Secrets of the Court: Chapter 13

 February 5th - Savoie's Estate

A quiet murmur stirred in the silent hall. A place so big, so full of music, laughter, and conversation had gone quieter than a graveyard. Curiosity as to what had caused this sudden change of atmosphere grew. All eyes were drawn to the lone figure that stood before them, dwarfed by the grand entrance to the room.

Her breaths were deep and steady, her eyes were fixed on one face, one face that she did not fear in the sea of wolves that stretched out before her. Tristan's was there, in the distance, somehow reassuring to her. Christine cared no longer if he would be angry with her. Another part of her feared she had gone too far, urging her to turn back and flee. But her eyes never left Tristan, finding him changed, more apt to the crowd he surrounded himself with, almost blending into it. The dark, brooding man who previously dressed in bulky soldier’s clothes was replaced with someone befitting of the title he had been bestowed—that of the Count of Cadherra.

Tristan's mind stopped as he registered who she finally was. It did not take long for the anger to grow within him. She moved purposefully toward them, toward James.

The silence slowly diffused as the curious onlookers whispered amongst themselves. Had it not been common knowledge that Christine had chosen to remain at home, out of sight? Many vile rumors had been floating around her for the past few days, it was only wanting she should choose to remain hidden at home.

As Christine inched forward — her face never changing from its emotionless expression — her eyes burned at the sight of James once more. He had to accept her request. The way he eyed her made Christine certain that he would listen. She felt something wanting to pull her back. Before her, stood the man who had sentenced her father to the executioner’s block. James had been responsible for Charles Vega's death to some degree. Christine shuddered at the thought of how bloodied James's hands were, how bloodied the hands of the courtiers’ hands were, for none of Charles’ old friends had ever ventured to speak up for him—save one.

Christine came to understand why Tristan had insisted she remain at home. The looks of scrutiny and judgment could be reason enough to keep her at bay, yet the thought that the man she was about to beg for a favor was the same that had killed her father was far worse. Christine was certain that after this little stunt, Tristan would lock her away forever.

"My dear!" came the sudden voice of an older man to her right. Christine turned to see Thomas Athar emerging from the crowd, offering his arm to her, to escort her the last of the way. He disregarded those around them that snickered. It was his way of protecting the young girl from the crowd.

Athar wore elegant clothing in deep red with golden patterns woven into the exquisite fabric. His body seemed thin and frail under the fine clothing. His white hair was, as always, neatly combed into place and his gentle, wrinkled eyes gave her a genuine smile. Lord Athar should not stoop to such low levels as to embrace the daughter of a traitor. But he did not care. The last time he had spoken with her was before the passing of her father. Charles Vega had been a man he'd come to see as a friend, and he had been the only one to speak out for him. Even though Athar had never been formally acquainted with Christine, he felt sorrow for the young girl—for what she must have suffered, and thus a sense of duty toward her at this moment.

"My lord," Christine acknowledged, speaking for the first time, accepting his arm. Her voice was soft and gentle. Tristan could hear her from where he was standing. He acknowledged that it must have taken courage to come to Savoie's mansion and to the winter ball. Athar placed her hand on her arm and led her the rest of the way to James. The king looked from the old duke to Tristan and to Christine in curiosity and amusement.

"Your Majesty," began Athar as he presented Christine to the king. "I hope you remember young Lady Vega?"

James certainly did. The last time he had seen her she had appeared defeated, more inclined to do as others wished for her to do. Now she stood before him with more determination and confidence. Victoria noted it as well, and she rose an eyebrow in disproval of Christine’s stunt.

"Of course," said James. He inclined his head toward Christine in acknowledgment. After all, he had accepted her presence before in Wessport. "I thought you did not feel well. Your fiancé made it seem like you wished to remain at home," James inquired, casting a sideways glance at Tristan, seemingly interested in what Christine would answer. It was clear to all that she had disobeyed her fiancé's wishes in coming. What Tristan thought of the matter was an even bigger enigma.

