Lady in Waiting
"Oh, Sophronia, not the pink; it's all wrong for your coloring! Here, try the emerald gown, child! It's far better for your complexion. You've bold coloring, and should show it off like the glorious jewel that you are."
It took great effort not to roll my eyes at Alienora, uncustomarily kind to me today, after her own fashion at least. I knew the reasons which lay behind her kindness, of course; with me out of the way, there would be one less rival for my father's affections. Not that I was bothering to compete for them—I already felt secure in the place I held in his heart—but I knew she sensed the distance which lay always beneath his painstaking courtesy to her, and hoped my removal from her household would allow her to bridge that gulf which still lay between them, even after two years in his bed.
My brother Stefan turned his gaze away from the window to glance at the gown I held up, chuckling cynically at our stepmother. "Really, 'Nora, if it's Kelson's eye you're hoping she'll catch, you might as well not waste the effort." Catching my eye, he added hastily, "Not that you're not surpassing fair, Sophie, but honestly, you could be the next Helen of Troy garbed in a gown made of peacock feathers and moonlight and I doubt the King would even notice. He's other things on his mind yet besides wedding and bedding, though it's certainly high time he got on with the job." He turned his attention back to the rain outside the window. "For once I have to agree with Alienora on something, though; the emerald would be nicer against your dark hair."
I shrugged. "I'm not looking to catch a King anyway." It was true enough not to be a lie, yet I would be lying if I didn't admit that some small, perhaps vain, part hidden deep inside me hoped, just like any other woman might, that I might at least turn one's head for a moment or two. Kelson Haldane was undeniably handsome, and seemed charming enough on the rare occasions I'd been anywhere near his presence, and he was shaping up to be a good King—perhaps even a great one, though only time would tell for certain. But the simple truth was, aside from knowing something of his reputation and having seen him a few times, mostly from afar, I really didn't know the man at all.
"Well, you should do!" Alienora retorted. "He's the most eligible bachelor in the Eleven Kingdoms, for God's sake!"
And he's not just Haldane, but half Deryni, Stefan mind-spoke, his eyes coolly amused. I do believe 'Nora's forgot all about that, or if she hasn't, she's willing to overlook it if selling you in marriage to one of 'the accursed race' means being able to brag about having royal connections. Amazing, isn't it, how they're not 'damned Deryni' when they've got a crown on their brow?
I suppressed a laugh. I should tell her I've set my heart on the Deryni bishop's son. She'd coax Father into packing me off to a convent for sure! "I doubt the King is going to settle himself on a mere knight's daughter, " I said instead, setting the pink gown aside, picking up the emerald and holding it up to my face like a dutiful damsel. "This is better, then?"
"Indeed," Alienora said with a nod of satisfaction. "I think that gown, the deep blue, and perhaps the mulberry, though the latter needs the hem let out. You really should have at least a couple more, to keep up with Court appearances. You've the reputation of your father's house to maintain, after all." She frowned suddenly. "I don't know what colors would be best to add, though. You've such queer colored eyes, it's hard to say what would look best. Though one gown should be black, I suppose. One never knows when someone might die, and you'd need something suitable for mourning."
Stefan was nearly shaking with his effort not to laugh out loud, I could tell. You're no help, brother! Is there no way you can talk Father out of this idea? I don't want to be packed off to the Haldane's court to play vapid man-bait among the wife-seeking 'eligibles' sniffing out a suitable brood-mare!
Well, I could. But do you really want to spend the rest of your life under Alienora's roof, when you could be lady of your own household? His eyes softened. I know you don't feel ready for marriage yet, but I'm sure once you meet the right man, that will change. And the Court of Rhemuth is your best hope for finding someone suitable, I think. Someone like us.
"We really must figure out some way to set you off to your best advantage," Alienora was continuing. "I suppose you're eye-catching enough, if not fashionably fair; that's a blessing at least, since you've got so little to attract a man otherwise. Certainly not much of a dowry."
I bit back an indignant retort. She'd certainly not thought my father too humble of a catch, when she'd cast her nets for him two summers previous, though it was clear enough now she thought she'd married beneath her station. Why she had, I couldn't fathom. It was something I'd spent the past two years trying to puzzle out. Why our father had married her was less of a mystery, at least once he'd explained some of his reasoning. And, as Stefan had once joked, our father's far younger wife wasn't at all lacking in physical charms, although once she opened her mouth to speak, such attractions tended to skitter out of a man's mind faster than a lizard fleeing the hot noonday sun. "Silence is golden, Sophie," he'd counseled, "though at least when you speak, you have something worthwhile to say."
There was little worthwhile about my uncharitable thoughts now, however. I sighed, pushing the bitterness away, willing myself to show no outward reaction to my stepmother's biting words.
"I know you'll do me proud, daughter," my father was saying. "Just be yourself."
