Frostfire, p.9
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       Frostfire, p.9

          part  #1 of  Kanin Chronicles Series  by  Amanda Hocking / Young Adult / Fantasy
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The farther I went, the farther apart the houses were. Near the palace, the cottages and even some of the smaller Markis and Marksinna’s mansions were practically stacked on top of each other. But at Ember’s house, there was room enough for a small pasture with a couple angora goats, and I heard them bleating before I could even see them.
A rabbit hutch was attached to the front of a house, and a fluffy Gotland sat near the edge of the run, nibbling a pint-sized bale of hay. When it saw me, it hopped over, and I reached my fingers through the wire cage and stroked the soft white fur.
The sun was beginning to set, and Ember’s party had been under way for an hour. I knew that I couldn’t put it off any longer, so I said good-bye to the rabbit, and I knocked on the front door.
“Bryn!” Annali Holmes—Ember’s mother—opened the door and greeted me with a broad smile as the warm air from inside wafted over me. “Glad you could make it. ”
“Sorry I’m late. I was stuck at work. ”
I peered around to see who was in attendance, and the small cottage was nearly overflowing. Imagine Dragons played out of the radio loud enough that they hadn’t heard me yet, and I spotted Ember laughing in the center of the room. She always fared much better with attention than I did.
A toddler with dark brown hair sticking up like a troll doll came darting past, trying to escape out the door before Annali scooped him up.
“This is Liam,” she said, and the little boy stared up at me with wide eyes, looking too adorable for his own good, and then in a bout of shyness he buried his face in the blue folds of his grandma’s faded dress. “He’s my son’s youngest. ”
“So they made it in okay?” I asked.
Ember’s older brother, Finn, worked as a guard at the Trylle palace. The King and Queen of the Trylle had come to town for the anniversary party, and Finn came with them as their guard. Since his parents lived in Doldastam, he’d brought his wife and two kids along for a visit.
“Yeah, they arrived early this morning. Why don’t you go in and say hello?” Annali stepped back and motioned toward the living room.
All the gifts were stacked on the dining room table, which had been pushed up against a wall to make more room. I snuck behind the people, nearly sliding up against the wall to add my gift to the pile. Mine was wrapped in butcher’s paper and tied up with twine, appearing rather plain compared to some of the brightly colored packages.
I’d meant to get Ember something nice in Chicago, but since I had to make an abrupt departure, I’d had to grab something quick in Winnipeg while Linus and I waited for the train. It ended up being a sweater that I hoped she didn’t hate, and a ring with a fox on it that I thought she’d actually like.
There had to be over twenty people crammed into the small living room and dining room. Most of them were fellow trackers, but a few were people Ember just knew from town. She was much more sociable than I was.

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Tilda was here, of course, along with her boyfriend, Kasper Abbott. He was a few years older than her, with black curly hair and a carefully manicured beard. Last year, he’d been appointed to the Högdragen, and though he was a very low-ranking member, I’d already begun hitting him up for advice.
In the center of the room, Ember laughed brightly, and Finn stood next to his sister. Though this was just a casual family gathering, he was dressed in a tailored vest and slacks, just like every other time I’d seen him. He held a little girl in a frilly dress on his hip, her dark wild curls pulled into two pigtails.
Next to him was his wife, Mia, who appeared to be pregnant again. Her hands were folded neatly, resting on top of her swollen belly hidden underneath her fitted emerald dress.
“Bryn!” Ember squealed in delight when she finally saw me. “You made it!”
She slid past her brother. When she reached me, she looped her arm through mine, knowing that I would hide in the corners of the room unless she made me actually join the party. “A girl only turns seventeen once, you know, and she needs her best friend at the party. ”
I hadn’t noticed until she was up close, but her eye shadow had a bit of a sparkle to it. Her sweater dress even had a few strategically placed sequins, adding an extra shimmer as well. Several braids twisted through her hair, and then it was pulled back in an updo.
“You remember Finn, right?” Ember pointed to him.
“We’ve met a few times,” I reminded her. He managed to get up here a couple times a year for a visit, bringing his family with him as often as he could. I knew that he was a retired Trylle tracker who now worked as a royal guard, and was Ember’s inspiration for joining the Kanin’s tracker program.
