Chapter Thirty-One

The sun was high in the late morning sky when Sir Stefan and his new bride rounded the last bend on the road from Nyford and Kestrel Mote came into view. Lisette drew a breath as the bright sunlight gilded the windows and stonework of the East Tower. Oh, Stefan, it's beautiful!

The manor needed much work, of course. The new Lady of Kestrel Mote could see that even at this distance. But the croplands around it looked fertile, the fields already beginning to show new growth. Sir Stefan's men bowed respectfully as their new Lady as the knight's retinue passed them, giving her welcoming smiles, their eyes filled with bright curiosity.

Stefan smiled at her also, looking oddly shy. If anything isn't to your taste, heart, we can change it. Alienora returned to her family once the winter weather cleared, so hopefully most of her belongings went with her.

You didn't like cloth-of-purple drapes with a semé of rampant lions in gold couched embroidery? Lisette teased.

A bit…um…regal for a mere manor like Kestrel Mote, don't you think?

Stefan's new bride laughed. Maybe just a bit. She considered for a moment. The de Varnay colors are green and gold, right?

Yes.

She gave her husband an admiring glance, glad to see that the new tunic she'd finished making for him the night before they'd set out from Rhemuth fit him well. And you're partial to that shade of green, as I recall?

Stefan smiled. Yes. He glanced down at his new finery and back up at his bride. And thank you.

Then you won't have any objection if I replace the purple furnishings with green? Though, on second thought, cloth-of purple is quite expensive. Lisette mused for a bit, then turned to her new husband with a twinkle in her eyes. Let's hope she left the draperies, at least. That much uncut cloth-of-purple, if still in good condition, ought to fetch a decent price. Maybe we can sell them and buy you a good plough horse.

Stefan imagined Alienora's reaction to that and laughed heartily. The couple pulled up outside the stables. Sir Stefan dismounted, handing his horse over to a groom and then assisting his wife down from her mount, making brief introductions all around before the horses were walked off to be seen to. Stefan turned to his new bride, scooping her up to carry her across the threshold of his ancestral manor.

Welcome home, my dear Lady.

Lisette beamed up at him, the bright promise of a new day shining in her golden eyes.

#

A glorious sunset bathed Tre-Arilan in red-gold highlights and blue-violet shadows as Sophie saw it for the first time.

"This is home," Sir Seisyll said, helping Sophie down from her horse and giving her a brief embrace and kiss before releasing her and handing her mount over to one of the stable lads. "See, I told you, it's not so far from Rhemuth. You can go back for visits as often as you like. Well, unless there's a blizzard, of course."

A dark-haired young woman not much older than Sophie appeared in the doorway. Seisyll hailed her with a bright grin. "My sister Jashana," he explained to his bride as they made their way towards her. "She's on her way to visit her foster-sister tomorrow, but she wanted to stay long enough to meet you before she starts her trip."

Jashana's carefree grin, so like her brother's, flashed at Sophie. "That's his gentlemanly way of saying 'Get lost, little sister; I want a private honeymoon.'"

Sophie laughed, blushing slightly. Seisyll chuckled.

"I have another sister as well, but Javana is in Andelon right now. You'll meet her at the end of the month, when she returns to start making ready for her wedding. And my brother Sextus-" Seisyll looked around. "Where is Sextus, Jashana?"

His sister laughed. "In bed. Sneezing and sniffling, and muttering things about you being a changeling and the Devil's own. I don't think that last trip to Claibourne suited him all that much."

Seisyll grinned. "Lad needs to toughen up, then. It's all part of being in the King's service."

"Yes, well, you're in the King's service too. How come you get all the cushy Rhemuth jobs?"

Sophie cast an inquisitive glance up at her new husband. "So, what exactly is it that you do in Kelson's service?"

Jashana looked at her brother, startled. You haven't told her yet?

Not yet. But I will.

"A little bit of everything, and nothing at all," Seisyll told his new bride with an easy smile, lifting her up to carry her into her new abode. "I'll explain later, though. Right now, we've a house to explore."

#

Dhugal and Jass, newly arrived at Transha Keep after their ride from Pelagog through Cassan and Kierney—this time with more leisurely stops along the way so that the Duke could take care of some administrative tasks while he was in his own lands—stood in the middle of the Great Hall together, discussing new room arrangements.

"I dinnae imagine ye still want me bunkin' down on a pallet in tha' small alcove jus' outside yer bedchamber," Jass joked, grinning down at his armful of bride. Ailidh giggled.

"No!" Dhugal said decisively. "It was bad enough being on the other side of the wall from you in Pelagog. Let's find you quarters on the other side of the keep. Ciard, could you go check on that?" He glanced at Ciard O'Ruane, who grinned and left to see to his young Chief's bidding.

"We don't quarrel that often, do we?" Ailidh asked in some confusion.

Jass laughed. "Nay, I dinnae think it's th' arguin' tha's disturbin' Dhugal's sleep sae much as th' makin' up." He winked at her. Ailidh's face turned scarlet.

Ciard returned shortly. "There's a room made ready at th' top o' th' first stair an' tae th' left. It's small, but it should do ye for now."

"Tha's fine. We'll no' be needin' larger until th' babe comes." Jass bent his head slightly to brush a tender kiss on Ailidh's brow.

"Do you know yet when the baby's due?" Dhugal asked, smiling down at Ailidh.

"Late December, I think, or maybe early January. Sometime between Christmas and Twelfth Night, I should think."

"Well, let's hae a look at our new quarters, shall we?" Jass said, shifting his bride In his arms slightly to get a more secure hold before heading up the stairs with her. "We've still bags tae unpack, an' my family's wantin' tae meet ye as well. I dinnae want tae keep ye out sae late tha' ye cannae stay awake long enough tae help me rock th' babe tae sleep."

Dhugal lifted a hand. "More than I wanted to know, Jass," he said with a chuckle. "I'll see you in the morning, then?"

"Aye, m'Lord."

Dhugal shifted his gaze. "Good night, Ailidh." He grinned, clapping her on the shoulder. "Let me know when you're ready for me to drag your man back to Rhemuth so you can get some rest."

"I'm going back with him if you do!" she retorted.

"Yes, you probably would." The MacArdry dropped his hand, shaking his head at her with a smile. "And I'm sure you'd ride off into battle with us as well, if I'd let you…which I won't. Even though you would be the scariest force Transha could possibly muster."

Jass laughed and carried his willful wife up the stairs to their awaiting chamber.

#

"So, this is goodbye then?" Celsie's eyes shimmered with tears.

"For a time," Constanza said as they watched the city of Coroth dwindling in the distance. "But not forever. " Her guardian turned the demoiselle towards the rising sun. "Don't think of it as a farewell, sweeting, but as a new dawn. A new beginning of your life yet to come. You'll love the Court of Andelon, once you've settled in. And the time will pass swiftly enough, I promise you."

Celsie watched the rising sun's light shimmer on the waves as their ship sailed for the eastern shores. "Do you miss Lord Derry?" she whispered, then immediately regretted asking, wishing she could take back the words. She'd not meant to say them aloud, actually, but they'd simply risen up unbidden.

The Contessa simply smiled faintly, her eyes a little sad. "Yes." She glanced at Celsie. "And you?"

Celsie nodded, blushing, and looked away.

"Well." Stanzi sighed. "Let's work on growing you into yourself first. There'll be time enough for men later."

"I know."

Celsie turned again to watch the rooftops of Coroth disappear into the distance.

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