Secrets of the Court: Chapter 15

 February 9th – Wessport Palace

Tristan had nothing against the members of the war council. It consisted of seasoned war veterans who had a connection to the land and its people. Tristan got the impression that the attending colonels and generals of the war council would do even more good if they'd be integrated into the lords' assembly. He had heard better ideas about military actions and diplomacy during the council's first hour than he had during the last few days at the assembly.

Just as the war council ended, Tristan headed with Fawkes toward the assembly room. He spoke little with the man, for he did not trust him anymore. Fawkes was too friendly with Athar. Fawkes and Athar had known each other for years, ever since King Philip's days. Such a friendship was stronger than anything. It was almost like a kinship, almost like they shared blood. Tristan suspected Fawkes did not know of Athar's betrayal, but he couldn't be certain. If Fawkes knew about it or was made aware of it, would he take action or ignore it?

As their heavy footsteps echoed through the crowded hallways in the central part of the palace, they met up with some other noblemen heading in the same direction. Athar joined them as well and Tristan fought hard not to appear tense around the old duke. He could not believe Athar was involved in a plot against James. In some sense, Athar reminded him of an older family member—wise, witty, and understanding. The old man had given Tristan advice, he had welcomed him at court with open arms. Perhaps that was only more cause for Tristan's concern—Athar disguised his true agenda too well. Tristan felt helpless going against such powerful men. He was certain that more were in on it. If Tristan had scarcely slept before, he could not even shut his eyes now. Worry tore at his very being and he wondered what he had gotten himself into. He should be taking Christine and running away from Angloa as quickly as possible before the inevitable events unfolded.

As they gathered in the room, the air was loaded and heavy as always. Tristan's presence seemed to cause that effect, for wherever he went, quiet stares and nervous whispers always arose. Tristan paid little attention during the assembly. He wasn't unaware of the glares he kept receiving from Alistair.

Cardinal Thorpe had just returned from Rome. He kept speaking of the benefits Angloa could reap from the Vatican if the country was willing to donate more money. Surely God would see the humane gesture and bless the struggling kingdom. Most lords only murmured words that were too quiet to make out, Cardinal Thorpe always tried to coax some money from them for the church.

When the assembly was over, the room emptied quickly. Only a select few remained, chatting with the king—Athar and Fawkes being two of them.

Tristan walked out, wanting to get away from there as quickly as possible. He heard a warm tenor voice and footsteps fall in behind him as Linahan called out for his attention.

"Lord Hawthorne!" Linahan said, running to keep up with Tristan's longer strides. He smiled kindly, the corners of his gray eyes crinkling slightly as his face genuinely lit up. It was strange for Tristan to see such a sincere reaction of joy directed at him. 

"Would you care to accompany me on a ride?" Linahan asked. Tristan's jaw clenched. It was evident that Linahan was requesting more than a ride. Linahan's eyes spoke it all—he wanted to be away from the palace, away from any servants who might listen in on an otherwise private conversation.

"I do not have the time for such a thing right now, my lord," Tristan excused himself. He had no wish to hear what the other man might say, especially if it might get him into trouble. Linahan grew impatient and put a hand on Tristan's shoulder, stopping him.

"What I want to speak about is of great importance," he whispered, looking around to be certain that no one was close by. "It has to do with our mutual friend," he said knowingly. Tristan stared like an unmovable statue and sent Linahan a disproving look, letting his silence speak for him before he walked away. Anything Linahan said to him here could come back to implicate him.

"Wait, Hawthorne!" Linahan yelled behind him as he ran up again to walk beside Tristan, almost jogging to keep up with the other’s longer strides.

"Saxton said you—" he began but before he could continue Tristan grabbed him by the collar. He pushed Linahan up against the wall, so he was on eye level with Tristan. Linahan's frame was smaller than Tristan's—his stature almost half a head shorter, Tristan had no problem crushing him against the wall. Linahan’s feet were left to dangle a few inches from the stone floor. Linahan's innocent eyes widened in surprise as he stared at the obscured face in fright, grabbing hold of Tristan's forearms so he wouldn't choke. There was something eerie about the raw anger pooling from Tristan's eyes that made Linahan wish he had kept quiet.

