PROLOGUE

 


four years ago


 

As dawn began to approach, the celebration finally wound to a close. Even though I had been working for over twelve hours, I felt wide awake and even a little buzzed, like I’d gotten a contact high from the energy around me, not to mention the thrill of completing my first real assignment as a tracker.

Since my graduation was still several months away, I hadn’t been given any major detail or heady responsibility. My duties for the night involved standing at attention during the formali- ties, and surveying the rooms for signs of trouble the rest of the night, which mostly meant directing the increasingly inebriated party guests to the bathroom.

But still, I had been here, working alongside other trackers and even the more elite Högdragen—the guards charged with protecting the Kanin kingdom. That’s why at the end of the night, despite the growing ache in my bare feet, I was a little sad- dened to be relieved of my duties.

King Evert and Queen Mina had opened the doors to all the Kanin in our capital of Doldastam, and there were over ten thousand of us living here. With that many people streaming in through the doors for an impromptu party, the royal couple needed all the hands they could get, including trackers-in- training.

We’d just gotten word a few days before that another tribe, the Trylle, had defeated our shared enemy, the Vittra. For the past few months, our King and Queen had been quietly preparing the Kanin. If the Vittra had taken out the Trylle, we would have been the next logical target, since we were wealthier and more powerful than the Trylle. We were too strong and plentiful for the Vittra to go after first, but once they conquered the Trylle and turned their army to Vittra, they would be strong enough to go after us.

But when the Trylle did away with the Vittra King and his entire army, they did away with our impending war as well. So naturally our good King Evert found reason to celebrate, which was how I’d ended up working a party until the early hours of the morning.

By now the King and Queen had retired to their chambers for the evening, and nearly all of the guests had gone home. A handful of trackers and Högdragen stayed on to oversee the party until everyone had departed, while the cleaning crew had begun the unenviable task of taking care of the mess.

Since so few people were left, I was relieved of my duty and sent home for the night. I felt a bit like Cinderella then, her lovely coach turning back into a pumpkin, as I walked slowly

into the front hall. Though I had been wearing the trackers’ formal uniform—a tailored, frosty white suit, all crisp and new since this was the first time I’d worn it—instead of a gown given to me by a fairy godmother, at the end of the night my uniform would be put away, and I wouldn’t perform any more duties until after I graduated.

Once I did graduate, I’d be given a silver sash to hold my sword, but until then they didn’t quite trust me with a weapon, not that I’d really needed one for a celebration like this anyway.

As I made my way toward the front door, unbuttoning my jacket and letting it fall loose, I let out a heavy sigh. Many of the kerosene lamps had gone out, leaving the large entrance glowing dimly. The white banners that decorated the high stone walls of the palace had begun to sag, and silver confetti carpeted the cool floor.

The creak of a heavy door closing gave me pause, because it sounded like the door to my father’s office. I glanced down the narrow corridor off the main hall, and sure enough, I saw my dad emerging from his office. His black hair—which he normally kept smoothed back—had become slightly disheveled, and his tie was loosened, with the top buttons of his shirt undone.

“What are you doing?” I asked in surprise. “I thought you went home hours ago.”

“I had some paperwork I needed to finish up.” He gestured to the office behind him as he walked slowly toward me, sup- pressing a yawn as he did.

My dad worked as a Chancellor for the kingdom. I knew that Dad took his job very seriously, and he often worked late nights, but I’d never known him to work quite this late before. “Paperwork?” I raised an eyebrow. “While a party was going on?”

“We needed to send a letter to the Trylle.” Dad gave a half shrug, which did little to convince me that that was really why he was still working. “They’re poised to oversee two kingdoms now, and it’s in our best interest to align with them.”

“And you needed to do that right now?” I pressed.

“It could’ve waited until the morning,” Dad admitted, and his mouth turned to a sheepish smile as he shoved his hands in his pockets. “I wanted to see how your night went. It is your first big night on the job.”

“It went well,” I said, then paused when a wave of doubt hit me. I tried to replay the night in my head, searching for any mistakes I might’ve made. “I think.”

“I’m sure you did wonderful,” Dad assured me, and his grin broadened, stretching into one of pride and affection. “Every time I looked over, I saw you standing at attention. You looked so grown up and so . . . official.”

“Thank you.”

