Secrets of The Court: Chapter 6

 December 13th, 1519 - Cadherra

As they delved deeper into December and winter, they closed in on the festivities of Yule. Maria, together with the other maids, had been called by Mrs. Hammond to help with the ever-growing work that never seemed to stop.

Maria did not really have a place amongst the other maids. Although some were kind toward her, others treated her with such lack of civility that she wondered if they held some personal grudge against her. For her, it was always difficult knowing who to trust, and who could turn their back on her the next second.

They were a big group seated in the kitchens — the warmest place in the castle — except for the lord and ladies' rooms. The kitchens were really just a big spacious room, rectangular in shape and low in roof, to keep as much heat in as possible.

Although the heat was appreciated in the cold of winter, it was greatly undesired in summer. The walls in tiled brick only had two small windows that barely let in any light. The servants had to rely on the light of the three wide fireplaces and hundreds of candles, placed about the room. The room was divided into sections. One section held a countertop bench for preparing the food before it had to go into the cauldron or roast on the fire. Another section was a long table, stretching from one end of the room to the other. There the kitchen servants would knead the bread and pastries or sit down to have a quick bite of leftovers. In some cases, just like this chilly December morning, many of the servants gathered to sit and work together by the warmth that the kitchen fires. The air was pleasant as the women chatted away.

Hanging from the beams of the ceiling by thin strings were various herbs, plucked during summer and autumn, left to dry and be used sparingly in winter. In the coldest corner of the kitchen stood a dozen barrels filled with various types of salted meats, also in preparation for winter. Next to them lay a large pile of cut dry wood that male servants would refill every morning as the fires in the castle were lit.

Maria sat by the table, occupied with mending linen while other servants polished the silverware for the coming festivities that would soon be held for Christmas. She pricked her finger for the third time until another woman took pity on her and asked if she wanted to switch tasks.

"Aye, for if I continue, this piece of cloth will soon go from white to red," Maria exclaimed as she sucked up the blood that emerged from her fingertip, trying to block out the pain as she commenced polishing sharp knives instead.

"Do not worry, it is the least I can do," said the dark-haired girl and sighed with a displeased expression on her face. Suddenly, Maria wondered if she had done something wrong.

"Have I offended you in any way?" Maria asked. Maria was blunt, she knew that. Even as a maid, she made her opinion heard, ignoring if they could get her in trouble or not, something they had in the past. But she had never liked the idea of tiptoeing around people. Being blunt might seem less refined in the eyes of the gentry, but she was used to it after all.

Another one of the dozen kitchen maids laughed, brushing Maria's question off as something quite entertaining. "Well, at least that would bring some excitement here — a confrontation between the servants. No, Lauren is bored, I believe. As are the rest of us," she said while polishing a cup furiously, trying to remove the last speck of dirt that kept it from shiny perfection.

Maria’s eyebrows rose as she looked back at Lauren. "You are bored… here?" She could not believe what she was hearing. Lauren shrugged and kept mending.

"But how can you be bored here? There is so much to see, there are so many things happening! How about the bandits in Raven's Grove? Or what about his lordship?" Maria asked again, looking around.

Another maid, cutting vegetables on the countertop looked up suddenly, mischief and curiosity shining in her otherwise dull, brown, eyes.

"I heard from Johanna the other day a most peculiar tale," she smirked, getting the attention of the other women in the room. Even the cook, a robust woman who probably ‘tasted’ half of the food before she served it, looked curious. The girl speaking was Ruth, one of the kitchen maids with a talent for telling tales. Whenever she spoke, people lent an ear, knowing that they were in for some juicy gossip. Ruth continued her poetic pause until it irritated some of the girls.

"Well, go on then! What did Johanna say?" asked Lauren impatiently. Maria sighed. Gossiping was something the servants did often, but she tried to stay out of it, mostly because they would speak about her mistress. She could never hold her tongue. She always spoke up to defend Christine and it would usually get her into trouble.

