As soon as the thought popped into my head, I pushed it away.
The door to the hall swung open, and he lowered his eyes, breaking whatever moment we’d both been in.
“Good, Bryn, you’re still here,” Dad said as he came into the room.
Ridley looked up and gave me a crooked smile, then shook his head. “I don’t even know what I’m talking about.”
That’s what he said, but it felt like a lie. Still, I’d become acutely aware that my dad was staring at us both, watching us look at each other, and the whole situation felt increasingly awkward.
“Anyway, I should get back to the office.” He straightened up and stepped away from the table. “It was nice seeing you again, Chancellor.”
“You too.” Dad nodded at him, then turned his attention to me. “I wanted to talk to you.”
“What did you want to talk to me about?” I asked after Ridley made his escape. “A lecture on how I shouldn’t put myself in danger? Or maybe how I should retire and become a teacher like Mom?”
“That would be nice, yes, but actually I wanted to invite you over for dinner tonight.”
“I don’t know, Dad.” I hurried to think up some kind of excuse, any excuse. “I’m supposed to be spending time helping Linus get situated.”
“Bryn, you just got back in town after being attacked.”
“I wouldn’t call it an ‘attack’ per se.”
“Your mother wants to see you. I want to see you. It’s been weeks since you’ve been over to our house.” Dad used a tone so close to pleading that it made my heart twist up with guilt. “Mom will make a nice supper. Just come over. It’ll be good.”
“Okay,” I relented. “What time?”
“Six? Does that work for you?”
“Yep. That’ll be great,” I said and tried to look happy about it.
“Great.” A relieved grin spread across his face. “I know I said some stuff in the meeting that made you mad, but it’s just because I love you and I want you to be safe.”
“I know, Dad.”
And I did know that. Dad was just trying to express concern. But I wished he’d do it in a way that didn’t undermine me in front of my superiors.
“Good,” he said. “Is it okay if I hug you now, or does that break your no-hugs-at-work policy?”
That was a policy I’d instated when I was fifteen and Dad had ruffled my hair and called me his “adorable little girl” in front of the Högdragen, making them chuckle. It was already hard enough for me to earn their respect without moments like that.
I nodded, and he wrapped his arms around me. When he let me go, I smiled and said, “Don’t go making a habit of it.”
We both left the meeting hall after that. Dad had work to be done, and so did I. I knew I should go down to help Linus Berling. Even without the King’s order to guard him, as his tracker I was supposed to be the one helping him adjust to his new life here in Doldastam.
But right at that moment I didn’t think it would be the best idea. The meeting had left me in a sour mood. Things had not gone well with the King, and I really needed to burn off steam.
I could spend an hour at the gym, then go down and help Linus. It’d be better for him if I got in my daily training anyway. If someone was coming after him, I needed to be strong and sharp enough to fight them off.
The gym in the tracker school had a locker room attached to it, where I changed into my workout clothes. As I pulled on my tank top, I was acutely aware of the jagged scar on my shoulder—the gift Konstantin had given me the first time we’d fought. That only helped fuel my anger, and I pulled my hair up into a ponytail and strode into the gym.
The younger recruits in tracker school were running laps around the side. A couple of older kids were practicing fencing at the other end. Swordplay probably wouldn’t be that useful in the outside world, but the Kanin liked to keep things old school. We were a culture steeped in tradition, sometimes to a maddening degree.
A few other full-fledged trackers were doing general workouts, including Ember Holmes and Tilda Moller. Tilda was lifting weights, and Ember hovered over her, spotting for her.
While Ember was a couple years younger than me, Tilda and I were the same age. We were actually the only two girls in our graduating tracker class, and that hadn’t been an easy feat for either of us.
Tilda and I had become friends in kindergarten, when we’d both been deemed outsiders—me for blond hair and fair skin, and her for her height. As a child, she had been unnaturally tall, towering over everyone in our class, though as we’d gotten older her height had become an asset, and she’d filled out with curves and muscles that made her almost Amazonian.
Growing up, we were subjected to all kinds of bullying—mostly by the royals but even by our own “peers.” I was quick to anger, and Tilda helped ground me, reminding me that my temper wouldn’t help the situation. She bore the taunts with poise and stoicism.
Most of the time, anyway. In our first year at tracker school, a boy had made a derisive comment about us girls not being able to handle the physical training, and Tilda had punched him, laying him out flat on his back. That was the last time anybody said anything like that around her.
Hanging down over the weight-lifting bench, Tilda’s long hair shimmered a luscious dark chestnut. But the only thing about her I’d ever been jealous of was her skin. As she lifted the barbell, straining against the weight, the tanned color of her skin shifted, turning dark blue to match the color of the mats propped against the wall behind her.
Unlike Ember and me, Tilda was full-blooded Kanin. Not everyone could do what she did either, the chameleonlike ability to blend into her surroundings. As time went on, it was becoming a rarer and rarer occurrence, and if the bloodlines were diluted by anyone other than a pure Kanin, the offspring would be unable to do it at all.
And that’s why my skin had the same pallor no matter how angry or frightened I might get. I was only half Kanin, so I had none of their traits or abilities.
“Hey, Bryn,” Ember said brightly, and I wrapped my hands with boxing tape as I approached them. “How’d your meeting go?”
As Tilda rested the barbell back in its holder and sat up, her skin slowly shifted back to its normal color, and she wiped the sweat from her brow with the back of her arm. By the grave look in her eyes, I knew that Ember had filled her in about everything that had happened with Konstantin.