Ververe 4, 1013
Never before in his life, Elyan thought, had he been half so nervous.
He paced the colored cobblestones in front of the great Cathedral of St. Robert. Back and forth, back and forth, back and forth. He was being kept waiting, and he hated that enough when his stomach wasn’t gnawing itself in two. Perhaps the delay was at least partially his own fault, since had had come early — he couldn’t risk being late himself. But somehow, that thought just made everything worse.
He could think of nothing else but, I could screw this up. I could screw this up! Then it would be my fault — mine, mine, mine, and no one else’s!
Elyan was waiting for a young lady. All he knew of her was her name — Lady Clemencia Abraham — and her description. But if all went well, she might be his wife after he graduated.
And if it didn’t … he would have lost another potential bride, and he couldn’t blame his father for this one.
Not that Leona was much of a loss, or so Elyan told himself again and again. Sure, losing her dowry was quite the blow. Lady Clemencia’s was nowhere near so large. And even Elyan had to admit that Leona could be quite pretty when she put an effort in, which she rarely did in any case. But Lady Clemencia could be just as pretty, or even prettier. There was nothing stopping her.
And surely Lady Clemencia would be calm, not always flying off the handle like Leona was apt to. She would be respectful. Obedient. It seemed that every country but Albion knew how to raise its daughters. Elyan would be fine. Just fine. He just needed to —
Red hair — dark skin — a pink dress — that had to be her!
Except … did it? She was walking with a young man. What woman would come to meet a prospective partner with a young man in tow? No, this had to be someone else. There had to be more dark-skinned, red-haired ladies who favored pink in Camford than just Lady Clemencia. It stood to reason.
The eyes of the young man fell on Elyan; embarrassed, he ducked his head and examined his cuticles in mind-numbing detail. He thus did not see the glance the young man sent to the woman. He did not see the nod. He did not see the way the young woman’s eyes lit up, and he did not see the way she looked at him.
Luckily for Elyan, he did see the white stockings of the young man coming closer and closer to his field of vision, so he was able to compose himself and look up before he looked like a complete idiot.
The young man stuck out his hand. “Sir Elyan de Ganis, I presume?”
“Yes — yes, indeed, sir.” Elyan shook the young man’s hand, trying very hard not to look beyond him, to the young woman sighing beatifically. Could she be …?
“Greetings. I am Olyver of Cotsworth, and this …” Olyver stretched a hand behind him, somehow managed to find the small of the woman’s back, and guided her to Elyan. “This is my cousin, Lady Clemencia Abraham.”
“Lady Clemencia!” Elyan smiled. “Greetings, my lady. How are you, on this …” Elyan groped for an adjective. “Fine day?” he finally settled for.
“Oh!” Lady Clemencia giggled. “Oh, very well. And yourself?” Her voice was high and squeaky, like a songbird’s without the melody.
“The same. I …” Elyan cast a sidelong glance at her cousin. “I must thank you for coming. I …” He groped for her hand to kiss, but she didn’t seem to notice. He grinned foolishly, and she only grinned back. Then she leaned in closer, lips puckered …
Elyan kissed her very quickly on both cheeks before anything untoward could happen. He could feel her cousin’s eyes on the back of his head the whole time.
But when Elyan turned around, Olyver’s face was as close to impassive as a man could want. Elyan heard a giggle — he turned his head to see Lady Clemencia holding a hand to her mouth and delicately tittering, all the while looking at her cousin like a child who had just gotten into the cookie jar and been caught … by an indulgent uncle, almost certain to let her off with a wink if she reacted just right.
Somewhere in the depths of Elyan’s soul, a voice he had mostly learned to ignore murmured, Oh, boy.
Olyver coughed, and Elyan turned back to him. “So. Sir Elyan. Where were you planning to take my lady cousin on your outing?”
Elyan panicked. He was supposed to take her somewhere? Such as — where? Where could he take her? More to the point, where could he bring her that wouldn’t cost him any money?