Ruth looked around the open space of the kitchen. The cook sat down by the warm fireplace where broth furiously boiled away. A dozen servants sat by the long table. The kitchen maids continued what they were doing but from their slowing in pace and alert eyes, it was evident that they were listening in as well.

"Johanna is one of the servants that tends to his lordship. She is the one that cleans his rooms and gets partial access to them." A sinister smirk spread across Ruth's dull, chubby features. Her mouse-colored hair was greasy from lack of washing and her hands were full of scars she had received using the cutting knife on the vegetables.

"She is the chambermaid of Hawthorne?" exclaimed one of the older servants. A murmur arose amongst the women. To be the chambermaid of someone like Hawthorne was something no one wished. Before his arrival, they had all refused as Mrs. Hammond had rounded them up to select a willing servant. The general belief had thus become that Mrs. Hammond herself took care of Tristan Hawthorne's chambers.

"Yes, but Mrs. Hammond appears to accompany her. Not even she will allow a maid to venture into his lordship’s quarters by herself," continued Ruth. "Last week, Mrs. Hammond was otherwise occupied, and Johanna had to go herself. She found the main chamber empty and, so, decided that before she started her work, she would… explore."

Now Maria listened as well. How could a handmaid dare to go through his lordship's belongings? She was infuriated, but she held her tongue, even though she was determined to inform Mrs. Hammond when she found the chance.

"Johanna had never gone beyond his lordship’s bedchamber. It seems it is something he personally requested. He keeps his other rooms clean himself."

"How curious," a man stocking the firewood in the back added, matter-of-factly. Others nodded in agreement.

"Johanna had been thinking the same for she dared to venture beyond his bedchamber." Ruth placed both hands firmly on the cutting board. The other maids leaned forward eagerly. The tension and excitement built up slowly as they waited for Ruth to reveal what Johanna had found.

"Well?" said another impatient servant as she urged her to continue.

"Beyond his bedchambers and personal study, there is a small, circular, room that the old master never used, but his current lordship has put it to good use." Another poetic pause followed in order to fuel the dramatic tension in the room.

"A large mirror… And in the middle of the room, a case holding various weapons, such as swords and daggers. And he has the most amazing pistol,” she said, “of ivory."

The others seemed let down.

"You got our hopes up for a mirror and weapons? Ruth, the man is the bloody general of the northern armies. Of course, it is to be expected!" exclaimed the cook from the back of the room.

"I wasn't finished, Mrs. Adams!" shouted Ruth, trying to regain the power she had held through her storytelling just a few minutes earlier. The sour faces of the crowd did not let up, for they had felt as tricked as the cook.

"Johanna told me that most of the weapons looked foreign. And would that not indicate where Hawthorne might have been before coming to Angloa? Maybe Hawthorne doesn't even hail from here!" Ruth took great pleasure in seeing the listeners’ eyes light up as they realized what she was implying.

"You think him a foreigner?" asked a blonde girl. Others joined in and started demanding answers. Soon people started speculating and Maria figured that even more rumors about his lordship were being created. As Maria’s rough hands kept polishing the many metal cups and cutlery that were still by her side on the table, she noticed how the conversation slowly started turning in another direction. To Maria's dismay, the change of subject did not please her.

"I wonder if young Vega knows."

"Of course not, she never ventures near him," the kitchen servants argued amongst each other.

"Nor does she allow but one person to enter and keep her company these days," grinned another one. She was mending linen as well. Her expressive, delicate eyebrows rose high as her mouth grew into a mysterious grin. She glanced at Maria as she pricked the needle in the linen, slowly dragging the thread through.

"Is it not true, Maria, that Lady Christine has visited Sir Astor rather often lately?" she asked casually. All eyes turned to the young woman who stared at the shiny cup in her hand, polishing it to the point where she could see her own, worried, and tired reflection staring back. When Maria did not answer, another servant snickered.

"What else is to be expected from a traitor's daughter? She is yet to be married and already she is cuckolding her fiancé with another." The servant sounded disgusted, and sounds of subdued agreement escaped the others. Maria’s patience since arriving at Adelton had shattered, little by little. This instance was the last straw.

