If there was one thing Kolfinna was sure about as she stood outside the throne room, it was that she had made a deal with a demon. She hated that the Royal Guards, Hilda, and every other person who wanted her imprisoned or dead—which was probably the majority of the country—had driven her into a corner. And although she didn’t particularly likeSijur Bernsten—the man she had traded fifteen years of her life in exchange for his help—she sure as hell hoped he kept his end of the bargain.
But was it even worth it?
Kolfinna shot down that small, niggling thought in the back of her mind. She didn’t have the luxury to think about anything other than her potential doom. She couldn’t think about what it meant to be Sijur’s soldier, or what it meant to be rune-marked with their deal stamped in gold on her wrist.
Just thinking about it made Kolfinna absentmindedly touch her wrist where Joran, the fae male she had met yesterday, had placed the rune. She had been awed to find the glowing rune still there when she awoke that morning, albeit slightly dulled from the night before and softly shimmering.
One of the guards to her left shifted on his feet. She recognized him. Just two weeks ago they had fought Ragnarök in the throne room. And now he wouldn’t even meet her eyes. He probably thought she was guilty. That, or maybe he had witnessed her attacking the Royal Guards promptly after defeating the majority of the attackers that day. Or maybe he thought she was just another heartless fae ready to kill whenever she felt like it. It was hard to tell.
Save for Kolfinna and the two guards, the hallway was empty. She couldn’t even hear what was going on beyond the gilded doors. Were the nobles and the king discussing how to end her?
She slipped her hand in the pocket of her pants and grazed the crumpled paper she had read, reread, folded, and unfolded a hundred times since she had gotten it that morning. Without thinking better, she snatched the paper from her pocket and stared at the elegant, hurried strokes.
I’m sorry I can’t be there for your trial today, but I know you will be fine. Stay strong.
He had sent another note at the beginning of her house arrest, which had simply stated that he couldn’t visit her but that he would try to help. Neither note reassured her because how was it reassuring that her most influential and powerful ally wasn’t going to be by her side while she faced the king, the hunters, Hilda, and everyone else who wanted to condemn her as a criminal?
The painful sting of disappointment and betrayal burned her chest. She had thought that she and Blár had shared precious moments together. Like when they ran across that frozen lake a few weeks ago, and they had laughed and laughed on the icy surface, their breaths misting out in front of them. Or when they danced at the ball, their bodies flush together, their gazes trapped on each other. Or even after the battle two weeks ago at the palace, where he had held her weakened body. When he had wiped her tears. When she had shown that vulnerable side to him, and he had shown such tender care.
But apparently, none of that mattered because he couldn’t even be bothered to be here for her today, when she truly needed him. When she truly needed allies.
It hurt that she wasn’t important enough for him to stand by her side when she needed him the most.
Kolfinna’s fingers inadvertently traced the smooth lines of his name. Whenever she ran her fingers over the dried ink, her buzzing nerves seemed to calm a tad. It was pathetic how despite the cutting pain in her heart, he had that effect on her.
Kolfinna folded the paper and tucked it back in her pocket. She could think about the betrayal later. She could ask him about his feelings about her—if she was the only one who felt this connection and attraction. She could face him and ask him why he hadn’t been here with her, but she first needed to make it out of this trial.
She really, really needed Sijur to keep his end of the bargain.
Right as she was thinking that, the gold-embossed door to the throne room creaked open and a blond guard waved her forward. “They’re ready for you,” the woman said with a frown at Kolfinna’s Royal Guards uniform, with its scarlet cape, silver-accented white pants, and silver-buttoned shirt.
Kolfinna could practically hear the woman say, “You won’t be wearing that uniform for much longer.”
She rubbed her clammy hands over her thighs. It will be fine, she told herself. Sijur would help her like he promised, and then she’d be free.
As she made her way through the doors, every step shot her heart rate up until she was almost dizzy. Light bathed the room, making the throne seem even more golden and regal. King Leiknir sat upon it, drumming his jeweled hand against the armrest, his dark gaze set on her. In front of him was a small box-shaped stand with wooden railings, and in front of that was a court-styled seating arrangement with at least two dozen people.
