The horses in the stable all belonged to the King and Queen, and, like most Tralla horses, they were only used for show, pulling a carriage through town if the Queen was making a visit or marching in a parade.
They could be ridden, and I did ride one horse—Bloom—as often as I had the chance. Bloom was a younger steed with silvery gray fur. Even as tired as I was, I wanted to go down to say hello to him, maybe brush his fur while he nuzzled against me, searching my pockets for hidden carrots or apples.
But I knew I had to be up for the meeting, so I figured I’d better postpone my reunion with Bloom until the next day.
Instead, I settled in and put the rest of my things away. My apartment was small, taking up only a quarter of the loft space. A wall separated my place from the room where the hay bales and some horse equipment were stored.
But I didn’t need that much space. I had my bed, a worn couch, a wardrobe, a couple shelves overflowing with books, and a chair and a desk where I put my laptop. Those were the only things I really needed.
While I waited for the loft to warm up, I changed into my pajamas. I’d decided that it was about as warm as it would get when I heard footsteps thudding up the steps. Based on the speed and intensity—like a herd of small but anxious elephants—I guessed that it either had to be a major emergency or it was Ember Holmes.
“Bryn!” Ember exclaimed as she threw the door open, and then she ran over and threw her arms around me, squeezing me painfully tight. “I’m so glad you’re okay!”
“Thanks,” I managed to squeak out as she hugged me.
Then as abruptly as she’d grabbed me, she let go. She’d barely even stepped back when she swatted me hard on the arm.
“Ow.” I rubbed my arm and scowled at her. “What the hell?”
“Why didn’t you call and tell me you were coming home?” Ember demanded, staring up at me with piercing dark eyes and her hands on her hips. “I had to hear about it from Ridley that you’d been attacked and were leaving early.”
“Thanks, Ridley,” I muttered.
“Why didn’t you tell me what was going on?” Ember asked.
“I didn’t want word getting out.” I sat back on my bed. “I thought it’d be best to keep mum until we figured out what’s going on.”
“Well…” She didn’t know how to argue with that, so she brushed her bangs out from her eyes. “You can still tell me. I’m your best friend.”
Ember was lithe and petite, standing at least four inches shorter than me, and I wasn’t that tall to begin with. But she was a good fighter, quick on her feet and determined. I respected that about her, but that wasn’t what bonded us together.
Like me, she didn’t quite fit into Kanin society. In her case, it was because she was actually Trylle. Her father had worked for the Trylle Queen before they’d moved here to Doldastam four years ago. They hadn’t exactly been welcomed with open arms. Outsiders never were, but Ember and her parents had made their place here.
She did have the added struggle of being a lesbian in a society that wasn’t exactly thrilled about that kind of thing. But since she was a tracker, and not a royal with an important bloodline—or even Kanin—she’d gotten a bit of a break and tended to slip under people’s radar. Not that Ember would ever let anybody keep her down anyway.
“I know. I’m sorry,” I said. “Next time I’ll be sure to tell you.”
“So what happened?” She sat down on the bed next to me.
I shook my head. “There’s not much to tell.”
“Ridley mentioned…” Ember paused, her tone softening with concern. “He said that Konstantin Black was involved.”
I lowered my eyes and took a deep breath, but I could feel her eyes on me, searching for any signs of trauma or despair. When Ember had moved here, it had only been days after Konstantin had left. She may not have been here for the attack, but she definitely witnessed the aftermath.
His attack on my dad had left my nerves raw and I was struggling to control my anger at both Konstantin and myself. Myself for not being able to protect my dad better, and for having had such strong feelings for Konstantin.
Ember, along with my friend Tilda Moller, had been instrumental in helping me deal with it. But that didn’t mean I wanted Ember or anyone else to have to deal with it now.
“It was Konstantin,” I said finally.
Ember didn’t say anything for a minute, waiting to see if I’d continue, and when I didn’t, she cautiously asked, “Did you kill him?”
“No.” The word felt heavy and terrible in my mouth, and an ache grew in the pit of my stomach like a forgotten ulcer flaring up.
“Good,” she said, and I looked up at her in surprise. “You don’t need that on your conscience.”
I scoffed. “His death I could handle. It’s his life that I don’t need weighing on me.”
“I don’t know what happened, because I wasn’t there, but I know that you did the right thing.” Ember put her hand on my shoulder, warm and reassuring. “You always do. You got the Berling boy home safe and sound, and you’re here and you’re alive. So I know you did everything right.”
I smiled wanly at her. “Thank you.”
“You look exhausted. But I’m sure you had a very long trip back.” Ember’d only been a tracker for a little over a year, but already she understood how taxing the journey could be, even without a run-in with my nemesis. “I’ll let you get some rest.”
“You have no idea,” I admitted with a dry laugh.
Ember stood up. “I really am glad you’re back. And your timing is perfect.”
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“My birthday’s on Friday, and the big anniversary party’s on Saturday. You’re back just in time for all the fun,” Ember said with a broad grin.
I tried not to grimace. “Right. Fun.”
The birthday party would be fun, but the anniversary party I’d been hoping to avoid. It would mean guard duty at the palace all night long, which sounded like it would be right up my alley. But every party or ball I’d guarded had always turned out to be nothing but trouble.
The footman who answered the door to the palace helped me take off my coat, even though I assured him it wasn’t necessary, and he nearly pulled off my blazer with it as I tried to wriggle away. I’d kicked off my boots, and before I could collect them he was already bending over and picking them up.