“We won’t shelter you,” he said, his chest puffed up. “Our masters hated your kind, and they—”
“Do you think any of that matters now?” Hester spat back. “They’re dead. And Lady Hollis is the mistress of this house now, so you’d better get used to taking your orders from her. These are her people, and they will be fed and taken care of.”
“She’s right,” someone else muttered. “Lady Hollis is the mistress of the house now.”
“I’ll see you to the drawing room,” Hester said.
“Thank you. Come on, my girl. Up we go.” Lady Eastoffe pulled me to my feet, and we dragged ourselves into the main drawing room, thankful for the fireplace. I crashed onto the ground closest to it, warming my aching hands. Scarlet was crying so quietly, only occasionally making a sound, and I didn’t blame her. There was so much to feel. Sorrow for what we’d lost, guilt for being spared, fear of what might come next.
“It will be all right,” Mother whispered to Scarlet, stroking her hair. “We will make a new home, I promise.”
Scarlet leaned her head into her mother, and I could sense that this promise was not enough to undo what had just happened. My eyes flicked up to Lady Eastoffe, and I could see her gaze was unfixed, staring into nothing. She had the sense to make me stay put, she had the perseverance to make us get up and walk, and I had no doubt she would carry us both through the next few days . . . but I could see she was shaken, changed. This thing they said they’d been preparing for had come, and now she was left with the heartbreaking aftermath.
“Why would they do this?” I asked again, not really expecting any more of an answer. “They killed everyone save Scarlet, lit a fire, and took nothing. I don’t understand.”
Lady Eastoffe closed her eyes and drew in a labored breath. “Unfortunately, dear Hollis, we do.”
I looked up at Lady Eastoffe. “This has happened to you before, hasn’t it?”
“Not like this,” she said, shaking her head and finally settling herself into a chair. “But we’ve lost people before. And goods. Been scared out of our home. . . . I just didn’t think the threat would follow us here.”
I shook my head. “You’re going to have to explain better than that.”
She sighed, trying to steady herself, when the staff came scurrying in carrying trays and towels and large bowls of water. A maid placed a plate with bread and pears beside me, though I didn’t think I could stomach anything at the moment. Lady Eastoffe thanked the maids as she dipped her hands in the water, washing dirt and ash from her face.
As soon as they were gone, she turned back to me.
“Do you remember our first day at the castle?”
It brought a weak smile to my lips, even as silent tears slid down my face. “I’ll never forget it.”
“When King Jameson recognized our name, I was sure one of two things was going to happen. Either he was going to unceremoniously punish us . . . perhaps put us in a tower or kick us out altogether. Or he was going to collect us, have us be one of his most visible families at court, constantly in service. I was shocked when he was willing to let us eventually settle wherever we wanted, that he let us settle at all.”
“But why would he do either of those things?”
She rested her head on the high-backed chair, staring at the ceiling. “Because things like that tend to happen to those on the fringes of royalty.”
I stared at her, trying to make sense of the words. “Royalty?”
“This is a bit of an untidy history,” she started, leaning forward. “I’ll try to keep it simple. King Quinten is the direct descendant of Jedreck the Great. The crown was passed to Jedreck’s firstborn son, and Quinten is of that line, so the crown has been his. But Jedreck the Great had three sons and four daughters.
“Some married into other royal lines, some chose a quiet life of service to the crown, and others have died off, complete dead ends. The Eastoffe family is one of the branches of that family tree that still lives. The direct descendants of the fifth-born child, Auberon. The ring on your finger was his, given to him by his father, the king.”
I looked down at the sapphire, completely well matched to Isolten blue, and I considered this. I couldn’t find a single memory of our time together to support such a story.
“Besides Quinten and Hadrian, obviously, and us, there is only one other family that belongs to the Pardus line: the Northcotts. Do you remember them?”
I nodded. Etan had made an unfortunately unforgettable impression on me. There was no way that boy had a drop of regal blood in him.
“Between our three families lie the remnants of the royal line, of anyone else living who could have a claim to the throne. But . . . seeing as male heirs are usually the most viable, and my husband and sons . . . my sons . . .” She burst into tears, weeping uncontrollably. I bet she had wells and wells of tears. I certainly did.
Scarlet balled herself up into a tighter knot on her chair, feeling her own deep and dark grief; she’d seen too much today. So I was the one who jumped up and wrapped my arms around her mother.
“I’m so sorry.”
“I know,” she sobbed, holding me back. “And so am I. For your sake. To be orphaned so young. I’m so sorry, Hollis. I never would have agreed to any of this if I thought you were in danger. I thought they’d leave us be.”
“But who are these Darkest Knights?” I asked, remembering that even Silas didn’t have a definite answer for that. “Who would do this to you?”
“Who would be the only person wanting to eliminate any disputes for a throne?” she asked.
The answer came to my mind instantly, though I couldn’t entertain it as a possibility. “Certainly not your king.”
Then again, it didn’t seem so impossible once I considered it. The very memory of King Quinten gave me a chill. He was the one who kept Valentina isolated, who forced his ailing son to be front and center at everything though it clearly pained the boy. If he treated people he supposedly cared about so poorly, then what would stop him from treating everyone else worse?
“A few weeks before we left Isolte, we went to the castle to visit the king and celebrate his twenty-fifth year on the throne. You saw firsthand how old and vain he is. You saw how he torments those closest to him. But you certainly don’t want to risk crossing him. So, even though we’d much rather have stayed home, we went. I don’t think we concealed our exhaustion at these expositions well enough.
“When we came back home, all of our animals were slaughtered. It wasn’t done by a wolf or bear, we could tell by the wounds. And our servants . . .” She paused to swallow down another wave of tears. “The ones who were left said that men in black capes came and took the others, forcing them into chains. There were a few who fought back, and we found their bodies piled under a tree.
“It was deliberate timing and a very strong message. He can’t stand a threat to his line, which looks like it will die off very soon indeed. The Northcotts have the highest claim now. Some could have argued they’ve had the highest claim all along. I suspect he will go for them next. . . .
“But the Northcotts have been smart. You saw they were present when Quinten and Valentina came to visit. They never miss an event, making a point to stay on his good side, if such a thing exists. And though they have lost things themselves, they refused to be scared off by it. They might be harder for Quinten to move than he would guess.”