21. Preparation

In the ballroom, all the trackers were busy practicing moves on each other. Loki stood near the front, teaching a young tracker how to block. I tried not to think about how young that kid looked or about how he’d fight in battle soon.

“Loki!” I yelled to get his attention.

He turned toward to me, smiling already, and his attention dropped from the tracker. Seizing the opportunity, the tracker moved forward, punching Loki in the face. It wasn’t hard enough to hurt, and the tracker looked both frightened and proud.

“Sorry,” the tracker apologized. “I thought we were still training.”

“It’s fine.” Loki rubbed his jaw and waved him off. “Just save the good stuff for the hobgoblins, alright?”

I smiled sheepishly at Loki as he made his way across the ballroom over to where I stood at the door. I couldn’t see Finn or Thomas, but I knew they had to be somewhere in the room, working with the other trackers.

“I didn’t mean to distract you like that and get you sucker punched.”

“I’m alright,” Loki assured me with a grin and stepped out into the hall, so we could have some privacy from onlookers. “What can I do for you, Princess?”

“Can I cut off your head?” I asked.

“Are you asking for my permission?” Loki tilted his head and cocked an eyebrow. “Because I’m going to have to say no to this one request, Princess.”

“No, I mean, can I?” I asked. “As in, am I capable of it? Would you die if I did?”

“Of course I would die.” Loki put one hand against the wall and leaned on it. “I’m not a bloody cockroach. What’s all this about? What are you trying to find out?”

“If I cut off Oren’s head, would that kill him?” I asked.

“Probably, but you’ll never get close enough to him to do that.” He put his other hand on his hip and stared down at me. “Is that your plan? To decapitate the King?”

“Do you have a better plan?” I countered.

“No, but…” he sighed. “I’ve tried that before, and it didn’t work. You can’t get close enough to him. He’s strong and smart.”

“No, you can’t get close enough to him,” I clarified. “You don’t have the same abilities as I do.”

“I know that, but I can’t knock him out,” Loki said. “His mind is impenetrable. Even your mother couldn’t use her powers on him.” His eyes softened when he mentioned my mother. “I’m sorry about that by the way.”

“No, don’t be.” I shook my head and lowered my eyes. “That’s not your fault.”

“I wanted to see you, but I knew you’d have your hands full,” Loki said, his voice quiet. “I thought you’d rather I be here, helping the Trylle.”

“You’re right,” I nodded.

“But I still feel like a dick,” he said. I could feel him studying me, his eyes all over me, but I didn’t lift my head. “How are you doing with all this?”

“I don’t have time to think about it.” I shook my head again, clearing it of any thoughts of Elora, and looked up at him. “I need to find out how to stop Oren.”

“That’s a noble goal,” Loki said. “Cutting of his head would probably do it, or running him through with a sword. It’s never been a matter of killing him. It’s getting close enough to do it.”

“Well, I can do it,” I insisted. “I can find a way. I have tiger blood, so I’m strong.”

“Tiger blood?” Loki arched an eyebrow. “What are you going on about, Wendy?”

“Nothing. Never mind.” I smiled thinly at him. “I can stop Oren. And that’s what matters, right?”

“How?” he asked.

“Don’t worry about it.” I took a step back, walking away from him. “You concentrate on getting them ready. I’ll deal with Oren.”

“Wendy,” Loki sighed.

I hurried back to the library where Duncan and Matt were still waiting. I didn’t let Matt know of my idea, because he would only disapprove. The last few days felt epic and long, and I told Matt to get some rest. We could pick things up in the morning.

I did need to rest myself. One thing I had learned from Tove was that my powers weakened and got more uncontrollable if I was overly tired. I’d been so completely exhausted lately that I wouldn’t stand a chance against Oren.

Everything was so simple it was almost infuriating. Everyone had made it sound so difficult to kill Oren, but it would be the same as killing any other Vittra. I thought I’d need a magic spell or something. But all I had to do was get close to him.

I knew Loki was right, and it would be easier said than done. Physically, Oren was still much stronger than me, he healed quickly, and his mind was virtually immune to my abilities. When he had interrupted my wedding, I’d tried to throw him back against the wall, and I’d only ruffled his hair.

Stopping him would be difficult, but it would be possible.

But I’d need my abilities to be up to full strength, which meant that I needed to rest. It felt lazy going to bed when so much was happening in the palace, but I didn’t have a choice.

