an isolated incident.”
“But what if it’s not?” I asked.
“It might not be,” Evert agreed. “But what would you have us do? Bring all the changelings home right now? Send out all our trackers after Konstantin Black and Bent Stum, leaving Doldastam unguarded?”
“No, of course not, my King. But there should be a compromise,” I argued. “Bring home our highest-ranking changelings, especially those over the age of twelve, and send a few trackers after Konstantin and Bent. I would gladly volunteer for that mission.”
“Absolutely not,” the King said, so swiftly that I was too stunned to speak for a moment. He hadn’t even considered what I’d suggested.
“But my lord—” I said when I found my words.
“We can’t afford to bring in that many changelings, not this early,” King Evert defended his veto.
“And can we afford to have our changelings kidnapped or slaughtered?” I shot back.
“Bryn,” Dad said, trying to silence me.
“Tracker, I think you’ve forgotten your place,” King Evert said, and I swallowed hard. “This is my kingdom, and my decision. Your invitation to this meeting was little more than a courtesy.”
I lowered my eyes. “I’m sorry, my King. I’m only thinking of what’s in the best interest of the kingdom.”
“So are we, Bryn,” Queen Mina said, much more gently than her husband had spoken to me. “Many of the highest-ranking Markis and Marksinna in the Kanin, not to mention the Kings and Queens from friendly tribes, will be descending on Doldastam this weekend. If there is a threat to our kingdom, then we will need all our guards here. And if this was targeted on Linus Berling in particular, then it’s even more important that you, as his tracker, are here to keep him safe.”
“The Queen is right, Bryn,” Ridley said, but he sounded sympathetic to my position. “We don’t know much right now, and our highest priority should be keeping the kingdom safe.”
“Then it’s settled,” the Queen declared. “I will hear no more of this over the weekend. We have much to celebrate, and friends and dignitaries will be coming into town beginning tomorrow.”
“You will stick with Linus Berling like he’s your shadow,” the King commanded me. “Help him acclimate and understand our community, the way you would with any other changeling, but you also need to be more vigilant, in case there is a price on his head.”
I nodded. “Yes, my lord.”
The meeting appeared to be over, and the Queen was the first to make her exit. As soon as she rose from her place at the end of the table, the rest of us stood up. The backs of my legs smacked into my chair, and it creaked loudly against the floor.
“If you don’t mind, I have much to attend to with guests arriving soon.” She smiled at all of us as she gathered her dress, and she left the hall.
“I should be on my way, also,” King Evert said. “Thank you for attending.”
“My King,” Dad said, stopping him before he left. “If I could have a word with you for a moment. It’s about the new tax.”
While the King and Queen were appointed to their roles by birth or marriage, the Chancellor was elected by the people so they could have a voice in the running of the government.
The King nodded. “Yes, of course, Chancellor. Let’s walk and talk.” He and my dad left the room together, speaking in hushed tones.
“You always gotta make an entrance, don’t you?” Ridley grinned at me as he gathered his papers together.
“I overslept, I swear. I didn’t think I’d sleep for twelve hours straight.” My pants had begun slipping down my waist again, and with the royalty gone, I was free to pull them back up without earning a scrutinizing look from the King.
“Well, you made it, so that’s what counts.”
I sighed and sat down, resting against the arm of the chair. “Maybe it would’ve been better if I hadn’t come at all.”
“You mean because the King got a little miffed there for a second?” Ridley asked as he walked over to me. “He’ll get over it. And you weren’t wrong.”
“So you’re saying I was right?” I asked with raised eyebrows.
“Not exactly.” He leaned a hip against the table next to me, crossing his arms so his stack of papers was against his chest. “We need to protect here first, but once this anniversary party is over, then we should really implement your ideas. Even if Konstantin and Bent were only targeting Linus, we can’t just let them get away with it.”
“So you don’t think this was a one-time thing?”
“Honestly?” He looked at me from behind his thick lashes and hesitated before saying, “No, I don’t.”
“Dammit. I was kinda hoping I was wrong.” I ran a hand through my hair. “Anyway, thanks for having my back.”
“I’ll always have your back,” Ridley said with a wry smile. “Or any part of your body.”
I rolled my eyes and smiled despite myself. “Way to ruin a perfectly nice moment, Ridley.”
“Sorry.” He laughed. “I can’t help myself sometimes.”
“Mmm, I’ve noticed.”
He leaned back, appraising me, and there was something in his dark eyes, a kind of heat that made my heart beat out of time. It was something new, something I’d only begun to detect in the past few months. Most of the time when we were together it was the same as always, but more and more there was that look in his eyes, a smoldering that I had no idea how to react to.
I suddenly became aware of my very close proximity to him. My knee had brushed up against his leg, and if I wanted to, I could reach out and touch him, putting my hand on the warm skin of his arm, which was bare below where he’d pushed up his sleeves.