Secrets of the Court: Chapter 14

 February 7th - Wessport Palace

The great hall had numerous large windows overlooking the yard. The range had an unusual, unified roof-line and, with a taller roof than the rest of the palace. An organic, flowing Gothic structure was prominent in the large room. It was different from the Blue Room of the palace where the king would usually hold court. It was older and had, until recently, been otherwise abandoned. But as James had invited so many guests to his extended palace, he felt it prominent to once again put the great hall to use.

Along the walls included a total of 62 trophies: carved, gilded wooden panels illustrating weapons and the spoils of war, many with Masonic meanings. Beneath the carvings, were laid long tables with individual chairs that would seat the incoming guests for supper. The chandeliers, old and worn, were made of heavy cast iron, holding dozens of candles to light up the impressive room. The head table stood on a platform. It was reserved for the royal family and the most important members of court.

It was already dark outside when the courtiers swarmed into the lit space. Minstrels and troubadours were already playing in the middle of the room, a space that had been made exclusively for the musicians. James sat down, satisfied at the sight before him. Most of the nobles he had asked to spend some time living in the palace had accepted. Athar was seated next to him, next to Queen Tabitha on her right side. General Fawkes was by Athar's right side. He was reserved such a seat for being the most highly decorated general of the Angloan army. To the king's left sat Victoria, her sister Miriam, and Braun.

When Christine and Tristan walked in side by side they were taken aback by the impressive room. However, they never showed signs of feeling at a loss. Instead, they walked to an empty space, far away from the head table. Tristan pulled a chair out for Christine and sat down next to her. She could feel glares to her left and right but she never acknowledged them.

"Mind if we join you?" came the merry voices of three men who had walked up to the couple. The chairs surrounding them were empty for none wanted to disgrace themselves by sitting next to Christine nor had the courage to sit next to Tristan despite his good relations with James. Yet, Walter Durun, Simon Rajac, and Jonathan Linahan had promptly walked up to them.

"My lords," greeted Tristan as he got up to acknowledge their presence. Christine got up as well, curtsying before them while giving them her hand. Each of the eager men planted a kiss and Rajac even dared to give her a charming smile before sitting down one chair from her left. Christine was also joined by another woman around her age to her left. It was a slightly shorter brunette. Her large, brown eyes spoke of refinement and gentility.

"My wife, Amalia," Simon introduced as the other woman sat down. Christine got up and curtsied.

"Oh no, do not get up on my account," said Amalia kindly which made Christine's eyes widen in surprise. She hadn't expected that Amalia would address her directly. It didn’t take long for the group to enter into a flowing conversation. Walter and Jonathan engaged Tristan in a heated discussion concerning the tactics that had been used during the war. Tristan mainly gave a curt nod here and there as they showered him with questions. Simon engaged in a discussion with the neighbor to his left, leaving his wife, Amalia seemingly alone, without someone to talk to, just like Christine. They were promptly served their food and Christine began eating away at the various meats, used to eating in silence and alone.

"I have not seen you here before," came the soft voice of Amalia. Christine had to swallow her wine in a big gulp to be able to respond quickly. But she was not fast enough before Amalia spoke again, now putting all her attention on Christine.

"I know, of course, who you are," she stated, rather forcefully. Christine sighed inwardly. Yet another courtier who would give her nothing but sorrow and trouble. She put down the spoon and knife on the metal plate and turned to face Amalia.

"Of course," Christine answered curtly and showing her distaste at the forced conversation. It surprised Amalia as her eyebrows arched.

"Oh, do not get me wrong. I am new to court. I only married Lord Rajac a few months ago. And when I arrived here in early December, all anyone could ever talk about was Tristan Hawthorne and Christine Vega." Her voice was not as forceful as before. Her oval face beamed with honesty and an innocence one could only find in someone who had not seen the ugliness of court life yet. But Christine still did not trust her.

"Then you know all you must about me, I assure you." Christine took another sip from the rich wine, growing tenser by the minute as she felt the other woman's eyes on her.

"Well, I dearly hope not, for they had nothing good to say about you. But then again, they never have anything good to say about anyone." Amalia looked rather pensive as a thought must have crossed her mind. Christine found Amalia to be most peculiar, but she never voiced her opinion. She remained silent while feeling Tristan secretly glance at her every so often. Christine was certain that he was aware of the conversation going on next to him and she was certain that he found it amusing.

