Seryl 1, 1014
And here Elyan was again, standing in his parents’ front room, waiting for them to finish greeting his all-but-betrothed. He tried to tell himself that the knots in his stomach were normal. It was the first time Tamsin was meeting his parents, his sisters (well … two of them), his brothers-in-law. What would they think of her? What would she think of them? How would the evening go?
Unfortunately, as Tamsin made small talk with Claire and was introduced by her to Gwendolyn, Clarice, Tom and Freddy, Elyan could not fool himself into believing that these were perfectly normal feelings. He was too busy thinking about the last time his all-but-betrothed had come for dinner.
Leona. Their not-betrothal had effectively ended that evening, hadn’t it? They hadn’t seen or spoken to each other since that night. Bors’s insistence that Elyan would never wed her if she went sailing was merely the last nail in the coffin. Their betrothal had been dead the minute Elyan insisted that Leona would never walk away from him … and she had hissed, “Watch me,” and done so.
With every fiber of his being, Elyan found himself praying to St. Brandi that things would work out better this time.
“Elyan!” His father pumping his hand woke him from his reverie. “She is charming, son. We’ve done much better this time! And …” Bors pulled Elyan nearer to whisper into his ear. “Her father will be in Camford for the coronation. We’ll be getting the papers signed then. We’re almost there, son!”
They were? Almost there? Then … Elyan looked nervously at the back of Tamsin’s head. There was still time to screw this up. And with Tom’s mocking eyes and Freddy’s kindhearted if obviously ill-bred sympathy to make up part of the audience … Elyan didn’t know if his dignity could bear another humiliation.
“Does Tamsin know?” Elyan whispered back.
“I am sure that her father will inform her in person when he arrives,” Bors nodded. “Unfortunately, for everything to be shipshape under Albionese law, she’ll have to sign the papers herself — so we’ll have to arrange a day and time that’s convenient for all of us.”
Elyan was not sure what was so unfortunate about that — he would just as soon have Tamsin there for the betrothal ceremony. It seemed cruel to leave her out. And all the important parts had already been worked out, so what was the harm in having the lady herself sign her name on the dotted line?
“But enough of that,” Bors whispered. He stepped back. “Come! Supper is ready. Let’s go in!”
There was some flurrying for position — Bors would not let them walk the ten steps to the dining room any which-way but instead made sure that Tom escorted Gwendolyn first, then Bors himself and Claire, next Elyan and Tamsin, and last were Freddy and Clarice — and when they entered the dining room, it was worse as Bors seated them all, but finally they were all inside and seated.
Sneaking a glance around the table, Elyan had to admit some cleverness in his father’s seating strategy. First, he had been careful to alternate males and females. He had also placed all the couples together, whether side-by-side or across from each other. But cleverest of all, he had placed Tom right next to Tamsin. He must have expected her to report back her experience here to her father and doubtless aimed to impress by seating her next to the Crown Prince.
Watching Tom toy with his goblet and send an unseemly wink in Gwendolyn’s direction (which she responded to with a just-as-unseemly laugh), Elyan had to pray that Tom would be enough to impress. Surely Tom didn’t want word getting back to Glasonland that Albion was the uncultured backwater that the Glasonlanders said it was?
But before Elyan could do more than think that, Bors cleared his throat, bowed his head, and folded his hands. Everyone around the table — even Tamsin — took that as a signal to do the same. It would hardly do to start the Brandiwine feast without a Brandiwine prayer. Elyan only hoped that it wouldn’t be as interminable as in years past.
“Lord,” Bors started, “we humbly ask your blessings upon this feast …”
Elyan stopped listening after that. It was hard to listen to an age-old prayer when his doubts were clamoring so loudly.
Bors made this one a short one, and it was not long before he lifted his goblet. “A toast!” he called out. “The first Brandiwine toast!”
Everyone lifted their goblets. Elyan glanced across the table at his mother to find her eying Bors with equal parts worry and suspicion.
“And who better to dedicate this toast to,” Bors went on, “to Maid Tamsin! May your beauty always bloom as it has this night, may your ways always be as sweet as summer honey, and may your marriage be as fruitful as the orchards of Paradise itself!”
