“Lady Ailynn, I ask you, on bended knee, to be my wife and Queen.” I looked down at him, unable to keep my mouth shut as my jaw dropped wide open.
Around me an awkward silence had filled the room and I was acutely aware of not only my uncle, but my aunt, cousins, and even the household servents were watching me, waiting for the expected answer. Behind the King and just barely in my line of sight stood Donal, his face reflecting the emotionless mask he wore when he tried to hide what was going on behind it. Siobhan was truthful, as ever, when she told me how his true emotions were always reflected in his eyes. The furious inferno I saw burning in my cousins dark eyes ignited the already smoldering flames of indignation, humiliation, and anger that had appeared the moment I heard his remarks from behind the bookshelves. I pulled my hand out of his as gracefully as my anger would allow and looked directly into the Kings eyes.
“No.” the silence in the room changed from surprised expectancy to shocked. I dared not look in the direction of my aunt and uncle as I continued, “I cannot marry you.”
Now it was his turn to drop his jaw, his eyes clouding with confusion. Clearly that was not the answer he thought I would give and he had to stop for a moment to think of what he was going to say next.
“I must leave, excuse me.” I took advantage of his pause and gave a quick curtsy before turning and leaving the room. I could hear the crunch and slide of the heel of Donal’s boots as he followed me from the room, his bearlike presence providing a grateful barrier behind me.
“Ailynn!!” my uncle finally broke the silence with a roar as I passed through the doors. I couldn’t look back, my anger threatening to win over as I marched out of the room. Thankfully, Donal slammed the doors to the great hall shut with a thunderous clatter as I fought to not run from the building, my hands clenched into fists.
Without a word and despite the sudden tumult we could hear following us, we entered the courtyard, mounted up, and left. I could feel my eyes burn as we rode in roiling silence out of the City, breaking into a hard gallop as soon as we passed through the gates and out of the teaming masses of peasants. It was only out of filial respect for my cousin that I did not take off across country as hard as I could, leaving Donal and my guard behind. I kept my tongue pressed tightly behind my teeth, my lips glued shut, focusing on every jarring bump and turn as we rode, willing the angry tears that burned my eyes not to spill out over my cheeks.
We reached the River Cyr faster then I realized we would and I reined in, shocked at my own inattentiveness. I turned and looked at my cousin, reality cooling the hot indignation in my cheeks. Judging from the exhausted expressions on my guards faces, I could see I had set a grueling pace in my bid to escape from the city and the presence of such a man. Donal tried to hide his own wearied look of sorrow as he stopped beside me, his dark eyes reflecting pity and respect.
“I am sorry, Ailynn. I would have stopped him well before had I known that was his plan in seeing you.” He sighed, running his hand through his hair. “I should have known, I am sorry to have caused you such pain.”
“I am not angry at you, Donal, you have done nothing wrong. I just cannot believe that after all he said to me, the whole time I was in Town, he was thinking about marrying me.” I looked at the water that ran rough through the river, swollen with the spring runoff.
“Neither can I.” Donal followed my eyes across the river, to the banks that were the beginning of my own estate of Northwood. “He must know by now you were intending on returning to Northwood. He may follow you there.”
“I had not thought of that.” Of course he would follow me. I had not given him a moment to plead his case, or to ask me why I had rejected him. He would demand an explanation from me, I knew him at least that well if no better. The thought of being forced to explain my own emotions, let alone put them into some logical order enough to sleep tonight, made me weary to the bone. I couldn’t face him again today, that much I knew, but I also knew I would not have the strength to make Tiedham by any reasonable hour.
“Come home with me. Siobhan will be a better solace then staying alone at Northwood, and it will buy you at least a night of quiet rest.” Donal, yet again, provided the best answer to my problem.
“Yes, I will do that.” I smiled gratefully at him through my darkness. I did not yet want to face the emotions that spun and wheeled within my heart, but Siobhan would be the best person to help me sort them out and deal with them.