"Never speak that name in my presence. I do not know what plans you have with Saxton. I do not care. Refrain from mentioning any ties you have to him or try to rope me into whatever it is you are planning. Men have been executed for less in Wessport," Tristan hissed in his ear, making Linahan's eyes widen further in fear.

Never once had Linahan thought that Saxton's name would stir such rage in Tristan and Linahan knew to never approach him or the subject again.

Tristan released him, dropping him mercilessly on the ground and frowning in disgust as Linahan gasped for air, his shaky breath revealing his horrified state. Linahan did not take too long to compose himself, and as if his life depended on it, he stumbled to his feet and rushed in the other direction. Linahan never looked back at Tristan who rested his head against the cold stone wall, feeling the initial painful poundings of a headache take root.

"Give him another bowl, Maria," said Christine.

Joseph sat in the leather chair by the fire. He was draped in several furs and blankets, shivering as the maid finished feeding him the warm chicken broth that had been brought from the kitchens. She rose from her seat and took the wooden spoon and bowl with her to the kitchens to refill them again. Christine sat down next to Joseph, placing a cool hand on his burning forehead.

"You strained yourself too hard this time, Joseph," Christine murmured as he hugged the blankets closer around him.

Joseph had fallen ill after having delivered the news to Tristan. After returning from his ride with Tristan, a fever had overtaken him from the strain of scarcely having slept nor eaten for three days. Joseph had been close to collapsing upon his return to the palace, nearly falling from his horse. But he, of course, argued that he had only had a dizzy spell and that it would pass. Tristan helped a weak Joseph to his apartments and gave his bed to the feverish man. Christine had frowned when catching her fiancé murmuring that he could not sleep anyway. Tristan had left Joseph in Christine's care the morning after. She had done everything she could to bring the fever down and get some sustenance into Joseph's sick body.

"It was necessary," Joseph argued faintly, still too weak to properly raise his voice. It came out like a faint rasp, scratching his throat uncomfortably as he uttered each syllable.

"I suspect you will not tell me what you did to make you end up in a state like this," Christine sighed as she looked out the window, disappointed in the secrecy of both men. Even if she managed to coax some information from Joseph, it was best not to speak so openly in the palace. However, Christine could not help as she grew more curious by the minute.

Joseph only shrugged, pursing his lips together as a sign that he had nothing more to say on the subject.

"I see," was all Christine said, her face a pale mask as she stood up and paced about the elegant room. Christine walked about the room, clearly unsettled. She kept fumbling with her hands, smoothing the front of her pale-yellow gown as she squared her jaw, revealing her state of uneasiness.

"Maybe I cannot speak of what I was up to these last few days, but there is another issue that has to be solved," Joseph said weakly. Christine stopped by the window, her back facing him. She stood close enough so that her warm breath fogged up the glass. She traced figures on the window, placing half of her attention on him.

"I want to ask for your forgiveness, Christine—" Joseph began but was cut short by her.

"I forgave you a while ago, Joseph." There was a sadness in her voice he could not place. She turned around and came to sit next to him. "I…forgive you again… if you can forgive me?" she asked. "It has been very lonely without you. I miss our talks and our promenades."

Joseph was surprised by her answer. "I…of course I would forgive you. I thought you were set to always despise me for abandoning you in Adelton," he confessed.

"I never despised you. I was hurt and disappointed. But there are many things I have come to learn these past few months," Christine argued. She opened up slightly, just as she had done in the early days of their friendship.

"When I arrived in Adelton, I was faced with the reality of my situation. For a year Mother and I had struggled to survive—to put food on the table. Returning to Cadherra and slowing up allowed me to finally process everything that had happened and the new life I was expected to live with…with Hawthorne. I didn't handle it as well as I could have." Her eyes flickered as she spoke.

"I could have handled the situation differently as well."

"But it is done. Thus, let us not speak more of it." She grabbed his feverish hands, and a smile touched her lips. "What you need to do now is to get well, so you can stand with Hawthorne against whatever you two are fighting."

Her words made his eyebrows arch questioningly.

"I may be in the dark, but I am not a fool. This is Wessport, I suspect there might be something afoot here, or else Hawthorne wouldn't seem so worried all the time," she whispered in his ear.