“My little girl is all grown up,” he said wistfully and reached to tousle my blond waves.

“Dad.” I ducked away from his hand, but I couldn’t help but smile at him. “Can you at least wait until we’re out of the palace to get all mushy?”

He opened his mouth, probably to point out that we were alone, but then we both heard the sound of footsteps coming down the corridor. Instinctively, I stood up straighter and put my shoulders back. I was about to start buttoning my jacket back up, but then I saw Konstantin Black walking right toward my dad and me, and for a second I forgot to breathe.

We allowed movies and music from the human world, but the true rock stars of our society were the Högdragen. They had been ordinary Kanin who worked their way up to powerful po- sitions of respect and authority, and none had done it quite so quickly or with as much flare as Konstantin Black. Still in his twenties, he was already the Queen’s personal guard—the youngest in recorded history to have such a position.

His black velvet uniform, embellished with silver thread and jewels, was the most luxurious of all the Högdragen uniforms, and even though it was standard for Kanin in his position, his somehow seemed even more divine. His silver sash caught the dim light from the lanterns and managed to glint a little. Even the diamond-encrusted bell handle of his sword sparkled.

He strode confidently over to us, and I tried to remain as blank and composed as I could, as I had been taught. But it was impossible to keep my stomach from doing flips inside me. For years I had been admiring him from afar—for his abilities, his strength, his composure, and, if I’m being honest, in more recent years for how handsome he was—and this was already the most personal encounter I’d had with him.

We’d been in the same room before, but always separated by a sea of people, since his duties kept him close to the Queen, and mine kept me far from her or the King. He’d brushed past me in halls. I’d seen him from the crowd as he’d demonstrated his skill in fencing games during the summer. But I’d never seen him really look at me before, or notice my attentive gaze among all the other adoring faces.

Now here he was, smiling as he stopped in front of us, and it had the same overwhelming effect as looking down from a great height.

I’d gotten so used to gazing at him from a distance, it was hard not to stare. The way his lips curved up slightly more on the left side as he smiled, or the shadow of stubble that had grown darker on the smooth line of his chin as the night progressed, or the way his black hair was slick and straight until it began to curl at the nape of his neck, where it stopped just above his collar.

“Chancellor, I wasn’t expecting to see you here at this hour,” Konstantin said to my dad.

“I was seeing my daughter home.” Dad motioned in my direction, and Konstantin looked down at me. He wasn’t much taller than I was, but he seemed to tower over me, with his gray eyes like smoke resting warmly on my face.

“It was your first night working something like this, wasn’t it?” Konstantin asked.

I nodded. “Yes,” I said, relieved that my voice stayed even and normal.

“You did very well.” He smiled at me, causing my heart to flutter. “I’ll put in a good word to your Rektor.”

“Thank you very much, but that’s not necessary,” I told him firmly.

Konstantin laughed, the sound filling up the front hall and echoing through it. “Modesty is a noble thing, but it won’t get you a coveted spot on the Högdragen. Take help whenever it’s offered if you want to make it in this world.”

I’d always insisted that I only looked up to him as a guard, as someone I wanted to emulate. But now, with the mere sound of his laughter sending pleasurable shivers through me, I couldn’t deny that I’d been harboring a crush on him for so long it had begun to turn into something that felt dangerously like love.

“That’s very sound advice, Konstantin,” my dad said, pulling me from my thoughts, and pulling Konstantin’s gaze from me.

“You sound surprised that I have good ideas, Chancellor,” Konstantin said with a wry smirk.

Dad returned the smirk in kind and adjusted his loosened tie. “I think it’s just the night wearing on me.”

“Sorry, I should be letting you get on your way,” Konstantin said apologetically, and my heart sank when I realized this brief exchange would soon end, leaving me feeling even more like Cinderella than ever before.

“Thank you.” My dad nodded and stepped back toward the door, then Konstantin held out his hand.

“Actually, Chancellor, if I could keep you just a few minutes longer I might save you some trouble in the morning.”

“What do you mean?” Dad asked.

“The Queen just went to her chambers, but before she did, she let me know that she wanted you to sign a document first thing in the morning to be sent out to the Trylle.” Konstantin gestured to the grand windows above the door, which were starting to show the first hints of dawn. “And with morning so close, if you wanted to sign it now, you would have a few hours longer to sleep in.”

