Crystal kingdom, p.1
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         Part #3 of Kanin Chronicles series by Amanda Hocking
Crystal Kingdom


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  Table of Contents

  About the Author

  Copyright Page

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  For Eric J. Goldman, Esq.--this book may be the final chapter in one of our finest adventures together, but I know there are still many more escapades for us to enjoy.

  ONE

  friends & enemies

  "So, what do you say, white rabbit?" Konstantin Black asked. "Friends?"

  He sat on the stool next to me, his gaze unwavering. His thick eyebrows arched hopefully above the dark silver of his eyes, and the coal-black waves of his hair fell over his face as he tilted toward me.

  All I could do was gape at him, too stunned to think or move. I didn't even know if he was really there or not. It would make more sense that I had unknowingly passed out in a random diner in Missouri and I was suffering from a stress-induced nightmare or possibly a lysa.

  There was no way that Konstantin could be here with me. Not after I'd spent five days on the run from Doldastam after being arrested for treason and accused of murdering the Skojare Prince Kennet Biaelse and my friend Kasper Abbott.

  I'd done everything in my power to stay under the radar--I only used cash and a burner phone, and I hadn't even built up the nerve to actually use the phone and call anyone back home yet. I moved constantly and stayed off the grid in dive motels in small towns.

  There was no possible way that anyone could've found me, not even Konstantin Black.

  "Bryn?" Konstantin asked, since I'd done nothing but stare at him for the past minute.

  Then, because I had to be sure he was real, I reached out and touched him, pressing on the black leather jacket covering his bicep, and he looked down at my hand in bewilderment. I half expected the coat to give way and him to disappear in a puff of smoke, but instead I felt the firmness of his muscle underneath.

  "Are you feeling all right?" He looked back at me with what appeared to be genuine concern in his eyes, but I wasn't sure if I could trust him. "You really look like death warmed over."

  "That's how you're going to sell the idea of friendship? By telling me I look awful?" I asked dryly.

  Not that he was wrong. I wasn't sleeping or eating much, so I was even paler than normal. My attempts at dyeing my hair black to help mask my identity left my normally blond waves an odd gray color, since dye never really took hold in troll hair. The swelling around my left eye had finally gone away, but the bruise had shifted to a putrid yellow color that I wasn't able to cover completely with makeup.

  "I'm selling it with brutal honesty," he said with a wry smile. "I want you to know that you'll get nothing but the truth from me."

  I scoffed. "There's no way in hell I'm gonna believe that."

  "Come on, Bryn. Try me." He rested his forearms on the counter, almost pleading with me.

  "What are you even doing here? What do you want with me?" I demanded.

  "I already told you--friendship."

  I rolled my eyes. "Bullshit. Everything is always bullshit with you."

  "How can you say that?" Konstantin shot back, incredulous. "I've been nothing but honest with you."

  "Sure, sure. You've been nothing but honest when you attempted to murder my dad or when you tried to kidnap Linnea."

  He pressed his lips into a thin line. "I already apologized about what happened with your dad." I glared at him. "Not that anything I say will ever make that okay, but you know that I regret it."

  "How can I know that?" I shook my head. "I don't really know anything about you."

  "Why are you being so combative?" Konstantin asked, his voice getting louder. "I'm only trying to help."

  "You're a traitor who's been working with someone that nearly killed me!" I yelled back, not caring how loud I was being in the small diner.

  "Yeah, well, right back at you!" Konstantin shouted.

  The waitress came over, interrupting our heated conversation, and set down in front of me the iced tea I'd ordered. She stood with her hand on her hip, eyeing us both with suspicion. Before, she'd looked at me with concern despite her weariness, but with my bad dye job and Konstantin's agitation, it had to be obvious we were on the run.

  "Is everything okay here?" she asked, her eyes flitting back and forth between the two of us.

  "Yeah, it's fine," Konstantin replied curtly without looking at her.

  "Well, you better keep your voices down, before you start upsetting the customers," she said with a slight Southern drawl, and she slowly turned and walked away.

  Konstantin waited until after she had gone to the other end of the diner before speaking. "And I tried to save Linnea." He sat up straighter, indignant. "I did save her, actually. Without my intervention, she'd most likely be dead."

  From what Linnea had told me, that sounded true enough. Since I couldn't argue with Konstantin, I turned the stool away from him and focused on my iced tea.

  He sighed, then he leaned toward me, and in a voice just above a whisper he said, "I know what you're going through. Four years ago, I was almost exactly where you are. I know how frightening and lonely it feels when the kingdom turns against you."

  I took a drink from my tea and didn't say anything, so he went on. "You and I have been on opposite sides for a while, and I've made a lot of wrong choices. But I'm trying to make up for them, and ... now I'm alone, and you're alone. So I thought we could be alone together."

  He leaned back away from me. "But I won't force this. If you wanna go through this all alone, then be my guest. Take on the world by yourself. I won't fight you." He reached into his pocket and tossed a few dollars on the counter. "The drink's on me."

