Secrets of the Court: Chapter 1

West of a conflict-ridden Europe, west of the Bay of Biscay, was an island—forgotten and shielded from the political struggles of the Continent.

Toiling for centuries under English rule, it had claimed its independence during the Hundred Year’s War.

At the breaking of the Age of Discovery, it became the gateway to the Americas for many European countries. Before setting off for or returning from the New World, many merchant ships would pass through the country's harbors to stock up one final time.

Alas, the power of the kingdom slowly declined at the start of the 16th century, facing eventual invasion from Henry Tudor of England.

James Fell, having inherited the crown from his father at the tender age of ten, had been faced with the gruesome reality of war. But something was approaching on the horizon—the prospect and hope that peace would finally settle once more in Angloa.


October 29th, 1519 - Wessport

The chants of Franciscan monks could be heard early in the morning mist. A lone rider made his way through the gates of the capital and past the walls that framed the sleepy city. Wessport slowly awoke to the dim rays that shone through the thick clouds. It was late October and the cold rains had begun, followed by shorter days and friskier nights. The main road to the royal palace was muddy, reeking of the wastewater thrown from the chamber pots onto the streets.

The rider wrinkled his nose in disgust and urged his horse into a faster canter, gliding between the many stalls and carriages lining the narrow streets. Smoking chimneys revealed that several people were up despite the ungodly hour. Above the city's patisseries, clouds escaped the bakers' ovens, where soon delicate pastries and loaves of bread would be available to the masses of the capital.

The weary horse bore its rider to the gates of the palace; an impressive fortress constructed during the previous century. The haggard guards let him in as he proudly displayed the emblem of the royal messenger. His tired horse carried him to the grand stone courtyard on shaking legs after having ridden all night. The brown mare held her head low, breathing in the icy air while being led to the stables to rest. The messenger, just as tired as his horse, pushed on in his dirty cape and worn clothes. Rain during the night had long since soaked through the fabric. He sensed the beginning of a cold and hastened toward the assembly chamber where he knew the king was waiting for him. Nestled safely in his satchel, he carried a hastily written letter that the messenger had been prepared to give his life to deliver. The letter bore the seal of the general of the Northern armies and it was still unbroken.

The messenger entered through the heavy wooden doors and stepped into the assembly where James Fell and some members of his small council sat. Two prominent advisors together with a younger member of the general assembly had gotten the news that a messenger had arrived from the north and scurried to the assembly chamber as quickly as possible. Clothed in simple white chemises and wool pants they could be taken for anything but the powerful and regal individuals that they were. The messenger wordlessly handed the letter to his king as he bowed, hoping his rugged and worn-out appearance would underline the urgency of the situation. The advisors noted that the white parchment was speckled with oxidizing blood as the king broke the seal and swiftly opened the letter. The tired messenger wordlessly excused himself, his aching body could finally lie down and rest after two days of hard riding from the north coast.

James read the letter twice before letting a gleeful grin reveal his state of mind.

"What news from the north, Your Majesty?" inquired the aging man to his left. He scratched his white goatee and mustache thoughtfully. Lord Athar let his worry seep through his gray eyes. The crow's feet around them deepened as he fixed his gaze on the monarch.

"General Hawthorne writes of his success on the battlefield. The English have left our shores and are headed for their lands again."

A sudden release of breath came from the other two men at the table. Lord Alistair and Lord Braun showed signs of relief, letting their tense shoulders fall and their rigid postures falter.

"A treaty must be formed with England soon. If they accept defeat, we might finally rest and recover from this blasted war," Alistair said haughtily. The younger man showed fiery determination to prove himself amongst men who had been in their profession longer than him.

"Patience, Alistair," said James calmly, relieved that the end of a three-year conflict was nigh. "The English have only withdrawn from battle, but that does not mean they have given up the war."

"Does Hawthorne not write more?" questioned Braun with a hint of curiosity. He was a middle-aged man, with thinning brown hair and a full beard among streaks of silver.

"The English have promised to send an envoy. Hawthorne writes that my presence would facilitate any communication and lend legitimacy to whatever peace talks may surge."

"Is that wise?" Braun asked timidly yet gained a burst of confidence when no one spoke against him. "With all due respect, Sire, General Hawthorne has indeed proven his worth on the battlefield. I—like many of my peers—am grateful for the great strides he has taken in turning this war around. Alas, to blindly trust him and travel out of the safe walls of Wessport… it… it is too much to ask that you should venture to the unprotected harshness of the north."

