“She’s right. I feel silly when people do that,” I said.
Annali shot me a look from the corner of her eye, and for some reason, I think agreeing with her made her hate me more. Like I was undercutting her parenting.
“Oh, my gosh, Princess!” Ember squealed and ran around the table to greet me. “I can’t believe you’re in my house! What are you doing here? Is it about my brother? He’s out with my father, but he’ll be back soon. You should stay for supper. All my friends at school will be so jealous. Oh, my gosh! You’re even prettier than Finn said you were!”
“Ember!” Annali snapped when it appeared that Ember wouldn’t stop.
I blushed and looked away, unsure of how to respond to her. I understood in theory why it might be exciting to meet a Princess, but I couldn’t see anything exciting about meeting me.
“Sorry,” Ember apologized, but it didn’t dampen her delight at all. “I’ve been begging Finn to let me meet you, and he—”
“Ember, you need to do your schoolwork.” Annali wouldn’t look at either of us.
“I came out because I didn’t understand it.” Ember pointed to her textbook.
“Well, work on something else, then,” Annali told her.
“But Mom!” Ember whined.
“Ember, now,” Annali said firmly, in a tone I recognized from years of Maggie and Matt scolding me.
Ember sighed and picked up her textbook before trudging to her room. She muttered something about life not being fair, but Annali ignored it.
“Your daughter is delightful,” I said once Ember had gone.
“Don’t talk to me about my children,” Annali snapped.
“I’m sorry.” I rubbed at my arms, not knowing what to do. I didn’t even know why I was here. “Why did you invite me in if you don’t want me around?”
“Like I have a choice.” She rolled her eyes and went over to the stove. “You came here for my son, and I know I can’t stop you.”
“I didn’t…” I trailed off. “I wanted to talk to Finn, not take him away from you.” I sighed. “I just wanted to say good-bye.”
“Are you going somewhere?” Annali asked, her back to me as she stirred the stew.
“No. No, I can’t go anywhere, even if I had somewhere else I wanted to be.” I pulled at the sleeves of my shirt and stared down at the floor. “I really didn’t mean to upset you. I don’t even know why I came here. I knew I shouldn’t.”
“You really didn’t come here to take him away?” Annali turned around to face me, narrowing her eyes.
“He left,” I said. “I can’t force him to return … I wouldn’t want to, even if I could.” I shook my head. “I’m sorry I bothered you.”
“You really aren’t anything like your mother.” Annali sounded surprised by that, and I looked up at her. “Finn said you weren’t, but I didn’t believe him.”
“Thank you,” I said. “I mean … I don’t want to be like her.”
I heard men’s voices coming up the road. The cottage walls were startlingly thin, and I looked out the small window next to the door. The glass was warped and blurred, but I could see two dark figures walking toward the house.
“They’re home.” Annali sighed.
My heart hammered in my chest, and I had to squeeze my hands together to keep them from trembling. I still had no idea what I was doing here, and with Finn rapidly approaching the door, I wished I hadn’t come at all. I couldn’t think of anything to say to him. There was plenty I actually wanted to say, but this was entirely the wrong place and time.
The door to the cottage pushed open, bringing along a cold wind, and I wanted to escape into it. But a man blocked my path, looking about as shocked and sick as I felt. He stopped right in the doorway, so Finn couldn’t get past him, and for a minute he simply stared at me.
His eyes were lighter than Finn’s and his skin tanner, but I saw enough of Finn in him to know that he was his father. And yet there was something almost pretty about him, his skin softer and cheekbones higher. Finn was far more rugged and strong, and I preferred that.
“Princess,” he said after a lengthy silence.
“Yes, Thomas,” Annali said without even trying to hide the irritation in her voice. “It’s the Princess, now step inside before you let all the warm air out.”
“My apologies.” Thomas bowed before me, then stepped aside so Finn could come in.
Finn didn’t bow, and he didn’t say anything. His expression remained blank, and his eyes were too dark to read. He folded his arms across his chest, and he wouldn’t take his eyes off me, so I looked away. The air seemed too thick to breathe, and I did not want to be here.
“To what do we owe the pleasure?” Thomas asked when nobody said anything. He’d gone over to Annali, looping his arm around his wife’s shoulders. She rolled her eyes when he did it, but she didn’t push his arm away.
“Getting fresh air,” I mumbled. My mouth felt numb, and I had to force myself to speak.
“Shouldn’t you be getting back?” Annali suggested.
“Yes.” I nodded quickly, grateful for an escape from this.
“I’ll walk you,” Finn said, speaking for the first time.
“Finn, I don’t think that’s necessary,” Annali said.
“I have to be sure she gets home,” Finn said. He opened the door, letting in the frosty air that seemed like a wonderful reprieve from the suddenly stifling kitchen. “Are you ready, Princess?”
“Yes.” I nodded and stepped toward the door. I waved vaguely at Annali and Thomas, unwilling to actually look at them. “It was lovely meeting you. Tell Ember I said good-bye.”
“You’re welcome here anytime, Princess,” Thomas said, and I could actually hear Annali hitting him in the arm as I walked out of the cottage.
I took a deep breath and walked up the gravel road. The stones dug into my bare feet, but I liked it better that way. It distracted me from the awkward tension hanging between Finn and me.
“You don’t have to walk with me,” I said quietly as we reached the top of the gravel road. From there, the road turned into smooth tar leading back to the palace.
“Yes, I do,” Finn replied coolly. “It’s my duty.”
“It’s still my duty to carry out the Queen’s wishes, and keeping the Princess safe is her highest wish,” he said in a way that was almost taunting.