We approached the dais and curtsied before them, and, as Valentina held the higher rank, she spoke first.
“Your Majesties. We come here tonight to appeal for peace between our two great kingdoms,” she said.
“While the missteps of your people may be great, you are both better than your subjects, and we look to you for guidance.”
“I wear red, because I have made a friend in Coroa.”
“And I wear blue, because I have made yet another friend from Isolte.” I gestured for Sullivan and Silas to come forward. “These crowns of gold, shaped like olive branches, are for you, Your Majesties. Made by a family born in Isolte and living in Coroa. May they be a model of our brotherhood for years to come.”
The crowd behind us applauded, and I turned to pick up the first crown.
“It’s so light!” I exclaimed.
“I did my best for you,” Silas said quietly.
My gaze on him lingered a moment longer than I meant for it to before I reached across the table to place the crown on King Quinten’s head as Queen Valentina did the same with Jameson. He was smiling, speaking to her, and King Quinten focused on me.
“I see you’ve become close with the Eastoffes,” he remarked.
“I try to be an excellent hostess at the castle for His Majesty’s sake, regardless of where our guests are from.”
He nodded. “I’d suggest you take care. People in Isolte tend to keep their distance from them these days.”
“I can’t imagine why,” I snapped before remembering I was here to mend bridges, not take to them with an axe. I swallowed, starting again. “They have been humble and most helpful since their arrival.”
The look in his eyes was more of a warning than his words. “If you wish to stand next to the fire, by all means. You’re the one who’ll be burned.”
I curtsied again to him, as I knew I must, but I hated pretending to give any level of respect to that man. I nodded to Silas and Sullivan that they could go, mouthing my thanks before turning to Queen Valentina.
“You are wiser than anyone has guessed. We will talk more tomorrow,” she said into my ear before we crossed paths and went to go sit by our kings.
“What do you think?” I asked Jameson as I settled into place.
“I think if you fell off a boat in that, the sleeves would drag you straight to the bottom.”
I laughed. “I had to practice walking,” I admitted.
He smiled. “Teasing aside, you look beautiful in anything you’re ever in.” He sat back, sipping his drink. “I hear it’s the fashion for brides to wear white these days. Won’t that be something?”
I looked down, blushing. Of course, I was glad he still found me pretty in Isolten blue, but I wondered how he felt about what Valentina and I had done, if he appreciated our strategizing and hard work. Before I could ask, King Quinten tapped Jameson’s shoulder.
“There’s no point arguing. We need to get back to that contract,” he urged. Out of his sight, I let out a sigh. I had no idea what they were working on, but I was pleased they weren’t abandoning it over a single battle at a tournament. Even if Jameson said nothing in thanks, at least this moment had been a success.
Around the room, people were chatting and eating and laughing, and though Valentina and I hadn’t walked the borders or pulled a king back from war, we’d made steps toward peace. I hoped the queens before me would have approved. Judging by the smiling faces and relaxed shoulders around the room, it seemed most people in the court did.
From his table, Silas caught my eye and lifted his glass to me. I did the same in return and took a drink. No, that boy was only good, and nothing about him could leave me burned.
The center of the floor where Valentina and I had walked down was now filling with people dancing as the meal came to a close and the music changed.
I watched with trepidation as Silas rose from his table and walked up to the dais.
“Your Majesty,” he said, bowing before Jameson. “I can see that you and King Quinten are busy. I was wondering if I might ask the Lady Hollis to dance.”
Jameson smiled slyly. “Only if she wishes it.”
I took a breath. “Well, if I can’t dance with you.” I kissed his cheek and walked down to meet Silas, standing beside him while the song came to a close.
“I wanted to make good on what I said, that I’d dance with you if you ever invited me to,” he whispered.
I spoke softly. “But I never got that far.”
“I couldn’t wait. Hope you don’t mind.”
I smiled. “Not at all. I’ve been dying to dance, and Jameson has been more interested in watching lately. I’m just so thankful to have someone ask me. None of the other gentlemen at court will now.”
“Ah, I see. Well, for one song, let’s forget about kings and colors and all the rest. Let’s just have a lovely dance, yes?”
“Yes,” I sighed.
The music began, and we lined up across from each other, moving in time with the other couples.
“I don’t know how to thank you for this,” I said. “You and your family saved us tonight.”
He rolled his eyes. “But only after I got us into trouble.”
“Nonsense. I think we all know who the real problem here is.” I swung in, placing my hand in Silas’s. His rough skin held my hand so delicately, and I could see the remnants of a gentleman in the gesture.
“All the same, it was the least we could do.”
“Has the king compensated you yet?”
He shook his head. “We agreed there were no kings for this dance.”
He was right. “Very well.”
We crossed arms and spun in circles. He wasn’t the best partner I’d ever had, but he was steadier than Jameson.
“I’m not sure there would be much occasion after this, but I do hope we can speak more soon,” he said.
“I agree. It’s been nice to have someone to talk to. Another thing I need to thank you for.”
He smiled down at me, the unrestrained admiration in his gaze making me forget that there were other people in the room. “I am here whenever you need me. If anyone is in debt, it’s me. You offered my family a home. You defended my actions publicly. You are quite a remarkable lady, Hollis.” His face grew a little darker when he added, “You will be an unforgettable queen.”
The song ended, and I curtsied to him. I turned to look at Jameson, to see if he was pleased by the dance. He wasn’t even looking.
I flicked my eyes to Silas and nodded that he should follow me from the Great Room.
I went from the room and waited a ways down the hallway. I heard as the next song began, and I saw Silas’s shadow before he arrived where I was standing.
“The dance is over, so now I have to say it again—if the king has not compensated you for your work, I want to make sure that happens.”
Silas looked down, shaking his head. “You needn’t worry about that. They were gifts.”
“I insist! This whole moment tonight wouldn’t have happened without your family, so I am in your debt.”
“You gave us a place to live. We’re in yours.”
I placed my hands on my hips, which was a surprising struggle given the sleeves. He noted it and laughed at me.