“He could,” she allowed, resigned to a truth that I supposed had been a part of her since the day she married, “but my life has been a long one. I have used it to love, and I have used it to mother. I have used it in worry and in fleeing. Now I will use it to guard. I will guard Isolte by going back to it and you by leaving. So, you see, we have to go.”
The sun was giving me nothing. I could see it, I could even feel its warmth . . . but it didn’t change a thing. I turned, burying myself in her arms.
“I don’t know if I can do this alone.”
“Nonsense,” she insisted in a tone that was unmistakably motherly. “Think of all you managed to accomplish in the last few months. If anyone could manage this, it’s you. You’re a very smart young lady.”
“Then will you listen to me when I say it’s foolish to go back?”
She chuckled. “You may be right. But I can’t spend my final years in hiding. I must face my monster.”
“A monster,” I echoed. That was exactly what Quinten was. “Quite frankly, I’d rather face a dragon than be alone here.”
“I will write you so often that you will be drowning in letters. I will write even when there’s nothing worth writing about, to the point you may start to wish we were never related at all.”
“Now you’re the one talking nonsense. I love you the way I loved the rest of your family: from the first day, wholly, and without reason.”
“Stop. You’ll make me cry again, and I already hurt from doing it too much.” She kissed my head. “Now, I need to make arrangements for burials. You do as well. . . . I hope it won’t offend anyone if we don’t make a ceremony of this. I just want to put my dead to rest.”
She looked down and cleared her throat. Except for the quick outburst the night before, she’d been working hard to keep her emotions at bay. I suspected it was for my sake.
“And then,” she began again, her voice less steady than before, “we’ll see if there’s anything salvageable from the manor, and, assuming the weather is fair, we’ll leave as soon as we’re able. I need to write the Northcotts. It would probably be safest if they sent Etan to escort us. . . .”
She spoke continually throughout the day, placing all her energy into her planning, and I was awed. My pain took up too much space for me to think of anything else.
THE NORTHCOTTS RESPONDED QUICKLY, OFFERING to house Lady Eastoffe and Scarlet for as long as they should need. A date was arranged, and Etan would bring a carriage to make the journey as comfortable as possible. They seemed thankful to have a way to help at such an awful time, but the whole thing made me uneasy. If the Northcotts were in a similar position, why in the world would they collect themselves all in one place?
“They’ve made it this far by the grace of Quinten’s own arrogance and his seeming disregard for the female line. I dare say it will carry us all a little farther at least,” Lady Eastoffe speculated, though it did nothing to comfort me.
“I still think this is risky,” I huffed, crossing my arms. “Would you please consider—”
“Forgive me, mistress, but there’s a parcel for you,” Hester said, hobbling in with her sweetly slow gait. “It’s rather heavy, so it’s near the door.”
She nodded, and Lady Eastoffe and I exchanged a look. “Thank you, Hester. By the front door?”
Lady Eastoffe followed me as I made my way downstairs. I was still adjusting to being called the mistress of Varinger Hall. It felt like one more weight I had to bear, and I didn’t think I could hold much more.
“Huh,” Lady Eastoffe said. “It’s not that large. I wonder why it’s so heavy.”
On the circular table my parents usually covered with flowers sat a small chest with a letter atop it. I reached out to take the note.
“Oh,” I gasped, looking at my hands, which quickly started trembling.
“What is it?”
“The seal. It’s the royal seal.” I swallowed. “This is from King Jameson.”
“Do you need me to read it?” she offered.
“No.” I hesitated. “No, I can do this.” I broke the seal and turned the letter around, seeing the familiar handwriting. How many times had I received letters written in this hand?
My dearest Hollis,
Though you may think it unlikely after all that has passed between us, I was most heartbroken to hear about the recent death of your fiancé and parents. Anything that grieves you will always grieve me, and I write to send you my deepest condolences.
As a member of the gentry, you are, of course, entitled to an annuity. Based off the hope and assumption that you will live another fifty years, I have decided to give you the entire sum up front, as a sign of my forgiveness for any past indiscretions and my current shared sorrow.
“Oh my goodness.” I dragged the chest over and flipped it open, gasping with Lady Eastoffe at the sight of so much money.
“What is this?”
“The king offers me compensation, which is customary when a member of the gentry is widowed.”
“Even though you were only married for a few hours?” she asked incredulously.
“I told you, there are a lot of laws surrounding marriage. I think so people wouldn’t enter it lightly. But I’m a widow . . . even though Jameson only calls Silas my fiancé here.”
“I would comment on how peculiar it is, but when I think of the lists and lists of customs in Isolte, I have no room to speak.” She picked up a handful of the golden coins. “Goodness, you are rich indeed, Hollis.”
I returned to the letter.
I hope this will keep you living in a station that you are both accustomed to and deserve as a highborn lady and one of the sweetest women Coroa has ever known.
In another matter that I hope will bring you more joy and no grief, I have become very close with our friend Delia Grace. She is to be my official escort for the solstice, which is not too far off. Perhaps the festivities would draw you out of any sorrow you might be feeling as well. Come to Keresken and let us take care of you. With the loss of your parents, it must be particularly isolating out in the country, and you will be most comfortable here.
You will always have a special place in my heart, Hollis. I beg you to let me look upon you with my own eyes and see you happy once more. It would make my joy complete. I hope to see you soon.
Your humble servant,
“He also invites me to court. Soon,” I said, passing her the letter. “And it sounds as if he’s finally paired up with Delia Grace.”
“Ah! Well, that’s good news, isn’t it?”
“Yes,” I replied, though I wasn’t sure my tone was convincing. I was still sorting out my feelings when it came to Delia Grace. Sad because I missed her so much, hopeful that she might miss me. Guilty over the way things had played out in the end, and happy for her success. At least one of us could have what we wanted. “Maybe it would be good to see her again. It might be good for all of us to tie up loose ends.”
“Then I think you should go. It might do you good to have a distraction, something to look forward to, and we’ll be leaving soon ourselves. This house is beautiful, but it’s awfully big for one person.”