“A document?” Dad shook his head. The bags under his eyes revealed how truly tired he was, and his dark eyes were confused. “I was drafting a letter for the Trylle. What was she working on?”

“I’m not entirely sure, sir. I believe she left it in her office, if you’d like to have a look at it,” Konstantin said.

“I suppose I should.” Dad nodded wearily, then turned to me. “You can go on, Bryn. I’ll be home soon.”

“No, it’s all right,” I replied quickly. “I can wait for you.” Dad shrugged in a way that said I could suit myself, and then he started down the corridor toward the Queen’s office.

Konstantin went after him, but he turned back to me as he did. “Don’t worry. We won’t be too long, white rabbit,” he promised me.

I turned away, hoping my cheeks wouldn’t burn at Konstantin’s use of a nickname. It was one I’d heard a few times in my life, but it never really stuck. White because of my fair complexion, and rabbit because that was the symbol of the Kanin.

As soon as they were out of sight, I put my hand on my stomach and let out a shaky breath. Having my first taste of official duty left me feeling intoxicated and light-headed, but that last exchange with Konstantin made me weak. I’d never been that interested in boys, preferring to focus on my training, but now I finally understood what my friends meant when they were going on about being in love.

But all too quickly the adrenaline from talking with Konstantin began to fade away, and for the first time all night I realized how tired I really was. I hadn’t slept much the night before because I’d been so excited to work at the party, and corralling drunk Kanin townspeople was more work than it sounded.

Dad hadn’t been gone with Konstantin for long, but my feet were beginning to throb and I needed to get home and get to bed. I knew where the Queen’s office was, so I thought it would be best to go down and let Dad know that I was heading out. Plus it would give me a chance to say something more to Konstantin.

The office wasn’t far from the front hall, and I’d almost made it there when I heard a surprised yell, a man crying out, “No!” I froze at first, trying to register it, then it was quickly followed by an agonized scream.

If my head wasn’t swimming from the night, I would’ve noticed sooner. And a second too late—maybe even a split second too long—I realized that it was my father screaming.

I ran to the Queen’s office and threw open the door.

When I’ve later tried to remember that moment, I can’t see the rest of the room. It’s all a haze and a blur, but the one thing that’s focused—and it is in perfect, startling clarity—is Konstantin standing over my dad. His sword is drawn, and the blade is dark crimson with blood, as my dad lies bleeding on the floor.

Konstantin looked up at me. His handsome face, usually bright and confident, was chillingly blank. He almost appeared dead, except for his gray eyes—dark and frightfully alert.

“I’m sorry,” Konstantin said simply. “I am bound to something much higher than this kingdom, and I must complete my mission.”

“Bryn, get out of here!” Dad yelled as Konstantin raised his sword again.

Weaponless, I did the only thing I could do—I charged at Konstantin. As I ran at him, he pivoted, turning his sword on me. I felt the thin blade sliding sharply through my shoulder, but I barely registered the pain. The only thing that mattered was stopping Konstantin from killing my dad.

I knocked him to the floor, and I managed to punch once before he threw me off him. And then I heard other voices behind me. Other members of the Högdragen had been alerted by the yelling.

In a flash, Konstantin was on his feet and diving out the window behind the Queen’s desk. Glass shattered, and the cold and snow billowed into the room. The other guards ran after Konstantin, but I went back to my dad, kneeling beside him.

His shirt was stained red, and I pressed my hand to the wound on his chest, trying to stop the bleeding. Dad put his hand over mine, and his dark eyes were filled with worry.

“I’m sorry I didn’t get here sooner,” I told him as I tried to blink back my tears.

“No, Bryn, you saved my life.” He reached up, touching my cheek with a bloody hand. “You did amazing tonight.”

I stayed with my dad, pressing my hand hard against his chest, doing everything in my power to hold the life in him, until the medical staff came and pulled me off. They whisked him away, promising that he would be just fine, and thankfully, they ended up being right.

But after they’d gone, I stayed behind, alone in the office. My crisp white uniform was now stained red with my dad’s blood, mixing with my own from my shoulder wound. I stared out the broken window.

