The household at Chervignon, dressed in full livery, awaited their Duke's arrival in the Hall. Hassan flew in from the stables, taking a few moments to catch his breath before announcing that the Ducal Party had just arrived, although Celsie and Master Derwin had already known, having seen their approach from an upstairs window. Derwin thanked the lad then sent him out the back way so he could compose himself before returning to the stables to assist with the horses.
The mistress of Chervignon went to the entry porch to greet her overlord, her steward following a discreet couple of steps behind. Alaric Morgan made his leisurely way from stable courtyard to manor house, his keen gray eyes taking in recent repairs and other changes that had been made to the property since his last visit. At last his gaze flitted down from the rooftops to the Hall's entrance, catching Celsie's eyes, and he smiled.
Celsie swept the Duke of Corwyn a low, graceful curtsey. Behind her, Master Derwin gave an even more deferential bow. As they straightened, Celsie caught the eye of the smiling man behind the Duke.
Her face blossomed with smiles. Alaric, noticing the transformation and also the cause for it, chuckled as the Earl of Derry approached to greet the demoiselle with a courtly bow of his own, bending over her hand to kiss it perhaps just a touch more lingeringly than was his customary wont, his blue eyes sparkling with mischief.
"That will be quite enough of that, Derry," Alaric joked. "The demoiselle of Chervignon is still under my protection." A surreptitious wink at their hostess caused her to stifle a laugh.
"My Lords, please accept the hospitality of my house. If it please Your Grace, my staff have prepared a small repast for you and your party in the Hall…or would you prefer to freshen up a bit beforehand?"
"Just a little, though we are quite hungry," the Duke assured her.
"Master Derwin, would you show our guests to the chambers made ready for them?" Celsie's gaze swept the later arrivals approaching behind the Duke and the Earl. "Will Her Grace be coming along shortly?" she asked.
Alaric shook his head. "I'm afraid Grania has come down with a summer cold, and was feeling fretful. Richenda didn't wish to leave her in the nursery's care, under the circumstances." He gave Celsie a reassuring smile as the demoiselle began to look alarmed. "Oh, she's fine. Just very cranky. I can't imagine where she gets that from. I'm never out of sorts." Behind him, his lieutenant stifled a none too polite snort, and Celsie suppressed a grin.
"Of course not, Your Grace." She took a step back, waving her guests towards the steward awaiting them at the entrance to the stairs. "If you'd like to follow Master Derwin, he'll see to your comfort while the kitchen staff makes ready for your meal."
The manor's guests were offered baths and fed, and shown around the manorial lands to see the improvements made since the Duke's last visit. At last the small party made its way back to the manor house,
In the meantime, Celsie's maidservants finished their preparations for her trip to Derry, packing clothing and other personal possessions, a small hamper of food, and a coffer containing gifts Celsie had made for the Earl's family. Three of her maids would be traveling with their mistress and the Ducal retinue to Derry's lands in the morning, to ensure she had female companionship and chaperonage.
The Duke caught Derry's eye as they re-entered the manor house together. He gave his liegeman a faint nod, then turned away, following Master Derwin as the steward led him down to the cellars to discuss the improvements made below stairs.
"Celsie, might I have a private word with you?" Derry asked, steering her towards an open door just off the Great Hall. It turned out to be the entrance to a short passage leading from the head of the hall to Chervignon's small chapel.
One of the demoiselle's maidservants followed uncertainly behind. Celsie turned to whisper to the young woman. After a moment, the maidservant bobbed an obedient curtsey and remained at the chapel entrance, still within sight of the two who moved further into the chamber, towards the altar rail, but allowing them as much privacy as could be allowed under the circumstances.
Derry looked around the tiny chapel with a slight smile on his face before returning his gaze to Celsie's upturned face. "Are you still in the habit of early Masses?"
She laughed softly. "Not as early as in Rhemuth, but yes, Father Benoit still serves Mass for the household every morning." She walked over to one side of the small room to light a candle. "And there's been many a prayer offered up for your reprobate soul here as well," she teased. "Oh, which reminds me!" She reached into her bodice, withdrawing a small square of embroidered fabric. "Your replacement handkerchief." She handed Derry the gift. "Don't worry; this one is quite safe."
