"That was not our agreement, my lord of Aberwain," King Philip told the heavyset man that stood before his throne, his voice holding the soft tautness that Simon Taliferro instantly recognized as kingly displeasure. Doubtless the king meant to be well marked when he spoke in that tone, but Aberwain's expression smacked of insolence rather than respect.
"The agreement I made was with your father, Your Majesty."
You will have to be taught respect for your elders, boy, no matter how royal your blood. No king, especially a pup of three-and-twenty, is stronger than the nobles who support him.
Standing beside him in the great hall, awaiting his own audience with the king of Lynaleigh, Taliferro could read the words in Aberwain's eyes as clearly as if he had spoken them aloud. He had listened to this man most of the afternoon, listened to his demands, to his petty quibbles over what was rightly due him as a lord of the realm. He had listened to the king's voice grow colder and tighter as his patience thinned. All that day he had listened...listened and watched and taken note of everything.
They make quite a contrast, he thought, amused behind his grave demeanor at the fierce politeness of their contention. The young king was all lithe muscle, the fine scar high up on his left cheek adding a martial touch to his strong-willed, aristocratic handsomeness. Aberwain was a dark bear of a man, bearded and brawny, big boned, heavily muscled and fat to boot.
Both stubborn, Taliferro decided, but there was something solid and unshakable in the king's assertions that the other man could not match. Aberwain will lose this debate.
"Then you admit to the contract," the king said.
"I admit to an agreement with King Robert," the burly man allowed. "He was willing to fight for my lands in exchange for my loyalty. You, if you will pardon me, my lord king, have given my lands away."
"I gave away nothing," the king said, an uncompromising lift to his square jaw. "That part of the Riverlands belongs to Grenaver. It was meant to be so and Lynaleigh held it unjustly."
"A good two-thirds of that land you did not give away, my lord king, was mine."
"Land you took, my lord," the king shot back, "without thought for what would be just."
"That land was a sturdy buffer between Grenaver's attacks and the rest of Lynaleigh, Your Majesty. Since you have let the finer points of law take precedence over the defense of your kingdom, surely you cannot expect my poor forces to keep that border safe. And I cannot speak for those nobles who, seeing how you have abandoned my cause, might question the desirability of allegiance to so changeable a monarch. What might our enemies do should they know how weakly we are defended?"
"I will see to my kingdom's defense, my lord," the king said tightly. "You see to those duties that belong to you. Loyalty, for one, and obedience. You agreed that, once the war was ended, you would bring your daughter to her husband. They have been apart too long already."
Taliferro studied the young nobleman who stood beside the throne, a dark-eyed near-copy of the king's long-limbed, powerful grace, and reviewed the details he had of him: Thomas Chastelayne, Duke of Brenden; brother to the king, younger by a scant ten months; staunch supporter of the crown; married two years ago to Elizabeth Briesionne, Aberwain's daughter.
Since arriving that morning, Taliferro had seen him at the king's side, had watched the two confer together in answering the day's petitions, and, though Brenden said little for the ears of the court, there was sharp intelligence behind his warm affability and his dark eyes missed nothing. Taliferro suspected it was the influence of this even-tempered younger brother, sweetened by the gentleness of the angel-faced queen enthroned at the king's left and combined with Philip's own passion for justice and truth, that made so young a ruler able to govern this war-ravaged kingdom and forge a reputation for wisdom and strength in doing it.
A threefold cord, Taliferro mused, not quickly broken.
Aberwain gave his son-in-law a dismissive glance. "Your Majesty, the marriage of my daughter and your brother was agreed upon in exchange for support of my rights in the Riverlands. Now that Your Majesty has, shall we say, grown delicate over the matter of right and wrong..."
The king's frown deepened. "Lynaleigh never had true claim to the south of the Riverlands, my lord, and, had I been the one to make this agreement with you, it would never have included aid in so wrongful a cause. But that has no bearing upon this matter. They are married and the lands you want cannot be given you."
"Suppose I grant Your Majesty the justice of returning those lands, might not my loss be replaced to make good the agreement between your house and mine?"
"There are rich lands belonging to the crown that might make me see your willingness to keep your father's word and properly value my daughter...and my loyalty."
"Where?" the king asked, his blue crystal eyes narrowing.