“Er …” Elyan remembered, suddenly, the reason why he had suggested this spot as a meeting place. “I was actually thinking the cloister gardens, sir.” Elyan gestured to the walled gardens to their left. “It’s quite the beautiful spot in this season. I’m sure Lady Clemencia will love it.”
Olyver didn’t answer. Instead, he looked at Lady Clemencia. After a confused moment or two, Elyan looked at her, too.
She was pouting. “I was hoping to go to the shops …”
Elyan’s heart dropped to the pit of his stomach. No, he couldn’t do an unauthorized shopping trip right now! And he would have to buy her something flashy and expensive, to prove that he was interested, wouldn’t he? If he did that, how was he to pay his share of the maid’s wages? These Camford maids would walk right out on you if you couldn’t pay …
“But — but, my lady,” Elyan replied, “surely the shops would be better for a wet day, or a cold one. Today the sun shines, and the gardens are quite lovely, I assure you. Besides, the shops are back in the direction from which you came. I would hate to tire you out unnecessarily.”
Lady Clemencia still looked unconvinced. Elyan scrambled for another reason. “Besides … in the shops, it is so crowded — entirely with the wrong sort of people, of course. Why, we should scarcely be able to hear ourselves think, let alone hear each other speak. But the cloister gardens are quiet and calm. I think it would be a wonderful place for us to get to know each other better … do you not, my lady?”
Lady Clemencia still frowned … then, all of a sudden, she shrugged. “All right!” She grinned at Elyan, then shot a glance at her cousin. “Will you be chaperoning, Ollie?”
What — no! Elyan didn’t want to have to talk to this girl with her cousin breathing down his neck every minute!
Olyver shook his head. “The sanctity of the spot should be chaperone enough. And if you need me, I will be in the cathedral.” He gestured. “You know what today is.”
Lady Clemencia made a moue, but she didn’t argue. “All right. Shall we, Sir Elyan?”
“Naturally.” Elyan extended an arm to her, especially to help her up the steps and back down again, but she didn’t take it. Olyver followed them up the stairs.
He did not follow them down, but before Elyan and Lady Clemencia took their leave of him, he grabbed Lady Clemencia’s arm and whispered something into her ear. She nodded once. Then Olyver went into the cathedral, and Elyan and Lady Clemencia went into the gardens.
Elyan had not been lying when he said that the cloister gardens were a beautiful spot this season, though the walkway into them was plain and austere. Legend had it that St. Robert himself had laid the plans for them, even when his church was just a simple hut with a thatch roof, indistinguishable from all the others in the village until you walked inside. He had said that while his monks and nuns were to cut themselves off from many worldly pleasures, the beauties of nature were not one of them. He used to give services of thanksgiving to the Lord, praising Him for sending St. Robert and his followers from their harsh desert home to this fair green land, with all its flowers.
“Oh!” Lady Clemencia gasped as she and Elyan entered the garden. “It really is pretty! Look at all the roses!”
Elyan looked. There were indeed a lot of roses — pale pink ones, growing in vines over the white walls. He wondered if the legends stating that St. Robert had planted them himself were true. If so, he had to wonder at the man’s taste. The whole of the gardens were rather …
Elyan stopped that thought right there. He was fairly certain it was blasphemous to imply that the holy St. Robert was in any way … effeminate.
However, it certainly wasn’t blasphemy to think that some monks were … well … not the most masculine of creatures. Most likely, St. Robert had designed some simple gardens, and later monks had come along and turned it into … this.
He supposed it could be worse.
“You know,” Lady Clemencia remarked, “how odd it is, that I’ve never come here before. Have you ever been here before, Sir Elyan?”
“No, my lady,” Elyan replied.
He blinked — surely that was a more direct question than was strictly warranted? Er even allowed on so slender an acquaintanceship? “I … suppose …” Elyan hunted about for an answer. “I suppose I was always too occupied with my studies.”
“Oh? And what are you studying?”
Elyan almost breathed a sigh of relief — this was more like it! Leona had never asked after his studies. He always had to go through the trouble of bringing it up. “History,” he replied, “particularly military history.”
