To all appearances, the Christmas court of King Henry II was another triumph of his glorious, twenty-some-odd-year reign. At his side remained his queen, Eleanor of Aquitaine, Christendom's great beauty still, and ranged around them were their children, a brood to make the angels weep in envy. The oldest and heir to the throne was Henry, already crowned "the Young King" these two years past and married somewhat longer to Margaret, daughter of the King of France. The next two sons were betrothed to princesses of their own and already made dukes: Richard of Aquitaine and Geoffrey of Brittany, at least for the moment -- Henry had a jovial habit of switching his land-gifts around when it suited his fancy. The youngest royal, John, was rather famously ill-tempered and held no lands at all, but he was only four years old, so 'twas assumed he would mend on both counts. Even the daughters, Matilda and Eleanor, seemed perfect, having inherited a great deal of their mother's famous beauty and very little of her infamous wit.
All in all, the family made a magnificent picture for the nobles gathered in this hall to admire them as they feasted. If the Queen was known to despise her husband as much as she adored him these days, 'twas no great matter -- they'd been married more than twenty years, after all, and Henry's roving eye remained a great portion of his charm. And if the princes were known to all bear certain grudges against their king and one another, that was to be expected as well -- they were barely more than children; their father would keep them in line. Henry had kept peace in his reign longer than any English king before him by sheer force of his great will. Surely he could control his own family. So the nobles assured themselves that Christmas night as they toasted their God and their king.
Malinda Brinlaw harbored no doubts at all; to her, the night was perfect. Sitting with her parents and cousin, Nan, at a table at the foot of the dais, she felt perfectly at ease, perfectly at home, and she drank in every detail, the royal glamour entirely untarnished to her eyes. The King was splendid and mildly terrifying, just as a king ought to be; the princes and princesses were too beautiful to be real. And Queen Eleanor was her idol, perfect in every way. Malinda knew every romantic detail of her astounding history, how she had once been queen of France, how she had come to marry Henry when he was no more than a duke's young son and had come to see him crowned king of England, how she ruled her own court of love and chivalry and changed the face of the world at her whim. To Malinda, Eleanor had achieved all that a woman could hope, and she fervently longed to know her. She adored her for her pride, her beauty, even her famous temper. Her fondest wish was to become a lady-in-waiting, to dwell in her shadow, to breathe the rarefied air of her fanciful court. Unfortunately, her parents did not share her hero worship; indeed, her father made no secret that he considered the Queen something of a twit. As one of Henry's favorite nobles, Will Brinlaw could have seen his daughter well placed in the royal orbit long ago, and Nan, his niece, as well, but such honors did not impress him, and his wife, Alista, concurred. But Malinda was determined. She had never in her life been denied anything for long; she didn't expect to be now.
"Aren't they beautiful?" her best friend, Lisbet, whispered in her ear, returning from a dance to sit beside her. "Which one will you have, Malinda?"
"Which what?" she laughed, turning to her friend.
"When you marry," Lisbet laughed with her. "Now that you're finally at court, it's time to decide which of the princes you will choose."
"Henry is already married," Malinda pointed out, taking a sweet from the tray piled high before them, "and Richard and Geoffrey are both betrothed to girls with crowns." She took a bite and savored the way it melted on her tongue, finer than anything she'd ever tasted at home.
"Figs and apples for their crowns," Lisbet scoffed, taking the rest and popping it into her mouth. "You have more beauty in one of your toes than the both of them taken together, and you can do magic besides." She licked her fingers with kittenish satisfaction. "You can pick whichever one you please, and the poor boy will be undone."
Malinda smiled, embarrassed, but pleased nonetheless. "We aren't supposed to mention magic, remember?" she scolded softly, giving Lisbet a poke that made her snicker. She looked back at the dais, pretending to peruse its wares. "Too bad Henry is the oldest and the prettiest besides," she sighed. "Richard is almost as nice, but he seems too serious -- he hardly ever smiles."
"Perhaps he's shy," Lisbet offered.
"Perhaps, but still...he may just be ill-tempered." She tapped her chin in thought. "And Geoffrey is really too young -- "
"Not for a prince, he isn't," Lisbet grinned. "Bewitch him now, and you can bend him to whatever shape you like."
"There is that," Malinda laughed, enjoying the sheer silliness of the game. "No, I can't choose," she sighed. "You pick yours, and I'll take whatever's left."
"An admirable plan," Nan teased. "Just don't tell my uncle."
"No, don't," Will Brinlaw retorted, catching only the end of the conversation. "Whatever it is, I'd rather not know."