"No love spells this time?" Derry asked with a wry smile.
"Absolutely none! Another charm of protection." She reached up to brush his sleeve with her hand. "I'll embroider a full undertunic for you like Alaric's someday, but I need to take your measure first."
"Celsie," Derry said, capturing her hands in his, "I have something for you as well." He kissed her fingertips then released both hands, fishing inside his doublet for a small scrap of silk, looking suddenly quite nervous as he drew it out, unfolding the tiny parcel to reveal what it contained. "This ring belonged to my mother, and hers also. The stones reminded me of your eyes, but if it doesn't suit…that is, if you'd prefer something different…." He halted as she smiled up at him and placed trembling fingertips to his lips.
"It's quite lovely, Sean. May I dare to hope that this means you've been considering the 'm' word?" Her lips twitched in an almost-grin.
Sean Earl Derry chuckled ruefully at himself. Dropping to one knee before the demoiselle of Chervignon, he took one of her hands and kissed it, slipping the ring onto her finger. "Lady Celsie, would you do me the very great honor of marrying me and becoming my Countess?"
Celsie laughed in delight, throwing her arms around Derry's neck as he quickly braced to avoid being overbalanced by her eager assault. "I absolutely do accept, especially since you've quite manfully managed to say the word 'marry' without choking!"
He smiled sheepishly. "Well, 'merger' sounds too businesslike." He sobered, gazing into her eyes. "I don't want a businesslike marriage, Celsie."
"Neither do I." She buried her face in his neck. "I want laughter, and excitement, and comfort, and passion, and…oh, all the things I always feel when I'm with you!"
He stood, drawing her close, enfolding her in a gentle embrace, lowering his lips to hers to impart a tender kiss. After a few moments, the kiss deepened as the unofficially betrothed couple wordlessly sealed their decision.
After a minute or so, a cough sounded from the doorway. Derry pulled back, expecting to be greeted by the maidservant's reproving look. Instead, he and Celsie saw Alaric lounging in the doorway, a faint grin on his face.
"May I take it from the rapturous expression on my ward's face that she found your proposal acceptable, or should I just call you out for attempting a seduction on consecrated ground?"
Celsie laughed. "Go easy on him, Alaric! Sean just said the 'marry' word and he didn't die."
A blond eyebrow rose. "Oh? Well, that calls for some leniency, then." His gray eyes twinkled at the couple. "So, shall we head upstairs instead and work out the betrothal contract?"
As the bridal couple and their liegelord worked out the finer details of the betrothal terms together, Master Derwin, having been quickly apprised of the Lady of Chervignon's imminent change of status, swiftly consulted with the kitchen staff and other household members to put together a small celebratory feast, for all of the manorial household wished to extend hearty well-wishes and congratulations to the newly betrothed couple. The demoiselle also gave her approval for a much larger celebration to be held later, after the hay harvest, to which all of the manor's villeins and villagers would be invited. That night the manor's Great Hall rang with the sounds of music and merrymaking as the household rejoiced over the upcoming nuptials of Chervignon's fair young demoiselle.
The Ducal party set forth for Derry the following morn, this time with Lady Celsie and a handful of maidservants joining in their travels, stealing shy glances at the legendary Duke and the handsome Earl who was soon to become their new master.
They arrived at Derry's county seat just before noon. The Duke had sent a messenger a few hours ahead of the rest of the party, so Derry's household had been alerted to the party's imminent arrival. Countess Moira, the Dowager Countess of Derry, greeted her son's guests graciously, her happy countenance wreathed with smiles of welcome, especially for the ladies among the party, for she had also received the news of the Earl's betrothal by way of the Duke of Corwyn's messenger.
"Welcome to Derry!" she told Celsie, sweeping the younger woman into a warm embrace as soon as the demoiselle had dismounted from Aelfscine. "I have been waiting for so long for Sean to bring home a bride. Or at least a bride-to-be," she corrected. "And when is the wedding date?" the Dowager Countess added with a pointed look at her son.
