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The Fate of a Haldane Princess Part I

Started by Shiral, January 12, 2022, 01:44:45 AM

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Shiral

The Fate of a Haldane Princess
By Melissa Houle
December 1103
    
    By the time Christmas Court opened in December, Alaric had come to the resigned conclusion that his October Cardounet game with the King had all been a royal whim on a wet autumn afternoon. It seemed likely that when King Brion had time for a diversion like Cardounet, he would seek out players far more expert than Alaric himself.
   
    Nevertheless, shortly after Christmas, when a severe snowstorm ended all outdoor activity Alaric hastened to the royal apartments when the King summoned him for another Cardounet match.

          "Ah, Alaric!" the king called from the center of the room as soon as Godfrey had announced his arrival.  "Come over here, I want to show you something!"

   Alaric obeyed at once, noting the king appeared in high good humor. A richly dressed middle-aged man Alaric thought he recognized from the summer visit to Millefleurs stood beside the king. He looked as if he wanted to disapprove of Alaric's presence, but dared not say anything rude in Brion's presence. He managed a stiff nod in response to Alaric's bow in his direction.
   
         "Look!" Brion commanded proudly, opening a shallow, leather-bound box. "Will my future queen not look magnificent wearing this?"
   Alaric tried not to goggle at the magnificence of the emerald, gold and pearl necklace inside, but gave up and goggled. Not even the emerald necklace from the Corwyn treasury that he had sometimes seen his mother wear could match the enormous emerald at the center or the smaller clusters of emeralds set around it, the gleam of the pearls or the luster of the gold setting.

     "Her Highness will indeed, Sire," Alaric replied.  "It is magnificent."

    "An Epiphany gift worthy of a queen," Brion continued, sounding pleased with himself.   "The emeralds will nearly match the color of her eyes."

       He nodded to the man at his side.  "This is Comte Claude de Nogentel, the Bremagni ambassador. He has kindly agreed to personally deliver my gifts to Jehane." Brion closed the leather box, and handed it to Godfrey. Alaric recognized Bordan in the background as well. He was carefully smoothing the folds of a deep green velvet winter cloak collared in miniver—no doubt another gift meant for the Princess Jehane. An opened travel chest stood open on the floor before him.

"I confess Comte de Nogentel you are a braver soul than I to attempt a sea voyage at this time of year," Brion went on courteously. "But I thank you, as it will be the only way to make sure the Princesse Jehane receives my gifts to her in time for Twelfth Night at Rémigny."

   "I am blessed that my King has placed a galley and a skilled captain and navigator at my disposal Majesté," de Nogentel replied.  "Master Thierry has never yet failed to bring me safely back to port." He smiled a very thin smile. "But we have been a sea-faring people for centuries, and to us, a quick dash across the Southern Sea holds no terrors. But your gifts will no doubt console Princesse Jehane who must wait until spring before her betrothed dares to come claim her!" He gave an elegant shrug of one shoulder.  "Certain nobility in Rémigny have remarked that they would not keep a bride such as Princesse Jehane waiting!"

    "It would hardly be fitting if I set sail for Bremagne in a blizzard and ended up lost in the wider sea," Brion answered. "Or worse, drowned or shipwrecked, somewhere." He was smiling, but the ambassador abruptly shifted his weight as if uneasy. "Think how long delayed the wedding would have to be in that case."

     He waved a hand at the heavy falling snow out the window that reduced nearby buildings to vague, darker smudges in the whiteness.  "I very much hope your Master Thierry's sense of direction can help him navigate his way across the Sea in these conditions."

  "Peut-etre...he would wait a day or two before putting out to sea in this sort of storm," Comte de Nogentel conceded.  "But the conditions are far clearer down by Nyford, I'm told."

     "What a barbed tongue that Comte de Nogentel has!" Brion snorted after the ambassador had bowed his way out, leading a quartet of his own servants staggering under the weight of at least three chests laden with gifts for the King's betrothed.

    Brion turned to Alaric, shaking his head, gesturing toward the fireplace where his Cardounet board had been set up on the table.

      "All because I won't risk my life by sailing to Bremagne in the dead of winter!" Brion grumbled. "I ask you Alaric, would you set off for Coroth by sea on a day like today?"
   
       "No Sire. I wouldn't even ride to Desse in a snow storm like this."

   "I'm glad a Duke of my realm has the good sense to stay home in these circumstances.  I'll confess I'm none too fond of sailing even on a calm summer sea. I'm always conscious of how many things can go wrong, and even the sturdiest galleon feels about as much protection from the sea as bobbing about in a walnut shell.

   "Ah thank you, Bordan," Brion added nodding to his squire who had appeared with a pair of steaming goblets of mulled wine.  "Now then Alaric, let us see what you have learned since our last Cardounet game."

