There was something about walking in outside in only a light, loose overdress that felt almost decadent, Betriz thought. She wondered again at how she and Iselle have ever been allowed to learn to swim, not least with Caz to teach them. In retrospect, she felt an amused sympathy at his now-obvious pains, his determined gaze on their faces as he’d positioned himself seated in the cooler areas of the river. She tightened her arm through Caz’s. "How private, do you think, are the private bathing areas?"
"This lodge and its ands have made a good living passing on the blessings of the Mother and Father to newly wedded couples," Caz said. "Very private, I suspect."
"And as a newly-married couple, we should do our best to secure their blessings," Betriz said. "At least a dozen different people have told me since we arrived that the waters here are miraculous." And any time away from the hundred constant demands of court was probably a miracle in itself. One Betriz intended to take full advantage of.
Caz gestured with his free hand at the grounds, a careful almost-forest, free from brambles and stinging nettles, but with enough high trees and know shrubs to obscure other couples on their way to the private baths. "I could not say whether the waters here are as sacred as they say they are, but I suspect the Mother and Father take much joy in this place, and in the lovers who come here."
Hard not to believe him, and Betriz gave thanks, once again, to whoever had suggested they stop here, a brief interlude on Iselle and Bergon’s grand tour of their joint-domain. The presence of the waters, sacred or not, also gave them an excuse for a visit in relative humbleness, openly incognito. Most of the rest of court had been sent on ahead, with just enough of their core household to preserve the properties of this mock-secret visit. A chance for a moment of simple rest between the drama of Iselle and Bergon’s wedding and the work that waited for them when they finished this tour and set their faces to Visping and beyond.
"Cazeril! Lord dy Cazeril! A moment!" A strident voice called out from behind them. Betriz flinched and felt Caz do the same.
"Oh sweet mercy, no," Caz said. "How could he find me here?"
"Maybe he wants a different dy Cazeril," Betriz said. "Don’t you have a cousin still?"
"Dy Cazeril! I must speak with you urgently! My petition is—" No joy, as the voice and body with it moved in front of them blocking their path down to the baths.
"Ser dy Byder," Caz said, sounded distinctly plaintive. "This isn’t court. Surely such weighty matters as this can wait until we return to more appropriate settings." He gestured at the beautiful gardens, the high hedges that led down to the private bathing areas, and made a final plea, with an audible note of desperation "My wife and I are here, not as our formal selves, but as any other married couple looking for rest from their usual duties."
Dy Hyder looked unmoved. He waved a dismissive hand. "Nonsense! I’m sure your wife understands the importance of affairs of state over domestic matters, as mine does."
Betriz felt Caz’s hand tighten in hers as he swallowed his cry of "She might, but I don’t!"
"Husband, perhaps this can wait…" A quiet voice with the broad vowels of south-western Chalion said from behind the determined mass of dy Hyder.
"Can the merchants of Chalion wait while Ibran markets steal their goods? Can our children wait while loyal, experienced families see their livelihoods destroyed by any Ibran sea-dog with a boat, as their hard-fought contacts are…"
The woman –his wife, Betriz presumed- gave her an apologetic look. She was of average height, younger than dy Hyder by a good two decades, wrapped in the same loose overcoat the lodge had given Betriz. Probably, Betriz thought, as hopeful as Betriz was for a brief interlude from her husband’s work, only to be pushed off course when he spotted Caz.
"The landlady said the water are best taken—" she tried again."
"Liset, you and Lady dy Cazeril can enjoy the waters together," he said, waving her forwards. "You’re probably best to receive their blessings anyway. It’s not like I need them." Betriz fought back a wince at the casual dismissial in that sentence. "Lord dy Cazeril and I can continue our discussion elsewhere."
Liset’s look of apology grew stronger and Betriz quietly estimated how long it would take for Caz to shuck himself of the dy Hyder and detached herself from Caz. She resolutely ignored his look of betrayal, kissed him briefly, affectionately, and followed Liset to the baths.
The baths were very private, Betriz thought mournfully. Dark grey steps lead into the water with high, thick hedges separating each pool. She sat on a low ledge under the water, her loose shift on the ground besides her. The water was warm, enough now at the beginning of winter – a sign of the Father’s blessing, the landlady had assured her. Betriz. Perfect for a wife to share with her husband. Perhaps they could try again tomorrow, if Iselle and Bergon could be persuaded to stay longer? But then Iselle would no doubt have to put up with another set of well-wishers assuring her they were praying for her next child to be a son, or anxiously asking if they were there for a particular reason. Since Iselle and Bergon’s marriage, they’d all had to negotiate the careful line of offering due respect to the Mother, without offering so much it looked like they were praying for Her help.
"I am sorry about my husband," Liset said. "He is very concerned about his family, now that the usual levies and trade-agreements between Chalion and Ibra have fallen. Our family," she corrected herself.
