The Betrothed

Page 7

The next morning, I awoke feeling anything but refreshed. My mind had been racing through the night, and all I wanted to do was talk through each of my thoughts and pull at the threads until I found the answers tied up at the end of one.

I still couldn’t believe that Jameson might truly want to make me his queen. But the more I considered whether it was a real possibility, the more exciting the thought became. If I could just do something to make the people comfortable with me as a choice, I, too, could be adored. People could kiss the places I’d visited, like Queen Honovi, or have festivals for me, like Queen Albrade. Save for Queen Thenelope, who’d been royal in her own right, every other queen had been a Coroan girl, like me. They’d all come from good families, all been embraced, all left a mark on history. . . . Maybe that could be me, too.

Delia Grace walked in carrying a handful of books while I was still hugging my knees to my chest in bed.

“Do you think becoming queen means you get to sleep in all the time now?” she joked. I could hear the hint of a bite to her words but decided not to address it.

“I didn’t sleep well.”

“Well, I hope you’re ready to work regardless. We have a lot to cover.” She went to the vanity and nodded at it, her way of instructing me to come and sit.

“Like what?” I walked over, letting her pull my hair off my face.

“When it comes to dancing and entertaining, I believe you can top any lady at court. But your understanding of international relations is weak, and if you want to convince the lords of the council that you are a serious choice, you need to be able to speak to them about politics of the court.”

I gulped. “Agreed. So, what do we do? I feel like if I have to sit through a lesson with a stuffy old tutor, I might just die.”

Delia Grace placed her pins quickly, pulling the top section of my hair into a simple bun while leaving the rest of it down. “I can help you. I have some books, and anything I don’t have, the king would certainly provide.”

I nodded. If Jameson really intended to take me as a bride, he’d want me as educated as possible.

“And languages,” Delia Grace added. “You need to learn at least one more.”

“I’m rotten with languages! How am I . . .” I sighed. “You’re probably right. If we ever visit Catal, I don’t want to be completely lost.”

“How solid is your geography?” she asked.

“Solid enough. Let me get dressed.” I hopped up to go to my armoire.

“Might I suggest Coroan red?”

I wiggled a finger at her. “Good thinking.”

I tried to consider other small, strategic things we could do to curry favor, but, as Delia Grace had so astutely pointed out, I was much more gifted at entertaining than planning. As she cinched up the last string of my kirtle, a knock came at the door.

She tied off the knot and went to answer it as I looked at myself in the mirror, making sure everything was straight before my company came in.

Lord Seema was standing there, his expression looking as if he’d recently been eating a lemon.

I sank into a curtsy, hoping my shock didn’t show on my face. “My lord. To what do I owe this honor?”

He wrung his fingers back and forth over the paper in his hands. “My Lady Hollis. It has not escaped my notice that you have gained the king’s special attention in recent weeks.”

“I’m not sure about that,” I hedged. “His Majesty has been very kind to me, but that’s all I can really say.”

He glanced around the room, looking like he wished he had another gentleman to share the moment with. Finding no one worthy, he sighed and went on. “I can’t tell if you are playing ignorant or if you truly can’t tell. Either way, you do have his attention, and I was hoping you might do me a favor.”

My eyes darted to Delia Grace, who raised her eyebrows as if to say, “Go on!” I clasped my hands in front of me, hoping to look modest and attentive. If I needed to learn about the politics of court, I supposed this was as firsthand a lesson as I was going to get.

“I can’t make any promises, sir, but please, tell me why you’ve come.”

Lord Seema unfolded his papers and handed them over to me. “As you know, Upchurch County is at the farthest edge of Coroa. To get there or to Royston or Bern, you have to take some of the oldest roads in the country, the ones made as our ancestors slowly worked their way toward the forests and fields at the end of our territory.”

“Yes,” I said, and, for what it was worth, I did remember that little bit of Coroan history.

“As such, these roads are in the greatest need of repair. I have fine carriages, and even they struggle. You can imagine the strain this puts on the poorest of my community who might need to travel to the capital for any reason.”

“I can.” He made a good point. Back home at Varinger Hall, we, too, owned and kept lands, and we had many families who lived on them and paid rent to us in money and goods. I’d seen their old horses and weathered carts. It would have been a challenge to come even from our closer county to the castle with those things. I couldn’t picture trying to do it from the farthest reaches of the country. “What is your aim here, sir?”

“I’d like a royal survey of all the roads in Coroa. I’ve tried to mention this to His Majesty twice this year, and he’s brushed it off. I was wondering if you could . . . encourage him to make it a priority.”

I took a deep breath. How in the world would I go about that?

I looked down at the papers I had no hope of understanding before handing them back to Lord Seema. “If I can get the king to focus on this, I would ask a favor of my own in return.”

“I assumed nothing less,” he replied, crossing his arms.

“If this project moves forward,” I began slowly, “I expect you to speak kindly of me to anyone you pass who mentions my name. And if you discuss this interaction with the other lords, would you please tell them I received you graciously?”

He smiled. “My lady, you make it sound as if I would have to lie. You have my word.”

“Then I will do all I can to help you with this worthy project.”

Satisfied, he gave me a deep bow and left the room. As the door shut, Delia Grace burst into a fit of laughter. “Hollis, do you realize what this means?”

“That I need to learn how to make the king care about old roads?” I offered.

“No! A lord of the privy council just came asking for your help. Do you see how much power you have already?”

I paused for a moment, letting that thought sink in.

“Hollis,” she said with a grin, “we are on our way up!”

This time, when I walked into the Great Room for dinner and Jameson waved me to approach the head table, Delia Grace came with me. My parents were already to the king’s left, chatting up a storm, so I went up thinking I had some time to figure out how to casually work road repair into the conversation.

“How in the world am I going to do this?” I asked Delia Grace quietly.

“No one said it had to happen today. Think on it more.”

I didn’t know how to explain why this felt bigger than earning Lord Seema’s allegiance. I wanted Jameson to see me as someone serious. I wanted him to know I could be his partner, that I had a mind capable of handling important decisions. If he could . . . then a proposal surely wouldn’t be far off.

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