Frostfire, p.8
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       Frostfire, p.8

         Part #1 of Kanin Chronicles series by Amanda Hocking  
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He laid his hands flat on the table and looked me in the eye. “Can I be totally candid with you?”
“Of course. ” I sat up straighter, preparing myself for any number of inflammatory statements he might make. “I’m your tracker. You can always speak freely with me. ”
“You guys are super-weird. ”
NINE
regret
“I can’t do this,” I announced as I threw the office door open. It swung back harder than I meant for it to, and when the doorknob banged into the brick wall, Ridley grimaced.
“If by ‘this’ you mean knocking, then yes, that’s very apparent,” he said dryly.
I flopped in the chair across from his large oak desk. A wide-screen monitor for his computer was tilted toward the edge of the desk. Being trolls, we craved all things shiny and new.
Our love of such things extended to the latest gadgets and fastest technology, but once we had them, it seemed that we usually preferred the old ways of doing things. The Kanin royalty collected computers and tablets the way others did baseball cards—storing them in boxes and closets and out of sight.
That’s why the Rektor’s office contained a high-speed computer, a massive printer, and all sorts of devices that would make his work so much easier, but it was rarely used. Stacks of paper covered the desk, since, inevitably, most things were done by hand.
A bulletin board on one side of the room was overflowing with flyers. Reminders for meetings and trainings, sign-up sheets for less glamorous jobs like cleaning out the garage, and missing persons posters for the rare changeling who ran away.
Behind Ridley’s desk were two massive paintings of King Evert and Queen Mina. The rest of the wall was covered in smaller eight-by-tens of the latest changelings who had come back, as a reminder of why we did the job.
Outside the office, classes were in session, so I could hear the muted sounds of kids talking.
“I can’t stay here,” I told Ridley.
“Like in this office?” He scribbled something down on a piece of paper in front of him, then he looked at me. “Or can you be more specific?”
“I can’t stay in Doldastam,” I said. His shoulders slacked, and he set the pen down. “Linus is safe. He’s fine. There are tons of people here to watch him. I have no reason to stay. ”
“That’s true,” he said sarcastically, then he snapped his fingers like something had just occurred to him. “Oh, wait. There is that one reason. The King ordered you to stay and personally watch Linus. ”
I rubbed my forehead, hating that he was right. “I need a break. ”
“A break?” Ridley asked in confused shock, and for a few seconds he appeared speechless. “You’re a workaholic. What nonsense are you going on about?”
“I’m not asking to do nothing,” I clarified. “I need a break from here. I just got done breaking in the last changeling, and that went fine, but I was stuck here for weeks and weeks. And then I just got to go out after Linus, and I had to turn around and come back. ”
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He ran a hand along the dark stubble of his cheek. “What’s going on?” he asked, and his tone softened. “What happened?”
“Nothing. ”
“Bryn. ” From across the desk, he gave me a look—one that said he knew me too well to let me bullshit him.
Instead of replying, I turned away from him. I twisted the silver band around my thumb and looked over at the bulletin board, eyeing the wanted posters.
Any fugitive who was still at large had their picture up, even if they’d escaped years ago. The incident with Viktor Dålig had to have happened fifteen years ago, but his picture was still prominently displayed at the top of the wanted section. The bright red font for “wanted” had faded to more of a dull pink, but his picture was still clear and visible. The heavy dark black beard, his cold eyes, even the scar that ran across his face from just above his left eye down to his right cheek.
There were two new posters that popped out on crisp white paper with fresh ink. An updated one for Konstantin Black, and a brand-new one for Bent Stum. Even in his picture, Konstantin seemed to be smirking at me, like he knew he’d gotten away with what he’d done.
But his eyes caught me. Even in black-and-white, they appeared livelier than when I had seen them in real life. It was the look he’d had when I’d last seen him standing in the crowd in Chicago, and the same look he’d had when I saw him standing over my father. And it was his eyes that had haunted my dreams last night, but I struggled to push that back, refusing to replay it in my head again, the way I had been all morning.
“Bryn,” Ridley repeated, since I hadn’t answered him.