   Alaric again took his seat on the side with the olivewood pieces lined up, waiting to take his first sip of wine until Brion had his first swallow. If anything, it was even more delicious than the mulled ale he had tasted the last time he had played with the King. The wine and the fire were both welcome warmth from the penetrating December cold although he was wearing three layers, today.

   He gazed at the pieces before him, determined to play a game that would show that he had been carefully studying various strategies in the past two months. But they were only a few moves into the game before Alaric realized that Brion's attention to the board and developing game was far less committed than his own.  The King sometimes gazed at the fire or out the window for long periods before realizing that his turn had come again. And when it was his turn, he did not appear to care unduly about the long-term outcome of his moves.  Only an hour passed before Brion turned his attention to the game, frowning as he studied how Alaric had maneuvered his pieces around the ebony Priest-King, leaving Brion with no options for victory.

   "Zounds!" the King muttered, raising his eyebrows as he realized his plight. Then he laid his ebony King on its side and smiled across at Alaric. "Of all the cheek, Alaric! "But you won, fair and square. I deserve it for not paying better attention."
   
      Alaric smiled back, relieved Brion was not angry. He was nevertheless certain that his win would never have happened if Brion had played with anything close to complete attention.
"I did sense you had other matters on your mind than Cardounet this afternoon, my Lord," Alaric admitted.
   
     "A tactful way to say I played as if were away with the Sidhe today as they say up in Kheldour," Brion joked. 
      "But you are entirely too astute, Alaric. I had an infuriating encounter with DeNore on Christmas Day. I've been angry about it ever since. His Grace of Valoret informed me it was his high and mighty opinion that my sister Xenia ought to have been shut away in a Convent for the cure of her soul after that wretched business  last year, since she was clearly a wanton seductress."

   "He what?" Alaric stared at the King, open-mouthed at DeNore's daring.
   
        "Blamed the whole miserable situation on my sister, yes, not that I ever solicited his opinion about it. Especially not in public at Christmas Court! Thank goodness for Sir Jiri who managed to give me an excuse to end the conversation, because even when you are the King of Gwynedd, you cannot strike the Primate of Gwynedd across the face even when he deserves it."

   Brion fixed Alaric with a long look. "Alaric, you have often waited upon my mother and sisters at the High Table on feast days. Tell me honestly. Did you ever see Princess Xenia behave wantonly?"

   "No Sire, never!" Alaric took a deep breath. "Her Highness always appeared lively and high spirited to me. I know she especially enjoyed having a good time with people her own age. She was a great favorite with the squires and young knights, but she never did anything that damaged her reputation, or invited any of them to take liberties with her."
   
   Brion nodded. "That was also my assessment. Both Mother and that dusty old duenna of hers, Lady Megory, have always been strict with both my sisters. Xenia knew very well what was expected of her as a Haldane Princess, including setting a good example for Silke. Not that she didn't bend rules whenever she had the opportunity, but she'd never have deliberately disgraced herself or wounded Mother so deeply.

   "The more I've thought about it, the more certain I am that you were right about Sigismund using his powers to gain control of Xenia. It's the only explanation for her actions that night that makes any sense to me. Had she been at all in possession of herself, ZeeZee would never have left the Great Hall alone with Sigismund even for a moment, poor girl. She wouldn't have thrown her future away for the likes of him."

   "ZeeZee?"
   
       "Xenia," Brion amended.  "ZeeZee was what she called herself when she was little and couldn't yet pronounce her name. As luck would have it, the name stuck with the whole family."

   The King fell silent for a moment, and Alaric sat quietly and waited. Small wonder Brion had not been in the mood for strategic games, today.

   "I'm sure you noticed the Comte de Nogentel left here well laden with gifts for Jehane and her sisters?" Brion said at last.
   
       "It was rather noticeable yes, my Lord. Her Highness should be dazzled when your gifts arrive in Rémigny."

   "I should hope so!" Brion smiled. "I might not be there to see it, but it should impress both Jehane and her father that I am properly mindful of her. Mother even scolded me for my extravagance. She thought two trunks of gifts for my betrothed and her family was quite sufficient, even for Epiphany. But Devil take it, when else can I flaunt my rank and wealth if not to dazzle my future queen?"

   Alaric shrugged.  "I can't think of a more appropriate time, myself."
   
     "I think about all the happy fuss that must be centered on Jehane just now, what with all the preparations for the wedding," Brion continued.  "And how different our wedding will be from that poor, hushed up affair that was the only wedding we could give my sister. For a Haldane Princess to be married off to a minor foreign lord so quickly and quietly was an admission in and of itself that the circumstances were scandalous.

