Secrets of the Court: Chapter 10

 January 11th, 1520, Cadherra

It was an eerie morning as the robust sleigh set out for Coldwick. The usual elegant carriage was tucked away behind the stables as there was no way it could travel through the thick carpet of snow.

The moon glowed faintly in a pale yellow as the travelers descended into the valley and toward the flatlands in the distance. Fog had descended from the mountains yet again. It wasn't until they emerged from it that they, at last, saw the bright, starry sky, giving way to the bright yellow orb that slowly ascended in the distance. Christine’s heart skipped a beat as the dark, mysterious night around her gave way to the light of day. The dark blue sky turned into a lighter purple as it transformed slowly. Then it changed into a myriad of oranges, reds, and pinks. The strong horses dragged the sleigh at a fast pace, and she continuously twisted and turned in her seat to see everything around her. As did Maria, who had never been to Cadherra before and had not seen much outside the thick walls of Adelton.

Tristan and Joseph sat facing Christine and Maria. The fact that Christine's presence was demanded at court should've made her ecstatic. But her thoughts found themselves occupied by the magical landscape around her. Neither she nor Maria noticed the way Tristan looked at her for even if he was still sour with her, the look in his eyes spoke differently.

Christine wondered why her presence had been requested as well. Tristan had made his distaste regarding the matter blatantly known to her yet had not demanded she remain behind. He could, after all, not go against the word of his king. Despite having received the letter, Christine had been informed by him — in a quite reluctant matter — that she was to pack for the upcoming voyage.

Christine had urged her mother to stay back and take charge of the household in Adelton together with Mrs. Hammond. Christine did not want her mother to go through the ordeal of being at court once more, knowing the suffering they had both endured last time from the malicious glances, the cold shoulders from previously close friends, and the constant mockery directed their way. Christine had only taken Maria with her, knowing her maid would always serve her loyally. It was the only person she trusted to the fullest in that sleigh.

Tristan asked Lucius to stay behind. He needed someone he could trust to remain outside of Wessport for a while. Lucius was tasked with watching over Adelton Hall and Alan Moore. If Tristan ever needed Alan, he had instructed Lucius to turn over the spy to Saxton. Tristan suspected that he would need him soon, though. Instead, Joseph would travel with him. He trusted the younger man, but he knew he could not give him the same burdensome tasks that he could give to Lucius.

January 24th, Wessport

James Fell ate another grape and downed it with a big gulp of Madeira as he settled further back in his comfortable, leather-cushioned chair. The monarch sighed at his ever-growing headache as one of his advisors recited the list of matters that needed his attention.

"Furthermore," the rotund man continued, his voice a high-pitched one, sweat dribbling from his protruding forehead from having stood up for so long. "We have to choose our allies now more than ever." 

James reached for more wine, but the otherwise calming liquid tasted vile and bitter in his mouth. The weight on his shoulders had only grown heavier as the war with England had ended.

Lord Athar, Lord Braun, Lord Alistair, and a handful of other men were in the room as well. They had their own wine to sip. Some downed the alcohol to ease the stress they were under from having to help James rule the recovering country.

"I believe we do not need allies at the moment. The peace treaty with England still stands, I hope? And as for the mainland, let us not get too involved in those issues," said James as his jaw tensed. He wanted nothing to do with the continent. It was a war-torn place full of powerful, potential enemies that could lift a finger and have his island in a matter of months.

Athar cleared his voice as he put his own cup of Madeira down. "Your Majesty will forgive my bluntness, but look at what happened to the Italian peninsula. It is a divided territory with Spain claiming the south and France battling for the remaining lands in the north. We can no longer ignore that beyond our borders, to the east, there are some powerful nations that are now switching their gaze toward Angloa." A general silence fell over the room. The high council of His Majesty consisted mainly of older men who had known Angloa in her youth as she flourished under Philip, James’ uncle. They had never known another threat of invasion except the one from the English.

"The High See, I remind you, my lords, is adamant in quelling anything that would speak against the one true word of God and his Holiness," said another man. It was Cardinal Thorpe, the ordained Bishop of the Catholic Church in Angloa and appointed cardinal by Pope Leo the Tenth. The man wore the characteristic red robes of a cardinal and the red hat with a rather disgusted look on his face. Cardinal Thorpe did not seem too bothered about the political ramifications that Angloa was now facing as a winner over the English. Rather, he seemed much more disturbed over the emerging Protestantism raging over Europe.

"I am certain such nonsense will soon fade away as the masses realize that there is no deviation from the true faith," said Alistair.

Cardinal Thorpe took great offense at what had been said. "The blasphemer already has the attention of several kingdoms and if his ideas were to spread to Angloa we would see an even bigger downfall here. The whole of Europe is breaking apart now more than ever!" he exclaimed, standing up in fury as he huffed and puffed while looking around the room. No one dared question the cardinal, as that would be questioning the church itself.

