“You’re leaving?” I asked, flashing Simon the friendliest smile I could manage.
He nodded. “Yeah.”
“Um, I think later today,” Simon said.
Ridley found the file and held it up. “That is the plan.”
“So you’re not staying for the party?” I asked.
Simon shook his head, looking disappointed. “Not unless it’s in the next couple hours.”
Then it hit me. Simon was a good tracker, but he’d always enjoyed the parties and balls here more than I had.
I stood up. “We could trade.”
“Trade what?” Simon asked cautiously.
Ridley sighed. “Bryn. No.”
“I’m supposed to stay here and shadow Linus Berling, but you were always so great with the changelings.” I walked over to Simon, getting so excited by the idea that I forgot to feel strange around him. “You could get him all settled and act as his bodyguard, and I could go out into the field.”
“I…” Simon hesitated. “I mean, I don’t know if that’s okay.”
“But would you?” I asked before Ridley could object. “I mean, if it was okay.”
“Why? What’s going on?” Simon asked.
“Bryn’s just going through a case of cabin fever, and it’s making her act crazy,” Ridley explained as he walked over to us.
“I’m not acting crazy,” I insisted and stared hopefully up at Simon. “So, Simon, are you in?”
“Why don’t you come back in, like, half an hour, and we’ll have this all straightened out?” Ridley asked and started ushering Simon to the door.
Simon glanced back at me, then shrugged noncommittally as he left. Once he’d gone, Ridley closed the door. He turned around and leaned back on it, letting out a long sigh as he looked over at me.
“What I’m saying makes sense. It works,” I insisted, already steeling myself for his protests.
“Sit down.” He motioned to the chair.
He went over to the two chairs sitting in front of his desk and turned them so they faced each other. After he sat down, he gestured to the other one, so I went over and sat down across from him. He leaned forward, resting his elbows on his legs, and by the gravity in his eyes, I knew this conversation wasn’t going the way I’d hoped it would.
“Do you want me to be completely honest with you?” he asked.
“What the hell are you thinking?” Ridley asked with such force and incredulity that it surprised me.
“I…” I fumbled for words. “What?”
“Okay, truthfully, yes, I probably can pull some strings and make it happen. If you really wanted to get out of here, I could switch your assignment with Simon’s.”
I waited a beat, and he didn’t add the but, so I figured I’d have to ask. “But you’re not gonna do it?”
“No, I will,” Ridley said. “If that’s what you really want. And if you really want to blow your chance at ever becoming a Högdragen.”
I lowered my eyes, and when I tried to argue against it, my words came out weak. “It won’t hurt my chances.”
“This is the first time the King ever gave you a direct order, and it’s a very simple one. And you can’t follow it.” Ridley sighed and leaned back in his chair. “You’re already fighting an uphill battle to be a guard because you’re half Skojare, not to mention there are only a handful of women in the Högdragen.”
I gritted my teeth. “I know what I’m up against.”
“I know you know that,” Ridley said, sounding exasperated. “Do you even still want to be on the Högdragen?”
“Of course I do!”
He shook his head, like he wasn’t sure he believed me anymore. “Then explain to me what the hell is going on with you right now.”
“What do you mean?” I asked, but I refused to meet his gaze.
“You know this could ruin your shot at the one thing you want most in the world, and yet you’re still fighting against it. Why do you want to get out of here so badly?”
I clenched my jaw and found it hard to speak around the lump growing in my throat. “I let him go,” I said, and my words came out barely above a whisper.
“Konstantin Black?” he asked like he already knew the answer.
I looked away, staring at the wall and struggling to keep my anger under control. Tentatively, Ridley reached out and placed a hand on my knee. It was meant to be comforting, and the warmth of his skin through the fabric of my jeans was just enough to distract me.
“You did the right thing,” Ridley told me. “You did what you needed to do to protect Linus.”
“Maybe I did.” I finally turned to look at him, letting my cool gaze meet his. “Or maybe I could’ve snapped his neck right then, and we’d all be rid of him forever.”
If he saw the ice and hatred in my eyes, he didn’t let on. His expression was filled only with concern, and he didn’t even flinch at my wishful thinking about murder.
“If you really believe that, then why didn’t you kill him?” Ridley asked reasonably.
“The truth?” I asked, and suddenly I felt afraid to say it aloud. But with Ridley staring at me, waiting, I knew I had to finally admit it. “I don’t think he wanted to kill my father.”
“What? What are you talking about?”
“When I walked in on him, standing over my father with his sword bloodied, he apologized and said that he was bound to something higher than the kingdom,” I tried to explain.
“So you think he … what?” His forehead scrunched, and he shook his head. “I don’t understand.”
“There was a look in his eyes. Regret.” I thought back to Konstantin, and the pain I’d seen in his smoky eyes. “No, it was remorse.”
“Remorse?” Ridley sat up a bit straighter. “You think you saw remorse in his eyes? So, what? You just forgave him?”
“No. No,” I said adamantly. “I’ll never forgive him. But I think he regretted what he did, even before he did it. And it doesn’t make sense. I need to know why he did it.”
“He could just be insane, Bryn,” Ridley said, going to the only reason that anybody had ever been able to come up with for Konstantin’s behavior. “Your dad had never had a cross word with him, and then one night Konstantin just snapped.”