“No. I just said it wasn’t terrible.” Finn shook his head at Rhys’s dramatics and went to the fridge to get a bottle of water. “And I’m certain that Elora is a much harsher food critic than I’ll ever be.”
“That’s probably true, but she’s never let me cook for her,” Rhys admitted, shaking the wok to stir up the vegetables more.
“You really shouldn’t let him cook for you,” Finn advised, looking at me for the first time. “He gave me food poisoning once.”
“You cannot get food poisoning from an orange!” Rhys protested and looked back at him. “It’s just not possible! And even if you can, I handed you the orange. I didn’t even have a chance to contaminate it!”
“I don’t know.” Finn shrugged. A smile was creeping onto his face, and I could tell he was amused by how much Rhys was getting worked up.
“You didn’t even eat the part I touched! You peeled it and threw the skin away!” Rhys sounded exasperated. He wasn’t paying attention to the wok as he struggled to convince us of his innocence, and a flame licked up from the food.
“Food’s on fire.” Finn nodded to the stove.
“Dammit!” Rhys got a glass of water and splashed it in the stir-fry, and I started to question how good this was going to taste when he was done with it.
“If being picky is a Trylle trait—and it sounds like it is—how come Rhys isn’t picky?” I asked. “Is it because he’s mänks?”
In a flash, Finn’s face changed to a mask of stone. “Where did you hear that word? From Elora?”
“No, from Rhys,” I said. Rhys was still bustling around the stove but something about his posture had changed. He appeared almost sheepish. “And I wish one of you would tell me what that means. What’s the big mystery?”
Rhys turned around, a nervous glint in his eye, and exchanged a look with Finn that I couldn’t read.
“Elora will explain everything in time,” Finn said. “But until then, it’s not our place to discuss it.”
Rhys turned around again, but I knew that the icy edge in Finn’s voice hadn’t escaped him.
On that note, Finn turned and walked out of the kitchen.
“Well, that was weird,” I said to no one in particular.
When Rhys finished cooking, he pulled stools up to the island. Fortunately, the awkward moment had passed and our mood lightened again.
“So what do you think?” Rhys nodded at the plate of food I was trying to eat.
“It’s pretty good,” I lied. He had obviously worked hard on it, and his blue eyes showed how proud he was of it, so I couldn’t let him down. To prove my point, I took a bite and smiled.
“Good. You guys are hard to cook for.” When Rhys took a mouthful of his own food, his sandy hair fell into his eyes, and he brushed it away.
“So . . . you know Finn pretty well?” I asked carefully, stabbing my fork into a mushroom.
Their banter earlier had left me curious. Before things got weird, Finn seemed to genuinely enjoy Rhys, and I had never seen Finn enjoy anybody. The closest he came was respect and obedience for Elora, but I couldn’t tell what his true feelings were for her.
“I guess.” Rhys shrugged like he hadn’t really thought about it. “He’s just around a lot.”
“Like how often?” I pressed as casually as I could.
“I don’t know.” He took a bite and thought for a minute. “It’s hard to say. Storks move around a lot.”
“Yeah, trackers.” Rhys smiled sheepishly. “You know how you tell little kids that a stork brings the babies? Well, trackers bring the babies here. So we call them storks. Not to their faces, though.”
“I see.” I wondered what kind of nickname they had for people like me, but I didn’t think that now was the best time to ask. “So they move around a lot?”
“Well, yeah. They’re gone tracking a lot, and Finn is in pretty high demand because he’s so good at it,” Rhys explained. “And then when they come back, a lot of them stay with some of the more prestigious families. Finn’s been here off and on for the past five years or so. But when he’s not here, somebody else usually is.”
“So he’s a bodyguard?”
“Yeah, something like that.” Rhys nodded.
“But what do they need bodyguards for?” I thought back to the iron gate and the security guard who had allowed our entrance into Förening in the first place.
When I had looked around the entryway, I remembered seeing a fancy alarm system by the front door. This all seemed like an awful lot of trouble to go to for a small community hidden in the bluffs. I wondered if this was all for the Vittra, but I didn’t want to ask.
“She’s the Queen. It’s just standard procedure,” Rhys answered evasively, and he purposely stared down at his plate. He tried to erase his anxiety before I noticed, and forced a smile. “So how does it feel being a Princess?”
“Honestly? Not as awesome as I thought it would be,” I said, and he laughed heartily at that.
Rhys kind of straightened up the kitchen after we finished eating, explaining the maid would be in tomorrow to take care of the rest of it. He gave me a brief tour of the house, showing me all the ridiculous antiquities that had been passed down from generation to generation.
One room only held pictures of previous Kings and Queens. When I asked where a picture of my father was, Rhys just shook his head and said he didn’t know anything about it.
Eventually we parted ways. He cited some homework he had to get done and having to get to bed because he had school in the morning.
I wandered around the house a bit more, but I never saw either Finn or Elora. I played around with the stuff in my room, but I quickly tired of it. Feeling restless and bored, I tried to get some rest, but sleep eluded me.
I felt incredibly homesick. I longed for the familiar comfort of my regular-sized house with all my ordinary things. If I were at home, Matt would be sitting in the living room, reading a book under the glow of the lamplight.
Right now he was probably staring at the phone, or driving around to look for me. And Maggie was probably crying her eyes out, which would only make Matt blame himself more.
My actual mother was somewhere in this house, or I assumed she was, anyway. She had abandoned me with a family that she knew nothing about except that they were rich, and she knew there was a risk that I could be killed. It happens sometimes. That’s what she said. When I came back, after all these years away from me, she hadn’t hugged me, or even been that happy to see me.