Home > Queen Song (Red Queen 0.1)(4)

Queen Song (Red Queen 0.1)(4)
Victoria Aveyard

She was still wearing her black dress and gold sash, with what she told herself were raindrops clinging to her lashes, when Jessamine burst through the door. To fuss, of course. There was no such thing as a banquet without a twittering Jessamine, let alone one at court. She did her best to make Coriane as presentable as possible with the meager time and means available, as if her life depended upon it. Perhaps it does. Whatever life she holds dear. Perhaps the court is in need of another etiquette instructor for the noble children, and she thinks performing miracles with me will win her the position.

Even Jessamine wants to leave.

“There now, none of this,” Jessamine muttered, swiping at Coriane’s tears with a tissue. Another swipe, this time with a chalky black pencil, to make her eyes stand out. Purple-blue rouge along her cheeks, giving her the illusion of bone structure. Nothing on the lips, for Coriane had never mastered the art of not getting lipstick on her teeth or water glass. “I suppose it will do.”

“Yes, Jessamine.”

As much as the old woman delighted in obedience, Coriane’s manner gave her pause. The girl was sad, clearly, in the wake of the funeral. “What’s the matter, child? Is it the dress?”

I don’t care about faded black silks or banquets or this vile court. I don’t care about any of it. “Nothing at all, Cousin. Just hungry, I suppose.” Coriane reached for the easy escape, throwing one flaw to Jessamine to hide another.

“Mercy upon your appetite,” she replied, rolling her eyes. “Remember, you must eat daintily, like a bird. There should always be food on your plate. Pick, pick, pick—”

Pick pick pick. The words felt like sharp nails drumming on Coriane’s skull. But she forced a smile all the same. It bit at the corners of her mouth, hurting just as much as the words and the rain and the falling sensation that had followed her since the bridge.

Downstairs, Julian and their father were already waiting, huddled close to a smoky fire in the hearth. Their suits were identical, black with pale golden sashes across their chests from shoulder to hip. Lord Jacos tentatively touched the newly acquired pin stuck in his sash—a beaten gold square as old as his house. Nothing compared to the gems, medallions, and badges of the other governors, but enough for this moment.

Julian caught Coriane’s eye, beginning to wink for her benefit, but her downcast air stopped him cold. He kept close to her all the way to the banquet, holding her hand in the rented transport, and then her arm as they crossed through the great gates of Caesar’s Square. Whitefire Palace, their destination, sprawled to their left, dominating the south side of the tiled Square now busy with nobles.

Jessamine buzzed with excitement, despite her age, and made sure to smile and nod at everyone who passed. She even waved, letting the flowing sleeves of her black and gold gown glide through the air.

Communicating with clothes, Coriane knew. How utterly stupid. Just like the rest of this dance that will end with the further disgrace and downfall of House Jacos. Why delay the inevitable? Why play at a game we can’t hope to compete in? She could not fathom it. Her brain knew circuitry better than high society, and despaired at ever understanding the latter. There was no reason to the court of Norta, or even her own family. Even Julian.

“I know what you asked of Father,” she muttered, careful to keep her chin tucked against his shoulder. His jacket muffled her voice, but not enough for him to claim he couldn’t hear her.

His muscles tightened beneath her. “Cori—”

“I must admit, I don’t quite understand. I thought—” Her voice caught. “I thought you would want to be with Sara, now that we’ll have to move to court.”

You asked to go to Delphie, to work with the scholars and excavate ruins rather than learn lordship at Father’s right hand. Why would you do that? Why, Julian? And the worst question of all, the one she didn’t have the strength to ask—how could you leave me too?

Her brother heaved a long sigh and tightened his grip. “I did—I do. But—”

“But? Has something happened?”

“No, nothing at all. Good or bad,” he added, and she could hear the hint of a smile in his voice. “I just know she won’t leave court if I’m here with Father. I can’t do that to her. This place—I won’t trap her here in this pit of snakes.”

Coriane felt a pang of sorrow for her brother and his noble, selfless, stupid heart. “You’d let her go to the front, then.”

“There’s no let where I’m concerned. She should be able to make her own decisions.”

“And if her father, Lord Skonos, disagrees?” As he surely will.

“Then I’ll marry her as planned and bring her to Delphie with me.”

“Always a plan with you.”

“I certainly try.”

Despite the swell of happiness—her brother and best friend married—the familiar ache tugged at Coriane’s insides. They’ll be together, and you left alone.

Julian’s fingers squeezed her own suddenly, warm despite the misting rain. “And of course, I’ll send for you as well. You think I’d leave you to face the Royal Court with no one but Father and Jessamine?” Then he kissed her cheek and winked. “Think a bit better of me, Cori.”

For his sake, she forced a wide, white grin that flashed in the lights of the palace. She felt none of its gleam. How can Julian be so smart and so stupid at the same time? It puzzled and saddened her in succession. Even if their father agreed to let Julian go to study in Delphie, Coriane would never be allowed to do the same. She was no great intellect, charmer, beauty, or warrior. Her usefulness lay in marriage, in alliance, and there were none to be found in her brother’s books or protection.

Whitefire was done up in the colors of House Calore, black and red and royal silver from every alabaster column. The windows winked with inner light, and sounds of a roaring party filtered from the grand entrance, manned by the king’s own Sentinel guards in their flaming robes and masks. As she passed them, still clutching Julian’s hand, Coriane felt less like a lady, and more like a prisoner being led into her cell.

THREE

Coriane did her best to pick pick pick at her meal.

She also debated pocketing a few gold-inlaid forks. If only House Merandus did not face them across the table. They were whispers, all of them, mind readers who probably knew Coriane’s intentions as well as she did. Sara told her she should be able to feel it, to notice if one of them poked into her head, and she kept rigid, on edge, trying to be mindful of her own brain. It made her silent and white-faced, staring intensely at her plate of pulled-apart and uneaten food.

Julian tried to distract, as did Jessamine, though she did so unintentionally. All but falling over herself to compliment Lord and Lady Merandus on everything from their matching outfits (a suit for the lord and gown for the lady, both shimmering like a blue-black sky of stars) to the profits of their ancestral lands (mostly in Haven, including the techie slum of Merry Town, a place Coriane knew was hardly merry). The Merandus brood seemed intent on ignoring House Jacos as best they could, keeping their attentions on themselves and the raised banquet table where the royals ate. Coriane could not help but steal a glance at them as well.

Tiberias the Fifth, King of Norta, was in the center naturally, sitting tall and lean in his ornate chair. His black dress uniform was slashed with crimson silk and silver braid, all meticulously perfect and in place. He was a beautiful man, more than handsome, with eyes of liquid gold and cheekbones to make poets weep. Even his beard, regally speckled with gray, was neatly razored to an edged perfection. According to Jessamine, his Queenstrial was a bloodbath of warring ladies vying to be his queen. None seemed to mind that the king would never love them. They only wanted to mother his children, keep his confidence, and earn a crown of their own. Queen Anabel, an oblivion of House Lerolan, did just that. She sat on the king’s left, her smile curling, eyes on her only son. Her military uniform was open at the neck, revealing a firestorm of jewels at her throat, red and orange and yellow as the explosive ability she possessed. Her crown was small but difficult to ignore—black gems that winked every time she moved, set into a thick band of rose gold.

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