There was dissent in the realm; she could sense it.
Now, Quinn le Favre was no ordinary noblewoman. She was set to inherit her father's fief despite being a younger daughter. She was well-educated and shrewd. She could outfight most of the men in the castle guard. She was so beautiful bards wrote songs about her golden hair, her fair face, and her radiant smile daily.
Well, except for at least one, apparently.
It started with the maids. Brittany, a new girl from the provinces, learned the tune from the washerwomen who sang at the river. She sang it in the castle halls (with her own lyrics), and inadvertently taught it to the castle staff. Noah the stable boy had heard the same song in the town but retained some of the lyrics; together, they were responsible for starting the entire debacle.
It began when Quinn arrived at the stables for her morning ride, heard a snatch of lyrics, and dropped her bridle.
"Noah," she said through gritted teeth, "what was that song?"
He spun around, eyes going wide. "I – uh – my lady! You look simply radiant today! Master Will composed a pretty catchy tune last night, didn't he? How did it go..."
"Spare me the 'my lady' crap. You were the one who took my virginity when we were fourteen, and you haven't dignified me with any polite title since then."
Noah shrugged. "When a noble lady who doesn't look like the wrong end of a sow comes to you wanting to 'practice', you can't blame me for complying. It's practically a command from heaven."
She rolled her eyes. "Shut up and tell me where you heard that song."
The asp is master of all he surveys.
Iron coils armouring his great deeds
The master reigns for the rest of his days
No challenger he meets
Until the new dawn greets
the firebird perches atop a hill.
Three years since it raised its head
Another three years more, it'll
burst into a song so intricate
by it the world remade.
Kurt shrugged. "Aiming a little too high there, Rachel."
"What do you mean?"
"Animal allusions are kinda hard. No one's gonna get what you're trying to say."
Rachel got a smug look on her face. "That's precisely what I intended."
"No, I'm not. Perfectly the opposite, as a matter of fact. The lord can't clap me in irons for libel if he can't prove I was singing about him, am I right?"
"You walk a dangerous path."
"Philistine," muttered Rachel, taking up her lute again. "I am an innovator and a musical genius. It'll spread, I know it will."
"So far, your musical genius has only spread to that pub over there," said Kurt. "And only because they tarred and feathered the resident bard, and couldn't find a replacement on such short notice."
"Even the great Taliesin got his start as a kitchen boy. I'll get my big break, and I'll be the star I've always known I was born to be."
"He wasn't – you know what? Never mind. I'll just sit here and indulge your delusions of grandeur."
Rachel made a pleased sound. She strummed a few opening chords and sang:
"In a fair kingdom seven leagues from the sun,
there lived a princess who would love no one.
She received a suitor, a brave young man,
He carried a gift of gold in his right hand.
She posed him a riddle, he could not reply,
It was off with his head, by the bye!
She cared for no man, living or dead;
It was said even Adonis himself would not turn her head.
A pity, indeed, for her beauty was well-told
Her eyes hazel-green, her hair spun gold.
Fair of face, long of limb, with a laugh of silver –
She stopped playing. "Kurt," said Rachel urgently, "what rhymes with silver?"
He shrugged. "You're the bard; didn't they teach you this in bard school?"
"There is no such thing as bard school," said Rachel scathingly, "we are apprenticed to masters, much like you and your wagoner trade, Kurt."
"I knew I would take over my father's trade ever since I was a boy."
"But that's not what you truly want, isn't it?"
Kurt shrugged nonchalantly. "I won't starve," he said, and changed the subject. "Anyway, what was that stuff about the princess cutting off the guy's head? It wouldn't be a poorly-concealed song about our fair princess, would it…? And that's not what happened to Sir Finnegan anyway."
"Of course not. Singing libelous songs about our royal family, bless them, would mean a day in the stocks. I would never sing anything insulting, or untrue, about them."
"Absolutely. I take my craft very seriously, Kurt."
He rolled his eyes. "Whatever you say. Sir Finnegan was so handsome. With those eyes, crooked grin, broad shoulders, and bright;y-polished armour…"
"That looked like the only thing bright about him," commented Rachel.
"You are a sad, sad little woman," said Kurt good-naturedly. "He was easily the most good-looking man ever to grace our land, and you must be a fool to think otherwise."
There were more songs that reached Quinn's ears over the next few weeks, though none as stinging as the first ditty. She would hear Brittany singing a snatch of song over and over again (presumably because she had forgotten the rest of the words) as she went about her day's work.