"Well, then there is your answer," Christine finally retorted after a pregnant pause. Her tone remained neutral, though she felt anything but toward the peculiar questioning of Amalia.

"You know," said Amalia as she leaned slightly toward Christine, a serious look plastered over her face as if she were to share some vital information. "I might lean in a little closer and lower my voice and maybe they'll think us plotting," she said, trying not to giggle in the process. Christine turned to meet her face, inches from her own, and jumped back in her seat. It earned an honest laugh from Amalia. "It was only in jest, I assure you. The women of this court are always so serious, and they can be horrible sometimes," Amalia said in a whisper, afraid that her husband would hear her. "I might not have gone through what you have, but believe me, I can imagine how ugly the court of Wessport can get," she explained. Christine sighed and put down her knife again.

"You shouldn't be seen talking to me," Christine said after a while. "Especially if you still wish to remain in your current circles."

"I talk to whomever I please." Amalia sounded offended at the thought. Christine thought her naïve. "It is my choice whom I choose to consort with." The words reminded Christine of herself and for the first time, she saw her naïve self reflected in Amalia. But perhaps it wasn't naivety, perhaps Amalia Rajac had always been an outsider and knew what it was like.

"Then do not come crying back to me when they reject you." Christine nodded in the direction of the ones sitting closest to the head table. Those were the most refined men and women in the country. Most were also the most horrible people she would ever meet.

Tristan listened partly to Walter as he kept on talking about weapons, namely about the flintlock, a potent fire weapon, something Tristan had left at Adelton Hall. But his attention was undoubtedly fixed on the head table. He was watching James as he prattled onward with Athar. There was something off about the scene before him. It took Tristan almost an hour to realize that James had scarcely touched his food or his drink. Could it be that the conspirators had tried to poison the monarch? Or could it be that James had grown so paranoid that he suspected poison? Whatever the case, it did not bode well. If James held any suspicion against Tristan and Christine, Tristan had to act soon before he really did end up in the dungeons. He had to speak with Athar, the man Saxton had told him about. It was time he revealed himself as Saxton's ally and gained his full trust at court.

Close to the head table sat Alistair, next to Otto Savoie, his wife, and some other lords of his acquaintance. His eyes kept drifting toward the end of the room where he saw Christine conversing with a brunette. Alistair's eyes burned at the sight of her. She was a disgraced traitor's daughter, yet, her figure was starting to grow on him. Alistair shook his head. No, his interest in her stemmed only from his irritation toward Tristan. Christine was something he could not possess, which was why Alistair wanted her even more now.

"It is indeed a sad thing when a woman like that is wasted on a man like Tristan Hawthorne," came the tenor voice of Roland Launel, a duke from the western provinces of the country. Savoie's lips pressed into a thin line and Alistair's eyes squinted at the sight of the masked man.

"I do not know what the court or the king sees in him," said Alistair with malice in his voice.

"Nor I. Hawthorne is said to be just as low as any commoner from the lower circle of this city," Launel sighed as he reached for his goblet. Savoie sighed at the conversation.

"Was it not Lord Braun that told you to ignore him? What point is there in being affected by Hawthorne? He isn't out after any of our lands or titles, why bother yourselves? There are many at François' court who were not born noble that claim a high title. All the kings in Europe give away such prestige to the men they think are worth it," Savoie retorted, defending Tristan to some degree. Alistair was close to snapping at the Frenchman but kept his wits about him.

"Are they titled as Counts? Are they as accepted at court as Hawthorne has been? His presence is a disgrace to our ways and traditions," Alistair began, only to be interrupted by another man.

"A few hundred years ago, most of our ancestors were commoners and of low birth," Lord Martell cut in before going back to his wine and food. Alistair did not remove his eyes from the masked man.

"That was centuries ago, this is now," Alistair said through gritted teeth. None of the other lords spoke against him as most agreed with his sentiment. But they were reasonable enough to understand that it was the will of the king that Hawthorne and his fiancée were present at court. And they knew to not publically go against the wishes of their sovereign.

