“Did you ever go to Hawaii?” I asked.
“I didn’t. I’ve tracked changelings to Florida and Texas, and once I went to Japan, which was definitely a trip. Mostly, though, I spent time in Canada,” he said, sharing a familiar story. It seemed that only on rare occasions did changelings move someplace far away and exotic after we’d placed them. “What about you? What’s the farthest your job has taken you?”
“Alaska. Or New York City.” I tried to think. “I’m not sure which is farther away from Doldastam.”
“You’re young. You’ve got time. Who knows? Your next mission could be to Australia,” Ridley said, attempting to cheer me up.
“Maybe,” I said without much conviction. “Other than the lack of travel, you really like your job?”
“Yeah. The paperwork can be a bit much, but it’s a good job. Why?” He stared down at me. “You sound skeptical.”
“I don’t know. Just…” I paused, trying to think of how to phrase my question before deciding to just dive right into it. “Why didn’t you become a Högdragen?”
He lowered his eyes, staring down at his lap. The corners of his mouth twisted into a bitter smile, and it was several long moments before he finally answered. “You know why.”
“No, I don’t.” I turned in my seat, folding my leg underneath me so I could face him fully. I could let it go, and part of me thought I should, but I didn’t really understand why. So I pressed on.
“Because my dad was on the Högdragen, and he got killed for it,” he replied wearily, still staring down at his lap.
“But…” I exhaled and shook my head. “I mean, I’m sorry for your loss.”
Ridley waved it off. “It was fifteen years ago.”
“Your dad died a hero,” I said, as if that would offer some comfort. “He saved the kingdom. He died an honorable death.”
“He did.” Ridley lifted his head and nodded. “But he’s still dead. My mom’s still a widow. I still had to grow up without him. Gone is still gone.”
“So what?” I asked. “You’re afraid of dying?”
“No. Come on, Bryn.” He turned to me, smiling in a way that made my skin flush for a moment. “You know me better than that. I’m no coward.”
“No, I never said you were,” I said, hurrying to take it back. “I didn’t mean it like that.”
“I know.” He held up his hand, stopping my apologies. Then he let out a deep breath and looked away from me, staring out the window at the trees and lakes that the train raced past. “You know why my dad died?”
“Viktor Dålig killed him trying to overthrow the King,” I said.
He laughed darkly. “No, my dad died because Elliot Strinne was a slut.”
I shook my head, not understanding. “What are you talking about?”
“Elliot Strinne became King at a young age, and he thought he had all the time in the world to get married and have babies,” Ridley explained. “So he decided to sleep with as many eligible young ladies as he could, and that meant when he suddenly fell ill and died of a rare fungal infection at the age of twenty-six, he had no direct heirs. The crown was up for grabs.”
Ridley was telling me things I already knew, giving me a refresher of history lessons I’d learned in school. But he was doing it with a decidedly different twist, a bit of snark mixed with sorrow, so I let him.
“Viktor Dålig thought his young daughter should’ve been Queen, even though she couldn’t have been more than ten at the time,” he went on. “His wife was Elliot’s sister, and she would’ve been Queen, if she hadn’t died years before.
“All these freak accidents fell into place.” He stopped for a second, staring off and letting his own words sink in with him. “There should’ve been a reasonable heir. But there wasn’t.
“It was between the child Karmin Dålig, and Elliot’s twenty-three-year-old cousin Evert, and the Chancellor had to make a call.”
“It made sense,” I said when Ridley fell silent for a minute. “It was a logical decision for an adult to be the monarch rather than a child.”
“I’m not arguing about whether it was fair or just, because honestly, I don’t care.” Ridley shrugged. “All that mattered was that Viktor Dålig threw a fit because he felt like his daughter was being passed over.”
“Then your dad, and other members of the Högdragen, stood up to him and his friends when they tried to throw a coup,” I reminded Ridley.
“Viktor and his friends tried to assassinate a King arbitrarily placed there.” Ridley gestured as he spoke, getting more animated the louder his voice got. “The Chancellor could’ve chosen Karmin Dålig just as easily as he had chosen Evert Strinne. But he didn’t. And if Elliot had just gotten married and had a child, the way a King is supposed to, my father wouldn’t be dead.”
He shook his head, and when he spoke again, his voice was much lower and calmer. “You called his death honorable. He died in the hallway of the palace—a hall I have walked down a hundred times since that day. He died in a pool of his own blood, trying to protect a random stranger in a crown, because another man wanted that crown for his own daughter.” He turned to me, his eyes hard and his words heavy. “He died for nothing.”
“If you really believe that, how can you do any of the things you do?” I asked. “How can you stay in Doldastam, working for a King and for royals you despise?”
“I don’t despise them, and I don’t mind working for them. I like my job,” he insisted. “I just refuse to lay down my life for something that doesn’t matter.”
“The crown may seem arbitrary to you, and to a point, it is. But for better or worse, our society works because it’s a monarchy. Because of the King,” I told him emphatically. “And you may think your father died for some jewels wrapped in metal, but he died protecting the kingdom, protecting you and me and everyone in it. And I’m sorry you don’t see it that way.”
“Yeah. I am too,” he admitted.
“Maybe you shouldn’t go on this mission,” I said softly.
Ridley looked at me sharply. “Why?”
“There’s a very good chance that Konstantin Black is going to try to kill Emma, or me, or you, or all of us.” I tried to speak without accusation, because I wasn’t mad at him and didn’t think less of him. I’d just begun to fear that his heart wasn’t in this, and that could result in somebody getting hurt. “I wouldn’t want you to risk your life for something that you don’t care about.”