When in the stables for her morning ride, Noah often shared what gossip he overheard from the townspeople about the singer; at Quinn's instigation, naturally. "A female minstrel," he said, waggling his eyebrows, "such a rarity. A fair bird that sings! Employed at a tavern, no less!"
"Keep your manhood in check lest I ask my father to lop it off," replied Quinn testily.
"La, my lady Quinn," he laughed, "one as beautiful and kind as you would never deprive this rooster of his chance to crow in the barnyard."
"... On second thought, I could do it myself; the gelding irons are right here in the stable."
Noah blanched. "I take back what I said about you being kind. It was a joke."
"I'm a le Favre, Noah," said Quinn. "We're not known for our kindness, or our sense of humour."
"You can say that again," the stablehand muttered under his breath. "Anyhow, lady, your horse is ready. Have a good morning."
Quinn put spur to her horse and rode out the castle gates. She would never admit it, but the songs were… catchy. What lyrics she had heard (which Brittany had remembered) were as witty as they were insulting. She wondered whether the reason no one had put the minstrel in the stocks yet was because no one had been able to understand the references. Quinn gritted her teeth; this minstrel was playing a dangerous game indeed if she thought herself too clever for this fief.
Noah had mentioned that she performed regularly at a certain tavern in town, hadn't he? Perhaps she should start patronising the arts.
The knight did battle, won his war
and came for his prize. "Lady," he said,
"I did not know beauty until I saw
such as thee, fair maid."
"Sir knight," she answered, "so gallant and bold,
you have fought well and earned your reward."
Her father, well-pleased, said, "I am old
and have not much more. Will your sword
defend us as you should?"
But a sword ploughs no fields, builds no homes,
fills no bellies, grows no food.
She played a few more chords and played the melody again, finishing her performance with a flourish. Rachel waited until the applause had died down (the applause in her mind, that is; actual audience appreciation was limited to a few drunken jeers and an empty tankard lobbed in her direction).
Her work done for the night, she took her free tankard of ale from the smiling alewife and went to find a seat. "You've got something against knights, haven't you?" asked Kurt sardonically when Rachel came over to his table. "And by God's grace, what was that ridiculous bit of lute-picking after the song was done? You sounded like a panicked cat."
Rachel scowled. "It's called a solo. Rather than simply accompanying my voice, it's an opportunity to demonstrate my skill at lute-playing and provide a musical interlude to the song."
"Your newfangled ideas will never catch on." He sipped delicately at his ale. "Ugh. This is disgusting, the alewife must have put in too much water again."
"Oh, I'm sure it's not that bad…" Rachel drank some of her ale, and shuddered. "Okay, that's not ale. This tastes like river water, but I'm fairly certain this is more likely to give me a fatal chill."
"Mistress Schuester doesn't drink her own brew, that's the problem," muttered Kurt. "Methinks she's too clever for that; she says she doesn't want to get drunk on the job. Whatever. I think the real reason is that she only drinks sour milk. Explains why she has a face like that."
He and Rachel exchanged a snicker, and then Rachel frowned. "Wait – did you say Mistress Schuester? Any relation to Will Schuester, the lord's minstrel?"
"His wife," said Kurt.
"It's a small land we live in."
"What do you expect? The earth is flat. Any more people and we'd all fall off the edges."
Rachel nodded. "You're right."
Underneath her hood, Quinn seethed. She, unlike most of the drunken boors in the tavern, knew quite well what the minstrel was singing about. So the plucky little thing didn't like war and fighting? What did she know? It was good Norman steel and the trusty sword-arms of Norman knights that had won her ancestors their land. War was dirty work, granted, but she found it ludicrous a tiny woman who'd probably never gotten her hands dirty thought she could pass judgement on her betters.
Quinn decided she didn't care for arrogant little minstrel girls who bleated about things she didn't know. Foolish girls with their soft-looking hair and deep brown eyes…
She took a sip of her ale and choked. If it were any weaker, it would lose an arm-wrestling match to a newborn babe.
Yes. Where was she? As lady and heir to her father's realm, Quinn considered it her God-given duty to set this misguided soul on the right path. A minstrel was expected to sing the praises of warriors and clashing steel; it was no wonder she was reduced to warbling hastily-slapped-together ditties in taverns, acting like she was a martyr.
Even if it was a rather nice voice, and she hadn't been expecting the lady minstrel to be pretty. Noah's ability at describing women tended to start from teh neck down.
