Mairi was tired of being alone. Twice now this day her bond-mate had left her and while she understood his reasons—truly she did—there was nothing to do. The room itself was more luxurious than she had ever imagined, and she did enjoy curling up in one of the soft chairs and watching the fire dance and crackle at her, but even these comforts could not replace an actual person for company.
It left too much time for thinking, and that only led to more tears.
She was not unhappy.
At least, she tried to convince herself she was not. Garrick loved her and was attentive and careful with her, and she did indeed feel cherished by his affections. But when he was not close, distracting her with his touches and words she found her herself remembering when there was more. Sisterlings to titter and chase through the ample forests, trees to whisper with about the happenings of the wood, and a feeling of home.
While she tried to remind herself that her home was now Garrick and she would be content wherever he was, she caught herself longing for more.
And that was a dangerous thing.
She recalled trying to explain to Garrick once that sisterlings were not in fact born of her adar and amé, but merely sprouted in the same season. He had still worn his mask then but still she could tell that his brow furrowed. At the time she had wondered if that little line would appear between his eyes like her father’swhen she was being particularly troublesome. But she could not see and she could not smooth away his perplexity with a touch of her finger—no matter how she might wish to.
She released a wearied sigh and kept herself from glancing at the door yet again. She closed her eyes and allowed her mind to find their bond, reminding herself why her loneliness was worth something more. For her to be home would have meant that she would not be with her Garrick—and she would never choose that. Not freely.
A knock at the door interrupted her musings, and she eagerly ran to answer it, glad that she had donned her dress once more. Even though she might not have minded being nude for a while longer, she doubted Garrick would appreciate others seeing what was his to enjoy.
The serving girl was once more at the door, this time a blush already staining her cheeks and a much smaller tray in her hands laden with a similar pot to the one that begot tea only that morning. “May I come in, m’lady?”
Mairi blinked but took a step backward, not expecting any to approach her while Garrick was gone, although she found herself intensely grateful for the distraction. “Of course.”
The girl sat the tray upon the low table, and stared at the floor, her lower lip firmly between her teeth. “I’m... It’s not my place, and I know that. But...” Her eyes flickered to the closed door and she released a measured breath. “You are not from this land, that is easy to see. And I was hoping...”
Mairi glanced at the teapot, wondering if it would be rude to indulge in a cup while the girl found her missing words.
“Oh, pardon m’lady! Would you care for a cup?”
Mairi smiled and nodded, and watched her put the same amount of spoonfuls and dashes that Garrick had done. “How did you know how to make it? Is there some servant magic that tells you?”
The girl laughed softly and shook her head. “Nay. But a good servant is an observant one, and I noticed how much was missing this mornin’. You husband didn’t look like one for sugar and cream.”
Mairi wondered if she should be offended for him, but decided her time would be better spent sipping at her tea so as not to waste the serving girl’s efforts. “What is your name?”
She gave a quick curtsy. “Bonnie, m’lady.”
“Did my husband send you?”
Bonnie sighed and this time stood a little straighter. “Might I be forward, m’lady? I haven’t got many I can talk to that wouldn’t get me in trouble.”
Mairi cocked her head to the side. “And you think that I would not?”
She shrugged. “You might, I supposed, but... things are changing, or at least my...” Bonnie halted, looking at the ground once more.
“Perhaps you would like to sit down.” She was glad that she had taken Garrick’s chair for her own for she did not think she would like to see another where he rightfully should have been. Part of her longed for this girl’s confidence as it meant relating to another female person—something she had not experienced in too long. But she did not want to disappoint Garrick or his world’s sense of comportment, so she reminded herself firmly to remain calm and not to surrender to overexcitement.
Bonnie took one more deep breath before looking at Mairi directly. And once the words began she seemed to have difficulty stopping them. “I married above my station. By quite a bit actually. By all rights he shouldn’t have done it—he should have had some noblewoman or someone who could be queen with him when the time came. Not... me. I’m no one special, just a kitchen girl who drops too many things and trips over the cats stealing scraps and...”
Mairi raised a hand, must as she had seen her elders do when they wordlessly commanded silence. “Do you care for him? And him for you?”
