The Most Relucant Bridegroom
Deryni Summer Challenge 2002 Entry
By: Katy Colby
The sun shone from a sky of
clear summer blue on the bedecked field where the royal court and their
guests gathered for the picnicking and games the next day. Silk and
satin banners fluttered in the light breeze. The large pavilions were
bedecked with flowers and trailing ribbons in Haldane scarlet and gold.
It was a fine day to ruin his life.
Albin tugged at the white leather gloves encasing his hands. He felt as trussed up as a Christmas goose. His father's squires had dressed him in a brocade coat over a ruffled silk shirt and breeches of gold-shot scarlet velvet. White silk hose encased his legs. The silver buckles of his heeled slippers were polished to a perfect shine.
Hell and damnation, he even wore a ridiculous confection of curls that called itself a wig!
His only comfort was that Jathan looked just as uncomfortable. His friend stood nearly half way across the field, dressed in the height of fashion and obviously wishing he were back on his ship sailing through a gale.
They had not been permitted to seek each other's company since the embarrassing incident in the gallery.
Albin tried to focus attention on what the simpering idiot in taffeta beside him was saying. She was commenting on the skill of several of the nobles playing at lawn bowls. He thought she'd held that subject for at least ten minutes.
Where did she come from? Orsal? Tralia? He couldn't guess.
"Don't you think, my lord?" The lady looked up at him expectantly. A black silk beauty patch hovered just above the center of her cheek to emphasize the dimple on her creamy skin.
Albin lifted two glasses of champagne from a passing tray and handed one to her. "Occasionally. But I doubt you do, my dear. Excuse me."
He thrust the champagne in to her hand and left, seeking some sanity amid the madness.
He barely managed five steps before he was surrounded by lovely princesses trailing their mothers and chaperones. A tall, slim lady veiled in the eastern fashion blocked his path completely. Beside her several young women in the loose caftans and long coats popular in Torenth ranged in age from perhaps sixteen to roughly twelve.
Dear Christ! They were throwing children at him.
He recognized the Bregmani princesses he had seen in the courtyard the day before. Today they were bathed and dressed in exquisite chambrae bodices and skirts slashed to reveal the embroidered silk beneath. Stiff petticoats and hoops held the skirts out to a fashionable width. Their wide brimmed bonnets were trimmed with silk roses and trailing ribbons.
Both of the sisters were exquisite. Albin realized he might be better off with two ladies for companions than one. After all, they could keep each other entertained.
He extended his hand and gave them the best smile he could. "I do not believe we have been introduced."
Both sisters giggled. This was not a good sign.
The taller of the sisters dipped a graceful curtsy. "Your Highness, I believe we met yesterday in the courtyard. We had just arrived and you were mending a horseshoe for our sister."
"What? . . . Oh, the little nun." He felt his cheeks redden as the image of a pert nose, a light dusting of freckles and the greenest eyes he'd ever seen flashed into his mind.
The shorter sister giggled again. "Yes, Your Grace. Our sister, the sister. That was Jessamyn, or will be until she takes her vows."
"And I am Margareth." The taller of the pair gave her sister's hand a quick squeeze. "This is Elspeth. Both of Bregmane, naturally."
Safety at last. Albion bowed to both princesses and offered his arms. "Would you ladies care to accompany me to the archery butts? I feel the need to do a bit of shooting and would welcome your company."
His decision proved to be the right one. Both sisters were intelligent and not given to idle chatter. They had a pleasant walk across the meadow to where several targets stood near the far edge.
Only one bow and quiver remained on the table when they arrived. Several lords and ladies, including Albin's younger brother Alroy, were trying their luck and skill under the direction of the Duke of Corwyn. Servants stood by ready to retrieve the arrows once the shooting paused.
Margareth shook her head when Albin offered her the bow. "I prefer to watch, Your Grace. And Elspeth does not shoot at all. We will stand under the pavilion and observe."
Albion shrugged, removed his jacket and slipped on the vambrace provided to protect his arm from the bowstring. A place opened in the line next to a lady with a trailing length of white silk dangling beneath her bonnet. Beyond the veil and a simple band of indigo ribbon the sunhat was untrimmed.
As he stepped to the line beside the lady he brushed the skirt of her gown. She turned, and he found himself looking down into the selfsame pair of green eyes he had been thinking of minutes earlier.
Jessamyn bowed immediately. "Your pardon, Your Grace."
"It is I who must ask pardon, my lady. I was clumsy. Forgive me."
She nodded. When it became apparent she would not speak further he turned to the target and fitted an arrow. His first shot struck squarely in the blue ring, well from the center.
His second and third attempts were no better. Unfortunately his mind kept drifting to the lady beside him. Her slender hands held the bow with consummate skill. Clearly she had not given her life only to prayer and penance for the sins of the world.
Determined to show better skill on the next shot, Albin followed the arrow's course with his mind. It was easy enough to correct the flight once the shaft was loosed.
He grinned as the shot struck the gold. Two more followed the apparent success of the first.
The Duke of Corwyn called the line closed. As the servants ran to retrieve their arrows Albin turned to find Jessamyn glancing at him from beneath the brim of her hat.
"Do you enjoy the sport, my lady?"
"I do, greatly. I have little chance to indulge in this normally, but I seize the opportunity when I can." She looked toward the pavilion, then gave him a soft smile. "So how do you find my sisters' company?"
"They are charming young ladies."
"And not skilled enough to realize that you are cheating, Your Grace."
Her words sent a thrill through his nerves. A combination of shock at being discovered, fear that she might expose him to his father, and delight that she might just, by some miracle, not be revolted by what he had done.
He forced a brave grin to his lips. "You have found me out, sweet lady. But do not think it cheating, I pray. I never yet wagered on this contest and no prize is offered, so I cannot cheat."
