Aunt Emel winced at Eslaveth’s exclamation, but the girl was too busy to notice, running her hands down the edge of the sheets tucked over brocade blankets in the castle’s guest chambers.
Eslaveth lifted her eyes to her aunt, then to the servant girl who ducked her head against an amused laugh. “Look at these sheets!” Eslaveth cried. “Are these nettle?”
The servant girl peeked at her, verifying that the question was directed at her, then answered, “Yes, my lady. Nettle makes the most delicate material when it is finely woven.”
“Oh, I know that,” Eslaveth answered, smoothing the wrinkles she’d caused. “I just can’t imagine weaving enough to cover an entire bed. How long would that take?”
The girl’s cheeks pinkened, but not as much as Aunt Emel’s.
“I’m not sure,” she answered. “I could ask if you wish.”
“Oh, no.” Eslaveth waved her off. “Thank you. I’d rather not know. But you may tell them they did a fine job of it.”
“Everything in the castle is fine,” Aunt Emel answered. “Especially now, when King Andule and his family are here.”
Eslaveth swallowed, straightening as two menservants carried in the trunk that held Aunt Emel’s clothing and the little sack of her own gowns that Aunt Merra had insisted on sending along, as though any of it was actually suitable for court. She had not seen any of the royal family, though it was hard to guess because everyone wore their best and she wasn’t sure what anyone looked like except Kael and Tehveor.
She did know enough to realize that ladies shouldn’t be swooning over the quality of sheets – at least, not out loud. She smoothed out her own dress – a ready-made that Uncle Emel had purchased for her from the same tailor who had reattached her work skirt to her bodice when she’d stepped on it coming down the stairs last week.
Aunt Emel ducked her own head, smiling before she raised a poised face toward the servant girl. “That is all we require for now.”
The girl tore her eyes from an exiting servant boy, then curtsied, “Yes, my lady. My name is Clanessa. If you need anything, you may ask any servant to send for me or ring the bell.”
Eslaveth cocked her head. “What bell?”
The girl hesitated before indicating a tassle in the corner of the room. “It’s there.”
“Eslaveth glanced toward it, following the length up toward the ceiling. “Well, how does that work?”
“The rope leads to the bell room, my lady,” the girl answered. “All the bells are numbered for the different rooms so we know who is calling and who is to go.”
“Isn’t that clever?” Aunt Emel spoke quickly, but it was not enough to cut off Eslaveth’s response.
“That must be horribly irritating!”
“You may go, Clanessa,” Lady Emel said.
When the girl curtsied and left, she took a light breath. “Eslaveth, dear. I realize this is new and exciting, but you must rein yourself in. One doesn’t chitchat with the servants or ask about interior workings.”
“I chitchat with guests all the time,” Eslaveth said.
“Yes, but not the upper-class,” Aunt Emel said.
“Well, that’s true,” Eslaveth answered. Though she had managed a casual conversation with one prince and two korviers. She folded her hands. “So what are we expected to do now?”
“We won’t be formally called until dinner,” Aunt Emel said. “Until then, the servants will settle us in. You may rest in the room or explore the public areas.” Her mouth perked as she spoke. “But do try to behave a little less like an inn girl.”
“Your father was fond of the relic room,” Uncle Travarr said, reclining against the doorway.
“My father came here?” Eslaveth asked, then winced because her father had wandered the public rooms, but he’d died in the dungeon.
“Of course,” Travarr answered. “I’ll take you a little later if you wish.”
“Speaking of relics,” Aunt Emel said, wagging a finger at her husband, “I meant to ask the servant to bring a book from the library.”
“There’s no need to call her,” Eslaveth said. “I could go. I’d like to look around anyway.”
“She may as well. It will be good for her to be seen,” Lord Travarr said. “Take the first staircase down to the ground floor. You’ll find the public rooms there. Their doors will be open. Do not go through any doors that are shut or any narrow staircases. Those are for the servants.”
