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Author Topic: Balance of Power--Chapter Twenty-Two  (Read 4885 times)

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Offline Evie

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Balance of Power--Chapter Twenty-Two
« on: November 21, 2015, 09:29:37 pm »
Previous chapter:  http://www.rhemuthcastle.com/index.php/topic,1620.0.html


Chapter Twenty-Two

Shortly after midnight
Coroth Castle
December 24, 2021


“Your Grace, could you come to the security room for a few minutes? I think you’ll want to see this.”

Morgan Haldane had been getting ready to go to bed when he’d heard the knock on his bedroom door, but as his steward explained what his security team had discovered, he reached for his shirt to put it back on before following her down to the computer station. “When did it start, Martha?” he asked as they descended the back stairs.

“Only about ten minutes ago, sir.” Martha Hamilton opened the door to the security room. Morgan entered, his gaze fixed not on the bank of security screens showing camera views of different areas of the castle, but on a lone computer on the other side of the room where Jeannie FitzWilliam sat monitoring a hacker’s activity.

Jeannie blinked owlishly up at him through thick glasses as he approached her workstation, giving him a sunny smile as he bent to see the screen. “You want to see what the intruder’s doing, sir?” She rolled her chair slightly to one side to give him a better view. “The hacker accessed the server at 0017. He or she isn’t deleting any of your email, sir, but appears to be reading it all in order and saving some of it. Of course, this is your dummy account, so any truly sensitive email is still safe. I took the precaution of taking that server completely offline for the moment. Oh, and I may have added a few false messages to this inbox, so let’s see what the hacker makes of those.”

Morgan’s lips twitched. Knowing Jeannie’s sense of humor, this could be interesting. “What sort of false messages?”

“Well . . . .” Jeannie’s cheeks turned a vivid shade of rose beneath her sprinkling of freckles. “Are you aware you have a love child with Tralian actress Hedy Richter who is being raised on the Ile d’Orsal to avoid having to be entered into the Registry?”

He raised an eyebrow at his IT specialist. “Hedy Richter? Lucky me! What’s my alleged child’s name?”

“Oskar Leopold Richter. He’s only four, but already showing a great deal of giftedness in the Deryni arts. And he looks just like his father.”

Morgan shook his head. “You have way too active an imagination.”

“That’s what happens when you shut a girl up for long hours babysitting a computer, sir.” She grinned unrepentantly up at him. “I’ve also fed the hacker some false security details, so if this is a break-in hack rather than a paparazzi hack, that’s covered too. Any cat burglar is going to find a few nasty surprises waiting.”

“Good job, Jeannie. I think I owe you a raise.”

“And a dance at tonight’s ball, sir? Perhaps a nice, slow one?” Her expressive brown eyes put him in mind of a hopeful puppy.

Morgan laughed. “And a dance.” He patted her shoulder. “And a ridiculous ServerGirl superhero costume I’m going to start requiring you to wear when you’re on duty if you keep making up scandalous stories about my love life.” He chuckled at her chagrined expression. “No worries; as long as Miss Richter doesn’t bring a defamation of character suit against me, you should be safe from having to wear spandex. Carry on, ServerGirl.”

She beamed. “Yes, sir!”



Morning, after breakfast
Eirian House
December 24, 2021

So you’re just going to give up, just like that? That’s not like you, James; I suppose you must not be all that interested in Heather after all. Though I guess that’s for the best, at least unless you’re ready for a genuine relationship this time.


Had Dev meant for his observation to be a challenge, or it just come across that way? James wasn’t entirely sure, but still the words grated. For once in his life, he was trying to do the right thing--it was quite clear to him that Heather had been badly hurt by Aderyn’s father, whoever the bloody bastard might be, and James certainly didn’t wish to add to her pain. No, it would be best for him to leave well enough alone, to just steer completely clear of that situation. Certainly there were far more available women to be had, women who would be thrilled to be in his company. He’d never lacked for female companionship before; why did he think he needed this particular one?

Except that Heather was different somehow. He wasn’t certain how exactly, and now it seemed he was unlikely ever to know if things might turn out better this time.

He wasn’t quite sure how she’d managed to work her way under his skin. She was cute, with those laughing ocean-blue eyes and vivid red flyaway curls, and that grin that made her look like some mischievous elf, but she was hardly the most beautiful woman he’d ever encountered. She had delightful curves, though not the most perfect form he’d ever held--well, actually he’d not really held her much at all, unless one counted such times as when he’d fended off that ridiculous attack of hers in Dev’s leaky bucket of a car when she’d brandished the wet tissues at him after they’d driven through the car wash. She was a great deal of fun to be with--when she wasn’t flaying him alive, at least--but he’d enjoyed the company of other women just as much.  Well, all right, maybe that was somewhat less true. Other women had been pleasant enough to spend time with, to squire around to elegant dinners and fashionable clubs, and intensely pleasurable to while away the hours with in bed. But Heather’s playfulness had been a different sort. There had been nothing intentionally seductive about it, yet she had him yearning for her like some lovestruck youth on the heels of his first crush. He was well beyond such schoolboy feelings at his stage of life, surely!

He had other things he needed to be doing instead of hanging around Eirian House in hopes of catching a glimpse of a woman who had made it perfectly clear that she didn’t want him. But here he was, wandering the grounds aimlessly, trying to make sense of Devlin’s counsel. Normally his friend was spot-on in his observations and guidance, but this morning James had found him almost maddeningly obtuse.

Maybe you should look at this as an opportunity, James. You’ve never actually taken the time to learn how to be a proper friend to a woman, and perhaps it’s time you learned that skill. There’s more to women than just the fun to play with bits, you realize.

