I stopped, and Kasper walked down a few more steps before pausing to look back up at me. Until this moment, I’d viewed him as one of the most upstanding people I knew, worthy of admiration. He was honorable, noble, and seemed to embody every quality that a member of the Högdragen was supposed to possess.
“But you wouldn’t do it,” I persisted, almost begging him to agree with me, to pretend that this was all a misunderstanding. That the most virtuous members of the Högdragen couldn’t be as fallible as everyone else.
Kasper sighed heavily. “I believe I would do my best to sway the King to the correct course of action and to protect the innocent. But in the end, I am nothing more than a sword at the end of the King’s arm. I do as he directs.”
From out in the hall, I could hear Kasper talking, followed by the fainter sound of Tilda’s laughter. His bedroom door was open, so I peered around to see him holding his cell phone out toward the dome glass wall that held the murky water at bay. He was video chatting with Tilda and giving her a tour of our accommodations.
“The water is so dark,” Tilda was saying, her voice coming out weak and metallic from the phone. “I’d expected it be clear and bright.”
“Everything here is darker and dingier than you might guess,” Kasper admitted.
“Well, good. I was afraid you’d get too enchanted with Storvatten and not want to come back to me, so I’m glad it’s not all that magical,” Tilda said, laughing a little.
Kasper turned the phone back around to face him, so she could see him again. “There’s nothing in this world that can keep me from coming back home to you.”
Since I’d accidentally eavesdropped on a private moment, I cleared my throat and knocked on the open door.
Kasper turned back to me with a start, so Tilda asked in concern, “Is someone there?”
“It’s Bryn.” Kasper pointed the phone toward me so I could see Tilda’s smiling face on the small screen.
“Hey, Tilda.” I waved toward the tiny camera on the phone, causing her to laugh.
“How are you enjoying the palace?” Tilda asked.
“I’m enjoying it as much as I can, I guess.” I shrugged.
“Good.” She paused, seeming to hesitate. “Ridley asked me how you’re doing, and he’ll be happy to hear that you’re looking well.”
“Thanks.” I swallowed back a lump in my throat and looked away from her. “I didn’t mean to interrupt your moment here, but I was just checking to see if Kasper wanted to join me for lunch.”
After we’d toured the towers, Bayle had shown us around the palace for the rest of the morning, but he’d given us an hour on our own for lunch. Kennet had said that he’d meet me at my room at noon, but I was getting hungry and decided it would be better if I got something on my own.
“I thought you were having lunch with the Prince?” Kasper asked.
“Lunch with the Prince?” Tilda raised an eyebrow that others might have misinterpreted as intrigue, but I knew it meant nothing but disapproval.
Tilda had already witnessed my out-of-class dating once, and heard me vow that I’d never do it again. Back when I was sixteen and freshly graduated from tracker school and I thought I knew everything, I’d pursued a crush with a slightly older Markis.
Even though I was determined to be a Högdragen, and inter-dating between a tracker and a Markis was forbidden, I was at a stage in my life where I thought I could do what I wanted—that I was smart enough to play around the rules.
I hadn’t been in love with him, but initially I had been enamored by his charm and good looks. He seemed to enjoy me too, and there was something about the danger of getting caught that made it all the more exciting.
After we’d been sneaking around for a few weeks, I began to detect an arrogant, mean streak to him. Once when we were fooling around in his room, I noticed a polar bear rug on his floor. Hunting wasn’t prohibited by the Kanin, but doing so purely for sport was frowned upon.
I asked him about it, and he proudly boasted of killing it himself. Not long after that I began to realize that thanks to my exotic blond hair and blue eyes, I was just like the polar bear—a trophy from a conquest.
When it was all over, Tilda did her best not to say “I told you so,” even though she had repeatedly warned me this was a bad idea and expressed her disapproval. But she was more than relieved when I told her that it would never happen again, and I swore off romance with royals forever.
Of course, I did have this awful habit of breaking promises I’d made to myself.
“I’ve been waiting in my room for fifteen minutes, and the Prince hasn’t shown up,” I told Tilda, doing my best to display a lack of interest in him. “I thought I’d head up to the kitchen and grab something.”
“I already called up to the kitchen and had them bring me something.” Kasper pointed to a half-eaten sandwich on a silver tray next to his bed. “Otherwise I would.”
“No problem.” I waved it off. “Enjoy your lunch with Tilda.”
“Take care of yourself, Bryn,” Tilda called after me as I turned to leave.
With nothing else to say, I preferred to hurry out with my head down, trying to pretend it didn’t hurt to hear that Ridley had been concerned about me. It hurt because he cared, and it hurt because he shouldn’t, and it hurt because things with us would never be the way they were with Tilda and Kasper.
I had my eyes on the floor, my mind desperately trying to push away any thought of Ridley. My heart throbbed painfully in my chest. That was how I didn’t notice Prince Kennet until I’d run right into him—literally hitting my head against his chest.
“Sorry, Your Highness, I’m sorry, I didn’t see you there.” Apologies tumbled out of my mouth.
“No need to be sorry,” Kennet said, his deep voicing lilting as he smiled. “In fact, I should be the one saying I’m sorry.”
“Don’t be ridiculous.” I brushed my hair out of my face and looked up at him. “I’m the one who ran smack into you.”
“You did do that,” he agreed. “But running into you is never all bad. Especially when I’ve left you waiting so long for our lunch date.”
“Oh, right, that.” I hurried to think of a way to contradict him on the term date.
“You must be ravenous by now,” Kennet went on before I could correct his statement. “The good news is that lunch is waiting for you.” Then he frowned. “The bad news is that it won’t be with me. Queen Linnea has requested that you join her instead, and since the Queen outranks me, I am obligated to step aside. This time.”