The Winter Ball
Guiscard was completely at ease as he slipped back to his past self whilst navigating through the halls. It had been so long since he’s been to such a gathering and though it wasn’t as lavish as any party he had been invited to in Vurya, the castle looked sublime.
He met and charmed anyone who caught his interest.
It was nice to be able to relax again.
He was dressed in a black shirt patterned with orange under a glossy black leather jerking, decorated with gold embroidery. It was comfortable and warm, fitting his well-toned body well.
He had styled his hair back away from his handsome face and was wearing perfumed oils.
“You’re late,” Elias commented when he met the guard at last.
“Do you think these clothes simply fall on me?” he demanded, looking affronted, “Do you think my hair naturally looks like this when I wake in the morn? That this kohl around my eyes appears out of thin air? It takes a great deal of effort to look as good as I, Elias,” he told the guard who was dressed in his uniform.
Elias raised an eyebrow, “Anyway, whilst you were taking your own sweet time, preening, her ladyship has already been presented and is mingling,” he said, glancing through the crowd.
“Well then, no doubt I should go greet her ladyship,” Guiscard said, smoothing his clothes.
He navigated through the crowd that consisted of rich merchants and traders and peasants- all dressed in their best.
Guiscard was fascinated by what he saw.
Everyone was behaving amicably and treated in the same manner. He saw the rich spice merchant from the city laughing and joking with one of the cottars over a drink. He saw the lady boss of the biggest inn in the city giggling like a young girl with the pretty flower seller as they gossiped.
He never thought he’d see such a thing.
They found their way into the main hall where there were musicians playing. These weren’t the usual music that Guiscard was used to at such functions. It was far livelier as were the dances. It was like the taverns at home but with far less chaos involved.
He decided he quite liked the atmosphere as he looked about him.
But soon, his eyes were drawn to the dais.
His beautiful Iron Lady was there, seated upon her throne with both Alexis and Raven dressed in black and silver guard uniforms. The guards were on high alert, their eyes scanning the crowd for anything suspicious.
Guiscard came to a halt when his eyes fell upon her.
She was dressed in black as usual. But she wore some kind of ornamental gold washed chestplate over her breasts and shoulder guard. There were gold decorations on her sleeves and her breeches, like her tunic fitted her legs and tucked into the soft leather boots that came up to her knees. Her tunic was fairly long with splits up on either side. That particular touch was probably something Mistress Claribel had to do to make up for Rosalia’s refusal to wear a gown.
But most impressive of all was the mantle made of crow feathers that she wore over her shoulders.
Lady Rosalia was watching the crowd, her cheek propped up on one leather gloved hand as she smiled.
Guiscard weaved through the crowd, his eyes never leaving her face.
She spotted him and sat up.
Oh gods, that smile was going to kill him.
He reached the dais and bowed low before looking at her again, “My lady Crawford,” he greeted, “Not joining in the dance?”
“I’m just having a rest, Scholar Guiscard,” she replied, “I see Mistress Claribel has outdone herself again. You look splendid.”
“Praise from her ladyship is high praise indeed,” he said with a smile.
The music changed to a slower song and Guiscard glanced round at the dancers.
“Would you care for a dance, my lady?” he asked.
From the corner of his eye, he saw Alexis scowl.
Rosalia hesitated before nodding, taking his hand.
Raven and Alexis repositioned themselves so they could keep an eye on the dancers as Guiscard led Rosalia over to them.
“I don’t think I’ve ever seen you dance, my lady,” Guiscard said, taking her hand and placing his other hand on her hip.
“Was there ever a need to since you arrived?”
“Well, dancing would have been a good way to celebrate my arrival,” he suggested with a smile, “Can you dance?”
“Raven taught me a few dances but I never really took too much time with those lessons,” she said.
Guiscard smiled, “Will you be comfortable if I lead then, my lady?” he asked.
“Better than having me step on your feet. According to Alexis, it really hurts,” she added, glancing at her guards.