Of course he knew that! What sort of idiot did Devlin take him for? He wasn’t the sort of man who thought a woman’s only proper place was in the kitchen or the bedroom; other men might hold such antiquated views, but James wasn’t among them. It was insulting, really, being lumped in with that sort of caveman male. He had female friends . . . .

Except now that he stopped to call them to mind, he suddenly realized that he couldn’t, not really. He had female colleagues, women whose minds and abilities he respected, but he’d never really spent any time with them on a social basis, dismissing them as either ‘not his type’ or, if attractive, ‘too potentially messy.’ He hadn’t wanted to risk combining business with pleasure, after all, so wasn’t it best to simply avoid any risk of a relationship that might complicate his work? That was simple prudence, he thought. All right, but not every woman was a work colleague; surely some of the ladies of his social circle counted? Again, when he stopped to go over the mental list by name, he realized that perhaps he had fewer female friends than he thought. He had several friendly acquaintances, but mostly of the sort whom he suspected of trying to cultivate him for his connections, or whom he’d cultivated for theirs. Or for more base motives, because they’d been stunningly attractive and of the right social set, and . . . damn. Perhaps Dev was on to something after all.

There were his former lovers as well, but James knew he couldn’t count those either. At best, some of those splits had been mutually agreed upon, but he’d made no attempt afterwards to salvage what remained of the relationship to retain anything that he could honestly call a friendship. And at worst . . . . James winced.  All right. So maybe he was better at sex than he was at relationships, but weren’t most men? Surely he wasn’t the only one who sucked at developing genuine relationships with women? But maybe it wasn’t really his fault, maybe the right woman simply hadn’t come along yet?

Somehow, he suspected if he put that question to Dev, his friend wouldn’t let him off easy with that sort of cop-out answer either.

So what would friendship with a woman even look like? James wasn’t so sure it could be quite as uncomplicated as his relationship with Dev; after all, as attractive a bloke as every woman of their mutual acquaintance seemed to find the priest, James’ biology wasn’t hardwired to respond to him in the same way that he felt primed to react to attractive women. But surely surrounding himself with only homely women couldn’t be the answer to the puzzle! And what would they even do together?

As if he were actually there with James rather than doing the hundred and one things he was probably doing at the moment getting ready to celebrate Christmas with the royal household, James imagined Devlin’s voice inside his mind. What would you do if you were just hanging out with me? Maybe visit one of the local pubs, take in a movie, take a walk, take a drive, go horseback riding. Watch something entertaining on the telly and discuss it afterwards over a cold beer. Pull up some VR games in the rec room,  see the local sights, or sit out in the Conservatory and just talk. And with me, you’d enjoy those moments for themselves, not as a means for getting something you want out of me, and certainly not just as a means for getting me out of my pants! Why should it be any different when you’re with a woman? Stop trying to rush to the same old destination and learn to enjoy the journey with her instead. Who knows, maybe if she ever gets to know the James I’ve come to know, she might be interested in more than friendship one day. But for now, you might try just taking things one day at a time.

James gave an amused snort. He’d gone to Devlin to find a sympathetic ear, not to carry away a mental homily. One of the hazards of befriending a priest, he supposed. But he supposed it wouldn’t hurt to try taking things more slowly, at least where Heather was concerned. If she’d even let him close to her at all.



Later in the morning
The Royal Conservatory
Eirian House
December 24, 2021


Stringing beads was more calming than Sophia had ever realized. The craft supplies had belonged to her older sister Stefanie, but Sophia had discovered them when poking through an old storage chest in search of a photo album she thought she remembered their Mum had stashed away in there. Araxelle, that is, not the mother Sophia was trying to prepare herself to meet.

She’d wanted to refresh her memories of what Lady Violet had looked like, but the album was not where Sophia had thought it was. But the tin of beads and jewelry findings had caught her eye, so she’d taken that out instead, and had started idly stringing together a set of ebony and crimson beads, hoping the repetitive motion would help her calm her mind and nerves.

Sophia eyed the pattern beginning to take shape on the silken cord. It had started off random, but after a few minutes the ratio of crimson beads to black ones, not to mention their sizes relative to each other, had suggested a pattern to her mind. She’d unstrung what she’d started and began over again, rummaging through the bead tin until she’d counted out an appropriate number of each color of bead for what she had in mind. She would need some sort of cross also, or perhaps a saint’s medallion would work, but a cross pendant seemed more likely to be found in Stefanie’s odd assortment of jewelry findings and charms. Yes, there was a pretty gold one that would serve nicely!

“Lady Violet Estridge, Your Majesty.” Henry ushered her visitor through the Conservatory entrance, and all thoughts of beadwork fled Sophia’s mind. She set down the tin, rising to greet her guest.

The stately old woman curtseyed, the movement still graceful despite her advanced age. Sophia extended her hand to assist her in rising, studying the proud woman’s features curiously. There were some similarities in bone structure between herself and this woman who had given birth to her, she supposed, and it appeared Lady Violet’s eyes were a similar shade of dark blue, although in the older woman the outer edge of those blue irises had dimmed to a dark slate gray over time. Lady Violet’s hair was snowy white now, not the frosted black she remembered from her early childhood. That was hardly a surprise, of course; she’d seen Lady Violet just days ago at Tre-Arilan in the aftermath of the acrinious gas attack on the Camberian Council members. But at the time, she’d seen the woman only as a patient and as a dimly remembered member of her late grandfather’s Court. Her Mum’s Mistress of the Robes, not as her birth mother. Seeing her now through different eyes, through a completely changed perspective, Sophia felt as though she was meeting Lady Violet for the very first time.

