It was exhausting, bearing the weight of her constant demands. Was it not enough that I was all but betrothed to a king? No one else could have given her that; a son couldn’t have given her that.
She huffed and stormed out as quickly as she’d come.
“Don’t worry,” Nora whispered. “I’ve got an idea.”
Delia Grace was in the garden, stripping petals from the flowers and tossing them at the ground. It was a place we both loved and often retreated to. In a world where everything was fast and people were always chasing after something, the garden was a breath of quiet.
But not for long.
“How could you go complain to my mother?” I called, marching across the grass. “She’s now demanding to build my entire household. Don’t you think her choices would be far worse than anyone I could choose?”
Delia Grace rolled her eyes. “Your mother has some sense about her. That’s more than I can say for you.”
“We can’t stay alone in my room forever! Eventually, we’re going to have to find out who we can trust and who we can’t.”
She laughed shrilly. “And you think the best place to start is with the person who teased me the most for the last ten years?”
“Nora was wrong, and she told me so. I think she’s too ashamed to admit it to you yet, but she knows she has a lot to make up for.”
“Oh, yes, I’m sure you inviting her into your household has nothing to do with her sudden change of heart.”
I sighed. “Even if it does, shouldn’t we take it? This is why I didn’t tell you what I was thinking. Nora’s the only lady at court beyond you I thought I could ask for help. But I knew you would prevent it if you could.”
She just sat there, shaking her head.
“Didn’t you say I should make a household?” I reminded her. “Weren’t you the one who wanted me to learn more, be better?”
At that, she finally stood. “Would you please stop throwing my own ideas in my face?” She took a few deep breaths, wiping at her forehead as if she could erase the worry in her creased brow. “Next time, would you please tell me? Before you add someone, would you let me know? Then I can brace myself.”
I went over and took her hands, pleased she was willing to even let me hold them. “You say that as if I did this to intentionally hurt you. I promise, I didn’t. I thought bringing Nora in would help us. And I think she’s genuinely sorry for how she’s hurt you.”
Delia Grace stood in front of me, shaking her head again. “She’s a consummate actress. You’re too simple to see through it all.”
I swallowed the ache of the insult. “Well, I may be simple, but I am also on the right hand of the king. So I need you to trust me. And I need you to help; you know I can’t do this alone.”
She propped her hands on her hips, considering. For a moment, I wondered if she’d actually leave me.
“Just don’t let her forget her place, all right?”
I shook my head. “You don’t have to like her.”
“Good. Because right now I hardly like you.” With that she barreled off, leaving me in my favorite place feeling decidedly unpeaceful.
“LADY HOLLIS,” THE MAID WHISPERED, her voice shaky. I was still in bed as she was getting fresh water and stoking the fire. “His Majesty demands you come immediately to the Great Room for an urgent matter.”
I turned and saw a guard standing behind her shoulder. No wonder the poor thing was so on edge. What did it mean that someone had to chaperone me? My gut told me nothing good. Still, I kept my voice steady as I spoke.
“If His Majesty demands it, then I am ready. My robe, please.”
The maid helped me into my dressing gown and quickly pinned the front pieces of my hair back. I would have felt so much better if Delia Grace had been the one doing it. She would have talked because, within seconds, she would have had a plan. I wiped water across my face so I looked a little more awake and took a deep breath.
“Please lead the way,” I instructed the guard, as if I somehow couldn’t find my own way to the Great Room. The hallways echoed so when they were empty. Usually, it sounded like a special kind of music to me. But being escorted in my nightclothes for an unknown reason completely knocked the notion from my head.
When I arrived, I saw Jameson was sitting on his throne, holding a letter in his hand and looking cross. My parents were there as well, escorted by their own guard, and glaring at me as if I’d summoned them at this early hour. Their presence was not unexpected, but that of the entire Eastoffe family was. Everyone in the room was in various stages of getting dressed, even Jameson himself. Though I had to admit he looked rather dashing with his hair rumpled and his shirt untied.
I curtsied before him, judging by his expression that this might not be the best time to mention that. “Your Majesty. How might I serve you?”
“In due time, Hollis. First, I have some questions.” Both his expression and tone were calm, calculating. He looked across the faces in the room, as if deciding who to start with first. “You,” he finally said, pointing to the Eastoffes.
“Your Majesty,” Lord Eastoffe began, falling on one knee.
“Have you been in contact with your former king?”
He shook his head fervently. “No, Your Majesty, not at all.”
Jameson pursed his lips a little, tilting his head. “I find that hard to believe after receiving this,” he said, holding up the letter. “The kings of Coroa and Isolte meet annually, as you know. I suspect you’ve been in dear old King Quinten’s entourage these many years past.”
Lord Eastoffe nodded.
“This is my second time meeting with him as a sovereign in my own right, but isn’t it interesting that he suddenly has decided to bring his queen with him?” Jameson raised his eyebrows. “Can you think of any reason he might do that?”
“Who could guess at his motives, Your Majesty? As you know, he’s very impulsive, and recently, he’s become less and less predictable.” Lord Eastoffe was clearly sweating. “I find it as surprising as you do, as he rarely lets the queen accompany him abroad.”
“I think he has heard my heart has finally settled,” Jameson announced. “I think he knows I intend to give Coroa a queen, and he is bringing that wench to compare her to the fairest lady in our kingdom.”
He wasn’t shouting the words, but he was very close, so it was hard to know if it was intended to be a compliment or not. After all that fretting in my room, I couldn’t see why I’d gotten so bothered for something that seemed so common. Didn’t kings often travel with their wives? What did it matter if we were seated side by side?
Then I pushed down the only reason that crossed my mind as to why this could be a bad thing: that when placed next to a proper queen, I would look foolish, and all the lords we’d been swaying to support me would be lost.
I ducked my head as he went on.
“I’m just very curious how he only learned of her importance the week after you arrived.” He leaned back on his throne. “I’ve known that man my whole life. He will come and disparage the Lady Hollis in any way he can, and I ought to know, as he’s attempted to do the same to me.”