Secrets of the Court: Chapter 11

 January 27th

"Sire, this is outrageous! How can we do such a thing?" Lord Geoffrey Quinn exclaimed. Eighty-seven dukes, counts, and viscounts all sat in the main assembly hall where the king held meetings of state. It was a round-shaped room, deep within the secure walls of the Wessport palace. Paintings of previous monarchs peered down on the men — severe and judging eyes from the past looked on as the living were tasked with safely carrying Angloa into the future. Between the paintings, there hung coats-of-arms of the royal family and the flag of Angloa. Tall windows placed up high in the room let the light cascade over the weary men. James sat facing them on a finely crafted chair of wood and iron, clothed in a fine purple doublet and jerkin and his breeches a dusty beige.

Some lords stood or sat, depending on their rank. The dukes had the privilege to sit at the front on elaborate wooden chairs, carved by the most skillful masters of Angloa. The counts were next in line, standing behind the dukes, and lastly, came the viscounts. Tristan stood among them, dressed in his usual dark, informal soldier’s garb, looking more like an officer than a nobleman. He could feel the scornful eyes of the viscounts behind him as their eyes dug deep holes into his neck and back. The representative of the church, Cardinal Thorpe, was absent as he had sailed on the first ship to Rome, to the Holy See. The reason for his sudden trip was not made public to them, should anyone have cared.

Tristan recognized some familiar faces, like General Anthony Fawkes, Duke of Castell, and Field Marshal. Fawkes sat next to Thomas Athar, Duke of Cantabria and the king's right-hand man, who in turn was sitting closest to James. Tristan kept an extra eye on him, for he was the one that Saxton had spoken of.

"It is a demand from your king, an oath I ask of all of you to swear," said James firmly, staring out over the daunting crowd of men. Most of them understood the severity of his request — many were unwilling to obey. James was asking them to sign a document where they gave up their most important thing—their power and thus their independence. Giving up the right to command their personal armies, which James was now wanting to take away, and overturn their soldiers to the crown, would be giving James unlimited power and thus disturb the balance of who truly governed Angloa. Yet, James had demanded such a thing at the right time. Under the guise of wishing unison after the war with the English, and under the pretense of having a stronger army on the ready should a foreign invasion ever occur again, it made sense to demand such a thing. Alas, James had never declared if the noblemen of Angloa would ever get their armies back, or if their autonomy over their own forces would ever come to be again.

"Then what next? Shall you have us pay more taxes as well? That we are already taxed is outrageous!" argued Lord Braun, Duke of Laënne. Behind him stood Lord Alistair and other men in his fold who agreed. Amongst them was Otto Savoie, a Burgundian who owned land in Angloa through marriage.

"This is not how we do in France," Savoie exclaimed, deeply insulted by James’ suggestion.

"We are not in France, Savoie" came the burly voice of General Fawkes.

"It will indeed be a sign of loyalty if you put your names on this document…willingly," said James as he held up the parchment. On the outside, it was an insignificant piece of cured animal skin with some words. But those words were loaded with considerable meaning. 

"Who will be first?" asked James as he looked about the room. All lords redirected their gazes and the first to stand up was Athar, who took quill and ink, sealing the written word with his signature. Next came Fawkes, signing as well. Some more viscounts and counts stepped up to sign their fates, knowing they would have to do so sooner or later, lest they have a rebellion on their hands. But only a handful showed loyalty — they were men that were close to the king, they were in his circle.

To most of the noblemen’s surprise, Tristan Hawthorne stepped forward and signed, agreeing to hand over his small personal army and his soldiers. James couldn’t hide the small smile of satisfaction. James now knew even more in whom to confide and in whom to be warry against. When no one else stepped forward, James took the parchment in his hand as the ink dried. A power struggle with anonymous participants had already taken root in Angloa. To avoid an internal struggle for power after a weakening war with England, the monarch had to act quickly. Thirty-five men had signed. James sighed loudly.

"It is a personal offense that not more of you have abided by my request. I consider those who have willingly turned over their armies as loyal and honorable men," James started, incriminating the dukes who had not stepped up. "I consider it also an act so close to treason that I might well have to imprison those who have yet to sign… for what reason would any of you have to retain the armies you put together for the war with the English unless for an ulterior motive? Indeed, I might have to take these armies by force."

Suddenly, a wave of men approached their king, all thoughts of personal honor gone as they were more fearful of their riches and lands than their armies and possible freedom tied to them.

The only ones who remained steadfast in their refusal to oblige their king were seven men. Lord Alistair, Savoie, and Braun were amongst them.

"I take it that you rebel against me then?" asked the king, leaning forward in his chair. Braun stood up as if representing the group of seven.

"No, Your Majesty, but we need time to think this through. Between us, we hold some of the largest ensemble of soldiers in Angloa. These are powerful armies…” Braun paused to carefully consider his choice of words. “Balance, Your Majesty, benefits us all.”

James settled back, a frown taking root between his eyebrows. “Angloa needs peace of mind, Braun. The threat of conflict needs to be exterminated, be it foreign or domestic.”

