There was no point in arguing this or being sullen about the whole thing. It did help to know that my mom didn’t enjoy it either, so the three of us were a united front, all pretending to be happy and polite for strangers.
Besides, I had to agree with my mom that it was a nice gesture. After my mom had eloped with my dad, she had been banned from visiting the Skojare, and at first that meant no contact at all. Slowly, their freeze-out had begun to thaw, and she had been allowed to return home for her mother’s funeral ten years ago, which had opened the dialogue between her family and her again.
So this was a big step on their part. Queen Linnea Biâelse—the young bride of the Skojare King Mikko—was my second cousin, which made her my mom’s first cousin once removed or some other ridiculous relation like that.
The King, Queen, and Prince of the Skojare had invited us for brunch since they were in town, and King Evert had been kind enough to allow us to use one of the meeting rooms in the palace to visit with them.
When we went into the palace, a footman greeted us and took our jackets and boots, and then he led us down to where the brunch was being held. My dad knew where everything was, and so did I, actually, but since we were here as guests of royalty, it was proper for the footman to show us in.
As my mom strode down the corridor, her long white dress flowed out behind her, and it made me happier that I’d chosen to wear a dress myself, although mine was much shorter than hers. My mom always looked beautiful, but she had taken the time to really dress for the occasion, looking more like she should appear on a red carpet than in the dark hallways of a frozen palace, so I knew this was important to her.
The footman opened the door for us, and King Mikko, Queen Linnea, and Prince Kennet were already seated at a long table decked out with fruit and pastries of all kinds. As soon as we entered the room, Linnea got to her feet, followed by Kennet, but the King seemed reluctant to stand.
“My apologies if we’ve kept you waiting,” Mom said, curtsying slightly.
“No, of course not. We’re early,” Linnea assured her with a warm smile, and she gestured to the table. “Please, sit. Join us.”
On the Queen’s neck, just below her jawline, were two nearly translucent blue semicircles—her gills. They would’ve been virtually invisible, except they fluttered every time she took a deep breath.
Since her marriage to Mikko ten months ago, the royalty in all the kingdoms had dubbed her the “child bride.” At only sixteen, Linnea had married a man twice her age, but that wasn’t all that uncommon in societies like ours—where royal marriages were arranged to provide the best offspring and alignment of powerful families.
The Skojare possessed an odd elegance, as if they weren’t human or trolls, but porcelain dolls come to life. While Linnea had that look—the pale, smooth features with undertones of blue, and the striking beauty—her face still had the cherubic cheeks of childhood, while her azure eyes had the youthful rebelliousness of a teenager.
Only her crown filled with sapphires, nestled in her platinum-blond corkscrew curls, gave the indication of her title. Her only makeup was bright red lipstick that stood out sharply against her alabaster skin.
Linnea took her seat between her husband and her brother-in-law, and my mom, my dad, and I sat down across from them, separated by the largest assortment of fruit I’d ever seen served at breakfast.
“I know that you’re a relation of Linnea’s, but I’m not sure that we’ve been properly introduced,” Kennet said, grinning as he popped a grape into his mouth.
Kennet was a few years younger than the King, and they were unmistakably brothers. Both of them had darker complexions than Linnea, but not by much. Their hair was more of a golden blond, and they had blue eyes that were dazzling even by Skojare standards. Mikko had broader shoulders, and his jaw was a bit wider and stronger than Kennet’s. Kennet may have been slighter and shorter than his brother, but he was just as handsome.
Like Linnea, both brothers had gills—nearly invisible until they breathed deeply. I had seen them before, but I still always found it hard not to stare.
“Runa is my cousin,” Linnea explained brightly to the men, and motioned across the table to her. “This is her family, although I am embarrassed to admit I don’t know them that well.”
“No need to be embarrassed. We haven’t spent much time together, but I am hopeful that we’ll begin to know each other better.” Mom smiled at her, then touched my dad’s hand. “This is my husband, Iver. He is the Chancellor for the Kanin.”
“And who is this?” Kennet was across from me, and he nodded toward me.
“Sorry, this is my daughter, Bryn.” Mom squeezed my shoulder gently and leaned into me. “I didn’t forget her, I swear.”
“No, I didn’t think you’d forgotten about her. I can’t imagine how anyone could.” He grinned at me and winked, and I wasn’t sure how I was supposed to reply to that, so I started filling a plate up with berries.
Mom eyed Kennet for a moment, then began to fill her plate too. “So how are you enjoying Doldastam?”
“It’s a very lovely town. So much bigger than Storvatten,” Linnea enthused. “It is rather cold, though.” She pulled her silvery fur stole around her shoulders then, as if she suddenly remembered the temperature. “And we’re so far from the water. How do you handle that?”
“As soon as it begins to thaw, I swim out in the Hudson Bay, which isn’t all that far from here,” Mom explained. “The winters are much tougher, though.”
Dad reached over, squeezing her hand. Both my parents had sacrificed so much to be together, but by leaving her family, her town, the very water she craved, my mom had arguably given up more.
“How do you get by?” Kennet asked. He folded his arms on the table and leaned forward. “How do you all occupy your time?”
“We all have our careers to keep us busy.” Mom motioned between the three of us. “I teach elementary students, and that keeps me on my toes.”
“What about you?” His eyes rested on me again as I picked at a strawberry. “Do you have a career?”
I nodded. “I do. I’m a tracker, and I plan to be on the Högdragen someday.”
“Tracker?” Kennet raised a surprised eyebrow. “Isn’t that a peasant job?”
“Kennet!” Linnea hissed, glaring at him.
“I meant no offense by that.” He leaned back and held up his hands. “I was merely curious.”