"My lady would never do such a thing and you are foolish for thinking so lowly of her, the lot of you!" Maria spat. She threw the cup away and stood up, brimming with anger. "Excuse me," she growled while stepping out.

"Not so rough, Christine!"

"If you kept still and did as I told you, I would not have to be as rough!"

"It hurts!"

"Of course it would hurt, look at this! You should have come to me sooner!" exclaimed Christine in quite a distressed voice. Joseph pouted and shied away, guarding his wound. He had been bed-bound so long that when he finally was allowed to go to his own quarters — away from the Palas — he avoided it and the physician like the plague. It meant that his bandages didn't get changed as regularly. Christine worried about her new friend and had sought him out in his chambers to tend to his wounds herself.

"I appreciate your concern for me." Joseph fiddled nervously with his hands. They were spending too much time together recently and did not make Christine look favorable in the eyes of the inhabitants inside and outside of the castle. Whispers that if raised and further extended, could do more than just harm Christine’s reputation. It could, in the worst case, extend all the way to the ear of the king and jeopardize her current situation. Tristan had yet to marry her, and she hadn’t actively sought to cement the union either. What James had bestowed upon them, he could just as easily take away, yet neither Christine nor Tristan seemed to have given the matter a second thought. Besides, Joseph reluctantly told himself, his reputation would suffer if he should be seen in such close proximity to Christine. The last thing he wished was for Tristan to get the wrong idea about them.

"I know you do," she smiled while cleaning the arrow wound. It was healing nicely. She was not a complete fool. In the corner sat Maria, cutting new bandages that she handed to Christine.

Christine started bandaging the wounds and was grateful that there was no hint of infection. Joseph winced as he sat up, supported by the pillows. He removed the bandages from Christine and took her hands in his. Maria blushed at the forwardness of Joseph and looked away. Christine’s eyes widened as she, surprised, met his gaze.

"We have not been friends for long and already I feel as if I have known you for years… but you should be cautious when you come like this to see me."

Christine’s soft expression turned into a slight frown as her fair eyebrows knitted together. She dragged her hands out from his grip.

"Maria, will you leave us for a moment?" Christine asked, her eyes diverted to her skirt.

Maria hesitated, leaving the room and being seen by anyone else might fuel more malicious speculation concerning Christine and Joseph.

“My lady, I do not believe it is w—”

Christine turned around, her frown deeper. “Now!”

Maria got up, her face unreadable as she gave a light curtsy, closing the door behind her as she left.

Christine and Joseph were left in an awkward silence.

"What do you imagine this is, Joseph? Do you think I have some romantic attachment to you only because I wish to spend time with you?" Christine’s tone grew more upset by the second.

“No, of course not. I… appreciate the friendship we have but it cannot progress any further. Surely you must see it, this situation we find ourselves in, surely you must hear it as well, the whispers concerning you and I—”

"What situation, Joseph?" Christine demanded as anger and confusion replaced the pain of abandonment.

"I cannot ignore the malice I hear in the servants' voices as they speak ill of you, and it is even openly now. They do not fear repercussion."

Christine rose from the bed, turning her back on him so that he wouldn’t see the look of disdain on her face. "No, of course, for God help if anything bad should be said about you. Being with me would only taint your good name further, isn't that what frightens you the most?" she lashed out at him — hurt and mocked, and blinded by anger. She started walking to the door, her jaw tense, her nostrils flared, and her eyes glaring his way. "I have not been acquainted with you long, Joseph Astor, yet in spending time with you I did not find this place quite as draining as upon my arrival…"

As she reached for the handle Joseph shook his head. "Malicious whispers, for that is all it is right now, could come back to haunt you, Christine. What if His Majesty got wind of you choosing to spend time with the man he had not ordained you to marry? What if he believed you to be fooling Lord Hawthorne before you are even wed? It would not only be seen as an affront to his lordship, but an insult to His Majesty himself." He tried to reach out to her, but his wounds made him wince. He dropped back into the bed, holding his wound.