The dents she had remembered were on the crumbled walls had been hastily covered with white sheets. The broken pillars were partially repaired, but there were clear cracks and missing chunks here and there. The most damaged tiles had been replaced, but the new tiles didn’t match the older remaining ones that had been charred by fire and lightning. Even though the tiles had likely been scrubbed for hours, they weren’t restored to the old ones’ original luster. And, as much as the king liked to pretend the battle two weeks ago hadn’t ruined the room, the evidence was clear to see.
He probably didn’t want to show that Ragnarök had damaged the royal palace to the extent it had.
Kolfinna instantly found Hilda Helgadottir within the crowd of nobles sitting in their cushioned, velvet seats. Her graying blond hair was pulled back into a tight bun, further accentuating her harsh features, and those hawkish eyes were pinned on Kolfinna as if they had found their prey.
It was suddenly hard to breathe. She wasn’t in the throne room anymore—she was in a windowless cabin with an array of sharp and serrated weapons lying on a table in front of her. And Hilda was there, running her wrinkled fingers over the leather ends of a whip.
Kolfinna blinked the memory away and swallowed down the nausea clawing up her throat. She forced herself to ignore the sudden rush of emotions flooding her—the anxiety, the fear, the need to flee.
In and out.
In and out.
Somehow, she didn’t crumble under the weight of those oppressive eyes or those harsh memories.
One leg forward, then the other, repeat.
So long as she could ignore what had happened those long days in that cabin with that monstrous woman, she would be fine.
Another step. Then another.
Kolfinna’s gaze skirted over the crowd, searching for familiar, kind faces, but the only other familiar face she found was Fenris’s. He sat in the front row, his red hair brushed neatly and his white and gold uniform standing out regally. She scanned the crowd again. Her heart sank as she realized Blár really wasn’t there—and she chided herself for that, for hoping. And then it sank even further when she realized Sijur wasn’t there either.
She was on her own.
Kolfinna bent in a rigid bow in front of the throne. “Greetings, Your Highness.”
King Leiknir only peered down at her with dark, disapproving eyes.
One of the Royal Guards beside him motioned her toward the raised, boxed dais, and she complied. Her fingers rested over the smooth wooden railing to keep herself upright, to keep herself rooted in the room, and to not tarry on any memories. Particularly memories linked with the woman sitting two rows away from her.
“Kolfinna the fae,” King Leiknir drawled after a moment of stilled silence. Kolfinna felt everyone watching her, impatiently waiting to rip her to shreds and prod at what remained. “We are here to discuss your actions two weeks ago during the attack on the palace.”
Kolfinna clasped her sweaty hands together in front of her to keep them from shaking. She didn’t know where to look, so she stared down at the gold-veined marble floors.
“Frode Nyborg.” King Leiknir waved forward the Lieutenant Captain of the first unit of the Royal Guards, who were in charge of protecting the royal palace. The aging guard came forward and dropped to one knee.
“Nyborg, what is your report on this matter? You’ve had two weeks to investigate and interview all the parties involved.” The king drummed his fingers on the armrest again, his rings catching the light.
The last time Kolfinna had spoken to Nyborg, he had told her that she would likely be fine, and that he too felt a strange, ominous presence from the black sword that had controlled her. Kolfinna clung to the tiny sliver of hope that he would side with her.
Nyborg straightened and Kolfinna held her breath as the older man turned to face the crowd. He pointedly didn’t look at her and instead addressed everyone else. “Kolfinna the fae made statements that she was being ‘possessed’ by the royal sword and that her actions were not her own. She attacked several Royal Guards with the intent to kill them. I suspect she might have had motives to steal the sword.”
Murmurs filled the room and Kolfinna’s mouth almost dropped to the floor. She could feel the heat crawling up her neck as more people stared and pointed fingers.
This can’t be happening.
