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Finn sat with Mia and their children, but his parents were noticeably absent. After what had happened here, and how they’d lost Ember, they had finally had enough. They’d left the entire troll world to start a life anew among the humans.

My parents felt much the same way, and they had taken up residence in Storvatten. Marksinna Lisbet Ahlstrom once told me that she’d do anything to thank me for saving her granddaughter, and I’d asked her to repay the debt by welcoming my mom back with open arms.

So she had, and after years of hating Storvatten, my mom seemed to be actually enjoying her return. She said it was all so much different than when she was a girl, more relaxed, and she was happy to reconnect with old friends and family.

Meanwhile, my dad was working with their Chancellor to help get the Skojare where they needed to be. Mikko and Linnea had been working very hard to improve things in Storvatten, and it looked like they might finally be on the right path.

With Linus taking the stage now, the tall platinum crown upon his head, I hoped I could say the same thing about Doldastam. Linus was less experienced than most of the townspeople would’ve liked, but his bloodline was the closest to Evert Strinne, so he was next in line.

As he walked across the stage, the crowd erupted in applause. No matter what differences had existed before, everyone here was ready for a change, for someone new to lead us to a better place, and their excitement came from the belief that Linus would be that leader.

I was optimistic because of his kindness and genuine empathy for the people. I wondered if growing up outside of the cold walls of Doldastam, unlike Evert and so many of our past Kings, had made him more compassionate, and I believed that with the right advisers and tutelage, he could stay that way.

Behind Linus in lavish chairs on the stage, his parents were seated along with the head of the Högdragen, and nearby was a large rectangle beneath a satin sheet. I had been asked to join him—and to wear onstage, I’d even been given a new crisp white suit with silver embellishments, including the platinum rabbit, our highest military honor. I’d elected to wear the suit, but declined the stage.

As one of his first acts as King, Linus had appointed me as his personal guard, and I’d accepted because I thought I could help steer the kingdom in the right direction and I could protect the King from corruption.

But I no longer craved the honor that went along with it. I didn’t need or deserve the accolades. I just wanted to serve my kingdom.

He wanted to pull me onstage today to exalt me as a hero, but that wasn’t something I could accept. I wasn’t a hero, and in so many ways I still felt like I’d failed. Like I should’ve done more to protect the people. Nobody should’ve had to die.

“Thank you all for coming here today,” King Linus said, speaking loudly so his voice would carry over the crowd. “We’ve all been through a great deal, and I know how hard it was for some of you to come out. So many of you have lost so much, and are in no mood to celebrate.”

Delilah began to sniffle at that, and her father put his arm around her, pulling her close to him, and throughout the crowd I could hear others sobbing faintly.

“That’s why today isn’t about honoring me as your King.” Linus stepped over to the side toward the sheet-covered rectangle. “It’s about honoring those you’ve lost, everyone who laid down their life defending this kingdom so that we can all be here celebrating our freedom today.”

He pulled back the sheet, revealing a white marble stone ten feet high and five feet wide, in large black letters listing all the names of the people who had been killed. At the top was Evert Strinne, since he had been one of Mina’s first victims, but there were many names below his.

Kasper Abbott, Ember Holmes, Simon Bohlin, and the names of so many others I had seen nearly every day in this town. So many lives that could never be replaced, voids that would never be filled.

Near the bottom, in letters just as bold and dark as everyone else’s, was Konstantin Black.

A lump formed painfully in my throat. I’d been so afraid that nobody would know that Konstantin had died to protect the kingdom, or be aware of all the things he’d done to aid in this battle. I had been terrified that I would be the only one who mourned him.

But now everybody would know. For generations, people would see his name, and know that he’d died a true Kanin hero.

Linus continued his speech, telling Doldastam how he planned to honor the dead by giving the kingdom new life, but I’d heard all I needed to. I got up quietly and snuck away from the crowd, walking out of the town square.

I hadn’t made it very far when I heard Ridley’s footsteps behind me. The cobblestone streets were empty, since everyone was at the celebration, and I turned to face him.

His chestnut hair was slightly disheveled, and he brushed it back from his forehead. He’d left the top buttons of his shirt undone, the way I liked it, but his rabbit amulet was still missing. As soon as the fighting ended, he’d stepped down from his position as Överste and Rektor.

“What’s going on?” His dark eyes were filled with concern as he looked down at me.

“I’ve spent enough time thinking about the dead lately,” I said honestly. “I need a break from it. I think I just need some time to think about the future and try to feel optimistic again.”

“I get that,” Ridley agreed. “The last few weeks have been so dark, you need to start looking for something bright.”

I nodded. “Exactly.”