2. Birthday

Tove and Duncan had carried Loki up to the servants’ quarters on the second floor. Willa went back to help Matt so he wouldn’t worry, and I sent Duncan to get Thomas because I had no idea what we should do with Loki. He was unconscious, so I couldn’t ask him what happened.

“Are you going to give him amnesty?” Tove asked. He stood next to me with his arms folded over his chest, staring down at Loki.

“I don’t know.” I shook my head. “It depends on what he says.” I glanced over at Tove. “Why? Do you think I should?”

“I don’t know,” he said finally. “But I will support any decision you make.”

“Thank you,” I said, but I hadn’t expected any different from him. “Can you see if there’s a doctor that will look at him?”

“You don’t want me to get my mother?” Tove asked. His mother was a healer, meaning she could put her hands on someone and heal almost any wound they might have.

“No. She would never heal a Vittra. Besides, I don’t want anyone to know that Loki is here. Not yet,” I said. “I need an actual doctor. There is a mänks doctor in town, isn’t there?”

“Yeah,” he nodded. “I’ll get him.” He turned to leave but paused at the door. “You’ll be okay with him?”

“Yes, of course,” I smiled.

Tove nodded, then left me alone with Loki. I took a deep breath and tried to figure out what to do. Loki lay on his back, his light hair cascading across his forehead. Somehow he was even more attractive asleep than he was awake.

He hadn’t stirred at all when they’d carried him up, and Duncan had jostled and nearly dropped him many times. Loki had always dressed well, and while his clothes looked like they had once been nice, they were little more than rags now.

I sat down on the edge of the bed next to him and touched a hole in his shirt. The skin underneath was discolored and swollen. Tentatively, I lifted his shirt, and when Loki didn’t stir, I pushed it up more.

I felt strange and almost perverse undressing him, but I wanted to check and make sure there weren’t obvious contusions. If he were seriously injured, like with broken ribs poking out of his skin, I would summon Aurora and make her heal him, whether she wanted to or not. I wouldn’t let Loki die because she was prejudiced.

After I pulled his shirt over his head, I got my first good look at him, and my breath caught in my throat. Under ordinary circumstances, I’m sure his physique would be stunning, but that’s not what shocked me. His torso was covered with bruises, and his sides had long, thin scars on them.

They wrapped around, so I lifted him a bit, and his back was covered with them. They crisscrossed all over his skin, some of them older, but most of them appeared red and fresh.

Tears stung my eyes, and I put my hand to my mouth. I’d never seen Loki shirtless before, but he even had scars on his forearms, and they weren’t there before. This had all happened since I saw him last.

Worse still, Loki had Vittra blood. Physically, he was incredibly strong, which is how he’d pounded at the door so hard it shook the front hall. That also meant he healed better than most. For him to look this terrible, somebody really had to beat the hell out of him, over and over again, so he wouldn’t have time to heal.

A jagged scar stretched across his chest, as if someone had tried to stab him, and it reminded me of my own scar that ran along my stomach. My host mother had tried to kill me when I was a child, but that felt like a lifetime ago.

I touched Loki’s chest, running my fingers over the bumps of his scar. I don’t know why exactly, but I felt compelled to, as if the scar made us kindred spirits.

“You just couldn’t wait to get me naked, could you, Princess?” Loki asked tiredly. I started to pull my hand back, but he put his own hand over it, keeping it in place.

“No, I – I was checking for wounds,” I stumbled and wouldn’t meet his gaze.

“I’m sure.” He moved his thumb, almost caressing my hand, until it hit my ring. “What’s that?” He tried to sit up to see it, so I lifted my hand, showing him the emerald encrusted oval on my finger. “Is that a wedding ring?”

“No, engagement.” I lowered my hand, resting it on the bed next to him. “I’m not married yet.”

“I’m not too late, then,” he smiled and settled back in the bed.

“Too late for what?” I asked.

“To stop you, of course.” Still smiling, he closed his eyes.

“Is that why you’re here?” I asked, failing to point out how near we were to my nuptials.

“I told you why I’m here,” Loki said.

“What happened to you, Loki?” I asked, my voice growing thick when I thought about what he had to have gone through to get all those marks and bruises.

“Are you crying, Princess?” Loki asked and opened his eyes.

“No, I’m not crying.” I wasn’t, but my eyes were moist.

“Don’t cry.” He tried to sit up, but he winced when he lifted his head, so I put my hand gently on his chest to keep him down.

“You need to rest,” I said.

“I will be fine.” He put his hand over mine again, and I let him. “Eventually.”