   "Xenia should have had her chance to be at the center of a happy fuss when the time came for her to marry. I know it was what she always dreamed of and what my mother has always wanted for both my sisters. ZeeZee would have reveled in being the center of attention, being married down at the Cathedral with a great wedding feast.  And above all, she should have had a worthy bridegroom of appropriate rank who appreciated the honor of marrying her!" Brion pressed his lips together tightly and shook his head.  "Sigismund took all of that away from her."

   "Damn Sigismund!" He  exploded, slapping both hands flat on the table, making the cardounet pieces wobble and clatter on the game board. He staggered to his feet and rested his elbows on the mantel, digging his fingers into his hair as he gazed down into the fire. Alaric shook off his surprise and hastily stood as well. He wasn't sure he needed to bother. Etiquette clearly mattered little to Brion just now.

      "I still cannot think of that whole wretched affair without heart-burning, Alaric! Twice her age, half her rank, and a member of a Torenthi Duke's diplomatic party, but Sigismund abused my hospitality by using his powers to seduce my sister to her ruin! He should have realized he had no business doing anything bolder than dancing with her. After Epiphany, he found ingenious little ways to taunt me with his diplomatic immunity knowing I would not start an open war with Torenth over his conduct! But I'll  confess to you now it was a nearer run thing than anyone imagined. Only Uncle Richard managed to stop me from doing something stupid and irreparable. He had to remind me every night that much as we all hated and regretted ZeeZee's fate, it still balanced very poorly against the prospect of a war with Torenth which we were simply not prepared to fight."

    "Was not honor served by the marriage, Sire?" Alaric finally dared to say after several heart beats of silence. The air between himself and Brion felt as charged as before a summer thunderstorm in the Lendour Mountains.

      "Honor! Perhaps, but nothing else," Brion muttered.  "I can't remember a time when honor has felt less satisfactory to me, and more like the last refuge of a coward. The whole family misses Xenia. Mother and I feel especially wretched about having failed her that night. That bastard stole her out of the Great Hall from under both our noses and had her alone long enough to have her virtue. And neither Mother nor I had any idea what was going on until it was very much too late. If Sigismund knew all that I wished him, he'd sleep with one eye open, even in Arkadia. If he had any idea how Mother feels about him, he'd hardly dare sleep at all."

    "I can't really imagine Her Majesty hiring an assassin, Sire," Alaric replied.

           Brion's expression lightened for a moment and he came close to smiling.  "Intrigue is hardly her natural inclination, I agree. Sigismund is lucky that in practical terms, she'd have no idea where she'd even start looking for an assassin to hire.  Nevertheless, we are talking about outraged maternal protectiveness. And there is no bear or wolf fiercer than a female protecting her cubs.
         
        "Mother always placed a tremendous store of love and pride in Xenia," Brion continued slowly.  "Her eldest daughter had no equal, as far as she was concerned. She was determined to find a brilliant match for her—perhaps see her as the eventual queen of some neighboring land. Sigismund was a disappointment to her on every possible level.

"As for my father, I think had he discovered Sigismund and Xenia in the circumstances in which I found them, I believe he would have taken Sigismund's head off on the spot, then accepted whatever consequences came from that.

     "He was a disciplinarian above all," Brion went on. "I know he loved us all, but if any one of us could be considered his darling, I'd wager my soul Xenia was that child to him. She could always make him smile and laugh, and he was never easily pleased or satisfied.

"So in addition to Sigismund smirking at me and dropping hints concerning his doubts about my manhood last winter, I had my father's voice in my other ear, asking me how I could have failed to defend my sister's honor so completely and why I was prepared to let Sigismund marry her for his cheek!"

      "I know Her Majesty urged your sister to consider taking the veil at the time." Alaric said slowly.

    "Oh that!" Brion  rolled his eyes and shook his head. "I repeatedly told Mother that idea would never work. Royal children learn that sometimes, doing our duty means being quiet and well-behaved in the background.  It also meant we had to attend some really endless religious ceremonies no matter what else we'd rather be doing. Xenia always played her part, if only because she knew there was no possible appeal.  But I know those times tried her soul—she has whatever one would call the opposite of a religious vocation.

     "Last winter she came to me in tears one night and begged me not to force her become a nun. So I intervened on her behalf.   I told Mother if Xenia was to have any chance of happiness in life, she was likelier to find it as a wife and mother than as a nun. ZeeZee herself would rather be consigned to a dungeon than a convent, and she'd have preferred facing execution to having that hair of hers cut off!"

      Brion sighed heavily "But that meant I had to give my sister to the last man I'd consider a worthy husband for her."

     "Has there been any further news of her, Sire?"

      "Yes, that's what has brought it all back so painfully lately," Brion answered.  "She sent a letter home for Christmas about a week ago. Normally ZeeZee would be bubbling with excitement about her first baby being due in less than two months. But her letter doesn't sound like her, at all. Mother is in a state, certain that Xenia is miserable but trying to hide it and I have to admit I'm worried, too. She included so little news of herself and wrote so little about her baby.