"Kingslynne touches my land on the north side."
"That is the richest land in the kingdom!"
"It is less than half the lands I lost, Your Majesty."
"That land you lost, that we fought over for mere vainglory, is no more than wasteland now. The war has stripped it bare. You cannot compare it to Kingslynne for richness."
"The land I lost will be rich again someday, Your Majesty. What value might I put on it? I counted it worth my daughter once, and I cannot give her for naught."
"You have given her, my lord. She is my brother's wife already and there is no changing that. We have been patient thus far, but there is a limit to what patience will bear. You will bring your daughter to her husband here before the middle of this month. That is not a request."
Aberwain's insolent expression did not change, had not all this while. "Surely you would not endanger the girl's life, Your Majesty."
"Her life?" the king demanded, and there was a flash of concern in his brother's dark eyes.
"She lies ill even now. To bring her here in the dead of winter and she so sick..." Aberwain shook his head in a show of regret. "I would be less than a father."
"Sick," the king said with contempt. "A very convenient sickness. And I suppose she has suffered this sickness these three months since the war's end?"
Aberwain shrugged apologetically and the king's eyes turned colder.
"And I suppose she would return to health were I to grant you Kingslynne now?"
"I shouldn't wonder."
The king drew a sharp breath, his tongue ripe for an oath, but he stopped himself when he saw the look on his brother's face, a look that counseled discretion.
"Do not imagine, my lord, that I am too young or too raw to this game to play it well," the king said, his voice icy with control. "As to your request, I will give it my consideration. Who is next, Tom?"
"The Baron of Warring," Brenden murmured.
Pretending he did not notice Aberwain's indignation at the summary dismissal, Taliferro straightened his narrow shoulders, then he heard the scribe read his name aloud.
"Simon Taliferro, Baron of Warring."
He stepped forward and bowed low, painting his expression with humility. "Your Majesty."
"My lord of Warring."
Taliferro made his voice properly abject. "Your Majesty, I have no demands for you, only a simple plea for charity."
"Charity, my lord?" the queen asked, lifting her eyes for the first time to his and holding him for a moment speechless with their emerald luminance. The intelligence he had of her was that she was a woman of inestimable beauty and unassailable virtue. Now he could vouch for the first, and he wondered if he might sometime have opportunity to make trial of the second.
"Yes, gracious lady, for the people of Warring. There is such destruction there, such barrenness from the war, that every day more and more go hungry and naked, the old die, mothers have no milk for their little ones. It is a sight unfit for such lovely eyes as Your Majesty's."
"I have heard it so, too, Philip," Brenden said, "though not to such a degree."
Taliferro could almost feel his thoughts being sifted in the young duke's dark eyes. There was no animosity there, only a piercing search for truth that was vaguely unnerving.
"It is so, my lord," he said earnestly, "and worse than I have said."
"And have you made an account of what your people will need to set them towards prosperity again?" the king asked, catching up the soft hand the queen had laid on his arm in a silent plea for pity.
"I have, Your Majesty. I fear it is rather a prodigious amount, considered all at once."
He handed the king his list and waited for reply, hoping it would be the one he sought.
"Prodigious, as you say, my lord," the king said finally, then he handed his brother the list. "Can we do it, Tom?"
"With God's help," Brenden said after a moment. "Perhaps not all at once, but enough that the people of Warring needn't suffer so bitterly all the winter."
"You will have to stay here in Winton, my lord, to oversee the collection of what you need and the transport of it back to your people," the king said and Taliferro bowed his head, concealing his sly satisfaction.
"I thank you, my liege, I could not have asked a fairer answer. I thank you, as well, my sovereign lady, and you, my lord of Brenden. I shall make good use of my time here."
"You are most welcome, my lord," the king said. "Come to me tomorrow and I will have direction for you in starting your venture. Who is next, Tom?"
"Warring's charity will drain the store we have from this year's northern harvests," the king told his brother as they conferred later alone. "But my lady will have no refusal of any beggar's plea."
Tom smiled. "I think the harvests were bountiful enough to share with the south. The war did hit them hard."
"Well, we will grant Taliferro's request, but I do not know that I can say as much for your father-in-law's."
"Give him what he wants, Philip," Tom said. "Has it not been long enough?"
