“Your Majesty, regardless of what he thinks—”
Lord Eastoffe lowered his head even deeper into a bow, wiping at the sweat across his brow. Behind him, his wife reached for her daughter’s hand, clutching it tight.
Jameson stood and stalked across the raised platform like an animal in a cage, looking for the weak link in the bars to break through.
“You will be front and center for all events, and, as new Coroan citizens . . . on your absolute best behavior. Should Quinten come across anything about you to draw complaint, you’ll find yourselves a head length shorter.”
“Yes, Your Majesty,” the Eastoffes chorused back at him breathlessly. Even I was having a hard time finding my lungs.
“I believe there are three or four other high-ranking Isolten families in the castle. You will pass on this instruction to them. If you want to stay here, I expect perfect allegiance.”
“Yes, Your Majesty.”
“Lady Eastoffe, you must train Lady Hollis in Isolten manners. I want her to make that girl Quinten put on the throne look like a joke.”
“Yes, Your Majesty.” This woman, who I’d only seen that one time in passing, offered me a small but reassuring smile. Something about her expression said that she wouldn’t let me fail.
“Lord and Lady Brite,” Jameson said to my parents. “I am charging you with making sure Hollis knows enough of what’s happening with Mooreland and Great Perine to be able to speak should she be approached.”
My father heaved out a ragged sigh, twisting that silver ring again. It was a very special ring, one of hundreds passed down from men who’d served directly under King Estus in battle. One would think it’d be handled with care. All he ever used it for was worrying. “That is a lot to cover, Your Majesty.”
“And any shortcomings on that will be accounted to you, sir. I am well aware of how capable Lady Hollis is, and I will not be made a fool of,” Jameson thundered.
“Yes, Your Majesty.” Father bowed deeply.
“Anyone else have something to say?” Jameson asked, his dark eyes searching us. I hesitantly raised my hand, and he nodded toward me.
“As the Eastoffes are artisans, mightn’t it be nice to have something made to mark the occasion? Twin items of some kind for you and King Quinten, something to mark you as peers, especially if he is intimidated by your youth and strength, which very well may be the cause for him parading his wife. Perhaps it would pacify him to offer up a gesture of . . . peace.” I quickly peeked over at Silas, his long hair still a mess from sleep. Like his mother’s, his eyes were reassuring, and I sighed, hoping this idea would be good for both of us.
Jameson smiled, though it was colder than usual. “See, Lord Brite? Your daughter’s mind is faster than yours, even on your best day.” He turned to the Eastoffes. “Do as she says. And make it quick. They will be here on Friday.”
My stomach plummeted to the floor. Friday? That was . . . that was tomorrow. Jameson had told me they’d be coming at the end of the week. . . . How had I completely lost track of the time? And worse, how was I supposed to prepare everything in a day?
He stood, ending the meeting, and everyone dispersed.
I pressed my hand against my stomach, watching Jameson’s angry back as he stormed away. I didn’t know what I was going to do. Besides the fact that they had been longtime enemies of Coroa, I didn’t know much about Isoltens. Lessons in their manners? Understanding continental politics? I doubted even Delia Grace could manage all that in such a short time.
“When shall I come to you, my lady?” Lady Eastoffe asked quietly, dropping into a deep curtsy, a gesture I was still adjusting to.
“I’m sure you haven’t had a chance to eat yet. Do that first, and then come as soon as you are able.”
She nodded and left with her family, the littlest one sniffling. Lord Eastoffe got on his knee again to speak to him. “You have nothing to fear, Saul,” he promised. “This is a different king, a kinder king. See how he asks us to help? All will be well.”
Behind this little one, Silas and Sullivan were there to ruffle his hair and offer comfort. Silas looked up from his brother and offered me another smile similar to his mother’s, though, admittedly, her eyes didn’t sparkle like his. In truth, I’d never seen anyone’s eyes sparkle like his.
“You’d better be up to this,” Father warned me in passing, making me aware that I’d been staring. “You will not humiliate us in front of the lords again.”
I sighed. I’d gone from being the lady Jameson was going to dance with at dinners to his official companion for a visit from a foreign king. From what I remembered of Jameson’s mother, dozens of tasks fell on her for state visits. Was I expected to do everything a queen would? I shook my head. I couldn’t handle this alone; I needed my ladies.
“NO,” I SAID AS NORA pulled out another dress. “Too dark.”
“She’s right,” Delia Grace agreed reluctantly. “Maybe we should have something altered. The Isoltens do wear different sleeves.”
“I would knock over every single goblet on the table,” I commented with a laugh, which she joined in with rather quickly.
“And look like a jester,” she added.
I shook my head. “I just want to seem regal. I want to look like I belong beside Jameson.”
“I think you need to stick with your signature gold,” Delia Grace insisted. “And then, for the tournament, the rose dress will look nice in the sun.”
Nora agreed. “Rose looks lovely against your skin. And Delia Grace and I can see what we own that will look best behind you. I promise we won’t distract.”
Delia Grace was visibly inhaling slowly through her nose, not looking pleased to have someone speak for her. “I think anything in a cream color will look nice. Or the obvious Coroan red. Whatever you’d like, my lady.”
Some of the anger had passed. But not all of it.
Delia Grace went to answer the knock at the door, and I trailed behind her, knowing it would be Lady Eastoffe. She entered quickly, followed by her daughter, and they both sank into curtsies.
“My Lady Hollis, please allow me to introduce my daughter, Scarlet.”
“Very nice to formally meet you both. Please come in.”
She clasped her hands together as she walked. “Where would you like to start?”
I sighed. “I’m not entirely sure. I . . . I’m not the best pupil, but I just need to learn enough about Isolte to not look like an absolute fool.”
Lady Eastoffe’s face was equal parts sweet and serious as she weighed her words. “Every woman in your position has had a moment like this, when their era, so to speak, began. We will do everything we can to help you shine.”
My shoulders slumped as she broke the tension I’d been carrying ever since I’d woken up this morning. “Thank you.” I held my hand out, gesturing that they should settle in at my table.
Lady Eastoffe took the seat closest to me. “We have very little time, so we need to get to the important things first. I need to tell you about King Quinten,” she said, looking grave as I took my place. “He is a dangerous man. You may already know that the line of the Pardus family is almost as old as the Barclay family.”