Valentin tried to guide me toward his mother while I did my best to drag my feet without being obvious about it. I failed.
“What is wrong?” he asked.
“You didn’t tell me your mother was here,” I hissed under my breath.
He looked surprised. “Of course she’s here. Where else would she be?”
The simple logic of the statement only made it worse. Of course she was here. I knew Valentin’s mother still lived, and I knew she usually resided in Koan, but it had never occurred to me that she still attended official events. That was a research failure on my part.
Despite dragging my feet, Valentin had us positioned at the bottom of the stairs by the time the dowager empress had descended. I studied her from under my lashes.
Entertainment media through the years had led us to believe that empresses should be tall and stately, as sharp and beautiful as statues cut from icy crystal. Valentin’s mother was none of those things. She was petite, plump, and pretty. Laugh lines fanned out from the corners of her eyes and her dark hair was threaded with gray. When she smiled at Valentin, her whole face lit up. She wore her emotions on her sleeve, something that had come through even in her photos.
Valentin returned with two crystal flutes of sparkling wine. He held one of them out to me with an unreadable expression. “Your drink, Queen Rani.”
I stepped away from Asmo and accepted the flute from Valentin with a genuine smile. I decided not to dwell on the happy little thrill I felt whenever he was near. He had been gone for less than half an hour, but it had felt like forever. “Thank you.”
Valentin turned to Asmo. “Thank you, Advisor Copley, for keeping the queen company.” The dismissal was impossible to miss.
Asmo ignored it.
“It was my pleasure, Your Majesty. Spending time with Samara is no hardship. She is enchanting.” He lifted my free hand and kissed the backs of my fingers. When he lingered, I pulled my hand away, forcing him to release me. His eyes lit.
I hadn’t been trying to entice, I had just wanted my damn hand back. “Thank you for the escort,” I said, keeping my tone polite.