“No. He’s not dishing out anything I can’t take.”
“I’ll have to try harder then,” Kasper said, and Tilda laughed.
“You two just better not hurt each other,” she warned us. “Or you’ll have me to deal with.”
“Yes, ma’am.” I saluted her, and she rolled her eyes.
“I really should get back,” she said, and she kissed Kasper before getting to her feet. “I’ll see you tonight?”
“As soon as I’m done working the dinner for the Skojare King and Queen,” he said. “Then I’ll be over.”
“I love you.” Tilda looked between the two of us. “Both of you. So play nice.”
As soon as she was gone, Kasper and I got up, and he told me to come at him again like I had before—only this time, he would teach me how not to end up flat on my back.
Even though there were only eight of us attending the celebratory dinner, we still waited in a line to be announced by King Evert’s personal guard, Reid Kasten. It was a meeting of royalty, which called for formality. King Mikko Biâelse of the Skojare, and Linnea’s grandmother, Marksinna Lisbet Ahlstrom, had arrived to retrieve Linnea.
They were so grateful that Ridley and I had found her that we were invited to attend the dinner as honored guests, which felt a bit odd for us. I would always have rather been working than making awkward dinner conversation, but I would be lying if I said that I didn’t enjoy a reason to put on the new dress I’d gotten from the town square.
As much as I loved working out and showing my strength—the way I had been all day with Kasper—I loved getting dressed up almost as much. For most of my life, I’d been pigeonholed as purely a tomboy, but that wasn’t accurate. I could hold my own wrestling in the mud with boys, and I could hold my own in a gown in the ballroom.
The dress I wore today was silvery white with a damask design in pale blue velvet over it. The front hem of the dress fell just above my knees, on the off chance I’d need to fight or run, and the back flowed out much longer behind me, trailing on the ground.
As strange as I felt waiting beside Ridley in line to enter the dining hall, Kasper seemed even more awkward. He’d only planned on working the party—standing at attention by the door. Instead, Markisinna Lisbet had insisted he join as a guest, and he stood behind us, fidgeting with his uniform and muttering anxiously.
Reid loudly announced King Mikko and Queen Linnea, and they entered the dining hall to formally greet Evert and Mina before taking their seats at the long table. Since Lisbet was of a lower rank than them—a Markisinna is a step below Princess—she would be introduced after them. While waiting, she took a moment to turn to Ridley and me.
Her golden hair was carefully coiffed on her head, and her elegant gown easily surpassed mine in loveliness. Large diamonds and sapphires adorned heavy rings on her fingers. Even though she had to be in her sixties, she still had an incredible, refined beauty.
“I am so sorry about the way things went in Storvatten when you were there before,” Lisbet said, her brilliant blue eyes moist with tears.
“There is no need to be,” Ridley assured her.
I wasn’t completely sure what she was apologizing for, other than when Victor Dålig had slammed my head into the wall. But that wasn’t her fault. That was mine.
She smiled and took my hand and Ridley’s in each of hers—her skin soft and warm like thin velvet. “I cannot thank you enough for bringing my granddaughter safely back to me. Anything—anything—either of you ever need, let me know.”
“Marksinna Lisbet Ahlstrom of the Skojare,” Reid announced.
Lisbet squeezed our hands and mouthed the words thank you again before letting go. She gathered up the length of her dress, then entered the dining hall.
Since Kasper was a member of the Högdragen, it meant he outranked us, so he was called next, leaving Ridley and me alone in the foyer. As the Överste, Ridley could’ve worn his uniform the way Kasper had, but instead he’d chosen a well-tailored suit.
As we waited, he readjusted the cuff links in the sleeve of his black dress shirt. I stood with my hands clasped neatly in front of me, watching as Kasper stiffly greeted everyone in the room.
“Are you heading out tomorrow?” Ridley asked, still fixing the diamond cuff link.
“I believe that’s the plan. We’re leaving first thing in the morning to head back to Storvatten.”
“It’s a really good opportunity for you.” He’d finished his readjustment and folded his hands behind his back, standing tall and proper. “Working with the Högdragen like this. And you’ve earned it. Nobody has worked harder for recognition than you have.”
“But I have to be honest,” he said in a low voice. “It’s not gonna be the same here without you.”
He looked at me then, his deep-set eyes under a veil of thick lashes. The heat I’d been longing to see in them had returned, and for a moment, there was nothing else. It was only me and him, and the warmth growing in my belly, and the way he made me feel so light-headed and wonderful all at once.
And then, “Ridley Dresden, the Överste of the Kanin,” Reid announced so loudly it almost felt as if he were shouting inside my head.
Ridley walked away from me, leaving me behind to catch my breath. Which was just as well, because I’d never have made it through the introductions without a moment to gather myself.
I was seated next to Lisbet, and after I’d gotten settled in I realized that must’ve been a deliberate choice. All the Skojare—me, Lisbet, Linnea, and Mikko—were on one side of the table, a row of pale blonds across from the darker complexioned Kanin: Ridley, Evert, Mina, and Kasper.
For a second, before I got myself under control, I felt a wave of anger wash over me. I hated being singled out or deemed as “other” simply because of the color of my hair and skin. Even though this hadn’t been done out of malice, it still stung every time I was deemed “un-Kanin.”
But then I reminded myself that it was an honor to even be here, that I was still seated next to royalty. And maybe the decision had to do with ranking, and since I was the lowest one here, I was seated with our guests instead of next to our King.
Maybe. But I didn’t really believe that.
Mikko started off dinner with a toast, standing and raising his glass of sparkling wine. The last time I’d seen him in Storvatten, he’d been a wreck—an overacting wreck, I’d suspected. But now he showed no signs of wear. His handsome face was unreadable, even when he looked down at his wife.