I didn’t turn around as I made a dash to the window and the passage hidden right next to it that would deposit me right in the middle of the city below the palace.
In my rush, I failed to realise one crucial detail: Luke’s position at the table meant he was closer to the window than I was.
And even though I had the element of surprise on my side, he was quick.
Grabbing my waist, he pulled me back and I reacted on pure survival instinct. I bent forward, forcing his hold to loosen, grabbed his left hand and twisted. Holding his hand behind his back in an awkward position that hurt like a bitch, I yanked my knife out of my boot and pressed it to his neck below his chin.
“Shit,” he whispered.
“Yeah,” I grunted. “Don’t move,” I warned him. “I will use this.”
“That’s pretty clear.”
I ignored his snark. “How did you recognise me?”
“Don’t call me that,” I snapped, pressing the knife against his throat with a little more strength. A bead of blood trickled down his neck. “My name is Emma now.”
He gave a strangled laugh. “Okay, then, Emma. And before that, what was it?”
I ignored him, pretending not to hear the judgment in his voice. He had no fucking right to judge me. “How,” I growled, pulling his arm further up. He grunted.
“It wasn’t hard. We were so close, once. Of course I’d recognise you.”
“That was years ago! I’ve changed since then,” I thought I heard him mutter evidently under his breath, but ignored him again, as I wasn’t sure what he meant by it. “You couldn't have known it was me.”
“Look. Can you please put the knife down and let go of my arm? I’m quite fond of it.” When I hesitated, he sighed. “I won’t tell my father, you have my word.”
“Your word means nothing to me.”
He winced, but nodded slightly, the knife scraping against his neck as he did so. “That was deserved. But if I were going to call him, don’t you think I’d have done it already?”
I considered his words for a few moments, before letting him go. I kept the knife firmly in my hand though, and edged my way so that the window was behind me, easily within reach in case King Vegard did show up - or Luke decided to try to kill me. Though I might stick around for the latter; it might have been quite amusing to see him try.
I leaned against the wall, staring at Luke; massaging his wrist, he was mumbling under his breath. No doubt damning me to the underworld. I snorted. I doubted there was another place for my soul after my chosen profession, so he needn’t have wasted breath asking for it.
“If you’re done whining, answer my question. I need to know how you recognised me, so I can know what needs to be fixed.”
He sighed and leant against the table. “Your hair, Gina. Emma,” he corrected when I sent him a death glare. “Gods, how could I not recognise that hair?”
I frowned. “So you knew it was me from the moment you saw me?”
He shook his head. “I thought… I hoped. But then you seemed so distant and, well, different. I wasn’t sure.”
“So you invited me to dinner.”
“So you could - what? Interrogate me? Kind of like you did with my br-best friend?” I’d nearly said brother, but stopped myself. If Luke knew anything about the kidnapping, he didn't know Finn was my brother. And it was going to stay that way.
He looked utterly confused. “What?”
I rolled my eyes impatiently. “Freyja Petroya. She was kidnapped, and the letter made it very clear who was behind it.”
He swore loudly. And then again, even more filthy.
I raised my eyebrows sardonically. “That’s no language for a Prince,” I told him, smirking.
“You’d know,” he muttered. I ignored him. Again.
“Now that you know that I know, why don’t we cut the pleasantries. Where are they?”
His head snapped up. “They?”
I nodded slowly. “Freyja and… her brother.”
He shook his head. “I have no idea what you’re talking about.”
I sighed. “Look. I don’t know what you or your father heard that made you want to kidnap them. I know…” I rubbed my hand against my eyes. “Shit. I know that Freyja was saying stuff. Stuff that Vegard probably got his undies in a twist over. But, I swear, I told her - over and over - that I refused; that I didn’t want it. Just… just hand them over, and we’ll leave. I’ll leave, like you wanted me to, and we’ll never come back. But I’m not going without them.”
Throughout my little speech, Luke had been staring at me, mouth agape.
Now, he blinked and shook his head. “Shit. Regina, I swear. I have no idea…”
I narrowed my eyes at him. “I asked nicely, Luke.” His eyes widened at my use of his nickname, but I shrugged it off. If he insisted on calling me by my old name, then two could play. “The boy is only ten, he’s got nothing to do with anything.” Not true. He had everything to do with everything. Still. “Just let them go.”
