Port Town was small, more a handful of docks that houses and businesses popped up around. The quaint little buildings were made of stone and stucco—the sea warped wood too easily this close to the shore and it was expensive to keep replacing. Medroni said the tavern was decent, but Catori wasn’t exactly free to check it out herself. She’d given up that life by marrying Doran.
The wide main road led from the cliff to the docks and was well-paved, as were several other slightly smaller streets, and though the tournament wasn’t held in the center of the town, Doran and Catori paraded through the streets together on their way to the tournament grounds. Tamara and Eustine walked just behind them and Anisa came after with Torin in her arms. Brenden and his nanny walked beside her, and guards were arrayed around them for protection.
Catori thought it more than a little ridiculous to be paraded through the town. She wasn’t any better than these people—hell, she’d lived worse than some of them for much of her life. But as Doran’s wife, it was expected of her and she fell in with him without complaint despite the urge to roll her eyes. The locals peered at her and craned to get a better look at the high lord’s new wife.
Catori certainly didn’t look like one of them anymore. She’d dressed in a beautiful taupe gown with gold and cream embroidery and pearls all along the plunging neckline. It clung to her figure and the hem trailed behind her over the stone street. Her hair was curled and pinned and cascaded over her shoulders, and pearls dangled from her ears and decorated her hair. Catori felt entirely overdressed, but she was no more so than any other lady.
Doran led Catori past the already crowded tournament grounds to a raised wooden box overlooking a large square field, marked by wooden posts on the ground. The crowd of commoners were ushered to one side, while the other side was reserved for Doran, Catori, and their guests. Thick, cream linen was fastened over their box to shade them—the commoners stood in the sun.
Ser Kent rose to greet them with a broad smile. “Lord Spicer! You made it! A splendid idea you’ve had.” He and Doran clasped arms and Doran murmured his greetings. Ser Kent turned to Catori and his smile widened. “Lady Spicer, you’re more beautiful every day.” He took her hand and pressed a light kiss to the back of her fingers.
Much as Catori liked the knight, she fought the urge to roll her eyes at his showy greeting. Instead, she smiled and laughed as though he’d delighted her. “You’re always so kind, Ser Kent.” She turned to look out over the crowd of commoners across the field. “You’ve a good many citizens in your town.”
“Aye, we’ve had many sailors settle here, take up business.” Ser Kent gestured to the seats reserved for them and they sat down together. “The tavern is bustling with activity all day and night, and many fine women come to ply their… wares,” he finished, careful not to upset her. “Plenty of fishermen, too, and lots of fine families settle here to work on your properties and in your household.”
Catori chose not to mention her familiarity with prostitutes. She’d befriended a few in Citash and while she thought Ser Kent would be amused by it, the story wasn’t one she needed floating around. Instead she kept her smile in place and nodded along like a good, polite wife. “A good Mennosi town, then. As strong as its leader.” Men always liked their strength praised.
Ser Kent beamed at her.
A small seat was provided at Catori’s side for Brenden, undecorated and raised just high enough for him to see the grounds. He wiggled beside her, full of excitement for the tournament, and craned his head to look up at Catori. “What’s first? Is Uncle Leford first?”
“I don’t know, sweetheart,” she said. “This is the first time I’ve been to a tournament like this.”
“Come here, Brenden,” Doran called. Brenden scrambled out of his seat, and Doran lifted him into his lap easily and gestured to the field. “Your mother fights differently, but I know tournaments. Would you like me to tell you a little?”
Brenden’s eyes lit up and he nodded. Doran held him close with one arm wrapped around his midsection, and proceeded to point out all the different areas on the field. “Every tournament starts with part of a joust,” he explained. “Where knights and lords test their skills with a lance in a series of games.”
As Doran spoke, the knights began to pour out, announced by a crier by both name and lord served—or in the case of those like Lord Mantell, introduced only by name and title.
The horses kicked up dirt as they rounded the field and pranced beneath their riders. They chomped at their bits, eager to run, and Brenden’s face lit with the kind of wonder only children could muster. None of the knights wore armor yet, but were clad in the colors of their families, or those they served. Leford was easily spotted among them in pale blue and bright yellow. Each paused before the raised box to greet them and Catori laughed as Leford’s horse pranced up to them.
As Leford reigned in his horse, Catori rose—she’d already made up her mind to grant him her favor. She had every right to, though it didn’t seem anyone expected her to do so. Even Leford looked surprised to see her stand, but he lowered his lance for her and Catori tied a gold and deep blue silk scarf around the end. He removed her favor with a flourish and a grin and tied it to his doublet, then dug his heels into his mount. They leaped forward, kicking up dust as they raced around the field.
Catori was trembling from the exhilaration of so many eyes on her when she sat down again. There were many reasons for someone to give favors to a participant and many weren’t necessarily romantic in nature, but she had a feeling people would wonder anyway.
Doran seemed to have the same thought. As she slipped her hand in his, he turned toward her and tilted her head to give her a soft kiss. His lips were warm and inviting as always and Catori smiled under the kiss. Doran smiled, too, when he pulled back, and he lingered long enough to whisper to her.
