A Silent Game of Spies

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The Duchess of Mendellion was still not with child. Theldry wondered if that was what they whispered of her. It had been nearly six months, after all. It mattered not that Cathall wasn’t home that often; people only knew that Theldry, young as she was, was not yet a mother.

Her friends were all expecting or mothers already. And when she was quite honest with herself, Cathall married her so that he might have a family. Theldry placed her hands upon her belly and attempted to imagine herself with child. Or a mother. She just couldn’t see it. But she did want to please him, and so, when he was home, they tried as often as possible. She wondered if perhaps he was too old, or she too young. But Mother had borne her already at fifteen. And so Theldry brooded.

She kept herself busy, however. At first, she had been bored, given her only company had been Mila the Minnow. But three months ago, Theldry found Mila sprucing herself up one day and could not imagine why. Then the scribe visited and Theldry had had to hold back amusement at Mila’s awkward attempts at flirtation. The scribe seemed to stay overlong and Theldry excused herself briefly to give them the privacy she would have wanted had she been Mila.

They spoke mainly about rare books and interesting parchments written by great masters of art and music. Theldry decided the young scribe was completely innocent in his attentions toward Mila and, before he left, she asked if he might return the following week at the same time with any works from Tortoreen, for she missed her homeland so.

She saw the young man glance quickly at Mila and then immediately agree. Theldry thanked him and sent him on his way, but didn’t miss how Mila’s eyes were shining.

First, however, Theldry inquired of her kitchen maids what sort of character the young scribe’s family was of. She hadn’t married for love, but she recognized it when she saw it, and if she could facilitate it, then why not?

It took a few days, but Jeanie reported that the scribe’s family was well-to-do, owning a prosperous printing business which the young scribe was due to inherit one day, aside from his own scripting abilities. In these days and times, in Corstarorden, especially the way people were talking war, it was best to marry a young girl off as soon as possible so that she’d have the protection of her husband and new family. And in Northwest Corstarorden, big fish didn’t swim around all that often, said Jeanie, so you had to grab what you could. He would support Mila just fine, thought Jeanie.

So after numerous picnics, during which Theldry stifled yawns and pretended amazement and interest, young Engard worked up the courage to ask to court Mila formally, and Theldry, of course, obliged. Within a month, he asked for Mila’s hand in marriage. Theldry told him she accepted the betrothal request as long as he could provide suitable living arrangements for Mila that suited her current station, and so he was now scrambling to find the best for Mila that he could.

Jeanie and the other maids were thrilled, as was Theldry, for it was one of Theldry’s duties as the lady of the household to see to the needs of the people living at the Mendellion Estate. And Mila was so in love she could hardly sleep at night.

Cathall, however, was not pleased at all. Tonight over dinner, he explained that she was new to Corstarorden still and should not make decisions of such great consequence without his consent. He would have planned Mina’s marriage himself in due time. Theldry returned this with an impassive nod and remained aloof.

Cathall’s fork settled onto his plate with a clang. “You disagree.”

Theldry looked across the dinner table at him. What was she to say? She was reminded of her father again. Her father would say Theldry had no say in such matters. “I have no opinion in such matters,” she answered in a quiet way she thought would please her mother, then turned her attention to the roast duck on the sterling plate before her.

A sigh erupted from Cathall. “You are angry. I know you well enough to see that.”

When Theldry said nothing, he said, “Speak, wife. I must deal with my people’s troubles all the while I am traveling. I would not return home to see you glare at me across mine own dinner table. Speak, or I shall retire early.”

Theldry lay down her utensils. “Very well.” She met his eyes and raised her chin. “I did not betroth that girl to some neighborhood apprentice. Engard stands to inherit a prosperous printing business and is already a learned scribe and businessman in his own right. He cannot marry her until he can provide for her a home that is worthy of her. Before I allowed them to court, I first approved his family. I chaperoned all of their outings myself.

“Husband, in Tortoreen, I was raised to run a household such as yours. Running a household such as this included seeing to the needs of my ladies-in-waiting. A husband would have had little to do with the needs of ladies-in-waiting, except to see to their finances, which, as Mina has no family but us, I hope you will continue to act as. Having been educated thus, I saw no reason to consult you, and as you are rarely available to consult due to business concerns, I have never thought it necessary to bother you with the smaller happenings in my life, such as the courtship of my lady-in-waiting.”

Theldry had kept her tone even, but Cathall was right. She was angry. She disliked having to justify her actions. He remained quiet for a moment, sipping from his goblet. Finally, he nodded.

“Very well. I will honor the betrothal. I had planned to do so anyway – they are good for each other.”

Theldry relaxed.