“How are you, Bryn?” Finn asked, smiling at me.
There was something almost strikingly handsome about him, and I noticed it more when he smiled. But he emoted so rarely, and no matter what happened he seemed to stand at attention. I respected him for his training and obvious skill in working as a guard, but he was so closed off.
After I’d first met him, I’d asked Ember if he was secretly an android, and I’d only been half joking. The scary part was that Ember told me he’d actually loosened up a lot since he’d gotten married. I’d have hated to meet him before, if this was him relaxed.
“I’m doing well, thank you. ” I smiled politely at him. “How are you?”
“Can’t complain. ”
“When are we eating cake?” the little girl asked.
“Not right now, Hanna,” Finn told her, and that was about the only time I ever saw his expression soften. When he was interacting with his kids, he truly let his guard down.
“Here. ” Mia held out her arms for the little girl. “I’ll take her and get her something. It’s getting late for the kids. ” Hanna squealed in delight and practically jumped into her mother’s outstretched arms.
“Sorry about that,” Finn said, smoothing down his vest after Mia carried Hanna away to the kitchen. “She gets excited. ”
“Who can blame her? Everyone gets excited about birthday cake,” Ember said. “My mom makes the best cake. She uses blueberries as the sweetener, and it’s to die for. ”
Kanin, and really trolls in general, had an aversion to sugar, except for fruit. We didn’t have much of a stomach for foods that weren’t all natural, nor were we big into red meat. Most of our food was produced in Doldastam, thanks to special “greenhouses. ”
We had a few gardeners that worked to keep fresh produce and wine year-round, and to cultivate flowers that could bloom in the snow. They used psychokinetic abilities to work against the harsh winters of the subarctic, and it took half a dozen of them to keep the garden up and running.
Kasper asked how to change a song, and Ember offered me an apologetic glance before dashing off to help. That left me standing awkwardly with her brother.
“So … are you going to be at the anniversary thing tomorrow?” Finn asked.
I nodded. “Yeah. I’m helping a new changeling adapt. But I would probably be there anyway, because of the added security. We should all be there tomorrow. ”
“That makes sense. ” He lifted his eyes, surveying the room of people chatting with one another. “Are they all Högdragen? That’s what you call it, right?”
“No, most of them aren’t. ” I turned and pointed to where Kasper stood next to Ember, going through her iPod. “Only Kasper is. ”
Tilda saw us pointing at her boyfriend, so she made her way over to where Finn and I were talking, and relief washed over me as Tilda came to rescue me from awkward party conversation as she had a hundred times before. I liked Finn well enough, but I doubted that the two of us could talk comfortably for very long.
“Did you say something about Kasper?” Tilda asked when she reached us. It felt warm in the house—at least to me, after walking the mile here—but her dress left her well-toned arms bare, and she rubbed at them absently.
“I was just telling Finn that Kasper’s on the Högdragen,” I explained.
“That’s true. ” Tilda smiled proudly as she looked back at her boyfriend.
“I’ve always been curious. How does the Högdragen work?” Finn asked “The Trylle don’t have that. ”
I shook my head. “How do you protect the royalty?”
“Most trackers pull double duty as guards, and when they retire from tracking, many of them guard at the palace. ” He looked down at me. “It’s like how you’re working at the party tomorrow. ”
“I have basic training, but trackers aren’t in combat that often. And we’re not trained to work together, if there were an invading army,” I countered. “The Högdragen have all kinds of specialized training. ”
“How often do you really have an invading army?” Finn asked. “When was the last time anyone’s attacked you guys?”
“That’s because they know how good we are. We’re the only tribe that has a real army to speak of,” Tilda added, bristling a bit. She held her head up higher, making her taller than Finn. “Nobody is equipped to go up against us. ”
“What about the business with someone going after the changelings?” Finn asked, undeterred.
I looked at him sharply. “What do you know about it?”
He pursed his lips and shook his head. “Not much. We’ve heard rumblings back in Förening, and Ember mentioned a few things to me. ”
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I glanced over at Tilda, wondering if I should say anything. Her gray eyes were hard, and her lips were pursed together in an irritated pout. If it were her choice, she wouldn’t tell Finn anything. Not just because of his comments about the Högdragen—Tilda preferred to keep private business private. Ember was a bit of a gossip, which was why she’d become closer to me than she had with Tilda. I had a higher tolerance for that kind of thing.
