Whispers At Court

From Chapter One of WHISPERS AT COURT, Coming from Harlequin Historicals, June 2015

The Court of Edward III, King of England, at Westminster
November 1363

The minstrels’ horns signaled the beginning of a new dance. Cecily searched the room, hoping for rescue. She should join the dance with a partner who might become a husband, not with a hostage.

And the hostage had not offered his hand.

Well, then, if she were trapped, she would attempt to be gracious. She pursed her lips. “You are from the Oise Valley?”

A frown, as if the reminder of home had angered him. “Yes.”

“And do they dance there?”

“On occasion. When les goddams give us a pause from battle.”

She blinked. “The what?”

He smiled. “It is what we call the Anglais.”

“Why?” Did they wish to curse the English with every name?

“Because every sentence they utter contains the phrase.”

She stifled a smile. Her father, indeed, had been known to swear on occasion. She could imagine that he would have had many more occasions in the midst of battle.

 But she held out her hand, imperious as the princess could be. “If you can dance, then show me.”

“Is this part of a hostage’s punishment?”

“No,” she snapped. “It is one of his privileges.”

“Then, pray, demoiselle, tell me your name, so I may know my partner.” He shamed her with the reminder.

Anger had stolen all her senses. She was acting like a common serving girl. “Lady Cecily, Countess of Losford.”

The surprise on his face was gratifying. He looked at her uncovered hair and then glanced behind her, as if expecting an earl to be hovering close behind.

“I hold the title.” At once a matter of pride and sadness. She held it because the rest of her family was gone. Held it in trust for a husband she did not yet know.

His nod was curt, yet he held out a hand, without hesitation now, as if that had been his intention from the first.

Surprise, or something deeper, unfamiliar, stirred when she put her fingers in his. She had expected his hands to be soft, as so many of the knights’ had become now that war was over. Instead, his palm was calloused; his knuckles scraped. Wounds from today’s joust, she thought at first, but in the passing torchlight, she saw he carried scars of longstanding.

They joined the carol circle. On the other side, Lord de Coucy and the king’s daughter Isabella smiled and whispered to each other as if the evening had been prepared for their amusement. That man showed not a whit of resentment at his captivity, while beside her, de Marcel glowered, stubbornly silent as the music began.

They could not have been more unlike, these two.

Carol dancing, with its ever-moving ring of dancers holding hands, did not lend itself to talk. And he moved as he spoke, with precision, without excess, doing only what was necessary.

She wondered whether this man enjoyed anything at all.

Certainly he did not enjoy her. When the dance was done, he dropped her hand quickly and she let go a breath, suddenly realizing how tense she had been at his touch.

He stood, silent, looking around the Hall as if searching for an escape. And yet this hostage, this enemy could, if he wanted, lift a goblet of the king’s good wine, fill his belly with the king’s meat and his ears with sweet music played by the king’s minstrels, all the while alive and comfortable while her father lay dead in his grave.

“What did you do,” she asked, “to earn the honor of substituting for the other hostage?”

“Honor?”

“You were defeated in battle, you killed my…countrymen, yet the King welcomes you to his court where you have food and wine aplenty and nothing to do. It seems a generous punishment for defeat.”

“A prison with tapestries is no less a prison.”

“But you are safe. You may do as you please.”

“And if it please me to go home?”

And yet her father would come home no more. “You must pay some penalty. We conquered you!”

As the words escaped, she saw his expression change.

“No! Not conquered. Never conquered. We were betrayed by cowards. Lord de Coucy and I were not among them. We would have fought until the last goddam was dead.”

This time, it was a curse he hurled.

“So you hate the English,” she said. Blunt words, but he was a blunt man.

“As much as you the French,” he answered.

“I doubt that,” she said, sheer will keeping her voice steady. “But since you detest us and disdain the king’s hospitality, I hope your time here will be short.”

He bowed then, the gesture a mockery. “In that, my lady, we are in accord.”

 © Blythe Gifford, all rights reserved

 
Coming in June 2015

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Whispera At Court by Blythe Gifford
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February 2014

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