"You’re newly-wed?" Betriz said politely.
"Only a few months ago." She leaned forwards to Betriz. "Can I ask—your family, Paton –my husband- said, they weren’t high court?"
"No, my father’s was Iselle’s grandmother’s castle-warder," Betriz said. "Iselle and I grew up in each other’s company." A fact she was still profoundly thankful for. Grateful, not for the reflected status, not for what it meant to her family –her father, her children when they came- and not even for Caz, as much as she loved him. Grateful for nothing so much as the fact of being able to be there for Iselle, to be part of her guard. To be able to offer her loyalty without the claims of prior duties to her family, the good of Chalion, the gods themselves. Guard her honour with your life, her father had said. And unsaid but true, because not all Iselle dy Chalion’s alliances should be to dy Chalion. She would need at least one to be loyal to Iselle herself.
In the end, she’d had Betriz, Caz and Bergon, but only through… well, luck and the will of the Gods.
Liset nodded, more to herself, Betriz thought, than to her. "I see. I am not—my family are good people, with some claim to land and name, but they’re not…" she shrugged helplessly. "You know? Paton says that when he goes to Cardegoss, I’ll fit in well, but…" She made a face. "I think he assumes that women’s places are free from politics. When I talk to him about it, he tells me that I’m worrying over nothing."
Ah, Betriz thought. Yes. Even before Iselle became Royina, when Teidez, poor, unfortunate Teidez was the heir, she’d been reminded in half a dozen different ways that her roots were in country ground. Told repeatedly how much she owed to Iselle’s fond memories, how lucky she was, how realistic she should be about her prospects. They hadn’t always meant to cruel, even. Sometimes they’d been kind, wanting her to brace herself for when Iselle was sent to some far off kingdom to settle some future treaty.
"It’s not nothing," Betriz said. "But many of the rules are the same wherever you are. Certainly, it’s as possible to make Cardegoss your home as anywhere." Caz, Iselle, Bergon, Palli, Umegat, Quenin, Foix and Ferda, dy Jozen, yes.
"I’m not—I’m not trained for it, you know?" Liset said. She swirled her fingers in the water moodily. "He’s much concerned with the future, you know? I don’t want to be weakness in his ambitions." She sighed, not without humour. "It all seemed much easier when I was only thinking of marrying Paton."
Neither am I, Betriz thought. Neither, in all honesty, was Iselle—certainly for for the position she now held. A pang of sympathy hit her. "You won’t be alone, surely. Dy Hyder has family in Cardegoss?"
"Yes, his family," Liset said. "I think they think he married beneath him. He has grown children, you know. And his wife, his first wife, was from Cardegoss." She sighed. "I think she was very sophisticated. This is the first time I’ve even travelled outside of the plains. This," she gestured at the trees and pool, "is still exotic to me, and we’ve not travelled more than tendays from home."
She was hoping, Betriz realized, not just for reassurance, but for Betriz to take her under her wing. Playing on her weakness and the similarities in their background, even if she was sincere in everything she said.
Betriz didn’t begrudge her that, using what tools she had. It was still strange to have, not just the status of being able to ask Iselle to lend her will to a cause, but to have that in her own right as a lady of the court. She’d been aware of her father’s hopes for her, growing up. A good, large household, a husband of reasoned ambition and good status. And now, she had a household that included taking care of Iselle’s, a husband of somewhat eccentric reason and no real ambition and status beyond any expectation. And with that, the knowledge that even her minor courtesies could be seized on as evidence of official approval or subtle Royal disdain.
"I’m sure you’ll be fine," Betriz said. "Etiquette, sophistication, that can all be learnt. It matters much less what you find when you get than what you bring with you. Kindness matters, good sense matters more, and honour, the real kind, matter most." She leant her head back on the wall and looked up at the sky. The setting sun had painted it a bright, lurid pink on one side and she wondered if she could sneak back here with Caz later.
~I am drunk on beauty, Made foolish by it,~ Betriz quoted in her best Darthacan, half-closing her eyes. ~And in the morning, Oh, how it shall make me ache.~
In the corner of her eye, she saw Liset wince slightly. "I’m sorry?"
Betriz waved a vague hand in apology. "A line from one of my husband’s favourite poets. He has a fondness for poetry, you know." With her eyes shut, she let herself remember the lines in Caz’s voice, turning the sharply-toned Darthacan into something warm.
Tomorrow, early tomorrow they would try to sneak back here before anyone else woke up, Betriz decided. And they’d take candles and a book so Caz could read classic Datharcan poetry to her, or even his own awkwardly powerful words.
The Landlady bustled in the next day and set down the food with careful, deliberate aplomb, hissing off the maid when she tried to take her usual place at the table. She carefully avoided looking directly at Bergon and Iselle, who were still dressed in their plain colours and focused on her work with a determined air before leaving with only a brief curtsy and a hurried glance at Iselle and Bergon.
