I could feel them appraising me as I walked toward them, so I was careful to keep my steps as smooth and elegant as possible.
“This is my daughter, the Princess.” Elora smiled in a way that almost looked loving and held her hand out to me. “Princess, these are the Kroners. Aurora, Noah, and Tove.”
I smiled politely and did a small curtsy. Immediately after, I realized that they were probably the ones who should be curtsying to me, but they all continued to smile pleasantly at me.
“It’s such a pleasure to meet you.” Aurora’s words had a syrupy tone that made me wonder whether or not I should trust her. A few dark curls fell artfully from her elegant updo, and her chestnut eyes were large and stunning.
Her husband, Noah, gave me a small bow, as did her son, Tove. Both Noah and Aurora looked appropriately respectful, while Tove looked vaguely bored. His mossy green eyes met mine very briefly, then darted away, as if eye contact made him uncomfortable.
Elora ushered us into the sitting parlor to talk until supper. The conversation was overly polite and banal, but I suspected there were undercurrents that I didn’t fully understand. Elora and Aurora did most of the talking, with Noah adding very little. Tove said nothing at all, preferring to look anywhere but directly at anyone.
Finn was more in the background, speaking only when spoken to. He was poised and polite, but from the disdainful way Aurora looked at him, I gathered she didn’t approve of his presence.
The Stroms were fashionably late, as Finn had predicted they would be. He’d briefed me extensively on both them and the Kroners earlier in the day, but he was much more familiar with the Stroms and talked of them in much more affectionate tones.
Finn had been a tracker for Willa, so he knew her and her father, Garrett, quite well. Garrett’s wife (Willa’s mother) had died some years earlier. Finn claimed that Garrett was easygoing, but that Willa was a tad high-strung. She was twenty-one, and prior to living in Förening, she’d been privileged to the point of excess.
When the doorbell rang, interrupting the irritatingly dull conversation between Aurora and my mother, Finn immediately excused himself to answer the door and returned with Garrett and Willa in tow.
Garrett was a rather handsome man in his mid-forties. His hair was dark and disheveled, making me feel better about my own imperfect hair. When he shook my hand with a warm smile, he immediately put me at ease.
Willa, on the other hand, had that snobby look as if she were simultaneously bored and pissed off. She was a waif of a girl with light brown waves that fell neatly down her back, and she wore an anklet covered in diamonds. When she shook my hand, I could tell that her smile was at least sincere, making me hate her a little less.
Now that they had arrived, we adjourned to the dining room for supper. Willa attempted to engage Tove in conversation as we walked into the other room, but he remained completely silent.
Finn pulled my chair out for me before I sat down, and I enjoyed it since I couldn’t remember a single time that anyone had ever done that for me. He waited until everyone was sitting before taking a seat himself, and this deference would be the standard for the evening.
As long as at least one person was standing, so would Finn. He was always the first to his feet, and even though the chef and a butler were on staff tonight, Finn would offer to get anyone anything they needed.
The dinner dragged on much more slowly than I had imagined it could. Since I wore white, I barely ate out of fear of spilling anything on my dress. I had never felt so judged in my entire life. I could feel Aurora and Elora waiting for me to screw up so they could pounce, but I wasn’t sure how either of them would benefit from my failure.
I could tell that on several occasions Garrett tried to lighten the mood, but his attempts were rebuffed by Aurora and Elora, who dominated the conversation. The rest of us rarely spoke.
Tove stirred his soup a lot, and I became mildly hypnotized by that. He’d let go of his spoon, but it kept swirling around the bowl, stirring the soup without any hand to guide it. I must have started to gape because I felt Finn gently kick me under the table, and I quickly dropped my eyes back to my own food.
“It is so nice to have you here,” Garrett told me at one point, changing the entire topic of conversation. “How do you like the palace so far?”
“Oh, it is not a palace, Garrett,” said Elora with a laugh. It wasn’t a real laugh, though. It was the kind of laugh rich people use whenever they talk about new money people. Aurora tittered right along with it, and that quieted Elora down somehow.
“You’re right. It’s better than a palace,” Garrett said, and Elora smiled demurely.
“I like it. It’s very nice.” I knew I was making bland conversation, but I was afraid to elaborate more.
“Are you adjusting here all right?” Garrett asked.
“Yes, I think so,” I said. “I haven’t been here that long, though.”
“It does take time.” Garrett looked at Willa with affectionate concern. His easy smile returned quickly and he nodded at Finn. “But you’ve got Finn there to help you. He’s an expert at helping the changelings acclimate.”
“I’m not an expert at anything,” Finn said quietly. “I just do my job the best I can.”
“Have you had a designer come over to make the dress yet?” Aurora asked Elora, taking a polite sip of wine. It had been a minute since she’d last spoken, so it was time for her to assert herself once more in the conversation. “That dress the Princess has on is very lovely, but I can’t imagine that it was made specifically for her.”