Braun nodded, as if in agreement. “Angloa does indeed need peace. Yet, you have more than enough soldiers, Your Majesty. You do not need ours as well.”

James clenched his jaw, a sign of impatience that was rare of him. “You fear I would act like some of my predecessors, perhaps?” The question was not meant to be answered, lest Braun wished to insult James.

“If this is your utmost wish and intent that Angloa enters a new era of peace, show us your resolve and wisdom. Let us convey over this matter, return in a fortnight, and renegotiate what we would be willing to sign.”

“Renegotiate?” James asked, unable to hide his irritation and disgust at the thought.

“Aye, for we shall then be able to give you what you seek, for Angloa…" Braun answered. Tristan raised an eyebrow behind the mask, impressed at the diplomatic prowess of the man before him. He had never seen someone so effortlessly slide out of such an agreement before. There was, of course, nothing James could do but agree unless he wished to come off as disagreeable to the rest of the assembly.

Tristan took great care in remembering the faces and names of the seven men before him. Either these men could prove to be great allies or great enemies, Tristan supposed.

"A fortnight, nothing more, Lord Braun," said James through gritted teeth.

The assembly thus dispersed; a shift noticeable in the air of the stuffy room. The well-established ways of old were slowly being done away with, little by little. A new world order was slowly emerging where the old power of the noblemen was being shifted over to more assertive monarchs. Indeed, James was proving to be a stronger and more stubborn monarch than anticipated.

As Tristan headed for the east courtyard — where he had left his horse to a young and scrawny page, he was approached by a few men, some of whom he already knew. Yet they all approached him in varying ways. Fawkes, on one hand, had a bright smile and his eyes glittered as he greatly rejoiced in once again crossing paths with Tristan.

"Ah, Lord Hawthorne!" Fawkes exclaimed merrily as he neared Tristan, uttering the title with a sense of pride and giving him a hard clap on the back. Fawkes still dressed as if they were at war, the vain and prideful side of him no doubt wishing to remind the women of the court that he was still Field Marshal and Lord Protector of the Realm. Fawkes wore his black breastplate and decorated, tailored doublet underneath it. Tristan supposed the plate had to be uncomfortable to wear for such great lengths of time, though he himself was used to it.

"You did me proud by following His Majesty’s orders!" Fawkes grinned at Tristan.

"I would never have gone against the king's request, my lord," answered Tristan. Lord Athar neared them now as well. His approach was more of a cautious nature. He was not as well acquainted with Tristan as Fawkes, having only seen the famed general a handful of times and never directly interacted with him. Yet, for Athar, the worry was replaced by curiosity over Tristan Hawthorne. For the first time since arriving at court, Athar was allowed a good look at Tristan — the one of whom so much had been spoken the last few months since the end of the war. Athar surmised that any man who inspired such fierce devotion and pride in the ranks, his officers, and fellow commanders, had to be good in nature — whatever his appearance. Athar could not guess Tristan’s age due to the obscurity of the mask, yet he detected a certain youthfulness about him, in the way he acted. Yet, as Tristan would speak—which was not often, his wording was brief and to the point, qualities adhering more to someone who had walked a few years on this earth. It rendered Athar in doubt as to the true age of the man before him. Tristan, he supposed, could be anything between twenty and fifty!

"A true nobleman would never do such a thing," said Athar as he neared, followed by a handful of other men. Tristan faced him, giving a small stiff bow, inclining his head as if acknowledging Athar’s presence yet not providing him with the deeper and more expected bend at the waist. Next to James, Athar was probably one of the most influential and powerful men of Angloa. Tristan showed the respect that Athar was due, yet his manners spoke of some reluctance. Athar hid his surprise at Tristan’s recognition of rank at court, yet he also wondered at the undertone of reluctance.

"Blood never determined a man's true nobility," Athar continued, offering a friendly smile. Surely, Tristan had to be feeling the pressure of anyone who had managed to rise from mediocracy and claim a title and place at court, rubbing shoulders with some of the oldest and noblest families of Angloa.

Yet most of their families had been much less than Tristan, centuries ago. They had been merchant families or simple farmers, rebelling against the English and thus acquiring titles and lands from grateful kings. But such were the things of the past.

"It's the action that determines the man. And you, my lord, have shown us all that you are a man of true honor," said another man, standing next to Athar. It was a younger lord, a Viscount from the county next to New London. He was shorter than most in the group, with hair as black as night and eyes as green as a forest rooftop. He bore a goatee, a fashion that had started trending amongst the older gentry in Europe. He was dressed in elaborate tunics of velvets and cotton, bearing colors of deep green and dusty yellow.

"You honor me, my lord," Tristan answered, politely yet abstaining from the flowery elevations which were so common to the court of Wessport.

"Ah, yes, we forget that you are not yet acquainted with most of us. Allow me," Fawkes cut in as he gestured toward the men. "You would do well in getting acquainted with these men, Hawthorne. They are of good stock and breed!” Fawkes joked. “I am sure you already know Lord Duke Thomas Perceval Athar."