He chuckled but despite her warning about feet stepping, she was fairly graceful.
“I don’t think I have ever seen the castle this beautiful,” he commented, “Well done, my lady.”
“I’ll let Thomas know,” she replied.
Guiscard watched her.
He never had the chance to appreciate her up close before. There were faint scars even on her face, a prominent one cutting down the side of her face.
“Why are you staring at me like that?” Rosalia asked.
“I- uh- forgive me, my lady,” he said.
Rosalia frowned, “You seem to like staring quite a lot, Scholar Guiscard.”
“Only when I’m among beautiful company, my lady.”
She frowned a little, looking confused, “You sound a great deal like one of the suitors I just spoke to,” she said.
Something inside Guiscard curdled. “Ah yes,” he said, trying to sound carefree though his hand tightened over hers, “How has that been, my lady?”
“It’s fine. I rather not talk about it at the moment if I can help it,” she said.
“Understood, my lady,” Guiscard said, “Then for now, let’s enjoy the music.”
Rosalia frowned a little but he felt her relax.
It was nice to have her to himself for a little while. The only times when they were alone was when he was giving her classes.
But this was a less formal setting where she wasn’t glaring at a piece of paper.
And where she was looking at him.
He was disappointed when the song ended, how he felt, far too soon.
He pulled away from her and joined the polite applause for the musicians before taking Rosalia back to the dais. He wanted to offer to get her a drink but a servant came up to them.
“My lady, Master Desmond has arrived.”
“Who is Master Desmond again?” Rosalia asked Alexis and Desmond quietly as Guiscard fussed over her, “For goodness sake, Scholar Guiscard, it’s just hair.”
“No, my lady, it’s your hair. You look sublime as always but you absolutely must remember you have an entire night to remain so,” Guiscard said.
“He’s right, my lady. You need to look your best when meeting the suitors,” Raven reminded.
Guiscard felt jealousy in his gut like a knife stabbing and twisting within him. “Well then, excuse me, my lady- I probably should not take any more of your time,” he told her with a little bow.
“Of course, “ she replied with a sigh, “Please pardon me, Scholar Guiscard,” she said and followed the servant with Alexis and Raven on either side of her.
Suddenly the ball seemed like it was going to take far too long.
“Scholar Guiscard?” Elias said, catching up with him.
Guiscard rubbed the back of his neck, “How many of those possible suitors are there exactly?” he asked.
Elias shrugged, “Well, five. There were originally nine but her ladyship refused four of them after reading the reports on them,” he said, “Would you care for some wine then?”
“Yes please. And a lot of it,” Guiscard said at once.”
It took awhile but Guiscard soon found ways to occupy himself and befriended a group of cottars.
“You are… a scholar?” one of them asked.
“Yes, I am,” Guiscard said, sipping his wine.
It was something quite awful but it was the best he had at the moment.
“What is that?” one of them asked curiously.
“Well, I study. And her ladyship has engaged me to teach a few people who will then start teaching the general public,” Guiscard explained.
“Teach us what?”
“Well, for one thing, how to read and write and count,” Guiscard said simply, “Fairly simple skills for some but vital.”
“Why’d we need ’em for?” a man asked, frowning as he drank.
The guards were making sure no one got too drunk and rowdy in the castle that night and the folk seem to know by instinct how to behave when her ladyship was present.
“Because, it will improve your state of affairs, not to mention, you can be of greater assistance to her ladyship. If Crawford is to becomes a successful kingdom, it will need the support of its people.”
“What do you mean?” the men asked, exchanging confused looks.
“We do help her ladyship.”
“Of course- every job plays an important role in society. But if we had a hundred cottars but no clerks, what would become of her ladyship? She needs the assistance of all,” Guiscard reasoned.
He looked round at the dancers and spotted Rosalia dancing with a man her age.
It wasn’t truly necessary for Rosalia to wed a man her age. Guiscard knew that much from the marriages of nobility he had seen. After all it was a marriage merely for political reason. But then it occurred to him that those marriages had been arranged from the moment the lady was born.