“That’s not true—” Kolfinna started, her voice barely above a whisper.
“Silence.” The king’s voice boomed across the throne room and she flinched. He narrowed his eyes at her. “Do not interrupt, fae.”
He spat the word like it was poison and she knew she had no allies here.
Her face tingled with humiliation and she tightly gripped the banister of the trial box until her knuckles turned white with exertion. Almost as white as the immaculate uniform Nyborg wore and the immaculate white gloves all Royal Guards wore. The uniform that was supposed to symbolize the purity of justice.
“Kolfinna the fae attacked several of my men.” Nyborg motioned to the crowd and three guards stood up on cue and marched to the front of the throne. They bowed to the king while Nyborg spoke. “Audun Jacobsen, Garth Austr, and Haskell Westergaard were the primary victims.”
Kolfinna recognized the three men. She remembered begging them to run away and not fight her, for fear that she would cut them down like she had killed the Ragnarök members. She had cried to them while they had fought her. They had only stopped attacking her because of Blár.
The blond of the trio spoke first. “Two weeks ago, we were fighting alongside her against the other fae, but then she suddenly turned on us. She tried to kill us.”
Another murmur ran through the room.
“I told you they were heartless,” someone whispered. “They’re monsters. All of them.”
Nyborg nodded at his guard and raised his voice. “She only stopped because she knew she couldn’t fight Blár Vilulf and win. I believe her goal was to steal the royal sword.”
Lies. Lies. Lies.
She wanted to open her mouth to shout at him. She wanted to tell everyone the truth, but the way everyone was gobbling up his words left her deflated and scrambling to think properly. She should’ve expected him and the Royal Guards to turn on her. She should’ve—
“I have a question.” Fenris raised his white-silk, gloved hand in the air, his velvety voice halting the hushed whispers in the room. His steely eyes fell on Nyborg, and the older man straightened. “Nyborg, your guard, Auden Jacobsen, just mentioned that Kolfinna was fighting alongside the guards against Ragnarök and that she then turned on the guards. If it’s true that she was planning on stealing the sword, why bother to fight Ragnarök in the first place and defeat the majority of its members before turning on her own team? Wouldn’t it have made sense for her to pretend to be on the Royal Guards’ side, let both sides whittle their numbers down, and once the battle was over, for her to then make an excuse and flee? I hardly see how facing the other guards would benefit her. Especially since she was clearly outnumbered.” He waved to the three guards beside Nyborg with a dismissive hand. “You three have at least ten years of experience as a Royal Guard. Are you telling me that you three couldn’t defeat Kolfinna if she truly was against you all? She’s barely been in the Royal Guards for five months. She would’ve known how experienced you three are.”
Silence filled the room while the guards in front of the room slowly reddened. Kolfinna’s chest stopped painfully squeezing and she could breathe for a few seconds. Maybe she wasn’t alone after all.
“W-Well,” the blond guard, Audun, stammered, “she’s a strong fae and it doesn’t change that she fought against us—”
“It almost appears like Ragnarök made this entire commotion in order to steal the royal sword,” Fenris said, “and they fought Kolfinna in order to take it from her. That sword is known to have belonged to the last fae queen and her empire, in which King Harald took it as a war trophy when he won against the fae. It isn’t too far-fetched to believe that they wanted to steal it back. And who are we to know the full properties of a fae artifact?”
King Leiknir frowned while Nyborg pursed his lips together. “Captain Asulf,” the king said, “do you believe Kolfinna is speaking the truth that she was possessed by the royal sword?”
“I do.” He turned his silver gaze to her and she wanted to cry right then and there—he was on her side. “She has been under my watch for five months. I would’ve known if she had shown a single sign of disloyalty. She has been nothing but obedient, loyal, and faithful to this country. She has put her life on the line several times—”
“She still tried to attack my men, Captain,” Nyborg said. “She—”
“My men.” Fenris’s voice cracked like a whip and his eyes flashed. “Do not forget that all Royal Guards are under me, Frode.”
