Blaise came twice more before the weather closed in. The second visit was brief because it had started snowing while they were riding over to the Inn. Jed wondered if they should turn back but Blaise said he’d just drop off the books he’d promised Arric and they would ride straight home. The books Blaise brought on this occasion were two Arric knew of from his visits to the library but had not managed to get hold of and he was delighted to have the opportunity to study them.
Blaise sighed “It may be a few weeks before I can get out again. I’ll miss our conversations.”
“I’ll miss them too but we’ll have time to think up a whole new set of topics over mid winter.” Arric waved the books “I’ll think of you while studying these. Thanks again.” They were circumspect with their words since Jed was standing waiting but their eyes said a lot more.
Arric sprinted up to his room dropped the books on his bed and hurried back down to the taproom. Beattie left immediately after their midday meal to walk to the farm where her sister lived and either her brother in law or her nephew drove her back in time for what counted as the evening rush. Arric hadn’t mentioned his afternoon regulars to her. At first it hadn’t been important and then, later, he wanted to keep Blaise’s visits as his own special time. He had never told her the real reason why he’d left home, just saying he hadn’t got on with his stepfather. Sometimes he felt dishonest for concealing the truth but he had no idea how she’d react to either of his secrets and he liked living and working at the Drum and Monkey.
Arric had only just returned to the taproom and was putting a log on the fire when the door opened and Beattie came in.
“It’s bitter and by the looks of it we’re about to have a whole winter’s worth of snow in one night.” She said as she hurried to the bar. She poured a tot of spirits and handed it to her nephew who’d risked the weather to drive her back. “Get that down you and get going before it gets any worse.” He took it and downed it in one go, thanked Beattie, nodded to Arric and left. Six o’clock arrived but none of their regulars since by then a blizzard was blowing. At eight o’clock she banked the fire and blew out the lamps in the tap room. The weather if anything was worse by then and Arric gave up all thought of going to Whitecastle the next day.
Blaise and Jed reached the folly just as the snow started to fall in earnest. Blaise dismounted and changed his coat in record time. Ten minutes later when they trotted in through the stable gates the snow was already a couple of inches deep. Blaise breathed a sigh of relief to be back before the worst of the storm. He didn’t want the Queen to have any excuse to stop his Monday rides.
The next morning when Blaise woke the light had the peculiar intensity that only a heavy snowfall can bring. He got out of bed and looked out of the window. The land was blanketed in a deep layer of snow. He was glad he’d risked the weather to take Arric the books. He snuggled back into the warmth of his bed and lay with his hands behind his head staring up at the canopy and day dreaming about the future. Arric was teaching himself how to be a wizard. When he became King he could appoint Arric as his Chamberlain and they could rule the kingdom together. Assuming they could find a way to overthrow the Queen. The trouble was Count Asgreen was a very powerful wizard and people who crossed him found themselves experiencing life as amphibians if they were lucky or in his dungeons if they weren't.
Thinking of the Queen made him grimace. He had a private audience with her once a week on a Tuesday. Private did not mean on their own. The Chamberlain Count Asgreen was also present as were Blaise’s three gentlemen in waiting and a bevy of servants. He hated it and her. The Queen insisted on the most elaborate court attire. To style and powder his hair and don the complicated garments took almost two hours. The Queen’s throne was on the top step of the dais with the Chamberlain’s chair on the step below. Blaise sat on a stool below them while he answered her questions. She also insisted on rigidly formal modes of address so conversation hardly flowed.
His thoughts were interrupted by the arrival of a maid to make up the fire, two footmen to open the curtains and set up the table for his breakfast things, his valet to help him into his dressing gown and slippers and finally two more maids with trays. Once he’d eaten under their watchful eyes he went through to his bathroom. He shut the door firmly in the face of everyone, undressed and sank into his bath. He lay back in the hot water with a sigh of pleasure. His bath was the one time he was completely alone and he loved it. He returned to day dreaming about Arric.
Often when there was a heavy fall of snow before mid winter a thaw would set in again but not this year. The cold tightened its grip and there was another heavy fall less than a week later. The snow drifted high against walls and hedges and the roads were impassable even for the most intrepid traveller. By mid January it was clear the country was in the grip of the worst winter in living memory. Even the palace felt chilly. Winter dragged on and Blaise counted the days until he could resume meeting Arric. He occupied his time with reading, lacklustre fencing practice with the youngest of his gentlemen in waiting and daydreaming about his love.
After two months of bitter cold and with no sign of a thaw the townspeople petitioned for assistance for the old and infirm. Their plea for help was brushed aside on the basis that providing relief of any sort would only encourage the common people to idleness and drunkenness. Blaise felt compelled to protest. It did no good simply earning him a sharp rebuke from the Queen for being gullible and naïve and a contemptuous look from Count Asgreen. Usually by mid February the snow had long gone and the weather was beginning to show signs of spring but it was not until the end of the month that a slow thaw set in. Blaise jigged a few steps round his bedroom the morning he heard the sound of dripping water from the eaves. He spent time in the library choosing some books to read which included two that he thought Arric would like.
On Monday the snow was still too deep to ride out. He stifled his impatience. Next week he would certainly be able to see Arric. Tuesday he went to the Queen’s apartment as usual. Queen Karmella was attired in a wide skirted red velvet gown richly embroidered with gold thread and pearls. Count Asgreen was wearing red velvet court dress also embroidered with gold and pearls under his chamberlain’s robe. Blaise wondered how many old people the cost of those garments would have kept warm and well fed. His kept his expression blank as he bowed again
“I trust Your Majesty is in your usual good health.”
“We thank Your Highness for your enquiry. We are perfectly well. You may be seated.” Blaise lowered himself carefully on to the stool while the page arranged his cloak. Once he was sitting he handed his gold topped cane to the boy and flicked open his fan in the manner approved by Her Majesty. He waited for the first of the standard questions she asked every week concerning his activities. To his surprise she said instead
“We have been giving some thought to your future.” Blaise felt a stab of alarm and worry. “We have decided that it is time you were married.”
Blaise was horrified. There was Arric. He thought furiously and came up with what he thought was a block in the Queen’s plan.
“But who shall I marry? None of the neighbouring Kingdoms have an unmarried princess of a suitable age.”
“There is an eminently suitable candidate in this Kingdom. Dear Letitia is charming and accomplished. She will be the perfect person to fill the role of your consort.” Blaise was seized with cold horror. He was not going to marry Count Asgreen’s daughter. Even if he liked women he’d rather slit his wrists than marry that viper tongued harridan. “The betrothal will be announced as soon as the Lady Letita returns in Spring. You may leave us now.”
Blaise stood up and bowed. Next Monday he was running away with Arric. He retreated three paces backwards as protocol demanded then turned to leave the room. As he reached the door the Queen delivered a coup de gras. “We have decided that it is unsuitable for you to ride out accompanied merely by servants. In future if you wish to ride your gentlemen in waiting will accompany you.”
Blaise turned back “I ride out accompanied by servants because my gentlemen in waiting dislike exercise.”
“We have spoken to them.” Blaise could only grind his teeth and bow.