“So Valentina’s parents trusted the wrong people?”
Silas shrugged. “Possibly. Either way, when the queen’s parents disappeared, it put most people in their place.”
“Disappeared? Are they still missing?”
“No.” Silas looked into the distance as if he could still see it all. “Their bodies were left in front of the castle gate. Everyone saw them. I saw them. It was very . . . deliberate. And Valentina . . . when she made her way to their bodies, she made a sound that I’ve never heard come out of a human before. I still can’t imagine her grief.”
I shook my head. “No wonder you all chose to leave.”
“My parents just wanted to give us a chance,” he said simply. “Peace has felt like an unattainable dream for us most of our lives.”
I appreciated his hope, and I was pleased that living in Coroa would allow him a chance at a happy life. But my thoughts were still with Valentina; she didn’t have the option to stay. I placed my hand over my heart, thinking of her words. “Do you think the queen is in danger?”
Silas was quick to answer. “No. The king needs her. She’s the only path he has to another heir. You’ve seen Prince Hadrian. Every day that he still lives feels miraculous. Yes, he’s set to marry this winter, but . . .”
I considered this. “I don’t know. She seemed so . . . I don’t even have the proper words to describe it. Desperate and scared and anxious and tired. All of that at once and then some.”
Silas reached out, touching my arm. “She’s probably one of the loneliest people I know. The women at court won’t associate with her, there isn’t a man in his right mind who would so much as look at her, and now her parents are gone. I’m sure she’s feeling a lot of things. I don’t much care for her as a queen, but I’m glad she at least had you to talk to.”
All I could think about was the warmth in his touch, the tenderness in his voice. It was getting harder and harder to remember I was here for Valentina.
“I would always be willing to listen to anyone in need of a friend.”
“I know,” he said softly. “It’s something that makes you unique. I have a sense that even those you weren’t sure you could trust could always trust you regardless.”
I nodded. “Which is why I have to go now. I’ve said more than Valentina would have wanted me to. I’m hoping you will do me the kindness of keeping her secrets.”
“I would do anything you ask.”
I bit my lip, choosing my words carefully. “And there are others counting on me. . . . I’m afraid I’d let them all down if I stay much longer.”
His hand was still on my arm. “I wish you would all the same.”
Tears were prickling at the corners of my eyes, and a hard heaviness settled in my throat. “I don’t understand what this feeling is, why it is I can’t bring myself to stay away from you . . . but I have to. There’s so much riding on me marrying Jameson, not just for me, but for you, too. Jameson could choose to send you and your family back to Isolte if you offend him, and if things are as bad as you say, I don’t want to put your lives in danger. Scarlet means too much to me.”
“Just Scarlet?” he asked softly.
I paused. “No. You. You mean too much to me.”
In the little light the stars were granting us, I could see his eyes were glassy. “And anything that could hurt you would pain me. It seems we lose either way.”
I nodded, tears spilling over. “I believe life will give us happiness that we can’t see just yet.” I gestured to the sky. “There are stars now, little glimmers of light. But soon, the sun will come. We need only wait.”
“But you are my sun, Hollis.”
It was different from what Jameson had said about me a dozen times before. He’d said I was the sun, bright but distant, shining on everything in reach. Being Silas’s sun alone made me feel like I had a reason to rise in the first place.
“I promise to keep my distance. I won’t seek you out or speak to you anymore. And I’m sure you won’t need any more jewelry made for emergency royal visits.”
“Good. That will help.” He swallowed. “Before I never speak to you again . . . could I kiss you one more time?”
I didn’t even question the desire. I flew at him.
It was so easy, like falling into the rhythm of a dance or taking a deep breath. Kissing Silas was like something that had always been waiting for me, something I knew to do without thinking. His hands went up into my hair, holding me tight, and his lips moved feverishly, knowing we’d never be alone like this again. I gripped his shirt, pulling him in close, wanting to remember how he always smelled faintly of dying embers.
Too soon, he pulled away, looking into my eyes. “And now I must get back to my family.”
I nodded. “Goodbye, Silas Eastoffe.”
“Goodbye, Hollis Brite.”
He stepped back, falling into a deep bow, and using every last bit of willpower I had in my body, I turned and walked away.
“HOLLIS,” DELIA GRACE WHISPERED, PULLING me from sleep.
“There’s a message for you.” I glanced up to find Delia Grace standing over me, concern flashing across her face. “Goodness, your eyes are red. Have you been crying?”
In an instant, visions of the night before flooded through me.
It had taken hours for exhaustion to silence my head and even longer for it to steady my heart. I had no idea how much sleep I’d gotten, except to say it wasn’t much.
“No,” I said firmly, trying to smile. “I think something must have irritated them last night.”
Delia Grace set herself on the edge of my bed, lifting my chin so she could see them better. I didn’t like her looking so deeply into my eyes; I kept getting the feeling she knew my thoughts better than I did.
“I’m going to soak a towel in cool water, and you’re going to gently press it against your eyes. We can’t have you meeting with the king and queen like this.”
“What?” I asked.
“Sorry,” she said, shaking her head, standing to fetch a towel. “That was the message for you: King Jameson demands your presence for a meeting with King Quinten and Queen Valentina this morning.”
“Demands?” I asked, swallowing. Immediately, I thought that someone knew something, but I’d been very careful with Silas, and it was all over now. No, it must be something else.
“I think the black dress today, Delia Grace. The one with the red in the sleeves?”
She nodded. “Very nice. That’s a much more serious look. And I think we have a headdress that will do nicely. You lie down with this,” she said, bringing over the wet cloth. “I will have everything ready in no time.”
I shook my head. “What would I do without you?”
“We’ve already been over this, Hollis. You’d drown.”
I pressed the cloth onto my eyes and managed to get the swelling mostly gone. Once I put myself together, no one would even notice. I had to do little more than stand still while my hair was brushed and my dress was tied on. When it was time to head out, Nora and Delia Grace lined up behind me, my own little army. I had to admit I felt better with them by my side.