The Most Relucant Bridegroom
Deryni Summer Challenge 2002 Entry
By: Katy Colby
By the next evening, Albin
felt much like a prisoner in his father's lowest dungeon. Guards
followed him everywhere. Even his usual squire had been replaced. He had
no privacy anywhere.
Even at the ball he was unable to speak with Jathan. The Duke of Corwyn seemed to be keeping his son under the same strict security as Albin suffered. In desperation the prince finally excused himself for the privy. He was not surprised when two of the guards followed him from the ballroom and waited outside the door.
Albin forced himself to ignore the fetid stench. He grasped one of the ornamented silver buttons on the outrageous jacket his father had demanded he wear until the pattern bit into his fingertips. Then he concentrated on Jathan.
Before too long an answer came back. *I'm here. Where are you?*
*Don't ask, jack-a-napes. Let's just say I'm desperate to talk to someone.*
Jathan immediately sobered. *You're still thinking about that nun you met the other day.*
*Yes, I am.* Albin let his wave of despair wash through the link. *When I spoke with her at the picnic she seemed attracted to me, too. But what should I say to her?*
*Sounds to me like you knew exactly what to say.*
*And who am I to think I can take a woman who has vowed herself to a life of service?* Now that he was bringing out his fears, Albin found he could not stop himself. *It's like history repeating itself over again. Isn't something like this what happened to Kelson?*
*But the lady refused to marry Kelson, remember? You don't have a cousin who wants your throne.* Jathan gave him a mental nudge. *You're likely to wind up just like him if you're not careful, though. Childless. Except this time there's no mass of Haldanes to fill in the void. You'd best get at it.*
*I'm trying to.*
*Not standing in the jakes you're not! Screw your courage up and talk to her, you idiot. Nothing ventured, nothing gained.*
*Aye. And tomorrow, when I have you at sword's point, I'll remember that you called me an idiot.*
Jathan's laughter nearly drowned the guard's urgent pounding on the door. *The day you have me at sword's point, Your Grace, is the day I don petticoats and post myself on the Spirit's bowsprit! Good hunting.*
His courage bolstered by Jathan's mirth, Albin left the jakes and strode into the ballroom with new confidence. The room was decorated like the garden of Greek gods, with plaster pillars draped in garlands of grape leaves and clusters of roses. Bunches of grapes and platters of cheese joined a silver fountain spouting champagne at one end of the room. From the gallery the music of flutes and violins accompanied the dancing couples.
Albin reached into his pocket. His fingers closed around the horseshoe nail Jessamyn had dropped two days past. It seemed he still felt her presence in the iron.
And she was nowhere to be seen. After a quick survey of the hall, Albin reached out with his mind. Jessamyn was nowhere about.
Then fortune smiled upon him. He spied Elspeth standing near some chairs in one corner, looking nervous. Surely she would know where her sister was.
Elspeth extended her hand immediately when he approached. "I pray you, Your Grace, rescue me. Your brother has asked me to dance twice thus far and I spy him coming for me yet again. My toes will never survive."
The idea of this fragile creature in distress brought Albin a welcome smile. "Then you are rescued, dear lady. Though I warn you I may be no savior."
They moved into the line of dancers. After a few graceful turns Albin ventured the question he needed answered. "Have you any idea where your sister has gone to?"
Elspeth tipped her head toward the champagne fountain. "Margareth was dancing for some time with the Earl of Killshane. I believe they went to find a drink."
He shook his head. The dance separated them then. When they rejoined each other he finished his thought. "Your other sister. Jessamyn."
"Oh ho! So that's the way of it?" Elspeth grinned broadly. "Our father will be most glad, truly. He greatly desires a union with Gwynedd."
"And well he may get it, if only I can find your sister and speak with her."
Elspeth chewed her upper lip. Her expression reminded Albin of the look Jessamyn wore when she was at the butts and concentrating on her next shot.
"She does not dance, Your Grace. She was so certain of her vocation she never learned how. If there is a library or a garden available she might be there."
"My thanks." Albin waited until they were at the end of the line to excuse himself. Elspeth sent him off with a laugh and a promise that her feet were not nearly so sore from his dancing as from his brother's.
The guards followed Albin from the hall again. As soon as they turned a corner and were out of sight of the party he sent them both urgent orders to go find a keg of beer somewhere and drink themselves silly.
A quick check of the main library revealed it deserted. Albin knew there was another part, reached through a false privy set into the wall. He had never managed to find the way through the portal that seemed to be the only access to that mysterious room, so he was certain Jessamyn could not manage it.
The garden seemed equally deserted. Moonlight sparkled off the shimmering water in a decorative pool and dusted the few night blooming flowers with silver tracings. Only crickets broke the silence.
He spied her sitting alone on an ornamented iron bench. Her gown of silver threaded brocade satin unadorned by jewelry or ribbons made her appear as one of the ornamental marble statues that graced odd portions of the maze. Only a pair of ivory combs drew her curling hair back from her face.