“Could’ve warned me we’re favoring Leford. I’d a mind for Lord Mantell, instead.”
“Only because you want to cement him as an ally.”
“And Leford is, I think, already cemented. Thank you for that.” He kissed her cheek and his smile widened. “It doesn’t really matter. How do you feel, my lady? Giving your favor to a knight for the first time?”
Oh, she’d given more than just her favor to a knight.
The thought went through her mind faster than a sneeze and she heaved a feigned, put-upon sigh. “You’re teasing me again. You know I don’t like being teased for my title.”
“But it’s so fun.” His voice was mild as though he were only commenting on the weather. “Now. Do you have any idea what’s going on in this tournament?”
“Not a clue.”
He chuckled and brushed his thumb over the back of her hand. “I’ll tell you, then. Should’ve listened when I told your son, though.”
Catori listened to Doran as the tournament began. Each rider rode through the tests and gathered points to be tallied at the end. Judging by the cheers of the crowd, Leford was favored to win. His mount pranced and snorted, made lively by the noise, but Leford kept him in check with ease. It wasn’t until Lord Mantell rode that anyone seemed able to challenge Leford. His mount was fast and just as lively and he at the very least matched Leford’s skill with a lance.
While the joust was interesting, Catori was more interested in the melee—she was, as Doran liked to point out, a creature of habit.
There was a short period between events and Torin began to cry a few moments in. She hurried to the nanny to take her son, and Torin’s cries faltered at the sight of her.
“He’s hungry,” she said. “I’ve got it.” Torin turned his head and snuggled against Catori’s neck as she carried him back to her seat. He made soft cooing sounds in her ear, making her smile widen as she sat beside Doran’s empty seat—he’d gone off with Ser Kent to talk to Lord Mantell and left the guards at her side.
It was unusual for Torin to be out in public at his age. Most births weren’t officially announced until the child reached two years of age, so Torin was kept out of sight of all but their closest friends and family—except for the tournament. Catori had no intention of spending an entire day away from her newborn.
Torin was still suckling when Doran and Ser Kent returned and Doran’s gaze softened at the sight. He sat down and leaned over to cup his son’s head with one hand. Torin’s gaze shifted to his father and he stopped nursing to study him. He released Catori and wiggled in her arms, cooing up at Doran with a gummy grin.
Doran was incredulous. “He recognizes me?”
“Of course he does.” Catori guided Torin back to her breast and he latched on. “He sees all of four people, he’s bound to recognize you.” She laughed at Doran’s somewhat awe-struck expression. “Did you think I didn’t know you sit with him at night? That you’ve risen to soothe him when you thought I was asleep? Not to mention all those times you hold him during the day. Thanks to Torin, I see more of you than I did when I was pregnant.”
Doran chuckled and kissed her temple. “I like holding him.” They were quiet for a moment, watching their son together, until cries went up from the crowd. “Look, the melee is starting.” He gestured to the field with one hand.
Squires too young to enter carried out the banners of their knights and lords and each one was again introduced by the crier. Each man was armored, including Herald, who stood out amongst the men as the tallest and bulkiest. A few of the squires who’d entered gave him nervous glances; even a few freeblades eyed him with apprehension.
His muscular bulk proved to be the end, so to speak, of many knights and squires. Herald was an immovable mountain of fury and Catori grinned at the sight of him barreling through his competition. The crowd seemed to love him, too, until Lord Mantell quickly dispatched him. Herald had fought several times already, but Lord Mantell was fresh and by the look of it, had more skill.
Herald didn’t seem to mind. He nodded and bowed to Lord Mantell after their fight. “Mantell good,” he said. His voice carried on the wind and Catori laughed. “Herald like.”
Lord Mantell seemed amused by the half-orc’s approval, but he was polite as they left the field.
Leford did exceptionally well in the melee. He carried a morning star with a long, deadly spike on the end and three rings of spikes around the ball. The weapon, as all others, was spelled to prevent a killing blow from doing much damage, but the sight was brutal and Leford wielded it with ease.
Catori had never seen him fight before, and as with most fights that caught her interest, she sat forward to watch eagerly. Torin cooed in her ear and snuggled against her shoulder and she held him close, but her eyes were trained on Leford whenever he fought.
“You’re restless.” Doran’s voice was quiet and mild.
She let out a soft laugh. “I miss fighting.”
“Be happy there’s no real reason to fight right now,” Doran said. “You’ll have plenty of chances in the future, I’m sure.”
Catori glanced at him, a little confused, but her husband gazed at the field. A sharp metallic clang and a roar from the crowd drew her attention and with a groan of dismay she realized she’d missed Leford’s killing blow. She sat back, a little disappointed, and busied herself with Torin.
The final event of the tournament was the second half of the joust, in which participants rode against each other. Catori let Anisa take Brenden to see Leford, but she stayed in her seat with Torin who was fast asleep in her arms by then. Doran again left his seat, but this time she could see him standing with the lords from the Sun and Seas Company. As she watched, Lord Delmar and Lord Vinson both nodded and broke off in a hurry, but she could make out nothing more.
