"It is Uncle Nick, isn't it?" Alroy asked quietly.
"How should I know?" Belle asked irritably. Then immediately contradicted herself. "Yes it must be. It's his name and the background is right."
She had withdrawn with her children to the solar after dinner, another big, comfortable firelit room redolent with the smell of books. A row of writing boxes, each inscribed with its owner's name, stood on the long center table along with folders of paper, wax tablets, and stands of quills. The sideboard displayed a collection of musical instruments; lute, lap harp, psaltery, flute, pipe and virginals. They were gathered around the fireplace, Belle and Alroy in the armchairs the two younger children on a cushioned bench and Maelor ap Tewdwr lean, dark and hawklike smiled down on wife and children from the portrait above the mantle.
"And what do you mean to do?" Alroy continued.
"Do?" that was Aidan, sounding startled. "We don't have to do anything do we?"
"No." Alroy explained patiently. "But Mother is a princess of Haldane, and the reason for hiding the fact has just disappeared."
Both youngsters looked startled. Obviously it hadn't occurred to them that happenings in Gwynedd could or should have any effect on own their lives.
"Does that make me a princess too?" Elysabel asked, intrigued.
"No, dear. Rank isn't inherited from the mother. You are a gentlewoman in right of your father." Belle answered.
"Oh." a shade of disappointment tinged her daughter's voice. What little girl didn't want to be a princess?
"So even if Mother tells everybody she's a princess is won't make any difference - will it?" Aidan persisted, brow contracted in thought.
"It could." Alroy answered, eyes on Belle. "We are King Cinhil's only kin. In fact until he has sons of his own Ifor is heir presumptive to his crown."
Aidan's mouth fell open. "Ifor could be a king?"
"Then why aren't I a princess?" Elysabel demanded. "It doesn't make sense."
A shadow of a smile touched her elder brother's face. "The law often doesn't, little one. Mother's right, we don't have any titles. But we are royal and Haldane for all that."
"Yes you are." Belle swallowed painfully. "But you are also your father's children and he provided very well for us all. We don't need any favors from Nick - King Cinhil."
"But he may need us." Alroy said gently. "Or rather you, Mother. You were very close growing up, more brother and sister than aunt and nephew. Uncle Nick's had to give up one vocation and take up another and with it a terrible burden of responsibility. He might be very glad indeed of your support."
Belle bit her lip. Alroy was right, she hadn't been thinking about Nick at all - and she should. She knew even better than her son how genuine his vocation had been. Giving up the priesthood must have been an awful blow. If she was reluctant to face the changes open acknowledgment of her rank would bring how much worse must it be for Nick?
"Why not write to him, Mother? Nobody but us need know anything about it. And if he wants to see you - well that doesn't commit you to anything beyond a visit does it?"
"I'll think about it." was all she would promise.
Her children went to bed shortly after that. Belle sat for a long time watching the fire then suddenly lent forward to light a spill and carry it across the room into the oriel. This was Septagonal in shape, like the one adjoining the hall below, but curtained and tented in rose red velvet powdered with lilies embroidered in seed pearls and solar crosses in gold thread. A cushioned bench ran around six sides of the oriel. A hexagonal marquetry table stood in the center of the little room and on it an intricately wrought silver lamp with five wicks.
Belle breathed in deeply then breathed out, exhaling tensions, and touched the spill to the upper right wick. "Element of Air." As it caught it flickered in a sudden, gentle draft.
She lit the lower left wick. "Element of Fire." it flared high and red then sank to a small, steady flame like the first.
"Element of Water." the third wick caught and the smell of the sea filled the tiny room.
"Element of Earth." this time it was the rich loamy scent of new turned soil that wafted like incense from the small flame.
Finally Belle lit the fifth wick, elevated in the center of the lamp. "Air, Fire, Water, Earth and Spirit in union makes Man. May the circle be set." A sphere of rosy light manifested, en-globing the lamp them spreading out to melt into the red velvet hangings. The pearl lilies and golden sun wheels glistened with more than reflected lamplight.
Belle sat down on the west side of the little chamber and opened a drawer in the table taking out a carved pear-wood box. She slide open the lid and spilled out a deck of vellum covered cards beautifully painted in jeweled colors. Attuned to her they felt warm to her touch but would have struck a chill into any other fingers.
She shuffled through the cards and laid out the kings of the four suites. One of these must represent Nick She reached for the King of Swords the obvious choice but it felt wrong, out of balance. Frowning she laid it down. She touched the King of Wands with a fingertip, still wrong; the King of Coins, not right either; the King of Cups.
She picked up the last, frown deepening. Yes. This was the one. But what it told her about Nick was deeply disturbing. The King of Cups indicated spiritual not temporal rule. It was a priestly card - but Nick was no longer a priest. Troubled she laid the querent card down beneath the lamp and, eyes fixed on it, filled her mind with the image and memories of her nephew as she shuffled and cut the cards.
She dealt out one from the top laying it face down next to the King of Cups. "This is Kether, the crown. That which is highest." placed a second below and to the right of the first; "This is Chokmah, crown of creation." a third card went to its left; "Binah, the throne of understanding."
