A quick flutter of whatever had made him hold my gaze before rushed through me, and it felt like a tiny pull in my chest was telling me to follow those eyes. But I dismissed it. If there was anything I knew as a Coroan, it was that Isolten blue was not to be trusted.
“NOW THAT THAT’S DONE, I have something to show you,” Jameson whispered in my ear. I turned to look at his devilishly excited eyes, remembering that I’d come in this morning at his invitation. I was thankful to have something—anything—to pull me away from the strange sensation humming through my chest.
I took his hand gratefully, but as soon as he wove his fingers through mine, he looked troubled. “You’re trembling. Are you unwell?”
“I don’t know how you handle all those eyes looking at you all the time,” I replied, trying to explain it away. “You have to make so many decisions, and so quickly.”
His eyes were alight with wisdom as he led me to the edge of the dais. “I was fortunate enough to have an excellent teacher in my father. My bride, whoever she may be, will have to do her best to learn the trade of ruling from me.”
“That’s no small task, Your Majesty.”
He smirked. “No. But it does come with some rewards.”
I waited for him to say more, but he simply stared straight ahead. “Majesty?”
He kept smiling with his chin up, ignoring me.
We walked down the steps, and I drew in a breath as he led me to one of the doors at the front of the Great Room. I shared a look with him as the guards let us through; I’d never been here before. The king’s rooms—his private chambers, rooms used for prayer, and the spaces he gave to those working on the privy council—were separated from everyone else by the Great Room. It allowed him to make a rather impressive entrance, and it was easier to keep him secure.
“Majesty, where are we going?”
“Nowhere,” he sang coyly.
“It is decidedly not nowhere,” I insisted, the excitement bubbling up in my stomach.
“Fine. It’s someplace I’ve been thinking about taking you since the night we truly met.”
I rolled my eyes. “You mean the moment I made the world’s biggest fool of myself?”
He laughed. “The moment you became the most charming girl in all of Coroa.”
“I have to tell you, it’s made me so happy to know I’ve brought any measure of joy to your life,” I admitted. “Not every lady can say she’s made a king himself laugh.”
“In my case, not a single girl at court can say it. You’re the only one, Hollis. Everyone else? They want something. But you give and give.” He raised my hand to kiss it. “So it delights me to give to you in return.”
We walked past two more sets of guards before we reached the room Jameson wanted to show me. Once we were there, one of the guards had to take out a special key and hand us a lantern.
“There are some lanterns in the room already,” Jameson assured me, “but there are no windows, so any bit of light helps.”
“Am I being escorted to a dungeon?” I joked, feigning fear.
He laughed. “Not today. Come. I think this may end up being your favorite room in the castle someday.”
I hesitantly followed him through the doors, taking a moment to let my eyes adjust and then forgetting completely how to breathe.
“Some of these are mine,” he began. “I’m sure you recognize the seal I wore on my coronation day. These rings here, I’ve worn many times. And this . . .”
“The Crown of Estus,” I breathed, completely awestruck. “It’s even more beautiful up close.”
I stared at the piece for a long time, feeling tears gather at the corners of my eyes. Just over seven generations ago, Coroa was under constant civil wars for leadership. Rulers were made and undone in a handful of years, and it left us at war with ourselves and defenseless against other countries that might take our land. Finally, the Barclay tribe—the very same Barclays who Jameson was descended from—conquered what was left of their enemies, and, though the fighting was brutal, the people were grateful to have one clear leader. The people collected scraps of gold and jewelry, melted them down, and forged them into a crown. A holy man blessed it, and everyone came to watch King Estus Barclay be crowned, the people giving over their rights to his leadership.
The Crown of Estus was only taken out once a year, on Crowning Day, and only those fortunate enough to be born into a noble family would ever catch a glimpse.
“Your Majesty, thank you. Your trust in me must be very great to let me so close to something so special, and I am humbled by it.” I could hardly express the awe I was feeling, but I knew how privileged I was in that moment. I turned to face him, tears still blurring my vision.
He took my hand, kissing it again. “I do trust you, Hollis. It’s like I said: you constantly give. Your time and affection, your laughter and care. You have already given me a thousand gifts in them. Which is why I must tell you that seeing the Crown of Estus is not your gift . . . this is.”
He gestured to the wall to my left, which was covered in shelves of yet more jewels. Ropes of sapphires and laces of diamonds were laid out before me. We didn’t need windows in this room—the little light we had was enough to make them sparkle blindingly.
“These are the queen’s jewels. Every year, the kings of Coroa and Isolte meet to renew our peace. King Quinten will be coming for his annual visit at the end of the week, and I want you to look like royalty.”
Part of me wanted to faint. Part of me wished my parents were here to see this. But every last piece of me wanted to wear that necklace set with rose-tinted jewels and diamonds.
I walked closer to it, afraid to so much as even point at any of these gorgeous pieces. “Are you quite sure? I know how precious they are.”
“There’s no one I’d trust with them more. And, genuinely, since that night in the ballroom, I’ve been imagining you with something as pretty as these along your neck.” He gestured across the wall of jewels, as if offering them all to me.
Satisfied, I pressed my lips together and lifted my fingers to touch the smooth, cold stones, hovering somewhere between pink and red. “This one.”
The thrill of knowing I was going to wear something distinctly made with a queen in mind ran over me, and I turned around, throwing my arms around Jameson. “You are too good to me.”
“Are you happy?”
“Almost too happy,” I answered, holding on to him tightly and realizing something. “Your Majesty. We’ve never been all alone before.”
He smiled. “Well, you are a rather virtuous lady. I’m surprised I managed to get you to slip away with me now.”
“You’re very clever.”
And because we were so close, and alone, and swept up in our own world, when he bent down to kiss me, I leaned into it. To finally be kissed was a wondrous thing, and to be kissed by a king was even more thrilling. Jameson drew me close, holding my chin and pulling away when he deemed the kiss long enough.
Something in his eyes shifted, as if he’d settled upon a decision. His tone became very serious.