“Welcome to Eirian House, Lady Violet,” Sophia said, gesturing to a nearby chair in a silent invitation to sit before taking her own seat again. “I hope the journey wasn’t too taxing. How is your breathing this week?”

“Better than last week, thank you,” her erstwhile patient answered. “Though I’m certain you didn’t ask me here just to inquire after my health. How might I serve you?” Her birth mother’s eyes studied her as appraisingly as Sophia had studied her moments earlier. Violet’s lips turned upward in a faint smile. “You certainly have Nigel’s stamp upon you, don’t you? He’d have been pleased to see that. A true Haldane.” She frowned suddenly. “How is your hand, dear?”

Sophia, startled, instinctively touched her left hand with the fingertips of the right, though she didn’t evade the question. “Healed.” The Haldane empowerment ritual was hardly public knowledge, although since Violet had once been a member of Nigel’s Inner Circle, and briefly of Araxelle’s, she might have known of it that way.  Had Lady Violet simply guessed that hers had taken place already, or had someone informed the Council?

“Ah, you have a Healer in the Royal Household? Very good.” Violet looked pleased, her smile broadening slightly as she folded her hands primly in her lap.

Sophia had the odd sense that she was losing control of the conversation. Her visitor seemed clearly more at ease with their meeting than Sophia felt. It was time to wrest the conversational ball back from Lady Violet. “You asked how you might serve me, Lady Violet. You could start by telling me more about the King my father. I only barely remember him. Why did Nigel choose not to acknowledge me as his daughter? And which of you came up with the idea of passing me off as Araxelle’s?”

Violet’s smile increased fractionally. Sophia sensed that she’d passed some sort of unspoken test.

“Nigel wanted to acknowledge you; Sybilla wouldn’t have it. He did acknowledge you within the Royal Family. It would have been easy enough to have sent me off packing until after your birth if that’s what he’d wanted to do, without telling Her Majesty the reason for my absence. My father had only recently died and my mother was ailing at the time, so I could have simply gone home--or claimed to do so, and remained in seclusion until after your birth. Instead, when he learned that I was carrying you, despite the difficult circumstances he was elated. I agreed to do the tactful thing and absent myself from Court for a while--certainly I didn’t imagine that Sybilla would wish to retain me as a lady-in-waiting any longer at any rate--but Sybilla did not want either of us returning to the Palace at all.  I don’t think it was my affair with Nigel that she objected to; she’d turned a blind eye at that for years. But she saw your existence as a threat to Nigel’s heirs. Or to her own, at least; at the time we had no reason to think that Araxelle was not Nigel’s daughter. But claiming you as her own was actually Araxelle’s idea. She was always keen to please Nigel, poor dear, and she knew how much Nigel wanted to have you close by to watch you grow up. I was less happy about the arrangement, but I had an ailing mother to care for and an irate brother threatening to disinherit me.” Violet gave a drily amused snort. “Not that I was all that fussed about Ned’s threat--he was always threatening to cut me off for one reason or another, and certainly Nigel wasn’t going to leave me starving and homeless! But for Mother’s sake I made an effort to keep the peace, and the original plan was that I was to be shifted from Sybilla’s service to Araxelle’s, where I would at least be able to watch you grow up in the Royal Family as befits your station. So I gave in.”

“I do have a few memories of those early years when you were in Mum’s service.” That had slipped out, but Sophia made no effort to amend her statement. Araxelle had been her Mum, damn it, no matter that the woman who sat before her now had been the one to give birth to her.

Violet gave a pleased smile. If she’d noticed Sophia’s slip--and Sophia was certain she had--she gave no outward sign of it.  “I had wondered if you remembered me at all. You were so young when Nigel died.” The brightness of her smile dimmed slightly as she recalled the loss. “He adored you.”

“I adored him.” And she had, even once she’d grown old enough to understand how flawed a man her beloved ‘Grandpoppy’ had been. Having loved him unconditionally as a young child, she could no more imagine that love dimming than she could imagine herself blowing out the sun, despite having grown up to learn that Nigel III had never been that paragon of godlike perfection at all that she’d once thought him to be, but simply a fallible man like any other save for the happy accident of Haldane birth. Perhaps not even all that happy an accident, in Nigel’s case. Had he not been King of Gwynedd, might he have lived out his years more happily with the woman before her now than with the exquisite yet cold Andelonian princess he’d married and made his Queen? Or would he and Lady Violet even have met? There was no way to know, really.

There were other questions more readily knowable, however, and one in particular that had puzzled Sophia ever since she’d discovered that Araxelle was not her true mother.  “Once the idea had been put to you to give me over to Araxelle and Henri to pass off as their own, how did that switch ever work? Surely one would think a Princess turning up with a baby when she wasn’t even pregnant might draw a bit of speculation?”

“Araxelle was pregnant again, at least at first,” Violet told her, waiting for Sophia to absorb the initial shock of that news before continuing on. “That’s what gave her the idea to claim you, I think. Her child’s due date was close enough to yours, I think she hoped you might be passed off as twins somehow. But just a few months into her pregnancy, she miscarried.  She had just started to show at the time, and the news had already been made public that she was in the family way again. We simply didn’t make the miscarriage public.  She and Duke Henri made an extended visit to his private estate in Joux, both to give her time to recuperate and allow them both some time to grieve and heal, and after my mother’s death I joined them there. We rarely ventured out, the grounds were well warded, and on the few occasions when we needed to be seen, I was careful to conceal her condition and mine beneath a glamour. People only saw what they expected to see. And when you were born, it was simply assumed that you were Her Royal Highness’s eagerly awaited third child. When you were two months old, we returned home to Gwynedd.  To Eirian House, as it happens. Sybilla remained in Rhemuth--as it happened, she actually had a cold at the time, though that made a handy excuse not to show up for a granddaughter’s christening. But Nigel was beyond thrilled to hold you in his arms for the first time. Prince Dolan came also. He was quite dubious about the entire idea of seeing you raised as one of Araxelle’s children, but once he finally saw you he was completely won over.”

