"So what ARE the ladies of Aperans wearing for hats nowadays?" I asked of my new chambermaid who hovered anxiously in the doorway to my bedroom.
I was seated before a large mirror, underneath which stood a table arrayed with all manner of silver brushes, combs, silk ribbons, nets and some really long pins that were sort of scaring me because I couldn't figure out what they were for. Also on the table was a wooden box. A box I was doing my best to avoid looking at.
"I'll go and get a few samples from the Wardrobe Mistress so you can see, your Excellency," the chambermaid replied, nervously bobbing a quick curtsy and disappearing.
Sighing in relief at her departure, I returned my gaze to the mirror before me. What was I going to do with my hair? Sure it had seemed like a fine idea to cut it short when I was at sea. A damn fine idea, really quite practical actually. But would I have sawed it off in frustration with my belt knife if I had ever thought I'd come back to Karteia, much less my family's home of Icehaven Keep? Would I had done anything differently if I had known it would be me succeeding to Icehaven County's throne instead of my brother? Yeah, I thought grimly, I probably wouldn't have left a forwarding address.
"Here do I swear homage to our Lord King..." I began once more. I really had to memorize this ceremony.
Unfortunately, I had a feeling that even though my hair had grown back almost to my shoulders, I wasn't going to be able to manage any of the elaborate coifs I remembered seeing on ladies at court years ago. Oh well, at least it wasn't that nasty carrot-color that it had been back then. I think you could definitely call it auburn now.
"And become His true vassal..."
When I left ten years ago, my father had been in excellent health and it seemed as if my brother would have to wait many years before accepting the title of Earl Icehaven. But the war changed all of that. After my brother died in a skirmish that took place over a year ago, my father apparently lost his will to live. It took six months for the letter his steward sent out to finally reach my ship, after being forwarded from Duchess Sedalia's Academy for Noble Young Ladies, the school my father thought I'd been attending.
"Pledging to defend, represent, and answer for all my people with honor and dignity..."
My plan, upon receiving the letter, was that I would return to Karteia only long enough to turn my family's lands over to the Crown, and then return to my newfound life at sea. After all, I had saved nearly enough money to buy my own ship, and I wasn't about to give up on the dream I'd held for ten years just to live the idle life of a noblewoman.
But something happened yesterday...something I still can't quite explain.
I awoke my first morning in Icehaven Keep in a decade still feeling the sway of the ocean rocking me gently in my bed. Even though I didn't plan to stay long, I decided it would be a good idea to take a jog around the area to try and get my land legs back. I dressed quickly in a loose shirt, pants, and leather jerkin and set out to "tour my lands" as I joked to myself.
At first glance, the port town of Icehaven looked the same as ever. There was the fishing fleet at harbor as it always was during the winter; the women smiled politely as I passed them going about their daily chores. A few even recognized me as I jogged past and curtsied, but this made me feel strange and I hurried by with a smile and a nod.
Gradually, I noticed that the fleet looked like it had been at harbor for a hell of a lot longer than a few winter months. Most of the taverns that the men patronized this time of year were boarded up. And although the women seemed friendly, there was a strain about their mouths and eyes that I hadn't noticed before, especially when they looked at their children. Their children weren't laughing and playing like I remembered, but were instead either working alongside their mothers or sprawled next to them in exhausted slumber.
I stopped running suddenly, right in front of Edric's Pastry Palace. I couldn't catch my breath! Dammit, coming home wasn't supposed to be this way! Dad was supposed to be here, saying how proud he was of me and that he was so sorry he had never let me be myself! At the very least, my brother Kiril should have been here to take over the responsibility for these poor people. It wasn't supposed to be my job!
I felt moisture on my face, and realized I was sobbing right there in the middle of the street. How mortifying, I hadn't cried in years! I sobbed even louder. Suddenly I felt a hand on my shoulder, and another on my head, and someone, I don't remember who, gently wiped my eyes with a clean rag.
"There there, dearie," I heard the voice of Mrs. Fitz-Roberts, the pasty-maker's mother. "It's hard on you, we know, losing your Da and your brother like that, so close together. We miss them too, but we know you'll do a good job as our Countess."
"Yes, Lady," her small grandson added, "we know you'll help us get through this war, and get our Da's back and all. And we'll help you with whatever you need. And," he whispered loudly in my ear, "any time you wanna talk about it, you just come to my house. I know what it's like to lose a dad and a brother."