Eslaveth nodded and slipped into the hallway before her aunt could change her uncle’s mind. Passing a woman with long sleeves trailing down to her shins, she closed her fingers around the ring she’d slipped onto a chain. Would her father like to know she was exploring the same rooms he had with his brother, or would he feel betrayed that she was attending a banquet held by the man who had ended his life?
But Tehveor had told her to wait for Prince Kael, and this was his home as well. Besides, perhaps somewhere within these walls, someone could tell her more about her father’s last days. The public rooms were easy to find simply by following the music. She peeked into a room where musicians played, and ladies sat sipping something that smelled like spiced cider. A peel of laughter rose from a table where several people her age huddled together, moving colorful stones in a game she didn’t recognize.
When a boy glanced her way, she stepped back into the hallway and continued on, searching for a room with books. She’d expected a shelf — perhaps two cases — but when she spied the entire wall lined with volumes, she halted, staring through the gap in the door. It must have taken hundreds of years to collect this many, entire lives spent copying the words within.
Words she couldn’t read. She stepped into the room, wondering what sort of things were recorded within. Poetry, perhaps, as well as history and the same legends that she had heard told as she mended near the firelight. Did any of these contain the records she’d heard were kept in the castle? Births and deaths, names and occupations?
She turned her head both directions as she stepped through, overwhelmed at the other two walls with books lined up all the way to the ceiling. Covers made of leather and wood, even a few of cloth. Some ink was faded, slender volumes hiding between others with lavish, golden embellishments. She touched the gold, trying to guess what it was made of and which of the markings were words and not simply decoration.
“It’s overwhelming, isn’t it?” A voice asked from behind her. “So many of them.”
She turned, finding a young woman smiling from the doorway. Golden curls spilled onto a creamy gown, and she realized it was the girl she’d seen in the carriage the day she’d agreed to come here.
“My aunt wished to read one,” Eslaveth said. “But now that I’m here, I have no idea which to take. Are there any that are forbidden to leave the room?”
“I don’t think so,” the girl answered. “As long as they are returned. I don’t believe they’d leave them in the public rooms if they did not wish them to be used.”
“I’ll return it promptly,” Eslaveth assured, and the girl’s smile faded.
“Of course, I didn’t think you’d keep it.” She pressed closer. “I’m Silvah Lesonna.”
“Eslaveth.” Eslaveth gave her name, watching the girl for whatever was expected to accompany a greeting. “I’ve never been to court before,” she added.
“Neither have I,” Silvah answered. “I’ve been here for several days, and I’m still learning my way around. The servants keep redirecting me when they see me bewildered.”
Before Eslaveth thought of an answer, she glimpsed Prince Kael stride by the door, before he backed up and peered in. When he stepped inside, Silvah curtsied beside her. Eslaveth landed on her knees, grunting a bit as she hit the floor.
Stand up. Stand up.
Should she pretend a fall? She moved one foot beneath her, but before she’d managed, Kael offered his hand.
“There’s no need to kneel,” he said. “I’ll be all over the place, and you’ll be in a great deal of pain if…”
He trailed off when he saw her face, but the confusion didn’t turn into recognition.
“Forgive me,” she said. “You startled me, is all.”
Which perhaps wasn’t the proper response either, but Kael dropped her hand, looking toward Silvah, who was vastly more composed though slightly pink around the cheeks.
“I was looking for Tehveor,” he said. “I thought perhaps he was with you.”
“No, My Prince,” Silvah answered, in a polished and soft voice. “I haven’t seen him since breaking the fast, but we did plan to meet here this afternoon. I imagine he’ll be along any moment.”
Eslaveth felt her own face heat. She wanted to see Tehveor, but it didn’t keep her from worrying about the boy’s response to the inn girl showing up at his home. What if they thought she was a plotter and threw her out before she could explain?
She caught the prince’s eyes on her again, questioning and sputtered, “I’m only here for a book for my aunt.”
“What sort of book?” Prince Kael asked.
“She didn’t say,” Eslaveth answered. “So I don’t suppose it matters.”