It was snowing so hard that it had already covered up Kon- stantin’s tracks. Whatever I had been stupid enough to think I’d felt for Konstantin was gone. He had been my hero, but none of that mattered now. He’d tried to kill my dad, and now I would stop at nothing until he was brought to justice.


ONE

 

ambushed


April 8, 2014


 

Three years of tracker school—including extensive combat training, courses on social etiquette, and peer integration—and none of it ever changed the fact that I really hated human high school. Every time I started a new school to get close to a new charge, I found myself rethinking my career choice.

Back before I chose to go to tracker school, rather than finishing out Kanin high school to become a farmer or a teacher or maybe a horse trainer, I remember watching the trackers come and go from missions. They all seemed so worldly and powerful. They earned the respect and admiration of everybody in Doldastam.

I imagined the kinds of adventures they must be having, traveling the world. Most of them stayed in North America, but sometimes I’d hear stories of a tracker going off to England or Italy, and some even went as far as Japan.

The prospect of traveling and protecting my people sounded exciting and noble. Then I had graduated, and I spent the next four years actually doing the job. If only I had known how much of my “missions” as a tracker involved wearing itchy school uniforms and trying to keep up on slang so I could fit in with spoiled rich kids, I might’ve reconsidered.

It was during lunch on my fifth day in Chicago, as I followed Linus off the high school campus, when I realized they were watching him, too. I wasn’t exactly sure who “they” were, but I’d spotted the car—a black sedan with tinted windows—parked nearby several times since yesterday morning, and that was too much for coincidence.

As I trailed behind Linus and two of his friends, deliberately staying far enough behind so he wouldn’t see me, I wondered if the mystery men in the sedan had noticed me yet. If they were staking out Linus, then they had to have seen me, since I’d been interacting with him. But that didn’t mean they knew who I was. At least not yet.

Tracking was usually simple when done correctly. The first step was surveillance. I found the target—in this case Linus Berling—and for the first day or two I did nothing but watch him. The goal was to figure out who he was and what he liked, so it would be easier to earn his trust.

The second step was infiltrating his life, which was why I was wearing a ridiculous prep school uniform with a blue plaid skirt and a cardigan that felt too warm.

With a combination of bribery, charm, and a bit of Kanin skill, I’d gotten as many classes with Linus as I could, and started bumping into him “accidentally.” We’d talk a little, I’d bring up his interests, laugh at his jokes, and ingratiate myself to him.

This would lead to step three. Once I had the target’s trust, I’d drop the bombshell on them about who they really were, and hope like hell that they’d believe me. Usually they already had inclinations that they were different, and if I’d done my job right, everything would fall into place.

Then it was just a matter of getting them back home, preferably with trust fund in hand.

Now there was this issue with the black sedan, bogging things down right at the beginning of the second step, and I had to figure out what to do.

Linus and his friends from school had gone into a restaurant, but I didn’t follow them. I stayed outside, watching through the front window as they sat down at a table. In his dark blue blazer, Linus’s shoulders appeared broad, but he was actually tall and lean. After watching him fall half a dozen times during gym class, I knew he’d be no good in a fight.

The restaurant was crowded, and his friends were talking and laughing with him. Whoever was following him in the dark sedan, they were trying to be inconspicuous, which meant that they wouldn’t want to create a scene in a place like this. For now, Linus was safe.

I walked away, going around the restaurant and cutting through the alley. When I came back to the street, the sedan was parked a few feet from me, but I stayed in the alley, peering around the corner. I did my best to blend in, and once again, I found myself wishing that I had more Kanin blood in me.

Even this close, the tint on the windows of the car was still too dark for me to see through. I needed more information, so I decided to call Ridley Dresden.

He was the Rektor, so he might have a better idea of what was going on. The Rektor was in charge of trackers, organizing placements, assigning changelings, and basically just keeping us all in order. Because of his position, Ridley was privy to more information than I was, and he might be able to shed some light on the sedan.

Before I called, I decided to use the video option on my phone. It seemed like a smarter choice, because then I could actually show Ridley the car instead of just describing it to him.

But when Ridley finally answered—shirtless, with his brown curls even more untamed than normal—I realized that maybe I should’ve sent him a text first, letting him know that I’d be video-chatting with him.

“Bryn?” he asked, and behind him I saw movement as someone got up, wrapping themselves in a dark comforter. “Is everything okay?”

