“Iver? Is someone here?” Mom asked, and she rounded the corner from the living room. “Bryn! You’re back!”
She hurried over to me, practically pushing my dad out of the way so she could hug me. She kissed the top of my head and touched my face. Whenever I came back, she seemed to almost pat me down, as if checking to make sure that I was real and in one piece.
“Oh, honey, what’s wrong?” Mom asked when she’d finished her inspection. “You look like you have the weight of the world on your shoulders.”
“I heard your mission in Storvatten went well,” Dad said. As Chancellor for Doldastam, I assumed he’d already gotten the rundown on how things went. “Did something happen that you didn’t tell the King?”
“No.” I shook my head and let out a heavy sigh.
That wasn’t entirely true—I hadn’t told King Evert about Prince Kennet’s flirtation with me, or how guilty I had felt leaving Queen Linnea, and I definitely hadn’t been able to tell him about the lysa involving Konstantin Black.
But I didn’t want to tell my parents about any of that either. Well, at least not the Kennet and Konstantin parts. The thing with Konstantin would only frighten them.
“I did my job in Storvatten,” I said finally, looking up at my parents’ expectant faces. “But I don’t think I helped anybody.”
And then suddenly, the words came tumbling out of me—all the concerns I’d been trying to repress. How I wasn’t certain of Mikko’s guilt, and how Kasper and I might have inadvertently been complicit in his unjust arrest. How Linnea seemed more like a child than a Queen, and it didn’t feel right leaving her there like that, where she would be ostracized and unprotected if her husband was convicted, and how I knew if Marksinna Lisbet couldn’t deliver on her promise to change things, I would have to go back to help Linnea and Mikko. How I didn’t trust a single person in Storvatten when it came down to it—not even Marksinna Lisbet or Prince Kennet. How everyone seemed to have conflicted motives and acted cagey at times, like they were hiding something, and I could never be sure if it was because they didn’t trust me for being Kanin, or if they were up to no good.
Eventually, my mom interrupted my long rambling tale to suggest we move to the dining room. I sat at the table, across from my dad, while Mom poured large cups of tea for each us.
“You did the right thing,” Dad said when I’d finally finished, and Mom set a cup in front of me before taking a seat next to him.
“Then why doesn’t it feel that way?” I asked. “It doesn’t feel like I’ve done anything at all.”
“Of course you did,” he corrected me. “You helped get the Skojare’s security in shape, and you brought comfort to Linnea. That’s exactly what you set out to do.”
“But there’s so much left unfinished!” I insisted.
“That’s the problem with working for the kingdom, the way you and I do.” He motioned between us. “We can only do what we’re commanded to do. Too many times, my hands have been bound by the law, and I know how frustrating it can be. But sometimes that’s all you can do.”
“There are so many limitations to your job,” Mom said after taking a long sip of her tea. “That’s why I’ve never quite understood the appeal of it for you. You’ve always been so strong willed and independent. But you want a job that demands complete submission.”
“Runa,” Dad said softly. “Now isn’t the time for this kind of discussion.”
“No, it’s okay.” I slumped lower in my seat. “She’s right. All I’ve ever wanted to do was make this kingdom better. I wanted to do something good and honorable. And the only way I knew how was to be a tracker or on the Högdragen.” I sighed. “But lately I just feel no good at all. I feel like I’m often choosing the lesser of two evils.”
“Welcome to politics.” Dad lifted his glass in a sardonic cheer and gulped it down.
Mom shifted in her chair and leaned on the table. “You know how I feel about your job, and I’m not advocating for it. But I think you’re taking this mission too hard.”
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“You were working with another tribe, and if we’re being honest, the Skojare are weird,” she told me knowingly. “I lived there for the first sixteen years of my life, and I was constantly surrounded by that ‘cagey’ feeling you described. King Rune Biâelse practically made it mandatory.
“Did I ever tell you why my mother named me after him?” Mom asked, and I shook my head. Her name, Runa, was the feminine version of Rune. “The King could be mercilessly cruel to everyone and everything, and my mom hoped—futilely, I might add—that naming me after him would somehow endear me to him.”
“I’ve heard stories about him being an awful King, but I never realized how bad it was until I was there,” I said.
“That’s not to say the that the Skojare aren’t cold and secretive and just plain odd naturally,” she clarified. “Because they are. But Rune just made everything worse for everybody.
“And so they sent you, a Kanin, to a place where outsiders are always distrusted,” Mom went on. “The problem isn’t with you or even with your job in general, but with the mission itself. You were sent someplace where you could never really be of help, so naturally you came back feeling defeated.”
“Your mom is right,” Dad agreed. “You were sent there more as a gesture of goodwill than anything else. You were meant to make the Skojare feel aligned with the Kanin, so that if something happens, our King might able to get his hands on the Skojare’s jewels.”
I leaned my head back so I could stare up at the ceiling. Even though I knew what my dad was saying was true, and I’d really always known it, it still didn’t feel good to be a political pawn.
For as long as I could remember, my mom had railed against my working for the kingdom. And that entire time, I’d been completely convinced that she was wrong, that all her concerns and criticisms about our way of life were either unfounded or didn’t take into account the bigger picture—that I was helping people. I was making it better.
But now I wasn’t so sure about anything anymore.
“I remember feeling frustrated when I was growing up in Storvatten,” Mom said after a long pause. “My kingdom demanded silence and obedience. It left me feeling cold and isolated, and I wanted something entirely different.” She cast a warm glance at my dad. “I followed my heart, and I’ve never once regretted the choice I made all those years ago.”