Families with long Coroan bloodlines were next, living on the near sides of the East and West Wings, and then those with shorter lines but valuable ties and land on the outer edges. Then less important families, and if you got beyond a certain juncture in the hallways, well, it was clear most people didn’t care if you were present or not. High floors meant you could stay but weren’t necessarily expected to be seen, and the servants made their homes in the floors below the main level.
Beyond the back of the palace, along the high crest of the hill the castle claimed as its own, there were outbuildings, larders, and other spaces where the masses of people who kept the palace operating did the majority of their work. I hoped that was where I might find the seamstress.
“Oh!” I gasped as I rounded a corner a little too quickly.
The two young men I’d almost crashed into looked at me and then dropped into a deep bow. Their hair alone made them unmistakable; these were the boys from Isolte. They wore very loose shirts, the kind men in Coroa wore under their doublet, and they both carried leather bags with tools sticking out of them.
“Oh, please, there’s no need for that,” I insisted, urging them to stand.
The boy with the blinding blue eyes lifted his head. “Perhaps there is, Lady Brite.”
I smiled. “I see you’ve learned my name. But it is my mother who goes by Lady Brite. I am simply Hollis.”
He rose, eyes never breaking contact. “Hollis,” he said. We stood there for a moment, my name hanging between us, and, once again, I found myself having a difficult time looking away. “I’m Silas,” he finally added. “And this is my brother Sullivan.”
The brother merely tipped his head. Silas placed a hand on his shoulder. “Why don’t you go ahead and take those supplies to the outbuilding? I’ll follow along in just a moment.”
Wordlessly, Sullivan stumbled down into another bow before exiting quickly.
“Sorry about that,” Silas said, turning back to me. “Sullivan is very shy if he doesn’t know you. Actually, he’s shy even if he does.”
I giggled. “Well, you’ll have to apologize for me. I didn’t mean to startle you.”
“Since when do you have to apologize for anything, my lady? They say you are to be queen.”
My eyes widened.
“Is it not true? I didn’t mean to presume. It’s just, everyone says so when you pass.”
I looked down. “These people . . . do they sound happy when they say it?”
He nodded. “Plenty of them. If they happen to be around about our age, let’s just say the tone is a bit more envious than awed.”
I sighed. “Understood. Well, there is no ring on my finger, so no one can really say one way or the other.”
“Then if this all comes about, I hope that you two will be very happy. Isolte has a queen, but it is universally acknowledged that she lacks a level of strength and generosity one should expect from a leader. Your people will be fortunate to have you.”
I looked at my feet, feeling a blush coming on, and noticed the tools in his hands again.
“Forgive me, but why is it you’re still working now that you’re here? You’ve left Isolte—which, by the way, may be one of the smartest things a person could do—so why not start over and be a gentleman like your father? It would certainly be cleaner.”
He laughed. “I’m proud of what I can do. I’m best with swords and armor, but if Sullivan doesn’t mind working with me, I can make jewelry, too.” He shrugged, still looking quite pleased with himself. “After presenting that sword to your king, I—”
“Ah, but he is your king now, too,” I commented.
The boy—Silas—nodded. “Forgive me. We’re all still adjusting, and I’m a bit suspicious of kings at the present.”
He took a pause before returning to our conversation. “Since presenting our sword to the king, we’ve received several requests for more, and I think my mother even managed to talk someone into commissioning a necklace.”
I put my hands on my hips, staring at him, impressed. “And here I didn’t take Isoltens to be artists.” He smiled and shrugged. “That’s a rather handy skill. How did you learn it if you were a courtier yourself?”
“Our manor was close enough to the castle that we could come and go with ease, so most of our time was spent at home.” A whimsical smile crept across his face. “My father’s greatest regret is not developing a practical skill in his youth, so when I expressed an interest in metalwork, he made it possible for me to learn. The first sword I made was for my cousin Etan?” He said it like I might have some idea who he was talking about. “He needed a good battle sword for a tournament. The handle shook too much for him to trust it, and a huge chip came out on his very first swing, but he used it for that whole tournament just the same.” He said all this with an expression that told me he was picturing the whole scene. “It’s been three years, and I’m proud of what I can do, but I’m always trying to improve. We all are. Even my sister does metalwork, though she does mostly finer things, the finishing touches on the jewelry Sullivan and I make.” He held up his hands. “Our fingers are too big.”
I studied his hands, noting they were dry and there was soot along the beds of his nails. He might have been raised a noble, but his hands were anything but gentlemanly. Something about that made them strikingly beautiful to me. I tucked mine behind my back, sighing in admiration when I answered. “That’s amazing.”
He shrugged. “Not so impressive in Isolte. The arts aren’t quite as important there.”
I raised my eyebrows, allowing that. “Is it as cold as everyone says?”
“If you’re speaking of the winds, yes, they can be brutal sometimes. And if you’re speaking of the general public . . .” He raised his eyebrows. “I find that being around some people in Isolte can make the temperature drop even further.” He chuckled at his own joke. “Don’t you know what it’s like? Haven’t you ever been yourself?”
The surprise in his voice was fair. If a Coroan was going to visit anywhere, Isolte was the easiest place to go . . . though perhaps not the most welcoming.
“No. My father is always working, and if he travels, he prefers to go alone or with Mother. I’ve asked to go to Eradore—I heard the beaches there are breathtaking—but it’s never happened.” I didn’t want to say that I’d stopped asking ages ago, when it became clear they wouldn’t have minded my company so much if I’d had the common sense to be born a boy, or at least have come after I had a brother. But that didn’t happen, and I didn’t know where the blame for that belonged, but they decided it was mine.
I had Delia Grace anyway; she was better than a long ride in a stuffy carriage, regardless of the destination. That’s what I told myself.
He hoisted the bag back up onto his shoulder. “Well, I’m sure His Majesty will take you anywhere your heart desires. It sounds as if he’d do anything for a lady he rescued from a freezing river.” He made a teasing face.
“That happened before you even got here! And it wasn’t frozen! And I was defending myself from an onslaught of berries. If anything, I didn’t do enough.”