  I heard the stool creak as he got up, but I didn't look back. Not until I heard the door chime did I turn to watch him walking out the door, into the bright spring day. In a few more seconds he'd be gone, and I'd have no way to contact him or find out what he knew.

  So even though I wasn't sure exactly how this friendship thing would play out, or even if this wasn't some kind of trick, I knew what I had to do. I cursed under my breath, and then I jumped off the stool and ran out after Konstantin.

  TWO

  tracking

  "Where are we going?" I asked. It might have been a better question to ask before I'd gotten in the black Mustang with Konstantin, but I hadn't wanted him to leave without me. And did it really matter where we were going? I had no place to be. No place to call home.

  "I don't know." He glanced in the rearview mirror, watching the diner disappear behind us as he sped down the highway. "Do you have somewhere in mind?"

  I shook my head. "No." Then I looked over at him. "But we should find someplace where we can really talk."

  "How about a motel?" he suggested, and when I scowled at him, he laughed. "If I was going to murder you, I would've done it already, and if I was just looking to get laid, believe me when I say there are easier ways to do it than this."

  "Why don't you come out with it right now? I think a talk is long overdue."

  He smirked. "You sound so menacing."

  I looked out the window, watching the lush greenery as we sped by it. Even with me moving all over
as a tracker, it was always jarring to go from the harsh cold of Doldastam to the bright warmth of anywhere else. Home was so far away, and this felt like a whole other world.

  "How did you find me?" I asked, still watching the full ash trees that lined the side of the road.

  "It was actually quite simple," he said, and I looked back at him. He reached into the pocket of his leather jacket and pulled out a blond lock of hair held together with a thread.

  Hesitantly, I took it from him. It was a pale golden color, with a subtle wave to it--exactly how my hair looked before I destroyed it with the bad dye job. This was my hair.

  And all the pieces suddenly fell together. How Konstantin had been able to find me no matter where I was, like the hotel room in Calgary, or outside of Storvatten when I'd captured him. Even when he'd visited me in the lysa before.

  Konstantin had been a Kanin tracker, from a long line of trackers, and thanks to his strong bloodline, he'd had a powerful affinity for it. Like many trackers, he had the ability to imprint onto a changeling if he had something from them--a lock of hair usually worked best.

  It turned the changeling into a kind of homing beacon. Konstantin couldn't read minds, but he could sense extreme emotions in the trackee that meant they were in trouble. The recent events in Doldastam, along with my general fear and anxiety the last few days, would've turned me into a megawatt searchlight.

  And Konstantin had been tracking me.

  "Where did you get this?" I asked, twisting the hair between my fingers.

  Like all trolls, changelings are born with a very thick head of hair, and a lock of hair is taken from them before they're placed with a host family. That way a tracker could find them later.

  But I'd never been a changeling, and this hair felt much coarser than my hair had as a child. This had been taken recently.

  "Why do you even have it?" I turned to look at him. "Why were you tracking me?"

  He opened his mouth, then closed it and exhaled deeply through his nose. "That is a question that's best answered when we get to the motel."

  "What? Why?" I sat up in the seat, putting my knee underneath me so I could face him better and defend myself if I needed to. "What's happening at this motel you keep bringing up?"

  "Calm down." He held a hand out toward me, palm out. "You're already getting worked up, and I think when I start telling you things, you'll get even more worked up, and I've had enough fights in a car to know that it's better if we wait until we're someplace that isn't flying seventy miles per hour down the road to have a heated conversation."

  His explanation sounded reasonable enough, so I relaxed a bit and settled back in the seat.

  "For being on the run, this seems like a rather conspicuous and expensive choice of car," I commented, since that seemed like a safe topic.

  "Conspicuous, maybe. Expensive, no," he said. "I kind of stole it."

  "You really know how to keep a low profile," I muttered.

  "Hey, I kept a low profile for four years. I know a thing or two," he insisted. "And I used persuasion, so it's not exactly like that owner is gonna report it to the police."

  Persuasion was a psychokinetic ability trolls had where they could make people do what they wanted using a form of mind control. From what I knew about Konstantin, his ability wasn't strong enough to work on other trolls, but humans were much more susceptible to that kind of thing. So Konstantin probably hadn't had to try that hard to convince the human to part with his muscle car.

  "So who exactly are you on the run from?" I asked. "Other than the Kanin, of course."

  He hesitated, and his grip tightened on the steering wheel. "Viktor Dalig and his men."

  "But I thought you were like Viktor's right-hand man or something. How'd you end up on the outs?"

  "I told you back in Storvatten, when I was in the dungeon. I didn't want to get any more blood on my hands. That's why I warned Linnea. I wanted to make things right." He shifted in the seat. "And as you can imagine, that didn't exactly sit well with Viktor. I'd been on his shit list ever since I convinced him not to kill you."

  "Thank you for that, by the way," I told him softly.

  "You weren't supposed to get hurt." He glanced over at me, his eyes pained for a moment. "You weren't supposed to be down there."

  While Linnea had still been missing in Storvatten, I had snuck down to the dungeon where Konstantin was being held to find out what he knew. I was desperate to find Linnea. But instead I'd interrupted Viktor helping Konstantin make his escape.

