Secrets of The Court: Chapter 8

 December 24th, 1519 - Cadherra

It was the day before Yule. Adelton Hall had seen a transformation, restored to a state of grandeur it had not seen since before the passing of Charles Vega. Tristan paid little heed to the frivolities and fineries now expected of him as a titled nobleman. However, George and Mrs. Hammond had been adamant that Tristan should save no expense when it came to the decorations of the castle. It was, after all, expected of him as the new Count of Cadherra.

The Hall of Singers had been decorated with mistletoe that hung from the blackened oak beams. Luscious branches of spruce, pine, and evergreen were woven together with thick red and gold ribbons and placed about the grand hall to further bring in the Yule spirit. In the central court of Adelton, a grand pine tree had been gathered by the stablemaster and a few pages, brought with great difficulty from the outskirts of Raven’s Grove, decorated by some of the maids with left-over cuts of motley clothing. The tree loomed over everyone as they crossed the stone structure.

In the corner of the Hall of Singers stood a large blue spruce, filling the room with its rich, fresh scent. It was richly decorated with fine velvet ribbons and painted pinecones that Charles Vega had bought twenty years prior from a merchant from Coldwick. Three long tables stood in an open rectangle. The head table was by the short end of the room, by the Saengen, the worn wood draped with white cotton cloths. Each table held polished silver candleholders, each holder carrying five unburned wax candles.

The head table would house the most honored guests, including Tristan, Christine, Amanda, Joseph, Lucius, and some wealthy noblemen of Hayes. By the long tables would sit the rest of the invited — poorer noblemen and some richer merchants of Hayes. More than 120 guests had responded to the invitations. The new lord and Count of Cadherra brought upon Adelton interested visitors, wondering as to the rumors that had been flying around about him since his arrival. No one had caught a glimpse of Tristan yet — the only information they had was the occasional comment from one of the castle servants as they ventured down to the village, or a passing merchant that had visited Adelton with his wares.

Others came to enjoy the food as their supply was stretched thin due to the early winter. But there were some amongst the invited who, with a judging disposition and ill will, came to confirm the ghastly rumors concerning the recluse lord of the Hall. Many were those who had once called themselves friends and acquaintances of the Vegas, only to abandon them and turn their backs on them in their hour of need. Thus, the precarious nature of Christine’s situation was a matter for gossip and pesky remarks, something mentioned during supper, when wicked tongues and ill-witted comments would fly ever loose.

Tristan had no wish to be under the stares of so many criticizing eyes. However, he knew what his duty as lord of the Hall was — he had to get to know the inhabitants of his new county better. They were the ones who provided for him, in a sense. They were the ones he was forced to keep good relations with, lest he wanted problems in the future.

He walked along the busy halls during the final days of preparation, taking in the fresh new scents of the castle — mistletoe, spruce, evergreen, pine, exciting spices, and beeswax candles. Despite the exciting impressions, the only constant thing running through his mind was of the night when he had spoken with Christine. He had barely seen her since, and he thought it best that way. She had started appearing in his thoughts more frequently, to his great annoyance. The only solace he found that would distract him away from her was hunting, something he had started doing more frequently as the days moved along.

The relationship between Christine and Tristan was no secret to the inhabitants of the castle. The encounter in the Hall of Singers had set in motion another bout of rumors regarding the two. Had Christine given in to the unexpected approach of Tristan? Had he given her an ultimatum to finally force her to marry? Or, indeed, had he broken off the engagement? No one knew exactly what had occurred in the Hall of the Singers, but many were curious.

While Tristan found that Christine took over his waking thoughts, his talks with Saxton and Alan Moore were most present at night in his dreams. There was no escape from their ominous prediction. Whenever he closed his eyes, a mulling sense of malaise overtook him, Saxton’s words a hovering premonition of what was to come, only to be reinforced by Alan’s confession.

Tristan no longer deny that there indeed was someone very powerful in Wessport interested in him and with their sights set on Angloa.

Tristan tossed and stirred in the late morning in a state between consciousness and deep sleep. He lay under the sheets and furs of his four-poster bed. A tester extended over the top and sides – a rectangular panel that had rails with curtains in deep blue, pulled around the bed to stop the draft and light from entering. Expertly carved into the panel were intricate flora and fauna designs. Tristan’s eyes would graze over the spiraling designs during his waking hours of the night — when the silver beams of the moon shone in through the window.

