Thursday, April 17, 2014

Castles 99

99. In Down’s End

            The Dog of the Downs charged considerably less for rooms than Freeman’s House.  Amicia understood perfectly well why Kenelm Ash had relocated her to the Dog after Milo went to Stonebridge.  They had to make their money last.  More precisely: Amicia had to be married—in a union that would gain an ally for Aylwin, no less—before the golds were spent.  She was in a vice, and she could feel the pressure growing.
            Two days before, Eulard Barnet had taken her to a carpentry shop.  Neither Ash nor Barnet had asked her opinion.  She was to spend the afternoon with Alderman Barnet, ostensibly to learn something of his business.  She had to feign interest in carpentry, though the real purpose of the excursion was to put her on display.  Amicia had protested.  “By the gods, Kenelm!  What’s the point?  I need to marry an alderman, not some weaver or carpenter!”
            Ash had slapped her, hard.  The blow threw her to the floor.  “Damn you, girl!  Don’t you think I know that?  This was Barnet’s idea.”
            Amicia tried to quell her tears.  “I thought he was interested.”
            Ash extended a hand to help her up.  His green eyes showed tenderness out of keeping with his anger.  “He is, damn it.  But Barnet wants all the men he does business with to tell him how lucky he is to marry a noblewoman.”
            “Would they say that?”
            “No, but he will read it in their eyes.  This is important, Amicia.  You must impress these men.”
            And so—in the carpentry shop Amicia made herself express interest in the way a skilled craftsman could bond woods of contrasting colors into a single block.  The carpenter smoothed a gluey paste between boards of walnut and oak, and then squeezed the boards with clamps until the excess glue beaded out.  He explained that when the glue had dried the boards would be inseparable, as if they were a single piece of wood—like a man and his wife.  Eulard Barnet had laughed and touched Amicia’s shoulder.  Amicia felt her heart dying within her, but she had laughed prettily.
            Examining her reflection in a mirror—a very poor mirror compared with those in Hyacintho Flumen—Amicia asked the girl who looked back at her, “What will you look like in a year or two, after you’ve been clamped to a man?”  Her face had changed since Kenelm Ash brought her to Down’s End.  The shoulder length brown hair was the same, but the black eyes had seemed to retreat into their sockets.  She felt a pinch of pain in her abdomen.  In the last year she had come to recognize this as a sign her flow would start in a day or two.  She smiled bitterly.  Most likely, in two years I’ll look like a mother, whatever that looks like.  But Kenelm has yet to decide who the father will be.

            Amicia dressed carefully for sup.  She and Kenelm were to be guests yet again at Eulard Barnet’s house.  But this time, instead of riding horseback to Alderman’s Row, Barnet was sending a carriage to fetch her from the Dog of the Downs—a special occasion.  Amicia wore a green kirtle with elbow length sleeves, pale green hose, and a prized possession: a pair of white gloves.  A long winter coat would provide warmth until she reached Barnet’s house.
            The gloves made Amicia’s hands look elegant, thin and precise.  They reminded her of her mother, who had worn similar gloves on important occasions, such as when Erline Toeni brought Edita to Hyacintho Flumen to negotiate Edita’s marriage to one of Amicia’s brothers.  Lucia Mortane had welcomed the visitors at the high table, sitting in Lord Hereward’s place.  Lady Lucia wore gloves throughout the sup, and to Amicia’s mind, the gloves symbolized the elegance Lucia showed in speech and behavior.  Aylwin had been present, but Lucia negotiated the terms of the marriage.
Amicia wondered what Lucia Le Grant (her mother’s name before she married Hereward Mortane) thought when she first arrived at Hyacintho Flumen.  Lucia had never met Lord Mortane before that day, though they had been introduced via castle magic, she standing at her father’s side in Saltas Semitas, the home of the Le Grants.  Saltas Semitas was far to the north, lost in the vast expanses of the Great Downs.  Hyacintho Flumen had the river, the sea harbor, hills and valleys, and a bustling town; it must have seemed very different to Lucia.
 Amicia’s mind drifted to her sister-in-law, Edita.  In contrast to Hereward and Lucia, Aylwin and Edita hadn’t even seen each other before the Toeni women came to Hyacintho Flumen, since Amicia’s ailing father could not command Videns-Loquitur. 
            Remembering Edita brought a frown.  At one time, Amicia had wondered: Why did Mother make Aylwin marry a cripple?  And why did he agree to it?  It hadn’t taken long for her to see the role Juliana Ingdaughter played in the alliance between house Toeni and house Mortane.  Amicia felt a surge of sympathy for Edita.  Like her mother and like Amicia herself, Edita had been a marriage pawn.  But at least Edita and Mother live as nobles in a castle.  I will be the wife of a fat old banker or weaver.  Or worse: a tanner oozing with the smell of sheep dung.