“Can you tell me what happened?” I asked. “Why do you need amnesty?”

“Remember when we were in the garden?” Loki asked.

Of course I remembered. Loki had snuck in over the wall and asked me to run away with him. I had declined, but he’d stolen a kiss before he left, a rather nice kiss. My cheeks reddened slightly at the memory, and that made Loki smile wider.

“I see you do,” he grinned.

“What does that have to do with anything?” I asked.

That doesn’t,” Loki said, referring to the kiss. “I meant when I told you that the King hates me. He really does, Princess.” His eyes went dark for a minute.

“The Vittra King did this to you?” I asked, and my stomach tightened. “You mean Oren? My father?”

“Don’t worry about it now,” he said, trying to calm the anger inside me. “I’ll be fine.”

“Why?” I asked. “Why does the King hate you? Why did he do this to you?”

“Princess, please.” He closed his eyes. “I’m exhausted. I barely made it here. Can we have this conversation when I’m feeling a bit better? Say, in a month or two?”

“Loki,” I sighed, but he had a point. “Rest. But we will talk tomorrow. Alright?”

“As you wish, Princess,” he conceded, and he was already drifting back to sleep again.

I sat beside him for a few minutes longer, my hand still on his chest so I could feel his heartbeat pounding underneath. When I was certain he was asleep, I slid my hand out from under his, and I stood up.

In the hall, I wrapped my arms around myself. I couldn’t shake the heavy guilt I felt, as if I somehow shared responsibility for what happened to Loki. I’d only spoken to Oren once, and I had no control over what he did. So why did I feel like it was my fault that Loki had been so brutally beaten?

I wasn’t in the hall for long when Duncan and Thomas approached. I’d wanted to alert as few people as possible about Loki’s presence, but I trusted Thomas. Not just because he was the head guard or Finn’s father. He’d once had an illicit affair with Elora, so I thought he was good at keeping secrets.

“The Vittra Markis is in there?” Thomas asked, but he was already looking past me into the room where Loki slept.

“Yes, but he’s been through hell,” I said, rubbing my arms as if I had a chill. “He’s going to be out for a while.”

“Duncan said he asked for amnesty.” Thomas looked down at me. “Are you going to give it to him?”

“I’m not sure yet,” I said. “He hasn’t been able to talk much. But I’m letting him stay here for now, at least until he heals and we can have a conversation.”

“How do you want us to handle this?” Thomas asked.

“We can’t tell Elora. Not right now,” I said.

The last time Loki had been here, he’d been held captive. We don’t have a real prison, so Elora had used her telekinesis to hold him in place, but that had weakened her so much it nearly killed her. In fact, she hadn’t recovered from it yet, and there would be no way she could do it again.

Besides that, I didn’t think Loki was really capable of causing trouble. Not in this state, at least. And he’d come to us of his own free will. We didn’t need to hold him.

“We need a guard stationed outside his door at all times, just to be safe,” I said. “I don’t think he’s a threat, but I won’t take any chances with the Vittra.”

“I can stand watch now, but somebody will have to relieve me of my post eventually,” Thomas said.

“I can take over later,” Duncan offered.

“No.” Thomas shook his head. “You stay with the Princess.”

“Do you have any other guards you can trust?” I asked.

 Most of the guards seemed to be gossips, and when one of them heard something, they all knew it. But there were very few guards around to tell anymore, since most of them were out protecting changelings.

“I know of one or two,” Thomas nodded.

“Good,” I said. “Make sure they know they cannot tell anybody about this. This all needs to stay quiet until I figure out what I’m going to do. Is that clear?”

“Yes, Your Highness,” Thomas said. It always felt strange hearing people refer to me as Highness.

“Thank you,” I told him.

Tove arrived shortly after that with the mänks doctor. I waited outside the room while he examined Loki. He woke up for it, but offered very little explanation for his injuries. When he was done, the doctor concluded that Loki didn’t have any serious ailments, and he gave him medication for pain.

“Come on,” Tove said, after the doctor had gone. “He’s resting now. There’s nothing more you can do. Why don’t you go enjoy your party?”

“I’ll let you know if there’s any change with him,” Thomas promised.

“Thank you,” I nodded, and walked down the hall with Tove and Duncan toward my room.

I hadn’t felt like having a party before Loki crashed the palace, and I felt even less like having one now. But I had to at least try to have fun so I didn’t hurt Willa or Matt’s feelings. I know they had gone to a lot of trouble for it, so I would play the part of the happy birthday girl for them.

“The doctor thinks he’ll be okay,” Duncan said, responding to my solemn expression.

