“Nope,” I said through gritted teeth and pushed the bar above my chest before slowly lowering it back down.
“Well, I think you should,” Ember persisted. “You and Ridley got back from Calgary yesterday, and you’ve hardly said anything.” She paused, waiting until I finished my rep and racked the bar. “I know you must feel terrible about what happened with that girl.”
I sat up, wiping sweat off my brow with the back of my arm. “I know you mean well, but I really don’t wanna talk about it.”
“Okay,” she relented. “But I’m here if you need me.”
“Thank you.” I smiled up at her, but it fell away when I saw Ridley enter the gym behind her.
I’d been avoiding him since yesterday, and I had planned on avoiding him for as long as I possibly could. But since he was walking toward where Ember and I were working out, it seemed like my time was up. He wore slacks and a suit vest, so he definitely wasn’t here for exercise.
Ridley stopped when he was near enough that he wouldn’t have to shout, and then he motioned to us. “Bryn, Ember, you’re needed in classroom 103.”
“What do you mean, we’re needed in a classroom?” I asked.
“Yeah, and by who?” Ember added.
“It’s an impromptu meeting,” he said without elaborating, then turned to walk away.
“A meeting? With who?” Ember asked.
“Just come on!” he called without looking back to see if we followed.
Ember exchanged a look with me, and I just shrugged and took a swig from my water bottle. My tank top was sweaty in a couple places, and my yoga pants were frayed and old. I hoped whoever we were having our meeting with wasn’t super-important, because Ridley didn’t imply that I had time to change.
We walked down the hall out of the gym, past the classrooms where trackers-in-training were studying proper techniques, social etiquette, and human history. Room 103 was one of the larger classrooms and was located right next to the Rektor’s office.
When we reached it, Tilda and Simon Bohlin were already seated at desks, along with half a dozen other top trackers who had already returned with their changelings. Ridley stood near the front of the room, and leaning against the teacher’s desk with his arms crossed was King Evert.
He was dressed somewhat casually, in a suit with a black shirt and no tie. He hadn’t worn his crown, but he rarely did, except for special occasions. Still, I regretted not hurrying to the locker room to change.
“Are these the last two?” Evert asked as Ember and I slowly took our seats at two empty desks near the front.
“Yes.” Ridley went over to shut the door behind us, and then he took his spot next to the King. “This is every tracker that’s back.”
Evert stared out at the room. The light glinted off his slicked-back raven hair, and one ankle was crossed over the other. I’d rarely seen him without his usual smirk, but the expression he wore now was decidedly grim.
“My wife doesn’t want us to go to war,” he said finally, his words carrying a weight they usually lacked. He looked as if he felt much more resigned to being a leader than he ever had before. “She wants us to solve things peacefully and quietly, sneaking changelings in during the night. And that’s why she doesn’t know about this meeting.
“An accused traitor killed one of our children, and if he has his way, I’m sure he’ll kill more,” King Evert went on.
I lowered my eyes, but I could feel Ridley’s gaze on me, almost willing Evert’s words to take hold in me.
“I agree with my wife on many things. She tries to be kind and fair.” Evert uncrossed his arms and put his hands on the desk behind him. “But when someone is shedding the blood of our people, that’s where I draw the line. That’s when I say fuck it. Let’s go to war.”
“We’re going to war?” Tilda asked, too surprised to be afraid to speak out to the King. “Against who?”
“Konstantin Black and Bent Stum and anyone they might be working with,” Evert explained. “There’s no point in going after the changelings, because he’s one step ahead of us every time. He’s anticipating our moves. So now we’re going after him.”
“How will we find them?” Ember asked.
“We’re coming up with a plan now.” Evert motioned between himself and Ridley. “But since Konstantin seems to somehow be intercepting our highest-ranked changelings, we’re going to set a trap. We’ll send all of you to one place, where one changeling is supposed to be, and when you see Konstantin and Bent, you’ll swarm them.”
“When we catch them,” I began, choosing my words carefully and hoping that I didn’t look as sick as I felt, “we’re supposed to bring them in to stand trial, right?”
“I’ve thought about it, and I don’t see the point. Why waste resources and time?” Evert asked. “He’s enemy number one. You find him, you kill him. He hasn’t shown us any mercy, and we won’t show him any.”
Ridley met my gaze, and the fear flickering in his eyes made me bite my tongue even harder. I couldn’t tell the King about my fight with Konstantin, especially not now, not if I didn’t want to end up in jail for aiding the enemy. But I could tell Ridley was afraid that I would risk my own neck to defend Konstantin.
While the idea of killing Konstantin made my heart twist, I couldn’t argue with the King. Konstantin was still the enemy, and he was complicit in the attempted kidnappings and murder of our people. Something had to be done. I may disagree on what that “something” might be, but arguing with the King would get me nowhere.
“We’re coming up with the specifics now, but the plan is to send you out early next week,” King Evert went on.
“Excuse me, sire?” Tilda raised her hand timidly. “Is there a way that we can opt out of this mission?”
I looked sharply at her. Her long chestnut hair hung in a braid, and her skin had begun to shift color when everyone looked at her, paling to match the beige of the walls and the tan of the desk, so she could blend in and disappear—a side effect of her embarrassment.
“Opt out?” Evert’s brow furrowed and he crossed his arms again.
“This mission of going after traitors sounds particularly dangerous, and…” She stopped and took a deep breath. “I’m fourteen weeks pregnant.”
“You’re what?” I asked, unable to contain myself, and she lowered her head.