“That’s great,” I said, and I meant it. Ember was a good tracker, and I was sure she’d be a great help to him. “But since when did acclimation include combat training?”
“I asked her to teach me.” Linus pushed the brim of his hat up so I could see his eyes better. Freckles dotted his cheeks, and there was something boyish in his face that made him seem younger than his seventeen years.
It’d been nearly a month since I first met Linus in Chicago, when I was tracking him and first ran into Konstantin Black, which set off this whole thing. Since that time, Linus seemed to be doing well at understanding his role in Kanin society as a high-ranking Markis, adjusting quicker than most, but he still hadn’t lost his friendly innocence.
“A lot of the younger Markis and Marksinna are requesting defensive training,” Ember explained as she leaned against the fence next to me. “Things have been crazy since you’ve been gone.”
I instinctively tensed up. “Crazy how?”
“You know how Ridley was training those scouts to go out and look for Viktor Dålig?” Ember asked.
My stomach dropped, fearing that something might have happened to him while I was gone, and it took me a moment to force myself to nod.
“Well, last week, one of the scouts reported that he thought he’d found Viktor,” Ember went on. “He managed to report back with Viktor’s whereabouts, but then all communication went silent. Ridley went with a rescue team to go after him. When they found the scout, he was dead.”
“But Ridley came back okay?” I asked, my stomach twisting painfully.
“Yeah, he’s fine,” Ember said, and relief washed over me. “But they found an abandoned campsite, where they’re assuming that Viktor, Konstantin, and at least twenty or so other people were hiding out. They were long gone by the time Ridley and the rescue team arrived, of course, but the scary part was that the campsite was only three hours away.”
My mind flashed back on Konstantin Black, telling me that I needed to get out of Storvatten because Viktor Dålig wanted me dead. But if Viktor was hiding out near Doldastam, it seemed like I would be an easier target for him here.
Admittedly, we had Högdragen gaurding at every door, and the Skojare had the worst security I’d ever seen. But it wasn’t like I could trust Konstantin either. He could have just been leading me down the wrong path. If I wasn’t dreaming the whole thing up in the first place.
“That’s when I decided I needed to be able to defend myself,” Linus said, and while I admired his effort, I’d seen firsthand how clumsy he could be. I hoped the training would work for him.
“Linus has even rallied some of the other Markis and Marksinna.” Ember looked at him with pride. “He’s been getting everybody to realize the importance of self-reliance.”
Linus shrugged and lowered his eyes, kicking at the snow absently with his foot. “I was just talking, and I thought that we should all do what we can to prepare. If you’re all going off to war, you can’t be wasting your time and energy on us.”
“Good job,” I told him. “I knew you’d be good for Doldastam.”
He smiled sheepishly. “Thanks. But it’s no big deal, really.”
“So along with Linus, I’ve been, uh, tutoring this other girl.” Ember tucked a stray hair behind her ear and looked down at the ground, so she wouldn’t have to look at me. “Marksinna Delilah Nylen. She’s my age, and she’s uh…” A weird smiled played on her lips, and her cheeks reddened slightly. “She’s good. She can handle herself in a fight.”
Ember smiled wider and laughed, almost nervously. I had seen this behavior before—Ember had a crush. I would’ve called her out on it if it weren’t for Linus standing right there. She was open about her love interests, and it wasn’t a big deal—except that Ember was a tracker and the object of her affection appeared to be royalty.
I gave her a look, trying to convey that we would talk about this more later. When she caught my eyes, Ember only blushed harder.
“So does anybody have any idea where Viktor and his band of merry men are headed?” I asked, changing the subject so Ember would stop grinning like a fool.
She shook her head. “Not at the moment. Scouts are looking into it, though.”
“Well, the good news is it doesn’t sound like Viktor has that many people behind him,” I said. “Twenty guys does not an army make.”
“That’s true, but Ridley is fairly certain it’s only a scouting mission, that Viktor and his men just want to scope out exactly what’s going on here,” Ember explained. “King Evert’s freaking out because Viktor’s coup fifteen years ago was only him working with a few other guys. And not only did he kill a member of the Högdragen, he got really close to killing the King.
“Imagine what he could do with twenty guys,” she went on. “And who knows how many more guys he has stashed somewhere else? Those were just the ones he had with him. He could have hundreds.”
I’d never been angrier with myself than I was in that moment. If I had just been able to stop Viktor in Storvatten, none of this would be happening. Everything would’ve been over before it started.
“It’s not your fault,” Ember said, reading my expression. “Viktor’s obviously been planning this for a long time, and I’m sure that even if you’d gotten him, somebody would’ve stepped in to take his place.”
“Maybe,” I allowed. “I just wish it had never come to this.”
“I know,” she agreed. “When this all started, I thought King Evert was overreacting. But now it looks like this war is shaping up to be a big deal.”
I had just stepped up to my parents’ house when my dad opened the door, as if he’d somehow been expecting my unannounced visit. His glasses were pushed up back on his head, holding back his thick black hair that had silvered at the temples.
Dad smiled at me in the way he did when he hadn’t seen me in a while—happiness with an edge of relief that I was still alive and well. Without saying anything, I came into the house and he closed the door behind me.
He pulled me into a rough hug, and it wasn’t until he did that I realized how much I needed it. I hugged him back harder than I normally did, resting my head in the crook of his shoulder.
“Is everything okay?” Dad asked. I finally released him, but he kept his hands on my shoulders and bent down to look me in the eye.