"I cannot." The exasperation came back into Philip's expression. "Am I to let him dictate to me? He held those lands wrongly, I could not justly keep them from Grenaver and I cannot now give him what rightly belongs to the crown. He has no right to keep her from you, and I'll not allow it any longer."
"We cannot just take her from him."
"She is your wife, Tom."
"And as such, she is worth any amount of land to me. Give her father what he wants, take Brenden in its place. I care not, so I have Elizabeth."
"You hardly know her. Why should you give up your dukedom for her?"
"Two years is a long time, I am tired of the waiting. She is Aberwain's heir. When he dies, I will have back anything you give him, and I will give it back to you."
"And meanwhile I let him bully me into what is unjust? No, Tom, I cannot even for you, but he will bring her, I promise you. Before Christmas."
"That's hardly a month away."
"I will see to it."
Tom was too familiar with the inflexible resolution in his brother's face. "Philip, I would keep peace with my lady's father as well."
"Trust me," Philip said and then he smiled. "What good is it that I am king if I cannot get you what you want?"
When court was held the next day, Tom was surprised to see all the nobility gathered in the great hall. In times of peace, they usually only met together in the council, or, if they attended court all at once, it was at the king's command on some great matter of state. Tom was unaware of anything of such consequence on today's agenda.
Aberwain was called first, and Tom watched him make a swaggering bow before the throne, certain that such impertinence would not urge his proud brother towards compromise, wondering how much longer his wait was to be made because of it.
"I have considered your request, my lord of Aberwain," Philip said, "and have this in answer: If you wrong me, I am bound in Christian charity to forgive you; but, if you wrong Lynaleigh, I am bound to defend her with every means in my power. You know, and every man here knows, what she has suffered from the war we have just fought. With every one of my nobles loyal, she will have difficulty enough recovering. If one of them, just one, puts himself ahead of her and leaves her weak before her enemies, she will be lost. Would you, my lord Darlington, leave her so?"
Darlington bowed his head. "God judge me, Your Majesty, not I."
"And you, Lord Ellison?"
"Never, my lord," Ellison swore, a look of contempt on his young face. His father had been killed in the war little more than a year ago, and he had little patience for those who did not uphold the king for whom that sacrifice had been made.
"My lord of Eastbrook?" Philip asked and Eastbrook put his hand on the hilt of his sword, the gesture serving both as a pledge and as a warning.
"You have my oath already, my liege. You will never find me slow to defend your right against any enemy."
"And you, my lord of Aberwain?"
Before the calm authority of the king's words, Aberwain's smugness dissolved into uncertainty. A swift glance at the rest of the court showed him only suspicion verging on hostility, and Tom could see that he realized only now that he had overplayed his hand in braving this king in his own throne room, before the solid support of his nobles.
"I must refuse your request for Kingslynne, my lord of Aberwain," Philip said, "in the best interest of the kingdom and independent of your threats."
"Threats, Your Majesty?" Aberwain sputtered, and, refusing to acknowledge Tom's silent plea for restraint, Philip numbered them on his fingers.
"Disaffection of the nobility, attack from the south, my deposition, shall I go on?" Aberwain flushed red then white. "My lord, Your Majesty, I never so much as dreamed–"
"In whatever words you couch them, my lord of Aberwain," Philip said severely, "are these not the promised results of your defection?"
"Defection?" Aberwain protested with another glance at the grim faces surrounding him. "My liege lord and king, on True Cross, I swear there was no thought of defection, nor anything else you have charged, ever meant in my words or my deeds." He smiled thinly. "Surely you never thought so of me, son Thomas."
"For my lady's sake, my lord," Tom said, "I hope I never need think so."
Philip's gaze was still stern. "Then I may conclude that your daughter's health will improve so much that she will be with us at court before Christmas."
Aberwain bowed in shamefaced defeat. "She will, my liege."
"And, of course, I need not question your loyalty in defense of my southern border."
"Of course not, Your Majesty, I swear it and overswear again my oath to you as my king."
Philip let his expression soften. "Do not swear to me, my lord. I am but a servant of this kingdom. Swear, rather, to Lynaleigh herself, whom I know you love."
Tom saw surprise and then relief in his father-in-law's face as he looked up at the king, as he realized that Philip was willing to put this failed attempt at coercion behind them and let him prove his trustworthiness.
