“I don’t know, Bryn,” he said finally and lifted his head so he could watch me walk back and forth, pacing along the window that faced the dark water outside. “Trusting Konstantin might be your downfall.”
“I don’t trust him.” I shook my head adamantly. “I could never trust him.”
“You’re saying that you believe him about some weird conspiracy going on here?”
“It’s not a conspiracy,” I corrected him.
“You’re saying that somebody in this palace killed Bent Stum and made it look like a suicide to cover up something to do with the missing Queen.” He gave me a hard look. “That sounds like a conspiracy to me.”
I stopped walking to argue my position. “Bent was gonna talk. Tove thought so.”
“No, Tove thought he was most likely to talk, but you saw him at that meeting. He was resistant to giving any form of a guarantee on that.”
“Konstantin knows something, though.”
Ridley rolled his eyes. “Of course he does. He knows everything! He’s behind it all.”
“No, I mean…” I chewed my lip. “Just bear with me for a moment. Let’s say Konstantin was telling the truth and that someone did kill Bent. Who had access to his cell?”
“I ran upstairs and got the keys from one of the guards, but you know how lax their security is around here.” Ridley shrugged. “Any one of their guards had access to the keys, but it wouldn’t be that hard for any of the seventy-eight other people who live in the palace to get the keys. They just have them hanging up in the guards’ station at the top of the stairs.”
I groaned. “I just feel like we’re missing something. There has to be a connection that we’re not seeing.”
“All of this is based on something a known traitor said while pleading for his freedom.” Ridley stared sadly at me. “I hate to say it, Bryn, but I think you’re being naïve.”
“No, I’m not. This all just doesn’t add up!” I shouted, then lowered my voice so I wouldn’t disturb anyone.
After we’d called the guards and dealt with Bent’s body, it had been rather late by the time we got back to our rooms. We’d talked briefly with Tove and Bain before they retired to their rooms, and now we were left rehashing the same ideas over and over again in the dim glow from my bedside lamp.
“Bent is out of the picture, we’ve got Konstantin, Linnea is probably dead,” Ridley said. “There’s nothing left to deal with. You may not want to admit it, but it’s over, Bryn.”
“We don’t know that Linnea is dead,” I reminded him.
“If you believe Konstantin, then all signs point to her death,” he reasoned. “Konstantin says that Bent was an uncontrollable idiot that killed Emma, so he probably killed Linnea, and maybe he didn’t tell Konstantin where he dumped her.”
“What if Konstantin came here to kidnap Linnea, but she was already missing?” I asked. “Or dead?”
“Who killed her, then?”
“Mikko.” I kept my voice low, in case someone might be listening. “He had opportunity, since he was alone with her that night, and he stormed out of the meeting, so he had a chance to kill Bent, too.”
Ridley brushed off the theory as soon as I proposed it. “That leaves more questions than answers. If he killed her, why did he call us here? And what would his motive for killing Bent be? Not to mention that he doesn’t even have a motive for killing his wife in the first place.”
“I don’t know,” I admitted softly.
“And why were Konstantin and Bent even here in the first place? If this is a simple domestic dispute gone bad, then why would they even come here?”
“I don’t know!” I shouted, growing frustrated. “Why is Konstantin everywhere we go?”
Ridley’s eyes darkened, and he stared grimly at me. “He’s not everywhere we go, Bryn. He’s everywhere you go. And that is a very good question.”
“You don’t think I have something to do with this.”
“No, of course I don’t.” He sighed. “But … once is a fluke. Twice is a coincidence. But three times? That’s a pattern. There’s some connection I don’t understand, but I think you need to start taking a hard look at what’s happening here.”
“I am, Ridley! I’m looking at this constantly. You think I’m not always worrying about this, and thinking about Konstantin? That for even one second I’m not terrified that I’m missing something or screwing this up somehow?”
I knew I was yelling and I should stop, but I couldn’t control myself. Everything with Linnea and Konstantin and the missing changelings, it was all making me feel crazy and helpless. Everywhere I went, I was one step behind, and I didn’t know how to fix it. I didn’t know how to fix anything.
“I’m sorry. I know.” Ridley stood up and put his hands on my shoulders. “Hey, calm down.” Roughly, he pulled me into his arms, and I let him, resting my head against his chest. “I know you’re doing everything you can, and if anyone can figure this mess out, it’s you.”
“But I can’t, Ridley,” I whispered.
He put his hand under my chin, lifting it so I would look up at him. “You can do anything.”
Ridley leaned down, his mouth brushing against mine, and I wanted nothing more than to give in to the moment, to give in to the passion of his embrace and the icy taste of his lips, but I couldn’t. As desperately as I wanted to feel nothing but him, the nagging inside my heart pulled me away.
“I can’t.” I lowered my eyes and stepped back from him. “There’s too much to lose. You should probably go.”
“Right. You’re right,” he muttered and rubbed his neck before turning away from me. “You’re always right.”
When he reached the bedroom door, he paused, half looking back at me. “The right guy is behind bars right now, Bryn. No matter what’s going on with us or anything else, you should find some comfort in that.”
Ridley left me alone then, and I felt many, many things, but comfort wasn’t one of them.
The staircase had rusted and weakened so much from lack of use that it felt precarious under my feet. But everything felt precarious at that moment. The iron keys were heavy in my hand, and though my stomach twisted painfully, I didn’t turn back.