Secrets of The Court: Chapter 2

November 4th, 1519 - Wessport

Blue eyes contemplated the fluffy snowflakes as they slowly drifted from the silver sky to the unstirred ground. The small and rundown townhouse—one of the few remaining things her family's tainted name still possessed—suffocated and trapped her with its murky corners, rotten floorboards and termite holes in the wall. The townhouse stood in the middle of the city where the merchants and wealthy bourgeoisie lived.

Both the house and the city were silent. Eerily silent, she thought.

Christine Vega, daughter of the late Count of Cadherra, looked at the corner of the dull, gray room. Her wedding dress toppled over at the far end. In a fortnight, she and her mother would reside in their former home once more. Their castle stood perched atop a cliff at the edge of Raven's Grove in Cadherra, the very woods she had roamed as a little girl. But at what price? Whenever Christine's mind slipped back to the night she first gazed upon her future husband, she reminisced the horror that had stirred in her gut as a giant dressed in dark clothing entered the Blue Hall. She shivered at the hidden face, at the lack of any human resemblance save his eyes and lips. He seemed shadowed by the horrible leather helm that covered his head like a grotesque second skin.

However, James proposed to Christine a deal that would bring her family name out of the gutter. It would never return to its former glory, but at least the name Vega would no longer only be synonymous with traitor in Angloa. If she willingly married the General of the armies of the North so that he might take over the Cadherra lands, she would become Countess of Cadherra, and her mother would live out her last years in comfort.

The premise had been presented in such a simple and easy way to her, the sacrifice she would make was hidden from her until the last minute—and it was indeed too late for her to turn back now. Christine knew she had made a deal with the Devil. James had offered this solution to her because she was in a desperate enough situation to accept it.

Ever since the previous day's celebration, Christine kept to the small townhouse and rarely ventured outside. She had not spoken since her mother had urged her out of the palace. In a few days, Christine and her mother would take a ship to Coldwick and then journey to Hayes and, eventually, Adelton Hall. She had not stepped foot in the old castle for almost a year – not since her father's demise.

It was a long journey south. She was happy that she did not have to go through the mountains and the vast, dark forests that speckled the inland of Angloa. The only solace she found by traveling back to her childhood home was that she would be far away from the judging eyes and lashing tongues of court. She was also thankful that she would make the trip without her betrothed for the more time she spent away from him the happier she was. However, one part of her argued that she should be grateful that her small family had been saved. Who knew what would have befallen them once their funds ended? They knew no trade and had never achieved a hard day's work in their lives.

The green wedding gown her mother had married in had been fitted for her and taken in by the cheapest seamstress they could afford in Wessport. Its final composition remained beautiful, with sheer three-quarter sleeves that ended with a framing of delicate lace. The bodice tapered down to a point at the lower portion of her waist, and a low square-shaped neckline, trimmed with delicate lace. The skirt was long and flowed with a small, layered train. When Christine walked, it looked as though she had clouds swirling about her. It was a deep emerald, greener than the rolling meadows outside of her home in summer, greener than the trees of Raven's Grove. But to her, it still looked dark and unpleasant.

Her mother had tried to keep up a charade of bravery, yet the moment she gazed upon her daughter, tears threatened to fall. Alas, Amanda did not urge her daughter to call off the wedding. She felt guilty for not doing so and the realization of her own cowardice tore at her internally. There had been a rift created between mother and daughter wherein one faced her own guilt and the other a crushing sense of duty.

What Christine feared the most was not only having to be in close quarters with Tristan but their wedding night as well. The previous night, she had heard her fair share of opinions from both men and women, tasteless remarks on her wedding night, offerings of compassion, and statements pertaining to the sense of gratefulness she should have toward her fiancé and her king.

Christine had seen twenty-one summers and was already past the common age for marrying. She had no prospects, no lands save a small insignificant plot of earth, no dowry to offer, and her name was tarnished by the actions of her father. Therefore, most regarded the marriage between Tristan Hawthorne and Christine Vega as a salvation for the poor girl.

