The good news was I was breathing. I could feel it—oxygen filled my lungs with ease. Beyond that, my stomach ached as if I’d been punched, and my head throbbed dully. But all that pain meant I was alive.
“I think she’s coming to,” a female voice was saying softly.
“Bryn!” Ridley shouted in a panic, slapping me on the cheek.
“Stop hitting me,” I mumbled and weakly pushed his arm back. The ground felt soft beneath me, so I assumed I was lying on the grass, safely out of the dark clutches of drowning.
He exhaled roughly. “You scared the crap out of me, Bryn.”
“Sorry.” I opened my eyes to see Ridley and the missing Queen Linnea bent over me. “Hey, I found her.”
Linnea smiled—there was no lipstick out here, so her lips were a pale pink, in line with the porcelain tones of her skin. Strangely, without the makeup she actually looked older than when I’d seen her before.
She was sixteen but a young sixteen, with an innocence about her. The too-bright red lipstick had reminded me of a little girl playing dress-up, whereas now she simply appeared to be her age. It probably didn’t help that with her ringlet curls and wide blue eyes, she bore a remarkable resemblance to Shirley Temple.
“Actually, I found you,” Linnea correct me. “You were about to drown when I spotted you and pulled you to the shore.”
I sat up, and a wave of dizziness nearly knocked me back, but I fought it off. It didn’t help waking up in this place, where everything felt like a dream. Everything had a shimmery edge to it, like it wasn’t quite real.
“You okay?” Ridley put a hand on my shoulder to steady me, and his strength reassured me the way it always did.
For a moment, with the sun backlighting him and the water dripping down his bare chest, Ridley appeared absolutely dazzling. He’d leaned over when he touched me, and the very nearness of him took my breath away. That only made his chestnut eyes darken in concern, and I hurried to shake off the feeling and pull my attention away from him.
“Are y-you okay?” I asked Linnea, stuttering a bit as I composed myself.
She nodded. Other than the lack of makeup, she looked the same as she had when I saw her last—no signs of injury. She wore a blue bikini, revealing her slender figure, so any bumps or bruises would have been visible.
“What are you doing here?” I asked, deciding to cut to the chase. “Why did you leave Storvatten?”
“I couldn’t stay there anymore.” She shook her head, and her translucent gills flared beneath her jaw. “Something is going on there.”
“What do you mean?” Ridley asked.
“The guards at the palace have been acting strangely,” she explained. “They were normally aloof and careless, but lately I’ve felt like they were watching me too closely. I don’t know how to explain it, but everywhere I went, I felt like I had eyes on me.”
“Did you tell anyone about it?” I asked.
“Not right away,” Linnea went on. “At first I thought I was only being paranoid, so I waited a few weeks before bringing it to my husband. Mikko wasn’t overly concerned, but he tried to ease my fears by saying he would talk to the guards.”
“Did anything change after that?” Ridley pressed her, and I could tell he was doing his best not to sound accusatory.
We’d long suspected that Linnea’s husband, the Skojare King Mikko, had had some involvement in her disappearance. Even with Konstantin Black’s presence, there still seemed to be something odd about Mikko and the guards in Storvatten. They had blocked our attempts at gathering information and doing a proper investigation, not to mention that Mikko had shifted from indifferent about his wife’s disappearance to devastated rather quickly.
There was also the matter of his marriage to Linnea. It had been arranged by their families, as most royal mergers were, and Mikko was twice her age. They’d been married for less than a year, and I had to wonder what exactly those kind of nuptials were like.
“Things didn’t really have a chance to change,” Linnea elaborated. “I told Mikko about my suspicions, and two days later the dark man was telling me that I had to get out of there.”
“Wait.” I waved my hand. “What man?”
“He never said his name, but he had a darker complexion, like you.” Linnea pointed to Ridley, referring to his dark olive skin. “Black wavy hair, a beard, and gray eyes.”
I hadn’t really needed her to describe him, but I wanted to be absolutely sure. It was Konstantin Black.
“What were you doing when he approached you?” Ridley asked.
“I’d gone to bed with Mikko, the way I always did, but I couldn’t sleep.” Linnea sat back and pulled her knees up to her chest, wrapping her arms around them. “I’ve been a bit on edge lately, since I’ve been getting this weird vibe from everyone at the palace. So I went down to the pool to swim, hoping to burn off some of my anxiety.
“I actually snuck down to the pool,” she went on. “With the guards acting so strangely, I didn’t want any of them following me. But as soon as I got there and slipped off my robe, that man emerged from nowhere.
“It was almost like Mystique from the X-Men,” Linnea continued with wide eyes.
With the Skojare spending most of their lives locked inside the palace, hidden away from humans and the rest of the world, they spent a great deal of time watching movies and reading books. It was a way to make the time go by faster.
Konstantin appearing out of thin air had to be an amazing thing for her to see. Even though Linnea had been exposed to some of the magic of our world, she had limited interactions with other tribes. Like many Kanin, Konstantin’s skin could change color, so he could blend into the background. It was disorienting to witness in real life.
“Did he hurt you?” Ridley asked, since he was more fixated on the idea that Konstantin was a villain. I hadn’t completely ruled him out as one yet, but my certainty was wavering. “Did he threaten you at all?”
“No. I mean, I don’t think so.” Her brow furrowed, and she pursed her lips. “He didn’t hurt me, but he said, ‘You must leave. If you want to live, you must get as far away from the palace as you can, and never come back. And you must tell no one.’”
“Did he say why?” I asked.
“No.” Linnea shook her head, making water spray lightly from the wet curls that framed her face. “I tried to ask him why I had to leave and who he was, but he just became more insistent and said there wasn’t any time.”