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Heart of Ice (The Snow Queen #1)

By:K. M. Shea

Heart of Ice (The Snow Queen #1)
Author: K. M. Shea





CHAPTER 1

FIRST ENCOUNTER

It had been two weeks since Rakel last saw another human (and a full month since she had spoken with anyone), so she thought it was forgivable that when she encountered Oskar, her "attendant," in the great hall of her ice-castle, she was both surprised and irritated.

She was surprised because any glimpse of anyone was a rare occurrence, and normally it happened only by chance instead of by someone actually seeking her out.

Has King Steinar finally ordered that I be put to death, or does he want to cast me out of the country entirely?

"Princess," Oskar said. He had dark circles under his eyes, and the stoop in his tall stature whispered defeat. Oskar, ten years her senior, had served her since her exile began twelve years ago. Rakel often wondered what the handsome attendant had done to deserve the post; all other servants were rotated through, serving for only two to three years. During their brief encounters-he was usually the chosen spokesperson if the guards had any news that needed to be communicated to her-he always wore an expression of good cheer. The wrinkles of worry that lined his forehead were unusual.

"Yes?" Rakel asked, keeping her voice calm and dispassionate. She moved into her preferred stance when meeting others: clasped hands pressed to her belly, straight posture-like a noble, but lacking their haughtiness-and downcast eyes. She had cultivated the gesture to echo the harmless piety of a nun, and more often than not it seemed to reassure whatever poor soul had the misfortune to run across her.

Sadly, it didn't seem to be working today.

Oskar's bright green eyes were grim. "I ask that you would give me leave to speak to you."

Rakel studied his bowed head. "Usually I receive a written request for an audience."

"It is an emergency, Princess," Oskar said.

"You may speak," she said, her voice echoing in the emptiness of her frozen palace. She walked the perimeter of the room and paused at a window-which was little more than an elaborately fashioned hole in the wall. She gazed outside at the frozen courtyard and noticed two soldiers-who moved with the caution usually afforded to tip-toeing through a snow bear's den-stationed just inside the immense wall that surrounded Rakel's palace of ice. The walls and the soldiers were supposed to keep her in, as if wood and weapons could suppress her powers.

Oskar smiled. "Thank you, Princess. I appreciate your kindness." His red hair was a bright spot among the muted grays and blues of the ice-castle.

Rakel fought the desire to quirk an eyebrow at the man. He is clearly addled. Maybe that is why he was exiled with me.

"The emergency, Oskar?" she asked as she strolled toward the icy door at the back of the room, wondering about the soldiers. Why are they inside? They always stay out of eyesight. Oskar would not deliver me into their hands to be killed. He's too noble-he's even pleasant to me, after all.

She had spent every day of her exile trying to prove to her guards-her prison-keepers, really-that she was harmless. No one, besides Oskar-whose mental clarity was questionable-believed her. Not that she could blame them. She reeked so strongly of magic, even if one wasn't aware she was the disgraced and exiled princess of Verglas, they would still be able to point her out as one touched by the unnatural.

She supposed her hawkish nose and high cheekbones gave her an elegant and severe air, but her eerie, snow-white hair and glacier blue eyes marked her with the disgrace of her power. Her appearance was reminiscent of the forces of nature she could bend to her will: ice and snow.

Here in Verglas, and in the surrounding countries, magic was something to be feared and held in disdain. Continent-wide, humans cursed with such powers were exiled, slain, or forced into slavery.

As Rakel opened the icy door and stepped outside, into the snow-covered grounds, Oskar drew up his shoulders. "Verglas has been defeated, Princess."

Incredulous, Rakel said, "I beg your pardon?"

The soldiers cowered, as if she had brandished her magic instead of spoken.

Oskar frowned at them and returned his attention to her. "The invaders-did you not know of them?"

"No." Who would have told me?

"They entered Verglas late last spring." He leaned back on his heels as he recalled the details, appearing relaxed in spite of her presence. The two soldiers, however, stood as if they had iron stakes for spines, and they gripped their weapons-one had a spear, the other a crossbow-with an almost tangible fear. "They swept across Verglas and captured all but Ostfold when winter came. Ostfold held out until two weeks ago when the invaders took it in the middle of a snowstorm. Since then, they've captured almost all of the last few outlying villages."

Rakel thought back over the past year. While she had no way of knowing about the invaders, she should have suspected something was wrong. When her father died and her younger brother Steinar was crowned king, he tripled the guards watching her-as if they, and not Rakel's keen desire to be forgiven for possessing magic, kept her imprisoned. But their ranks had been thinning recently. Given that Steinar clearly still feared her, she had assumed there was some sort of natural disaster or ongoing conquest. But invaders?

Recalling Oskar's exact phrasing, Rakel repeated "Almost all of the villages?"

The wind mussed Oskar's red hair. "Your home and Fyran-the village that houses the soldiers and me and supplies your food-are still free. For now."

Rakel held in a frown. "I see." It was a shock to learn her homeland was almost no more. "From what country does our enemy come?"

"Not a country, but an organization."

"Of whom?"

Oskar tapped his chin. "Wielders of magic-though they have armies of foot soldiers who have sworn allegiance to them. Reports say, however, that the armies are mostly made up of mercenaries, bandits, and other such ilk. It's the magic users who rule."

Rakel's knees buckled, making her take a step forward to keep from falling in a heap.

Magic users? People like me?

"My request, Princess, is that you would save Fyran. The invaders have sent a troupe of soldiers-no magic users, just mercenary foot soldiers. They intend to march on it tonight. If it is not properly defended, the mercenaries will rip the citizens to shreds, and the village will be destroyed," Oskar said.

///



A war raged in Rakel's heart.

I should leave them to reap their rewards. They treat me like a monster when all I have done is strive to be unthreatening.

She remembered her lonely childhood, the fear that her family would order her put down-like an unwanted animal. Above all, she could still hear the whispers. Monster. Freak. Darkness-touched.

The soft part of her heart-the side that pushed her to appear as unassuming as possible, the side that longed for acceptance, pulled in the opposite direction. But if I help them … things might change.

Oskar cleared his throat, drawing Rakel from her thoughts. The temperature of the air had dropped under her unconscious influence. Oskar exhaled silvery puffs, and the soldiers now pressed themselves against the wooden wall. The one holding the crossbow shook as he held his weapon aimed in her direction.

"No," Rakel said, her deliberation over. "I will not aid Fyran."

Oskar tilted his head and studied her with an uncomfortable amount of scrutiny. "The villagers are innocents, Princess. They will be slaughtered in the most brutal of ways."

The soldier possessing a spear lowered it into a fighting stance, fortifying Rakel's decision. No matter what good I do, I will always be feared. "I'm afraid whatever sympathy I had has long since turned to ice in my prison. I will not risk

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