At times they even seemed to hate each other, not that that was totally outlandish. These were wealthy people, living in a childless home, when suddenly an eighteen- to twenty-year-old stranger going through a major bout of culture shock was thrust into their lives.
Maternal and paternal instincts did kick in more often than not, and an unseen bond would pull them together. Eventually, most changelings and their parents came to love and understand each other.
But that was over time. Initially, there was often friction, and lots of it. Changelings were hurt and confused, and wanted to rebel against a society they didn’t understand. The parents, meanwhile, struggled to raise someone who was more adult than child and mold them into an acceptable member of the Kanin hierarchy.
“The whole practice has always seemed barbaric to me.” Mom closed the oven, apparently deciding supper wasn’t quite done yet, and sat down at the table next to my dad. “Taking a child and leaving it with total strangers. I don’t know how anyone can part with their child like that. There’s no way I would’ve allowed that to happen to you.”
The Skojare didn’t have changelings—not any of them. They earned their money through more honest means. The general population worked as fishermen, and they had for centuries, originally trading their fish for jewels and gold. Now it was mostly a cash business, and the royalty maintained their wealth through exorbitant taxes on the people.
That’s part of the reason why the Skojare population had dwindled down so low compared to the other troll tribes. The lifestyle wasn’t as lavish or as kind to those who weren’t direct royalty.
“The Changeling practice isn’t as bad as it sounds,” Dad said.
Mom shook her head, dismissing him. “You were never a changeling. You don’t know.”
“No, but my brother was,” he said, and as soon as Mom shot him a look, I knew he regretted it.
My uncle Edmund was five years older than my dad. I’d only met him a handful of times when I was very young, because Edmund was kind of insane. Nobody was exactly sure what happened to him, but by the time I was in school, Edmund had left Doldastam and now traveled the subarctic like a nomad.
“Exactly, Iver,” Mom said. “And where is he now?”
Dad cleared his throat, then took a sip of his wine. “That was a bad example.”
Mom turned back to me. “So with the Berling boy back, are you here for a while?”
I nodded. “It looks that way.”
“Well, good.” She smiled warmly at me. “With all this nonsense going on, you don’t need to be out there.”
“That is exactly why I do need to be out there,” I said, even though I knew I should just keep my mouth shut. This was supposed to be a nice visit, and we didn’t need to get into this again. It was an old argument we’d repeated too many times, but I couldn’t seem to stop myself. “I should be out there protecting the changelings.”
“We shouldn’t even have changelings. You shouldn’t be out there risking your life for some archaic practice!” Mom insisted.
“Would you like a glass of wine, Runa?” Dad asked in a futile attempt to keep the conversation civil, but both my mom and I ignored him.
“But we do have changelings.” I leaned forward, resting my arms on the table. “And as long as we do, someone needs to bring them home and keep them safe.”
Mom shook her head. “By being a tracker, you’re buying right into this awful system. You’re enabling it.”
“I’m not…” I trailed off and changed the direction of my argument. “I’m not saying it’s perfect or it’s right—”
“Good.” She cut me off and leaned back in her seat. “Because it isn’t.”
“Mom, what else do you want our people to do? This is the way things have been done for thousands of years.”
She laughed, like she couldn’t believe I was saying it. “That doesn’t make it okay, Bryn! Just because something has been done for a long time doesn’t make it right. Every time a changeling is left with a human family, they are risking their children’s lives to steal from strangers. It’s sick.”
“Runa, maybe now isn’t the time to have this discussion.” Dad reached out, putting his hand on her arm. She let him, but her eyes stayed on me, darkened with anger.
“I’m not condoning the stealing,” I told her.
“But you are,” Mom persisted. “By working for them, by helping them the way you do, you are tacitly agreeing with all of it.”
“The Kanin have a way of life here. I’m not talking about the Markis or the trackers or the changelings. I am talking about the average Kanin person, the majority of the ten thousand people that live in Doldastam,” I said, trying to appeal to her sense of reason and fair play.
“They don’t have changelings,” I reminded her. “They work for their money. They’re teachers and bakers and farmers and shop owners. They raise families and live quietly and more peacefully and closer to nature. They’re allowed to leave, yet time and time again they choose to stay. And it’s a good thing too. You don’t know what the world is like outside the city walls anymore. You haven’t been anywhere except Storvatten and Doldastam.”
Mom rolled her eyes at that, but she didn’t say anything, letting me finish my speech.
“The life for the humans, outside in the real cities, it’s not like this,” I said. “The drugs, the violence, the excessive commercialism. Everything is a product, even people themselves. I know that things here are not perfect. We have our problems too, but the way we live as a whole, I wouldn’t trade it for anything.
“And the way that we support this lifestyle is with the changelings,” I went on. “I wish there was a different way, a better way, but as of right now, there’s not. And if the Markis and Marksinna didn’t get their money from the changelings, they wouldn’t have anything to pay the teachers and bakers and farmers and shop owners. This town would shrivel up and die. The things I do make this possible.
“I am part of what keeps this all together, and that’s why I became a tracker. That’s why I do what I do.” I leaned back in my chair, satisfied with my argument.
Mom folded her arms over her chest, and there was a mixture of sympathy and disappointment in her eyes. “The ends don’t justify the means, Bryn.”