Terms Of His Honor
Chapter 13 - Part 2
Albion allowed the king's
squires to bathe and dress him for his wedding without resistance. Only
when they had finished their tasks and relaxed their watchfulness did he
slip free. He left his chamber and went immediately in search of Isolde.
She was not hard to find. The garden was covered in snow now, with large flakes floating down from the starry sky. Isolde sat on one of the benches, wrapped in the same plain woolen cloak she had worn for the past two days. When she sensed his presence and glanced up her shadowed eyes told him she liked this turn of events no better than he.
"What are you doing here?" She rose gracefully as he approached. "Should you not be preparing for your bride?"
"Isolde, you know this marriage is not of my choosing." He caught her hands in his before she could step back. "I would have you to wife, and no other. Nothing has changed."
"Everything has changed." She pulled her hands away and folded them safely under her cloak. "People's lives depend on our obedience, Albion. How can you think to refuse Festil now."
"Because, when I stand before the altar in the cathedral every word I speak will be a lie. Is that what you would have?"
"Of course not."
Albion conjured handfire, the better to see her face. Tears glistened on her cheeks as she looked up at him.
"Albion, it was not meant to be. I know that now and so do you. You were well satisfied with your princess not so long ago."
He brushed the wetness from her cheeks with his palm. Tentatively he reached out with his mind. Her presence, gentle and strong answered.
*That was before I fell in love.*
*And you will love Sophia as well.* Sadness welled up in her reply, but also a firm resolve he had not known a woman could poss. *You must. She is well worthy of your affections.*
Unable to bear her closeness while she denied him, Albion broke the mental contact. "Would you have me marry her for the sake of duty?"
"I would have you find the happiness you long for so. The children you want, and a wife who will never give you grief. As much as it pains me to submit to the will of both our king and our Lord it seems I am not that woman."
Isolde stepped back before he could stop her. With a soft "goodbye," she turned and walked down the garden path into the darkness.
Albion started after her. A familiar presence brushed his shields and he turned, startled. Sophia stood at the bend in the path, wrapped in a soft cloak of ermine and velvet. Upon her unbound hair sat a circlet of gold set with polished shrial crystals that glowed of their own accord.
"You should not be out here." Albion bit back a curse at her presence. He might have had a chance yet to change Isolde's mind, found some way to work out the tangle they found themselves in. "After all, a groom is not supposed to see the bride before the wedding."
"And a bridegroom is not supposed to pursue another woman a short hour before he is meant to take his vows." Her voice held a shadow of humor. "Yet here we find ourselves."
"Sophia, I --"
"Don't. Don't even say what is so obvious to the most casual observer." Sophia moved close to him. Snow fell soft on her face as she looked up. "Albion, she won't change her mind. Too many lives depend on her obedience and on yours."
"And you would still wed me, knowing how I feel. Knowing I will always love her." His voice cracked with the pain his words brought.
"I would, and you must go on with your life. I do not grudge you the past, nor can I hope to find such devotion in your heart as you give to Isolde. But we had an affection once." Her soft hand rested on his arm, fingers closing just slightly. "Perhaps we can find some measure of happiness?"
Albion looked into Sophia's eyes and knew he was well and truly trapped. Isolde would not relent, no matter what enticement he offered. And in truth, what could he offer her? His estates were under his uncles' control. His mother's life rested on his obedience to Festil's will, as it had since he was seven years old.
With a sigh of longing he allowed his shoulders to slump beneath the weight of his responsibility. "I suppose we had best go back inside and dry off. I imagine the bishops will be waiting for us."
Less than an hour later he stood in the cathedral. Beside him Josce waited, dressed for travel. His best friend refused to leave until he witnessed Albion's marriage.
In the crowd of witnesses he picked out Isolde easily. She waited beside Prince Festil, freshly garbed and smiling faintly. Connal waited with her.
Perhaps, Albion thought with a stab of anguish, she would finally find her happiness with her childhood friend.
Sophia entered, escorted by her father. Her gown of silver samite trimmed with miniver and covered with tiny pearls fairly shimmered in the light of a thousand candles. When she spoke her vows to him her voice held all the hope he knew he should feel.
And when he gave her the words the bishop instructed he say he felt all those assembled knew him for the liar he was.
Their wedding feast was sumptuous, though hastily assembled. Neither of them ate much, though both the king and the Supreme of Howicce enjoyed themselves thoroughly. There were many toasts to the bride and groom, wishing them long life, happiness and more importantly many children.
When at last the ladies of the court escorted his bride off to her chamber to prepare her for the wedding night Albion knew he was expected to offer a toast. He stood and raised his glass, but the words would not come. What, after all, could he say that would not shame Sophia or himself?
After a long and increasingly uncomfortable silence he drained the goblet, set it on the table, bowed briefly to the frowning king and headed for his chamber. He had a few moments before he would be escorted to his bridal bed, and he dearly needed them now.
Young Hugh followed close on his heels. As soon as Albion opened the door, the lad went to a small side table where a bottle of strong brandy sat beside an unusually large goblet. Without being asked he filled the cup and handed it to Albion.
Albion gratefully swallowed about half of the wine immediately. It was a fine vintage, but he barely gave himself time to appreciate the quality of the mysterious gift. The alcohol steadied his nerves and drained away the pain.
"Will you have more, Sire?" Hugh lifted the bottle expectantly.
Albion held out his cup. "Did you know this was here?"
"His Grace the Prince told me about it as I was serving tonight. He thought you might need it for courage."
"Thank God for Festil."
As Albion raised the cup again he heard the whisper of robes in the doorway. He turned to find his mother standing there, her lips thinned with worry he could read without Deryni senses.
He set the goblet on the table "Mother? What brings you here."
"My only child is wed this night. Should I not be with him before he meets his bride?" She entered the room but did not close the door. "I am concerned for you."
"Do not be. I've done what you and your brothers wanted, have I not?" Albion retrieved the goblet and took a long drink. The brandy fired his blood.
"Most bridegrooms do not show their unhappiness with their brides quiet so openly." His mother's voice held an edge he remembered as a small child.
Her tone had saddened and frightened him then. Now he was an adult. It only angered him.
"Forgive me if I am not glad to wed a woman I feel no passion for."
"Sophia will make you a fine wife. She is beautiful, accomplished, intelligent --"
"You've listed the qualities of a duchess, Madame. Unfortunately many of my hounds and horses possess them to some degree." Albion drained the goblet a second time, spilling some of the wine on his jeweled tunic. "What I wanted was a mate to my own soul. And Sophia is not that, nor will she ever be."
"But she will be a companion for you if you allow her half a chance. Albion!" Her tone sharpened as he reached for the bottle. "Should you drink so heavily?"
"Isn't that my business?"
He never refilled the cup, for at that moment a crowd of noblemen burst into the room, led by Josce and Prince Festil. They surrounded Albion, laughing and making ribald jests as they stripped him of his clothing. Then, with much shouting and laughter they carried him to Sophia's chamber naked as a babe.
Sophia reclined in the great bed, braced by cushions. Her golden hair spread around her in a shimmering mantle. The bishops had already done their work, for Albion felt the blessing they laid on the bed from where he stood.
Sophia sat up and beckoned to him with one slim, graceful hand.
Albion lifted her hand to his lips and kissed it lightly. He joined her in the bed, prepared at last to do his duty.