“You must brace yourself, Hollis. Many changes are coming for us.”
I swallowed. “For us both, Majesty?”
He nodded. “Over the next few weeks, I intend to make all of Coroa aware of just how much I adore you. That will mean many things. Some will beg for your favor; others will curse your name. But none of that matters, Hollis. I want you for my bride.”
It took all the strength I had to even whisper a reply. “And I would be honored . . . but I worry I’m not worthy.”
He shook his head, carefully tucking a loose curl behind my ear. “I think many who marry into royalty feel that way, but you needn’t worry. Just think of my great-grandmother Albrade. They say that she was as pale as an Isolten when she took her vows,” he joked, “but look at the legend she became.”
I tried to smile, but it was hard to imagine myself doing anything so brave as winning a war.
“I am no soldier,” I replied meekly.
“And I don’t want you to be. All I ask is for you to be everything you already are. That, my sweet Hollis, is what I love you for.”
Love you for, love you for, love you for . . .
The words echoed in my heart, and I wished I had a way to save them in a bottle. He was kind enough to give me another moment to steady myself before going on.
“I’ve grown up without any siblings. My parents both died far too soon. Above anything, you have given me the company in this life that I have longed for. That is all I ask for from you. Anything else anyone wants is superfluous. If you think you can be happy being my partner in this world, then all will be well.”
He spoke so sincerely, with such feeling, that my eyes welled once more. His affection was overwhelming, and as I looked into his eyes, only inches away from mine, I trusted that I could do any task that might be demanded of me so long as I was beside him.
It was such a strange sensation, so very new. In that instant, I knew this must be love. It was more than the weak knees, but the unflinching resolve he inspired in me . . . all of this was unique to Jameson.
I nodded. It was all I could do. But, for him, it was enough.
“I ask that you keep this a secret for now. The lords are still trying to convince me to marry the princess from Bannir for the sake of the border, but I cannot stomach the thought. I need some time to convince them that you and I can make Coroa secure on our own.”
I nodded again. “I shall do the same.”
He looked as if he might kiss me again, but then thought better of it. “I must take you back before anyone has room to question your honor. Come, sweet Hollis, into the madness we go.”
As the doors opened to the Great Room, I blushed as everyone’s focus turned to us. My heart fluttered mercilessly, and I wondered if they could see it.
They were looking upon their queen.
OVER THE NEXT FEW DAYS, Delia Grace hounded me relentlessly. I sometimes hummed as if I hadn’t heard a single thing she was saying, or occupied myself with another task entirely, smiling the entire time. Today I was bent over some embroidery on a new dress, but, as focused as I tried to be, Delia Grace could only be ignored for so long.
“Why won’t you at least tell me what you saw?”
I giggled. “It’s nothing more than a collection of rooms. It just so happens that Jameson lives in these ones.”
“What in the world took you so long?”
I pulled carefully at my gold thread, trying to keep the design clean. “We were gone for all of five minutes.”
I looked over my shoulder at her in shock. “Surely not.”
“I was out there, waiting with the rest of court. I assure you, we were all keeping time.”
I shook my head, smiling. “You’ll know about everything soon enough.”
“Did he marry you?”
I nearly pricked my finger. “Do you think so little of me? King or no king, getting married without a witness is as bad as eloping. Do you honestly think Jameson would tarnish my reputation in such a way?”
She at least had the decency to look apologetic. “No. Sorry, Hollis. But then why won’t you tell me the truth?”
“Can I not enjoy a little surprise every once in a while? Or a secret? Goodness knows they’re impossible to keep at court.”
She rolled her eyes. “Well, if that’s not true, then nothing is.” Sighing, she walked over, placing her hands on my shoulders. “If something important happens, you will tell me, yes?”
“Trust me, I wish I could tell you everything.” I pulled at my stitches again. The dress looked rather nice, and it was a welcome change to have something else to occupy my thoughts.
“Just tell me this: Are things going as I suspected they would?”
I pressed my lips together, looking up at her from under my lashes. Her responding smile was enough.
“Very well, then,” she said. “You’re going to need ladies.”
I set the dress down. “No. I don’t want to build a circle of false friends. Most of the girls at court have been staring daggers at me since the night of the ball; I don’t want them near me all the time.”
“You need people to attend you.”
“No,” I replied. “A queen needs people to attend her. I have no such title . . . at the present.”
“And if I attempt to amass a household, the lords will talk. It seems they’re still hesitant, and I don’t wish to do anything that might bring hardship upon Jameson.”
She sighed. “Fine, then. If you were going to ask one more person at court to see to your needs, who would it be? And, in the name of Estus, don’t you dare say that pig-nosed Anna Sophia.”
I sighed. “Can I think about it?”
“Yes, but not for long. This is no game, Hollis.”
I remembered when, not even a few weeks ago, I had thought of it all as just that. But Delia Grace was right; these were the paths of our lives being forged right before us. It was nothing to play with.
“Where do you think I’d find more thread?”
Delia Grace stood up. “The royal seamstress ought to have loads. I can go find her.”
“No, no,” I said. “Let me. I’m sure you have lots and lots of plotting to do for my life,” I added with a wink.
I left through the side door from my room in my family’s apartments, which let out into the middle of the castle, a bustling intersection of activity. I took a second to gaze around. Even though I had spent a significant amount of time at Keresken Castle, I still always found myself in awe of my surroundings.
The wide hallways were grand and ornately decorated; the stonework was even and beautiful; and throughout there were spectacular arches that formed canopies above every space wide enough for them. They often reminded me of upside-down bridges, their spindles coming down as if they wished to touch the tips of our expectant fingers. Magnificent spiral staircases looped through the three upper floors of the castle, and we’d been told the collections of sculptures and paintings housed here surpassed any of those that foreign ambassadors had seen anywhere else on the continent.
My family’s apartments were located on the inner edge of the East Wing, which was a respectable location. Those of great importance lived in the very small North Wing, which was closest to the Great Room, and therefore closest to the king. There were also empty apartments in the North Wing that were reserved for nobles and dignitaries. It was where King Quinten would stay when he came to visit.