Guiscard was a little over twelve years Rosalia’s senior.
She may be more comfortable with a consort closer in age with her.
After all, if there was one thing about Galadier and Crawford he understood so far, is that they did not play by the same rules as they did back home in Vurya.
“Hm? Oh, I’m terribly sorry. What was it you said?” he asked.
“We was wondering if you could teach us a few things,” the man said.
“Now? Well- I suppose I could begin by teaching you numbers. That way, you could easily keep book of records regarding your personal finances. That should make things easier for you. Come along, I can use the snow to write in. And the garden is quite lovely at the moment,” he said.
It was a relief that he had something to occupy his time with. That way he could at least take his mind off Rosalia and that young man she was dancing with.
The workers were fascinated by the short lesson. Some of them knew to count and solve simple mathematical problems on their own. But learning how to write them out in that manner would assist them with larger sums.
Time passed as he went on with his lesson. He soon straightened up and looked round at the class that had seemed to have grown a great deal since he started it.
He looked back to the castle, shivering a little despite the heavy cloak he was wearing.
That was when he saw her.
Even from a distance, he could tell it was Lady Rosalia.
She stood alone on the large terrace, watching them, the lanterns on the railing illuminating her.
“Well ladies and gentlemen,” Guiscard said, clapping his hands together, “That should suffice for today. I have probably given you a lot to go over, but if you ever have the time, you’re welcome to join my class in Herald Hall. Now- if you will excuse me.”
He left the group who start talking amongst themselves rather excitedly and headed straight for the terrace where Lady Rosalia stood.
It would seem Alexis and Raven were keeping people off the terrace at the moment.
He stopped by a passing waiter and collected an assortment of food including the red bean buns and went to meet Rosalia.
Alexis looked like he wanted to stop him but Raven shot him a glare.
“How was your dance, my lady?” he asked when he joined her, “Here. Usually the hostess of such events doesn’t get much of a chance to eat.”
Rosalia looked vaguely surprised, “Oh- thank you,” she said, taking the plate, “And the dance was fine.”
She leaned against the railing and Guiscard smiled when she started on the red bean bun first.
“You say it was fine, but you do not appear to be a lady swept off her feet just yet,” he commented.
“I’m a warlord. I need my feet firmly on the ground and therefore they should remain there,” she told him, making him laugh.
“You know, my Lady Crawford, with you standing out here on the terrace, you would be an easy target for archers,” Guiscard pointed out, “I’m surprised that there hasn’t been an assassination attempt yet.”
Rosalia finished the red bean buns, “What makes you think there hasn’t been assassins?” she asked in return, “We’ve caught four already. My guards were able to remove them without any incident. It’s best for the common folk not to realise that there was an assassin amongst them. It would cause them panic and I want them to enjoy themselves tonight,” she said.
“I see,” he said, looking out at the cold, snow covered garden, “So… if I may ask, my lady, have you met all your suitors?”
“Yes,” she said.
“And were you pleased with them?”
“No,” was the short answer.
“Oh? And why is that, my lady?” Guiscard asked, trying not to sound far too pleased.
Rosalia sighed, setting the plate aside, “They are… kind. But they won’t hold my interest for long. I can’t imagine spending my whole life with any of them. Or them being able to stand the kind of life being a Crawford would bring them,” she said.
Guiscard nodded, “You know- the nobility and royalty in other lands usually have marriages arranged for them,” he said casually.
“And how do they work out?”
“Well…” he said, thinking it over, “I know a few who are quite content with their spouses. But, admittedly the rest are living in marital despair.”
Rosalia shook her head and looked back out to the folk in the garden. Some were waving rather excitedly to her and she waved back in return.
“What’s important is that I have an heir,” she said at last, “Marriage holds very little interest to me.”
Guiscard frowned, leaning against the railing, “What about all the traditions that courting and marriage brings?”
