“Your Majesty. I was so pleased to receive your invitation. I love the Colvard River.”
“So you’ve mentioned. I remember, you see,” he said, wrapping his hand around mine. He then dropped his voice. “I also remember you mentioning that your parents have been a little . . . overbearing recently. But I had to invite them for the sake of propriety.”
I peered behind him and saw a larger party than I’d been expecting for our excursion. My parents were present, as were some of the lords on the privy council, and plenty of the ladies who I knew were waiting impatiently for Jameson to finish with me so they could have their turn. In fact, I spotted Nora looking down her nose at me with Anna Sophia and Cecily right behind her, smug in their certainty that my time was soon to end.
“Don’t worry. Your parents won’t be on our barge,” he assured me. I smiled, thankful for a small reprieve, but unfortunately my luck didn’t extend to the winding ride in the coach down to the river.
Keresken Castle was set atop the Plateau of Borady, a marvelous and unmistakable sight. To get down to the river, our carriages had to weave slowly through the streets of the capital city of Tobbar . . . and that took some time.
I saw the gleam in my father’s eye as he realized this carriage ride was his chance to have an extended audience with the king. “So, Your Majesty, how go things along the border?” he began. “I hear our men were forced into a retreat last month.”
I had to avoid rolling my eyes. Why would my father think that reminding the king of our recent failures was the way to strike up a conversation? Jameson, though, took the question in stride.
“It’s true. We only have soldiers along the border to keep the peace, but what are they expected to do when attacked? Reports are that King Quinten insists Isolten land goes all the way to the Tiberan Plains.”
My father scoffed, though I could see he wasn’t truly as calm as he appeared. He always twisted the silver ring on his pointer finger when he was nervous, and he was doing just so now. “That has been Coroan land for generations.”
“Precisely. But I have no fear. We are safe from attacks here, and Coroans make for excellent soldiers.”
I stared out the windows, bored by the talk of inconsequential squabbles along the border. Jameson was usually the best company, but my parents killed any joy in the coach.
I couldn’t help sighing in relief when we pulled up to the dock and I could exit the stifling carriage. “You weren’t joking about your parents,” Jameson said when we were finally alone.
“The last two people I’d invite to a party, that’s for sure.”
“And yet they made the most charming girl in the world,” he said, kissing my hand.
I blushed and looked away, my eyes finding Delia Grace as she climbed out of her carriage, followed by Nora, Cecily, and Anna Sophia. If I thought my ride had been unbearable, her clenched fists as she walked over to me told me hers had been much worse.
“What happened?” I whispered.
“Nothing that hasn’t happened a thousand times before.” She rolled her shoulders back, pulling herself up taller.
“At least we’ll be together on the boat,” I assured her. “Come. Won’t it be fun to watch their faces as you climb onto the king’s ship?”
We walked down to the landing, and I felt a thrill of heat run up my arm when King Jameson took my hand to help me onto our boat. As promised, Delia Grace joined us, along with two of the king’s advisers, while my parents and the remaining guests were escorted to various other boats at His Majesty’s disposal. The royal standard was sitting proudly atop its pole, the bold Coroan red flicking back and forth so quickly in the breeze off the river that it looked like fire. I happily took my seat to Jameson’s right, his fingers still laced through mine as he helped me settle in.
There was food to enjoy, and furs to cover us if the winds were too chilly. It seemed anything I could desire was right there before me, which was something I was still surprised by: the lack of want when I sat beside a king.
As we made our way down the river, people standing on the banks stopped and bowed when they saw the standard, or called out blessings for the king. He was so poised as he nodded his head in acknowledgment, sitting as upright as a tree.
I knew not every sovereign was handsome, but Jameson was. He took great pains with his appearance, keeping his dark hair short and his bronze skin soft. He was fashionable without being frivolous, but he liked to show off the best of his possessions. Taking the boats out this early in the spring could prove that point quickly enough.
And I liked that about him, if only because I got to sit here beside him, feeling unmistakably regal.
Along the side of the river, near where a new bridge had been built, a weatherworn statue stood, casting her shadow down the slope toward the blue-green waters. As tradition dictated, the gentlemen on the boats rose to stand while the ladies dropped our heads in respect. There were books filled with the tales of Queen Albrade riding along the countryside and fending off the Isoltens while her husband, King Shane, was off in Mooreland for matters of state. Upon his return, the king had seven statues of his wife placed across Coroa, and every August, all the ladies at court did dances holding wooden swords to remember her victory.
Indeed, the queens throughout Coroan history were often remembered more vividly than the kings, and Queen Albrade wasn’t even the most revered. There was Queen Honovi, who walked the far line of the country, setting the boundaries and blessing with a kiss the trees and rocks she used as markers. To this day, people would look for the stones in particular—as they were placed by the queen herself—and kiss them, too, for luck. Queen Lahja was famous for taking care of Coroan children at the height of the Isolten Plague, so named because when people contracted it and died, their skin turned as blue as the Isolten flag. She walked bravely into the city herself to find the little ones who survived and placed them with new families.
Even Queen Ramira, Jameson’s mother, was known across the country for her kindness. She was, perhaps, the opposite of her husband, King Marcellus. Where he tended to strike first without question, she was known to seek peace. I’d heard at least three potential wars were stopped by her gentle reasoning. The young men of Coroa owed a debt of gratitude to her. As did their mothers.
The legacies of Coroan queens left a mark on the entire continent, which was probably part of Jameson’s draw. Not only was he handsome and rich, not only would he make you a queen . . . he would make you a legend.
“I love being on the water,” Jameson commented, drawing me back to the beauty of the moment. “Probably one of my favorite things as a boy was sailing to Sabino with my father.”
“I remember your father was an excellent sailor,” Delia Grace remarked, inserting herself in the conversation.
Jameson nodded enthusiastically. “One of his many talents. I sometimes think I inherited more of my mother’s traits than his, but sailing stayed with me. His love of traveling, too. What of you, Lady Hollis? Do you like to travel?”
I shrugged. “I’ve never really had the chance. I’ve lived the entirety of my life between Keresken Castle and Varinger Hall. But I’ve always wanted to go to Eradore,” I breathed. “I do love the sea, and I’ve been told the beaches there are a thing of beauty.”