Alistair bluntly agreed with Lord Braun and the king sighed inwardly.

"You are quick to judge the man who more than likely saved the liberty of this kingdom, Lord Braun. I understand your apprehension in this matter. Yet I cannot ignore that several of you possess a rising and very misguided distaste for General Hawthorne. Is it because he was a commoner when he arrived at court? His ideas and alien strategies to turn the tide of this war might have seemed unconventional to some, yet you cannot argue with the results.” James shook his head as he continued, certain of the true reason. “Mayhap it might be his peculiar appearance that unsettles you so?”

Braun’s lips thinned.

“I approved Hawthorne being appointed general and I trust him. I see potential in the man, just as I see potential in you, Braun, and in you, Alistair.”

Lord Braun had long since diverted his gaze and wished he could take back his words. "Hawthorne may come from humble beginnings, but he is loyal and honorable…almost to a fault. If he wants me to travel to the coast, I will do so. It might be a way to end this war," said James.

The edges of Athar’s lips twitched upward, and a glint could be hinted in his gray eyes. The king's decisiveness was just as welcomed as the end of the war. Athar, an old friend of the Fell family, had seen James grow up. The pressure the young monarch had been under—to live up to the names of past kings—had been heavier than what would otherwise be expected of someone so young. Athar's musings brought back memories of his late friend King Philip, causing him to hold back a melancholic sigh.

Angloa had seen several decades of inner conflicts and now saw the threat of a possible invasion looming on the horizon as the English troops had all but encroached on their territory. But Angloa was a strong country, still in its cradle after having gained its independence from England some two hundred years prior. The three men who had rallied the people and fought for Angloa had established a new monarchy and from those three founding kings there emerged a new golden age of prosperity. Angloa was no longer a poor colony, obliged to pay tribute to its English masters. Instead, Angloa prospered and grew its trade, and made a name for itself in Europe. Alas, the fourteenth century saw the arrival of the Black Plague, and the newfound riches and development ceased as the country dwindled into mediocracy once more. Out of the three founding houses, only one dynasty remained: the Fell line which saw many great men rule the small island.

The threat of the English had started looming ever since the death of Philip Fell, the predecessor of James’ father Magnus. He had lived to be seventy-seven years old with a solid reign of over fifty years. Alas, he died suddenly of complications one night, less than thirty years ago. His only heirs were his two daughters, and thus the king's much younger brother, Magnus, took the crown only to end up perishing seven years later.

James was thus forced to rule at the tender age of ten. He was immature and inexperienced and that was why he surrounded himself with his advisors. But whatever he lacked as a ruler, he made up for by being a particularly good judge of character. James had judged Tristan Hawthorne wisely, appointing him as the current commanding general of the armies of the North after receiving recommendations from several high-ranking officers and his previous Field Marshal. Athar had to confess that, even though he found Hawthorne strange and unsettling, he could not argue with the success the general had provided for the past two years.

"Lord Athar," James said, bringing the old man out of his train of thought.

"Yes, Your Majesty," the older man responded, locking eyes with James.

"Have them prepare for this venture. Let us arrive at the shores of Castell in whatever splendor we are able and show the envoy how we receive our enemies here in Angloa," James stated as he rose from his seat.

“Of course, Sire.”

October 27th - Castell

It was mid-morning when Lucius, commander of the third platoon, woke to cheerful singing. It had been many months since he heard such sounds at the camp at Castell, on the northern peninsula of Angloa. During the past few years, Lucius had only witnessed the gloomy and worried faces of his men as they rode countless times into battle with General Hawthorne. But now, even though the clouds were hanging low in the gray and cold sky, not letting the sun seep through, he saw merry faces and heard jolly voices singing in unison.

Men, wounded and tired, toasted to last night's victory.

Stephen, one of Lucius's soldiers, came running to his tent urging him to make haste. Lucius had been summoned to a meeting, which had just begun. Lucius hurried across camp to Hawthorne's great dark blue tent that stood mighty among a sea of white ones. He delved deeper into the canopy until he found a roundtable with several maps atop which were strategically placed figurines that displayed several battle plans. Twenty men stood around it while Hawthorne buried himself in the fabrics of the farthest part of the tent

"We believed you would sleep the whole day, Lucius," came the dark voice of the general who, as always, preferred standing in the shadows rather than sitting down with his officers. Lucius wordlessly squeezed through so that he might see the table, well aware that the general was only teasing him.

