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.”