“I’m afraid I don’t really remember Prince Dolan,” Sophia said regretfully. She’d grown up knowing about her mother’s elder brother, of course, but by the time she’d been old enough to form clear memories, Araxelle had been Nigel’s heiress.

“Yes, I imagine you wouldn’t,” Violet said. “He was a handsome lad, though more importantly he would have made an excellent King, had it not been for that damn racing accident! Nigel never approved of him taking up such dangerous sport, you know, but young people fancy themselves immortal.” She shook her head. “I think part of Nigel died that day, when he lost his son, but having you by that time helped to get him through the worst of those days.”

“And Araxelle as well, I should imagine.”

Violet shook her head. “Don’t get me wrong, he loved Araxelle in his way, and certainly she always did her best to please him, but the poor girl looked a bit too much like her mother. Nigel did his best to overlook that, but the simple fact was, whenever he looked at her, he couldn’t help but see a younger, darker-haired Sybilla. It certainly wasn’t Araxelle’s fault. It was just that, unlike with you and Dolan, it was difficult for him to see anything of himself in Araxelle at all.”

Well, there would be a reason for that, thought Sophia, wondering just how much Lady Violet knew about Araxelle’s true parentage but unwilling to bring the matter up in case she knew less about it than Sophia suspected she might.

Violet soon spared her the wondering. “Officially, Princess Araxelle was conceived right after the Queen returned from an extended holiday visiting her parents’ palace in Andelon. Unofficially, Nigel couldn’t help but wonder if she’d been conceived right after Sybilla’s return to Gwynedd or slightly before. When he’d last seen her, they’d had a vicious row--that was one reason her stay in Andelon had been so extended--but upon her return she seemed all eagerness to make up to him. He thought it a turning point in their marriage at first, put more of an effort in, hoping maybe they’d just got off to a rocky start but that now his Queen was ready to make a go at being a proper wife to him.  That lasted about long enough for the ink to dry on Araxelle’s birth records, then she returned to being the same bloody-minded bitch he’d remembered and he was fed up. If she wasn’t going to put in the effort, why should he? So they put up a civil enough front in the public eye--Nigel demanded that much, at least--but in private they led mostly separate lives from then on out. He always hoped Araxelle was his, though.”

Sophia thought back to Violet’s question about her hand. “Were you involved in Araxelle’s power assumption ritual?”

“I was. And so was Nigel, despite the cancer ravaging his body and sapping his strength by then. No one was more disappointed than he was to discover that the attempt to empower her had failed, not to mention more worried about the future of the Haldane throne. Dolan was dead by then, and the only true Haldanes left in Gwynedd besides Nigel with enough Royal Haldane DNA for the ritual to activate properly were you, the Duke of Corwyn, and his ten-year-old heir. Nigel wanted to end the deception right then and claim you as his royal heir, but I begged him not to. I was afraid he wouldn’t survive a second ritual so close after the first, and you were barely five years old. I was afraid Sybilla would end up as Regent rather than Araxelle, who seemed too meek to stand up to her mother properly, but if Araxelle went on to inherit as everyone already expected, there was at least some chance of her own Deryni blood being strong enough for her to pass herself off as a true Haldane. I think Nigel hoped to consult with Anthony Haldane before making a final decision on the matter, but by the time Duke Anthony arrived in Rhemuth, Nigel was dead. His physician pronounced the cause of death to be heart failure, but I’ve always wondered, did he overtax his heart by participating in Araxelle’s power assumption ritual against medical advice, or did Sybilla find out somehow what Nigel was planning--or did she at least suspect his misgivings once she learned that we failed to empower Araxelle?”

“Are you suggesting that Sybilla might have stopped Nigel’s heart?” Sophia asked.

Violet shrugged. “I don’t suppose we’ll ever know for sure at this late date. The only person who could have told us what really happened is dead now. But I wouldn’t put it past her. She had no love for Nigel, but she dearly loved being Queen. She would not have tolerated having to bow her head to Anthony Haldane, much less to Nigel’s child by another woman. With Araxelle on the throne, at least she remained the Queen Mother, and Araxelle was malleable.”

“Not quite as malleable as one might think,” Sophia averred. “She was able to stand up to Sybilla when it mattered most.”

Lady Violet nodded. “Quite right. Araxelle, for all her weaknesses, had one strength that Sybilla never understood. Araxelle understood what it was to love someone besides herself. It was no longer safe for me to remain in Rhemuth once Nigel died, but as long as Araxelle had breath in her body, I knew you would be safe from Sybilla. And I was right.”

Right, perhaps, but also more wrong than you’ll ever know, thought Sophia.



Afternoon
Eirian House Grounds
December 24, 2021


Aderyn O’Flynn was bored. Bored and somewhat concerned. Eirian House was beautiful, what she and Mummy had seen of it so far, but it was very different from home and life with her Nan. They’d moved from Derry so quickly, would Father Christmas even know how to find her here? Maybe the Queen would tell him. She hoped so. To be honest, she wasn’t entirely sure if she even believed in Father Christmas anymore, but so much had changed in her life over the past week, she figured it might be nice to have something familiar she could count on here in these strange surroundings.