Christine squeezed the handle, knowing there was reason to Joseph's words. Alas, momentary anger and pride made her reluctant to take a step back.

"I care for you and do not wish to see anyone speak badly of you or for the misinterpretation of our friendship to present substantial consequences for you, Christine," Joseph said.

"You say you care for me, yet all I can see, Joseph, is someone who approached me and is now — for the fear of some petty gossip — casting me and our friendship aside. It will only serve to fuel such malicious perceptions; of that I am certain. Had we acted above it, no one would have dared speak of it further!"

Christine turned the doorknob and started leaving the room.

“Then you are predisposed to think too good of this world, Christine, and too naïve to see otherwise,” Joseph murmured as she slammed the door shut behind her.

On the other side, Christine leaned against the door, her hand on her chest as she tried to steady her breathing. Maria sat in the small parlor leading to Joseph’s bedchamber. Christine’s handmaid stood up without a word, her expression that of fearful confusion at her mistress's signs of distress.

“My lady?” Maria asked, taking care in her tone, as if awaiting instructions on how to proceed next.

Christine fought hard to compose herself in front of her handmaid. At this moment, she had never felt so alone, so abandoned, and so vexed.

“Take me to my chambers, Maria,” Christine said.

Maria looked down, wondering if it was wisest to speak up here now that she had mustered the courage to do so, or if her courage would falter by the time they arrived at Christine’s chambers. There had been a time when they both could converse easily. Alas, ever since arriving at Adelton Hall, Christine had become so different, someone Maria didn’t recognize.

“Yes, my lady.”

December 14th

The inhabitants of Adelton Hall huddled together as the cold air seeped in through the many cracks of the vast building. During the day there had been an impressive drop in temperature. The clouds that had been high over the mountaintops descended and filled the valley with an eerie fog.

Mrs. Hammond was occupied ordering footmen around the fortress to light up all the fireplaces. She pulled her cape closer around her and shivered. At this rate, all of them would catch a cold. They barely noticed the sun setting as it was so obscured outside. The more superstitious servants kept whispering that it had all to do with his lordship's presence. Rumors about him were always circulating. However, due to the eerie fog that descended so unpredictably that day, the servants suggested Tristan Hawthorne indeed had to be hiding a curse behind his mask, a curse that now extended and affected Adelton and even the valley. How else could it be so cold and miserable?

Johanna, who was always sent to clean his room and fix his bedding every morning, finally gave in after many prompts from the kitchen maids and spoke of the exotic swords and daggers she'd come across. She spoke of ivory hilts, golden details, and even diamonds.

Maria had overheard the rumors of Tristan more frequently in the last few days. She did not know what to believe. Whenever she spoke about him with Christine, the young woman would turn sour and shy away from the subject. Maria was brushing out Christine’s hair for the evening as the thick fog still clung to the windows and pressed against the old building.

"There has been some interesting conversation down in the kitchens these past few days," Maria said as she passed the brush through the blonde silken hair. Christine's mind was however far away, on Joseph. Harmless gossip had even turned her closest friend paranoid. She started realizing that maybe her life was doomed to solitude. Christine was destined to be the bride of a man she would never love and the realization made her feel trapped knowing that there was nothing she could do.

"Gossip here isn’t unusual, Maria." Christine’s mind wandered again and she looked out the window, met by the fog and darkness that extended beyond it. What if she escaped and made her way to Raven's Grove? If Tristan had defeated the forest bandits, then surely it had to be safe going there by now. But Christine could never leave her mother behind, knowing that if she were to escape, Tristan would send Amanda away and she'd be forced to live in misery once more.

"I am new to Cadherra, my lady, yet what has been said gives me goosebumps just thinking of it!" Maria seemed almost giddy as she continued. She wanted to take Christine’s mind off her confrontation with Joseph. Maria brushed the hair more vigorously. She seemed to have caught Christine’s curiosity.