"The king is on his way. He is most likely to arrive within the week. We can only hope that the envoy the English promised us will have arrived by then. Joseph," the booming voice spoke, "have some of your men on the lookout by the shores, but make sure they are hidden in case of another attack. Derreck, I want you and a dozen of your men to wait on the shores north of the Castell fortress. Receive the envoy and if His Majesty does not arrive in two days, you may return. We wait only for word from Joseph's men."

The men around the table nodded.

"Are you still expecting an attack from the English, sir?" Lucius asked.

There was a slight pause before the man in the shadows solemnly replied. "Trust no one in war, Lucius. We may have won many battles, but we cannot know for certain if they will keep true to their word.” There was a strain to his voice. “There is no honor in war. Not really." A strange chill ran down Lucius’ spine. Many of the officers looked down in solemn agreement. They had all lost friends to this forsaken conflict, and many were hoping for it to finally be over.

“That will be all,” Hawthorne dismissed them.

Once the tent was all but empty, the mysterious General Hawthorne stepped out from the shadows. Lucius could not help his gaze as it drifted away from the tall, imposing figure that he cut. Sometimes Lucius wondered about Hawthorne. At times he seemed as if wanting to place himself on display for all to see—and for all to be intimidated. But, at other times, he appeared as if wanting nothing more than to blend into the canopy. Whatever the case, the general’s intimidating presence was of great help on the battlefield. He was always mounted on his gray stallion, at the front of the line, riding into the thick of the battle. Hawthorne and his men would shout the battle cry 'Audeamus'let us dare, as they joined the frenzy. It continually intimidated the English soldiers—shaking in their boots, soiling themselves at the mere sight. The general had mockingly been dubbed "The Lion of the North" by Lord Braun a year ago for the way he carried himself in battle. However, the name quickly caught on with the soldiers and now the denomination was as much a part of Tristan Hawthorne as his battle cry Audeamus.

However, the most striking aspect of the general was what he did not show: his face, or any skin, save around his eyes and lips. His whole head and his hands were covered. Supposedly, the man was either deformed, scarred, or rather bore the face of the devil himself. Hawthorne could have been a monster for all they cared, as that was what he invoked whenever he came face to face with anyone. No one dared to speculate the truth behind the black mask, and even though Lucius knew Hawthorne, he still felt uneasy whenever he spoke with him. The fact that Hawthorne showed signs of unsavory mood swings did not help.

"I ask of you a favor, Lucius," Hawthorne spoke. He sat down in a chair, exhausted. Gloved hands grazed the roundtable. The general was exceptionally tired but only revealed his fatigue when with Lucius. Showing signs of weakness was something Tristan could not afford, not when wishing to boost morale with the men.

"We have a spy in our midst. The only reason the battle raged on for so long last night was because our positions were revealed beforehand. Had I not told the second and fifth regiments to relocate and take cover east of the fortress, we might have lost. I can only trust you, Lucius... for the time being. I want you to find this spy discreetly and when we are certain it is him, bring him to me," Tristan commanded.

Lucius gave a faint nod and turned to leave, sensing the stern gaze of the general on his back.

"Lucius," the slightly more tired voice said from behind him. Lucius turned around, facing the stern and calculating eyes of Tristan Hawthorne, "take a few hours to clean yourself up, you look horrible."

Lucius smiled, "I might say the same for you, sir," and left.

Tristan moved to his personal quarters at the back of the tent where he dropped on the small field cot. He had not slept a wink ever since the battle. He had written a letter to James and sent it with one of the fastest messengers as soon as the battle was won. His stained gloves had left blood on the white parchment. Tristan hoped it would show James and his advisors the reality of the situation.

He took off the kidskin gloves and the warmth of his hands sent steam into the chilly October air. He stripped the mask from his face, letting it breathe as well.

He let cold water run through his greasy locks as he scrubbed his face clean. He needed a shave but since there were no mirrors available in the tent, he settled for a trim of the wild beard.

In the solace of his tent, Tristan slowly ran the pads of his fingers over his features, mapping the lines of his face, frowning as he did so. He glanced at the mask, his hand slowly coming to rest at his side as he clenched his jaw. Coming to Angloa and staying as long as he had, had been a mistake. He should never have returned, he thought. His eyes shifted to the bowl before him, the water he had used to wash his face was now still and clear, mirroring his features back at him tauntingly. Tristan looked back at the unfamiliar sight—the more he looked the more dismayed and disgusted he became. Aye, returning to Angloa had indeed been a mistake. He stirred the surface of the water to be rid of the sight that was his face.