The final joust began with a series of knights Catori didn’t care to know. Their horses were armored and arrayed in bright colors and the knights wore thick armor along with their shields to protect them from the lances. Not a sliver of skin was visible. It was exciting to see the great destriers spin in place and launch down the tilt while their riders lowered their lances. The lances landed with a loud crack that startled Torin and set him crying; even Brenden looked jarred by the sound.
Catori soothed her son as best she could while the riders readied themselves. They switched out their lances for new ones and double checked their armor, and by the time they wheeled around to race down the tilt, Catori had Torin quieted again. The next crack made Torin whine and almost begin crying again, but Catori’s soft voice in his ear seemed to pacify him.
The final joust was Lord Mantell against Leford. Lord Mantell had taken the first joust, but Leford won the melee and whoever won this joust would win the day. Catori, however, was out of her seat several yards away trying to soothe Torin.
“Damn it,” she grouched. “I wanted to watch.” She sighed and turned back to the field, barely visible from her new position. Catori could see Leford’s mount wheeling around in a blur of blue and yellow to race down the tilt and the sound of the lances breaking was audible from yards away, but it wasn’t so startling for Torin at this distance. Catori strained to see, but a large portion of the tilt was hidden by the box seats.
“I think you’d rather participate,” Niro said.
Catori grinned at him. “Not in the joust, but the melee, definitely.”
He smiled, but it was faint. “This isn’t real fighting. Just an excuse to show off.” He nodded at her with a pointed look. “These knights only play. They don’t fight like we did. Like the arena.”
Catori fell silent. Niro was right—the tournament was nothing like the arena. This was a show of wealth and power, a chance to show off with little danger posed—with the odd exception, of course. But the arena was a bloodbath. She remembered the way the crowds screamed for blood, the way it felt to slide her blades deep into exposed flesh, the way blood felt running down her face. She’d bathed in both the blood and the crowd’s adoration of her.
Another crack sent the crowd into an uproar. Lord Mantell came into view with the end of his lance shattered, but it seemed he lost. It was Leford who took a lap around the field with his broken lance held in the air.
“Looks like Leford wins the day.” Catori turned towards Niro and gazed up at him. They rarely had a moment alone, so it was as good a time as any. “I saw the necklace you gave Anisa.” Niro’s attention shifted to her at once, curious and a little wary. “Quite a beautiful gift.”
Niro glanced away and nodded. “Lord Spicer gave me an advance to purchase it.”
“I have a feeling this is unwarranted,” Catori said, and studied him with a keen eye. “But Anisa’s been hurt badly already. I suggest you ensure it doesn’t happen again.”
Niro’s mouth twitched into another faint smile. “Is that a threat, Lady Spicer?”
Catori didn’t return his smile. “No. But I underestimated you once, Niro, and I won’t do it again. That is a threat.”
Instead of looking unnerved or angry, Niro’s smile widened. “I’d never hurt her. I feel driven to protect her.”
Catori eyed him. Niro was relaxed at her side, but alert. He recognized their friendship, but he still managed to place Catori in a position of respect given the distance in their station. More intriguing was the sparkle in his eyes, the way his expression softened and his voice gentled when he spoke of Anisa. Catori knew she was right about Niro.
She nodded and finally smiled again. “Good. Then we share a common desire. It’s one of the reasons I picked up a sword to begin with.” She hefted Torin against her shoulder, quiet without the sound of the shattering lances, and started back to Doran. “We should return. There’s yet another feast to attend, now.” Catori heaved a put-upon sigh, but smiled at the sound of Niro’s amused chuckle behind her.
Eleven women were piled into Catori’s study and soft, feminine laughter drifted on the air. Most visiting lords were married, which meant their wives joined them for a winter at the Spicer villa and in some cases, their children, too. Much of the room was cleared the day before in preparation for the party and another lounge was moved in to accommodate the women. The terrace doors were thrown open to welcome the sunlight and crisp sea air, and Evie stood ready with several servants to serve the women whatever they’d like. Catori’s hope was that the informal and intimate setting of her study might help the women relax away from their husbands and families.
Lady Cecilia was entirely at ease, as usual, and settled herself in the middle of all the women. Her laughter filled the air and as Catori entered the room from a brief trip to check on Torin, Lady Cecilia insisted she join her.
“Come! Please, I adore everything you wear, you must help me with my dress.”
“I’m not very good with fashion,” Catori said, though she did join Lady Cecilia. “Anisa’s the one who helps with my dresses.”
Anisa sat a little apart from the ladies in a comfortable armchair, her hands folded in her lap and a polite smile on her face. She looked about as nervous as Catori felt—she held no title and it was obvious she didn’t think she belonged. She kept her eyes lowered and avoided looking any woman directly in the eye.
In some circles, Anisa wouldn’t be welcomed, but not every rich woman in society had a title. Wealthy merchants paved the way for their wives to rub elbows with nobility—much like Doran’s family had before being titled. But that didn’t apply to Anisa, either. All she had was Catori.
Lady Cecilia didn’t care. She laughed and turned her radiant smile to Anisa. “Wonderful! Could you help me? Catori always looks so beautiful!”
Anisa glanced between Lady Cecilia and Catori and her mouth dropped open, but she hesitated.
