I squinted. “The Northcotts have been attacked by the Darkest Knights, too? So this . . . army of sorts is not so anonymous as some people think? They’re definitely the king’s men?”
“I don’t see how they could be otherwise,” she replied with a tired shrug.
I sat there, perched on the arm of the chair, arms still stretched out to Lady Eastoffe. “Then your king is not only vain but foolish. If he has no heirs and he murders those who might lay claim to the crown, won’t it fall into the hands of some unknown? Or worse, your country could be annexed if it is without a leader to defend it.”
She patted my hand. “You have more wisdom than he does. Alas, you do not have as much power. So now, Scarlet and I are without a country, without a home, and without a family.” She pressed her lips together, fighting more tears.
The events of a single evening had torn so many lives to shreds. Would I ever recover from it? Would she?
I looked down at my tiny hands. Too small to save anything, too weak to push back a horrific assault. But on my finger was a ring. I looked at the shining blue stone, remembering now that Lady Eastoffe had told me it was worn by a great man. And I looked at the plainer one on my left hand, the one that somehow seemed infinitely more valuable.
“You are not without family,” I said. She raised her eyes to me. “I married into it today, so you have me. It’s as binding as any law could be. And, despite my parents’ qualms, I am their only heir. This house and property are mine. So they also belong to my family.” She smiled, and even Scarlet perked up for a moment. “You are not lost.”
FOR ONE BEAUTIFUL SECOND AS I woke, I didn’t remember what had happened. It was only after rubbing my eyes and realizing that the sun was hovering around midday that I recalled how I had walked into my house sometime near sunrise. I also realized I was on the floor. Looking up, I saw Lady Eastoffe and Scarlet were on my bed. After pushing my dresser up against the door, we’d all settled down for a moment to think, but thinking turned into sleep within moments.
My parents were gone. Sullivan was gone. Lord Eastoffe. Little Saul.
What was the last thing Silas had said to me? He’d said, “Good.” I’d told him he was going to have a spoiled wife, and he was quite pleased by the prospect. I tried to hold on to that moment. In that image, a hint of my veil was in the corner because I’d looked back over my shoulder. His smile was impish, as if he were planning things I didn’t have the imagination to build up on my own. “Good,” he’d said. “Good.”
“I’ve had a thought.” Lady Eastoffe had stirred and was moving quietly from the bed, leaving Scarlet to rest.
“Oh, thank goodness,” I sighed.
“I can’t guarantee it’s a good one, mind you, but it might be all we can do.” She settled next to me on the floor, and I couldn’t help but think that, even in her rumpled, mourning state, she looked so poised. “I think Scarlet and I need to go. And I think you need to stay here and start your life.”
“What?” My heart started pounding. “You’d abandon me?”
“No,” she insisted, cradling my face. “I’d protect you. The only way I can ensure that your life will not be in jeopardy is to distance myself from you as quickly and widely as I can. I cannot be sure that King Quinten will not come again once he finds me alive, even though I am old, and neither Scarlet nor I could hope to hold the throne. He will always be a shadow over my shoulder. The only way you will be safe is if I’m anywhere that you aren’t.”
I looked away, trying to find holes in her logic.
“You’ve inherited quite an estate, darling girl. Take your time to mourn and then, when you find someone new—”
“I will never find someone new.”
“Oh, Hollis, you are so young. There’s so much ahead of you. Have a life, have children. It’s the most any of us can hope for in such dark days. If my leaving means keeping you away from what happened last night, then I do it happily.
“But please know,” she pleaded as she ran her hand down my dirty hair, “that being parted from you will be as difficult to bear as being parted from my sons.”
I tried to find the good in this, in being left behind. The only thing I could see in it was that she loved me as much as I loved her, as much as I suspected we both had for a while. And that was something, in the middle of so much sorrow: to know that I was loved.
“Where will you settle?”
She looked at me as if I’d missed something. “Back in Isolte,” she said matter-of-factly.
Oh. When she said she was going, she really meant it.
“Are you mad?” I shot back a little too loudly. Scarlet stirred and rolled over, still asleep. “If you are so certain your king is trying to kill you, won’t going back make it all too easy for him to finish the job?”
She shook her head. “I think not. It may not be written into law, but Isolte tradition states that it’s males who count when it comes to royal succession. That is why our line is so much more threatening than that of the Northcotts: they are descended from one of Jedreck’s daughters. But”—she paused, thinking of all the little details—“she was the firstborn, and that sometimes holds weight in Isolte. In the past, there were pockets of people who favored her son, Swithun, and her line has been so strong and upstanding, which couldn’t be said for many of the other lines before they died off. . . . .”
Her eyes suddenly went somewhere else, as if looking at a picture in the ground I could not see. “I think the king hasn’t bothered with the Northcotts as they’ve managed to nearly cut off the line without much help. . . .” She blinked a few times, coming back to her point.
“Dashiell and I raised our children to know who they were, whose blood they carried, and how that made them enemies of the king. They understood why we set guards outside their doors some nights, why we visited the castle to pay homage for even the smallest event in King Quinten’s life. If Scarlet and I die, it will be with honor. If you die? It’s because of our association. That would be too much for me to carry.”
I stood, moving to the window. Mother always said that when you absolutely must make a decision, do it in sunlight. As a child I thought it was her way of making me wait for answers that she never wanted to give, ones I always seemed to ask before bed. But sometimes I still did it. I hoped it would clear any clouds in my mind.
“Do you intend to just march up to King Quinten? Tell him you’re his faithful servant after he just murdered your family?”
“Indeed, I do.” She closed her eyes for a moment, taking her own words in. “I will confirm his hopes that the male line has ended, and then I will swear my loyalty. Even if it wouldn’t save you, I think we’d have to go back. For better or for worse, Isolte is our home, and I want to protect it, try to save what good there is while there’s still time. Because one day, that wicked old man will die. He will die and leave a fractured kingdom, and I would be shocked if anyone could muster the will to mourn him.
“It’s risky. He could kill you on sight and truly end your line. Have you considered that?”