TWISTED GAMES by ANA HUANG, Book 2, Chapter No: 47,RHYS

1 WEEK LATER “Your Highness!” Erhall’s assistant jumped up from her desk, her eyes wide. “I’m so sorry. I don’t know what happened, but we don’t have you on the calendar. There must’ve been a mix-up—” “It’s all right,” Bridget said with a gracious smile. “I didn’t make an appointment, but we would like to speak with the Speaker. Is he available?” “Oh, um.” The flustered-looking woman rifled through her papers before she shook her head. “Yes, of course. Please, follow me.” She led us through the Speaker’s chambers toward his office. The thick blue carpet muffled the sounds of our footsteps, and my muscles knotted with tension. We’re really doing this. I wasn’t scared of Erhall, but this would be my first time seeing him since I found out he was my father. Biologically, anyway. He hadn’t done jack shit to earn the honor the title deserved. Erhall’s assistant knocked on his door. No answer. She knocked again. “What? I told you not to disturb me!” he barked. The woman flinched. “Mr. Speaker, Her Highness Princess Bridget is here to see you. And, um, Mr. Larsen.” She cast a quick, awed glance in my direction.
I fought a grimace. After the past week, everyone in Eldorra—hell, everyone in the world—knew my face and name. They’d taken over headlines from Tokyo to New York, and the footage from Bridget’s press conference, as well as the “candid” photos and videos of us kissing afterward, had played on repeat on every news channel. The press spun the story as a reverse fairytale about a princess and her bodyguard, and the commentators ran with it, penning entire articles and op-eds about love, duty, and tradition. The public ate it up. According to Bridget, Parliament had been inundated with calls about repealing the law, and the hashtag #LoveOverCountry had been trending all week on social media. Love was the most universal emotion. Not everyone experienced it, but they all wanted it—even those who said they didn’t—and Bridget’s press conference had tapped into that core need. She wasn’t just a royal anymore. She was a human and, more importantly, relatable to every person out there who couldn’t be with the person they wanted for whatever reason. There was nothing more powerful than power people could relate to. Bridget’s plan had worked better than we could’ve hoped, but it was disconcerting seeing my face all over the newsstands and having people stop and stare wherever I went. But I’d agreed to the plan knowing it would destroy any semblance of privacy I had left, and if stepping out of the shadows and into the spotlight was what it took for us to be together, I’d do an interview with every goddamned magazine out there. Bridget, Erhall’s assistant, and I waited for the Speaker’s response to Bridget’s visit. I heard the slam of a desk drawer followed by several beats of silence before the door swung open, revealing an irritated
looking Erhall. The knots in my muscles doubled. My father. I didn’t know what I’d expected. Maybe a tug in my stomach at the sight of the man who was technically one half of me, or the loathing that had simmered beneath the surface for over three decades, waiting for the day when I could unleash it in a hail of fists and blood and curses. Instead, I felt nothing. Nothing except a vague distaste for Erhall’s overly coiffed, gel-slick hair and anger at the tight, bordering-on-disrespectful smile he gave Bridget. “Your Highness. Please, come in.” His tone indicated he was less than pleased by the surprise, and he didn’t acknowledge me as we stepped into his large, oak-paneled office. Bridget and I took the seats across from him. The office reflected the man, cold and empty of any personal effects except for the framed university degrees hanging on the walls. I studied Erhall, trying to see the resemblance between us. I spotted a hint of it in the angle of his cheekbones and the slope of his forehead. It wasn’t obvious enough strangers would look at us and guess we were related, but it was there if one looked closely enough. I blinked, and the resemblance disappeared, replaced by a pinched visage and cold, calculating eyes. “So.” Erhall steepled his fingers beneath his chin, his lips as pinched as the rest of his face. “The crown princess herself visiting me in my office. To what do I owe the honor?” “I have an agenda item for Parliament’s next session.” Bridget radiated authority, and pride flashed through me. She’d come a long way since the day we sat in her hotel suite in New York, watching Nikolai’s abdication on TV. She’d looked like she wanted to throw up during his speech, but there was no trace of that scared, uncertain girl today. “Open the motion to repeal the Royal Marriages Law.” Erhall stared at her for a second before laughing. Loudly.
