“I want to thank you all for returning my wife to me and for showing her so much hospitality,” Mikko said, his deep voice betraying no emotion. “Your kindness and bravery will not soon be forgotten, and the Skojare are indebted to you.” He raised his glass higher. “Skål!”
“Skål!” We all cheered in unison, then took a drink of our wine.
“I would also like to extend a special thanks to both Kasper Abbott and Bryn Aven,” Mikko went on, still standing and taking turns looking between Kasper and me. “You are taking on the responsibilities of another tribe, which goes far beyond your duties. While I don’t know if the Skojare need you, it will provide my wife great comfort, and it is as she wishes.”
“It is.” Linnea smiled up at her husband, and then she got to her feet.
It was a faux pas for her to speak while another person was toasting, and it was especially unheard of for her to stand up and join him. But when she looked out with sparkling eyes at the table, beaming with such wild delight, it was obvious that her excitement would not be held back by propriety.
“We both want to offer you our immense gratitude,” Linnea said. She lifted her glass high in the air, spilling a few drops in her haste, but she didn’t seem to notice or mind. “So to Kasper Abbott and Bryn Aven, I’d like to drink to you!”
She quickly took a drink from her glass, but everyone else was slower to follow suit. Kasper reddened and smiled thinly at her before taking a very quick sip. A King and Queen were never supposed to drink to their staff, but since Queen Linnea had suggested it, everyone had to do it or they would seem rude.
I finished my glass in one long swig because I had a feeling that it was going to be the kind of night where I’d want the wine to take the edge off, and as the dinner progressed, I was repeatedly proven right.
Linnea was almost giddy, and while Lisbet was much more composed and reserved than her granddaughter, she was also brimming with happiness. The two of them talked and giggled, steering most of the conversation. Queen Mina was determined not to be left behind, so she laughed louder and spoke quicker than she normally did.
King Evert, for his part, tried to look amused and interested, but he’d never been a good actor. I always thought that being a leader meant having a good poker face, but Evert proved me wrong in that regard.
Despite the antics of Linnea, it was her husband that kept drawing my attention. He didn’t seem annoyed or embarrassed by her behavior, nor did he seem to enjoy it. He rarely spoke, instead sitting quietly and eating his food without reacting much to what was happening.
He seemed so cold and distant. I couldn’t imagine that Linnea actually loved him or missed him the way she claimed to have.
And even as the happy haze brought on by several glasses of wine settled over me, I found myself once again wondering what exactly Mikko was hiding behind his blank stare.
My boots came up to my knees, and my jacket went down to the ground, but the cold air still managed to get through, sending a chill down my spine. Not that I minded. As the evening dragged on, the dining hall had grown increasingly warm and stifling.
Just beyond the palace door, I breathed in deeply, relishing the icy taste of the air as it cooled my flushed cheeks. The combination of being free from the dinner, the minor promotion in job duties, and the buzz from the alcohol all seemed to hit me with the exhilarating headiness of the wind. The night suddenly felt so very alive.
“I’ll meet you at the garage at seven in the morning,” Kasper reminded me. He and Ridley had been standing just behind me, making small talk about the dinner, and now Kasper had begun to say his good-byes.
“I’ll be there,” I said with an easy grin.
Ridley waved at him as Kasper left, watching as he walked away—nearly jogging in his hurry to get to Tilda’s apartment. It was less than eight hours until he would have to be up, getting ready to depart for Storvatten, so I’m sure he wanted to make the most of their last evening together for a while.
“I’m surprised you’re in such a good mood,” Ridley said, turning his attention to me. He moved a few steps closer, filling in the gap that Kasper’s absence had left. “After that interesting evening we had.”
I laughed. “Yeah, but it’s over now.”
“It makes me glad we’re not royalty. I’d hate to sit through those all the time.”
“It’s getting late.” I exhaled deeply, letting my breath fog up the air. “I should be heading home and to bed, since I have a long day tomorrow.”
“Yeah, I suppose.” Ridley glanced up at the night sky, then back at me. “You be careful this time, all right?”
“I will,” I promised him.
Then, since there really wasn’t anything more to say, I gave him a small wave before turning to walk away. I’d only made it four steps before he stopped me.
“Bryn,” he said, and I looked back over my shoulder at him. “Let me walk you home.”
They were five simple words that sounded almost inconsequential, especially since Ridley had walked me home on several occasions. But somehow tonight they felt like so much more. There was a weight to them that had never been there before.
It was in Ridley’s tone, which held a hint of urgency, his voice low but strong enough to carry. In his eyes that burned so intensely, I could almost see the hunger hidden in the darkness.
Finally, I answered him, and I didn’t even know what I would say until the word came out of my mouth. “Okay.”
He looked relieved, and then he walked over to meet me. His steps matched mine easily. I wrapped my arms around myself to keep from shaking—if it was from nerves or the cold, I wasn’t sure—and he kept his hands in his pockets. The night was quiet, the streets were empty, and neither of us was saying anything.
It was a two-minute walk from the palace to the stables, and it had never felt so strange. My heart was racing, quickly pumping blood that felt too hot in my veins, and it caused a delirious heat to wash over me.
It was really the strangest feeling. Like teetering on the edge of a precipice. I knew something was going to happen. And the anticipation was killing me.
My apartment was a loft above the stables, and when we reached the staircase that ran alongside the building, I started to go up. But Ridley had stayed behind. I turned back to face him, standing at the bottom of the stairs and staring up at me with the same look he’d had outside of the palace.