“Yes, it does appear to be the Markis Staad,” Elora said.
“Markis?” I whispered. Willa gave me a questioning look, and I shook my head.
Loki Staad was a Markis? I’d assumed that Loki was a tracker, like Duncan and Finn. The Markis and Marksinna were the royals of the community, and they were protected. Or at the very least, they didn’t do their own dirty work. Willa was a Marksinna, and she was one of the more levelheaded, unspoiled ones I’d met.
“What does he want?” somebody else asked.
“It doesn’t matter what he wants.” The Chancellor got up, his face drenched with sweat from the exertion of standing. “We need to send the Vittra a message. We will not be bullied. We must execute him!”
“You can’t kill him!” I shouted, and Elora shot me a look that made my ears ring. Everyone in the room turned to look at me, including Finn, and my own conviction even surprised me. “It’s not humane.”
“We’re not barbarians.” The Chancellor dabbed at his brow and gave me a condescending smile. “We’ll make his death as painless and benevolent as possible.”
“The Markis didn’t do anything.” I stood up, unwilling to sit and let them propose murder. “You can’t kill someone without just cause.”
“Princess, it’s for your own protection,” the Chancellor said, sounding baffled by my response. “He’s repeatedly tried to kidnap and harm you. That’s a crime against our people. Execution is the only course of action that makes sense.”
“It’s not the only course,” Elora said carefully. “But it is something we will consider.”
“You cannot be serious,” I said. “I’m the one he kidnapped, and I’m saying he doesn’t deserve that.”
“Your concerns will be taken under advisement, Princess,” Aurora said, that same too-sweet smile plastered on her face.
The crowd erupted with low murmurs. I’m sure I heard the word “treason,” but I couldn’t tell from where. Someone in front of me muttered something about Stockholm syndrome, followed by a chuckle.
“Hey, she’s the Princess,” Willa snapped at them. “Show a little respect.”
“We can barter with them,” Finn said, raising his voice to be heard over the rumblings.
“Pardon?” Aurora raised an eyebrow, and Elora all but rolled her eyes at him.
“We have the Markis Staad,” Finn went on. “He’s the highest Vittra royal after the King. If we kill him, we have nothing. They’ll come after the Princess with even more fervor because we took out their only hope of an heir.”
“You’re proposing that we work with the Vittra?” Elora asked.
“We don’t negotiate with terrorists!” a Markis shouted, and Elora held up her hand to silence him.
“We haven’t been negotiating, and look at where it’s gotten us,” Finn said and gestured toward the ballroom. “The Vittra have broken into the palace twice in the last month. We lost more Trylle in that last battle than we have in almost twenty years.”
I sat down again, watching Finn argue his point. He had a way of commanding the room, even if he wouldn’t look at me. Moreover, everything he said was right.
“This is the biggest bargaining chip we’ve ever had,” Finn said. “We can use Markis Staad to get them to back off. They don’t want to lose him.”
“He’s not the biggest bargaining chip,” Marksinna Laris interrupted. “The Princess is.” Everyone’s eyes turned to me. “The Vittra have never come after us like this before. All they want is the Princess, and in a way, they have a right to her. If we give the Vittra what they want, they’ll leave us alone.”
“We’re not giving them the Princess.” Garrett Strom stood up and held his hands out. “She is our Princess. Not only is she the most powerful heir we’ve ever had, but she’s one of us. We won’t give the Vittra one of our own people.”
“But this is all about her!” Marksinna Laris got up, her voice getting shriller. “This is all happening because of the bad treaty the Queen made twenty years ago, and we’re all paying the price!”
“Do you remember what it was like twenty years ago?” Garrett asked. “If she hadn’t made that treaty, the Vittra would’ve slaughtered us.”
“Enough!” Elora shouted, and her voice echoed through my head, through all our heads. “I called this meeting so we could discuss the options together, but if you are not capable of a proper discourse, then I will end it. I do not need your permission to conduct my business. I am your Queen, and my decisions are final.”
For the first time ever, I understood why Elora could be so hard. The people in this room were openly discussing sacrificing her only child, and thought nothing of it.
“For now, I will keep the Markis Staad at the palace until I decide what to do with him,” Elora said. “If I decide to execute him or barter for him, it will be my decision, and I will let you know.” She smoothed out nonexistent creases in her skirt. “That is all.”
“We need to reinstate Finn,” Tove said before the crowd had a chance to disperse.
“What?” I whispered. “No, Tove, I don’t think—”
“All trackers need to be on hand right now,” Tove said, ignoring me. “All the storks in the field should be called back to roost. Both Finn and Thomas need to be at the palace. I can stay here and help, but I don’t think that’s enough.”
“Tove can stay at the palace,” Aurora offered up too quickly. “If that would help.”
“We have additional trackers on staff,” Elora told him, but I saw her looking at Thomas from the corner of her eye. “A new alarm system is in place, and the Princess is never left unguarded.”
“They sent a Markis after her,” Tove reminded her. “Thomas and Finn are the best we have. They’ve both been your own personal guards for the better part of two decades.”
Elora seemed to consider this for a moment.
She nodded. “Both of you, report for duty tomorrow morning.”
“Yes, Your Grace,” Thomas said, bowing.
Finn said nothing, but he gave Tove a wary glance before departing. The rest of the crowd began to dissipate after that, but I remained sitting in the corner with Tove, Willa, and Duncan.
Garrett, Noah, the Chancellor, and two other Marksinna lingered to talk to Elora and Aurora. I could feel Elora seething, and I knew I should get out of the room before she had a chance to chew me out. But I needed a moment.