Mummy had promised to take her out for a walk in the gardens, but some old guy who was the Earl of someplace had asked if she could take a look at someone in the Queen’s guard who’d somehow managed to cut himself with his own bayonet, so a lady who worked in the palace said she’d keep an eye on her. She gave Aderyn some stationery with the Haldane ensign on it and a half sharpened pencil, and left her to entertain herself while she worked on making wreaths out of some bits of greenery from the side garden to make the palace pretty.

There were other children at the palace, but Aderyn hadn’t had time to make friends with any yet, and they were mostly spending time with their families anyway. So while Mummy was out Healing the guard, Aderyn sat on a stone bench and tried to draw her surroundings, not that she was any good at drawing anything yet except for cats. She was good at those. You simply drew a large Q and then gave it a head, whiskers, and ears. She gave up trying to draw Eirian House and simply drew an assortment of cats instead.

A shadow fell across her paper, and she looked up. The man who sat down beside her glanced down at her artwork.

“You like cats, do you?”

It was the man Nan thought looked so handsome on the telly, though today he wasn’t dressed as fancy, and he looked like he’d not had much sleep. Aderyn knew that look; Mummy had woken up looking the same way that morning, her skin a bit dark under her eyes and her smile not very bright when she’d bothered to smile at all. Mummy had been cross too. Aderyn wondered if the man also felt cross when he didn’t get enough sleep.

“Hello, Lord Aliran, do you live here too?”

He smiled, a more real smile than Mummy’s had been over breakfast that morning. “It would seem that way, but no, I have my own house.”

The woman minding her looked up at the sound of his voice and scurried over. “Good afternoon, sir, is there something I can do for you?”

“Thank you, no; I just saw Miss O’Flynn was out here and thought I’d stop for a moment to say hello. I don’t suppose Healer O’Flynn happens to be around also?” He looked around as if expecting to see Mummy step out from behind a bush.

“The Healer’s tending to a patient right now; I’m sure she’ll return directly, Lord Arilan. Miss Aderyn is in my charge at present.” She gave him a look like she’d been sucking on lemons.

“Ah. Well, I suppose I should be on my way.” Turning to Aderyn, he tapped the paper she’d been drawing on. “If you like cats, you should get your Mummy to bring you by the stables--there are three barn moggies who live there, and they’re quite friendly. Or I’d be glad to introduce you to them sometime, if your Mum will allow me to. Do you ride?”

She giggled. “Cats are too small to ride!”

He laughed. “Indeed, not to mention extremely difficult to saddle. I meant, do you ride horses?”

Aderyn shook her head. The nice man stood.  “I think there’s a pony or two in the Eirian House stables, to the best of my recollection. Perhaps you can learn how to ride while you’re here. Does your Mum like horses?”

She shrugged. “She thinks they’re pretty, but we can’t have one. Mummy says they’re too expensive, and you can’t really fit one into a city flat anyhow. Getting it up the stairs might be a problem, and we haven’t a back garden.”

“Hm.” The lord covered his mouth with his hand as if giving the problem serious thought. “You may be right. What about building a shed for it on the roof? Is it flat or sloped? Perhaps it could be brought up in the lift if you have room for a rooftop garden.”

“It’s sloped. That really wouldn’t work at all.” A twinkle in his eye helped her realize he was having her on, and she laughed. “Anyway, how would Father Christmas get a horse down the chimney?” she countered. “I’ll have to settle for a cat, I think.”

The man laughed too, and Aderyn realized her Nan was right, he really was pretty handsome for an old guy.

He left, and the old stick watching over her shook her head disapprovingly at him until he was out of sight. “Miss Aderyn, hasn’t your mother taught you not to talk to strangers?”

She rolled her eyes. “Of course she has. But Lord Aliran isn’t a stranger, Mummy knows him, and he’s nice. He likes cats and horses, and he’s helping the Queen, and Her Majesty would know if he’s a good man or a bad one because she’s a Haldane. I don’t think we really know you, though, so I’ll stop talking now.” With a decisive nod, Aderyn returned to her drawing.



Evening
The Chapel Royal, Eirian House
December 24, 2021


It hadn’t been an especially busy day for Father Devlin, yet it had been a tough one nonetheless. He’d hoped to fill it up with work, but there hadn’t been as much of that as he’d thought there might be despite the holiday. He’d already made his morning rounds among the pensioners--retired members of the Royal Household--who lived on the palace grounds, offering the Eucharist to those too infirm to attend the Christmas services at the Chapel Royal. There’d been the Blessing of the Crib just now, and later there would be a midnight Mass to bring in Christmas morning.

But for now, there was too much time to think.

He considered returning to his apartment to call his parents, but he normally did that on Christmas Day instead, after morning Eucharist. Most years, he would take a few days off in early January to visit them, but with his secondment he thought perhaps that visit might need to wait until a little later in the year. It wasn’t his inability to visit his childhood home that was bothering him, however. No, it was the fresh reminder, especially at this most recent service when he’d been faced by the happy, expectant faces of the palace children, that this would be the fourth Christmas season since the loss of that one small, upturned face he never would see in this life. His grief for Suzanne had peaked early on, subsiding now to just the occasional twinge of wistful memory. His grief for his unborn child, on the other hand, continued on at moments like this, catching him off guard mostly at random times but a predictable visitor every Christmas since the accident that had ripped his family from him. He’d found some measure of solace in his work at the mission to help him deal with the seasonal renewal of grief, pouring himself into his ministry to the lads in his care there, but this year even that comfort had been denied him. He was still too new to Eirian House to have formed the sort of relationships with the parishioners here to help ease the pain of loss.

