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“I’m sorry.” I shifted uncomfortably in my seat. “I didn’t mean to question you. I just . . .”

“I understand. You’re still used to your normal human way of being. That will all change soon. Did Finn explain anything to you about Trylle?”

“Not really,” I admitted carefully, afraid that I might get him in trouble.

“I’m certain you have many questions, but let me explain everything to you, and if you still have questions, you can ask me when I’m done.” Elora had a coldness to her voice, and I doubted I’d ever be able to question her on anything.

“Trylle are, to the layman, trolls, but that term is antiquated and demeaning, and as you can tell, it doesn’t do us justice at all.” Elora gestured to the expanse of the room, with all its grace and luxury, and I nodded. “We are beings closely related to humans, but more in tune with ourselves. We have abilities, intelligence, and beauty that far surpass that of humans.

“There are two important distinctions to our lifestyle as Trylle that separate us from the humans,” Elora continued. “We want to live a quiet life communing with the earth and ourselves. We work to strengthen our abilities and use them to better our lives, to protect ourselves and the things around us. We devote our entire lives to this. Förening exists only to preserve and enhance the Trylle way of life.

“The other distinction is how we maintain this lifestyle, although it isn’t that different, really.” She looked thoughtfully out the window. “Human children have their schools, but these places prepare them for a life of servitude. That’s not what we want. We want a life of complete and total freedom. That is why we have changelings.

“The changeling practice dates back hundreds, maybe thousands of years.” Elora looked at me gravely, and I gulped back the growing nausea in my belly. “Originally we were forest dwellers, far less . . . industrialized than you see now. Our children were prone to starvation and medical problems, and we did not have an adequate educational system. So we’d leave our babies in place of human children so they would have the benefits that only a human childhood could offer, then when they were old enough they would come back to us.

“That practice evolved because we evolved. Changelings were healthier, more educated, and wealthier than the Trylle counterparts that stayed behind. Eventually, every child born became a changeling. Of course, now we could easily match the benefits of the human population, but to what end? In order to maintain our current level of existence, we’d have to leave the solace of the compound and spend our lives doing menial jobs. That simply would not do.

“And so we leave our children with the most sophisticated, wealthiest human families. The changelings live a childhood that is the best this world has to offer, and then return with an inheritance from their host families that infuses our society with wealth. That, of course, isn’t the only goal, but it is a large part of how we can live like this. The money you obtain from your host family will support you for the rest of your life.”

“Wait. I’m sorry. I know I’m not supposed to interrupt, but . . .” I licked my lips and shook my head. “I just need to clarify a few points.”

“By all means,” Elora said, but venom tinged her voice.

“When I was a baby, you gave me to strangers to raise me so I could have a good education, a good childhood, and I would bring money back. Is that right?”

“Yes.” Elora raised an eyebrow, daring me to question this.

I wanted to yell so badly I was shaking. But I was still afraid of her. She looked like she could snap me in half with her mind, so I just twisted my thumb ring and nodded. She had dumped me off on a crazy woman who tried to murder me, just because Elora never wanted to work and needed cash.

“Shall I continue?” Elora asked without even trying to mask the condescending tone in her voice. I nodded meekly. “I don’t even remember what I was saying.” She waved her hand in irritation. “If you have any other questions, I suppose you can ask them now.”

“What are the Vittra?” I asked, trying to distract myself from how angry I was with her. “I don’t understand who they are or what they wanted with me.”

“Förening is populated with Trylle.” Elora extended her arm in a wide gesture. “The term Trylle is a distinction similar to a tribe. We are trolls, and over the years, the troll population has been dwindling. Our numbers used to be great, but now there are less than a million of us on the entire planet.

“We are one of the largest tribes left, but we are not the only one,” Elora continued. “The Vittra are a warring faction, and they are forever looking to pick off some of us. Either by turning us to their side, or simply by getting rid of us.”

“So the Vittra want me to live with them?” I wrinkled my nose. “Why? What could I do for them?”

“I am the Queen.” She paused, letting me take this in. “You are the Princess. You are my only child, the last of my legacy.”

“What?” I felt my jaw drop.

“You are the Princess,” Elora explained with a condescending smile. “You will one day be Queen, and being the leader of Trylle carries great weight.”

“But if I’m not here, won’t you just find a replacement? I mean, there’s going to be a Queen here even if I’m not,” I said, scrambling to make sense of this all.

“There is more to it than that. We are not all created equal,” Elora went on. “Trylle are far more gifted than the others. You have already tapped into persuasion, and you have the potential for much more. Vittra are lucky to have any abilities. Adding you to their ranks would greatly add to their power and influence.”

“You’re saying I’m powerful?” I raised a sardonic eyebrow.

“You will be,” Elora amended. “That is why you need to live here, to learn our ways so you can take your rightful place.”

“Okay.” I took a deep breath and ran my hand along my pajama pants.

None of this seemed real or made sense. The idea of myself as a Queen was completely absurd. I barely managed to pass for an awkward teenager.

“Finn will be staying to watch over you. Since they’re looking for you, added protection would be prudent.” Elora ran her hand over her skirt, not looking at me. “I’m sure you have many more questions, but you’ll get the answers over time. Why don’t you go get yourself cleaned up?”

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