Terms Of His Honor
Chapter 8 - Part 5
was packed with people. They spilled from the shops and houses to jam
the narrow streets, jostling anyone trying to push through without
Albion shouted a command and the men at arms closed around Isolde and the wagon. He let his aura flare around him, signaling Josce and the rest of the Deryni in their party to do the same.
The open display of power cleared their path instantly. Isolde glanced at him, admiration and humor sparkling in her eyes. "Too impatient to wait for the crowd to pass, my lord?"
"This crowd won't pass 'till nightfall. By then I want to be safe inside the palace walls."
"I did not remember the city as so dangerous a place." Isolde's tone told him she was teasing. Her lips curved into a daring smirk.
He let his attention drift lazily over her form. Shrouded in her usual dark mourning and covered in the drab wool cloak her shape could only be guessed at. Still he focused his gaze on the approximate location of her firm young breasts until embarrassment blossomed in her cheeks.
"True, there is little hazard for a well-armed man. You however are far more vulnerable."
Her cheeks colored nicely. "Am I in danger from the unwashed masses, my lord, or from mounted knights?"
His belly tightened at her light flirting. Since the night of the Samhain their relationship had changed sharply. The bandit attack on the road only emphasized the reality. Isolde seemed to accept it, and fortunately even Josce was taking it well.
No reason to hold her at distance now, not when he meant to ask for her hand as soon as he saw his king. Albion gave her a grin. "I would wager, sweet lady, that your purse is in far less danger than your person."
"My person, my lord? Or is it only my virtue you fear for?"
"Do you both mind?" Josce frowned at each of them in turn. The expression would have looked far more fierce had he not been smiling indulgently all the while. "Some of us would like to keep our breakfast down."
"Sorry." Albion shrugged at his friend. Josce was taking the loss of a beautiful bride and a rich estate very well indeed. Albion wondered briefly if he had never had true feelings for Isolde.
As they passed through the gates of the palace, Isolde noticed a squire dash inside from his place on the steps. Obviously they were watched for. That thought made her a bit uneasy.
The busy courtyard was nearly as she remembered, save that long banners of green bearing a black stag graced every wall instead of the crimson field and golden lion of the Haldane kings. She caught herself glancing around for familiar faces she knew she would not see. Still, it did not seem right that several of the royal children were not chasing each other through the yard with their exasperated nurse struggling after them.
Albion's hands at her waist brought her attention back to the moment. She rested her hands on his shoulders and he lifted her easily from the saddle. When her feet touched the ground he kept his hold on her a moment longer, his attention holding hers fast.
"Welcome to Rhemuth, my lady Isolde."
She smiled at him. As always seemed to happen when they stood close together the rest of the world faded to the distance.
"Your pardon, Your Grace." A page stood at Albion's elbow, looking both worried and fascinated. "His Majesty desires your presence immediately."
"Of course, lad." Albion released Isolde and took her hand. "Best not keep him waiting."
They set off at a fast pace, with Josce following close behind. Barely had they reached the main hall when another page escorted them through the crowd to stand before the raised dais at the far end of the hall. Isolde caught brief glimpses of strangely dressed people in jeweled velvets and cloth of gold.
For only a moment she regretted her choice of gowns, for she had nothing in her trunks but drab deep mourning. Then she stiffened her spine. Not even her best gowns would match the finery she saw all around her. At least she would not be ashamed of her clothing.
She dropped into a deep curtsy before the dais. Beside her, Albion and Josce bowed low. Only when the usurper commanded them rise did Isolde get a good look at him.
She might have mistaken the king for a blacksmith had he not been wearing jeweled velvet, ermine and a heavy crown of beaten gold. Festil I had the thick neck, stocky body and large hands of a man who spent much of his time doing heavy physical labor. His small eyes regarded her from beneath heavy brows.
Isolde forced herself not to look away. She meant to show this man no fear, even if her knees were knocking together. She had naught to feel ashamed of. Her father's ancestors had ruled Derry since well before Gwynedd existed as a kingdom.
As the silence stretched she began to sweat in the dark wool mourning gown. To bolster her courage she lifted her chin.
Festil let out a laugh that echoed off the rafters. After a moment's hesitation, the rest of the court echoed his mirth. Isolde felt her face flame.
