four years ago
As dawn began to approach, the celebration finally wound to a close. Even though I had been working for over twelve hours, I felt wide awake and even a little buzzed, like I’d gotten a contact high from the energy around me, not to mention the thrill of completing my first real assignment as a tracker.
Since my graduation was still several months away, I hadn’t been given any major detail or heady responsibility. My duties for the night involved standing at attention during the formalities, and surveying the rooms for signs of trouble the rest of the night, which mostly meant directing the increasingly inebriated party guests to the bathroom.
But still, I had been here, working alongside other trackers and even the more elite Högdragen—the guards charged with protecting the Kanin kingdom. That’s why at the end of the night, despite the growing ache in my bare feet, I was a little saddened to be relieved of my duties.
King Evert and Queen Mina had opened the doors to all the Kanin in our capital of Doldastam, and there were over ten thousand of us living here. With that many people streaming in through the doors for an impromptu party, the royal couple needed all the hands they could get, including trackers-in-training.
We’d just gotten word a few days before that another tribe, the Trylle, had defeated our shared enemy, the Vittra. For the past few months, our King and Queen had been quietly preparing the Kanin. If the Vittra had taken out the Trylle, we would have been the next logical target, since we were wealthier and more powerful than the Trylle. We were too strong and plentiful for the Vittra to go after first, but once they conquered the Trylle and turned their army to Vittra, they would be strong enough to go after us.
But when the Trylle did away with the Vittra King and his entire army, they did away with our impending war as well. So naturally our good King Evert found reason to celebrate, which was how I’d ended up working a party until the early hours of the morning.
By now the King and Queen had retired to their chambers for the evening, and nearly all of the guests had gone home. A handful of trackers and Högdragen stayed on to oversee the party until everyone had departed, while the cleaning crew had begun the unenviable task of taking care of the mess.
Since so few people were left, I was relieved of my duty and sent home for the night. I felt a bit like Cinderella then, her lovely coach turning back into a pumpkin, as I walked slowly into the front hall. Though I had been wearing the trackers’ formal uniform—a tailored, frosty white suit, all crisp and new since this was the first time I’d worn it—instead of a gown given to me by a fairy godmother, at the end of the night my uniform would be put away, and I wouldn’t perform any more duties until after I graduated.
Once I did graduate, I’d be given a silver sash to hold my sword, but until then they didn’t quite trust me with a weapon, not that I’d really needed one for a celebration like this anyway.
As I made my way toward the front door, unbuttoning my jacket and letting it fall loose, I let out a heavy sigh. Many of the kerosene lamps had gone out, leaving the large entrance glowing dimly. The white banners that decorated the high stone walls of the palace had begun to sag, and silver confetti carpeted the cool floor.
The creak of a heavy door closing gave me pause, because it sounded like the door to my father’s office. I glanced down the narrow corridor off the main hall, and sure enough, I saw my dad emerging from his office. His black hair—which he normally kept smoothed back—had become slightly disheveled, and his tie was loosened, with the top buttons of his shirt undone.
“What are you doing?” I asked in surprise. “I thought you went home hours ago.”
“I had some paperwork I needed to finish up.” He gestured to the office behind him as he walked slowly toward me, suppressing a yawn as he did.
My dad worked as a Chancellor for the kingdom. I knew that Dad took his job very seriously, and he often worked late nights, but I’d never known him to work quite this late before.
“Paperwork?” I raised an eyebrow. “While a party was going on?”
“We needed to send a letter to the Trylle.” Dad gave a half shrug, which did little to convince me that that was really why he was still working. “They’re poised to oversee two kingdoms now, and it’s in our best interest to align with them.”
“And you needed to do that right now?” I pressed.
“It could’ve waited until the morning,” Dad admitted, and his mouth turned to a sheepish smile as he shoved his hands in his pockets. “I wanted to see how your night went. It is your first big night on the job.”
“It went well,” I said, then paused when a wave of doubt hit me. I tried to replay the night in my head, searching for any mistakes I might’ve made. “I think.”
“I’m sure you did wonderful,” Dad assured me, and his grin broadened, stretching into one of pride and affection. “Every time I looked over, I saw you standing at attention. You looked so grown up and so … official.”
“My little girl is all grown up,” he said wistfully and reached to tousle my blond waves.
“Dad.” I ducked away from his hand, but I couldn’t help but smile at him. “Can you at least wait until we’re out of the palace to get all mushy?”
He opened his mouth, probably to point out that we were alone, but then we both heard the sound of footsteps coming down the corridor. Instinctively, I stood up straighter and put my shoulders back. I was about to start buttoning my jacket back up, but then I saw Konstantin Black walking right toward my dad and me, and for a second I forgot to breathe.
We allowed movies and music from the human world, but the true rock stars of our society were the Högdragen. They had been ordinary Kanin who worked their way up to powerful positions of respect and authority, and none had done it quite so quickly or with as much flare as Konstantin Black. Still in his twenties, he was already the Queen’s personal guard—the youngest in recorded history to have such a position.
His black velvet uniform, embellished with silver thread and jewels, was the most luxurious of all the Högdragen uniforms, and even though it was standard for Kanin in his position, his somehow seemed even more divine. His silver sash caught the dim light from the lanterns and managed to glint a little. Even the diamond-encrusted bell handle of his sword sparkled.
He strode confidently over to us, and I tried to remain as blank and composed as I could, as I had been taught. But it was impossible to keep my stomach from doing flips inside me. For years I had been admiring him from afar—for his abilities, his strength, his composure, and, if I’m being honest, in more recent years for how handsome he was—and this was already the most personal encounter I’d had with him.