“I know, but it’s too draining,” Tove said. “You’ll pull a muscle or something. We can practice more tomorrow.”
I tried to protest, but it was only halfhearted, and Tove wouldn’t hear of it anyway. Even after a good night’s sleep, I still felt drained and exhausted. One whole side of my head felt strangely numb, like half of my brain had fallen asleep. That wasn’t true, obviously, since I wasn’t having a stroke, but I did need a break.
Tove left to do whatever it was that Tove did with his free time, and Duncan promised me a relaxing day, whether I liked it or not.
First order of business was changing out of my wet clothes and taking a shower. After I came out of the bathroom, I found Duncan planted on my unmade bed. He started listing all the low-key, quiet things we could do that day, but none of them sounded like fun.
“Would you say talking with friends is relaxing?” I asked, running a towel over my wet curls. Since my head hurt, I wanted to leave my hair down for a change.
“Yeah,” Duncan said hesitantly.
“Great. Then I know what I can do.” I tossed the towel on a nearby chair, and Duncan moved to the edge of the bed.
“What?” Duncan narrowed his eyes at me. I hadn’t sounded excited about any of his ideas, so he clearly didn’t trust whatever I wanted to do.
“I’m going to talk to a friend,” I said.
“What friend?” Duncan got off the bed and followed close behind me as I opened my bedroom door.
“Just a friend.” I shrugged and went out into the hall.
“You don’t have that many friends,” Duncan pointed out, and I pretended to be offended. “Sorry.”
“It’s okay. It’s true,” I said as we walked past Rhys’s and Matt’s rooms.
“Oh, no.” Duncan shook his head as he caught on. “Princess, you’re supposed to be relaxing. And that Vittra Markis is certainly not a friend.”
“He’s not exactly an enemy either, and I only want to talk to him.”
“Princess.” He sighed. “This is a bad idea.”
“Your concerns have been noted, Duncan. And I don’t mean to pull rank on you here, but I am the Princess. You can’t really stop me.”
“You’re not supposed to be talking to him at all, you know,” Duncan said, falling in step behind me. “The Queen talked to the guards after your last visit.”
“If you don’t approve, you don’t have to come with,” I pointed out.
“Of course I’m going to come with.” He bristled and quickened his pace. “I’m not about to let you talk to him alone.”
“Thanks for your concern, but I’ll be all right.” I looked over at him. “I don’t want to get you in any trouble or anything. If you need to stay, that’s okay.”
“No, it’s not okay.” He gave me a hard look. “It is my job to protect you, Princess. Not the other way around. You need to stop getting so caught up in my safety.”
We reached the staircase at the same time a booming knock came from the front door. Nobody ever knocked. They always rang the doorbell, which sounded like very loud wind chimes.
Stranger still, Elora came into the rotunda and walked toward the door, the long black train of her dress dragging on the marble floor behind her.
We were still on the second floor, and Elora was directly below us. I ducked down behind the banister before she saw me, and Duncan did the same. Through the wooden lattice, I saw Elora clearly.
She was by herself, and before she opened the front door, she paused and glanced behind her. Her face was smoother and younger than when I had seen her the other day, but her hair had two additional streaks of bright white running through it.
“Why is she answering the door?” Duncan whispered. “And she’s without a guard.”
“Shh!” I waved a hand to shush him.
With the coast appearing clear, Elora opened the front door. A gust of icy wind blew inside the hall, and Elora had to grip the door tightly to keep it from slamming back.
A woman slid inside as Elora pushed the door back, fighting it with as much grace as she could muster. A dark green cloak hung over the woman’s head, shielding her face from us. Her burgundy dress appeared to be satin, and the hem pooled around her feet, looking tattered and wet from the elements.
“So good of you to make it in this weather.” Elora gave her a smile, the tight condescending one.
She smoothed her hair, making it lie so it covered up the white streaks better. The woman said nothing, and Elora gestured to the second floor, which didn’t make sense. The south wing on the main floor was where all business was conducted. Elora was directing the guest to her private quarters.
“Come,” Elora said as she and the woman started walking. “We have much to discuss.”
I grabbed Duncan’s arm and dashed across the hall before Elora began ascending the stairs. The only thing at the top of the stairs was a small broom closet, and I opened the door as silently as it would let me.
Once inside, I shut the door almost all the way, leaving a small gap for me to peer through. Duncan was pressed against my back, trying to peek out the crack too, and I elbowed him in the stomach so I could have some room to breathe.
“Ouch!” Duncan winced.
Quiet! I snapped.
“You don’t need to shout,” Duncan whispered.
“I di—” I was about to tell him I hadn’t shouted when I realized I hadn’t said anything at all. I’d merely thought it, and he’d heard me. I’d done the mind-speak trick that Elora always did.
Duncan, can you hear me? I asked in my head, trying it out, but he didn’t say anything. He just stood on his tiptoes and looked over my head.
I would’ve tried again but I heard Elora reaching the top of the stairs, and I turned my attention to her. Elora stood between her guest and the broom closet, so I couldn’t see the other woman’s face. Besides that, she still had that green cloak up.
I waited a few beats after they passed before pushing the door open. I leaned out, looking down the hall at their diminishing figures. They walked past the tracker standing watch outside of Loki’s cell, but that was the only guard on the second floor.
The main floor was crawling with guards. I usually had one or two in my vicinity, but otherwise, the second floor was empty.
“Why would Elora bring someone up here?” Duncan asked, stepping out from behind me to watch them.