Frostfire, p.4
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       Frostfire, p.4

          part  #1 of  Kanin Chronicles Series  by  Amanda Hocking / Young Adult / Fantasy
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“Because I’m not sure that the Berlings will be able to get Linus’s money now. He’s a few days shy of eighteen, and there’s no telling what’ll happen to his trust fund. ”
“You got him home safely. That’s the most important thing,” he said. “Everything after that is icing. ”
“So you think I did the right thing by taking him home early?”
“Absolutely. ” Ridley stopped walking, so I did too, and he looked down at me. Our path was lit by lanterns and the moonlight, and I could see the sincerity in his chestnut eyes. “You have great instincts, Bryn. If you thought that Linus was in real danger, then he was. And who knows what Konstantin Black would’ve done with him?”
“I know. ” I sighed. “I mean, I do. But what if his parents don’t feel the same way?”
“The Berlings aren’t like that, and if they are…” He shrugged. “Screw ’em. You protected their son, and that’s all that should matter. ”
I smiled. “Thanks. ”
“No problem. ” He smiled back at me, then motioned to the barn just up the road. “Now go up and get some sleep, and don’t forget about the meeting in the morning. ”
“See you tomorrow, Ridley. ”
“Good night. ”
I turned and jogged toward the barn, but he stayed where he was in the street, waiting until I’d made it inside safely. The lower level of the barn was a stable, but the stairway along the side of the building led up to a small loft apartment, and that was where I lived.
It was chilly inside, since I’d turned down the heat because I’d planned on being in Chicago for a month or more. Before I took my coat off, I threw a couple logs in the wood-burning stove and got it going. I had a furnace, of course, but the natural heat always seemed to feel better.
I could hear the Tralla horses downstairs, their large hooves stomping on the concrete of the barn, and their neighing and rustling as they settled in for the night. The Tralla horses were huge workhorses the Kanin had brought over from Scandinavia centuries ago, and they stood even larger than Clydesdales, with broad shoulders, long manes, and thick tufts of fur around their hooves.
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The horses in the stable all belonged to the King and Queen, and, like most Tralla horses, they were only used for show, pulling a carriage through town if the Queen was making a visit or marching in a parade.
They could be ridden, and I did ride one horse—Bloom—as often as I had the chance. Bloom was a younger steed with silvery gray fur. Even as tired as I was, I wanted to go down to say hello to him, maybe brush his fur while he nuzzled against me, searching my pockets for hidden carrots or apples.
But I knew I had to be up for the meeting, so I figured I’d better postpone my reunion with Bloom until the next day.
Instead, I settled in and put the rest of my things away. My apartment was small, taking up only a quarter of the loft space. A wall separated my place from the room where the hay bales and some horse equipment were stored.
But I didn’t need that much space. I had my bed, a worn couch, a wardrobe, a couple shelves overflowing with books, and a chair and a desk where I put my laptop. Those were the only things I really needed.
While I waited for the loft to warm up, I changed into my pajamas. I’d decided that it was about as warm as it would get when I heard footsteps thudding up the steps. Based on the speed and intensity—like a herd of small but anxious elephants—I guessed that it either had to be a major emergency or it was Ember Holmes.
“Bryn!” Ember exclaimed as she threw the door open, and then she ran over and threw her arms around me, squeezing me painfully tight. “I’m so glad you’re okay!”
“Thanks,” I managed to squeak out as she hugged me.
Then as abruptly as she’d grabbed me, she let go. She’d barely even stepped back when she swatted me hard on the arm.
“Ow. ” I rubbed my arm and scowled at her. “What the hell?”
“Why didn’t you call and tell me you were coming home?” Ember demanded, staring up at me with piercing dark eyes and her hands on her hips. “I had to hear about it from Ridley that you’d been attacked and were leaving early. ”
“Thanks, Ridley,” I muttered.
“Why didn’t you tell me what was going on?” Ember asked.