Bonnie nodded, but already tears pooled in her eyes. “You must think me foolish, when Cyrus is so good to me and you probably had no choice in your own marriage. Was yours an alliance? He must have done something important to secure your hand.”
Mairi sighed. “Do not assume you know of my bonding. I love my... husband... dearly. People are wrong to assume he is cruel.”
Bonnie eyed her dubiously. “He threatened me before he left. He told Cyrus that if any harm came to you that he would have my head.”
Her protective bond-mate, always so dramatic. She did not know at what point such promises of violence ceased to surprise her. But now as she heard yet another perception of Garrick’s dismal behaviour and not-so-idle threats, she only found herself growing weary. None knew him as she did. And perhaps that made her foolish and someday he would disappoint her, but she knew that he was capable of mercy and of restraint—for he showed both to her regularly and without ceasing.
“We have few allies in the world. He does what he must to ensure my safety.”
Bonnie appeared unconvinced but nodded regardless. “As you say, m’lady.” They were silent for a moment, both too uncomfortable with talk of Garrick to attempt more conversation. Mairi would not relent and give her leave to speak freely of him, but she supposed that it was absurd to think that he would be as kind and gentle to everyone as he was to her.
“Forgive me, you wished to speak of something of import and I interrupted. What has you so troubled?”
She fiddled with her hand, roughened by work and scrubbing and so unlike anything Mairi had seen on a female. “What if you knew that, even though you loved someone with your whole heart, that they would have a better life without you? Even though some know of our marriage, it could still be easily forgotten...”
How many times had Garrick said something so remarkably similar? No matter how she pledged herself he found himself unworthy—and it only resulted in hurting the both of them all the more.
And any bristles that had formed during this conversation smoothed, and Mairi found herself pouring a cup of tea for this girl—though she only gestured for her to add what accoutrements would please her for she refused to presume—and offering her what advice she could.
“You must stop thinking of yourself in such manner. If your mate loves you as you say, then you should recognise how much you hurt him by suggesting that your bond could be so easily broken.” She thought of her poor adar, forced to spend the rest of his days without either the ties of his beloved or even of fatherhood, and she felt her eyes grow moist. “Every day you have with him is a gift, and you should not squander it. At the end of your days you would only lament not having accepted him sooner—and I would not wish that regret on anyone.”
Bonnie took a long sip of tea and appeared close to tears herself. “You’re very wise. The king offered him any other bride of his choosing, but still he stood by me.” She glanced at Mairi, her fear plain. “I do not fear that your husband might cuff me. I fear that the king will ask him to kill me and that he shall accept.”
Mairi blinked in surprise, the thought never having entered her mind. But even as the doubt threatened to take hold, she pushed it away fiercely. Her bond-mate had discernment. His distaste of this ruler was clear, and she believed, wholly and truly, that he would not allow his desire for those strange metal pieces to override his convictions.
“I cannot speak for him, but I know of no such plan. And should he ask my opinion I would dissuade him from doing so.”
Bonnie gave a small little smile and nodded. “That’s more than I had before at least.”
They sat in silence a moment longer, each deep within their own thoughts and finding little else to say on the matter. It bothered her that she could not offer a promise—that he would not do exactly as she feared. But she had learned her Garrick was unpredictable, and she would not like to later learn that she was lying.
But she did wish to speak to him about it.
Bonnie finally resettled her empty cup upon the tray and smoothed down her apron, although Mairi rather thought she did so to sooth her nerves rather than because the fabric required it.
“I was also told to come here to prepare you for tonight’s feast, but I’m not sure what I could possibly do to make you anymore beautiful.”
Mairi’s brow furrowed. “Was there not a feast only yesterday? Do your people truly have so much to celebrate?”
She hummed noncommittally. “I think ‘tis only a reason for men to drink and indulge in merrymaking after they’ve had their sport all day. It makes us terrible busy in the kitchens though and I shall be glad when all’s ended.”
Mairi allowed her to take her finished cup and tidy the tray, but she was left feeling horribly uncertain of her course. Garrick had specifically told her that he would be back before she was forced to make any attempt at identifying foodstuffs without him—and surely that meant he would accompany her to yet another feast.
She had already been prey to the king’s lascivious comments once, and she hardly relished the thought of doing so again.
