When she spoke like that, it wasn’t hard to remember back when we’d been kids in grade school together. I couldn’t have been more than six or seven years old the first time Astrid pushed me down in the mud and sneered at me as she called me a half-breed.
For the past century or so, the Kanin had been trying to reduce their reliance on changelings. If there were multiple children in a family, only one would be left as a changeling. It wasn’t uncommon for particularly wealthy families to go a whole generation without leaving one.
And in Astrid’s case, both her parents had been changelings, so they were freshly infused with cash from their host families and didn’t need their child to bring in more of an income.
So, unfortunately, that left me forced to deal with Astrid all through grade school. There were many times when I wanted nothing more than to punch her, but Tilda had always held me back, reminding me that violence against a Marksinna could damage my chance of being a tracker.
That hadn’t stopped me from hurling a few insults at Astrid in my time, but that had been long ago, before I’d joined the tracker school. Now I was sworn to protect the Marksinna and Markis, which meant I wasn’t even supposed to speak ill of them.
Astrid knew that, and it pleased her no end.
“Linus, if you ever need any real help, you can always ask me,” she said, with her derisive gaze still fixed on me. “You mustn’t be forced to rely on an inferior tutor like Bryn.”
“Markis,” Linus said.
Startled, she looked up at him. “What?”
“You called me Linus, but I’m your superior, right?” he asked as he stared back down at her. “That’s why I didn’t have to stand when you came in?”
“That’s…” Her smile faltered. “That’s correct.”
“Then you should call me Markis,” Linus told her evenly, and it was a struggle for me not to smile. “If I’m understanding correctly.”
“You understand it right, Markis,” I assured him.
“Yes, of course you are, Markis.” Astrid gave him her best eat-shit grin. “Well, I should let you get back to your lessons. I’m sure you have much to learn before tomorrow night’s ball if you don’t want to make a fool of yourself.”
She turned on her heel, the length of her dress billowing out behind her. Once she was gone, I let out a deep breath, and Linus sat back down at the table.
“That chick seemed kinda like a jerk,” he commented.
“She is,” I agreed, and sat down across from him. “We went to grade school together, and she was always horrible.”
“She wasn’t a changeling?”
“No, she’s been here every day for the past nineteen years.”
“What was the deal with the rabbit?” Linus asked. He sounded so totally baffled by it that I had to laugh.
“Oh, it’s kind of a tradition. They’re Gotland rabbits, and legend has it we brought them over with us when we came from Sweden. Supposedly they helped us find where to build Doldastam and helped us survive the first cold winter.”
“How did they help the Kanin survive?”
“Well, they ate them,” I explained. “But not all of them, and now people raise them, and we’d never eat them because they’re like a sacred mascot. Some of the Marksinna carry them around now, like rich American girls used to do with Chihuahuas. The Queen has a rabbit named Vita. You’ll probably see it.”
He laid his hands flat on the table and looked me in the eye. “Can I be totally candid with you?”
“Of course.” I sat up straighter, preparing myself for any number of inflammatory statements he might make. “I’m your tracker. You can always speak freely with me.”
“You guys are super-weird.”
“I can’t do this,” I announced as I threw the office door open. It swung back harder than I meant for it to, and when the doorknob banged into the brick wall, Ridley grimaced.
“If by ‘this’ you mean knocking, then yes, that’s very apparent,” he said dryly.
I flopped in the chair across from his large oak desk. A wide-screen monitor for his computer was tilted toward the edge of the desk. Being trolls, we craved all things shiny and new.
Our love of such things extended to the latest gadgets and fastest technology, but once we had them, it seemed that we usually preferred the old ways of doing things. The Kanin royalty collected computers and tablets the way others did baseball cards—storing them in boxes and closets and out of sight.
That’s why the Rektor’s office contained a high-speed computer, a massive printer, and all sorts of devices that would make his work so much easier, but it was rarely used. Stacks of paper covered the desk, since, inevitably, most things were done by hand.
A bulletin board on one side of the room was overflowing with flyers. Reminders for meetings and trainings, sign-up sheets for less glamorous jobs like cleaning out the garage, and missing persons posters for the rare changeling who ran away.
Behind Ridley’s desk were two massive paintings of King Evert and Queen Mina. The rest of the wall was covered in smaller eight-by-tens of the latest changelings who had come back, as a reminder of why we did the job.
Outside the office, classes were in session, so I could hear the muted sounds of kids talking.
“I can’t stay here,” I told Ridley.
“Like in this office?” He scribbled something down on a piece of paper in front of him, then he looked at me. “Or can you be more specific?”
“I can’t stay in Doldastam,” I said. His shoulders slacked, and he set the pen down. “Linus is safe. He’s fine. There are tons of people here to watch him. I have no reason to stay.”
“That’s true,” he said sarcastically, then he snapped his fingers like something had just occurred to him. “Oh, wait. There is that one reason. The King ordered you to stay and personally watch Linus.”
I rubbed my forehead, hating that he was right. “I need a break.”
“A break?” Ridley asked in confused shock, and for a few seconds he appeared speechless. “You’re a workaholic. What nonsense are you going on about?”
“I’m not asking to do nothing,” I clarified. “I need a break from here. I just got done breaking in the last changeling, and that went fine, but I was stuck here for weeks and weeks. And then I just got to go out after Linus, and I had to turn around and come back.”