“Why do you not look at me?” His voice was much quieter then I expected it to be. I could hear his boots slide over the wood beams of the store room. “Ailynn, Look at me.”
I continued to stare down at the folds of cloth beneath my fingers without seeing them, willing him to go away. He moved closer until I felt him just behind me and turned my head away, feeling him try to see my face.
“You don’t look at me because you do not want me to see what you are feeling. I know you better then you think I do, Ailynn.” He reached around me to touch my hand.
“You do not know me at all, Your Highness.” I snatched my hand away and pivoted away from him, heading for the door. He was faster and blocked my path, forcing me to look up into his face.
“Why do you not call me Martin?” he only had to look into my tearstained face for his answer, his brow twitching into a worried crease, “You think your Martin is not here? You think he is dead.”
“No, Your Highness, I think my Martin never existed and I was a stupid, naïve girl to have believed in such a creature to begin with.” I spat back, feeling my mouth twist into a nasty frown, my tears spilling over my cheeks again, “I would have done better to believe in fairies and dragons. It would have saved me the heartbreak learning they were no more real then he was.”
“How can you say that? I am still here, I have always been here.” I stepped back as he took a step towards me, keeping the distance between us constant, a fact he was quick to notice. “You do not trust me.”
“Not any more, I know better then to trust you. You lied from the beginning, from the moment you met me you lied about who you really were.” I shook my head as I spoke, watching his face change from skeptical to outright angry.
“What? About being the King? I lie to a lot of people about it. How should I have known you wouldn’t have turned into one of those mush-brained whores who think they should be Queen?” he sneered with disgust and took another step forward as I took yet another step back.
“That is not what I meant. I could care less if you were the King or the poor noble. It was the man I thought I knew, the man who I would have married regardless of everything. He is not the man who stands in front of me, the man I met when I came to the City.” I swallowed the angry, painful lump in my throat and began again, “You called me a shallow and inconstant thing when you saw me again, but I am not the inconstant one. I spent the last year thinking of you, longing to see you, to speak to you. I could not think of anyone else, I even refused to consider a match with Lord Evin in the hopes that you would not have forgotten me. When I finally had the chance to find you, the man I did find was nothing like the man I had known. At first I only thought you had changed, I even convinced myself that it was my fault, my own weakness against my uncle’s will that had caused you pain. But then I saw you at court, with Lord Kale’s wife on your lap, the way you let those women you had accused of being whores touch you, the way you let them do as they pleased. They were the same noble whores who you admonished me so severely for mimicking. I have become very well educated in the man you really are. I have never been so insulted in my life as I was when you asked me to marry you, as if I could deny the fact that you only chose me because I would make a proper wife while you chose another woman to share your bed behind my back. Choose someone else, Your Highness, to make a fool of, someone who is much more deserving of that honor then I.”
He had the same look on his face now as he did the moment I had refused him, stunned and uncertain. Part of me wanted to break down and cling to him, take back the words that I had just said, but I could not allow it. Instead I stood with my hands clenched into fists at my side as I watched the realization slowly dawn on him as he watched me, standing before him with tears on my face dressed as any other country noble woman should dress. He had lied to me, he had made such a fool of me, he had thought me too stupid to realize how his world really worked and now he knew how wrong he had been.
“This is what you think of me? You think I do you wrong by asking you to be my wife?” his voice was quiet and even when he finally spoke.
“Yes.” I couldn’t avoid looking him in the eye as he stood in my path, his face slipping into that emotionless mask that all men seemed capable of wearing.
“You would go home then and accept an offer from Lord Evin, rather then face me again?” unlike Donal, whose eyes betrayed his emotions, the Kings stayed flat and masked better then his face.
I chose not to answer, pulling my tongue back behind my teeth and clamping my mouth shut. I had not considered marriage at all and had even debated taking a vow of maidenhood. My lands I would will over to Donal’s children, they would benefit the best from it.
“I forbid it.” Now I could read the look in his eyes: resentment and jealousy. “I forbid you to marry such a man over me.”
“Why? Because he behaves with more honor and truthfulness then you ever will?” I couldn’t stop myself.
“No!” he closed the distance between us before I could stop him, backing me up against the stone wall of the storeroom. My head and back collided with the stone, but I tried not to show the pain, I wanted no pity from him. “Because I cannot bear the thought of you marrying someone so decidedly beneath you in every possible way. I will not stand for knowing that you would choose to share the marriage bed with a man like him out of spite for me. Ailynn, he is little more then a glorified swine herd.”
“Considering the only other alternative is you, I see no difference between the two of you, save the fact that I know he will never lie to me.” His face was inches from mine and my arms ached where his hands gripped them as he pinned me to the wall.
“Because he lacks the intellegence to scratch is own ass, let alone make up a believable story.” He snarled back.
“You would know.” I wasn’t sure where those words were coming from, perhaps from the black hole that now constituted my heart, but I could see they had started to have an effect on him.
He backed up a little, not letting me go, but enough that I could see more of his face then just his chin. He was watching me with that familiar studying look that he used to use when he was trying to figure out what I was thinking. The difference now was that instead of the slow smile that used to spread across his face before he made some silly comment had been replaced by a deeply saddened look. Then, he leaned forward and I realized with disgusted horror that he meant to kiss me. I turned my head, closing my eyes, feeling his breath on my cheek as I refused him again.
“Please, Ailynn. I did not realize I had caused you so much pain. I am the inconstant one, you’re right. I saw you and thought you had become the very thing I detested. I was wrong, I admit it, but do not throw yourself away in proving it to me. I cannot breathe if you marry such a man and leave me.” He rested his head against my temple, his lips caressing my ear as he spoke. I could do nothing but cringe, the stone wall blocking any movement away from him. “Have I hurt you so badly that you cannot forgive me?”