"Be careful," warned Malinda's mother, who had heard all. "Your words may haunt you later." Lady Alista was as well-known for her candor as her beauty, and she rarely spared her husband, dearly as she loved him still. "Soon we'll all be keeping secrets from you."
"And how will that be new?" he grumbled.
"Nan has trusted you with all her heart," Alista pointed out, casually taking a sweet of her own. "She came to you in all good faith -- "
"Not this again," Will cut her off in mid-sentence. "Not tonight."
"If not tonight, then when?" Nan demanded. "I'm growing older by the second."
"I'd hardly call you a crone just yet," her uncle answered with the faintest trace of a smile.
"You might not and neither would I, but what of the rest of the world?" Alista chided gently. "Twenty-four is well past the age when most women marry, love."
"And Guy de Lancey is even older," Lisbet offered helpfully from her seat beside Malinda. "Keep putting him off, and he might find someone else."
"No, he could not, so if that's what you're waiting for, Uncle, you may as well stop," Nan said, her cheeks beginning to flush, angry not at Lisbet but Will. "Guy loves me; he could never be married to anyone else, no matter what you may believe, and I love him."
"But why, in heaven's name?" Will asked. "I have no doubt de Lancey will wait for you until time ends given the slightest encouragement, but why would you want him? The man is as dull as a plank."
"Not really," Nan insisted. "He's shy, but not with me."
"Besides, sweet, when I met you, you were rather dull yourself," Alista pointed out without the slightest hint of a smile to betray she was teasing. "And you turned out all right." Malinda giggled into her napkin -- the war was already won.
"Be that as it may," Will said dryly, his expression saying he knew he was beaten as well.
"Mama, look there," Malinda interrupted, her attention taken by a pair of knights coming across the hall as quickly as courtesy would allow. "It's Mark!"
"And Phillipe!" Lisbet added, jumping up.
"Finally," Alista said, getting up herself.
Malinda's younger brother, Mark, and Lisbet's older half-brother, Phillipe, had been knighted the summer before after three years of service as squires, and they had served in the King's personal guard ever since. All told, they hadn't been home in forever, and everyone was most eager to see them, particularly their sisters, but they had been in a hunting party when the family arrived the day before. Now apparently they were back at last. "Merry Christmas," Phillipe said, sweeping Lisbet up in a hug.
"To you, too," Lisbet laughed as he swung her around. "We've missed you so much."
"Both of you," Malinda agreed as Mark embraced their father and kissed their mother's cheek. "Just look at you, monster -- you're huge!"
"Only compared to you," Mark teased, kissing her as well.
In truth, he hadn't just grown since they'd seen him last summer; he was transformed. Phillipe seemed mostly unchanged -- a bit thinner, perhaps, but as handsome as ever, a golden-haired idol. But Mark looked like a different person -- specifically, a younger version of his father. The gawky crane of a boy was gone, replaced by the perfect picture of a knight-at-arms, from noble brow to battered armor. "Look at him, Papa," Malinda said. "He's nearly as tall as you."
"And thin as a twig," Alista added. "And Phillipe as well -- you could snap in a breeze, both of you. Don't they feed you at all?"
"Nothing like at home," Mark admitted, hugging her again.
"You are too thin," she insisted as he drew back.
"'Tis all the exercise he gets chasing wenches," Phillipe laughed. "Runs the fat right off him."
"And what is your excuse?" Mark retorted with a blush that made him look more his old self.
"I lose mine running from them," Phillipe replied without hesitation.
"I believe it," Lisbet chided him.
"Oh, I do not," Alista said with a mischievous gleam. "All we've heard since we arrived is what models of decorum you two have become. Would you prove your friends untruthful?"
"Not for our lives, Mama," Mark promised.
"We've just lost our heads at seeing you all again," Phillipe agreed, putting an arm around Lisbet's shoulders and kissing the top of her head.
Malinda, meanwhile, had been watching her father and Nan. Will had continued to speak to her softly, and Nan had been listening with barely concealed impatience, obviously ready to protest. But suddenly she let out a shriek and threw her arms around her uncle's neck. "Thank you!" she repeated in a joyful chant punctuated with kisses. "Thank you, thank you, thank you!"
"You thank me now," Will grumbled, hugging her back just the same. "A year from now when you're wretched, 'twill all be my fault."
ar"A year from now I shall be delirious with joy," Nan promised.
"And that, husband, will be your fault as well," Alista agreed, taking his hand with a smile. "Nan, where is your beloved now?"
