She looked at me hopefully, almost asking for my approval. After the way I’d botched the news about her pregnancy, I knew I had to handle things much more maturely this time.
I smiled. “You’re right, and that sounds really great, Tilda. I’ll be happy to help you celebrate your day whenever you want me to.”
“Thanks.” She looked relieved then waved her hand. “Anyway. We can talk about all the wedding stuff later. Right now, we should all get to work.”
“Right. So what should I be doing now?” I asked again and cast a glance around the room to see what my options were.
“If you’re up to it, you could work on combat training with Ember,” Tilda suggested, apparently deciding to go with her gut instead of the clipboard.
“Good. The guy I’ve been going against could use a break anyway,” Ember added with a laugh.
That did sound like the best possibility, but my attention was elsewhere so I didn’t immediately reply. While I was scanning the room, I’d spotted Ridley in the far corner, nearly hidden behind the boxing ring. A group of maybe twenty trackers sat on the floor around him, staring up with rapt interest as he paced in front of them.
I was too far away to hear him over the noise of the gym, but his arms were clasped behind his back and he spoke with a kind of intensity. He wore the same uniform as Tilda, though his jacket was buttoned up and he had a large silver rabbit pinned to his jacket—the sign that he was the Överste.
In times of war, the Rektor took on the role of the head officer overseeing the army. The head of the Högdragen, the Chancellor, and the King all ranked above him. The Överste made no decisions in terms of battle, but the position still had great responsibility in commanding the trackers/soldiers and preparing them for their orders.
“Bryn?” Ember was saying my name, but I didn’t look back at her.
“What’s going on over there?” I asked and motioned toward Ridley.
“Ridley’s training the scouts,” Tilda answered.
I turned back to her. “Scouts?”
“They’re going to go out and find Viktor Dålig and Konstantin Black,” Tilda explained. “They’re supposed to find the base camp, get a rough idea of how large Viktor’s operation is, and then report back to us. Based on the scouts’ information, we’ll send out troops to find Viktor and everyone that works for him, and destroy them.
“The Högdragen will stay behind, so Doldastam’s not left unprotected while all the trackers—sorry, troops—are off to war,” Tilda finished, and I remembered the guards I’d seen stationed at doorsteps.
Until—and if—scouts found Viktor Dålig, we had no idea when or where he would strike again. That meant everyone here would be on high alert as a precaution, especially since we still didn’t understand what he or Konstantin wanted.
“And before you ask, no, you can’t join the scouts,” Tilda said, her eyes apologetic. “Ridley told me to tell you.”
“It’s probably just because you’re injured,” Ember said. “Just like how I didn’t go on the last mission, because I’d broken my arm.” She swung her arm around now, fully healed by medics since Bent Stum had broken it.
Tilda looked down at me, her full lips pressed together and her eyes grim, and she didn’t say anything. Like me, she knew my injury wasn’t the reason I was being held back. I’d already let Viktor Dålig get away once. They weren’t about to let me make that mistake again.
“We should get training,” I said, because I was tired of talking.
Tilda nodded then walked away, checking over the papers as she did. Ember led me to a spot on the mats where she’d been practicing. Her partner had moved on to work with someone else, and when he saw that Ember would be training with me and not him, he appeared relieved.
I wrapped my hands with boxing tape while Ember explained what specific moves she’d been instructed to focus on today. When I finished, I tossed the tape aside and glanced over at Ridley. He happened to look up at the same time, and his eyes met mine.
Even across the room, I could see the anger still burning in them. He hadn’t forgiven me yet, and I wasn’t sure if he ever would.
Then Ember’s fist collided painfully with my jaw, and I swung at her instinctively. She blocked her face, so I went for her stomach—connecting solidly with the firm muscles of her abdomen.
She gasped in pain, but smiled broadly at me. “Now that’s more like it.”
The wind had calmed down some, so I left my jacket open, letting the air freeze the sweat that still stuck to me. After we’d finished training for the day, Ember had insisted that I join her for a treat at the bakery in the town square, saying we’d earned it. Tilda had to finish up some paperwork, and then she planned to meet us so we could talk more in depth about her wedding plans.
My muscles already ached and my right wrist cracked loudly every time I moved it, but I wasn’t sure I felt like I’d earned anything. The day left me feeling more like a failure than I already had.
Several inches of snow had piled up while we’d been working. Although there were still tracks from people and animals braving the weather, the streets were mostly deserted. The Kanin could handle whatever the weather threw at them, but that didn’t mean they were masochists. Most of us knew when it was worth it to stay in by the fire.
But Ember didn’t seem to mind. She just pulled her hat down over her ears and trudged through the snow banks.
“You were awfully quiet today,” Ember commented as we made our way down to the bakery.
I shrugged. “I was just training.”
“It’s more than that.” She paused before adding, “You know no one blames you.”
“Some people do.”
Ember scoffed. “Those people are stupid. Everyone who knows you knows that you did everything you could to stop Viktor Dålig and Konstantin.”
We’d been outside long enough that the cold had started to get to me, but I didn’t zip up my jacket. I just clenched my jaw, refusing to let my teeth chatter.
An oversized white husky was digging through the garbage outside the butcher shop. Large snowflakes clung to his thick fur. He looked at me as we passed by, his bright blue eyes seeming to look straight through me, and a chill ran down my spine. I quickly looked away.
“What if I didn’t do everything I could?” I asked.