“We can’t cross negotiations out,” Tove said, and before Finn could protest, he went on. “Obviously, we’re not giving them the Princess, but we can’t rule out other options. Enough people have died already. And after fighting for all this time, nobody has won. I think we need to try something different.”
“Exactly,” I agreed. “We should use this time to figure out what that might be.”
“You want to find something new to barter with?” the Chancellor scoffed. “We can’t trust the Vittra King!”
“Just because he plays dirty doesn’t mean we have to,” I said.
“And the only reason we won this last fight is because it happened on our turf and they left their strongest players at home,” Tove said. “If we meet them at their house, they have the advantage. They would crush us the way they have every other time. We need to learn from our mistakes.”
“Fine!” The Chancellor threw up his hands. “Do what you want! But the blood will be on your hands, not mine.”
The Chancellor stalked off, defeated. I smiled up at Tove.
“Thanks for backing me up,” I said.
Tove shrugged. “It’s what I do.”
After Sara and Loki left, I went up to report to Elora how I’d done. Garrett was sitting with her in the drawing room, where Elora was lying down. Her skin color had brightened, but she was still out of it.
I kept my explanation brief, but they both seemed proud of me. It had been my first official duty as a Princess, and I’d passed. Elora actually said I did well. When I left, I felt surprisingly good.
I met Tove on my way back from the room. He came from the kitchen, and he had a handful of grapes. He offered me one, but I didn’t feel much like eating, so I shook my head.
“Do you feel like a real Princess yet?” Tove asked me as he munched on a grape.
“I don’t know.” I pulled off the heavy diamond necklace I’d worn to look the part. “But I don’t know if I ever will. I think I’ll always feel like an imposter.”
“Well, you definitely look like a real Princess.”
“Thanks.” I turned to him and smiled. “And you did really well today. You were focused and very regal.”
“Thanks.” He tossed a grape in his mouth and grinned. “I spent a lot of time rearranging my furniture before the meeting started. It seemed to help.”
We walked in silence for a bit, him eating his fruit and me fiddling with the necklace. The silence between us didn’t feel awkward, though, and I thought about how nice it was. Being able to be with someone without it feeling forced or weird or agonizingly restrained.
I also started to understand what Elora and Finn meant. Tove was strong and intelligent and kind, but his abilities made him too frazzled to be a leader. He did an amazing job of backing me up and supporting me, and I knew that no matter what, he’d be at my side.
“So.” Tove swallowed the last grape and stopped. He stared down at the floor and tucked his tangled hair behind his ears. “I’m sure that the Queen has told you of the arrangement that she and my mother made.” He paused. “You know, about us getting married.”
“Yeah.” I nodded, feeling strangely nervous to hear him bring it up.
“I don’t agree with them sneaking around and plotting things, like we’re pawns in a game and not people.” Tove chewed the inside of his cheek and looked down the hallway. “It’s not right, and I told Aurora that. She needs to stop treating me like a … I don’t know. A pawn.”
“Yeah,” I agreed, and I kept nodding.
“She thinks she can control me all the time, and I know your mother tries to do the same stuff with you.” He sighed. “It’s like they had all these ideas of who we would be before we got here, and they refuse to adjust them even when they see we’re not what they expected.”
“Yeah, that’s true,” I said.
“I know about your past.” He glanced over at me, resting his eyes on me only for a second. “Aurora told me about your father and how you’re at risk of losing the crown because of him, because of your parents’ mistakes. That’s stupid because I know how powerful you are and how much you care about people.”
“Thank you?” I said uncertainly.
“You need to be Queen. Everyone who knows anything knows that, but most people don’t know anything, and that is a problem.” He scratched at the back of his head and shifted his weight. “I would never take that away from you. No matter what happens, I’d never take the crown from you, and I’d defend you against anybody who tried.”
I didn’t say anything to that. I’d never heard Tove talk so much before, and I didn’t know what he was getting at.
“I know that you’re in love with … well, not me,” he said carefully. “And I’m not in love with you either. But I do respect you, and I like you.”
“I respect and like you too,” I said, and he gave me a small smile.
“But it’s a number of things, and it’s none of them.” He let out a deep breath. “That didn’t make sense. I mean, it’s because you need somebody to help you keep the throne, and somebody on your side, and I can do that. But … it’s just because I think … I want to.”
“What?” I asked, and he actually looked at me, letting his mossy eyes stare into mine.
“Will you … I mean, do you want to get married?” Tove asked. “To me?”
“I, um…” I didn’t know what to say.
“If you don’t want to, nothing has to change between us,” Tove said hurriedly. “I asked because it sounds like a good idea to me.”
“Yeah,” I said, and I didn’t know what I would say until it was coming out of my mouth. “I mean, yes. I do. I will. I would … I’ll marry you.”
“Yeah?” Tove smiled.
“Yes.” I swallowed hard and tried to smile back.
“Good.” He exhaled and looked back down the hall. “This is good, right?”
“Yeah, I think so,” I said, and I meant it.
“Yeah.” He nodded. “I sorta feel like throwing up now, though.”
“I think that’s normal.”
“Good.” He nodded again and looked at me. “Well, I’ll let you go … do whatever you need to do. And I’ll go do what I do.”