The other guard glared at Kasper, and then before Ridley could answer, the guard told us, “The King and Queen have retired for the night. Come back in the morning.”
“Elliot, this is Ridley Dresden, the Rektor and the Överste,” Kasper said, doing his best not to chastise his comrade in front of us. “If he wants to see the King, it must be important.”
“I have orders from the King not to disturb him.” Elliot kept his head high and his shoulders back.
I could see this was going to get us nowhere, so I turned to Linnea, who had been staring up at the massive stained-glass window above the front door to the palace. When she looked back down at me, I nodded, encouraging her. Linnea pushed back her hood and pulled the scarf from around her neck, then smiled up at the guards.
“You may recognize Linnea Biâelse, the missing Queen of the Skojare,” Ridley explained with a hint of snark. “I think that King Evert will make an exception for us now.”
“Elliot,” Kasper said in a voice just above a whisper. “Get the King. I’ll take them to the meeting room to wait for him.”
“Yes, of course.” Elliot quickly bowed before Linnea. “Sorry, Your Highness.” He took a step back, stumbling on the cobblestones, and then hurried inside to get the King.
“I’m sorry about that.” Kasper relaxed his demeanor after Elliot left. “He’s a good guard. He can just be overzealous sometimes.”
Kasper led us inside the palace and down the hall to the room where I usually met with the King. Since nobody had been expecting us, the hearth was dark, and it was rather chilly. The cold front that had descended upon Doldastam last week showed no signs of letting up.
Linnea shivered involuntarily, but I wasn’t sure if it was because of the cold or something else. When Kasper rushed over to start a fire for us, she smiled as she thanked him, but it didn’t quite meet her eyes.
“Are you okay?” I asked her, and she nodded and met me with the same smile she’d given him—thin, forced. There was a hardness to her expression, making her appear like a china doll.
While Ridley brought more logs over to the fireplace to help Kasper get it going faster, I walked over to Linnea. She stood at the edge of the room, her arms wrapped around herself, and when I put my hand on her shoulder, she jumped a little.
“What’s wrong?” I asked softly.
“I’m just nervous.” Linnea tried to force a smile at me, but she gave up and let out a panicked breath. “There’s no going back now, is there?”
“What do you mean?” I asked.
But before she could answer, King Evert threw open the doors to the meeting room with Queen Mina following right behind. His black hair was disheveled from sleep, and he wore a silver satin robe lined with fur, while his wife wore a matching feminine version. Her hair hung down her back in a thick braid, and though both of them appeared to have just been roused from sleep, Mina had managed to put on her crown and a necklace before coming down here.
I walked over to the end of the table with Ridley to greet them, while Kasper took his post next to the fireplace, presumably leaving Elliot to guard the front gate by himself.
“What’s this I hear about the Skojare Queen?” Evert asked and put his hands on his hips, managing to sound both concerned and irritated.
Mina had already spotted Linnea, gasping when she did. “It’s true.”
While the King demanded to know what was going on, his wife strode over to Linnea. Mina put her hands on Linnea’s shoulders in a gesture of reassurance, and when she spoke in her faux-British accent the way she did whenever she was around royalty, her words were filled with soft comfort.
“How are you doing?” Mina asked her. “I can’t imagine the ordeal you’ve been through.”
“I’m all right,” Linnea said, but her voice cracked a little.
Mina put her hand on Linnea’s cheek and bent down to look her right in the eyes. “You’re safe now. And that’s what matters.”
Linnea smiled gratefully at her and wiped at her eyes before a tear spilled over.
Ridley had been filling the King in on our adventures in finding Linnea, but I’d only been half-listening since I wanted to keep an eye on her. Mina looped her arm around Linnea’s waist, and they turned their attention to Ridley and King Evert, so I did the same.
“Once we found Queen Linnea, we drove back here,” Ridley said, finishing up the story.
Evert sat in his high-backed chair, and he scratched his head for a moment, taking in everything Ridley had said. Ridley and I stood across the table from him, waiting for his response.
“This is all well and good, and I am glad the Skojare Queen is safe”—he paused to look over at her—“I truly am. But Ridley, if I recall correctly, you asked to be relieved from your post for a few days to help the scouts track Viktor Dålig. You made no mention of the Skojare Queen.”
Ridley cleared his throat and shifted his weight. I’d wondered what exactly he’d told the King so that both Ridley and I had been able to get out of our duty here in Doldastam. Since we were on lockdown, I knew it couldn’t have been easy.
“I believed that Queen Linnea may have had some information on the whereabouts of Viktor Dålig,” Ridley explained.
Evert arched an eyebrow at Linnea. “Do you?”
“I don’t—don’t know who Viktor Dålig is.” Linnea shook her head. “Should I?”
“No, you haven’t had a reason to before.” Evert held up his hand to her and turned his hardened gaze back to Ridley.
“It is unfortunate that she doesn’t know anything, but it was a risk I thought was worth taking.” Ridley stood firm. “Besides, she is the Skojare Queen. Her whereabouts are important to our people as a whole.”
“My King, he’s right,” Mina chimed in. “Ridley and Bryn found Queen Linnea safe and sound. They did a commendable thing. You should not be yelling at them for it.”
He let out a sigh, then nodded. “I’m sorry. My sleep-deprived brain is not functioning properly. This should be a time for celebration.” Evert straightened up and smiled. “We’ll call the Skojare King to retrieve his young bride, and when he does, we’ll have a party in Queen Linnea’s honor.”
“Must I go back?” Linnea blurted out suddenly, and everyone turned to look at her.
“Don’t you want to go home?” King Evert asked her.