He let his mind wander to days of the past, a simpler life with Sofia, but a carefree life, nonetheless.

A knock sounded on the door, alas Tristan remained deep within his thoughts, the comforting memories of his youth embracing him. Another knock sounded, louder this time but it was not enough to wake him fully, only causing a stir.

Slowly, the door glinted open, the knocker carefully entering upon discovering that the room was empty.

"My lord?" came the prying voice of Mrs. Hammond. Tristan's eyes opened wide as he gained full lucidity. He sat up swiftly, grateful for the blinds that afforded him some privacy at this unfortunate moment.

Alas, his face was bare.

He searched around in the darkness, fumbling after his mask, not wishing to make himself known until it was on.

"Maybe he is out riding?" came another voice. It was a young woman talking, the chambermaid, he supposed.

"Nonsense, he is probably wandering again. I sometimes catch him in the oddest of places. The poor soul will not confess it, but sometimes he seems too lost for his own good," the old woman sighed. Her high-pitched voice managed to sound motherly to him, and it brought a smile to his lips. Tristan sometimes found it amusing to upset and irritate Mrs. Hammond for she would bear it well, keeping her immediate irritation under control, but it would eventually bubble up to the surface — the little woman was like a small dog with a high dose of confidence.

"Thank you for always accompanying me whenever I tidy these chambers, Mrs. Hammond. God knows I would not dare to go myself," the young maid said.

Hidden behind the blinds, a frown worked its way onto his brow. What rumors floated around about him that would make his own chambermaid afraid to venture to his rooms alone?

"Don't esteem yourself that highly, Johanna. He would go after anyone else before you!" tsked Mrs. Hammond.

"How young Lady Vega tolerates being even a minute in his presence astonishes me. I believe I should lose my voice and composure if I were ever made to stand before him. Ruth says looking directly into his eyes will blind you and Lorraine says—”

“Ruth says a lot of things,” Mrs. Hammond muttered.

“I suppose it's only wanting that the young lady would accept the engagement when bestowed by the king himself… yet marrying such a man… she must surely have suffered in Wessport to ever consider it,” Johanna continued. “And it is known that Lady Vega was most persistent that her daughter did accept the offer back in Wessport. One year was all they could handle and not in the worst of conditions mind you. When compared to how my poor old mother used to live…” Johanna prattled on as, behind the blinds, a strange knot grew in Tristan’s stomach at her words. He had never known to which extent Christine had been so unwilling to accept the engagement, nor how she had viewed it as such a sacrifice. His jaw tensed at the insult rendered both her and him, regardless of its truth or not.

"You know, Mrs. Hammond, some of the girls say he looms and waits, biding his time to have his way with her," Johanna said even quieter. “Others… others say he has already had his way with her.”

"You go too far, Johanna!” Mrs. Hammond began in an irritated voice. “Should your words ever be heard by—"

Suddenly, Tristan removed the blinds, emerging from the bed with a sour disposition as he stood before both women.

One could hear a pin drop as Mrs. Hammond and Johanna turned around, coming face to face with him.

The sun shining in through the window came down on him, Johanna’s cheeks reddening at his underdressed state. She quickly curtsied, knowing very well he must have heard every word she had spoken.

“My lord,” she began in a strangled whisper, her eyes wide and her skin pale.

"Mrs. Hammond may wait outside,” Tristan said. The words were sharp, irritated, the tone flat which served to worry both women.

"Nay, the girl comes with me, my lord," Mrs. Hammond said with all the courage she could muster as she placed herself in front of Johanna. There was a composed rage in his eyes that she did not like.

"I should have you both thrown out of Adelton for your wagging tongues,” he retorted. “Especially you, Mrs. Hammond, for allowing her to continue in the first place.”

“It was harmless contemplation—” Mrs. Hammond began.

“She has her wits about her, she knows very well the malice of her words.” Tristan glared at Johanna whose eyes started spilling with tears. “I should have you placed in the stocks for this.”