I nodded, but kept my thoughts tight-shielded. Be yourself, he said, and yet fully myself was the one thing I had never been permitted to be. My father was, in his own way, a brave man, but such courage did not extend to allowing himself or his family to reveal the powers or potential that were our birthright. He had been valiant in battle, beginning his service to King and Kingdom during Donal's reign, where he'd won his spurs and, eventually, enough favor in the King's eyes to ask for the hand of the lady he loved—a lady whose landed birth had placed her at a slightly higher rank than his own, though her estate was but a small one, but whose fortunes had taken an ill turn, leaving her without the protection of family. King Donal had been well-pleased to give the new Crown's Ward into the keeping of a faithful knight errant who greatly desired her, as a reward for his years of loyalty. And thus was my mother wedded to my father. Despite the arrangement for practicalities, however, it had been a love match, even from the outset.
A love match was what my heart longed for as well, yet I knew better than to set my hopes too high. Better a dream one had a realistic chance of achieving than one so lofty it would crush one's very soul if it were to fall far short of what the waking reality would bring. I wanted a marriage of the heart, but if one were not to be found, at least I hoped for a marriage of minds—one in which I could find some measure of contentment and friendly accord with a man whom I could at least respect, who would be a good father to our children, and treat his family with kindness.
In the most hidden recesses of my mind, what I truly longed for was a husband whom I could share myself with on the very deepest of levels. One who knew what it meant to be Deryni, who could share that secret—if it must remain secret—with me. But that was the most ephemeral of dreams, for Deryni husbands were hardly abundant for the harvesting, even in the gentler climes of King Kelson's court where men of the 'accursed' blood no longer had to fear being tied to a stake in the market square and burnt to a crisp. Not in Rhemuth anymore, at least.
"You're wool-gathering, daughter." A hint of amused forbearance in my father's voice.
I glanced up at my sire, wondering what I'd missed. "Aye. I do beg pardon, Father."
"Not nervous, are you? Don't be." He patted my knee. "You'll do fine."
It was well enough for him to tell me not to be nervous; he wasn't the one being dressed and trussed and set out for display like meat in a butcher's stall hoping, if not found fit for a King's service, at least to find enough favor in some decent man's eyes not to end up being cast before some swine of a husband! I knew my father would never give me to a man I truly despised. Yet, I also knew how uncertain the vagaries of fate could be. Father was not a young man anymore. What if some accident were to befall him, or he were to catch some sudden ailment and die? My mother had once had kindred who cherished her, yet that had not saved her from becoming a ward of the Crown when they perished in the house fire that had claimed her family's lives.
The fire which, my father once whispered, he suspected had been no true accident, but deliberately set in order to rid the world of a Deryni family, a taint upon the land. Though I suspected he was merely starting at shadows like a spooked horse, for my mother's kinsmen were landed, which would hardly have been the case if they were known to be Deryni. She was hardly the heiress to Corwyn, after all, or of any of the lands bordering hostile Torenth, where a Deryni lineage might at least be tolerated, however dubiously, for whatever protections it might afford Gwynedd against an invading Festillic army.
"Father, I am looking forward to spending more time in Rhemuth—especially as Nell and Aelis are sure to be at Christmas Court!—but must I go just yet?"
He raised an eyebrow. "Why, is there some special reason for delaying the matter?"
"Well…no," I said reluctantly. "It's just….I suppose you're right. I am nervous."
"Ah. Well, that's no surprise; it will be your first time away from home, after all. But you'll not be without family at Court; your Tante Constanza is offering you a wonderful opportunity, you know."
I shrugged. "I hardly even know her, though." I had only vague memories of the woman—not actually my aunt, but my godmother—who was my mother's best friend in her youth. "I don't guess being her lady-in-waiting can be any worse than playing maidservant for Alienora, though."
"Sophronia…." My father sighed. "I wish you'd at least make an effort to get along with her. I realize you don't agree with my reasons for remarrying, but she is a de Varnay now."
"I don't mind that you've remarried, Father. I just wish you'd not married her!" I kissed my sire on the cheek. "But at least allow me some reason to look forward to leaving Kestrel Mote."
He smiled at that, though rather wanly. "I shall miss you, you know," he told me. "But I truly believe you'll enjoy life in Rhemuth, once you get settled in. Contessa Constanza says she has other young ladies near your age in her household. I know how lonely you get sometimes here at Kestrel Mote, with so many of your girlhood friends now wed and with households of their own now to manage, and babies to look after."
Mayhap it was a hint, mayhap not. I didn't know, and wasn't minded to ask.
"Will you at least promise to write me often?" I asked instead, resigned to my fate if not entirely ready to embrace it.
"Right gladly," said my father, "and I hope you shall do the same."
And thus it was I set my heart to say farewell to the home of my childhood, and prepared to enter the Contessa's service.