Of course, when he’d followed God’s call on his life, he didn’t recall ever receiving any promises that he would never have to venture outside his comfort zone.  He snorted in quiet amusement at the thought. Probably a good reason for that. Devlin wasn’t sure he’d had the luxury of being allowed to remain within his comfort zone ever since he’d been ordained; why should he think that this year might somehow be different?

He emerged from the sacristy to find the Queen standing just outside, apparently waiting on him. Of course--given her own recent losses, the day had likely been shattering for her as well.

“I’m sorry,” she told him. “I don’t mean to keep you, but do you have a brief moment?”

He summoned up a smile for her, glancing briefly beyond her to see the last of the palace residents departing, any stragglers who might have lingered to seek him out for a quick word apparently reconsidering once they saw Her Majesty waiting to do the same. A new armsman Devlin didn’t recognize stood discreetly just out of earshot, and the two ladies-in-waiting had their backs to him as they studied the creche. He returned his attention to Her Majesty.

“I do, Ma’am. In here, or would you prefer my office?”

“No, this is fine. For once I’m not here to blubber all over you.” She smiled before glancing away, looking slightly embarrassed. He chuckled.

“Well, that’s good. Today was your meeting with Lady Violet, was it not? I hope that went well.”

“It did. It was . . . most informative. I probably ought to see you about that too, but for now I think I still need a bit of time first to process everything I’ve learned.” The Queen hesitated, appearing uncertain about something, but as he waited for her to come around to the reason for her visit, she gave him a sheepish smile and reached into her pocket before saying, “Hold out your hand, Father. I have something for you.”

He complied, and she poured a small circlet of beads into his upturned palm. “It’s not a Christmas gift exactly--well, I suppose it is one in a sense, but I wasn’t thinking in those terms when I made it.” She laughed. “I was trying not to think at all; I found the bead tin when I was getting ready for Lady Violet’s visit, and I was so nervous about it, I needed something to do with my hands. But I ended up making a chaplet, and . . . well . . . could you use it?”

He examined the prayer beads he held. It was a circlet of ebony wood beads, interspersed with larger crimson beads that divided the black ones into four groups of seven-bead weeks. Dangling from this small circle that was just large enough to fit over his hand was a shiral invitatory bead, and below that a golden crucifix.

He looked back up at her. “It’s lovely, and yes, I could use it, but are you certain you don’t wish to keep it for yourself?”

She shook her head, a slight flush on her cheeks. “I have more beads. I had thought perhaps I might make a St Camber’s Chaplet the next time around. Have you ever seen one?”

“I don’t think so.”

The Queen tucked a stray lock of hair behind one ear. “Well, it’s the same bead pattern, except that the gauds are in the colors for the four Archangels. You’ll notice how your chaplet has crimson beads at the four quarters; well, imagine if I’d used gold, red, blue, and green for those quarters instead. Although the one that was on display at the Rhemuth Castle chapel had a smoky gray quartz bead where your shiral is, and there was a St Camber medallion on it as well. I think. I think that one belonged to a Deryni chaplain at the Castle centuries ago; Jen could probably remember which one. But let’s just make sure yours doesn’t fall apart first, before I go making more. Stef’s the one who knew how to do proper beadwork, not me.”

He couldn’t see anything wrong with her handiwork, personally. He felt touched that she’d thought of him, and more than a little relieved as well. Whatever she and Lady Violet had discussed earlier in the day, Violet had evidently refrained from bringing up the topic of matrimonial candidates she thought were suitable, or the Queen would doubtless have spent the rest of the day avoiding him entirely, if not sending him packing back to St George Street rather than bringing him gifts!

“Thank you, Ma’am.”

“You’re quite welcome, Father.” Sophia took a small step backwards. “I suppose I ought to go; there are a few things I need to settle with Lord Culdi before tomorrow. But . . . despite everything lately, happy Christmas.”

He smiled, rubbing his thumb across the smooth surfaces of the beads he held. “Happy Christmas, Ma’am.” He watched her leave with her small entourage, the smile fading into a thoughtful look.

Devlin glanced back at the Nativity scene, the serenity that had eluded him earlier beginning to enfold him like a divine embrace. “Despite everything,” he repeated in a soft whisper, the prayer beads in his hand radiating a faint warmth, “Happy Christmas.”



Night
Coroth Castle Great Hall
December 24, 2021


“I believe I promised you a dance, ServerGirl.”

Jeannie FitzWilliam beamed up at the dashing Duke who stood before her in the Great Hall of Coroth, currently serving double-duty as the Grand Ballroom for the night’s festivities. “I believe you did, sir.”

The music started, a famous waltz composed by a younger Morgan son born a century and a half earlier in honor of the Fiannese lady he had wed. The romantic strains wafted down from the musicians’ gallery. Morgan Haldane led her onto the dance floor, moving her smoothly into the steps of the dance. For a few moments, Jeannie felt almost graceful, although she knew her newfound dancing skill was illusory; it was His Grace who possessed the skill to maneuver around her occasional bobble. At least she hadn’t managed to tread on his toes yet, for which she was profoundly grateful.

“Stop thinking about what your feet are doing and relax,” Morgan whispered, entering into a link with her just deep enough to communicate the pattern of the dance to her at a subconscious level. Jeannie wasn’t entirely aware that’s what he was doing, although she surmised he must have done something, for suddenly the waltz seemed effortless, and she allowed herself to simply enjoy being in the moment, moving in tandem with her lord’s steps as if they shared a brain. Which, she supposed, was at least somewhat descriptive. It was not unlike being on a slave circuit, she imagined, although almost as soon as the thought had formed she amended it. She didn’t like the master/slave imagery outside from its technological applications. The Duke was a gentleman, not the sort of unscrupulous man to take unfair advantage of his formidable powers.