Catori rushed over her. “She’s here for a dress as well. Anisa’s my oldest friend and she’s got a lover to impress now.” Catori gave her a reassuring smile and did her best to ignore the flicker of unease in her stomach. “She’s done a lot for me the past few years, so I’m helping her this time.”
Lady Cecilia’s eyes widened. “Oh! I didn’t mean—I know she’s not here as a servant,” she gasped. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to offend!”
“It’s alright.” A watery smile crawled across Anisa’s face. “You didn’t offend. I don’t mind helping.”
Shit. This wasn’t going to work. Lady Cecilia relaxed with Anisa’s assurance, but Catori sat nervously at the woman’s side. The other women didn’t seem to mind Anisa’s presence, but they made little effort to engage her, other than to ask her advice on dresses. They were polite, but didn’t know how to interact with her—Anisa wasn’t one of them.
Once the seamstresses were ready for them, the ladies rose and began to pick out fabrics and discuss different designs. One by one they crossed the room and Catori smiled as they left, then shifted closer to Anisa.
The ladies were having none of it.
“Lady Spicer! Come, you must see this!” Lord Delmar’s wife, Lady Ceri, beckoned to her with a wave of her hand and a wide smile.
Catori flashed a smile and nodded. “I’ll be right there,” she called. Catori turned back to Anisa and slid her hand into her friend’s. “Join me?”
Anisa glanced away. “I shouldn’t. It’s not my place.” Her free hand fidgeted with her dress and when she smiled at Catori finally, it was pained, more of a grimace than a smile. “I’m not one of them and I never will be. But you are.” She squeezed Catori’s fingers and reinforced her smile, but it didn’t reach her eyes. “This is your world now, Catori. There’s no place for me.”
Catori’s heart seized. It was hard to see her friend so sad and the unfairness of it stung. Anisa was just as good as these women, if not better. Catori was no different than Anisa, either, but her husband and her new title gave her a quick ticket into the ranks of the elite.
Well, if her new station gave her anything, it was at least a minor amount of pull. What was more, this was her house, and Catori could use both to her advantage.
She set her jaw in determination. “Your place is with me.” Despite the anxiety in the pit of her stomach, her voice was firm. “And I’m not going to let you fall by the wayside. Come on, with me.” Catori rose and pulled Anisa to her feet, then steered her towards the group of women with a bright smile in place.
Lady Delmar, a slight woman of twenty-seven and just as lively as Lady Cecilia at her side, bent over some fabric and motioned them over excitedly.
“Come, look at this fabric! It’s so beautiful.” Lady Cecilia held up a portion of it for them to see. “Look at the color! And feel it, it’s exquisite!”
Catori and Anisa both reached out to touch the fabric. It was a deep, midnight blue, shot through with silver thread to make it shimmer. Catori half expected the silver thread to give it a rough texture, but instead it felt soft and cool to the touch—sleek like silk, but smooth and soft like velvet.
“Gods,” Anisa breathed. “This was made with spellthread, wasn’t it?” Her eyes widened, and she yanked her hand from the fabric like a scolded child.
“I have more like it,” said a seamstress. “Some purples over there, and lighter colors, too.”
Catori winked at Anisa. “Perhaps purple for you. To go with your necklace.”
As soon as the words left her lips the door to the study opened and a servant hurried to Catori’s side to whisper in her ear.
Catori nodded as the servant stepped back. “I’ll be right down.” She turned back to her guests. “It seems Lord and Lady Kirislan have returned,” she announced, a fake smile plastered on her face. “Please, excuse me while I greet them. Continue, I’ll see if I can get Lady Kirislan and Lady Isolde to join us.”
Someone in the group let out a dismayed groan and the women burst into tittering laughter. Catori had to hide her amusement as she left them—it was comforting to know she wasn’t alone in her dislike of Lady Kirislan.
Doran met her as she reached the staircase and they descended together. “Greeting Lord Kirislan?” he asked.
“It is my job.” Catori gave him a bright, fake smile.
Doran chuckled and slid his arm around her waist as they reached the bottom of the stairs and a sudden, warm smile appeared on his face. “You’re getting better at it. And getting better with your affectation.”
“Ooh, you certainly know how to compliment a woman,” she purred. “I’m getting we—Lord Kirislan, so good to see you again!” The doors opened halfway through her sentence and Catori was at once all smiles and warmth. Doran was right, she was getting better. “Please, come in! You’re just in time, I’m throwing a little party for the ladies staying with us this winter.”
Lord Kirislan raised a brow at her. “A party?”
“Yes, we had a tournament for the men and I’m having a dress party for the women, in preparation for the new year feast.” She turned her smile on Lady Kirislan and feigned a measure of excitement. “A number of ladies are attending, perhaps you and Lady Isolde would like to join us? I’ve had seamstresses and a jeweler from Hagia Sorva travel north especially for this occasion. You’ll find no better!”
Yes, she was definitely better.
Lady Kirislan’s upper lip twitched, as though it couldn’t decide whether to smile or sneer. “Hagia Sorva’s seamstresses are decent quality. And we will need proper dresses for the feast.” She inhaled sharply, then nodded once. “We would be honored to join you,” she said, stiff and formal as always.