"I…I am truly sorry, my lord! I swear it will not happen again!" Johanna grabbed Mrs. Hammond’s hand from behind, glad she was not left to face Tristan alone.

Her pleas were of no use, for they did not move him to empathize with her.

“My lord, please do not send her to the stocks,” Mrs. Hammond asked, her tone had sunk from its usual high pitch.

“Very well, one request I shall abide by. But I will see you out before the day is over for the insults you have bestowed on both me and young Lady Vega.”

Johanna tried to calm her upbeat heart, her mouth dry, her face paling even more as she registered the words. She could only stare blankly ahead of her as tears streamed down her cheeks.

“But—” Mrs. Hammond began.


"P-Please, do not send me away!" Johanna fell on her knees and gripped the hem of his shirt, begging him with all the might she could muster up. "Were you not a commoner once? Were you not like one of us? Surely you must know what would happen should I be forced out of Adelton in the middle of winter with naught a penny to my name!” Johanna pleaded through tears and hiccups. Her face was distorted by fear — her eyes wide with terror, asking for compassion that she would never receive.

Mrs. Hammond wordlessly helped Johanna stand up.

"Have her pack her things, and leave before the sun sets today," Tristan ordered.  

"But my lord, she truly has nowhe—"

Johanna stared in broken shock. Due to some ill-guarded words, she had lost it all.

"Indeed, your rumors do not do you justice, Hawthorne!” Johanna spat.

"Hush now," said Mrs. Hammond. "I will have a word with him as he calms down," she whispered as they walked out, Johanna sobbing loudly.

The day passed by slowly. Since the festivities were planned for the following evening, there would be no grand supper that night. There had been no sighting of Tristan as he kept to his rooms for a change.

However, Christine roamed the castle freely, taking comfort in the familiar sights of the decorations. Adelton had transformed into a wintry palace, a sight reminiscent of her childhood. A memory she, for once, welcomed. Christine was on her way to one room she had yet to visit since her return — the most impressive of them all — the Throne Room. Adelton Hall had once been the seat of power for one of the three founding kings of Angloa. Up until the final quarter of the 15th century, the monarchs had kept court there. The last king to grace the halls of Adelton had been Philip Fell, the current king’s uncle. It was Philip who had decided to move court to Wessport, where he built the current palace used by James. During the occupation of the English, Adelton would house Vice Roys visiting the island.

The hem of Christine’s gown floated softly around her feet as she took careful steps, lost in thought. Faint sobs echoed through the corridors and Christine was faced with Mrs. Hammond and a young blonde maid making their way from the upper chambers. Christine recognized Johanna, Tristan’s chambermaid.

Mrs. Hammond was supporting Johanna, who leaned heavily against the shorter and older woman, her face distorted from fear and sorrow. When both women noticed Christine, Johanna tried to hide her tears behind her hands while Mrs. Hammond inclined her head in an apologetic manner.

"What has happened?" Christine asked, worried suddenly. Johanna’s sobs grew more violent as she buried her face further in her hands.

"Do not worry yourself, my lady. It is nothing of importance," assured Mrs. Hammond. Christine, not convinced, carefully approached Johanna and removed her hands to reveal a puffy red face.

"I would not have you cry, Johanna. What ails you?" Christine asked. Her reassuring tone served to calm Johanna who took several deep breaths.

"Only my own insignificant problems, my lady.” Johanna pinched her eyes shut as her voice broke at the last words.

"No problem is insignificant," said Christine.

"She…has been… dismissed, my lady. By his lordship," revealed Mrs. Hammond, her mouth forming into a thin line and Johanna’s sobs increasing in strength.

"Indeed, that cannot be true," Christine said in confusion. “Surely, Hawthorne would not act without reason?”

"He has reason enough, my lady,” Johanna cried. “Though I would have liked to remain here, were it not for my foul mouth and ill-favored timing.”

“Oh, I see,” Christine mouthed. “What have you said, Johanna, that has not already been spoken?” Christine’s demeanor changed, the implication of the words causing the shadow of a frown to form on her face, revealing the rumors did indeed bother her.

“I did not speak too harshly of him, my lady, nor of you. As you said… I only repeated what everyone has been saying.”

“Although such actions did you no good either,” Mrs. Hammond lamented with a sigh.

