“Not if I can help it,” he answered quickly.
I made a face at Jameson, who understood my exasperation completely, and when he stuck out his tongue in reply, it was all I could do not to laugh.
When the spear event was finally over, the first groups of people came out for the next event: sword. After a few rounds, Silas came onto the field.
“Look there, Your Majesty.” I rested my arm on Jameson’s and pointed with the other. “Do you see the young man wearing no colors?”
He focused on the far side of the arena. “I do.”
“It’s one of the Eastoffe sons. He wanted to honor you both with his performance, so he chose no side,” I explained. “He said it was for both his past and present.”
Jameson considered this. “Very diplomatic, I suppose.”
I frowned, a little disappointed with that assessment. “I’d thought of it as a lovely sentiment.”
He laughed. “Ah, Hollis, you have such a simple view of life. I wish I had it myself.”
The match began, and I saw quickly that Silas had been right: he was much better at making swords than wielding them. Still, I found myself moving closer and closer to the edge of my seat, hoping he’d somehow take the victory. His footwork was clumsy, but he was strong, swinging the sword with much more conviction than his counterpart, who, by chance, was wearing blue.
The crowd cheered and whooped with every blow, and I lifted my hand to my lips, hoping that if Silas didn’t win, he’d at least walk away uninjured. I never worried about Jameson when he was jousting. Perhaps it was his skill on horseback or just the belief that it was impossible for him to fail.
Knowing that loss or injury were both very possible made me care about what I was seeing all the more. But I found my hope restored that Silas would at least be safe when I saw a hint of golden fabric peeking out from his sleeve.
He’d taken it. I felt my heartbeat fly even faster knowing that he’d scooped up my favor and was wearing it as his own. I peeked over at Jameson, hoping he didn’t notice. I told myself that even if he had, plenty of ladies wove golden thread into their handkerchiefs. It was a thrilling and delicious secret.
Silas and his opponent battled back and forth, each refusing to concede. After one of the longest sword fights I’d ever seen, it all came down to the man in blue taking a few missteps and Silas bearing down with the sword hard on his challenger’s back. His opponent dropped to the dirt and the round was over.
I stood, cheering with all my might and clapping thunderously.
Jameson rose beside me. “You must really support this swordsman,” he said.
“No, my lord,” I shouted over the noise, grinning ear to ear. “I support diplomacy.”
He got a good laugh out of that and waved Silas over.
“Very good show, sir. And I appreciate your . . . statement.”
Silas removed his helmet and bowed to the king. “Thank you, Your Majesty. It was an honor to fight today.”
It took King Quinten a few blinks of his eyes to be sure of just what he was seeing, but once he was, he stood furiously.
“Why do you wear no colors?” he demanded. “Where is your blue?”
Jameson turned to him. “He is a Coroan now.”
“He is not!”
“He fled your country to find sanctuary here. He has sworn his allegiance to me. And yet he wears no colors so as to not insult you. And you take it upon yourself to shame him?”
Quinten’s voice was low and gravelly. “You and I both know he will never truly be a Coroan.”
Just past them, I could see Queen Valentina clutching her stomach, her eyes flicking between Quinten and Jameson nervously. Up until now, she’d seemed above anything so common as nerves, but she was clearly worried about how this would unfold. I didn’t want to see it, and my guess was she didn’t, either.
“Come with me, Your Majesty. You mustn’t get overexcited.” I walked her down the stairs and into the shade behind the royal box. We could still hear Jameson’s and Quinten’s voices, but their words were muffled.
“Kings, huh?” I joked, trying to break the tension.
“I think it’s just men in general,” she replied, and we both laughed.
“Can I get you anything? Some water, something to eat?”
She shook her head. “No, I’m just happy to get away from the yelling. His Majesty gets upset easily, and I prefer to stay out of all that.”
“I feel bad for the swordsman. I think he meant well.”
“Silas Eastoffe.” She looked at the ground. “I think he only ever means well.”
It was funny. I was aware that Silas knew of the queen, but I’d never considered that she knew of him.
“Has he done things like this before?”
“Not exactly. I’ve caught him in a few conversations where he tried to get the person he was speaking with to consider the other side of the argument. He just wants people to think.”
I nodded. “I don’t know him well, but that sounds about right.”
A stampede of footsteps came down the stairs and Quinten was there, bearing down on his cane, pulling his wife away so quickly I didn’t get to curtsy before she went. Jameson came down shortly after, hands on his hips.
“Well, the tournament’s over. Quinten decided he’d rather rest than be insulted.”
“Oh, no. Your Majesty, I’m so sorry.”
He shook his head. “I know that boy was trying to do something clever, but he ended up causing a big mess.”
“This is so ridiculous! Whatever the color, wasn’t this meant to be entertainment? A diversion?”
“Yes, of course, but—”
“And doesn’t one person desperately seeking middle ground set a great example of something we should all aspire to? Why does everything have to be a competition?”
Jameson had never raised his voice to me before. I was stunned into silence.
“You don’t have to worry about this. You don’t have to think so hard. All you need to do is show Coroa how good a queen you can be. And upstage that girl of Quinten’s.”
I swallowed. “Surely considering how to better our relationship with the largest country on the continent is part of being a good queen.”
“I’ll do that, Hollis.” He shook his head. “That foolish boy. Let’s hope this can be undone.” He kissed my hand and went on his way.
I was left feeling small. Jameson had never been unhappy with me before. He’d never corrected me before. Then again, I’d never really shared my opinion before. Was . . . was Etan right? Was I an ornament?
I couldn’t bring myself to believe that. If I was to join a long line of magnificent queens, shouldn’t I be following in their footsteps? The footsteps that led to the homes of the poor? The footsteps that led to a battlefield?
I’d spent so much time being afraid of measuring up to them. Now the thought of not even trying to come close was unimaginable.
I marched over to where the competitors were milling about, hoping I’d be able to find a particular family in the mass of people. I pushed through the crowds until I, unfortunately, saw a familiar face.
“Etan!” I called.
He turned, and I waved, trying to get his attention. He tipped his head in acknowledgment.