Will frowned. "How would she know -- ?"
"On duty as guardsman," Nan answered at once. "He asked to be allowed to stay away from the hall tonight for fear..." Her voice trailed off, and she shrugged. "He didn't want a quarrel."
"We must send someone to fetch him," Alista decided.
"You should go," Phillipe suggested to Mark.
"Aye, indeed," Mark grinned. "Welcome him to the family."
"You'd better behave yourself," Lisbet warned.
"Oh, he will," Malinda said. "And Phillipe as well. They know Nan can still thrash them if they don't."
"And will, without hesitation," Nan agreed, a dangerous glint in her eye. As the eldest of the Brinlaw brood, she was accustomed to ruling with an iron fist when necessary.
"I shall greet him as a cousin, Cousin," Mark promised.
"And swear yourself his servant," Phillipe suggested.
"Of course," Mark agreed. "Unless he should fall into the moat." Before Nan could react, he was gone, running across the hall as his father and Phillipe laughed and the women fumed.
"Don't you dare," Alista called, giving Will a healthy swat.
"Don't worry, Nana," Malinda said. "He's only teasing."
"The swine," Lisbet agreed.
"Aye, lady," Phillipe promised, kissing Nan's hand. "If de Lancey is your choice, you know we will give him all love." He turned to Malinda. "Will you dance?"
"No," Malinda protested as he took her arm. "We can't leave Lisbet -- "
"I left you, goosey," Lisbet scolded. She glanced over at Malinda's father and grinned. "Don't you want Richard to see you?" she asked softly. "Or was it Geoffrey?"
"Neither," Malinda laughed, allowing herself to be led toward the dancers. "My heart is set on little John."
The space at the center of the hall was crowded with other dancers, but Phillipe led her easily through the throng. "You're looking well, by the way," he said as he swung her into the dance.
"I thank you, sir," she said, making a deep curtsey. Another girl danced close by and cast a frankly admiring stare at her partner as she passed. "Not so well as you, it seems," she laughed. "How is it you're still so handsome?"
"God's grace and a sturdy helmet," he smiled. "Don't be too impressed -- fresh meat is always welcome." He nodded toward a group of knights gathered near the musicians. "See for yourself." All of them were staring at Malinda, making no effort to mask their interest. One of them was actually pointing!
"Cheeky, I call that," she said, blushing and a bit horrified.
"You're supposed to be flattered." Phillipe grinned. "Hasn't anyone ever told you? You're a peach."
"Even so," she said, pleased at the compliment in spite of his teasing tone. The closest thing she had to an older brother, Phillipe was as dear a friend to Malinda as his sister, Lisbet, and she had missed him horribly. No doubt the gossips watching would think they were sweethearts, she thought with an inward snicker. So let them. She would take it as a compliment. "In my father's hall, the men have better manners."
"In your father's hall, the men all know your father," he pointed out with a laugh. "Speaking of that, catch me up, daisy. What's all the news from Brinlaw and Bruel?"
"At Bruel, your mother and Raynard are well, as are the rest of the children," she said before another man swept her away for a moment. "But nothing ever happens at Brinlaw," she finished as she met him again.
"Poor daisy," he sighed, only half teasing. "Blooming alone in the wild."
"Not all alone," she pointed out. "Lisbet is blooming with me."
On the dais, Queen Eleanor watched the pretty creature dancing with Geoffrey d'Anjou's bastard. She was too old to be a newcomer -- twenty perhaps? Her body was ripe, a woman's shape instead of a girl's, and she moved with confidence, her eyes fixed on her partner's handsome face with no attempt at feigning modesty. The way she tossed those golden curls -- beautiful. Her eyes were wide but not the fashionable blue -- green, Eleanor saw as they passed closer to the dais, with long, dark lashes -- harlot's eyes, she decided, feeling sick. A beautiful young woman she had never seen before, dancing among the nobles in a fine, expensive gown. This was Henry's latest mistress, planted in her husband's hall specifically to torture the queen with envy. Now that she looked, everything about the chit seemed made for tupping, even her mouth, full, sensuous lips and little white teeth that showed when she laughed, a throaty, woman's laugh that ended with the slightest flourish of a giggle, the best of both, well-practiced, no doubt. The Queen glanced down the royal table in dreadful resignation -- yes, damn his eyes, Henry was watching her, too.
Back at the Brinlaw table, watching Mark return with Guy, Alista noticed Henry's look as well. "Will," she said softly, touching her husband's arm. "Mind the King."