“Wonderful!” Catori again turned to Doran and Lord Kirislan. “I hope you’ll excuse my absence, but I must return to the ladies.”
“By all means.” Doran stooped to give her a sweet kiss. “Lord Kirislan and I can talk, and you can ensure all the ladies in the villa are superbly dressed.”
Catori’s face was beginning to hurt from smiling so widely, but she reinforced it as she turned back to Lady Kirislan. “Would you like to freshen up a bit first? Your rooms are still reserved for you and I can have you shown to my study afterward.”
“No.” Lady Kirislan’s voice was clipped and she lifted her chin. “Isolde, with me.”
Lady Isolde stepped up to her mother’s side, quiet and solemn, but her dark eyes fixed on Catori with a hint of curiosity.
Catori beckoned to them both as she turned for the staircase and her smile vanished; her mood was dropping already. Lady Kirislan’s appearance meant it was harder to include Anisa. Catori needed to pay extra attention to Lady Kirislan to ensure she wasn’t insulting her. If Doran wanted Lord Kirislan as an ally, Catori wouldn’t mess it up for any reason.
The nursery door opened down the hall as they headed towards the study and Brenden’s head popped out before he scurried down the hall to greet his mother. He wore the sweater Doran knitted for him and he raised his arms to Catori.
“Mama! Are you done? Can we play?”
“No, not yet, sweetheart.” Catori paused to kneel by his side and kiss his cheek. “I have guests to entertain. Many fine, important ladies.”
“That is not Lord Spicer’s son.” Lady Kirislan peered down at Catori and Brenden, one brow cocked upwards.
Catori shook her head and rose to her feet. “No, he’s my son. His father died in war.”
Lady Kirislan didn’t bother to hide her disdain while they were alone. All pretense of politeness was dropped. “So, you’ve born a bastard then.” She tilted her chin up and looked down at Brenden, like he was a diseased rodent she couldn’t get rid of, and there was cool derision in her voice. “Most intelligent lords wouldn’t tolerate a bastard in their home. But I’m sure your husband knows what he’s doing.”
Oh, she fucking didn’t.
Anger flooded Catori’s cheeks and her smile became strained. She knelt by Brenden and kissed his cheek again, then smoothed his hair out of his face. “Why don’t you find your Uncle Leford, hm? You know where his room is?” Brenden nodded as Catori absently straightened his sweater. “Good. Go find your uncle and see if you can get any stories out of him. If he’s not there, come straight back to your nanny and I’ll see you later.” She kissed him once more and stood as he ran down the hall.
As the sound of his little feet receded down the hallway, Catori’s smile disappeared and she leveled a cool glare at Lady Kirislan. “This way,” she said, and turned her back to the woman.
Her study quieted only a little as they entered and despite her boiling anger, Catori managed to plaster her smile back on her face. “Lady Kirislan and her daughter have agreed to join us!”
There was a chorus of welcome remarks and polite chatter, carefully constructed so as not to appear too fake.
“Oh, Lady Spicer! We’ve saved fabric for you!” Lady Cecilia was all easy, friendly smiles and laughter. One graceful hand beckoned her over, a silver bracelet tinkling on her wrist. “Come! Anisa says the blue spellthread will suit you beautifully.”
Catori was pleased to find her friend’s smile was a little stronger than when she’d left. “You were born to Frea,” said Anisa. “The silver and blue would be just perfect for you.”
Catori was stunned to have such marvelous fabric saved for her. In her dazed state, the other ladies took advantage and insisted she be properly fitted. A seamstress set about sketching a design and Catori was swathed in soft fabric, turned every which way, and at the end of it all, the seamstress held up a sketch of a stunning dress.
The fabric clung to her body and fell away at her hips and the neckline crossed over her chest to a single strap looped over one shoulder. A long cape fell from the strap at her shoulder and the dress pooled like water around her feet. It left her arms bare and most of her back, and showed off every curve of her body.
“The neckline and back can be embroidered in silver and pearls.” The seamstress smiled at her. “If that’s what you prefer, my lady.”
“That sounds lovely. And all in this fabric?” She touched it again and gaped at the way it shimmered in the light. It would look spectacular in candlelight.
“Yes, my lady. This is our finest fabric.”
Catori swallowed hard. Their finest fabric would cost quite a lot. Not that it really mattered; Doran could certainly afford it and she did need to look the part of a high lord’s wife. She took a deep breath and nodded. “Alright, have it done. Pearls will suffice.”
“If I may?” The jeweler stepped forward with a solicitous smile. “Pearls are far too simple on their own. Perhaps some sapphires as well, my lady?” He gestured to her desk, where a large chest was set out filled with his wares. “Sapphires for your dress, and for such a delicate neck, I think. A stunning look, yes?”
Catori could feel the color draining from her face, but she stepped closer anyway. “Sapphires might work. Only a few on the dress, though. Let me see your jewelry, please.”
