“Don’t you think it’s best if we start the search now?” Ridley asked. “Whether the Queen has left of her own volition or been forced away against her will, the trail to find her will only get colder as time goes on.”
“The Trylle are set to arrive within the half hour.” Kennet still had a smile plastered across his face, but his tone didn’t sound pleased. “The trail won’t have frozen over by then. Besides, this was as the King wanted it, and I’m certain you know how to properly follow the King’s orders.”
Ridley smiled back. “Of course.”
“Now.” Kennet faced me. “Let’s go to your rooms.”
He turned and led the way out of the main hall, speaking in slightly bored tones about the history of the palace. The main floor was entirely above the surface of the lake, while the private quarters and the ballroom were located underneath the water. It had been specifically built so from anywhere in the palace, anyone could access the lake within five minutes.
As we went down a spiral staircase to the lower level, I noted that despite the recurring marine theme, the Skojare palace was decorated similarly to other palaces. A sculpture that appeared to be a Bernini sat in the center of the great room at the bottom of the stairs.
“That’s Neptune and Triton,” Kennet said offhandedly as we walked past it.
The floors were marble tiles, alternating between white and navy, and the walls were covered in the same paper as upstairs—blue with an icy sheen. Crystal chandeliers lit the hallway that led to our rooms.
We reached Ridley’s room first, with Kennet opening the door and gesturing inside before quickly walking away. I gave Ridley a small smile, then hurried after Kennet to my room at the other end of the hall.
“And here you are.” Kennet held the door open for me, and I slid past him. “I’ll let you get settled in a bit. There’s a bathroom across the hall. My room is at the other wing of the palace.” He pointed toward it. “But if you ask any of the servants, they will tell you where to find me.
“If you need anything,” he said, his voice low and deep, “anything at all, don’t hesitate to find me.”
“Thank you,” I said, and he smiled at me in a way that I was sure plenty of girls had swooned over before, but I was not the swooning kind, so I merely smiled politely back.
Once he left, shutting the door behind him, I turned to check out my room, and I realized that an underwater palace sounded much nicer than it actually was. The walls facing outside were rounded glass, making me feel more like I was in an aquarium than a luxury bedroom.
The bed and the furnishings were nice, all silks and velvets in blues and silver, but through the windows the lake looked dark and murky. I pressed my hands against the glass and peered upward through the water at the few rays of sunlight that managed to break through.
A small tuft of dark green mold grew where the window met the frame. That explained the smell. As soon as I’d stepped downstairs, I’d noticed the scent of moisture and mold. It reminded me of a dank old basement.
I noticed a small puddle of water dripping down from a leak somewhere near the ceiling. I looked closer and saw water dripping down the wall, leaving a patch of wallpaper faded and warped.
Once upon a time, I was sure, this palace had been absolutely magnificent, but the Skojare’s wealth—and thus their ability to maintain a palace of this caliber—had begun to diminish. Since most of the royalty had gills, the Skojare were often unable to leave their offspring as changelings. Humans might overlook an ill-tempered child with odd habits, but they would definitely notice a set of blue gills on their baby.
If they were to reverse the situation, leaving common gill-less Skojare as changelings, the commoners would inherit the wealth, which the royalty did not approve of. Titles and rankings were determined by abilities, so most of the gilled Skojare were in positions of royalty, leaving the entire system to stagnate.
Those born with gills were trapped in Storvatten, unable to live or work among the humans, while those born without them were left doing the brunt of the work. Fishing was the main source of income for the Skojare, with the gill-less being forced to do the trading with the humans, and the royalty survived through insane amounts of taxes. The ones who could leave and get jobs with the humans often did, so the population of the Skojare had dwindled.
“Bryn?” Ridley asked, rapping on the door once before pushing it open. “How are you doing?”
“Fine.” I turned around to face him. “What do you make of all this?”
“I don’t know.” He flopped back on my bed and folded his hands behind his head. “It was in poor taste for that Prince to flirt with you while we’re supposed to be looking for his missing sister-in-law.”
I scowled down at Ridley. “He wasn’t flirting.”
“You never know when anyone is flirting with you,” he muttered.
“I do agree that everyone’s behavior feels a little … off.” I sat down on the edge of the bed. “When I met Mikko last week, he was cold and barely spoke. Now he’s falling apart?” I shook my head. “It doesn’t quite add up.”
The meeting room was even more like a fishbowl. It stuck out from the rest of the palace in a bubble, with one interior wall and one extra wall of glass domed out around us. Half the room was still under the palace, with a white antique tin ceiling and plenty of lighting to keep the darkness of the lake around us at bay.
A very long table sat in the center of the room, but there were only three other people in there when the footman showed Ridley and me in. Papers were spread out over the table, but nobody was looking at them. Prince Kennet stood at the far end of the room, and the other two men had their backs to us.
“Come in!” Kennet waved for us to join them, and then the young men turned to face us as we approached. “These are our allies from the Trylle.”
The first had unruly chestnut hair that landed just above his ears, and his tanned skin had an almost greenish hue, subtle but noticeable enough that it meant he had strong abilities for the Trylle. The more powerful a Trylle was, the greener he or she was in coloring. He was dressed the less formally of the two—wearing only jeans and a button-up shirt, while his companion wore a suit.
His companion had short dark brown hair, kept smooth and neat. His features were delicate, almost feminine, with a small nose and smooth skin. It was his eyes that stood out the most to me—they were a bright blue, which meant that although he came with the Trylle, he must have Skojare blood in him, too.