- Crystal Kingdom
“Delilah?” I asked, and then I remembered.
The Marksinna whom Ember had been training with before. When I’d still been here, it had only seemed like a flirtation, but by the conviction I heard in Ember’s voice, I guessed that their relationship had turned into something more.
“Ember, you can’t risk your life for someone like this. You need to do what you must to survive. That’s what Delilah would want, if she really cares about you.”
“Of course I can, and I will,” Ember replied simply. “I love her.”
“That’s great, but—”
“I don’t expect you to understand. I know that you’d never sacrifice anything for love,” she said, sounding almost as if she pitied me. “For honor, for loyalty, for the kingdom, you’d give up anything. But love . . . you never had time for that.”
Her words stung, probably harder than she’d meant them to, like a knife cutting straight through my heart. I wanted to argue with her, to tell her that I loved, that I loved very deeply. And not just her and Tilda and my parents, but Ridley and Konstantin.
It wasn’t that I didn’t have time for love, or that I wouldn’t sacrifice for it. I had just been so afraid that I would lose myself and my place in the world, the way my mom had, the way Ember’s mom had, and the way I had seen so many other women do before her. I refused to be sidelined by romance.
But when it came down to it, I would give anything for love. I would lay my life down for Ridley, if it meant I could spare him pain.
That’s when I realized there was no point in arguing with Ember. Just as no one would be able to change my mind when it came to protecting those that I cared about, I wouldn’t be able to change hers. Besides, Ember was nothing if not stubborn and loyal.
“You have to be careful,” I told her finally. “All hell is going to break loose here.”
“I know. You should go, before they start noticing that people are missing,” Ember said. Then she suddenly exclaimed and jumped to her feet. “You’re here!”
“Yeah?” I stared up uncertainly. “I’ve been here for a couple minutes.”
“No, I mean—just wait.” She turned and dashed back into her bedroom. A few seconds later, she came back carrying a handful of envelopes. “You can read these.”
I took them from her, and as I flipped through them, I saw that Bryn had been handwritten on each one. “What are these?”
“I wrote to you while you were gone, but I didn’t mail them because I had no idea where to send them.” She stood with her arms folded over her chest. “Also, the Högdragen are checking all the mail going in and out, so that wouldn’t have gone over well.”
“Thanks, Ember.” I stood up. “That was really nice of you.”
She shrugged. “I missed you, and it was the only way I could talk to you.”
“I missed you too.” I smiled at her, and I tucked the letters in the back of my pants, next to the dagger, safely protected from the elements. “But I should go now.”
“I don’t know when I’ll see you again,” Ember said, and there was a hesitance on the word when, since it really should’ve been if. “Take care.”
I walked out of her house onto the balcony. I hung over the edge, and then dropped down carefully into the yard. I took a step backward and looked up to watch Ember closing the French doors.
Then I turned around and ran right smack into Ridley who smartly put his hand over my mouth to prevent me from screaming.
“What are you doing here?” I hissed when he removed his hand.
“Looking for you. Finn told me you went back to get Ember, and I didn’t want to leave you behind.”
“What about your mom?” I asked.
“Finn is taking her out with the rest of the parents,” he explained. “Where’s Ember?”
I shook my head. “She’s not coming.” He didn’t press any further, and it was for the best. “Do you have any idea where Konstantin and Baltsar went?”
“All I know is that Konstantin was trying to show Baltsar weak points in the town.”
We hopped the fence out of the yard and started the trek back to the cemetery. We cut through alleys and backyards, taking much the same route I had on the way to Ember’s house. But it was starting to get brighter out, and we no longer had darkness to help cloak us.
It had begun to snow, heavy wet flakes, and while it was only a flurry now, it felt like it could take a harder turn.
Two blocks from the cemetery, we paused, waiting in an alley. An Omte soldier was patrolling the street, and Ridley stood with his back pressed against the nearest house, craning his neck around to watch the soldier. I crouched down beside him, trying to get a better look.
Both of us were so focused on the Omte soldier in front of us that we didn’t notice anyone creeping up behind us, until I heard Helge Otäck’s gravelly voice say, “Well, isn’t this a nice surprise?”
Helge Otäck was the Viceroy to the Omte Queen, and while that sounded like a cushy job, Helge looked more like an old biker than a politician. His leathery skin showed signs of a hundred bar fights, and his scraggly hair hung past his shoulders.
Even under the thick brown winter coat he wore, it was still obvious that Helge himself was a large man. He easily towered over us, making him appear strong by human standards, and he had the Omte strength to boot.