Title: Tea and Tension (1/1)
Author: Kate, I disclaim! They belong to Tamora Pierce; I'm just playing in the sandbox while she looks at the distant past of Tortall to write the Provost books.
Rating: PG, mild
Author's notes: Unofficial, loose sequel to my "Advice for the Lovelorn Knight." Cythera and Gary drink tea, while the court tries to pretend that the Queen is healthy and the resurrected royal duke is sane. Chapter 2 is a compilation of all the information on Cythera that I've managed to glean from the Internet and canon. RosieeisoR's "Sigh for Cythera" remains my favorite story about this minor character (seda-di's Kiss for Cabbages is also great), and this is my contribution.
Timeline: After Woman Who Rides Like A Man, around the beginning of Lioness Rampant
Lady Cythera of Elden sat straight and still, moving her needle in and out of a child's garment. The tension in the room was simply humming, and the blonde was trying to make herself as small and insignificant as possible. Lady Gwynnen, one of Cythera's best friends, was ostensibly working on knitting a scarf, but she was actually chattering angrily about Lady Delia's latest indiscretion and Princess Josiane's premature self congratulations about Prince Jonathan. Gwynnen had a good heart, but her moods were easily changed.
The girls were sitting in their usual chairs, along the east wall, close to the balconies and alcoves. The Queen was hosting a monthly tea and sewing party. The party was always held the first Monday of the month—this March, Monday was the first day. Young knights frequently attended the Queen's parties. It was a time to see and be seen, less formally than a ball. In her years at Court, Cythera had attended many of these parties. Cythera was musing on various little problems without really focusing on any of them. It was a skill she had developed as the daughter of a widow, who lived off the charity of cousins and uncles. There were always a thousand little annoyances and problems, all of which were uncomfortable, none of which were solvable.
Cythera had gone to the convent at the proper age (about 11), with a wardrobe of turned dresses and tenderly cared for hand-me-downs. She had owned two new nightgowns and one brand new dancing dress. She had a large quantity of aprons and garments to cover and make her dresses last. Through careful budgeting of her pocket money, she had gradually supplemented her wardrobe with a variety of detachable trimmings—lace, ribbons, silk flowers and the like, which allowed her to slightly change the appearance of each gown for different occasions.
She had received extra pocket money from the daughters for acting as secretary as soon as she reached fourteen. Cythera had a talent for keeping schedules and lists in her mind, and a gift for remembering names and faces. She made people feel special with a smile and an expression that implied she was giving her full attention. "Implied" is misleading; Cythera did care, but she was capable of multi-tasking. She might've stayed with the Daughters of the Goddess quite happily for years and years, but at sixteen, her mother decided that it was time for the rose of Elden to go to Corus.
She had a new wardrobe, which she wore like her mother's hope. Though it went unsaid, Cythera's widowed mother expected her daughter to marry well (which meant rich) and marry quickly (which meant she wasn't supposed to be picky about age or attractive features). Cythera's mother died during the lady's first Season at Court, leaving her daughter a meager allowance, but it was enough; several years later, Elden's rose had not yet married.
When she arrived at the palace and began to look around, she couldn't find it in her to be ruthless enough to hunt a man the way a hunter stalked a deer. While Delia, the previous belle of the Court, spun a web and wrapped men in her spell, Cythera danced and smiled at all, without making promises to any.
Cythera couldn't picture herself married to a man for no better reason than his wealth and need of heirs. She was fond of children—she felt a special kinship with their innocence and freedom. She was an accomplished game player and entertainer; she ran races, played hoops, sang and danced. She rocked babies, treated boo-boos and wiped noses. She told stories and genuinely adored them. Considering her talents for making do or doing without and organization, her friends and classmates at the convent used to teasingly predict her future with the nickname "Little Mother." But Cythera's tall, slender body and narrow hips would make childbearing exceedingly difficult—even dangerous. She was advised to marry an older man who already had a family—but Cythera found herself appalled by the cold-blooded nature of that.