"By God, Albion, but this one has spirit!" The king smiled, showing cracked and missing teeth. He descended the steps in long strides and clapped a hand on Albion's shoulder. "Now I understand why you delayed your return. I would savor this lovely lady's company for as long as I could were I in your place."
Albion shifted his feet, clearly uncomfortable with the public spectacle. "As you say, Sire."
Festil laughed again. "Your Grace is always one to appreciate a bit of harmless flirtation. But, my lord, your duty awaits you here. With this errand well done it is time you lived up to your obligations to your own estate."
As the king spoke he motioned to a cluster of people standing just to the right of the dais. After a moment of shifting places a man and woman stepped free of the group. The man was grizzled, round and bearded, and crowned with a heavy gold circlet over his velvet cap.
Albion's gaze froze on the woman and his mouth fell slightly open. Isolde's stomach curled into a ball of ice as she followed his line of vision. If this was the sort of lady he was accustomed to, she must only imagine that he could have any attraction to her. This woman was exquisite, her face and form every measure of beauty man described.
Festil took the lady's hand. She dropped a slight curtsy, then gave Albion a dazzling smile.
"You do remember your promise, Your Grace." Festil's warm voice carried an edge of steel. "I took the liberty of bringing your bride here for your convenience."
Albion nodded. When the king passed the lady's hand to him he drew it to his lips and kissed it in a fine courtly manner. "It is a pleasure to see you again, Your Highness."
"And you, Your Grace. Our separation has been far too long."
Festil fairly shoved Albion and the lady together. "As the lady says, Albion, you have long been apart from your betrothed. You have Our leave to take her somewhere private and reacquaint yourselves before the ceremony. Rest assured," he added with a lecherous wink, "We will not long leave you to pine for your wedding night.
Isolde bit her tongue to keep herself from asking Albion what he meant by this. She had believed his feelings for her were genuine. In the yard, he'd called her "love" and held her in his arms.
Had it all been a game to him?
"My lady?" Festil's voice jarred her out of the emotional morass she was fast sinking into. To save herself embarrassment, Isolde dipped a respectful curtsy and gave the king a smile she did not feel. "Majesty? I fear I was lost in thought."
Festil frowned. "We do require your attention, Lady Isolde. Our time is valuable." He waved her apology away. "We did ask you whether or not you possessed suitable clothing for our court. A jewel of loveliness should not be shrouded in mourning black."
A slender fellow who stood just behind the king gave a mocking laugh. "A jewel of loveliness, Sire? More a mud hen by the look of her."
Isolde fixed the knight with a haughty glare. "Forgive me, Lord King. I fear with the loss of my father I do wear mourning for another half year, as a dutiful daughter should."
Festil laughed loudly. "I swore she had spirit, did I not, Sir Josce? Lady, you will be a diamond amongst the jewels in my court.
"I wish you to forgive Lord Nicklos," Festil continued as he threw the outspoken knight a glare. "He tends to regard his own face and form as superior to all others, and does not see the worth We do in those of plainer taste and means.
"I wish you also to think of Ourself as your father," he continued with a smile that warned her not to disagree. "After all, is your king not the father and protector of all his subjects?"
He paused. Isolde realized he expected her to respond. "Of course, Your Majesty. As you say."
"Good. Then you will allow me to provide you with more pleasing and suitable gowns. I would have you attired as the favored bride of one of my best loved knights." Festil turned to Josce then. "Speaking of such matters, Sir Josce, are you prepared now to seal your betrothal with this lady?"
Isolde realized she was shaking her head. She stopped immediately. Thankfully Festil seemed not to have noticed. He was too absorbed staring at Josce.
Josce shook his head as he bowed before his king. "Sire, the journey has been long for my lady and she is exhausted. What is more, as you yourself pointed out she has no fit gowns for what I am certain you would wish to be a ceremony to be remembered for all time. I ask you to give her a day or so to recover from her ordeal and obtain something more fitting."
Festil nodded, smiling. "That is why I love you so well, Josce. You see what is in my mind almost before I do. Of course the first joining between the blood of Torenth and Gwynedd must be an occasion of state with all the celebration our season allows."
Josce actually looked relieved as he bowed in acknowledgment. "As you say, Sire." He straightened and Isolde swore she saw him wink at her.
Festil waved his hand indulgently, dismissing them both. "Lady, do you find your chamber. No doubt you wish to rest after your journey. And do you, Sir Josce, escort her and be certain she is familiar with Our court."