November 1st - Castell

The white tents billowed in the strong wind that descended from the west earlier that day. Next to the general's tent stood the king's massive burgundy one. James Fell and the English envoy — an ambassador from King Henry's court — were setting up an agreement to officially end the war. Tristan and his most trusted officers stood on the side to witness the exchange.

The soldiers of the camp cheered when the king declared the end of the war. England would leave Angloa's shores for good. The war was over and Angloa would slowly heal from the wounds that had been sustained in battle. James set off to the capital with the majority of the soldiers. General Hawthorne would remain and prepare for the journey back, as his king asked of him.

"I have a surprise for you when you return to Wessport, Hawthorne. It is time you were rewarded after all these years of service you have rendered Angloa," James said to the taller man. Even if James felt grew uneasy at the appearance of Hawthorne, he did not show it. He only displayed the gratitude he felt toward the man who had helped save his kingdom. However, Tristan held no plans to remain in Wessport. He would only go back to find Sofia and then they would board the first ship sailing east to some secluded corner of the world where he could finally settle down in peace, as he had many years before. His sense of duty to his country was satisfied. He had come to Angloa in her time of need. Now as the war was over, he was no longer of use, or so he believed.

November 3rd - Wessport

Curious crowds had gathered throughout the city as Tristan and the more battered half of the Angloan army rode through the gates of the city and into Wessport itself. The people of the city lined the streets, eager to catch a glance of the man that had saved them from the English invasion.

Tristan, anticipating at least a small crowd, wore a cape with a deep hood. While the crowd expressed some curiosity for the alluring general, today the people of Angloa and of Wessport mostly knew gratitude.

As Tristan and Lucius rode into the palace courtyard, pages came to take their horses while some footmen cared for their packing despite their initial protests. They were informed that James had a special celebration planned later in the evening in their honor. Joseph Astor, a young nobleman in command of the fourth platoon, was with the group as well. He grew more excited than the rest as he had longed for the festivities of the city and the society of the court.

In the palace chamber provided for him, Tristan washed and changed into attire that he deemed more appropriate—something he knew was at least decently clean. Then he put the cape back on. He had no plans on staying in the palace and much less to join in on the celebrations. Indeed, he could care less if he stood in front of the king in his muddiest hoses and bloodiest doublet. He didn’t dress for them… he knew Sofia would have his head if he came to stand before her like an unkempt brute. He wanted nothing more than to be reunited and quickly leave the shores of Angloa.

Alas, as he made ready to leave silently, sneaking his way out of the east wing, Tristan’s cloaked form didn’t make it far. The guards, although frightened of him, did not let him pass. Even if Tristan could fight his way out of the palace courtyard and inner-city circle, there were still the outer city walls and the city gate, defended by over fifty men.

With some carefully chosen words that Tristan growled to them, the leader of the small group of guards finally settled on letting the general travel down to the outer city circle. However, ten guards escorted him on his way, their constant presence would ensure his return for the night's celebrations.

Tristan walked the streets with his hood up until he reached the outskirts of town. Sofia had found a small place to rent with the money he had been sending her for the past two years. Watching the small run-down hovel, he wondered how she had held out in this cesspool of a city for so long. He pursed his lips, muttering to the guards to wait for him while he entered without announcing himself, wanting to surprise her after his two-year absence.

She was in the small kitchen area, leaning over the cauldron with a wooden spoon as she watched the watery brownish soup bubble in a simmer. Her gray hair was in a long braid and her clothes were ripped and dull.

"I thought you had forgotten me," her stern, motherly voice spoke, breaking through the pleasant silence.

Tristan smiled behind the mask, remembering that it was impossible to surprise Sofia.

"I was brought directly to the palace."

She turned around. The woman's aquiline nose wrinkled, something it always did when she was displeased. Her raven eyes cut into his. "Have you prepared then, for our departure? I cannot tolerate another minute in this wretched city," she complained in a soft Spanish accent.

"The king's guards are escorting me, and they will not let me depart the city—not until I have attended tonight’s festivities," Tristan muttered angrily, his hot temper escaping.

"Go then!" she nearly yelled, flinging her arms in no specific direction. "And take care of that mood of yours. I dislike it when you use that tone with me—you have your soldiers for that," she fiercely stated, ignorant of the irony in her words.

"You could still leave. We can meet up in Coldwick and sail from there...together," Tristan tried, hopeful.