“Oh,” Lady Clemencia replied.
Elyan stopped — mentally, if not physically. “… Oh?”
“Well …” Lady Clemencia batted her lashes at him and shrugged. “That’s awfully dull, isn’t it?”
Elyan knew not what surprised him more: that a well-bred lady (other than Leona) would come out and say that, especially on a first encounter, or that what she said mirrored precisely what he had thought many, many a time.
“I mean,” Lady Clemencia went on, “Ollie is studying the same thing. He says he’s studying to be a great knight and general, I say nobody every learned how to be a great anything from a book. Don’t you agree, Sir Elyan? Don’t you think that books don’t really teach you much at all?”
“Well, I –”
“I, for one,” she continued, not bothering to wait for his response, “I don’t think I’ve learned anything by reading! Anything at all! Whenever I try to sit down with a book, my mind wanders so many different places, I’ll read the same page over time after time without understanding it! I don’t see the point, really. If you’re going to learn, you need to learn by doing it, not by simply reading about it.”
Elyan didn’t answer. He was too busy trying to determine just how one went about getting a Camford education if one despised reading. Elyan didn’t like to read very much, but at least he understood its value. Mother Julian’s ruler had drilled that into his head (and knuckles) quite nicely.
“I’m always so glad I chose to concentrate my studies in music,” Lady Clemencia went on. “As long as I practice enough, why, I need never open a book at all, and still pass all of my classes!”
“Music?” Elyan asked.
“Oh, yes, I study music — why, didn’t I tell you that before?” Lady Clemencia turned to him, batting her lashes. “Such a silly goose I am! Why, I’m surprised you didn’t ask!”
“I –” Elyan began, but never had a chance to finish — which rather proved the point he was too cowardly to make.
“My papa says that a musical education is the best possible investment a young girl can make,” Lady Clemencia went on. “Especially if she’s like me.” She giggled. “Everything about my head that’s good is all on the outside, you see.”
Elyan blinked. “Your — your father says that about you?” Surely … surely that wasn’t the sort of thing a father was supposed to say to his daughter, was it? Oh, his own father had told his sisters, Clarice especially, that it was a good thing they were so pretty, else they would have a hard time finding a husband if they insisted on being so clever. But surely calling your own daughter dumb …
“Oh, yes! I’m my papa’s little chowderhead!” Lady Clemencia laughed. “But that’s all right. There are only so many brains to go around in a family, after all. It’s a lucky thing my brothers got them! Could you imagine? A woman who’s so much brighter than all of the men? Where would that get anybody?”
“I … haven’t the least idea,” replied Elyan, as he rounded another corner with Lady Clemencia. They were making a constant circuit of the cloister gardens, going around and around the same flowers, the same trees, the same vines creeping over the same walls.
“Papa always says,” Lady Clemencia kept talking, “that a girl like me — pretty face, pretty voice, pretty … well, you know!” She tittered. “All of that, a pretty girl like me is made to marry an old man, with lots of money, somebody with an establish estate that practically runs itself, so all I have to do is look pretty, sing pretty, and provide him with a few children. Then, once he dies, I would get my jointure and live as well as I pleased, with a handsome steward to manage all of my affairs for me!”
“How … nice …”
“But I never agreed! I always said, I want a young man!” Lady Clemencia giggled and patted — Elyan thought it was meant to be a playful slap, though he couldn’t be sure — his arm. “Like you!”
“How lucky for me.”
“And for me!” Lady Clemencia laughed. “Papa would have had me married off to old Baron Herbert, you know. The betrothal papers were signed and everything! But then Baron Herbert’s estates were all ravaged by the soldiers, and Papa ripped up the betrothal papers. And I had to go before monks and swear that my virtue was still intact, that Baron Herbert and I hadn’t done anything! Ugh! As if I would if we weren’t married!” Lady Clemencia shuddered. “Anyway — that’s why Papa decided to look for somebody outside of Glasonland for me to marry. He says he wants to keep one of his children out of the war. He would have even taken a Reman, he says!”
