Terms Of His Honor
Chapter 9 - Part 4
Early morning sunlight
caught the flash of gold and gemstones on the clothing of those around
Albion. He smelled the damp air, already warm with the heat of late May.
His knees trembled.
A roll of drums warned him what was coming. As the great city gates opened he wanted to look toward them, but the cramping fear in his belly held him back. Instead he turned his attention to what lay to the right of him. It was inert. It was safer to look at.
But he could not see it. People were in the way, important people who would not move for a boy of seven no matter whose son he was.
His mother stood behind him, her slender hands resting on his shoulders. He felt her shudder. She was trying not to cry, trying so hard she nearly burst apart.
Papa would make everything better, he thought. His father was the bravest, the best man in all the world.
His mother turned toward the city gates. She would not look away, and so he had to watch the grim parade as it passed. First came three liveried drummers beating the slow rhythm of execution. Then, resplendent in all the regalia of state, came Kalman of Torenth.
Albion felt his mother shudder again. Her sobs were soft, muffled.
The king stopped in front of them. Albion realized that they were the only ones not bowing low before the majestic ruler.
His mother dropped to her knees. Kalman scowled down at her, clearly displeased by her show of emotion. Then he turned his attention to Albion, and his glare redoubled.
Albion stared back at him. Not long ago, Kalman had swung him through the air and laughed in their garden. Now, no matter what the king did to him Albion vowed he would not bow his head. Not when the king, his mother's brother, had betrayed her so badly.
But his knees were shaking and he thought he was going to vomit. He was glad at the moment he had eaten no breakfast.
Kalman caught him by the shoulder and shoved him toward the guards who stood waiting. Strong adult hands pulled his arms behind his back. Then he realized how helpless he was and how futile his resistance had been.
And, to his utter shame, he began to sob in terror.
His own cries awakened him. Albion found himself face down, his blankets tangled about his legs. His chest ached from the force of his breathing.
It took several minutes for him to realize he was no longer seven, and a helpless child. Still longer for the fear of the memory to recede. And much longer still for him to find sleep again.
* * * * *
Isolde entered the great hall on Josce's arm. She felt like a freak in a traveling minstrel show. It seemed the entire court stared at her.
She smoothed a hand over the skirt of her new gown, a luxurious creation of emerald velvet lined with silk shot with silver. The cut of the gown and the shift beneath did much to emphasize the swell of her breast and curve of her hip, especially with the jeweled girdle that held her small eating knife.
After spending half the afternoon dressing for the meal, Isolde wanted nothing so much as to dash back to her chamber and ask the maid to send up a tray.
Josce gave her hand a friendly squeeze. "You look magnificent. You need fear nothing tonight, lady."
"I feel like a complete fool." She glanced at the length of her trailing sleeves. "How does one eat in this and not end up wearing most of the food?"
"So what if you do? Gowns that cannot be cleaned are replaced." Josce grinned as she gaped at him. "Just relax, lady. Meet the lions of the court eye to eye and you will be fine."
Isolde decided to take his advice. She lifted her chin and cast her attention around the room. Albion stood at the far end of the hall with several noblemen, near the high table on the dais.
Just seeing him made her heart beat faster. She tried to control her reaction to his presence. When her heart refused to obey, she focused her attention on him with the firmest glare she could manage. Let him feel how angry she was at him. He deserved it.
Albion turned at that moment. Isolde knew he saw her. His gaze scorched her as he examined the changes in her clothing and hair.
When he smiled, she knew he approved. Heat spread through her belly, though she wished to feel nothing at all.
An older man beside Albion turned and glanced in her direction. Then he looked back, apparently stunned. Isolde quickly turned away, pulling Josce with her. Something in the old man's eyes told her he was no friend.
"What is it?" Josce tried to direct her toward the high end of the hall.
"That man beside Albion. Who is he?" Isolde fought to keep her voice steady.
Josce frowned for a moment as he studied the gathered nobles. "Oh, do you mean Lord Lajos? He is the king's great uncle, and at the moment his seneschal."
She could not suppress a shiver. "He does not like me."
Josce shook his head and laughed softly. "He does not even know you, lady. And as soon as he does, he will love you just as every other male you come near does."
He caught her chin on his finger and tipped up her face to look directly at him. His warm, dark eyes shone down at her from a face lined with laughter. When Josce smiled, she felt the warmth to her very toes. And he smiled often.
"You work a magic of your own, lady," he told her in a voice that was barely a whisper. "Fear nothing this night. I will stand beside you."
"I know that." And she did. Unfortunately, for all his steady friendship, it was not Josce she wished were at her side.
A drawling voice behind Josce shattered the moment of reverie. Isolde did not have to see the speaker to recognize the rude and arrogant lording Festil had ordered her to forgive.
"I see our little mud hen has become a swan overnight." Lord Nicklos stepped around Josce and swept her a bow that sent the fluffy plumes in his cap dancing. Gold embroidery stiffened the hem of his long cloak, the extravagantly slit velvet cassock and even the waistband of his breeches.
Before she could draw back, Nicklos caught her hand. She bit her lip when he kissed her. His lips were as cold as a snake's.
"Dare I presume the lady will dine beside me?"
She shook her head firmly. "I have already promised the meal to Sir Josce."
Lord Nicklos bowed again. His smile froze her senses.
"Then I shall have to content myself with watching you this evening. Dare I hope you will give me the pleasure of your company on the morrow?"
Josce caught her hand and laid it firmly atop his arm. "We had best find our seats, Isolde. The meal will be served as soon as His Highness arrives."
Isolde held her place. She turned to Lord Nicklos with all the chill dignity she could muster. "Let us be very clear, my lord. His Highness commanded I forgive your rudeness at our first encounter, and I should in any case forgive you as a good Christian. I have not, however, forgotten."
Lord Nicklos threw back his head and laughed. Before Isolde could step away he seized her hand and planted a firm, dry kiss on it. "My lady, your whit could lesson spears in sharpness. You cut me to the quick. Now I shall not rest until I am gifted with a smile from your lips."
Josce laid his hand on her arm. "Isolde, we had best find our seats. The meal is about to start."
"Of course." Glad of an excuse to escape Lord Nicklos, she followed Josce to a place just below the high table.