- Crystal Kingdom
I tossed my duffel bag on the bed and turned back toward her. “Sorry. I didn’t catch your name.”
“Ulla Tulin.” She hung on to the door handle and half leaned on the door, so I didn’t attempt to shake her hand.
“Bryn.” I declined to give a last name, since that seemed less likely to trigger a connection to the WANTED poster. But either way, Ulla didn’t give any sign of recognition.
“It was nice meeting you, and let me know if you need anything. We don’t have any other guests, and I’m hardly ever doing anything, so I might as well be helping you.”
“Actually, I did need your help.”
She perked up and took a step in the room. “Yeah?”
“I was wondering if you know anything about a Mina Arvinge?” I asked, using Queen Mina’s maiden name.
Ulla cocked her head. “That name sounds familiar, but I don’t think any Arvinges live here now.” She thought for a moment, staring off into space, then looked back at me. “Isn’t the Queen named Mina? I’d heard someone say she was from here once, but I just thought they were lying. People come here to disappear.” Then, sadly, she added, “Nobody ever actually makes it out.”
“I’m sure some people do,” I said, attempting vainly to cheer her up. I neglected to address her connection about Mina and the Queen. The less she knew about what I was looking for, the better.
Ulla gave a one-shoulder shrug, like she didn’t care one way or another. “There’s only eight hundred and seventy-eight people that live here, so you’d think everybody’d know everything about everyone. But truth is, most people keep to themselves. We like our secrets here.”
“Do you know of anybody named Mina?” I pressed on. “She probably moved away around five years ago.”
“Five years ago?” Ulla repeated, thinking. “Kate Kissipsi had a couple sisters that left. I’m not sure when, but you could talk to her. She might know something.”
“Do you know where she lives?” I asked.
“On the north side of town.” Ulla gestured behind her. “I could take you there if you want.”
“Could you? That’d be really great.”
“Yeah.” She smiled broadly, probably excited about the idea of getting out of the inn. “I have to make supper first, and you can have some. It’s nothing exciting. Just boiled potatoes and ukaliq.”
“Ukaliq?” I echoed, doing my best to make the ew-ka-lick sound she made.
“Sorry, arctic hare.” Her expression changed to one of exaggerated weariness. “We eat so much hare.” Then she shook her head, clearing it of the thought, and her smile returned. “I’ll meet you downstairs in twenty minutes for supper, and then I’ll take you out to see Kate.”
We have to walk,” Ulla told me as she pulled on heavy kamik boots made of sealskin and lined with fur. “It’s only about a mile north, so it’s not that bad.”
“Why do we have to walk?” I asked, bundling up the same way she was in the lobby of the inn.
“Because Kate doesn’t like visitors, so it’s better if she doesn’t hear us coming.” With that, she turned and headed toward the front door. “Let’s go. We have to be back before dark.”
Dark was still several hours away, but I didn’t argue with her. I just followed her out into the cold. We went down the front steps, and then walked half a block. The streets were deserted, and if I didn’t know any better, I would’ve thought this was a ghost town. But Ulla assured me that people actually lived here.
At the end of the block, we took a right turn onto a poorly kept path. It had obviously been shoveled at some point in the winter, since it had less snow than the areas around it, but it was covered in snow.
“Why doesn’t Kate like visitors?” I asked as we walked out of town.
“Nobody likes visitors here.” Ulla spoke loudly so her voice would carry through the thick scarf she’d wrapped around her face.
“It seems like a lonely place,” I said.
Ulla looked at me with a snowflake stuck to her eyelash. “You have no idea.”
We’d walked for quite a while before Ulla pointed at what appeared to be a heap of snow on the ground, claiming that it was Kate’s place. As we got closer, it finally began to take shape. It was so low to the ground that it had to be built like Ridley’s house, with most of it below the surface. Snow covered it, probably both to camouflage it and to help insulate it during the harsh winters.
Dirty snow appeared to move near the front of the house, but when two gray and white drifts began charging toward us, I quickly realized it wasn’t snow. Two massive wolves had been lying outside, but now they were running toward Ulla and me, snarling and barking.
“I forgot she had wolves,” Ulla said.
I started backing away, since the wolves were rapidly approaching us. “We should get out of here.”
“No, don’t run!” Ulla snapped. “That’ll only make them chase you.”
“Well, I’m not exactly an expert in fighting wolves in hand-to-hand combat, so what do you suggest we do?”
The front door of the hut was thrown open, and a dark figure stepped out wielding a large shotgun.
“Magni! Modi,” she shouted, and the wolves halted mere feet from pouncing on us. “Get back here!”