“My goodness, Hollis!” Delia Grace said, coming to peer over the edge of the box but not daring to touch it.
“This was what was happening that day in the king’s chambers. He was letting me choose something for today.”
“You did a spectacular job,” Nora commented.
“I know that necklace,” Delia Grace said, awestruck. “That was made for Queen Albrade herself, Hollis. That was made for a warrior.”
I smiled, thinking I could use something made for going into war. I was reaching over to pick up the necklace when another page carrying a box walked in. “Forgive me, Lady Hollis,” he said. “His Majesty thought this would go well with your necklace.”
He didn’t wait for instructions to open his package, presumably acting on the king’s orders to shock me. I reached over, clutching Delia Grace’s hand when I took in the headpiece that Jameson had picked out. It was breathtaking, tipped with the same gemstones as the necklace, fanning out like the sun bursting over the horizon.
Like the sun. He’d chosen this with care.
“Help me, ladies. It won’t do if we’re late.” I sat down at my vanity as Delia Grace took the headpiece and Nora carried the necklace.
“You will be exhausted by noon! It’s so heavy.” Nora set the clasp, and once the weight of it was fully on me, I thought she might be right. But, tired or not, I wouldn’t take this thing off my neck until sunset.
“Here,” Delia Grace said, setting the headpiece in my hair and securing it with a few extra pins.
I sat at the vanity, looking at myself. I’d never felt so beautiful. I wasn’t sure if I looked like myself, but I couldn’t deny that I looked like royalty.
I swallowed. “I’m counting on you to rescue me if you catch me about to do anything foolish. I have to be poised and beautiful so King Quinten doesn’t have anything to critique.”
Nora brought her face next to mine, meeting my gaze in the mirror. “I promise.”
“Obviously,” Delia Grace added.
I nodded. “Then let’s go.”
I kept my hands gracefully clasped in front of me as we took the short walk from the queen’s apartments to the Great Room. I could feel myself growing more and more confident with every gasp and bowed head we passed. I could see in their eyes that my goal had been met: with my best gold dress, and the headpiece Jameson had chosen, I looked like a radiant queen.
Toward the head of the room, the Eastoffes waited, front and center as Jameson had requested. Lady Eastoffe gave me a warm smile, mouthing the word beautiful and touching her hand to her heart. Beside her, Silas stumbled as he went to bow, trying to keep his eyes on both the floor and me. I suppressed a smile, then worked to give myself a steadier expression as I continued up to Jameson.
His mouth hung slightly open and it took him a moment to remember to extend his hand to receive me.
“Goodness, Hollis. I forgot how to breathe.” He shook his head, staring at me as I blushed. “For all of my life, I shall never forget you in this moment: a rising queen and a rising sun.”
“Thank you, Your Majesty. But you must take some of the credit. This is beautiful,” I said, touching the headpiece. “I love it.”
He shook his head. “I’m glad you enjoy the jewels, but I assure you, there isn’t another woman in this room who could have done them justice.”
We were still staring into one another’s eyes when the fanfares sounded in the distance, announcing King Quinten was near. Jameson signaled for the musicians to be ready, and I moved my gaze to Delia Grace, who motioned for me to straighten my necklace, centering the largest jewel.
By the time King Quinten and his party arrived, we were prepared, looking like a painting as he walked down the red woven carpet laid up the center of the great hall. I’d last seen him when he came for Queen Ramira’s funeral, and I desperately wished I’d taken note of him then. All I remembered was that my black dress was scratching my arm, and I spent the majority of the service trying to fix the sleeve. But that didn’t matter, as I felt I knew him now; he was everything Lady Eastoffe had told me.
His hair was thinning and though there were hints of yellow to it, most of it was gray. He walked with the assistance of a cane, his shoulders slightly hunched, and I wondered if part of the difficulty was the weight of so much fabric. But it was his expression that chilled me: as I looked into his eyes, I felt my heart go cold. There was something about him, as if he had both everything and nothing to lose, and the power accompanying those notions made him fearsome to behold.
I looked away as quickly as I could, training my eyes on Queen Valentina. She truly wasn’t much older than me, and that made the gap between her and King Quinten very great indeed. She smiled without showing teeth and kept her right hand settled protectively on her stomach.
On the king’s other side, Prince Hadrian was unmistakable. Yes, most Isoltens looked like they needed to see the sun, but he was closer to a ghost. I, too, wondered if he might be one soon. He kept his lips pressed tight as if to hide the effort all this movement was taking, but the line of sweat across his brow was obvious. That man ought to be in bed.
With these three before me, I realized I should have no fear. Coroa may have been a much smaller country than Isolte, but our king was far greater.
“King Quinten,” Jameson said loudly, opening his arms. “I am so pleased you and your family have made your way to Coroa in safety. The Lady Hollis and I welcome you as my father did, as a fellow sovereign, placed by the gods, and as a dear friend.”
Several quiet things happened at once. King Quinten rolled his eyes at the mention of the gods, Prince Hadrian lifted a shaky hand to wipe sweat from his upper lip, and I sighed in relief because we’d all been introduced.
Jameson descended from the dais, which had been outfitted with enough seats for our guests, and went to greet King Quinten. He shook his fellow sovereign’s hand with both of his own, causing the room to burst into rapturous applause. My eyes kept flickering back to Valentina. She stood so tall, but I couldn’t tell what was keeping her upright. Not happiness, it seemed, nor pride. . . . She was unreadable.
Jameson invited King Quinten, Valentina, and Hadrian to come and sit with us, and those in Quinten’s party began to mingle with those of Jameson’s court. The visit had officially begun.
I turned to Valentina, who’d been placed next to me, hoping to make her feel comfortable.
“Your Majesty, Isolte is such a large country. Whereabout were you born?” I asked.
Her returning look was smug. “You don’t speak first. I speak first.”
I was taken aback. “My apologies. I assumed that the king’s introduction was sufficient.”
“It was not.”
“Oh.” I paused. I was quite certain I had this right. “Well, what about now? As you’ve already spoken to me?”
She rolled her eyes. “I suppose. What is it you asked? Where I was from?”
“Yes,” I replied, resurrecting the smile on my face.
She inspected the many rings on her hands. “If I told you, would you even recognize the name?”
“Well . . .”
“I doubt it. From what I hear, you’ve lived your whole life between your family’s manor and Keresken Castle,” she said, raising an eyebrow.