Ember was so startled that she halted. “What? What are you talking about?”
“I mean, I did.” I turned back to face her, since I had walked a few steps after she’d stopped, and behind her I saw the husky had returned to rooting through the trash buried beneath the snow.
Ember narrowed her eyes. “Then what are you saying?”
“I don’t know.” I let out a deep breath, and it was shaky from the cold. I turned my head toward the sky, blinking back the snowflakes that hit my lashes. “I did everything I could, but it wasn’t good enough. So then … what does it matter?”
There was something more to it than that, though. Something I couldn’t explain to Ember.
Viktor Dålig had beaten me, that was true. The sight of him had been like encountering a ghost, and I’d been in shock, so he’d been able to get the best of me. That didn’t mean I hadn’t wanted to stop him, but it had been my fault for letting myself be caught off guard, even for a moment.
But Viktor had wanted to kill me. When he’d smashed my head into the stone, he’d been trying to execute me—I knew that with absolute certainty. But he hadn’t succeeded, and I had a feeling that I had Konstantin Black to thank for being alive.
Run, white rabbit, as fast and far as you can, he’d whispered when I came upon him in the dungeon. Even though he’d been escaping, he’d looked so defeated then—his gray eyes soft and mournful, his entire body sagging, his olive skin going pale beneath the shadow of his beard. Konstantin hadn’t wanted me to get hurt.
I’d been convinced that Konstantin had been working for someone, that his attack on my father and his plots to go after changelings weren’t his idea. In Storvatten, he’d even said as much to me, telling me that he’d done it all for love. Whatever that meant.
“What happened in Storvatten?” Ember stepped closer to me. “You never even told me about Viktor Dålig. I’ve had to hear everything through other people,” she added, trying not to sound hurt that I hadn’t confided in her more.
“What have you heard?” I tilted my head, curious to know what people were saying.
“That he surprised you and overpowered you, and then he escaped with Konstantin,” she explained with a weak shrug. “Is there anything more to it than that? Did Viktor say anything to you?”
The butcher leaned out the back door of his shop and banged loudly on a metal pan, scaring the husky. The dog gave one hungry glance in my direction before running off and disappearing into the snow.
“No. He didn’t say anything.” I shook my head. “But…”
The wind came up a bit, blowing my blond waves of hair in front of my face, and I brushed them back absently. Ember pulled her jacket tighter around her, but she kept her dark eyes locked on me.
“I can’t help but feel like if I’d found the Queen, I’d have some answers,” I said finally, deciding that part of the truth was better than admitting that I didn’t think Konstantin was as evil as I once had.
“The Skojare Queen?” Her brow pinched, not understanding. “I thought she was dead.”
“That’s the theory,” I said. “I wanted to look for her more, but the Skojare King called off the search, and Ridley said there wasn’t anything left for us to do.”
“If the Skojare King doesn’t want you looking anymore, then Ridley’s right,” Ember said.
“I know, but…” I chewed my lip. “If I could find Linnea, I think I could find out what Konstantin is up to.”
“If you find her, and that’s assuming she’s even alive,” Ember pointed out. I lowered my eyes but didn’t say anything. “And you have direct orders to stay here and prepare for war. You can’t go off on some kind of wild-goose chase at a time like this.”
“I know.” I let out a reluctant sigh. “I just hate feeling so useless.”
“Everything that’s happened lately has to have been rough on you.” Ember looped her arm through mine and started leading me away, toward the bakery. “But that doesn’t mean you’re useless. You’re strong and you’re smart. You’re a great soldier, and that’s important too.”
We rounded the corner, and the sweet scent of pastries wafted through the air. My stomach rumbled, and I realized I’d skipped lunch that day. I’d been so focused on my training that I’d completely forgotten about it.
I began fantasizing about a delicious blackberry tart—a wonderful combination of sweet and bitter, with an emphasis on the bitter. But my momentary good mood immediately soured when the door to the bakery opened, and Juni Sköld stepped out into the snow.
It wasn’t exactly the sight of her that made me freeze in my tracks. Juni worked at the bakery, so I shouldn’t have been that surprised to see her here. She had to be one of the nicest people in all of Doldastam, and her luminescent skin literally radiated with happiness and kindness.
It was who she was with, and what she meant to him, that made me stop cold. Following right behind her was Ridley Dresden. He still wore his uniform, so he’d come here right from work to walk his girlfriend home.
“What’s wrong?” Ember asked. Since her arm was looped with mine, she’d been forced to stop alongside me.
Juni was laughing at something Ridley had said, but then she turned, and as soon as she spotted us her smile widened. Ridley, on the other hand, looked stricken at the sight of me.
I’m certain that part of it was because he was still angry at me. But another part was probably because he’d kissed me—twice—since he’d been dating Juni. The first time was only a few short blocks from here, and it had been so passionate and so intense that even thinking about it now made my pulse race and my stomach swirl with butterflies.
“Bryn!” Juni exclaimed, walking over to me while Ridley trailed several slow steps behind her. “It’s so good to see you! How are you holding up?”
“I’m…” I couldn’t even muster a fake smile.
Seeing her sheer delight and genuine concern for my well-being made me recognize that I had to be one of the worst beings who ever lived. And that was combined with the way Ridley was acting right then—shoving his hands in his pockets, avoiding looking at me at all costs. When his eyes finally did manage to land on me, his gaze was so harsh I felt about two inches tall.