“Well, they should be beautiful. These are the queen’s apartments.”
She looked around again, eyes wide. “Already?”
I nodded. “If I was to meet a queen, His Majesty wanted me to be dressed and jeweled and roomed to equal her,” I commented with a smile. “I suppose it’s only a matter of time before an official proposal.”
Her face was colored with surprise yet again. “He hasn’t given you a ring?”
“Not yet. He wanted to be cautious. But now it seems everyone knows his intent, so it should be happening soon.”
She seemed tickled by my situation as she reached over for my golden dice. “Your relationship with your king is most amusing. He seems to enjoy that you are . . . a free spirit, let’s say.”
I shrugged. “I wish everyone felt the same way, but I’m glad Jameson appreciates me. What is it that drew King Quinten to you? You didn’t really say much about it earlier.”
Her eyes were instantly distant. “I don’t talk about it much,” she admitted.
“Oh.” I squinted, confused. “I’m sorry if—”
“No, no. Not many people understand; it might be good if someone else finally did.” She sighed, toying with the dice but not looking up at me. “After Queen Vera died, most everyone at court assumed Quinten would remain single. He had a male heir, and as far as anyone could tell, he had no interest in remarrying. I think . . . I think it was possible he really loved her. Queen Vera, that is. I caught him smiling at her a few times when I was very young.
“I’d been planning to marry Lord Haytham. He liked me very much, and my parents approved of him wholeheartedly. And Quinten’s focus was entirely on making a match for his son. But it seemed reports of Hadrian’s fragile health spread farther than anyone thought they would. The few girls who were approached by the king were quite suddenly engaged. One of them, Sisika Aram, was a dear friend of mine, and I know for a fact her arrangements were made the very day her family was called to meet with Quinten.”
“Why?” I asked. “At the very least, these girls had an opportunity to be royal.”
“I asked the same questions myself then. Now I know they were very smart.” She was still looking away, her bitter tone making me think her love story had little to do with love. “Eventually, Quinten reached out to other countries, which he wasn’t keen on; he was positive he’d find a quality family in Isolte for his son. But he finally found someone for the prince, and their wedding is set for the winter.”
I smiled. “Snow is lucky in Isolte, right?”
She nodded. “We’re hoping for a thick blanket of it to bless them.”
That was sweet. Snow meant nothing here, nor did rain, nor did the breeze. But I would wish for snow for Hadrian’s sake.
“Wait. That doesn’t explain anything about you and King Quinten.”
“Ah,” she said, her smile humorless. “I knew less about the royal family than others did. As I said, I traveled frequently, and I kept to my own group of friends. But most of those friends got married, and I lost them as they left to go inspect their new households, start families—the things young brides do.”
“So when it became clear the king was looking for a new wife, I was one of the few younger women at court who was eligible. I was charmed by the idea of a crown, by the image of a man in full regalia, and when my parents were made an incredibly generous offer for my hand, I was flattered.
“What I didn’t know until later was that Hadrian had a very scary bout of a fever a few weeks prior to my proposal. He was unconscious for three days. Quinten realized he needed another heir, and I was chosen, not for my wit or my singing or my pedigree. I am a healthy young woman, and I ought to be able to provide a child.” She sighed. “I ought to.”
I was stunned into silence. Valentina, who looked to me to have so many qualities worth loving, was maybe not really loved at all.
“Don’t look like that,” she said, rolling the dice for no reason except to watch them fall. “Most marriages in the crown work this way. If you like your husband, that is desirable. But what is necessary is keeping the line. And a state bed is as comfortable as any.”
I swallowed. “Can I ask you the rudest question I can possibly think to ask at the moment?”
She smirked. “I like you, Hollis. Yes, go ahead.”
“What happened to Lord Haytham?”
“He left court. He’s living in the country these days, and I’ve not seen him in three years. I have to assume he’s married by now, but I don’t know.” She looked down. “I wouldn’t mind so much if he was. But it’d be nice to know one way or the other.”
For a flicker of a second my thoughts went to Silas. His family would find property. They would make a name for themselves with the impeccable work they were producing. He’d catch the attention of some girl, and he’d break through her preconceived notions with those piercing blue eyes. He’d marry her.
Or maybe he wouldn’t.
How would I ever know?
“Can I ask you a rude question myself?” Valentina ventured.
My eyes fluttered as I focused back in on her face. “You’ve certainly earned the right to it.”
“You must tell me the truth. Your king . . . has he ever been unkind to you?”
“Unkind? Unkind how?”
She made a noncommittal gesture with her hand. “Just . . . unkind.”
I searched my memories. Maybe he’d been inconsiderate, but never unkind. “No.”
She pressed her hand against her stomach, on guard.
She shook her head. “It’s nothing.”
I reached across the table, holding her free hand. “Clearly, it’s not. If anyone can understand the pressure of going from court girl to queen, surely it’s me. Speak to me.”
Her pressed lips started trembling and suddenly parted in quick, shaking gasps. “Everyone keeps watching me. They’re waiting for me to give them another heir, and I know they whisper about me. But it’s not my fault!” she insisted. “I’ve been so careful!”
“What are you talking about?” I asked, looking down at that delicate hand across her stomach. “Are you pregnant now?”
“I’m not sure. I haven’t bled in two months, but the symptoms . . . I’ve already been with child twice before now and lost them. This seems different. I feel . . . I feel . . .”
“Shhh,” I urged, reaching out to hold her. “I’m sure you will both be fine.”
“You don’t understand.” She sat up, trembling and wiping wildly at the tears on her face. I thought she must be having some sort of fit, because her sorrow quickly shifted to anger, and she never stopped shaking. “If you speak a word of this, I will end your life, do you hear me? If it comes down to your life or mine—”
“Valentina, I’ve already told you how much I value privacy. I will keep anything you say between the two of us.”
The fight seemed to go out of her, and she slumped, propping herself exhaustedly against the back of her chair. Her hands were clutched across her stomach, not so much protective as prayerful. I’d never seen such haunted eyes.