“I didn’t want word getting out. ” I sat back on my bed. “I thought it’d be best to keep mum until we figured out what’s going on. ”
“Well…” She didn’t know how to argue with that, so she brushed her bangs out from her eyes. “You can still tell me. I’m your best friend. ”
Ember was lithe and petite, standing at least four inches shorter than me, and I wasn’t that tall to begin with. But she was a good fighter, quick on her feet and determined. I respected that about her, but that wasn’t what bonded us together.
Like me, she didn’t quite fit into Kanin society. In her case, it was because she was actually Trylle. Her father had worked for the Trylle Queen before they’d moved here to Doldastam four years ago. They hadn’t exactly been welcomed with open arms. Outsiders never were, but Ember and her parents had made their place here.
She did have the added struggle of being a lesbian in a society that wasn’t exactly thrilled about that kind of thing. But since she was a tracker, and not a royal with an important bloodline—or even Kanin—she’d gotten a bit of a break and tended to slip under people’s radar. Not that Ember would ever let anybody keep her down anyway.
“I know. I’m sorry,” I said. “Next time I’ll be sure to tell you. ”
“So what happened?” She sat down on the bed next to me.
I shook my head. “There’s not much to tell. ”
“Ridley mentioned…” Ember paused, her tone softening with concern. “He said that Konstantin Black was involved. ”
I lowered my eyes and took a deep breath, but I could feel her eyes on me, searching for any signs of trauma or despair. When Ember had moved here, it had only been days after Konstantin had left. She may not have been here for the attack, but she definitely witnessed the aftermath.
His attack on my dad had left my nerves raw and I was struggling to control my anger at both Konstantin and myself. Myself for not being able to protect my dad better, and for having had such strong feelings for Konstantin.
Ember, along with my friend Tilda Moller, had been instrumental in helping me deal with it. But that didn’t mean I wanted Ember or anyone else to have to deal with it now.
“It was Konstantin,” I said finally.
Ember didn’t say anything for a minute, waiting to see if I’d continue, and when I didn’t, she cautiously asked, “Did you kill him?”
“No. ” The word felt heavy and terrible in my mouth, and an ache grew in the pit of my stomach like a forgotten ulcer flaring up.
“Good,” she said, and I looked up at her in surprise. “You don’t need that on your conscience. ”
I scoffed. “His death I could handle. It’s his life that I don’t need weighing on me. ”
“I don’t know what happened, because I wasn’t there, but I know that you did the right thing. ” Ember put her hand on my shoulder, warm and reassuring. “You always do. You got the Berling boy home safe and sound, and you’re here and you’re alive. So I know you did everything right. ”
I smiled wanly at her. “Thank you. ”
“You look exhausted. But I’m sure you had a very long trip back. ” Ember’d only been a tracker for a little over a year, but already she understood how taxing the journey could be, even without a run-in with my nemesis. “I’ll let you get some rest. ”
“You have no idea,” I admitted with a dry laugh.
Ember stood up. “I really am glad you’re back. And your timing is perfect. ”
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“My birthday’s on Friday, and the big anniversary party’s on Saturday. You’re back just in time for all the fun,” Ember said with a broad grin.
I tried not to grimace. “Right. Fun. ”
The birthday party would be fun, but the anniversary party I’d been hoping to avoid. It would mean guard duty at the palace all night long, which sounded like it would be right up my alley. But every party or ball I’d guarded had always turned out to be nothing but trouble.
FIVE
sovereign
The footman who answered the door to the palace helped me take off my coat, even though I assured him it wasn’t necessary, and he nearly pulled off my blazer with it as I tried to wriggle away. I’d kicked off my boots, and before I could collect them he was already bending over and picking them up.
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If I hadn’t been in such a hurry, I would’ve insisted on doing things myself. Just because I was in the palace didn’t mean I needed a servant doing everything for me. But as it was, I’d barely had time to shower, and I didn’t have time to dry my hair, so it had frozen on the way over from my apartment.
I mumbled apologies to the footman and thanked him for his trouble. He offered to lead me down the hall to where the meeting was being held, but I didn’t need it. I knew the building like the back of my hand.
The opulence of the palace was nearly lost on me by now. Like the exterior, most of the walls inside were stone or brick. Two massive wooden doors opened into the majestic front hall, but despite the openness, it felt dark and cavernous, thanks to the gray tones of the stone.
