[Note: The characters in this ongoing story were first introduced in the following stories, to be read in this order:
Sophie de Varnay—In Pulverem Reverteris, Lady-in-Waiting
Celsie de Chervignon—Demoiselle in Distress, Chapters 1-3
Ailidh nic Ardry and Contessa Constanza di Fianna-Outfoxed]
Maidens of Mayhem
"Constanza? Is that you?"
The Contessa Constanza d'Alcara di Fianna turned around to see Duchess Richenda rise from her seat at the window to approach her, arms outstretched for a warm embrace. "Stanzi!"
Constanza stepped into the hug, clasping her cousin close for a long moment before disengaging. "I had hoped I would find you here in Rhemuth!"
"I figured you'd be wintering in Fianna!" Richenda said.
The Contessa shook her head. "No, there's nothing in Fianna for me now, with Giovanni dead these five years. My home there no longer feels like my own, now that Giovanni's son has taken a wife, and anyway, I prefer Rhemuth, given a choice."
"But do you no longer visit your father's court?"
Stanzi smiled sadly. "Not for many a year. But come, let us speak of happier matters. I hear you have another son now!"
"Yes, and I was about to fetch him from the nursery; it's time for his feeding. Would you like to come with me?"
"I'd love to!" She turned to the raven-haired Duchess whose solar she had just entered. "I do beg pardon, Meraude, but I've not seen my cousin since—how long has it been, Richenda?"
"Briony had just been born." Richenda smiled. "You should see her now, Stanzi. She's got your energy."
"Oh dear, I'm so sorry!"
Meraude laughed. "Well, go on then, it sounds like you've got a lot of catching up to do. And you know you're welcome to my solar anytime, Constanza; no need to ask permission for your comings and goings." She kissed the younger woman on the cheek. "Go see young Kelric. I'm sure by now he's loudly demanding his dinner."
The two women departed for the nursery. At the door, the nurse, looking nerve-frayed, handed over a small squalling bundle. Richenda eagerly took the young Ducal heir, her eyes searching the room for a comfortable seat. "Here," Stanzi said, finding an empty window seat and plumping up some soft pillows on it. "This looks like a good place to relax."
Richenda sat, swiftly unlacing the front ties of her gown with practiced fingers, allowing her infant to latch on with a soft sigh of her own. Constanza laughed.
"I'm not sure which of you looks more relieved, you or your son!"
Richenda laughed. "I'm glad you came in when you did. Even if I didn't know Kelric would be hungry by now, I don't think I could've held out much longer."
Stanzi gave her a wistful smile. "I do envy you. I've had three marriages, and never once caught with child."
The Duchess's blue eyes softened. "I know. I'm so sorry."
Stanzi shrugged. "Ah well. I've acquired daughters of a sort another way, though. God help me!" She laughed. "My late husband's cousin Odhran, the Baron of Marlor, has asked if I would accept his step-daughter as a lady-in-waiting. And I don't recall if you ever met my girlhood friend Mariana de Lisle de Varnay, God rest her soul, but her daughter Sophronia is old enough to come to Court now, so her father has asked if I would take her into my service as well. She's my god-daughter."
Richenda chuckled. "So you're bypassing the messy years and starting out with young women? I may be a little envious myself."
Stanzi laughed. "I don't know about that. You haven't met Ailidh yet."
Stanzi held little Kelric against her shouder, turning her head to inhale the freshly bathed fragrance of his silky hair as she and Richenda walked down the garden path to where Richenda's older children were playing. He was sound asleep, one chubby fist entangled in her dark tresses.
"So, who is taking care of Brendan and Briony right now?" she asked.
"Their nurse, I believe, since when I left them, their 'Uncle Seandry' was in bad need of a nap."
The contessa's eyes lit up. "Oh, so the delectable Lord Derry is still in your Alaric's service?"
Richenda laughed. "Yes, he is." She turned curious eyes towards her cousin. "'The delectable Lord Derry'? Is there something I should know about?"
Constanza merely smiled. "Just because I'm not seeking another husband, that hardly means I'm blind or impervious to masculine charms, mi cara."
Richenda gave her cousin a considering look. "You're certainly young enough to wed again, if you change your mind. I know you've no lack of suitors. And I suspect Derry would make a very good husband, if he could ever be convinced to settle down."
Stanzi shook her head. "No, your Derry is an Earl. I'm the last woman in the world he needs to be tied down to. He needs an heir. And given his love for your children, doubtless he'd love more than one of his own, once he gets around to doing his duty to his lands." She sighed. "No, I quite enjoyed his company when last we met, but I've grown used to being my own woman in the years since Gaspard's death."
"Still, I wish you could have a happier life, Stanzi. You've buried three husbands, and even though I know the first one was hardly of your choosing, you seemed to be quite happy with Giovanni."
"I was. And happy enough with Gaspard as well, though I had far less time with him. But I'm done, Richenda. I...don't like to grow so attached anymore. Loss hurts too much, once the heart is involved." She smiled. "But I am delighted that you are so happy in your marriage to your Alaric Morgan. It's what I've always hoped for, for you."