Athar snickered at the frivolous introduction. "Athar will suffice, Lord Hawthorne."

Fawkes gave off a subdued chuckle. "This lad here, is Jonathan Linahan, third Viscount of Garette. Tis a small county close to New London." It was the dark-haired man with the green eyes that had spoken before. "And these here are Walter Durun, Viscount of Durun, and Simon Rajac, Count of Labridia," General Fawkes said. Tristan did what he could to remember the names and the faces of these men — men who had been quick to sign the document in the assembly. He surmised, then, that just like Fawkes, these were men loyal to James and Athar. He wondered if their loyalty lay more with one man or the other. James, after all, commanded the court mostly through Athar, who kept the noblemen in line.

"For God's sake, Fawkes, do not introduce more men to Lord Hawthorne for surely he will not remember all of us, and he shall think us offended when he forgets our names and titles!" exclaimed Linahan with a wide, boyish grin on his face. It made Fawkes' earlier chuckles turn into burly and contagious laughter.

"I shall not forget, my lords," said Tristan. His eyes jumped from one lord to the next, still guarded against them. He had been made aware of how fickle the courtiers of Wessport could be. Even if he was acquainted with Fawkes, Tristan could take no chances.

They sensed his hesitance toward them, the guarded state of a man who had yet to trust his new acquaintances. They supposed it made sense for Tristan to be careful, to get a sense of this new terrain in which he found himself. After all, he was a strategist and had won the war for them.

"Lord Hawthorne, you should be prepared for more of these assemblies now. I suspect that His Majesty has taken a liking to you. I would not be surprised if you are included in the war council, headed by General Fawkes.”

“The war is over,” Tristan answered politely, yet reminding them what had just been spoken of in the assembly. Now came a time for peace and they had all signed over their armies to the crown.

“Ah, but you should know we must always be on the ready, if a foreign threat should ever present itself,” Fawkes argued.

Athar nodded. “I sense that we shall all be reunited more frequently now to deal with matters of threats to the state. Something must be done about the situation in Europe, we cannot ignore it," Athar said but it was as if he was speaking to deaf ears. Only Tristan and Jonathan seemed interested.

"Do not start with politics again, my lord!" exclaimed Rajac in a frantic manner. "Reserve such talk for when we are required to do it. Now let us speak of other matters. Lord Hawthorne, are you attending Count Savoie's ball next month? It would be a great opportunity for your wife to properly reenter society."

Tristan stood silent, his lips pressing into a firm line and his jaw tensing under the mask, showing a clear distaste for the change in topic. The air about him had gone from slightly tense to fully guarded now, as if he was once more on the battlefield. It unnerved some of the lords for although they had found him to be short-spoken and crude at first, now they found his presence uncomfortable. Simon Rajac wondered if he had spoken out of term. He frowned slightly while lowering his gaze away from the man in black. Fawkes placed a friendly hand on Tristan's shoulder, as he had known him longest in the group.

"There is no pressure for you to attend this ball, Lord Hawthorne. Personally, it would be understandable if you declined," he said sympathetically, referring to Christine. Fawkes understood well how hard it might be for her to attend such a public and social event. Yet, that was not what had irked Tristan the most. How would it look once it got out that he and Christine had not yet married, despite being ordered to do so by James? And how would it look still should Tristan decline to go through with it? He knew indeed how it would look. It would make Christine perceived even worse in the eyes of society and she would be scorned even more than before for now she was not only the daughter of a traitor, Christine had also been living with Tristan for months, and nothing had come of it.

Possible scenarios and how to resolve them went through his mind. A choice had to be made, Tristan had to decide when best to break the news. Surely, the servants in their household would already be spreading the unsavory information. Informing these men might allow him to twist the information to his and Christine’s advantage.

"Such things do not bother her. Alas I believe she wants little to do with polite society these days," mumbled Tristan, avoiding uttering her name. His thoughts were somewhere else. He gave them a stiff nod, signaling the end of their short conversation. "My lords," he said, not waiting for any pleasant goodbyes for Tristan did not expect them.

"Well, this place shall certainly not be boring with this man here," said a chipper Lord Durun, watching as Tristan left on his horse, trying to lighten the mood. Fawkes only sighed, already preoccupied with the masked man.

January 29th

Two women graced the frozen streets of Wessport in the upper circle. The market was filled with merchants from exquisite countries from the East or trading companies arriving from the West. They were by the fabric market which was open each Wednesday and Friday. One woman bore a burgundy cape with a deep hood and her maid wore a woolen cape in gray, with her hood down and a white cap warming her head and obscuring her fair hair. Christine pulled the burgundy hood further down, anxiously waiting for Antonia Coticelli. She did not wish to be recognized by old friends and old enemies.