"I do, Your Majesty. Most truly, I do."
Philip smiled a little at his fervent reply. "Have we not always found it so, my lords?"
There was a grudging murmur of assent from among the nobility, and some of their animosity lessened. Tom exhaled a sigh of relief and rather poorly concealed a smile. That last touch of gentleness reminded him just how changed his brother was since the war's end. The Philip of a few months ago would never have stooped to that, not before his court.
Tom breathed his thanks heavenward. He would have his Elizabeth and peace with her father and Philip's sovereignty was intact. He could not have asked much more.
With a final word of gratitude, Aberwain bowed and left the court, apparently unaware of the piercing black eyes upon him, deep-set eyes that were so black it was hard to distinguish iris from pupil, but Tom noticed the tall, angular figure that glided towards the doorway after him. Then Philip asked him who was next to be called, and the rest of Taliferro's movements went unnoticed.
Elizabeth leaned out of the carriage window and shaded her eyes against the orange sun that was sinking behind the imposing towers of Winton Castle, throwing their long shadows across the rutted road ahead. She had watched these towers for miles now, watched them grow larger and larger with every jolt of the wheels. She would be inside the city walls soon, and then in the palace itself, and then her life would forever change.
"Give me my glass, Ellen," she said, frowning, and the gaunt, middle-aged woman sitting across from her rummaged in one of the bags piled at her feet and brought out a little golden mirror, no more than the width of her hand across and set with matched pearls. Elizabeth had had it as a Christmas gift, just a year ago, from this very place, from the near-stranger who was her husband.
She took the mirror and studied herself in it. Her mahogany hair was pinned back close and plain like Ellen's, tight enough to pull her dark brows into a severe line. The gown she wore was an unflattering mustard yellow, one she knew made her fair rose-tinged complexion look sallow and older than her scarcely eighteen years.
"Do you wish your hair changed, my lady?" the serving woman asked with a disapproving pucker around her mouth. Even when her face was relaxed, her upper lip was lined with the gesture. It was as habitual as the skepticism in the small eyes that were set close to her sharp, inquisitive nose.
"No," Elizabeth answered, unconsciously copying the older woman's expression. "I've been sent for under constraint, and that is how I will come. I'll not make myself fair for it."
"I should say not, my lambkin," Ellen agreed. "Prince or no, what is my lord of Brenden but a man? Best show him from the very first that, though you are his wife, you'll not be his fool."
Elizabeth laid the mirror in her lap with a sigh. What was she to say to him, this husband of hers? He had written her often in the past two years, his letters full of sweet words and lavish oaths of love, but she had sent him only the most perfunctory answers, and only for the sake of decorum. The serving girls who had come here with her the first time had sighed and giggled over him, telling her how fortunate she was to have such a man as Thomas of Brenden for her husband, but they did not understand. Besides Ellen, no one understood, no one cared.
No, I have one friend at court I can trust.
She looked once more over the snow-laden fields towards the city. The gates stood invitingly open and there was a steady stream of peasants and merchants going in and out, burdened with the wares they had bought or were to sell, cheerful and festive in celebration of the season. No doubt there would be much revelry at the palace, too, for Advent. The thought wearied her. As a princess, she would be expected to be in constant attendance, and she knew the people would be especially eager to see her, now that she had finally come. She closed her eyes and wished for the convent.
Elizabeth stood outside the enormous double doors that led to the great hall, waiting to be presented to the court.
"It will be just a moment, my lady," Lord Darlington told her. He had been sent to meet her carriage and officially escort her to her husband, and she remembered him from her first time at court. There was a touch more silver in his hair, a deepening of the wrinkles around his eyes, but that only made him seem all the more suited to be one of the king's chief councilors.
"You mustn't fear, princess," he told her kindly. "There is many an arranged match that turns to love. The king had no say in choosing the queen, you know, and I dare say you'll not find a truer love than they've come to. I will tell His Majesty we are ready."
"The king too much loves himself ever to love anyone else," said a cynical voice once Darlington had gone, and Elizabeth turned.
The woman standing beside her should have been beautiful. She was young yet, still in her middle twenties, with a comely shape, a fair face, and hair the color of new honey, but there was a deep bitterness in her green eyes and a tight, haughty downturn to her mouth that soured any attractive qualities she possessed.