As the night proceeded, jesters were brought in to amuse the men and women after they had finished their food. The jesters provoked loud laughter and soon the guests retired from the tables, eager to mingle with each other. There was new gossip emerging, mostly concerning the new addition to the crowd residing within the palace. However, other tasteless rumors floated about as well, whispers about Tabitha circled around. Others spoke about Victoria or other prevalent ladies at court. Whatever the case, men and women would not hold their tongues as the wine, ale, and mead flowed during the evening.

Christine wished for nothing more than to retire back to her room and bed. She had no idea how long she would manage to live like this, in this golden prison. She glanced over at Tristan, in a discussion with Simon. Maybe it would be bearable with him by her side. She soon excused herself, complaining of a sudden headache. Christine would rather sit by the fire and read or let her mind drift away to a far place where no troubles could reach her.

Simon saw the young woman making her way to the entrance and gave a small smirk at Tristan.

"It seems the feast did not agree with her," he commented. "I cannot blame her." Simon swept his gaze over the crowd, watching their mouths move, their tongues sharper and pointier than any blade made by man.

"She has faced them before, Rajac. She will do so again," Tristan said as he watched her leave. He knew the courtiers’ tasteless words were not what distressed her. He knew she still felt guilt for them being there. But he didn't blame her, how could he? His jaw tensed as he remembered when she had shown up at the winter ball. She had never paid any attention to the malicious glances of the courtiers then, just like she had not done during supper.

When he saw Athar leave for the night as well, Tristan excused himself, ready to retire. But he would first catch up with the old duke, to agree on a meeting place where they could discuss matters away from prying eyes and ears. It was time for him to come clean as Saxton's ally. Tristan was keen on what information Athar could give him regarding the presumed conspiracies at court. If James feared he was now in danger in his own palace, the situation had grown serious.

Tristan hurried after the old man but as soon as he had reached the corridor, he lost him in the maze-like structure of the palace. Tristan let out a frustrated sigh. It would be difficult to find a moment where both could speak undisturbed and away from prying eyes. The conversations they had had after the lords' assembly before could barely be called dangerous. They were friendly exchanges. What Tristan wanted to say to Athar now, however, could cost them both dearly if they were to be overheard. He had to find a way to speak to him, and soon.

He stalked through the corridors until he finally found the door to his quarters. When he entered, he found Christine sitting by the fire, reading a thick tome, completely engulfed by the words on the pages. She noticed him enter and looked up.

"It seems the feast did not agree with you either," she remarked as she saw him itching to take off the constricting doublet.

"Since when have they?" he replied sardonically. Tristan looked around the elegant room, frowning behind his mask. "Where is your maid?" he asked, noticing that Maria was not there.

"Maria? She has gone to sleep, why?"

"I need her to get a message to Joseph tomorrow as soon as possible," Tristan said, a hint of worry lacing his voice.

"Then I shall write it up and I give it to her before I retire."

"No, nothing written," Tristan sighed. A written message could easily be stolen by another palace servant. He paused. Maria could be trusted as well as Christine. But not anyone else. "Tell her to relay to him that I need to speak with him as soon as possible as he has important information for me."

"I will." Christine could sense the urgency of the matter but she did not ask more about it and bid her fiancé goodnight as he retired.

Tristan walked wearily to his chamber and closed the heavy door behind him. The last thing he saw was Christine's peaceful face next to the fire, relaxing as she read her book. Her hair had been taken out of its intricate braids and was hanging loosely around her shoulders. The long tresses curled in loose ringlets around her heart-shaped face. Her face was thin, for she had lost a great deal of weight in Adelton. Yet he could see how the color had returned to it and how her angular cheeks had started to fill out. The dark circles under her eyes were less prominent now as well. To him, she could not look lovelier, and a smile touched his lips as he finally shut the door.

There was only one lit candle in the room and Tristan slowly tore his clothes off his body, letting them fall with a silent thud on the soft rug beneath him. He would pick them up in the morning. As he came to his bed, he pulled the heavy curtains around it. He sneaked a careful glance at the side of his bed where the hidden passageway was hidden. He stood there for a moment, an itching feeling of dread he could not escape. His body tensed as the foreboding took him and Tristan knew then that he would have little sleep that night. He stripped off his clothes until he stood naked. He found a chemise and slipped it over his head. He still felt the chill creeping up on him and added a pair of loose wool hoses for the night. His weary body climbed into the bed, and he shut the curtains fully.