“Like what?” Rosalia asked with a frown.
She shook her head.
“No? Dancing? Gifts?”
She kept shaking her head at each suggestion.
“Not even sex?” he found himself asking, baffled beyond belief.
She looked at him and shook her head again.
Guiscard looked both confused and slightly horrified.
“Oh for goodness sake, Scholar Guiscard, you look like I just insulted your ancestors,” she said, “I just have more important things to deal with.”
“My lady, you need to spend more time out of work,” he said.
Rosalia shook her head and turned to leave.
“If you want a child without marriage, I could offer some assistance, my lady,” he said.
She frowned, “What do you mean?” she asked.
“Well, my lady,” he said with a smile, “Do you not think that my brooding good looks would be worth passing down through generations?”
Rosalia raised an eyebrow.
“I prefer if the father was someone from within our lands,” Rosalia told him, glancing back to the dance.
“Surely you would see the benefit of magic in the Crawford bloodline, my lady,” Guiscard pointed out.
“I rather not,” she said at once, “It will cause more problems than it’s worth.”
“Fair enough,” he said, a little disappointed, “But, my offer still stands my lady. Even if all you wish is for one night to forget your problems…”
Rosalia looked confused.
“I don’t follow.”
“My lady,’ Alexis called, “Steward Thomas wishes to speak to you rather urgently.”
“Of course,” she said, “Good evening, Scholar Guiscard. Please enjoy your night.”
She left with her guards and Guiscard heaved a frustrated sigh.
Gods, he loved her but with all the things that were happening- or rather, not happening, he may as well become a monk.
He strode back into the crowd, hoping to drown his sorrow in more wine when he was intercepted by the pretty farmer’s daughter he had met earlier in the evening.
“Good evening, Angela,” he greeted, politely.
“Good evening, Master Guiscard. I hope I am not overstepping my boundaries but I got you a drink.”
Guiscard smiled, reading the young woman right as he accepted the goblet.
Ah well, if anything, he could simply get rid of his pent up frustration.
Rosalia spoke to Thomas and met more people but as midnight drew close, she decided it was time for her to return to her quarters to rest. She was absolutely exhausted.
Meanwhile, in her mind, she had been going over what Guiscard had said to her on the terrace.
At the end of the day, what he was offering was exactly what she desired.
That was it.
“My lady?” Raven said when they headed down the empty corridor to her quarters, “Is everything alright?”
Rosalia frowned, “I think I should speak to Guiscard,” she said at last, “Alexis, can you look for him and tell him I wish to speak to him regarding his offer?”
“Offer, my lady?”
“Please just go, Alex.”
“I- yes, my lady.”
Meanwhile, Raven and Rosalia returned to her room where he helped her undo her hair.
“What did Master Guiscard offer, my lady?” Raven asked as Rosalia got her hairbrush.
“It isn’t of any importance,” she replied simply, knowing full well that Raven did not approve of the idea of a child without a husband.
“Understood my lady,” Raven said, removing the mantle from her shoulders carefully and setting it aside for the maids to put away.
Marie poured warm water into a basin for Rosalia to wash her face with while Raven got out her nightshirt.
It was a relief to remove the powder and khol from her face.
She had just finished washing up when Alexis returned, slipping into the room, redfaced.
“Forgive me, my lady,” he said, “But Master Guiscard is busy.”
“Busy? With what?” Rosalia asked.
“Ah- with- um… a woman,” Alexis answered.
“Well could you not have interrupted them?”
“Not- uh… not this time, my lady,” he said, still red in the face.
“What do you mean?”
“Master Guiscard is having sex, my lady,” Raven explained handing the basin of water to Marie.
“Oh, I see. Then we will leave it be,” Rosalia said going to change to her nightshirt.
Alexis turned away at once, “I can speak to him in the morning, my lady,” he offered.
“No need, Alex. Thank you,” she said as Raven pulled the blanket back to reveal a sleeping crow.
This made Rosalia smile as she gently scooped the bird up.
