Not long after, Marian decorously followed Lady Elizabeth and her cousins down the stairs to a transformed Great Hall. Trestle tables had been set up, the high table on the dais was draped with cloths in the Baldwyn colors, and laid with gleaming plate, expensive beeswax candles augmenting the torch light. The greenery collected for the holiday decorations hung in lush swags from the window arches and the heavy beams overhead, and decorated the ranks of tables.
Wearing a gown of dark green with gold and red ribbons entwined in her long plait of brown hair, she drew the eyes of several of the unattached young men, at least the ones who weren't being enchanted by her cousin Julia's vivacity and charm. Fortunately, during the meal their attentions weren't untoward. There was more musical entertainment between removes, and Marian enjoyed the performance of Xavier the Extraordinary. She'd not had a chance to speak to her cousin since her arrival, but she hoped to do so at some point in the festivities, if she could manage it.
But once the covers had been removed and the floor cleared for the remainder of the evenings' entertainment, those bachelors who had achieved the tentative approval of the parents and chaperones congregated about the young, unattached ladies, eager to dance. Marian stayed close to Magda, laughingly declining offers of partnership. Undaunted the young men turned toward the other Manston girls and started pairing off. As Julia stepped onto the central dancing floor on the arm of a minor landed knight, Marian got a glimpse of Baron Rhys coming down from the high table. He wove his way through the throng, to Thomas Morrisey, technically Marian's closest male relative in the hall, and spoke with him for a moment. Sir Thomas gave a nod and the Baron walked up to Marian, offering his hand.
She placed her hand in his, and allowed him to lead her onto the dance floor, to the head of the set. As was traditional, the opening dance was a pavaane, a stately, processional around the room. She glanced up at him as they step-step-paused in time to the music. "You honor me, sir," she told him softly, masked by the musical instruments' playing. "There are ladies here of higher rank who would have been more appropriate to partner the opening dance."
"But I did not desire them for my partner," he told her in a likewise quiet voice. His fingers tightened on hers as the procession rounded the end of the hall and headed back toward the high table. She glanced at their connected hands and suddenly realized that his tunic was nearly a match for the color of her gown. Unsure if it was mere coincidence or if there were an ulterior motive for his dress, she didn't comment on it, but wondered about it silently for the remainder of the measures of the dance.
When the music ceased, she returned his bow with a profound curtsey. "You asked me for a favor this afternoon," she told him while the other dancers began to mill about for new partners. Fishing up inside the tight cuff of her sleeve, she withdrew the linen square, and pressed it into his hand. "The circlet of laurel ivy is for victory and justice, and the gazehound is for swiftness and keen judgment. Pray carry it as my champion, and be victorious."
He smiled and bowed. "I am honored, my Lady. I shall do my best, against such a talented field." He looked over at his brother, standing talking with some other guests, and very briefly a frown touched his face, then was quickly covered up.
"Is something wrong?" Marian asked.
Rhys shook his head. "It is nothing really. I am just a bit concerned about my brother. It's been a difficult week for him, and despite my lovely inspiration to win, I'm not sure I want to defeat him." He grinned, although it somehow wasn't as full of humor as his smiles usually were. "Although it would probably do his ego some good, and if he fights for Lady Maureen it would be doubly my duty to beat him. I'm not as fond of her as she seems to be of--him."
Marian looked over at Lady Maureen, who was trapped by William the fifth's wife, Lady Dora. Dora thought herself the social butterfly, although most people thought her tiresome. Maureen obviously felt the same way, but hadn't found a way to flee Dora just yet. In her own few conversations with Maureen, Marian had noticed that Maureen held very strictly to the social rules, but with a cold insincerity hiding underneath. Something that Dora most likely would miss.
As her eyes swept the room, Marian again picked up on the undercurrents of tension. There were too many people unhappy with others, although all of them hid it under the cheer of the holiday festivities, some better than others. The Pirallans seemed to hover on the line between politeness and hostility, but that was nothing new, and in fact was a bit of improvement compared to the way they had behaved at Lady Danna's wedding. Her Manston relatives always had some ruffled feathers, but Trevor's prescence had turned William into a sullen tempermental creature. The Manston heir's temper, shorter than ever, made the others nervous, and Baroness Felicia was overcompensating for her lack of control of her sons and the situation. Uncle Brian kept out of everyone's way but always seemed to still end up in the middle of things.
Rhys chuckled, bringing her attention back to him. "I seem to have tarried too long. Your lady Magda is glaring at me again, and so is my castellan. He's still a bit angry that I 'abandoned' him this morning and afternoon." He sighed melodramatically. "I'm plagued on all sides. " He turned to Marian and bowed deeply. "I should check on things. Raleigh might let something go wrong just to prove how neglectful I've been. Enjoy the festivities, my lady."
Rhys kissed her hand and went off in the direction of his castellan, who did indeed look upset. Marian looked over at Magda, who cast a censuring look at her for a moment and then went back to conversing with one of the Rhorau retainer's wives. Marian smiled to herself. While Magda had indeed been glaring, Marian could tell that Magda had been doing it more for show than anything else. Besides, she'd hardly be spending so much time talking with the wives of the retainers if she wasn't checking up on the Baron in the process.
*So, give me any news.* Julia's mental touch surprised Marian so much that she jumped. Julia laughed and said out loud, "Marian, you are getting so lost in your thoughts even I could sneak up on you without even trying."
Marian laughed as well. "There isn't any news--"
"Don't you dare prevaricate, Marian. He danced his first dance with you, and then spent at least two songs just standing there talking to you." Julia's eyes sparkled, but she tried to look stern and scolding.
"What about you? You've been trying so hard, someone has had to take notice." Marian said to try and deflect the attention from herself.
Julia sighed, abruptly pensive. "I don't know. Sometimes it's so hard to tell. I think that Sir Thomas's squire, Phillip, likes me. He plans on staying on here as a retainer if Rhys will have him. No land, but if my dear cousin ends up Baroness maybe that can change." She laughed, suddenly cheerful agaiin. "As for the rest, most of them are taken. Sir Thomas flirts with everyone, I've overheard Sir Dennis talk about his love for a lady, but not who she might be." Julia's voice held a note of scorn for Dennis anyways. A few days ago she'd found him fascinating, but now she sounded like she wanted to run him through with a sword. "Oh, and Sir Kyle, of course, is never far from his mistress. It's so--inappropriate--a knight should not strut around with her in public like that."
Marian opened her mouth to reply, and Julia interrupted. "Wait a moment. I need to talk to Sir Dennis." She walked purposefully towards the hallway as Sir Dennis disappeared down it. She appeared a few moments later, glared around as if looking for someone, and disappeared back down the hallway. Marian wandered over, curious, and Julia returned, leading her sister, Emily.
"Don't ask." Julia snapped, glaring at Emily, who looked a bit frightened. Even though Emily was older, she was so quiet and meek most of the time that when one of the other girls had a fit of temper she quailed before it. Emily hurried away to sit with her parents.
Marian said quietly. "Well, you'd better tell me, or go calm yourself down, Julia. You are practically purple with rage."
Julia turned her glare on Marian for a moment, then she sighed. "That Sir Dennis! First he--" And she switched subjects quickly as Father Brian approached. "Of course, I don't know why she chose to wear that color gown. It does nothing for her complexion." Marian stared around in confusion, then remembered the conversation they'd had the other day about some of the lesser known ladies at Court.
Go to The Favor and the Fight Part Three
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