Claire winced at the last bit — but Tamsin only smiled. “Thank you, sir.”
“To Maid Tamsin!” Bors replied, raising his goblet.
“To Maid Tamsin!”
And they drank, Elyan perhaps drinking more deeply than was strictly warranted for the opening toast.
And of course, it would not be a Brandiwine feast if there were not more toasts said. Elyan realized belatedly that the next toast was his, and toasted his father — the host and the founder of the feast. Tom went after, toasting Claire and thanking her for all her work on the feast. Elyan sensed a subtle challenge there and hoped he was the only one. Last of the men, of course, was Freddy, who toasted Elyan and Tamsin both.
In some feasts, after the men had toasted, the women were given a chance. In fact, in others, after the host toasted, so did the hostess — not the eldest son, as was most proper. But not at the de Ganis feast. Bors began to eat as soon as Freddy’s toast was finished, and at his signal, everyone else did the same.
The first conversation was desultory — a few stray remarks about the weather, compliments to the food, etc. — but it did not take Bors long to turn to Tamsin. “So, Maid Tamsin — your father remarks that you are studying grammar. Do you not find that difficult? All those old books, and complicated histories and treatises?”
“Oh, I find it fascinating, my lord,” replied Tamsin. “Although — we leave most of the treatises to the logicians. I find them a bit stuffy and dry. I’d rather have a good poem or a romance any day — something where the language used to tell the story is as beautiful as the story itself.”
“That sounds lovely,” replied Claire. Elyan found himself shooting her a relieved look before he was quite sure why he was so relieved. “Is that most of what you study? Poems and romances? Lynn …” Claire tried to glance around Bors. “Is that most of what you studied?”
Tamsin turned to Gwendolyn with a happy gasp. “Did you study grammar too, your highness?”
“Oh, yes,” replied Gwendolyn, “and please — call me Gwendolyn. But I mostly focused on poetry. And I took so many dancing classes that I practically majored in music as well.”
Bors harrumphed, though whether at the informality or at the reminder that Gwendolyn wanted to study music but he had not permitted it — and she had managed to get around it — was not Elyan’s place to guess.
“I was just as happy to take a theory class to get my music credits out of the way,” laughed Tamsin. “I love to listen to music, and I play the flute a little, but I’m afraid I have two left feet.”
“Perhaps it is best that the Lord did not see fit to give you much talent in that area,” replied Bors. “The women in this family are quite musically gifted — but I think that they may devote too much of their energies to those pursuits. It cannot be good for a woman’s mind to have an all-consuming passion like music.”
“Oh, come, Sir Bors,” replied Tom — Elyan found himself holding his breath. “Anyone’s mind will be harmed if they take a passion too far, not just women.”
“That is certainly correct,” Bors nodded, “but a woman –”
“Is probably on an evener keel than most men,” interrupted Tom. “After all, we men go out and wrangle with other men all day — and if we get sick of talking to each other, we can get away with punching each other a few times, then our anger is gone and we can get on with things — but women? We leave them in charge of the household, the servants, the children … a woman has got to have a mind a thousand times stronger than a man’s if it’s going to stand up to all that. And I say, as long as everyone’s,” he sighed, “duty is done at the end of the day … let everyone choose their own pursuits for their own amusement. And if they can combine their duties with their pleasure …” He beamed at Gwendolyn, who smiled back. “So much the better.”
“Well, nat–” started Bors.
“Indeed,” said Clarice. She couldn’t be interrupting, could she? By Freddy’s smile, Elyan knew he thought she was — but his sister was better-bred than that. Uncouth man. “I know that nothing makes me happier than helping my patients.”
“That is not your duty, Clarice,” Bors scolded. “That is merely a … diversion for you.”
Clarice leveled something very like a glare at their father — but it couldn’t be. For Clarice would never defy their father so openly, would she? Certainly not with guests present? Surely not with Tamsin present?
But it was Tamsin, of all people, who saved them. “Your — your patients, my lady?” asked Tamsin.
Clarice’s face instantly became soft and friendly again. She smiled. “I’m a doctor,” she replied.
Tamsin gasped. “Truly? A doctor?” She glanced at Freddy. “And you allow her to practice, my lord?”