I felt tears start coursing afresh down my cheeks as I squeezed my eyes shut. I wanted to believe what he said to me, the words he used in my ear, but I couldn’t. The voice that spoke to me belonged to my beloved Martin, trusting and honest, but the face I saw before my closed eyes was Lord Kales. He was lying again, that little voice inside of me whispered, he’s lying to you, don’t believe him.
“Let me go, I won’t marry Evin, just let me go.” My voice came out as more of a whimper then I intended, but my arms hurt badly where he gripped me, my shoulders had started to ache from cringing, and I could feel a small bruise forming on the back of my head where I had bumped my head when he pinned me to the wall.
“But you will not have me either.” He sighed, and his grip lightened a little more.
I did not have the chance to answer him. Donal crashed through the doorway, pulling the King away from me. I crumbled to the floor, barely registering the angry voices of Donal and the King as he demanded that the King leave. It took all my strength to wait until I felt Donal’s firm hand lift my chin to look at him before I dissolved into despairing sobs. I leaned against my cousin and cried like a child, feeling him gently lift me from the wooden floor and carry me to my room. I could vaguely hear Siobhan and Elsbeth fluttering around me as Donal lay me on my bed, speaking in a low voice to Siobhan before leaving the room.
I turned my head into my pillow and cried until I fell into a restless sleep where I dreamed of Martin and the King, warring with each other. I woke just as the King lifted his sword to deal the death blow to my beloved Martin, crying out into the darkened room. Elsbeth was at my side in a breath, comforting me until I had calmed down, offering me a sleeping draught which I drank down gratefully.
I woke late in the morning the next day and by sheer will alone I forced myself out of bed and into my day dress. I joined Siobhan in the breakfast room, but could neither speak or eat. I followed her to her sitting room and sat with her embroidering the edges of the twins christening gowns. At mid-day I joined her in making rounds of the servants preparing the evening meal, carrying little Mairi on my hip as Siobhan balanced Kiernan while she directed the cook. I stayed in the keep when Siobhan left for her afternoon ride with Donal, ignoring the long look of concern that crossed her husbands face when I declined his offer to join them. I took dinner in my own quarters and Elsbeth was kind enough not to comment on how little food I actually consumed. Shortly after that, I bathed and went to bed, accepting the sleeping draught Elsbeth brought without complaint.
The next three weeks went by in the same, numb, emotionless manner. What had been my heart was a cold, empty place that echoed if I searched too deeply for the emotions that had previously roiled and surged within me. I could not feel anything: no pain, no hunger, no love. I found myself staring off into space more often, my mind completely blank. Occasionally Martins face would float before my eyes and I would think of him in the same, warm manner that I had enjoyed over the previous year. Inevitably, my daydream would turn sour as I heard the words spoken by the same voice as I stood behind the bookcase and the memory of all the events that happened since would ruin my precious moment of happiness. I would return to my state of numbness again, forcing myself into whatever task I had stopped during my daydreaming.
At the end of the month the rest of my wardrobe from River House was sent, accompanied by a letter from my aunt. She wrote to say she understood from Donal why I had made the decision to refuse the marriage offer and offered her forgiveness. I skipped over most of what she had to say on that part, and where she related all of the gossip she had heard from her friends regarding the King and the situation. I did not care what those busy-bodies thought or heard, I was never returning to the City again as long as I lived, so what they spoke of would never reach me anyway. I did pay attention to where she related that they, too, were leaving River House on account of Zarene’s continued deterioration in the aftermath of her romantic scandal. My uncle would continue in his position as steward to the King, despite offering to resign the position following my refusal. The King would not accept my uncle’s resignation and demanded that he continue in his position. My aunt insisted, after yet another suicide attempt by Zarene when she learned of Lady Kale taking to confinement, that she and my cousins would be leaving town for an indefinite period of time.
I was surprised when her last paragraph mentioned Donal and how she was glad I was there to help with the care of his newborn children. She mentioned the possibility that she would be missing the christening due to the failing mental health of my cousin Zarene. Although I agreed that bringing Zarene back to the city so soon after her own scandalous events had occurred, I was irritated that she had left up to me the duty of explaining her reasons to Donal. Even now she could not show her youngest son the respect I knew he had earned. I vowed yet again that I would take an official oath of maidenhood at the christening and will all of my property over to my cousins. He deserved nothing less, as much as he had proved himself more the brother then I had ever known.
I had just finished reading the letter my aunt had sent me when Siobhan burst through my door, plopping her self gracelessly onto one of the many trunks that littered my anteroom. She gave me a look that was a cross between utter despair and extreme irritation. She held in her hand a crumpled piece of paper which still had my uncles seal attached and I surpressed a shudder.
“What is it?” I set my aunts letter down on my dressing table and came to sit beside her.
“This. Read it, go on.” she handed the crumpled letter to me, “Better yet, let me tell you.”
I waited as she drew a steady breath and prepared myself for one of her tyrades. I could see my uncles neat script on the page that I held in my hand and wondered what it was he could have said to make my cousin so upset. My aunt was an unfeeling clod when it came to her youngest son and his wife, but my uncle was acutely aware of the great honor my cousin and his wife brought our family. He could not have said anything so bad as to set Siobhan into such a state.
“What is it, Siobhan?” I urged her as she took a few deep breaths, trying to keep herself calm before imparting the news that had made her so pained.
“We are not to have the christening at the Church of the Maiden. The King has offered to host the christening of the twins at St. Basils cathedral, in the Royal Ward.” My mind raced as she mentioned the King and I tried to think of what he was trying to do. I had been named the intended godmother to the children, so I could not refuse to go even if I wanted to.