"We all know about the church's issues, Thorpe. But what matters now is that Angloa must unify, now more than ever. We are weak, Europe knows this. We could not stand another invasion," came the burly voice of an old man. It was General Fawkes, the most decorated general in Angloa. His military rank greatly outranked Hawthorne’s as a Grand General and First Marshal of Angloa, protector of the land. Fawkes was old, his once dark hair and goatee now gray and dull. But his full head of hair, his neatly trimmed goatee, and beard, together with his fit form and charming smile still secured him a favored place amongst the ladies of court. Even though he was well over sixty, he had the stamina of a bull and great hunger for battle. Although he had never been as good at strategy or at battle as Tristan, he was still more experienced. His input during the war had been greatly appreciated by the younger general.

"What will Spain and France do when they are too occupied nagging at each other all the time?" said Alistair haughtily, causing some ill-hidden scoffs to emerge from the older lords.

"Spain, my dear boy," began Athar impatiently, "is now the most powerful country in Europe after King Charles received the crown of the Holy Roman Empire. He has the backing of Rome, and his kingdom does nothing but grow ever since it discovered the riches of the New World."

There was a slight pause before he continued as it was clear that all men in the room were now listening to what he was saying. "As for France, England, the Ottomans, Russia, Scandinavia — they all have one thing in common. They are a threat to us. Until now, Angloa has enjoyed seclusion — mainly because we were an insignificant English colony, an island populated by farmers who did nothing but obey the English crown. Ever since the independence, and now, with our defeat over the English, we have shown that we are a strong nation. We have caught the eye of the other sovereigns. If we do not act smartly in our diplomacies, we might very well see another war."

"That is why Angloa needs to come together now, more than ever," James said as he put down the cup and got up from his chair. "We are entering a new era! This is the time, whether you like it or not, where the lords of the land must step aside and let their king do what he was born to do."

Lord Braun got up, seemingly offended. "So, you ask the lords of this country to what? Give up our lands to you?" he sneered, his face twisting into a frown as others joined in.

James chuckled. "You all want me to unify Angloa once and for all into a strong, independent nation, do you not? Have I not heard you debate this many times? We need a common denominator. To do that, we must step into the sixteenth century, Lord Braun. How can I, as a king, govern my country when I have disagreeing lords left and right? If you want to ensure Angloa's well-being, you must hand the reins over to me."

Athar sighed, for he knew that what the king said was right, but he also knew it would take much for the other lords in Angloa to accept it. And how could they? He was certain that some would rebel against James. The last thing Angloa needed now was a civil war.

Another man stood up, he was frowning as deeply as Lord Braun, but where the other knew to keep silent, this man spoke truthfully. "By what right do you stand there and ask this of us — the ones that have kept Angloa on her feet by paying out of our own pockets? By what right do you demand that we give up our power to you?" asked Otto Savoie.

"By right of birth and thus, by right of God," James answered, challenging Savoie to further question him, to give him a reason to throw him in a dungeon and charge him with treason. Speaking out so brashly against the king could be considered as such. When no one spoke, James continued. "To stop this threat, we must get over our own differences and unite, now more than ever," he finished, sitting down. He eyed them. James had had his loyalists float the idea for some time, but looking at the faces before him he knew it would take great effort in bringing them all over to his fold and he was certain there were several of his lords that would not hesitate to challenge him.

“You may leave,” James muttered. There was a clear displeasure seething beneath the surface and James was certain that the subject of their discussion would soon float through the corridors of the palace.

Athar remained behind. "Perhaps it was too brash, Your Majesty, to make public such opinions so quickly?" Athar asked. He was worried as well. He understood why James wanted to unify the land and centralize the power, but it would be a hard and arduous task.

"I have already sent for the lords from the dukedoms and counties of the country to come here by the end of the month. I shall make them see reason Athar, for the alternative would be no more profitable for them. They cannot afford another war, they have nothing outside of Angloa, there is no reason for them to fight me when the future of their lands, riches, and titles are tied to me," James said.

Athar’s lips thinned. “What of dissent?”

James frowned. “I shall quell any such notion, Athar. Mark my words.”

The wrinkles in Athar's face only deepened as his worry grew. “Your father held such notions as well, the fear of dissent amongst his lords eventually became his downfall.”

"You know why I am doing this, Athar." James let his worry shine through for the first time that day, ignoring Athar’s last remark. "I must know who has been plotting against me all this time. This new petition of mine will certainly bring out the worst of the lot. I am positive that there are those amongst my lords that are in on the plot."