“There can’t be anything of note to speak of these days,” Christine said albeit she did not urge Maria to change the subject.

"Indeed, I never understood how you Cadherrans could find this land boring when action seems to overflow in every corner.”

“You are referring to Saxton and his bandits?”

“In part, yes.”

“That does not concern us.”

“Yet his lordship vanquished him.”

“I heard,” Christine muttered, her expression subdued, her thoughts seeming engaged otherwise.

“There is much speculation about his lordship as well,” Maria began carefully, continuing as she noticed a kindled interest in her mistress once more. “One of the chambermaids that tend to his rooms each morning speaks of a beautiful weapon collection that his lordship keeps in a secluded room next to his chambers. She speculates that, because they are foreign objects, he must hail from another land himself."

Christine scoffed. "I had no idea the servants of Adelton had such an imaginative mindset. Hawthorne could just as well have procured such things in any large port, like Coldwick or New London," muttered Christine while fiddling with her skirts. However, the thought of Tristan being from another country did interest her.

There was an extended pause, broken as Christine spoke again. “Extensive?" she asked.

“A formidable collection, apparently. It makes me wonder, my lady, how such a collection was gathered if his lordship had not a penny to his name before the war.”

“There is little we know about him,” Christine said.

“I suppose it is only wanting, he shares little with those around him I dare presume.”

“Why do you say that?” Christine turned around, facing Maria.

“My lady, he does wear a mask.”

Christine frowned, turning back. Reminded of the peculiar appearance of her fiancé had her silent once more. There was a tension to the air as Maria finished, gathering Christine’s tresses in a loose braid, removing whatever fair strands of hair the brush had gathered.

“I am inclined to trust he has a good nature,” Maria continued, as always speaking her mind.

“You have interacted with him less than I have,” Christine scoffed.

“A man who would risk his own life to save his men cannot be wanting of character, my lady.”

December 15th

The click of heels against cold marble echoed ominously throughout Adelton. Someone hurried along the dark corridors and empty hallways as the sun rose in the sky.

Amanda Vega appeared determined — she had a mission. She could scarcely find comfort in her sleep ever since they had returned to Cadherra. Her bed was too soft — it was too comfortable, too warm, too good for someone like her. When the older woman managed to shut her eyes, horrid nightmares seeped in through the cracks of her mind. It had taken time to realize it, but she soon understood what ailed her. Amanda was haunted by her own actions, by her own cowardice. It had only grown as she saw Christine slowly become a recluse and act up against everyone around her ever since returning. Amanda blamed herself for her daughter's unhappiness. She, who once considered herself a loving and caring mother, had watched her daughter wither away slowly, ever since they had returned to Adelton. After her husband's death, the castle had lost its charm to both women. It loomed over their minds like a curse, pushing their sanity to its limits. Amanda tried to find solace in God, going to the chapel in Adelton almost twice a day, confessing all her sins in a futile attempt to clear her conscience.

But it was not enough. Amanda had abandoned her daughter to a fate of resourcefulness and duty. She had not spoken up against the marriage to Tristan, Amanda had longed for the comforts of their old home after all. To have such a thing within their reach had prompted her to urge Christine to accept the offer despite herself. The last year in Wessport had been tough, and despite having sold off most of their valuables, they scarcely had anything to eat or even wear. 

Amanda Vega, once a grand lady of Angloa, was now but a shadow of what she used to be, and so was Christine. Both had endured endless pain and humiliation in Cadherra and Wessport ever since her husband's death. But during the past year, Christine had been the strong one, keeping her mother's spirits up, never relenting. Her daughter had been her shining beacon of light when all else seemed dark. But moving back to Adelton changed Christine to such a degree that Amanda barely recognized her anymore. Amanda had wrongly presumed that her daughter's melancholia stemmed primarily from her engagement to Tristan Hawthorne — an engagement she had been too foolish not to intervene in. But as the days and weeks passed, she started realizing that there was more to Christine’s shift in character. Returning to Adelton had opened a fresh wound—had served to remind both women of that horrid evening one year ago when Charles Vega had been taken in restraints to Wessport and condemned as a traitor.

