“Forgive my little brother.” King Mikko looked at me for the first time since I’d entered the room. His voice was so deep, it was like quiet thunder when he spoke. “He has the awful habit of forgetting to think before he speaks.”
“No forgiveness needed,” I told him, and turned my gaze back to the Prince. “A tracker is a job mostly filled by nonroyalty, this is true. But as my mother and father both lost their titles as Marksinna and Markis when they were married, that makes me a nonroyal. A peasant.”
“I am sorry.” His shoulders had slacked, and there seemed to be genuine contrition in his aquamarine eyes. “I didn’t mean to bring up class distinction. I was just caught off guard to hear that you had such a difficult job. I’ve gotten far too used to hearing people describe their jobs as simply being rich, or on the very rare occasion they may be a nanny or a tutor. It’s exceptional to find someone who wants to work for something.”
“It’s very important to Bryn that she earns her place in this world, and she works very hard,” Mom told him proudly.
“You seem like an intelligent, capable young woman.” Kennet’s eyes rested heavily on me. “I’m sure you’re a wonderful tracker.”
After that, conversation turned to general banalities. Linnea and my mom talked a bit about family members and old friends of my mom’s. Kennet interjected some about the goings-on in Storvatten, but Mikko added very little.
Finally, when the banter seemed to run out, the room fell into an awkward silence.
“I very much enjoyed this brunch,” Linnea said. “I do hope you can visit us soon. It can be so lonely in Storvatten. There are so few of us anymore.”
This was an understatement. The Skojare were a dwindling kingdom. By best accounts, there were less than five thousand Skojare in the entire world—that was half of the Kanin population in Doldastam alone. That’s why it wasn’t quite so surprising that Linnea was related to us. All trolls were related, of course, but none so closely as the Skojare.
In fact, Mikko and Kennet were actually Linnea’s second cousins, and if I understood correctly, my mom was related to them as well, though more distantly. But that’s what happened in a community that small when you insisted on royals marrying royals, on purebloods with gills marrying other purebloods with gills to ensure the cleanest bloodline possible.
“Yes, we’ll definitely visit as soon as we can,” Mom said, and while I was sure it was convincing to them, I heard the tightness in her voice. She had no intention of visiting in Storvatten.
After we made our good-byes, the footman escorted us to the door. I waited until we were bundled back up in our jackets and walking away in the frigid morning air before I finally asked my mom why she’d lied.
“If you enjoyed the brunch, and you did seem to really enjoy talking about Storvatten, how come you don’t want to go back there?” I asked.
“I never said I enjoyed the brunch,” Mom corrected me, and she looped her arm through mine as we walked next to my dad. “I do like to reminisce sometimes, it’s true. But there are few things I enjoy less than spending time with stuffy royals. I know you took that peasant comment in stride, but let me assure you, it’s much better being raised a peasant than a royal.”
“I’m very happy with the way you raised me,” I told her. “I think you guys made the right decision giving up your titles.”
“I know we did.” She leaned over then, kissing me on the temple. “And besides all that, my life is here with you and your dad. There’s no reason to revisit the past.”
While waiting in the entryway of the Berlings’ mansion for Linus to get ready, I pulled my phone out of the pocket of my jeans, checking it for the hundredth time that morning. Ember had been gone for over twenty-four hours, and she hadn’t texted me yet.
Ordinarily, she wouldn’t check in with me when she was on missions. We would occasionally text or call just to chat and see how things were going, so logically it made sense that she wasn’t briefing me and giving me updates on her trip.
But I would feel better if she did.
“So what’s the game plan for today, teach?” Linus asked as he bounded up the curved stairway toward me.
“I’m not your teacher,” I reminded him again, since he’d recently developed a penchant for calling me teach. “I’m your tracker. There’s a difference.”
“You teach me things. It sounds the same to me.” He shrugged.
“Anyway.” I decided to move on, since it was clearly a losing battle. “It’s a nice day out, so I thought I’d give you a tour around town.”
“That sounds great.” He grinned. “I haven’t really seen much outside of the walls of my house or the palace. It’ll be good to get out.”
While it wasn’t exactly balmy outside, it’d warmed up just enough that the snow had begun to melt. When we stepped out of Linus’s house, we were both treated to several huge droplets of water coming down from the roof.
It was the warmest day of the year thus far, and the gray skies had parted enough for the sun to shine through, so everyone seemed to have the same idea. On the south side of town, where Linus lived and the palace and all the royal mansions were, it was usually fairly quiet. But even the Markis and Marksinna were out, going for walks and enjoying the weather.
I showed Linus around his neighborhood, pointing out which mansions belonged to what royals. Astrid Eckwell was standing in front of her expansive house, letting her rabbit roam in the carefully manicured lawn, nibbling at newly exposed grass.
She smiled smugly at me as we passed, and while I told Linus that she lived there, I neglected to explain that her house should’ve belonged to my dad, if he hadn’t married my mom and been disinherited. But he had, so everything that should’ve been his was passed down to the Eckwells.
As we got to the edge of the south side of town, the houses began getting smaller and sitting closer together. In the center of town, they were practically on top of each other.
What little yard the cottages did have usually had a small chicken coop or a couple goats tied up in it. It wasn’t unheard-of to see chickens squawking about on the cobblestone roads or the occasional cow roaming free from its pen.
In the town square, I showed Linus all the major shops. The bakery, the general store, the seamstress, and a few other stores I thought he might find useful. He was surprised and somewhat appalled to learn that we had a taxidermist, but many Markis liked to stuff their trophies when they went hunting.