          "At first, she mentioned Sigismund often in her letters, then less, each time. In this last letter, she refers to him once as Sigismund by name  and once as 'my husband.'  I fear she has lost whatever illusions she had about him at the start."

       "Surely it's better not to live deceived by illusions, Sire?"

      "Normally I'd agree with you Alaric, but in her case, without illusions what has she got left? Xenia's barely eighteen, married to a stranger who regards her as a prize, but probably thinks less about her as a real and feeling person than I do about the pieces of my cardounet set. She's exiled from her home and family, really everyone she knows, while waiting for her first child surrounded by strangers in a land not her own. I know this has been a very hard, lonely year for her, Alaric. Xenia was more sinned against than sinning, but she paid a much higher price than Sigismund did."

         "I am sorry. Llion and I prayed for the Princess, Sire.  But I didn't have a good impression of Count Sigismund, either."

        "Thank you. Keep praying for her, if you've a mind, Alaric," Brion answered.  "There's little else we can do for ZeeZee, now. Perhaps when her baby comes, her spirits will rise. I pray that motherhood will bring her some joy and satisfaction."

           "I hope that it will, Sire."

            "And here I've spent the afternoon talking your ears off." Brion pushed away from the mantel, stretching both arms above his head to ease out the stiffness. "You know it's a strange thing about you Alaric, but I sometimes forget you are barely twelve. I mean it as a compliment. Speaking to you has given me some ease. I do trust that you understand what I've said must never go beyond this room?"

"I understand completely, Sire."
You can have a sound mind in a healthy body--Or you can be a nanonovelist!

DerynifanK

Poor Xenia. I always agreed with Alaric that Sigismund used his powers to take her. I understand what happened but I'm sorry Brion didn't deprive him of his head. Great story Melissa.
"Thanks be to God there are still, as there always have been and always will be, more good men than evil in this world, and their cause will prevail." Brother Cadfael's Penance

Laurna

Oh Aye- Brion should have deprived him of his Head! They went to war  two years after. Could Alaric have been ready to bring Brion to his powers this much sooner. That would have been the determining factor. I think Brion thought Alaric was still a little young.

Shiral Thank you for giving a bit a empathy from the royal family for poor Xenia. I always thought it was so cold for them to have sent her off the way they did. Honour Be Damned!
May your horses have wings and fly!

revanne

Such a powerful chapter. It's hard to see that Brion had any other option, with the Marluk waiting to pounce he could not afford to alienate Torenth, but desperate for them all.


I loved Brion's recognition of himself as "away with the Sidhe", is the expression "away with the fairies" used your side of the pond?
God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.
(Psalm 46 v1)

Jerusha

A compelling chapter.  So much insight into Brion's feelings; we often haven't seen enough of that.
From ghoulies and ghosties and long-leggity beasties and things that go bump in the night...good Lord deliver us!

 -- Old English Litany

Shiral

Quote from: Laurna on January 12, 2022, 11:49:04 AM
Oh Aye- Brion should have deprived him of his Head! They went to war  two years after. Could Alaric have been ready to bring Brion to his powers this much sooner. That would have been the determining factor. I think Brion thought Alaric was still a little young.

Shiral Thank you for giving a bit a empathy from the royal family for poor Xenia. I always thought it was so cold for them to have sent her off the way they did. Honour Be Damned!

They did go to war, but I had the impression that the battle was really instigated by the Marluk, pressing the old  Festillic claim to the throne of Gwynedd. Certainly the Furstans knew about it and they were on the Marluk's side, but I don't think the King of Torenth openly committed his own  army to fight for the Marluk's cause. He probably would have been glad to see the Marluk take back Gwynedd, but didn't like the risk of open warfare himself. The cost and the bloodshed would have been  daunting for BOTH Gwynedd and Torenth.  So....the situation was a single battle between the Marluk and Brion as representatives of the Festils and the Haldanes, rather than a full-blown, ongoing war between Gwynedd and Torenth.

Melissa
You can have a sound mind in a healthy body--Or you can be a nanonovelist!

DoctorM


Shiral

Quote from: revanne on January 12, 2022, 12:42:01 PM
Such a powerful chapter. It's hard to see that Brion had any other option, with the Marluk waiting to pounce he could not afford to alienate Torenth, but desperate for them all.


I loved Brion's recognition of himself as "away with the Sidhe", is the expression "away with the fairies" used your side of the pond?

The only reason I'm familiar with "Away with the fairies" is because of KK's adept books.  ;)
Melissa
You can have a sound mind in a healthy body--Or you can be a nanonovelist!