By Amanda Hocking
St. Martin's Griffin Copyright © 2011 Amanda Hocking
All rights reserved.
I had my back to the room as I stared out the window. It was a trick I'd learned from my mother to make me seem more in control. Elora had given me lots of tips the past few months, but the ones about commanding a meeting were the most useful.
"Princess, I think you're being naive," the Chancellor said. "You can't turn the entire society on its head."
"I'm not." I turned back, giving him a cool gaze, and he lowered his eyes and balled up his handkerchief in his hand. "But we can't ignore the problems any longer."
I surveyed the meeting room, doing my best to seem as cold and imposing as Elora always had. I didn't plan to be a cruel ruler, but they wouldn't listen to weakness. If I wanted to make a change here, I had to be firm.
Since Elora had become incapacitated, I'd been running the day-to-day activities of the palace, which included a lot of meetings. The board of advisers seemed to take up a lot of my time.
The Chancellor had been voted into his position by the Trylle people, but as soon as his term was up, I planned to campaign against him as hard as I could. He was a conniving coward, and we needed somebody much stronger in his position.
Garrett Strom—my mother's "confidant"—was here today, but he didn't always attend these meetings. Depending on how Elora was doing that day, he often chose to stay and care for her instead.
My assistant Joss sat at the back of the room, furiously scribbling down notes as we talked. She was a small human girl who grew up in Förening as a mänsklig and worked as Elora's secretary. Since I'd been running the palace, I'd inherited Joss as my own assistant.
Duncan, my bodyguard, was stationed by the door, where he stood during all the meetings. He followed me everywhere, like a shadow, and though he was clumsy and small, he was smarter than people gave him credit for. I'd grown to respect and appreciate his presence the last few months, even if he couldn't completely take the place of my last guard, Finn Holmes.
Aurora Kroner sat at the head of the table, and next to her was Tove, my fiancé. He was usually the only one on my side, and I was grateful to have him here. I didn't know how I would manage ruling if I felt completely alone.
Also in attendance were Marksinna Laris, a woman I didn't particularly trust, but she was one of the most influential people in Förening; Markis Bain, who was in charge of changeling placement; Markis Court, the treasurer for the palace; and Thomas Holmes, the head guard in charge of security and all the trackers.
A few other high-ranking officials sat around the table, all of their expressions solemn. The situation for the Trylle was growing increasingly dire, and I was proposing change. They didn't want me to change anything—they wanted me to support the system they'd had for centuries, but that system wasn't working anymore. Our society was crumbling, and they refused to see the roles they played in its breakdown.
"With all due respect, Princess," Aurora began, her voice so sweet I could barely hear the venom underneath, "we have bigger issues at hand. The Vittra are only getting stronger, and with the truce about to end—"
"The truce," Marksinna Laris snorted, cutting her off. "Like that's done us any good."
"The truce isn't over yet," I said, standing up straighter. "Our trackers are out taking care of the problems now, which is why I think it's so important that we have something in place for them when they return."
"We can worry about that when they return," the Chancellor said. "Let's deal with saving our asses right now."
"I'm not asking to redistribute the wealth or calling to abolish the monarchy," I said. "I am simply saying that the trackers are out there risking their lives to save us, to protect our changelings, and they deserve a real house to come back to. We should be setting aside money now so that when this is over, we can begin building them real homes."
"As noble as that is, Princess, we should be saving our money for the Vittra," Markis Bain said. He was quiet and polite, even when he disagreed with me, and he was one of the few royals whom I felt actually wanted to do what was best for all the people.
"We can't pay the Vittra off," Tove interjected. "This isn't about money. This is about power. We all know what they want, and a few thousand—or even a few million—dollars won't matter to them. The Vittra King will refuse it."
"I will do everything in my power to keep Förening safe, but you are all correct," I said. "We have yet to find a reasonable solution for the Vittra. That means this might very well turn into a bloody fight, and if it does, we need to support our troops. They deserve the best care, including adequate housing and access to our healers if they're injured in wartime."
"Healers for a tracker?" Marksinna Laris laughed, and a few others chuckled along with her. "Don't be ridiculous."
"Why is that ridiculous?" I asked, working to keep the ice from my voice. "They are expected to die for us, but we aren't willing to heal their wounds? We cannot ask more of them than we are willing to give ourselves."
"They are lower than us," Laris said, as if I didn't understand the concept. "We are in charge for a reason. Why on earth should we treat them as equals when they are not?"
"Because it's basic decency," I argued. "We may not be human, but that doesn't mean we have to be devoid of humanity. This is why our people are leaving our cities and preferring to live among the humans, letting their powers die. We must offer them some bit of happiness, otherwise why would they stay?"
Laris muttered something under her breath, keeping her steely eyes locked on the oak table. Her black hair was slicked back, pulled in a bun so tight her face looked strained. This was probably done on purpose to draw attention to her strength.
