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Emma sprinted into my room first, clutching her older brother’s slingshot in her pudgy hands, and down the hall Liam was already yelling for me.
“Ulla! Emma keeps taking my stuff!” Liam rushed into my room in a huff, little Niko toddling behind him.
My bedroom was a maze of cardboard boxes—all of my worldly possessions carefully packed and labeled for my move in six weeks—and Emma darted between them to escape Liam’s grasp.
“He said he was going to shoot fairies in the garden!” Emma insisted vehemently.
Liam rolled his eyes and brushed his thick tangles of curls off his forehead. “Don’t be such a dumb baby. You know there’s no such things as fairies.”
“Don’t call your sister dumb,” I admonished him, which only caused him to huff even louder. For only being seven years old, Liam already had quite the flair for the dramatic. “You know, you’re going to have to learn how to get along with your sister on your own. I’m not going to be around to get in the middle of your squabbles.”
“You don’t have to tell me that,” Liam replied sourly. He stared down at the wood floor, letting his hair fall into his eyes. “She’s the one that always starts it.”
“I did not!” Emma shouted back. “I only wanted to protect the fairies!”
“Emma, will you give Liam back his slingshot if he promises not to kill anything with it?” I asked her. She seemed to consider this for a moment, wrinkling up her little freckled nose, but finally she nodded yes.
“I was never really going to kill anything anyway,” he said.
“Promise!” Emma insisted.
“Fine. I promise I won’t kill anything with my slingshot.” He held his hand out to her, and she reluctantly handed it back to him. With that, he dashed out of the room, and Emma raced after him.
Niko, meanwhile, had no interest in the argument, and instead made his way over to me. I pulled him into my arms, relishing the way his soft curls felt tickling my chin as I held him, and breathing in his little-boy scent—the summer sun on his skin and sugared milk from his breakfast.
“How are you doing this morning, my sweet boy?” I asked him softly. He didn’t answer, but Niko rarely did. Instead, he curled up more into me and began sucking his thumb.
I know I shouldn’t pick favorites, but Niko would be the one I missed the most. Sandwiched between Emma and the twins, he was quiet and easily overlooked. Whenever I was having a bad day or feeling lonely, I could always count on him for cuddles and hugs that somehow managed to erase all the bad—at least for a few moments.
But now I could only smile at him and swallow down the lump in my throat.
This—all the scraped knees and runny noses, the giggles and tantrums, all the love and chaos and constant noise of a house full of children—had been my life for the past five years. Which was quite the contrast to the frozen isolation of the first fourteen and a half years of my life.
Five years ago, a Kanin tracker named Bryn Aven had been on an investigation that brought her to Iskyla in central Canada, and when I met her, I knew it was my chance out of that town. Maybe it was because of the way she came in, on the back of a storm, or because she was a half-breed. She was also blond like me, and that wasn’t something I saw often in a town populated by trolls and a handful of the native humans of the area, the Inuit.
Most trolls, especially from the three more populous tribes—the Kanin, Trylle, and Vittra—were of a darker complexion. Their skin ran the gamut of medium brown shades, and their hair was dark brown and black, with eyes that matched. The Kanin and the Trylle looked like attractive humans, and the Vittra often did as well.
The Omte had a slightly lighter complexion than that, and they were also more prone to gigantism and physical deformities, most notably in their large population of ogres. With wild blond hair and blue eyes, the Skojare were the fairest, and they had a tendency to be born with gills, attuned to their aquatic lifestyle.
Each of the tribes even had different skill sets and extraordinary abilities. All of the kingdoms had some mild psychokinetic talents, with the Trylle being the most powerful. The Vittra and the Omte were known for their physical strength and ability to heal, while the Kanin had the skin-color-changing ability to blend in with their surroundings, much like intense chameleons.
Iskyla was officially a Kanin town, and the Inuit coloring wasn’t much different from that of the Kanin. Most everyone around me had a shock of dark hair and symmetrical features. My noticeable differences had always made me an easy target growing up, and seeing the blond-haired tracker Bryn, I recognized a kindred spirit.