"I did, Sire. But I decided to come, to accompany my fiancé," Christine answered straightforwardly. She had to play her cards right, James had to trust in her, trust in a traitor's daughter. She sneaked a glance at Tristan, wondering if he was terribly angry with her.

"Your presence here is most curious," came the smooth voice of Victoria as she stepped forward. "Most people would think it improper of you to show up here," she continued, her face as unreadable as Tristan's mask. The older woman swept a hand over the crowd that cast curious glances their way.

"I lost the right to concern myself with such notions long ago, Your Highness," answered Christine. It earned her an approving smile from most around her, even from Victoria. But even if those around her seemed to tolerate her presence, it was only for the time being, Christine did not let her guard down, nor got ahead of herself.

Braun, Alistair, and Savoie entered the little circle. Braun and Alistair rested their eyes a little too long on Christine for Tristan's liking.

"Your presence has been missed at court, Lady Vega," teased Braun as he let his eyes wander over her neck and throat. Alistair's eyes stared with more intensity at her eyes, transfixed by them. His gaze soon drifted to Tristan and Alistair wrinkled his nose and frowned.

"I suppose they allow anyone here now, even those with lesser blood," Alistair whispered to Braun, who fought hard to hide a chuckle. The exchange of words reached Tristan's ears as well though he was not certain if it had been on purpose or a common slip of the tongue.

Christine grew wary of Alistair and Braun’s newfound and strange interest in her—such had not been the case when she had been at court a few months ago with her mother. Victoria could not help but notice the stares Christine received and she frowned. The way Christine’s shoulders sank, and her hands came to rest protectively in front of herself as she was ogled made it clear to Victoria that Tristan had taken no liberties with the girl. Victoria wondered if Tristan had even come close to kissing her. Her radiating golden eyes looked at Tristan, her interest in him growing after each discovery. She glanced back at Christine and let a smile overtake her face again.

The men in the ensemble came to speak of politics, something that greatly disinterested Christine. She stood there, waiting for a chance to speak alone with the king. James could feel her eyes on him and he enjoyed the attention. He kept sneaking sideways glances at her, wondering if she was keen on more than just formal pleasantries. He looked at Tristan again, who kept silent and tense as he took in what was said during the conversation. James frowned. No, he would not take any liberties with Christine. If he did, it was clear that Tristan would act in foolishness. James had gone through many loopholes in order to bestow Tristan with lands and a title, which he hoped would retain the successful general. To provoke Tristan so openly would be foolish. However, James couldn't ignore that Tristan somehow unnerved him, and he could not pinpoint why.

Even so, the king could not help but close in on Christine, slipping out of the conversation unnoticed and starting another one with her.

"I take it that politics does not interest you," James teased as he saw her eyes flicker to and fro the conversation. Christine jumped, surprised by his voice and his closeness. She put some distance between them.

"Not particularly, Your Majesty," she confessed.

This was perfect, the king himself had decided to speak with her.

"I must agree with you there, it is a tedious subject, never changing, always revolving around the same problems."

Christine did not know what to answer and found herself tongue-tied. It was clear to James that she was not particularly comfortable in his presence. He wondered why. Unbeknownst to them both, a third party was now placing all its attention on their conversation. Tristan looked the other way, but his ear faced in their direction. If he concentrated on them, he could hear what was being said through the discussion and music in the room.

"Then, if politics and court matters are of such a boring nature to you, what brings you here?" James asked, challenging her.

Her large eyes dared to look directly into his. She cast away everything she had been taught about court, everything she had learned through experience, and dived into the abyss.

But before she could say anything he stopped her, his face taking on a serious disposition. "No, don't answer." He seemed slightly amused as well. "I know what you want to ask of me," he said, surprising her.

Christine's eyes widened. How could he have known such a thing? She had never uttered her plans or thoughts to anyone. The only ones who knew were Maria, her mother, and Tristan. Slowly her mind started working after the initial shock. Christine came to realize that there had been plenty of moments where they could have been overheard by someone in their household.

