I looked back at him over my shoulder. The curtain had been pulled back a bit in our struggle, and the light landed on his face, so I could clearly see the hurt and regret in his stormy gray eyes.
“I’m sorry, Bryn,” he said simply, and before I could ask him why, I felt a sharp pain in the back of my head as he hit me with the butt of the knife, and then everything went black.
When I closed my eyes, I still saw her body. On a riverbank, where ice and snow still clung to the earth, even as a cold spring rain fell around us. Her eyes were open, unblinking as the drops of water fell into them. She was fifteen, but with her full cheeks and tangles in her curly hair, she looked younger.
Her face stared upward, but her body had been turned at an unnatural angle—her neck had been snapped. The pajamas—pink shorts and a long-sleeve top with hearts and flowers—had been torn, and her knees were scraped.
Emma Costar had put up a fight, and despite Konstantin’s proclamations that he was sorry and he was making things right, this young girl had been killed and left on a cold riverbank.
Ridley had come back to the hotel later in the afternoon and found me unconscious on the bed, where Konstantin had left me. I told him that Konstantin had implied that she was dead, and Ridley had redoubled his efforts to track her. He’d gotten a sweater from her bedroom—using his persuasion to get a detective to hand it off to him. Using something recently worn by her, he’d finally been able to get a stronger sense of her.
She hadn’t been dead long, and that was the only reason he’d been able to get a read on her at all. We’d finally found her along the riverbank, and I’d wanted to carry her away or cover her up, but Ridley had made me leave her just as we’d found her. He called and left an anonymous tip to the police, and soon her host family would be able to bury her.
Her real parents would get nothing. As soon as we got back to Doldastam, we went to make the notification. They seemed to know as soon as they saw us, Emma’s mother collapsing into sobs as her husband struggled to hold her up. We told them everything we knew, and promised that we would bring Konstantin Black and Bent Stum to justice. I wasn’t sure if they believed us, or even if they cared.
They hadn’t raised her, but they still loved her. They still dreamed of the day when she would come home and their family would be united again. But now that day would never come, and they were left mourning something they had never had.
“This has been one long, shitty week,” Ridley said, speaking for the first time since we’d left the Costars’ house.
Our boots crunched heavily on the cobblestone road. The temperature had dropped sharply, leaving the town frigid and the streets empty and quiet. It was just as well. Neither Ridley nor I were in the mood to run into anyone.
“The last few days have been some of the longest of my life,” I agreed wearily.
“I don’t know about you, but I could really use a drink.” Ridley stopped, and I realized that we’d reached his house. I’d been so lost in my thoughts that I hadn’t noticed where we were.
He didn’t actually live that far from the Costars, but his cottage was much smaller than the royals’ mansions that populated his neighborhood. It was a very short and squat little place made of stone, with a thatched roof. Small round windows in the front gave it the appearance of a face, with the windows for eyes and the door for a mouth.
“I’d rather not drink tonight,” I told him.
“Come in anyway.” His hair cascaded across his forehead, and dark circles had formed under his eyes. He still hadn’t shaved, but that somehow made his face more appealing. Though he looked just as exhausted as I felt, there was a sincerity and yearning in his eyes that I didn’t have the strength to deny.
Ridley saw my resistance fading, and he smiled before turning around and opening the door. His cottage was built half in the ground, almost like a rabbit burrow, and that’s why it had such a squat look. Only a few feet of it actually sat above the ground, and I had to go down several steps when I went in.
Inside, it was cozy, with a living room attached to a nice little kitchen, and the door was open to his bedroom in the back. As soon as we came in, Ridley kicked off his shoes and peeled off his scarf, then went over to throw a few logs in the fireplace to get the place warmed up.
“Sure I can’t interest you in a drink?” Ridley asked when he went into the kitchen.
“I’ll pass.” I took off my jacket and sat back on his couch before sliding off my own boots.
I’d been inside his cottage a couple times before, but usually only for very brief visits to ask him a question about work. This was my first real social call, and I took the opportunity to really take his place in.
The coffee table was handmade from a tree trunk, made into an uneven rectangle with bark still on the edges. The bookshelf on the far wall was overflowing with books, and next to it he had a very cluttered desk. On the mantel, there was a picture of a grade-school-aged Ridley posing with his father, who was all decked out in his Högdragen uniform.
“Have you ever had to make a notification before?” Ridley came back into the living room, carrying a large glass mug filled to the brim with dark red wine.
“This was my first,” I said. “It’s the only time I ever came back without a changeling.”
He bent down in front of the fireplace, poking a few logs to help get it going. “I’ve done it once before. It’s never any fun.”
“This time must be worse.”
“Why do you say that?” Ridley sat on the arm of the couch at the far end from me and sipped his wine.
“This time it’s kind of our fault.”
“It’s not our fault,” he said, but he stared down at his mug, swirling the liquid around. “We left as soon as we got our assignment, but she was dead by the time we even got to Calgary. There was nothing we could’ve done.”
“No, there’s nothing more you could’ve done,” I corrected myself. “But I should’ve taken care of Konstantin when I saw him in Chicago.”
I said that, but I wasn’t sure if I meant it anymore. Even after we’d found Emma dead, I felt more conflicted than ever. I didn’t know what Konstantin’s role had been in her death, and although I was certain he carried some culpability, I also thought things were far more complicated than either Ridley or I had realized.
“What happened with him, exactly?” Ridley asked carefully, giving me a sidelong glance. “Back in the hotel.”