Bryn Aven has never fit into Kanin society. Her blond hair and blue eyes set her apart as an outsidera half-blood unable to hold a respectable rank. But she's determined to prove herself as a loyal protector of the kingdom she loves. Her dream is to become a member of the King's elite guard, and she's not going to let anything stand in her way…not even her growing feelings for her boss, Ridley Dresden. A relationship between them is strictly forbidden, but Bryn can't fight her attraction to him. And she's beginning to think he feels it too.
Meanwhile, there's an attack on the kingdomone that will test Bryn's strength like never before. Finally, she has the chance to confront Konstantin Black, the traitor who tried to kill her father years ago. It's up to Bryn to put a stop to him before he strikes again. But is she willing to risk everything to protect a kingdom that doesn't accept her for who she really is? And when her mission brings her closer to Ridley, will she be able to deny her heart?
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By Amanda Hocking
St. Martin's GriffinCopyright © 2014 Amanda Hocking
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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 compromising 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 nodded once, 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."CHAPTER 2
His eyes narrowed, and his lip twitched ever so slightly. "Do I know you?"
"Not exactly," I admitted, not surprised that he didn't remember me.
The only time I'd spoken to him had been one of the most important and traumatic nights of my life, but that night he'd clearly had his mind on something else. Before that, I had only been one adoring fan out of thousands that he'd met in his tenure at Doldastam.
Konstantin had changed some in the four years since I'd last seen him—four long years since he'd attacked my father and disappeared into the night. His eyes seemed harder, and there were lines etched in the once-smooth skin around them. He'd grown a beard, and his hair was a bit longer and wilder than I remembered him wearing it.
But he was still unmistakably him. I'd spent years nursing a schoolgirl crush on him, picturing that face in my daydreams, and then I'd spent years plotting my revenge against him, picturing that face in my nightmares.
Now here it was, his eyes mere inches from my own, and he had no idea who I was.
"You're a tracker," Konstantin realized, and the corner of his mouth curved up into a smirk. I remembered the way that smirk had once filled me with butterflies, but now it only made me want to punch it off his face.
"So you do know her? Or not?" his companion asked.
"No, I don't know her, Bent," Konstantin told him, and I glanced over at his partner in crime.
His friend—Bent, apparently—I didn't recognize, but by his features I guessed he was Omte. His skin was smooth, and he appeared to be tall, but he had the same lopsided square head and beady eyes of a hobgoblin. Not to mention he didn't seem that bright.
"You're a wanted man, Konstantin. What are you doing here?" I asked, instead of hitting him or spitting in his face. Despite my wish for vengeance, I needed to find out what he wanted with Linus Berling and what he was doing here.
"Same thing as you, I would guess," Konstantin admitted.
Pressing my hands on the black leather of the seat to keep from slapping him, I asked, "What do you want with Linus? You don't have a tribe to take him back to. What's the point of even tracking him?"
"We were just waiting for a chance to grab him, and then we're—" Bent began, but then Konstantin shot him a glare and he fell silent.
"Kidnapping? Really?" I shook my head. "Are you planning to hold him for ransom?"
Konstantin pressed a button in the center console, and the doors clicked as they locked. "Things are far more complicated than they seem."
I licked my lips, and, going against my better instincts, I offered him an olive branch. "How about I make a deal with you? I won't kill you if you let Linus leave with me." Then I paused, recalling the last thing Konstantin had ever said to me: I am bound to something much higher than this kingdom, and I must complete my mission.
Konstantin tilted his head then, eyeing me as if he were seeing me for the first time. "Do I know you?"
Bent had apparently grown tired of me, and he turned around in the seat with a dopey, crooked smile plastered across his face. "Whatever. I'm taking care of her."
"Bent, maybe—" Konstantin began, but Bent was already in motion.
He leaned over the front seat, reaching for me. His hands were disproportionally large, like massive bear paws, but he was slow, and I easily ducked out of the way.
