“Practicing moving in a gown with a heavy piece of metal in your hand will make you light on your feet.”
I laughed. “I suppose. Come to think of it, Silas danced with me recently, and he did a wonderful job.” Stop talking about him, Hollis. It isn’t helping. “Perhaps it’s also a family trait.”
“Perhaps.” She spun around. “My family is very important to me. We’re all we have left now.”
There was something slightly accusatory in her tone. “That’s not true. You’re doing so well.”
She shook her head as we went through the moves a final time. “You must realize we are not completely welcome here. Our former king views us as traitors, we have to work now, which is fine but new. . . . No one outside our family truly understands what we’re going through. I wouldn’t want anyone hurting my family . . . even if it came from a place of love.” She looked up at me from under blond lashes, her eyes pleading.
I swallowed. I wondered if he’d told or if she just knew. Scarlet and Delia Grace seemed to have a skill for that, for knowing things. I spoke softly, hoping the violin would mask my words. “Please believe me when I say, I would never intentionally hurt your family.”
“Intent doesn’t matter if it happens anyway.”
I inhaled sharply, looking around to make sure no one was within earshot. “You have nothing to worry about. Besides, I’ve learned that Jameson plans to propose at the celebration for Crowning Day.”
She sighed in relief. “Well, that’s good. And we’ll be leaving soon after, anyway.”
I dropped my hands. “What?”
Delia Grace and Nora went through the moves, though their eyes were decidedly fixed on us. Scarlet looked at their curious faces before turning back to me.
“I . . . I told you,” she began quietly. “That was always the plan. We want to live a quiet life, a life that belongs to us. Finally.” She breathed the last word as if she were very tired. “Since we arrived, we’ve been making inquiries for property, and we’ve found a manor with good lands out in the country. We’ve been receiving commissions for work, and it looks like we’d be able to support ourselves, with or without income from the land. We’re leaving.”
I clutched my hands in front of me and worked to pull a smile to my face. “Valentina made me aware of how . . . strenuous court life in Isolte can be. It’s no wonder you long for the peace of the country. How lucky am I to get to show you off at least once before you go? Come, let’s finish our practice.”
I was exhausted, unable to put anything into the dance beyond the basic moves. And once we finished, I wordlessly walked through my apartments to the back rooms. I’d never done anything like that before, and everyone was wise enough to understand that meant I didn’t want to be followed.
Settling in on a seat beneath a window, I looked out over the river, over the sprawling city, to the plains in the distance as far as my eyes would reach. Somewhere past that line, the Eastoffes would make their home. I told myself this was a good thing. If Silas left, it would remove all temptation to speak to him, to ruin the brightest thing in my life. It would make it so much easier to see Jameson anew, to remember how he loved to lavish me with gifts and affection.
This was someone removing my shoe and taking the pebble out; I would walk steadier from here on out.
So it made no sense that I sat there, taking in the best view the palace could offer, crying until my tears ran dry.
WHEN I WOKE UP ON Crowning Day, it didn’t feel like it usually did. It was so very average. Plain weather, plain sun, plain me.
“Hollis,” Delia Grace said quietly, pulling back the curtains on my poster bed. “You have a delivery.”
“My guess is it’s for tonight. No ordinary old headdress would do for you, would it?” she said, a pang of longing bleeding into her voice. With a sad but resolute smile, she held out a hand to help me from the bed.
“Have you opened the box yet?”
She shook her head. “It’s only just arrived, and we’d never open something for you, my lady.”
I gave her a weak smile. “Very well.” She held out a robe, and I stepped into it. “Let’s go take a look,” I said as I marched over and opened the box.
The sight of three perfect crowns set in black velvet was enough to leave me breathless. I ran my fingers over them, taking in how unique they were. The first was mostly gold and looked similar to the Crown of Estus, while the other two were much more bejeweled. The second was primarily covered in rubies that suited Coroan red, and the final was much more pointed and covered in diamonds.
“The third is my favorite,” Nora insisted. “But you’d look stunning in any of them.”
“What do you think, Hollis?” Delia Grace asked. “The first one looks like—”
“The Crown of Estus,” I finished. “I thought that, too.”
“You’d match. That sends a message.”
It certainly would. But I smiled to myself, remembering an old conversation with Silas. There was a language to our clothes, our choices, one others could choose to listen to or ignore.
“I won’t be wearing any of these. Don’t send them back, though,” I ordered. “I want my choice to be a surprise.”
“The jealous side of me is reluctant to admit this,” Delia Grace began, “but I think you may stop hearts tonight.”
“Do you like it?”
“It suits you. Better than any of those stuffy crowns would have, for sure.” She moved beside me to look in the mirror, and I couldn’t help but think she was right; this was me.
Silas had once made a joke about me belonging in a crown of flowers, and now I was wearing the biggest and most fragrant blooms I could find atop my head. I’d even managed to stick a few pins with jewels on it to hold it to my hair, and they caught the light, making it all the more special.
I didn’t think I’d ever love a crown as much as this one, and I’d only be able to wear it once.
Beside me, I could see Delia Grace’s shoulders sinking. She, too, had flowers in her hair, though none quite so dazzling as mine. It was yet another instance where Delia Grace was forced to accept having things one step below mine. I thought it must really be bothering her now, in the moment she had to accept her hopes for the crown were truly over.
“I need you to know,” I said, “that if your plan had worked, if it had been you, I’d have done my absolute best to attend you. Though I don’t think anyone could have done what you have in these last few weeks. Honestly, Delia Grace, I’ll never be able to thank you enough.”
She rested her head against mine. “Just wrap Lord Farrow up in a nice big ribbon, and that’ll do.”
I giggled. “Absolutely. If I can, I’ll see that you are married before I am.”
“You’ve spent a long time waiting for things to happen. So long as you’re pleased with him, I can’t see a reason to wait.”
She crushed me in a hug, her eyes welling up. I hadn’t seen her cry since we were thirteen, after a particularly terrible bout of being teased. She vowed after that no one would see her cry again. If she’d ever so much as let a tear slip, I never knew about it.