I glanced over at Tilda, wondering if I should say anything. Her gray eyes were hard, and her lips were pursed together in an irritated pout. If it were her choice, she wouldn’t tell Finn anything. Not just because of his comments about the Högdragen—Tilda preferred to keep private business private. Ember was a bit of a gossip, which was why she’d become closer to me than she had with Tilda. I had a higher tolerance for that kind of thing.
“I’m not a gossip at the market,” Finn said, sensing our unease. “I’m a guard, working with an allied tribe. Discretion is something I’m well versed in.”
He had a point, so I relaxed a bit. Besides, he was Ember’s brother, and she trusted him.
“As of right now, there is no business with any changelings,” I told him matter-of-factly. “Two men went after one of our high-ranking Markis. That’s all we know, and as far as the King and Queen are concerned, it was an isolated attack.”
“And who stopped it?” He narrowed his eyes at me. “It was you, wasn’t it?”
“I was—” I started to answer him, but I happened to glance past him and saw Ember go over to answer a knock at the door, barely audible over the music and chatter of the party.
When she opened the door, she let in a draft of cold air, along with Juni Sköld and Ridley. Juni came in first, and Ember helped her slip off her long black jacket. Once Ember took their coats to put them away, Ridley put his hand on the small of Juni’s back, and as they walked toward the party, he leaned over and whispered something in her ear.
I had seen Ridley with plenty of girls over the past years, but that was because I’d barged into his office without knocking and caught him kissing someone, or I’d gone to his place after work and found a girl slinking out his door. This was the first time I’d seen him on an actual date.
“Bryn?” Tilda asked, leaning toward me. “You okay?”
“Yeah.” I shook my head, clearing it, and then I looked back at Finn, forcing myself to keep my eyes on him and not wander to Ridley any longer. “As I was saying, I was tracking the changeling and prevented them from kidnapping him, yes.”
“That’s exactly my point.” Finn folded his arms over his chest. “You’re not a member of the Högdragen, and yet you were perfectly capable of fighting off two men without any of their training. Are they really necessary, then?”
“If anything, that’s a testament to Bryn’s work, not a condemnation of the guard,” Ridley interjected. I looked over to see both him and Juni sidling up next to Tilda, joining our conversation.
“Ember really just invited everyone to this, didn’t she?” I asked as pleasantly as I could and gave them a crooked smile.
He nodded and adjusted his narrow tie. “Apparently so.”
“Ridley, this is Ember’s brother, Finn,” I said, making the introductions between the two of them. “Finn, this is the Rektor, Ridley. And this is…” I pointed to Juni, then feigned a memory lapse. “Sorry. I’ve forgotten your name,” I lied, and Tilda gave me a peculiar look.
“Juni. Juni Sköld.” She smiled, making a dimple on her smooth skin. “I went to tracker school years ago with Bryn and Tilda, but I flunked out, so it’s no surprise that they’ve forgotten me.”
“I’m sure Bryn didn’t forget you,” Ridley said, casting a look at me that I deftly avoided meeting. “She’s just had a busy week.”
“Well, it’s nice to meet you both,” Finn said, breaking the growing tension.
“Likewise,” Ridley said. “So what were we talking about when I so rudely interrupted?”
“Finn doesn’t understand the point of the Högdragen,” Tilda said, filling him in with a hint of bitterness to her words. Her arms were crossed over her chest, and she turned to look at him as Ridley spoke, as if waiting for Ridley to tell him.
Ridley didn’t seem that fazed by it, though. “The Trylle use trackers to guard the King and Queen, right?”
Finn nodded. “Correct.”
“Wow, you guys don’t have a guard?” Juni asked, sounding genuinely shocked. Her caramel eyes widened, and she put her hand to her chest, making her bracelets jingle. “That is so weird and kinda scary.”
“How so?” Finn asked.
“The tracker program is hard, and I’m sure you understand that,” Juni went on. “That’s why I left. It’s not for everyone. But the Högdragen is so much more than trackers are. They’re the best of the best, trained to protect us from any number of dangers. I can’t imagine feeling safe in Doldastam without them.”
“You have the biggest tribe, though you are spread out quite a bit more than we are,” Ridley said, elaborating on his date’s position. “Förening is less than half the size of Doldastam. But you have the most money. You must have jewels and gems up the ass.”
Finn scowled at Ridley’s crassness. “I don’t think I would use those exact words, but our wealth is well known.”
“So why aren’t you guarding it?” Ridley asked.
“We are,” Finn persisted. “We just don’t have a fancy name or a special program for it.”
“I don’t understand what your issue is with the Högdragen,” Tilda said, unwilling to let his disdain for the guard go. She knew what the guard meant to both her boyfriend and me, and Tilda was fiercely protective when she felt people she cared about were being slighted. “Ember’s talked about you. I know how important your sense of duty is to your people.”
“It is,” Finn agreed. “I’m not against the work you all do, but it seems to me that the Högdragen is just another form of elitism, just another class in the system that separates everyone.”
Ridley’s expression hardened. “We may not have fought wars recently, but we’ve prevented our share of violence. Viktor Dålig led an attack against the King fifteen years ago that resulted in four men dead.” His words were solemn, the same way they were every time he mentioned Viktor Dålig’s assault. “If it hadn’t been for those men—the members of the classist system you don’t understand—Viktor would’ve been successful, and he could’ve overthrown the entire kingdom.”
Juni reached over, putting her hand on Ridley’s arm and leaning into him. I bit my lip and looked away from them.