Reluctantly I turned back to look at him. “I just ran into Astrid Eckwell in the library at the palace. ”
Ridley shrugged, like he didn’t know why that would bother me. “Astrid’s an idiot. ”
“Yeah, I know. ”
“You never let her get to you. ”
I inhaled deeply. “I usually don’t. ”
“What’d she say this time that got under your skin?”
“Nothing, really. It was just the same old crap. ” I started bouncing my leg up and down, needing to do something to relieve my agitation. “And usually I’m over it. But this time it was really hard for me to not punch her in the face. ”
“Well, I commend you on not doing that. Because that would’ve been very bad. ”
“I know. I think I’ve just been cooped up here too long. ” I shifted in my chair. “This winter is taking forever to end. And the King is being ridiculous. I should be out in the field, and you know it, Ridley. ”
“Shh. ” He glanced toward the open door. “Lower your voice. You don’t want the new cadets to hear. ”
“I don’t care who hears,” I said, nearly shouting.
Ridley went over to the door and peeked out in the hall, then closed the door. Instead of going back to his chair, he came over to me. He leaned on the desk right in front of me, so he was almost at eye level.
He wore a button-down shirt and vest, but he’d skipped a tie today, so I could see his necklace. It was a thin leather strap with an iron rabbit amulet—his present upon becoming Rektor. The amulet lay against the bronzed skin of his toned chest, and I lowered my eyes.
“I know you’re pissed off, but you don’t need to get in a shitload of trouble because an overzealous tracker-in-training tattles on you to the wrong person,” he said, his voice low and serious.
Technically, speaking any ill of the King was a punishable offense. My saying that he was ridiculous wouldn’t exactly get me executed, but I could end up stuck cleaning toilets in the palace, or demoted, even. The changelings were assigned to us based on our rank, and in terms of trackers, I was third from the top.
“You’re right. ” I sighed. “I’m sorry. ”
“Don’t apologize to me. Just don’t act stupid because you’re mad. ”
“I’m more valuable out in the field. ” I stared up into Ridley’s dark eyes, imploring him to understand. “And I feel so useless here. I’m not doing anything to help anyone. ”
“That’s not true. You’re helping Linus. You know how lost and bumbling changelings are at first. ”
“He needs someone, yeah, but it doesn’t have to be me,” I countered. “I’m not actually needed here. ”
“I need you,” Ridley said, with a sincerity in his tone that startled me. In the depths of his eyes I saw a flicker of that heat I’d seen before, but just as I’d registered it, he looked away and cleared his throat. “I mean, there’s a lot going on right now. Royalty from all over are on their way right now. You’re a big asset here. I wouldn’t be able to handle everything without your help. ”
“Anyone can do what I’m doing,” I said, deciding to ignore the heat I’d seen in his eyes. “I think that’s why Astrid got to me. I already feel like I’m being useless, and she always does such a great job of reminding me how much better than me she is. ”
He shook his head. “You know that’s not true. ”
I opened my mouth to argue that, but the door to the office opened and interrupted me. I looked back over my shoulder to see Simon Bohlin. Out of habit, I sat up straighter in my chair and tried to look as nonchalant as possible. I still wasn’t completely sure how to act around him.
We’d broken up a few months ago after going out for nearly a year. I’d gone against my own rule about not dating other trackers because Simon was funny and cute and didn’t seem all that intimidated by the fact that I could kick his ass.
But I don’t know why it still felt so awkward. We hadn’t even been that serious. Well, I thought we hadn’t been serious. Then Simon dropped the l-word, and I realized that we wanted two vastly different things out of the relationship.
Simon had been walking into the office, whistling an old tracker work song under his breath, but he stopped short when he saw me.
“Sorry,” Simon said. From underneath his black bangs, his eyes shifted from me to Ridley. “Am I interrupting something?”
“No. ” Ridley stood up and stepped away from me. “Not at all. ”
“I just came in to get my orders for the new changeling,” Simon said.
“Right. Of course. ” Ridley walked around to the other side of his desk, shifting around stacks of paper in search of the file for Simon.
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“You’re leaving?” I asked, flashing Simon the friendliest smile I could manage.