“I’m not a gossip at the market,” Finn said, sensing our unease. “I’m a guard, working with an allied tribe. Discretion is something I’m well versed in. ”
He had a point, so I relaxed a bit. Besides, he was Ember’s brother, and she trusted him.
“As of right now, there is no business with any changelings,” I told him matter-of-factly. “Two men went after one of our high-ranking Markis. That’s all we know, and as far as the King and Queen are concerned, it was an isolated attack. ”
“And who stopped it?” He narrowed his eyes at me. “It was you, wasn’t it?”
“I was—” I started to answer him, but I happened to glance past him and saw Ember go over to answer a knock at the door, barely audible over the music and chatter of the party.
When she opened the door, she let in a draft of cold air, along with Juni Sköld and Ridley. Juni came in first, and Ember helped her slip off her long black jacket. Once Ember took their coats to put them away, Ridley put his hand on the small of Juni’s back, and as they walked toward the party, he leaned over and whispered something in her ear.
I had seen Ridley with plenty of girls over the past years, but that was because I’d barged into his office without knocking and caught him kissing someone, or I’d gone to his place after work and found a girl slinking out his door. This was the first time I’d seen him on an actual date.
“Bryn?” Tilda asked, leaning toward me. “You okay?”
“Yeah. ” I shook my head, clearing it, and then I looked back at Finn, forcing myself to keep my eyes on him and not wander to Ridley any longer. “As I was saying, I was tracking the changeling and prevented them from kidnapping him, yes. ”
“That’s exactly my point. ” Finn folded his arms over his chest. “You’re not a member of the Högdragen, and yet you were perfectly capable of fighting off two men without any of their training. Are they really necessary, then?”
“If anything, that’s a testament to Bryn’s work, not a condemnation of the guard,” Ridley interjected. I looked over to see both him and Juni sidling up next to Tilda, joining our conversation.
“Ember really just invited everyone to this, didn’t she?” I asked as pleasantly as I could and gave them a crooked smile.
He nodded and adjusted his narrow tie. “Apparently so. ”
“Ridley, this is Ember’s brother, Finn,” I said, making the introductions between the two of them. “Finn, this is the Rektor, Ridley. And this is…” I pointed to Juni, then feigned a memory lapse. “Sorry. I’ve forgotten your name,” I lied, and Tilda gave me a peculiar look.
“Juni. Juni Sköld. ” She smiled, making a dimple on her smooth skin. “I went to tracker school years ago with Bryn and Tilda, but I flunked out, so it’s no surprise that they’ve forgotten me. ”
“I’m sure Bryn didn’t forget you,” Ridley said, casting a look at me that I deftly avoided meeting. “She’s just had a busy week. ”
“Well, it’s nice to meet you both,” Finn said, breaking the growing tension.
“Likewise,” Ridley said. “So what were we talking about when I so rudely interrupted?”
“Finn doesn’t understand the point of the Högdragen,” Tilda said, filling him in with a hint of bitterness to her words. Her arms were crossed over her chest, and she turned to look at him as Ridley spoke, as if waiting for Ridley to tell him.
Ridley didn’t seem that fazed by it, though. “The Trylle use trackers to guard the King and Queen, right?”
Finn nodded. “Correct. ”
“Wow, you guys don’t have a guard?” Juni asked, sounding genuinely shocked. Her caramel eyes widened, and she put her hand to her chest, making her bracelets jingle. “That is so weird and kinda scary. ”
“How so?” Finn asked.
“The tracker program is hard, and I’m sure you understand that,” Juni went on. “That’s why I left. It’s not for everyone. But the Högdragen is so much more than trackers are. They’re the best of the best, trained to protect us from any number of dangers. I can’t imagine feeling safe in Doldastam without them. ”
“You have the biggest tribe, though you are spread out quite a bit more than we are,” Ridley said, elaborating on his date’s position. “Förening is less than half the size of Doldastam. But you have the most money. You must have jewels and gems up the ass. ”
Finn scowled at Ridley’s crassness. “I don’t think I would use those exact words, but our wealth is well known. ”
“So why aren’t you guarding it?” Ridley asked.
