People milled about the hallways and the Great Room, and I walked up to the guards by the king’s door without hesitation. “I have been summoned by His Majesty.”
“Yes, my lady,” the guard replied. “He’s expecting you.”
He held the door for me but stopped Delia Grace and Nora before they could follow.
“This is private, ladies,” he said, and I watched helplessly as we were separated by the large wooden door.
I steadied myself with a deep breath as I walked in to find Jameson and King Quinten sitting at a table with papers laid out before them. A few others stood against the wall, holy men and members of the privy council, all poring over books of the law or other notes. The most surprising addition to the party was my parents, who hadn’t spoken to me since my lessons the other day.
I briefly took in their smug expressions before Jameson leaped to his feet to greet me.
“My own heart!” he sang, holding out his arms. “Are you well today?”
“I am.” I hoped he couldn’t feel my trembling hands. “I feel I’ve scarcely gotten to see you these past few days, so merely being in your presence brings me joy.”
It used to be so easy to flatter Jameson, to say the words I knew would cheer him. Now it felt like chewing gravel to get those lines out.
He smiled, caressing my cheek. “You are right; I’ve been very occupied, and I promise to make it up to you once our guests leave. Come, stand by my chair.”
I followed and dutifully took my place. It was difficult to feel comfortable, however, with King Quinten sneaking disapproving glances at me.
“At least yours arrives on time,” he muttered.
Not a second later, the last member of our party, Valentina, dashed into the room. She kept her hand positioned over her stomach.
“My deepest apologies,” she began calmly. “I was . . . indisposed.”
King Quinten seemed satisfied with that and turned his attention back to Jameson. “So you say your wedding will be when?”
Jameson smiled. “I didn’t. There are some details I’m finalizing,” he said, raising his hand to touch mine where it rested on the back of his chair. “But you will be getting news of my plans soon enough.”
Quinten nodded at this. “And you’re sure she is from good stock?”
I tried to keep my face steady. I didn’t like being spoken of like a horse—a horse who was clearly in the room, at that.
Jameson straightened in his chair. “Are your eyes failing? All you need do is look at her.”
Unimpressed, Quinten nodded toward my parents. “Didn’t they say she was the only one? What if she is barren? Or only gives you a single child?”
I saw the skin above Jameson’s collar turning a disturbing shade of red. I placed my hand on his shoulder and addressed the king myself.
“Your Majesty, you yourself ought to know that a man with a single child is not diminished in any way. He is merely . . . focused on that single heir.”
Jameson smirked up at me. None of us could call Hadrian a smashing success, but who did this man think he was, coming after children who hadn’t yet been dreamed up when his was knocking on the door of the Reaper?
Quinten’s eyes were cold, obviously displeased. “You were not invited to speak.”
“I value all opinions of the Lady Hollis,” Jameson insisted, though this was contradictory to what he’d told me the other day. “Her joy in life and curious mind are some of her most treasured attributes.”
Quinten rolled his eyes. Valentina had told me to be thankful for what I had, and I tried to appreciate that Jameson at least had the kindness to lie about how important I was.
“Her reply alone ought to be proof enough of her health, not just in mind and spirit, but in body as well.” Jameson spoke with such passion, it was easy to see how I’d fallen for him. I hoped it would be enough to make me do it again. “I trust that Hollis will produce a fine heir for Coroa with a half dozen to spare.”
I looked away, tucking my hair behind my ears. What had been insulting a moment ago was now agonizingly personal. And of all the things to be discussing, why were we talking about my potential for bearing children?
Quinten kept looking me over, measuring me in his mind as if I were for sale. “And your choice is unswayable?” he asked as if he hoped Jameson had another lover hidden in the North Wing somewhere.
Jameson looked up at me, his dark eyes so adoring. Pangs of guilt flooded my heart, because there was a part of me wishing he’d had a lover as well. “My affection for Hollis is fixed and irrevocable. If you want me to sign this, then you need to know her signature will be beside mine.”
The shame came in waves, crashing again and again. He’d put me in the queen’s rooms, and he’d let me wear jewels reserved for royalty, and here he was, ready to put my name on a matter of state.
A holy man raised his hand, and Jameson nodded at him to speak.
“Your Majesty, while you have made your intentions clear as regards Lady Hollis, by law you cannot put her name on the document before you are married.”
Jameson huffed. “This is a ridiculous triviality. She’s as good as my wife.”
My stomach roiled, and I was grateful I hadn’t eaten yet.
You already knew he was going to marry you, I told myself. But still . . . he had never said it like that before. Like there was no way out.
I waited for the voice in my head to tell me I was wrong, that there was a way I could still please my parents, still elevate Delia Grace, still protect the Eastoffes, and still be a faithful subject to Jameson without a ring and a crown. It never came.
“Your ancestors had good intent,” the holy man insisted, “but if we wished to change it, by law we would have to wait for the next meeting of the lords and holy men, and that wouldn’t be until early fall. For now, we must obey the law. For if we undo one . . .”
“We undo them all,” Jameson huffed. It was the same rhyme I’d learned as a child, the reason we studied every little rule passed down, not wanting to break a single one, because it was as good as breaking all of them. “If the law says to wait, then we shall wait.”
“Agreed,” King Quinten added, for the first time adding a hint of reverence to his tone. Isolte was a land of many laws itself, though I didn’t know theirs at all. At least to this, we all consented: the law was the law. “Let it have our names only, so the treaty is set. Once Hadrian is married, he and his wife can sign it, along with you and yours, in an amendment added, say, this time next year.”
Jameson nodded heartily. “Agreed. And seeing as it’s your line this affects most directly, the contract should go with you. We will make the journey to sign it next year.”
I squinted. What arrangement was being made that it involved Prince Hadrian?
“So let us both be in agreement,” Jameson stated firmly, looking directly at King Quinten. “Our eldest daughter will go to the eldest son of Prince Hadrian, but only if we also produce a son to have a direct male heir. But because girls are not passed over in succession in Coroa, if we only have girls, our second-oldest daughter shall be his bride instead. Is that acceptable?”
I felt my knees go weak. He was signing away our children? He was giving them to Isolte? I gripped the back of his chair tightly, trying to keep myself upright.