Frostfire, p.3
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       Frostfire, p.3

          part  #1 of  Kanin Chronicles Series  by  Amanda Hocking / Young Adult / Fantasy
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He furrowed his brow. “I’m a troll. ”
The long drive up had given me plenty of time to explain all the big points to him, but he still couldn’t completely process it. It usually took much longer, and that’s why I often spent so long with the changelings before revealing the truth. It was much easier to understand when you had time to digest it instead of your whole sense of reality instantly being dashed away.
“I always knew I was different. ” He stared down at the floor, the crease in his brow deepening. “Even before my skin started changing color. But when that happened, I guess I just thought I was like an X-Men or something. ”
“Sorry, we’re not superheroes. But being Kanin can still be awesome,” I tried to reassure him.
He turned to look at me, relief relaxing some of his apprehension. “Yeah? How so?”
“Well, you’re a Berling. ”
“I’m a what?”
“Sorry. Berling. That’s your last name. ”
“No, my name is—”
“No, that’s your host family’s last name,” I said, cutting him off. The sooner he started severing mental and emotional ties with his host family, the easier it would be for him to accept who he was. “Your parents are Dylan and Eva Berling. You are a Berling. ”
“Oh. Right. ” He nodded, like he should know better, and then looked down at his lap. “Will I ever see my host family again?”
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“Maybe,” I lied, then passed the buck so I wouldn’t have to be the one to break it to him that he’d never again see the people he’d spent the past eighteen years believing were his mom and dad. “You’ll talk about it with your real family. ”
“So what’s so great about being a Berling?” Linus asked.
“Well, for starters, you’re royalty. ”
“I’m royalty?” He grinned at that. Being royalty always sounded so much better than it actually was.
“Yeah. ” I nodded and returned his smile. “Your father is a Markis, and your mother is a Marksinna—which are basically Kanin words for Duke and Duchess. ”
“So am I a Markis?”
“Yep. You have a big house. Not quite as nice as the palace, but close. You’ll have servants and horses and cars. Your dad is best friends with the King. You’ll go to lavish parties, date the prettiest girls, and really, just live happily ever after. ”
“You’re saying that I just woke up in a fairy tale?” Linus asked.
I laughed a little. “Kind of, yeah. ”
“Holy crap. ” He leaned his head back against the seat. “Are you a Marksinna?”
I shook my head. “No. I’m a tracker. Which is almost as far away from being a Marksinna as being human. ”
“So we’re…” He paused and licked his lips. “Not human?”
“No. It’s like a lion and tiger,” I said, using my go-to analogy to explain the difference to changelings. “They’re both cats, and they have similar traits, but they’re not the same. A lion isn’t a tiger. A Kanin isn’t a human. ”
“We’re still, like, the same species, then?” Linus asked, sounding relieved.
“Yep. The fact that humans and trolls are so similar is how we’re able to have changelings. We have to pass for human. ”
“Okay. ” He settled back in his seat, and that seemed to placate him for a few minutes, then he asked, “I get that I’m a changeling. But why am I a changeling?”
“What do you mean?”
“Why didn’t my real parents just raise me themselves?” Linus asked.
I took a deep breath. So far, Linus hadn’t asked that, and I’d been hoping he wouldn’t until we got back to Doldastam. It always sounded much better coming from the parents than it did from a tracker, especially if the changelings had follow-up questions like, Didn’t you love me? or How could you abandon your baby like that? Which were fair questions.
But since he’d asked, I figured I ought to tell him something.
“It started a long time ago, when humans had more advanced medical care and schools than we did,” I explained. “Our infant mortality rate was terrible. Babies weren’t surviving, and when they did, they weren’t thriving. We needed to do something, but we didn’t want to give up our ways completely and join the human race.
“We decided to use changelings,” I went on. “We’d take a human baby, leave a Kanin baby in its place, and then we’d drop the human baby at an orphanage. ”
Other tribes brought that human baby back to the village, believing it gave them a bargaining chip with their host families if the changeling decided not to return. But that rarely happened, and we thought the insurance policy—raising a human child with intimate knowledge of our society—cost more than it was worth, so we left the human babies among other humans.