Marksinna Laris was a very powerful Trylle, able to produce and control fire, and something that strong was draining. Trylle powers weakened them, taking some of their life and aging them prematurely.
But if the Trylle didn't use them, the abilities did something to their minds, eating at their thoughts and making them crazy. This was especially true for Tove, who would appear scattered and rude if he didn't find constant outlets for his psychokinesis.
"It is time for a change," Tove said, speaking up when the room had fallen into annoyed silence. "It can be gradual, but it's going to happen."
A knock at the door stopped anyone from offering a rebuttal, but from the beet-red color of the Chancellor's face, it looked like he had a few words he wanted to get out.
Duncan opened the door, and Willa poked her head in, smiling uncertainly. Since she was a Marksinna, Garrett's daughter, and my best friend, she had every right to be here. I'd extended an invitation for her to attend these meetings, but she always declined, saying she was afraid she would do more harm than good. She had a hard time being polite when she disagreed with people.
"Sorry," Willa said, and Duncan stepped aside so she could come in. "I didn't mean to interrupt. It's just that it's after five, and I was supposed to get the Princess at three for her birthday celebration."
I glanced at the clock, realizing this had dragged on much longer than I'd originally planned. Willa walked over to me and gave the room an apologetic smile, but I knew she'd pull me out kicking and screaming if I didn't put an end to the meeting.
"Ah, yes." The Chancellor smiled at me with a disturbing hunger in his eyes. "I'd forgotten that you'll be eighteen tomorrow." He licked his lips, and Tove stood up, purposely blocking the Chancellor's view of me.
"Sorry, everyone," Tove said, "but the Princess and I have plans this evening. We'll pick up this meeting next week, then?"
"You're going back to work next week?" Laris looked appalled. "So soon after your wedding? Aren't you and the Princess taking a honeymoon?"
"With the state of things, I don't think it's wise," I said. "I have too much to get done here."
While that was true enough, that wasn't the only reason I'd skipped out on a honeymoon. As much as I'd grown to like Tove, I couldn't imagine what the two of us would do on one. I hadn't even let myself think about how we would spend our wedding night.
"We need to go over the changeling contracts," Markis Bain said, standing up in a hurry. "Since the trackers are bringing the changelings back early, and some families decline to do changelings anymore, the placements have all been moved around. I need you to sign off on them."
"Enough talk of business." Willa looped her arm through mine, preparing to lead me out of the room. "The Princess will be back to work on Monday, and she can sign anything you want then."
"Willa, it will only take a second to sign them," I said, but she glared at me, so I gave Bain a polite smile. "I will look them over first thing Monday morning."
Tove stayed behind a moment to say something to Bain, but he caught up with us a few moments later in the hall. Even though we were out of the meeting, Willa still kept her arm through mine as we walked.
Duncan stayed a step behind us when we were in the south wing. I'd gotten talked to many, many times about how I couldn't treat Duncan as an equal while business was being conducted and there were Trylle officials at work around us.
"Princess?" Joss said, scampering behind me with papers spilling out of her binder. "Princess, do you want me to arrange a meeting on Monday with Markis Bain for the contracts?"
"Yes, that would be fantastic," I said, slowing so I could talk to her. "Thank you, Joss."
"You have a meeting at ten A.M. with the Markis of Oslinna." Joss flipped through the appointment section of the binder, and a paper flew out. Duncan snatched it before it fell to the floor and handed it to her. "Thank you. Sorry. So, Princess, do you want to meet Markis Bain before or after that meeting?"
"She'll be going back to work just after getting married," Willa said. "Of course she won't be there first thing in the morning. Make it for the afternoon."
I glanced over at Tove walking next to me, but his expression was blank. Since proposing to me, he'd actually spoken very little of getting married. His mother and Willa had done most of the planning, so I hadn't even talked to him about what he thought of colors or flower arrangements. Everything had been decided for us, so we had little to discuss.
"Does two in the afternoon work for you?" Joss asked.
"Yes, that would be perfect," I said. "Thanks, Joss."
"All right." Joss stopped to hurriedly scribble down the time in the binder.
"Now she's off until Monday," Willa told Joss over her shoulder. "That means five whole days where nobody calls her, talks to her, or meets with her. Remember that, Joss. If anybody asks for the Princess, she cannot be reached."
"Yes, of course, Marksinna Strom." Joss smiled. "Happy birthday, Princess, and good luck with your wedding!"
"I can't believe how much of a workaholic you are," Willa said with a sigh as we walked away. "When you're Queen, I'll never see you at all."
"Sorry," I said. "I tried to get out of the meeting sooner, but things have been getting out of hand lately."
"That Laris is driving me batty," Tove said, grimacing at the thought of her. "When you're Queen, you should banish her."
"When I'm Queen, you'll be King," I pointed out. "You can banish her yourself."