Christine browsed the different stands together with Maria as they waited for Antonia. Tristan was unaware of their meeting, of course. He would never have let her go. Christine wanted to be angry with him, but she couldn't. A part of her understood that her actions were futile and her treatment of him before they had left Adelton had been appalling. She wrinkled her nose upon the realization that she had acted like a true Wessport courtier in her failed attempt to persuade him. Perhaps that was why he was so apprehensive now toward her. The sweetness and gentleness Tristan had previously held toward her was gone and Christine couldn’t help but miss it. For a moment, she thought they had started getting along, in a twisted sense. She ignored his reasoning for ever accepting Cadherra if he seemed so resolute in leaving it and not claiming her hand. Yet a part of him had remained… had it been because of Cadherra? Or because of her? Christine snickered to herself, surely not because of her…and why would she wish it? But Tristan had placed her at an impasse. If he left her now with Cadherra, alone, James could take it all back and the the lands she had been promised in marrying Tristan would not be secured. Christine was not certain that James would uphold the laws he had so highly spoken of before — that she and her mother claimed a small piece of land and therefore had to be wed off to someone so that they may lay claim to the county through marriage. Surely, such reasoning had been twisted by James in order to force Tristan to wed her, and in doing so James hoped a family would tie Tristan down to Angloa for the foreseeable future. Christine concluded that Tristan had no real wish to remain in Angloa and that he had regretted his decision in taking her as his wife. His presence at Wessport could only mean that he would either ask James to break him free from his promise, or he would take the opportunity and leave unbeknownst to them all. Christine frowned, but would Tristan surely do such a thing? She did not know him well enough to be certain, but if the rumors stemming from the ranks of him and his character were true, he would not abandon her now.

Then there was only one thing left, which she had once feared but was now torn over — that they would go through with the engagement and seal their fate to one another. Christine knew she had little choice in whom she married, and unlike her parents, would never be able to choose love before convenience. But the more she got to speak to him, and oversaw his sometimes foul mood, the less the situation seemed daunting to her.

If he would ever come to trust her again, of course. It was a long and tedious task, but she found that patience with him was her only friend. Christine had insulted him by trying to use him and not being upfront with him. She had discovered that the one thing Tristan seemed to value, was honesty. She couldn’t help as a snort escaped her. Ironic for a man who bore a mask.

Christine could not blame his reaction toward her, however. She would have behaved the same way, and not remain as civil as he. Despite his rumored humble background, Tristan behaved more like a gentleman than many men she had gotten to know at court since the execution of her father. Alas, Christine would not obey his wishes to remain docile at home when she was so close to her goal.

Christine glided through the stalls with Maria by her side. The last time she had been there was three years ago with her mother. They had been on their way to pick out fabric for Christine’s new dress for her debut at court. Christine remembered how excited and nervous she had been. She could see herself running from merchant to merchant, taking in all the varieties of fabrics, feeling the textile run through her nimble fingers, smelling their fresh scent, and looking back at her mother.

Some merchants specialized in oriental-style fabrics arriving from the Far East or the Middle East while others sold Italian, Spanish, or French fabrics. Her eyes were drawn to a special piece of fabric, and she walked over, her feet wading through the wet snow as her eyes hungrily took in the beautifully woven textile. Christine pulled off her light brown glove and let her hands brush the delicate material. It was light blue silk. The color could almost be mistaken for white until it caught the light and displayed a myriad of lighter blue tones. It looked like the color of ice to her, and the silk was lightweight and soft, gliding like water through her fingers, caressing her skin in a gentle manner. If she would wear any fabric, this was it.

"A good eye you have, my lady," came a brash Italian-accented voice behind her. Christine turned around to see Antonia Coticelli, dressed as frivolous as ever, mismatching greatly the composition of her attire. She wore a cloak with a deep hood as well. "Good, you came incognito as well!" she hissed in a whisper that was anything but quiet.

"Good sir, how much for this entire piece?" asked Antonia pointing at the ivory-blue silk. Maria cast a worried glance at Christine, wondering if they could afford it. Christine ignored her maid and felt her purse weigh heavy in her hand. She had brought more than enough.

"Ahh, I see that the Byzantine silk has caught your eye. A good piece of fabric indeed. That will be two gold pieces for the entire thing," the burly man said without shame. Christine’s eyes widened at the high price. Antonia only laughed and then burst out into a tantrum.

"No, no! Two gold pieces for such a cloth? Does it have gold woven into it, signore? I see no gold strands here. You might have fooled my lady here, but I shall not be! We shall give you fifty silver pieces and be done with it, or you shall lose us as customers for good and we shall spread the word of your heinous prices around town. No customer of the upper circle shall want to visit you again," she threatened. The man got visibly nervous as pearls of sweat started forming on his temples. He loosened his collar slightly.

"My apologies, madam, a man has to make a living. This comes directly from Constantinople by way of ship. It is incredibly hard to get now as the Ottomans are determined to sink every merchant ship they spot."

"The Ottomans and Angloa have a trading agreement, sir," retorted Christine harshly. "We womenfolk know of politics too," she said, sounding offended. "Come, let us go browse someplace else," she continued, taking Antonia's arm in her own and turning away.