“Well, I’ve never been an aunt, but I were…” Kael said. Silvah ducked her head to hide a grin as the prince turned, running his fingers along the volumes. “I would think I’d like to read…” He stopped, squinting at a volume before he took a few steps backward. “Well, not a book on weaponry. I’m not sure why that’s even here.” He stepped forward again, peeling the volume from the shelf. “Let’s not give anyone ideas for a hundred ways to kill me.”
“I can’t imagine anyone wanting to kill you,” Silvah said.
Kael huffed a breath. “You’d be surprised.” He juggled the book in one arm, reaching for a smaller volume. “This one is popular. It’s nothing but old ballads about lovers torn apart and all those things which aunts find so appealing.”
“Sounds depressing,” Silvah answered as the prince offered the book to Eslaveth.
“Sounds like something my aunt would like,” Eslaveth answered.
And then Tehveor was there, looking different than she’d ever seen him in black pants and a vest whose gold contrasted the dark background.
“There you are,” Kael said.
Tehveor slowed, looking questioningly at the group. “I was looking for Silvah,” he said.
“He was looking for you,” Silvah answered, motioning toward the prince.
Tehveor looked toward Eslaveth, and she shrugged, saying, “I was looking for a book.”
“Well, that’s convenient,” Kael released the book, and it weighed down her arms. “We all found what we came for. Send this to your aunt with my compliments and if she doesn’t care for it, she may send for another.” Again his eyes searched her face. “I’m sorry. I’ve seen you before but it wasn’t here, and I can’t think of your name.”
“It’s Evae,” Tehveor broke in. “I remember, but we’ve met her only once.”
“That’s true,” Eslaveth answered. “I’ve never been to court before today. I’m flattered you remember meeting me at all.”
“Of course,” Kael answered though his voice gave no sudden sign of recognition.
Tehveor smiled toward Silvah, redirecting the conversation. “I had no idea that Kael would need me, but perhaps you and Evae can amuse yourselves.”
“I’m sure we can,” Silvah said, though she’d frowned at the change in identity.
“Then we’ll see you both at dinner,” Kael answered.
Fear struck her stomach at the idea of being so close to the king, but Eslaveth nodded. “Thank you.”
“I look forward to seeing you,” Tehveor said, though his eyes indicated he was looking more forward to questioning her. She smiled and swallowed. When the two boys left, she thought Silvah let out the same sort of breath that she did.
“I’ve got to get used to that,” Silvah said. “Lady Setta wishes me to to stay as her companion, so I’ll be seeing a lot of the royal family, but every time the prince talks to me, I forget my own name.” She glanced over as Eslaveth laughed, adding, “I noticed yours changed as well.”
“Evae is a shorter version of my name,” Eslaveth said quickly. “I should have introduced myself properly, I supposed, when I met them, but I forgot.”
“I suppose I got lucky,” Silvah said. “I knew Tehveor when we were children. He lived with us until he was ten, but I haven’t seen him again before now. I don’t know the others well.”
“I don’t know know anyone here,” Eslaveth answered.
“Well, return to the book to your aunt,” Silvah said. “Then come back down if you wish. We could look around together.”
Eslaveth nodded, answering quickly. “I’ll be back as soon as I can.”
Perhaps the girl could tell her more about Tehveor. She hurried up the stairs, scooting around servants and guests alike until she found the bedchamber again.
“I found one,” she said.
Before she could add that it came with the prince’s compliments, Aunt Emel took it. The woman flipped the spine away from her, inspecting the closed pages before holding it up for her husband with a triumphant flourish.
“See there? I told you the pages were edged with gold.”
Travarr’s mouth perked before he raised both hands, “I stand corrected.”
“You certainly do,” Emel said. “And you still owe me an apology.” She turned her back to the man to hand Eslaveth the book again. “Thank you, dear. You’ve cleared up a long-standing argument. You may return it whenever you go back down.”
Eslaveth glanced back at the cover. “You’re not going to read it?”
“Reading is very bad on the eyes,” Emel said.