“Our babies would grow up healthy and strong, and when they were old enough, they’d come back home,” I said.
“So you guys still have crappy hospitals and schools?” Linus asked.
“They’re not the best,” I admitted. “But that’s not all of it. ”
“What’s the rest?”
I sighed but didn’t answer right away. The truth was, the main reason we still practiced changelings was money.
The Kanin lived in small compounds, as far removed from human civilization as we could manage. To maintain our lifestyle, to live closer to the land and avoid the scramble of the humans’ lives with their daily commutes and their credit card debt, their pandering politicians and their wars, we refused to live among them.
We could be self-sustaining without living with the humans, but truth be told, we did love our luxuries. The only reason we ever came in contact with humans was because we wanted their trinkets. Kanin, like all trolls, have an almost insatiable lust for jewels.
Even Linus, who otherwise seemed to be an average teenage boy, had on a large class ring with a gaudy ruby, a silver thumb ring, a leather bracelet, and a chain bracelet. The only human man I’d ever seen adorn himself with as much jewelry and accessories as a troll was Johnny Depp, and based on his looks, I’d grown to suspect that he might actually be Trylle.
That’s where changelings came in. We’d place the Kanin babies with some of the wealthiest families we could find. Not quite royalty or celebrity status, but enough to be sure they’d leave hefty trust funds for their children.
When they were old enough to be collected, trackers like myself would go retrieve them. We’d earn their trust, explain to them who they were, then get them to access and drain their bank accounts. They’d return to the Kanin community, infusing our society with a much-needed surge in funds.
So in the end, what it all came down to was tradition and greed, and when I looked over at the hopeful expression on Linus’s face, I just didn’t have it in me to tell him. Our world still had so much beauty and greatness, and I wanted Linus to see that before showing him its darkest flaw.
“Your parents will explain it to you when you get back,” I said instead.
Linus fell silent after that, but I didn’t even bother trying to sleep. When the train pulled into the station, I slipped my heavy winter boots back on. I hated wearing them, but it was better than losing my toes to frostbite. I bundled up in my jacket and hat, then instructed Linus to do the same.
I grabbed my oversized backpack and slung it over my shoulders. One good thing about being a tracker was that I’d been trained to pack concisely. On a trip I expected to last three or four weeks, I managed to get everything I needed into one bag.
As soon as we stepped off the train and the icy wind hit us, Linus gasped.
“How is it so cold here?” Linus pulled a scarf up over his face. “It’s April. Shouldn’t it be all spring and flowers?”
“Flowers don’t come for another couple months,” I told him as I led him away from the train platform to where I had left the silver Land Rover LR4 parked.
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Fortunately, it hadn’t snowed since I’d been gone. Sometimes when I came back, the SUV was buried underneath snow. I tossed my bag in the back, then hopped in the driver’s seat. Linus got in quickly, shivering as I started the SUV.
“I don’t know how much I’ll enjoy living here,” Linus said between chattering teeth.
“You get used to it. ” I pointed to the digital temperature monitor in the dash. “It’s just below freezing today. That’s actually pretty warm for this time of year. ”
Once the vehicle had warmed up enough, I put it in drive and pulled out on the road, heading south along the Hudson Bay. It was almost an hour to Doldastam from the train station, but Linus didn’t say much. He was too focused on watching the scenery. Everything was still covered in snow, and most of it was unsullied, so it all appeared pure and white.
“Why are the trees like that?” Linus asked, pointing at the only vegetation that grew in the winter.
Tall evergreens dotted the landscape, and all of them were tilted slightly toward the east, with all their branches growing out on only one side. To people who hadn’t seen it before, it did look a bit strange.
“It’s called the Krummholz effect,” I explained. “The strong wind comes from the northwest, making it hard for branches and trees to grow against it, so they all end up bending away from it. ”
As we got closer to Doldastam, the foliage grew thicker. The road narrowed, becoming a thin path that was barely wide enough for the Land Rover. If another car came toward us, we’d have to squeeze off the road between the trees.
