I put my hands over my ears and followed him out of the ballroom. We’d barely made it out into the hallway when the alarm stopped blaring, but my ears kept ringing. We were in the south wing, where business was conducted, and a few of the Queen’s associates were out in the hall, looking around.
“Why is that blasted thing going off?” Elora shouted from the front hall. Her words echoed from inside my head too, and I hated how she did that mind-speak thing when she was angry.
I couldn’t hear the answer to her question, but there was definitely a commotion going on. Grunting, yelling, slamming, fighting. Something was going down in the rotunda. Tove kept walking without hesitation, so I picked up my pace.
“Where did you find him?” Elora asked, but this time I couldn’t hear her inside my head. But we were close enough to the front hall that she sounded quite loud.
“He was hanging around the perimeter,” Duncan said, and I hurried at the sound of his voice. I wasn’t sure what he’d gotten himself into, but it couldn’t be good. “He’d knocked out one of the guards when I saw him.”
When I reached the front hall, Elora was standing halfway down the curved staircase. She had on a long dressing gown, so I assumed she’d been lying down with another one of her migraines when the alarm went off. Rubbing her temple, she surveyed the room with her usual disdain.
The front doors were still wide open, letting an early snowfall blow in. A group of guards were in a struggle in the center of the rotunda, and the wind gusted in, shaking the chandelier above them. Duncan stood off to the side, much to my relief, because the fight did not seem to be going well.
At least five or six guards were trying to tackle someone in the middle. A couple of the guards were really huge muscular dudes too, and they couldn’t seem to get a handle on this guy. I couldn’t get a good look at him because he kept slipping between them.
“Enough!” Elora shouted, and a pain pierced my skull.
Tove put both his hands to his head, pressing against it hard, and continued to do so even after the pain in my head stopped.
The guards backed off as Elora commanded, leaving ample room for the guy in the center, and I finally saw what all the fuss was about. His back was to me, but he was the only troll I’d seen with hair that light.
“Loki?” I said, more surprised than anything, and he turned to me.
“Princess.” He gave me a lopsided smirk, and his eyes sparkled.
“You know him?” Elora asked, her words dripping with venom.
“Yeah. I mean, no,” I said.
“Come, now, Princess, we’re old friends.” Loki winked at me. He turned to Elora, attempting to give her his most winning smile, and spread his arms wide. “We’re all friends here, aren’t we, Your Highness?”
Elora narrowed her eyes at him, and Loki suddenly collapsed to his knees. He made a horrible guttural sound and clenched his stomach.
“Stop!” I yelled and ran toward him. At the same time, the front door slammed shut and the chandelier above shook.
Elora took her eyes off him to glare at me, but fortunately, she didn’t cause me to writhe in pain. I stopped before I reached Loki. He’d doubled over, his forehead resting against the marble floor. I could hear him gasping for breath, and he turned his head away from me so I couldn’t see how much pain he was in.
“Why on earth would I stop?” Elora asked. She had one hand on the banister, and her knuckles grew white as her grip tightened. “This troll was trying to break in. Isn’t that right, Duncan?”
“Yes.” Duncan sounded uncertain, and his eyes flitted over to me for a second. “I believe he was, at least. He looked … suspicious.”
“Suspicious behavior doesn’t give you carte blanche to torture someone!” I yelled at her, and her expression only got stonier. I knew I wasn’t helping the situation, but I couldn’t contain myself.
“He’s Vittra, is he not?” Elora asked.
“Yeah, he is, but…” I licked my lips and looked over at Loki. He’d sat up a bit and composed himself some, but his face was still drawn. “He was good to me when I was there. He didn’t hurt me, and he actually helped me. So … we should at the very least show him the same respect here.”
“Is that true?” Elora asked him.
“Yes, it is.” He sat on his heels so he could stare up at her. “I’ve found that I get what I want more often with basic decency than unnecessary cruelty.”
“What’s your name?” Elora asked, unmoved by his statement.
“Loki Staad.” He held his chin up high when he said that, as if he was proud.
“I knew your father.” Elora’s lips moved into a thin smile, but it wasn’t a pleasant one. It was the kind someone would have after stealing candy from a small child. “I hated him.”
“That surprises me, Your Majesty.” Loki smiled broadly at her, erasing any sign that he’d been in agony moments ago. “My father was a stone-cold jerk. That sounds like your taste exactly.”
“It’s funny, because I was going to say you remind me so much of him.” Elora’s icy smile remained frozen in place as she descended the rest of the stairs, and Loki did an admirable job of not letting his falter. “You think you can use your charm to get out of anything, but I don’t find you charming at all.”
“That’s a shame,” Loki said. “Because, with all due respect, Your Highness, I could rock your world.”
Elora laughed, but it sounded more like a cackle when it echoed off the walls. I wanted to yell at Loki, to tell him to stop baiting her, and I wished I could do that mind-speak Elora did all the time.
Right now I had to make sure that Elora didn’t kill Loki. He’d helped me in Ondarike, risking his own life. We’d only spoken a little, but he’d put himself in jeopardy for me.
Before we left the Vittra palace, there had been a moment when I’d almost asked him to join us. I hadn’t, and I wasn’t sure if I’d made the right decision or not. There was something about Loki that I couldn’t explain, a connection I shouldn’t feel.
Oddly, the thing that struck me the most about what Loki had done when he’d let us escape was that he’d disobeyed orders. He’d been put in charge of keeping guard over me, with insubordination punishable by death.
Yet Loki had chosen me over duty, defying his monarch and his kingdom. That was something that Finn wouldn’t even do.