ONE

 


friends & enemies


"So, what do you say, white rabbit?” Konstantin Black asked. “Friends?”

He sat on the stool next to me, his gaze unwavering. His thick eyebrows arched hopefully above the dark silver of his eyes, and the coal-black waves of his hair fell over his face as he tilted toward me.

All I could do was gape at him, too stunned to think or move. I didn’t even know if he was really there or not. It would make more sense that I had unknowingly passed out in a random diner in Missouri and I was suffering from a stress- induced nightmare or possibly a lysa.

There was no way that Konstantin could be here with me. Not after I’d spent five days on the run from Doldastam after being arrested for treason and accused of murdering the Skojare Prince Kennet Biâelse and my friend Kasper Abbott.

I’d done everything in my power to stay under the radar—I

only used cash and a burner phone, and I hadn’t even built up the nerve to actually use the phone and call anyone back home yet. I moved constantly and stayed off the grid in dive motels in small towns.

There was no possible way that anyone could’ve found me, not even Konstantin Black.

“Bryn?” Konstantin asked, since I’d done nothing but stare at him for the past minute.

Then, because I had to be sure he was real, I reached out and touched him, pressing on the black leather jacket covering his bicep, and he looked down at my hand in bewilderment. I half expected the coat to give way and him to disappear in a puff of smoke, but instead I felt the firmness of his muscle underneath.

“Are you feeling all right?” He looked back at me with what appeared to be genuine concern in his eyes, but I wasn’t sure if I could trust him. “You really look like death warmed over.”

“That’s how you’re going to sell the idea of friendship? By telling me I look awful?” I asked dryly.

Not that he was wrong. I wasn’t sleeping or eating much, so I was even paler than normal. My attempts at dyeing my hair black to help mask my identity left my normally blond waves an odd gray color, since dye never really took hold in troll hair. The swelling around my left eye had finally gone away, but the bruise had shifted to a putrid yellow color that I wasn’t able to cover completely with makeup.

“I’m selling it with brutal honesty,” he said with a wry smile. “I want you to know that you’ll get nothing but the truth from me.”

I scoffed. “There’s no way in hell I’m gonna believe that.” “Come on, Bryn. Try me.” He rested his forearms on the

counter, almost pleading with me.

“What are you even doing here? What do you want with me?” I demanded.

“I already told you—friendship.”

I rolled my eyes. “Bullshit. Everything is always bullshit with you.”

“How can you say that?” Konstantin shot back, incredulous. “I’ve been nothing but honest with you.”

“Sure, sure. You’ve been nothing but honest when you at- tempted to murder my dad or when you tried to kidnap Linnea.”

He pressed his lips into a thin line. “I already apologized about what happened with your dad.” I glared at him. “Not that anything I say will ever make that okay, but you know that I regret it.”

“How can I know that?” I shook my head. “I don’t really know anything about you.”

“Why are you being so combative?” Konstantin asked, his voice getting louder. “I’m only trying to help.”

“You’re a traitor who’s been working with someone that nearly killed me!” I yelled back, not caring how loud I was being in the small diner.

“Yeah, well, right back at you!” Konstantin shouted.

The waitress came over, interrupting our heated conversation, and set down in front of me the iced tea I’d ordered. She stood with her hand on her hip, eyeing us both with suspicion. Before, she’d looked at me with concern despite her weariness, but with my bad dye job and Konstantin’s agitation, it had to be obvious we were on the run.

“Is everything okay here?” she asked, her eyes flitting back and forth between the two of us.

“Yeah, it’s fine,” Konstantin replied curtly without looking at her.

“Well, you better keep your voices down, before you start upsetting the customers,” she said with a slight Southern drawl, and she slowly turned and walked away.

Konstantin waited until after she had gone to the other end of the diner before speaking. “And I tried to save Linnea.” He sat up straighter, indignant. “I did save her, actually. Without my intervention, she’d most likely be dead.”

From what Linnea had told me, that sounded true enough. Since I couldn’t argue with Konstantin, I turned the stool away from him and focused on my iced tea.

He sighed, then he leaned toward me, and in a voice just above a whisper he said, “I know what you’re going through. Four years ago, I was almost exactly where you are. I know how frightening and lonely it feels when the kingdom turns against you.”

I took a drink from my tea and didn’t say anything, so he went on. “You and I have been on opposite sides for a while,

and I’ve made a lot of wrong choices. But I’m trying to make up for them, and . . . now I’m alone, and you’re alone. So I thought we could be alone together.”

He leaned back away from me. “But I won’t force this. If you wanna go through this all alone, then be my guest. Take on the world by yourself. I won’t fight you.” He reached into his pocket and tossed a few dollars on the counter. “The drink’s on me.”

I heard the stool creak as he got up, but I didn’t look back. Not until I heard the door chime did I turn to watch him walking out the door, into the bright spring day. In a few more seconds he’d be gone, and I’d have no way to contact him or find out what he knew.

So even though I wasn’t sure exactly how this friendship thing would play out, or even if this wasn’t some kind of trick, I knew what I had to do. I cursed under my breath, and then I jumped off the stool and ran out after Konstantin.



TWO

 

tracking


 

"Where are we going?” I asked. It might have been a better question to ask before I’d gotten in the black Mustang with Konstantin, but I hadn’t wanted him to leave without me. And did it really matter where we were going? I had no place to be. No place to call home.

“I don’t know.” He glanced in the rearview mirror, watching the diner disappear behind us as he sped down the high- way. “Do you have somewhere in mind?”

I shook my head. “No.” Then I looked over at him. “But we should find someplace where we can really talk.”