Donal led this time, taking the nearly hidden road through the wood that engulfed the riverbank lining the boarder of his estate. The only complaint I had as we continued to ride in silence was that the road required travelling at a slower pace to negotiate the roots and rocks. I could not focus on riding, but found myself lost in the turmoil that was my own heart.
I was, first, utterly shocked that the King would even consider marrying me, especially after admonishing me at the masquarade and commenting on how shallow and inconstant I was to his closest counselor. I could still hear his words echoing in my mind, calling me a painted whore even as I tried to leave in my horror and humiliation at the behavior of the nobles around us. I was still angry that he had not wanted an explanation at the time, sneering at the dress I wore because one year earlier I had shuddered and cried at wearing it around my own family. Angrily, I vowed not to give him an explanation for my behavior now should he demand one. If he hadn’t wanted one before he did not deserve one now.
Secondly, I was confused that he could express such negative and demeaning opinions not only to his friends, but directly to me about my appearance and actions, then turn around and propose to me on bended knee. I couldn’t understand how he could deny what he professed to feel about me to anyone who asked and yet he would choose me to be his wife. The only answer that I could reasonably come up with was that, since he was so convinced I had become like any other of the noble ladies vying for his attentions, he might as well choose me as any one of them. His happiness was totally forfeit with any match he made, he had said so himself, so he might as well choose someone he could tolerate for short amounts of time.
The third, and most painful, feeling was that of heartbroken loss. I had lost my Martin. It was as if the man whose memory had brought me to the City had been murdered before my very eyes. With my parents and my brothers I had not been present for their death, nor had I spent any large amount of personal time with them, therefore I had been spared the deeply rooted sorrow that now engulfed me as I remembered the man who I had met a year prior. I could hear him laugh, throughing his head back in the sunshine, his dark curls a sloppy mess on his head. I could see him giving me sideways looks as we rode the countryside with his falcons. He had been my closest friend and I had shared more of my own, personal, thoughts with him then I had with any other human being since, even Siobhan. When I came to the City I had watched as the man who I had longed to see and speak with for so many months was revealed to no longer exist. The man who had been my beloved Martin was now the King, and all that had been good about Martin had been transformed into the worst villian I could imagine. His laugh was short and mean, his dark eyes that had twinkled and glowed at me before now burned with resentful fire, his smile was tinged with regret and meanness, his words no longer held the gentle, trusting tone but were sharp and hurtful weapons.
The little, doubtful voice that had whispered vile, frightening thoughts in my mind spoke again. Is it possible Martin never really existed? I considered the way Lord Kale had acted, the slimy way he had sought my trust despite the fact I could see right through him. The way he had used any small piece of knowledge to convince me that he had my best interest in mind. I could see through his tricks thanks to Donal, warning me that he was only after my title and fortune. Was it possible that the King had created Martin for the same reason? Certainly he did not need my title and fortune, marrying him would only serve me in changing my social and political status, but was there some underlying reason? I could not see one, but I could not force the thought that perhaps it was not the King that was a false person, but Martin. Was Martin the way that the King had wormed his way into my heart, into my good graces?
I did not want to believe it, but every time I blinked my eyes I could see the way the King had danced with those ladies, had smiled warmly at each and every one of them when they touched him, pressed into him as he passed, fluttered their eyes at him. He had not turned them away, he had given them the attention they sought. Lord Kale had acted the same way, and worse, I had personal knowledge of that having nearly stumbled on him with my cousin in the gardens and the tumultuous result of that meeting. I began to wonder if the King had satisfied the other attentions of the noble ladies who plied their trade in his court and my mind reeled from such a heinous, vile thought.
My mind quickly switched back to seeing him kneeling before me, my hand to his lips as he proposed. His eyes had held that earnest glow that I had come to trust in Martins eyes, but all I could see was the lying snake that lived behind them. What kind of fool did he think I was? Now that I had time to think about it, I could see he had chosen me as someone who would do well as queen, but clearly he meant to keep one or two of those ladies he called ‘painted whores’ for his real pleasure. He was no better then Lord Kale, and worse having created such an elaborate lie. I could feel the dark hole that had formed in my chest widen as I realized how wrong I was about such a man. I was such a fool.