The trees around the road seemed to be reaching for us, bent and hunched over, their long branches extending out toward the path. They had long viny branches, like weeping willows, but they were darker green and thicker than any willow I’d seen. These were actually hybrids, grown only by the Kanin people. They were made to help conceal the road to the kingdom, so humans would be less likely to stumble across us.
But no other car came. The empty road was normal. Other than trackers, no one really left the city.
The wall wasn’t visible until we were almost upon Doldastam, thanks to all the trees hiding it. It was twenty feet tall, built out of stone by Kanin over two centuries ago, but it held up stunningly well.
The wrought-iron gate in front of the road was open, and I waved at the guard who manned the gate as we drove past. The guard recognized me, so he smiled and waved me on.
Linus leaned forward, staring up through the windshield. Small cottages lined the narrow roads as we weaved our way through town, hidden among bushes as much as they could be, but Linus wasn’t paying attention to them.
It was the large palace looming over everything at the other end of town that had caught his attention. The gray stone made it look like a castle, though it lacked any towers. It was a massive rectangle, covered in glittering windows.
I drove through the center of town, and when I reached the south side of Doldastam, where the palace towered above us, I slowed down so Linus could get a better look. But then I kept going, stopping two houses away, in front of a slightly smaller but still majestic stone house. This one had a pitched roof, so it resembled a mansion much more than it did a castle.
“This is it?” Linus asked, but he didn’t look any less impressed by his smaller home than he did by the castle.
“Yep. This is where you live. ”
“Wow. ” He shook his head, sounding completely awed. “This really is like a fairy tale. ”
FOUR
stable
It was dark by the time I pulled the Land Rover into the garage, narrowly parking it between another SUV and a full-sized Hummer. I clicked the button, closing the garage door behind me.
Technically it was a garage, but in reality it was a massive brick fortress that housed dozens of vehicles and all kinds of tracker supplies. To the left of the garage were the classrooms and the gym where trackers trained, along with the Rektor’s office.
I hadn’t bothered to put on my jacket or boots after I had gotten Linus settled in at the Berlings’ house, because I knew I was coming right here. The garage was heated, as were most things in Doldastam. Even the floor was heated, so when I stepped out of the SUV, the concrete felt warm on my bare feet.
I’d just gone around to the side of the car to get my bag out of the back when I heard the side door close. The Rektor’s office connected to the garage, and I looked over to see Ridley Dresden walking in.
“Need a hand?” he asked.
“Nah, I think I got it. But thanks. ” I slung my bag over my shoulder and went over to the storage closets.
He wore a vest and a tie, with his sleeves rolled up above his elbow. But like me, he was barefoot. His dark hair was kept short, but it still curled a little. In that way, his hair fit him perfectly. Try as he might to be straitlaced, there was just a part of him that wouldn’t completely be tamed.
I dropped my bag on the floor in front of the shelves and crouched down to rummage through it. I’d pulled out a couple fake passports—both for me and for Linus—when Ridley reached me.
“You don’t look that bad,” he said with his hands shoved in his pockets.
I looked up at him, smirking. “And here I didn’t think you liked blondes. ”
As far as I knew, his last couple girlfriends had been brunettes, but that really wasn’t saying much when it came to the Kanin. Like all trolls, the Kanin had certain physical characteristics. Dark curly hair; brown or gray eyes; olive skin; shorter in stature and petite; and often physically attractive. In that regard, the Kanin appeared similar to the Trylle, the Vittra, and, other than the attractive part, even the Omte.
It was only the Skojare who stood out, with fair skin, blond hair, and blue eyes. And it was the Skojare blood that betrayed my true nature. In Doldastam, over 99 percent of the population had brown hair. And I didn’t.
“Come on. Everyone likes blondes,” Ridley countered with a grin.
I laughed darkly. Outside of the walls surrounding Doldastam the world may have shared that opinion, as Ridley would know from his tracking days. But here, my appearance had never been anything but a detriment.
“I was referring to your run-in,” Ridley said.
