- Crystal Kingdom
“My parents won’t leave.” Delilah scowled, and she began wrapping Linus’s arm with gauze. “They’re in the basement hiding in a panic room, and I’m actually surprised they haven’t come back up here to drag me down with them.”
“So that’s what we’ve been doing—trying to help people evacuate.” Ember looked me over, her eyes lingering on my bloodied sword. “What have you been doing?”
“I’ve been trying to get to the palace,” I said.
I thought about explaining to her about Ridley, and how he’d been captured, and how I had to get him free before they killed him. But it all felt like too much to say aloud, and there was enough going on here. Everyone in this room had more than their share of problems to deal with.
“I saw you, and I wanted to make sure you were okay,” I said instead, my words sounding tight around the lump in my throat.
“I think we can handle it,” Ember told me, trying for a reassuring smile. “I know you’ve got your work cut out for you.”
A loud knocking at the front door interrupted our conversation. The kitchen was at the back of the house, so we couldn’t see the door from where we stood, but we all turned toward it.
“I locked and bolted the front door,” Delilah said softly.
But the knocking just grew louder and more intense, until it changed from knocking to someone trying to break down the front door.
Ember and I both drew our swords and moved closer to the entryway from the kitchen so we could see into the front hall, when the door came crashing in.
“Markis or Marksinna Nylen?” a man asked in the strong, clipped tones of a Högdragen. “Are you safe?”
“I saw her run in here!” a female voice shouted shrilly, and it was like nails on a chalkboard, so I placed it instantly—Astrid Eckwell. “Go inside and get her! She’s the one behind it all!”
I grimaced, realizing that Astrid must’ve seen me coming over here. She had probably been holed up in her mansion with her family and their own personal Högdragen standing guard. But her contempt for me was so strong that she’d left the safety of her home to make sure that I got my punishment.
We’d grown up together, and Astrid had been unrelentingly vicious to me. She had been the first one to ever call me a half-breed, and she had made certain that it caught on as a cruel chant that the other kids would sing to me during recess.
It wasn’t until my teenage years that I realized the sheer level of her hatred stemmed from jealousy and feelings of inferiority. Her house and most of her riches came from an inheritance that should’ve been my dad’s, and would have been my own, had my grandparents not disinherited my dad for marrying a Skojare. The Eckwells—as second cousins to my dad—were the closest relatives and next in line.
Astrid only had her status because my dad had given it up. Her life should’ve been mine, and I think that secretly she was always afraid I would take it from her.
But I had never wanted her life, and now she was trying to get me killed.
“I’m here,” Delilah said, stepping out from the kitchen before either Ember or I could stop her. “I’m Marksinna Delilah Nylen, and I’m here and I’m safe.”
“Where is she?” Astrid demanded.
I leaned against the kitchen wall and carefully peered around the entryway to watch the scene unfolding. The Högdragen was Janus Mose, a tracker I’d gone to school with who was only a couple years older than me. He didn’t appear as confident about their intrusion into the Nylens’ home as Astrid did, and she pushed her way around him.
A war was raging on half a mile from her doorstep, and she wore a gown with a fur stole. It was typical of her arrogance and stupidity.
“I saw that Skojare traitor run in here, and if you’re housing her, you’ll go to prison too,” Astrid said, sneering at Delilah. “Or you’ll be executed. Janus could do it right on the spot.”
“There’s no need for that.” Ember sheathed her sword and rushed out to the main hall.
Linus pulled on his shirt and stepped out from the kitchen. “You probably just saw us. Ember and I ran in here to get away from the fighting.”
“I wanted to keep the Markis safe,” Ember explained, standing beside her girlfriend.
“With all due respect, Markis Linus, you look nothing like a little blond half-breed traitor,” Astrid told him, doing her best to keep her cool when talking to a royal who outranked her. “Bryn Aven is here, and I know it. And if you all keep covering it up, Janus will have no choice but to execute you all.”
I gripped my sword tightly in my hand, but I didn’t move. Not yet.
Theoretically, Astrid was right. In times of war, a member of the Högdragen had every right to execute those who were standing in the way of the kingdom or harboring traitors. But while Janus hadn’t been the brightest guy I’d gone to school with, he’d gone through enough training to know that he shouldn’t act rashly on the word of a spiteful Marksinna.
“Are you housing Bryn Aven?” Janus asked them directly, standing tall in his Högdragen uniform. The light coming in through the open windows caused his epaulets to shimmer, and he kept his expression hard but blank, the way Kasper always had.
“It’s just us here,” Delilah said, speaking as calmly as she could.
“Then where are your parents?” Astrid demanded, and she looked up at Janus. “They haven’t left yet.”