Or maybe it was because I could tell she was running from something, and I had been itching to run since as soon as I could walk. The Tulins had been good to me—or as good as an elderly couple who had never wanted kids could be when a baby is dropped on them. But Mrs. Tulin had always made it clear that I would be on my own as soon as I was ready, and when I was fourteen I was sure I was ready.
Fortunately, Bryn had been smart enough—and kind enough—not to leave me to fend for myself. She brought me to Förening, the Trylle capital in Minnesota, and found me a job and a place to stay with friends of hers.
When I had started as a live-in nanny working for Finn and Mia Holmes, they’d only had two children with another on the way, but already their cottage was rather cramped. Shortly after I moved in, Emma came along—followed by a promotion for Finn to the head of the Trylle royal guard—and Mia insisted a house upgrade was long overdue.
This grand little house, nestled in the bluffs along the Mississippi River—cozy but clean and bright—had enough room for us all—Finn, Mia, Hanna, Liam, Emma, Niko, Lissa, Luna, and me. As of a few months ago, we’d even managed to fit in Finn’s mother, Annali, who had decided to move in with them after her husband passed away last fall.
This home had been my home for years, and really, this family had been my family too. They welcomed me with open arms. I grew to love them, and they loved me. Here, I felt like I belonged and mattered in a way that I had never been able to in Iskyla.
I was happy with them. But now I was leaving all of this behind.
“But Mom, it’s not fair!” Hanna was shouting, her voice reaching the ear-piercing levels of indignation that only twelve-year-olds seemed able to master.
When I walked into the kitchen, her mother was attempting to feed the twins, Lissa and Luna. A bright orange mush—presumably pureed carrots or maybe sweet potatoes—was slathered all over their high chairs and hands, and some had even gotten into Mia’s dark hair.
“Hanna, we’ve already gone over this.” Mia’s tone was beyond exasperated, but Hanna stood defiantly in front of her, arms folded over her chest as she glared up at her mother. “Your grandparents see you so rarely.”
“But it’s just turned June, and you’re sending me off! Me and my friends already made so many plans for the summer—”
“Well, that was silly of you, wasn’t it?” Mia cut her daughter’s rant short with a gentle rebuke. “You’ve known about this trip for months.”
“But I never wanted to do it,” she insisted with a whine. “At the very least you should let me stay for the party tonight.”
“Ulla’s internship starts on Monday, and she’s not going to miss it for some party,” Mia told her firmly. “Besides, parties at the palace are always so stuffy and boring.”
Hanna groaned and rolled her dark eyes dramatically. “You’re only saying that because you’ve been to so many.”
I glanced over at the invitation tacked up on the corkboard—next to the calendar with reminders for the twins’ checkups and Liam’s camp schedule. Delicate filigree vines had been drawn along the edges, and at the bottom a rabbit sat front and center, flanked by a fish, a cougar, and a vulture.
Her Royal Highness Wendy Luella Staad
Queen of the Trylle
and Her Husband Loki
request the honor of your presence
at the Quinquennial Jubilee
Linus Fredrick Berling
King of the Kanin
with His Wife Ariel
on Saturday, the Eighth of June
Two Thousand Nineteen
at Seven O’Clock
at the Trylle Royal Palace in Förening, Minnesota
“Sorry, kid.” I tried to sound apologetic—and I was sorry that Hanna was sad about it, but I was not at all upset about missing the party myself.
I had been to enough of these kinds of affairs to know that Mia was right. They were mostly boring and stuffy. This one was all about strengthening the alliances between the tribes—a shaky bit of peace that had been established during the Invasion of Doldastam that had ended with Linus’s ascension to the throne.