Bonnie waited patiently for her to rise, but Mairi finally began to protest. “I do not think it would be appropriate for me to attend without my... Garrick. He left no instructions for me to go...” She looked to their bond, hoping to receive some indication that he was already about to burst into their room. But there was nothing but the welcome tingling that assured her of his continued health and affection for her, and she released it with a sigh.
“M’lady, I will of course defer to your wishes. But please know that I was told by Cyrus to bring you, and your lord husband charged him with your care in his absence. He would not suggest it if he did not think it best.”
There was an undercurrent of dread in her tone and Mairi immediately felt guilty. Garrick had said this king was dangerous, and if the man he trusted to keep her safe suggested something and she ignored it...
Garrick had said Bonnie would pay the price. And she had a right to be frightened.
“My dresses will not be ready until the morrow.”
The girl nodded. “You look perfect as you are. I’m not trained to be a lady’s maid, and I think I’d be anxious if you actually needed my help!”
Mairi smiled softly, her mind too preoccupied to be truly grateful for the compliment. She remembered her sisterlings as they giggled and helped one another with their hair. It never seemed to tangle as she had seen the mortal’s do, but still they liked to pick wildflowers and twine them in their tresses, declaring one another the Nymphlin Queen until the sun set.
And suddenly she longed for such companionship, and before this curious little maid could scurry away Mairi reached out and grasped her arm. “Surely you know of braids.”
In the end she did not care if it was far more simple than anything the other dyrads would have done. Bonnie had managed a small crown of braids from her temples leading to one long plait, and the mere action of connectedness, of returning to one of her great joys in her sapling years made Mairi feel just a bit lighter—even if she was to face a banquet alone.
And she pushed away the thought that it should have been her bond-mate that helped her tend to it—yet another dream she had fostered since her younger days.
Bonnie led her through the halls and gestured for her to enter, although she hung back and inched closer to a hidden doorway that Mairi assumed led to the kitchens of which she had referred. “Cyrus is in there, m’lady. He’ll watch over you. His love hangs in the balance too.”
And with that she disappeared.
Mairi took a deep and steadying breath and entered.
If possible the room was even more boisterous than the night before. One corner seemed to house men who scowled into their cups and argued amongst themselves while the rest bellowed and guffawed about rightful victories and rematches that would take place in the morning.
Mairi wanted to be home.
But she forced her limbs forward and tried not to look as desperately frightened as she felt. There were seats at the high table but she did not truly wish to dine there—not when the king and his insinuations would also be so near. So she began to creep toward a darker, quieter place at the back of the room only to have a strong hand grab at her arm.
She jerked away harshly, only to be immediately released. “My apologies, Lady Mairi, I did not mean to frighten you. But you are to be seated by me.”
It was the man who had asked to speak to Garrick, and she presumed he must also be Bonnie’s mate—the one that was supposed to keep her safe.
And his idea of safety meant leading her toward the danger.
He must have seen her scepticism for he was quick to reassure her. “I know, you would prefer to await your husband in your rooms. But if your absence had been noted, especially with it known that your husband was seen exiting the gates, I feared my uncle would have sought your company alone. You would not have wished for that, I think.”
She shuddered. “No, I would not.”
He smiled at her understandingly and offered her his arm. “Then let us try to salvage this evening as best we can.”
She glanced at the proffered limb and remembered Garrick’s words the first time he had led her in such a way. It simply meant that a knight was showing some care and gentility to a lady and was being respectful—but to her it spoke of an intimacy that she only wished to feel with her bond-mate.
And such overruled any fear of rudeness.
So instead she waved him forward as nicely as she could and he nodded, giving no indication that he was insulted by her refusal.
“Well done, Cyrus, I was afraid we had lost our lovely guest. That husband of hers seems to be keeping her sequestered in their rooms. Odd for one that does not seem interested in making her a proper wife.”
Mairi’s cheeks turned crimson and she had to bite her tongue to keep from angrily retorting that her bond-mate was most certainly attentive in his affections and had every interest in sealing himself to her. Repeatedly. As true and loving mates should.
But due to her previous reaction Garrick had been given cause to worry, so instead she merely sat in the chair that Cyrus provided, this time positioning himself between her and the king’s unwanted attentions.
