“What’s that?” Linus pointed to a brick building overgrown with green vines, untouched by the cold. A small orchard sat to the side of it, with apples and pears growing from the trees. A swing set, a slide, and a teeter-totter were practically hidden below the branches.
“That’s the elementary school,” I said.
“How are the vines still green?” He stopped to admire the building with its vines and white and blue blossoms. “Shouldn’t they die in the winter?”
“Some Kanin have an affinity for plants,” I explained. “It’s a talent that’s much more common in the Trylle, but we have a few special tricks in play, like keeping these alive and bright year-round.”
The front doors were open, and he stepped forward to see that the greenery continued inside, with the plants twisting up over the walls and on the ceiling. Then he turned back to me. “Can we go inside?”
I shrugged. “If you want.”
“This is the most unusual school I’ve ever seen,” he said as he walked through the threshold, and I followed a step behind. “Why are the floors dirt?”
“It’s supposed to take us back to our roots and keep our heritage alive. Some trolls even choose to have dirt floors in their homes.”
He looked back at me. “You mean because we used to live with nature?”
Drawings were posted up on the walls outside the classrooms. In child’s handwriting, the pictures had “My Family” written across the top, and then stick figures of various moms and dads and brothers and sisters and even the family rabbit.
“All the kids go to the same place?” Linus asked, noticing that some pictures were simply signed Ella or James, while others had the title of Markis and Marksinna in front of their names. “The royals and the other town kids all go here?”
“Doldastam is really too small to support two elementary schools, especially when so many Markis and Marksinna are changelings,” I said. “When we get older, we split up, with the royals going to high school, and the others going to specialized vocational training.”
That was in large part why my childhood experiences hadn’t been the greatest. Standing inside the school brought back all kinds of unpleasant memories, usually involving one Marksinna or another making fun of me for being different than the other kids. Astrid had been the worst, but she was far from the only one.
If it hadn’t been for Tilda, I wasn’t sure how I would’ve made it through. She was the only one I had by my side, through thick and thin.
But I found my thoughts drifting away from school to the King’s Games as I looked down the long hall to the courtyard that lay beyond. Every summer we’d have the King’s Games, which were sort of like a Kanin Olympic event, held out in the courtyard behind the school. Members of the Högdragen as well as elite trackers and occasionally well-trained townsfolk would compete in games of sport, like swordplay, jousting, and hand-to-hand, which was similar to kick boxing.
I remember once when I was ten or eleven, and I’d gone to see Konstantin in the games. Tilda had helped me climb up onto a fence so I could see, and we’d sat together, watching with equal fervor as Konstantin knocked his opponents to the ground. Konstantin held his sword to each young man’s throat until he finally yielded, and the crowd erupted in applause.
“I almost thought that the other guy wouldn’t surrender,” Tilda had admitted breathlessly as Konstantin held his hands triumphantly above his head.
“Are you kidding me?” I asked her, with my eyes still locked on Konstantin. “Everyone always surrenders to him. He’s unstoppable.”
When I was a kid, that idea had filled me with wonder and admiration. Now it only filled me with dread.
“Hey, that lady looks an awful lot like you,” Linus said, pulling me from my thoughts. I looked over to see my mom standing in the doorway to a classroom, ushering children out for a bathroom break.
“That’s because she’s my mom,” I said, and lowered my head, as if that would make it harder for her to spot her adult blond daughter standing in the middle of the elementary school hallway.
“Really? Let’s go say hi,” Linus suggested brightly.
“No, we’ve got a lot to see,” I said, and I turned and darted out of the school without waiting for him. I couldn’t wait any longer if I didn’t want to risk talking to her.
“Are you mad at your mom?” Linus asked, once he caught up with me outside of the school.
“What do you mean?” I asked, and continued our walk toward the north side of town.
“You just seemed to want to avoid her.”
I shook my head. “No, it’s not that. I just don’t like mixing business with family.”
“She isn’t supportive of my job, for one thing,” I said, but that was only a half-truth.
“And what’s the other thing?” Linus pressed.
I glanced over at him, with his earnest eyes and genuine concern, and I decided to tell the truth. “Most Markis and Marksinna don’t exactly approve of her.”
This seemed to totally baffle him, the way it would most people who saw past Mom’s race to her kindness and strength and wit and beauty. But unfortunately, there were very few Kanin who could do that.
“Why not?” Linus asked in disbelief.
“Because she’s Skojare, and I’m half Skojare.” I stopped walking and turned to him, since the conversation felt like it required more attention.
He shrugged. “So?”
“So … Kanin tend to look down on anybody that isn’t Kanin, especially the royalty,” I explained.
“That’s dumb.” He wrinkled his nose.
“Yes, it is,” I agreed. “But it’s the way things are.”
“Why don’t you change things?” Linus asked me directly, and for a second I had no idea what to answer.
“I … I can’t,” I stumbled. “But you can. You’re part of an influential family. Someday you may even be King. But even if you aren’t, you have the power to lead by example.”
“You really think I can change things?” Linus asked with wide eyes.
“I do,” I told him with a smile. “Now come on. Let’s see the rest of town.”
“So when you say people don’t approve of you, what does that mean?” Linus asked, falling in step beside me. “Are they mean to you?”