I didn’t know enough of Skojare history to say for certain where they’d gotten all of these, but I knew they had once traded with humans for jewels. If I went far enough back in their history, I’d heard tales of them stealing, some of their ancestors even taking to the sea and pirating.
But really, it didn’t matter how the Skojare had gotten the sapphires; they were here now, and I realized they were the only things in the palace that were safely guarded.
The gems also didn’t completely mesh with what I’d seen of the palace and what I knew about the Skojare tribe. My understanding was that their funds were drying up. I’d heard they still had some jewels, but they were hoarding them so they wouldn’t go completely broke.
The hoarding definitely did appear to be true, but apparently the term some jewels was very subjective.
“Beautiful, aren’t they?” Kennet asked, breaking my trance, and I turned back to him, forcing myself not to admire the gems anymore.
“Yes, they’re quite lovely,” I admitted.
“I suppose that’s enough for today then,” Kennet said, and he closed the door almost reluctantly, locking the treasure back up.
After that he left, allowing Bayle and Cyrano to give Kasper and me a tour of the palace and explain its inner workings.
The palace was filled with the wealthiest members of the Skojare, living in small apartmentlike spaces, and the guards, who lived in smaller dormitories on the second floor. The guards in their suits were nearly indistinguishable from the rich, and in part, I think that was because the lower-class didn’t want it to be obvious who worked for whom.
Eliminating class distinctions was commendable, but somebody had to protect the royalty. Even public leaders in the human world had a secret service. Everybody couldn’t run around and play together. Somebody had to do the work, but here in Storvatten, it seemed that nobody wanted to.
It could even be seen in how rundown everything was. But as I saw the cracks in the walls, the warped floor tiles, and even the broken locks, I couldn’t help but think back to the vault filled with sapphires.
Why did the Skojare let the palace fall to disrepair when they had so much money? Was their greed so strong that they would rather sit on the gems and let everything fall apart around them than spend the money on necessary repairs? It was like one of Aesop’s fables, where the outcome couldn’t be good for them.
“It’s insane to me that they’ve lived like this for so long,” I said for the hundredth time.
After Kasper and I had spent a long day going over the palace with Bayle and taking notes, we’d retired to my room to start making a plan for how we would improve things. The problem was that there were so many areas that needed improvement, it was hard to know where to begin.
Bayle had provided us with all kinds of paperwork on training processes, job descriptions, schedules, dress codes, pretty much everything we might want to look at, and it was spread out all over my bed.
I had a notebook on my lap so I could jot down ideas, and Kasper was pacing the room, looking over a training sheet and shaking his head. He’d taken off his uniform jacket, so he wore only the T-shirt underneath.
“They have zero combat training.” Kasper hit the paper in his hand. “How can you be a guard if you have no ability to protect anyone?”
“I don’t know.” I shrugged. “I can’t believe that something bad hasn’t happened already.”
“Everyone here is almost completely unprotected!” Kasper was nearly shouting in his frustration. “The only things they’ve got properly secured are those ridiculous sapphires, and I can’t believe they even thought of that.”
I was about to join in Kasper’s rant about the severe inadequacies of the Skojare guard when a small knock at the door interrupted us. Pushing the papers aside, I got up and answered it to find Marksinna Lisbet, dressed in a flowing gown.
“Dinner starts in twenty minutes, and we’d be so pleased if you both could join us,” Lisbet said, smiling in her aristocratic way that I’d begun to find charming.
I glanced back at Kasper, even though I knew exactly how he’d respond. Even more so than me, he had a strong sense of propriety. When he was on duty, he took his work very seriously, and I admired that about him.
“We would be honored to, Marksinna,” I told Lisbet. “But since we’re working for your kingdom now, it wouldn’t be appropriate for us to share a table with you or the King and Queen.”
Lisbet laughed, an effervescent sound that nearly matched her granddaughter’s. “It’s never appropriate to turn down the King and Queen’s request, and they’ve invited you to join us for dinner. So I suggest you get dressed and meet us in the dining hall in twenty minutes. We’re excited to hear your thoughts on the kingdom.”
Since she’d really left us with no choice, I scrambled to get dressed and fix my makeup. Kasper should’ve had an easier time, because he only had to put his jacket back on, but he ended up spending roughly fifteen minutes reapplying gel to his dark curls to keep them perfectly in place.
“When they ask us how we think their palace is, what should we say?” Kasper asked in a hushed voice as we made our way down a long corridor toward the dining hall.
“We’ll just have to be as vague as possible,” I suggested. “The truth is too brutal to say all at once over dinner.”
“I just hope we can make it through the meal without someone saying, ‘Off with their heads,’” he muttered.
“Even if they did say that, who do they have to enforce it?” I asked dryly.
Kasper laughed. “Good point.”
We reached the hall to find Mikko, Linnea, Kennet, and Lisbet already seated around the table. Four guards were standing at attention in the corners of the room, including Linnea’s personal guard, Cyrano, and they were all wearing matching uniforms—a frosty blue satin number that rivaled the Högdragen uniform in style and flair. They weren’t exactly practical, although the guards did have swords sheathed on their hips in flashy metallic sashes, but the uniforms did identify their station.
As I made my way over to the table, I couldn’t help but notice the icy glare from Cyrano. I wasn’t sure if it was because of the uniform, although I was certain he wasn’t happy about that, or because he had to stand guard while Kasper and I got to eat at the table.
Kennet stood up. “Bryn, why don’t you take the seat next to me?” He pulled out the chair beside his. I’d been planning to sit next to Kasper at the end of the table, but I didn’t want to seem rude by denying the Prince’s request.