“It is a great honor that he does so.” I reassured her, hiding my own fears from her. I had wallowed enough, it was time to steel myself against whatever the King thought he was doing.
“But the poor, youngest son of his steward? Ailynn, we will be laughed out of the City!” Her shoulders dropped with despair.
“That will not happen, I will make sure of it. You have done more then enough to be hospitable to me, let me return the favor.” I lifted a hand to silence her objection, “If the King really is doing this to humiliate me through you and your children, I will not allow him to do so. You let me take care of it.”
“We will need to start all new with the christening gowns, where am I to find silk or lace fine enough for such an event around here?” she sighed and looked at me with a pained expression.
I thought for a moment and then it came to me, a spark of mischevious intuition. I smiled, for the first time in weeks, and began to open what trunks I was able to reach. At first, I could not find the thing I was searching for, until I shooed Siobhan off of the trunk on which she had perched herself. There, at the top, was the dress I was searching for, folded neatly so as to prevent the formation of too many creases. I saw Siobhan’s eyes widen as she took in the intricate embroidered bodice, the silver and gold piping, and the pearls sewn so evenly along the indecently low neckline.
“Where did you get it?” her voice was a whisper as she ran a tentative finger over the embroidered fabric.
“The King gave it to her a year hence, as a gift.” Elsbeth snorted behind us, startling me. I turned and gave her a wide smile. From the look she gave me I knew she had already guessed my intention.
“The King gave this to you?” Siobhan gave me a shocked look.
“She hated it at first, it was indecent for such a girl to wear.” Elsbeth answered for me.
“He called it a waste of fabric the second time I wore it, when I saw him at the masquarade.” I pulled it out of the trunk completely, allowing the ridiculously long skirts to trail on the ground.
“Well, I am sure we will not allow any of this lovely fabric to go to waste.” Elsbeth lifted the skirt, the milky white fabric sliding over her fingers as she examined it. “I think this will do wonderfully, Ailynn.”
“For what?” I gave Siobhan a serious look and she finally realized, with yet another look of shock, what I was intending to do, “Christening gowns? Ailynn, this was a gift from the King.”
“And when I wore it, he called me a painted whore. I think this fabric would go to better use as christening gowns for your children then be burned to ashes as he advised me to do less then two months ago.”I gathered the dress up in a bundle and handed it to Elsbeth, who took it from the room with a knowing smile. I turned a similar smile on Siobhan. “Besides, Siobhan, if the King is planning anything by ordering the twins christening in the Royal Ward, then using the only gift he ever gave me in such a manner will hopefully send the perfect message to him.”
“What if he doesn’t notice? Ailynn, christening gowns are a vastly different type of apparel then that indecent creation you just brought out of your trunk. Unless he recognizes the fabric, he will not know the true origin of the gowns.” Siobhan returned to her practical self, a much more attractive person in my private opinion.
“Then it will be our own private joke.” Elsbeth returned to the room, having handed over the dress to the sewing women. She smiled at me and I returned it, which she pointed to, “Anything that puts even a private smile on her face is worth doing. I am sure we will all enjoy the joke for years to come.”
“Yes, Elsbeth, we will.” I found myself very satisfied and began to make plans in fitting my cousins out with proper clothes themselves.
Despite Siobhan’s moment of grief at the thought of preparing for a much more royal christening then she had planned for, we did have nearly three months left to prepare for it. As it turned out, this was more then enough time, especially once I pressed my own sewing women into service putting the dress to pieces and making new christening gowns for little Kiernan and Mairi. Donal was kind enough to go into the City for us and send cloth from the more popular storehouses which was immediately cut and sewn into proper apparel fitting a much richer noble family. I spared no expense, even writing to my friend Gwynna to help Donal pick out appropriate jewels which would adorn the glowing mother.
“Ailynn, you do too much.” Donal grumbled when he returned from town with cloth chosen by him for his own clothing. He stood still as a statue as Siobhan and I fitted the cloth to him for a tunic.
“I do not. You must look as if you belong there, which you do.” I reminded him with a purposeful poke of a pin.
He did not respond, but fell into a resigned silence until we had finished our task and extracted him from the pattern. I knew without him telling me that he thought I was doing this more out of a need to prove to the King that I did not suffer. It was this thought that tempered my more outrageous ideas, that I was not trying to prove anything outside of my own kindness to my cousins.
My own uncle was not, as I expected, providing much help outside of offering River House to the family for the month preceding the christening. If I had not offered to help, my cousins would have made a very poor showing. It was also possible that had I not sought solace in Donal’s house, they would not have been put into the situation in the first place. I was, therefore, bound to make amends for the situation by at least making sure they would not be the laughing stock of the country at the christening of their children.
The result of all of this was that the wardrobe my cousins travelled into the City with was elegant and rich, but not obnoxiously so. Although the cloth had been bought from the most popular storehouses in the City, thanks to Gwynna, the cut and style of the dresses my cousin and I wore were of a more sedate style. We had discussed this at length and decided that the more indecent fashion of dresses that I found so disgusting was not proper apparel for an elegant lady of the country. Therefore, our dresses were cut in the old style, with long skirts, flowing layers of underdresses, and belted overdresses. Here and there we decorated with the intricate embroidered ribbon or fabric that was popular, but not in excess. In all, Siobhan and I felt much more elegant and more comfortably dressed then the City ladies who paraded outside the windows of River House in their corsets and bone skirts.
We were in River House two days when I learned that the King planned not only to offer the use of St. Basil’s for the twins christening, but to host a grand celebration afterwards in one of the minor palaces within the Royal Ward. I forced myself not to go into coniptions over this and set about planning how I should dress for that event. I tried not to listen as my uncle discussed the celebration with Donal in a hushed voice, but I did overhear him mentioning the King’s insistance on minsterals and dancing. I shuddered openly despite being an eavesdropper and resolved to find a way to sprain my ankle between the christening and the celebration.