“I … I see,” replied Elyan. He was not trying to be rude. But he had learned the hard way that the civil war was not something you brought up with Glasonlanders. Some of the young men of knightly stock had left Camford to fight, but there were still plenty left, most under strict orders from fathers or other guardians to stay where they were until it was clear which side would be the winner. And among those men, there was nothing that would start a brawl faster than good news from the front … for the wrong side. Elyan and Aglovale had already had to sidle out of more than their fair share of barfights, thanks to that.
Lady Clemencia suddenly stopped. Elyan stopped as well, perforce, and faced her in some confusion. She sighed. “I don’t blame Papa. Not after Eachann left.”
“My brother.” Lady Clemencia sighed. “He’s fighting with Lord Francis.”
Lord Francis — the strongest of all of King Vortigern’s bastards. “My — you have my sympathies, my lady. And my prayers for his safe return.”
“Oh, you’ll pray for him?” Lady Clemencia gasped. “You will? Truly?”
“I …” Elyan shrugged. “… Of course?”
“Because Papa won’t,” Lady Clemencia murmured, picking at her nails.
“He — he won’t?”
“Because Issac is fighting with the King, you see. Which is where Papa told him to fight. Papa can’t fight anymore himself — his gout is too bad.”
“But if you’ll pray for him,” Lady Clemencia went on, smiling slightly with only the corners of her lips, “that — that makes two people praying! And that makes the Lord twice as likely to listen, doesn’t it?”
“Who — who else is praying for him?”
“I am, of course!” Lady Clemencia gasped.
“You — you are?”
“Of course! He’s my brother!”
Elyan barely held back a flinch. Would — if he had incurred their father’s wrath, would any of his sisters pray for him? Their father had trained them all, so well, to be obedient. Would their natural affection for him outweigh their duty to obey their father?
“However,” Lady Clemencia went on, “I don’t tell my papa. It will only make him angry. So I think — what he doesn’t know, won’t hurt me!” Lady Clemencia laughed.
… She thought that was funny? That kind of dishonesty? Of — cowardice?
Leona wouldn’t do that, whispered the voice that Elyan so often tried to ignore. As happened so often, that voice was correct. Leona would have broadcast her defiance to the world. In fact, Elyan thought glumly, she probably would have done more for the erring brother than just pray for him. That was the kind of firebrand Leona was.
Still, that voice was whispering to Elyan that there was, perhaps, something to be said for an honest firebrand, when compared to a sly … what?
“Well — I’m sure your brothers, both, will be fine, and will come safely home again,” Elyan replied. “If we’re all praying for them.” He glanced at the progress of the sun. “But — but I should be getting you back to your cousin, shouldn’t I?”
“If you insist!” Lady Clemencia chirped. Elyan extended her his arm, and she took it with a smile.
They walked back to the entrance of the gardens, Lady Clemencia prattling on about inconsequentials. How could she go from something so deadly serious as her brothers on opposite sides of a war to something so silly as a pretty hat she had seen on Milliner’s Lane? It defied logic — reason — and if women had no part in either, as his father often insisted, then it defied emotional sense!
But there she was, talking and talking and talking …
And when they finally arrived at the entrance of the gardens, Lady Clemencia turned a simpering smile onto him. “I had such a nice time, Sir Elyan,” she crooned. “It was so kind of you to take me on this outing …”
“My — my pleasure,” Elyan replied. He glanced out of the corner of his eye. “Er, your cousin is here …”
“But, Sir Elyan,” Lady Clemencia pouted at him with sad puppy eyes, “aren’t you going to bid me farewell?”
Elyan hesitated. But in the end — what could he do? Lady Clemencia had a decent dowry. She was of good breeding. She might not be as obedient as she seemed … but she was defying her father in order to pray for her brother. Surely that was a symptom not of willfulness, but of dutiful love.
Still, there was a knot in Elyan’s stomach as he lifted her hand to his lips. “Farewell, Lady Clemencia.”
And that voice he so often ignored was practically screaming at him.