Christine had noticed Tristan pacing his room these past few days. He was as stoic in his disposition as always but living in such close proximity offered Christine a more in-depth view of him. Tristan was tired—from the way he talked to the way he held himself. His mind was not as quick as before and there was something weighing him down. It was big enough to unsettle him at night for she knew he did not sleep. Sometimes she could hear him stroll around in the parlor, putting more wood on the fire and pouring a glass of wine for himself. Christine never spoke of it, but the whole ordeal made her guilt rise with each passing day. They were in the palace solely because of her and she had no idea how to get them away.

February 10th

A low murmur surfaced throughout the assembly room as they were once again discussing James’ demands. Braun, Alistair, and the others who had yet to sign had once again come up with another excuse to not give up their personal armies. They argued that their armies gave them their freedom. They were titled lords and should have access to an army — it had always been that way.

Braun, who spoke for them, thus delivered their final message, that they would not sign.

The baffled lords of the assembly did not know what to say at first. Those who agreed with Braun and his group were questioning their own decision to sign the parchment. Having a king striving for as much power as James could not bode well for them. The discussion in the room quickly turned into a philosophical debate about the right of James to hold all the power. Some even thought back to older days, when James’ father and mother had held an iron grip over Angloa.

Tristan interrupted the discussion, unable to keep quiet much longer. The topic in question was of little consequence, Angloa needed internal stability, and having the court be split after barely winning a war wouldn't do them any favors on the international playing field. They needed to present a strong front so as not to invite more ships to their shores or the threat of another invasion. While Tristan understood Braun’s reasoning, they needed to find another solution that worked both for Braun and James. While he held the attention of the assembly, he continued speaking, having said more in the past few minutes than during the whole war campaign up in the north—or so Fawkes whispered to the man next to him. Tristan brought up the need to improve the infrastructure in Angloa if she was ever to flourish as she once had under King Philip. He had seen many times how mothers and fathers took food from their own mouths to feed their starving children. The few times he had wandered the streets of the lower circle in Wessport, he had only seen poverty and misery. The same could be said for the outskirts of the cities. He brought up the poverty he had seen in the streets of Wessport, and other Angloan towns as well.

Alistair, among many others, was visibly upset as Tristan spoke his mind. A seething contempt and distaste for the words uttered by Tristan—which had grown substantially since his return to court—finally took Alistair to his wit's end. He got up from his seat and pointed an accusing finger at Tristan.

"What would you know about any of this? You think because you played a minor part in winning the war you have a right to tell any of us how we now are to run the country? You are not fit for the title you have been bestowed—greater men should have claimed that honor," Alistair spat through gritted teeth. It felt good to release words he had wished to speak for a long time, and in a place where all could hear them.

“Lord Hawthorne was granted his title and lands by His Majesty, I would guard my tongue, Alistair, before speaking further,” Fawkes growled back.

"Alas, what he speaks of is the truth." Athar tried to steer the sudden outburst in another direction, not wishing to stir the pot further. Athar turned to James. "Your Majesty, the stark reality is that the people suffer. Here we only speak of war and battles, of money and diplomacy, yet, we have forgotten your subjects," Athar finished. Tristan tensed at his words for Athar spoke the truth. But how could he agree with him when he knew what Athar was secretly planning? Was Athar plotting against James for this very reason? Did he not see that starting an uprising against the king would only end up in further misery and death for the people he was trying to protect? Tristan had sent a letter to Lucius with a trusted messenger. Lucius would hide Alan Moore in Cadherra and then come to Wessport, Tristan needed all the help he could get.

Alistair dragged at the collar of his doublet muttering incomprehensible words. He ignored Athar's plea. He seemed only interested in one thing; insulting Tristan.

"Your victory in some puny battles mean nothing and they do not change what you really are!" Alistair spat, enraged.

Alistair’s poor opinion of Tristan was well known at the Wessport court, not that Alistair had ever attempted to keep his thoughts to himself. Tristan paid little attention to the foul words, knowing that the only opinion that mattered was James’. While Tristan was tolerated at court by some, there were certain men present who took offense at the insulting words Alistair had uttered, even though they never voiced it.

