“You think trackers couldn’t have stopped them just as well as members of the Högdragen?” Finn asked pointedly.
“I think that you have no idea what you’re talking about,” Ridley snapped, making Juni flinch next to him. “You’ve never served on the Högdragen, and you’ve never seen them in action. You grew up in a world where you were taught to honor and serve and never think for yourself, so you question anything that isn’t exactly the same as you or the Trylle.”
“That’s not what—” Finn began, but Ridley cut him off.
“This conversation is taking a turn, and you seem like a very respectable gentleman. So, before I say something you’ll regret, I’m going to go say hello to the birthday girl.” He nodded curtly. “Excuse me.” Then Ridley turned and walked away.
“It was very nice meeting you.” Juni offered him a polite smile, then turned and went after Ridley, her long, dark brown locks bouncing as she hurried over to him.
“What did I say?” Finn asked, baffled by the hard edge in Ridley’s voice. “I wasn’t trying to be offensive or hurtful.”
“Ridley’s dad was on the Högdragen. He was one of the four men that Viktor Dålig killed,” Tilda explained. “He died saving the kingdom.”
Finn apologized for saying anything that might’ve offended anyone, and I stayed and talked with him and Tilda a bit more, though both of them were careful not to bring up the guard anymore. Mostly Finn just talked about his home, since Tilda seemed strangely interested in what it was like raising a family while working as a tracker.
But how Finn managed to juggle taking care of two kids and his workload wasn’t all that interesting to me, and I let my attention wander. Usually—and rather unfortunately—I kept finding my gaze landing on where Ridley and Juni seemed to be enjoying themselves.
No matter when I looked over, she always seemed to be laughing at something. She had to be one of the most cheerful people I’d ever met, which was part of the reason she hadn’t been suited for the tracker program. It wasn’t that she wasn’t tough enough, exactly—she’d just been too friendly, too kind for a job that required a lack of emotion.
When Ridley wrapped his arm around her waist, she leaned into him, laughing warmly, her dark lashes lying in a fan on her bronze skin. Her hair fell down her back in long dark waves, and her dress hugged the full curves of her hips and chest beautifully.
She almost seemed to glow with happiness, a Kanin ability and one of the reasons why she’d had to leave the tracker program. Most of the Kanin who had the skin-changing ability would only blend in with their surroundings when they were distressed, but hers made her radiate when she was happy, and it simply darkened when she was upset. Despite her best efforts, she’d never been able to get it under control, and it had become a detriment.
So I understood exactly why Ridley had invited her here as his date. She may not have been suited to be a tracker, but in every other way, Juni was the perfect Kanin girl.
A painful twisting sensation spread through my chest, and I couldn’t stand to watch them anymore. I wanted to make my escape, but on my way to the door Ember intercepted me, insisting that I stay for just a bit longer. But then Tilda—sensing my distress—provided a distraction for Ember and whisked her away so they could dance together to an Ellie Goulding remix.
It was Ember’s birthday, so I could hardly go against her wishes, but I needed a break. I went upstairs, and at the end of the hall, heavy French doors led out to a small balcony. I’d left my coat downstairs, but that was just fine.
Pulling my sweater sleeves down over my hands, I leaned against the wrought-iron railing that ran around the balcony. I had no reason to be jealous of Juni. It didn’t affect me at all that she was perfect. She was a wonderful, beautiful, nice person, and I had no reason to wish her ill.
In fact, I should be happy that she was apparently dating Ridley, since he’d always been good to me. He’d been nothing but kind, loyal, and supportive to me, and he deserved the same in return. Yes, he had done his fair share of philandering, but Juni was just the right girl to get him to settle down. And nothing about that should make me feel even slightly bad.
And yet … it did. It hurt so bad, I found it difficult to breathe.
Below me, goats were bleating in the moonlight, their pleas like those of a lovelorn suitor. I watched them nibbling at the blades of grass bravely poking through the snow, and I refused to acknowledge my feelings. They didn’t make any sense, so I just pushed them away.
“Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou, Romeo?” I said to the goats, as if speaking to them would ease their loneliness.
“It is the east, and Juliet is the sun,” Ridley said from behind me, startling me so much I nearly leapt off the balcony.
I’d left the French doors open, and I turned around to see Ridley standing in the doorway, the curtains billowing around him as the icy wind blew past.
“The balcony is actually facing the north,” I told him once I’d found my voice.
“So it is. That would make you … Polaris?” Ridley surmised. He walked out on the balcony and closed the doors behind him.
“What are you doing up here?” I leaned on the railing again, so I wouldn’t have to look at him.
“I came up here to shut the doors, because Ember’s mom was complaining of a cold draft coming downstairs.”
I grimaced. “Sorry. I meant to close the doors.”
“But the real question is, what are you doing up here?” Ridley asked. He rolled down the sleeves of his shirt and folded his arms over his chest, trying to warm himself. “It’s freezing out here.”
“It’s not that bad.” I shrugged. “I just needed a breather.”
I said nothing, preferring to stare out into the night rather than attempt to explain what I was feeling. He let it go, and we both stood in silence for a few minutes. Even the goats had fallen silent, and the only sound was the wind blowing through the trees and the faint music from the party below us.
“Did you know that I’m the oldest person here?” Ridley asked.
I thought about it, then shook my head. “Ember’s parents are older than you.”
“Now I feel much better.” He gave a dry laugh. “I probably shouldn’t have come here.”
“Why not?” I looked at him from the corner of my eye.