“I’ll be waiting,” Scarlet said with a brief curtsy. I nodded in reply and continued on my way.
I fought the urge and lost. Halfway down the hall, I looked back.
Silas was watching me.
He gave me a small smile, and I did the same in turn. And then we both kept walking.
You have been gone only a few days, and I already find myself longing for your company. I’m still quite overwhelmed by that contract. It made me aware of just how true everything you’d said was. Love might have gotten me to Jameson, but this life will not be as easy as I’d first hoped. After hearing how you came to the crown, I can’t imagine anyone gave you lessons in being queen. But if so, could you pass any of that wisdom on to me? Since you’ve left, I feel like I’m sinking in
“What are you writing?” Delia Grace walked past my desk, a little too close for comfort.
I crumpled up the paper. “Nothing.” I couldn’t send that to Valentina. I knew she’d understand, but I needed a way to ask that wouldn’t sound so pathetic if someone else got ahold of it.
“Are you well?” Delia Grace asked. “You look as pale as an Isolten.” She smiled at her own joke.
“I feel a little tired. Perhaps all those days of entertaining finally caught up with me.”
“You can lie to anyone else you like, Hollis, but you’re wasting your time when it comes to me.”
I looked up at her, and she was standing there with an eyebrow raised and a hand on her hip.
“Fine. It’s just . . . I thought I could turn being queen into something beautiful and fun. It seems being queen is twisting me instead. I don’t think I care for it.”
She lowered her face to mine. “You are going to have to find a way to deal with it. You’ve got it better than so many others. Your marriage isn’t arranged to some stranger, your parents aren’t sending you to a different country, you’re not twelve, for crying out loud!”
I sighed. I knew that others had it worse than I did in the husband department, but that didn’t make my own ache any less real.
I toyed with the golden dice sitting out on my table. “Did you feel sad for Valentina, then?” I asked.
She spurted out a laugh. “Didn’t you? With that old prune for a husband?”
“But was that all that made it so bad? Didn’t you see that, for all she had, she was lonely? Sad? Jameson loves me, and he will treat me better than Quinten treats her, but there are so many other little things I never considered. I’m just . . . What if, once he’s older and his love has cooled, all I’m left with is feeling like I’m another possession of the state? A crown jewel locked up in a room with no windows, only taken out when the people need their spirits lifted and good for little else?”
After a long pause, I turned to look at her, to gather her assessment of the idea, but all I found were her accusing eyes.
“Don’t do this,” she said. “If you fail, you drag me down, too. I can’t stand for it, Hollis, I won’t.”
“Would you ask me to be miserable so you could marry some reputable lord you don’t even care about so people will finally shut up about you?”
“Yes! It’s exhausting!” she lamented, bordering on tears that she refused to let fall. “I’ve lived an entire life with people whispering behind my back. And that was if they weren’t brazen enough to insult me to my face. Now I’m the principal lady for the queen, and that gives me a chance at being respected. Wouldn’t you take it if it was all you could get?”
“What if we could get something better?” I proposed.
“Better than a king? Hollis, you can’t do any better than that! And I certainly can’t do anything if you don’t follow through.” She was quiet for a moment. “What in the world has happened to you? What would make you think . . . Is there someone else?”
“No,” I replied quickly. “It’s the thought of losing . . . myself. The benefits of being queen are not lost on me. But neither are the ones of being a private person. First it was the lords and their many complaints. And then it was dealing with visiting royals. And now . . . Jameson’s promised our first daughter away.” I swallowed, hardly able to speak of it. “He could give all my children away. To anyone. To people who don’t even care about them.”
She inhaled deeply and allowed me to calm myself.
“Each challenge on its own is nothing too much to bear, but piling them on, one after another? I don’t know if I can take it.”
She shook her head and started muttering. “It should have been me.”
She stood there, glaring at me with dark eyes that managed to look icy. “I said, it should have been me!”
She started walking away, deeper into the apartments as if they were hers. I hopped up to follow her. “What are you talking about?”
She rounded back on me, leaning forward, as angry as I’d ever seen her. “If you had been paying attention to anyone but yourself, you’d have seen that I was watching Jameson very carefully. I could see he was getting bored with Hannah. I knew he’d be ready for someone new soon. All these little rudimentary lessons you were taking to prepare for Quinten’s visit? I’ve already learned it all. There are plenty of books in that castle to teach you about Coroan history or relations with Isolte and Mooreland and Catal. You were just too lazy to ever go look.” She shook her head, gazing at the sky before coming back to me. “Did you know I can speak four languages?”
“Four? No. When did you—”
“Over the last several years while you were off making dances and whining about your parents. All you ever had to do was try, and you didn’t. But I did! I was perfecting myself. You don’t even look like a proper Coroan,” she shot out.
“Everyone talks about it, about your wheat-colored hair. You’ve got Isolten in your blood. That or Bannirian. That’s part of why the lords complain. If he is going to marry a Coroan, she ought to look the part, and if he’s going to marry a foreigner, he ought to marry someone who could offer something to the crown.”
My eyes were stinging. “Well, there’s nothing you can do about it,” I spat. “It was destiny that made me fall into his arms.”
“Ha!” She countered. “No, it was my bad timing. I let go of your arms that night, Hollis.”
“No . . . we both—”
“I was trying to make you fall on your backside so I could rush over to your aid. I saw the king coming behind you and was intending to arrange a memorable meeting, one where he might be able to tell me apart from the scores of girls fawning over him. I thought if I could make an impression, he’d at least see me. But I let go at the wrong time, fell myself, and he caught you.” She said this with a bitterness that stung like arrows. “I made a mistake and erased myself from his thoughts completely.”
She raised a hand to her mouth, still looking like she might cry but never actually allowing the tears to fall. I was too stunned to respond. I knew she had designs for a better life, but I didn’t know how high they went. I didn’t know they meant to bypass me entirely. But then her eyes met mine, softer than before. Sad, desperate. I found myself feeling sorry for her more than angry at her.