“Trust me, my dear,” Travarr said, moving one foot to the stool near his chair before crossing the other ankle. “With the amount you read, I promise your eyes will never go bad.”
Emel turned back to her husband, planting her hands on her hips. “Now you’re just racking up your debt, aren’t you?”
Eslaveth laughed at the man’s sparkling eyes, before she asked, “I’ve made a friend who waits for me downstairs. May I go?”
“Who?” Travarr asked.
“Silvah Lesonna,” Eslaveth answered. “She’s going to be a companion to Princess Setta.”
“Good lord,” Emel answered. “You aimed high.”
Travarr answered, “That’s Lord Aindrui Lesonna’s daughter. They’re a good family. You’ll do well to befriend her.”
She’d never considered benefits of befriending anyone, but she hurried back to the library, finding Silvah still waiting. Eslaveth held up the book.
“Apparently, she just wanted to look at it,” she said. “My uncle didn’t believe the pages were lined with gold.”
Silvah burst into a laugh. “Well, I don’t think it’s real gold. None of ours are, so I suppose your uncle is correct as well.”
“Probably,” Eslaveth slid the book back into the empty space. “I sure he decided it wasn’t worth continuing the debate.”
Eslaveth glanced at the shelves again. “You don’t think any of these books holds family records, do you?”
“I wouldn’t think so,” Silvah said. “There’s another library, but it’s private. I would imagine the records are sealed off somewhere. Why? Are you looking for something.”
“I’m looking for the young man named Kevron LonCrea. I’ve heard he’s living with one of the upper-class families, but I don’t have their names,” Eslaveth explained. “I’m hoping to find him again.”
The name felt strange on her tongue, but the “r” rolled in a familiar pattern that felt like she’d said it before.
Silvah frowned. “I’ve never heard of him, but I don’t know many of the families. Tehveor is more likely to know, or perhaps Prince Darshon. He has an extraordinary memory from what I’ve seen. They may be able to access the records you seek. For now, we could ask the other girls. Several of them are together, preparing for tonight.”
Eslaveth hesitated, then nodded. “If you don’t think they’d be bothered. He’d be just a little older than I am.”
“Well, if that’s the case and he is living somewhere among our circles, one of the girls will know who he is,” Silvah laughed. “You should hear the way they talk. You’d think hunting husbands was a sport.”
Eslaveth laughed, following Silvah up a flight of stairs and to a door that a manservant opened. The room was large but crowded with dresses strewn over furniture and servants stepping around girls, lacing bodices, smoothing skirts, and fastening jewelry. Sunlight spilled through a high window, catching gems and casting tiny rainbows on the walls and ceiling. Several faces glanced over. Eslaveth slowed her steps, suddenly feeling plain in her expensive gown.
“Silvah!” One of the girls called. “Did you come to ready with us? Where is your gown?”
“This is my gown,” Silvah answered lightly, stepping over a ribbon.
Several voices hushed as a few girls straightened. Smiles flickered into uncertain and pitying glances that carried over to Eslaveth.
The speaker fought to compose herself. “How clever. I suppose the plainer gown is meant to highlight your jewelry. Do you have something appropriate?” She motioned toward a servant girl who scrambled to open a box showing off glittering pieces. “You’re welcome to borrow any of mine that you wish.”
Silvah touched the single pearl, strung on a ribbon around her neck. “I have jewelry, but thank you. We were actually hoping to ask about a boy.”
Several girls perked, though the sudden silence highlighted what was meant to be a whisper from the corner of the room. “Her father’s completely broke.”
“What boy is that?” A red-haired girl asked, turning her head from the servant braiding her hair.
“Kevron LonCrae,” Silvah answered, glancing toward Eslaveth for verification. “Does anyone know him?”
The girls looked at each other, searching for a face to light with recognition, but they all stayed curious.
“I’ve never heard of him,” one answered.
“Wait,” a second answered. “LonCrae. Isn’t that the name of the family who oversees the *** province?”
“Yes, but his wife is barren,” another answered. “I would know. Our family land borders his. He has no heirs.”
