Ice Kissed (The Kanin Chronicles), page 1
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Fresh snowflakes stung my face, so I closed my eyes and lowered my head and urged Bloom to run faster. For being one of the largest Tralla horses in Doldastam, Bloom was surprisingly quick, and his heavy hooves plowed through the snow as he raced beside the stone walls that surrounded the town.
My head had begun throbbing again—a dull pain that radiated out from the gash just under my hairline along my right temple, held together with six stitches. I tried to ignore it, the same way I had any time the pain had flared up over the last two days, and gripped Bloom’s reins tighter.
Late last night, Ridley Dresden and I had arrived back home from our job in the Skojare capital of Storvatten. Though we’d been released from our duties since the mission was declared complete, I would hardly call it over. Konstantin Black had escaped, and the Queen we’d gone to find was still unaccounted for.
All the royals were resigned to the fact that Queen Linnea Biâelse was probably dead, most likely killed before Ridley and I had even arrived in Storvatten, so none of them held her persistent absence against us. In fact, the missing Queen’s brother-in-law, Prince Kennet Biâelse, had seen us out, and he seemed concerned that we didn’t judge ourselves too harshly.
In the majestic hall of the Storvatten palace, with its frosty glass walls shaped to look like waves encircling us, Kennet had stood with Ridley and me by the door.
“I’m very sorry we weren’t able to do more,” I apologized once more before we departed.
“You did all you could.” Kennet stared down at me, his aquamarine eyes sparkling like jewels, and sighed heavily, making the nearly translucent gills just below his jaw flutter.
Then he took one of my hands, holding it warmly in both of his. While I was surprised by the heat and strength of his large hands encircling mine, I felt too numb to really register it. The failure of the mission left me distraught and defeated, and after the previous night’s attack my head was still in a painful fog.
“Don’t be too hard on yourself, Bryn,” Kennet said in a voice like rolling thunder. “You’re better than you give yourself credit for.”
“We should get going,” Ridley interjected, “if we want to make it back to Doldastam by nightfall.”
“Yes, of course.” Kennet smiled wanly and seemed reluctant to let my hand go. I tried to smile back at him, but I couldn’t muster it in my current state.
Ridley had the front door open for me. As we stepped out of the palace of glass, Kennet called after us, “I hope to see you again. You’re both always welcome here.”
I said nothing in reply, because I had no intention of ever returning to Storvatten or to that palace. With no sign of Linnea or Konstantin, there would be no reason for me to ever come back.
When we’d left Storvatten, my memory of Konstantin Black’s escape from the prison was still a bit of a blur. My head injury made it difficult for me to think clearly or recall the incidents surrounding my skull being smashed into the stone wall of the dungeon.
Ridley had scoured Konstantin’s cell before we left Storvatten, hoping to find a few hairs or a bit of cloth that he could use to track him. But Konstantin was smart—long before he’d become a traitor to the Kanin, he’d been a tracker. He knew how our world worked, so he hadn’t left a trace of himself behind for Ridley to get a read on, making it impossible for us to know where he had gone.
On the long ride back home, Ridley drove, and I lay with my head pressed against the cold window of the SUV, trying to force my mind into clarity.
I told Ridley the truth about Konstantin’s escape—that I had gone down to the dungeon to reason with him and find out what happened to the missing Queen Linnea, and that Konstantin had already gotten out of his cell. I’d been overpowered, and he’d escaped. But I had left out one glaring detail—it wasn’t Konstantin who had smashed my head into the wall until I was unconscious.
That had been Viktor Dålig.
Fifteen years ago, Viktor had tried to overthrow the Kanin King Evert, and in the process, he’d killed Ridley’s father. Since that attempted coup, no one had seen or heard from him.
Then, out of the shadows, he’d appeared in the Storvatten dungeon to help Konstantin Black escape.
I knew I needed to tell Ridley, but I was terrified that my memory was playing tricks on me. The attack still felt jumbled and hazy. What if the head trauma made me recall Viktor’s face when he’d never been there?
But now as I rode Bloom through the falling snow, pushing him hard as though I could somehow escape the truth, I realized I was more afraid that my memories were right. That Viktor Dålig had been there, and I hadn’t stopped him. I’d let the two greatest enemies of our kingdom get away.
The King stood with his back to us, warming his hands over the crackling fireplace. A cold snap had descended on the kingdom, and even in the palace we could hear the icy wind beating against the stone walls.
None of us said anything as we waited for King Evert Strinne to take his seat at the head of his table next to his wife, Queen Mina. The Queen sat rigidly in her seat, and Ridley and I sat across from her at the other end of the long table. Though she looked in our direction, her gaze seemed to go right through us.
Normally she had a softness to her—in the way her body leaned toward you, as if she really cared about what you were saying—and her gray eyes had a warmth in them. But it was as though the cold had somehow gotten deep inside her, and she sat frozen in her chair with a white fur cape draped over her slender shoulders.