Even though I’d grown up as part of the Kanin tribe, Iskyla was so far out and isolated we hardly followed politics, so I hadn’t known about all the bits and troubles that led up to the civil war in the capital of the kingdom. An heir apparent felt their place on the throne was unduly set aside, and they plotted a coup a decade in the making. Monarchs were killed, leaders were overthrown, and the Kanin eventually found themselves with a whole new dynasty in place.
That meant the jubilee would be a room full of political frenemies saying nice things to one another and pretending that they actually meant them. It would be even less fun than it sounded.
Especially for someone who stuck out like me. It wasn’t just that I was blond. Of all the tribes, the Trylle were the most renowned for their beauty, with so many of the men and women like slender models walking off a runway.
Meanwhile, I had broad shoulders and wide hips with hardly a cinch of a waist in the middle, making my body type “rectangular,” as the magazines would helpfully declare, and not so much fat as I was wide, although I was a little pudgy, too.
Like many Omte, my face had a slightly squished lopsided appearance. The skewed look on my face was mostly due to my mouth—the left corner of my puffy lips drooped a bit—and my eyes—the left eye was slightly larger than the right, and the left pupil was permanently dilated in a birth defect, making the eye appear darker and even larger than it actually was.
It was only the Omte who were known for their asymmetric features, hulking bodies, and generally going against the grain of Western beauty standards in the twenty-first century. And that was me.
While I still enjoyed putting on a gown and getting all gussied up for big events like the royal party at the palace, the pressure of perfection made my less-than-perfect self uncomfortable.
“But none of the other kids have to go,” Hanna said, ignoring me on her unrelenting crusade to get her mom to let her stay home.
“Liam has tracker camp, and everyone else is too young to be away from home for six weeks,” Mia reminded her. “Besides, I thought you would enjoy having a break from your siblings.”
“Yeah, but I didn’t mean that I wanted to get stuck in some boring old house out in the middle of nowhere,” Hanna muttered.
When she was pouting like that, slouching and with her bottom lip sticking out slightly, she appeared to be even younger than she actually was. The smattering of freckles across her face only lent itself to her youth, and her bouncy dark brown curls didn’t help much either. Her thick eyebrows had started sprouting into a full-on unibrow over the winter—around the same time that I’d had to take her shopping for her first bra—and I’d taught her how to pluck and shape them.
“Have you finished packing yet?” I asked her.
“Have you?” she shot back, and her eyes met mine for a split second, long enough for me to see the hurt flash in them, and I realized that she was upset about more than being away from her friends.
My internship lasted six weeks. On my way there and back, I was dropping Hanna off and picking her up at her grandparents’. When we got back, I was moving out to a little apartment on the other side of town. I already had the first month’s rent and security down. Mia and Finn were being kind enough to let me store most of my belongings here while I was on the internship.
So this was my last official day working as a nanny and living with the Holmeses.
“Come on, Hanna.” I smiled at her. “We’ve got a super-fun road trip ahead of us. I already have playlists made for the road.”
“Yeah?” She lifted her head slightly.
“Yeah, and how often do you get to be outside of Förening and see the humans in their natural habitat?” I asked, since that was something I’d heard her whinge about on more than one occasion.
She stood up taller. “Yeah? Like we’ll be able to eat in a real restaurant with humans everywhere?”
“Yeah, we can eat anywhere you want.”
That wasn’t a total lie. We could stop at any restaurant, but in my experience, most food prepared outside of troll communities tended to make us sick. Since throughout most of our existence trolls had lived off the grid, hidden away and eating mostly what little fruits and vegetables we could get our hands on, we hadn’t adapted well to the rich diets of humans.
“I pick … McDonald’s,” Hanna announced, causing Mia to let out a small laugh.
“Well, if you wanna stop somewhere, you better get finished packing,” I told her. “I’d like to make it to your grandparents’ before dark, and since we’re driving fourteen hours, that means that we need to be on the road”—I glanced at the clock on the wall and groaned—“in fifteen minutes.”
Now, bolstered by the promise of forbidden treats, Hanna ran upstairs to her room to finish packing.
Copyright © 2020 by Amanda Hocking.