“They think I think I’m above them,” she began. “All the women at court. They think I don’t speak to them because I’ve been elevated, and so I must assume I’m too good to associate with them. But that’s not true. It’s Quinten. He likes me to keep to myself.”
I thought of what Scarlet had said about her being in isolation for six months. I wondered if anyone knew her solitude wasn’t self-imposed.
“I’m sorry. Is that why you only have the one lady?”
She nodded. “We don’t even speak the same language. She brings me what she knows I need, and we’re managing to understand each other more, but she’s not exactly a confidante. I have no one to talk to, no allies, and I’m afraid.”
“Afraid?” For goodness’ sake, she was the queen. “Afraid of what?”
I could see the terror in her eyes, and she started shaking her head very quickly. “I’ve said too much. I . . . you can never tell.”
“Valentina, if you’re in danger, you can claim sanctuary in one of our holy buildings. No one is allowed to take you from there.”
“Maybe here,” she said, rising clumsily to her feet, “but not in Isolte. And they won’t care.”
“Who won’t care?”
“They always come. If you’re in the way, they always, always come.”
“They took my parents. And if I don’t produce an heir, it’s probably only a matter of time. . . .”
I grabbed her by the shoulders. “Valentina, what are you talking about?”
Something in her eyes shifted again, and now her face looked calm, resolved. I’d never seen anyone’s emotions bounce in so many directions so quickly.
“Be thankful for your beautiful little life, Hollis. Not all of us are given such a luxury.”
Wait . . . what was she trying to say? And who were they? Before I could figure out how to form my next question, she was standing, straightening her robe, and walking from the room.
I was left sitting in my hard chair, stunned. What in the world had just happened?
I tried to slow my thoughts down and go back through the conversation. Valentina may or may not be pregnant, and she’d already lost two babies since she’d been married to King Quinten. She was alone in Isolte. She had lost her parents through some dark means. And she feared for her safety.
I didn’t think I could go ask Valentina for any more answers, and even if I dared, I wasn’t sure she would be able to answer in her state. I knew who I could ask, but after last night, I didn’t know if I could face him.
I couldn’t help myself. I had to know more. I tore from the room, making my way to the back of the castle. The hallways were mostly empty, but even if they hadn’t been, I would have run through all of them. I hesitated in front of the Eastoffes’ door. For the sake of so many people, it would be wiser to walk away.
But if I did, there was no way I could help Valentina.
Behind the door, people spoke in low tones, but all noise came to an abrupt stop when I knocked. It was Lord Eastoffe who answered.
“Why, Lady Hollis. To what do we owe the pleasure of your company?” he asked cheerfully. Over his shoulder, I saw his wife smiling, as well as their guests, save for Etan, who rolled his eyes and moved from the table. He wasn’t alone in his feelings, though. I was surprised to see even Scarlet looked skeptical and Sullivan lowered his gaze. Silas seemed unsure of how to respond to my unexpected arrival.
I could have spoken to any of them, I supposed. Scarlet was a girl; maybe she’d know more. But there was only one person in that room I could have trusted with such a secret.
“I’ve found I have a very specific question about Isolte, and I was wondering if I could borrow Silas for a few minutes. I promise not to keep him long.”
Lord Eastoffe looked over his shoulder. “Absolutely. Son?”
Silas stood and followed me into the hallway, his expression somber.
“I think there’s a door just over here?” I offered, finding it very difficult to look him in the eyes.
“Yes. That’s how we walk to the outbuildings.” I trailed behind him, thankful that the moon was still nearly full, as we made our way to the path outside the castle. We didn’t make it very far before he turned around.
“What?” I asked.
“For last night. I don’t know what came over me, and I’m very sorry to have offended you.”
“Oh.” I blushed remembering that rather dazzling kiss. “You didn’t offend me.”
He raised a single eyebrow. “You bolting from the hallway indicated otherwise.”
I laughed. “I could have responded better.”
“You could have stayed,” he offered, a slight smile on his face.
The wind rushed out of me. “I think we both know I couldn’t have. I hardly know you, and even if I did, I’m betrothed.”
“I thought you said the king hadn’t proposed.”
I sighed. “No, he hasn’t. He can’t just yet, but—”
“Then what promise would you be breaking?”
I stood there, fiddling with my hands, trying to come up with an unshakable reply. I had none.
“I’ve been working so hard to convince people I’m worthy of the position I’ve found myself in. It feels like I’ve gotten so close, and I don’t want to fail. I’m afraid of what would happen if I do,” I admitted. “I didn’t always respond to things with fear. Now it seems to hang over every choice I make. Even the one to come here tonight.”
Silas stepped closer, and my breath temporarily departed from my lungs. It took me a moment to miss it. “What’s wrong?”
“It’s Valentina,” I confessed, trying to focus on why I’d come in the first place. “She came to visit me tonight, and she seemed fine at first, but we were talking about her family and the king, and she suddenly broke down and started telling me things that didn’t make sense.” I took a deep breath. I couldn’t break Valentina’s confidence, so I had to be careful how I phrased everything.
“I was wondering if you knew anything about her parents. She kept saying ‘they always come’ and then whoever these people were took her parents. Do you have any idea what she means?”
At that he looked at the ground. “I’m afraid I do. Valentina’s parents were”—he paused, looking for the right word—“opposed to certain things happening in Isolte. They became a little too vocal about it, and they caught the attention of the Darkest Knights.”
The very words gave me prickles up and down my arms.
“Who are the Darkest Knights?”
“We don’t know. Some say they are nobles, others say they are gypsies. Some are convinced they’re members of the royal guard, but no one can be sure. Their identities have been carefully protected, which is a necessity, because when they come, their destruction is absolute. It’s inspired rage of the most acute nature in my homeland. I knew a man who lost everything in a fire supposedly started by them, and he went out to take revenge against someone he believed was a Darkest Knight. Killed an entire family.”
Silas paused, shaking his head. “He was wrong. Everyone knew Lord Klume to be a good man, but his rank and closeness to the king made some believe otherwise. To keep the peace, King Quinten had Lord Klume’s murderer killed so no one would be tempted to take the law into their own hands again. But many people live in fear that if they say or do the wrong thing, these men will come for them. And as no one can be sure of their identities, it’s hard to know who you can trust.”