If I hadn’t been in such a hurry, I would’ve insisted on doing things myself. Just because I was in the palace didn’t mean I needed a servant doing everything for me. But as it was, I’d barely had time to shower, and I didn’t have time to dry my hair, so it had frozen on the way over from my apartment.
I mumbled apologies to the footman and thanked him for his trouble. He offered to lead me down the hall to where the meeting was being held, but I didn’t need it. I knew the building like the back of my hand.
The opulence of the palace was nearly lost on me by now. Like the exterior, most of the walls inside were stone or brick. Two massive wooden doors opened into the majestic front hall, but despite the openness, it felt dark and cavernous, thanks to the gray tones of the stone.
The only natural light filtered through stained-glass windows featuring famous battles and royalty long since gone. At the right times of the day, when the light came through the window depicting the Kanin’s voyage across the sea, the hall would glow blue, and when it shone through the window immortalizing the Kanin’s role in the Long Winter War, the hall would shine blood-red.
The rest of the palace was designed much the same way. Since the palace had been built right after the Kanin settled Doldastam, the key to keeping the cold out seemed to be building as many brick walls with as few windows as possible. Not to mention an abundance of fireplaces, which was another reason the stone was so necessary. Less chance of the building going up in flames.
Not much had been changed in the palace since it was built. At least not in the wing where business was conducted. The private quarters where the King and Queen lived were updated when each new monarch began his reign, so they were much more personal, with wallpaper and wood floors.
Most of the palace did seem dark and cold, but there were elegant flourishes and royal touches. Masterworks of art and antique Baroque furniture were carefully arranged throughout. The kerosene lamps that still lit the corridors were made of silver and adorned with jewels. The ceilings were astonishingly high, and were often broken up by skylights that the poor servants had to constantly clear of snow so they wouldn’t come crashing in under the weight.
As I jogged down the corridor, constantly pulling up my black slacks—my nicest pair, though they were too large—I barely even noticed any of the majestic trappings around me. When I reached the meeting hall, I paused outside the door to catch my breath and rake my fingers through my thawing hair.
Then I took a deep breath and opened the doors, and it was just as I had feared. Everyone was already here, waiting. Around a square table that sat ten, there were five of us.
King Evert Strinne sat at the end of the table, next to the crackling fireplace and a massive portrait of himself. He wore a handsomely tailored black suit, but he’d forgone a tie and left the top few buttons undone.
His wife, Queen Mina Strinne, wore her crown, though her husband did not. It was really more of a tiara anyway, silver and encrusted with diamonds. Her long brown hair was pulled back in a loose bun that rested on the nape of her neck, and she smiled warmly at me when I came in. This was a rather casual meeting, but she still wore an ornate gown of white and silver.
The table was wide enough that the Queen could sit next to her husband at the head of it, though her chair was much smaller than his. The dark wood of the high back rose a full two feet above the King’s head, while Mina’s only came up to the top of her tiara.
Directly to the King’s right was Ridley. With a stack of papers in front of him, he smiled grimly at me, and I knew that my tardiness had not gone unnoticed.
Then, sitting to the left of the Queen, with the gravest expression of anyone in the room, was the Chancellor, Iver Aven. My father. His wavy black hair was smoothed back, unintentionally highlighting the silver at his temples, and he wore a suit and tie, the way he did nearly every day. The ire in his toffee eyes was unmistakable, but I met his irritation as evenly as I could and held my head high.
“Bryn Aven.” King Evert eyed me with a severe gaze and his perpetual smirk. “How nice of you to join us.”
“I’m sorry, my lord,” I said with genuine contrition and bowed. “I overslept.”
The last few days had worn much harder on me than I had thought they would, and I’d slept straight through my alarm, which led to a frantic scramble to get here on time. Although the fact that I’d only been a few minutes late was really a credit to my determination.
“She just got back from the mission late last night, and she didn’t have time to sleep while she was transporting the Berling boy,” Ridley said, coming to my aid. “She needed to remain vigilant after his attempted kidnapping.”
“We appreciate your diligence, Bryn,” the King said, but I couldn’t tell if it was approval or condescension in his voice.
I smiled politely. “Thank you, Your Majesty.”
“Why don’t you have a seat, Bryn?” the Queen suggested, and motioned to the table, the rings on her fingers glinting in the light.
I took a seat at the end of the table across from the King, and deliberately left empty chairs between myself and my dad, and myself and Ridley. While I loved my dad, and I thought the King approved of him as Chancellor, I always tried to put distance between us at occasions like this.
I didn’t want anyone to think that I was relying on my dad and his position in the King’s court to get where I was, or that Ridley showed me any favoritism because he was my friend as well as the Rektor. I earned everything on my own merit.
“So. Back to what we were saying.” The smirk finally fell away from Evert’s face and he looked to Ridley. “How are we even sure this was an attempted kidnapping?”
“Well, we’re not,” Ridley admitted.
“Are we sure that they were even going after the Berling boy?” Mina asked, her smoky gray eyes surveying the room.
“They all but confessed it to me,” I said, and everyone turned to look at me.
“You spoke to him?” Dad asked, and worry hardened his expression. “How did that happen?”
“I got in the car, and I asked him what he was doing,” I said simply.
“You got in his car?” Dad asked, nearly shouting. Then he clenched his fist and forced a pained smile, doing his best to keep control of himself in front of the King and Queen. When he spoke again, his voice was tight. “What were you thinking?”
“I was thinking that I needed to do my job, and my job was protecting Linus Berling.” I sat up straighter in my chair, defending myself. “I did what I needed to.”