In her lap sat a small, white Gotland rabbit, Vita. It was the Queen’s personal pet, and she sometimes brought her with her to meetings, although I hadn’t seen Vita much lately. As we spoke, Mina pet the rabbit absently.
“So.” Evert finally turned away from the fireplace. His dark blazer had a bit of a shimmer to it, making the light from the flames dance across it as he walked over to his high-backed chair. “I take it from Bryn’s injury that things did not go well in Storvatten.”
I lowered my head, hoping my blond hair would fall forward enough to cover the bruise on my temple, but it was an awful dark purple and extended to my eyebrow. It was hard to hide. Fortunately, my worst injury was behind my hairline. Stitches mended the nasty gash, and my waves of hair helped to mask the swelling and discoloration.
“It could’ve gone better,” Ridley admitted. “But overall, it wasn’t terrible.”
“Evert spoke with Prince Kennet on the phone yesterday before you arrived back in Doldastam,” Mina said, and her voice lilted with the subtle British accent she used on occasion, usually to impress visiting dignitaries or other royals. “We know exactly how everything went in Storvatten.”
I stiffened in my chair, instinctively pulling my shoulders back, but I kept my expression even. While I was disappointed
King Evert held up his hand, the gaudy diamonds on his platinum rings catching the light, and silenced his wife. “I want to hear how you think it went in your own words.”
“Well.” Ridley shifted his weight in his seat and cleared his throat. “We were tasked with locating the missing Skojare Queen, but all our efforts for gathering information were stonewalled. The Prince refused to tell us anything or let us speak to any possible witnesses.”
Mina raised her chin haughtily, and her eyes were hard. “I didn’t realize the Prince had that much power.”
“He got his orders from the King, but we were almost solely in contact with the Prince. He was the one who directed us,” Ridley elaborated. “We went out to search the area for possible clues as to what happened to the Queen, and that’s when Bryn and a Trylle ambassador managed to apprehend Konstantin Black and Bent Stum.”
“You overpowered Konstantin?” Evert appraised me, appearing impressed for a moment.
“Yes,” I said. “I subdued him and brought him back to the palace, where he was placed in the dungeon, along with Bent Stum.”
“It’s my understanding that Bent killed himself?” Evert asked.
“Yes, we believe he took his life shortly after being placed in the cell,” Ridley answered. “Later, Bryn went down to question Konstantin further, and he’d gotten free from his cell. He assaulted her and knocked her unconscious, and then he fled.”
“That…” I took a deep breath, steeling myself for their reactions. “That’s not entirely accurate.”
From the corner of my eye, I could see Ridley turn to look at me, but I refused to look back. I kept my gaze fixed on the King.
“Oh?” Evert sat up straighter. “What did happen then?”
“I went down to question Konstantin, and he was already out of his cell—that part was true,” I said. “But what I didn’t realize initially was that he wasn’t alone. It wasn’t until it was too late that I saw that Viktor Dålig was also there.”
Mina breathed in sharply, and Ridley swore softly next to me. King Evert’s expression faltered, but only for a second, and then he narrowed his eyes at me.
“Viktor Dålig?” Evert asked. “You’re sure it was him?”
“I’ve been training as a tracker since I was twelve,” I said. “I’ve seen his Wanted poster hundreds of times. I’m sure it was him.”
Evert turned away, toying with his rings as he stared into the distance thoughtfully. The Queen looked like she had been punched in the stomach. Ridley’s hands were on the table, balled up into fists, and his breath came out in angry bursts through his nose.
“Why didn’t you say anything sooner?” Evert asked finally, still looking away.
“Viktor slammed my head repeatedly into the stone wall of the dungeon,” I explained. “I couldn’t remember things very well at first, and I wanted to be absolutely certain before I said anything.”
Evert turned to look at me, his dark eyes on mine. “And you’re certain now?”
“Yes, I am,” I told him honestly.
“Did he say anything?” Evert asked.
“He just told Konstantin to kill me, and when Konstantin didn’t act fast enough, Viktor grabbed me and attacked me.”
“This changes everything,” Evert said with a heavy sigh. “We must prepare for war.”
“Based on the word of a tracker with brain damage?” Mina nearly shouted in disbelief, and I bristled.
“Viktor Dålig has already tried to kill me once,” said King Evert, “and he’s been on the run for well over a decade. I have no idea what he’s been up to in that time, but if he’s been working with Konstantin Black I must assume he’s grown even more dangerous. I will not let him make an attempt on my life again.”
“These are all assumptions.” Mina shook her head. “You can’t prepare for war on assumptions, especially when we don’t know what we’re up against or where our enemy might be.”
“Mina, I value your counsel, but on this matter, my decision has already been made,” Evert told her firmly. “We will find him, and we will destroy him, and that’s final.”