"If Fell has put guards on you, I have a feeling you will be in Wessport for some time."

She put down the wooden spoon and took Tristan by the hand, leading him to the small wooden table in the middle of the kitchen. Her eyes wandered to his mask. "I know we came back here because you felt you had an obligation to protect your homeland. If that is how you feel, Angloa will hold you captive forever. There will always be problems lurking on the horizon, waiting to threaten this country, especially during these times. That is how it works, Tristan. That is how it has always worked," she said solemnly as she patted his gloved hands, staring straight into his eyes that were shrouded in the depths of his mask, knowing what hid behind it.

"I... I do have an obligation to answer the king’s summons,” he murmured back. "I want to leave, but I should at least listen to what he has to say."

“You have fought enough for him, toiled enough for him… he will never let you leave, not now, not when you have proven your usefulness.”

“I have my word and my duty to fulfill.”

“And that will be the death of you someday, Tristan.”

The grand room was filled to the brim with renovations. It had been remodeled with white marble, which reflected the Renaissance influence. Painted ceilings and Roman busts of former kings lined the walls. At the end of the vast room draped an ensemble of large portraits of previous kings. Two were framed in the middle, one of Magnus, James’ father and predecessor, and another of Philip, James’ uncle, and founder of Wessport. Athar, who had known both monarchs in their prime years, said the paintings were a true likeness. James had placed the portraits above his throne as a reminder of the king he wished to be and the king he was wary of becoming.

James had always preferred his uncle's portrait. The man in the painting possessed an arrogant smirk while standing on a battlefield—and, in his hand, was the flag of Angloa, embodying the patriotic essence of the country. He bore the typical Fell traits of gray, steely eyes, midnight hair, and handsome features. Often enough, James would stare at the grand portraits and wonder if his ancestors were peering down from heaven, guiding him in his own rule of the country.

The painting of Magnus, meanwhile, presented a stiff and rigid man, his lips pressed together and a look of silent judgment in his eyes. The youthful vivacity had long since disappeared by the time the painting had been commissioned. His hair was fairer, his features sharp. Yet he held the same handsome air of his older brother. Albeit no playful arrogance was to be found within his severe eyes.

The largest room in the palace, referred to as The Blue Hall due to the blue drapes that decorated the pillars and walls, quickly filled up. Tables lined the edges of the room, leaving the middle exposed for jesters, acrobats, and dancing. The king's cousin, Victoria Fell, twenty years his senior, arrived with her timid younger sister. Although in her autumn years, Victoria held an alluring and youthful beauty. She carried prominent Fell traits with her black hair, striking golden eyes, a delicate, feminine face with full red lips, a petite nose, and a defined jaw. She conducted herself gracefully while making her way to the main table. She took her place next to Tabitha, the king's timid and demure wife, hailing from the southern shores of Zafra. Tabitha lived secluded with her ladies-in-waiting. She had failed her primary duty as a queen in not being able to bear James any children and her supposed sterility had caused a rift between the couple.

"Victoria," James nodded as his older cousin took her place next to Tabitha. Victoria gave a small nod before sitting.

"I see that Lady Vega and her daughter Christine are here," Victoria sneered, her eyes overlooking the busy room.

"I called on them. Tonight is a night for celebrating. All are to join in on the festivities," James said sternly to his cousin, a woman he found too nosy at times.

"Do not forget that Charles Vega sold us out to the English, dear cousin," Victoria argued as a frown brushed across her delicate features.

"Should I have sent them to the executioner as well? That would only inspire fear from the noblemen and the people. We do not need fear in times such as these, Victoria. They are here tonight because I have an announcement that concerns the Vega family."

Miriam, Victoria's younger sister, donned a smirk as Victoria scoffed.

As night descended, laughter and great discussions began. Noblemen and highly decorated officers celebrated the end of the three-year war, a war they never thought would come to an end. Many wondered where the man of the hour was — General Hawthorne was nowhere to be seen. He had, during his two years of service to the crown and Angloa never ventured to Wessport. Most of his communication with the capital and the king had been made through the late Field Marshal Melkeer and through letters sent to the king. James had ventured north to the battlefield a few times, but the mere sight was enough to turn his stomach. He was not a warring king, a man of violence and action like his father and uncle had been before him. He was wise enough to leave the planning and fighting to better-equipped men like Tristan and Melkeer.

As soon as the whispers about Tristan extended throughout the echoing hall, the grand doors of the room opened, and the general was ceremoniously announced.