“How about a motel?” he suggested, and when I scowled at him, he laughed. “If I was going to murder you, I would’ve done it already, and if I was just looking to get laid, believe me when I say there are easier ways to do it than this.”

“Why don’t you come out with it right now? I think a talk is long overdue.”

He smirked. “You sound so menacing.”

I looked out the window, watching the lush greenery as we sped by it. Even with me moving all over as a tracker, it was always jarring to go from the harsh cold of Doldastam to the bright warmth of anywhere else. Home was so far away, and this felt like a whole other world.

“How did you find me?” I asked, still watching the full ash trees that lined the side of the road.

“It was actually quite simple,” he said, and I looked back at him. He reached into the pocket of his leather jacket and pulled out a blond lock of hair held together with a thread.

Hesitantly, I took it from him. It was a pale golden color, with a subtle wave to it—exactly how my hair looked before I destroyed it with the bad dye job. This was my hair.

And all the pieces suddenly fell together. How Konstan- tin had been able to find me no matter where I was, like the hotel room in Calgary, or outside of Storvatten when I’d captured him. Even when he’d visited me in the lysa before.

Konstantin had been a Kanin tracker, from a long line of trackers, and thanks to his strong bloodline, he’d had a power- ful affinity for it. Like many trackers, he had the ability to imprint onto a changeling if he had something from them— a lock of hair usually worked best.

It turned the changeling into a kind of homing beacon. Konstantin couldn’t read minds, but he could sense extreme emotions in the trackee that meant they were in trouble. The

recent events in Doldastam, along with my general fear and anxiety the last few days, would’ve turned me into a megawatt searchlight.

And Konstantin had been tracking me.

“Where did you get this?” I asked, twisting the hair between my fingers.

Like all trolls, changelings are born with a very thick head of hair, and a lock of hair is taken from them before they’re placed with a host family. That way a tracker could find them later.

But I’d never been a changeling, and this hair felt much coarser than my hair had as a child. This had been taken recently.

“Why do you even have it?” I turned to look at him. “Why were you tracking me?”

He opened his mouth, then closed it and exhaled deeply through his nose. “That is a question that’s best answered when we get to the motel.”

“What? Why?” I sat up in the seat, putting my knee underneath me so I could face him better and defend myself if I needed to. “What’s happening at this motel you keep bringing up?”

“Calm down.” He held a hand out toward me, palm out. “You’re already getting worked up, and I think when I start telling you things, you’ll get even more worked up, and I’ve had enough fights in a car to know that it’s better if we wait until we’re someplace that isn’t flying seventy miles per hour down the road to have a heated conversation.”

His explanation sounded reasonable enough, so I relaxed a bit and settled back in the seat.

“For being on the run, this seems like a rather conspicuous and expensive choice of car,” I commented, since that seemed like a safe topic.

“Conspicuous, maybe. Expensive, no,” he said. “I kind of stole it.”

“You really know how to keep a low profile,” I muttered. “Hey, I kept a low profile for four years. I know a thing or two,” he insisted. “And I used persuasion, so it’s not exactly like that owner is gonna report it to the police.”

Persuasion was a psychokinetic ability trolls had where they could make people do what they wanted using a form of mind control. From what I knew about Konstantin, his ability wasn’t strong enough to work on other trolls, but humans were much more susceptible to that kind of thing. So Konstantin probably hadn’t had to try that hard to convince the human to part with his muscle car.

“So who exactly are you on the run from?” I asked. “Other than the Kanin, of course.”

He hesitated, and his grip tightened on the steering wheel. “Viktor Dålig and his men.”

“But I thought you were like Viktor’s right-hand man or something. How’d you end up on the outs?”

“I told you back in Storvatten, when I was in the dungeon. I didn’t want to get any more blood on my hands. That’s why I warned Linnea. I wanted to make things right.” He shifted in the seat. “And as you can imagine, that didn’t exactly sit well with Viktor. I’d been on his shit list ever since I convinced him not to kill you.”

“Thank you for that, by the way,” I told him softly.

“You weren’t supposed to get hurt.” He glanced over at me, his eyes pained for a moment. “You weren’t supposed to be down there.”

While Linnea had still been missing in Storvatten, I had snuck down to the dungeon where Konstantin was being held to find out what he knew. I was desperate to find Linnea. But instead I’d interrupted Viktor helping Konstantin make his escape.

To prevent me from stopping them or telling anyone, Viktor had bashed my head against a wall repeatedly. Viktor had wanted me dead, but I’d suspected that Konstantin had intervened to save my life.

Still, I had a gash under my hairline to show for it. It had required six stiches, though it was nearly healed. The worst part of the injury was the vision in my right eye would get wonky sometimes, especially if I hit my head or somebody punched me.

“So why did Viktor finally kick you out?” I asked, changing the subject.

He shook his head. “Viktor didn’t. Besides, he doesn’t kick anyone out. Once you’ve served your purpose, you’re dead.” He shot me a sidelong glance. “You remember what happened to Bent Stum.”

“You left, then?” I asked.

“Yeah. I’d finally had enough of it.” He breathed deeply.

“Viktor doesn’t care about anything but revenge. A lot of innocents are gonna die. And I couldn’t be a part of it anymore, and I didn’t know how to stop it.”

I swallowed hard and sank lower in the seat. Konstantin hadn’t really said anything that I didn’t already know, but hearing it aloud didn’t make it any easier to take.

Even if I were back in Doldastam, I wasn’t sure how much I could do to help, but at least I would be able to fight along- side my friends—Ridley, Tilda, Ember—to protect the town filled with people I cared about.

Now I was trapped so far away from them. They were up against the worst thing ever to hit Doldastam, and I was powerless to help them.

 

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