“Except that a sprained ankle will make you a captive audience, should he decide to keep you company instead of joining in the dancing.” Siobhan reminded me when I told her of the plan over breakfast the next day.
“I am not sure which is worse: the fear that he would ask me to dance with him, or that he would endeavor to keep me company should I injure myself.” I sighed into my tea, watching my reflection waver on the surface. I barely recognized the woman who looked back at me, but I chalked that up to the little ripples in my cup.
“I am sorry this has become such an ordeal for you, Ailynn. I never meant it to be so when I asked you to be their godmother.” Siobhan reached across the little table and lay her hand on my arm. I covered her hand with mine.
“Do not apologize, Siobhan. If I had not chosen to take shelter in your household after refusing him, you would not be in this situation. I am extremely honored that you would choose me for godmother.” I smiled and a thought occurred to me. Before I could stop, I found myself saying, “Siobhan, there is something I want you to know.”
“What is that?” she seemed alarmed by the sad expression that I knew was on my face.
“After the christening, I plan on going to the Church of the Maiden and taking a vow of maidenhood. When I do so, it is my wish to will over all of my property and fortune to you and Donal so that my little cousins will inherit it after I have died.” I felt her fingers grip mine as I held her hand, her eyes growing wide.
“Oh, Ailynn, do not make such a decision so soon!” Siobhan stood up and came to my side, kneeling on the floor in front of me with such a look of sadness I nearly cried, “You cannot loose hope so easily! You will find another Martin, I promise, he is out there. Not all men are as vile or deceiving as the King was to you. Give it another year or two before you make such a choice!”
“My mind is made up, Siobhan. I loved Martin and I was so utterly betrayed by it that I am determined not to allow such a painful thing to happen again. Besides, his involvement in the christening must be his way of showing me he still thinks he can control my life.” I laughed and looked down at my hands, now cupped in hers, “He forbid me marrying Lord Evin, he would interfere if I chose to marry anyone else. He interferes here to remind me that if I will not marry him, he will not allow me to marry anyone else. So I will not marry at all.”
“But that is a bitter, vengeful reason for making such a choice Ailynn! I beg you, wait a year and then, if you feel the same, make your vows to the maidenhood. Do not make them so soon after breaking your heart, you do not know what kind of effect this might have on your life!” Siobhan gripped my hands tighter, her face contorted with concern and sadness.
“I will think about it, for your sake. I have a month to make my decision.” Was all I said to her. The look she gave me as she returned to her seat at the breakfast table showed she did not believe me.
If she told Donal, he never spoke of my decision with me. Instead it was as if the conversation had not occurred and we were soon busy receiving visitors wishing to convey their congratulations to my uncle and cousin. Some of the visitors were relations of my or Siobhan’s family and had been clearly invited to the christening. Others were clearly hoping to be invited at least to the celebration afterwards if only because the King would be present and was, himself, hosting the event.
There were a few who appeared only to see the woman who had refused the Kings hand. Those people Donal saw alone and sent away as quickly as politeness dictated. He would watch them go with a look of undisgused anger and disgust.
One day he burst into the breakfast room while Siobhan and I ate, a letter clutched in his fist. His face had red splotches on his cheeks and his mouth was clenched shut. Behind him my uncle followed, a slightly confused expression on his face.
“Donal, what is the matter?” Siobhan looked to the basinets where her children rested peacefully, despite their father’s less then sedate entrance.
He threw the letter down on the table and I could see he was clearly biting his mouth shut to prevent an outburst. I picked it up and read it. The author was clearly writing to congratulate my cousins on the christening of their children, making all the polite wishes of long life and happiness. At the end was an ill disgused request to be invited if not to the christening, then to the celebration afterwards. Despite that last, tactless, request, the letter was well written and polite. Until I saw the signature at the bottom.
“This was sent by Lord Kale.” I handed the letter over to Siobhan, ignoring the instant look of anger that the news brought to my uncles face.
“THAT BASTARD!!” Donal exploded, his voice roaring through the tiny room, causing both babies to erupt into crying. I rushed to Kiernan’s basinet as Siobhan lifted Mairi to her arms, comforting the wailing child. I lifted Kiernan to my arms and held the baby to my chest, comforting him with whispers and kisses until he began to quiet down.
“He raped my sister, destroyed her reputation, not to mention putting her into her fragile mental state and nearly killing her and he has the audacity to send me such a letter!!” Donal’s face frightened me, twisted as it was into such a mask of anger and rage. My uncle did nothing to calm him, clearly as angry and enraged as Donal was.
“You needn’t respond to him, Donal. He deserves no such response from our family. Not after what he did.” My uncle assured him.
“I had not planned on it, especially after the King sent him away from the City.” My uncles reassurance began to work on Donal’s anger and I could see the redness begin to fade from his cheeks as he sank into Siobhan’s empty chair. He reached out for Kiernan as I approached the table and I handed the child over to his father, who smiled gratefully at the infants now cheerful face.
“The King sent Lord Kale away from the City?” I looked to my uncle for clarification as I poured two more cups of tea.
My uncle gratefully accepted the one I offered as he slipped stiffly into another empty chair, nodding as I added cream and sugar to his cup. I noticed for the first time in the morning light how old my uncle looked as he leaned back in the beams of light that bathed the breakfast table. His face seemed more fragile, his skin more papery thin, the wrinkles and spots more pronounced, and his eyes seemed more weary, the edges drawn and sunken more then I ever remembered. With a pang I realized that he, my father’s younger brother, was well into his sixth decade and for the first time had begun to look his age. He caught me watching him and returned my sad smile with a gentle pat on the hand and a warmer smile of his own.