"Well, wait until you see what we have planned for you tonight." Duncan grinned. "You'll be having too much fun to worry about Laris or anybody else."
Fortunately, since I was getting married in a few days, I'd gotten out of the usual ball that would happen for a Princess's birthday. Elora and Aurora had planned that the wedding would take place immediately after I turned eighteen. My birthday was on a Wednesday, and I was getting married on Saturday, leaving no time for a massive Trylle birthday party.
Willa insisted on throwing me a small party anyway, even though I didn't really want one. Considering everything that was happening in Förening, it felt like sacrilege. The Vittra had set up a peace treaty with us, agreeing not to attack us until I became Queen.
What we hadn't realized at the time was the specific language they had used. They wouldn't attack us, meaning the Trylle living in Förening. Everyone else was fair game.
The Vittra had started going after our changelings, the ones that were still left with their host families in human society. They'd taken a few before we caught on, but as soon as we did, we sent all our best trackers to bring home any changeling over the age of sixteen, including most of the trackers serving as palace bodyguards. For anyone younger than that, our trackers were supposed to stand guard and watch them. We knew the Vittra would avoid taking them because they couldn't do so without setting off an Amber Alert. Still, we felt that every precaution must be taken to protect the most vulnerable among us.
That left us at a horrible disadvantage. To protect the changelings, our trackers had to be in the field, so they couldn't be here guarding the palace. We would be more exposed to an attack if the Vittra went back on their part of the deal, but I didn't see what choice we had. We couldn't let them kidnap and hurt our children, so I sent every tracker I could out into the field.
Finn had been gone almost continuously for months. He was the best tracker we had, and he'd been returning the changelings to all the Trylle communities. I hadn't seen him since before Christmas, and sometimes I still missed him, but the longing was fading.
He'd made it clear that his duty came before everything else and I could never be a real part of his life. I was marrying someone else, and even though I still cared about Finn, I had to put that behind me and move past it.
"Where is this party happening anyway?" I asked Willa, pushing thoughts of Finn from my mind.
"Upstairs," Willa said, leading me toward the grand staircase in the front hall. "Matt's up there putting on the finishing touches."
"Finishing touches?" I raised an eyebrow.
Someone pounded violently on the front door, making the door shake and the chandelier above us tremble. Normally people rang the doorbell, but our visitor was nearly beating down the door.
"Stay back, Princess," Duncan said as he walked over to the entrance.
"Duncan, I can get it," I said.
If somebody hit the door hard enough to make the front hall quake, I was afraid of what they would do to him. I made a move for the door, but Willa stopped me.
"Wendy, let him," she said firmly. "You and Tove will be here if he needs you."
"No." I pulled myself from her grip and went after Duncan, to defend him if I needed to.
That sounded silly, since he was supposed to be my bodyguard, but I was more powerful than him. He was really only meant to serve as a shield if need be, but I would never let him do that.
When he opened the door, I was right behind him. Duncan meant to only partially open the door so he could see what waited for us outside, but a gust of wind came up, blowing it open and sending snow swirling around the front hall.
A blast of cold air struck me, but it died down almost instantly. Willa could control the wind when she wanted to, so as soon as it blew inside the palace, she raised her hand to stop it.
A figure stood before us, bracing himself with his hands on either side of the doorway. He was slumped forward, his head hanging down, and snow covered his black sweater. His clothes were ragged, worn, and shredded in most places.
"Can we help you?" Duncan asked.
"I need the Princess," he said, and as soon as I heard his voice, a shiver shot through me.
"Loki?" I gasped.
"Princess?" Loki lifted his head.
He smiled crookedly, but his smile didn't have its usual bravado. His caramel eyes looked tired and pained, and he had a fading bruise on his cheek. Despite all that, he was still just as gorgeous as I remembered him, and my breath caught in my throat.
"What happened to you?" I asked. "What are you doing here?"
"I apologize for the intrusion, Princess," he said, his smile already fading. "And as much as I'd like to say that I'm here for pleasure, I ..." He swallowed something back, and his hands gripped tighter on the door frame.
"Are you all right?" I asked, pushing past Duncan.
"I ..." Loki started to speak, but his knees gave out. He pitched forward, and I rushed to catch him. He fell into my arms, and I lowered him to the floor.
"Loki?" I brushed the hair back from his eyes, and they fluttered open.
"Wendy." He smiled up at me, but the smile was weak. "If I'd known that this is what it would take to get you to hold me, I would've collapsed a long time ago."
"What is going on, Loki?" I asked gently. If he hadn't been so obviously distressed, I would've swatted him for that comment, but he grimaced in pain when I touched his face.
"Amnesty," he said thickly, and his eyes closed. "I need amnesty, Princess." His head tilted to the side, and his body relaxed. He'd passed out. (Continues...)
Excerpted from Ascend by Amanda Hocking. Copyright © 2011 Amanda Hocking. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Griffin.
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