"Doubtless not soon enough for you, even if we wed tomorrow," Derry joked. "Patience, Mother! Give Celsie a few hours to get acquainted with the place before you throw us into the chapel together and bar the doors from the outside."
The Dowager Countess rolled her eyes at Celsie. "If I thought that would work, I'd be half tempted." She favored her future daughter-in-law with an engaging grin that reminded Celsie of her son's. "Come, let me show you and your maids upstairs to your chambers so you can get settled in."
It was the work of two long weeks of labor in the Dowager Countess's solar to make the final preparations for the wedding of the Earl of Derry to the demoiselle of Chervignon, the hours engaged in making fripperies for the future Countess and her bridal party and in decorating both Great Hall and chapel, for now that Countess Moira had a wedding in sight for her son, she would brook no delay in the upcoming marriage. In the time not spent sewing, embroidering, and becoming better acquainted with one another, the Dowager Countess gradually introduced Celsie to the Derry household and accounts, and was pleasantly surprised by the demoiselle's quick grasp of the latter.
"Won't you be staying on with us here at Derry once Sean and I marry?" Celsie asked her one evening, after the Countess casually mentioned her intention to travel once the newlywed couple had settled into their honey-month.
"Oh, I'm certain I shall return here every now and again," the Countess assured her. "I shall want to spoil my son's heirs, you know." She smiled. "But I've wished to visit my brother Trevor for some time, and have had little opportunity to do so of late, and from Varagh I'm hoping to visit my daughters Elsavere and Elspeth and their families. And the Duchess of Corwyn has welcomed me back for another visit to Coroth once I'm free of my obligations here. I do so long to see how much her children have grown since I was there last! At any rate, I firmly believe a newlywed couple should have some time to themselves to settle into marriage." With a twinkle in her eye, she added, "And to get an heir. I'm quite certain Sean would prefer to do his duty to his Earldom without his mother's supervision and well-meant advice."
Celsie laughed, her cheeks flushing pink. Countess Moira smiled. "And more to the point, dear," the Dowager Countess added, "you need to establish yourself in the household as the new Countess of Derry. My time as Derry's Countess has come and gone, but if you wish the staff to become fully answerable to you, then I need to leave the household at least for a time, so they can grow used to looking to you for direction and not to me. I would do you no great service by staying."
The happy day finally arrived, the days immediately preceding it bringing a steady influx of visitors to Derry's Court. Duchess Richenda at long last made her way to Derry with her retinue, her younger children all having weathered their summer colds without further mishap or complications, and deemed sufficiently recovered to remain with their nurses during their mother's short absence. Young Brendan, on the other hand, was deemed old enough to accompany his mother, representing the Earldom of Marley in celebrating the union of Derry and Chervignon, and Briony had insisted on attending her 'Uncle Seandry's' wedding. The Earl of Derry was quietly amused at the numerous covertly wistful glances the star-struck young Marley kept directing towards his blissfully oblivious bride-to-be.
Other visitors covered greater distances to be present at the nuptials. Celsie's heart-sisters from her days at Rhemuth's Court arrived, one after another. Lady Sophie and Sir Seisyll arrived first, bringing with them glad tidings of the recent births of the Princesses Araxandra and Rhuÿs. Snug in her father's arms travelled a dark-haired, blue-violet eyed beauty, Stefania de Arilan, her toddler eyes bright with curiosity as she allowed herself to be drawn into her "Tante" Celsie's welcoming embrace. A slight bump in Lady Sophie's otherwise still slender silhouette hinted at another Arilan in the making, one which—Sophie later informed Celsie—the Arilans had already sensed would be Seisyll's future heir.
Sir Jass and Lady Ailidh arrived a couple of days later, just barely in time for the coming day's wedding, having set forth from Transha almost as soon as they'd received the news of Celsie's upcoming marriage. With them travelled their heir, young Ciarán Dhugal MacArdry, who quickly found much mischief to get into with the somewhat more tentative Stefania Arilan, much to their mothers' dismay. Sir Jass soon took both toddlers in hand, swinging each over a brawny shoulder to carry them outside to a courtyard where they could run off their boundless energies and get into even more father-approved and instigated mischief, so that Ailidh would have her hands free to tend to their infant daughter Aine Rose.
