“I wanna see how you handle yourself in a fight. If we’re going to protect the Skojare Queen from possible attempts on her life, I need to see how well you can do that.”
For a moment, I hesitated out of a strange sense of intimidation. I’d fought guys as big as Kasper before, and Bent Stum had actually been much stronger than him. So that wasn’t the issue. It was reverence for his title, and my fear that I wouldn’t live up to the expectations of a proper Högdragen.
But Kasper had decided that it was time to start, so when I didn’t move, he did. He came at me, and I quickly slipped out of the way. I was stocky and strong, but not as strong as him, so I knew that I’d have to use my agility and smaller stature to my advantage.
I swooped around him and crouched on the ground, preparing to kick out his legs from under him. As soon as I crouched, he grabbed my leg and flipped me back, so I landed on my back on the mat with a painful thwock that echoed through the hall.
The vision in my right eye blurred again for a moment, and I was beginning to wonder how long I’d have to deal with the aftermath of my injury. But within a second, I had jumped to my feet.
“The true testament of a good fighter isn’t the ability to not get knocked down, but in how fast they can get back up,” Kasper commented as I dusted myself off, then he grinned. “Though I’ve found it never hurts to avoid getting knocked down in the first place.”
“Want me to go again?” I asked.
He nodded, and that was all the incentive I needed this time. I ran at him, and when he grabbed for me, I dodged around his side. This time, I jumped on his back and wrapped my arm around his neck, hoping that either my weight would throw him off balance or I could put him in a kind of sleeper hold.
But neither of those things happened. Instead, he threw himself back with all his might, crushing me against the floor before he hopped to his feet.
I got up again, just as quickly as I had before, even though that fall had hurt twice as badly, and it took longer for the vision in my eye to correct itself. As soon as I did, Kasper commanded, “Again.”
So I went at him again. And again. And again. Sometimes our skirmishes went for longer, while others were over in a matter of seconds. I got the best of him a few times, knocking him down or pinning him.
By the time Kasper had knocked me on my back for the twentieth time that morning, I was not getting up so fast anymore. I lay on my back, staring up at the overcast sky through the skylights, and catching my breath.
I expected Kasper to tell me to go again, but instead he sat down on the mat next to me. Sweat glistened on his brow, and he appeared a little winded himself. I might not have beaten him as often as I’d have liked, but he was on the Högdragen. He was supposed to be a much better fighter than me, and the fact that he was tired at all showed I was doing something right.
“What do you think?” I asked.
His hair was cropped rather short, and he usually kept it back with gel, but the sweat had loosened a few curls so they fell forward. Kasper leaned back, propping himself on his arm, and absently pushed back the locks from his forehead.
“You’re good for a tracker,” he said with a light laugh. “We’ll take five, and then I’ll show you a few moves that I think can help you out where you’re getting stuck.”
The door at the end of the hall opened, and I craned my neck to see who was disturbing our practice. If it was somebody important, like another member of the Högdragen or the King, I’d have forced myself to my feet, but it was only Tilda, carrying two bottles of water, so I could keep relaxing.
“I thought you two could probably use a bit of a break by now,” Tilda told us with a smile and she sat down cross-legged on the mat.
“Thank you.” I sat up so I could take the water from her and quickly guzzled it down, while Kasper gave her an appreciative peck on the mouth.
“Aren’t you working this morning?” Kasper asked, motioning to her uniform.
“I am, but they’re just running drills, so I snuck out for a few minutes.” She smiled when she looked up at him, but it was bittersweet. “If you’re leaving soon, I want to get in as much time with you as I can.”
Kasper slid across the mat, moving closer to her. He wrapped an arm around her waist and leaned in even closer. “I’m sorry. You know I wouldn’t leave if I didn’t have to.”
“I know.” Tilda let out a heavy sigh and stared down at her lap. “I’ll miss you, but I understand. I just wish that this didn’t mean we’d have to postpone our wedding.”
As a member of the Högdragen, Kasper really had no choice. King Evert hadn’t consulted with him last night about whether he’d be willing or able to go, and he hadn’t needed to. Being on the Högdragen was essentially like being property of the kingdom. Everyone in Doldastam had to follow the King’s orders, but none so strictly as the Högdragen. If the King said jump, they didn’t ask how high—they just jumped.
“I shouldn’t be gone for very long,” Kasper assured her. “We just have to make sure the Queen is safe and help set up a more functional guard, and then we’ll be home. And as soon as I get back, we’ll be married.”
He put his hand on her stomach, rubbing the bump where their child grew, and Tilda smiled at him. They kissed again, more deeply than the last time, and while it wasn’t a crazy makeout session, it was enough that I began to feel uncomfortable.
And not just because I felt like a creepy voyeur. They were so clearly in love—evident in the way they looked at each other and touched one another. For a fleeting second, it made me think of Ridley and wonder if I had made the wrong choice pushing him away.
But then I remembered why they were kissing in the first place. Kasper was comforting Tilda because he was leaving her, because he wasn’t in control of his own life. He’d given himself to the Högdragen, and no matter how much he loved her, she’d have to come second to the job.
I didn’t want to do that to anyone else, and I never wanted to be forced to choose between love and duty. So it was best if I just avoided love altogether.
“I can give you two a minute alone, if you want,” I offered.
“No, we’re fine.” Tilda laughed and blushed before putting some distance between her and Kasper. “I should probably get back soon anyway.”
“And we should get back to training,” Kasper agreed.
“How is that going?” Tilda asked me. “He’s not being too rough on you, is he?”