"But you thought to impress my sisters with your skill. Skill you do not posses, I think." The green eyes sparkled. "That is cheating, Your Grace."
"I am undone!" Albin spread his arms wide and gave her the most ridiculous, exaggerated bow he could manage. Then, on a whim, he sent her a quick thought. *It was not your sisters I sought to impress.*
Her eyes flicked to his. She understood him.
He decided to leave that question hang. "Why are you not in habit today, Sister?"
Her cheeks colored perfectly. "I fear, Your Grace, I have none but the one I wore yesterday. As we sailed for Gwynedd we passed through a storm. The ship carrying our baggage sank, I fear, leaving us with no more than what we wore when we arrived."
"Then these are borrowed?" His grin widened. "I must thank the lender most richly."
"Then thank your late mother, Your Grace. These were her gowns, refitted by a veritable army of seamstresses."
The realization of how precarious their crossing had been struck Albin at her serious expression. "You are fortunate indeed 'twas the other ship that sank and not the one you were in. I shall have to light a candle in thanks for God's protection on your journey."
Jessamyn shook her head firmly. "Give no thanks for it, Your Grace. Many sailors lost their lives when that other ship went down. Their lives are worth no less than ours, for they had families who will now be missing their pay."
"You are right, of course. Still I shall be thankful that one ship went down rather than two. The storms can be most fierce." Albin searched for a way to change the subject. "I am guessing you have some training. Where did you study?"
Jessamyn gave him a soft, musical laugh. "For some years at St. Camber's, not far from your home. It was there I found my vocation."
He raised an eyebrow. "I studied there myself until Father decided Grecotha might give a better education for the heir to his throne." *Actually,* he added in a mental whisper, *I think he took me out of St. Camber's to appease Parliament. There are some in the Commons who do not approve of our "differences" and made that very plain.*
*We have heard of these Covenanters in Bremagne.* A wave of confusion and distaste followed her thought. *How do they stand having a King above them who is openly Deryni?*
*In truth, I believe they would prefer to put my dear brother on the throne in Father's place and eliminate me all together. My brother, you see, has shown no signs of the talent as yet.*
"So you were denied training because of some small minded men in large wigs?"
The image of Parliament assembled, masses of false curls bobbing and wagging over somber robes and wagging chins brought a full-throated laugh from Albin. "For never having seen them, my lady, you capture them perfectly. But no, I was not denied training. Fortunately I have a good friend who was able to continue and has given his time to fill in the gaps in my skills."
A servant passed them with a tray of tall glasses and a pitcher of lemonade. Albin waved him over. He watched Jessamyn sip the cool, slightly sour drink through softly pursed lips. The sight set his blood pounding through his veins.
Damn it! He had to remember this woman was promised to the Church. "Which of the sisters at St. Camber's inspired your choice of life?" Surely this subject was safe.
Jessamyn smiled up at him. "None there now, actually. It was the school's foundress. Her sacrifice and dedication showed me how very much one person could accomplish."
"There has been talk of elevating her to sainthood." Albin finished his lemonade in a single swallow. It did little to cool his blood.
"And how does your family stand on this issue?"
"Highly divided. There is definite resistance to adding an openly Deryni saint, yet the honor of having an ancestress raised so far cannot be denied." He went to drink from his glass again, realized it was empty and felt his face color brightly.
Jessamyn laughed softly. "I think you are struggling for conversation, Your Grace. Perhaps we should shoot again."
"Have our shafts been retrieved?" He glanced down and found his quiver full. How had that happened so quickly?
"About three rounds past, Your Grace."
"Albin." He took the empty glass she held out to him. Their hands brushed. "My name is Albin. I would have you use it, my lady."
"Then you in turn must call me Jessamyn." Her smile rivaled the sun for brilliance.
Albin set their glasses on the empty table and returned to shoot two more rounds of surpassing failure. He did not care. His mind was entirely focused on the woman beside him.
Not far from the archery range a group of men stood beneath a striped canopy, their heads together, their voices low. Only one of the cluster wore the brocades and jewel toned silks that predominated the gathering. The rest were clad in the somber tones favored by the political segment known as Covenanters for their disavowal of worldly luxury and sloth.
"Our forces are nearly assembled." A short, heavyset man with a bulbous nose clamped his fist in an unmistakable expression of triumph. "After three years of planning we will finally rid Gwynedd of its rotten heart."
"I can hardly wait." Alroy Haldane did not bother to suppress his smile. "At last I will be able to make a difference here. The rule of the Devil's spawn will be ended once and for all."
"And it is fortunate for all of us we have your eager cooperation." Alouiscious Hubert fairly shook with excitement. "You must realize, Your Grace, how important to the success of our operation your continued assistance is."
"We have learned the mistakes of our ancestors." Another of the somber gentlemen clasped Alroy's hand and kissed it. "You are truly God's anointed servant, Your Grace. With your aid we will win the day."
"It need not be a great battle. Nor even an open confrontation, for all I would love to see the evil Deryni grovel before us." Hubert shook his head in regret. "Better we simply find a quiet change of power."
"But you will be rid of my brother?"
"We will have to. "
Alroy's lips twitched as he fought a smile. "I realize that. It is most regrettable. Still, if it is God's will let it be so. And my father?"
"Hopefully he will see the wisdom of abdicating his throne. If he does not, he will have to be removed. In any case he will be imprisoned where he can never again aid Satan in his unholy work."
Alroy glanced around. "I should not be seen in this company. It might raise suspicion. I will contact you after the ball tomorrow night, when I know my family's schedule for the remainder of the week."
Alouscious Hubert smiled again, but his pleasure did not reach his eyes. "As has been said before, my lords, Your Grace, Deus Volt! We shall succeed."