As Amanda neared her daughter's room, the wrinkles on her forehead deepened. She only hoped Christine would listen to her. Her auburn-colored skirts swished around her feet as she urged her step. Amanda was like an older version of her daughter, slowly and gracefully entering her autumn years. Delicate wrinkles were prominent on her forehead, they had started appearing ever since the war started — when she did nothing but worry. Yet, small wrinkles around her eyes suggested that there had once been a time when she only smiled — a time when worry did not even touch her mind.

As she reached her daughter's room, she knocked without hesitation. Maria opened the door, the hinges creaking in objection.

"My lady?" uttered Maria in surprise. It was not a secret that the relationship between daughter and mother had been strained ever since Christine agreed to marry Tristan.

"I would speak with my daughter, Maria," Amanda said. She was saddened that their relationship had come to this, that she had to beg an audience with her daughter. Christine sat on the other side of the room next to the fireplace, reading.

Maria looked hesitantly back and then again at Amanda. "My lady, I don't think…"

"Let her in, Maria," came Christine's soft voice as she closed the tome in her hand. Amanda noticed that it was her daughter's diary. She was let into the warm room and she sat next to her daughter by the fire.

"Are you not a bit too warmly dressed for strolling around the castle?" remarked Christine as she eyed her mother's choice of clothes. Amanda wore an overcoat in auburn. It was lined in black, soft marabou and had a deep hood to protect from the harsh winter winds. More layers peaked through the overcoat, unnecessary for taking a stroll about the castle.

"I came here to see to your well-being," Amanda said in a hesitant and careful manner.

"I appreciate it." Christine’s eyes betrayed her smile.

"I came to ask if you would like to take a walk with me on the grounds."

Christine looked out the window, it was a clear day, with not a cloud in the sky. But the snow appeared as deep as ever.

"In this cold weather?" Christine suddenly understood her mother's choice of wardrobe.

"Some fresh air will do you good. I can imagine you have read through most of your tomes and books and I hear you never see Sir Astor anymore."

Christine’s mouth grew dry, and her throat closed up at the mention of Joseph's name. “Well…Sir Astor and I had a difference of opinion,” Christine murmured. “I should think he does not wish to spend any extended time in my company now.”

Amanda took her daughter's hand in her cold ones, squeezing them in a comforting way. "I… have something to show you. I have wanted to show you since we arrived, but it never seemed the right time." Amanda’s nervousness was apparent. Much was left unsaid between mother and daughter, but it was present with them as they exchanged glances.

“Maria, get me my overcoat.”

Soon, mother and daughter were making their way to the foot of Adelton. As they walked past some servants, the onlookers wondered if, finally, mother and daughter had reconciled, never really knowing what they had been fighting about in the first place.

They started descending into the snowy landscape. They did not say much, mostly they remarked on how cold it was, or how difficult it was getting through certain areas. Yet, Amanda had had a path made earlier that day, in anticipation that her daughter would come. They left the main grounds of the castle and reached the tree line that grew by the Durun Mountains. It descended and hugged the foot of the cliff that Adelton Hall was perched upon. The landscape instilled certain awe in its admirers as they pulsed through the snow.

As they neared their destination, Amanda saw it fit to prepare her daughter for what was about to come. She had given little inclination as to what she wanted to show her, Christine had not made any effort to ask, dutifully following Amanda as always.

"I thought we should come here…on this day," Amanda trailed off, her eyes locked on something in the distance. The path that had been made ended on a small hill.

Christine remained silent as her eyes were glued to something perched on top of the hill. As they neared it, she saw what it was and understood why her mother had taken her there. Christine stopped, her eyes sending daggers toward her mother. She had forgotten the significance of the date, yet it all made sense to her now.

"Why did you take me here?" Christine demanded as she tried to get past Amanda to return. Alas, her mother would not let her.