Nyborg flinched and lowered his gaze.
“She has put her life on the line several times,” Fenris repeated, his smooth voice growing louder for everyone to hear. “She is an asset to the Royal Guards and I don’t think we should dismiss her claim about the royal sword.”
Hilda raised her aged hand before Kolfinna could breathe a sigh of relief. “Captain Asulf, I believe you’re being biased and overlooking the fact that she did attack the men and that she was wielding a sword that is meant only for the royal family. That in itself is treason.”
“That sword is evil,” Kolfinna said, forcing herself to stare at anyone but Hilda. She tried to look for someone in the crowd who might believe her, but they all looked at her as though she were a monster. “Ragnarök—”
“Silence.” The king’s voice boomed across the cratered, scorched walls of the expansive room, which felt like it was shrinking the longer the trial went on.
Kolfinna swallowed down the bile rising up her throat. Her frustration grew and the anxiety gnawing at her core intensified. How was she going to tell her side of the story if no one would let her speak?
King Leiknir motioned to Nyborg. “Continue.”
Nyborg glanced between the king’s encouraging nod and Fenris’s steel-cut gaze. He cleared his throat. “Err, I also spoke to a few guards from the city and they said they spotted Kolfinna running to the royal palace rather than remaining on the streets of the city to help with the attacks and the evacuations. This tells us that she wanted to fight in the palace rather than fulfill her guard duties. I can only imagine it’s because she wanted to steal the sword.”
Kolfinna cringed. That was right after Yrsa had fought her. She had suspected Yrsa was a member of Ragnarök and had rushed to the palace to confirm that the dreki ambush was just a distraction for something more sinister. She had never thought it would come back and bite her like this.
The gossipy murmurs began again, and the crowd’s suspicion seemed to refuel Nyborg because he stood straighter. “Kolfinna’s commanding officer, Edwin Karlsson, also confirmed that she doesn’t work hard and that she always seems to have some sort of ulterior motive.” He waved to the crowd and a white-blond man stood up. Edwin had been sitting beside his aunt, Hilda, but Kolfinna hadn’t even noticed him until now.
“Furthermore,” Nyborg continued while Edwin sat back down. “Kolfinna had injured a guard, unprompted, two months ago. There were several eyewitnesses who confirmed so.”
At that, Farthin stood. The man who had bullied her, mocked her, and beat her senseless the entire time she was a Royal Guard, glared at her with such ire that she would’ve flinched if she didn’t hate him so much. That hatred made her stand taller, and she wished she could go back to when she had attacked him all those weeks ago. Where she had left him buried in a hole full of stones.
Kolfinna ripped her gaze away from him and Edwin. They were horrible people, and the way Nyborg spoke of her painted her out to be a lazy, deranged bully.
The king eased back in his throne and tapped the gilt armrest of his throne. “I see, I see,” he murmured, looking pleased with himself. “It’s becoming clear what kind of person Kolfinna is.”
The rest of the crowd seemed to be in agreement as they nodded, glared, and murmured amongst each other.
“Then—” King Leiknir began.
The grand, gilded double doors of the throne room swung open and rattled against the walls in that exact moment. The whole room shifted toward the intruder. The sound of clothes rustling as people turned, stifled gasps, and the clacking of Sijur’s heeled boots slapping the marbled floors pervaded the buzzing air. Kolfinna’s breath, which had felt like it was stuck in her chest for the longest time, released raggedly at the sight.
Sijur was all smiles, despite being here at the last moment. His light gray, uncreased military uniform was out of place in the sea of luxurious dresses, shiny jewels, and Royal Guard uniforms.
“Apologies for being late!” Sijur announced with a wave to the crowd. When he was three feet away from the throne, he bowed animatedly to the king. Even to Kolfinna it seemed exaggerated, almost sarcastic. When he raised his head, his teeth gleamed in a grin. “Greetings, Your Highness.”
“Sijur Bernsten.” The monarch’s eyes narrowed. The ends of his thin lips twitched into a scowl. “What are you doing here?”
