“I’m speaking to you, Jacos.”
“Forgive me if I’m surprised,” Coriane replied, doing her best to keep her voice even. Elara was not known for her kindness, or much else for that matter. Despite being the daughter of a ruling lord, Coriane realized she knew little of the whisper girl. “What are you talking about?”
Elara rolled bright blue eyes with the grace of a swan. “The queen, of course. I don’t know how she stands to share a table with her husband’s whore, much less his family. It’s an insult, plain as day.”
Again, Coriane glanced at Prince Robert. His presence seemed to soothe the king, and if the queen truly minded, she didn’t show it. As she watched, all three crowned royals were whispering together in gentle conversation. But the crown prince and his wineglass were gone.
“I wouldn’t allow it,” Elara continued, pushing her plate away. It was empty, eaten clean. At least she has spine enough to eat her food. “And it would be my house sitting up there, not his. It’s the queen’s right and no one else’s.”
So she’ll be competing in Queenstrial, then.
“Of course I will.”
Fear snapped through Coriane, chilling her. Did she—?
“Yes.” A wicked smile spread across Elara’s face.
It burned something in Coriane and she nearly fell back in shock. She felt nothing, not even a brush inside her head, no indication that Elara was listening to her thoughts. “I—” she sputtered. “Excuse me.” Her legs felt foreign as she stood, wobbly from sitting through thirteen courses. But still under her own power, thankfully. Blank blank blank blank, she thought, picturing white walls and white paper and white nothing in her head. Elara only watched, giggling into her hand.
“Cori—?” she heard Julian say, but he didn’t stop her. Neither did Jessamine, who would not want to cause a scene. And her father didn’t notice at all, more engrossed in something Lord Provos was saying.
Blank blank blank blank.
Her footsteps were even, not too fast or too slow. How far away must I be?
Farther, said Elara’s sneering purr in her head. She nearly tripped over at the sensation. The voice echoed in everything around and in her, windows to bone, from the chandeliers overhead to the blood pounding in her ears. Farther, Jacos.
Blank blank blank blank.
She did not realize she was whispering the words to herself, fervent as a prayer, until she was out of the banquet hall, down a passage, and through an etched glass door. A tiny courtyard rose around her, smelling of rain and sweet flowers.
“Blank blank blank blank,” she mumbled once more, moving deeper into the garden. Magnolia trees twisted in an arch, forming a crown of white blossoms and rich green leaves. It was barely raining anymore, and she moved closer to the trees for shelter from the final drippings of the storm. It was chillier than she expected, but Coriane welcomed it. Elara echoed no longer.
Sighing, she sank down onto a stone bench beneath the grove. Its touch was colder still and she wrapped her arms around herself.
“I can help with that,” said a deep voice, the words slow and plodding.
Coriane whirled, wide-eyed. She expected Elara haunting her, or Julian, or Jessamine to scold her abrupt exit. The figure standing a few feet away was clearly not any of them.
“Your Highness,” Coriane said, jumping to her feet so she could bow properly.
The crown prince Tiberias stood over her, pleasant in the darkness, a glass in one hand and a half-empty bottle in the other. He let her go through the motions and kindly said nothing of her poor form. “That’ll do,” he finally said, motioning for her to stand.
She did as commanded with all haste, straightening up to face him. “Yes, Your Highness.”
“Would you care for a glass, my lady?” he said, though he was already filling the cup. No one was foolish enough to refuse an offer from a prince of Norta. “It’s not a coat, but it will warm you well enough. Pity there’s no whiskey at these functions.”
Coriane forced a nod. “Pity, yes,” she echoed, never having tasted the bite of brown liquor. With shaking hands, she took the full glass, her fingers brushing his for a moment. His skin was warm as a stone in the sun, and she was struck by the need to hold his hand. Instead, she drank deep of the red wine.
He matched her, albeit sipping straight from the bottle. How crude, she thought, watching his throat bob as he swallowed. Jessamine would skin me if I did that.
The prince did not sit next to her, but maintained his distance, so that she could only feel the ghost of his warmth. Enough to know his blood ran hot even in the damp. She wondered how he managed to wear a trim suit without sweating right through it. Part of her wished he would sit, only so she could enjoy the secondhand heat of his abilities. But that would be improper, on both their parts.