Jeannie could understand why some humans might be nervous about Deryni, but she’d always thought they were pretty cool. Certainly she had nothing to fear from the one she worked for, at any rate, aside from the occasional qualm that she might make an idiot of herself in front of him, but honestly that had nothing at all to do with him being Deryni. He was just too damn hot!

The waltz ended. Jeannie looked up hopefully, but they hadn’t ended up under any of the clumps of mistletoe strung up from the beams of the Great Hall. She lowered her gaze to find the Duke looking at her, an amused smile on his face. With one last twirl, he maneuvered her deftly beneath the nearest sprig, gallantly brushing a chaste kiss upon her cheek before bowing and moving away to seek out his next dance partner. It was enough.  The music started again, and Jeannie floated back to the sidelines to savor her Christmas Eve memory.




Next chapter:  http://www.rhemuthcastle.com/index.php/topic,1625.0.html
« Last Edit: November 26, 2015, 10:38:18 pm by Evie »
"In necessariis unitas, in non-necessariis libertas, in utrisque caritas."

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Offline drakensis

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Re: Balance of Power--Chapter Twenty-Two
« Reply #1 on: November 22, 2015, 03:33:50 am »
Heh. Aderyn is precious there.

And Morgan, the consummate gentleman.

Offline revanne

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Re: Balance of Power--Chapter Twenty-Two
« Reply #2 on: November 22, 2015, 07:36:29 am »
I love the dialogue with Aderyn and she seems to be quite a good judge of character. Maybe there is hope for James yet.

Morgan Haldane is too gorgeous to be allowed out (thank goodness he put his shirt back on)...poor Jeannie. She's lucky though that he is the gentleman that he obviously is.

A nice gentle interlude, I imagine some quiet romantic music playing as a background to this scene with James and Heather's and Dev and Sophia's themes ever so slightly beginning to interweave. The sinister theme is never far from the surface though.

« Last Edit: November 22, 2015, 07:39:08 am by revanne »
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And all the men and women merely players;
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And one man in his time plays many parts."
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Offline Jerusha

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Re: Balance of Power--Chapter Twenty-Two
« Reply #3 on: November 22, 2015, 08:05:07 pm »
I so loved Aeryn's response to her "lady in watching."  So very astute.  Now will she receive a cat for Christmas or a pony?   :)

Working in IT would be so much more satisfying if it came with a resident Duke of Corwyn.  ;D

A nice interlude, but the storm is brewing.  Queen Sophia has powerful Deryni at her back, and mummy lioness may be the one Malcolm should fear the most.

« Last Edit: November 22, 2015, 08:07:05 pm by Jerusha »
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Offline Laurna

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Re: Balance of Power--Chapter Twenty-Two
« Reply #4 on: November 22, 2015, 08:46:01 pm »
Oskar Leopold Richter.  That name alone will have the tabloids tap dancing with joy. And I am sure it will come as a shock to Heidi Richter that she has the duke's child.  LOL  of course, I doubt Malcolm will be amused when he discovers the ruse.

I like James considering that it was time he had a lady friend and is making an effort in that direction. Aderyn is a perceptive child. I do not think she will mind the pretty handsome for an old guy earl from making friends with her mother, not mind it at all.

Sophia and Violet had an interesting factual conversation. They, and we, learned a lot about how it all came to be. I had wondered if Arexalle had pretended to be pregnant at the time and I liked the idea that a glamour had been used when she went out into the public. I do not think there will ever be a public question as to Sophia's parentage. But I wonder what emotions were working under the words. Did our queen and mummy lioness depart with a hand shake or a hug and a kiss on the check? Is Sophia ready to let Violet into more of her world or will she hold back? I find I like Violet more and more.

Quote
Morgan Haldane led her onto the dance floor, moving her smoothly into the steps of the dance. For a few moments, Jeannie felt almost graceful, although she knew her newfound dancing skill was illusory; it was His Grace who possessed the skill to maneuver around her occasional bobble. At least she hadn’t managed to tread on his toes yet, for which she was profoundly grateful.

I did Victorian Ball room dancing for years. There was one gentleman, he was a wonderful dancer, he could make you feel like a ballerina when we did the Viennese waltz.  ***Sigh***
« Last Edit: November 22, 2015, 08:47:45 pm by Laurna »

Offline DesertRose

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Re: Balance of Power--Chapter Twenty-Two
« Reply #5 on: November 22, 2015, 09:00:51 pm »
Quote
Morgan Haldane led her onto the dance floor, moving her smoothly into the steps of the dance. For a few moments, Jeannie felt almost graceful, although she knew her newfound dancing skill was illusory; it was His Grace who possessed the skill to maneuver around her occasional bobble. At least she hadn’t managed to tread on his toes yet, for which she was profoundly grateful.

I did Victorian Ball room dancing for years. There was one gentleman, he was a wonderful dancer, he could make you feel like a ballerina when we did the Viennese waltz.  ***Sigh***

Imagine what your gentleman dancer could have done with the ability to link minds with his dance partner!  :D
"If having a soul means being able to feel love, loyalty, and gratitude, then animals are better off than a lot of humans."

James Herriot (James Alfred "Alfie" Wight), when a human client asked him if animals have souls.  (I don't remember in which book the story originally appeared.)