“We are,” Finn persisted. “We just don’t have a fancy name or a special program for it. ”
“I don’t understand what your issue is with the Högdragen,” Tilda said, unwilling to let his disdain for the guard go. She knew what the guard meant to both her boyfriend and me, and Tilda was fiercely protective when she felt people she cared about were being slighted. “Ember’s talked about you. I know how important your sense of duty is to your people. ”
“It is,” Finn agreed. “I’m not against the work you all do, but it seems to me that the Högdragen is just another form of elitism, just another class in the system that separates everyone. ”
Ridley’s expression hardened. “We may not have fought wars recently, but we’ve prevented our share of violence. Viktor Dålig led an attack against the King fifteen years ago that resulted in four men dead. ” His words were solemn, the same way they were every time he mentioned Viktor Dålig’s assault. “If it hadn’t been for those men—the members of the classist system you don’t understand—Viktor would’ve been successful, and he could’ve overthrown the entire kingdom. ”
Juni reached over, putting her hand on Ridley’s arm and leaning into him. I bit my lip and looked away from them.
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“You think trackers couldn’t have stopped them just as well as members of the Högdragen?” Finn asked pointedly.
“I think that you have no idea what you’re talking about,” Ridley snapped, making Juni flinch next to him. “You’ve never served on the Högdragen, and you’ve never seen them in action. You grew up in a world where you were taught to honor and serve and never think for yourself, so you question anything that isn’t exactly the same as you or the Trylle. ”
“That’s not what—” Finn began, but Ridley cut him off.
“This conversation is taking a turn, and you seem like a very respectable gentleman. So, before I say something you’ll regret, I’m going to go say hello to the birthday girl. ” He nodded curtly. “Excuse me. ” Then Ridley turned and walked away.
“It was very nice meeting you. ” Juni offered him a polite smile, then turned and went after Ridley, her long, dark brown locks bouncing as she hurried over to him.
“What did I say?” Finn asked, baffled by the hard edge in Ridley’s voice. “I wasn’t trying to be offensive or hurtful. ”
“Ridley’s dad was on the Högdragen. He was one of the four men that Viktor Dålig killed,” Tilda explained. “He died saving the kingdom. ”
ELEVEN
unrequited
Finn apologized for saying anything that might’ve offended anyone, and I stayed and talked with him and Tilda a bit more, though both of them were careful not to bring up the guard anymore. Mostly Finn just talked about his home, since Tilda seemed strangely interested in what it was like raising a family while working as a tracker.
But how Finn managed to juggle taking care of two kids and his workload wasn’t all that interesting to me, and I let my attention wander. Usually—and rather unfortunately—I kept finding my gaze landing on where Ridley and Juni seemed to be enjoying themselves.
No matter when I looked over, she always seemed to be laughing at something. She had to be one of the most cheerful people I’d ever met, which was part of the reason she hadn’t been suited for the tracker program. It wasn’t that she wasn’t tough enough, exactly—she’d just been too friendly, too kind for a job that required a lack of emotion.
When Ridley wrapped his arm around her waist, she leaned into him, laughing warmly, her dark lashes lying in a fan on her bronze skin. Her hair fell down her back in long dark waves, and her dress hugged the full curves of her hips and chest beautifully.
She almost seemed to glow with happiness, a Kanin ability and one of the reasons why she’d had to leave the tracker program. Most of the Kanin who had the skin-changing ability would only blend in with their surroundings when they were distressed, but hers made her radiate when she was happy, and it simply darkened when she was upset. Despite her best efforts, she’d never been able to get it under control, and it had become a detriment.
So I understood exactly why Ridley had invited her here as his date. She may not have been suited to be a tracker, but in every other way, Juni was the perfect Kanin girl.
A painful twisting sensation spread through my chest, and I couldn’t stand to watch them anymore. I wanted to make my escape, but on my way to the door Ember intercepted me, insisting that I stay for just a bit longer. But then Tilda—sensing my distress—provided a distraction for Ember and whisked her away so they could dance together to an Ellie Goulding remix.
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