A quiet fell over the room as a tall figure, backed by two other men, stood in the immense round-arched doorway. He waited by the door for a moment, as if assessing the room and people within. Even now, safe and sound in the protecting walls of Wessport, the Lion of the North would not let his guard down.

He marched into the hall and the music faded. For the first time, the courtiers would see the savior of their country. Indeed, Hawthorne had avoided any social events like the plague.

He stood out in the simpler and darker clothes, not as extravagantly dressed as the rest. All eyes were drawn to the hidden face. Many were the gasps and pale faces staring. Some choked on their drinks, with eyes bulging out of their sockets. A dress sword clung to Tristan’s left hip signaling that he was still prepared for a fight if there should be a need for it. Amidst all the fear, there was a strange curiosity for the macabre air he invoked, indeed, the novelty of General Hawthorne had to be further investigated.

"Hawthorne!" James exclaimed with open hands as Tristan approached the head table.

Lady Victoria eyed him with keen curiosity while her sister Miriam’s eyes widened.

"Sire, my officers and I are at your service," the dark rasping voice sounded through the hall. Joseph Astor and Lucius Chaeld bowed. The silence following was unbearably tense. But James, seated in the center—all attention removed from him—ignored the public and focused only on his trusted general.

"Why the solemn attitude, Hawthorne? One might think I have called you to attend your own execution," James spoke merrily, making a gesture for the masked man to step forward.

"Then perhaps you might explain the dozen armed guards assigned to me," replied Tristan sternly, not partaking in James' merry tone.

"The first thing you told me when we initially met two years ago was that you would leave Angloa as soon as the war was over—if you didn’t die first, of course. And how is it you would leave before we had the chance to properly thank you?"

James rose from his seat and looked around the room. "I have brought General Hawthorne here to acknowledge his brilliant valor on the battlefield and to celebrate his contribution to this victory. I hope he will stay with us longer. That is why I have offered him a place amongst us and why the crown will bestow a title on him."

Gasps rose from the crowd, both surprised and outraged.

"I cannot accept such a generous offer, Sire," Tristan flatly declined.

James ignored him and continued with his monologue.

"I offer you the lands of Cadherra."

Many glances were directed to Lady Amanda and her daughter Christine for they had been wife and daughter to the late Count of Cadherra of which Tristan was not aware. He gave an irritated grunt, wondering how best to decline such an offer without offending anyone.

"The late Count of Cadherra's wife and daughter still own a small plot of that land. The laws of Angloa thus demand that you take his daughter, Christine Vega," James continued, urging for daughter and mother to stand.

Christine Vega did all she could to bite down on the wave of tears that threatened to escape as the humiliating situation unfolded before her. She could not bear to look at the man she was being offered to. The king proposed a situation that would bring her and her mother back into his good graces again. If Christine wedded Tristan, their marriage would grant him lands and a title that he would hopefully protect from future struggles. James thought it a brilliant idea, at the cost of Christine's life and happiness.

Christine had accepted without knowing to just whom she would be wed. She just wanted her mother to live out the rest of her days in peace and comfort after the hellish year they had experienced.

Tristan looked at both women. Something strained in his chest when his eyes caught the figure of the young woman. She had soft, golden locks wrapped up in a Romanesque hairdo. Her dress was the color of a blue summer sky, and her eyes were pristine and clear. Unshed tears threatened to fall but were held back through sheer willpower. Something in the way she looked at him was familiar, a hidden despair he himself knew all too well.

When Tristan’s silence spoke for itself, James smirked.

"Such a gracious offer must not be refused." The nature of the generous gesture had thus shifted from a show of gratitude to an order.

Tristan, ever bound by his sense of duty, wordlessly looked at his king. Of course James would have presented such an offer so publicly, he knew Tristan would never refuse him in front of the court, he was too proud for that.

“A joyous end to this war indeed!” James exclaimed as he started clapping.

At first, the courtiers of the Blue Hall watched in silent disbelief, their eyes shifting from Tristan and Christine. Slowly, emerging as a giant wave, the sound of the clapping grew until it was deafening. And, from behind the initially stunned and later cheerful expressions rested evil smirks or relieved sighs. Many young women of Christine’s age could only think the same thing, the relief that it had not been them offered to the infamous warmonger.

Tristan, his gaze still fixed on the stranger that had been offered to him like a piece of meat, thinned his lips and clenched his fists as he reflected on Sofia’s words from earlier that day.

"I have a feeling you will be in Wessport for some time."