Tristan disregarded Alistair's words and ignored him, which only served to further irritate Alistair.

"You see?" said Alistair, turning to those who would listen. James grew visibly sour as Alistair continued, but he did not stop him. "He thinks himself better than me for he will not even speak up to defend himself!" Alistair turned to face Tristan once more. His face twisted into a malignant frown of disgust.

The room went quiet and tense as all now paid attention to Alistair. "You have no place here on this council, Hawthorne, just as you have no place at court with that disgraced wench of yours."

There were no murmurs nor whispers now, just a stupefied silence as the men took in the severity of the insult. As soon as Alistair had finished, Athar rose from his seat, his face twisted into a disproving frown. Other lords glared at Alistair, in a similar fashion.

"I suggest you keep your tongue in check, Lord Alistair, if you know what is good for you," Athar hissed, starring the younger man down.

Tristan switched his gaze to Alistair as he tensed his jaw underneath the mask. Blackened eyes considered the lesser man before him, as if measuring him with a quick glance. The seconds dragged on as all waited with speeding hearts for a reaction—whatever it may be. The lords closest to Tristan inched away as his gloves creaked when his hands closed into fists.

When the tension seemed unbearable, someone to Tristan’s left tapped him on his shoulder and handed him something: a glove. Tristan looked up to see Rajac smile a characteristic grin — Rajac looked at Alistair and then back at the glove in a show of solidarity. Tristan never revealed his surprise at the gesture. By giving his own glove Rajac had also given his approval.

Tristan proceeded to step out from his row and walked toward Alistair with confident steps. He lurked toward him, his eyes staring intensely ahead as they oozed with poison and rage. One hand rested on the fine handle of his sword, curling around it tightly as he further pressed his teeth together in anticipation. The other gripped Rajac’s glove firmly, muscles tensing. He came to stand before a flustered Alistair and his eyes drilled holes into the other man. They all knew what Tristan was about to do but the men in the room still gasped as he cast down the glove without a word, all the while never breaking eye contact with Alistair. The leather garment lay in a heap on the stone floor, looking small and fragile. But the impact it carried made the adrenaline in Alistair's blood rise to dangerous levels.

He had just been challenged.

A general silence befell the room. The air grew with a choking tension, and it seemed as if time itself had stopped. The blood that coursed through Tristan's veins gave him renewed strength, he stood taller in a wide stance, already anticipating a confrontation. He loomed over Alistair like a shadow, extending over the entire space between them. After a moment’s pause, Alistair recovered from the initial shock, for never had he thought Tristan capable of issuing a challenge for a duel.

"I would never," hissed Alistair as if the mere thought was beneath him. Alistair could not help but smirk a little, Tristan would never stand a chance against him in single combat anyway.

Tristan let his silence speak for him. The men of the assembly were tethered at the edge of their seats and strained to process every gesture and syllable uttered between the two men. James leaned forward in his seat, looking back and forth between Alistair and Tristan, not making any move to stop them. His breath was caught in his throat as he watched the silent battle rage on. Cardinal Thorpe was silent as well. This was not a matter for the church. The god-fearing man gripped his cross tightly in his hand; praying in silence, no one certain of whom he was rooting for.

"Pick it up, Alistair, or are you afraid?" asked someone at the back. Tristan recognized it as Rajac's voice, ripping into the silence. He still stared at Alistair with the same intensity. Alistair looked away for the first time, the first to break eye contact.

"Your pathetic opinions are of little concern to me." Tristan’s voice extended like a darkness in the room and seemed to suck out the warmth. The air was different, loaded, like an arrow on a taunt string, waiting to be released. The light grew a shade colder—like clouds had just covered the warm beams of the sun that previously penetrated the room's windows.

"Bringing her into this will cost you," Tristan paused, savoring the words, "my lord," he added scornfully. Alistair still made no move to pick up the glove, but now out of fright instead of pride. "If you do not accept my challenge then I will consider you a coward."

Tristan’s words coaxed some smirks. Athar watched with wide eyes at the display. Fawkes could not hide a satisfied grin. James clasped his hands together and rested his chin on them, his eyes glittering in anticipation.

"We are waiting, Lord Alistair," James said after a while.

