When she finally let her assistant go for the night, I was sitting at the grand piano, playing the opening to “Für Elise” repeatedly, since it was the only bit I knew.
“You’ll have to take piano lessons,” Aurora said. She had a thick black binder filled with all the wedding information, and she dropped it on the piano, making the instrument twang. “I can’t believe you didn’t already have them. What kind of host family did you live with?”
“You know what kind of host family I had.” I continued playing the same bars, louder now since I knew it was getting on her nerves. “You’ve met my brother.”
“About that,” Aurora said. She pulled a few bobby pins from her hair, letting her loose curls fall free. “You need to stop referring to him as your brother. It’s in poor taste.”
“I’m aware,” I said. “But it’s a hard habit to break.”
“You have many habits you need to break.” She ran her fingers through her hair. “If you weren’t the Princess, I wouldn’t bother to help you break them.”
“Well, thank you for your time and consideration,” I muttered.
“I know you’re being facetious, but you are welcome.” She opened her binder, leafing through it. “We don’t have time for Frederique Von Ellsin to make you a gown for the party, so he’s bringing over some of his best pieces tomorrow at noon so you can be fitted.”
“That sounds fun,” I said, and I wasn’t lying. Frederique had made my gown for the christening ceremony, and I enjoyed meeting him.
“Princess!” Aurora snapped. “Will you stop playing that song?”
“Of course.” I closed the piano cover. “All you had to do was ask.”
“Thank you.” Aurora smiled thinly at me. “You do need to work on your manners, Princess.”
“My manners are fine when they need to be.” I sighed. “But right now I’m tired, and we’ve been at this all day. Can we regroup tomorrow?”
“You are so lucky I’m letting you marry my son.” She shook her head and slammed the binder shut. “You are rude and ungrateful and so unladylike. Your mother has almost gotten us killed repeatedly, and my son should be next in line for the crown, not you. If he didn’t have some unfounded fondness for you, he would overthrow you and take his rightful place.”
“Wow.” I stared at her with wide eyes. I really had no idea what to say to that.
“It’s a disgrace that he’s marrying you.” She clicked her tongue. “If anybody found out the way that tracker Finn tainted you, he’d become the laughingstock of the kingdom.” She touched her temple and shook her head. “You are just so lucky.”
“You are absolutely right.” I stood up, clenching my hands at my side. “I am so lucky that your son is nothing like you. I’m going to be Queen, not you. Know your place, Marksinna.”
She looked up at me, her skin blanched and her dark eyes startled. She blinked, as if she couldn’t believe what had just happened. The planning had been as daunting for her as it had been for me, and for a moment she’d forgotten her role.
“Princess, I am truly sorry,” she stammered. “I didn’t mean that. I’ve been under so much stress.”
“We all have,” I reminded her.
Aurora finished gathering her things and mumbled several more apologies. She hurried out of the ballroom, saying she was needed at home. I don’t think she’d ever left so quickly before. I didn’t know if I’d done the right thing standing up to her, but right then I didn’t care.
What I did know was that I had a rare moment when I was completely alone. No guards around me. No Duncan or Tove or Aurora. And I could really use some fresh air.
I hurried before someone found me. If I waited, I knew someone would come along and want something from me. Probably a conversation, but I didn’t want to talk. I wanted a moment to breathe.
I ran down the hall of the north wing, bursting through the side door onto a narrow gravel trail lined with tall hedges. It curved around the house, leading down to the bluffs before it opened onto a beautiful garden.
Snow covered everything, making it glitter like diamonds under the moonlight. The wintry weather should’ve killed off all the plants, but the blue, pink, and purple flowers were in full bloom. The frost on their petals only made them more beautiful.
The vines of ivy and wisteria that grew over the wall remained green and vibrant. Even the small waterfall that ran through the orchard of blossoming trees still flowed, instead of freezing solid the way it should have.
A thin blanket of snow crunched cold under my bare feet, but I didn’t care. I ran down the side of the bluff, slipping in a few places, but I never fell. Two curved garden benches stood next to the pond, and I sat down on the nearest one.
The garden was a little piece of magic, and I loved it for that. I leaned back, breathing in the cold night. My breath came out in a fog, and the moon sparkled off the ice crystals in the air. I’d been locked in the house for far too long.
A snap of a twig behind me pulled me from my thoughts, and I whirled around. I couldn’t see anyone, but I saw shadows moving along a hedge near the brick wall.
“Who’s there?” I asked.
I assumed it was Duncan or another tracker sent to fetch me. When nobody answered, I began to worry that I’d made a rash decision coming out here alone. I could defend myself, but I didn’t want there to be a need for it.
“I know somebody’s here.” I stood up. I walked around the bench and peered through the trees.
I saw a figure standing by the wall. He was too far away to get a good look at his face, but the moon shimmered on his light hair.
“Who’s there?” I repeated. I straightened up and tried to look as imposing as possible, which is quite hard for a Princess in a dress, alone in a garden at night.
“Princess?” He sounded surprised and stepped closer to me. When he ducked around a tree and walked toward me, I finally got a good look at him.
“Loki?” I asked, and I felt joy swell inside me, immediately followed by confusion. “What are you doing here?”
“I came for you.” He seemed just as bewildered as I was. “What are you doing out here?”
“I needed fresh air. But I don’t understand. How did you know I’d be out here?”
“I didn’t. This is how I come in.” He gestured to the wall behind him. “I scale the wall. You should really get security on that.”