I stood up and gave him a sharp look. “I can handle myself in a fight. ”
“I know. ” He’d grown serious, and he looked down at me with a level of concern that was unusual for him. “But I know how hard dealing with Konstantin Black had to be. ”
I turned away from him, unwilling to let him see how badly it had shaken me up. “Thanks, but you know you don’t have to worry about me. ”
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“I can’t help it,” Ridley said, then waited a beat before adding, “It’s my job. ”
I pulled open a cabinet drawer and flitted through the files, looking for the one with my name on it, and dropped the passports inside of it.
“It must’ve taken all your restraint not to kill him,” Ridley went on when I didn’t say anything.
“On the subject of your job, have you figured out why they were after Linus?” I bent over and dug through my bag, refusing to talk about it. I wouldn’t even say Konstantin’s name aloud.
“No. So far we’ve come up empty. I’ve scheduled a phone call with the Queen of Omte first thing in the morning, and I have a meeting at ten in the morning tomorrow with the King, Queen, and the Chancellor. ” He paused. “I’d like you to be there too. ”
“I’m no good at meetings. ” That wasn’t a lie, exactly, but it also wasn’t the reason I didn’t want to go to the meeting.
As the Chancellor, my dad would be at the meeting, and I didn’t want to talk about letting his attempted murderer get away. I knew he would never hold it against me, but that didn’t make me feel any less guilty.
I grabbed stacks of American and Canadian cash out of my bag. Ridley pulled his keys out of his pocket and unlocked the safe at the end of the cabinets. My own set of keys were buried somewhere in my bag, and it was a bit quicker to let him unlock it.
“You know more about this than we do,” Ridley reasoned. “For the sake of Linus and the other changelings, we need you at this meeting. ”
“I’ll be there,” I said reluctantly. I crouched back down over my bag and dug out what was left of my tracker supplies—a knife, a cell phone, a mileage log, and a few other odds and ends—and began putting them in the cabinets.
“What are you doing out here, anyway?” I asked. “Aren’t you off for the night?” His job was much more of a nine-to-five gig than mine.
“I saw you pull in. ” He leaned back against an SUV parked next to me and watched me. “I wanted to see that everything went okay. ”
“Other than the dustup, everything was fine. ” I shrugged. “I got Linus back, and he’s getting settled in with his parents. I did a quicker intro than I normally do, but Linus seems to be taking this all really well, and I needed to get out and get some sleep. ”
His dark eyes lingered on me. “When was the last time you slept?”
“What day is it?”
He arched an eyebrow. “Wednesday. ”
“Then…” I paused, thinking. “Monday. ”
“Bryn. ” Ridley stepped over to me. “Let me do this. Go get some sleep. ”
“I’m almost done, and if I don’t log it myself, then my jerk of a boss will have my head,” I teased, and he sighed.
“Well, whatever. I’m helping you even if you don’t want me to. ” He grabbed the logbook and started filling it out.
With his help, everything was put away and accounted for within a matter of minutes, leaving only my clothing and laptop in my bag. I started to pull on my heavy winter boots and jacket, and Ridley told me to wait there for a second. He came back wearing his charcoal-gray peacoat and slick black boots.
“I’ll walk you home,” he said.
“You sure?”
He nodded. “I’m done for the night, and you don’t live that far anyhow. ”
That was an understatement. My place was a two-minute walk from the garage. Ridley lived farther than that, but honestly, most people in Doldastam did.
The night had grown even colder, and Ridley popped up the collar of his jacket and shoved his hands in his pockets as he walked. I was smart enough to wear a hat, so I didn’t mind it so much. The snow crunched beneath our boots as we slowly walked down the cobblestone road toward my loft.
I turned to him and couldn’t help but admire him in the moonlight—tall and strong with the beginnings of a light scruff. Ridley’s looks could be a distraction if I allowed them to be. Fortunately, I was a master at reining in useless, dangerous feelings like attraction, and I looked away from him.
“I’m not gonna be in trouble, am I?” I asked.
Ridley looked over at me like I was insane. “Why would you be in trouble?”
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