"Very well then!" exclaimed the merchant behind them, "I shall give it to you for seventy silver pieces. That is my final offer."

"We will take it," said Antonia smugly. "Go ahead, my lady, pay the nice man," she grinned mischievously. The merchant felt his heart break as he saw the petty amount of silver coins pressed into his hands and the silken fabric being packed away by Maria.

They headed back for the house, Maria handing Antonia the fabric who would stay and browse further. There were more fabrics that she wanted to consider. Christine and Maria once again stalked the streets in silence. Maria noticed Christine nervously taking in their surroundings on several occasions.

"No one will recognize you, my lady," Maria reassured her. She received nothing but a forced smile while Christine pulled the hood further down to hide her face. As they reached the manse, they crossed paths with Joseph, who had just ridden into the snowy courtyard on his horse. He had been out the entire day, stalking John Fletcher, with nothing to show for it. When he saw Christine, he was about to greet her, but she turned a cold shoulder to him. They had barely spoken, and she now completely ignored him, just as she had done with Tristan during their long voyage.

"My lady," Joseph said, acknowledging her presence as she passed him. Christine did not respond although Maria curtsied with a sympathetic look in her eyes.

"Where were you?" came Tristan's stern voice as they entered the house, shedding their capes. Joseph entered close behind them, mindful that the interaction was not meant for his ears. His eyes darted between Tristan and Christine before deciding that he needed Maria to accompany him in some obscure task. While Joseph passed Tristan, he cast him a telling glance.

"I was out,” Christine retorted.

“Out,” Tristan flatly responded.

Christine’s nostrils flared as she forced herself to remain silent when she wanted to explain herself. “Yes.”

“Out where?”

Christine considered not telling him, knowing a refusal to answer would only irk him more. But she also felt she had nothing to hide. “Selecting fabrics for my new gown… for the yearly winter ball that Lord Otto Savoie will host at his estate this year...if you must know all the details," she responded calmly, mindful of concealing the growing irritation.

"I told you not to leave the house," Tristan said through gritted teeth.

"I know you did. Yet, I did not leave unaccompanied, Maria was with me." She had to resort to common sense and reason, or they would be snapping at each other forever.

He was about to respond, in harsher words than he would have liked to admit when Christine cut him short.

"No more, I have no strength today for your games," she said and proceeded to head for her quarters. She could hear him follow her and Christine started rushing toward the safety of her chamber as Tristan picked up speed as well. Alas, her slippers were not made for running and Tristan soon caught up with her. He took her by the shoulders and gently pressed her into the cold stone wall next to her door. His sudden touch surprised her, for he was generally keen to keep his distance.

It was as if he gained some clarity when he saw her wide eyes staring back at him and Tristan's hands quickly glided down her arms, his grip lessening but his hands remaining, nonetheless. "I play no games."

Involuntary shivers traveled down Christine's spine as she looked away, placing her hands on his arm as if to push him away.

"I would rather you tell me you are cross with me for what I tried to do in Cadherra, than invent ridiculous rules for me to follow here such as keeping me a shut-in," she said, her eyes slowly traveling up to his mouth. She could still not bring herself to look into his eyes.

He sighed, removing his hands from her arms. "This has nothing to do with what happened in Cadherra," he finally murmured—the uncommon waiver to his voice causing Christine’s heart to skip a beat. "It is for your own benefit." He stepped back after a moment's awkward silence.

"Benefit?" she whispered to herself. She spoke louder, her voice breaking at some points. "Yet you will not tell me why it is for my benefit?" she asked him. Christine's shoulders sagged. "Indeed, I would not expect that you trust me."

"You have given me no reason to,” he said.

A sudden urge to apologize befell Christine, yet her mouth remained closed. Not expecting her to continue the conversation, Tristan left her to her own devices, leaving Christine alone with her stirred thoughts. She leaned back against the wall and breathed deeply, pinching her eyes shut.

February 3rd

Athar had to fight hard to stifle a yawn as the meeting progressed. They were once again reunited, discussing matters of politics. Angloa had too few ambassadors that could interact with other countries. Having a diplomatic presence on the continent might have kept the country safe from invading kingdoms ever since its independence. But now both Spain and France had come knocking on its door ever since Angloa had defeated England and begun a peace treaty and trading route with the island. Accepting an ambassador was a big affair indeed. It meant that Angloa would be further pulled into the political struggles of Europe, something no one wished for.

"We cannot allow for them to come here, to know of our own internal struggles, of our weaknesses," said one of the lords.

"If we do not accept, both Spain and France will take this as a personal offense. It is expected that we keep good relations," Tristan’s grave voice sounded. All eyes had diverted to him, and no one argued against his reasoning for they knew he was right. But there was one who wished to stand against the decorated general.

"What would a soldier know of politics?" Lord Alistair sneered. "And for all we know, you might not even be Angloan, Hawthorne. We have seen no confirmation that you were. I can trust no man who hides his face." Alistair smirked. Athar grew insulted on Tristan's behalf. Fawkes was visibly upset. But before any of them could speak out to defend Tristan, he spoke up for himself.

