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“The titles and positions seem arbitrary,” Elora continued. “But we are in power because we have the most power. For centuries, our abilities outshone every other family’s, but the Kroners are rapidly overtaking us. You are the last chance for hanging on to the throne and retaining power for our family.”

“What does this have to do with Finn?” I demanded, growing tired of political talk.

“Everything,” Elora answered with a thin smile. “In order to keep the bloodlines as pure and powerful as possible, certain rules were put into effect. Not just for royalty, but for everyone. It’s not merely as a repercussion for behaving outside of societal norms, but also so half-breed spawn won’t weaken our bloodlines.” Something about the way she said “spawn” sent a chill down my spine.

“Consequences vary in severity,” Elora continued. “When a Trylle becomes involved with a mänsklig, they are asked to leave the community.”

“There’s nothing going on between Rhys and me,” I interjected, and Elora nodded skeptically.

“While trackers are Trylle, they don’t possess abilities in the conventional sense,” Elora went on, and I began to realize what she was getting at. “Trackers are meant to be with trackers. If Trylle are involved with them, they are looked down upon, but it is allowed.

“Unless you are royalty.” She looked severely at me. “A tracker can never have the crown. Any Marksinna or Princess caught with a tracker is immediately stripped of her title. If the offense is bad enough, such as a Princess destroying an essential bloodline, then they would both be banished.”

I swallowed hard. If anything happened between Finn and me, I wouldn’t be able to be a Princess, and I wouldn’t even be able to live in Förening anymore. That was shocking at first, until I reflected that I didn’t even want to be a Princess or live here. What did I care?

“So?” I said, and Elora looked momentarily surprised.

“I know that right now all of this means nothing to you.” Elora gestured widely to the room around us. “I know you hate this, and I understand. But this is your destiny, and even if you don’t see it, Finn does. He knows how important you are, and he would never let you ruin your future. That is why he offered up his resignation.”

“He quit? That’s impossible. Finn would never quit.” Not when he knew how much I needed him.

And he had to know. That’s why he stood up for me with Elora. He knew that I would be lost without him, and he couldn’t do that to me. It would go against everything he believed in.

“It’s a shame,” Elora continued as if my refusal to believe didn’t merit a response. “I blame myself because the signs were so obvious. And I blame Finn because he knows better than to get involved, better than anyone. But I commend him for realizing what the right thing was for you. He is leaving to protect you.”

“There’s nothing I need protection from!” I got to my feet. “He has no reason to leave because nothing’s going on. I’m not involved with anyone.”

“I would find that much more believable if you hadn’t raced down here with tears in your eyes to plead for his job,” Elora replied coolly. “Or if he had promised me he could keep things purely business from here on, I would’ve kept him.” She looked down at the chaise, pulling at a loose thread in the fabric. “But he couldn’t even do that. He didn’t even try to convince me.”

I wanted to argue with her, but I began to realize exactly what she was saying. Finn cared about me, and he’d admitted it to Elora, knowing how she would react. He cared about me so much he had been unable to continue doing his job. He couldn’t keep things separate anymore, and he was upstairs packing right now.

I would’ve liked to yell at Elora more, blame her for everything horrible in my life and tell her that I was giving up the crown, but I didn’t have time to waste. I had to catch him before he left, because I had no idea where he would go.

By the time I made it to his room, my breath was ragged. My hands were trembling, and that familiar butterfly feeling Finn gave me had spread throughout my body. I was in love with him, and I wasn’t going to give him up. Not for anything in this world or the next.

When I opened his bedroom door, he was standing over his bed, folding clothes and putting them in a suitcase. He looked back at me, surprised by my appearance, then the expression in his dark eyes changed to something unreadable.

Dark stubble covered his cheeks, and there was something so ruggedly handsome about him, he was almost unbearable to look at. The top few buttons of his dress shirt were undone, revealing a hint of chest that I found strangely provocative.

“Are you all right?” Finn stopped what he was doing and took a step toward me.

“Yeah.” I nodded, swallowing hard. “I’m going with you.”

“Wendy . . .” His expression softened, and he shook his head. “You can’t go with me. You need to be here.”

“No, I don’t care about here!” I insisted. “I don’t want to be a stupid Princess, and they don’t need me. I’m terrible at everything. My leaving is the best thing for everyone.”

“They do need you. You have no idea how badly they need you.” Finn turned away from me. “Without you, it will completely fall apart.”

“That doesn’t make any sense! I’m just one stupid girl who can’t even figure out which fork to eat with! I have no abilities. I’m awkward and silly and inappropriate, and that Kroner kid is much better suited for this. I don’t need to be here, and I’m not going to stay if you’re not here!”

“There is much you have yet to learn,” Finn said tiredly, almost to himself. He had started folding his clothes again, so I walked over to him and grabbed his arm.

“I want to be with you, and . . . I think you want to be with me.” I felt sick to my stomach saying it aloud. I expected him to laugh at me or tell me that I was insane, but instead, he slowly looked at me.

In a rare moment of vulnerability, his dark eyes betrayed everything they had been trying to hide from me: affection and warmth, and something even deeper than that. His arm felt strong under my hand, and my heart pounded in my chest. Gently he placed his hand on my cheek, letting his fingers press warmly on my skin, and I stared hopefully at him.

“I am not worth it, Wendy,” Finn whispered hoarsely. “You are going to be so much more than this, and I cannot hold you back. I refuse to.”

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