Sighing, he walked over and grabbed me from the swarm. “Do you not have eyes?”
“I’m not as tall as you. Is he all right?”
“Yes, Uncle Dashiell tucked him away near the tree line while things calmed down, and most everyone is going in the opposite direction now. Here, this way.”
I followed as best I could, trying to keep up with his long strides. We finally came upon them, Silas sitting on a barrel, talking to his parents with a bewildered expression on his face. Once he saw me, he stood and began attempting to atone for his mistakes immediately.
“Lady Hollis, I’m so sorry. You have to apologize to the king for me.”
“Slow down,” I insisted.
He took my hands, pleading. “If King Jameson revokes our permit to settle because of me . . . Hollis, my family.”
His hands were rough, but those blue eyes were so gentle.
“I know.” I sighed. “Please tell me you finished making the pieces I mentioned when we first heard about the king coming to visit.”
He nodded. “We stayed up late to make sure they were done before he came, but no one gave us instructions on when to present them.”
“Perfect,” I said. “I need to get a letter to Queen Valentina.”
I STOOD STILL AS DELIA Grace repeatedly laced the gown, trying to get it to sit right. “This is so strange,” she said. “How do your arms feel?”
“Heavy,” I admitted.
Delia Grace went back to the parcel and pulled out one more thing. “For your head. We can use something of yours if you prefer.”
Valentina’s things were quite beautiful. The craftsmanship was not nearly so detailed as the work done in Coroa, but the gemstones were bigger, more substantial.
“If she sent it, I will wear it.”
I walked around my apartments carrying books and acclimating to the weight of the sleeves and headpiece. In the middle of my seventh lap, Silas and Sullivan came in, dressed in their best and carrying their work on black pillows.
Sullivan fell behind his brother, taking in Nora and Delia Grace with trepidation. Though I longed to speak to Silas, I went to his brother first.
“These ladies are all my friends,” I said, placing a hand on his arm. “And tonight, you needn’t say a word. Only lift the pillow so King Jameson may take your gift.”
He nodded, giving me the tiniest of smiles.
“And what are you smirking about?” I asked, turning to Silas.
“Nothing. It’s just amazing to see you in Isolten blue. You could almost pass for a girl back home.”
“If I grew an inch or two and spent less time in the sun, perhaps?”
“Perhaps,” he replied, and then lowered his voice. “I don’t know if this will mend anything, Lady Hollis.”
“I know,” I answered, fidgeting with my heavy clothes. “But we need to try.”
After a quick knock, Valentina walked in, her single lady-in-waiting behind her. I had chosen the palest red dress I could find for her, almost bordering on pink, and as I’d hoped, it worked nicely with her skin.
“What do you think, my lady?” she asked.
“I think you should keep it. It looks far better on you than it ever has on me.”
She smiled, loving the praise. Valentina was a new person when she smiled.
“My arms feel so free,” she said, lifting them above her head.
“Can you please tell me why it is that the ladies in Isolte wear so much fabric on their sleeves?” I asked in exasperation.
She laughed. “One, it’s a sign of status. It says you have the means to afford the extra fabric, and that you don’t have to work with your hands. Ladies in the country don’t wear them, or at least, not so long. And two, they keep you warm. It’s much cooler in Isolte.”
“Ahh,” I said. It made sense, though it wasn’t a practice I was planning to adopt, whether I could afford it or not.
“When she smiles, you two could pass for sisters,” Delia Grace whispered beside me.
When we met, I’d been too nervous to think about anything more than making a good first impression, but she was right. Between our hair and the angle of our chins, we could pass for relatives at least.
“I was told dinner began fifteen minutes ago, so everyone should be seated,” she offered. “I am ready when you are.”
“Excellent. Delia Grace, Nora, if you will please take the queen’s lady with you now so you can all be seated.” They obeyed, and the very confused woman walked with them out of the room. “Sullivan, if you will please walk behind Queen Valentina, and Silas, please stay with me.”
He nodded. “Of course, my lady.” Then he lowered his voice. “It may be easier for my brother if he is with you.”
I ducked my eyes before summoning the courage to answer. “But I need you with me. Please?”
He stared back at me for a long moment, as if he wanted to say something in return. In the end, he simply nodded and our little party exited the room.
The hallways were all but empty—everyone wanted to attend the feast if only for the lavish meal.
“What are the chances your king is still mad?” I asked Valentina.
“High. He doesn’t forget much.”
“Do you think this will do anything?”
She considered. “Your king seems more reasonable than most, so having him back in good spirits will help. And I think if those beneath us can see our behavior, they will try to model it. A lamb will only go where its shepherd takes it.”
“A very good point, Your Majesty.” I looked up at Valentina. She really was quite pretty, with hair almost the shade of mine but skin closer to milk than honey. And she was so statuesque that even in my highest heeled shoes I didn’t quite come up to her height. “Thank you so much for agreeing to do this. I realize I misspoke when we met, and it got everything off to a bad start. I didn’t mean to offend you, and I’m so grateful to have your help.”
She brushed her hand lazily at me. “You didn’t offend me. Sometimes it’s easier, you know? To just be silent.”
I giggled. “Silence is not a skill of mine.”
She pressed her lips together, seeming to already have gathered that much about me. “A few years with a crown on your head might change that.”
I wanted to ask what she meant by that, but we were already at the entrance of the Great Room. A knot of dread settled in my stomach, and I feared that, just like Silas, we would mean well but make things worse. Valentina must have sensed my trepidation, because she reached out, and we entered the hall holding one another’s hands.
No one noticed us at first, but I heard gasps and whispers as whole sections of the room fell into a hush to see what would happen when we reached the head table. Once the change in sound reached Jameson’s ear, he looked up, eyes going straight down the center walkway. I watched as his eyes settled on the red dress, a smile almost spreading across his face before he realized the girl in it wasn’t me. His eyes flicked immediately to her right, and his mouth hung slightly open as he took me in.
He spoke quietly to King Quinten, who eventually looked up from his food, grumpy as ever. Thankfully, the sight of his wife in Coroan red and me in Isolten blue was enough to stun him into silence.