"Politics are intertwined with war, something I am very familiar with, my lord.” He paused, letting the words sink in. “Otherwise, you would be kneeling before the English by now.”

Athar’s skin prickled at the cold and ominous words uttered by Tristan.

"Furthermore," Tristan continued, "I hide my face for your benefit, Lord Alistair, not mine.” Tristan’s eyes narrowed beneath the mask. “I never saw you on the battlefield against the English, I do not know if you are acquainted with the gory reality of war. Let me unmask here and I shall show you.” Tristan’s tone was rough and cold, yet it did not mean to insult.

Alistair was trying to come up with a clever comeback, yet no sound passed his lips. Athar, Fawkes, and a handful of other men, including the king, smirked at Alistair’s public defeat. However, the curiosity about what hid beneath the mask had now only grown.

As the session ended, Athar approached Tristan outside of the elaborate room where the assemblies were always held. He contemplated the man in black, never foregoing his soldier’s garb despite the new status he now held. If Tristan ever wanted to succeed at court, he would have to begin by changing the way he dressed. Athar knew a good tailor Tristan could visit so that he might get out of those bulky clothes and into finer fabrics that suited his position.

"You spoke well in there today, Lord Hawthorne!" exclaimed Athar as he neared. He thanked the other man respectfully.

"I only spoke the truth."

"And so you must continue to do. It is something we quite lack here in Wessport. Hearing the truth might ruffle some feathers, but I assure you that it is what the king needs," Fawkes encouraged.

"I hope that you and her ladyship will finally join in on the celebrations of this year's winter ball? Even if it is hosted by Otto Savioe, he does know how to hold a big feast," said Athar in a friendly manner. He had not known what to make of Hawthorne in the beginning. Athar had survived long at court because he had learned to be cautious. Yet, he felt that Tristan Hawthorne was a man he could trust. The discomfort Athar’s words invoked in the taller man did not go entirely past him.

"It is not mandatory, of course, but I feel that we are many that would indeed be happy to see you there." Athar caught a glimpse of Tristan's eyes, taken aback by the expressiveness he found in them. He managed to catch the same cautious thoughts he would always have himself.

"It would be impertinent for her ladyship and me to attend."

"No one would ever dare to remark about Lady Hawthorne's deceased father with you by her side," Fawkes reassured Tristan in a cheerful manner. Athar felt a frown grow on his forehead at the mention of Charles Vega's name, but it was not that which seemed to irk Hawthorne. He sensed something else, and Athar wondered. He knew the troubled look in Tristan's eyes, he had had it himself before, when he had been young.

"Indeed," Tristan muttered, knowing that the topic of him and Christine would be common knowledge sooner or later. "That is not it, my lords…” he paused as if rethinking his choice of words. “Young Vega and I are yet to be married," Tristan stated matter-of-factly, catching both Athar and Fawkes by surprise.

"Oh, I see," said Athar, puzzled and curious, certain there was more to the story, but he did not inquire. Neither did Fawkes. "Rest assured, no rumors nor information about this shall come from our mouths," said Athar, reassuring Tristan of their loyalty.

"That is kind of you, my lord. Alas, I fear that the servants in my household will have already informed anyone who cares to listen. By the time of Savoie’s ball, most will know of this, and I fear my fiancée will be the one to suffer, again. It is more than she deserves," Tristan said. The care he held for her did not go unnoticed by Athar and Fawkes.

"Yet nothing stops you from attending yourself, Hawthorne," Fawkes said. "I only say so, for it would indeed be good for you to make more acquaintances. We know many men who would be interested in meeting you and with whom you can begin favorable friendships. Here in Wessport, you have to know whom to trust and whom not to."

Athar was more than certain that Tristan knew to read between the lines — aware of the true meaning of Fawkes’ words.

"I will consider it," Tristan said gruffly, signaling an end to their conversation. He was prepared to leave when Athar approached him discreetly.

"A word of advice before you part," Athar began, nearing the other man, placing a friendly hand on his shoulder. Tristan raised a surprised eyebrow at the familiarity of Athar, his lips thinning at the unfamiliar and unwelcome touch.

"If there is one thing I have learned from my marriage, is that communication is key. Talking with your intended, usually, solves minor problems. Being understanding solves everything," Athar said, giving Tristan a knowing look.

Tristan couldn’t help as a rogue chuckle escaped him, an uncharacteristic smile breaking through his otherwise rough and severe exterior. It softened him, Athar thought, and it humanized him. Tristan unwillingly admitted to himself that Athar was more perceptive than he had given him credit for, something to keep in mind for future encounters. He gave a small nod and left them for his waiting horse.

"What was that about?" asked a confused Fawkes. He was met by a snicker from Athar.

"You know, for always being in the company of women, you sure do know little about them, or the effect they cause," Athar stated.