The only natural light filtered through stained-glass windows featuring famous battles and royalty long since gone. At the right times of the day, when the light came through the window depicting the Kanin’s voyage across the sea, the hall would glow blue, and when it shone through the window immortalizing the Kanin’s role in the Long Winter War, the hall would shine blood-red.
The rest of the palace was designed much the same way. Since the palace had been built right after the Kanin settled Doldastam, the key to keeping the cold out seemed to be building as many brick walls with as few windows as possible. Not to mention an abundance of fireplaces, which was another reason the stone was so necessary. Less chance of the building going up in flames.
Not much had been changed in the palace since it was built. At least not in the wing where business was conducted. The private quarters where the King and Queen lived were updated when each new monarch began his reign, so they were much more personal, with wallpaper and wood floors.
Most of the palace did seem dark and cold, but there were elegant flourishes and royal touches. Masterworks of art and antique Baroque furniture were carefully arranged throughout. The kerosene lamps that still lit the corridors were made of silver and adorned with jewels. The ceilings were astonishingly high, and were often broken up by skylights that the poor servants had to constantly clear of snow so they wouldn’t come crashing in under the weight.
As I jogged down the corridor, constantly pulling up my black slacks—my nicest pair, though they were too large—I barely even noticed any of the majestic trappings around me. When I reached the meeting hall, I paused outside the door to catch my breath and rake my fingers through my thawing hair.
Then I took a deep breath and opened the doors, and it was just as I had feared. Everyone was already here, waiting. Around a square table that sat ten, there were five of us.
King Evert Strinne sat at the end of the table, next to the crackling fireplace and a massive portrait of himself. He wore a handsomely tailored black suit, but he’d forgone a tie and left the top few buttons undone.
His wife, Queen Mina Strinne, wore her crown, though her husband did not. It was really more of a tiara anyway, silver and encrusted with diamonds. Her long brown hair was pulled back in a loose bun that rested on the nape of her neck, and she smiled warmly at me when I came in. This was a rather casual meeting, but she still wore an ornate gown of white and silver.
The table was wide enough that the Queen could sit next to her husband at the head of it, though her chair was much smaller than his. The dark wood of the high back rose a full two feet above the King’s head, while Mina’s only came up to the top of her tiara.
Directly to the King’s right was Ridley. With a stack of papers in front of him, he smiled grimly at me, and I knew that my tardiness had not gone unnoticed.
Then, sitting to the left of the Queen, with the gravest expression of anyone in the room, was the Chancellor, Iver Aven. My father. His wavy black hair was smoothed back, unintentionally highlighting the silver at his temples, and he wore a suit and tie, the way he did nearly every day. The ire in his toffee eyes was unmistakable, but I met his irritation as evenly as I could and held my head high.
“Bryn Aven. ” King Evert eyed me with a severe gaze and his perpetual smirk. “How nice of you to join us. ”
“I’m sorry, my lord,” I said with genuine contrition and bowed. “I overslept. ”
The last few days had worn much harder on me than I had thought they would, and I’d slept straight through my alarm, which led to a frantic scramble to get here on time. Although the fact that I’d only been a few minutes late was really a credit to my determination.
“She just got back from the mission late last night, and she didn’t have time to sleep while she was transporting the Berling boy,” Ridley said, coming to my aid. “She needed to remain vigilant after his attempted kidnapping. ”
“We appreciate your diligence, Bryn,” the King said, but I couldn’t tell if it was approval or condescension in his voice.
I smiled politely. “Thank you, Your Majesty. ”
“Why don’t you have a seat, Bryn?” the Queen suggested, and motioned to the table, the rings on her fingers glinting in the light.
“Thank you. ”
I took a seat at the end of the table across from the King, and deliberately left empty chairs between myself and my dad, and myself and Ridley. While I loved my dad, and I thought the King approved of him as Chancellor, I always tried to put distance between us at occasions like this.
I didn’t want anyone to think that I was relying on my dad and his position in the King’s court to get where I was, or that Ridley showed me any favoritism because he was my friend as well as the Rektor. I earned everything on my own merit.