Tristan lay awake for several hours, his eyes looking at the roof and darting past the tapestries. At one time, when he was half asleep, he woke up, gasping for breath and sweating underneath the mask. Another nightmare. His hands darted to the back of his head as he stripped down to his face bare. Tristan drew a deep breath and leaned forward. His hand went to his forehead, pearls of sweat had gathered at his temples. How Sofia would laugh at him now. He took one look at his mask and threw it aside, taking a while before finally falling back into a deep slumber.

It must have been much later during the night. The whole palace was sleeping, even the guard struggled to stay awake as their heads bobbed where they stood.

Tristan's chest rose and sank peacefully as he rested in a profound slumber. But even in his deepest sleep, he was alert. A creaking brought him out of his dreaming state. When his eyes opened to the canopy above, he was confused. He had to wait a few seconds to remember where he was. The dim light of a candle danced violently as a gust of cold air seeped into the room. The wax had dripped everywhere, and the candle was slowly dying as there was no more wax to fuel it. When he realized that someone was in his room his hands darted for the mask, quickly pulling it into place.

As soon as he had made a movement, a figure opened the curtains and jumped on him, straddling him. Tristan tried to reach for the knife he kept under his pillow. But before he could reach the weapon, a soft mouth came crashing down on his. He was so surprised by the kiss that he froze. Soft, hot lips claimed his, taking them as their own. He could feel the other person savor them, exploring them. It was then that he felt two hands trailing along his body. They explored his chest, slowly traveling south, past his abdomen, reaching his hoses, unlacing the front. Tristan's eyes widened in realization. His initial thought was that it was Christine. But this person’s actions were too forward. He took the hands and wrestled the person, enveloped in a long cape and deep hood. Tristan managed to get her under him and straddled her, keeping her arms above her head as he pushed back the hood.

He saw the glittering golden eyes of Victoria Fell as she gazed back at him, eager for him to continue.

"Your Highness?" he uttered, confused.

"Do not stop on my account," she purred. As he had straddled her, her cape had unraveled, exposing a naked body underneath. He immediately got off her, looking away, throwing his covers over her so that she might regain some of her modesty. The secret passageway stood open, letting the cold of the castle walls in.

"You should leave the same way you came." His voice was stern and hoarse from sleep. It only made Victoria more eager for him. The lust shone brightly in her eyes as a smirk grew on her lips.

"I will not leave until you give me what I came for," she said, leaning back into the soft pillows of the bed, inviting him to join her with her eyes. But what her eyes could not see was the disgust Tristan had for her, a disgust that was hidden by his mask. But his mask could not hide the emotion in the tone of his voice.

"You will not get it from me. Leave now, while I ask nicely," he growled. But instead of frightening the princess, it only seemed to make her keener.

"I never ask things twice, Tristan. And I always get what I want," she started, removing the covers and the cape. She rose to her knees and displayed herself fully to him. “You want this, Tristan, we both do,” she said, inching closer to him by the foot of the bed, reaching out to touch him. Her hand grazed his neck and went for the lacing at the back of his mask. Her eyes shone brightly and intensely as she started tugging at the cords slowly.

"Then you esteem yourself too highly," he said, removing her hand from the back of his head and stepping away.

Victoria frowned, with a confused half-smile now plastered over her face. "You would turn down a princess for a traitor's daughter?" Victoria laughed, never showing if she'd been offended or not.

"I never invited such attention from you, Your Highness. While you still have some dignity left, I suggest that you leave now," he said sternly, motioning toward the passageway and handing the naked woman her cape. Victoria's expressive eyes shone intensely. She looked him up and down and smirked, a thought passing through her head.

"You may remain clothed as you are now, Tristan," she purred in a whisper, barely audible, yet loaded with emotion. “I wouldn’t mind.” His nose wrinkled as his impatience for her grew.

"Get out, while I still ask nicely." The game had ended, and it was evident to Victoria. Yet, she did not seem bothered by it.