She was concentrating so hard on a book she did not hear him approach. A globe of golden handfire illuminated her page and cast gentle glowing light on her exquisite features.
Looking for the best way to announce himself Albin plucked a blossom from a cluster of lilies. The flower was closed for the night, but a bit of handfire provided just enough light to force it open.
As quietly as he could, Albin approached her. He was nearly close enough to drop the lily on her page she glanced up. Her lips curved into a smile.
"So you sought me out, Your Grace? Or were you merely escaping the crowd as I did?"
"I . . . well, a bit of both, actually." Now that she was facing him squarely Albin felt his stomach fill with butterflies. He slipped his hand into his pocket and felt the hard contours of the horseshoe nail. "The ball seemed pointless after a bit. I fear I am not much at idle conversation."
"Nor am I, Your Grace." She lifted her book. "As you see, I find my company elsewhere."
"In the Protocols?"
"And other works. The library at St. Camber's is incredible. A true treasure." She laid the book aside and shifted her feet from the bench. "Forgive me, Your Grace. Will you sit?"
"You were to call me Albin. Remember?" He joined her on the bench.
Her gaze fell on the open lilly still in his hand. "Are you now taking up gardening? Or have you a lady in mind for that flower?"
"Actually, it was to be a gift for the woman I would make my wife. If she will have me."
He thought he detected a moment of hesitation, a slight catch in her even breathing. "And which royal house will you ally yourself with?"
To keep from losing his nerve Albin concentrated on the lilly. It's scent filled the night yet did not mask the delicate odor of woman he detected. "Bregmane, actually."
"I see." Jessamyn was silent for a long moment. "Which of my sisters will you have to wife?"
"Which would you see me marry?"
She ran graceful fingers through her hair. One of the ivory combs slipped free and fell to the grass. It seemed to shimmer in the wavering light of two globes of handfire.
"To be most honest with you, they both have the qualities of a fine queen. Margareth possesses a brilliant talent for diplomacy and can be most persuasive when she feels strongly about something. On the other hand, Elspeth's gentle spirit soothes many a strain."
"And clearly either would make a most productive mother for any children I might wish to sire." This time he knew he heard her breath catch. His courage blazed anew. "Unfortunately, I find I am attracted to neither of them."
"Then to who, Your Grace?"
He caught her hands in his. "Can you not guess, Jessamyn? It is you I would share my life with."
Silence stretched between them. She shook her head slowly, her lips pursed.
"Unless I have mistaken your attraction?" Albin knew he was making a fool of himself. "Is your vocation fixed, then? I had thought you a novice. Tell me true, have I a chance to win your heart?"
"It is not that, Your Grace. Albin," she quickly amended when he would correct her. "I have little training for courtly life. My entire education has designed me for a life of service. I . . . I don't even dance."
"And do you think a life as wife to Gwynedd's king is no life of service? Must you lock yourself away from the enjoyment of life in order to make a difference?" He caressed her hands as he held them. She did not pull away. "As for the dancing, I can teach you that this night if you like."
"You teach me to dance? In the hall, before all assembled?" Jessamyn laughed softly. "I think not, Albin. I have some pride, you know."
"I meant here, in the garden. There's light enough, space and music." He laid the lily on her lap. "In for a penny, in for a pound, my lady. Take the dancing lesson and the dancing master if you will."
Her smile as she nodded was as shy as he felt. Gracefully she rose with him. "So how do we start?"
"As my master began with me. Barefoot." Albin kicked his silver buckled slippers off. They flew errantly and landed in the ornamental pool.
Jessamyn giggled at the oath he let slip. "They did you no good, my lord. You are far too tall as it is." And truly, with him in stocking and herself still shod she barely came to his shoulder.
"Then off with yours as well, wench!" Albin caught her in his arms and lifted her off the ground. It was easy enough to untie her laces with his mind. Before the song ended Jessamyn's slippers joined his in the pool.
"Now we are nearly ready." He lowered her to stand before him, still wrapped in his arms. "As I said, my dancing master made me begin barefoot."
"And what comes next?"
"To begin the lesson properly, a kiss in the moonlight."
Jessamyn tried to pull away. "You cannot be serious!"
He tightened his hold. "You forget, my lady, I have taken these lessons. You have not. Will you not surrender your will to your instructor?"
And when he caught her lips with his own she did not resist him. She was as sweet, unpracticed and genuine as the lily that lay yet on the bench.
Much later, when the clock struck the change of the day, did the kings of Gwynedd and Bregmane announce the impending union of their children to the cheers of all the hall. If any present noticed that both the prospective bride and groom were in very dirty stockings they said nothing. Truly, the amount of champagne that flowed after the announcement blunted the memories of more than one lord and lady.
~ Finis ? ~