  To prevent me from stopping them or telling anyone, Viktor had bashed my head against a wall repeatedly. Viktor had wanted me dead, but I'd suspected that Konstantin had intervened to save my life.

  Still, I had a gash under my hairline to show for it. It had required six stiches, though it was nearly healed. The worst part of the injury was the vision in my right eye would get wonky sometimes, especially if I hit my head or somebody punched me.

  "So why did Viktor finally kick you out?" I asked, changing the subject.

  He shook his head. "Viktor didn't. Besides, he doesn't kick anyone out. Once you've served your purpose, you're dead." He shot me a sidelong glance. "You remember what happened to Bent Stum."

  "You left, then?" I asked.

  "Yeah. I'd finally had enough of it." He breathed deeply. "Viktor doesn't care about anything but revenge. A lot of innocents are gonna die. And I couldn't be a part of it anymore, and I didn't know how to stop it."

  I swallowed hard and sank lower in the seat. Konstantin hadn't really said anything that I didn't already know, but hearing it aloud didn't make it any easier to take.

  Even if I were back in Doldastam, I wasn't sure how much I could do to help, but at least I would be able to fight alongside my friends--Ridley, Tilda, Ember--to protect the town filled with people I cared about.

  Now I was trapped so far away from them. They were up against the worst thing ever to hit Doldastam, and I was powerless to help them.

  THREE

  ember

  May 13, 2014

  Bryn--

  I'm not totally sure why I'm even writing this. I don't know how you'll get it, and if you do get it, I don't know if you'll even care. Hell, it might even be treason trying to talk to you. But I can't help it. It just feels strange not being able to talk to you about everything--especially with everything that's going on.

  I just realized that I don't know if I'll ever see you again. I want to believe that I will, but the whole world feels like it's been turned upside down.

  Kasper's funeral was yesterday. I kept expecting to turn around and see you there, coming in late, but you never did.

  I don't know where to start with the funeral. Tilda has been trying so hard to hold it all together. I don't know how she's done as well as she has. It was almost creepy being around her. She was like a statue. She hardly ever cried. She'd just talk about the practical things that needed to be done.

  Yesterday, she finally broke down. It was the first time she'd seen Kasper since he died. All fixed up in his Hogdragen uniform, lying motionless in the coffin. The first thing she said when she saw him was, "He'd be so upset about his hair. It's not quite perfect."

  And then she started sobbing uncontrollably. She basically collapsed, so her sister and I practically had to carry her back to her seat. To see Tilda like that ...

  The most heartbreaking part was probably Kasper's little sister Naima. She just cried and cried, and her mom kept trying to comfort her. But it's all so surreal and insane. There's no comfort in that.

  The King and Queen came to give a eulogy, and it was all so bizarre. The King seemed so out of place. He kept sweating, and his face was all red, like he had a terrible windburn. The Queen kept doting on Tilda, almost pushing Tilda's own mother out of the way so the Queen could be the one to comfort her. When the King went up to give his speech, he mentioned a few things about Kasper--how great he was, how he died protecting his kingdom, and other generalities.

 
But it all seemed memorized, and he stumbled over the words a lot. Right after that, the King switched into this war propaganda speech. It was so gross and tactless. He started going on and on about how we can't let Viktor Dalig do this to our people, and we can't trust anyone because Viktor can get to anyone.

  Then he started saying that they would stop at nothing until you were captured, and that's when Tilda stood up and said that she didn't think that this was the time or place to discuss these things.

  The King finally shut up after that, but I'm almost surprised he let her talk back. He's cracked down on everything since you've been gone. It reminds me of that book I had to read for an English class at a human school when I was tracking a changeling. 1984, I think. Everywhere you go, the King is watching, and he won't let you forget it.

  There are even posters hanging up all around town saying just that. It's this weird black and white image of his face, but somehow his eyes are always following you, and it's super disturbing. Above it says, "THE KING IS WATCHING," and below it says, "TRAITORS OF THE KINGDOM WILL BE CAPTURED," with the Kanin symbol stamped over it.

  Members of the Hogdragen were going around tacking up all these posters--some of them are WANTED ones for you (you made the Kanin's Most Wanted list, that has to be kind of exciting, right?).

  I wanted to tear them all down, but I didn't think now was the best time to deal with the wrath of the King. There was this freak rainstorm yesterday anyway, and most of them are all destroyed and hanging in tatters. But my mom said she saw Hogdragen replacing them already today.

  There are Hogdragen everywhere, and they'll stop you for no reason and demand to know where you're going and what you plan to do there. The guards have even grabbed random people off the street to bring in them in for questioning.

  They brought your parents in, too, but I suppose that's not random. Your father has been put on suspension from his job as the Chancellor, and your mother was fired from her job as a teacher. Your mother's job wasn't a direct order from the King, though. People in town started complaining that they couldn't trust her with their children, given what happened with you.

  At least your parents are free, though, and that's more than I can say for Ridley. They brought him in for an "interrogation" the day after you left, and he hasn't come out since. I've tried to ask about him, but nobody knows what's happening.

 
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