He nodded. “Yeah. ”
“When?”
“Um, I think later today,” Simon said.
Ridley found the file and held it up. “That is the plan. ”
“So you’re not staying for the party?” I asked.
Simon shook his head, looking disappointed. “Not unless it’s in the next couple hours. ”
Then it hit me. Simon was a good tracker, but he’d always enjoyed the parties and balls here more than I had.
I stood up. “We could trade. ”
“Trade what?” Simon asked cautiously.
Ridley sighed. “Bryn. No. ”
“I’m supposed to stay here and shadow Linus Berling, but you were always so great with the changelings. ” I walked over to Simon, getting so excited by the idea that I forgot to feel strange around him. “You could get him all settled and act as his bodyguard, and I could go out into the field. ”
“I…” Simon hesitated. “I mean, I don’t know if that’s okay. ”
“But would you?” I asked before Ridley could object. “I mean, if it was okay. ”
“Why? What’s going on?” Simon asked.
“Bryn’s just going through a case of cabin fever, and it’s making her act crazy,” Ridley explained as he walked over to us.
“I’m not acting crazy,” I insisted and stared hopefully up at Simon. “So, Simon, are you in?”
“Why don’t you come back in, like, half an hour, and we’ll have this all straightened out?” Ridley asked and started ushering Simon to the door.
Simon glanced back at me, then shrugged noncommittally as he left. Once he’d gone, Ridley closed the door. He turned around and leaned back on it, letting out a long sigh as he looked over at me.
“What I’m saying makes sense. It works,” I insisted, already steeling myself for his protests.
“Sit down. ” He motioned to the chair.
He went over to the two chairs sitting in front of his desk and turned them so they faced each other. After he sat down, he gestured to the other one, so I went over and sat down across from him. He leaned forward, resting his elbows on his legs, and by the gravity in his eyes, I knew this conversation wasn’t going the way I’d hoped it would.
“Do you want me to be completely honest with you?” he asked.
“Always. ”
“What the hell are you thinking?” Ridley asked with such force and incredulity that it surprised me.
“I…” I fumbled for words. “What?”
“Okay, truthfully, yes, I probably can pull some strings and make it happen. If you really wanted to get out of here, I could switch your assignment with Simon’s. ”
I waited a beat, and he didn’t add the but, so I figured I’d have to ask. “But you’re not gonna do it?”
“No, I will,” Ridley said. “If that’s what you really want. And if you really want to blow your chance at ever becoming a Högdragen. ”
I lowered my eyes, and when I tried to argue against it, my words came out weak. “It won’t hurt my chances. ”
“This is the first time the King ever gave you a direct order, and it’s a very simple one. And you can’t follow it. ” Ridley sighed and leaned back in his chair. “You’re already fighting an uphill battle to be a guard because you’re half Skojare, not to mention there are only a handful of women in the Högdragen. ”
I gritted my teeth. “I know what I’m up against. ”
“I know you know that,” Ridley said, sounding exasperated. “Do you even still want to be on the Högdragen?”
“Of course I do!”
He shook his head, like he wasn’t sure he believed me anymore. “Then explain to me what the hell is going on with you right now. ”
“What do you mean?” I asked, but I refused to meet his gaze.
“You know this could ruin your shot at the one thing you want most in the world, and yet you’re still fighting against it. Why do you want to get out of here so badly?”
I clenched my jaw and found it hard to speak around the lump growing in my throat. “I let him go,” I said, and my words came out barely above a whisper.
“Konstantin Black?” he asked like he already knew the answer.
I looked away, staring at the wall and struggling to keep my anger under control. Tentatively, Ridley reached out and placed a hand on my knee. It was meant to be comforting, and the warmth of his skin through the fabric of my jeans was just enough to distract me.
“You did the right thing,” Ridley told me. “You did what you needed to do to protect Linus. ”
“Maybe I did. ” I finally turned to look at him, letting my cool gaze meet his. “Or maybe I could’ve snapped his neck right then, and we’d all be rid of him forever. ”
If he saw the ice and hatred in my eyes, he didn’t let on. His expression was filled only with concern, and he didn’t even flinch at my wishful thinking about murder.
