Frostfire, p.5
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       Frostfire, p.5

          part  #1 of  Kanin Chronicles Series  by  Amanda Hocking / Young Adult / Fantasy
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My dad furrowed his brow as he considered this. “So, the people in this room. ”
“Obviously it was none of us, so it must be someone else,” Queen Mina said.
The King looked over at Ridley. “What about you?”
Ridley shook his head. “I didn’t tell anyone, Your Highness. ”
“Perhaps Konstantin Black was tracking the trackers,” Queen Mina offered, and she turned to me. “Were you followed?”
“I don’t believe so,” I said. “Konstantin didn’t know that Berling was being tracked at first, and I don’t think he realized I was Kanin. ”
The King snorted. “Well…”
This time I didn’t even try to keep the emotion from my voice, though it was a struggle not to yell. “I was born in Doldastam and raised here. I have pledged my fealty to this kingdom. I am as much a Kanin as any of you. ”
King Evert smirked, unmoved by my outburst. “I appreciate your service, Bryn, but you know that—”
“Evert, my King. ” Queen Mina reached over and touched his hand, and she looked up at him with deference. “If the girl has pledged her loyalty to you, then she is a Kanin, and by saving the young Markis Berling, she’s proved it. ”
He looked at his wife, then shifted in his seat and nodded. “You’re right, of course, my Queen. I apologize, Bryn. ”
“No apology is necessary, my lord,” I said.
“Back to the matter at hand—what to do about Konstantin Black and Bent Stum?” my dad said. “Didn’t the Trylle have a problem like this once? Their changelings were kidnapped by an enemy. What did they do?”
“They went to war,” the King replied with a heavy sigh.
“We’re not prepared for war,” Queen Mina said quickly, as if anyone had actively proposed it. “The Trylle have a smaller population than us, but thanks to their heavier reliance on changelings they have many more trackers, and their army is at least twice that of ours. ”
“More than that, the Trylle knew who their enemy was,” King Evert agreed. “They had that long-standing feud with the Vittra, so the Trylle knew exactly who to go after. Who would we even fight against?”
“Could the Omte be behind it?” Mina asked.
Ridley shook his head. “Doubtful. They’re not smart enough to have found the Berling changeling, and if the Omte Queen was aware of Bent Stum’s activities, she would’ve denied his very existence. ”
“We don’t even know if this is going to be a recurring problem,” Dad pointed out. “The Berling boy may have been a onetime thing. ”
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“He is the highest-ranking Markis in the entire Kanin now,” Ridley said, thinking aloud. “Until the King and Queen have a child, Linus is actually next in line for the throne. We don’t know what Black wanted with Linus, but it can’t be good. He could have been planning an assassination. ”
“Or it could’ve been a plot for ransom. Both Konstantin and Bent have been exiled,” Dad said. “Konstantin has been on the run for years. He has to be in desperate need of money. ”
The King nodded. “Until we learn otherwise, I think we should treat this as an isolated incident. ”
“But what if it’s not?” I asked.
“It might not be,” Evert agreed. “But what would you have us do? Bring all the changelings home right now? Send out all our trackers after Konstantin Black and Bent Stum, leaving Doldastam unguarded?”
“No, of course not, my King. But there should be a compromise,” I argued. “Bring home our highest-ranking changelings, especially those over the age of twelve, and send a few trackers after Konstantin and Bent. I would gladly volunteer for that mission. ”
“Absolutely not,” the King said, so swiftly that I was too stunned to speak for a moment. He hadn’t even considered what I’d suggested.
“But my lord—” I said when I found my words.
“We can’t afford to bring in that many changelings, not this early,” King Evert defended his veto.
“And can we afford to have our changelings kidnapped or slaughtered?” I shot back.
“Bryn,” Dad said, trying to silence me.