Alistair's eyes scanned the room, but he only found faces of contempt, for many waited for him to decline, and thus confirm his cowardice. Alistair let his pride overtake and he bent to pick up the glove, causing yet another murmur to extend as words traveled from one mouth to the other.

"I accept your challenge, even if it is beneath me," he said with his nose in the air. He motioned for Braun who reluctantly stepped forward as he looked at Tristan. "Lord Braun will be my second," Alistair continued through gritted teeth. "Who may yours be?" he asked.

"I will," came a burly voice.

The whispers arose to a murmur as Fawkes came to stand next to Tristan, placing a comforting hand on his shoulder.

Fawkes and Braun set up a time and place for the duel. James frowned. Dueling was legal but no longer common practice in Angloa. However, it was the first time one had been challenged in his presence. He would not attend although he wanted to. James sneaked a few coins into Athar's hand. "I place my trust in Lord Hawthorne," he murmured. His eyes twinkled and Athar gave him a sly smile back, nodding.

"Next week at sunrise the challengers will meet at Morrow's Glade, outside the city," said Fawkes in a loud voice.

"Very well," James spoke up, impatient as he frowned, looking out over the crowd of men. He glanced at Braun, Alistair, and the other lords who had been unwilling to sign. "You will sign, my lords, before the month is over. If not, I will take your reluctance to obey a royal order as an act of treason and confiscate your armies and part of your lands," James said nonchalantly. After all, he was the king, his word was law.

Braun inclined his head in acceptance and submission while Alistair looked as if he had just bitten into a lemon.

Cardinal Thorpe stood up. "If I might have the word then as we change to more pressing matters?" he started, looking at the king for approval. James leaned back, with a tired frown. He wouldn't have minded having the duel between Alistair and Tristan right then and there.

"Go ahead, Thorpe," James sighed.

A smile grew on Thorpe's plump face. His agenda was evident; the word he brought back from Rome was clear—financial aid was to be sent to the Holy See. Thorpe also spoke of conflicts on the European mainland that affected the seat of the Pope. Thorpe, always eager to further extend his career within the church, was keen on continuing the good work he had kept up in Angloa. The kingdom was a generous contributor through not only the crown, but the many lands the church held.

Christine let the thread glide in and out of the linen as she worked it with her embroidery. She made sure not to make eye contact with any of the other ladies in the room as she sewed. A woman in a beautiful taffeta gown of turquoise and dusty yellow brocade was playing the harp in one corner, accompanied by another lady playing the lute. The tone was solemn, and the melancholic music floated heavily through the air. It did not serve to cheer up a concerned Christine. She knew Tristan was involved in something, or he had unearthed something that was taking place behind closed doors. A fundamental part of her wanted to understand what was keeping him up at night and what seemed to keep him on edge at court. Another part, albeit smaller, wished to ignore their perilous situation and the stress that she perceived as apparent in Tristan. After all, the situation they found themselves in was due to her past actions. Christine let a sigh escape her, the other ladies in the room casting her a glance as they whispered amongst themselves.

"You seem very solemn today, Lady Christine," came the velvet voice of Victoria Fell. It was the older princess who had, out of nowhere, invited Christine to come and pass the afternoon with her and some of the other guests of the palace.

"Of course not, Your Highness. I could never be solemn in your presence," Christine responded in an even tone, never raising her eyes to meet the golden gaze. Victoria chuckled at the quick reply. The tension in the room grew as Victoria turned back to her embroidering, listening to the music in peace.

"Are we to expect a marriage soon between you and your intended, Lady Vega?" asked Monica Savoie, the wife of Otto Savoie. She was a petite woman with raven tresses and skin as pale as the snow outside. It was so pale that it almost appeared translucent, and blue veins were clearly visible on her exposed neck and arms. She was the third cousin to Victoria. Monica was also widely known by many at court as a lover of gossip and spreading rumors. The only one she never said a malicious word against was her cousin Victoria. Christine met Monica’s black eyes as they twinkled, her red lips in a stiff smile as she waited for the younger woman to answer.

"Perhaps when winter has ended," Christine answered, her voice distant, not wanting to speak of the subject.