“Ah,” Bors interrupted. “Frederick is only a baron’s son. Hardly a ‘my lord.'”
“Well, he’s higher-ranked than I am at present!” laughed Tamsin. “I find you can hardly go wrong showing too much respect — I mean, you never know just who you’re talking to all the time! Don’t you think it’s best to err on the side of politeness?”
The question was general, but Tamsin was looking right at him … Elyan swallowed, and was both pleased and mortified that no one else answered that question in the half-second he gave them. “Well–the problem rarely comes up in Albion. We’re such a small society … we’ve all know each other since our cradles. We all know exactly who each of us is, and where we all stand.”
Tamsin had her head tilted a little to one side, eyes faintly quizzical. “But … that being said …” Elyan looked around the table, feeling a slight pang for what he was about to say — a pang of guilt, perhaps? “I think — you may very well have a point. One does catch more flies with honey than with vinegar.”
Tamsin grinned and patted his hand. “I suppose, then, we’ll have to agree to agree instead of agreeing to disagree?”
Elyan found that he was grinning in spite of himself.
“And heaven knows we could all use a bit more honey in our lives — isn’t that true, honey?” Tom asked Gwendolyn, batting his eyelashes like a lovestruck girl.
“Indeed–honey,” replied Gwendolyn, though she couldn’t help a giggle as she said that.
Elyan watched Tamsin throughout that exchange. She seemed at first surprised — then something like awe crossed her face. She turned to Elyan, wordlessly inviting him to share her wonder. But Elyan did not see whatever it was she had seen, and could not wonder with her. That … that did not feel good.
Tamsin blinked, then she turned away. Elyan could only imagine she was disappointed — and he was kicking himself. What had he done? What had he failed to do?
Then Tamsin glanced sidelong at him and winked — and Elyan grinned like a fool, convinced that everything was going to be all right.
“Anyway, to answer your question, Maid Tamsin,” Tom said — breaking off that wonderful little moment, “and I apologize for answering it for you, Freddy — yes, of course Freddy allows her to practice. It makes her happy — isn’t that true, you two?”
Freddy and Clarice both nodded, though Clarice was looking sidelong at him, clearly wondering what his game was.
“See? They agree. But I knew I was right anyway, because you see, I’ve known Freddy for some time, and I know he is an intelligent man. And being an intelligent man, he would have realized some time ago the truth of the long-time adage …” Tom took a deep breath and puffed himself up like a popinjay, or an old man trying to relay a shopworn proverb as the very wisdom of the ages. “Happy wife — happy life!”
“Tommy!” Gwendolyn half-laughed, half-shriek. “You’ll make us sound like shrews!”
But before Tom could defend himself — as he was no doubt itching to do — Freddy spoke for him. “I don’t think that’s what he means at all, Lynn.”
“See? Freddy knows I’ve good intentions,” Tom replied. “Say on, O Frederick — what is it that I mean?”
“Well …” Freddy gulped. At least he had enough sensibility to be intimidated by the gazes of each and every one of his betters coming to rest on him. “If one’s wife is a shrew — then of course you’ll seek to make her happy, because it’s the only way you’ll get any peace. But if she’s a good and wonderful woman … you’ll seek to make her even happier, because she deserves it, and because it’s the least you can do for everything she does for you.” He beamed at Clarice, who was blushing and beaming back at him. “And if you can do that — then you truly will have a happy life.”
Elyan looked around the table. Tom and Gwendolyn were smiling at each other; Tom’s hand appeared on the table and inched toward Gwendolyn’s, which met his halfway. Claire was smiling at Freddy and Clarice. Freddy and Clarice were smiling at each other.
Elyan glanced at Tamsin. She was looking at him. Something flashed in her eyes — and for a moment, Elyan caught a glimmer of what Freddy had meant–
Then Bors coughed. “Perhaps. That all sounds very pretty, Frederick. But it crumbles when you remember that we are certainly not put on this earth for happiness.”
“Father!” gasped Gwendolyn.
“Now, now,” Bors patted her free hand — did Elyan misinterpret her gesture, or did Gwendolyn jerk it away? “You know, my dear, all about doing your duty. I needn’t lecture you. But some of us …” His gaze slid down the table and back again. Clarice glared at him; Tamsin looked puzzled; Tom raised a half-quizzical, half-annoyed eyebrow. And Elyan wondered whom his father was discussing. “Some of us need reminding of that from time to time.”