The only thought that kept me from utter despair as I rode silently behind my cousin was that at least I had had the pride and self respect to refuse him. I might have lost the only man who I could ever consider being married to, but then he never really existed to begin with, so hopefully the mourning period would be of short duration. I had been a naïve, stupid girl, but not any more. I knew better now and would act accordingly. I would not allow myself to so deceived again in the future.
It was with that tenuous resolve that I entered Donal’s house. It was late enough that my silent, sullen nature could be excused to the members of his household as exhaustion. Siobhan was already in bed, the twins taking all of her energy while we had been away. I felt a pang of guilt and made a determined decision that I would be more helpful to her come the morning. She needed me more then I needed the time to think on what had happened. With that decision set in my mind I excused myself to my rooms.
Elsbeth pounced on me the moment I stepped through my bedroom door, making quiet inquiries as to how I found town. For the most part I could make little comments, feeling mechanical as I answered her questions with as truthful statements as I could muster. The first few questions were general ones, how I did I like the society I found there, what did I think of the buildings, had I been to court? I was able to answer these without ever mentioning Martin or the King. I was relieved she did not ask as I washed the road dust off of my skin and out of my hair, dressed in my night shift, and prepared to climb into bed.
She was brushing my hair out, unknotting the tangles that travelling had woven into it, when she asked: “did you see your Martin in the City?”
My throat caught and I could feel a painful lump form, but I managed to choke out, “Yes. I saw him.”
“And? Is he well? Has he improved his fortune?” Elsbeth could not see the look on my face as she urged. I could feel tears forming behind my eyes as the events of the past month ripped through my mind.
“Yes.” Was all I managed to whisper.
“Yes? Is that all?” she stopped brushing my hair, her voice playfully irritated. “For someone who could not stop talking about the man before you left, that is pitifully little to say. Did you not see him as much as you wished? Is your uncle still against your friendship with the man?”
“No.” A tear began to course down my cheek and I took a shuddering breath, wiping it away. Elsbeth, sharp as she was, could not ignore my reaction.
“Ailynn, what happened?” Elsbeth set the brush down and came around to kneel before me, her kind face set in a look of motherly concern.
“I saw Martin, and he saw me. Many times.” I took another shuddering breath, my tears slowly dripping down my cheeks. “He is not the man I thought he was last year.”
“Not the man you thought he was? Has he changed so much?” Elsbeth brushed my wet cheek tenderly and gently slipped her fingers through my own that were winding knots in my lap.
“I do not think the man I met a year ago was the real person he is.” I could not look up, hiccuping as I tried to stifle a sob.
“Why do you say that? What did you learn of him?” she held a kercheif up for me and I took it, wiping at my cheeks and nose.
“He is the King, Elsbeth.” I smiled bitterly from behind the kercheif at her stunned look.
“Martin? Dear Martin is the King?” she was flabbergasted, which was a first in all the years I had known her. She placed both hands on my shoulders as I nodded, sobbing again, and embraced me. “Oh Child, he is to marry someone else, is he? Because he is the king? Has he chosen someone else?”
“No, he offered for my hand in marriage.” I shook my head as I pulled away, looking down at my hands again.
“Then why are you crying? Why are you here?” Elsbeth lifted my chin to look in my eyes.
“I refused him.” I whispered, my lips trembling as I broke into a sob again, hiding my face in my hands to avoid the look of horror on my maidservants face.
“Why?” her whisper held all of her shock and dismay.
“Because he is not the man I thought he was. Because I think he made Martin up for some ridiculous purpose to make me a fool. I looked for Martin in him, when I realized who he really was, and there was no trace of my dear friend. I was such a fool, Elsbeth, to believe that such a good man could exist. He does not, nor will he ever. Martin is worse then dead, he was never real, he never existed.” I broke into true sobs then.