"My lady, here is your food," came the soft, motherly voice of her chambermaid, Maria. Despite the difficulties the family had faced, Maria had been one of the few servants to stay with them. Even though it was in the wee hours of the morning – the woman – a few years older than Christine, did not wait for her lady's affirmation. She entered with the usual familiarity and sat the bowl of thick broth down on the desk by the window, where Christine sat. She made no move to touch the food.

As the steam of the rich broth wafted through the air, Maria sighed.

"My lady, please, my heart would soar to see you get some sustenance into you," Maria said in a slight southern accent, running like sweet honey from her lips, a sound that usually comforted Christine.

Christine looked away from the window a moment before turning to her only friend left. When she saw the concern on Maria’s face, she did what was asked of her, proceeding to drink the warm liquid. She did it all without saying a word. When she was done, she rested her head in her arms and looked out the window once more. It was still early morning, yet most servants had awoken now. The once untouched snow was now trampled by horses and muddied shoes as merchants, servants, and other inhabitants of the city made their way to their destinations. Maria, knowing there was little comfort she could offer, left Christine alone with her thoughts. Maria looked at the wedding dress with despairing eyes before closing the door.

As soon as Maria left, Christine let the tears loose.

The morning fog had yet to disperse. Chills crept up the spines of those who were beginning to venture outside. At the entrance of the palace stood the guards, drinking spirits to keep warm. Winter was upon Angloa, and many believed that it would come early this year. The snow that started falling during the night was not yet welcome, but as it couldn't be helped, people dealt with it as they did with many other hardships.

In the palace, the stone walls did little to keep the cold outside. During the night, frostbitten servants ran through the mighty hallways, lighting fires to keep the inhabitants of the palace warm, as well as themselves. When others awoke that morning, they took hold of an extra fur or blanket, staying several more minutes in their soft, comfortable beds before eventually dragging themselves out.

The king awoke moments before dawn. He had not found solace through the night with the woman that slept with him, a pretty redhead whose name he had already forgotten. He stood in one of the smaller rooms that adjoined his private quarters. It was a large ensemble of rooms that were only for his use. The walls of said room were draped with red fabrics which kept some of the warmth inside. By one end there was a blazing fire that crackled away in the middle-sized chimney. James looked with a slightly amused face as Tristan stood stiffly in one of the far corners with crossed arms. He was tense and had his back to the smaller man, giving James a view of the cords that laced his mask shut.

Tristan had come to him early that morning and requested a private audience. They had been standing in silence for a prolonged moment, Tristan had yet to say a word, so James spoke first.

"Preparations are being made for your trip this coming week."

Tristan turned around fast. In three long strides, they were face to face. James had to raise his eyes slightly to consider the two dark holes where the eyes of Tristan were hiding in the shadows.

"Are you arranging this marriage to keep me here in Angloa?" came Tristan's harsh yet modulated voice. There was an impressive show of self-containment on his part, but James could feel the ire bubbling beneath the surface. James had never seen Tristan so angry and almost recoiled at the intensity of the rasping voice.

"I am only offering you the gratitude of my people, Count Hawthorne." James’ lips twitched but he kept from smirking as he did not want to agitate Tristan further. James, of course, knew the implications of giving up Cadherra to such a man. Some of his noblemen would protest as they had expected Cadherra to be divided amongst themselves. But James needed the security of Tristan Hawthorne in Angloa. Not only was Tristan an excellent warrior, but the strategy and planning he had used to win many of his battles were foreign and impressive.

"You offer me this gratitude by wedding me to a traitor's daughter?" the newly appointed count lashed out, forgetting that he was talking to his king. Tristan forgot himself as he commenced pacing the floor like some agitated animal.

"She…does not please you?" James asked with a vague, wistful tone.

Tristan stopped pacing—the action abrupt. His gloves creaked as he clenched and unclenched his hands.

"She..." Tristan trailed off. He knew he had no real reason for refusing the marriage. A downright refusal would have the king demand why, and for Tristan to simply say that he would not marry would not be enough. He knew it would warrant an explanation he could not give his king. Besides the affront of not giving a reason, refusing such a request by his king was downright impossible. Tristan had, after all, sworn fealty and loyalty. Refusing in itself would be a grave insult.

