He ran a hand along the dark stubble of his cheek. “What’s going on?” he asked, and his tone softened. “What happened?”
“Bryn.” From across the desk, he gave me a look—one that said he knew me too well to let me bullshit him.
Instead of replying, I turned away from him. I twisted the silver band around my thumb and looked over at the bulletin board, eyeing the wanted posters.
Any fugitive who was still at large had their picture up, even if they’d escaped years ago. The incident with Viktor Dålig had to have happened fifteen years ago, but his picture was still prominently displayed at the top of the wanted section. The bright red font for “wanted” had faded to more of a dull pink, but his picture was still clear and visible. The heavy dark black beard, his cold eyes, even the scar that ran across his face from just above his left eye down to his right cheek.
There were two new posters that popped out on crisp white paper with fresh ink. An updated one for Konstantin Black, and a brand-new one for Bent Stum. Even in his picture, Konstantin seemed to be smirking at me, like he knew he’d gotten away with what he’d done.
But his eyes caught me. Even in black-and-white, they appeared livelier than when I had seen them in real life. It was the look he’d had when I’d last seen him standing in the crowd in Chicago, and the same look he’d had when I saw him standing over my father. And it was his eyes that had haunted my dreams last night, but I struggled to push that back, refusing to replay it in my head again, the way I had been all morning.
“Bryn,” Ridley repeated, since I hadn’t answered him.
Reluctantly I turned back to look at him. “I just ran into Astrid Eckwell in the library at the palace.”
Ridley shrugged, like he didn’t know why that would bother me. “Astrid’s an idiot.”
“Yeah, I know.”
“You never let her get to you.”
I inhaled deeply. “I usually don’t.”
“What’d she say this time that got under your skin?”
“Nothing, really. It was just the same old crap.” I started bouncing my leg up and down, needing to do something to relieve my agitation. “And usually I’m over it. But this time it was really hard for me to not punch her in the face.”
“Well, I commend you on not doing that. Because that would’ve been very bad.”
“I know. I think I’ve just been cooped up here too long.” I shifted in my chair. “This winter is taking forever to end. And the King is being ridiculous. I should be out in the field, and you know it, Ridley.”
“Shh.” He glanced toward the open door. “Lower your voice. You don’t want the new cadets to hear.”
“I don’t care who hears,” I said, nearly shouting.
Ridley went over to the door and peeked out in the hall, then closed the door. Instead of going back to his chair, he came over to me. He leaned on the desk right in front of me, so he was almost at eye level.
He wore a button-down shirt and vest, but he’d skipped a tie today, so I could see his necklace. It was a thin leather strap with an iron rabbit amulet—his present upon becoming Rektor. The amulet lay against the bronzed skin of his toned chest, and I lowered my eyes.
“I know you’re pissed off, but you don’t need to get in a shitload of trouble because an overzealous tracker-in-training tattles on you to the wrong person,” he said, his voice low and serious.
Technically, speaking any ill of the King was a punishable offense. My saying that he was ridiculous wouldn’t exactly get me executed, but I could end up stuck cleaning toilets in the palace, or demoted, even. The changelings were assigned to us based on our rank, and in terms of trackers, I was third from the top.
“You’re right.” I sighed. “I’m sorry.”
“Don’t apologize to me. Just don’t act stupid because you’re mad.”
“I’m more valuable out in the field.” I stared up into Ridley’s dark eyes, imploring him to understand. “And I feel so useless here. I’m not doing anything to help anyone.”
“That’s not true. You’re helping Linus. You know how lost and bumbling changelings are at first.”
“He needs someone, yeah, but it doesn’t have to be me,” I countered. “I’m not actually needed here.”
“I need you,” Ridley said, with a sincerity in his tone that startled me. In the depths of his eyes I saw a flicker of that heat I’d seen before, but just as I’d registered it, he looked away and cleared his throat. “I mean, there’s a lot going on right now. Royalty from all over are on their way right now. You’re a big asset here. I wouldn’t be able to handle everything without your help.”
“Anyone can do what I’m doing,” I said, deciding to ignore the heat I’d seen in his eyes. “I think that’s why Astrid got to me. I already feel like I’m being useless, and she always does such a great job of reminding me how much better than me she is.”
He shook his head. “You know that’s not true.”
I opened my mouth to argue that, but the door to the office opened and interrupted me. I looked back over my shoulder to see Simon Bohlin. Out of habit, I sat up straighter in my chair and tried to look as nonchalant as possible. I still wasn’t completely sure how to act around him.
We’d broken up a few months ago after going out for nearly a year. I’d gone against my own rule about not dating other trackers because Simon was funny and cute and didn’t seem all that intimidated by the fact that I could kick his ass.
But I don’t know why it still felt so awkward. We hadn’t even been that serious. Well, I thought we hadn’t been serious. Then Simon dropped the l-word, and I realized that we wanted two vastly different things out of the relationship.
Simon had been walking into the office, whistling an old tracker work song under his breath, but he stopped short when he saw me.
“Sorry,” Simon said. From underneath his black bangs, his eyes shifted from me to Ridley. “Am I interrupting something?”
“No.” Ridley stood up and stepped away from me. “Not at all.”
“I just came in to get my orders for the new changeling,” Simon said.
“Right. Of course.” Ridley walked around to the other side of his desk, shifting around stacks of paper in search of the file for Simon.