“Thank you.” I smiled at him and allowed him to push my chair in for me, even though that was definitely not proper etiquette.
“So, how are you enjoying the palace?” Linnea leaned forward to speak to me, not minding if her elbows were on the table, and pushing elegant dinnerware to the side to get a better look at me.
“I can honestly say there’s nothing else quite like it,” I said.
“It is truly magnificent,” Kasper said, echoing my sentiments.
A butler came around to begin serving the first course. Before I had the chance, Kennet slipped my silk napkin off the table and dropped it artfully on my lap. His hand brushed my thigh when he pulled it back, but neither of us acknowledged it.
“This is your first time here, isn’t it?” Linnea asked, turning her attention to Kasper.
He nodded. “Yes, it is.”
“My husband and I are dying to know what you think of our security here.” Linnea leaned back in her chair so the butler could place her napkin on her lap, then he set a bowl of tomato bisque before her. “We already love the suggestion about the uniforms.”
Behind her in the corner, Cyrano snorted a bit. He was doing a horrible job of keeping his expression blank, the way any good guard would do when they were working. Tomorrow, I knew that Kasper would have a long talk with him about the appropriate way for guards to behave.
“I’ve been saying they should be back in uniform for years,” Lisbet commented between spoonfuls of her soup.
“They used to be?” I asked in surprise.
Lisbet dabbed at her mouth with her napkin before answering. “Yes, when I was a young girl, things were different. Much stricter.”
“Things change, Nana.” Linnea chose her words deliberately, looking over to Lisbet. “Mikko is leading us into a more equitable era.”
Since she was home, the Queen had begun to wear lipstick again. Fortunately, she’d gone with a dark pink instead of the usual bright red, which suited her pale complexion much better. Her shoulder-length ringlet curls sprang free around her head, and her wrists were draped in several jeweled bracelets.
Everyone at dinner was dressed formally, including Kennet, whose steel-gray suit appeared to be sharkskin, since it had a subtle sheen to it. I’d like to say I didn’t notice how striking he looked in it, but it would be impossible not to.
“Equity should never come at the cost of safety,” Lisbet said, and her tone challenged anyone to disagree with her.
“Safety should never come at the expense of fun.” Kennet defied her with a broad grin, which caused Mikko scowl at him from across the table.
“Forgive my brother. He has never been known to take things seriously,” King Mikko said, speaking for the first time since dinner had started. It always startled me a bit when he spoke—in part because he rarely did, and in part because of the sheer gravity of his voice.
“Forgive my brother,” Kennet countered. “He has never been known to take a joke.”
“Both of you, behave,” Linnea said in a firm but hushed tone. In that moment, she had a weariness beyond her years, and I suspected this hadn’t been the first time she’d had to remind the brothers to act appropriately. “We have guests.”
“You spoke of making changes,” I said, trying to change the subject. “Have there been changes to the guard in recent years?”
“Not dramatic ones.” Mikko pushed the soup bowl away from him, having only eaten a few bites, and a butler hurried to take it away. “Most of the alterations were under my father’s reign. He streamlined the guard and appointed Bayle Lundeen to implement the changes.”
Kennet took a drink from his wine and smirked. “The kingdom says it was out of his strong sense of justice and commitment to an egalitarian society, but the truth was that our father was a tremendous cheapskate. He’d much rather have kept the vault full than paid the guard their rightful due, which meant we needed a smaller guard.”
From behind Linnea, I saw Cyrano nod his head in agreement.
“Kennet!” Linnea gasped. Her level of shock was almost comical, especially considering that Mikko and Lisbet seemed unfazed. “It’s not right to speak ill of the dead, especially your King.”
“Perhaps it’s best if we don’t discuss business over dinner,” Mikko said. I wasn’t sure if he was coming to the aid of his wife, or if he also disapproved of Kennet’s statement. It was impossible to tell since Mikko’s face was an unreadable mask.
“I’ve always found that to be the best policy,” Kennet agreed amiably.
Looking at Kennet and Mikko staring at each other across the table was a bit like a funhouse mirror. They looked so much alike, even though Kennet was younger and slimmer. But Kennet was very expressive, often grinning and raising his eyebrows, while Mikko rarely seemed to emote at all. Not to mention that Kennet was talkative and flirtatious, and Mikko barely said a word.
The waitstaff began to clear the first course before bringing in a massive salad of arugula, pressed melon, and goat cheese. While they exchanged our dishes, nobody spoke, and the only sound was the clearing of silverware and the setting down of plates.
“There are so many other things we have to talk about,” Linnea said, since no one else seemed eager to pick up the conversation. “I am disappointed that I wasn’t able to see either of you more today.”
“Tomorrow you should make time for a little fun, Bryn,” Kennet said. “You must take a break and have lunch with me.”
I paused, trying to find a polite way out of it, until I came up with the perfect solution. “If you insist, then Kasper and I would be happy to join you.”
But Kennet would not be appeased. “Unless of course Kasper has more pressing business to attend to?” He raised an eyebrow at Kasper.
“Kennet, you’ve met beautiful girls before,” Lisbet said in exasperation. “Certainly you know how to contain yourself around them.”
For once, Kennet didn’t have a snappy comeback, and I just kept my head bowed, focusing on the salad before me. Even though I wasn’t the one putting on the display, I still felt the maddening urge to blush, but I suppressed it as best I could.
“What is on your agenda for tomorrow?” Linnea asked, doing her best to keep the conversation flowing.
“I believe Bayle has a few more things he’d like to show us,” Kasper said. “We haven’t seen the towers yet.”