"Christine and her mother have agreed to this union, and you will only profit from it. This is the world outside of battles and war…." James said, almost in a mocking tone. "We offer you Cadherra graciously, I insist you accept it."

Tristan knew that he was stuck with the girl, whether he liked it or not. He knew this even upon the realization that he could stay no longer in Angloa. Two years in the north had already stretched his advantage. If he stayed longer and settled, he would have to live imprisoned by his mask for the rest of his life. And what would Sofia say? There was no doubt that she would unleash a mighty storm of unparalleled rage against him as soon as she found out about the engagement.

"Come, Tristan. I understand this might trouble you now, but once all parties are willing, everyone will benefit from this marriage. Lady Christine is a traitor's daughter for God's sake. Marrying you is her best hope for survival, and she will not have to live out the rest of her days as an old maid. No one else wants her, despite the lands which are tied to her."

Tristan knew better than to let himself be convinced, there was only one final thing he could try to rid himself of the forced engagement without insulting anyone.

"I want to hear it from her, I want her to confirm her agreement to this engagement. These words from her lips are all I need to journey to Adelton Hall."

James produced a knowing smile. “You will be wasting a trip to the middle ring, but if that is your wish, I shall not stop you.”

Tristan returned to Sofia's home, knowing the longer he stayed at the palace, the larger the risk of compromising himself into another promise or affair. Besides, he felt safer sleeping in the house of the woman that had raised him, knowing he could take his mask off and relax.

Tristan walked the streets of Wessport with his hood up, tracking through the mud and snow, trying to determine how best to give Sofia the news. Some passersby who happened to raise their head looked away in fright as they saw the darkness that resided within his hood. The stranger averted his gaze, stepping out of his way. Tristan let out a strangled sigh and continued toward the outer circle of Wessport, walking through the narrow alleys and small streets until he arrived at the run-down house.

"I did not hear you leave," came Sofia's raspy voice. She must have just awoken as her voice was still stiff from sleep. She stood by the cauldron that hung over the fire, preparing breakfast—a gray mush that Tristan had accustomed himself to after living with her for many years. He locked the door behind him and made certain all windows were closed and covered. The new Count of Cadherra then walked over to the table where he pulled back his hood and unlaced the cords of his mask. His face breathed the fresh morning air that seeped in from the cracks in the walls and bolted windows.

"I left before dawn," he said nonchalantly before reaching for a piece of the rock-hard loaf that he soaked in some warmed and spiced wine. Sofia continued stirring the porridge in the cauldron in a peaceful, hazy state of mind.

"I hear the mighty Tristan Hawthorne is getting married." She remained as calm as before, refusing to acknowledge him with a glance.

"Hm," Tristan grunted as he took a small bite of the soaked bread and reached for the pitcher of water that he poured into the wine to dull the strong flavor.

"I wonder how that came about." Sofia tasted the porridge, wrinkled her nose, and poured what appeared to be cinnamon and nutmeg into the mix. Tristan wondered how the cunning and secretive lady managed to get her hands on the otherwise costly spices.

"Fell insisted." He fixed his eyes on her slightly wrinkled face. Even for a woman of her age, which could be anywhere between forty and sixty, she was very impressive to look at. Her beauty was a mature one. She had delicate creases around her eyes and forehead that deepened her severe personality. Her skin was tan even though she usually spent most of her days inside. Her hair, once a raven black, now had streaks of silver flowing through it. Her eyes were like two pits of the darkest blacks Tristan had ever seen. They would twinkle dangerously whenever she was up to something, which was most times. She reminded him more of an enchantress than the old woman who had practically raised him and stood by him for the past seventeen years. Sofia straightened herself and fixed her black eyes on him for the first time.

"Insisted?" she asked, her Spanish accent softening the words and making them seem sweeter. She spoke melodically and in such a fashion that it resembled poetry.

Tristan nodded and raised an eyebrow. He was waiting for her to lash out at him, to argue how ignorant he had been to let the king get the better of him. But Sofia did no such thing. She averted her gaze and stirred the porridge.

