“You are perfection brought to life,” the king said, holding out his arms to greet me. I noted the chalice in his hand, amber ale spilling from one side. “I absolutely love the flowers. Are they glittering?”
“Amazing. Lord Allinghan, did you see sweet Hollis’s flowers? Aren’t they beautiful?” He didn’t wait for an answer but lowered his voice to continue talking to me. “We’ll have to do this for the wedding. Don’t you think?” His tone was higher than I’d ever heard it before, trilling into a frenzy.
“You are giddy, my lord.”
He laughed wildly. “I am! Ah, I’m having the best of days. Aren’t you?”
My lips may have been trembling when I answered. “Every day is the best one I’ve had until I meet tomorrow.”
He gracelessly brushed my hair back. “For you, I believe that’s true. So beautiful. You will look so lovely with your face printed on a coin, don’t you think? I’ve decided you will be on a coin, by the way. Are you well? You seem out of sorts.”
I couldn’t guess how my face looked, but it clearly wasn’t as happy as he was expecting. “Perhaps it’s the heat. Might I step outside for a moment? Catch my breath?”
“Of course.” He bent to kiss my cheek. “Come back soon. I want everyone to see you. And”—he chuckled, the sound coming across ever so slightly mad—“I have an announcement when you get back.”
I nodded, thankful for the many lords who always clung to the king like bees to honey. It made it easy to turn and run. I must have looked ridiculous, dodging elbows and weaving through couples, but it felt like my lungs were about to burst and I had to—had to—get out of that room. I wasn’t sure where to go. My ladies would find me in my rooms, or even my parents’ quarters. I could wander the castle, but there were still too many people here, with nobles coming into the palace just to be present for this feast. I turned then, making my way to the side entrance where dozens of carriages were waiting to take their masters home once the festivities had died out. I propped myself up against the side of one such carriage and allowed myself to cry.
I told myself to get it all out now. Jameson would expect smiles when I returned, smiles for the rest of my life. But how would I ever stop crying, knowing I was going to marry one man while ignoring the distinct calling of my heart toward another?
I turned and saw, under the light of all the torches, that Silas was hiding out here, too, and that he had been crying as well. We looked at each other for a moment, both shocked and amused, and then laughed to find one another out here.
I wiped at my eyes as he did the same. “I’m a bit overwhelmed by the celebration,” I lied.
“As am I.” He pointed up. “A flower crown.”
I shrugged. “You’re leaving soon. I thought . . . I thought this might be the way you want to remember me.”
“Hollis—” He broke his words off with a shudder, looking as if he was building up courage. “Hollis, even in the night, you are still my sun, bringing light to my world.”
I was so thankful for this brief moment of privacy. “I hope you and your family finally find peace. And know you will always have a friend at court, should you ever have need.”
He stared at me for a long time before reaching into his pocket. “I made you something,” he said, unfolding a piece of fabric.
“Not a sword?”
There was a small chuckle. “One day. But for now, I thought this would be fitting.”
He pulled out a broach with a huge golden stone that glimmered in the firelight.
“What is that?”
“It’s called a citrine. If you, Hollis Brite, were a star, you’d be the sun. If you were a bird, you’d be a canary. And if you were a stone, you’d be a citrine.”
I looked at the gem, unable to wipe the smile from my face. It shone even in the darkness, with tiny pears surrounding the base of the whole stone, all set in gold.
He reached up, taking the bodice of my dress in his hands, the backs of his fingers against my skin. “I wish I could give you so much more.”
“Please don’t go,” I whispered even though we were alone. “At least stay at the castle so I can talk to you from time to time. The king doesn’t want me to speak or to think or, perhaps, even to care. I don’t want to be an ornament with no one to turn to.”
“I have to go with my family,” he vowed. “We’re stronger when we’re together, and, though I’m sure I will ache for you until I die, I could never live with myself if I abandoned them.”
I nodded. “And I could never live with myself if I was the cause for you abandoning them.”
He brought his lips close and spoke in whispers, raking his fingers through my hair. “Come with us,” he pleaded. “I would love you without condition. I cannot offer you a palace or a title, but I can offer you a home where you will be treasured for exactly who you are.”
I was left so breathless it was hard to get the words out. “And who exactly am I?”
“Don’t be silly,” he breathed with an easy smile. “You’re Hollis Brite. You dance and sing, but you ask questions, too. You battle with ladies on boats, but you provide for those around you. You love to laugh, but you’re learning about sorrow. You are loved by a king but can see him as a mortal. You met a foreigner and treated him like a friend. In a short time, that’s what I’ve seen. To know everything you are would take years to study, but you are the only person in the world I truly want to know.”
Tears came again then. Not because of sadness or fear, but because someone had seen me. He saw me and took me as I was. He was right, there was so much more, but good or bad, he was willing to take me.
“I want to go with you, but I cannot. Surely you understand that. If we were even seen now, my reputation would be ruined! I could never come back to court.”
“Why on earth would you want to?”
And in that instant, I realized I never wanted to be within an arm’s length of a crown so long as I lived. Everything that had been constant in my life now was vividly superfluous. It was intoxicatingly freeing to see it now for what it was: a bunch of empty nothing.
“Come away,” he asked again. “Even if your reputation is ruined, you will be beloved by my family. You would make losing my country, my home, everything, all worth it. To know there was one good thing I could dedicate my days to, to live with and for . . . you would change my world.”
I stared deep into the eyes of Silas Eastoffe . . . and I knew. I had to go with him. Yes, love was a part of it—a huge, sweeping part that I’d been terrified to own up to—but that nameless thing drawing in my chest calmed when I decided I would go wherever he did.
“Ready the horses,” I said. “And tell your family. If I’m not back in thirty minutes, you should run without me.”
“Tonight?” he asked, in shock.
“Yes. There’s something I have to do. If it doesn’t work, I’m trapped, and you should go for your own safety. If it does, we need to leave now.”
Silas nodded. “I’ll be here in thirty minutes.”