“Child, why would the King do that? Why would Martin do that? I cannot believe he made you a fool on purpose.” She embraced me again, whispering into my ear as she tried to comfort me.
“Because it is courtly the fashion to do so. The noble men like to make scandals and whores of the noble women. I have seen it happen to my own cousin. Lord Kale made love to her in the gardens, all but promised to marry her, and then wed another noble woman the next day. Zarene lost her maidenhood and nearly lost her life when she learned of his marriage. She tried to jump from the roof and nearly succeeded if Donal had not listened to me and stopped her.” I felt Elsbeth’s hand grow still as I related the incident. “It is amusement to them to make fools of women, as if we do not matter, as if our emotions were nothing to them. He only sought to make a fool of me, to make me a wife in name while he made love to another behind closed doors. I could not marry such a man, not after such a betrayal.”
“Of course not, Child.” Now she pulled back, holding my chin so I looked into her face again. “I will not question your decision, Child, if that is the truth of the matter. I thought you looked more then road weary when you walked through that door. Bed is what you need, with a draught to help you sleep, if you wish it.”
“No, I think I am weary enough from everything that has happened I could sleep for days.” I took a deep breath to force the heavy, sorrowful fog from my lungs. I felt better having told her, although I knew in the morning I would have to relate the whole story to Siobhan with even more detail, but I would have a whole nights rest and perhaps breakfast as well to fortify myself for the ordeal.
“Then come to bed, let me tuck you in as I used to when you were young.” Elsbeth gave me her comforting smile again and I stood up as she drew back the blankets on the bed. She gave me a serious look as I climbed in and asked, “Does your uncle know the King proposed?”
“Yes, the whole household knows. He knealt before me and proposed in front of everyone.” I sighed heavily as she pulled the blankets up around me, a look of serious concern wrinkling her brow.
“It will be all over the City by now, then. You will not be able to return for quite some time without people talking about you.” She sat on the edge of my bed and took my hand gently.
“Elsbeth, I have no respect for the people who would be so low as to find amusement in this situation, so their opinions are of no concern to me. I am sure I have given you enough to worry about, do not add this matter to that list.” I sat up, burrowing my shoulders into the pillows, “I have no plans on ever returning to the City in my life unless taken there by military force. I do not think City society holds the draw that it once did.”
“It does not glitter so enticeingly as it did before?” she smiled a wry smile at me.
“Oh, it glitters. Like a fish on the river bank: it glitters and it stinks.” Elsbeth’s eyebrow twitched as I used her favorite description and I smiled at her. I would be alright, eventually, and I hoped to reassure her of it. She tapped my forehead with a scolding finger and rose to leave, blowing out the candles as she made her way to the doorway. “Goodnight, Elsbeth.”
“Goodnight, Child. Sleep well.” She called from the doorway and closed it gently.
It is a wonderful side effect of such disasterous events followed by the extertions to control those emotions that war with each other in the aftermath that sleep ends up being dreamless and, for the most part, restful. It also helped that I had forced myself to ride much longer and harder afterwards in my bid for escape then I ever had before, bringing over me a lovely dead exhaustion to force the dreams away. I slept well into the morning and felt much refreshed at least physically.
I did not have, as I had hoped, breakfast to help fortify me before being pounced on by Siobhan for my account of what had transpired. I was grateful to Donal that he had at least filled her in about all of the basic events so that when I entered her breakfast room that morning she only wanted to know specific details about what had happened that Donal could not have known. These details were, of course, how I had felt and reacted to each of the events. Having been my closest friend, Siobhan would not allow me to gloss over anything and I could not withhold even the most painful feelings that I could not face. I found this to be the most surprising balm to my wounded heart, to relate my pain, humiliation, indignation to another person who shared and commiserated with me in the most tender fashion.