"Then what is your answer?" Her voice was calm and collected. Yet, her eyes told it all.

"Although I found it intriguing that you would journey here for such a purpose that is not why I invited you to Wessport. Your father was executed by the crown for high treason," James stated firmly. There were no hidden motives behind his words. James spoke as sincerely as Christine had.

"I know, Your Majesty. I am fully aware of the great insult such a request could bestow upon you. But my father has already paid his penance. He has died… as was your wish." Christine swallowed back the waiver in her voice. "But now he may not be buried in my family's crypt, nor in holy ground. He lies alone and forgotten. It would be my deepest wish to see him reunited with his ancestors, taken to his family. It would be a show of mercy, a show of goodwill, Your Majesty."

"What does your fiancé think of this?" James cast his eyes toward Tristan.

"He knows nothing of this, nor has he ever. If my request has offended you, then the offense was committed by me alone, not Lord Hawthorne."

James was taken by surprise. He did not expect Christine would defend Tristan.

Neither did Tristan.

"I see your struggle," he began, his tone already making Christine's heart drop. "But where would our country go to if all traitors knew there would still be forgiveness for them even after their death?"

"But he repented, Sire. And does not the church forgive those who ask for forgiveness?" Christine fought hard not to exclaim as she inched closer to the king.

"I am neither a priest nor do I control the church. I cannot give your father clemency…" started James.

"That is true, you are no priest. Yet, you are a king!

James rose an eyebrow at the inappropriate and naive exclamation. Christine had cast all sense of propriety out the window now that she understood that he was ready to decline her request.

"Sometimes a king can be as powerless as a common farmer," James muttered under his breath, his eyes staring into empty space, his words weighing more on him than he wanted to admit.

"Then my father's soul may never find peace? He may never be pardoned?"

"You have nothing to offer me. If you want your father to rest in his crypt, then return with something that might be of value to me," answered James. His face was stern but behind the severe mask, he could not help but pity her.

"If you will have no use for her, maybe you would for me?" a deep and rich voice said behind Christine. She turned around to see Tristan standing behind her, her lips parted in stunned silence as he spoke out.

"No," she whispered, barely audible yet James was close enough to hear it. His eyes got a dangerous sparkle in them.

Christine had never meant to drag Tristan into this. She had never expected him to intervene.

James considered the offer. Tristan Hawthorne was another matter. The Count of Cadherra was someone he wanted on his side. To have Tristan further indebted to him made James curl his lips into a satisfied smile. Tristan had not wholeheartedly accepted Cadherra and the title, but if he now promised to remain on James’ side and be loyal only to him, it would offer another wall of protection to James.

"I think something could be arranged," James said. Tristan remained before him in silence, waiting for James to finish his sentence. "You and your fiancée will move into the palace. When some court issues have been settled, young Lady Vega's father shall be allowed to be buried in his family crypt." James received some curious stares from the couple as both thought that it couldn't be all the king wanted from Tristan. James was approached by Athar and stepped away, leaving them alone.

They stood there a while, the world around them blurry as Christine held her breath, waiting for Tristan to react. Her heart had sunk low in her chest and an immense feeling of guilt at her own stupidity washed over her.

Tristan's fingers curled around her bare arm. His grip hardened on her as he took her further to the side where none would hear their exchange.

"This is why I told you to stay at home," he growled in her ear. Christine shivered at his closeness. He expected her to argue back in foolish pride, but he only saw remorse in her.

"You should never have interfered!" was all she managed to retort, pulling her arm out of his grip. It caused Tristan's jaw to tense, he wanted to be angry with her, he wanted to be furious at her for coming, for disobeying him. But a part of him understood her. He wondered if he would have acted in a similar way, in similar circumstances.

"You came for your father," he stated after the pregnant pause.

"I did," she answered.

"Just like in Adelton," he retorted curtly. When Christine was reminded of their unfortunate interaction she blushed in embarrassment.