"We…we need to say goodbye, Christine." Amanda’s voice broke but she quickly steadied herself.

“He abandoned us to the life we have been leading for the past year — if you can even call that a life! Mother, the reason we were shunned, had nowhere to go and scarcely food in our stomachs was because of his mistakes!”

“He didn’t mean to—”

“He was a traitor,” Christine whispered. “That is all I ever need knowing.”

Amanda pinched her eyes shut and for the first time, Christine got a look of the true despair her mother had gone through since the death of her husband. “Please,” Amanda begged in a weak voice. “Please do this, if not for you then for me.”

Christine glanced up at the hill, afraid of what she would face once up there. Her father’s presence hung over her, even after his death and there was nothing more she wished to do than run away.

She picked up her skirts, trekking up the hill in silent irritation. On its top, most of the snow had been removed and, in the middle, there was a small and badly-engraved gravestone.

It was Charles Vega's final resting place.

"It is exactly one year today since it happened," continued Amanda as Christine looked away, not even acknowledging her father's tomb.

“I thought he was placed in the family crypt beneath Adelton,” Christine murmured.

Amanda did not take her eyes off the stone. Despite his passing, despite what his actions had bestowed upon them, there was still warmth in her eyes as she remembered him.

"He is not allowed in the family crypt or on holy ground."

"He…he was a traitor," Christine said but she didn’t sound as convinced now when faced with the lonesome resting place.

"He is… was your father!" exclaimed Amanda. "To me, it doesn't matter what he was beyond that, it shouldn't to you either. It has been a year. You cannot be angry with him forever." Amanda took her daughter's hands in hers.

Christine clenched her fists finding no words adequate enough. How could she forgive him? When they had been in Wessport, her focus had been on putting food on the table every day, there had been no time for resentment or anger or mourning although sometimes at night such feelings would surface only for Christine to repress them.

Her eyes became clear, like two glass marbles. “He abandoned us, Mother,” she said through gritted teeth as the first few tears threatened to fall.

Amanda knelt by the tombstone with her head bent down.

“He is the reason we are here now, desperate to survive, desperate enough for you to… to agree to marry me off to someone like Tristan Hawthorne.”

“Would you go back to how we lived before, not knowing if we would have food from one day to the next? Not knowing how long before we lost the king's good graces and he finally found his wit and had us executed as well?”

Christine knew as she had known all along, but it didn’t make her situation any better. “I will do my duty to you as a daughter but do not ask me to forgive Father for placing us in this situation and do not ask me to take pity on him either. This was of his own making.”

“Then why do you weep?” Amanda demanded.

Christine brought a hand up to her face, discovering the tears.

“He left us,” Christine murmured after a moment’s silence. Her voice fought hard not to break, she did not want to crumble under her mother's gaze for she still wished to keep her dignity. "He never even explained anything to me before they took him away. He refused to let me see him in prison."

“He refused to see me as well,” Amanda said. There were tears streaming down her face as well. “I understand you are not ready to forgive him, not yet. But I wanted you to know where he was, if you wished to visit him, speak with him yourself.”

Christine finally let her gaze wander to the stone. It was a simple tomb, probably acquired hastily by her mother or someone who had bothered to take care of him after his death. The wording had been chiseled in carelessly and it was hard to read:

Here lies Charles Vega.

A traitor to his king and his country.

May God save his soul.

Christine stared at the simple words — as if they were meant to summarize her father. He had been much more than the tombstone suggested, at least to her. He would always make her laugh with a simple few words or gestures. He would invent stories that would carry her off into a whole new world. The tombstone was for Charles Vega the traitor, not Charles Vega the loving father and husband.

Christine neared the tombstone and touched it, imagining that she was touching her father one last time. Christine tried to dry her tears but there was no use.

“I miss him,” she said in a weak voice. It was as much an admittance to herself as to her mother.

"I miss him too."