“Tracker, I think you’ve forgotten your place,” King Evert said, and I swallowed hard. “This is my kingdom, and my decision. Your invitation to this meeting was little more than a courtesy. ”
I lowered my eyes. “I’m sorry, my King. I’m only thinking of what’s in the best interest of the kingdom. ”
“So are we, Bryn,” Queen Mina said, much more gently than her husband had spoken to me. “Many of the highest-ranking Markis and Marksinna in the Kanin, not to mention the Kings and Queens from friendly tribes, will be descending on Doldastam this weekend. If there is a threat to our kingdom, then we will need all our guards here. And if this was targeted on Linus Berling in particular, then it’s even more important that you, as his tracker, are here to keep him safe. ”
“The Queen is right, Bryn,” Ridley said, but he sounded sympathetic to my position. “We don’t know much right now, and our highest priority should be keeping the kingdom safe. ”
“Then it’s settled,” the Queen declared. “I will hear no more of this over the weekend. We have much to celebrate, and friends and dignitaries will be coming into town beginning tomorrow. ”
“You will stick with Linus Berling like he’s your shadow,” the King commanded me. “Help him acclimate and understand our community, the way you would with any other changeling, but you also need to be more vigilant, in case there is a price on his head. ”
I nodded. “Yes, my lord. ”
SIX
mistakes
The meeting appeared to be over, and the Queen was the first to make her exit. As soon as she rose from her place at the end of the table, the rest of us stood up. The backs of my legs smacked into my chair, and it creaked loudly against the floor.
“If you don’t mind, I have much to attend to with guests arriving soon. ” She smiled at all of us as she gathered her dress, and she left the hall.
“I should be on my way, also,” King Evert said. “Thank you for attending. ”
“My King,” Dad said, stopping him before he left. “If I could have a word with you for a moment. It’s about the new tax. ”
While the King and Queen were appointed to their roles by birth or marriage, the Chancellor was elected by the people so they could have a voice in the running of the government.
The King nodded. “Yes, of course, Chancellor. Let’s walk and talk. ” He and my dad left the room together, speaking in hushed tones.
“You always gotta make an entrance, don’t you?” Ridley grinned at me as he gathered his papers together.
“I overslept, I swear. I didn’t think I’d sleep for twelve hours straight. ” My pants had begun slipping down my waist again, and with the royalty gone, I was free to pull them back up without earning a scrutinizing look from the King.
“Well, you made it, so that’s what counts. ”
I sighed and sat down, resting against the arm of the chair. “Maybe it would’ve been better if I hadn’t come at all. ”
“You mean because the King got a little miffed there for a second?” Ridley asked as he walked over to me. “He’ll get over it. And you weren’t wrong. ”
“So you’re saying I was right?” I asked with raised eyebrows.
“Not exactly. ” He leaned a hip against the table next to me, crossing his arms so his stack of papers was against his chest. “We need to protect here first, but once this anniversary party is over, then we should really implement your ideas. Even if Konstantin and Bent were only targeting Linus, we can’t just let them get away with it. ”
“So you don’t think this was a one-time thing?”
“Honestly?” He looked at me from behind his thick lashes and hesitated before saying, “No, I don’t. ”
“Dammit. I was kinda hoping I was wrong. ” I ran a hand through my hair. “Anyway, thanks for having my back. ”
“I’ll always have your back,” Ridley said with a wry smile. “Or any part of your body. ”
I rolled my eyes and smiled despite myself. “Way to ruin a perfectly nice moment, Ridley. ”
“Sorry. ” He laughed. “I can’t help myself sometimes. ”
“Mmm, I’ve noticed. ”
“Have you?”
He leaned back, appraising me, and there was something in his dark eyes, a kind of heat that made my heart beat out of time. It was something new, something I’d only begun to detect in the past few months. Most of the time when we were together it was the same as always, but more and more there was that look in his eyes, a smoldering that I had no idea how to react to.
I suddenly became aware of my very close proximity to him. My knee had brushed up against his leg, and if I wanted to, I could reach out and touch him, putting my hand on the warm skin of his arm, which was bare below where he’d pushed up his sleeves.
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As soon as the thought popped into my head, I pushed it away.
The door to the hall swung open, and he lowered his eyes, breaking whatever moment we’d both been in.
“Good, Bryn, you’re still here,” Dad said as he came into the room.
Ridley looked up and gave me a crooked smile, then shook his head. “I don’t even know what I’m talking about. ”
That’s what he said, but it felt like a lie. Still, I’d become acutely aware that my dad was staring at us both, watching us look at each other, and the whole situation felt increasingly awkward.