I stared at him, momentarily stunned. He smiled solemnly back at me, actually thinking that I was mourning the loss of the family that never cared about me instead of bemoaning the fate that left me responsible for a land and people I'd never given a second thought to in a decade. I looked around at the smiling and hopeful faces. Women, children, and a few old men had gathered in a small crowd. Not to stare or mock, but to help in any way they could. Because I was their Lady, their Countess. And they were...my people.
"To administer them and the affairs of this County with the same justice which the King would tender..."
And so now I sit before a polished silver mirror, laced tightly into a fur-trimmed, cobalt-blue silk gown, trying to memorize the words to the ceremony that would bind the land and the people to me, and in turn bind me to my Lord King as his vassal. Or rather, to his son, since apparently King Sarris was in some kind of coma.
"To serve and honor our Lord King in all matters concerning this Realm..."
I wondered if Dirk, or I suppose His Highness now, remembered me. I used to play with the younger Blackpools back when we were children, along with some of the other noble's offspring. We never got tired of dressing up and using broom handles as swords! My father made me stop after about the fifth time I got my knuckles whacked; he said it was going to destroy my hands and then who would marry me? That was about the only time he ever noticed me, come to think of it, was when I might be doing something to ruin my chances of making a good political marriage.
"And to guard His rights with all my strength..."
Although swordsmanship lessons had been out of the question, at least my father didn't object to target archery. A genteel, lady-like enough sport, unless of course you're sneaking off to secret practices wearing full armor and gauntlets! Those Blackpool boys were always better than I at melee combat, but no one in all of Karteia was a better shot with a bow. I'll never forget Dirk's face when I beat him that first time. And no matter how often he practiced, I would practice more. I wonder if he's caught up to me yet?
"Until He depart from His throne, death take me, or the World end. So say I, Ristil MacCathail, Countess of Icehaven."
As I finished the last words of the ceremony, my chambermaid returned, carrying some of the most god-awful headcoverings that I, in all my travels, had ever had the misfortune to see.
"You're kidding me, right? They WEAR these!?"
"Aye, my Lady, they do," she nodded earnestly.
"I don't even think I'd even be able to stand upright wearing one of those," I said, shaking my head. "It's bad enough that I can't raise my arms in this off-the-shoulder nightmare, and let's not even DISCUSS the stupid shoes. No, I just can't, I don't care how fashionable they are. I guess there's only one alternative."
Sighing, I picked up a snood made of gold net and pearls, and slipped it on as best I could over my hair, somewhat disguising its length. Then, I reached for the wooden box and opened it.
Inside glittered my mother's coronet. It was as beautiful as I remembered. Six points, each one decorated with a raised scallop that cradled a blue moonstone (which were rumored to protect the wearer from all direct sorcery) except for the front point, where two seahorses faced on either side a larger moonstone. A fitting headpiece for a countess whose keep overlooked the sea. I put it on.
"My lady!" exclaimed the chambermaid softly (I really was going to have to learn all their names!)
I looked in the mirror, and my jaw dropped! That was not me. It couldn't be. The woman in the mirror was almost...pretty. She certainly looked like she belonged at court. Maybe I really could do this.
"Oh, your Excellency, you're beautiful," she beamed. "I just know you're going to make a good impression on - " and here she sighed, " - Prince Blackpool!"
Oh gods, I had completely forgotten about how that guy could make women turn into even bigger simpering idiots than they usually were. I mean, sure he was good looking and all, and ok, maybe I used to have a TINY crush on him, but really! Nobody was handsome enough to warrant the kind of idiocy this man seemed to cause just by breathing.
I took a deep breath, or tried to anyway, my dress was laced so very tight. "I can do this," I said out loud, and turned to go downstairs where the carriage waited to take me to Castle Blackpool.
And then promptly tripped on my train, ripping the hem and sending my coronet rolling and myself sprawling!
I cursed loudly in three languages, much to the dismay of my maid, who rushed to help me up. I quickly grabbed the coronet, examined it for damage, and slipped it over my arm.
"Come one, grab your sewing kit and let's get the hell out of here. I want to get this over as soon as possible," I said to my chambermaid, trying not to notice the shocked look on her young face. I really was going to have to do something about my mouth.
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