Plus, I need clothing for every occasion. Jeans for working, suits for meetings, uniforms for formal affairs, and even a couple of dresses. Thankfully, in tracker school, we’d actually had classes on learning to pack quickly and efficiently.
“Listen,” Ridley said.
I paused long enough to look at him, and I realized that I’d been so focused on packing that I hadn’t noticed him getting out of bed and dressing. His shirt still wasn’t buttoned, and he was fixing the collar as he spoke. Still only wearing a sweater and no pants, I suddenly felt exposed.
“We don’t need to talk about last night.” I tried to brush him off and run back to packing, but he put his hand on my arm as I darted by, stopping me.
“I want to, though,” he insisted.
Swallowing hard, I looked up at him. “Okay.”
“Last night…” Ridley’s eyes were slightly downcast, so he wasn’t looking directly at me. He took a deep breath. “Last night was kind of amazing.”
“Yeah,” I said, since I couldn’t think of anything more to say.
Last night actually had been amazing. I could still taste his lips on mine and feel his hands on my skin. In the moment afterward as I lay in his arms, my head against his shoulder, both of us gasping for breath, our bodies entangled—I’d never felt closer to anyone. I’d had this sense of utter completion that I’d never felt before.
Now, I felt a strange, cold emptiness inside me, an absence where he’d been.
“I don’t know why it happened. I mean, I’m not complaining.” He gave a weak smile that quickly faded away. “But it doesn’t matter why, I guess. It just … We both know that it can’t happen again.”
“It can’t,” I agreed, somehow managing to force out the two most painful words I’d ever spoken. My throat wanted to close up around them, swallowing them completely, but I had to say them.
I knew that Ridley was saying this so I wouldn’t have to. He was doing this to spare me the discomfort of actually having to form the words. But that didn’t make this conversation any less painful.
“It’s too much of a risk for you.” Then Ridley shook his head, correcting himself. “For both of us, really. I could lose my position as the Överste, and before I honestly wouldn’t have cared that much. But with us going after Viktor Dålig, I want to be there on the front lines.”
“As you should be,” I said. “Working with Kasper, this is my big chance to make a good impression for the Högdragen. I can’t blow that by giving anyone any reason to think I might have gotten where I am by sleeping with my boss.
“And you’ll be busy with your work,” I continued. “And I’ll be gone for a long time. There’s not even any point to us, even if we wanted there to be.”
Ridley looked me in the eyes for the first time since we’d woken up. There was so much unsaid, so much hanging between us, the air felt thicker. All I wanted to do was kiss him one last time, but I knew that would only make things harder.
“And there’s Juni,” Ridley said, breaking the moment, and I lowered my eyes. “She’s not my girlfriend, but she deserves better than this.”
“She does,” I said, and I meant it. Juni had to be one of the nicest people I’d ever met, and I sincerely doubted she would approve of Ridley spending the night with me.
“Whatever has been going on with us lately…” He trailed off, waiting several moments before finishing. “It has to be over now. Last night was it. That was the last time.”
I nodded, because I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to speak if I tried. He was right, and I agreed with him entirely. If he hadn’t said it, I would’ve.
But it still broke my heart. The intensity and the severity of the ache in my chest was something that I hadn’t been expecting. It hurt so badly it almost took my breath away.
So I bit the inside of my cheek, focusing on the pain, and stared down at the floor, waiting for this moment to be over. Ridley finished gathering up his things, and I didn’t look at him or say a word. I didn’t even move until I heard the door shut behind him.
Then I ran a hand through my hair, took a deep breath, and finished packing. It was the only thing I could do to keep from screaming.
Under the twilight sky, the palace in Storvatten left me just as awestruck as when I’d first laid eyes on it. Its walls were made of luminous pale cerulean, curved and molded to look like waves swirling around the palace. Several spires soared high into the air, and in the fading light, set against the amethyst sky, the glass always seemed to glow.
Kasper and I walked along the long dock that connected the palace with the shore, since it sat like an island fortress several miles out into Lake Superior. It was a long walk, but it gave us plenty of time to admire the beauty of the fantastical structure that rose from the water, leaving a mirrored reflection beside it.
It was much warmer in Storvatten than it had been in Doldastam, with all of the snow melted. There was no ice on the lake near the palace, but I suspected that had more to do with Skojare magic than it did with the temperature. A lake frozen through is no place to swim.
When we reached the doors of the palace, Kasper paused to smooth out his uniform, even though it didn’t need smoothing. For our long journey south, we’d worn comfortable attire, but to greet royalty we couldn’t look like we’d been traveling all day.
At the end of the dock, before we left our SUV with a valet, Kasper had put on his uniform, and I’d changed into a simple but elegant white dress. On the drive, I’d already touched up my makeup and put my hair into a cascading side braid. Fortunately, the bruise on my temple had faded enough that I was finally able to mask it entirely with concealer.
Kasper used the large, heavy knocker, which commanded a low booming sound that seemed to resonate through everything. While we waited for the footman to answer, I took a moment to admire the massive iron doors. The last time I was here, I hadn’t noticed the intricate designs carved into them. They showed Ægir—the Norse god of the sea—with waves crashing around him.
As soon as the footman opened the door, I heard a voice booming behind him. Despite its cheery tone, it had a thunderous quality, much like King Mikko’s, so I knew it had to be Mikko’s younger brother, Prince Kennet Biâelse.
“Let them in, let them in,” Kennet commanded. He shooed the footman away and opened the door wider, smiling broadly at me. “You’ve had a long journey. Come inside.”