I grabbed a clump of his dark curly hair, and then I yanked his head to the side, slamming it into the back passenger window. I let go of him and leaned back quickly, then I kicked his head, crashing it into the window again. The glass was shatterproof, and it instantly turned into a crackled sheet as blood streamed down the side of Bent's head.
Konstantin reached over the seat for me—going after me for the first time—but I slid past him. Bent was now slumped unconscious on the backseat, and I climbed over him. Konstantin grabbed my leg as I pushed through the crumbled glass of the window, but thankfully I'd been wearing knee-high socks, so I wriggled out of his grasp. He was left with a sock and a shoe in his hand as I dove out.
I fell onto the sidewalk, scraping my knee on the cement, but I was up in a flash. Konstantin got out of the car, but I wanted to get to Linus before he went back to the school, so that I could take him far away from Konstantin.
He grabbed my arm, and I whirled on him and punched him hard in the stomach. It felt so good that I had to punch him again, harder this time. It wasn't quite the same as running him through with a sword, but it would do for now.
As he doubled over in pain, I said into his ear, "That was for my father. You should've taken the deal."
His grip tightened on my arm as realization dawned on him, and his eyes widened in surprise. "You're the Chancellor's daughter."
"Bryn Aven," I told him, still whispering in his ear. "Remember my name. Because I'm going to be the one that kills you." Then I kneed him in the crotch. He let go, and I stepped back.
"This man is a child molester!" I shouted, and pointed to Konstantin. "He tried to touch me, and he's staking out the school for more kids to molest!"
I was nineteen, but the uniform made me look younger. The sidewalks were crowded over lunch hour, and people had stopped to watch since I'd broken out of the car window. My knee was bleeding, and my clothes looked disheveled from fighting.
As people circled closer to Konstantin and several of them pulled out their cell phones to call the police, I slid back in the crowd. For a moment I stayed around, protected by a small sea of people, and I watched him.
He was looking right back at me, his eyes locked on mine. I'd expected to see anger or arrogance, but he wore neither of those. Instead, he almost seemed to look at me with remorse, and for a split second I felt my hatred of him softening, but I refused to let it.
In the investigation following Konstantin's attempt on my dad's life, nobody had ever been able to figure out his motive. By all accounts, Konstantin had been a good and loyal servant of the kingdom since he'd become a tracker over a decade ago. He'd never had any disagreements with my father, or the King or Queen.
But in the years following that, I'd decided that it didn't matter what his motive was. No reason would ever be good enough for what he had done, and even if he was filled with regret and someday begged me to forgive him, I never would.
The crowd was overtaking him, so I turned and ran down the block. People called after me, and I ran faster.
Since I was only wearing one shoe, it felt awkward, so when I reached the restaurant, I stopped and pulled it and my remaining sock off. The cold cement felt better on my feet than socks did anyway.
When I looked through the window, I saw that Linus was just finishing up, and I pushed down all of the emotions that seeing Konstantin Black had brought up. I had a mission at hand, and it required my full attention.
I didn't know how things would go with Linus. I'd only been talking with him for three days. In an ideal situation, I'd make a connection for two or three weeks, sometimes even a month, before I took a changeling back to Doldastam.
"Linus!" I shouted as I opened the door. A waitress tried to stop me, but I pushed past her and hurried over to his table.
"Bryn?" He stared up at me with confused brown eyes. "What are you doing here?"
"Do you trust me?" I asked, a little out of breath from running all the way here.
"What?" Linus looked over at his friend, who laughed nervously, and then back at me. "You're bleeding. Were you in an accident?"
"Okay, seriously. We don't have time for this." I glanced back at the door. Then I looked down at him. "Come with me if you want to live."
Both his friends burst out laughing at that, but Linus swallowed hard. The sleeves of his blazer had been pushed to his elbows, and I saw the subtle shift of his skin tone. It didn't completely change, but the olive color began to take on a bluish hue.
Excerpted from Frostfire by Amanda Hocking. Copyright © 2014 Amanda Hocking. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Griffin.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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