"That is why I urged Your Majesty one year ago to keep Charles Vega alive. He could have given us more information," Athar said solemnly, thinking back to his old friend.

"Charles Vega was dangerous, Athar. I had to execute him. I just hope that leaving his daughter and wife alive was not a mistake," came the solemn, and tired reply of the king who sank further down with a heavy sigh in his chair, staring at the half-empty crystal glass containing the wine.

"Have you called on Tristan Hawthorne to come here then as well?" Athar asked.

"Of course."

January 25th

Christine had not been in her family's townhouse for years. They arrived at the Wessport harbor early in the morning. The mist that gathered around the port had almost made it impossible for the ship to find its path and dock. Instead, Christine, Maria, Joseph, and Tristan had to descend into one of the smaller rowboats and row to shore with a sailor. To Christine’s surprise, Wessport was not as cold as Cadherra, but the waters were still cold enough to have a thin layer of ice on the surface. Every so often, the sailor had to stop and hack away at the black ice so they might reach the docks. Christine did not complain as they debarked, shivering in their coats as they waited for a carriage to arrive and take them to the inner circle of the city.

She felt a sense of urgency as the carriage moved through the quiet streets of the capital. It was still too early for the city to come to life. The lower circle stank of sewage that had frozen during the night. She looked out and saw the narrow houses with steam puffing out of the chimneys. Just like Adelton, the inhabitants of the city did all they could to keep warm by throwing wood on the fire.

They reached the inner circle of the city and, eventually, their destination. Christine’s heart swelled in her chest at the sight of her family's townhouse for the first time in eight years finding a strange familiar comfort in the façade, as if she had never left it.

On the outside, nothing had changed. It stood as a separate building in one of the many round squares that dotted the inner circle. Its structure was that of an extended rectangle with two towers on either side. Each tower had a pointed roof in dark blue tile. The main building had a raised roof in blue tile as well and it bore two sets of windows, shining some light into the attic of the house. The main building was taller than the towers that guarded the entrance. The small size of the windows revealed the advanced age of the house. Much of the light struggled to enter the building, rendering the inside in a constant state of dim murkiness, only remedied by placing out oil lamps when possible. However, the back of the house had been renovated after a severe fire fifty years earlier and, so, the windows there were taller and bigger, letting in more light to what was the main hall of the manse. The entrance was a tall, Roman arch with a grand mahogany door, reinforced with iron strips, running across it in an intricate design. Above the door rested the crest of the Vega family.

Some servants were there to usher them in as they entered through the covered courtyard. A big marble staircase led to the next level, a timid servant girl turned to Christine, diverting her eyes from Tristan as she spoke.

"Your chambers have already been prepared for you, my lords, my lady," she said while she curtsied. "Would you like to venture to them for rest or would you like some refreshments in the grand hall, or in the parlor perhaps?" she asked, keeping her eyes on the floor and her hands folded in front of her.

"Chambers," Tristan said in a curt manner. His tired and tense state was evident in his voice, and it reflected how all of them felt after such a long and tedious journey. The maid curtsied again and took them up the staircase and through a labyrinth of corridors and rooms. Christine recognized none of the rooms. Most if not all of them had been refurbished with new furniture since her last visit. Her mother must have sold most of the furniture to keep them fed and living in relative comfort. Christine was sad to see that the chairs, paintings, tapestries, and carpets she had gotten so used to were gone now. It only made the house more alien to her.

Joseph was shown to his rooms on the east end of the second floor. Maria was taken care of by another passing servant, who was to show her the servants’ quarters on the first floor next to the kitchen. Christine, Tristan, and the chambermaid continued ascending another elegant staircase in uncomfortable silence. The maid stopped abruptly in front of an elegant oak door and turned around, announcing another chamber. Christine was so caught up in her thoughts and plans of how to present her request to the king that she bumped into Tristan. All she could hear was a restrained sigh as he stifled what she believed to be an unsavory remark.

"Here are your lordship's and ladyship's chamber," said the maid as she unlocked the door. She quickly walked into the room and opened the drapes to let in some light of the rising sun. She lit a few of the candles in the silver candleholders.

The room was smaller than Christine remembered. Its windows were horizontal rectangles with thick glass that let little light in. To one side there was a vast four-post bed with a roof and curtains in various colors of greens, swirling in a damask pattern. They could be drawn around the bed, offering more protection from the cold and from prying eyes. At the foot of the bed, there lay an intricately carved chest containing the linens. Her father's desk and her mother's old dressing table were still there, kept intact as time had drifted by. There were two other doors in the room. Christine already knew where they led to — one was the door to the small dresser and the other, right next to the bed, led to her father's old study.

The chambermaid turned around, expecting them to enter and settle in for the morning. Tristan stepped forward first, looking around curiously at the elegant room. It had been furnished in the Italian style. Christine was the first to realize that the servants of the house thought them both married.

