“Did you change your mind and decide to execute me?” Loki asked, looking us over. “Because you all look like you’re going to a funeral.”
“Not now,” I said, fidgeting with my bracelet and watching the clock.
“Then when, Princess?” Loki asked. “Because we only have about fifteen minutes until I leave.”
I rolled my eyes and ignored him.
By the time the doorbell chimed, I’d taken to pacing the room. I nearly jumped when I heard it. The exchange was supposed to be clean and simple, but I wasn’t sure what to expect. My father had lied and betrayed the Trylle before.
“Here we go,” I said and took a deep breath.
I carried the treaty in my hands, a tube of paper rolled up and tied with a red ribbon, and I led the way down the corridor to the front hall. Duncan followed directly behind me on my left side, and Tove was at my right. Finn and Thomas each took one of Loki’s arms, in case he decided to struggle or fight, and the Chancellor brought up the rear.
Two other guards had let the Queen in, and they waited with her. She stood in the center of the rotunda, flakes of snow sticking to her crimson cloak. She’d pushed the hood down, and her cheeks were rosy from the cold. She’d arrived alone, except for Ludlow, the small hobgoblin I’d seen in the Vittra palace.
“Princess.” Sara smiled warmly when she saw me. She did a small curtsy, and I returned it, making sure to keep it equally small.
“Queen. I trust you traveled well,” I said.
“Yes, though the roads were a bit icy.” She gestured to the doors behind her with velvet-gloved hands. “I hope we didn’t keep you waiting.”
“No, you arrived on time,” I assured her.
“She’s here now,” Loki said, but I didn’t look back to see if he was pulling at Finn and Thomas. “Can you let me go?”
“Not until the agreement is finalized,” Finn said through gritted teeth.
“My Queen, can we settle this, please?” Loki called to her, sounding irritated. “This tracker is getting handsy.”
“The Markis hasn’t been too much trouble?” Sara asked, her cheeks reddening with embarrassment.
“Not too much,” I replied with a thin smile. “When we return him to you, you agree to peace until my coronation. Is that correct?”
“Yes.” Sara nodded. “The Vittra will not attack you as long as Elora is Queen. But as soon as you become Queen, the cease-fire is over.”
I handed the treaty over to her. I’d expected her to unroll it and double-check it for accuracy, but she simply nodded again, apparently deciding to trust us.
“Now they can let me go?” Loki asked.
“Yes,” I said.
I heard a skirmish behind me, and then Loki walked past me, smoothing out his shirt. Sara gave him a disapproving look, and he took his place at her side.
“It’s all settled, then?” Loki asked.
“It appears that way,” Sara said. “Princess, you know you are always welcome at our palace.”
“I do,” I admitted.
“The King wanted me to extend an invitation to you,” Sara said. “If you return to the Vittra to take your rightful place at his side, he will offer amnesty to Förening and everyone who lives here.”
I faltered for a moment, unsure how to respond. I didn’t want to go there, and I certainly didn’t trust the King, but it was hard to pass up. It would protect everybody I cared about, including Matt and Finn.
I glanced at Loki, expecting him to be grinning or teasing me to join him, but instead, his cocky smile had faltered. He swallowed, and his caramel eyes were almost frightened.
“Princess.” Tove touched my arm, just above my elbow. “We have other business to attend to this afternoon. Perhaps we should see our guests out.”
“Yes, of course.” I smiled thinly. “If you’ll forgive me, I do have things I need to do.”
“Of course.” Sara smiled. “We don’t need to take up any more of your time.”
“It’s just as well.” Loki looked relieved and smiled at me. “Ondarike is no place for a Princess.”
“Markis,” Sara said coolly.
She did another curtsy, which I reciprocated, then turned away. Ludlow the hobgoblin never said anything, but he gathered up her train so it wouldn’t drag on the ground. As they walked to the door, Loki started to say something, but Sara silenced him.
He glanced over his shoulder once, his eyes meeting mine, and I was surprised to find how much my heart ached at seeing him go. We hadn’t spent that much time together, but I’d felt oddly connected almost since the moment I met him.
Then he was gone out the door, and out of my life, and I actually wanted to cry.
Once they were gone, I let out a deep breath.
“That wasn’t so bad,” I said. It wasn’t bad at all, really. The nerve-racking buildup had been the worst part.
The Chancellor was sweating like a pig, but this was nothing new. I smiled gratefully at Tove. It had been nice having him at my side. Backup and support were never a bad thing.
“Those little hobgoblins freak me out.” Duncan shuddered at the thought of Ludlow. “I don’t know how they can live with them.”
“I’m sure they think the same thing about you,” Finn muttered.
“I think we all know what we have to do,” the Chancellor said, wringing his pudgy hands together.
“What?” I asked, since I had no idea what we had to do.
“We need to attack them while the truce is still in play,” the Chancellor said. Sweat dripped down into his beady eyes, and his white suit had wet circles all over it.
“The whole point of the truce is that we have peace,” I said. “If we attack them, we negate that, and we’re back at war.”
“We need to get a drop on them when they’re not expecting it,” the Chancellor insisted, his jowls shaking. “This is our only chance to have the upper hand!”
I shook my head. “No, this is our chance to rebuild after the last attack and find ways to handle this conflict peaceably. We need to work on uniting the Trylle and being as strong as we can be. Or coming up with something we can offer the Vittra to get them off our back.”
“Well, we know what we can offer them.” The Chancellor eyed me.
“We’re not negotiating with them,” Finn interjected.
The Chancellor glared at him. “Of course, you’re not negotiating with anybody for anything.”