Friday, February 10

Ordeal by ceremony.

I took extra time on this because I needed it; I've been stuck in some sort of funk for the last few weeks and it has been royally lame. Do excuse the excessive description.

When everyone had drunk from the cup of wine, she had gone to stand at the end of the semi-circle and began to observe her champion for the first time. He was slight and wiry and stood squarely on his feet, preoccupied with formalities and looking somewhat uncomfortable in the midst of such a solemn company. In short, he looked quite as she felt.

Their eyes met once, but there was no recognition in his--not that she expected there to be; this was the first time they'd been in each other's company. It seemed odd that he'd fought for her and yet didn't know her at all; she felt the stirrings of resentment in the back of her mind. Before she could pay them any attention, though, he had declared his request for her to pray at his vigil of knighthood. That was an odd enough request and she couldn't help but be relieved to hear it. A sleepless night praying in the chapel was infinitely preferable to any number of things he might have asked.

The group in front of the fire was dispersed and she remained staring vacantly into the fire until someone came to take the cup from her. Collecting her thoughts, she remembered that Juliana would be waiting for her with a clean shift and brushes for her hair, and would probably let her tiny fire go out if she didn't arrive soon. Turning, she tucked the front part of her skirt into her belt so that she wouldn't trip when she walked.

All of her helpmates would have gone to their rooms and would go back to their villages tomorrow or the day after since they'd all returned late from their small quest. The horses were taken care of. The books had all been delivered safely and diplomatic relationships were, for the most part, strengthened as a result of their efforts. Everything had gone well.

"Gone well, went well, is well, all is well," she whispered to herself in footsteps as the torches in the great hall were extinguished behind her. She felt she was followed by a sense of unease and unhappiness, and hurried away from the cold darkness of the hall to her rooms.

She embraced Juliana when she entered, and Juliana took it in stride, extracting herself with a brusque "Good! You are home. I know. Go to sleep." Juliana loosened the laces of her lady's dress and handed her a clean shift, taking away the dress and stowing it in the depths of a wardrobe on the other side of the room. The lady removed veil pins and veil, swinging the carefully-arranged braid over her shoulder and, untying the end, began to undo the weave of the plait with her fingers.

Juliana was humming tunelessly, choosing tomorrow's dress with the same calculating glance that frightened many maids and assistant cooks. Tomorrow morning would be spent in the throne room, so it must be beautiful. Tomorrow afternoon she could relax in the solar or the great hall, so it must be warm. Et cetera.

"Juliana."

"Mmm. You are upset because of this boy who wore your sleeve."

"Actually . . . who gave him my sleeve, anyway?"

"Your father had one fetched. It's back in the drawer, no harm done."

There was a pause before Juliana spoke again. "Something still bothering you? You should be content, it has been a good day."

"Yes, but . . . who is he? He doesn't even know me. I feel like it is . . . just awkward."

"What, you think he did that for you?" Juliana snorted, and took up brushing her lady's hair.

"Isn't that the point of those things?"

"No. The point is that he had a principle he wanted to stand up for and you provided an opportunity."

"Oh." She was not a little chagrined.

"Yes, well . . . you listen to your father's storytellers too much. That is why you have the wrong ideas about things--you should pay more attention to your studies." She ended awkwardly, aware of having advised precisely the opposite at least several times in the recent past.

"You must be right. It was a selfish thought."

"Of course I am right. Now go to sleep." A ribbon was tied at the end of her plaited hair and she felt its soft weight against her back again.

"Good night, Juliana."

"Milady."

After Juliana left, the lady did not climb into her canopied bed but stood at her window that overlooked the central courtyard, the decorative one with the garden, and watched as the last few stragglers took an easy shortcut through the grass to the gate into the real courtyard she had entered earlier, right before she'd relinquished her horse and been whisked off to the solar before the feast. She went over the day again in her mind, ready to retell the story of their journey tomorrow at the king's court.

The sky was stern and dark and the night clenched and cold but the casement windows with their tiny panes of glass did not show the stars or the moon; she unlatched one of them and peered out. She could see her breath in the air, and the moon was only a sliver in the sky and surrounded by her stalwart, constant stars. The hills were dark, too dark to see even heir silhouettes, and she listened for the sound of the ocean far below.

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