"This will not do." Tristan’s voice was low and grave. The maid squirmed in place as she heard the irritation behind the words. He turned around, slowly, placing all of his attention on the poor girl.

"She needs her own chamber." 

Christine stifled a scoff, he would not even deem to address her?

"My lord?" squeaked the young maid as she fiddled with her hands.

"What his lordship is trying to say," Christine began softly. Her calm voice served as a stark contrast to Tristan’s earlier subdued growling. It sounded like the voice of reason to the maid's ears and she immediately placed all her attention on the young woman, while still feeling Tristan's eyes drill holes into her, "… is that we…  it would be improper for us to share a room, much more so a bed.” Christine blushed faintly and pointed toward the vast bed that was clearly meant for them both.

The chambermaid frowned in confusion. “Improper? I do not understand, my lady—”

“We have yet to…enter holy matrimony,” Christine cut her off.

"Oh, we were informed… I—I deeply apologize," squealed the maid as she turned redder than Christine.

Tristan muttered something unintelligible under his breath.

“You may show me to other suitable quarters. If I am not mistaken, my old chambers should be right down the hall,” Christine said as she ushered the maid out, keen on getting as far away from Tristan and the unfortunate situation as possible.

It was nighttime before Tristan, Joseph, and Christine reunited in the dining hall. Tristan and Joseph sat each at one end of a long table while Christine seated the middle, facing the door. The table was too big for three people, rendering the situation even more stale as they ate in silence. Every time Joseph tried to start a conversation with Christine, she disregarded him — her anger at his past dismissal and her hurt pride still very much present. However, Christine had come to understand his meaning and would, in due time, accept the countless apologies he had tried to offer during their journey. Tristan was, as usual, not a great conversationalist. He remained seated in tense and pensive thoughts with his gaze fixed on a spot on the paneled wall on the other side of the room, his thoughts remaining behind in Adelton with Moore and Saxton.

He glanced at Christine as she cut her veal into tiny pieces, overly focused on the task, avoiding both men next to her. The dullness of her brown wool gown coupled well with the evening. The searing twinge of betrayal stung at him as he was reminded of the last time she had deemed to speak to him, how she had tried to manipulate him into granting her a favor. He wondered if her kind inclination building up to the exchange in his chambers had been earnest or if they had only served to loosen his guard around her. Had her disposition toward him during the Yule dinner been genuine or had that been forced too? He thought back to the dance—the proximity, the intimacy of the action in such an open way. He did not want to believe their exchange had been dishonest. His heart still tightened when he thought of it. Alas, the uncertainty regarding her disposition toward him and how much it worried him was what really irked Tristan — how it lay under the surface, reminding him of the fragility of their relationship.

As he looked at her, he wanted nothing more than place her out of his mind, but he knew such actions would be futile—Christine Vega would always find a way back to him, or he to her.

One thing was made certain to Tristan, however—he should have declined James’ insistence to accept Cadherra, and he should have refused the engagement from the first day, then they would not be in this unfortunate situation. Tristan had, despite himself, placed Christine and her reputation at an impasse, he could not leave Cadherra now and leave her alone even if that might render her securely away from him and whoever was out after him. Her reputation in polite society would never recover and, while she might have Adelton and all its comforts, she would be shunned by her peers for the rest of her life. Coupled with the treason of her father, Christine and her mother would have nothing and no one. Should he marry her, however, he would place her in the path of whoever was plotting in Wessport. Saxton’s words of warning still rang in his mind. He would have to answer for their non-existent matrimony to James and his court soon, however, and he would need a good reason for it for their union had been expected upon arrival at the capital which meant that it was expected at court as well.

A long sigh escaped him, and both his table companions grew startled.

"Sir?" asked Joseph slowly.

Tristan rested against the back of his chair and took a good and long look at Christine who ignored his gaze. He snickered inwardly.

"Joseph, come with me. I have a favor to ask of you," Tristan finally said, his voice boomed through the room and the abruptness of it startled some of the attending servants. Christine cut away at the veal in willful ignorance as they left her.

The building was not as light and elegant as Adelton. It was heavy, the weight of generations and history clung to the stone walls, and the smell of time and oblivion wafted through the rooms. Its stone floors had all been reinforced with carved mahogany boards lining the passageways. However, even the darkened wood did little in lifting or softening the medieval layout. Tristan and Joseph were transported back to a simpler time as they graced the many corridors. In the distance, they could almost imagine the chant of a church choir. The eerie whispers of Gregorian chants sang a melancholy tune of old, as they delved deeper into the building, deeper into the past and its turbulent history.