The cold penetrated both their bodies and soon thick snowflakes fell from the sky, melting as they came in contact with their skin. But they did not care. Here, by the tombstone, they were simply mother and daughter. Not Lady Christine and Lady Amanda — daughter and wife to a traitor.

December 20th

Days had passed since visiting her father's tombstone. That very same afternoon, Christine returned to Adelton in a haze, uncertain of her resentment toward her father. Her mother had found a crack in her anger toward her father and pried it open. The man Christine had resented and learned to despise as a traitor was presented as more humane to her than she would have liked. The memory of him, earlier tainted by his past deeds, was now left outside of the black and white picture she had painted of him. It was a gray and hazy mess that she had yet to make heads or tails of. However, the more Christine pondered on it, the more guilt started rushing through her. Guilt that, to her great dismay, grew stronger after a whole year of resenting her father. It was almost as if she needed to reclaim the lost time of mourning, to prove not only to herself, but to anyone that mattered that she was ever the filial daughter, unafraid of disdain from the court of public opinion.

A growing urge for fulfillment started changing Christine little by little. She had, at last, started mourning her father and once the initial storm of sorrow passed, a determination was slowly festering within her. Mrs. Hammond, George, and even Amanda noted traces of the old Christine — determined, loyal, and strong.

Christine knew it would take more than a few days to process the anger she had felt toward her father, and the helpless situation his actions had led them to. She understood that blaming him was not the answer. The guilt, Christine surmised, might have an easier remedy than her other feelings and perhaps, in the process, she might learn to come to terms with her new situation and with the consequences of her father’s actions.

A single thought started coursing through her mind. It left her sleepless at night and staring off into the distance as if deep in thought the rest of the time.

Amanda and Christine had started taking their breakfasts together in one of Adelton’s smaller sitting rooms, accessible only to the ladies. Mrs. Hammond made certain that neither Tristan nor any of his guests were ever in his near vicinity. Hammond was the very much appreciated watchdog of both women and would, when certain no one else would disturb, join if asked.

On a particularly cold morning, Amanda noted once again how quiet Christine was as she stared at the reflection of her face in the claret.

"I must move him," Christine said, so suddenly that she surprised her mother with her abrupt outburst. Amanda almost dropped her cup on the Persian rug and caught her breath at the small scare.

"What do you mean?" asked Amanda. Christine turned to face her; her cheeks were rosy from the cold air that seeped in through the tall windows facing east. The fires were slowly dying, making the warmth in the room escape through the small cracks in the walls. Her soft lips were closed in a firm line of utter determination as she hugged the goblet harder with her gloved hands. Expressive blue eyes cut into her mother's.

"There is much about Father we didn’t know, much we probably never will. I… I wish I could ask him, but alas.” She looked down in silent contemplation as if carefully weighing her next few words. “Maybe it was all a misunderstanding?”

Amanda drew breath, never believing she would ever hear such words uttered from her daughter. She composed herself, in turn weighing her words just as carefully.

“What has led you to this presumption?”

“A wish to think well of him…” Christine trailed off. She caressed the goblet and felt the burden on her shoulders slightly lessen. She was not yet ready to make peace with her father, but she was well on her way to reaching it.

"Perhaps he did commit treason, perhaps he did not. But he was my father, for better or for worse. He did love me, of that I am certain."

Amanda started feeling hope as she saw her daughter slowly coming to terms with occurrences that had happened a year ago.

"All we can do is remember him as he was, not as they painted him to be."

Christine's determined expression turned into a pensive one. "I can only come to peace with all of this once he rests in peace himself."

"You mean that you can only forgive yourself if you…?" Amanda already had an inkling of what Christine aimed to do.

"If His Majesty were to… pardon him, even in death, he could be moved…be buried as he should have a year ago," Christine said.

She found a purpose, something to fight for again. Slowly but surely, her old self was hacking away at the darkness that had held her prisoner for so long. She knew exactly whom to turn to for help. There was only one man that could get her to Wessport and into the good graces of His Majesty.

Tristan Hawthorne.