"I… What I did to you in Adelton is unforgivable but…" She collected her thoughts. "You should never have intervened for me. Now you are implicated as well. Why? Why did you do it?"

"Do you know what it means to live in the palace?" Tristan asked. They had just lost their freedom, their ability to return home to a place of relaxation. The palace walls had both eyes and ears that would strain to listen to the lowest of whispers. The servants would be paying attention to every little detail about them from the way they decided to dress, to their choice of words to the way they acted. Worst of all was that if they had been both asked to the palace, it only meant that James had something further in store for Christine.

"What you did with the king was dangerous," he growled as he looked that no one was close enough to hear them. Tristan's tall form loomed over Christine. "Was it not you who warned me about court?"

"I do not care what happens to me," Christine bluntly confessed. Her words grew strained. "My intentions were to act purely by myself and not for you to intervene!"

Tristan’s heart sank low in his chest. He pulled her in closer—to such proximity that it might have been considered inappropriate.

"Why do you think I demanded that you stay back in Cadherra, or in the house?" he leaned in to growl in her ear, wanting to relay the gravity of the situation. Christine tried to break free, but his grip on her arm was firm.

"I had no choice, my lord," she said in an emotionless tone. She gripped his arms tightly, daring to cast a quick glance at him. "I cannot imagine that you would understand my situation — I disregarded my father after his death. I despised him for having placed my mother and me in such a difficult position. I cannot let the memory of his name be tainted further." Christine sighed, her voice shaking as her fingers dug further into his arm.

His heart tightened at the pained look in her eyes.

"I... do understand," he whispered. He pushed away his anger toward her, relaxing his grip around her arm. "But you shouldn't condemn yourself in the process," he reasoned.

"I swore that I would do whatever was necessary... I would even have used you, despite it being wrong, to get here."

She was met with stoic silence, which only infuriated her more.

"I would rather have myself fall before dragging anyone else down with me," she admitted. "You shouldn't have to pay any price on my behalf."

Tristan finally removed the harsh grip on her arm and looked down in defeat. His voice grew softer, changing from a robust and deep growl into a calmer tone.

"It was my choice to interfere."

The world around them had long since ceased to exist. It was the first time they had put their differences aside, together with their individual pride and arrogance. Christine had found the strength to confess her troubles to a man she never knew would understand them. A breath of relief escaped her, for the first time, they were on the same page.

Tristan's burden had now only grown. Yet, he did not care if it meant that Christine would always carry that look of relief on her face.

After having spoken, they remained close in a strange silence, soon stepping away from each other when they realized just how close they had been standing.

"Lord Hawthorne," came the serious voice of James as he interrupted. Christine quickly stepped further away from Tristan, clearing her voice. Tristan gave a mandatory bow as James neared them. James was the last man Tristan wished to deal with.

James placed a heavy hand on Tristan's shoulder. He looked at Christine and then back at Tristan.

"I will see you then, at the palace as soon as possible?" Tristan realized that James was not requesting, he was now demanding.

"Of course, Your Majesty," Tristan answered. Accepting the offer went against every cell in his being, yet the words floated effortlessly from his mouth.

"I am certain that Lord Hawthorne is most anxious to move in as soon as possible, as an honored guest," Athar suddenly said, appearing behind James. He was backed by Fawkes and some other lords. He sent Tristan a calculating look — as if telling him not to speak against what had been decided. It was evident that the older man suspected what Hawthorne really felt about the ordeal. Athar himself — together with others, most belonging to the council — had been offered the same deal to stay in the palace for the time being. It was evident, now more than ever, that James was growing cautious of those who surrounded him. Even Lord Braun, Alistair, and Savoie had been invited.

Alistair, who had been standing close to James, widened his eyes and fought hard to control himself over what he had overheard.

"His Majesty invited that man as well?" Alistair leaned in and hissed at Braun, looking bitterly at Tristan.