The first trine was complete. Now the cards felt cold even to her as the energies built. Belle took another steadying breath and laid out the second trine: "Chesed, mercy of God; Geburah, fear of the Lord; Tiphareth, the Divine in harmony." Then the third: "Netzach, soul of Man under God; Hod, mind of Man under God; Yesod, the union and foundation." She dealt out the final card of the Tree: "Malkuth, base of the pillar, which supports all." then quickly counted out seven more cards and laid them to one side.
She turned Kether over: It was the Patriarch, enthroned between the Pillars of Mercy and Severity with the Keys of the Kingdom at his feet. Chokmah was the Five of Swords with the knave gloating over his captured blades. And Binah was the Ace of cups reversed, the fountains of the spirit pouring out on the sterile ground.
The reflected flames of the lamp trembled in Belle's wide eyes, their Haldane grey almost devoured by jetty pupil. This was alarming. Nick's priestly aspirations had been destroyed and his soul sunk in bitter aridity. He had not willingly entered into his kingship.
The second trine was no better. Chesed was the Magician reversed and Geburah the Tower: this meant strength frustrated and turned to destructive ends. Nick's strength? God help Gwynedd were it so! She turned over Tiphareth, it was the Emperor. Yes. This was what Nick must become - but he was refusing his destiny.
She uncovered the final trine: Netzach was the Queen of Wands. So Nick had married, and chosen well, a wife both loving and fruitful. But Hod, the Two of Cups reversed, meant there was there was no true union between them. And Yesod proved to be the Nine of Swords: Nick was causing his wife great suffering - and himself as well.
Malkuth, the pillar, was Justice. Belle nodded. Yes, of course, only through balance and the putting aside of old aspirations could Nick become what he must be. But would he? The spread was not at all promising.
She turned over the seven Daath cards one after another: The King of Wands, the Seven of Swords, the Devil, the Six of Cups, the Queen of Pentacles, the King of Swords, the Six of Swords.
She let out a sigh. Nick had the support of a powerful man - Earl Camber? But a battle with grave evil was in the offing, perhaps some surviving Festillic pretender. And Alroy was right, Nick needed her. She could help him become the king he needed to be - if she accepted her own burden of royalty.
Belle sat back in resignation, decision made.
The windows of the solar faced west, making the room somewhat dark in the mornings. Candles burned on the table as Bertred laid out bread, butter, honey and fruit preserves for breakfast along with a pitcher of small ale.
Belle waited for him to leave before speaking. "We are going to Valoret." she told her children. "We will spend the feast with Nicholas - Cinhil I should say. And after that - we'll see."
Alroy looked grave. Unlike Aidan and Elysabel, who saw this merely as an exciting holiday, he understood the possible consequences - that they might never come back to this house, and even if they did nothing could ever be the same again.
Belle had planned to keep Christmas at Chetwood, young Ifor's estate on the Teme, so arrangements were already made for carts, drivers and extra grooms. She spent the rest of the morning writing letters; one to the bailiff of Chetwood, the other to the steward of Combe - Alroy's manor - and to both village reeves.
The chief of the hired grooms arrived just before nuncheon. She gave him the letters to deliver along with the blue and yellow livery cloth she'd bought yesterday and the other gifts for servants and tenants. And that afternoon Belle went out to buy more presents, far finer ones fit for a king and a queen.
Samuel Aurifaber was one of the best jewelsmiths in Concaradine - which was saying a good deal - and his shop was only a few houses down from the Tewdwr dwelling. He was far to grand to spread out goods on trestles in the arcade to lure customers in. While he kept a small selection of exquisite pieces most of his business was in special commissions.
Belle knew exactly what she wanted for Cinhil. "A large brooch suitable for a heavy mantle, shield shaped, emblazoned with a lion rampant guardant in gold on crimson." Aurifaber showed no surprise, clearly he did not recognize the blazon and why should he? "And I want it soon, within the week if possible."
The Master looked up from his sketching in mild surprise. "It's possible but it will cost extra." he warned.
"No matter." she flashed him a brief smile. "It's important to me."
"So I see." Fortunately Samuel had little curiousity concerning matters outside his craft. He showed her the sketch. "Something like this what you had in mind?"
She glanced at it and nodded. "Yes, exactly."
After placing her order she browsed through the pieces on display. The jewels were laid out on velvet covered trestles, sparkling softly in the lamplight supplementing the sun coming though the front windows, all beautifully made. Aurifaber was a true artist. It took her very little time to find something suitable for Cinhil's queen; an exquisitely delicate gold circlet sprinkled with daisies of citrine and pearl and a matching necklace. The bill was formidable but Belle paid it without a quiver. Thanks to Maelor's excellent business sense and her own good management she was quite wealthy enough to afford jewels fit for royalty.
Aurifaber kept his promise, the brooch was ready a full two days before Belle and her family left Concaradine on the first lap of their journey to Caernarvon, seat of the Count of Travlum, where her eldest son Ifor was in service as a squire.