Lisseut de Vezèt, have you gone entirely mad?
The question went unanswered; but then, no response had been expected as the troubadour was speaking only to herself. To anyone in the silent assemblage watching, she appeared to be merely resting her hands on the strings of her harp, preparing to draw forth music in honor of the dead. Faces leapt out at her like flashes in the crowd: Rosala de Talair, pale and composed; the perfect features and dark eyes of Ariane de Carenzu, the grave face of the King of Gorhaut.
You had a song ready! This one has never been performed before! It is insolence--
"This is a song in honour of En Thierry de Carenzu, warrior of Arbonne and king of the Court of Love." Her voice carried clearly through the hall, and she heard the rustling that accompanied the words. Although married to the queen of the Court of Love, no one referred to the Duke of Carenzu as the king.
"After all, it's not like it was a true marriage," Lisseut had heard one lady say tartly to another the night before. "He left her bed cold enough, after all!"
"She didn't let it stay cold for long," her companion had tittered. "And who can blame her, married to such as he? Well, she's free now, at least."
They had said other things then, but Lisseut had moved away to find someplace brighter and warmer. Yet the words had stayed with her, sinking into her soul like a stone, and she had not been surprised when the ripples of their passing had formed a song.
She was surprised, however, to find herself putting aside the solid, conventional piece she had planned to sing in favor of it. Perhaps it had been the sight of Ariane's eyes, tearless and dark in her still, frozen face, that decided it.
Lisseut raised her fingers above the harp.
In a garden filled with flowers
Abloom in rich profusion
We sing songs to the red, red rose
And hymns to the gold lily.
But today my heart is heavy
For the white clover in the grass
For the homely comfort it gives,
A kind scent in a lonely night.
No lovers swear by its blossoms
Yet the dew gems it the same.
It was not one of her best songs, Lisseut knew as her fingers coaxed music from the harp. The melody was graceful enough, but the metaphor was too clumsy, the wording banal.
Yet when she looked up at the face of Ariane de Carenzu, she realized she had no regrets.
As she began the envoi, she let the music carry her voice upward into grief and sang to the baffled pain in those celebrated dark eyes:
Oh unsung, wise white clover!
You and the scarlet rose are yet kin:
The frost touches both
Without a warning
And leaves us alone without you.
She ended the song unceremoniously, an abrupt stilling of strings with no resolution, like a petal falling to the earth. She bowed into the silence, her heart pounding.
There were tears on the face of Gaufroy de Ravenc--on many faces in the hall, Lisseut realized. Ariane's face was dry, but the frozen pain in her eyes seemed to have warmed into something like sorrow.
"Thank you," Ariane de Carenzu said, her voice a thread of silk in the silence.
There were other songs that warm summer evening, but Lisseut's role was done. She retreated to listen to them, to drink wine of remembrance to Thierry de Carenzu, and to try to banish from her mind the sight of the grave hazel eyes of Blaise, the King of Gorhaut, watching her.
She was walking back to her room through the rose-scented night when he fell into step beside her, as easily and as naturally as if they had been walking together for a long time. "Thank you for the song," he said.
"It wasn't for you, it was for En Thierry," she said pointedly, hoping he couldn't hear her heart leap.
He laughed, a low sound in the night. "It is good to be back in Arbonne," he said. "It has been too long."
"I can't imagine you would have missed our woman-soft lands," she said, and wanted to kick herself immediately at the pain she saw glint briefly in his eyes. Lisseut, hold your tongue! she remonstrated herself.
"And yet," he murmured. "Yet I have." He stopped walking and put his hand on her elbow so she turned to face him almost without meaning to. "Lisseut," he said, and she felt her cheeks flush shamefully at the sound of her name in his mouth. "It is not Midsummer Night, but..."
The question trailed off as though he didn't know where it ended himself, but she nodded. "Yes," she said.
"How are the twins?" Lisseut heard herself say as he moved across his room to pour her a glass of wine from a heavy crystal decanter. The words sounded vapid and foolish, but he smiled softly as he handed her the glass.
"They are well," he said. "Guibor has insisted on taking riding lessons, although his instructors say he is far too young. Alina wants so badly to join him." His voice faltered at the end.
"But of course a girl cannot learn to ride in Gorhaut," Lisseut said. But the anger that touched her voice wavered before the sad weariness in his eyes.
"Change is slow, Lisseut," he murmured. "Some things will take lifetimes, not years." He looked at her over the rim of his goblet, his eyes resigned. "I will not keep you if you wish to leave."
She shook her head. "I seem to have a gift for always saying the wrong thing at the wrong time," she said ruefully.
The corner of his mouth twitched. "Let us say rather: a gift for saying the right thing...perhaps at the wrong time."
