“Why are you telling me this?” I asked.
“You need to know the truth. I know how fond of games Elora is.” Every time Oren said her name, it came out bitterly, as if it hurt to speak it. “If you have all the facts, it will be easy for you to make a decision.”
“And what decision is that?” I asked, but I thought I knew.
“The only decision that matters, of course.” His lips twitched with a strange smile. “What kingdom you will rule.”
“To be perfectly honest, I don’t want to rule any kingdom.” I twisted a stray curl that had come loose from my hair tie.
“Why don’t you sit down?” Sara gestured to a chair behind me. After I sat, she took a seat nearer to the King.
“So…” I looked at her smiling sadly at me. “You’re my stepmother?”
She nodded. “Yes.”
“Oh.” I sat in silence for a minute, taking it all in. “I don’t understand. Elora told me my father was dead.”
“Of course she did.” Oren laughed darkly. “If she told you about me, she’d have to give you a choice, and she knew you’d never choose her.”
“So how did you…” I floundered for the right word. “How exactly did the two of you … get together to … you know, conceive me?”
“We were married,” Oren said. “This was long before I married Sara, and it was a rather brief union.”
“You married Elora?” I asked and anger boiled up.
Initially, when he’d told me he was my father, I’d thought it was an illicit affair, like the one Elora had had with Finn’s father. I didn’t imagine that it’d be something of public record, something that every single person I’d met in Förening would’ve known about.
Including Finn. When he’d been going over the Trylle history, giving me a crash course on everything I needed to know about being a Princess, he’d failed to mention that my mother had been married to the Vittra King.
“Yes, briefly,” Oren said. “We were wed because we thought it would be a good way to combine our respective kingdoms. Vittra and Trylle have had their disagreements over the years, and we wanted to create peace. Unfortunately, your mother is the most impossible, irrational, horrible woman on the planet.” He smiled at me. “Well, you know. You’ve met her.”
“Yes, I’m aware of how impossible she can be.” I felt a strange urge to defend her, but I bit my tongue.
Elora had been cold, bordering on cruel at times, but for some reason, when Oren put her down, it offended me. But I nodded and smiled like I agreed completely.
“It’s amazing I even managed to conceive a child with her,” he said, more to himself than to me, and I cringed at the thought of it. I didn’t need to picture Oren and Elora being intimate. “Before you were even born, the marriage was over. Elora took you, hid you, and I’ve been searching for you all these years.”
“You did a horrible job of it,” I said, and his expression hardened. “You do realize that your trackers have beaten me up on three separate occasions? Your wife had to come in and heal me so I didn’t die.”
“I am terribly sorry about that, and Kyra is being dealt with,” Oren said, but he didn’t sound apologetic. His words were hard and angry, but I hoped that was directed more at Kyra than at me. “But you wouldn’t have died.”
“How do you know that?” I asked sharply.
“Call it a King’s intuition,” Oren answered vaguely. I would’ve pressed further, but he continued, “I don’t expect you to greet us with open arms. I know Elora’s already had a chance to brainwash you, but I’d like you to take a few days to get to know our kingdom before making a decision to rule here.”
“And what if I decide not to stay?” I asked, meeting his eyes evenly.
“Look around our kingdom first,” Oren suggested. He smiled, but the edge to his voice was unmistakable.
“Let my friends go,” I blurted out. That had been my motivation for speaking to him in the first place, but all this talk of parentage had gotten me sidetracked.
“I’d rather not,” he said with that same weird smile.
“I won’t stay here if you don’t let them go,” I said as firmly as I could.
“No, you won’t leave if they’re here.” The gravel in his voice made his words carry greater severity. “They’re insurance, so I can be sure that you take my offer very seriously.”
He smiled at me, as if that would counteract the veiled threat, but the wicked edge to his smile made it worse somehow. The hair on the back of my neck stood up, and I was finding it harder to believe this man was my father.
“I promise you, I won’t go anywhere.” I struggled to hide the tremor in my voice. “If you let them go, I will stay as long as you want.”
“I’ll let them go when I believe you,” he countered reasonably. I swallowed hard, trying to think of another way to barter. “Who are these people that you have such concern for?”
“Um…” I considered lying to him, but he already knew I cared for them. “It’s my brother, er, my … host brother or whatever, Matt, and my mänsklig, Rhys.”
“They’re still doing that practice?” Oren frowned in disapproval. “Elora absolutely despises change. She refuses to break from tradition, so this shouldn’t come as a shock. But it’s so outdated.”
“What?” I asked.
“The whole mänsklig business. It’s a total waste of resources.” Oren gave a dismissive wave at the whole idea of it.
“What do you mean?” I asked. “What do you do with the baby you take when you leave a changeling?” When a baby is left with the host family then the family’s original baby has to be taken.
“We don’t take a baby,” he said. My stomach twisted when I imagined them killing the infant, the way I had once feared the Trylle did. “We simply leave them behind, at human hospitals or orphanages. It’s none of our concern what happens to them.”
“Why don’t Trylle do that?” I asked. Once he said it, it made sense, and I wondered why everyone didn’t do that. It would be easier and cheaper.
“At first they took them as slave labor. Now they do it out of tradition.” He shook his head, as if he thought nothing of it.