It only coaxed a deep sigh from Fawkes. "Do you imply then that Hawthorne is having trouble with the Vega girl?"

"I would be more surprised if he did not."

Fawkes chuckled, joined in by his friend.

"I might like him more than I should," admitted Athar more so to himself than to Fawkes.

"As do I!" exclaimed Fawkes. "It is too bad about his fiancée, though. Such a fine specimen of a woman… too bad," Fawkes lamented. Athar rolled his eyes and placed a hand on the other man's shoulders.

"Do not start that again with me," Athar sighed as they walked away, toward the entrance of the palace where a horse and carriage awaited them.

"Why not? There are many fine women at court, and you are still young, Thomas!" Fawkes chuckled. Athar sighed even more deeply.

"For me there only ever was one, may her soul rest in peace."

Christine reconsidered on several occasions that venturing out into the public eye and attending Savoie’s ball might be the stupidest thing she had done this far in her short life. Keeping her within the house might be the best thing she could do now, but it would mean   Tristan was right, and Christine would not yet give him that satisfaction. Antonia Coticelli was snuck into the manse several times for fittings, the icy blue silk gown had to be carefully tailored for Antonia insisted upon perfection. More items had been procured by Maria at the jeweler and the shoemaker. Maria did not ask how Christine had come by the money for as far as she knew, Tristan had not bestowed any substantial coin purse upon Christine. Maybe, Maria thought, Christine had managed to scour some valuables in the manse that had once belonged to her family and sold it at the upper circle market.

"My lady!" came the desperate shouts of Maria as she barged into Christine's chamber without knocking. Christine sat by the window, allowing the light of day to filter in, reading in moderate tranquility. She got up, worry and confusion seeped into her otherwise calm features.

"What is it, Maria?" Christine asked, putting away the book and taking the maid's hands in hers, trying to calm the girl down.

"Oh, we are done for!" exclaimed Maria between breaths. It was evident that she must have run quite a distance to tire herself as much.

"Where did you come running from?"

"From the stables, my lady. I was seeing to it that Mrs. Coticelli left unseen from the manse. Alas, I saw his lordship return and overheard him speak to Mrs. Rochester."

Maria had to stop and let her breath catch up. Her shoulders heaved at the strenuous task she had just performed. The few seconds Maria allowed for recovery were enough to send Christine's mind spinning in all directions. Had Tristan discovered Antonia? Had he discovered the preparations for Savoie’s ball which she had so carefully tried to conceal? Christine let out a frustrated ‘no’, but it seemed that was not the case.

"He asked her to send for a tailor. Lord Hawthorne plans to attend the ball, my lady! What shall we do?" Maria asked in desperation. Christine let go of Maria’s hands and sat down by the windowsill in defeat.

“It cannot be helped,” Christine murmured as a new plan was being forged as the old one was forgotten. "I must still go, Maria.”

Maria had held her thoughts to herself this far, but now sensing the developing complications of the matter, she could go no further without at least stating her piece of mind.

“Would it not be wise… to reconsider this whole affair?” Maria stared at the floor, speaking up shyly.

Maria expected a retort but once she noticed the guilty expression on Christine’s face, she pressed her lips together. Maria didn’t understand why Christine went to such lengths to ask a favor of the king, knowing it would most likely never be granted. Maria also did not understand how Christine could have changed her mind so drastically about her father.

"Lord Hawthorne will know you have gone to the ball,” Maria said.

“Most likely,” Christine agreed.

“If you go without him and end up meeting him there, what will you do?"

"I will take responsibility for my actions, Maria."

"Then… all is to go as planned?" asked Maria. There was no use in trying to persuade Christine in seeing reason.

"No, now we must wait until Hawthorne leaves. Coticelli has already acquired a carriage for us with the money I gave her. I shall have to sneak out the back door and ride for the estate when we are certain that Hawthorne is far away from the house."

Maria shook her head. It was too close for comfort. Christine was taking a big risk, but Maria was ever loyal to the wants and needs of her mistress, even when she knew such loyalty would most likely land her mistress in a sea of trouble.

"Very well. I shall seek out Coticelli immediately and inform her of the change in plans," murmured Maria, heading to her room for her coat. Christine, in the meantime, got up and started strolling back and forth in her chamber, feeling the anxiety creep up on her, festering like a disease.

February 5th

"Are you certain about this? I thought you said it would be best not to go," came the questioning voice of Joseph.

"You said you could recognize the man Captain Fletcher has been seeing if you were to catch a mere glimpse of him," said Tristan as he dressed. He had reluctantly followed Athar's advice and decided to go to the ball but for the wrong reasons. Through hard search and some help from Athar, Tristan had found a tailor. The price had been too high for Tristan's liking, but he had finally gotten a new wardrobe. The tailor had taken one look at his torn, military garb and wrinkled his nose in disgust. He had worked non-stop night and day to assemble Tristan’s first piece of clothing in time for the ball.

The tailor, Miguel Guzmán, was excellent at what he did. The only reason Tristan decided to hire his skills was because Guzmán took care in adapting the clothing to Tristan’s liking exceptionally well instead of mindlessly following the latest trend.

