I nodded, though I was only sort of aware of that fact. Jameson was the seventh descendant from King Estus, and no one on the continent could boast a direct line as long as the Coroans’. That I knew.
“Like all countries, we have had good kings and bad ones, but there is something . . . dark about King Quinten. He has always been hungry for power, wielding it as carelessly as a child. But fear has made him worse with age, and now he’s old and paranoid. His first wife, Queen Vera, miscarried several times and has been in the grave for six years now. Prince Hadrian is his only living child, and he is of a sickly disposition. King Quinten recently married a very young woman in hopes of producing more heirs—”
“Valentina,” she confirmed. “But so far, it’s been fruitless. All of his hopes now rest on Prince Hadrian—who I’ve heard some princess is reluctantly marrying next year. The poor boy looks as if he could die at any moment.”
“Is he really so ill?” I asked. Lady Eastoffe made a face at her daughter, who answered for them.
“He’s managed to live this long, so who can tell?” Scarlet hedged. “Perhaps he was just meant to be a pale shade of green.”
I allowed that comment a little smile before flopping back in my chair. “So your king is worried because his line may end with either himself or his son?”
“Yes,” Lady Eastoffe replied.
“And there is no one to pick it up and maintain peace?”
She hesitated. “He tends to eliminate those who could usurp him.”
“Oh . . . So . . . I don’t think I understand. What good does that do him?”
“None as far as anyone with any sort of reason can see,” Scarlet answered quickly. “But, as we said, fear has made him mad, and the best anyone can do is steer clear at this point.”
Lady Eastoffe continued. “Of course you should obey your king. Shine, be the best you can be. But also stay away from King Quinten if you can.”
I nodded. “What of Valentina?”
“I’m sorry to say that we don’t know her well,” Scarlet began, sharing a concerned glance with her mother. “Few people do. But she’s young, like us, so if you can keep her entertained, that might get you on her good side.”
I turned to Nora and Delia Grace. “Entertaining is generally my strong suit. But I’m not sure how to do that without knowing her interests.”
Nora sighed. “Perhaps we can take her to the town, show her some of the shops?”
“Good. Yes. And we will think of more,” I promised Lady Eastoffe.
“And I will continue to think,” Scarlet added. “If I remember anything, I’ll make sure to tell you. And since plenty of courtiers will come with the king, we can ask some of them when they arrive if they have any ideas.”
I sighed in relief. “Thank you. I’ve been told my whole life that Isoltens were more like stones than people. It seems I was misinformed.”
Lady Eastoffe smiled conspiratorially. “Maybe wait until you meet the king before you change your mind completely.”
I laughed easily, and she and Scarlet joined in. I was grateful that if I had questions over the visit, I had someone I could go to.
“I admire you,” Lady Eastoffe admitted. “So young and so brave.”
I made a face. “Brave?”
“It’s no small thing to become queen. Even Valentina I admire for it, regardless of how I might feel about her otherwise.”
I swallowed. “I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t nervous.”
“Which is natural. But you are already doing the best thing any of us could: you’re encouraging your king to favor peace.” She shook her head. “No one could do more.”
I nodded, looking down at my hands. Her words were generous, but that didn’t stop me from worrying that I would be the weak link in the chain, causing chaos to break out at any moment.
“King Jameson seems quite taken by you,” Scarlet offered. “How did you manage to catch his eye?”
I saw Delia Grace place a hand on her hip, her smirk saying everything.
“It was mostly chance,” I replied. “The king had been flirting with a few girls at court, though it was clear to most everyone that they weren’t serious. His father had been in the grave about a year and a half at that point. His mother passed maybe three months after King Marcellus.”
“Yes,” Lady Eastoffe said. “My husband and I came to both funerals.”
I noted that curiously. They must have been a very high-ranking family to accompany King Quinten on so many international trips.
“Delia Grace and I, we were dancing together one night in the Great Room. We were holding one another by the wrists, spinning and spinning like tops, when we lost our grip and fell backward. Delia Grace fell into the arms of some other ladies, and I fell into Jameson’s.”
I had to laugh for a moment. It was a bit ridiculous that this was how I’d won Jameson’s heart.
Lady Eastoffe sighed, and Scarlet rested her head on her chin, taken in by the tale.
“I was so overcome with the hilarity of the moment, I was laughing, blissfully unaware of who was holding me. By the time I stood up to thank him, he was laughing, too. Everyone said it was the first time they’d heard him laugh since his parents died, and I’ve been living to make him smile ever since. I think everyone thought he’d move on eventually—”
“Not everyone,” Delia Grace reminded me.
“Almost everyone,” Nora chimed in with a wink.
I smirked at that before turning to Delia Grace. “Well, you’ve always had more confidence in me than I ever have. But it really was all chance. Had it been another quarter turn, we’d have both landed on our bottoms. Another half turn, and I’d have been on the floor, and Delia Grace would be hosting you today while I faithfully served her.”
Nora nodded, then spoke again. “Well, if she’d have us.”
She had a fair point, and it made me laugh yet again. Even Delia Grace had an amused little grin on her face. “I suppose I’d be lucky to have you both,” she teased.
“It’s good you have a close group of friends,” Lady Eastoffe said. “It’s wise to know exactly who you can trust. Why, even Queen Valentina only keeps one lady.”
“Really? I might have to ask her about that. I’d prefer to keep my household small. I mean, when the time comes.”
Lady Eastoffe grimaced. “You might have to wait awhile to speak to her at all.”
“Protocol. Only the head of house speaks first. As you are not married, your parents should introduce you, but the king may bypass them and do it himself. Either is fine. But typically the higher-ranked person speaks first, and if that doesn’t happen . . .” There was a long pause. Was I not going to speak to this woman at all? “If you have any doubts, treat Quinten and Valentina like they’re superior in every situation. Even if they’re not, they’ll appreciate the flattery and be more likely to respond kindly.”
“Right. What about meals? I’ve been sitting on the king’s right, but I’m assuming that will go to King Quinten now. Should I try to—”