A snarl rumbled in my throat, but I forced myself to remain silent. This was Bridget’s show. “I thought this was another citizen write-in issue,” Erhall said. “I’m afraid I can’t do that. The law is one of the oldest in Eldorra, and as…moving as your press conference was, it’s tradition. Not to mention, we have far more important issues at hand, including the water pollution problem you brought to our attention last month. You want clean drinking water for the people of Hedelberg, don’t you?” Bridget smiled, not blinking an eye at his heavy-handed threat. “I’m afraid you misunderstand me. That wasn’t a request, and I trust Parliament is competent enough to handle more than one issue at a time. If it’s not, I suggest a change in how you run the chamber, Mr. Speaker…or a change in the Speakership altogether.” Erhall’s chuckles vanished, and his face hardened. “With all due respect, Your Highness, Parliament consults the Crown as a courtesy, but no one, not even His Majesty, dictates the law.” “Then it’s a good thing I’m not dictating the law.” Bridget crossed her legs, her posture flawless as she stared him down. “I’m telling you to repeal one. It is outdated and holds no practical value for the country or the people. Without value, tradition is nothing but an imitation of the past, and the people agree. A recent poll put public approval for a repeal at ninetythree percent.” Erhall’s chest puffed with indignation. “I beg to differ. Tradition is the foundation of this country, this office, and your office. We cannot go about tearing it down willy-nilly. So no, I’m afraid I cannot bring the motion to the floor. No matter how many souvenir T-shirts they’re selling with Mr. Larsen’s face on them,” he added with a small sneer. Bridget and I exchanged glances. Are you sure? Yes. Do it.
Short, succinct, and silent. The most efficient conversation we’d ever had. “You should care more about Mr. Larsen’s public profile,” Bridget said, her mild tone giving no warning before she dropped the bombshell. “Considering he’s your son.” Most explosions were deafening, rattling teeth and eardrums with the sheer force of the energy expelled. This one was silent but a hundred times deadlier, its shock waves slamming into Erhall before he ever saw it coming. I could pinpoint the moment the impact hit. His face drained of color, and the smug self-satisfaction disappeared from his eyes as they bounced between me and Bridget. Back and forth, back and forth, like two ping pong balls stuck in a pendulum. “That’s—he’s—that’s a lie,” Erhall sputtered. “I don’t have a son.” “Michigan, summer of eighty-six,” I said. “Deidre Larsen.” I didn’t think it was possible, but Erhall’s face paled further until it matched the color of his starched button-down. “Judging by your reaction, you remember her.” I leaned forward, my face creasing with a grim smile when he scooted back an inch in response. A faint sheen of perspiration glistened on his forehead. “She’s dead, by the way. Turned to alcohol and drugs after a piece of shit lowlife abandoned her when she told him she was pregnant. Overdosed when I was eleven.” I thought I caught a flash of regret in Erhall’s eyes before he covered it up. “I’m sorry to hear that.” A muscle worked in his jaw, and he reached for his tie only to lower his hand before making contact. “But I’m afraid I don’t know a Deidre Larsen. You have me mistaken for someone else.” My hands flexed into fists. Bridget slid a hand onto my knee, her touch cool and reassuring, and I expelled a long breath before I forced myself to relax.
I wasn’t here to beat down on Erhall, at least not physically. We had a more important goal to accomplish. “That’s not what the DNA tests say.” I reached into my pocket and slapped the papers, courtesy of Andreas, on the desk with a thud that made Erhall jump. “Take a look if you don’t believe me.” He didn’t touch them. We both knew what I said was true. “What do you want?” Erhall recovered some of his composure. “Money? A title?” He raised an eyebrow. “Monthly bonding activities?” Despite his mocking tone, he stared at me with a strange expression that almost… No. The day I willingly engaged in any form of “bonding” activity with him was the day icicles formed in hell. “Her Highness already told you.” I tilted my head in Bridget’s direction. Shes sat calmly next to me, her expression neutral, almost bored, as she watched our conversation. “We want you to open the motion to repeal the Royal Marriages Law.” “And if I don’t?” “You might find the news about your long-lost love child splashed across the front page of the next Daily Tea,” Bridget said. “Hypothetically speaking, of course. Journalists can get their hands on the darnedest things.” She shook her head. “It’s too bad they won’t wait until after the elections. You have quite a strong opponent this year. Just a hint of a scandal could tip things in his favor. But what do I know?” Her smile returned. “I’m just a ‘pretty face.’” Erhall’s face changed from chalk white to bright purple in zero-point-two seconds. It would’ve been alarming had it not been so satisfying. “Are you blackmailing me?” “No,” Bridget said. “I’m encouraging you to do the right thing. Because you will do the right thing, won’t you, Mr. Speaker?”
