I sat up as straight as I could, keeping my chin down and my breathing slow. I wanted everyone to see me as poised, capable. Maybe then Jameson would be ready to make me his queen.
An older gentleman and his wife entered the room, her hand gracefully perched upon his. Behind them followed their four children, three boys and a girl.
The children all had pale skin and hair in varying shades of yellow, while their parents were starting to gray. The youngest boy was on edge, clutching his sister’s hand tightly, while she was canvassing the room in a much different way, her eyes suggesting she was looking for something.
The father knelt, bringing his knee to the floor, before rising and presenting himself to the king. Even if we hadn’t been told they were from Isolte, it would have been obvious. The land was dreadfully windy in the summer, and the winter went on far longer than it did here. I wouldn’t have been surprised to hear they were still seeing light snow, even now. As such, Isoltens spent more time indoors, and the sun-kissed cheeks seen everywhere in Coroa were missing on them.
“Good morning, sir,” Jameson said, inviting the man to speak.
“Your Majesty, I pray you will forgive our poor state, but we came straight here,” the father began humbly.
I would not have called their appearance poor. Velvet draped across every member of the family, with plenty to spare . . . which forced me to press my lips together so I didn’t giggle. Honestly, who in the world designed those sleeves? I could make an extra gown from the yardage draping off their arms. And the hats! For my life, I never understood the fashion from Isolte.
In truth, I never even understood people from Isolte. The word that came to mind most of the time was unoriginal. Yes, I’d heard of their great findings in astronomy and herbology, and that the medicines discovered by their doctors were yielding great benefits for their people. But the music they made was bland at best, the dances they performed were copied from ours, and most other efforts at art were modified forms of something seen elsewhere. Their fashion seemed to be their best attempt at something no one else laid claim to. And why would they?
“We come asking for your mercy, to allow us to settle in your land, offering us sanctuary from our king,” the father continued, his tone carrying an edge of nerves.
“And where is it that you come from, sir?” Jameson asked, even though he knew the answer.
“Isolte, Your Majesty.”
“What is your name, sir?”
“Lord Dashiell Eastoffe, Your Majesty.”
Jameson paused. “I know that name,” he murmured, brow creased in thought. Once his memory came back to him, he eyed the visitors with something that looked like a mix of suspicion and pity. “Yes, I can see why you would want to leave Isolte indeed. Oh, Hollis,” he said, turning to me with a playful glint in his eye, “do you ever thank the gods that you have me for a king and not that grouch, King Quinten?”
“I thank the gods that we have you above any other king, Your Majesty.” I batted my lashes flirtatiously, but I truly had thanked the heavens for him. He was younger and stronger than any king on the continent, much kinder than his father, and far less temperamental than the other leaders I’d heard about.
He chuckled. “If I were in your position, I, too, might have fled, sir. Many families have chosen to immigrate to Coroa recently.” There was one such family living in the castle, but I never saw them. “It makes me wonder just what dear old King Quinten is up to these days to strike such fear into his subjects.”
“We also have a gift for Your Majesty,” Lord Eastoffe offered instead of answering the question. He nodded to his oldest son, and the young man moved forward, bowing before the king and holding up a long velvet parcel.
Jameson walked down the dais steps to the young man and flipped the fabric back. Beneath it was a golden sword with an array of jewels resting in the hilt. As Jameson lifted it, the new spring sun bounced off the blade, temporarily blinding me.
After inspecting the sword, Jameson pulled out a lock of the young man’s long hair and sliced through it with his gift. Chuckling as it cut away with ease, he held the sword up again. “This is impressive, sir. I’ve never seen its equal.”
“Thank you, Your Majesty,” Lord Eastoffe said gratefully. “Alas, I cannot take credit for it. I was raised a gentleman, but my son has settled upon this craft, choosing to be capable of supporting himself, with or without land.”
Jameson looked down at the boy whose hair he’d just so graciously trimmed. “You made this?”
The boy nodded, his eyes downcast.
“As I said, impressive.”
“Your Majesty,” Lord Eastoffe began, “we are simple people, without ambition, who have been forced to abandon our estates due to serious threats on our lands and our lives. We ask only to settle here peacefully, and vow to never stir a foot against any natural Coroan, and join in their faithful service of you.”
Jameson turned away from them, his eyes going from thoughtful to focused as they settled on my face. He grinned, suddenly looking exceptionally pleased with himself. “Lady Hollis, these people have come seeking refuge. What would you say to their plea?”
Smiling, I looked down at the family. My gaze passed cursorily over the youngest children and their mother, and settled on the eldest son. He was still on his knees, hands clutching the velvet wrap. His eyes locked with mine.
For a moment, the world stilled. I found myself completely lost in his gaze, unable to look away. His eyes were a shocking blue—a color rare enough in Coroa and completely unique to anything I’d seen before. It wasn’t the shade of the sky or of water. I didn’t have a word for it. And the blue pulled me in, refusing to let me go.
“Hollis?” Jameson prodded.
“Yes?” I couldn’t look away.
“What would you say?”
“Oh!” My eyelids fluttered as I came back to the present. “Well, they have come in all humility, and they have shown they will contribute to our society through their artisanship. Most important, they have chosen the finest kingdom to settle in, offering their devotion to the goodliest king alive. If it were for me to decide?” I looked at Jameson. “I would let them stay.”
King Jameson smiled. It seemed I’d passed the test. “Well, there you have it,” he said to the Isoltens. “You may stay.”
The Eastoffe family looked at one another, embracing joyfully. The young man bowed his head to me, and I did the same in return.
“A family of your . . . caliber must stay at the castle,” Jameson instructed, his words sounding more like a warning than an invitation, though I didn’t understand why. “At least, for now.”
“Of course, Your Majesty. And we will be most happy with wherever you choose to keep us,” Lord Eastoffe replied.
“Take them to the South Wing,” Jameson ordered a guard, giving a flick of his head. The Isoltens bent their heads in acknowledgment before turning and filing out.
“Hollis,” Jameson whispered beside me, “that was beautifully done. But you must become accustomed to thinking quickly. If I ask you to speak, you need to be ready.”
“Yes, Your Majesty,” I replied, fighting a blush.
He turned to speak with one of his advisers, while I focused my eyes on the back of the hall, watching the Eastoffe family. I still didn’t know the eldest son’s name, but he looked over his shoulder at me, smiling again.