"Are you certain it is wise to wait so long? Indeed, should you not be showing by then?" Monica said, her eyes drifting to Christine's flat belly. "For is it not true you share lodgings with him?"

Christine grew tense, her teeth biting down hard and the needle pricking the textile more forcefully. "Oh, not at all, Lady Savoie. I believe we can even wait to wed until summer if it were necessary. In truth I much prefer the summer," she said smiling while staring at Monica.

"Yes, Angloan summers are beautiful and so warm. But the winters in Wessport are long and could—you should have a husband to warm your bed," Monica retorted. "Or he need not be your husband, I suppose," Monica smirked. Victoria coughed to hide a chuckle, and so did the other women.

"I wouldn't know, Lady Savoie… I suppose you would know better than I," Christine retorted, not bothering to meet Monica's eyes. Christine knew they had no kindness to offer her, nor that she would ever be accepted by them. She did not bother to seem offended by the sly remarks. Monica grew irritated that her little insults were brushed aside.

"My dear, Lady Savoie was only in jest," said another woman. It was a tall and thin woman, about ten years Christine’s senior. She came from the north of the continent; from Denmark, having wedded her husband, Rupert Landon when she was very young. Her family was one of the richest in her country and — before Christine's father had fallen from grace — she had been a good friend. But Lady Johanna Landon had quickly abandoned Christine when the Vega family fell from grace.

"Of course." Christine knew why she had been asked to come. She was a pastime for the courtiers. She had no grounds to turn down a direct summons from a member of the royal house without causing insult and thus, she saw herself obliged to attend. The other women laughed again. Victoria put down her embroidery and clapped her hands together.

"Ladies," the older woman began, her face turning serious. "Lady Christine is my guest, and I will not have you make her feel unwelcomed here," Victoria said, beaming at Christine. Christine gave a forced smile back, knowing fully well not to trust the old princess. Victoria had never been malicious against anyone, but that didn't mean she was a saint. Her personality was a big enigma and Christine had always told herself to be careful around the princess.

"Of course, Your Highness," Monica said, serious at first and then brushing the remark off with a laugh. They continued sewing in silence as the music kept playing. Whispers slowly floated through the room and Christine itched to get out of there. She'd rather go horse riding or play chess with Athar who had invited her to a game the previous day. Alas, Victoria had been quicker in her summons. Instead, Christine took to appreciating the surroundings.

The room was the most exquisite sitting room Christine had ever seen. One wall was entirely covered by mirror panels, brought from Persia. Blue curtains outlined the delicate golden frame and at its top hung the Royal coat-of-arms. The chairs were comfortable with deep blue cushions and tall wooden backs, allowing those who sat down to rest their back and neck as well. The rugs that lined the floors were not Persian, or from the Orient. Instead, they were Italian, and the design was simpler and brighter. There were some Romanesque busts on Roman pillars in the corners of the room. One was of King Philip in his older days: the luster seemed to have abandoned him. The youthful vigor that was so present in his portraits was gone. He seemed like any other weary old man, carrying the weight of a country on his shoulders. Another bust of King Magnus stood in another corner; James' father. He did not look as proud and arrogant as Philip had done. Instead, he looked wiser, wittier, and calmer. The remaining three busts were of James, Victoria, and Miriam: the royal children.

Another wall was completely covered by a painting, an impressive fresco by an Italian that depicted a heavenly scene with the Virgin and Jesus Christ reunited in heaven, surrounded by soft clouds and cherubs smiling at mother and son. It had been a gift to Philip from the painter in his youth.

Lady Landon sighed and put down needle and thread, determined to further question Christine. "You know, I find it very intriguing; your attendance at the winter ball." She looked pensive as she spoke. A delicate frown spread on her face, all in the room were expecting her to deliver yet another insult.

"I gather Lord Hawthorne was not very happy at your arrival, especially seeing you in that gown. It must have cost you a fortune." Lady Landon looked as innocent as a baby, but the words were meant to sting. But instead of bothering her, Christine fought hard to hide the grin that was threatening to reveal her true state of mind. There it was; the real reason for her summons. Indeed, the ladies could insult her for all they cared, but in the end, they would only gain a few laughs from it. The same could be said for gossip; it would only be a pastime that would not give them anything useful in the end. What they all really seemed interested in was her gown.