Johanna was expecting Christine would not take a kind inclination to her, after all, she had only played a part in strengthening the distasteful rumors circulating about her and Tristan.

“I think we have all done Lord Hawthorne a great injustice,” Christine murmured as she thought back to their conversation in the Hall of Singers. “I am inclined to understand his anger at you playing a part in spreading such rumors,” she continued.

“I understand,” Johanna sobbed, breaking down further as she hid her face behind her hands once more.

After a moment’s pause, Johanna felt two comforting hands rest on her shoulders. She looked up, expecting Mrs. Hammond’s calming and reassuring smile, only to be found with two lavender eyes and a half-smile.

“I understand his anger, but I do not condone this decision,” Christine said glancing over at Mrs. Hammond. “Indeed, it is too harsh.”

Something in Johanna, a weight that had been pressing on her shoulders lifted knowing she had the support of the young woman before her. Alas, it was a momentary relief. Christine was, after all, yet to be the legal mistress of the household and Tristan still held the right to make all decisions.

“I cannot promise to change his mind,” Christine began slowly. “But I can well try.”

Johanna would have liked to utter exclamations of gratitude, but all that escaped her was baffled confusion. Mrs. Hammond, the more composed of the two, forced Johanna and herself into a deep curtesy.

“Johanna is indeed indebted to you, my lady,” Mrs. Hammond said.

Christine looked at Mrs. Hammond. "Escort her to her chamber, and do not have her leave from there."

“Aye, my lady,” Mrs. Hammond smiled, her heart warming. As she and Johanna watched Christine venture to Tristan’s rooms to speak with him, Johanna was still as confused.

“I do not understand,” Johanna murmured. “Last week she would not even be in the same room as him, yet now she would consider seeking him out…and argue his decision?”

Mrs. Hammond’s smile grew wider. “You will not find me speculating as to the nature of their relationship…”

“Surely something must have transpired!” Johanna blurted out.

“Let me remind you why you find yourself in your current predicament, Johanna,” Mrs. Hammond scolded.

The clatter of Christine’s slippers disappeared around the corner as Johanna kept her eyes steadfast on the end of the hallway.

As Christine approached Tristan’s apartments, her pulse was on a steady rise. Now, after having considered what she was aiming to do, and how the situation had unfolded before her she grew insecure. What if she could not persuade Tristan? She did not want to face him while he was angry, she thought as she approached his chambers.

There had been a moment of silent understanding between them in the Hall of Singers that she could not get out of her mind, and a part of her had now grown curious toward Tristan. She had always perceived his mood as foul yet subdued. However, Christine attributed that to her prejudice against him. To think that he could flare up into a fit of rage almost made her reconsider venturing further to his chambers.


Would he lash out at her? Would she see consequences for meddling in his decision? Christine steadied herself, he had no right to send her away from Adelton. After all, the only way he could legally claim the lands was if he ever went through with the marriage. Tristan had never brought it up, trapping them both in a strange sort of limbo. He could not have the lands without her, and she could not remain in Adelton without him, yet he seemed disinclined to proceed with the wedding—something Christine would not object to, of course.

She arrived at his door, the once familiar and comforting wooden structure now towered before her as she was to face what to her felt like a mammoth task. After a few deep breaths, she knocked.

No one answered.

Christine felt the handle. The door was unlocked. She hesitated but turned the handle and stepped into the room — her parent's old quarters. It was as she had imagined it before they had moved from Adelton. Now it stood empty, and the bed was still to be made.

Tristan was nowhere to be seen.

Christine started roaming Adelton as she sought him out. One reluctant servant mentioned seeing Tristan heading for the Throne Room as she had asked in passing.

The Throne Room, a grand rectangular room, was situated in the west wing of the Palas. With its height of thirteen meters, it occupied the third and fourth floors. On three sides it was surrounded by colorful arcades, ending in an apse that was intended to hold the king's throne which had survived for many centuries. It was no longer used save during a new monarch’s coronation. It thus resided in Adelton, like a monument of older days.

