Then he reached around me, his arm pressing against my side in a way that made me involuntarily tremble.
“Let me get the door for you,” Ridley said as he grabbed the door and opened it behind me. A subtle smile spread across his face, lightening it, but his eyes remained serious and fixed on me.
“Thank you,” I mumbled, lowering my head so my hair would cover my face in case I was blushing. Then I slid under his arm and darted inside the house.
“If you wait a second, Juni and I could walk you home,” he offered, and I couldn’t imagine anything that sounded worse than walking home with him and his date after having a far too vivid fantasy about kissing him.
I had already turned away, hurrying down the hall before he could catch up to me. “Thanks, but I think I got it,” I told him over my shoulder, and darted down the stairs.
As quickly as possible, I found Ember and, feigning a stomach bug, I made my excuses and escaped into the night. Just as I’d reached the door, struggling to pull on my jacket and thinking I’d made a clean escape, Juni found me.
“I’m sorry to hear you aren’t feeling well.” Juni looked genuinely sympathetic, which at that moment only succeeded in making me angrier. Of course she felt bad for me, when I was only leaving because my feelings for her date had just become all too apparent to me.
“I’ll be fine,” I insisted, and when she tried to say something more, I just turned and walked out the door. I think she was offering to walk me home when I shut the door in her face.
Instantly, I felt awful for being rude, and it wasn’t like I’d wanted to be rude. I just needed space, a moment without Ridley clouding my thoughts and emotions, where I could breathe and focus on what really mattered.
By the time I reached my place, I was nearly jogging. Instead of going up to my loft apartment, I went to the barn below. Many of the Tralla horses neighed their greetings as I walked past them, but I was on a mission and I went down to the final stall, where “my” horse, Bloom, was waiting.
He wasn’t really mine, because all of the horses belonged to the King and Queen. But Bloom and I had a special relationship. As soon as he saw me, he stretched his long neck out over the door and let out a delighted snort. He buried his snout in my hair, sniffing at me as I opened the stall door.
“I’m happy to see you too, buddy,” I said, running my hands over him. His thick silver fur felt like satin under my fingers. I grabbed his bridle from the wall, and he happily let me slip it on over his head.
Usually I would brush him or pet him more, but I wanted to get out of here. I needed to feel the wind blowing through my hair. I led Bloom out of the stables, and he followed behind me, his massive hooves clomping loudly on the ground.
I didn’t bother saddling him, but the reins were necessary. His long mane was far too soft and glossy to properly grip, and Bloom had a bad habit of stopping and starting quickly. That’s why they rarely used him in the parades or to pull carriages, despite the fact that he was one of the most beautiful Tralla horses I’d ever seen. His body was an illustrious silver that shimmered in the light like platinum. Long bangs from his mane fell into his blue eyes, and his mane, tail, and the fur covering his hooves were a beautiful snowy white.
Bloom was a happy, friendly horse, but he loved speed. For an animal with his bulk and girth, one would think he’d be slow and clunky. But Bloom was light on his feet and astonishingly fast.
He headed over to the fence, walking in front of me, and he waited patiently until I came up beside him. I had to climb up on the wooden rails of the fence to climb onto Bloom, since he was so tall.
As soon as he felt me settled in, he lunged forward without waiting for a command from me. Fortunately, I knew that was how Bloom worked, so I already had the reins gripped tightly in my hands, and Bloom raced forward. The gate was open, so he ran out to the open road, running toward the wall.
That’s where I usually rode him—along the wall that surrounded Doldastam. It gave him a long, clear path to run as fast as his thick legs would take us. And that was just what I needed. The wind stung my skin and made my hair whip back behind me, so I leaned forward, burying my face in Bloom’s neck and urging him to go faster.
I closed my eyes, and it was just me and Bloom. Any thoughts about Ridley or Konstantin or anything else at all just fell away.
The anniversary party was even worse than I’d feared.
An insane number of stuffy royals filled up the ballroom. The last time I’d seen this many people in the palace, it had been at the celebration after the Trylle had defeated the Vittra, and that hadn’t exactly gone well.
At least that time it had been mostly regular Kanin folks, living it up and getting drunk. It actually had been a rather fun affair, until Konstantin Black ruined it. But this party was all Markis and Marksinna and Kings and Queens. Everyone dressed in their best, holding their heads up so they could look down on everyone else.
I was to spend the evening as Linus Berling’s shadow, and that was both a curse and a blessing. He wasn’t smug or pompous, so that was refreshing, but being stuck at his side meant that I had to spend far too much time listening to other royals issue backhanded compliments and mutter all sorts of derogatory remarks under their breath.
The dinner service began with King Evert and Queen Mina being seated at the main table in the center of the ballroom. All the guests waited in a procession to enter the ballroom, and as they did, the King’s personal guard announced who they were and where they were from. Then they would greet the King and Queen and head to their own table.
As King Evert’s cousins and closest friends, the Berlings were right at the front of the line—only entering behind King Loki and Queen Wendy of the Trylle; King Mikko, Queen Linnea, and King Mikko’s brother Prince Kennet of the Skojare; and Queen Sara of the Vittra. The Omte Queen had declined to attend, but that was fairly standard for the Omte.
While Linus and his parents were seated beside the King, I had to stand behind Linus. I of course couldn’t actually eat with them. I was only there to whisper in Linus’s ear, telling him the names, titles, and tribes of the royals who were coming to greet us at the table.
Once all the guests were seated and dinner was served, I was allowed to duck away and sneak back to sit with other trackers. Ember, Tilda, Ridley, and Simon were all seated together at a round table in the corner, and Tilda had been nice enough to save a spot for me between her and Ridley. I didn’t really want to sit next to him, at least not right now, but I didn’t have a lot of options.