"Princess Margaret," Elizabeth said as she made curtsey.
"Oh, no, Your Highness," Margaret corrected, making a mocking curtsey of her own. "It is you who are a princess. The king suffers me no title but 'Lady' now, and I think even that chafes him."
Elizabeth remembered her, too, remembered seeing her not long after the funeral of her first husband, the king's elder brother and then-heir to the throne, Richard of Bradford. She had scandalized the whole kingdom shortly after by marrying the would-be king, Stephen of Ellenshaw. But he had been killed in the final battle of the war, crushing for a second time her high-reaching aspirations.
Her father had disinherited her for her faithlessness, and it was only because she was the queen's sister that she was allowed now at court. There were those who said she should have been imprisoned for what she had done. There were those who said she should have been put to death.
"But you mustn't let that fret you," Margaret continued. "The king would do anything for your precious Prince Tom. So long as you are a submissive little wife, so long as you are willing to put your hand beneath your husband's foot and serve his pleasure, the king will have no quarrel with you. It pleases him to see a woman who knows her place and does as she is bidden." She smiled. "He has my sister well trained."
"Pardon me, Lady Margaret," Darlington said coldly, then he turned to Elizabeth. "It is time, princess."
"The Princess Elizabeth," she heard the herald announce. Trying not to hold too tightly to Darlington's arm, she let him lead her into the great hall.
Every eye was on her, every low murmur was about her, assessing her clothing, her hair, her person, comparing her, she was certain, to their beautiful and much-loved queen.
She had not met the queen before, of course, but she had heard much of her piety and her beauty. Little wonder the king was smitten with her. Beautiful women were always beloved. These two were a good match, though, Elizabeth thought, looking at the king. Doubtless there was much love between two such flawless creatures.
Until that beauty fades, she reminded herself. Then we shall see that love fade with it.
"You are welcome to Winton, Princess Elizabeth."
The king came down from his throne to kiss her hand, and she curtsied deeply.
"I thank you, Your Majesty."
"My lord of Brenden has been eager for your coming, my lady," the queen said with a welcoming smile as she came to Philip's side. "I believe he's been dressed for it since before noon."
"He wanted to ride out to meet you himself," Philip added, "regardless of the conventionalities. Even so, I think I'd best call him in now or I may have an open rebellion on my hands. My lord Darlington, if you please."
Darlington bowed and in another moment Thomas of Brenden, her husband, was standing before her.
"My lady Elizabeth," he said, taking both of her hands to kiss.
His voice was gentle and deep and still had that soft northern touch to it that she remembered so well. He was a little broader in the shoulders since she had seen him last and the handsome lines of his face were a little more mature, but there was more than a hint of boyishness left in the warm depths of his eyes and in the heavy lock of dark hair that fell over his forehead. "How good it is to have you here," he added, looking up at her through his thick lashes, and she saw he was still quick to smile and that there was still a sweet hint of a dimple in his cheek when he did.
Take care you are not made a fool of for a smile, she warned herself, and then she made a stiff curtsey.
"Good evening, Your Highness."
He stood straight again and drew her to his side, and she could not help noticing how well the simple richness of his crimson doublet suited him and the way his boots hugged the long line of his legs. King Philip was always held to be the fairest thing at court, and Elizabeth could not argue that. Tom was very like him in looks, but there were differences, too.
There was something formidable about the king, despite his youthful handsomeness and flashing smile. There was a searching watchfulness about him, a guardedness that made her feel there were only a precious few allowed close enough to truly know the man inside. It was not so with Tom.
He welcomed her now as he had that first time, as if she were truly dear to him. Despite all his Chastelayne beauty, despite her lack of anything to match it, there was warm acceptance in his dark eyes, something hopeful that drew her more than she felt right.
"How I have missed you, my lady," he said, lowering his voice for her alone to hear, and her heart began to pound harder.
Take care, she thought once more, and then she found no more time for contemplation as she was presented to an almost endless line of lords and ladies, all showering her with appropriate welcome and felicitations, all still appraising her suitability for their beloved Lord Tom, and, she was certain, all finding her sadly lacking.