“Yes, not three days after you refused him, he returned to the city and immediately banished the majority of his Court from the city for licencious and corrupt behavior. The whole City was in shock at his reaction and many began to be afraid he may be going mad as a result of your rejection of him.” He gave my hand a squeeze when I stiffened, arching his right eyebrow as he said, “I am as close to the King as anyone and, while I cannot say he is in the best of spirits right now, he is far from going mad. I think you may have had more of an effect on him then you realize, dear niece.”
“I did not mean to have any effect on the man, uncle.” I could feel my face redden as Donal and Siobhan exchanged a meaningful look before turning their gazes in my direction. They had begun doing that a lot in the last few days, since we had come to River House. I chose to ignore them, not wanting to know what they were discussing, as it was the only indication since I had confided my plan to Siobhan that she had told Donal.
“Ailynn, you refused the King when he proposed marriage to you, the only woman he has shown any interest in since he first discovered that women were beautiful.” My uncle laughed into his tea, his eyes twinkling at me, “That kind of rejection is bound to have an effect on any man, especially one such as the King, who has been used to having his own way. Since you rejected him, he has made great strides at actually taking over the leadership of this country. The banning of the nobles from the City is only one symptom of the effect you have had. He has done so much more within his own government than the average noble is aware of.”
“But will it last?” I did not mean to voice my doubts aloud, but it came out anyway. “Will it last when he realizes that there is very little he can to do win me back?”
“Only time will tell that, but it is my personal opinion that it will. He has been given the drive to finally be the King for his people that he has needed to be for a long time.” My uncle turned and took Kiernan from Donal, balancing the little infant on his lap and began cooing at the giggling boy, effectively ending that conversation.
Although the conversation had ended, I could not stop my mind from returning to it over and over again. New doubts and worries began to spring to mind as I did so. Could I have had such an effect on the man that he would truly change? Or would he have taken his deception this far, so far as to include his own government? That thought I immediately banished from my mind as frivolous; no one would involve the very government upon which our kingdom depended in order to deceive a silly girl like myself, the very idea was ludicrous. What I could not banish from my mind was the thought that perhaps he really was changing, for the better. If I saw him again, even so soon after rejecting him, would I be able to refuse?
“Only meeting him again will give you that answer, Lady.” Gwynna gave me a knowing look over her embroidery when I voiced my worries to her. “Do you want to refuse him again?”
“I do not know. I cannot believe that he would be so changed in such a short amount of time, some of it must be a false attitude. And I cannot be so shallow as to believe he would go so far as to change laws and his own government in order to impress me. That is a silly, ridiculous notion belonging to only the worst of daydreaming children.” I looked down at my embroidery and realized that for half an hour I had only produced a total of five stitches, whereas Gwynna had neatly rounded the corner of the cloth she was edging with an ivy pattern.
She gave me an amused look, her blue eyes flashing with mischeif as I threw down my sewing and began to pace the small day room where she spent her afternoons. She had a lovely view of the River Cyr down the street to the harbor where her father’s ships where anchored. For one fleeting moment I was tempted to run from the house, change my dresses for a sailors garb, and sail away on one of her fathers ships, but that fantasy was quickly banished from my mind.
“You are afraid if you see him again, you will not be able to refuse him so easily as you did three months ago.”She said calmly from her chair as I paced like a cat before the windows.
“But I cannot trust the man, not after what I saw him do, after the things he said. I cannot allow myself to put such faith in him so soon.” I turned a fretful look on Gwynna.
“A smart woman would not, Ailynn.” She rose from her seat and came to the window, pulling my hands apart where I had been wringing them in my skirt and holding them between hers, “But a smart woman would also forego any life changing decisions until she is sure of her own heart.”
“You’ve been talking to Siobhan.” I pouted.
“Yes, she is worried about you. We all are.” Gwynna gave me a serious look and lead me back to the sofa. “Ailynn, none of us believe that you should accept the King if he were to make another offer while you are here, but to take a vow of maidenhood so soon after rejecting him is not the answer to your troubles. Give it time, Ailynn; time with your family, time with people who love you and that you can trust. That is all that we believe you should do. Even your uncle agrees, take time with Siobhan and Donal and the children, spend their first winter with them. Take time to rest your heart and let it heal. Then make your decision, in the spring.”
Unlike Siobhan’s plea before, Gwynna spoke sense with no pressure, only the care and concern a friend has for another. I could not argue with her plan to spend my time with my cousins and help Siobhan through her first winter with the children. I could be useful and happy again. Moreover, I could be far enough away from the City that I would not hear anything of the King unless I truly wanted to.
“I will give it a year, then. In the spring, should I feel the same, I will take my vows then.” I agreed with Gwynna.
“Yes, a year will give you the time to consider the path you should take.” Gwynna’s lips twitched as she took up her embroidery again and I could see she was fighting to hold her tongue.
“Out with it, Gwynna.” I glared at her.
“Perhaps a year of caring for your cousins children will inspire you to want to have your own.” She broke into her mischevious smile again, “One cannot do that if she has taken a vow of chastity, I do not care what the church may say. Children require the acquisition of a husband first.”
We both broke into a peal of laughter, but I sobered up with one thought, “Where will I find a husband who the King cannot forbid me to marry?”
“Has he truly forbidden you to marry anyone else? Or was it just Lord Evin?” Gwynna arched a perfect eyebrow at me as she began to stitch again.
“I am not sure, but I won’t be finding that out any time soon, as I suppose I should make no plans to marry anyone either.” I chewed my lip as I thought of his words in the storeroom, forcing them quickly from my mind as I felt the sadness start to fall over me.