“If you really believe that, then why didn’t you kill him?” Ridley asked reasonably.
“The truth?” I asked, and suddenly I felt afraid to say it aloud. But with Ridley staring at me, waiting, I knew I had to finally admit it. “I don’t think he wanted to kill my father. ”
“What? What are you talking about?”
“When I walked in on him, standing over my father with his sword bloodied, he apologized and said that he was bound to something higher than the kingdom,” I tried to explain.
“So you think he … what?” His forehead scrunched, and he shook his head. “I don’t understand. ”
“There was a look in his eyes. Regret. ” I thought back to Konstantin, and the pain I’d seen in his smoky eyes. “No, it was remorse. ”
“Remorse?” Ridley sat up a bit straighter. “You think you saw remorse in his eyes? So, what? You just forgave him?”
“No. No,” I said adamantly. “I’ll never forgive him. But I think he regretted what he did, even before he did it. And it doesn’t make sense. I need to know why he did it. ”
“He could just be insane, Bryn,” Ridley said, going to the only reason that anybody had ever been able to come up with for Konstantin’s behavior. “Your dad had never had a cross word with him, and then one night Konstantin just snapped. ”
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“No. He’s too smart, too calculated. And now with this attack on Linus…” I chewed the inside of my cheek as I thought. “It’s all connected. He’s plotting something. ”
“If he’s still working toward some ultimate goal, then he doesn’t regret it,” Ridley pointed out. “If he felt genuine remorse, he should be looking for absolution, not trying to hurt more people. ”
“Not if someone else is pulling his strings,” I countered. “And if someone is, I need to find out who it is. ”
“Konstantin might be an innocent pawn in all of this?” Ridley questioned doubtfully.
“No. I don’t know what is motivating him, but he drew his sword against my father with his own hand. That fault lies entirely with him. ”
Konstantin may have come to regret what he’d done. He could even cry about it every night, but it didn’t change the fact that he’d done it, and he knew exactly what he was doing. When I went into the Queen’s office that night, he was preparing to finish the job as I watched.
Regardless of what guilt he might feel or what reason might drive him, Konstantin had still acted of his own accord.
“You want to leave here so you can find him and hold him responsible,” Ridley said.
“Yes. ” I looked up at him, pleading with him to let me go, to let me finish what Konstantin had started. “He needs to be brought to justice, and so does anyone else he’s working with. ”
“Justice? Does that mean you’ll drag them all back here? Or are you gonna kill them all?”
“Whichever one I need to do. But I’m not letting Konstantin get away again,” I told him, and I meant it with all my heart. I’d never killed anyone before, but I would do whatever I needed to do.
Ridley seemed to consider this for a moment, then he pulled his hand back from my leg—leaving it feeling cool and naked without his warm touch—and he rubbed the back of his neck. “You can’t go after him alone, and you can’t go right now. ”
“Ridley—” I began, but he cut me off.
“I don’t care if you think Linus doesn’t need you and the King is an idiot. You are needed here right now. ” Ridley held up his hand, silencing any more protests I might have before I could voice them. “At least for the time being. Once everyone is gone after the party, and Linus is settled in, if you still need to go on your personal vendetta, we can talk about it. We can make it happen. ”
“We?” I shook my head. “You don’t have to be a part of this. ”
“But I am anyway. ” He lowered his head and exhaled deeply. When he looked up, his dark eyes met mine, and when he spoke, his voice was softer. “Stay. ”
“Is that an order?” I asked, but by the look in his eyes, I knew it wasn’t.
“No. It’s not,” he admitted. “But stay anyway. ”
TEN
celebration
By the time I’d finished with Linus for the evening, it was nearly eight o’clock. After my meeting with Ridley, I’d wanted to spend as much time as I could prepping Linus. The next few days were going to be filled with overwhelming madness for the new changeling, and I needed to set my personal feelings aside to do my job.
I ran home just long enough to grab Ember’s present, and then I made the trek to her place as quickly as I could. The cottage Ember lived in with her parents was over a mile away from the palace, nestled against the wall that surrounded Doldastam, separating us from the Hudson Bay.
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