Tristan had brought Joseph to the most secluded area in the whole manse — its foundations, its cellar. It stood on a foundation that had its roots in the Roman Empire. The light of his oil lamp lit up the vast room and the low roof pressed down on them. In some corners, once elegant Roman pillars could be seen, now dirty and in rubbles, as forgotten as the empire that had made them. However, the last few decades had seen a reemergence of the ancient civilizations and such relics of the past could bring Tristan a pretty penny. Tristan stared at the lifeless marble, knowing that this was where it belonged, in its original place. In one corner, ceramics, mosaics, and even pieces of marble statues had been excavated and left there to gather dust. Joseph neared one piece of marble, almost whole except for a missing hand, its features and torso dulled through time. It was muscular, bent to the side as if casting something. He flushed as he saw that the piece of art was naked and yet he marveled at the very lifelike body before him.

"There is something of great importance that I must ask of you," Tristan said, turning around, and facing a curious Joseph who kept going through the ancient artifacts. He put them down and stepped further into the light, meeting Tristan solemnly.

"If it is within my skillset, sir, I shall do it."

"I want you to follow someone around without him noticing you," Tristan commenced. "I only know his name, which is little information to start with. I want to know everything: where he goes, where he's coming from, whom he speaks with, who approaches him, everything."

Joseph gave a stiff nod, the solemn frown on his face revealing that — despite his lacking knowledge of the situation, he was prepared to do anything for his old general and do so with no questions asked. But he could not ignore that he was curious. Indeed, it must be a grave matter if Tristan had brought him to such a secluded space, away from prying eyes and curious ears.

As Tristan and Joseph emerged from the depths of the cellar, a footman approached them.

"My lord," the footman said with a stiff bow, "this just arrived for you." He handed Tristan a letter. The crisp, white paper was neatly folded and sealed with the royal seal. Joseph noticed how Tristan’s jaw clenched under the mask as he hastily took the letter, leaving for his quarters and disregarding both Joseph and the footman. Tristan had barely entered his chamber when he broke the seal and ripped the paper open. The message was a summons from his king in two days' time, lacking any other information of note. It did not mention the reason for his summons nor who else would be there. Frustrated, Tristan threw the paper aside.

He had two days to plan for this meeting, two days to get ready for whatever might be thrown his way.

January 26th

Rays of sunshine brushed over her closed eyelids. Christine could hear the lively city outside of her room as she slowly awoke in her childhood chamber, something that had also changed since her last visit. It was more modestly furnished than before. It only housed a large bed, two small closets in oak, a dressing table, and a coffer for the linens.

Carts and horses could be heard outside of her window as it faced one of the main streets of the upper circle. She stepped out of her bed and her skin prickled at the chill in the room. The covers had provided her with warmth and protection during the night and her modest chemise did little in shielding her from the cold. Her feet found the slippers in the dull light, and she reached for the tall, thick windows, pulling the heavy maroon drapes aside fully, letting all the light brighten up her room.

From where she stood, she perceived the snowy street and rooftops below. The cathedral bells sounded in the distance as fine carriages and merchant coaches pulsed through the snowy streets. This was the upper circle, there were restrictions on how many merchant stalls were permitted, which made the streets less cluttered. Yet, she could see the middle and lower circle in the distance, puffy clouds of white rising from the thin chimneys and climbing toward an endless blue sky. The winter morning was crisp, but not as cold as in Cadherra. The fresh scent of bread wafted through the air. She wondered if it came from one of the bakers of the upper or middle circle, or if it was the mansion's own ovens at work this cold January morning.

Last time Christine had been in Wessport she had only been allowed to live in one of their homes in the middle circle. This manse was a clear step up from the townhouse they had been inhabiting previously, which the king had declared fit for living. Christine had declared it a prison, falling apart and ridden with rats. The piece of land James had allowed them to keep in Cadherra was barely worth anything and so she, her mother, and Maria had scraped by as best as they could then.

A knock sounded on the door and before Christine went to open it, Maria stepped inside with another woman whom Christine recognized as the new housekeeper of the mansion. This new housekeeper was nothing like Mrs. Hammondnot as endearing or sweet. This was a tall, thin, and quiet woman who looked as if she had her head up in the clouds. Her brown hair was tied loosely at the nape of her neck, a braid placed across the crown of her head like a diadem. She wore a dark blue gown, revealing little of her personality—as if it had been handed down to her and altered a few times to fit.

"My lady, Mrs. Rochester and I are here to help you select gowns for the coming social season," said Maria timidly as she stared at the woman by her side. Christine furrowed her brows. She had no intention of attending any social gatherings after the year she had endured nor the reception she had received last time at court.

"That will not be necessary," Christine said while nearing her closet. She opened it and looked through her small ensemble of clothes. "What I have here will suffice," she showed, closing it again.