She could picture no happier or better future for herself than a bustling but orderly home, filled with children, pets, laughter and love. Especially love. She remembered her parents' joy, before her father's death. Even though necessity urged haste (in her mother's voice), her heart warned her to be cautious. She had been a guest in many homes—she knew that an unhappy marriage was all too easily found. And as unpleasant as the prospect of a life as a spinster was, a bad marriage would be far worse.
One of the daughters at the convent had recommended Myles of Olau and the Lord Provost as potential husbands. But one look at the round Court drunk had left her feeling exposed. On the night of her debut, several years ago, she had the sense that he had looked at her once and seen through her starched lace and laughter to notice her anxiety and others' expectations. The Lord Provost had speared her with a similar glance, but there was less kindness in his gaze and more disapproval.
Neither of those gentlemen were present today—an appearance at one of the Queen's ladies' parties was tantamount to hanging a target on your back. The Prince and several of his friends were in attendance today, mostly because the sickly Queen was still struggling to recover from a fever. With the rest of the Court, Cythera wondered how many more fevers the Queen would, or could, survive. Others were wondering if the King, who really was not old, might take a new Queen, one who could give him more heirs (and place more distance between Roger and the throne). To distract herself from those thoughts—the cause of the tension in the room—Cythera remembered her evaluations of each of the boys she knew, one by one.
There was the Prince, first and foremost, but he was out of her reach despite her pretty face and Book of Gold lineage. She did not want to be Queen, and since Cythera was not the type of girl who contemplated relationships that could never lead to the altar, she followed her friends' example and turned her gaze next to Roger, Duke of Conté. He had been handsome the year of her debut and very eligible, but there had been venom in his eyes at odd, inexplicable moments. Cythera felt it when Delia's admirers flocked to the rose of Elden the night of her debut, for example, and when she had stumbled upon him and panted a report that Alan needed a healer because he had fallen into the lake while skating. Roger was perfectly charming most of the time, and she could put no name to her unease, until the Midwinter of Alan's knighting. But it had been enough to dissuade her. And now, Roger lived again, and he was rich again, but there was something profoundly strange about him.
She looked at Alex of Tirragen next. He was Roger's former squire, and he seemed to follow his master's steps in a guarded way. He was charming and attractive when he came out of Roger's shadow, but in a conventional way. He was comfortable at parties, paid insincere and forgettable compliments that nevertheless left a favorable impression. He even managed to look comfortable with a demitasse china cup in his hand. But she felt the same inarticulate discomfort around Alex as she felt near his former overlord. She danced with Alex and laughed at his superficial remarks when they amused her, but she never let him kiss her.
Large, handsome Raoul of Goldenlake stood beside Alex, looking distinctly uneasy. The china cup looked like a doll's toy in his massive palm, and she could almost see him calculating ways to avoid dropping or breaking the delicate drinking vessel. Cythera liked Raoul, respected the way he carried heavy baskets and loads of wood upstairs for people or servants without considering it beneath him. (Cythera supplemented her allowance by teaching sewing lessons to a few noble daughters; for these occasions, she used the servants' stairs. She had seen Goldenlake help a maid who was neither young nor pretty; he wasn't expecting a favor in return.)
She did not like how uncomfortable Raoul was at parties and in her company. She didn't like that he only began to speak directly to her or to dance after his second goblet of wine. His genuine chivalry and defense of the weak appealed to her. Nevertheless, he had made it clear that he had no intention of marrying for at least ten years. He could be a very good friend to her, she had decided, though not a husband.
Gwynnen's annoyed chattering about Delia eased for a moment, then she ordered Cythera to look at her "darling imps." Gwynnen had been one of Cythera's best friends at the convent. Her family did have a bit more money, but Gwynnen had been born with a generous, open heart. Cythera smiled and looked at Douglass and Sacherell. Gwynnen's "darling imps" were wild young hellions. Even at the Queen's parties, they had frequently laughed uproariously for no apparent reason—when Lady Roxanne wore pink, when Delia opened or closed her fan, when Duke Baird of Queenscove folded his handkerchief. Cythera was initially intimidated by their wild activity and their noisy speech, but she had learned to see the goodness of their hearts.