"I always like a challenge," she said calmly as she took the cape from Tristan, heading for the passage. Before she left him, she turned around, her golden eyes digging into his as her smile never faltered, her raven tresses framing her delicate face. "I always get what I want... in the end." She put the cape on and closed the door, taking the cold air with her, leaving Tristan to stand there with his hands in fists. He took one look at the bed and snickered at it. He went to gather his clothes and started dressing.

February 8th

The sound of hooves alerted the guards at the front of the palace. A lone rider stopped just before the great entrance and dismounted. His face had lost all its color. Dark circles under his eyes spoke of sleepless nights and the stubble on his face suggested that he had not been able to take a minute off even to shave. His hair was in dismay, sticking up like a haystack.

Joseph got off his horse, clenching his teeth as his weary body protested. He had neither slept nor eaten in days. The only time he had returned home was for a change of horse and for some water.

"Quick, I seek an audience with Tristan Hawthorne," was all he said, his voice rasped and lacked the usual light tone it bore.

"Who asks for him?" demanded the guard suspiciously, looking Joseph up and down, not fooled by his appearance. He knew beggars that looked better than the man before him.

"Joseph Astor, fourth son of the Viscount of Bannria," Joseph said without pause. "Now let me pass for I have urgent business with his lordship." The authority in his voice made the guard disregard the first impression he'd had of Joseph: surely a commoner could not speak with such conviction.

"Of course," he said, letting the tired man pass. Joseph was escorted into the palace and shown to Christine and Tristan's apartments by two palace servants.

"What business do you have with his lordship?" asked the oldest one.

"Just some problems with his estate back in Cadherra," Joseph lied. She did not believe him but accepted the lie either way.

"Here we are," she said, showing the door. The younger servant knocked on it, announcing Joseph's presence. Maria came to open the doors and her face lit up as she saw Joseph standing there.

"My lord!" she exclaimed. But his face told her to be quiet. The other servants left them, but Joseph had been warned about the palace, thus he guarded his words carefully.

"I did not think you would come so quickly," said Maria as he closed the doors behind him. Christine entered the parlor and saw his disheveled state.

"Joseph, what happened to you?" she asked, real concern evident in her voice. He only chuckled.

"If I knew that all it took for you to speak once more with me was to look like this, I would have done so sooner," he said, gesturing at himself. Christine sighed and guided him to a comfortable stool for him to sit and warm himself by the fire.

"My pride impeded me from speaking sooner with you." He put up a hand, telling her to stop.

"I was too concerned with my own skin to even think about how such a selfish action could have affected you," he began. Joseph never knew how much his words had hurt Christine. He had turned her friendship down for fear of gossip. "We will sort this disagreement between us. But first I must speak with Tristan, it is crucial that what I have to tell him reaches him as soon as possible," Joseph said, looking around, expecting the masked man to appear at any moment.

"But, pray tell, where is he?"

"You just missed him. He went seeking Lord Athar a few moments ago." Joseph jumped up, adrenaline rushing through his body.

"When did he leave? How long ago?" he asked in distress. Christine was taken aback by his sudden change in demeanor. Joseph had gone pale, and beads of sweat formed at his temples. He was jittery as if wanting to run the first chance he got.

"Well, I am not quite sure, maybe ten-twenty minutes ago. He went toward Lord Athar's personal quarters, in another wing by the west end of the…" she said. Joseph was out the door before she had finished her sentence.

"What was that about?" asked Maria worriedly.

"I don't know." Christine was worried as well. Whatever it was, it could not bode well.

Tristan's determined footsteps echoed throughout the hallways. The wide, open spaces were lit by the dim light that sifted through the thick windows. Snow and frost lined the glass, making it hard for the sunbeams to penetrate. It gave an eerie glow, strengthened by the dull light of the candles, placed in the holders that had been built into the walls.

He knew how to approach Athar. The whole night had been spent thinking up a strategy to meet the man on his own terms. It was time they got together and placed all their cards on the table. Tristan needed someone he could trust, now more than ever.