I went upstairs to go to my room, and I heard Willa rallying the displaced Trylle from Oslinna. She’d gathered them in one of the larger bedrooms and told them how they could make a difference, how they could avenge their loved ones.

I paused outside the door, listening for a moment. She really was a brilliant orator. Something in the way she spoke always sounded seductive. It was hard saying no to Willa.

Willa was doing well with them on her own, so I continued down to my room. A rustling sound came from inside my chambers, so cautiously I pushed open the door. I poked my head in, and by the dim light of the bedside lamp I saw Garrett rummaging through my nightstand drawer.

“Garrett?” I asked, stepping inside the room.

“Princess.” He immediately stopped what he was doing and stepped away from my nightstand. His cheeks reddened, and he lowered his eyes. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to go through your things. I was looking for a necklace I gave Elora. I couldn’t find it in her new room, and I thought it might have gotten left in here.”

“I can help you look,” I offered. “I haven’t seen any necklaces, but I haven’t been searching for any, either. What did it look like?”

“It was a black onyx stone with diamonds and silver wrapped around it.” He gestured to his own chest at about the spot a necklace would hang. “She used to wear it all the time, and I thought it would be good for…” He stopped, choking up for a second. “I thought she’d like to be buried with it.”

“I’m sure she would,” I said.

He sniffled and shielded his eyes with his hand. I had no idea what to do. I stayed frozen in place, watching Garrett as he struggled not to cry.

“I’m sorry.” He wiped his eyes and shook his head. “You don’t need to deal with me being like this.”

“No, it’s okay,” I said. I took a step closer to him, but I didn’t know what to do, so I didn’t move forward any further. I twisted my wedding ring and tried to think of something comforting to say. “I know how much you cared for my mother.”

“I did.” He nodded and sniffled again, but he seemed to have stopped crying. “I really did care about her. Elora was a very complicated woman, but she was a good woman. She knew she had to be Queen first, and everything else came after.”

“She told me she regretted that,” I said quietly. “She said she wished she’d made different choices and put the people she cared about first.”

“She meant you.” Garrett smiled at me, and it was both sorrowful and loving. “She loved you so much, Wendy. Not a day went by that she didn’t think about you or talk about you. Before you came back, when you were still a child, she’d sit in her parlor and paint you. She’d focus all her energy on you, just so she could see you.”

“She used to paint me?” I asked, surprised.

“You didn’t know?” Garrett asked.

“No,” I shook my head. “She never mentioned it.”

“Come on. I’ll show you.”

Garrett headed down the hall, and I went with him. I’d seen the room where Elora kept her precognitive paintings locked away in the North Wing, and I thought about telling Garrett that. But I hadn’t seen any paintings of me as a child. She’d only had a few of me as a teenager.

He led me all the way down the hall. At the very end, across the hall from my old bedroom, Garrett pushed on a wall. I didn’t understand what he was doing, and then the wall popped out. It was a door built to blend in seamlessly with the walls.

“I didn’t know that was there,” I said in dismay.

“Once you’re Queen, I’ll show you all the secrets of the palace.” Garrett held the door open for me. “And believe me, there are quite a few.”

I stepped through the door to find a small room that’s only purpose was to house a narrow spiral staircase. I glanced back at Garrett, but he gestured for me to go ahead. He stayed a step behind me as I went up the creaking iron stairs.

Before we even reached the top, I could see the paintings. Skylights in the ceiling lit the room, and I stepped onto the hardwood floor. It was small, a hidden attic room with a peaked roof. But the walls were covered with paintings, all of them hung carefully a few inches apart. And all of the paintings were of me.

Elora’s meticulous brushstrokes made them almost look like photographs. They showed me in all stages of my life. At a birthday party when I was young, with cake on my face. A scraped knee when I was three, with Maggie helping me put on a BandAid. At a failed dance recital when I was eight, pulling at my tutu. In my backyard, on the swings, with Matt pushing me. Curled up in my bed, reading It by flashlight when I was twelve. Caught in the rain when I was fifteen, trudging home from school.

“How?” I asked, staring in awe at all the paintings. “How did she do this? Elora told me she couldn’t pick what she saw.”

“She couldn’t, not really,” Garrett said. “She never picked when she saw you, and it took a lot of her energy to focus on you, to see you. But… it was worth it for her. It was the only way she could watch you grow up.”