“Then we should make this plan as well: if, in the spring, you have decided that you would like to become a wife instead of remaining a maiden, and the King still forbids you marry a nobleman within the country, then you and I will travel abroad, on one of my fathers ships, where we both will seek noble husbands in foreign lands.” Gwynna’s mouth twitched again, “We will see how foreign nobles measure up to the ones we will leave back here.”
“Gwynna!!!” I gave her a shocked look, but both of us could not avoid the peals of laughter her wry look brought on.
The day of the christening broke with all of the glory of an early fall morning. The crisp light that filtered through the stained glass windows of St. Basil’s Cathedral bathed the main nave in multi-colored splendor as we prepared for the Christening of Kiernan and Mairi. Donal and Siobhan looked just as wonderful in their new clothes. I had made a special dress for Siobhan, deep forest green with gold piping and gold belt to bring out the rich red tones in her auburn hair. I had instructed her dressing maid to brush her hair until it shone and braid it with a string of pearls. The result was magnificent.
“You look as beautiful as the day we married.” Donal smiled with dumbstruck appreciation when we entered the cathedral, the men having ridden ahead to meet with the priest.
“And here I was trying to look like a mother.” Siobhan blushed, despite her wry words.
“Ay, and that’s what makes you all the more beautiful.” Donal winked at her as he lifted Kiernan from my arms.
The christening gowns had turned out just as I had planned, diaphenous and pure. Little Mairi’s gown was modestly embellished with the pearls that had decorated the neckline of the indecent dress, and the chest of Kiernans gown was made of the richly embroidered fabric from the skirt. It was Siobhan’s request that both gowns be comfortable, as the children would be spending the entire day dressed in them. Fortunately, the cloth was also as soft as it was rich, and both children slept soundly as we waited in a side room while the church filled for the mass.
We were to enter and take our places as soon as all the guests were seated just prior to the Holy procession. I stood just inside of one of the carved windows, watching through the carved screen as family and friends of both Siobhan and Donal’s family entered and were seated. The church filled fast and I was greatful that the day was crisp and cool with a determined breeze or a church as full as this one, despite its size, would have been stifling. There was a sudden hush and I looked to the doorway of the church. There the Royal guard had assembled, so I assumed the King had arrived. I stepped away from the screens and took a seat beside my cousin as she comforted her son, chosing not to watch as the King was seated.
“Lord Donal of Rothchester, His Royal Highness wishes to speak with you a moment, if you would please join me?” a page dressed in the Royal uniform lead a very surprised Donal out of the room. I looked to my uncle for explanation, but he could only return my confused look with one of his own. Clearly the King had not indicated to my uncle what he wanted to discuss with my cousin now.
After some minutes, and much fretting that the service would be delayed if the King did not finish with my cousin, Donal returned to the room. He looked as if he had just swallowed a live fish whole, his cheeks were dotted with pink and the rest of his skin had developed a sickly ashen pallor. Siobhan was immediately alarmed and moved to her husbands side, but he kept his eyes on me in the most disturbing fashion as he related what the King had wanted to see him for.
“His Royal Highness has requested the honor of being made co-godparent to our children.” And then I understood why he stared at me in such a state.
“what did you say to him?” my uncle asked, but I could already guess my cousins answer.
“I could not refuse him, Father, he is the King.” his eyes, which I had at first could not read, reflected his unspoken apology.
“He does you a great honor, Donal, as I have said before. Do not be so worried.” My voice came out evenly, calmly, as I stepped forward. “It is not as if you could have turned him down, when he has offered his Church and to host the celebration afterwards.”
“Ailynn, are you sure?” Siobhan whispered to me, aware of the open door behind her husband.
“I can’t do anything about it. Besides, he wants me to play this game for some strange reason, but I do not think he is prepared to loose again.” I whispered back, pretending to return a stray hair to her braid.
“no, I do not believe he is.” She was gazing out of the open door, through the space her husband had recently occupied.
I turned, slowly, and followed the line of her gaze. He stood there, beneath an arch of stone, dressed in the Royal colors, his family crest embroidered on the right side of his chest in gold. This was not the man I had seen three months prior. He was much more sedate, his face a calm mask, his eyes revealing nothing yet again. He stepped forward when he realized I had seen him, approaching with the more determined step I had remembered of my Martin. Upon closer scrutiny, I could see he had cut his hair back into the neat mess of curls which were held back by a simple gold crown that rested on his brow. He had grown out his beard, trimming much neater and closer then I remembered, but still the same style. I felt my heart pound as I realized I was looking up into the face of my Martin, yet again, dressed in the clothes of the King.
“Your Highness.” I sank rigidly into a curtsy, feeling Siobhan follow suit beside me.
“Lady Ailynn, I hope you will forgive me for taking such liberties with your cousins. I know how much they must mean to you.” I looked into his face as I rose, but no emotions crossed the familiar façade I had known. “Your uncle has done great service for my family over the years, I felt it was only right that I at least try to return the favor, in whatever way I can.”
“Of course, Your Highness.” Was all I said, I could not bring myself to make a sharp comment at such a time. Siobhan gave me one last backward glance as she and her husband, with the children in their arms, were led up the center aisle.
“Lady?” I was startled by the Kings voice and realized, with a blush, that he held his hand out to me.
I smiled tightly as I placed my hand in his, feeling him curl his fingers around mine in a firm, but gentle, grip. For one horrible moment, I thought he might raise my hand to his lips, and I thought I saw him wrinkle his brow as he looked at my hand, but he did not. In stead, he led me gently to the beginning of the church aisle and we followed my uncle to the alter of the church where the baptismal font stood waiting.