At once the chest was made available to her and Catori leaned over to get a good look. “Oh,” she breathed. “Anisa, come look!” Anisa came to stand by her side and peered over her shoulder. “Look at this.” Catori held up a delicate silver necklace with a pointed sapphire half-clutched in beautifully shaped filigree. The stone glittered through the dainty metalwork.
Anisa’s eyes rounded as she gazed at the sapphire. “That won’t work with your dress.” She sounded a little disappointed by the fact. “Your neck is better bare. Try bracelets and earrings.”
Lady Kirislan stood nearby with the sketch of Catori’s gown held aloft, one brow cocked as she appraised it. “A true lady knows not to reveal too much of herself.” Her voice was cool and low, so only Catori and Anisa could hear, and it drew their attention at once. “But showing so much skin befits someone of your upbringing, I suppose.” She cast a glance at them and her eyes darted to the necklace around Anisa’s neck. “That’s a pretty trinket. A gift, yes?”
Anisa clutched the necklace in one hand and nodded. “Yes, my lady.”
Lady Kirislan’s chin lifted again and a cold smile tugged at the corner of her mouth. “Of course, it was.” She sighed and shrugged. “No matter. No amount of jewels will raise a servant above her station.” Her eyes darted between them, then focused on Catori for a long moment before turning from them both. She discarded the sketch like a used kerchief.
Catori and Anisa exchanged looks. Anisa’s mouth dropped open and her hand slowly rose to cover it.
“I think that was meant for me,” Catori said. She’d been angry at Lady Kirislan’s snide remarks about Brenden and her husband, but she was appalled by the woman’s disdain. She gaped at her Lady Kirislan, who joined the other women with an oddly warm smile in place.
Catori shrank as she watched them—these women knew how to handle someone like Lady Kirislan. They knew what to do, what to say, how to dress. They were born to this world, to this life she once thought was one of utter leisure and indulgence. It was both, but not quite so abundantly as Catori thought. Theirs was a world with strange rules and ways of interacting she wasn’t used to. These women danced through their roles with ease, graceful and elegant.
Catori was drowning.
Neveroot was a bitter, nasty tea that was difficult to swallow. Nothing seemed to sweeten it. Catori had tried everything—sugar made it sickly sweet, but the bitter aftertaste still lingered, and honey just seemed to vanish. It seemed the tea used to prevent pregnancy would never be any easier to drink.
Catori downed the scalding liquid and made a face at the cup as she set it aside, and not for the first time debated spending a small fortune on sweet dawn instead. It was more effective, and it had to taste better than the neveroot. It had sweet in its very name, after all. Doran probably wouldn’t mind the expense, either. He was content to have his heir for the time being; there was no rush to have more children just yet.
But Catori used neveroot from the very beginning and as disgusting as it tasted, she couldn’t justify spending so much when neveroot did its job—for the most part. It hadn’t stopped Torin from being conceived, but that turned out to be a little blessing.
Her eyes left the cup on her desk to land on her son, lying in a small cradle by her desk. A mobile dangled above him, swaying in a gentle breeze. The tiny, bright wooden dragons flew over his head and Torin watched them with one hand shoved in his mouth.
“As adorable as you are, Torin, I need to work.” He swiveled his head at the sound of her voice and craned to see her as best he could. Catori laughed and leaned over the crib to kiss his cheek. “You’re going to be a handful, aren’t you?” He let out a delighted laugh and wiggled in place.
Catori kept Torin close as she worked. Despite her desire to play with him all day, she only had about a month left before the new year feast. Already shipments were coming in. The fabric she’d ordered to replace the cream curtains that hung along the terrace came in the day before and Eustine had to find a spare room to store it in until she was ready to have them put up. Chests of white pillar candles were due in any day and the flowers she’d ordered from her aunt and uncle’s shop would arrive in a week.
Her study hosted a steady stream of servants and merchants come to see her for various reasons. Eustine was in and out consistently to assure her everything was where it needed to be. Between all these people, Catori had to manage the ledgers for the household and ensure every purchase was marked down accurately.
By mid-afternoon, Catori was tired. She hadn’t managed to leave her study all day, not even to have lunch with Doran. Torin burbled in his cradle through it all unless he—blessedly—napped. When she finally took a break, it was only to have Torin spit up all over her dress. She changed out of necessity—she couldn’t very well reek of vomit all afternoon. Torin merely grinned at her as though he were pleased with himself.
“Next time, piss on your father,” she told him. Torin squirmed in her arms and snuggled against her shoulder, completely oblivious.
The door to her study opened and Tamara bustled in, her swollen belly larger than ever. “Good afternoon!” She waved, and her face lit up at the sight of Torin. “Oh, he’s getting so big!”
“Hi, Tamara.” Catori carried Torin over for Tamara to see, and smiled as the woman cooed at him. “You’re getting big, too. You’re what, eight months along?”
“A little more than eight.” Tamara giggled and ran a hand over her belly. “I can’t wait. Oh, I just adore babies!” She cooed at Torin again and he smiled—she was one of the few people he’d had regular interactions with.
Catori smiled and gestured to the lounge. “Sit, get off your feet a bit. Where’s Henrik?”
“Playing with Brenden in the garden.” She sighed with relief as she lowered herself onto the lounge. “You know, you did very well with that dress party the other day.”
