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?”
“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.”