            Besides Kenelm and Amicia, the Barnets (father and daughter) welcomed Todwin and Esile Ansquetil to their house, along with sheriff Wies Egnenulf and two other couples, friends of Ada Barnet.  It was a decidedly youthful party.  Eulard Barnet and Todwin Ansquetil were in their forties, but no one else was older than 25 (the horse-faced Esile Ansquetil being twenty years younger than her husband).  After sup came dancing to the music of a lute.  Ada led the way, dancing with first with her father and then every other man except Todwin Ansquetil, who politely declined.  Amicia danced rounds with Ada’s friends Herve Hain and Njal Rainer and once with Kenelm, but after that she retreated to a chair by the wall.  Eulard Barnet brought her a glass of wine and sat next to her.  Amicia sipped her wine very sparingly; it was almost bitter, not at all like the pear wine in Freeman’s House.  Ada Barnet danced on and on.
The banker rested his hand on Amicia’s left forearm, almost absentmindedly, as if reassuring himself she was there.  The lute player had started yet another song when Todwin and Esile Ansquetil walked over to Eulard and Amicia.  The banker stood up and Amicia did as well.  “I’m done in,” said Ansquetil.  He made a little bow to Amicia.  “Time for home.”
            Esile Ansquetil leaned close to kiss Amicia’s cheek.  “Next party will be at our house,” she whispered.  “We’ll get a chance to talk.”
            Still the dancing went on, even after the Ansquetils departed.  Barnet sat next to Amicia for two more songs.  He squeezed her arm, and Amicia turned to hear what he wanted to say.  But instead of speaking Barnet winked at her, stood up, and circled the room to sit by Kenelm Ash.  The lute player and the dancers obscured Amicia’s view of the two men, but she had little doubt as to the object of their whispering.  Amicia decided the bitter wine fit the occasion precisely; she should always remember this night by this taste.
At last Ada took pity on the lute player, whose fingers must have felt raw, and paid him for his work.  Herve Hain and Njal Rainer held the door for their dancing partners, Claire Bruce and Gunnara Durand, and they exited to the covered drive, where they climbed into Barnet’s carriage for a ride home.  When the carriage returned, it would bear Amicia and Kenelm back to the Dog of the Downs. 
Wies Engenulf took his leave with a dramatic bow to Alderman Barnet.  Ada let him kiss her goodnight at the door, but once he had departed Ada crossed the room to her father wearing a broad smile and shaking her head.
“Finally had enough?” Eulard asked his daughter.
Ada laughed and sighed.  “Aye.  Wies dances so beautifully.  If he had half the brains of Sir Kenelm here, I’d marry him on the spot.”  Ada inclined her head to Kenelm Ash.  “As it is, I must stop encouraging him.”  Ada swayed on her feet.  “I’m tired, and I believe I’ve had too much to drink.”
“To bed with you then.”
“Aye, Father.  But first!  Have you finally come to terms?”  She smiled broadly at Amicia.  “Surely she’s pretty enough!”
Amicia felt her face turn red.  She looked at the floor for what seemed like an embarrassingly long time.
Barnet touched Amicia’s chin, pulling her gaze to him.  “She’s more than pretty.  But whether we have come to terms is not for me to say.”

In Barnet’s carriage Amicia asked silent questions with her eyes, but Kenelm refused to answer.  Instead, he insisted on asking her stupid questions, comparing the dancing abilities of Herve Hain, Wies Engenulf, Njal Rainer, and Alderman Barnet.  Amicia brushed the questions aside, feeling a volcano of frustration growing in her.  But before the volcano could erupt, Kenelm pointed his finger at her and then slowly raised it until it pointed behind his ear to the front of the carriage.  Amicia realized that she could hear the carriage driver’s commands to his horses.  And if she could hear the driver…  Amicia let out a long sigh and began answering Kenelm’s questions.

Behind shut doors in The Dog of the Downs, Kenelm explained Barnet’s terms.  He and Amicia would marry in early spring.  Before then, Alderman Barnet would ask the Council of Down’s End to formally consider an alliance with Lord Aylwin Mortane.  Alderman Barnet would speak in favor of the alliance.  Barnet promised to support the proposal at every appropriate opportunity.  Amicia could keep as her own the golds Kenelm still held from Aylwin, and Barnet would supply her with a yearly allowance for her own expenses.  If and when Amicia bore Barnet a son, and if Barnet were to suffer ill health, Amicia and not Ada would be regent of Barnet’s estate until the heir came of age.
“He makes a few speeches—that’s all?”
            “Almost.  Raymond and I will return to Hyacintho Flumen.  Barnet is confident the Council will send Down’s End men with me.  The Down’s End Council must evaluate the siege for itself.  If we are to help your brother, you must spur Barnet to keep pressing the Council for action, and I and their men must bring back an encouraging report.”  Kenelm chewed his lip.  “It’s not good, but I fear it’s the best we can do.  In the morning you must give me your decision and I will tell Barnet.”
            As usual, Kenelm and Raymond Travers occupied the room adjacent to Amicia’s.  She knew that the knight and squire took turns standing guard outside her door through the night.  This night, after she folded away her clothes and the white gloves that reminded her of Lucia, Amicia lay in bed without sleep for two hours.  The vise was too tight.  She could feel it physically, a band of pressure on her chest.  Opposing the vise was an internal fire that burned hotter and hotter, but the fire did not diminish the pressure.  Finally she rose, opened the door, and stepped into the dark hallway.  Raymond Travers was at her side immediately.
            “My lady?”
            Amicia’s knees gave way.  She sank to a sitting position, with her back against the wall.  The squire sat beside her and put an arm around her shoulders.  She wanted to say something, but the words she wanted to say became great racking sobs.  The sound soon brought Kenelm from his room.  The soldiers helped her back into her room and shut the door.  She sat on the floor with her escorts on either side of her and wept for the life she had lost.  Amicia did not remember them putting her to bed. 
In the morning she felt cold, even under her blankets.  In despair she was ready to give Kenelm the only possible answer.  She poured cold water into a basin, wet a cloth, and washed her face.  She wrapped a cloak around her and opened the door.  To her surprise, there were three men in the corridor, waiting for her.
The newcomer bowed before Kenelm could introduce him.  He was medium height, with curly black hair and black eyes in a round face.  “My lady Amicia, my name is Felix Abrecan.  I bring you greetings from your brother, the Lord Commander Milo Mortane of the Stonebridge Guard.  Commander Mortane greatly desires that you come with me to Stonebridge to see him.”

Copyright © 2014 by Philip D. Smith.
All rights reserved.  International copyright secured.

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