“Inky, what on earth are you doing here?” she asked, tickling the bird’s beak, “Did you get into a fight with the others again?”
The crow awoke and ruffled its feathers.
“Alright, you can sleep with me,” she told the crow, letting it hop back onto the bed.
She settled down herself and let Raven draw the blanket over her.
“Sleep well, my lady.”
Rosalia sat back comfortably, carefully wiping the blood of the dagger.
Blood flowed over the cold stone floor, seeping between the cracks but never coming close to her freshly polished boots.
“Now, sir…” she said to the man who was on the floor, writhing and groaning in pain, “Perhaps you would like to answer the question of just who sent you now? Or is the missing ear now making it difficult for you to hear?” she asked, picking up the bloody appendage and tossing it closer to him so he could see it in the dim candle light.
His face was already bloodied and bruised from its acquaintance with Alexis’ fists.
He was the first would-be assassin they had to deal with that day and had already wasted a few hours on him.
“Lord… Lord Sinclair,” he spluttered at long last, blood dripping from his mouth and the cuts from the bruises on his face.
“You see? Now that wasn’t so difficult, was it, sir?” she said, handing the bloodied handkerchief back to Raven, “Now, all that you need to do now is to tell me, just who was the one who helped you. I highly doubt you could have made it into my castle so easily on your own, even with the ball going on,” she pointed out, her voice smooth.
The man didn’t answer.
Rosalia heaved a quiet sigh, “Oh dear- did he get tight lipped again? Master Fredrik, are your preparations complete?” she asked twirling the knife as she turned to the man who was waiting impatiently in the corner of the room.
The man grinned viciously, “More than, my lady,” he said, lifting up the red-hot pincers.
“Then feel free,” Rosalia told him, gesturing at their prisoner, “You are either going to tell us the answer or scream it. Either way...” she said with a smile, “What fun for us.”
Rosalia stopped and looked round, Alexis and Raven pausing on either side of her.
“Oh, Scholar Guiscard, may I help you?” she asked while Alexis’s eyes narrowed as though daring the man to come closer.
“Yes, Elias mentioned this morning that you wished to speak to last night?” he asked, “After the dance?”
“Oh that,” she said, “It was nothing.”
“I see,” Guiscard said before looking at her carefully, “You look rather tired my lady.”
“I’m fine,” Rosalia said, “It was just a late night and an early morning.”
“Are you sure? Maybe you should take some time off today? I’m sure your staff will be able to manage without you for just one day,” Guiscard pointed out to her.
Raven and Alexis exchanged looks.
Someone else who was on their side in that particular matter.
They and Healer Emwik were always trying to tell her ladyship to work less.
“I’ll be fine, I have a great deal of things to see to today-“
“My lady,” Raven interrupted, “Mayhap you should take some rest for today. Everything is calm and in order. Orders have been given out and folk are working,” he told her.
“Just for today, my lady,” Alexis added, “It’ll give you time to recover.”
“Unless of course, you would like to review more suitors, my lady. We have another list-”
“We’re going to the library,” Rosalia told Guiscard at once, “And Alex, Raven- please make sure that the scribe duplicates the reports and send them to the Captain and the Spymaster.”
“Of course my lady.”
“Then feel free to take the day off after. You as well, Guardsman Elias.”
“Yes my lady. Thank you,” Elias said, looking relieved that he could take the day away from that curst library.
“Please enjoy your day off, my lady.”
“And Scholar Guiscard,” Raven said, “Seeing as you seem to have an inkling of what to do, is it possible for us to entrust her ladyship’s safety to you?” he asked, looking at him sharply.
“We’ll be perfectly alright, Guardsmen,” Guiscard said with a small bow, “And may I just say, Guardsman Raven, as I had not the chance to say so last night- you looked absolutely dashing during the ball.”
Alexis scowled heavily but Raven just smiled.
“We won’t be leaving the castle grounds,” Rosalia promised.
“Please enjoy yourself, my lady.”