"I wonder who this girl might be…" she spoke curiously, with no hint of anger or irritation. "…that would have you so caught off guard," she smirked. Tristan found it odd for some reason. Sofia rarely smirked.

"Of little consequence… for her this is a marriage of convenience.”

“And for you?”

“It is merely a request from my king.”

“A command more like it.”

Tristan pursed his lips. “I will call on her, ask her to confirm her part in this, persuade her to refuse me…not that she should need such persuasions…”

The gypsy lifted her chin defiantly. "What did I tell you? We should never have returned, then this poor girl wouldn’t have been roped into this. Do you really think she has the option to refuse you, the daughter of a traitor? You are the final hope she has to flee a life of poverty, starvation, and misery."

"The situation is complicated, Sofia," Tristan stated as he munched away at the bread. Sofia paused briefly and then turned around, leaving the wooden spoon in the cauldron and placing her hands on her hips. "She would have faced such a thing if I had not been present either way," Tristan said, raising his voice, which did not impress the older woman. “I did what I set out to do, there is nothing left here… I know what James plans in offering these titles and lands, he wants me to settle down here.”

"Tristan," she sighed and walked over to him, sitting down by his side, placing a comforting hand over his own. "Destiny has placed her on your path for a reason… do not be so dismissive."

"You know I have nothing of note to offer her except a life of secrecy and condemnation."

The old gypsy looked deep within her acclaimed child, searching in his eyes for what he truly felt. But she saw nothing. It was as if he still wore the mask.

“So, you will disobey the request of your king?”

He clenched his jaw, looking away. “I…” he could not bring himself to finish the sentence, the words evading him, just as common reason had.

"Time will tell," she said with a tone of finality, rising from his side and venturing back to the cauldron. Sofia knew Tristan had always prided himself in being true to his word and held a self-destructing notion that he owed James Fell his allegiance. Despite her many efforts in trying to have him leave Angloa, Tristan had remained steadfast in his decision to remain and help it in its war against England. Alas now, after the war was over, new difficulties seemed to linger on the horizon.

After spending the rest of the morning strolling mindlessly around town, Tristan found himself inside the house of the Vega family. He did not know how his feet had taken him there. After having spent countless hours at the market, acquainting himself amongst shoppers and the general chaos, which he secretly loved, his mind wandered while his feet led the way.

He knocked and a servant, a delicate little thing, opened the frail piece of wood that was the door. She stared in shock as his hooded form loomed over her on the steps leading to the entrance.

Tristan was let into a cramped foyer, listening and watching as she scurried to have another servant get the owner of the house. To say that the building had seen better days was an understatement. It must have been one of the family's old townhouses and one of the less prominent ones at that. It was located in the middle circle, where no other families of noble blood ever visited save to enter or exit the city. The walls and floors were stained by months of mold and dust that had settled there. In the ceiling, there were cobwebs. The room, although large, felt cramped amongst the stacked furniture that lined the walls. The walls, once in a vibrant color, were now a decaying gray.

Tristan was sent into what resembled a gathering room, with a set of wooden Savonarola chairs that were – surprisingly – clean and in scraped mahogany, thus contrasting greatly with the other more worn-down and darker furnishings of the room.

He chose to stand, as he doubted the sturdiness of the chairs. The last thing he wanted to do was fall flat on his backside in front of his intended. The crooked shutters were all closed to prevent prying eyes from looking in from the street. There were a dozen wax candles lit. They sat in wooden or old stone candle holders. The gold and silver candelabras must have been sold to allow the family to keep the house and fill their stomachs.

Tristan looked out of one of the thick windows that faced directly onto the streets. The shutters were so broken and crooked that half of the window was unprotected, and he was allowed a view of the scene from outside. A few minutes passed by as he stood contemplating the streets below, absentmindedly brushing a hand over his chin as if making sure the mask was still there. Suddenly, someone entered quietly behind him. Tristan turned around to see the mother of his bride-to-be. Lady Amanda held her hands in front of herself to keep them from shaking as she stepped into the room. Amanda was not ready to meet her future son-in-law and the idea that her innocent daughter was to wed such a thing almost made her lose her composure.