Catori smiled, but as pleasing as her words were, Catori had a feeling Tamara was only trying to reassure her. “You really think so?”
“Oh, yes!” Tamara laughed, like the bright tinkle of silver bells. “Everyone enjoyed themselves—except Lady Kirislan, but I doubt the harpy is capable of enjoyment.”
“Shh!” Catori glanced around as though afraid of being overheard—a silly idea, given they were in her own study. “I’d rather not risk that being overheard. Doran’s cooking up something with Lord Kirislan and I’d rather not ruin it.” She sighed and sat at Tamara’s side, cradling Torin against her shoulder. “I’ve done everything I can to make them happy and still Lady Kirislan is determined to hate me.”
Tamara was unperturbed by Catori’s chastising. “Lady Kirislan is as difficult as her husband—”
“Lord Kirislan doesn’t seem to mind me,” Catori grouched.
“—and you were born common. She’ll never consider you equal.” Tamara shrugged. “It’s silly, but some nobles think that way. And if you really want to help Doran, I’d suggest stopping her daughter from bedding a knight tonight.”
Catori’s brows shot up. “What?”
“Isolde is on the terrace flirting and getting drunk on your wine.” Tamara shrugged. “It isn’t really your problem, but Lady Kirislan might find a way to twist it. Particularly if her precious daughter winds up pregnant.”
“Lovely.” Catori’s shoulders slumped. “I’ll get her. Would you mind holding Torin?”
Tamara’s face brightened at once. “Oh, not at all,” she breathed, and reached for the infant.
The main terrace wrapped around the back of the villa and a portion of it overlooked the training yard along one side of the building. Catori rounded the corner and scanned the area for signs of Isolde. Several knights were training, or overseeing their squires while smoking sour leaf, but one of the knights hung back, partially obscured by a large potted tree. Catori could barely make him out through the thick branches, but she could see movement.
Catori headed towards him, rounded the tree, and stopped with one brow raised. The knight was tall, and it wasn’t the wall he leaned against, but Lady Isolde’s small frame. Their mouths were locked, and Lady Isolde’s dress was loosened at her bust. As she came upon them, his fingers slipped beneath the fabric.
“You couldn’t have picked a more inconspicuous spot?”
The knight’s hands dropped from Lady Isolde’s body and his head yanked back. He stepped away at once. “Apologies, Lady Spicer,” he said, and bowed to her at once.
“Stop that,” she snapped. “Go to Port Town to get your dick wet. The women there are all too eager and far less trouble. Believe me, I was one of them.”
“Of course, my lady.” He bowed again and hurried away, casting a wide-eyed look over his shoulder as he did so.
Lady Isolde was not so shaken. Her dress was rumpled, her hair a tangled mess, and she wore a petulant look on her face. “Why’d you do that? He was handsome, and his fingers were very skilled.” She bit her lip and giggled as she fumbled with the ties on her bodice.
“Oh, lovely, you are drunk.” Catori heaved a sigh.
“So?” Lady Isolde straightened and smoothed her dress. “I’m of age. What’s it matter to you?”
“It doesn’t.” Catori gave her a dark look. “Except your mother dislikes me and all I need is for her only daughter to wind up drunk and naked in some knight’s bed. I’m so sure your mother wouldn’t find a way to blame me.” She rolled her eyes and sighed.
“Oh, come now. You’ve never rolled around with a knight before?”
Catori’s jaw tightened as she gazed at Isolde, silent. It took a moment in her drunken state, but Lady Isolde’s expression faltered; her eyes widened and her mouth dropped open. Of course, she’d ask who soon enough—she was too drunk to consider it impolite.
Catori swallowed hard. “Brenden’s father was Ser Bitter Lemon,” she said. Her voice was softer than she’d intended, and tinged with sadness. “Conceived when I was around your age, actually. So yes, I have.”
Catori glanced around them, but no one was paying any mind to them. She took Lady Isolde by the arm and slipped her arm through the young woman’s. “Come with me. We’ll get you sobered up.” She tugged her down the side of the villa and ushered her into a servant’s door to avoid any other guests—or her mother—seeing her like that.
“Where are you taking me?”
“My quarters,” Catori replied.
“How do you know where to go? These are the servant hallways!”
“I know my home.” They headed up the stairs and down a long hallway with several wooden doors on one side. “I wanted to know every passageway, every doorway, and every room. I should—it’s my job to oversee it all.” She opened the servant door that led to her bedroom and guided her inside, then turned to shut the door behind them.
Lady Isolde staggered further into the room and stopped just past the latticed partition that hid the servant entrance. “Oh, my,” she purred.
Catori stepped up beside her and found Doran by his wardrobe, his chest bare. He glanced at them as he pulled out a clean tunic.
“Your husband has a wonderful physique.” Lady Isolde burst into giggles and bit into her lower lip. She didn’t bother to hide her interest as her eyes roamed over Doran.
Doran’s brows rose and his head tilted to focus on Catori, who grimaced.
“She’s drunk. I’m merely avoiding an uncomfortable encounter with her parents.”
