“Why didn’t you say anything? You’re clever enough that we could have turned his head.”
She shrugged. “I thought I’d have my chance when he got bored with you, as he seemed to do with all the ladies before. But then, the way he kept looking at you . . . I could tell something was happening, and then what could I have said? You have been my closest friend. . . . When everyone was muttering that I was a bastard, you ignored them; you stayed with me. It was the least I could do for you. I told myself that helping you would be like winning myself. That’s why I worked my way into place as your lady as quickly as I could; it would be my only chance to rise up with you. But you don’t even want it. And watching you be exalted while I’ve become your attendant is harder than I thought it would be.”
“I never meant to exalt myself,” I replied sincerely, finally understanding why she’d been so on edge these last weeks. I crossed the space between us, taking her hand. “And you aren’t a servant to me. You are my oldest, truest friend. You know more about me than anyone, and I trust you with all my secrets.”
She shook her head. “Not all of them.” Again, her eyes were searching mine, going deeper than most, trying to see what I was too frightened to show. “I know you’ve been hiding something, and I can’t figure out what’s made you suddenly want to abandon the goal every eligible woman in Coroa was aiming for.”
“If you were standing where I am, you would understand. It’s terrifying to discover that freedom is not what you thought. That love is not what you thought.”
When she spoke next, I couldn’t pinpoint her tone. Something between sympathy and anger, never really falling into one or the other. “But isn’t this worth it? Would you rather be the scandal of court? If you leave him now, you will ruin me, and worst of all, you will destroy Jameson.”
I stared off, weighing everything in my head, knowing there was no real way to win. Either I had what I wanted, or everyone else had what they did. . . .
“You’re actually considering—?” Delia Grace shook her head and went to leave.
“Wait,” I commanded her.
It was a credit to Jameson’s taste in women that I possessed the tenor to make her obey. She turned around with a huff.
“Of course I’m marrying Jameson. For a long time now, there’s been no other choice for me. So, if Jameson has settled upon me, then you must already have an alternate in mind. You’ve planned everything else. So give me a name.”
She squinted at me. “What do you mean?”
“Who do you want?”
She didn’t have to think. “Alistair Farrow. Good estate, a respected name, but not so high up that he’d be in a position to turn me down should you arrange something.”
“Do you love him?”
“Don’t be stupid, Hollis. Love is the final course at a feast that I’m still waiting to be invited to.”
I nodded. “Then it’s done.” I pressed nonexistent wrinkles out of my dress and went back to my stack of papers, still unsure of what to say to Valentina.
“Wait, Hollis?” I looked to Delia Grace, who was standing there bewildered. “What about Jameson? Do you love him?”
“In a way,” I admitted. “I love that he is happier when I’m near. And even if my parents are disappointed in me, I love them. And even if you’re angry with me, I love you. With everything that’s happened, I love you.”
There was silence and a decade of memories floating between us. Beyond anyone, Delia Grace had supported and cared for me through every moment of the last ten years. She had a most precious place in my heart.
“So it’s time to let everything else go. And when Jameson proposes, I will marry. For love.”
“CROWNING DAY,” NORA SAID, BURSTING into the room later that same afternoon. “He’s proposing on Crowning Day, after the ceremony.”
“Are you sure?” I asked.
She nodded, crossing to Delia Grace. “Lord Warrington’s wife said her husband has been whining about it in private. She’s quite supportive of you, actually, but Lord Warrington thinks that Jameson should marry for international advantage.”
“Well, he’s in the minority now. Ever since that stunt with Valentina and the crowns, everyone’s started backing Hollis.” Delia Grace’s words were tinged with sadness, though nothing that sounded bitter. It was much easier to be around her now, knowing everything. “The sooner the king proposes, the better. Once you’re queen, no one in their right mind will oppose you,” she said to me, adding a tiny smile at the end.
Nora came over and grabbed my hands. “Congratulations,” she said, tilting her head.
“That’s very sweet, but maybe let’s wait for the actual ring.”
She laughed, then sighed, pulling her hands back. “So that’s two days away. We need to finally get the dance together, and put the finishing touches on your dress. . . . I wonder if the king will send more jewels for you.”
I turned back to the mirror as she went on with her list of wonders and concerns. I sat as Delia Grace brushed my hair out, neither of us quite able to muster any excitement.
“And one, two, three, turn!” Delia Grace called, spinning back to back with Nora. With all that we had to do for the recent visit from King Quinten, there was no time left to prepare for Crowning Day the way I would have in the past. In the end, the dance was mostly pieces from ones we already knew but arranged differently; not even Delia Grace, with all her skills, could combat time. Still, it would be pretty, and everyone was moving together so nicely. Scarlet was with me, turning to the bright sound of the violin.
“Are you having fun?” I asked, though her wide smile gave her away completely.
“I am. I miss many things about home,” she began. “The food, the scent of the air. But I do love that you all dance here almost nightly. Back in Isolte, we only dance on special days, for tournaments and things.”
“Well, you’re a Coroan now,” I said, touching her wrist to mine and walking in a circle. “We’ll have to catch you up on years and years of dancing. Though maybe Delia Grace would be a better instructor. She’s always been the superior dancer.”
Delia Grace gave us a thin smile before doing her next steps. “Not quite good enough,” she mumbled.
Scarlet looked at me with questioning eyes, but I just shook my head. It was far too much to explain, especially considering the role her brother played in it all.
We went through, step by step, making sure everyone knew the moves by heart; all eyes would be on us, so we couldn’t make a mistake.
Luckily for us, Scarlet was a natural. Though we had to go over steps multiple times for her to commit them to memory, when she performed them, there was an easy grace to the movements.
“So beautiful, Scarlet. You made me think you danced so rarely that you might struggle. The way you move your hands is particularly lovely.”
“Thank you,” she said as we moved. “Honestly, I think it may come from using a sword.”
“Your brother didn’t mention your skill with a sword,” I commented, still going through the steps. If he had, I would have remembered. I’d been working hard to banish Silas Eastoffe from my thoughts, but I couldn’t forget all our tiny moments together, all the things he’d said. If pressed, I could recall the entirety of our conversations.