"You are quite wrong, Lady Landon, the making of the dress barely cost me a dime. It was the fabric that was expensive. It is byzantine, you see," Christine said, feigning cluelessness and once more ignoring the insulting tone. The other women in the room felt their curiosity kindle.

"The seamstress must be unknown, then, if she was willing to ask for so little?" asked Monica, playing with a lock of her hair.

"Indeed," answered Christine enigmatically, never offering more information about Antonia Coticelli. She knew nothing but gratitude to Antonia, but she would not be the one to divulge her secret seamstress to the other ladies at court.

"Where does she hail from?"

"I never asked," retorted Christine, staring at her embroidery, looking quite bored. "She barely spoke a word with me." The corner of her lips tugged slightly at the blatant lie. Antonia could probably talk a man to death. The little Italian woman had the stamina of an ox and in a sense, Christine respected her. Not even Tristan's frightening demeanor seemed to have moved her. After having left the rest of the gowns she'd made for her, Antonia had retired back to the middle circle and Christine had not heard from her since.

"Do not be coy, Vega. I am quite certain she would want you to share her name with the rest of us," Monica snickered, seeing through Christine's attempt to get away from the subject. Christine put down her embroidery and looked up at the beams in the roof as if deep in thought.

"I have a terrible memory, dear," Christine answered with wide eyes. "It might have been Andrea, or perhaps it was Alicia? No, it was definitely Antoinette. I think her last name started with a 'K' or perhaps a 'C'…" she trailed off, mumbling to herself. Christine felt a deep sense of satisfaction when she heard Monica sigh in irritation.

Monica was about to snap back when the harp stopped playing. The lute continued by itself as the player took a break from the instrument. It was in that instance that the carved door to the room opened without a knock. In walked the other Angloan princess, Miriam Fell. She was not the same beauty as her older sister, but she was still considered attractive. She was more down to earth than her older sister and if there was anyone that Christine liked at court, it was Miriam. The blonde woman joined the ensemble of ladies, out of breath as if she had just run across the palace.

"What has you so worked up, dear sister?" asked Victoria, never meeting her sister's golden eyes. Miriam was profoundly known for detesting gossip and spreading rumors. But it seemed as if she held something of interest within her grasp. The other ladies huddled in closer, waiting to hear what Miriam had to say.

"I am to speak with you alone, Victoria," Miriam answered stiffly. Her eyes flickered to Christine, surprised at the young woman's presence. Miriam's heart went out to her, but she did nothing to help Christine escape the parlor. She knew better than to speak out against her older sister.

Monica Savoie sighed audibly and put down her embroidery. "You might as well tell everyone, Your Highness, lest we grow impatient."

"You know what I think of gossiping," retorted Miriam severely. Her station made the younger woman's eyes sink to the ground as a sign of submission.

"Then you know what I think of teasing," said Victoria. "Surely, coming from your mouth it wouldn't be considered as gossip. It would only be relevant information," she said, now placing all her attention on her sister. "There must be a reason you decided to rush here at this hour, knowing very well that I would have company."

Miriam had hoped to find her sister alone. She had no wish for the information to reach the other ladies, for she was certain the entire court would know of it before the day was over. Furthermore, she cast a glance at Christine, she had no wish for the young woman to find out from her mouth. But perhaps it was better Christine heard it from her; unbiased and untainted by growing rumors and distorted by gossip.

"Very well," Miriam said, her hands dropping by her plan wool skirts. Miriam was a devoted catholic and her tastes in clothing were simple—not as extravagant as her sister's. She was modest and took pride in it.

"A challenge has emerged this morning in the assembly room during the lords' meeting with our cousin," Miriam said stiffly. Victoria smirked and her attention was now entirely on her sister. "I came here because I thought it pertinent you knew about it, sister. But I suppose there are others present in this room who will benefit from this information as well."

"Who did you hear this from?" asked Johanna Landon.

"The king himself, when he joined me in the chapel to pray this morning," Miriam responded curtly.

"If it comes from His Majesty the information is certain to be true," said Monica. "Who is to duel and when?" Miriam cast a glance at Christine and her lips pursed into a thin line. The innocent face stared back at her, and Miriam’s heart sank.