Throne Room of Adelton Hall

Paintings of Jesus, the Twelve Apostles, and six canonized kings surrounded the throne dais. The floor mosaic was completed after King Roland's short reign in the 14th century. There was a chandelier fashioned after a Byzantine crown with intricate design. The Throne Hall amalgamated the Grail Hall from Parzival with a symbol of the divine right of kings, an incorporation of unrestricted sovereign power.

Over the throne hung the familiar portraits of deceased kings. The most recent additions were of the brothers Philip and Magnus Fell. James had had his portrait painted a few years prior, wishing to place himself amongst his ancestors.

It was common for prominent Angloan households to display the current regent, even more common to collect paintings or copy portraits of previous regents. Christine had always remarked on how Philip Fell’s portrait seemed most present in the households throughout Angloa — the likeness passed down from generation to generation. Maybe, she surmised, his reign was remembered as a gentler and less complicated time. A time of peace and prosperity, before the Unrest that would follow as Magnus took the throne. Indeed, Philip Fell’s reign had, not long after his death, been denominated as Pax Angloa, a stark contrast to the tumult that would follow in his wake.

The portrait displayed in Adelton’s forgotten Throne Room, now collecting dust, was a copy—among many. The original was displayed in the Wessport gallery for all to see. The likeness displayed the idealization of what monarchy could be, but Christine wondered if it was a true likeness. It showed a middle-aged man, his features refined and chiseled. The straight Greek nose and steely gray eyes spoke of arrogance and alertness. A healthy head of thick black hair tumbled over the penetrating eyes as they bore into the soul of whoever looked at the portrait.

Next to Philip was his brother’s likeness, Magnus. With a much shorter reign, Angloans still remembered the terror and uncertainty that had taken place under his years. Corruption through his wife and her family had seen Angloa in the hands of a puppet king. Magnus’ failings had, in a sense, not only corrupted the country but set the foundations for the threat from the English. He had left a mess for James to clean up as best as he could.

Magnus stared down, his eyes darker, more severe, cutting through whoever dared to look at him. His hair was fairer than his brother's, his features softer. They instilled a false sense of security, as if the man in the image was humble and unassuming. Yet his eyes, dark, ominous, and full of anger, betrayed him.

It was in the Throne Room that Christine found Tristan, staring at the steps leading up to the frail-looking seat that had once housed the kings of Angloa from before the English occupation. He was so deep in thought that he did not notice her enter. Christine quietly regarded him, Tristan still invoked a sense of caution in her. However, she had to make sense of what had happened with Johanna. For surely, he would not cold-heartedly throw her out?

"Philip Fell was the last person to sit on this throne," Christine said. Her sweet voice broke the otherwise comfortable silence and Tristan appeared startled as he looked up until he saw who it was. He glanced at the frail throne again and looked at it in disbelief.

"He deemed that thing worthy?" Tristan asked, the deep voice boomed throughout the room.

Christine’s lips twitched upward. "It was said that he liked the simplicity of the throne more than the embellished rooms of this castle. That is one of the reasons he decided to have court moved to Wessport," she explained. She fiddled nervously with her skirts.

Tristan gave a muted nod, not keen on continuing the conversation for he was headed for the entrance.

"I cannot help but think that my lord finds my presence a nuisance," Christine blurted out without thinking.

He stopped, his tense back to hers as he took some time before reluctantly facing her.

"Not at all," he muttered and bowed while continuing to the door.

"Then why are you so quick to leave now?" she asked, her voice more forceful as she took a few hesitant steps toward him.

"I do not wish to disturb," he stated. There was an undertone of irritation to his voice that scratched at Christine’s ears.

"What makes you think so?" she asked.

Tristan let a sardonic chuckle escape as he shook his head, his sudden change in behavior toward her now leaving her confused.

"Have I done something to you to warrant such a treatment, my lord?" Christine asked, slowly growing frustrated.

Suddenly, Tristan walked over to her in long strides and calmly stopped before her. The closeness made Christine jump back on reflex, something which caused his eyes to narrow and his shoulders to tense further.

"My presence disturbs you… I would not have it so."

Christine's brows rose in disbelief. "You startled me, that is all," she said in a shaking but truthful voice. Christine rose her head and stared at his chest now.

"Startle you..." he said bitterly. "Of course."