"Control yourself, Alistair!" Braun growled back under his breath. "I understand your sentiment, but we owe Hawthorne a great deal, he—"

"He is a commoner. How can His Majesty disgrace us even more by now taking him into his confidence?" Alistair spat. "The Cadherra lands should never have been his to begin with, there are others more worthy and closer in line to inherit the lands."

To Alistair's surprise, Lord Braun defended Tristan.

"He is the reason we still have James as our sovereign, and not Henry of England. Be grateful for that." Braun looked irritated at Alistair. "Let it go, Alistair," he whispered back. Both soon disappeared into the crowd, getting away from the pleasantries between Tristan and James.

James was ecstatic as Tristan confirmed his stay at the palace. He informed Tristan that he would send help to move them in more swiftly. Their personal apartments would be prepared in a matter of days and soon Tristan could partake in all the palace's activities.

Before James could ask for more favors or question them further, Tristan thought it pertinent to retire. The night had been a fiasco, ending in more problems than solving them. He had no idea where Joseph had gone to and at that moment, it was the least of his worries. He needed to sort things out with Christine before they ventured into the tumultuous heart of court life.

Tristan disregarded any raised eyebrows directed at him as he announced their leaving. Christine had scarcely been there an hour and already he was coaxing her home. Curious onlookers speculated over the nature of Tristan and Christine’s early departure, most supposing it was certainly due to her unannounced appearance at the ball. Whispers wondered what consequences she would face once the couple had returned to their townhouse. Sly grins spread on the onlookers' faces at the prospect. James excused them, bidding them a heartily farewell, watching pensively as they left the dance and laughter of the night.

They took quick steps toward the entrance of the building. Servants handed them their respective capes and the chill of the night overwhelmed them as they stepped outside where the carriage and Tristan's horse stood waiting for them.

Before leaving the ballroom, Tristan took a final look around, watching for Joseph in the masses. But the young man was nowhere to be seen. Tristan’s muscles tensed in anticipation, wondering if something had happened to Joseph. Christine remained silent as he urged her to the entrance.

Tristan quickly had the servants latch Cid to the carriage. The driver frowned as he saw the masked man disappear into the vehicle after Christine.

As the horses started moving through the patted-down snow, Christine wrapped her arms around herself inside the carriage. The short road home grew long. Her cape was thin, solely for being worn in warmer weather, yet Signora Coticelli had insisted on her wearing it. When she started shivering, Tristan removed his wool cape and wrapped it around her, leaning slightly forward in the small space as he did so. His form dwarfed hers momentarily as the fabric draped around her and he adjusted it. Christine, comfortably nestling into the warmth of his cape was surprised by his act of kindness.

"Thank you," she murmured after a while, her words alluding to more than his sudden gesture of kindness. Tristan gave her a stiff nod as relaxed back in his seat, enjoying the tranquility the carriage and the winter night had to offer.

"Do you know what it means to move into the royal place?" he asked her after a moment’s silence, interrupting the rocking peace of the vehicle.

Her eyes sprang up, alive and intense.

"It means misery…" she trailed off, struggling to find the adequate words which would describe the dread and agony she had gone through while residing within Wessport Palace last time. “Mother and I could scarcely take it last time,” she acknowledged.

"There can only be honesty between us from now…" he said. "If we are to live in such a place." Alas, he knew it was a blatant lie on his part.

Christine hugged the cape tighter around her and looked at the moonlit landscape outside while they started entering the city. She pursed her lips as she glanced at his face. "You mean we should trust each other?" she asked while looking poignantly at his mask. Tristan looked away—his hand caressed his face on reflex. It was a subject they had never touched. Tristan had hoped that Christine would never bring it up.

"To some extent."

Christine chewed her lower lip. The Tristan she knew — dark, intimidating, and enigmatic seemed to, once more, replace the more agreeable man from before.

"Very well." She did not argue with him, not because she did not want to but because she had been the one to drag him into this predicament in the first place.