“I have a request to halt this trial.” He turned his head to Kolfinna and winked.
Kolfinna blinked in response, while someone audibly gasped. The king went unnaturally still while he peered down at Sijur with mildly veiled animosity.
She vaguely remembered that the Royal Guards and the king didn’t get along with the military and the commander-in-chief. And seeing as how Sijur was the son of the commander, she could only imagine what rivalry brewed between the monarch faction and the military.
“On whose authority—” King Leiknir began.
“I’m glad you asked, Your Highness.” Sijur unfurled a piece of paper from his pocket and held it up, as if he had been waiting for this moment. “On the authority of the commander-in-chief of the country, Commander Steffen Bernsten.”
King Leiknir’s hands clenched over the gold armrest of his throne until his fingers were bloodlessly white. “Excuse me?”
“Kolfinna is not within your jurisdiction to command, Your Highness.” Sijur waved a hand to Kolfinna. “Did you not wonder why she wasn’t wearing her uniform the day of the attack? Or why she was absent the week prior?”
Kolfinna flinched again, remembering that time with Hilda in the cabin. After that, she had been at Fenris’s house to recuperate. Kolfinna wasn’t sure what Sijur was getting at, but it was true that she hadn’t been wearing her Royal Guard uniform the day of the attack and that she was absent the week before.
“She is with the military. She joined right around the time of the Måneskin ball.” He pulled out another paper. It crinkled as he unfolded it. “She requested a transfer to the military under my branch, and here”—he pointed to something on the paper and glanced at Fenris, who was watching the whole affair curiously—“we have Captain Asulf’s approval of the request, the commander-in-chief’s signature to approve her instatement into the military, and my signature of approval for her to join my unit.” He stepped toward the throne and handed the papers to the king, who took them with trembling hands. Sijur stepped back with a sweeping bow. “Therefore, the Royal Guards are unable to question my soldier and her actions are to be assessed by the military. I ask that you let my soldier go.”
The king’s lips pursed together and his cheeks reddened as he stared at the papers. He flipped them over and scanned over the scrawled contents. “Captain Asulf.” The king held up one of the papers. The rage in his tone was barely controlled. “Is this your signature?”
Kolfinna had seen the look of confusion that had momentarily flashed over Fenris’s face when Sijur had mentioned him, but now he wore an expression of clear indifference, as if his forged signature wasn’t being waved in his face. “Yes, it is. Kolfinna requested a transfer and I approved it, just like how the Lieutenant General said.”
“And you didn’t think to mention it?” King Leiknir ground out.
Fenris lifted a shoulder. “I apologize, Your Highness. I simply … forgot.”
Nyborg gestured to Kolfinna’s Royal Guard clothes. “Then why is she in uniform? If she’s now a soldier, then why dress like a Royal Guard?”
“I wanted to wear it one last time,” Kolfinna said, trying to fight the smile stretching up on her lips. This was an unexpected turn of events, even though Sijur and her had a deal. But still, she hadn’t thought it would turn out like this. Seeing everyone’s stunned faces was almost worth the stress and anxiety that had built up to this moment.
Sijur smiled and smoothed down the front of his gray uniform. “Since this trial isn’t under the jurisdiction of the royal family and the Royal Guards, I will be taking my soldier back to our base, where we will carry out our own investigation. If you have any questions, please feel free to send them to my father, the commander-in-chief.”
No one moved and it seemed like no one breathed either. The king quaked in obvious rage, his face purpling. Sijur held his hand out to Kolfinna, a sneaky smile on his lips. “Come on, Kolfinna, let’s go.”
Kolfinna hesitantly stepped off the dais, her gaze flitting to Nyborg and the other guards, but when they made no move to restrain her, she closed the distance to Sijur. It wasn’t until they began walking out of the throne room that movement and chatter erupted.
But it didn’t matter to her anymore what they said—she was done with the Royal Guards and this blasted royal palace.
End of Chapter One