Once the formalities were over, Tom squeezed her hand and pulled her a little closer beside him.
"Would you care to rest before supper, my lady? I know your journey was long, and you are no doubt weary."
"I thank you, my lord," she said and he turned to the king.
"If you will pardon us, Philip, I will take my lady to her chamber now."
"Of course," Philip agreed. "So many introductions would exhaust anyone."
Rosalynde took her hand briefly. "We are so pleased you have come, Lady Elizabeth. I pray you will find happiness here in as much abundance as I have. If my lord of Brenden has his way about it, I know you shall."
Philip smiled and bent to kiss Elizabeth's fingertips. "I pray you will see to his happiness as well, my lady," he said lightly. "Anything less might prove treason."
Tom laughed, but Elizabeth could see that the king's words were not entirely frivolous.
"I shall try to keep within the law, Your Majesty," she said with an overly formal curtsey, and Tom put her arm through his own.
"Come, my lady. I will see you at supper, Philip. Lady Rosalynde."
He made a slight bow, then he led Elizabeth into the corridor.
"Your ladies have doubtless made things ready for you by now," he said as they walked along. "There is a banquet planned for tonight in your honor and some other entertainments as well. You needn't attend if you had not rather."
"I would not wish to seem ungrateful, my lord. I know it is the custom."
"We seemed to have sidestepped more than one custom, you and I, my lady," he said with a touch of a smile. "If you would prefer–"
"Lady Elizabeth, you are come already."
She turned at the smooth voice and her eyes lit in recognition. She smiled her first smile in days.
"My lord Taliferro! How good it is to see you here."
"You are acquainted," Tom said, surprised, and Taliferro took Elizabeth's hand.
"My lord of Aberwain and I are neighbors and allies, Your Highness," he explained.
"Your lady is quite nearly a daughter to me. In fact, her father asked that I look after her when I am able." He brought Elizabeth's hand to his lips. "I had hoped to return in time to see you presented to the court, Madonna. You must forgive my absence, but I am forced to go back and forth from here to Warring, sometimes without much warning. Still, I trust your stay here will allow us a great deal of time together."
"Oh, I pray so, my lord," she told him. "My father told me to count upon you, should I need a friend here, and I know I may do so."
His thin lips curved up slightly. "No doubt with my lord of Brenden to champion you, Madonna, you will never have need of me, but I am here in the event you should."
"That is very gracious of you, my lord," Tom said, taking Elizabeth's hand from him and leading her again down the corridor. "We will both remember your kind offer."
"I will see you at supper, then, Madonna," Taliferro said with a bow. "My lord of Brenden."
"My lord of Brenden," Ellen said, dropping a rigid curtsey when Tom and Elizabeth came into the room.
"How are you, Mistress Ellen?" he asked affably, taking a look around. "It seems you have done well in putting my lady's things in order."
"It mostly was done already, my lord. I had but to arrange the things we brought in the carriage today."
"I am to attend a banquet tonight, Ellen," Elizabeth said. "See my blue velvet is made ready."
"At once, my lady. As soon as I've settled you for a nap."
Ellen looked pointedly at Tom and began unbinding her mistress' thick hair.
"Let me, Ellen," Elizabeth said wearily. "You go find out what they've done with my dress."
Scowling, Ellen curtsied again and left the room. There was a moment of quiet, then Tom went to Elizabeth's side, watching as she loosened the tight coil at the back of her head and let a few soft curls escape.
"Shall we talk a moment, my lady, while you do that?"
She stepped back from him. "Of what?"
"Why, of anything," he said with a disarming smile. "Of everything. You made such scant replies to any of my letters, I feel I hardly know more of you than before we met."
"There is no need, Your Highness. I am here, the king has commanded it, and I know my duty now. You needn't coax."
He touched her cheek, and she pulled away from him, letting a handful of hair fall down her neck.
"Please, my lady, you needn't fear me. I told you long ago I would never harm you."
He had told her that and had kept his word.
Any man may pretend gentleness for a week. She had left him two years ago almost convinced he truly meant what he told her, but she had been fresh from the convent then, still not sixteen, and had not known so much of the world.