The carriage moved through sleepy neighborhoods as Wessport had turned in for the night. The atmosphere inside the carriage had changed. For the first time, they sat in silence, enjoying each other's company ever since they had met. It seemed like turning tides were ahead for them. For while Christine Vega and Tristan Hawthorne might finally get along, a storm was brewing on the horizon. Tristan clasped his hands together looking out the window with worry.

February 7th

The open windows let the chilly February air seep into her room. A faint sound of chirping birds could be heard as she opened her eyes. The birdsong was soon washed away by the other sounds of the city. A smile spread on her lips as she got out of bed. Christine ignored the cold and went to her wardrobe, selecting a comfortable warm gown to wear.

The other night was almost like a distant and hazy dream to her. Her initial reason for being there had ended in failure but with the promise of bearing fruit in the far future. However, even if it had failed, she had gotten out something else from it — her relationship with Tristan had greatly improved. She felt responsible for involving him when she knew he was reluctant to be in Wessport in the first place. Why? Christine was not certain.

The door opened and in walked Maria, appearing happy as well. She had been waiting up in the kitchens for her mistress to return two nights ago. Maria had been more than shocked when he saw Tristan climb out of the carriage, promptly followed by a blushing Christine. She had been wrapped in his cape. Her eyes had been heavy-lidded and there was a hesitant smile on her face. When Maria greeted them she received a curt nod from Tristan before he disappeared into the mansion. Maria had cast a questioning look to the driver, who only shrugged, as clueless as Maria as to what had happened in that carriage.

"My lady, his lordship is asking for you," Maria said as she saw the gown Christine was holding. It was one of her older, more torn ones. "What about the other gowns Signora Coticelli made for you?" she asked as Christine put the gown down. Her demeanor was restrained, caught up in her thoughts.

"Yes, you are right," Christine said. "Bring me another one," came her rugged voice, still stiff from sleep. Maria rummaged through the wardrobe, looking amongst the new dresses to find a suitable one. She had a pensive look as she searched for an appropriate piece of clothing.

"Something on your mind, Maria?" asked Christine.

"Yes… something important," she said while thinking hard. "Oh well, it will come to me."

Maria finally found a ruby red gown in soft wool. A brocade pattern in fine copper thread had been incorporated into the rich fabric. Christine's hair was placed into a soft braid and she was soon walking down for some breakfast.

Christine was met by a chaotic scene. The entrance of their home was swarming with men and women, running in and out, letting the chilly morning air shake all four corners of the house.

In the doorway was his tall form, the wide shoulders tense as always as he stood in the entrance, watching in contempt as servants of the royal palace loaded trunks of his belongings on a cart. He stood in a broad stance with arms folded showing his disapproval. The servants promptly walked past Christine as she descended the last steps. They made their way to her rooms, shown by Mrs. Rochester who wrinkled her nose at their intrusion into the home.

"What is this?" questioned Christine as she saw the group of people walking around, moving and displacing trunks, Tristan’s collection of weapons, and armor.

"It seems we are moving into the palace quicker than we thought." His voice came out in a low growl as he stared furiously and helplessly at the servants taking over his home.

"What?" exclaimed Christine as she looked in shock at the scene before her. "So soon?" She inched closer to him, leaning casually into his ear. "What are we to do? Are we ready for this yet?" she whispered. Her voice and breath tickled his ear, and he fought the involuntary shiver that descended his spine.

"No," he whispered back. He could hear her swallow hard as they both stood next to each other, watching the scene unfold. It was soon that they found themselves in a carriage, together with Maria. It took them away from the secure walls of the manse and toward the threatening building that was the palace. They spoke little. Both had a thousand thoughts rushing through their minds as the carriage and carts moved through the city that morning.

