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.