It was only on their wedding day, as they stood before the Archbishop, that they had met face to face. He had given her an encouraging smile when he caught her stealing a glance at him from under her lashes, but she had snapped her eyes straight ahead at that and had not looked at him again until they were at the banquet that followed. Even when he had touched his lips to hers at the end of the ceremony, she had not lifted her eyes from the floor.
Then, sooner than she had expected, the hours of feasting and dancing were over and she was lying in the bridal chamber, waiting for her husband to be brought to her, waiting for the Archbishop to come and bless the marriage bed, witnessed by all the court. It was the same room they were in now, with huge glassed windows that were overrun every dawn with the sun's glory and a high ceiling ornamented with painted saint's rose and intertwined T's and E's. Thomas and Elizabeth.
"No one ever calls me Thomas," he had told her that night once they were alone. "No one but my father and then only when he is vexed with me."
She had made no answer to that. She had not spoken to him at all. She had merely lain there with the coverlet pulled high around her, wishing she had been allowed at least a shift for the sake of modesty, trying to breathe evenly and not tremble.
He had tried all that day to become acquainted with her, to coax her to dance or eat or drink or at least smile, but she had scarcely even looked at him. Even then, alone with him, she had not.
"I hope you will call me Tom," he had said, reaching out for her hand, and she had pulled back from him in sudden terror.
His expression had turned bewildered. "My lady, you needn't fear me. I would never hurt you."
He had tried again to take her hand, but she had only shrunk further away from him.
"No, please," she had whispered, her eyes filling with tears. "Please, please no."
"Listen to me, my lady, I swear you needn't fear. Truly. I want only for you to be at ease. I have vowed to love and protect you. You are my flesh now as much as this hand of mine."
His tone had been gentle, but it had not stilled the fearful pleading in her voice and in her eyes.
"Please, my lord, let me go back to the sisters. It is wrong for me to be here."
"Wrong? You are my wife. It is holy and right for you to be with me. We pledged each other in the sight of God Himself, who made marriage to be an honorable thing." He had held out his hand once more. "My lady-"
"Please, let me go back."
"My lady– Elizabeth, please, do not fear me. You vowed just today to obey me, now give me your hand."
"No, please, my lord," she had begged, even as she did as he asked. "I cannot–"
"Shh," he had said as he tenderly kissed her trembling fingers. "Listen to me now. You are my wife. My beloved. I know you are afraid, but you need not be. I would never force you." He had pressed the hand he still held. "I will touch you no more than this, I swear it. Not until you ask it of me."
She had slipped her hand out of his, a little of her anxiousness calming. "You are very kind, my lord."
"We are strangers yet, my lady. I understand."
That same patient kindness was in his eyes now. How well she remembered those eyes.
"You will want to rest awhile, Bess," he said, breaking her long silence. "I understand."
The familiarity surprised her.
"I am not called Bess," she told him, though he had called her that before, just once.
He smiled at her again, and she had to remind herself not to smile in return. How well she remembered that smile.
"I pray you forgive me that, my lady. I have always called you so in my heart."
"In two years, surely you've had dearer things to hold there."
"No, Bess, truly." His face was suddenly solemn. "Nothing dearer than the hope I have of the love that will be between us. I pledged you my love the day we wed, and I mean to prove it true in more than just words."
He had done that, too, in the short time they had had together before. After she had passed their wedding night in sleepless silence and the dawn had flooded the windows, she had wondered what her father would say, what his father the king would say, when they learned that the marriage contract had not been fully implemented. When Tom woke beside her, she had made a stammering attempt to ask him what they were to do, and, without a moment's pause, he had braced his forearm and made a quick cut across it with his dagger.
"Now there will be no questions," he had said, letting a few drops of blood fall into the still-pristine sheets. She had sat on the other side of the bed, swathed in the ornate velvet robe that had been made especially for her wedding morning. For all its lace and fine stitchery, it might have been sackcloth.
"I know you are angry with me, my lord," she had whispered, tears in her eyes.
"You must not think so," he had said as he bound the cut with a handkerchief. "I told you last night that I understand. I do. I want nothing of you that does not come willingly."
There was still a scar inside his arm. After so long, it was slight, she would never have noticed it had she not known, but he carried forever that mark of his protective sacrifice.
He did it merely to save his pride, she told herself, not for love of me or anyone but Thomas Chastelayne.
