“Why do you say us?” said Gus petulant glare to the letter. “It’s obviously just you he’s talking about. He doesn’t mention me once.”
“And if you’d stayed quiet and acted like the wart you pretend to be whenever I leave the house, none of us would have been the wiser.”
He opened his mouth to ask just what I meant by that, but Milly stuck her head out of the kitchen then with a mischievous cackle.
“It means I heard, and you’ve now got a date with little old me instead. Like hell I’m letting you get in the way of Lil’ hook’n up with the son of a duke, ho boy! It’s a tale for the ages!”
Gus looked like he had swallowed his own vomit.
I patted his head sympathetically.
“I assure you, I’m not going to be married when I come back.”
That didn’t seem to reassure him in the least.
Gus or not, I still got a free ticket out of the clutches of the bard poisoned inn.
On the morning of the day of the dinner, as I watched my own breath rise in the kitchen while hugging a blanket around my shoulders, Milly came in with something quilted and bulky in her arms.
“It’s not nobleman material, but you’ll be needing it in the coming days anyways.”
What she handed me was coat that fell down to my knees, puffy with wool stuffing, and quilted together from the rags of worn skirts she’d had over the year, so the fabric had been worn down to smooth softness.
“I’m sorry I couldn’t get it too you sooner,” she said, as the days had become chilly. “But I just finished it last night.”
No sooner had she finished than I had thrown myself on her in a hug. It was only by the grace of her stocky build that she didn’t fall down.
And it was. It was everything I wanted a coat to be but would have never been able to find in my old world. I could tell by looking at it how much time and effort it must have taken to make, and it brought me instant warmth when I pulled it on.
“A cloak would have been prettier,” she said, a little flushed and biting her lip. “But—“
“But not as maneuverable as this, and I am a working gal,” I finished for her with a grin. “Like I said, it’s perfect.”
Eager to test it out, I pushed Milly onto the stool in front of the fire and got to work making breakfast. I had been watching her all this time so I could help out in the cooking department and wanted to try my hand on it. I ended up burning the back of my hand and wrist on accident, but otherwise it turned out decently, and since Hal didn’t make some quiet remark on the flavor I did well enough.
I didn’t pay much attention to the burn. It hurt, but the great thing about work is that it’s the best way to distract yourself. I’d used it before and I could use it again, buwahaha!
I worked hard throughout the day, turned the other way when Gus pretended to trip and spill beverage on the bard, and had a great lunch watching chickens instead of studying, since Gus seemed to be giving me the silent treatment. I wondered how many more years of teen moodiness I’d have to put up with.
Then Milly hurried me inside for a bath in the kitchens. Thankfully, it was warm, and the scented soap soothing. She made me sit by the fire until my hair dried, then set to work on it. Despite the chill, I dressed in my white-lace dress they’d gifted me for the mid-summer holidays, since it was the nicest dress I owned. My new coat would keep me warm anyway.
Gus didn’t show head or tail of himself.
“It’s like I’m preparing you for your wedding,” said Milly fondly—and a bit loudly.
I rolled my eyes. “Why do you keep baiting him?”
“Because he’s being ridiculous. Goodness, your hair is soft.”
“I like your hair more. It’s thick and heavy, like satin ribbon. Can we get you prettied up too?”
Rather than dryly saying ‘for whom?’ like I would have in her shoes, she said, a smile clear in her voice, “Whenever you like. I got a set of flower broaches that could use some airing.”
“Oh, and we have to go out to the market and eat something, like a girl outing.”
“Sounds like a plan. Though I doubt I’ll be attracting any gazes standing next to you.”
“You’re supposed to be looking pretty for me, not anyone else, Milly. Shame on you, don’t you know you’re all mine?”
That made her laugh, which calmed whatever jitters I had for a moment.
But they came back when I saw the carriage standing in front of the inn, manned by a familiar square-jawed knight. Thankfully, he didn’t wear his livery today, but a more non-descript leather jerkin and off-white tunic.
However, the straight as a rail way he held himself and the crisp mannerisms in which he handed me up into the coach betrayed his simple disguise. He then stepped into the carriage with me and closed the door.
“It’s good to see you again,” I said.
He gave me an odd look. “Is it?”
“Well, you’re a friendly face. Better than seeing others…” I thought of the bard as I said so.
He didn’t say much during the trip. Most of my time was spent watching out the window and comparing the pros and cons of carriages verses cars. I didn’t mind the quiet. I’d never been one to be uncomfortable with a lack of conversation and the knight held no air of expectation from me.
The sound of the carriage wheels on the street and the clip-clopping of hooves made an ambiance that eased my nerves a bit. I tried to reason with myself that there was no reason to be nervous, because it was just a fancy dinner with some guy who had already told me he didn’t expect me to live up to his elaborate noble peep manners. I’d talk about lessons for Gus, we’d set up a time, call it good, and I’d come home to bed full of good food.
The carriage took us out of the dank streets of the city to the richer part of town near the temple. Then past the temple to a district I’d never been to, where the buildings gave way to gated manors with splendid grounds and beautifully well kept trees, decked out in their autumn splendor.
Awe mixed in with my apprehension when the carriage finally pulled up to what had to be the largest and more glamorous home, situated at the end of the clean, brick-paved street. It looked like something Mr. Darcy would live in, with a rounded turn about driveway that curved about an huge, elaborate fountain centered by a ivory mermaid. Columns held up a tall entryway that would give shelter for the carriages riding up. All along the driveway were carefully trimmed hedges, red with the fall, and giant, ancient trees that shaded the entire display.
The carriage came about to the front door, which had two men waiting in beautiful blue and red uniforms and black hair that looked as though it had been trimmed and styled with a ruler.
“One guy lives in that?” I couldn’t help but ask.
“It is also the estate that the royal family stays in when they come through,” said the knight—Sir Fairenson, for the record. I did know his name, thank you. “The rest of the ducal family are staying at the main estate a few days journey north.”
“They have another mansion?”
He was very amused by my reaction. “A castle, actually.”
“They have a castle?” I couldn’t help but squeak. “Oh my gosh, that’s so sick.”
His smile turned confused. “Sick?”
“Ugh, cool? Awesome? Impressive?” I seriously needed to brush up on my medieval slang.
Sir Fairenson got out first so he could give me his hand out like a proper gentleman. Even as I took it I could feel heat crawl up into my face as I realized what my patchwork coat must look like to the footmen at the door, who both looked like they had press ironed every inch of their uniform along with their mustaches. Even as I blushed, I also felt ashamed that I could be embarrassed of Milly’s hard work and sacrifice in the face of elegance that, in the end, didn’t really matter. At least not compared to the honest affection with which my coat had been made.
The double doors of the estate looked ready to eat me. They had shiny brass frames and artistically curving handles.
The footman opened them booth at the same time. I bet they had practiced that together. And there was another set of double doors behind that, these made of glass and more artful brass, opened by another set of footman.
I felt my jaw drop.
I didn’t have to look to know Sir Fairenson was grinning at me in amusement again.
Across an impossibly shiny floor of black and white marble, to a grand staircase I expected some royal princess to come down, stood the broad-shouldered figure of the duke’s first son, Romanian. It was as though he had been waiting for me there all along.
He raised his hands towards me from across the expanse.
“Welcome, Lady Strobelt, to the city home of the Dostuves.”