She didn’t ask about it, though. We’d been friends so long that she didn’t really need to say anything. She just gave me a look—her charcoal-gray eyes warm and concerned as they rested heavily on me—and I returned her gaze evenly, trying to assure her with a pained smile that I was handling everything with Konstantin better than I actually was.
Of course, Tilda probably knew I was holding back, but she accepted what I was willing to give and offered me a supportive smile. She would never press or pry, trusting me to come to her if I needed to.
I shrugged. “I’m here to blow off steam, if that answers your question.”
Ember asked with a smirk, “That bad, huh?”
“The King hates me.” I sighed and adjusted the tape on my hands as I walked over to the punching bag.
“I’m sure he doesn’t hate you,” Ember said.
Tilda took a long drink from her water bottle, accidentally spilling a few droplets on her baggy tank top, and Ember walked over to help me. She stood on the other side of the punching bag, holding it in place, so that when I hit it, it wouldn’t sway away. I started punching, throwing all my frustration into the bag.
“I have to learn to keep my mouth shut if I’ll ever stand a chance of being on the Högdragen,” I said, and my words came out in short bursts between punches. “It’s already gonna be hard enough without me pissing off the King.”
“How did you piss him off?” Tilda asked as she came over to us. She put one hand on her hip as she watched me, letting her other fall to the side.
“I was just arguing with him. I was right, but it doesn’t matter,” I said, punching the bag harder. “If the King says the sky is purple and it rains diamonds, then it does. The King’s word is law.”
I don’t know what made me angrier. The fact the King was wrong and refused to see it, or that I’d once again botched my own attempts at being one of the Högdragen. That was all I’d ever wanted for as long as I could remember, and if I wanted to be in the guard, I’d have to learn to follow orders without talking back.
But I didn’t know how I was supposed to keep my mouth shut if I thought the King was doing things that might endanger the kingdom.
I started alternating between punching and kicking the bag, taking out all my anger at the King and at myself. I finally hit it hard enough that the bag swung back, knocking Ember to the floor.
“Sorry,” I said, and held my hand out to her.
“No harm, no foul.” Ember grinned as I helped her to her feet.
“You make it sound like we live in an Orwellian dystopia, and I know you don’t think that,” Tilda said, but there was an arch to her eyebrows, like maybe she didn’t completely disagree with the idea.
She’d never openly speak ill of the kingdom—or of anything, really—but that didn’t mean she approved of everything that happened here. Neither did I, but Tilda always managed to handle things with more grace and tact than I could muster.
“No, I don’t.” I rubbed the back of my neck. “But I won’t ever get ahead if I keep arguing with everyone.”
“Maybe you will,” Tilda said. “You’ve argued and fought your way to where you are now. Nobody wanted you to be a tracker, but you insisted that you could do it, and now you’re one of the best.”
“Thanks.” I smiled at her. “Speaking of which, I’m supposed to be shadowing Linus, so I need to fly through today’s workout. You wanna spar?”
“I think I’ll sit this one out, since the last time you gave me a fat lip,” Tilda reminded me, pointing to her full lips.
They had been briefly swollen and purplish last month when I accidentally punched her right in the mouth, temporarily marring her otherwise beautiful face. She’d never been vain or complained of the bumps and bruises we’d both get during our practicing fights before, but if she didn’t want to fight today, I wasn’t going to push her.
“Ember, you wanna go?” I asked.
“Sure. But you have to promise not to hit me in the face.” She motioned a circle around her face. “I don’t want any visible marks for my birthday party.”
I nodded. “Deal. Let’s go.”
I’d moved out when I turned sixteen three years ago, and it still felt kinda strange going back to the house I’d grown up in. It always looked the same and smelled the same, but there were subtle differences that reminded me it wasn’t my home anymore.
My mom and dad lived in a cottage near the town square, and as far as cottages in Doldastam went, theirs was fairly spacious. It wasn’t as nice as the house my dad had grown up in, but that had been passed to the Eckwells after my grandparents had died, since Dad had given up his Markis title.
Mom had probably grown up in a nicer house too, though she didn’t talk about it that much. In fact, she rarely ever mentioned Storvatten except to talk about the lake.
As soon as I opened the door, the scent of seawater hit me. We lived over a half hour away from Hudson Bay, so I have no idea how Mom did it, but the house always smelled like the ocean. Now it was mixed with salmon and citrus, the supper she was cooking in the oven.
“Hello?” I called, since no one was there to greet me at the door, and I began unwinding my scarf.
“Bryn?” Dad came out from the study at the back of the house, with his reading glasses pushed up on his head. “You’re here early.”
“Only fifteen minutes,” I said, glancing over at the grandfather clock in the living room to be sure I was right. “Linus was sitting down for supper with his parents, so I thought it would be a good time to duck out. If I’m interrupting something, I can entertain myself while you finish up.”
“No, I was just doing some paperwork, but it can wait.” He waved in the direction of his study. “Take off your coat. Stay awhile.”
“Where’s Mom?” I asked as I took off my jacket and hung it on the coatrack by the door.
“She’s in the bath,” Dad said.
I should’ve known. Mom was always in the bath. It was because she was Skojare. She needed the water.
Some of my fondest memories from being a small child were sitting in the bathroom with her. She’d be soaking in the claw-footed tub, and I’d sit on the floor. Sometimes she’d sing to me, other times I’d read her stories, or just play with my toys. A lot of time was spent in there.