“Anyway, I should get back to the office. ” He straightened up and stepped away from the table. “It was nice seeing you again, Chancellor. ”
“You too. ” Dad nodded at him, then turned his attention to me. “I wanted to talk to you. ”
“What did you want to talk to me about?” I asked after Ridley made his escape. “A lecture on how I shouldn’t put myself in danger? Or maybe how I should retire and become a teacher like Mom?”
“That would be nice, yes, but actually I wanted to invite you over for dinner tonight. ”
“I don’t know, Dad. ” I hurried to think up some kind of excuse, any excuse. “I’m supposed to be spending time helping Linus get situated. ”
“Bryn, you just got back in town after being attacked. ”
“I wouldn’t call it an ‘attack’ per se. ”
“Your mother wants to see you. I want to see you. It’s been weeks since you’ve been over to our house. ” Dad used a tone so close to pleading that it made my heart twist up with guilt. “Mom will make a nice supper. Just come over. It’ll be good. ”
“Okay,” I relented. “What time?”
“Six? Does that work for you?”
“Yep. That’ll be great,” I said and tried to look happy about it.
“Great. ” A relieved grin spread across his face. “I know I said some stuff in the meeting that made you mad, but it’s just because I love you and I want you to be safe. ”
“I know, Dad. ”
And I did know that. Dad was just trying to express concern. But I wished he’d do it in a way that didn’t undermine me in front of my superiors.
“Good,” he said. “Is it okay if I hug you now, or does that break your no-hugs-at-work policy?”
That was a policy I’d instated when I was fifteen and Dad had ruffled my hair and called me his “adorable little girl” in front of the Högdragen, making them chuckle. It was already hard enough for me to earn their respect without moments like that.
I nodded, and he wrapped his arms around me. When he let me go, I smiled and said, “Don’t go making a habit of it. ”
We both left the meeting hall after that. Dad had work to be done, and so did I. I knew I should go down to help Linus Berling. Even without the King’s order to guard him, as his tracker I was supposed to be the one helping him adjust to his new life here in Doldastam.
But right at that moment I didn’t think it would be the best idea. The meeting had left me in a sour mood. Things had not gone well with the King, and I really needed to burn off steam.
I could spend an hour at the gym, then go down and help Linus. It’d be better for him if I got in my daily training anyway. If someone was coming after him, I needed to be strong and sharp enough to fight them off.
The gym in the tracker school had a locker room attached to it, where I changed into my workout clothes. As I pulled on my tank top, I was acutely aware of the jagged scar on my shoulder—the gift Konstantin had given me the first time we’d fought. That only helped fuel my anger, and I pulled my hair up into a ponytail and strode into the gym.
The younger recruits in tracker school were running laps around the side. A couple of older kids were practicing fencing at the other end. Swordplay probably wouldn’t be that useful in the outside world, but the Kanin liked to keep things old school. We were a culture steeped in tradition, sometimes to a maddening degree.
A few other full-fledged trackers were doing general workouts, including Ember Holmes and Tilda Moller. Tilda was lifting weights, and Ember hovered over her, spotting for her.
While Ember was a couple years younger than me, Tilda and I were the same age. We were actually the only two girls in our graduating tracker class, and that hadn’t been an easy feat for either of us.
Tilda and I had become friends in kindergarten, when we’d both been deemed outsiders—me for blond hair and fair skin, and her for her height. As a child, she had been unnaturally tall, towering over everyone in our class, though as we’d gotten older her height had become an asset, and she’d filled out with curves and muscles that made her almost Amazonian.
Growing up, we were subjected to all kinds of bullying—mostly by the royals but even by our own “peers. ” I was quick to anger, and Tilda helped ground me, reminding me that my temper wouldn’t help the situation. She bore the taunts with poise and stoicism.
Most of the time, anyway. In our first year at tracker school, a boy had made a derisive comment about us girls not being able to handle the physical training, and Tilda had punched him, laying him out flat on his back. That was the last time anybody said anything like that around her.
Hanging down over the weight-lifting bench, Tilda’s long hair shimmered a luscious dark chestnut. But the only thing about her I’d ever been jealous of was her skin. As she lifted the barbell, straining against the weight, the tanned color of her skin shifted, turning dark blue to match the color of the mats propped against the wall behind her.