"My lord," Amanda spoke, addressing him with his new corresponding title and curtsying deeply. Tristan gave her a slight nod, holding an air of arrogance about himself as he considered her up and down. He remained standing. Lady Amanda sat down on the chair furthest from him.

"To what do we owe the pleasure?" she asked, her dark blonde hair slightly shaking in its hairdo as she attempted to keep herself still.

"I am here for your daughter." It amused Tristan greatly to see Amanda fight to keep her composure. She swallowed hard, the guttural sound that erupted from her throat was so loud it was most likely heard from outside the room.

"You mean to have a…a private audience with my daughter, my lord?" Amanda said in a strained voice. The last few words were merely a whisper.


“Indeed?” she questioned, a bit more forcefully.

"What I have to say to her is best heard by her and her only."

"Do forgive me, my lord, as you might be new to the more discrete workings of... finer society. A private audience between a young woman and a man, unattended with not even a chaperone, t-that—that is frankly unthinkable!" Amanda exclaimed, flushed, and angered at the nerve of the man before her.

Tristan’s head tilted to the side. "Then enlighten me, might I not speak alone with your daughter because social etiquette forbids it or are you against leaving her unsupervised… with me?"

Lady Amanda fiddled with her hands, growing uncomfortable with answering his question, they were touching a subject she was not at ease with. It was evident what she thought of her future son-in-law. Alas, general politeness and common etiquette prevented her from giving him her piece of mind. This was tied in with the fact that he scared the daylights out of her. Before she had time to answer, a soft voice came from the other side of the room.

"Do not worry yourself so, mother. I am certain that whatever Lord Hawthorne has to say will not take long and I hardly think we are able to consider social etiquette anymore."

Christine stepped forward. She'd had time to mentally prepare herself, but even so, as she saw her fiancé turn to face her, she recoiled inside. Amanda, relieved she had a reason to leave, walked out as fast as possible, leaving the young pair alone in a matter of seconds. As soon as Amanda left the room, she let her nerves take over.

Meanwhile, in the gathering room, Christine dove for the same chair as her mother — the one farthest from where Tristan was standing.

They shared a prolonged moment of silence in which one secretly took in the presence of the other.

Christine’s eyes wandered to his face. She could not see his eyes from where she sat but was intrigued as to what might be expressed in them. She had never been close enough to consider them and wondered if she would someday have the courage to look at them straight-on. The young woman's gaze wandered to the only other part that was visible on the otherwise garbed and concealed form: his lips. She had heard that beneath the black mask there was a most horrendous face, that whatever ailment he had faced had left him so deformed that there was not even a resemblance of a face left. But his lips, despite the flying rumors at court, looked normal. To her great surprise, she found them pleasant to the eye. She suspected they would even be charming if a smile were to touch them. It was the only part that seemed human to her about this man.

Meanwhile, Tristan took her in as well, his eyes keenly noting how the bodice hugged her midsection, tapering down to the full skirt that bloomed out and settled around her like a soft yellow cloud.

Her golden hair swept back from her face. Her curls were loosely pinned at the crown and back of her head, leaving some of the shorter ones to frame her face, which was the way most Angloan women wore their hair. He was enticed by her striking eyes, a lavender blue that showed the gateway to her most inner thoughts. Tristan found that even though Christine tried to keep her emotions in check, some would escape and show through her expressive eyes.

Had her father not committed treason, she would have been wed this past year, and probably with a good and agreeable match. The life that could have been for Christine Vega had been robbed from her with the passing of her father. His sins had not only damned his own life, but that of his wife and daughter as well. Tristan couldn’t help but feel a twinge of compassion toward her and her situation.

He eyed her, as if expecting her to speak first. Christine's fingers nervously traveled to her skirt, fiddling with it, but her hands froze when she recalled the strict composure she was meant to keep. She overlapped her hands on her thighs, her eyes drawn to the covered windows, managing to settle upon a few golden rays that, despite the dirty glass and wooden shutters, had managed to pierce through.

"I apologize for having made you wait, my lord.”

Tristan didn’t spare a second for pleasantries. As always, he jumped right into the matter.