The air was scented with roses and the wine was thick and sweet in her mouth. She had seen him many times over the years, of course, but always in public and as the King of Gorhaut, sitting side by side with his Queen until last year. She had not been alone with him since the night she sang him to sleep with an old lullaby and let him go, years ago. She wanted to put the goblet down and cross the room to him, taste the wine on his lips in turn, and yet the night seemed to hold her in place, waiting for some last note to complete a chord.
He moved to the window, open to the night and the moonlight. All around it grew a rose briar, twining the casement with a sweet riot of golden flowers. He touched one of them. "Do you remember?"
"Of course I do." She heard Ariane's lush voice in her mind again: The white rose for fidelity, the red for passion, the yellow for love. He had given the white to his brother's wife, and the red to Lucianna Delonghi, beautiful and deadly.
"I never gave the yellow away," he said. In my own country we speak love privately before we declare it to the world, he had announced before passing out. "But it was not--it was not because there was no one it suited." A glint of a smile. "That was not the problem at all."
She did not know what to say. Somewhere in the castle someone was playing a lute, a lonesome threnody far away, and her heart was pounding and she could think of nothing at all to say.
"I took it home with me," he said. "To Gorhaut." She must have moved or made some sound, for he looked at her out of the corner of his eye and said, "I know. It should not have lived so long. And yet it did." He plucked one of the yellow roses encircling the casement with careful fingers. She always assumed that his broad, wide soldier's hands would be clumsy, yet the tenderness with which they picked the rose almost undid her at that moment. "I planted the cutting in the garden at the heart of the castle, at the heart of my land," he said. "And it grew. A rose of Arbonne in the stony soil of Gorhaut." He looked down at the blossom in his hand. "It flowered. My wife--" His voice broke and his fingers tightened on the stem. "She loved that rose."
He reached out and picked a second yellow flower. Lisseut watched him in silence, her head light with wine and grief and desire.
"Do you remember when you came to sing in Gorhaut for the first time?" He smiled slightly at her nod, but he wasn't looking at her. "You sang that song, that 'Chanson to the Kestrel.' That evening I found her in the garden, in front of that rose, all covered with blossoms. And she looked up at me and she said--she said, 'There are so many yellow roses.' She was--" He shook his head. "She was so wise, so kind and so merciless."
"Blaise." Her voice was rough, no singer's voice at all. He looked up at her then, his hazel eyes green in the mingled lights of candle and moon, and she began to cross the room to him.
There was a soft sound at the door, and Lisseut turned with no surprise to find the widowed Duchess of Carenzu there, her eyes wide and dark above her black dress of mourning.
So then, there it was. Lisseut drew herself up to her fullest height, pride shifting her voice back to a joglar's resonance. "My lady," she said, inclining her head. "I was just about to leave." She looked at Blaise, whose eyes had shifted back to hazel, his hand outstretched to her. "She needs you more, my lord," she said, and felt the truth of it, the sorrow and acceptance mixed like bittersweet wine. "You both need each other more." With a brief bow to the King of Gorhaut, she put her glass of wine down and strode to the door--
"No," said two voices, like two strings struck in harmony, a chord that stopped Lisset where she stood. "Please," continued Ariane's voice alone. "I would like to--not be alone tonight." Her eyes were on them both, with a strange tentativeness that Lisseut had never seen on the face of the queen of the Court of Love. "I would like to--not be alone."
Lisseut's gaze went to Blaise, who swallowed once, hard. There was yearning in his eyes, and an almost boyish confusion that made Lisseut suddenly, impossibly, want to laugh. "This is Arbonne," he said, his voice very slightly unsteady. "I am...out of my depth here, my ladies."
And Lisseut felt, suddenly, like she herself was a harp string, stroked into a living chord. Deliberately, slowly, she turned from the door and went to the casement, to the mass of yellow roses there, and picked two. Her hands were shaking, somehow, and she was glad she wasn't playing the harp tonight. She held out one flower wordlessly to Ariane.
"Ah," said Ariane, the sound throaty and rich, and Lisseut realized that a thorn had scored a glancing blow across her knuckles, a tiny thread of scarlet welling there. With infinite grace, Ariane took her hand and raised it to her lips to kiss the wound with her crimson mouth.
It was a strangely formal gesture, nearly courtly, but her mouth lingered and Lisseut felt warm lips caressing her skin. She felt herself trembling, felt strong arms encircling her, and turned into Blaise's embrace, into his--oh at last, at last--kiss, and sweet Rian, Ariane's tongue was brushing at her hand, at her skin, and the bed wasn't close enough, not close enough at all.
In that shadowed night there was laughter, and gasps of pleasure and surprise, and tears shared. There was delight and grief like a new chord, the beginning of some song never heard before, sounded deep in Lisseut's soul and body.
There was, above all, love enough for everyone.
Lisseut de Vezèt is riding out from Carenzu into a glorious morning, the first rays of sunlight touching her like a benediction. There are yellow rose petals in her tousled hair and a song rising in her heart.
She rides forth and she does not look back, smiling and singing as she goes.