Geoff of Meron was standing near them, but he was flirting with the maid who was carrying around the cakes. He was notorious for spending time in common girls' beds. He simply didn't care to recommend himself to many of the ladies of Quality, so he didn't bother to pay the sort of compliments that would've distinguished him from his competition. He wasn't old enough or rich enough to be a target for fortune hunters.
Cythera could not think of Geoff, Sacherell and Douglass without thinking of Alanna of Trebond, though the lady knight was absent that day—she was off exploring some distant corner of the Eastern Lands. "Alan" had been something different completely. He seemed to scorn female company, but he attended every ball and danced with every lady at least once. He blushed when Cythera talked to him and rarely met her eyes in the ballroom, though at other events, he was affable enough. She had once thought it was because she was taller than he, though of course, that had changed one fateful Midwinter.
When Alan's identity had been revealed, puzzle pieces had tumbled together. His height and discomfort made sense, suddenly, as did his scorn of female companionship. Cythera had been glad enough for the peace of mind, though its price was high.
Of the Prince's company, that left Gareth the Younger of Naxen. Cythera had been slightly intimidated by his brilliance, his quick wit, and his vocabulary. Gareth the Younger, or Gary, as he insisted on calling himself, seemed to know everything and everyone and he wanted to teach it all to her but Goddess bless, she was a being with a limited memory. Unlike Gary.
It was disconcerting how easily Gareth could whirl in and rearrange everything she'd been planning and thinking. In her second year at Court, in the season after Demon Gray and after Alan fell through the ice but before the fateful Midwinter of Roger's supposed death and Alan/Alanna's knighting, she and Gary had held a whole series of genuine conversations. They had petered off for some reason—had he gone to Fief Naxen? Had she gone to keep house for her uncles in the first winter after her mother and aunt passed to the Goddess? She couldn't remember the full sequence anymore.
They had flirted a little because, really, Gary didn't know how to talk to a single woman without flirting. But he had asked her questions and listened to her answers and treated her as his equal. It was new, to be listened to as though her small vexations mattered. It felt strange, but good. It was, in short, everything she wanted from a man but was afraid to expect.
With just a few words on history, he'd called into question the Daughters' educational program. The convent school was almost purely vocational—classes in weaving and needlework, account management and necessary reading and writing, preserving food and planning menus, dancing and etiquette, theology and how to honor the gods… In a full schedule, advanced history, literature and mathematics had been deemed unnecessary. Gary had been surprised to discover her ignorance of King Jasson's wars; Cythera had been embarrassed. Afterwards, despite the annoyance, she had selected one of the monstrous tomes from the palace library and then she'd gone and read it. So she found another book (a much smaller one) about the same event, which was interpreted quite differently. And then, the rose of Elden was hooked.
The event had changed Cythera's life; she had become a reader. She had known how to read before arriving at the palace, but she hadn't enjoyed it. The convent considered literacy essential to a noblewoman who would keep accounts and pay servants. But everything she had read was a religious text or a class assignment. Cythera discovered with a little shock of wonder that she liked books, on her terms. She liked poetry and history and everything in between. The royal library had been shockingly disorganized, so she had unofficially appointed herself assistant to the Mithran priest who had slowly allowed the room to decay into chaos. She updated the card catalog and began to cross-reference it.
For a short time, leading up to the All Hallow after the Midwinter when Alanna won her shield, Cythera noticed that Alanna's twin, Thom of Trebond, was spending as much (more) time in the library than anyone else—more than the Mithran who had remembered his duty when she started to do it for him, more than her, more than any of the scribes or scholars or teachers or priests in Corus. At first she thought that the coppery-haired mage was pursuing her, but as far as she knew, Delia was the only Lady who had sparked that particular mage's fancy. Cythera wasn't cruel enough to be amused that the things that the Court had whispered about the sister's bedroom proclivities (Alanna preferred men!) appeared to be true about the brother.