"If I might my lady," came the calming voice of Mrs. Rochester, "several invitations to different events have already arrived. Being the bride…well the fiancée of a count has its duties," Mrs. Rochester said firmly, making Christine's jaw clench tightly.

“No elaborate gown in the world will facilitate my return to court,” Christine answered curtly. “There is no need to waste any money on this nonsense.”

Mrs. Rochester, however, would not bend. “You should know, my lady, that in Wessport, the cut and quality of the fabric speaks just as much as the silver tongues.”

“What else is there to do here, my lady?” Maria agreed. “Surely, we have not journeyed all this way just to remain in the manse?”

Christine sighed as she pinched her eyes shut, facing an uncomfortable reality. She would have to attend some event at least where James was present. Surely, he would never openly grant an audience with her. What she would ask of him was better done over a cup of wine rather than in the Blue Hall of Wessport Palace. Attending such social events would mean that Christine would once again have to place herself under the scrutinizing eye of the public. She knew she would face humiliation, that she and Tristan had yet to wed would only serve to strengthen as another conversation starter, not to mention the rumors that would stem from it.

"What seamstress would even think to come to this household, in fear of her reputation?" asked Christine, turning her back to them to watch the horses, carriages, and people drifting by outside of her room. Mrs. Rochester walked to her closet and opened it once more, inspecting the gowns within.

"I am glad you asked," she said, very chipper. She wrinkled her nose at most of the items.

"No, no, this will not do at all! Most of this is out of season, or awfully plain, my dear," Mrs. Rochester continued as she inspected the gowns. The only one she seemed to approve of was a mint gown lined in light brown fur.

"Indeed, no Angloan seamstress would venture here, but I think Signora Coticelli would be more than helpful in getting you a new ensemble for the season," said Mrs. Rochester as she kept going through the gowns.

"An Italian seamstress?" asked Christine surprised.

"But of course! La Moda Italiana is all the rage. They all copy the fashions of Venice, Florence, and Sienna here."

"And why would Mrs. Coticelli come here?" asked Christine.

"Well, she has not made a name for herself yet."

"Then how come you know of her."

"She is my close friend.”

Now Christine understood why the new housekeeper had sought her out. This was most likely to pave the way for the Italian… and the desperate fiancée with a condemned family name would have no other choice.

“You know already, my lady, that few renowned seamstresses might take any of your requests. You are already late in requesting gowns be made for you for this season."

Christine stepped back from the window and the light, backing deeper into her room. She would do whatever it took, she had promised as much to herself.

"I have no other choice," came Christine's determined voice. “Bring her to me.”

While Joseph was nowhere to be seen, Tristan himself had taken to search the middle and lower circle of the city for Sofia. He had donned a disguise, placing bandages around his arms and face, implying that severe, fresh burns, hid under the white linens.

Tristan stalked the streets dressed in torn clothes and with his hood up. He bent over to appear shorter, not that anyone paid heed to him.

Shedding the identity of Tristan Hawthorne bestowed a strange sense of freedom on him. He had not felt this way for many years… probably not since Constantinople when no one had batted an eye at his peculiar way of dressing. It was, after all, a city where the West met East, and its inhabitants were more than used to peculiarities. He remembered the big buildings with splendid dome-shaped roofs, the stalls, markets, exotic scents, and the music. Enchanting women walked its streets, looking at glinting jewelry, elaborate fabrics, and colorful spices that the merchants fervently tried to sell. He remembered how Sofia had bargained their way through the enigmatic and pulsating city. It had charm; it had character, contrasting greatly with Wessport.

Gracing the streets of the Angloan capital, he could not help but find it rustic. It was like any other English or north European city, he supposed. It was old, with certain areas of it in need of updating, and many streets in need of repair. The sewage system was almost nonexistent. The many wonders that the Romans had left behind such as plumbing had all but fallen into oblivion. Even if they were slowly rediscovering the wonders of ancient Rome and Greece, people leaned on what they knew, the way of life they were used to. Tristan ducked as a woman above warned and threw a bucket of a mysterious, brown liquid he rather not inspect closer. As he descended into the lower ring, he got to see the poverty of not just the city, but of Angloa.

Tristan had barely been to Hayes — the village nestled to the end of the massive cliff atop which Adelton lay — but he could only imagine that its outskirts were similar to those of Wessport. Even though the last decades had seen a rebirth, a renaissance, as the French so eloquently put it, the lives of the bourgeoisie and lower classes stayed the same. Nothing had changed for them. It was something he would indeed take up with James. For how was anything to be achieved when the people of Angloa all lived like the simplest of peasants?