"Tristan Hawthorne and Matthew Alistair." The lute stopped playing, and the room fell into a pregnant pause. Christine's heart skipped a few beats.

"When and where?" Christine never registered who had asked. A sickening sensation grew in the pit of her stomach.

"The first day of next week—at dawn, at Morrow's Glade."

"Who issued the duel?" Victoria leaned forward, her attention constantly between Miriam and Christine; the latter had gone pale.

"Lord Hawthorne, after Lord Alistair made his distaste for the other known during the middle of the meeting, and also after he insulted young Lady Vega." Miriam sneaked a glance at Christine whose eyes seemed to stare off into the distance. She gripped her skirts hard as her knuckles turned white.

"Your Highnesses will excuse me," Christine said, getting up, dropping needle and thread on the floor. "My ladies." Christine curtsied as she promptly left the room. The other women stared after her in silence.

"Alistair is one of the best fighters at court," Monica mentioned faintly.

"Lord Braun is clearly the best," Johanna retorted.

"Lord Braun is his second," Miriam said, making the eyes of the women grow wider.

"Did Hawthorne know of this when he challenged Lord Alistair?" quipped Victoria.

"Of course not, or he would never have challenged him in the first place," said another woman, trying to convince them.

"Lord Hawthorne is seasoned on the battlefield, he should not find a duel by sword any different than when he fought the English,” Johanna said.

"If Lord Alistair even chooses the sword as the weapon of combat. He might go for something else, like jousting." Monica leaned forward, eager to further speculate.

"Alistair will choose the sword. He might be a fool, but he is not that big of a fool." Monica frowned at Victoria's response. "Either case, it will be an interesting duel, anything can happen," she continued.

Miriam sighed and left the room. She had given the news her cousin had wanted her to give. She was not keen on remaining behind as Victoria and her ladies-in-waiting continued with their gossip. Miriam’s mind drifted instead to a pale Christine Vega, and she decided that the young woman and her fiancé would be in her prayers that night.

People stepped out of his way as he moved through the corridors. Tristan wanted to get to his chamber and lock himself in there until it was time. He knew he had acted in rage, but he had done so for a just cause. It was time someone taught Alistair a lesson, and he would happily be the teacher.

When he entered the apartment, it was dark and silent. Only the warm fire crackled in the fireplace as the last light of the sun disappeared beyond the horizon. He did not expect anyone to wait up for him and so, he started making his way to his chamber. But before he reached the door, he noticed a shadow in the room—a presence that made him tense up. Christine stood by the window, draping some blankets around her to shield herself from the cold that slowly seeped into the room through the cracks in the walls—more prevalent now since the little warmth of the sunlight had disappeared.

After a long silence, Christine turned toward him and he was surprised to see the worry in her eyes.

"Matthew Alistair?" she asked. Her voice shook with both confusion and restrained anger.


Christine approached him with slow steps, standing close enough to feel the warmth of his breath hit her face. The light of the fire cast vivid shadows over them as the flames danced around in the fireplace. She grabbed harder at the blanket around her shoulders.

"After the winter ball I reprimanded myself for being such a naïve fool," she confessed, her eyes daring to stare up into the empty sockets of the mask. He was about to answer her when she shook her head, wishing to continue. "You were supposed to be the reasonable one, and now I find out you are to duel Matthew Alistair?" she cried out. "Where was your reason, my lord? Why such a foolish act now?"

"I do not regret what I did, however foolish it might seem to you," Tristan said in a low murmur but he did not convince her.

"Alistair is one of the best swordsmen at court, next to Lord Braun and General Fawkes," Christine cried. "He has fought many duels and in many battles…where he has killed many men."

"You doubt my ability as a fighter," Tristan sneered, stepping back as he started heading for his rooms.

"He could kill you!"

"He can try."

Tristan stopped, his back facing hers. She had cast away the blankets and stood shivering, but he knew not if it was out of anger or cold. Christine's lips turned into a thin line as she clenched her jaw.

"Will you have me bury you before having married you?" Her tone was cold, albeit shaking with emotion.

He wordlessly shut the door behind him, shaking the entire frame with a loud bang.