“But.” And Cathall took another sip. “Do not betroth, or dismiss, anymore of our servants without my consent. Not until you have been in Corstarorden, and Mendellion, for some time more to come. Then I will turn that power over to you completely. You hail from Tortoreen. Allow yourself time to adjust to Corstarorden’s cultures. They are not so very different, but they are different.

“Are we agreed?” Cathall asked her.

Theldry nodded, glad that he was honoring the betrothal. She did not want to have to tell Mina why Cathall had broken it.

“Which leaves us with another problem,” Cathall told her then. “You will need a new lady-in-waiting.”

Theldry was unable to stifle a grimace.

Cathall read her expression. “So bad as that? I chose your current lady-in-waiting based on what Ayrissa would have enjoyed….” And he stopped, for he realized that Theldry had cast her glance aside. Not only had he referenced his first wife in her preferences, but he realized that perhaps Theldry was quite different than he thought her to be.

In a quiet tone, he apologized. “I was quite unsure of whom I would be marrying, and so I was blind in that respect. I chose a young lady I was familiar with in regard to Mila. What would you like in a lady-in-waiting?”

Theldry gave him a hopeful smile. “None at all?”

Cathall chuckled as he sliced his asparagus. Then he eyed her. “Why would you say that?”

“I enjoy riding, and singing, and theatre. I appreciate humor, and conversation about other topics than stitchery and fashion and gossip. I have more in common with our maids than most ladies-in-waiting,” Theldry told her husband.

Cathall’s fork of gingered carrot was arrested in midair. “The kitchen maids? Why is that?”

Theldry paused. She did not want to get Jeanie and Kallia in any sort of trouble. She shrugged a little. “They are easy to talk to. I have actually taught them their letters better when they have some extra time. And they have taught me about Corstarorden.” Theldry did not add that they had sung songs together, including one that made Theldry blush once she recognized what it really meant, “Ribbons Around the Maypole”. They had also taught Theldry a little about cooking and preserving, enough that Theldry hoped she would never need to fend for herself in the kitchen.

But Cathall was looking at her with a look of interest on his face. Finally, he nodded and said, “You say they teach you about Corstarorden?”

“Mina hates to leave the estate. I’ve taken them into the village with me and they’ve proven invaluable. I’ve met a number of the village people,” Theldry pressed on when she saw Cathall’s face darken. “Sitting here, day after day, why shouldn’t I go into the village? I am the Duchess, am I not? And two guards accompanied me each time. I know half the merchants in the market now. I go perhaps each week or two.

“You should know, the Burdan family, who sells sea shell art, just welcomed two twin girls last month. I congratulated them, of course, but I think if you paid them a visit, it would mean so much more. And the fruiter’s oldest son broke his arm two weeks ago. One of our kitchen maids told me that he broke it repairing the wagon wheel on the fruit cart. They haven’t the money for a Healer, and it was quite an awful wrapping. His name is Darvel, and he was in terrible pain. I paid for the town’s Healer to wrap and tend to it correctly,” Theldry continued in a firm tone. “Neither you nor I would know such things if I did not go out to see the village.”

Thoughtfully, Cathall nodded. “Well, that would explain the congratulatory remarks on my marriage. I thought them rather enthusiastic for people who had never met you.” He waited as a platter of hot, fragrant bread and a small bowl of honey butter was placed before him. “Nevertheless, maids are not ladies-in-waiting. Mina may prefer to stay at home, but I shall find you another lady-in-waiting who has more of a taste for short outings.”

Theldry gave her husband a pained look.

“I shall not change my mind. When we have guests, or visit others socially, and we will, you must have a lady-in-waiting of the proper social standing. Which brings me to a problem, for in Northwest Corstarorden, there are few ladies-in-waiting worthy of a princess of Tortoreen and Duchess of Mendellion to be had.”

Cathall read her expression. “But I shall search for one who is an equestrian, who prefers wit and conversation to stitchery and gossip. Perhaps even one who might like to stay in the village, yes?”

A smile overtook Theldry’s features. If she had to have a lady-in-waiting, one who wasn’t underfoot at all times would be perfect.

Cathall returned her smile. “Now, something else I think you will be pleased to hear. I checked into what your father’s Cabinet members were talking about. The blight – was no blight at all, just as my farmers insisted. I have advised them to raise their prices on all their outgoing produce so that they might recover the money they have lost in recent years. And we will no longer be dealing with Tortoreen until they bring their new tariffs down. I spoke with King Romand personally. I am uncomfortable delivering such a financial ultimatum when it comes to a Coastal Country, but nor will I deal with crooked partners.”

Theldry nodded. So much for making money off of Corstarorden, Father, she thought snidely, though she refrained from expressing her personal triumph. What had Father kept telling her? Duty before love, Theldry, duty before love. Ha.

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