Will looked at the dais, then out at the dancers, and his smile turned to a scowl. Henry could barely be trusted when sober these days; drunk, he was dangerous indeed. He had known Malinda since she was a baby, but that wouldn't stop him if she should strike his fancy now, and neither would his lifelong friendship with her father. "Nan, go get your cousin," he ordered.
"Wait," Alista said. "It's all right. Mark has gone."
Malinda passed through another figure of the dance to find Mark glaring at her. "Thanks a lot," he grumbled, taking her hand rather roughly from Phillipe's. "I turn my back for five minutes, and you make my sister a spectacle." His tone was light but only with an obvious effort, and his face was serious.
"You think I would not protect her?" Phillipe answered, his smile more natural but with an edge nonetheless.
"Come and speak to Guy," Mark answered, tucking his sister's arm through his and leading her away with Phillipe following behind.
Eleanor saw the object of her jealousy return to her parents and almost laughed out loud with relief. Brinlaw's daughter -- of course. She even looked like him a bit; Eleanor thought she had admired that mouth somewhere before. She was well aware how much Brinlaw disliked her and how much he loved her husband. But he was far too much the paragon of virtue to let his daughter play the whore, even for his king. Still, it was strange the girl had never been to court. She would be twenty, or nearly, and she wasn't betrothed to anyone -- with two brothers already and a mother still capable of breeding, her dowry wouldn't be much. But there was something else, some stigma on the family...they were whispered over, particularly among the older knights. Brinlaw himself was much admired, and the boy was well liked enough among his peers, but still, there was something she couldn't quite remember.
"Malinda, you and Lisbet go to bed," Will ordered as soon as his daughter was within his reach, subtle as ever.
"Papa, no!" Malinda protested, barely crediting her ears. The dancing was barely begun; they hadn't seen the boys in months; Nan had only this moment become engaged. He couldn't mean to pack them off upstairs like naughty children.
"Malinda, do as your father asks, please," Alista said in a more gentle tone that still left no room for debate. "And pray look in on Baby Will on your way."
"Am I a baby as well?" Malinda retorted as sharply as she dared. She still couldn't believe they were serious, and could see no reason why she and Lisbet shouldn't be allowed to stay. No one was suggesting Mark should retire, and he was younger than either of them.
"That remains to be seen," Will answered, his eyes and expression stern enough to silence a stronger creature than his daughter. "Go, Malinda. Now."
"We will, my lord," Lisbet promised, giving her friend a warning pinch. "Good night, my lady."
"Good night," Malinda grumbled, kissing each parent with as good a grace as she could muster.
"Good night, my loves," Alista said, giving her daughter an extra comforting squeeze. "Sleep well."
"I'm not sleepy," Malinda muttered as they embraced, still hoping against hope.
"You will be," Alista promised. "Now go."
Lisbet took her hand and dragged her away before she could make matters worse. "I don't know why you bother," she said as they made their way through the crowd. "You have the dearest parents in the world, but they aren't going to ever change their minds about anything just because you say so."
"Yes, and that's so wrong," Malinda complained. A pair of dashing would-be courtiers smiled and bowed as they approached, but the girls crushed them with a pair of withering looks. "I'm a woman old enough to marry and have been for years now, yet this is the first time I've kept Christmas at Queen Eleanor's court, the first time I've dined with the King at all, and my father on the privy council, thank you very much. It's ridiculous. Why should they keep me locked up at Brinlaw? Why shouldn't I have some say in where I go and what I do there?"
"Because you're too pretty and too clever, with very little common sense," Lisbet said, never one to mince words with her friends. "You get into all manner of scrapes at home; just imagine what could happen here at court."
"Thank you kindly, vixen," Malinda retorted, wide-eyed. "'Tis such a comfort to have you on my side."
"I am on your side, piglet," Lisbet shot back with a smile. "I think your parents mean to keep you safe is all."
"I hate being safe," Malinda muttered, turning away.
Back at the royal dais, Eleanor called her favorite minstrel. "Gaston!" He looked up from crooning at her daughter-in-law and hurried to her side. "The Brinlaw girl," she asked in an undertone before he could speak. "What is her name again?"
"Malinda, Majesty," he answered.
"Malinda," she repeated, musing. Brinlaw and his wife had obviously dismissed their daughter from the hall, and she just as obviously had not cared to be dismissed. Surely a queen outranked a father...
"Will there be anything else?" Gaston asked, eager to go back to his lute.
