Page 14

Like most meals I went to with royals, there was a massive spread of food covering the large table. Unlike every other meal I had been to, this one had lots of meat. Trolls weren’t exactly vegetarian, and the Skojare especially had a fondness for fish. But we didn’t eat it very often, preferring fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and some dairy, because everything else tended not to sit well with us.

But apparently the Omte felt differently. One platter was overflowing with whole crawfish, and I swear that I saw one of them still moving. Another had leathery soft-boiled alligator eggs on it, which the Queen insisted were delicious, but the thought of them made my stomach roll.

Four whole fried rabbits sat on a platter. Their heads were still on, which was especially unnerving, and I couldn’t help but feel it was meant to be some kind of message for us as Kanin.

The only things that seemed edible were a bowl of figs and blackberries, but even they didn’t look that good, thanks to the platters everything was served on. They were oxidized and dirty-looking, and despite my earlier appetite, I no longer wanted to eat anything here.

Queen Bodil Elak sat at the other end of the table from us, happily loading up her plate. On the back of her chair perched a large black-bearded vulture she’d introduced as Gam.

Bodil was only a little bit taller than me, making her small by Omte standards, and she was very pretty. Her long dark waves of hair were pulled up into a braided updo, and her gown looked similar to mine, although hers was in much better shape.

Her crown sat crookedly on her head, in large part because it looked like it had been bent many times, and given what I knew about the Omte, I imagined that it had been thrown against the wall on more than one occasion. It was a thick bronze, twisted around in an attempt to look ornate, but it reminded me more of an ambitious child’s art project.

She wore a necklace adorned with large gemstones, along with several gaudy rings and a bracelet. All the gems appeared to be imperial topaz, an expensive amber-colored stone. And these were all very large rocks she had.

For her part, Bodil hadn’t said much to us, other than insisting that the alligator eggs were delicious. It was her Viceroy, Helge Otäck, who had done most of the talking. He stood directly behind her, not eating anything, and he’d made all the introductions. He appeared much older than Bodil, probably in his fifties, but it was hard to gauge for sure because of how leathery and worn his skin looked.

Large and brutish, there was something very imposing about Helge. His scraggly light brown hair went down to his shoulders, and he wore just as much jewelry as the Queen. His eyes were the color of burnt caramel, and they were much too small for his face.

Along with the Viceroy and Queen, the young Prince Furston was here. He couldn’t have been more than five, and despite the fact that a place was set for him, he hadn’t sat down once. Instead he ran around the room, his dark brown curls bobbing as he laughed and squealed, and he’d grab whatever he wanted from the platters, preferring to eat on the go, apparently.

“Go ahead, eat,” Bodil said in a way that sounded much more like an order than a suggestion. She stood up and reached over, roughly ripping off a leg from one of the rabbits, then sat back down. So far she’d eaten her entire meal with her hands.

“Yes, of course.” Konstantin stood up first, serving himself an alligator egg and some fruit, before dishing up a similar plate for me.

“Thank you,” I mumbled softly when he handed me my plate.

I took a sip of the eldvatten they’d poured for us in heavy chalices. It smelled like turpentine, but it didn’t really have a flavor, unless “burning” and “fire” could be describe as tastes. I did my best to keep my expression even instead of gagging, and set the cup back on the table.

“So what brings you all here?” Helge asked, smiling in a way that reminded me of a viper.

“We’ve come to offer you information, and ask if you might be of some help,” Konstantin said carefully.

As Bodil tore into the rabbit leg, ripping the meat off with her teeth, the vulture squawked and flapped his wings. She finished the leg quickly, then tossed the bone up to the bird, who caught it easily in his beak. Gam swallowed the bone whole, the brown feathers of his head and neck ruffling as he did.

“What information do you have?” Bodil asked, licking her fingers clean.

“Bent Stum,” Konstantin said. “He was a member of your kingdom.”

Furston suddenly darted over to me and grabbed a fig off my plate. Food already stained his face, and he laughed in delight before running away again.

“Bent was exiled over a year ago, and last we heard, he was dead,” Helge said. “I’m not sure what information you have that could be useful to us.”

“We know who killed him,” I said.

“Furston, come sit with Mommy.” Bodil held her hands out toward him, and the little boy ran toward her. She pulled him onto her lap, and he settled into the folds of her dress, quieting down for the first time since we’d gotten here.

“Do tell,” Helge said, still smiling that reptilian smile of his.

“Viktor Dålig,” I explained, lying to streamline the story. Viktor had ordered the hit on Bent, and while it hadn’t been his hand on the sword, it might as well have been. “He’s a sworn enemy of the Kanin, and he killed Bent to prevent anyone from finding out his plans of attack. He recruited Bent, used him up, and then killed him.”

Helge inhaled through his nose. “That’s unfortunate, but that’s the path Bent chose when he left us.”