“Maybe,” I lied, then passed the buck so I wouldn’t have to be the one to break it to him that he’d never again see the people he’d spent the past eighteen years believing were his mom and dad. “You’ll talk about it with your real family.”
“So what’s so great about being a Berling?” Linus asked.
“Well, for starters, you’re royalty.”
“I’m royalty?” He grinned at that. Being royalty always sounded so much better than it actually was.
“Yeah.” I nodded and returned his smile. “Your father is a Markis, and your mother is a Marksinna—which are basically Kanin words for Duke and Duchess.”
“So am I a Markis?”
“Yep. You have a big house. Not quite as nice as the palace, but close. You’ll have servants and horses and cars. Your dad is best friends with the King. You’ll go to lavish parties, date the prettiest girls, and really, just live happily ever after.”
“You’re saying that I just woke up in a fairy tale?” Linus asked.
I laughed a little. “Kind of, yeah.”
“Holy crap.” He leaned his head back against the seat. “Are you a Marksinna?”
I shook my head. “No. I’m a tracker. Which is almost as far away from being a Marksinna as being human.”
“So we’re…” He paused and licked his lips. “Not human?”
“No. It’s like a lion and tiger,” I said, using my go-to analogy to explain the difference to changelings. “They’re both cats, and they have similar traits, but they’re not the same. A lion isn’t a tiger. A Kanin isn’t a human.”
“We’re still, like, the same species, then?” Linus asked, sounding relieved.
“Yep. The fact that humans and trolls are so similar is how we’re able to have changelings. We have to pass for human.”
“Okay.” He settled back in his seat, and that seemed to placate him for a few minutes, then he asked, “I get that I’m a changeling. But why am I a changeling?”
“What do you mean?”
“Why didn’t my real parents just raise me themselves?” Linus asked.
I took a deep breath. So far, Linus hadn’t asked that, and I’d been hoping he wouldn’t until we got back to Doldastam. It always sounded much better coming from the parents than it did from a tracker, especially if the changelings had follow-up questions like, Didn’t you love me? or How could you abandon your baby like that? Which were fair questions.
But since he’d asked, I figured I ought to tell him something.
“It started a long time ago, when humans had more advanced medical care and schools than we did,” I explained. “Our infant mortality rate was terrible. Babies weren’t surviving, and when they did, they weren’t thriving. We needed to do something, but we didn’t want to give up our ways completely and join the human race.
“We decided to use changelings,” I went on. “We’d take a human baby, leave a Kanin baby in its place, and then we’d drop the human baby at an orphanage.”
Other tribes brought that human baby back to the village, believing it gave them a bargaining chip with their host families if the changeling decided not to return. But that rarely happened, and we thought the insurance policy—raising a human child with intimate knowledge of our society—cost more than it was worth, so we left the human babies among other humans.
“Our babies would grow up healthy and strong, and when they were old enough, they’d come back home,” I said.
“So you guys still have crappy hospitals and schools?” Linus asked.
“They’re not the best,” I admitted. “But that’s not all of it.”
“What’s the rest?”
I sighed but didn’t answer right away. The truth was, the main reason we still practiced changelings was money.
The Kanin lived in small compounds, as far removed from human civilization as we could manage. To maintain our lifestyle, to live closer to the land and avoid the scramble of the humans’ lives with their daily commutes and their credit card debt, their pandering politicians and their wars, we refused to live among them.
We could be self-sustaining without living with the humans, but truth be told, we did love our luxuries. The only reason we ever came in contact with humans was because we wanted their trinkets. Kanin, like all trolls, have an almost insatiable lust for jewels.
Even Linus, who otherwise seemed to be an average teenage boy, had on a large class ring with a gaudy ruby, a silver thumb ring, a leather bracelet, and a chain bracelet. The only human man I’d ever seen adorn himself with as much jewelry and accessories as a troll was Johnny Depp, and based on his looks, I’d grown to suspect that he might actually be Trylle.
That’s where changelings came in. We’d place the Kanin babies with some of the wealthiest families we could find. Not quite royalty or celebrity status, but enough to be sure they’d leave hefty trust funds for their children.
When they were old enough to be collected, trackers like myself would go retrieve them. We’d earn their trust, explain to them who they were, then get them to access and drain their bank accounts. They’d return to the Kanin community, infusing our society with a much-needed surge in funds.
So in the end, what it all came down to was tradition and greed, and when I looked over at the hopeful expression on Linus’s face, I just didn’t have it in me to tell him. Our world still had so much beauty and greatness, and I wanted Linus to see that before showing him its darkest flaw.
“Your parents will explain it to you when you get back,” I said instead.
Linus fell silent after that, but I didn’t even bother trying to sleep. When the train pulled into the station, I slipped my heavy winter boots back on. I hated wearing them, but it was better than losing my toes to frostbite. I bundled up in my jacket and hat, then instructed Linus to do the same.
I grabbed my oversized backpack and slung it over my shoulders. One good thing about being a tracker was that I’d been trained to pack concisely. On a trip I expected to last three or four weeks, I managed to get everything I needed into one bag.
As soon as we stepped off the train and the icy wind hit us, Linus gasped.
“How is it so cold here?” Linus pulled a scarf up over his face. “It’s April. Shouldn’t it be all spring and flowers?”
“Flowers don’t come for another couple months,” I told him as I led him away from the train platform to where I had left the silver Land Rover LR4 parked.