Mina lowered her eyes, holding Vita more closely to her, and she said nothing more after that. Evert stood up, saying he needed to meet with advisors, but he’d be calling on Ridley soon. If we were preparing for war, Ridley would have to gather the trackers and start readying them to be soldiers.
As soon as we were dismissed, Ridley stood up and stormed out of the meeting room. I followed quickly, but his strides were long and angry and it took me a moment to catch up with him.
“Ridley,” I called after him as we walked down the palace hallway, empty apart from a few maids with their hands full of cleaning supplies. “Wait.”
He whirled on me then, his dark eyes blazing, his lips pressed together. I couldn’t help but think back to when his eyes had blazed in an entirely different way a few days ago, when he’d pulled me into his arms and pressed his lips passionately against mine.
But whatever desire he’d held for me was gone, replaced by barely restrained anger. “You should’ve told me, Bryn.”
“I wasn’t sure—”
“That’s bullshit!” he roared, and I flinched. The maids were at the other end of the hallway, and they glanced back at us before hurrying on. “That may be why you didn’t tell the King right away, but you should’ve told me.”
“I’m sorry,” I said, since there was nothing else I could say.
He ran his hand through his dark hair and looked away from me, his jaw set hard. “I know things have been … complicated between us lately, but that’s no excuse not to tell me this.”
“That’s not why.” I hurried to reason with him. “I just had to be sure. I couldn’t tell you something this big without being absolutely certain.”
He smirked darkly at me. “So you thought it would be better to blindside me in a meeting with the King and Queen?”
“No, I … I wasn’t thinking.” And that was the truth. Everything had been such a mess lately, and I hadn’t been able to think clearly—especially when it came to Ridley. “I screwed up. I’m sorry.”
“No.” Ridley waved his hands and took a step back from me. “I don’t need your apologies, Bryn. And I think for right now it’d probably be best if we stayed away from each other as much as we can.”
“Ridley,” I said lamely, but I didn’t argue with him.
Then he turned and walked away, his footsteps echoing heavily in the empty hall, and as my head began to ache again I felt more alone than I had in a long time.
When I stepped into the gymnasium, the noise from training fell to a dull murmur, and I could feel eyes turning toward me as the door groaned shut behind me. Thanks to my Skojare-esque appearance, I was used to being stared at in Doldastam—my blond hair and pale skin had always stood out in stark contrast to the tan skin and dark hair of the rest of the Kanin. But this was way beyond normal.
Since the King had officially declared war on Viktor Dålig, Konstantin Black, and all of their associates yesterday afternoon, the tracker school had been turned into an army training camp.
The changes had fallen over the city swiftly and quietly. As I’d walked to the tracker school in the blowing snow, I’d noticed Högdragen standing guard in front of houses—two in front of the more important Markis and Marksinna homes, while one was enough for the less notable families. In the least prominent neighborhoods, one guard would be enough for a whole block.
Even this room full of trackers seemed different: some stood in rows listening to an instructor, while others ran laps and still others did combat drills. Yesterday they had been merely trackers, but now they were soldiers, preparing for a war with an enemy that they might never encounter.
All these changes had take
Ember Holmes broke through the trackers practicing combat drills. Her dark hair bounced in a ponytail behind her, but her bangs were damp with sweat, making them stick to her olive skin.
Boxing tape bound her hands, but her knuckles were still red and one of them was bleeding. To make up for her petite size, she fought twice as hard as anybody else, and I’m sure she’d given her training opponent a run for his money today.
“Haven’t any of you ever seen another tracker before?” Ember asked over her shoulder, casting an irritated glare at everyone in the gym as she walked toward me.
The teacher instructing the trackers barked an order, and that seemed to get everyone back in motion. The volume in the room returned to normal, and I could feel eyes shift away from me.
“You’re late,” Ember pointed out, as if I weren’t aware. “I thought you might be taking the day off to recuperate.”
“I had considered it,” I told her, but that was a lie. The headaches still flared up intermittently, and occasionally the vision in my right eye blurred for a few minutes. But I didn’t need any more time to rest. I was ready to get back to work.
I just hadn’t wanted to come here and deal with all this. Especially when I didn’t know what the point of the heightened security was. Viktor Dålig and Konstantin Black were dangerous, but we didn’t know where there were, and there were only two of them. It wasn’t like we were planning to invade another tribe or country. An army felt unnecessary.
“Bryn Aven.” Tilda Moller smirked down at me, but there was a playful gleam in her smoky eyes. “Nice of you to join us.”
Unlike the other trackers who were dressed in workout clothes, Tilda had on a tailored black linen jacket with epaulets on the shoulders and matching trousers—our army uniform. The jacket hung open, revealing a white shirt and the subtle curve of her belly. Her hair was pulled back into a smooth ponytail, and with a clipboard and papers in hand Tilda looked every bit the part of an officer.
AMANDA HOCKING SERIES:
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