Unlike Ember and me, Tilda was full-blooded Kanin. Not everyone could do what she did either, the chameleonlike ability to blend into her surroundings. As time went on, it was becoming a rarer and rarer occurrence, and if the bloodlines were diluted by anyone other than a pure Kanin, the offspring would be unable to do it at all.
And that’s why my skin had the same pallor no matter how angry or frightened I might get. I was only half Kanin, so I had none of their traits or abilities.
“Hey, Bryn,” Ember said brightly, and I wrapped my hands with boxing tape as I approached them. “How’d your meeting go?”
As Tilda rested the barbell back in its holder and sat up, her skin slowly shifted back to its normal color, and she wiped the sweat from her brow with the back of her arm. By the grave look in her eyes, I knew that Ember had filled her in about everything that had happened with Konstantin.
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She didn’t ask about it, though. We’d been friends so long that she didn’t really need to say anything. She just gave me a look—her charcoal-gray eyes warm and concerned as they rested heavily on me—and I returned her gaze evenly, trying to assure her with a pained smile that I was handling everything with Konstantin better than I actually was.
Of course, Tilda probably knew I was holding back, but she accepted what I was willing to give and offered me a supportive smile. She would never press or pry, trusting me to come to her if I needed to.
I shrugged. “I’m here to blow off steam, if that answers your question. ”
Ember asked with a smirk, “That bad, huh?”
“The King hates me. ” I sighed and adjusted the tape on my hands as I walked over to the punching bag.
“I’m sure he doesn’t hate you,” Ember said.
Tilda took a long drink from her water bottle, accidentally spilling a few droplets on her baggy tank top, and Ember walked over to help me. She stood on the other side of the punching bag, holding it in place, so that when I hit it, it wouldn’t sway away. I started punching, throwing all my frustration into the bag.
“I have to learn to keep my mouth shut if I’ll ever stand a chance of being on the Högdragen,” I said, and my words came out in short bursts between punches. “It’s already gonna be hard enough without me pissing off the King. ”
“How did you piss him off?” Tilda asked as she came over to us. She put one hand on her hip as she watched me, letting her other fall to the side.
“I was just arguing with him. I was right, but it doesn’t matter,” I said, punching the bag harder. “If the King says the sky is purple and it rains diamonds, then it does. The King’s word is law. ”
I don’t know what made me angrier. The fact the King was wrong and refused to see it, or that I’d once again botched my own attempts at being one of the Högdragen. That was all I’d ever wanted for as long as I could remember, and if I wanted to be in the guard, I’d have to learn to follow orders without talking back.
But I didn’t know how I was supposed to keep my mouth shut if I thought the King was doing things that might endanger the kingdom.
I started alternating between punching and kicking the bag, taking out all my anger at the King and at myself. I finally hit it hard enough that the bag swung back, knocking Ember to the floor.
“Sorry,” I said, and held my hand out to her.
“No harm, no foul. ” Ember grinned as I helped her to her feet.
“You make it sound like we live in an Orwellian dystopia, and I know you don’t think that,” Tilda said, but there was an arch to her eyebrows, like maybe she didn’t completely disagree with the idea.
She’d never openly speak ill of the kingdom—or of anything, really—but that didn’t mean she approved of everything that happened here. Neither did I, but Tilda always managed to handle things with more grace and tact than I could muster.
“No, I don’t. ” I rubbed the back of my neck. “But I won’t ever get ahead if I keep arguing with everyone. ”
“Maybe you will,” Tilda said. “You’ve argued and fought your way to where you are now. Nobody wanted you to be a tracker, but you insisted that you could do it, and now you’re one of the best. ”
“Thanks. ” I smiled at her. “Speaking of which, I’m supposed to be shadowing Linus, so I need to fly through today’s workout. You wanna spar?”
“I think I’ll sit this one out, since the last time you gave me a fat lip,” Tilda reminded me, pointing to her full lips.
They had been briefly swollen and purplish last month when I accidentally punched her right in the mouth, temporarily marring her otherwise beautiful face. She’d never been vain or complained of the bumps and bruises we’d both get during our practicing fights before, but if she didn’t want to fight today, I wasn’t going to push her.
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