Offline Marko

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Re: Balance of Power--Chapter Twenty-Two
« Reply #6 on: November 23, 2015, 01:33:02 pm »
I see we're using the British Happy Christmas instead of the American Merry Christmas.  I liked the interaction between Aderyn and Lord Aliran, aka Lord James Arilan.  Yes, it would be hard to fit a pony down the chimney, let alone a horse.  Also, how many more days are there going to be in the story?  It's about to be Christmas day and 12th night is a big celebration.

Offline NavaWazr

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Re: Balance of Power--Chapter Twenty-Two
« Reply #7 on: November 23, 2015, 01:53:57 pm »
This tale is full of love stories. Sigh.

Please please please let Lady Violet live a long life, let her play with her royal grandchildren. Let Jeannie be the one who introduces the Corywn kids to technology. Let Jeannie invent a marvelous new VR game to help people learn to dance. I hope that Alesandra doesn't escape; she has wreaked enough havoc. We have not heard the results of the honeypots and traps Jeannie established. Or will we find out when Jen reads about Oskar...

I hadn't realized Aderyn was so young. I wonder if Aderyn will find a tiny stuffed pony in her Christmas stocking with directions to go to the stables for the real present because it was too big to fit down the chimney. Or because her mummy would not be happy cleaning up pony droppings from the hearth.

I appreciate these scenes of peace and joy at a time when Rhemuth Castle has been attacked, when there is so much sadness in the worlds of Gwynedd and Earth.
I realized that I wanted to be Deryni, would have loved to be another niece of Uncle Azim, perhaps living on a Fianna vineyard.... but I'm a never wazzer

Offline Elkhound

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Re: Balance of Power--Chapter Twenty-Two
« Reply #8 on: November 23, 2015, 01:55:23 pm »


Imagine what your gentleman dancer could have done with the ability to link minds with his dance partner!  :D

I took ballroom dancing in HS for PE.  I was pretty good at it, too.

Offline Evie

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Re: Balance of Power--Chapter Twenty-Two
« Reply #9 on: November 23, 2015, 08:42:41 pm »
Heh. Aderyn is precious there.

And Morgan, the consummate gentleman.

I enjoyed Aderyn's scenes and getting into her head.  :)

And Morgan is always a delight to write, even though I sometimes have to censor him.  :D

I love the dialogue with Aderyn and she seems to be quite a good judge of character. Maybe there is hope for James yet.

Morgan Haldane is too gorgeous to be allowed out (thank goodness he put his shirt back on)...poor Jeannie. She's lucky though that he is the gentleman that he obviously is.

A nice gentle interlude, I imagine some quiet romantic music playing as a background to this scene with James and Heather's and Dev and Sophia's themes ever so slightly beginning to interweave. The sinister theme is never far from the surface though.

Yes, Jeannie might not be so trusting of Deryni if her closest encounter with one was with some man less scrupulous than Morgan. Fortunately he is a gentleman, especially given her rather transparent crush on him!

I like the idea of them all having theme music.  Imagining swelling strains of John Williams' orchestral scores....  ;)

I so loved Aeryn's response to her "lady in watching."  So very astute.  Now will she receive a cat for Christmas or a pony?   :)

Working in IT would be so much more satisfying if it came with a resident Duke of Corwyn.  ;D

A nice interlude, but the storm is brewing.  Queen Sophia has powerful Deryni at her back, and mummy lioness may be the one Malcolm should fear the most.

If Aderyn ends up returning to her city flat, a cat would be much more convenient, though perhaps there's a larger permanent residence in her future.

Maybe working in IT might be slightly more satisfying if a picture of Morgan Haldane found itself taped to one's memo board or cubicle wall?  ;D

Oh yeah, Malcolm's still out there, isn't he? 

Quote
Oskar Leopold Richter.  That name alone will have the tabloids tap dancing with joy. And I am sure it will come as a shock to Heidi Richter that she has the duke's child.  LOL  of course, I doubt Malcolm will be amused when he discovers the ruse.

Let's hope Fraulein Richter never hears about her alleged child, or if she does, that she has a sense of humor about the rumor.  :)  As for Malcolm's reaction, I suspect if he's behind any breach in Corwyn's internet security, he or his crony is probably looking for something of more use to him than a story of Morgan's love life. Unfortunately.

I would love to learn how to ballroom dance someday.  Preferably with a Deryni to teach me, since it might take that to help me overcome my two left feet!  :D

Yes, it's "Happy Christmas" in Gwynedd, since I tried to pattern Modern Gwynedd more closely after the modern UK than the modern US.  It's not exactly like the UK, and in some respects is markedly different, but I wanted it to read like it was more British-feeling than American-feeling.  This story goes until New Year's Day. (And hopefully the last chapter will end up being posted around then as well.)

You're right, Nava, this is a fairly peaceful chapter.  There's a lot that has happened in just a few days, and the characters needed a little time to catch their breath (not to mention the author needed some time for character development).  But it might just be the calm before the storm....



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Offline Laurna

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Re: Balance of Power--Chapter Twenty-Two
« Reply #10 on: November 23, 2015, 11:01:30 pm »
I think that gentleman dancer could link minds. He was not as handsome as some of the men I use to dance with, but he was by far the best; a good waltz is like a whirlwind on top of a cloud. It is the one time in your life that as a woman you must trust the man to lead you safely around the dance floor; you have to let him be the driver and you just have to be a graceful element on his arm. A good dance partner will make sure you never run into anyone else and that you will never miss a step. It is a wonderful feeling. For 15 years I went to 4 balls a year and I got at least one, if not two dances, with that gentlemen every time. It was so much fun.

 

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