A wry smile. "And it doesn't bother you that he's only half Deryni?"
Stanzi raised a dark brow. "Should it?" She waved the thought away. "He cares for you; that's the important thing. I certainly can't see how being 'only half Deryni' has made much difference in his ability to function as Kelson's Champion or as the Duke of Corwyn. And as for his ability to be a good husband to you...well, even Sofiana has lost any reservations she once had in that regard."
"You've spoken to Aunt Sofiana recently?"
"Well, not too recently. In the past year, yes."
They heard children's laughter close by and rounded a corner to see Brendan and Briony playing with a young golden-haired woman. As Richenda and Constanza approached, the younger woman dipped into a low curtsy.
"Stanzi," Richenda said as soon as they drew close, "I'm like for you to meet Alaric's new ward, Lady Celeste de Chervignon, called Celsie. Celsie, this is my cousin, the Contessa Constanza di Fianna." She crouched to scoop up Briony, who had attached herself to her mother's knees, and then used her free arm to gather Brendan in a quick hug. "I hope the children have been behaving for you."
"Oh, they have been, Your Grace! Nurse was tired out and needed a nap, so I told her I'd stay out here with the children. We've been playing Statues. Or at least Brendan and I have been; Briony mainly likes to whirl around and plop down on her backside. I don't think she quite understands the game yet."
Richenda laughed. "Well, as long as they're enjoying themselves, I don't suppose that really matters. Do you need a break, though?"
"I'm fine. We've been having fun." A shy smile. "I didn't have much of a chance to play with children at Chervignon. Even with my former staff, most of the household women were either too young or too old to have any."
"I take it that Lord Derry finally went inside for his nap?"
Celsie's cheeks turned a becoming shade of rose. "He did, Your Grace."
Briony started to squirm in her mother's arms. Richenda put the child down, watching her run back to Celsie to whisper something. Celsie nodded and crouched low enough for the young girl to climb onto her back, then gave her a pony ride. Brendan soon came up with the idea of trying to improvise some way for his little sister to tilt at a ring, having twisted a willow twig into a circle. Stanzi watched their antics with a smile.
"She seems like a sweet girl. How did Alaric gain her wardship?"
Richenda recounted the story of Celsie's harrowing ride to Coroth earlier in the summer, to escape the marriage her former steward had tried to force upon her, although she left out some of the more private aspects of that story, and she told Stanzi of the girl's heretofore unsuspected Deryni heritage. "That's why we decided to bring her to Rhemuth with us," she concluded. "She's in need of training, and I'm hoping to get a chance to work with her a little bit as time allows."
Constanza nodded. "I see. I'm doing the same with Sophie and Ailidh as well." At Richenda's surprised look, she smiled. "Yes, my two new ladies-in-waiting are both Deryni. That's one reason why I agreed to take them into my keeping. If not for that, well..." She shrugged. "I've come to value my privacy too much." She gazed out at Celsie. "How old is the lass?"
"She's seventeen," Richenda told her. "How old are Sophie and...was it Amy?"
"Close. Ailidh. Let's see...Sophie is quite close to turning eighteen, I believe, and Ailidh is about midway through her seventeeth year as well. Perhaps your Celsie could train along with them? They're both largely untrained. Sophie's family discouraged any use of her Deryni powers, although she's learned a little bit about them on her own, and Ailidh—well, she's the adventurous sort, and Deryni powers are a bit more accepted in the borderlands, so she'd figured out a few things even before she knew for certain she was Deryni, but she really needs to learn better technique and control. Not to mention, once they've both learned the basics, the arcana that one doesn't just naturally pick up from mere trial and error."
"I think Celsie might enjoy learning along with girls her own age. I'd thought of training her along with Brendan, but he's so much younger and yet enough ahead of her in his own knowledge and skill, I was afraid she might feel self-conscious about that. Would you mind?"
"Not at all! She could even share their sleeping quarters while you're in Rhemuth, if Alaric doesn't object. Where is she installed now, with your children? Or with your household ladies?"
"With my ladies, but she's the youngest by several years, so she'd probably enjoy having friends her own age here at Court to giggle with at night." Richenda smiled. "As I remember us doing a time or two, before my marriage to Bran."
"And mine to Aumeric, God rot his soul! Yes, those were fun, carefree days." Constanza stood. "Speaking of my young ladies, I need to get back to them. But perhaps we can meet later tonight, maybe at dinner?"
"I'd like that. Let me talk to Alaric, and then I'll send you a message."
"Very well." Constanza's dark blue-violet eyes lit with laughter. "And do tell Sean I'm quite sorry to have missed him."
Richenda lifted a red-gold brow. "I'm sure he'll be quite sorry he missed you as well. Shall I invite him to dine with us?"
The laughter became audible. "Do!"
The Contessa left then, leaving Duchess Richenda quite curious about the friendship between her cousin and her husband's charming lieutenant.