He turned from her and all she could do was watch him leave, his stride long and determined, his back tense. For once, Christine placed herself in his shoes. She had, after all, heard the whispers and rumors floating around the castle about him… about them both. People were inclined to believe the worst of someone they thought ill of. Tristan had been judged on something none of them could even see. Christine was embarrassed to admit to herself that she had been the first to judge him wrongly. However, by hiding his face and not embracing whatever deformity he hid beneath the mask, Tristan had paved the way for malicious gossip, aimed at both his physical appearance and character.

"Might your reaction have something to do with the maid, Johanna, cleaning your chambers with Mrs. Hammond earlier?" she asked.

His shoulders relaxed as he turned around. "Do not defend her, she spoke unjustly. It is my right to have her leave."

"A slip of the tongue should not warrant a person being thrown out into the icy winds of winter, with nigh a penny or any connections to their name," Christine said.

"I did not care for her insulting you, my lady."

Christine had never expected that he would go to such lengths in defending her name.

"I know she spoke ill of me. I am grateful for your defense, but she is young and bored, regurgitating words without considering their true meaning or the harm they may bestow upon someone. She has been at Adelton since I can remember in some way or another… could you not… forgive her, my lord?"

"I never break my word," Tristan said proudly.

Christine sighed inwardly, sometimes she asked herself how many reputations and kingdoms had fallen because of one man's pride and arrogance.

"I am certain that a week's work as a scullery maid will set her straight again. Have you no compassion for what would happen to her out there, alone in the world?"

Tristan knew she was considering his character based on what decision he now would take. He took in the determination slowly etching their way into her eyes, recognizing in them the same headstrong and resilient young woman he had seen for the first time at James' court.

“You understand the consequences ill-willed rumors could have on you… especially if they should spread to Wessport.”

“They will not,” Christine argued.

“Then you hold a high opinion over the servants.”

“Our…situation…is indeed a peculiar one, but they understand that adventuring my presence here, as well as yours, would adventure their employment. Mrs. Hammond will make sure that the rumors in Adelton stop, I shall ask her to.”

“Yet your Johanna did not seem to fully comprehend this.”

“She will, my lord.” Christine bit her lip, unaware of his eyes drawn in by the action. “You have been more than generous toward me and my mother… I want for nothing, but the notion that Johanna would be thrown away from Adelton would surely cast me into another melancholic fit.”

Christine's hope grew as Tristan sighed in defeat and his shoulders lowered.

"She will be working as a scullery maid for a month," he muttered, annoyed that she managed to persuade him. His eyes still rested on her lips as they split into a soft smile, the first one he had ever seen directed at himself.

As he considered her relieved and grateful expression, he saw her lips move but could not make sense of the words. Somehow, as his blood rushed through his veins and his heart rate increased, a sinking feeling settled in his stomach as he was further taken in by her, knowing the feeling would never be reciprocated. 

December 25th

Seated at the head table in the Hall of Singers, Tristan and Christine had front-row views as the guests started arriving. Finely dressed men and women stared in awe around them as they were led through the lavish corridors. Their mouths nearly dropped as they entered the Hall of Singers.

Upon first glance, the lavish interior and added decorations revealed a newfound splendor that had previously been lost to Adelton. Its generous benefactor, however, was the next object to be scrutinized. As the guests’ eyes drifted in subdued curiosity toward the head table where Tristan sat, many were the eyes that bulged out of their sockets. Tristan and Christine contrasted each other in every possible way. She bore bright and inviting colors to her gown, her fair hair brought away from her face in ornate golden pins the shape of small laurel leaves. He bore dark and rough clothing, his face hidden neath the mask, leaving only his scrutinizing eyes and sneering mouth to peek through.

“Thank you,” Christine murmured as she watched the guests enter and get seated.

He glanced at her, taking a sip of his wine.

“Mrs. Hammond, although she will not confess it, is thankful to you too, my lord.”

Indeed, Mrs. Hammond liked to think she had always been a good judge of character. God knew it had been a skill that had served her well during her many years at Adelton. Alas, she had judged Tristan harshly, and wrongly, it seemed for when word reached her that Tristan himself had ventured to Johanna’s quarters in the servant’s section of Adelton to speak with her and ask her to stay, Mrs. Hammond had — as many others — released a small, shocked gasp. And when she had gone to Johanna to inquire after the sudden change in Tristan’s behavior, Johanna had been as confused albeit grateful as Mrs. Hammond.