His feet knew where to take him, guiding him mindlessly to the front door of Sofia's old house. It looked dark, and the door was heavily bolted shut. He peered in through the window and found what he had expected all this time, nothing. There was no sign of her. The empty hole she had left in his heart started growing again. He would never reveal to her how much he truly cared for her. Instead, he stalked home, up to the middle circle. There, in an alleyway, he changed out of his torn rags and bandages back into a doublet, a leather jerkin, a fine wool cape, his mask, and gloves. He passed into the upper circle unnoticed — the tired guards did not even bother to check the identity of the hooded man. Tristan snickered at the poor security within the walls. If he had a say about it, the Captain of the Guard would hear a thing or two from him.

It was afternoon when he arrived at his estate. When in the courtyard, Tristan noticed a rather peculiar horse tied to the long pole that was used for the visitant's horses. The mare held her head high although she was well into her winter years. Her caramel coat was dull and ridden with white hairs, taking further from its luster. Her white mane was a mess and pointing in all directions. The saddle, if you could even call that torn thing a saddle, looked like it was at least half a century old and of military grade. He walked in, shedding his cape and handing it to the first footman he saw. 

"Who is visiting?" Tristan asked without pause. He knew well of his own reputation within the walled city. Tristan had made a name for himself during the war which would warrant that he should receive visitors… but he understood that few were those who would call without an introduction. He thought back to the horse — he knew of none that housed such wretches in their stables.

"Signora Antonia Coticelli, my lord," said the footman, his mouth in a thin line. He seemed tired, and distressed, Tristan pinpointed the guest as the source of the fatigue.

"Who?" started Tristan, confused.

"Tis' best if you saw for yourself, my lord," answered the footman dryly, walking toward the corridor on the upper floor that held the parlor, showing the way. As Tristan reached the corridor, he could see several maids standing gathered by the door leading to the vast room, some peering in. Tristan neared, and they quickly stepped aside, giving him a deep curtsy. His gaze rested on them for an instant, almost in reprimand of having spied upon the people within the parlor. The maids grew timid, dispersing like a flock of birds.

Suddenly, Tristan was met by a squeal of delight, the pitch high enough to make him flinch in surprise. He looked at the ajar door. He knew he shouldn't, but he inched closer, as stealthily as he could, and casually peered inside.

"Si, si, this will be perfect, this will be amazing! I will create a masterpiece!" came the brash voice of a determined woman. She stood in the middle of the room, looking at someone in the room Tristan could not see.

The parlor was very grand and had been completely refurbished and brought into the sixteenth century. Its floors were carpeted in rich Persian rugs. One of the walls was lined with Venetian mirrors and it had a sitting space, a space for musical instruments, and even a small stage, where minor concerts could be held. Colors of deep red, gold, deep maroons, and dusty beige coursed through the room, muting the other colors that were present in the tapestries and portraits that lined the walls. The centerpiece of the room, however, was an ensemble of royal portraits that the Vega family had collected for the past 50 years.

"I should think you the envy of every ball, signorina!" Antonia said dramatically. She was a petite woman with bright red hair, bearing streaks of silver. She wore an elaborate gown that screamed of bad taste. The bright green sleeves had a vast number of slits in them, puffed to the maximum, making her arms balloon out. The skirt was more like different strips of different kinds of fabrics that had been sewn together, also ballooning out, making the short woman look larger than she was.

Christine watched wide-eyed, wondering what she had gotten herself into. Mrs. Rochester was nowhere to be seen and Christine had not the heart to send the passionate Italian away. “Mrs. Coticelli, I think there has been a mistake regarding the kind of attire I wished to—” Christine cut herself short, trying to find the right words. “I do not wish for extravagance… anything simple will suit me—”

Antonia dug her eyes into Christine, promptly causing the young woman to shut her mouth. “Signora Coticelli,” Antonia insisted. She closed in on Christine, eyeing her up and down, her eyes scanning every visible inch of the exposed body. Had it been anyone else, Christine would have felt uncomfortable, but something told her that Antonia was taking mental measurements. “Sometimes, we do not know what we want,” Antonia finally said, her eyes once more coming up to meet Christine’s. There was a strange gentleness to Antonia’s voice, as if she were a mother explaining the simplest thing to her child.

“There is no need to draw so much attention to myself,” Christine stated firmly.

Antonia mindlessly waved Christine’s statement away, an air of arrogance befalling her. "I once worked for the Medici, cara. I know what works, I know my art!"

When Christine did not speak against her, Antonia once again settled on her task, walking out of Tristan's view. She reached for Christine who stood in the middle of the parlor, out of view.

"Signorina," Coticelli said, gathering her wits, and looking straight into Christine's deep eyes with compassion. "I do not know the reason for your hesitation… any young woman should want to stand out when attending court events," she spoke, her Italian accent making her sentence jump all over the place, her deep, brash voice clawing the words.