"Yes," she said, a plan forming in her mind. Henry would tup any pretty thing that would have him; after so many years of marriage, she had given up trying to make him stop. But if the baggage in his bed were loyal to the Queen, she could prove very helpful indeed. Besides, Brinlaw was an ass; he deserved a bit of humiliation. Mistress Malinda had stopped at the arch and turned back as if she felt Eleanor's eyes, and the Queen smiled and raised her cup in salute. "Bring her back," she said. "Malinda Brinlaw -- tell her the Queen wishes to see her."
Gaston's eyes widened, but he was far too wise to protest. "As my queen commands," he said, making his deepest bow before hurrying away through the throng.
"I told you she would notice you," Lisbet said, hot on Malinda's heels as they hurried up the stairs.
"I can't believe it," Malinda said, still stunned. The Queen had been looking at her, had raised her cup as if to say farewell.
"Why not?" Lisbet demanded. "Just think, Malinda -- if she asks for you especially as lady-in-waiting, your father can't very well say no."
"You must not know my father," Malinda joked with a grimace as she drew a tiny velvet purse from the folds of her skirt.
"Still..." Lisbet saw what she was doing and laughed. "Malinda, no! You can't!"
"And why not?" she asked, glancing back down to make certain they weren't being followed.
"Because you promised your mother," Lisbet protested, following her to a curtained alcove at the top of the stairs.
"My mother thinks I'm an idiot," she retorted.
"Malinda, she doesn't." She watched her friend take out her components, the bits of rubbish she could make work miracles. "You lucky thing -- will you at least promise to be careful?"
"Of course I will." Malinda smiled. "I promise I only want one more look around. I'll be up in half a moment."
"You had better be," Lisbet warned, giving her a hug. "I'll look in on the monster, and if you aren't in our room when I get there, I'll be very cross."
"Stop, you're scaring me," Malinda teased. With a final squeeze, she let her go. "I'll see you in a bit."
As soon as Lisbet was gone, she ducked out of sight behind the tapestry just as a minstrel was rounding the corner from the stairs. He passed on by -- obviously he hadn't seen her. Clutching her spellworks tightly in her fist, she murmured the incantation that would make her clothes vanish as her body faded as well. Being her mother's daughter, she was half faery, and one of her talents was the ability to cloak herself in magic that made her blend in perfectly with her surroundings so that she appeared to vanish into thin air. But her clothing wasn't subject to this supernatural phenomenon. As a child, she would simply strip naked and hide her clothes before striking out on invisible adventures, much to her parents' dismay. But once Mark was old enough to know what she was doing and steal her clothes for a prank, she had been forced to learn more discretion. That was when she had stolen her mother's conjuring book and learned to vanish her clothes as well. Faery magic happened for her almost without thought; conjuring was harder and required components -- that was why she needed her little bag of spellworks. For this particular spell, all she needed was a bit of glass worn smooth in the rushing brook at Brinlaw and a smear of ash from silk burned in oak.
She heard a man clear his throat and flattened herself against the wall just as the tapestry was drawn back. It was the minstrel she had escaped before who stepped into the alcove, and she held her breath. He froze, confused, and she had to bite the inside of her cheek to keep from laughing, he looked so surprised. He looked around again with a sigh. "God's mutton," he muttered, turning on his heel, snatching the tapestry back as he went, obviously annoyed. Malinda let out her breath in a rush, weak for a moment with relief. If he had brushed against her, she might well have been very embarrassed. Her clothes were vanished with a conjurer's spell that would hold even if she were touched, but her body, under a faery glamour, might well have reappeared.
She knew other spells as well, though nothing too complicated -- she always had to be able to memorize the directions quickly so she could slip the book back into its place in her mother's trunk before Alista missed it. Her mother had no objection to her using her faery powers, so long as she was careful not to startle strangers or use it for mischief, but she would have punished her for conjuring without permission, even now, old as she was. "Conjuring is dangerous," she had warned Malinda at least a thousand times. "I don't dare try it myself; I can't in good conscience let you." Malinda always said she understood, of course, and she did, sort of. Conjuring was dangerous, particularly the spells that required the calling of powerful spirits. But privately she still considered it marvelously convenient.