His mind was overworked as he had had no sleep due to Victoria's sudden visit. He tried to push the thought of her away—her lips pressing against him, her body molding against his own and her eager hands searching him as if he were an unexplored piece of land. He shook his head at the thought, for it only brought disgust to him. Tristan had not felt the touch of a woman in a while since coming to Angloa. Yet, he knew who he wanted in his bed, giving him soft kisses and running her hands along his body and it was not Victoria Fell.

His thoughts drifted to a golden-haired beauty with eyes of fragrant lavender. After Christine's escapade to the winter ball, her demeanor toward him seemed changed, lighter somehow. She respected him now just as he respected her. He had gone into the engagement thinking that he could never feel anything for Christine. Yet, everything he believed seemed to be questioned again and again as he could not control nor stop his own feelings. In the end, he grew afraid of them. He felt like an entirely different person around her, calmer and less arrogant, more agreeable and amiable. Tristan knew then that Christine brought out a better part of him, the person he wanted to be. He had never wished to be a stranger in a mask, terrifying those around him. She had made him see that, in a way. Tristan now knew who he wanted to be. He wanted to be honorable, and command respect. He wanted to perform his duty to his king. It was one of the reasons he had decided to stay in the palace and not leave the first chance he got, because he had an obligation toward James. The other reason was that he had made a promise that would benefit Christine and he wanted to stop her from making more foolish decisions.

He arrived at the wing which held Athar's apartments. The old duke had asked for simple accommodations, to everyone's surprise. He had only taken one room with an attached parlor, in the upper west wing, away from where most other guests were. Tristan approached the door, feeling hopeful. He would ask Athar out for a ride and have them get far away from prying servants. It was then that he would begin speaking in earnest with him.

His silhouette fit the height of the door as the weak sunbeams shone through the window behind him. Tristan was about to knock when he heard running steps at the far end of the corridor. He wondered who it was and turned, curiosity taking hold. It was more common to send a servant with a riding invitation than go himself, but Tristan had little trust for anyone in the palace. He did thus not have a good explanation for his strange presence in the corridor. His worries were swiftly subdued as he saw Joseph appear before him—like a ghost returned from the dead.

"Joseph!" exclaimed Tristan in surprise.

"Do not knock on that door," urged the other in panic, stopping to catch his breath. He looked around the empty hallway and then back at Tristan.

"Where have you been?" asked Tristan angrily.

"It's a long story, but that is best if it isn't told here. Come." He motioned Tristan to follow him and cautiously they made their way out of the palace. It did not go unnoticed by Tristan how weary Joseph looked. Once they were seated on their respective horses and far away from the curious ears of the palace Joseph spoke.

"I know who Captain Fletcher reports to," he said, his eyes in a wide and serious expression. When Tristan waited for him to continue Joseph lowered his eyes and rose a nervous hand to run his fingers through his dirty hair. "I had no idea why you sent me after him, to follow his every step. Therefore, on the night of the ball, when I recognized the man and wanted to tell you, I knew I wouldn't have a chance, you were always surrounded by people. Besides, I wanted to be certain it was him. Thus, I went back to follow Fletcher. He was passed out drunk at his house. I took the opportunity of going into his rooms and in search for something of value, something that might prove what I had seen for I was not certain…" Joseph looked as if he had seen a ghost. "Would you like to reveal to me what this is all about?" Joseph asked as he took some notes from the inside of his cape. He handed the small stack of papers to Tristan, crinkled and torn, showing that they had been gathered together in haste.

Tristan read through them. His eyes widened as he scanned the pages. On them were lists of provisions for weapons and armor for soldiers. Others spoke of gathering together civilians into a small army within the upper city circle. They were plans for overthrowing the palace.

"Someone is planning to take over the palace," Joseph said, confirming what was already written. Tristan steadied his horse, which grew alert as its master tensed.

"It is much more than that, Joseph," Tristan said, letting worry seep into his voice. "Someone is conspiring against James, and it seems that they're planning to overthrow him as well." 

Joseph's eyes widened.

"Who was it? Who did you recognize at the ball?" Tristan asked cautiously. The slowed down until it came to a roaring halt. Tristan's heartbeat sped up in anticipation of the answer. Whatever name was uttered now, Tristan knew he had to take action against that man.

Joseph gave him a shaky sigh and his hands closed into fists as he could not even look Tristan in the eyes while speaking the name.

"It was Athar."