Christine looked down. “I…” Her voice waivered, and the rest of her sentence was interrupted as Tristan finally stepped in to see what all the commotion was about.

He pushed past the door and entered the room. For the first time, he saw Christine in nothing but her stays and chemise. The setting sunlight pushed into the room and shined through the thin cotton fabric, allowing Tristan an outline of her figure. Christine was taken by surprise, swiftly reaching for the dressing robe on the floor, and covering herself with it. Tristan snapped back to his senses when he realized he had been staring, quickly shifting his attention to the Italian.

"What is the meaning of this commotion?" he asked gravely, making Christine swallow loudly and the few maids in the room slowly back away, returning to their duties before he dealt with them as well. The only one who didn't seem to mind Tristan was Antonia. Instead, she eyed him and began to close in on him.

"Hmm," she began, unaffected by his irritated gaze. She paced around him, looking him up and down, taking mental notes of him until Tristan himself became more agitated and unnerved.

"Who is this woman?" he demanded in brash words to Christine. She hugged the burgundy dressing gown tightly around her, growing redder by the minute.

"Signora Antonia Coticelli," Christine answered, timidly at first, trying to regain her own composure. "She is… a seamstress."

As Tristan and Christine exchanged words, Antonia neared him and began measuring him without his permission. She snickered when he stepped back, surprised at her forwardness.

"What in the world?" he exclaimed surprised, and Christine put a hand over her mouth, growing redder, but now from the laugh she was trying to suppress.

"Surely, signore, being the lord of this household, you would not wish to walk around in such… eh… shall I say robust attire?" Antonia snickered at him, yet Tristan noticed how her eyes avoided his own.

He did not dignify her with an answer. Instead, Tristan glared back at Christine. "Who gave you permission to call on her?" His voice darkened. Christine removed her hand from her mouth and a frown replaced her smile. She took a few hesitant steps as she approached him, slightly reluctant at first, but gaining confidence as she came closer.

"Maria, please escort Signora Coticelli to her horse. I think she has what she needs. Have her return in a week's time to show the progress she has made, and for a fitting," Christine said. Maria complied without a word, dragging Antonia out of the room, the older woman protesting loudly.

"I gave myself permission, I called on her." Christine was firm in her resolve. Alas, Tristan found it hard to take her seriously, so underdressed before him.

"You are to stay in this house until we leave Wessport. Henceforth, you are to receive no one. You are prohibited from attending any ball or feast and if you disobey me, I shall send you on the first ship back home."

"No," she argued back with her hands in fists and her jaw tense, the timidness from before had all but subsided. "I am not yet your wife; thus, you cannot tell me what to do. And even if I were, you cannot command me about as if I were one of your soldiers."

He inched closer, angered by her outburst. "You will stay here if you know what is good for you."

"Oh, I know very well what is good for me, my lord!" she retorted, her voice rising in unison with his. "What is the reason for detaining me in such a way? Am I your prisoner? Have I committed any sin that obliges you to lock me inside this dreary house?" she questioned forcefully, breathing deeply and regaining footing as Tristan shook his head in frustration.

Tristan, out of fear or pride, would not confess that he wanted her in the house because he knew they were being watched by someone in Wessport. Someone powerful was breathing down his neck, and he already felt guilty for having brought Christine this far along. He confessed to himself he did not yet know if he could trust her, nor did he wish to cause Christine concern regarding her own safety.

Christine hugged the dressing gown even tighter about her as Tristan remained silent. She looked at the mask, realizing—for the first time—how much it truly irritated her. Everything about him, from his appearance to his motives, was always so tightly guarded. She could not even read the expression on his face, something that might have further humanized him in her eyes. Yet the irritation and slight fatigue in his voice had already opened a crack.

The cathedral bells sounded while the last rays of the sun left the room, which was now only illuminated by a few candles. The light was dull, the shadows encasing Tristan in his dark garb while the light shone brighter over Christine. In the music of the bells, they stood in a moment of strange serenity. The rest of the maids had left, Antonia’s loud complaints were a world away. Tristan and Christine had been left to themselves, for the first time since their return to Wessport.

"I know why you wish to attend these events." Tristan's dark voice shattered the peaceful silence between them. Christine wondered if he still despised her because she had tried to use him to get to Wessport.

"I… I owe it to my father. I will do whatever is necessary," Christine said with a strong resolve, her voice ridden with guilt. Tristan felt hopeless for the first time as he looked at her. Something within him foretold that Christine's determinedness would cause severe consequences in the future.

"Nothing good has come of your meetings with James. It will not change now," he said, turning around and leaving her alone in the room, alone with the echo of his words. It was only when he had left the room that she understood that he was referring to himself.