Tristan wore more, albeit subtle, colors now. He wore dark blue, bordering-on-black hoses. The garment was divided; the upper part, the breeches, reached his upper calf. They were slim fitted instead of the usually poofed style that was otherwise fashionable. If there was something Guzmán could not coax him out of, it was the boots. And so, he had sent for one of the best shoemakers in Wessport. The black leather had been shined to perfection and served to contrast with the dark blue. The outer thighs of the hoses bore a subtle golden lining in the fabric, to further outline Tristan's legs and it served to make him look even taller.

The garments Tristan had worn beforehand had been befitting of a low-ranked officer that cared little for his appearance. Several parts of Tristan’s old jerkin had sewn-in patches or the leather was scratched up from months of hardships at the front line during the war. The doublet underneath had been a hand-me-down from Tristan’s old mentor, General Melkeer and it was too small in the shoulders and too large around the midsection. But to Tristan, it served its purpose in keeping him warm. The gambeson, in a dark color, was also handed down and was ridden with small sword and arrow slashes across his extremities. Despite it all, it was only wanting that Tristan should dress as he did, for he embodied the very nature bestowed upon him, the very idea of a hardened general and soldier that had won them the war. Indeed, should Tristan have cared more for appearance, many supposed they would now bend the knee to the king of England instead of to James.

But now, the bulky and ill-fitting clothes were thrown away despite Tristan’s protests. He was a man with a title and should dress befitting his new role, that much he understood. Now he wore a fine, white shirt that hugged him in all the right areas. The lace around the handcuffs was minimal, for Tristan disliked such things. The lace for the neck was non-existent. Guzmán had, in vain, tried to coax the stubborn general that lace was worn by everyone at court. The doublet worn over the shirt was sewn in an intricate pattern that hugged Tristan's torso much better than Melkeer’s old and worn doublet ever had. The material was a rich taffeta, lined with fine cotton. The pattern was in damask and the dark gold swirls contrasted with the royal blue of the doublet. Tristan was amazed over how easy it now was to move his arms and shoulders, not feeling the constricting fabric press down on them. Over the doublet was a jerkin tanned in dark blue, lined in threads of gold just like the breeches. One thing Tristan would never forego, of course, was the mask—such an essential part to him, and the final vestige of his personality he could not let go, nor wished to. He had no wish for the courtiers of Wessport to look upon a face he had fought so hard to hide for all these years.

On his left side, hung a decorative dressing sword with a more elaborate handle. The metal was swirling and twisting to protect the bearer's hand from any direct hits. And, in his boot, Tristan had a knife, as always. He was paranoid but nonetheless prepared for anything that might come his way.

Joseph wore an elaborate suit as well. With colors of green and silver, instead of blue and gold.

Tristan and Joseph mounted their respective horses. It was already dark when a footman showed them the way to the Savoie estate, situated a few leagues outside the city walls. Tristan and Joseph wore thick woolen capes to keep them warm against the winter cold. They wore it as all men did then, tied diagonally across the back.

As soon as the horses left, Maria ran to Christine's room where she was waiting together with Coticelli.

"His Lordship and Sir Joseph have left now!" Maria said with a giddy disposition. Her nerves did not know what to make of the situation.

"Then we may finally dress you, signorina," said Coticelli. The process took longer than expected and the hour was growing late when Christine was finally done. Maria and Antonia took a step back to fully admire the young woman.

"You look…" was all Maria could manage with an ever-growing smile, surprised that Antonia Coticelli had delivered on her promise.

"Of course she looks," Coticelli smirked in pure satisfaction. “She is wearing Coticelli!”

"We have to go now, my lady, before the hour grows too late," said Maria as she urged Christine toward the door. The three women carefully sneaked along the corridor. Maria was first, holding a lookout for maids or footmen. They rushed to the back entrance, standing empty, just as they had predicted.

Coticelli placed a heavy coat over Christine's shoulders to keep the shuddering woman from freezing.

"Where is the carriage?" asked Christine as she looked around. As if on demand a small, elegant carriage suddenly appeared behind the corner. It was dragged by four horses that bobbed their heads, eager to set out into a trot to keep warm. The driver was a thin, boyish-looking man dressed in fine clothes and warm coats against the cold weather.

"All clear, Signora?" asked the coachman.

"Si, si," urged Coticelli. She took one last glance at Christine, pleased with her accomplishments. "Tonight, they will want to know your seamstress… but tonight you shall tell them nothing,” Coticelli said. When Christine looked at her puzzled, the older woman chuckled. “A mystery attracts more interest,” she blinked in her heavy accent.

"I understand," Christine nodded. “Thank you, Signora."

The young woman rushed across the yard toward the black carriage and promptly jumped into it. Before Maria had even managed to close the door behind her mistress, the carriage was already on its way. Christine knew there was no turning back now, she had to see this through. The worry in her stomach ate away at her the closer they got to Savoie's estate.