“At first, his presence brought me much fright,” Johanna had said, sitting on her bead, her eyes still wide as she processed the sudden interaction. Her face had broken out into a warm smile and a relief Mrs. Hammond had never known before in Johanna. “Other men of his station would never have gone back on their word, out of pride.”

Mrs. Hammond thought about Johanna’s final words, ‘out of pride’. Perhaps Tristan Hawthorne truly wasn’t as insufferable and prideful as he seemed to be, perhaps it was all just a façade.

Thus, Mrs. Hammond, standing at the back of the great hall cast a glance at the couple. Christine was like a daughter to her, and Mrs. Hammond wished for nothing more than Christine’s happiness. Mrs. Hammond would never have guessed that her heart was warming up to the idea that maybe, in some sense, Tristan Hawthorne might be able to provide something akin to that.

Tristan shifted in his seat, raising an eyebrow behind his mask as — at the far back of the room — he caught Mrs. Hammond’s watchful gaze fixed on him and Christine. The moment they crossed eyes Mrs. Hammond was soon on her way to tend to matters more pressing. Tristan sighed inwardly, catching a few other glances, predictably shocked at the sight of him. Tristan finished his third cup of wine for the evening, feeling the effects of the alcohol coursing through him. The stolen glances had never bothered him until now and he could not comprehend why that was.

There was a moment when Christine noticed the shocked glances and malicious whispers directed toward Tristan. She had once reacted as they had, baffled at how quickly her outlook on Tristan had changed. Some glances were directed at her as well, albeit Christine did her best to ignore them, growing uncomfortable despite herself. She wondered if Tristan felt as impacted as she was by the scrutiny of which they were under. However, if the glances and whispers affected him, he never showed it — he was as stoic and silent as ever.

Christine shifted her gaze away from familiar faces. Many whom Christine had at one point deemed to call close friends were now as distant as they had been a year ago and to her, their abandonment was still fresh. She caught the gaze of several of them, noticing how several sets of lips turned into thin lines as they saw her next to Tristan. One or two shot her a wicked glee, taking great pleasure in discovering that the rumors surrounding Tristan proved to be true.

Christine’s countenance dulled as her eyes grew blank. She fiddled with the fabric of her skirt, casting her eyes down in order to escape the crowd that now surrounded them, wishing for nothing more than to leave the Hall of Singers that, only a few nights prior, had been so agreeable to her.

Suddenly, Christine’s nostrils filled with the scent of pine, sandalwood, and leather, noticing that her fiancé was leaning toward her. Her eyes slowly wandered to Tristan, his sudden closeness made her uncomfortable and she blushed despite herself. She quickly looked away, her hands twitching for her skirt. Somehow, Christine was embarrassed at her reaction as a frown extended itself over her features.

Tristan, who had only leaned in to determine why she had grown so dismayed, found her reaction surprising at first, but then amusing. A deep yet discreet chuckle escaped him, the sound rolled like smooth waves against her ears as it boomed, the vibrations running through her. It was the first time she heard him genuinely laugh.

"Stop," Christine whispered in his direction, bringing up a pale blue fan to hide her red face with. She could see his mouth in the corner of her eye, it was smiling.

"Stop?" he asked. It only teased Christine further and she grew more flustered.

Until this point, no one in the room had noticed their intimate exchange. But slowly, Lucius noted their conversation, amused.

"T-This proximity!" she hissed through gritted teeth. Christine tried to keep a straight face as she looked forward, ignoring his warm breath on her shoulder.

"Proximity?" he asked. The smile grew into a playful smirk as he, fully cognizant of his actions, leaned in closer, reaching beyond her, grabbing a cup by her side, looking at it, and claiming that it was dirty. Tristan asked a maid to bring a new one.

"We do not need more rumors surrounding us, my lord," she growled under her breath.

Lucius watched them, intrigued. When Tristan leaned in closer, Lucius almost spat out his wine. It served to alert Amanda of what was going on as well.

"I do not pay attention to petty gossip, and neither should you," Tristan responded in his usual curt manner.