Tristan had yet to see Joseph, and he started wondering if something severe had happened to him. The other night Joseph’s horse had been taken, and he was said to have returned home. Yet, that night when they returned, Joseph was nowhere to be seen. The following day Tristan had sent out some men to search for his friend, they had come back the same night, and not a word from Joseph

Tristan had been awoken early that same morning by a frightened footman who had only dared to knock on his door, never wanting to set foot inside the room. He had revealed that a large group of palace servants and guards was impatiently waiting outside, with orders from James to help with packing. Rooms in the castle had been prepared for them.

Tristan wondered who else had been forced to exchange their home for apartments in the palace. Christine was also not looking forward to spending time at court. Attending the ball had already been hard enough for her, and she hadn't even had to interact with anyone. The women of Wessport could be rather petty if they wanted to.

It was a sunny and warm day, enough to make the snow start sweating under the intense rays. The carriage pulled up through a tunnel that would take them to the elegant palace that stood on a hill, overlooking not only the city but the flatlands beyond it. The driver pulled up into the first courtyard, past the gatehouse. Tristan kept his eyes on the men outside, many soldiers were presently guarding the front of the palace.

Wessport Palace

They soon found themselves ushered out of the carriage and into the grand building. It stood tall and impressive before them. Its towers reached high in the sky and its architecture spoke of refinement and good taste. It was a clear contrast to some of the other, more robust castles that could be found in the country. The façade had an impressive door leading to the Courtyard of the Kings. On the front, there was a niche where the image of a saint has been placed. Tristan and Christine felt dwarfed by the stacked stone and the enormity of the place. Christine sneaked a look at Tristan, wondering what was going through his mind. He remained silent as always, giving off an aura of arrogance as he had the servants take care of their things. He offered his arm to Christine without looking at her and she accepted it, both of them walking toward the entrance.

"Whatever happens, we must always seem unaffected by anything coming our way," he said in her direction. It was barely audible, only for her ears. She squeezed his arm, signaling that she had understood.

They both walked into the palace. Tristan once more dressed in his usual robust military clothing, not forgetting to clothe himself in weapons as well. A sizeable dagger clung to his left hip, albeit no sword graced his person and he felt naked without it in such a place.

They were greeted by a palace maid who mumbled her words and cast her eyes to the marble floor, never daring to look directly at Tristan. His foul mood and curt questions did not help. They were led to what would eventually be their quarters. As they passed through the hallways of the building, some courtiers grazing the grounds for a morning walk got a glance at them.

"Ghastly man, that Hawthorne," they snickered in audible whispers while fanning themselves with exquisite feather fans. Christine ignored them, just as she had done during the winter ball. Tristan did as well, thinking it beneath him to ever react to such words. But Christine could feel him tense at the nicknames they had received. She had once thought him ghastly as well, when she had not known him. But now he was something else, something more. She considered him as he walked next to her. Tristan was indeed sometimes proud, arrogant to a fault and he could have a short temper. But he could also be honest and kind, when it really mattered. She was amazed that even after having led Angloa through the war and to victory, Tristan was still considered an outsider. Christine knew how sensitive the nobility was when it came to pure blood. Tristan's lineage was obscure, unknown. She figured that they would never accept him as Count of Cadherra since he was not born a nobleman.

She could care less.

The maid promptly stopped as they reached a secluded wing of the palace. It was an open corridor with several doors lining it. The young woman took out a key from her blue apron and opened the elegantly carved door in front of them.

"Your apartments, my lady, my lord," she announced as the door swung open. They revealed an open space—something akin to a parlor. It had a high roof and a sitting space, with a round wood table, which was neatly polished and had cushioned chairs placed around it. Some settees were placed in one corner by a window, probably for leisure reading or napping. The marble floor was covered with various light-colored rugs in beige, green, and spots of faded pink. The motifs were floral arrangements; vines twisting and sprouting, finishing in small delicate flowers. The windows were tall, letting in the morning light. There was a harp in one corner and Christine looked at it with distaste. It would be one thing she would not touch there.

There were several doors in the room, but the maid never walked in to show them around. Rather, the thin blonde looked like she wanted nothing more than to get away from them.