When Thom had resurrected Roger, Cythera had felt shivers of fear. She wasn't educated enough to understand magical texts, so she returned to a book of children's tales about a man who woke from the Sorcerer's Sleep and cursed an entire realm. She was frightened of Roger; the Conte Duke had grown slovenly since his resurrection. He was no longer trying to impress ladies; Roger lived with Thom.
It was impossible for things in the Court to continue as they were, but everyone was terrified of upsetting the balance. Cythera shivered as a shadow fell on her work. She looked up at Josiane. Though Cythera and Josiane resembled each other physically to a certain degree—both were tall and blonde—Josiane's figure curved much more dramatically, while Cythera's smile and gestures were kinder and more sincere.
The princess had grown tired of her own sewing and Josiane tired quickly of pretending. Queen Lianne was blind to this fault in her friend's daughter, as well as to many others. Cythera noticed that the Queen and her son had left—probably the Queen was tired. Cythera flinched inwardly, because the absence of the royals generally gave Josiane license to behave poorly.
"How darling." The princess of the Copper Islands snatched Cythera's work out of her hands. "Are you trying to tell the Court something, Lady Cythera?"
The shy Tortallan stared in shock at the blonde who was currently examining the baby garment and implying to the entire Court that Cythera was pregnant. Cythera, who endured taunts about being cold and pale as the maiden moon. The rose of Elden, the only one of her year-mates who was definitely still a virgin. "My dear friend, the Lady Roxanne, is preparing for her fourth laying-in," Cythera answered, but her voice cracked. "I am to visit her estate at the end of this week." Gwynnen, Cythera's outspoken friend, was seething, but it would be so, so much worse if Gwynnen answered the accusation for Cythera; it would be as though Cythera needed someone to defend her.
Gareth approached rapidly. Cythera thought that he had probably never looked more wonderful to her. Even the time that boorish Lord Henry had trapped her on the ladder in the library and recited poetry to express his love paled in comparison, because her "knight in shining armor" had been stifling laughter at Lord Henry's poor delivery all the while. Gareth was dead serious now, because he understood the damage Josiane could do. He bore his china cup in his large palm, "Lady Cythera, I only recently heard the news about Lord Glasdain and Lady Roxanne. Please convey my congratulations to the family in your next letter. The gods have blessed them with three daughters in the last three years, I think?"
"Yes." Cythera sent him her sweetest, most grateful smile. Under other circumstances, a smile of half the power had left Gareth dizzy, but today, he was focused on defending her. Cythera continued, "Aurora, Delilah and Amie."
Gary smiled a little, "Clever," he commented, because the girls' names meant "Daybreak" ( pun on the literal meaning of birth, which was, give to the light) "Sunset" (probably simply the opposite of Dawn) and "Love."
"Amie is my godsdaughter." Cythera added, inconsequentially.
Josiane sneered, "Have you ever been told that it's rather odd to dote on the offspring of others while having no children of your own?" She sneered a gasp, "Whatever is that tangle of thread, Lady Gwynnen?"
Gwynnen was opening her mouth to retort, princess or not, but Josiane dropped the baby garment in front of Cythera without further comment. The princess departed, followed by Lady Delia. An outraged hum rose for a moment, then stilled. Cythera shivered. She wasn't comfortable with attention and Josiane was always intense.
Gary seated himself. "I'll help you sort out this thread." He said, in a tone that carried. Under his breath, so only Gwynnen and Cythera heard, he said "Ignore the…princess," Gary's pause before designating Josiane's rank led even Cythera to understand that the chivalrous knight would have chosen quite different names for Josiane, if ladies had not been present. Gary continued, "She's angry that Jonathan is ignoring her, that's all."
"You didn't have to help me. Thank you." Cythera's face was flaming and she wanted to cry. Her friends called her "little mother" but healers and midwives had evaluated Cythera's skinny hips and shaken their heads at the idea of her successfully bearing her own children. Therefore, she was content to dote on the children of others. Usually. Until someone stabbed her in that very sensitive spot.
"If the Princess were a man, I would challenge her to a duel for you," Gareth offered.
Cythera swallowed. "Thank you, no." She laughed a little, "No man would know to attack just that vulnerability, anyway."