I could tell he was struggling to hold back some choice epithets as the wheels spun in his head. If he refused, he risked losing his political career over the scandal an illegitimate child would cause. He represented one of the most traditional counties in the country, and his voters would not respond well to the news he had a child with an American waitress out of wedlock. If he caved, he would lose the power play, because that’s what this was. It wouldn’t take much for Erhall to bring the motion to the floor, but doing so meant Bridget gained the upper hand. Politics was a game and losing a match— especially to someone Erhall deemed inferior for no other reason than her gender—had to sting. The grandfather clock ticked in the corner, the passing of seconds deafening in the silence. Finally, Erhall’s shoulders slumped, and a thrill of victory darted through me. “Even if I bring the motion to the floor, Parliament will never pass it,” he said spitefully. “Public opinion only takes you so far.” Bridget’s smile didn’t waver. “Let me worry about the rest of Parliament. You do your part, and the world never has to know about your indiscretion. You might even sit in the Prime Minister’s seat one day. But remember, Mr. Speaker, I’m going to be queen. And I will still be queen long after your political career is over and you’re hawking your memoir about your glory days on morning talk shows. So, it’s in your best interest to work with me and not make things difficult. Don’t you agree?” Erhall was an asshole, but he wasn’t an idiot. “Fine. I’ll open the motion at the next session of Parliament,” he said, tone sullen. “Excellent.” Bridget rose from her seat. “I do love a productive meeting. Mr. Larsen, is there anything else you’d like to add?” I stared at Erhall. While certain things he said and did pissed me off, my overall feelings toward my father had
shifted from loathing to indifference. Whatever hold he had over me, it was gone. “I spent my life building you up in my mind,” I said. “You were the decision that changed two lives irrevocably, the monster who changed my mother into the monster she became. I could’ve found out your identity a long time ago, but I chose not to. I told myself it was because I didn’t trust myself enough not to kill you for what you did”—Erhall flinched and scooted back another inch—“but the truth is, I was scared of facing the ghost that had haunted me my entire life, even when I was convinced ghosts weren’t real. What was he like, the man that was technically one half of me? How would he react when he found out I was his son?” The muscle in Erhall’s jaw jumped again. “Well, I finally faced him, and you know what I realized?” I looked him straight in the eye. Not an iota of anything other than apathy passed through me. “He’s not a monster. He’s a sad, pathetic little man who was too much of a coward to own up to the consequences of his actions, and I wasted decades letting him have more power over my life than he deserved. So no, I don’t and will never want your money, your title, or any form of relationship with you. As far as I’m concerned, my father is dead. He died when he walked away thirty-four years ago.” Erhall flinched as I, too, stood, my height throwing a shadow over his hunched form. I nodded. “Have a good day, Mr. Speaker.” Bridget and I made it halfway to the door before he said, “Arranged marriages aren’t only for royals, Mr. Larsen. People have been forced into loveless marriages long before Her Highness was born.” I paused and looked back, my eyes locking with Erhall’s. I glimpsed another flash of regret, but it wasn’t enough. Not for what he did to Deidre, and not for what he did to me. There was no excuse for how he’d handled the situation.
Instead of responding, I closed the remaining distance to the exit and left him there, sputtering and alone in his cold, oversized office. Bridget waited until we entered the elevator, away from the prying ears and eyes of Erhall’s assistant, before she spoke. “We should make our rounds on the speech circuit,” she said. “We’d make a killing.” A laugh rumbled in my throat. A heavy weight had lifted off my chest, allowing my laughter to flow more freely. “Hard pass for me. I’m not typically a speech kinda guy.” “You did good in there.” Bridget squeezed my arm, the movement conveying more than any words could, before a glint of mischief lit up her eyes. “I thought Erhall would rupture an artery. Imagine if we’d mentioned Andreas too.” Andreas had been adamant about never letting Erhall know the truth about him. He had more to lose than any of us if the truth about his parentage came to light, and I had no problem keeping the secret—partly because I respected his choice, and partly because it kept him in line. Even if he didn’t want the crown, he was still on my watch list. Anyone who could possibly threaten Bridget was. “So. Battle number one won,” I said as the elevator stopped on the ground floor of the Parliament building. “What’s next?” Bridget’s mischief gave way to determination. “Next, we win the war.” “Damn right we will.” I held out my hand, and she took it, her small, soft palm nestling perfectly in my bigger, rougher one. The doors whooshed open, and we stepped out to a frenzy of camera flashes and reporters shouting questions over each other. Out of the shadows and into the spotlight. I’d never expected global recognition, but I meant it when I said I would follow Bridget anywhere—including into the
middle of a media firestorm. You ready, Mr. Larsen? Born ready, princess. Bridget and I kept our hands clasped together as we walked through the storm. One battle down, one war to win. Good thing I was, and always will be, a soldier for one queen.

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