Fortunately, it hadn’t snowed since I’d been gone. Sometimes when I came back, the SUV was buried underneath snow. I tossed my bag in the back, then hopped in the driver’s seat. Linus got in quickly, shivering as I started the SUV.
“I don’t know how much I’ll enjoy living here,” Linus said between chattering teeth.
“You get used to it.” I pointed to the digital temperature monitor in the dash. “It’s just below freezing today. That’s actually pretty warm for this time of year.”
Once the vehicle had warmed up enough, I put it in drive and pulled out on the road, heading south along the Hudson Bay. It was almost an hour to Doldastam from the train station, but Linus didn’t say much. He was too focused on watching the scenery. Everything was still covered in snow, and most of it was unsullied, so it all appeared pure and white.
“Why are the trees like that?” Linus asked, pointing at the only vegetation that grew in the winter.
Tall evergreens dotted the landscape, and all of them were tilted slightly toward the east, with all their branches growing out on only one side. To people who hadn’t seen it before, it did look a bit strange.
“It’s called the Krummholz effect,” I explained. “The strong wind comes from the northwest, making it hard for branches and trees to grow against it, so they all end up bending away from it.”
As we got closer to Doldastam, the foliage grew thicker. The road narrowed, becoming a thin path that was barely wide enough for the Land Rover. If another car came toward us, we’d have to squeeze off the road between the trees.
The trees around the road seemed to be reaching for us, bent and hunched over, their long branches extending out toward the path. They had long viny branches, like weeping willows, but they were darker green and thicker than any willow I’d seen. These were actually hybrids, grown only by the Kanin people. They were made to help conceal the road to the kingdom, so humans would be less likely to stumble across us.
But no other car came. The empty road was normal. Other than trackers, no one really left the city.
The wall wasn’t visible until we were almost upon Doldastam, thanks to all the trees hiding it. It was twenty feet tall, built out of stone by Kanin over two centuries ago, but it held up stunningly well.
The wrought-iron gate in front of the road was open, and I waved at the guard who manned the gate as we drove past. The guard recognized me, so he smiled and waved me on.
Linus leaned forward, staring up through the windshield. Small cottages lined the narrow roads as we weaved our way through town, hidden among bushes as much as they could be, but Linus wasn’t paying attention to them.
It was the large palace looming over everything at the other end of town that had caught his attention. The gray stone made it look like a castle, though it lacked any towers. It was a massive rectangle, covered in glittering windows.
I drove through the center of town, and when I reached the south side of Doldastam, where the palace towered above us, I slowed down so Linus could get a better look. But then I kept going, stopping two houses away, in front of a slightly smaller but still majestic stone house. This one had a pitched roof, so it resembled a mansion much more than it did a castle.
“This is it?” Linus asked, but he didn’t look any less impressed by his smaller home than he did by the castle.
“Yep. This is where you live.”
“Wow.” He shook his head, sounding completely awed. “This really is like a fairy tale.”
It was dark by the time I pulled the Land Rover into the garage, narrowly parking it between another SUV and a full-sized Hummer. I clicked the button, closing the garage door behind me.
Technically it was a garage, but in reality it was a massive brick fortress that housed dozens of vehicles and all kinds of tracker supplies. To the left of the garage were the classrooms and the gym where trackers trained, along with the Rektor’s office.
I hadn’t bothered to put on my jacket or boots after I had gotten Linus settled in at the Berlings’ house, because I knew I was coming right here. The garage was heated, as were most things in Doldastam. Even the floor was heated, so when I stepped out of the SUV, the concrete felt warm on my bare feet.
I’d just gone around to the side of the car to get my bag out of the back when I heard the side door close. The Rektor’s office connected to the garage, and I looked over to see Ridley Dresden walking in.
“Need a hand?” he asked.
“Nah, I think I got it. But thanks.” I slung my bag over my shoulder and went over to the storage closets.
He wore a vest and a tie, with his sleeves rolled up above his elbow. But like me, he was barefoot. His dark hair was kept short, but it still curled a little. In that way, his hair fit him perfectly. Try as he might to be straitlaced, there was just a part of him that wouldn’t completely be tamed.
I dropped my bag on the floor in front of the shelves and crouched down to rummage through it. I’d pulled out a couple fake passports—both for me and for Linus—when Ridley reached me.
“You don’t look that bad,” he said with his hands shoved in his pockets.
I looked up at him, smirking. “And here I didn’t think you liked blondes.”
As far as I knew, his last couple girlfriends had been brunettes, but that really wasn’t saying much when it came to the Kanin. Like all trolls, the Kanin had certain physical characteristics. Dark curly hair; brown or gray eyes; olive skin; shorter in stature and petite; and often physically attractive. In that regard, the Kanin appeared similar to the Trylle, the Vittra, and, other than the attractive part, even the Omte.
It was only the Skojare who stood out, with fair skin, blond hair, and blue eyes. And it was the Skojare blood that betrayed my true nature. In Doldastam, over 99 percent of the population had brown hair. And I didn’t.
“Come on. Everyone likes blondes,” Ridley countered with a grin.
I laughed darkly. Outside of the walls surrounding Doldastam the world may have shared that opinion, as Ridley would know from his tracking days. But here, my appearance had never been anything but a detriment.
“I was referring to your run-in,” Ridley said.
I stood up and gave him a sharp look. “I can handle myself in a fight.”
“I know.” He’d grown serious, and he looked down at me with a level of concern that was unusual for him. “But I know how hard dealing with Konstantin Black had to be.”
I turned away from him, unwilling to let him see how badly it had shaken me up. “Thanks, but you know you don’t have to worry about me.”