Taking a last deep breath, she decided the coast was clear and slipped back down the stairs into the hall. From a corner near the archway, she thought about how best to proceed and waited to get her bearings. Being inside the faery glamour was like being an entirely different creature. She felt lighter, less aware of her own senses, more attuned to the world around her. In this state, if she concentrated, she could touch a wall and feel what the mason who built it had felt as he set the stones. She could witness scenes of great emotion that had passed in a place centuries ago as readily as she saw the people moving around her now. Her mother had always hated this part of their faery gift; 'twas the main reason she so rarely used her powers. Sometimes when the magic was on her, the past would invade a faery's consciousness whether she willed it or not. But even so, Malinda loved it; she loved everything she could do. She was endlessly curious, eager to learn anything her magic could teach her, trivial or profound. As a child, she had told her mother as much, insisted she would be the greatest sorceress their family had ever known. As she had grown older, she had seen the concern in her parents' eyes and learned to keep silent or at least pretend to be careful. But inside, she was fearless.
She made her way carefully around the edge of the room, pausing near her parents' table. Guy and Nan were obviously being congratulated -- nothing unusual was happening at all. She could see no reason why she and Lisbet shouldn't have been allowed to stay. "So when will you marry?" Phillipe was saying as he refilled everyone's cup.
"As soon as possible," Guy answered, one arm around Nan's waist, a slight flush on his cheeks.
"But not before the spring," Nan said. "We have to wait for Tarquin."
Will and Alista exchanged a look. "Love, it's been ten years and more," Alista began.
"He will come home for my wedding," Nan said with a stubborn set to her chin. "He will give me away. He promised."
"Then he must surely come," Guy said, kissing the top of her head.
"May God will it so," Alista agreed, but she didn't sound very hopeful.
"In any case, we will wait until the spring," Will said, taking Alista's hand.
Malinda turned away to continue her circuit of the hall. Tarquin FitzBruel was Nan's half-brother, and she loved him so...Malinda barely remembered him herself, but her parents had loved him, too. Nan was an heiress, a noble. Her father, Bruel, had been a knight, in name, anyway, and her mother was Will Brinlaw's sister. When Bruel died in a drunken tumble down the stairs, Nan was left an orphan. Her mother had died somehow when she was still an infant, and Malinda thought it must have been something bad because her father wouldn't discuss it. At any rate, Nan was only four years old, and the only one left to care for her at Bruel Castle was Tarquin, her father's bastard with a local peasant woman. No more than ten himself, he had stolen a horse from the stables and spirited the child away, riding the length of England in the dead of winter to find Nan's uncle and deliver her to safety with him.
Both children had stayed at Brinlaw Castle. Nan said she barely remembered any other home. Tarquin had served as Will's squire and been educated as a nobleman's son. Malinda had a vague recollection of him as a rather shy boy who seemed able to do anything from fix a broken doll to break a balky horse no one else dared touch. She had still been a toddler when he was old enough to go to war with her father every spring, so her memories after that were even less clear. She knew he had been a good soldier and had heard it whispered he had been offered the privilege of knighthood in spite of his bastard birth, just like Phillipe. But he had never been knighted. When she was eight years old and Tarquin was eighteen, the castle priest, Brother Paolo, had decided to return to his own family in Florence, Italy, and Tarquin had offered to escort him.
That had been more than ten years ago, and Tarquin had never returned. Brother Paolo had written her parents of their safe arrival in Florence, and Alista and Nan had both received a few letters from Tarquin himself at first. But no one had heard a word from him in years. Malinda knew her parents had all but given up on ever seeing him again. Her mother lit candles for him in church nearly every day. But Nan was apparently still convinced he would come home.
A page boy darted past her, so close she felt a breeze, and she backed against the wall, her heart in her throat. She looked back at her family, still deep in happy conversation, and suddenly the joy had gone out of her prank. What was the fun in watching a celebration if she couldn't participate? And what if she were caught? Suddenly she felt as much like a child as her parents believed her to be, spying on grown-ups. With a last frustrated look, she headed back for the stairs.
"Majesty, I beg your patience," Gaston was saying, returning to his queen in frustrated disgrace. "I cannot find the girl to save me."
Eleanor had all but forgotten the minstrel's mission, he had been gone so long. "She ran from you that fast?" she asked, arching a brow.
"I haven't even seen her!" he protested, horribly vexed. He explained how he had followed both maidens to the staircase but found only one at the top. "I've searched up and down and can find no trace of her," he finished. "'Tis as if she disappeared."
"'Tis as if you've drunk more wine than shows, more like," the Queen chided him with a smile, but in truth, she was intrigued. She looked back at Alista Brinlaw, still so lovely after three children and twenty years of marriage. Something was wrong with the women of that family, with Lady Alista, and she suddenly remembered what it was. 'Twas said she was a witch
Copyright © 2002 by Jayel Wylie