She began searching for her comb, saying nothing, and he smiled again, this time a little ruefully.
"Until I have made you sure, Bess, we shall leave things as we had them before. I promise you."
They had spent the remainder of that allotted week sleeping side by side, never touching by so much as a handclasp, But she remembered the tenderness in his words as he tried to put her at ease, and remembered how he always told her he loved her.
"There is something of the angel in him when he's asleep," she had told Ellen then, a little shy hope in her eyes, but Ellen had merely laughed and called her a little goose. "There is something of the angel in all men...sleeping. Ah, but you're such a raw young thing yet. You will no doubt believe me one day, after it is too late."
Elizabeth had said no more of it, but she was careful not to think anymore soft thoughts towards her young husband after that. When, by the terms of the contract, it was time for her to return to her father's home, he had come to the carriage to bid her farewell.
"I would I could have made you happy here, my lady," he had said, a touch of wistfulness in his expression. "I promise one day it shall be so. The war will end and you will come back to me, and I will prove you my love."
She had made him no answer. With a brief clasp of her hand, he had helped her into the carriage and then signaled the driver. She had watched him as they pulled away, watched him standing there with an unaccountable sorrow in his handsome face, deep longing in his dark eyes.
Then, to her amazement, he had begun to run, his long legs fleetly closing the distance between them. The horses had picked up speed, and, with a running leap, he had braced himself against the window frame and reached in to her. His desperate hands had clasped hers and he had briefly lifted his feet off the ground. Holding tight, he had pressed her hand with a passionate kiss, then she had heard the thump of his boots as he took a couple of running steps and pushed himself free of the carriage.
"Bess!" he had cried, his chest heaving as he stood there in the road. "I do love you!"
She had lain back against the cushions, breathless, too dazed to move, then she had realized there was something in her hand. It was a bracelet of linked violets and saint's rose, delicately wrought in gold, and, like the ceiling of the bridal chamber, adorned with intertwined T's and E's, another sweet pledge of his truth. It shamed her to remember all this now.
What a child I was then, she told herself scornfully. What is he but a man? I needn't fear him unless I am fool enough to let him deceive me with his practiced words.
She would not be so easily led, not even with this man who claimed such love for her. From what she could tell, all men spoke so. Well, her husband might by law be master of her body, but nothing more. And even that, perhaps, could be avoided.
She gave Tom a hard look, then she opened the jewel chest one of her women had placed on the table and took the bracelet out of it.
"Take this back again, my lord, I cannot wear it. I know the meaning it holds for you."
He clasped her hand around it and would not take it from her.
"Wear it, Bess, for my sake. For the promise of what we will have."
"I cannot promise that, my lord."
"Then for my promise to you. Please."
"If you command it, Your Highness."
"No," he said quickly. "I'll not have you wear it but freely."
She looked away from him, feeling her resolve soften at the longing in his eyes. "I cannot."
He held her hand a moment more, then released it with a squeeze. "Then I will keep it for you. For when you want it."
He took the bracelet from her, looking on it as it lay coiled in his hand, admiring its perfection, saddened that it, too, would be left wasted.
"I needn't sleep here, my lady, if you would prefer I did not."
"You know what a scandal that would be in the court, my lord," she told him, searching again for her comb. "I do not know how you could even suggest such a thing."
"What do I care for gossip, Bess? They will talk anyway. My only concern is for your happiness." He found her comb fallen under the table and handed it to her. "Tell me how you would have it be, my lady, and it shall be so."
"Stay here, my lord," she told him hesitantly. "Until enough time has passed that there will be no talk."
"Very well." He touched her hand with the gentlest hint of a kiss. "I will leave you to your rest for now and come for you at supper."
"He is gone so soon?" Ellen asked, scurrying back into the chamber once he had left it. "That's a wonder."
Elizabeth shook her hair out loose, letting it fall to her hips.
"There were matters we had to settle before tonight, but they took only a moment." She rubbed her hand, still feeling the warm caress of Tom's lips against it. "He was most considerate of me."
"Doubtless he wants you well rested," Ellen said, pursing her withered lips, and, fighting sudden tears, Elizabeth did not reply.
Copyright 1997 ~ DeAnna Julie Dodson
Illustration - "Tristan and Isolde" by John William Waterhouse