“Between the two, I’ve had all I could want in the world,” I admitted. “Perhaps I could show you some of the architecture later? Some of the stonework on the—”
“No,” she answered quickly, cutting me off and placing her hand again on her stomach. “It is very important that I have my rest.”
She lay back in her seat, looking bored, and I felt sure that I was failing Jameson. I sighed, looking away. I’d spent the better part of the last twenty-four hours worrying that I wouldn’t be able to speak to Valentina at all, and now I’d be fine if I never heard her speak again.
I looked out among the guests, searching for my parents; they would know how to restart the conversation. Delia Grace might have an idea, too. . . . But I saw no one I recognized save for the Eastoffes.
I left my place to go ask for their help, catching them as they were warmly greeting another family.
“I didn’t know you were coming,” Lord Eastoffe was saying, gripping an older gentleman tightly. “I’m glad we get to tell you about how we’re settling in face-to-face; a letter never quite catches everything.”
The gentleman and his wife stood with a young man who was clearly their son, based on his nose and cheekbones. Though the couple was all smiles at being reunited with their friends, their son looked as if he’d rather be mucking out a stall.
“Scarlet,” I whispered.
She turned. “Lady Hollis, you look radiant!” She smiled brightly, an almost sisterly warmth on her face.
“Thank you,” I replied, feeling a little more at ease with her. “Listen, I need your help. Please tell me you’ve thought of something for me to say to the queen. She clearly has no interest in speaking with me.”
Scarlet sighed. “She’s like that with everyone—it’s probably why she only has one lady. But I did remember this morning that I’ve heard she’s interested in food. If there’s a chance to show her a new dish, she’ll probably enjoy that. Here.” She grabbed my arm, pulling me forward. “Uncle Reid, Aunt Jovana? This is the Lady Hollis. She is to be queen.” Scarlet beamed with pride, and I placed a hand on hers.
“It is a pleasure to meet you, my lady,” Scarlet’s aunt said. “News of your upcoming betrothal has reached Isolte. People have spoken frequently of your beauty, but they have not done you justice.”
I felt my heart beat a little faster as I tried to take it all in. It was surreal to know that people in other countries had heard about me, knew my name.
“You are too kind,” I answered, hoping to come across steadier than I felt.
“These are the Northcotts,” Silas explained. “Our aunt and uncle, and this is our cousin Etan.”
I looked at the young man, who was content to glower at me.
“Very nice to meet you,” I said.
“Yes,” he replied curtly.
Well, he was about as abrasive as Valentina. He only let a tiny smile come to his face when Saul came and wrapped his arms around him. Saul’s head barely came up to his chest, and Etan scratched his hands playfully through his cousin’s hair. After that moment, he was back to being as impassive as a suit of armor.
“We hear there is to be a joust,” Lord Northcott said. “I hope I will see one of you out there.” He pointed between Sullivan and Silas.
Sullivan merely ducked his head, and Silas spoke for them both. “We might be on the sidelines this time, but I’m very excited to watch. This is the first time we’ve been here for something this festive; I don’t know if things are done differently in Coroa. I’ve never seen.”
He looked to me for confirmation. “I doubt it,” I said, my tone teasing. “Seeing as so much in Isolte is, well, let’s say imported from Coroa, I’m sure it will all be quite familiar.”
Most of them allowed that, chuckling at the observation. But not Etan.
“Isolte is just as sovereign as Coroa. Our traditions just as valuable, our people just as sacred.”
“Absolutely. The privilege of knowing your cousins has taught me so much already about the world beyond Coroa,” I said, smiling at Scarlet. “I hope to visit Isolte myself one day.”
“I hope so, too,” Etan spat, his tone sarcastic. “I’m sure you’ll be greeted with fanfare at the border.”
“Etan,” his father snapped. There was a shuffling of feet and many ducked heads, but the comment went above me.
“I don’t understand, sir.”
Etan looked at me as if I were a child. “No. Of course you don’t. Why would you?”
“Etan,” his mother whispered urgently.
“How have I offended you?” I asked, genuinely confused how both he and Valentina were so quick to find fault with me.
He smirked. “You? You cannot offend anyone.” He motioned to my headpiece, which was still making light dance every time I took a step. “You are an ornament.”
I inhaled sharply, hating that I could feel my skin turning red.
He motioned up to the dais where Queen Valentina was sitting beside my empty seat. “What do you see up there?”
“A queen,” I replied firmly.
Etan shook his head. “That is an empty vessel, chosen to be something nice to look at.”
“Etan, that’s enough,” Silas growled. But his cousin would not be deterred.
“If you don’t know what’s happening along your own border, what’s happening to your own people, I can only conclude that you, my lady, are exactly the same: decoration for your king.”
I swallowed, wishing I were as cold and clever as Delia Grace. She would have torn this boy to shreds. But part of me sensed that, on some level, he was right. If I was soon to be queen, I had to look at the line of women I was going to be added to.
I was no soldier. I was no cartographer. I wasn’t book smart or exceedingly kind or remarkable in any way that anyone had ever taken note of.
I was pretty. And there was nothing wrong with that, but on its own, that had very little value. Even I knew that.
Still, I refused to be shamed for being the one thing I was capable of.
“Better an ornament from Coroa than a knave from Isolte,” I hissed, pulling my head up high. “Welcome to Coroa, Lord and Lady Northcott. So glad you could come.” With that, I turned on my heel and returned to my seat, which I hoped Etan noted was basically a throne. I drew the image of the sun rising over the river to mind, thinking of things that made me happy and calm.
I was not going to cry. Not here, not now. I wasn’t going to give anyone in this room—particularly someone from Isolte—reason to think that I was not poised and patient and good enough to be at the right hand of a king.
“PLEASE,” I BEGGED. “SHE’S TERRIBLE.”
Jameson chuckled as he walked around his private rooms, removing some of the heavier accessories he was wearing now that the opening of our visit had officially passed. “They’re all terrible,” he agreed.
“She thinks she’s so superior. I cannot spend an evening with her.” I crossed my arms, remembering her pinched face. “I’d rather eat in the stables.”