He just stared at me.
“Don’t make me ask in a less nice way,” I warned him.
That got a reaction out of him; he smirked. “That was a lucky chance you had before. Do you really think you’d be able to beat me again?”
I shrugged, cleaning my nails with the tip of my knife. “I like my chances,” I told him softly. Menacingly.
He frowned at me, but seemed to ignore my warning. They always did. And it tended to be their last mistake. “Either way, I have no idea what’s going on. But,” he added, as I pushed off the wall behind me, flipping the knife casually in my hand. I noticed that, despite all his bravado, he was keeping a very close eye on the knife. I also realised, belatedly, that he had taken care to make sure the illumination of the room we were in wasn’t provided by candles. It was something, I supposed. At least he wasn’t entirely stupid. The cut on his throat had stopped bleeding, but the trickle of red made him look like the victim of a vampyre. “I will try to find out.”
It was my turn to stare him in disbelief. “Why would you do that?”
“What do you mean, why?”
“Do I have to spell it out for you?” he didn’t answer, so I went ahead. “Your family ruined my life - ruined my family. Excuse me if I don’t quite believe you when you say you want to help me.”
He shrugged. “You’ll just have to trust me, I guess.”
Lightning fast, I straightened and flicked my wrist. The knife I’d been holding flew across the room and landed, point down, in the table, millimetres away from his right hand.
His eyes went to the blade vibrating slightly by his hand, then slowly tracked across the room, to where I was not leaning against the wall again, playing with the knife from my other boot.
I grinned at him, but there was no warmth in it and I thought I saw him pale in the dim light from the lamps scattered around the room. “I’ll tell you a story, Luke. Once upon a time, there was this family who lived in a palace. They were happy there. They welcomed visitors from all around the world, eager to learn about other cultures. But one day, one of the visitors came back and slaughtered the entire family. The girl, who was to grudgingly inherit the throne, was left an orphan, with no means to feed, clothe or protect herself. She and her best friend from the palace, who had been with her when she escaped, got in with a pretty rough crowd in town. It wasn’t ideal, but it kept food on the table, and a shelter over their heads. Then one day the would-be princess got in a fight and a man saw it. He told her she had potential. He promised he could make her rich - without having to strip for it.” He winced at that, which gave me a semblance of satisfaction. Maybe there was some humanity left in him after all. My grin widened. “And he did. Raul taught me everything I needed to know to protect me, Freyja and Thor. We got by. So, no, actually, I don’t have to, nor do I want to trust you.”
“What do you think?”
“No, I mean… you said she’d said things?”
I eyed him for a few moments, before deciding he was telling the truth about not knowing anything about the kidnapping. “She apparently told a friend that I could… fix our lives. She told Thor that I’d change everything.” I shook my head, frustrated. “I don’t know what got into her. We’d talked this over years ago. We had both agreed that there was no way… and besides, I had never really wanted…” I sighed. “Then I came back from that damn cell, and they were both gone.”
“Wait - cell?”
I waved my hand impatiently. “Yeah, Raul being an ass. Trying to be funny. Of course, that opened up the window for your daddy dearest to take them while I wasn’t there. Gods, I should have killed that scumbag!”
He looked confused again, but seemed to have decided to ignore my latest outburst. “So your friend, Freyja, had been telling people…”
“…That I’d reclaim the throne. Yeah.”
“And if you did, what would you do… to, you know. Us. Me.”
I eyed him carefully. “If - and this was a very big if - I did decide to do that, it would be eye for eye.”
He nodded absently. “Was?”
“You said it ‘was’ a very big if. Is it not so big anymore?”
“What’s it to you? Trust me, you’ll know if it happens.”
He grinned. “Yes, I think I’d notice. I’d just like some warning if I’m going to be killed. You know. People to say goodbye to, and all that.”
“Like my family got warning?” I asked quietly and the smile disappeared from his face. “Worry not, Your Highness. You’re safe. For now.”
“I’m sorry, Regina.”
He shrugged. “For… everything.”
Nodding, I moved towards the door. He didn't move to stop me. “Goodnight, Lord Prince. I hope you’ll have some news for me about my friends soon.”
“Goodnight,” he whispered as I left. As the door closed behind me, I thought I heard him say. “Emma."