"I will not keep you,” he said in a deep raspy voice which Christine was slowly growing accustomed to. “You struck a deal with James to wed me,” he stated matter-of-factly.

“Indeed, my lord. But that is a known fact,” she frowned.

“What should become of you, should I choose not to follow through?”

She was surprised by his bluntness and by the relaxed tone of his language. Tristan didn’t flourish his sentences nor used excessive titles as she had become so used to at court. She was certain that his addressing the king on a first-name-basis so casually would more than likely rise a few eyebrows at court.

“You may only have access to Cadherra through matrimony with me, my lord. You would lose your new title,” she answered and fought hard to push down the rising desperation in her voice. Surely, not even this man could refuse her on the basis of her father’s treason.

“Then this is as much profitable for you as it would be for me.”

“I suppose so, my lord.”

He turned around slowly, his back facing her. “Should I not want the lands of Cadherra, then what would become of you?”

Christine raised an eyebrow at the words. Direct and to the point, that was the famed way of General Hawthorne, after all. He took a slow turn about the dark room, letting her digest the words. She surmised that his bluntness was best met with equal force.

“I suppose, my lord,” she started meekly, “that Cadherra would be locked to my name until my passing or until I am engaged to someone else. Alas, I am no prospect for matrimony for anyone else, Adelton Hall would stand empty until my death and then revert back to the crown or be handed over to someone else at court.”

Christine grew uneasy as he prowled about, his tall form seemed shrouded in shadows. More daylight managed to seep in from the closed shutters as the sun appeared from behind the clouds and the flickering of the candlelight did nothing to better her view of him.

“James would not grant you access to Cadherra now, even if part of it falls onto you?” He sounded pensive as he stopped to face her. Christine’s skin prickled as she felt his eyes rest on her.

“He has not for this past year, my lord,” she answered dryly.

Tristan considered her reply, then asked another blunt question. “Do you want a husband?”

Christine clenched her jaw at the question. As she now was faced with her future husband, she did not know if she could answer him truthfully without offending him. Part of her wanted to break the engagement, but part of her felt an obligation, an unwavering resolve that knew the pairing would be for the best. Her unhappiness was nothing compared to the security her marriage with Tristan would offer. The traitorous name of her family might never truly be saved but her family might at least recover somewhat from the social and economic exile they had faced with this one act of courage. Thus, as Tristan Hawthorne stood before her, demanding an answer, Christine was tempted to say no—as it was what she truly felt. She wanted to tell him that marriage with someone like him was unthinkable and that she would rather throw herself off the steep cliffs to the west of the island before letting him have her.

“I want stability, Lord Hawthorne.” Christine heard the words come from her mouth, but never felt herself truly speak them. It was almost as if she were standing by the side, watching herself say the alien statement. There was no waver in her tone, and she seemed decided.

Tristan stopped pacing about the room and slowly went to stand before her. She couldn’t read his expression—she couldn’t determine if her words were agreeable or detestable to him, not that she would have cared.

“That I cannot give you,” he answered curtly.

“A roof for me and my mother and a hot meal is all I ask for. Cadherra could bring you power and riches the likes you have never known. If my father‘s treason preoccupies you, my lord, rest assured that His Majesty fully supports this union.”

She did not glance up to meet his gaze, but she could feel the razor-sharp blade of his eyes cut down on her. Christine didn’t know she was holding her breath and strived to relax albeit found it hard with Tristan in the same room.

“I do not wish for power.”

“Every man in Wessport thirsts for power.”

“I did not fight this war to win honors and titles.”

She wanted to ask him why he had come to Angloa, but bit her tongue before she could speak. He neared her further and Christine turned her head away in reflex—recoiling from him. For the first time, Tristan noted how truly uncomfortable she was in his presence.

“I shall meet you at Adelton Hall… and I will tell you when I have decided,” he said while inclining his head in a slight bow.

Christine gripped the skirts of her gown. “Decided what?” she squeaked despite herself.  

He was already halfway out the door of the sitting room before turning to her. Christine never rose to show him out, but then again, he did not expect her to.

“If I’ll have you and your lands.”