“It took a lot?” I turned back to him with tears in my eyes. “You mean it aged her a lot.” I gestured to the walls. “This is the reason why she looked fifty when I met her? This is why she died of old age before she even turned forty?”

“Don’t look at it like that, Wendy.” Garrett shook his head. “She loved you, and she needed to see you. She needed to know you were alright. So she painted these. She knew how much it cost her, and she did it gladly.”

For the first time, I really realized what I had lost. I’d had a mother that loved me my entire life, and I hadn’t been able to see her. Even after I met her, I didn’t get to really know her, not until it was too late.

I began to sob, and Garrett came over to me. Somewhat awkwardly, he hugged me, letting me cry on his shoulder.

After I’d gotten it all out, he walked me back down to my room. He apologized for upsetting me, but I was glad he had. I needed to see that, to know about the paintings. I went to bed and tried not to cry myself to sleep.

In the morning, I knew I had much to do, so I rose early and went down to the kitchen to grab breakfast. I only made it as far as the stairs when I heard arguing in the main hall. I stopped and peered down over the railing to see what the fuss was about.

Thomas was talking to his wife, Annali, and their twelve-year-old daughter, Ember. That was Finn’s mom and sister, his family, but Finn wasn’t around. Thomas kept his voice hushed, but Annali was insistent. Ember kept trying to pull away, but Annali had a firm grip on her arm and wouldn’t let her go.

“Thomas, if it’s that dangerous, you and Finn should come with us,” Annali said, staring up at him. “He is my son too, and I don’t want him in harm’s way because of some misplaced sense of duty.”

“It’s not misplaced, Annali,” Thomas sighed. “This is to protect our kingdom.”

“Our kingdom?” Annali scoffed. “What has this kingdom ever done for us? They barely pay you enough to feed our children! I have to raise goats to keep a roof over our head!”

“Annali, hush.” Thomas held his hands up to her. “People will hear you.”

“I don’t care if they hear me!” Annali shouted, raising her voice. “Let them hear me! I hope they banish us! I want them to! Then finally we can be a family instead of being ruled by this awful monarchy!”

“Mom, don’t say that.” Ember squirmed and pulled away from her mother. “I don’t want to be banished. All my friends are here.”

 “You’ll make new friends, Ember, but you only have one family,” Annali said.

“Which is exactly why you need to go away,” Thomas said. “It’s not safe here. The Vittra will be coming very soon, and you need to be hidden.”

“I will not go away without you or my son,” Annali said firmly. “I have stood by you through much worse, and I will not lose you now.”

“I will be safe,” Thomas said. “I can fight. So can Finn. You need to protect our daughter. When this is all over, we can go away together, if that’s what you want. I promise you I will leave with you. But right now, you need to take Ember.”

“I don’t want to go!” Ember whined. “I want to help you fight! I’m as strong as Finn!”

“Please,” Thomas begged. “I need you safe.”

“Where do you expect us to go?” Annali asked.

“Your sister is married to a Kanin,” Thomas said. “You can stay with them. Nobody will look for you there.”

“How will I know when you’re safe?” Annali asked.

“I’ll come for you when it’s over,” Thomas said.

“What if you never come?” Annali asked.

“I will come for you,” Thomas said firmly. “Now go. I don’t want you travelling at the same time as the Vittra. They’re not something you want to mess with.”

“Where is Finn?” Annali asked. “I want to say goodbye to him.”

“He’s with the other trackers,” Thomas said. “Go home. Pack your things. I’ll send him down to talk to you.”

“Fine,” Annali said reluctantly. “But when you come for me, you better bring my son with you, alive and intact. If not, you might as well not come at all.”

“I know,” he nodded.

Annali stared up at her husband for a moment, not saying anything.

“Ember, say goodbye to your father,” Annali said. Ember started to protest, and Annali pulled at her arm. “Now, Ember.”

Ember did as she was told. She hugged Thomas, and he kissed her cheek. Annali cast one more look at Thomas over her shoulder, and then she and Ember left out the front door. Thomas stayed behind for a moment, his whole body sagging.

He’d sent his family away to protect them. He’d seen the painting the same as I had, and he knew the destruction that was set to befall the palace. It was no place for innocent bystanders.

But then something occurred to me. I had been trying to find a way to change the outcome of the painting, to do something that would alter the course of events and make it so we wouldn’t all die, and I finally figured it out.