The food looked to be the local specialties, but in deference to the guests had been placed on incongruously fine and probably borrowed plates.
Iselle leaned forwards and tore off a large chunk of bread. "It’s so nice to be able to eat without it being taken as a sign of something. A second helping of salmon in Zagosur at lunch and Cardegoss has me with twins by dinner."
Bergon rested his hand on hers briefly, comfortingly, then lifted the lid off one of the terracotta pots.
"In the absence of a living father, all of Chalion-Ibra feels it must act the role, anxiously waiting for news of its first grandchild," Caz said, portioning out the bread. "
Iselle’s expression lightened slightly and Betriz made a mental note to double up her efforts to head off misguided well-wishers in the future. Of course, Iselle and Bergon needed an heir, needed to be able to present Chalion-Ibra with proof that the promise of their union would stand, but the endless hopeful prayers would surely be better quietly aimed at the Mother than loudly proclaimed to Iselle.
She distracted herself by opening out the rest of the food. Cheese wrapped in dark nettle-leaves, cured ham, smoked fish, dark spiced pickles, fresh bread and fried green winter-cabbage, symbolizing the Mother and Father’s ability to provide even in winter. It was pleasantly rustic in a way that reminded her of home. Even cutting the cheese made her feel vaguely nostalgic. If Teidez was here, she thought to herself, Iselle would have already had to stop him from taking all the cheese. Poor Teidez, doomed to perpetual immaturity in her memories. She shook the memory off and passed the cheese-plate over to Iselle while Bergon dished himself a large portion of cabbage, spreading it on his bread Datharcan-style and Betriz felt a thought that had been lurking on the edge of her awareness slot into place in her mind.
"Dy Hyder’s new wife," She said and was met with three sets of startled expressions. "She said this was the first time she’d travelled outside of her hometown. That eve these low hills were foreign to her.."
Caz nodded, curious as a magpie. "So he told me. He asked me to persuade you to look after her, when he took her to court. In between taking me to task at some length for not stopping Ibran merchants for all but stealing the best goods from Chalion merchants."
"I don’t think she is," Betriz said. "Or at least, not just from there. I quoted Ruen," She explained, "your favourite line, in my best Darthacan. I saw her wince, and then she asked me what it meant."
Bergon frowned slightly. "I don’t—"
Iselle laughed, interrupting him. "I do. ~Betriz and me had the same shared teacher of Datharcan,~" she said.
Bergon’s expression grew slightly pained. "Iselle, the ending of ~the same~ doesn’t work like if you don’t shorten your vowels properly when you inflect for past. And the tone doesn’t change at the end of the sentence."
"I have been reliably told that I sound like an Ibran fishwife—" Iselle said cheerfully.
"A South-Ibran fishwife," Caz corrected.
"—When I try to speak Darthacan. As does Betriz, despite the best efforts of our later tutor." She gave Bergon a look of deepest affection. "How well could your mother conceal her pain when someone stumbled over the correct pronunciation of ~to be~, love?"
"She didn’t much try, in all honesty," Bergon said. "But oh, I see. And you think she’s not just a diligent student of the language?"
"Perhaps," Betriz said, "But then why conceal that she could understand me? And besides, that pained look is particular, I think, to people who learnt that terrible, willfully difficult language at their mother’s knee and think that those of us that didn’t must, perforce, be more stupid than any child." She gestured at Caz for the smoked fish. "Not to bring up politics at the breakfast table but…" She trailed off and took a large bite of the nut-loaded bread.
"Darthaca must be aware of our grand ambition," Bergon said.
"And as willing to plan for the future," Iselle said, her mouth pursing. "A friend inserted into our court—into our affections, even?"
Caz nodded. "Dy Hyder does much trade with Darthaca—that’s one of his issues. He feels that Ibran merchants travelling by sea may now have an advantage over his land-trains, now that the usual levies have been removed from trade on the Chalion-Ibra border. Perhaps he feels it necessary to make stronger connections there?" He frowned, thinking and Betriz felt a surge of affection at the sight of it, the sharp intelligence behind it, not just as something warm, comforting, but fierce and forceful as a summer storm. Hers, as Iselle was, Bergon, her parents, and everyone in Chalion and beyond that she loved. Hers to care for and protect, and then hers to take joy in, watching them move about in the world.
"And using Betriz's kindnesses as their gateway," Bergon said. "If she is from Darthaca…"
"If not, she's only playing on my sympathies to help her find a place," Betriz said. "From a good family of no particular name," She assumed a put-upon air, "dragged into rarified heights by bonds of great affection." And happier for it, withal. She leaned forwards and passed Iselle the smoked fish. "Either way, how best shall we deal with her?"