“I’m so glad you could make it!” Linnea said effusively and gestured to the empty seat across from her. “Sit, sit. Eat and drink, and we have so much to talk about!”
“Thank you, Your Highness.” I sat down and added fruit and a cucumber sandwich to my plate, while Linnea began to rattle off all the reasons it was so great to have me there.
“Everyone here is so stuffy and dull,” she said with a dramatic eye roll and took the last bite of her tart. Today she’d gone for minimal jewelry, wearing only her large diamond wedding band along with white lace fingerless gloves. “Even the ones my age.”
Since I’d known Linnea, she seemed far more excited about the idea of having a new friend to talk to than having a guard to watch her back, and I wasn’t exactly sure how I felt about that.
While I liked Linnea just fine, I didn’t want to be chosen for a job because she thought we’d make great pals. I was here to show my merits as a guard and to get to the bottom of what Konstantin had been doing here in the first place. But perhaps I could use the Queen’s need for a friend to get her to confide in me about what was really going on around here.
When Ridley and I had been looking for her before, we had suspected that she might be too demanding or childish for Mikko. Maybe she annoyed him, or he simply didn’t want to spend the rest of his life trapped in a loveless arranged marriage to her.
How Konstantin tied into a possible plan to do away with her, I had no idea. But maybe she knew something that could help.
“The King must be happy to have you back.” I poured myself a cup of tea and watched for her response out of the corner of my eye.
“Yes, he’s thrilled!” Linnea laughed. “The first night we were back together, I didn’t think he’d ever let me go. He held on to me for hours and made me promise that I’d never leave him again.”
“Really?” I asked, then hurried to correct myself so I didn’t sound quite so shocked. “I mean, he seems so … in control of his emotions.”
“I know, I know.” She laughed again. “It’s the craziest thing, because he’s such a big strong man, and he’s the King of an entire kingdom. A small one, but a kingdom nonetheless. You’d think he’d be so brave and tough, and oh he tries to be. But do you want to know a secret?”
I nodded. “Yes. I would.”
Linnea leaned forward over the table, so I did the same, and even though we were alone, she whispered. “Mikko is terribly shy. Almost pathologically.”
“Really?” I asked.
“Yes, it’s really so sad.” She leaned back in her chair and returned to her normal volume. “That’s why whenever he’s at dinner with people, he’s so quiet, and he seems so cold and stoic, but that’s not who he is at all.”
“I never would’ve guessed that.” I settled back in my chair, trying to run through all my encounters with the King.
“Before we were wed, I did not want to marry him,” Linnea confessed. “It had all been arranged since I was twelve, but with the age gap, we’d hardly spent a moment together before the wedding, and when we did he said nary a word to me.”
“That sounds dreadful,” I said.
“It really was.” She nodded, her transparent gills flaring slightly under her jawline. “I mean, it was just after my sixteenth birthday, and I wanted to fall in love, and I thought there was absolutely no way I could do that with this cold brute of a man.
“But the truth is that Mikko is one of the kindest, most loving, most caring men I’ve ever met.” Linnea smiled, the soft, wistful kind that barely graced her lips—and her aqua eyes sparkled. “And as I got to know him—the real him—I began to fall madly in love with him.”
“That’s … amazing,” I said, unsure of how else to respond.
She leaned forward again and lowered her voice. “It wasn’t until we’d been married for four months that we even, you know … shared a bed together. Mikko wanted to wait until I was completely comfortable with it.”
“He sounds like a very honorable man,” I said.
If what Linnea said was true, then he definitely was. But I was having a hard time reconciling this information with the cold, aloof King I’d considered him to be.
Although, when the Queen had been missing, a different side of Mikko had emerged. He’d been visibly distraught and inconsolable. At the time, I’d thought it was all a melodramatic act, but if Linnea was telling the truth, he might have been so afraid of losing her that he’d let his guard down and shown his real feelings.
Of course, that made everything even more confusing. If Mikko hadn’t grown tired of or irritated with his wife, then why had anybody wanted to get rid of her?
Not to mention the fact that Mikko had thwarted our investigation when Linnea was missing. We’d wanted to interview guards and look at reports, but we were denied access.
“Have you talked to Mikko about what happened before you went missing?” I asked.
“I talk to Mikko about everything,” Linnea said, and with her love of chatting, I had a feeling that was very true.
That probably made them very compatible. She enjoyed talking, and Mikko was more of a listener, so they balanced each other out.
“Did he say anything about Konstantin Black?” I asked. “Does he know anything about him?”
“Everything he knows, he’s heard from you.” Linnea shook her head. “He is grateful that Konstantin warned me to run away, though, and Mikko is relieved he wasn’t executed. Konstantin may have saved my life.”
I rested my arms on the table. “From whom, though? Does Mikko have any idea who might have wanted to hurt you?”
“No. He’s tried talking to the guard, but the unfortunate truth is that he’s been very hands-off about most things,” Linnea admitted, frowning. “His social anxiety makes it so hard for him to interact sometimes, so he’s really left Bayle Lundeen to handle everything.”
“Do you trust Bayle?” I asked.
“I don’t know.” Her eyes widened, as if it had just occurred to her that she shouldn’t. “Do you?”
“Honestly, I’m not sure I trust any of the guards around here. It’s hard to tell who knows what,” I said.
“I know.” She nodded. “What I said the other night about overreacting and running away, that was for the benefit of the guards. I have no idea who we can trust anymore. But to tell you the truth, I’d never considered that Bayle might be involved.”