"Supper will be held after sunset. Someone will come and get you," she squeaked and then left them alone in the opening of their apartments. Tristan walked in first, looking around. There was a fireplace at one end of the room where a fire was loudly crackling away. Christine and Maria entered behind.

"My lord, my lady, I shall go search for the servant's quarter and familiarize myself with the palace. I will return as fast as I can," Maria excused herself, daring to leave them alone as she slipped away. After the door closed behind her, a general quiet fell over the place, only the wind rattling on the windows could be heard faintly.

"I hope these apartments have more than one bedroom," Christine confessed after a while, alarmed at the mere thought of having to share a bed with Tristan. He never turned around as he answered her, he only kept strolling around, examining the room.

"Hmm..." was all he uttered, consumed in his current task. He walked around, prodding the walls, looking behind portraits and vases that stood on the tables lining the walls. He even looked behind the tapestries.

"What are you doing?" Christine walked to his side, curious as to what he was searching for. His gloved hand kept knocking on the wall, listening to the change in sounds. He did not seem satisfied with what he heard and moved on.

"For hidden passageways or eyeholes," he said as he kept feeling the walls. Christine rose an eyebrow in disbelief.

"That would be too obvious," she began. "Surely they wouldn't put us in a room where—" She cut her sentence short when Tristan found a switch and a small part of the wall by the fireplace swung open, revealing a secret passageway. Her mouth turned into a thin line and her face became pale. "Oh." 

Tristan, on the other hand, felt nothing but growing anger for James. Was this how he was to be treated now? With suspicion? He promptly shut the door again, replacing the tapestry that had been hiding the split in the wall. He turned around to see a pale yet angered Christine as well.

"Not a word of this to anyone," he began.

Christine sat down in one of the chairs, tired. All of this was her fault. They were suspected because she had asked the king something she shouldn't have. And now James probably thought them to have an ulterior motive. But Tristan knew what this was about. He was not at ease with his discovery at all. He knew about a possible conspiracy in Wessport from Saxton. This made him realize that James might be familiar with it as well. But it seemed that James thought Tristan was somehow involved in the affair. Tristan’s hands curled into fists as he rested his tired head against the fireplace, staring into the hypnotizing flames. Their heat radiated through his body and seemed to caress his weary bones.

"Let us keep looking through the rooms, to see if we can find more unpleasant surprises," Christine said as she got up from the elaborately carved chair she had been sitting on and walked over to Tristan, coaxing him away from the fireplace. They started inspecting each room. There was a total of three rooms in their apartment. The parlor also led to a smaller bedroom, probably for Maria. The closer Christine was to her maid, the better she would feel.

Christine found nothing peculiar in the parlor and thus entered through to an adjoint bedroom. It was a larger bedroom with elegant furnishings, probably dating back to the previous century. The bed was wide, and it seemed comfortable. She walked along the walls, painted in a deep green color and covered here and there by faded tapestries. It was decorated in themes of nature—flora and fauna were seen everywhere, from the tapestries to the beams that held the roof intact. Portraits of landscapes and castles dotted the walls and in one corner was even a blurry mirror, an item of great luxury. Another side of the room saw several tall wardrobes, capable of housing dresses for an army. She opened them and felt along the back of the furniture, knocking to see if she could hear any hollow sound. She finally came to the wall where the bed was rested against. Christine walked along the entire length but found nothing that suggested that it hid a secret compartment or passageway.

Meanwhile, Tristan had gone through the other door. It led him to another bedroom, which he would take as his. It was furnished in a similar style as Christine's, but with red walls and faded tapestries draping them. He searched each wall meticulously and when he arrived at the one by where the bed stood, he found a latch that opened a hidden door. He looked through it, only to see a narrow hall ending in darkness. Tristan closed it and his thumb and index finger went to pinch the bridge of his nose. He sensed a growing headache as he sat down defeated on the bed. He realized how both he and Christine could end up exchanging their current rooms for cells in the dungeons if he didn't get the upper hand in the game soon.