I was not prepared for what happened next. From both sides of the church, whispers started, like ghosts in an abandond building, quiet at first, but growing louder and more numerous like a wind picking up speed through the tree branches. Ahead of us I could see the nobles, friends of my uncle, turning in their seats and staring at us and I realized, with a sudden jolt, why. Gwynna had said news of my rejection of the King had spread all over town like a wild fire. Here I was now, barely three months later at the christening of my cousins and standing as godmother, being escorted by none other then the man I had publicly refused to marry. My grip tightened unintentionally on the Kings hand as I fought the urge to scream at the whispering nobles to keep their tongues between their teeth.
To my surprise, the King returned my grip with a gentle squeeze and a caress with his thumb across the back of my hand. I further astonished myself when I found the gesture, unnoticed by those who whispered around us, had a calming and very fortifying effect. I took a small breath into my lungs, lifted my chin, and focused on the font at the end of the aisle. It was suddenly easier to ignore the whispers and stares as we passed, my eyes only seeing my squirming cousins in their parents arms, delighted by the dancing lights of the alter candles. I smiled reflexively as I saw Mairi’s tiny hand reach out as if to grab a flame within her chubby little fingers. Kiernan’s delighted smile as he played with the glittering embroidery on his fathers doublet was an instant reminder of the real importance of the occasion. I let everything go, even my uneasiness at the King being the other guardian of my beloved little cousins. The sound of the whispers faded into the background as we reached the end of the aisle.
The King handed me up into our proper place behind my cousins at the head of the church and I caught sight, as I turned, of a frail woman sitting just out of sight to our right. She wore a dress of dark blue in a very similar fashion of my own. Her fine, blonde hair was braided and tucked under a veil of white over which a circlet of gold and pearls rested. Her eyes, while set in a finer, female, face, were what struck me nearly dumb. They were the same gentle, brown eyes in the face of her son who now stood at the prayer bench beside me. She smiled softly at me as our eyes met and I lowered my head in as much of a bow our position would allow.
Shortly after we took our place at the prayer benches, the horns of the Holy Procession announced the beginning of the mass. I placed my hand on the rail before me as I turned to face the Procession, only to find it was quickly covered by the larger, warmer hand of the King. I watched my hand for a moment, pondering what I should do, feeling him curling his fingers around mine. Gently, I slipped my hand away, in as imperceptible a motion as I could. From the corner of my eye I could see his jaw tighten, but I did not look directly at him.
The Mass began as soon as the priest reached the alter and went by without so much as a hiccup from the children. At the appointed moment I was lead to the font by the King and we were named as godparents to little Kiernan and Mairi. The priest baptised each child in turn, then. Kiernan’s eyes widened with surprise as the cold water touched his red curls, but made not a peep as the priest blessed him. Mairi clung to the rosary that dangled from the priests neck as he blessed her and her little fingers had to be pried loose before she was handed back to her mother. The children were then presented to those gathered in the church, prayers were said, and we processed back to the entrance where chairs were set so that those attending the christening could meet the children as they left to prepare for the celebration. It was as Siobhan was settling herself and Mairi on her lap that she discovered her rosary was missing.
“I’ll go get it, Siobhan, it probably just fell near the alter.” We both shot a glance in the direction of the King who was, thankfully, deep in conversation with my uncle. I exchanged a look with Siobhan before I disappeared into the crowd of people exiting the church.
It took me very little time to discover where little Mairi had dropped her mothers rosary, for she was the most likely culprit. I dusted each bead off and slipped it into my pocket. Only then did I look up and see who was standing in the empty aisle of the church.
“So you are Ailynn.” Queen Egren stood much taller then I had realized, although she did not tower over me as I approached timidly.
“I am, Majesty.” I curtsied as properly as I could, feeling the silence of the now empty church press around me. My stomach flipped nervously inside me as I wondered what this woman could possibly have to say to me, the girl who had so easily rejected her only son.
“Come here, let me see you.” Her command was soft, tender, not the tone of voice an angry mother would use.
Slowly, I approached her, willing my jangling nerves to cease. I came as close as I dared, standing before her in the light of the church aisle. She smiled softly as she lifted my chin with a delicate finger, turning my face slowly. Her eyes studied me for a moment, sweeping over my dress, my hair, my features, before returning to fix her gaze on mine. She dropped her hand and turned, still fixing me with her eyes.
“Join me?” She indicated an open door on the left side of the church, through which I could see the church garden bathed in mid-day sunlight.
“Of course, Majesty.” I followed her out into the garden, not bothering to look if any of my family could see me. I was not sure they should know about the conversation the Queen wished to have with me.
She led me out into the simple garden, along the path, to a bench situated beside the statue of St. Basil. There, she sat, indicating I should sit beside her.
“Tell me, why did you refuse my son?” Although the question was very direct, her tone of voice was again, not demanding, but curious.
“Because he broke my heart, Majesty.” I answered simply.
“and how did he come to do that?” she lay her hand on my folded ones in my lap, looking directly into my eyes, “Lady Ailynn, my son has told me very little about what transpired between the two of you, but I am a mother, and his reaction to your rejection has not been a light one. There is more to the story and, as I am his mother and have a mothers right to be concerned for him, I feel I should know the truth of it.”
I took a deep breath and looked away, steeling myself against the tears I was sure would come, and I began: “I met your son three weeks after he returned home, when he was staying at my uncles estate. I did not know he was the King then, he introduced himself as Martin of Arrow’s Field. I think he purposely kept that knowledge from me, although I cannot think of a reason why. We became friends in a way that I have never experienced before. Every word I spoke, he listened to. He challenged my thoughts, as silly as they often were, he challenged me to think beyond what I already knew. I loved his company, the way he never allowed me to be upset or angry, how he sought me out for my opinion on things. I grew to love him then and I believe, had he proposed then, I would have accepted him without a seconds doubt.”
“But you were drawn apart?” she smiled knowingly at me.
