Wings made a high chirping noise and glanced off

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wings. Made a high, chirping noise and glanced off toward the trees. “Ready?” Leif asked her. He chucked her under the chin like one would a baby, then lowered his arm, and lifted it quickly. “Off you go.” Él launched off his glove, wings beating the air, and went winging off across the snow, climbing and climbing. “She’s beautiful,” Tessa said, watching her shrink smaller and smaller with distance. Leif didn’t respond, and when Tessa turned to him, it was her he studied, rather than the bird. There was an intensity to him that reminded her of Erik. An air graver and more
serious than that of his brother. He was still growing into it; it gapped in some places, and let youth and exuberance peek through, but there was no mistaking it for what it was: a kingly bearing. He wasn’t merely the older brother, but the heir, too. There was something wonderfully magnetic about it, for all that the sight and sound of Rune put butterflies in her stomach. She’d meant to ask him something about hawking, some benign bit of conversation that, like most of their conversations, helped her learn more about her new home, but which failed to address one pertinent fact: that she was meant to marry him. So, instead, caught in the blue of his gaze, she said, “My brother said something to me once, and I suspect he heard it from Father. He said, ‘Knowing that you are to inherit is not a blessing or a thrill. It’s a weight that you carry with you always. To know that the safety and happiness of an entire people rests on your shoulders is a heavy thing.’” His eyes widened, and then he nodded. “He had the right of it.” His gaze scanned out across the field, toward the distant, huddled shape of Aeres. “I imagine for some princes, it’s great fun to think about the jewels, and the fine horses, and – I don’t know, Birger talks about the great adoring crowds of admirers for the crown prince in the South – but it isn’t like that here.” He smiled a little ruefully. “Uncle never let us forget growing up that it was a privilege and a responsibility. It’s not all balls and beauties up here.” He didn’t sound bitter, exactly, but a heavy note touched his voice. “Do you ever…” Maybe she shouldn’t ask that. But he said, “What?” his gaze soft when it returned to her. Inviting. “Do you ever wish that your uncle had married? That he’d had sons of his own?” So that kingship hadn’t fallen in your lap? He took a deep breath, and considered a moment. “Not at first. It seemed like a high honor when I was little – and it is, don’t get me wrong. But lately it’s felt – it’s felt immense. Something sure, like death; I’m hurtling toward it, and I can’t change it.” His mouth tugged sideways. “I guess that’s how Uncle feels most of the time, so it’s only fair.” “Does he not” – she knew she was overstepping, now, but couldn’t resist – “want a family of his own?” Leif’s expression shifted, from a quick pulse of what she swore was fear, to something more careful and guarded. “He has a family,” he said, firmly. “All the family that he needs.”

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