“I know,” I said.

“Why are you so worried about him anyway?” Duncan asked. “I know that you two are friends or something, but I don’t understand. He’s a Vittra, and he kidnapped you once.”

“I’m not worried,” I cut him off and forced a smile. “I’m excited for the party.”

Duncan directed me to the upstairs living room. It had been Rhys’s playroom when he was little, but they’d converted it into a place to hang out when he became a teenager. But the ceilings had murals of clouds and childish things, and the walls were lined with short white shelves that still held a few of his old toys.

When I opened the door, I was bombarded by streamers and balloons. A banner with the words “Happy Birthday” in giant glitter letters hung on the back wall.

“Happy birthday!” Willa shouted before I could step inside.

“Happy birthday!” Rhys and Rhiannon said in unison.

“Thanks, guys,” I said, pushing a helium-filled balloon out of my face so I could go in. “You guys know my birthday isn’t actually until tomorrow?”

“Of course I know,” Matt said, his voice a little high from inhaling helium. He had a deflated balloon in his hands, the source of the helium, and he tossed it aside to walk over to me. “I was there when you were born, remember?”

He’d been smiling, but it faltered when he realized what he’d said. Rhys and I had been switched at birth. Matt had actually been there for Rhys’s birth, not mine.

“Well, I was there when you came home from the hospital anyway,” Matt said and hugged me. “Happy birthday.”

“Thank you,” I said, hugging him back.

“And I definitely know your birthday,” Rhys said, walking over to us. “Happy birthday!”

“Happy birthday to you too,” I smiled. “How does it feel to be eighteen?”

“Pretty much exactly the same as it does being seventeen,” Rhys laughed. “Do you feel any older?”

“No, not really,” I admitted.

“Oh, come on,” Matt said. “You’ve matured so much in the past six months. I hardly even recognize you anymore.”

“I’m still me, Matt,” I said, shifting uneasily from his compliment.

I knew that I’d grown up some. Even physically, I’d changed. I wore my hair down more now because I finally managed to tame my curls after a lifetime of struggling with them. Since I was running a kingdom now, I had to play the part and wear dark-colored gowns all the time. I had to look like a Princess.

“It’s a good thing, Wendy,” Matt smiled at me.

 “Stop.” I waved my hand. “No more seriousness. This is supposed to be a party.”

“Party!” Rhys shouted and blew on one of those cardboard horns they used on New Year’s.

Once the party got underway, I actually did have fun. This was much better than if I’d had a ball, since most of the people here wouldn’t be able to go. Matt wasn’t even supposed to live in the palace, and since Rhys and Rhiannon were mänks, they would never be allowed to attend a ball. Duncan would be let in, but he’d have to work. He wouldn’t be able to laugh and goof around like he did here.

“Wendy, why don’t you help me cut the cake?” Willa suggested while Tove attempted to act out some kind of clue for charades. Duncan had guessed everything under the sun, but he wasn’t even close.

“Um, sure,” I said.

I’d been sitting on the couch, laughing at everyone’s failed attempts, but I got up and went over to the table where Willa stood. A cake sat on a brightly colored tablecloth, next to a small pile of gifts. Both Rhys and I had specifically asked for no gifts, but here they were.

“Sorry,” Willa said. “I didn’t mean to drag you away from the fun, but I wanted to talk to you.”

“Nah, it’s okay,” I shrugged it off.

“Your brother made the cake.” Willa gave me an apologetic smile as she sliced through the white frosting. “He insisted that it was your favorite.”

Matt might be a very good cook, but I wasn’t sure. I dislike most food, especially processed ones, but Matt had been trying hard to feed me for years, so I pretended to like a lot of things I didn’t like. My birthday cake was one of them.

“It’s not horrible,” I said, but it kind of was. At least to me, and Willa and all the other Trylle.

“I wanted to let you know that I didn’t tell Matt about Loki.” Willa lowered her voice as she carefully put pieces of cake on small paper plates. “He would just worry.”

“Thank you,” I said, and looked back over at Matt, laughing at the ridiculous miming Tove was doing. “I suppose I’ll have to tell him eventually.”

“You think Loki will be around for a while?” Willa asked. She’d gotten some frosting on her finger, and she licked it off, then grimaced.

“Yeah, I think he will be,” I nodded.

“Well, don’t worry about it now,” she said quickly. “This is your last day to be a kid!”

I tried to push all of my fears and concerns I had about the kingdom, and Loki, from my mind. And eventually, when I let myself, I had a really good time with my friends.