“Uncle, you have embarrassed her. If he wishes to keep her a maid until she is receptive to his advances then he is to be commended, not ridiculed.”
Drostan glared at Cyrus over the rim of his goblet. “If one was not careful, they could think you seek to censure me.”
Cyrus gave Mairi an apologetic glance, one she barely caught at all for she was more interested in studying the empty plate before her.
“My apologies, Uncle. I am sure you are wise in all things.”
He managed to sound more sincere than she expected, and the king seemed relatively appeased for he demanded no punishment. Mairi did not know what she would do if things turned sour so quickly, and she quickly tugged at their bond, urging Garrick to return to her all the more swiftly.
“And where is your companion, Lady Mairi? The guards mentioned that he absconded with one of my horses in a very hasty manner. Did you two quarrel and he has left you in my charge?”
Mairi swallowed and although she felt impolite for doing so, kept her gaze lowered to the food instead of acknowledging him directly. “I do not know what errand demanded his attention, but he promised to return soon. He is a good husband.”
Her nose wrinkled at the whole carcass that was artfully arranged upon a large platter. She found it crude and almost barbaric to display it so. She understood that these people required nourishment—truly she did—and she would not deprive a hungry child a meal even at the sacrifice of one of the woodland creatures. But this went beyond merely sustenance, and she desperately wanted her Garrick to return and guide her to what foods were safe.
Few resembled what she had eaten before, but further along the line of heaping portions lay a bowl of fruit, and her stomach made it clear that such would be acceptable.
Only it was to the left of the king and wholly out of reach for either her or for Cyrus.
She folded her hands and silently told her stomach it would simply have to wait, for there was little she could do to help it that would not put the rest of her person into danger.
“My dear, you are not eating! Is our humble fare not to your tastes?”
She swallowed thickly, eyeing his full plate. “I am sorry, your... kingliness. My husband usually provides my meals.” What did one call a king that was not your king?
His eyebrows rose in a mimicry of surprise. “He sounds like a very controlling man that he would not even allow you to pick out your own supper. Are you certain you are... satisfied with him?”
Cyrus gave her a warning glance as he began filling his own plate, the tone heavily laced with implication lost on neither of them.
How to explain? Her Garrick did not do these things to stay her desires in favour of his own, but instead to show his attentiveness to her needs. But this man did not want to understand so instead she took a bracing breath, her hands clasped tightly in her lap. “If you would be so kind as to pass the strawberries, I would be very grateful.”
Instead of simply offering them to Cyrus to place next to her as she had expected, the Drostan rose and picked up the small dish and approached her chair. His arms formed a cage about her as he leaned forward, making a very great show of slowly allowing the ripe fruit to tumble from the bowl and onto her waiting plate.
Mairi looked at Cyrus pleadingly for help and he appeared equally torn.
She wished to stand, to push him away so she could no longer feel his hot breath pressing on her cheek as he made a mockery of what could have been a tender action between mates. He was not quite touching her, not fully, but she felt tears prickle her eyes at his close proximity.
And then he leaned in closely to whisper in her ear, and she squeezed her eyes closed and pretended she had not heard him.
“You could be a queen, Lady Mairi. You would not have to travel and muck about with a man who does not appreciate what a treasure is within his grasp. Tell me you consent and I shall annul the marriage that was foisted upon you and I shall fulfil all of your wildest imaginings.”
He pulled away but not before allowing his lips to linger at her ear, and she could not contain the shiver of disgust that rippled through her. Her stomach, once desirous of food, now protested the mere thought of taking even a bite, and she looked down at her hands and wished to disappear as she felt his hand pat her shoulder. “Think about it.”
She wished to stand and scream at him that the suggestion repulsed her to her core—that she would never betray her Garrick in such a manner. But she did not know what would make the situation worse so she swallowed her tears as best she could, and most importantly her anger, and waited for her bond-mate to return and make her forget any of this terrible evening.
Cyrus leaned close, appearing genuinely concerned. “Are you all right?”
Mairi shook her head slowly, certain that if she did not keep some rigid control, dangerous words would come tumbling out that she could not possibly retract. “I fear that all will not be well until I am far from this place.”
And she had never been more relieved in her life than when not a moment later, the wide and alarmed eyes of her Garrick met hers across the unruly hall.