"You… you did this morning and poor Johanna can attest to that," she responded through gritted teeth and fanning herself, thankful that none of the guests noticed their intimate exchange. “Your proximity such as it was, was improper, my lord.”

She had no idea he could make her blush. She did not like it at all. Christine wanted to have a clear mind whenever she spoke with him.

“We are engaged, whatever proximity you speak of, such as it was, would not be considered improper.”

Christine stopped fanning herself, her eyes slowly widening. She had forgotten about their engagement.

“Oh,” she murmured.

Tristan sighed and leaned back in his chair. He could feel Lucius's inquisitive eyes digging into him from the side.

The Hall of Singers was finally filled with noblemen and women from all over the county of Cadherra. Many of them had never seen Tristan before, only heard of him from visiting relatives and merchants from Wessport or, lately, from Adelton.

A general murmur had extended within the vast hall. This was the man that had so valiantly saved Angloa from the English? They had expected the rumors over his crass appearance to be somewhat overexaggerated, only to find that they had, if anything, been mild.

Some looked at Christine with compassion for her perceived situation. Most of Christine's old friends — young women that had abandoned her when her rank in society had gone down — spurred on the gossip. However, there were some that looked at her in grief, ashamed of their passiveness when she had lost everything and saddened at her new reality.

Tristan signaled the servants to bring out the feast that had been prepared for the evening. The aroma of food wafted through the air as servants started carrying trays of various types of meat from the kitchens. The guest started sipping on the meads and wines while dining on the exquisite delicacies provided for them. They were entertained by various jesters and musicians — hired to play the whole night. A few moments after having started, Tristan signaled for the musicians to stop playing. All eyes were on him as he rose from his seat, surprising many with his tall frame.

"I welcome you all to this Yule celebration," he started. His deep and rich voice boomed throughout the hall. "We are reminded of the birth of our Lord and Savior. Let us consider our great fortune at being here tonight, able to enjoy this food and wine at our table when others are not as fortunate."

Everyone was listening intensely as he spoke.

"Join me in a toast for the end of this war, and for the luck we have had to come to be here." He rose his cup and all in the hall did the same. They drank and soon the musicians started playing a merry tune again. Many of the guests remarked on the irony of his words, for how could a man with such an appearance speak of luck?

There came a moment during the evening when the music ended, and the tables were cleared to reveal the dance floor.

The Hall of Singers now had its previous empty space, outlined by its guests and the tables and chairs. It was time for the first dance, an Angloan tradition dating back to the start of the millennium.

Tradition called for the host of the feast to pick a partner. If there was one thing on this earth that Tristan particularly disliked, it was dancing. All eyes were now on him as the chatter in the vast hall slowly quieted down, only a few murmurs and whispers could be heard as the tension rose. Being chosen as the partner for the first dance was an incredible honor, usually reserved for the woman of the highest rank. Lady Yolanda de Berg, who was married to an Earl, ranked lower than that of a count, but still higher than most in the hall. She looked at him, her red hair pulled into a tight bun managing to bounce in anticipation as she awaited Tristan to approach her. Christine or Amanda were only noblewomen, having lost any titles at the death of Charles Vega.

The musicians waited in anticipation, wondering who his lordship would go for. There were some in the room that already knew the answer. Lucius, Mrs. Hammond, Maria, and George smiled as Tristan took long and decisive steps toward Christine, stopping just before her and bowing deeply. She looked around the room and blushed. He took her petite hand in his and led her to the dance floor. Tristan could feel her nervousness as he led her through a sea of critical eyes. He squeezed her hand reassuringly.

She squeezed his back.

A slow and sweet melody played as they started dancing a pavane, a court dance meant for entertainment and display of the skill of the dancers. The peculiar couple stirred speculations amongst the onlookers — why were they yet to be married, and why did both then still seem so agreeing with one another?

Everything around Tristan seemed forgotten and he only had eyes for her. They shut out the stares and whispers of the world around them and grew closer in body and spirit. When the music stopped, he bowed and she curtsied. He led her away from the dance floor as new dancers entered the stage for the next song.

When they stood on the side, her hand still firmly gripped in his, she found that she did not want him to let go.