“Yes. And no,” I said, keeping my voice low so people walking by on the street wouldn’t hear. “Sorry if I’m disturbing you.”

“No, it’s okay.” He sat up straighter, and the rabbit amulet he wore on a leather strap around his neck slid across his bare chest. I heard a girl’s voice in the background, but I couldn’t understand her. “One second.” He held his hand over the phone, covering both the camera and the mic, but I could still hear him promising to call her later. “Sorry. I’m back.”

“Aren’t you supposed to be working right now?” I asked, raising a disapproving eyebrow.

“I’m on a lunch break. It’s called a nooner,” Ridley said, meeting my gaze with a devilish gleam in his eye.

The year I graduated from the tracker program was the year Ridley became the Rektor. I hadn’t really known him before that, but his reputation had preceded him. Everyone regarded him as one of the finest trackers, but though he was only twenty- four, he’d been forced to retire three years ago. He was still youthful looking, especially for a guy in his mid-twenties, but thanks in part to his persistent stubble, he couldn’t pass for a teenager any longer.

But that was the only bit of his reputation that I’d heard about. He had a long history of being a serial dater, and this wasn’t the first time I’d accidentally caught him in a compro- mising situation.

But over the years he’d proved himself to be an excellent Rektor and a loyal friend. So I tried not to fault him too much for his escapades.

“But anyway, what’s going on with you?” Ridley asked. The glint in his dark eyes was quickly replaced by concern.

“Do you know anything about someone else following Linus Berling?” I asked.

His brow furrowed. “What do you mean?”

“Is there any reason for someone else to be tracking him?” I clarified. “Anyone else from Doldastam, or another Kanin tracker? Maybe even from another tribe?”

“Why would anyone else be following him?” Ridley shook

his head. “You’re his tracker. You’re the only one that should be on him. Did you see someone?”

“Not exactly.” I chewed the inside of my cheek and looked up from the phone at the dark sedan, which hadn’t moved. “I haven’t seen anyone, but this car has been following him.” I turned the phone around to show it to Ridley.

“Which one?” Ridley asked, and I tilted the phone to show him more directly.

“The black one with the windows tinted. Do you recognize it?” Ridley was quiet for a moment, considering. “No, I can’t say that I do.”

“I was afraid of that.” I leaned back against the brick wall and turned the phone back around to me. Ridley had leaned forward, like he’d been inspecting the image of the car closely. “You haven’t seen anyone get in or out of it yet?” Ridley asked.

“No.” I shook my head.

“It could just be a human thing,” Ridley suggested, but he didn’t sound like he believed it.

“I don’t think so.” I sighed. “I’m gonna go check it out.”

“Okay.” Ridley pressed his lips into a thin line and noddedonce, reluctant to agree that I should put myself in a possibly dangerous situation. “Just don’t do anything stupid, Bryn.”

“I never do,” I assured him with a smile, but that just caused him to roll his eyes.

“I mean it,” he insisted. “Investigate, but do not interact with them until you figure out who we’re dealing with. In the meantime, I’ll see if I can run the plates or find out anything on that car. I’ll check in with you later today, okay?”

“Okay. And I’ll let you know if I find anything out.”

“Stay safe, Bryn,” Ridley said, and before he could say anything else, I ended the call.

According to the clock on the phone, I only had twenty minutes left of lunch and then afternoon class began. My options were limited, but I knew I didn’t want to wait outside all day, hoping the passengers would make a move so I could see them. If somebody was after Linus, I needed to find out who it was before something bad happened.

So I walked out of the alley and straight to the car. Ridley might consider what I was doing stupid, but it was my best option. Out of the past twelve changelings I’d tracked, I’d brought twelve of them back home. I wasn’t about to let Linus be the first one I lost.

I grabbed the handle of the back door, half expecting it to be locked, but it opened, so I got in. Two men were sitting in front, and they both turned around to look at me as I slid across the seat.

“What the hell?” the driver snarled.

When I saw who it was—his steel-gray eyes meeting mine— my heart clenched, and all the air went out of my lungs. For that moment everything felt frozen as he glared at me, then the rage and horror surged through me in a nauseating mixture.

I recovered as quickly as I could, holding back my anger, and smiled at him. Somehow in an even voice, I said his name. “Konstantin Black.”

 

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