We’d been in the same room before, but always separated by a sea of people, since his duties kept him close to the Queen, and mine kept me far from her or the King. He’d brushed past me in halls. I’d seen him from the crowd as he’d demonstrated his skill in fencing games during the summer. But I’d never seen him really look at me before, or notice my attentive gaze among all the other adoring faces.
Now here he was, smiling as he stopped in front of us, and it had the same overwhelming effect as looking down from a great height.
I’d gotten so used to gazing at him from a distance, it was hard not to stare. The way his lips curved up slightly more on the left side as he smiled, or the shadow of stubble that had grown darker on the smooth line of his chin as the night progressed, or the way his black hair was slick and straight until it began to curl at the nape of his neck, where it stopped just above his collar.
“Chancellor, I wasn’t expecting to see you here at this hour,” Konstantin said to my dad.
“I was seeing my daughter home.” Dad motioned in my direction, and Konstantin looked down at me. He wasn’t much taller than I was, but he seemed to tower over me, with his gray eyes like smoke resting warmly on my face.
“It was your first night working something like this, wasn’t it?” Konstantin asked.
I nodded. “Yes,” I said, relieved that my voice stayed even and normal.
“You did very well.” He smiled at me, causing my heart to flutter. “I’ll put in a good word to your Rektor.”
“Thank you very much, but that’s not necessary,” I told him firmly.
Konstantin laughed, the sound filling up the front hall and echoing through it. “Modesty is a noble thing, but it won’t get you a coveted spot on the Högdragen. Take help whenever it’s offered if you want to make it in this world.”
I’d always insisted that I only looked up to him as a guard, as someone I wanted to emulate. But now, with the mere sound of his laughter sending pleasurable shivers through me, I couldn’t deny that I’d been harboring a crush on him for so long it had begun to turn into something that felt dangerously like love.
“That’s very sound advice, Konstantin,” my dad said, pulling me from my thoughts, and pulling Konstantin’s gaze from me.
“You sound surprised that I have good ideas, Chancellor,” Konstantin said with a wry smirk.
Dad returned the smirk in kind and adjusted his loosened tie. “I think it’s just the night wearing on me.”
“Sorry, I should be letting you get on your way,” Konstantin said apologetically, and my heart sank when I realized this brief exchange would soon end, leaving me feeling even more like Cinderella than ever before.
“Thank you.” My dad nodded and stepped back toward the door, then Konstantin held out his hand.
“Actually, Chancellor, if I could keep you just a few minutes longer I might save you some trouble in the morning.”
“What do you mean?” Dad asked.
“The Queen just went to her chambers, but before she did, she let me know that she wanted you to sign a document first thing in the morning to be sent out to the Trylle.” Konstantin gestured to the grand windows above the door, which were starting to show the first hints of dawn. “And with morning so close, if you wanted to sign it now, you would have a few hours longer to sleep in.”
“A document?” Dad shook his head. The bags under his eyes revealed how truly tired he was, and his dark eyes were confused. “I was drafting a letter for the Trylle. What was she working on?”
“I’m not entirely sure, sir. I believe she left it in her office, if you’d like to have a look at it,” Konstantin said.
“I suppose I should.” Dad nodded wearily, then turned to me. “You can go on, Bryn. I’ll be home soon.”
“No, it’s all right,” I replied quickly. “I can wait for you.”
Dad shrugged in a way that said I could suit myself, and then he started down the corridor toward the Queen’s office.
Konstantin went after him, but he turned back to me as he did. “Don’t worry. We won’t be too long, white rabbit,” he promised me.
I turned away, hoping my cheeks wouldn’t burn at Konstantin’s use of a nickname. It was one I’d heard a few times in my life, but it never really stuck. White because of my fair complexion, and rabbit because that was the symbol of the Kanin.
As soon as they were out of sight, I put my hand on my stomach and let out a shaky breath. Having my first taste of official duty left me feeling intoxicated and light-headed, but that last exchange with Konstantin made me weak. I’d never been that interested in boys, preferring to focus on my training, but now I finally understood what my friends meant when they were going on about being in love.
But all too quickly the adrenaline from talking with Konstantin began to fade away, and for the first time all night I realized how tired I really was. I hadn’t slept much the night before because I’d been so excited to work at the party, and corralling drunk Kanin townspeople was more work than it sounded.
Dad hadn’t been gone with Konstantin for long, but my feet were beginning to throb and I needed to get home and get to bed. I knew where the Queen’s office was, so I thought it would be best to go down and let Dad know that I was heading out. Plus it would give me a chance to say something more to Konstantin.
The office wasn’t far from the front hall, and I’d almost made it there when I heard a surprised yell, a man crying out, “No!” I froze at first, trying to register it, then it was quickly followed by an agonized scream.
If my head wasn’t swimming from the night, I would’ve noticed sooner. And a second too late—maybe even a split second too long—I realized that it was my father screaming.
I ran to the Queen’s office and threw open the door.
When I’ve later tried to remember that moment, I can’t see the rest of the room. It’s all a haze and a blur, but the one thing that’s focused—and it is in perfect, startling clarity—is Konstantin standing over my dad. His sword is drawn, and the blade is dark crimson with blood, as my dad lies bleeding on the floor.
Konstantin looked up at me. His handsome face, usually bright and confident, was chillingly blank. He almost appeared dead, except for his gray eyes—dark and frightfully alert.
“I’m sorry,” Konstantin said simply. “I am bound to something much higher than this kingdom, and I must complete my mission.”