“I’d welcome a steamy encounter—”
“I think you’ve had your fill of encounters for the day.” Catori guided Lady Isolde to a seat and shoved her down as gently as she could. Lady Isolde sat with a soft oof and burst into giggles again. Catori rolled her eyes and turned back Doran, who—thankfully—was buttoning his tunic. “What are you doing, anyway?”
He shrugged. “Torin spit up on me.”
Catori didn’t bother to hide her glee as she laughed at him. Doran smirked, but didn’t share her amusement more than that. She turned solemn quick, though, and a worried frown replaced her smile. “That’s the second time in the last hour,” she said. “I hope he’s okay.”
This time Doran smiled in an attempt to reassure her. “I’m sure he’s fine. Take care of Lady Isolde and if you’re worried, I’ll send a healer for Torin.” He crossed the room to her and tilted her chin up. “I knew you’d be good at this.” He dipped his head to kiss her, then turned on his heel and left without another word.
Lady Isolde burst into giggles yet again. “Your husband is attractive. I never noticed before.”
“Thanks, I guess.” Catori eyed her in amusement and crossed the room to a serving tray to pour a glass of water for Lady Isolde. She handed it to her with a thin smile. “Drink, slowly.”
Lady Isolde obeyed and sipped at the glass as she studied Catori—her eyes roamed over her openly. Catori sat nearby with a sigh and gazed right back at the girl.
“Could I ask, how old are you, Lady Spicer?”
“And your husband?”
Catori raised a brow. “Twenty-one.”
Lady Isolde nodded and glanced away with a strangely thoughtful expression. The glass rested in her lap in one hand and the other traced the rim. Catori watched her, but Lady Isolde didn’t look back at her.
Catori shifted in her seat, a little restless in the silence. But what in the world could she say to this girl? She couldn’t even relate to her from experience—their lives were very different, even when Catori was her age.
She sighed. “I’m guessing you recently came of age—fourteen, fifteen?” Lady Isolde finally glanced back and nodded once. “As I thought. I was your age when I met Bitter. I was a barmaid at the time.”
Lady Isolde scoffed and her expression darkened. “A barmaid gets a knight, and then a high lord, and I can’t have anything,” she muttered. “Off to the church I go!” She scowled and downed her water, then set it aside and looked up at Catori. “How did you do it? How did you climb so high, how did you get away from your parents?”
“My parents are dead.” Lady Isolde’s face drained of color, but Catori shrugged. “Don’t worry, I was only a baby. I never knew them. As for the rest… I trained. I met the right people. I didn’t let anything stop me.”
Lady Isolde nodded and looked down at her hands as she toyed with the folds of her dress. “Talus is my father’s heir,” she said. “Nasim became a Templar because he’s a second son. He gave up titles by joining, so any children he has can never contest Talus’. And me—” she smiled a small, humorless smile. “Given to the church, for the same reason.”
Catori thought she could relate, in some small way. She’d felt a prisoner of her station before. “Both Anisa and my sister tolerated my training until I told them I was leaving to train under a dragonknight.” Lady Isolde’s head snapped up at the mention of a dragonknight, her curiosity piqued. “They both told me I was crazy. My sister demanded I stay, settle down, and help the family. She said if I left, I wasn’t welcome back.”
“But you left?” Lady Isolde leaned towards her. “Right?”
Catori nodded. “I left with Bitter. I gave birth to Brenden eight months later, then went to war. But circumstances changed—Bitter died and I had to take Brenden and run. My training was over. I never got the life I wanted.”
The urge to cry had left Catori by then, but the sadness still weighed on her shoulders; a heavy cloak devoid of warmth.
Lady Isolde’s mouth set in a thin line and she straightened in her seat with an imperious stare. “You shouldn’t fear my mother,” she said suddenly. “She dislikes your low birth, but she can’t do shit about it. My father is inclined to side with your husband and Mother is not allowed to do anything to upset Lord Spicer.”
Catori gazed at the young woman sitting before her, all youthful determination and rebelliousness. In a way, she reminded Catori of herself. She decided she liked Lady Isolde, though she wasn’t sure if she could trust her.
“Why tell me this?”
Lady Isolde shrugged. “Because you can use it to your advantage if necessary. Ignore what my mother says, she’s only trying to get under your skin. But I like you. You’re not what I expected, but you’re kind. I remember seeing you in the Sanguinem war—laughing with your friends, leading men— and I wished I could be as carefree as you.” Lady Isolde reclined back in her seat and toyed with her empty glass. “My mother is a bitch. Put her in her place if you have to.”
Catori’s brows rose in surprise. “Again, why tell me this?”
“Consider it a favor. We live in a world where allies are necessary—even for women like you and me. And if I happen to need a favor in the future, I’d appreciate it if you could reciprocate.” Lady Isolde rose to her feet and smoothed her dress into place, then fixed her hair as best she could. “I should go. I think I’m sober enough to make it back to my room in one piece.” She smiled at Catori. “Thank you for keeping me company.”
“Anytime.” She stood to see Lady Isolde out and as the young woman left, she called for her once more. Lady Isolde turned back, curious.
Catori flashed a sly smile. “Keep fighting.”