“I saw you, Wendy,” Finn snapped. “You were flirting. You even wore your hair down when you snuck off to see him.”
“My hair?” I touched it. “I wore it down because I had a headache from training, and I wasn’t sneaking. I was … No, you know what? I don’t have to explain anything to you. I didn’t do anything wrong, and I don’t have to answer to you.”
“No, I don’t want to hear it!” I shook my head. “I really don’t want to do this right now. Just go away, Finn!”
I turned my back on him so I could catch my breath. I could feel him, standing behind me, but eventually he walked away. I wrapped my arms around myself to keep from shaking. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d been this angry, and I couldn’t believe the way Finn had talked to Duncan and me.
Elora’s bedroom door creaked open at the end of the hall, pulling me from my thoughts. I looked up to see her opening the massive doors, but I didn’t even bother to hide.
The woman with the cloak stepped out, and she had her hood pushed down so I could see her face. She smiled at Elora, that same dazzling, saccharine smile she always had. When she saw me, the smile never changed.
It was Aurora, and I had no idea why she’d be sneaking around with my mother.
It took some convincing, but I finally managed to talk Duncan into staying. I’d found him practicing his resignation speech. He was terrified of letting the Queen or me down, but once I got him to see that he wasn’t, he agreed not to leave.
I spent the rest of the day going along with every one of his suggestions, including that I relax quietly. Which meant, even though my mind raced a mile a minute, I had to lie still in bed and watch a marathon of Who’s the Boss? on the Hallmark Channel with Duncan.
But the break was good for me. When I got up the next day, I still didn’t feel like I had all my energy back, but I looked refreshed enough for Tove to resume training.
During our session, I told Tove about how I’d done mind-speak on Duncan, but it only worked when I was irritated. Using that logic, Tove spent most of the morning trying to irritate me into using it. Sometimes it worked, but most of the time I just got pointlessly annoyed.
We were getting ready to break for lunch when Thomas came down. Since coming back to the palace, he’d been guarding Elora, and she had sent him to retrieve me.
“So…” I began, filling the silence with small talk as we walked to her drawing room. “How is being back in the palace?”
I looked up at him. His brown hair had been slicked down, making him look more like Finn, but there was something much softer about his features. The oddest thing crossed my mind just then, that he looked like a kept man.
“It looked different when I lived here,” Thomas replied in the same cool way Finn always answered my questions.
“Did it?” I asked.
“The Queen likes to redecorate,” Thomas said.
“She never seemed much like a decorator to me,” I said honestly.
“People aren’t always what they seem.”
I didn’t have a response to that, so we walked the rest of the way to the parlor in silence. Thomas held open the door for me, and when I entered the room, I found Elora lying on a chaise lounge.
“Thank you, Thomas.” Elora smiled at him, and it might have been the most sincere I’d ever seen her look.
Thomas bowed before leaving, but he didn’t say anything. I found something almost sad in that. Or would’ve, if I’d approved of my mother having an affair with a married man.
“You needed to see me?” I asked Elora and sat down on the couch nearest to her.
“Yes. I’d hoped to meet you in my study, but…” She shook her head and trailed off, as if I’d know what that meant. She looked worn, but not as bad as I’d seen her the other day. She seemed to be on the mend.
“Have you made any progress with the Vittra?” I asked.
“Yes, actually.” Elora had been lying back, but she moved so she was sitting up a bit. “I’ve been in contact with the Vittra Queen. She’s quite fond of the Markis Staad for reasons that remain a complete mystery to me, but she’s willing to do an exchange for him.”
“That’s great news,” I said, but my cheer felt a bit forced. I was happy that Loki wouldn’t be executed, but I was surprised to find that I felt a bit sad to see him go.
“Yes, it is,” Elora agreed, but she didn’t sound happy. She only sounded tired and melancholy.
“Is something the matter?” I asked gently, and she shook her head.
“No, actually, everything’s … as it should be.” She smoothed out her dress and forced a thin smile. “The Vittra agreed to no more attacks until after the coronation.”
“The coronation?” I asked.
“The coronation where you become Queen,” Elora elaborated.
“I’m not going to be Queen for a while, am I?” I asked, feeling nervous at the prospect. Even with as much training as I’d done lately, I still felt completely unprepared to rule. “Like a long while, right?”
“Not for a while, no.” Elora smiled wanly. “But time has a way of creeping up on you.”
“Well, I’m in no rush.” I leaned back on the couch. “You can keep the crown as long as you’d like.”
“I will.” Elora actually laughed at that, but it sounded hollow and sad.
“Wait. I don’t understand. The King agreed to peace until after I’m Queen?” I asked. “Won’t that be too late to kidnap me?”
“Oren’s always believed he can take anything he wants,” Elora said. “But he wants valuable things, and you’re far more valuable as a Queen. I imagine that he thinks you’ll be an even greater ally then.”
“Why would I be his ally?” I asked.
“You are his daughter,” she said, almost regretfully. “He sees no reason that you won’t come around to his way of thinking.” She looked up at me, her dark eyes distant. “You must protect yourself, Princess. Rely on the people around you, and defend yourself by any means you can.”
“I’m trying,” I reassured her. “Tove and I have been training all morning, and he says I’m doing quite well.”
“Tove is very powerful.” Elora nodded in agreement. “That’s why it’s essential to keep him close to you.”