Gwynnen tried to look inconspicuous, but failed when she realized she had knit three and purled one. Or had she purled five, knit three? Were either of those even possible? With a ladylike epithet, she tugged at the tangled yarn.
Cythera held out her hand, in an often-repeated gesture. In mock-defeat, Gwynnen dropped the would-be scarf into Cythera's hands. "What would I do without you?" She asked, in a light tone of voice.
"You'd have covered the world in knots by now, I imagine." Cythera's lips turned upward in a smile, but didn't show her teeth. "Or perhaps you'd have learned to sort out your own thread difficulties back in Daughter Frances's classes."
"I would still be in Daughter Frances's class." Gwynnen retorted in a tone that aimed for cheerfulness. Genuine good cheer around the Tortallan Court was in very short supply, and had been since the hero of the Tusaine war killed a royal duke. Well, actually, it had been in shorter supply since the hero's twin resurrected the dead duke, but who was quibbling about the source of the discomfort?
Gary looked as confused as a first-year page in the philosophy master's class, but neither woman tried to enlighten him.
Cythera handed the righted project back to Gwynnen, who tucked the thing into her basket, "Well, since I'm hopeless, I'm going to chat with Lady Vera about how horrid Josiane was to you. And I'll make sure everyone knows it was unprovoked. And then I'm going to be catty about Delia's gown. It makes her look like a cow."
Cythera sighed. Gwynnen would never give up on defending her friend's reputation or on matchmaking. "Thank you, Gwynnen, but…"
"No, no buts." Gwynnen rose. As etiquette demanded, when the lady stood, Gary followed. Gwynnen curtsied, "Cythera, you'll come talk to me this evening so we can settle your packing?"
"Of course." Cythera and Gary bowed, and Gwynnen departed.
Gary sat again. "Are you alright?" He asked Cythera in some concern.
"Yes." She forced a smile, "You always seem to come to my rescue these days."
"How is Lord Henry?" Gary asked jovially. "Has his recitation improved since last I saw him?"
"After that day, he quit poetry and started archaeology," Cythera demurely did not mention that she had strenuously encouraged Lord Henry's interest in the subject.
"How has that worked out?"
"I have not seen him since, so, presumably well."
Gary laughed. His eyes sparkled—yes, actually sparkled at her. Cythera ducked her head. "The things that the Princess said were totally unjustified. You know that, right?" Gary asked.
"She was right about one thing, though." Cythera rubbed her fingers on the muslin.
"What was that?" Gareth frowned.
"Well, it is odd to dote on--,"
"Not at all." Gareth cut her off. "It shows your kind heart."
Cythera tried to determine whether the last comment was flirtatious or sincere. "Thank you." She stammered.
Gary blushed. "I didn't mean to embarrass you."
"You didn't." She smiled a little. "Really. I just don't always know how to react when you talk like this."
Gary sighed, because the situation had really become ridiculous. He was opening his mouth to say something when a page came in and bee-lined toward the knight. The boy urgently whispered something to the knight. Gary stood, "My lady, I deeply regret that circumstances call me away. I look forward to the opportunity to speak with you again at--," the knight stumbled.
"At this evening's garden party?" Cythera murmured.
Gary's face fell, "That party will probably be postponed…"
Cythera bit her lip. "I leave for Haryse…"
"I know you're going away to visit Lady Roxanne soon, but I was wondering if perhaps I may write to," his voice trailed off. The page shuffled his feet.
Cythera smiled softly, "To Lady Roxanne?" She prompted.
"My lady, I don't know if you noticed, but I'm really terrible at this." Gareth the Younger said abruptly.
Cythera stared in wonder. The page scuffed his foot and looked uncomfortable. Poor lad should be in lessons, not playing errand boy. Of all the places and times to receive a declaration, the Queen's tea and sewing party was quite definitely the last she had expected. And from Gareth of Naxen? She had danced with him often, and he had changed her life by introducing her to books. But she was not intimate with him, and she did not know the turns of his mind and heart.