“yes, we were.” I laughed and looked down at my hands, “it’s that way with all love stories, isnt it?”
“Of course, what happened that you were separated?” her tone was indulgent and expectant.
“I did not know who he was, and because of that, my aunt believed I had fallen in love with a noble who was not worthy of my rank and fortune. I was sent to live with my cousin Donal and his wife, they are the parents of the children who were christened today.” She nodded as she recognized them. “I spent the past year with them and Donal helped me to take over control of my estates and property. Then the decree went out that the King was going to host a celebration in order to find a bride amongst the nobility. I did not believe that the King would be interested in such a silly girl as myself, but I did hope that, in coming to the City while all the nobility were here, I would see my Martin again. I suppose I hoped that in a year he would have become more worthy, and I was more sure of myself to prevent any persuasion against marrying him.”
“When did you see him again?” she curled her fingers in mine gently and I realized, to my surprise, tears had slowly begun to form at the edges of my eyes.
I took a shaky breath, and continued: “I saw him again at the first masquarade. My aunt had convinced me that I should not dress as I always have, in the style of the country. I wanted Martin to recognize me, however, should he be there. The dress I wore was a dress the King had given to me during his stay at my uncles estate, when I met Martin. I had thrown a fit when I tried it on, I felt so indecent in it. Martin had calmed my nerves and we had joked over it at the time, convincing me the King would not be insulted if I chose not to wear the dress, since it disturbed me so much. He must have thought me the worst hypocrit then when I wore it to the masquarade, and he told me as much when he spoke to me. It was then that I realized the man I thought I had known had changed. I learned later from my cousins that he was the King, and vowed to avoid him at all costs out of my own humiliation and embarassment. I had not thought my actions would have the consequences they did, so I was determined to make amends of the situation as best I could.”
“Not long after that I accompanied my cousin Donal in an audience with the Kings merchant advisor. While we waited for our turn to speak with him, we overheard the King talking with Lord Kale in the most vile manner regarding me. He does not know I heard, but after I heard, I knew I could not stay here any longer, that everything I had hoped to find in the City was never here. Donal persuaded me to stay one week longer, so that he might finish his business in the City before returning to his wife and children with me. During that time I learned that the King had been persuaded to allow Lord Kale to court my younger cousin Zarene. She was a child, but the King looked the other way and did not seem to care that Lord Kale abused and raped my cousin, and married another woman the next day. I was horrified beyond belief, I could not forgive him for allowing such a thing to happen. When Zarene attempted to take her own life, I demanded that Donal take me home immediately. We were just preparing to leave when your son came to River House and proposed.”
“And that is when you rejected him.” Queen Egren finished for me, as my face was now wet with tears.
“I could not accept the man who had facilitated the rape and anguish of my own cousin, let alone someone who spoke as if he were clearly capable of such licentious behavior himself. I would truly have been the shallow hypocrit he accused me of if I had accepted him.” I fought hard not to break into sobs, it would not do to cry in such a manner in front of the Queen.
“You were right, you know, to refuse him. I do not blame you for following what you knew was the right thing to do.” She lifted my chin and looked into my tear laden eyes, “Ailynn, you are the first and only reason I have had since my son returned home not to force him to abdicate the thrown. The man who returned from war was as a ship lost at sea seeking any port in the storm. If I had known about you from the first moment my son returned to the City, I would have urged him to seek you out in earnest and demand your hand in marriage. Instead, the man who returned to his City was bitter and disenchanted with what he saw. The corruption you saw when you came to the City was the direct result of his state of mind, he cared not what his nobles did, he cared nothing about the state of the kingdom. I watched every day as the boy who had left for war disappeared quickly behind a man I could not recognize, let alone call my son. The day you rejected him, the day you refused him and could not even look at him, that was the day my son returned. For the first time in a year, hurt and upset as he was, I saw my son again. You brought him back, whatever you told him, whatever you saw in him that made you turn away, it returned my son to me.”
These were not the words I had expected to hear from Queen Egren, if I had expected anything from her at all. I could only sit in stunned silence, watching her through tear stained eyes, trying to think of an acceptable answer to her words. I drew a shuddering breath, not sure what words were going to come out.
“Ailynn, I expect no answer from you, nor is what I have said to you a plea to accept my son should he repeat his offer to you. I can see the anger and hurt in your eyes, watching how you avoided him, even now and I would be severely remiss in my duties as a mother if I were not to offer some insight into the man my son has become.” She reached into a pocket and withdrew a kercheif, wiping my wet cheeks, her dark eyes gazing soothingly into mine. “I hope someday you will have children of your own that you will understand?”
I nodded and understood a great deal more then that. My god! Did everyone know of my plan to take my vows? I cursed myself that I had ever said anything to anyone.
“Now, we haved spoken too long, here is your uncle searching for you.” Queen Egren raised her voice and I looked back toward the doorway. My uncle stood there, smiling timidly at me, his eyes flitting between us. Egren looked back at me, a consipratorial look in her eyes, “It would not do for my son to know we had been talking. It might give him false hope, I think?”
I smiled as we rose and I followed her from the garden. My uncle bowed deeply to the Queen as she passed into the church.
Turning, Queen Egren fixed me with her dark eyes one last time and said, “Ailynn, make sure you dance every dance tonight. An intellegent woman, who knows what she is about, would not allow those who persue her more then a moments time alone with her.”
“Yes, My Queen.” I decided not to argue, although I had not planned on dancing at all this evening. It occurred to me, upon considering her words as my uncle escorted me from the church, that it would be much more difficult to avoid the King if I were not dancing. Dancing, as it was, would afford me a viable excuse for avoiding his company as much as being partnered to someone other then him. I was, after all, an intellegent woman.