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“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 But it’s so outdated.”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.

“It’s a moot point, anyway.” Oren exhaled deeply. “We rarely even practice changelings anymore.”

“Really?” I asked. For the first time since I’d met him, it felt like I might actually agree with him about something.

“Changelings can get hurt, lost, or simply refuse us,” Oren said. “It’s a waste of a child, and it’s killing our lineage. We’re far more powerful than the humans. If we want something, we can take it. We don’t need to risk our progeny in their clumsy hands.”

He had a point, but I wasn’t sure it was much better than Elora’s. She worked more of a con job, and Oren proposed outright theft.

“She was unwilling to change the old ways.” His face grew darker when he spoke of her. “She was so set on keeping the humans and trolls separate that she made their lives irrevocably tied, but she couldn’t see the hypocrisy of it. She saw it as nothing more than having your children raised by nannies.”

“It’s entirely different,” I said.

I thought of my childhood with the host mother who had tried to kill me, and my bond with Matt. I couldn’t imagine any nanny taking care of a child in the same way.

“Exactly.” He shook his head. “And that’s why our marriage didn’t work. I wanted you. She gave you away.”

I knew his reasoning was twisted by some sort of flawed logic I couldn’t quite pinpoint. But I felt myself surprisingly moved, even if I didn’t entirely believe him. This was the first time any of my parents, host or real, had ever said they wanted me.

“Do I…” I said, refusing to let myself be overcome by emotion. “Do I have any siblings?”

Oren and Sara exchanged a look I couldn’t read, and Sara stared down at her hands folded in her lap. She was the opposite of Elora in almost every way. Physically they were strikingly similar, with long black hair and beautiful dark eyes, but that’s where the parallels ended. Sara spoke little, but conveyed a warmth and submissive nature that Elora would be incapable of.

“No. I have no other children, and Sara has no children at all,” Oren said.

This fact seemed to sadden Sara further, so I had a feeling the lack of children had not been her choice.

“I’m sorry,” I said.

“She’s infertile,” Oren announced without provocation, and Sara’s cheeks reddened.

“Um … I’m sorry. I’m sure it’s not her fault,” I fumbled.