“So. Back to what we were saying. ” The smirk finally fell away from Evert’s face and he looked to Ridley. “How are we even sure this was an attempted kidnapping?”
“Well, we’re not,” Ridley admitted.
“Are we sure that they were even going after the Berling boy?” Mina asked, her smoky gray eyes surveying the room.
“They all but confessed it to me,” I said, and everyone turned to look at me.
“You spoke to him?” Dad asked, and worry hardened his expression. “How did that happen?”
“I got in the car, and I asked him what he was doing,” I said simply.
“You got in his car?” Dad asked, nearly shouting. Then he clenched his fist and forced a pained smile, doing his best to keep control of himself in front of the King and Queen. When he spoke again, his voice was tight. “What were you thinking?”
“I was thinking that I needed to do my job, and my job was protecting Linus Berling. ” I sat up straighter in my chair, defending myself. “I did what I needed to. ”
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“Chancellor, my trackers are trained to handle themselves in all situations. ” Ridley bristled a little, as if my dad were calling into question his abilities as a Rektor.
“Well, what did they say?” Queen Mina asked, bringing us back on topic.
“They said they were following Linus and waiting for their chance to grab him,” I said.
The King sighed and shook his head. “Dammit. ”
“Did they say why?” Mina pressed.
“No. They refused to say why. Then they tried to prevent me from leaving, and things became … violent,” I said, choosing my words carefully, and from the corner of my eye I saw my dad flinch, though he did his best to hide it. “One of the men—the one called Bent—was injured. But Konstantin Black evaded serious damage before I got away. ”
Dad couldn’t help himself and whispered harshly, “You shouldn’t have gotten in the car. ”
Ridley cast my dad a look from across the table. “Sir, Bryn can handle herself in a fight. ”
“It was definitely Konstantin Black, then?” the Queen asked.
I nodded. “Yes. ”
“How can you be so sure?” King Evert looked at me skeptically. “Did you ever meet him?”
“Everybody in the kingdom knew who Konstantin Black was,” Ridley interjected, attempting to spare me from explaining how I knew him so well.
“Only once,” I said, speaking loudly but still clear and even. It was getting harder to keep a steady tone when the King was patronizing me about something I was certain of. “When Konstantin stabbed my father. I’ll remember his face until I die. ”
The King lowered his eyes, faltering only for a moment. “I’d forgotten you were there for his altercation with the Chancellor.
“What about this other man?” The King cleared his throat and continued, “The one called Bent. Do we know anything about him?”
“I’ve been doing some research and making a few calls. ” Ridley flipped through the papers in front of him and scanned his notes. “Bryn thought he might be Omte, and they can be reluctant to give any information. However, the Queen did confirm that a young man named Bent Stum was exiled from their community last year, but they wouldn’t say why. ”
“So a wanted Kanin and an exiled criminal Omte joined forces to track down a changeling in Chicago? Why?” Dad shook his head. “And how did they find him?”
“I’ve been looking over all the paperwork on Berling’s placement, and I can’t see any sign of why it went wrong. ” Ridley shrugged helplessly. “The only people who should’ve known where he was were Linus’s parents, and then Bryn. ”
“Did the Markis or Marksinna Berling tell anyone?” my dad asked.
“No. ” The King dismissed this instantly. “Dylan and Eva are too smart for that. They know better. ” Then he looked at me. “What about you, Bryn?”
“No, Your Majesty. I never tell anyone where I’m sent. ”
“You sure?” King Evert pressed. “You didn’t mention it to any of your friends?”
“Bryn’s one of our best, my lord,” Ridley said. “If she says she didn’t tell anybody, she didn’t tell anybody. ”
“Well, somehow they found one of our highest-priority Markis changelings. If nobody told anyone, how the hell did they manage that?” King Evert snapped.
“I’m not sure, sire,” Ridley admitted, but he met the King’s annoyed glare.
“What about your files? You have it all written down, don’t you?” the King asked.
“Yes, of course I do. But it’s all locked away. ”
“Who has access to it?” King Evert asked.
“Myself and the Chancellor,” Ridley said. “And, of course, you and the Queen would have access to anything you wanted. ”
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