The Contessa Constanza diplomatically sent her regrets, wishing the bridal couple every happiness but informing them of her own quite recent remarriage, much to Celsie's quiet relief. As a token of her esteem for the newlyweds, she sent a mare nearly equal to Seandry's magnificence for the Derry stables. After briefly entertaining the notions of naming the fine beast either "Constanza" or "Celeste," the Earl chose the better part of discretion and ambiguity and named her "Countess" instead. He had no wish to die at his new bride's hands before siring an heir.
The celebrant for the wedding Mass was Derry's chaplain, a young priest close to the Earl's age who jokingly confessed to Celsie beforehand that he'd half expected to grow old and gray before being asked to perform this particular office for the Earl. The chapel was redolent with the perfume of roses, for the ladies had gathered the early summer blooms to decorate both chapel and bridal bower. Even little Briony had assisted in this, lending nimble fingers to the weaving of rose garlands once Duchess Richenda had divested the woody stems of thorns that might prick tender flesh.
Once the vows had been exchanged and the Mass celebrated, the wedding guests retreated to the feast awaiting them in Derry's Great Hall, toasting the Earl and his new Countess and celebrating in ballad after increasingly bawdier ballad. After the last remove had been enjoyed and a final toast had been raised, the ladies ushered Celsie upstairs to the bridal bower, their voices uplifted in more traditional wedding songs. The men, on the other hand, took a brief detour en route to the bed-chamber, for Sir Seisyll had told Alaric of the Nyford custom of betrothal dunkings the night before during the pre-nuptial revelry the men had enjoyed in celebrating Derry's final night of bachelorhood. Derry, suspecting a plot was afoot, had neatly evaded most of the conspirators during the earlier part of the day, but it was widely agreed that Derry would not be needing to spend the rest of the day clothed, now that he was newly-married, so surely his new bride would appreciate a freshly cleansed—or at least freshly watered—bridegroom. Besides, no one wished the ardent bridegroom to faint in the summer heat. Thus it was that the Earl found himself being carried aloft on several sets of strong shoulders and pitched headlong into a nearby spring before the men finally conveyed him to his bride. The ladies, watching from the bedchamber windows, were convulsed in giggles by the time the sodden Derry was sung to his bride's side in manly voices more enthusiastic than in proper tune.
The priest, suppressing his own smirk and flicking a few drops of fresh spring water off his stole, blessed the bed once Derry had divested himself of his soaked clothing behind the screen and slid under the sheets beside Celsie, who let out a shriek of laughter as his now ice cold flesh encountered her warm form.
After the Dowager Countess Moira jokingly suggested another brief prayer for circulation to return swiftly to her son's extremities, for Derry was in great need of an heir, the wedding guests sang one more bridal song and then departed for the evening.
"You look like you've already visited the bathchamber," Celsie remarked. "Tell me they didn't toss in my father's lute after you!"
"Come warm me, woman," Derry said, only half joking as he pulled his new bride into his arms, laughing into her neck as she squealed and pushed him away.
"I've waited nearly four years for you; I think I can wait another five minutes while you warm by the fire!" Celsie yelped as she slid out of bed, pulling her new husband with her towards the hearth.
"Now, this brings back memories," he told her. "All we need is a rainstorm outside. By the way, did you know I can see straight through that silk?" He gave her gowned form an appreciative once-over.
"At least it's dry."
"Not for much longer," Derry corrected, pulling her into a rather damp embrace. After a few more moments, she forgot to protest as she found herself besieged by an ardent husband obviously warming up to the task at hand.
"Rug's dry, too," she whispered after a few minutes, once she managed to pull free long enough to speak. "Probably drier than the sheets," she added, tousling his soggy curls.
"There's a thought," he replied, pulling her down onto the soft fur beneath their feet. "Tell me you're not sleeping with your rosary tonight!"
"It's retired until the morn—"
Her long-awaited bridegroom's kisses muffled what remained of her answer.