"I don't know exactly what you think about me, but I think you're wonderful. I have thought so ever since I met you during your first season." Gary took a breath, "I get tongue-tied around you. I talk too much, and I talk about nothing. But I would like permission to write to you."
The blonde blushed furiously. Gary had never shown such humility or vulnerability in front of her before. If an unmarried lady exchanged letters with a bachelor and was caught, her reputation as a virtuous woman went out the window. "Permission? To write to me?"
The page was pretending that he wasn't listening as though his life depended on it.
"I didn't want there to be any misunderstandings." He smiled, awkwardly, fumbling with his cup. "You are the first lady with whom I have requested the pleasure of corresponding."
"I would like to know you better, I think." Cythera met his gaze frankly, then smiled. "Yes. I would like that very much, Sir Gareth."
"Gary." He murmured. "Please, my lady, call me Gary." He took her hand and kissed the back. By now, the page was not the only witness.
"Then you must call me Cythera." She offered, in a voice only he could hear.
"Gladly." He paused, then, quite deliberately said her name, "Cythera."
She smiled at him. "I will look forward to your letters. Gary."
He bowed and left the room.
Four days later, Lady Roxanne brought her first son into the world. Gareth the Younger of Naxen wrote one letter to Lady Cythera of Elden. In it, the knight revealed that he had admired her since her saw her, liked her since he spoke to her and loved her since she revealed the paradoxes of her personality—she was gentleness itself with children, but she showed spirit when a friend was in danger. He was wording an invitation to visit Fief Naxen during her return journey to Corus when he received word that his aunt, the Queen, was dead. The letter was never sent.
The King died three weeks later, ending speculation about a new queen and new heirs. Sir Gareth ascended to a position as acting Prime Minister. For a long time, there was no time for courting or for tea parties—but Gary made time for the rose of Elden, who (in young Naxen's opinion) was as beautiful as the princess from Sarain. Thayet's beauty was exotic—it hinted of untamed lands and tribes.
Cythera's beauty was native to Tortall, and, Gary saw in her fair hair and blue eyes the best his homeland could offer. He didn't realize how significant she was to him until the Midwinter following the Beltane/July coronation, when he kissed her lightly for luck and realized he never wanted to let go. They married in the spring, with the blessings of the king.
More than a decade passed. Three children were born, with great difficulty (the youngest boy shortly after the Immortals war). Gary's mother left the fief to live at the castle and help; no one was satisfied with the arrangement, because the Duchess hated the city (and her husband, the Duke), the Duke didn't particularly like the Duchess or her proximity, and even Cythera's patient nature was tested by the arrangement. But the family survived.
And then one day, while she was looking for a paper or an old document, Cythera found an unfinished letter marking a book of poems that she had recommended to Gareth while she was assisting in keeping up the library—sixteen years before.
sedadi's A Kiss for Cabbages, story id: 1994775 (in my favorites) is just a hilarious portrait of Gary and Cythera's courtship. It has all the awkwardness of showoff Gary and bored Cythera with lovely romantic tension. I obviously took a different view of their relationship, but it's a fun story!
Textual References to Cythera of Elden, then Naxen
In The Hand of the Goddess Alanna identifies Cythera as a great beauty. She came to Court after Delia, in the year after the Tusaine war, during Wolf Winter. She is still unmarried a year later, when she attends the skating party where Alanna falls through the ice.
In Squire, Cythera is identified as Gary's wife. She tugs on his sleeve to direct his attention to someone from the Yamani delegation who wants to talk to him. With her husband, she later attends one of Raoul's small parties.
In Trickster's Choice, Aly reveals that Cythera is one of her godsmothers.
From Dancing Dove & Internet (Sorry, I didn't record the poster or the date):
Blue eyes. Aly's godsmother, with Gary, so presumably: 1) good friend of Alanna and George and 2) also godsmother to at least Alan, possibly Thom, too.
She's Thayet's "social secretary" I think, and she has kinky ash-blonde hair (isn't that highly unlikely genetically?) and blue eyes. She's also like the sweetest thing in the world.
She married Gary and (I think) has three children, two girls and Gnat