“But doesn’t he have a brother?” another girl asked. “My father said there used to be another who married below his station. He lived like a peasant and died in a house fire or something. I’ve seen the house. It’s not far from here.”
Eslaveth flinched, realizing her mistake in bringing her uncle beneath scrutiny. “We were just wondering. It doesn’t matter, really.”
“Milan!” the girl exclaimed as her eyes flickered behind Eslaveth. “What are you wearing?”
All eyes swung from Eslaveth to the doorway behind her. She breathed a sigh of relief as fashion distracted the room from the history of her family.
Milan stood in the doorway, filling the entire space with the bulk of her skirt. She flinched at the attention before tossing her head a bit, flicking the tips of the curls behind her shoulders. “A dress,” she answered.
“Whoever saw such a large skirt?” The girl beside Silvah breathed.
“It’s nearly forty yards of material,” Milan said, moving into the room to show off the dozens of tiny layers.
“It sounds heavy,” Silvah said. “Are you able to dance in it?”
“It has a small hoop,” Milan answered. “The latest trend from Kathonia. I imagine the princess will be wearing them tonight and likely all of you will by next year.”
“Well,” one of the girls cast a glance toward Silvah. “Some of us may be.”
“Or perhaps not,” A dark haired girl rose from the corner. “We are Erish, not Kathonian. We are not forced to dress like them.”
“I like it,” another girl said, reaching to touch the skirt while her servant sagged a bit.
“Seems like a lot of work,” Eslaveth said.
Milan shrugged. “It was rather expensive. I don’t believe most people could afford it.”
“Let’s go,” Silvah whispered, and her voice quivered a bit.
She moved toward the door, but when a servant moved to open it, one of the girls held up her hand to restrain her. The other servants looked toward their mistresses for permission but received none. Silvah stalled in front of the closed door, casting a glance backward before she gave a short rap, which was answered by the manservant on the far side.
Her face burned as she stepped through.
Eslaveth hurried behind her, clasping her hands rather dramatically to address the man. “Thank you, sir!”
Silvah threw her a startled and amused glance that nearly paralleled that of the doorman, but Eslaveth continued.
“You are a true hero to unbar that door. Mounds of material and lace and arrogance in there, even the strongest woman has little hope of weathering such a place!”
Silvah laughed at the servant’s startled face, tugging on Eslaveth’s arms. “Oh, come along! Don’t scare the poor man.”
But the servant’s confusion turned to amusement and his throat pumped with forbidden laughter as Silvah towed Eslaveth down the hallway. The door opened again, this time from a servant inside, and the dark-haired girl stepped into the hallway to call, “Silvah!”
Silvah stalled, though her cheeks flushed again before the girl joined them.
“Don’t feel badly about all that,” the girl said. “Your dress looks very becoming on you. It suits you.”
“Thank you, Lennet,” Silvah answered with both a smile and a flinch.
“She’s only jealous because they said Tehveor is going to accompany you tonight,” Lennet said. “Is that true?”
Silvah’s mouth moved before she answered, “Yes.”
“Are you courting, then?” Lennet asked.
“Oh, no,” Silvah sputtered. “We grew up together.”
“But you like him?” Lennet pressed.
“I’ve never really thought of it,” Silvah answered, with enough surprise that it must be true. “He’s – he’s more of my brother.”
“Perhaps,” Lennet’s smile was tight. “But I’ve never seen him smile as much as he does when you are around. I’d be very careful if I were you. You’re in a prime position for very nasty rumors.”
“Rumors?” Silvah sputtered.
Lennet patted her arm with a pained sympathy. “Welcome to court. I only warn you so you may take heed. Perhaps you should stay away from him in public.”
“Perhaps,” Silvah sputtered, “But I–”
She trailed off as the door opened again and a few faces peered out.
Eslaveth reached for the girls arm. “We were just going to the garden,” she said. “You’ll excuse us.”
And now she was towing her friend away from the crowd until they turned the corner. She glanced over her shoulder, then said, “Well. Welcome to court, indeed.”