He turned to Tamsin. “I hope, Maid Tamsin, that you will not be one of them. I want to make that very clear. In this family, we do not tolerate those that shirk their duty.”
Tamsin blinked, her lips slightly parted. And Elyan cast around for something — anything — to say.
Then Tamsin looked at him …
It was Claire, of all people, who came to the rescue. “Bors — please — I must say, and I hope I speak for everybody, that I have no idea what you mean.”
Bors gaped at her.
“We’ve all done our duty in this family, and we shall all continue to do so. Even when it comes at a great cost to our personal happiness, we have all done it. However, I would caution, Bors — do not confuse our duty with your desires. Remember your duty. As patriarch of this family, all of our happiness and well-being will ultimately be laid to your account. If something is found wanting in that …” Claire shook her head.
Heavy and uncomfortable silence descended on the table as everyone — Elyan included — tried to digest that. He was finding it rather hard to digest his turkey on top of it. And Bors stared at his wife with an open jaw and wide eyes.
Then he took a deep breath. “Claire …”
“My goodness!” Clarice was most definitely interrupting this time, and Elyan couldn’t be anything other than grateful. She turned to her husband. “What do you think Galahad would say to that — hmm, Freddy?”
“Galahad — er, Brother Galahad — is a monk we’ve been friends with for years,” said Gwendolyn for Tamsin’s benefit. “Since we all — Galahad included! — were children. And he’s got quite a brilliant theological mind — so of course he’s a Pascalian.”
“A Pascalian!” Tamsin repeated. “Oh, you have the Pascalians here? Tell me — how big is their library?”
Everyone laughed — and Elyan found himself able to breathe more easily. That crisis was averted. His father would not feel the need to scold anybody — hopefully — for the rest of the dinner …
Who was he kidding? This night was only just beginning. Elyan could be in for anything.
But the night had to end eventually. And after it was over — when the men had had their wine in the dining room, the women their chat in the parlor, and when finally it was time for everyone to go home, Elyan found himself alone, outside, with Tamsin.
And the first thing that spilled out of his mouth was an apology. “Tam–Maid Tamsin — I’m sorry …”
“Sorry?” Tamsin asked. “For what?”
Elyan blinked. “For–for everything. All of them …”
“Don’t be sorry.” Tamsin smiled and squeezed his hand. “Your mother and sisters are lovely. They practically fell over themselves trying to make me feel welcome. And I can’t wait to meet your little brother and sister.”
“But … but we men can’t have met your expectations …”
“Oh, stop!” Tamsin laughed. “Freddy seems like a sweetheart, and the Prince is awfully funny!”
“My father …” Elyan stammered. And he winced. That was the catch, wasn’t it? He wasn’t worried about how Tamsin would react to the women, or to Tom, or even to Freddy. It was his father.
“He’s old and stuck in his ways,” Tamsin shrugged. “I have an uncle like that. The trick to managing him is to agree with everything he says — then go off and do your own thing as soon as his back is turned.”
Elyan blinked. “That’s … not … very honest.”
“No, it isn’t,” Tamsin agreed. “But there are some people whom you just can’t be honest with. If you were, you’d never get anything done.”
That … that was more true than Elyan thought he wanted to acknowledge …
“Elyan — Sir Elyan, are you all right?” Tamsin asked.
“Come here,” she said. And, brooking no argument — no chance to agree to disagree — she stepped forward and embraced him.
Elyan stiffened. He had kissed plenty of girls — caressed them — held them wiggling and moaning in his arms — but when was the last time he had been held, or embraced, or just hugged by a woman who wasn’t his mother?
“We’ll be all right,” said Tamsin. “You’ll see. And — oh! I almost forgot!” She laughed. Elyan had never held a laughing woman like this before. He wondered when he would next get the chance. “My father wants us to sign the betrothal papers on the fourth, the day before the coronation. Will that be all right with you?”
Elyan blinked — and then he, too, laughed. “My lady, whatever date you decide will be perfectly fine with me.”