Alexis and Raven watched their Lady Rosalia retreat down the corridor next to Guiscard.
“This… feels odd,” Raven commented.
“I’m not sure if I like this feeling,” Alexis added.
They were silent for a moment.
“Her ladyship… she isn’t a child anymore,” Raven said, “She can walk on her own.”
“Maybe we should just keep an eye on them from a distance,” Alexis said, “Just to be sure.”
“We’re supposed to be-“
“Come on, hurry.”
Raven gave a sigh of exasperation but followed his partner.
Elias looked confused, standing there still.
“Her ladyship said she wanted to go to the library. So why are they here?” Alexis muttered.
“Calm down,” Raven said, “They’re going to see the Crow Keeper of course. Why else would they be at the Crow Keep? After all, her ladyship does feel a lot happier whenever she speaks to Lord Keeper.”
The two were watching as Rosalia and Guiscard crossed the grounds together towards the Crow Keep.
“So who is the Crow Keeper, my lady?” Guiscard asked.
“His family had been caring for the crows for generations,” Rosalia explained, “We’re actually related as well.”
“Mother was from their family,” she explained, “She didn’t have the ability that allowed her to speak to the crows but they liked her as well.”
“I’d imagine it would be hard not to,” Guiscard replied, “I’ve seen her portraits in the halls, she was a truly beautiful woman,” he said before looking at her, “And you resemble her a great deal.”
Rosalia looked at him in surprise.
Pegleg cawed and flapped down to greet them, forcing Rosalia to stop and catch it.
The two entered the keep that had a lot more straw on the ground and the nests had been moved so they were shielded from the cold wind.
“Keeper Bertram? Bertram?” Rosalia called, looking around.
Some of the crows present flew down to greet Rosalia.
Of course that meant scuffling between some of them. Rosalia laughed, as she watched them squawk at one another, “Now, now- calm down,” she told them, holding Pegleg protectively against her chest.
The crow looked arrogantly at its peers.
Guiscard meanwhile, watched Rosalia.
“What is it?” Rosalia asked, noting the expression on his face as she knelt down on the ground to try and stop two twin crows, Thunder and Storm from arguing with one another.
But just as she did, another landed in her dark hair, making her laugh again.
“I- I… just…”
Guiscard let out a small cry of alarm, jumping back when he spotted the strange man who had somehow appeared just behind him without him realising. The man gave a small scream of fear in return.
Which was answered with another cry of alarm.
That was then replied with a small scream.
“That’s enough!” Rosalia ordered impatiently, “Scholar Guiscard- this is the Crow Keeper, Bertram. Bertram, this is the… ah… new flockmate.”
At this point, Bertram was hiding behind Rosalia, cowering in fear.
“N-New. Yes. Something ancient dwells inside him. Glowing. Shining. Blinding.”
“Bertram sometimes just repeats the words the crows speak,” Rosalia explained.
“Lady Rosa visits me,” Bertram said. It wasn’t a question nor was it exactly a statement.
“Yes, I came to visit,” Rosalia told him, kissing his forehead.
Guiscard felt another stir of jealous within him as he looked away under the guise of looking at the crows.
He listened in on their conversation.
It was a very crass thing to do but he couldn’t help it.
The two were speaking about the crows.
“Yes, Inky stole rat,” Bertram was saying, “Dropped it on cook’s head. Cook threw it in fire. Crows angry. Crows wanted to eat.”
Rosalia started laughing.
“She did what?” she asked, “Oh dear, I really need to have you tell her to stop. She’s still in hot water from the time she dragged the maids’ washing through the mud,” she said.
“Inky likes mischief,” Bertram said, though he sounded more disapproving than Rosalia.
Guiscard was watching Rosalia again.
He had never seen her laugh quite so much.
And gods was she beautiful.
Her face lit up as did those dark eyes of hers.
Pegleg landed on his shoulder and pecked his head as though trying to peck the impure thoughts out of him.
He scowled at the bird.