She mentally chided herself. Evil came wearing pretty faces; if evil looked as ugly as it truly was, everyone would be a saint.
Quinn decided she would get an early start on teaching the upstart a lesson in humility. Clad in a simple dress borrowed from one of the servant girls, she slipped out of the castle shortly after matins, retracing her steps to the tavern.
It was closed, of course, but it would serve its purpose as the starting point of Quinn's search. Sure enough, she heard a familiar melodic voice – irritating, she mentally corrected herself – drifting down the street.
Ahead of her next performance at the tavern, Rachel had decided to compose a new song. She was losing the rapt attention of her audience; why, Master Adams hadn't thrown his usual crust of moldy bread last night!
She fished a scrap of vellum out of her bag, looking for an idea she had stashed for a day just like this.
A marriage between a man and his wife
is a sacred joining of two souls before God.
What right does he, with mortal life
decide who shall and shalt not
be harmoniously bound in one accord?
A young woman who had been hanging around the town fountain sat upright. "Yes, go on; what else did this man do?"
"I'm not finished writing the song yet," said Rachel sheepishly. "I haven't fully caught up with the latest town gossip."
"You're very bold," said the woman, "to be composing such songs. You do know the lord has laws against libelous songs?"
"It's just a song. The person or persons mentioned may or may not bear a passing resemblance to actual people."
The young woman eyed her suspiciously. "You suck at writing songs."
"Excuse me! I resent that." Rachel set down her lute. "My mistress was Shelby of Carcassonne, and she was the minstrel in residence at the court of Aquitaine."
"I have heard of her," conceded the woman grudgingly.
"But apparently you didn't learn much from her."
The smile turned into a scowl. Swelling with anger, Rachel hopped off her seat, adjusting her tassels.
"Now see here, my good woman; I don't know who you think you are, but I won't sit here and allow you to mock me and my skills. I'll have you know I have overcome a turbulent upbringing and suffered greatly to prove my worth and be apprenticed to Mistress Shelby."
"And yet, you use your skills to mock your bett-our liege and his family, and spread falsehoods."
Rachel spluttered. "Falsehoods? You take that back, viper!"
"I speak not poison but truth," fired back the woman, "something which you are clearly unfamiliar with."
"I do not malign or praise our liege; a minstrel relates events as they are without fear of suppression." Rachel could not imagine the world this woman seemed to believe in, a world where people were persecuted for what they believed. "You are uncannily invested in the name of the ruling family."
"I only wish there be truth spoken about them," said Quinn hastily. She had revealed too much, and she needed to go.
"What you call truth is unvarnished, sycophantic – hey, where are you going? I wasn't finished talking!"
"If only you sang as well as you can talk," said the woman with a frown.
"You – how rude! May the Muses take your hearing!"
"Gladly, if it means I don't have to listen to you!"
They stopped short, chests heaving, glaring at each other. Rachel made quite the sight in her colourful minstrels' clothing and matching crimson face. "You," huffed Rachel, placing her hands on her hips, "are the most infuriating, irksome, tasteless, and infuriating person I have had the misfortune to meet."
"Well, you are the worst minstrel ever," fired back the young woman. "And you said infuriating twice."
"That's how infuriating you are!" yelled Rachel. And she stomped away before her opponent could get another word in.
While Quinn wouldn't call it a failure, her… encounter of the day before was certainly not a success. She had gotten nowhere in getting the little minstrel to admit her wrong, and had only come close to revealing her true identity.
She would try again another day.
Rachel had been in a funk since her verbal sparring match the week before. Generally, things hadn't been going well for her that week – she'd broken a lute string, the pub had been destroyed in a brawl and they hadn't the funds to pay her for the performances she'd already given, and she'd contracted a raging case of writer's block. But that had been the last straw from her haystack.
Last straw, haystack… Rachel sat up straight. "That's a fantastic metaphor," she mused aloud. "Last straw… losing my mind… perfect!"
The last bird left in the forest calls
The last leaf of autumn is gone
The last straw of a summer haystack falls
The last person left alive mourns
"... Too depressing." She sighed dejectedly, and set her lute back down. It would have to wait a while to become a proper song, but the words went into the scraps of vellum she carried with her.
To cheer herself up, Rachel tuned her lute half an octave down, and sang an old ballad:
If the sun would lose its light
And we lived in an endless night
And there was nothing left that you could feel
If the sea were sand alone
And the flowers made of stone
And no one that you hurt could ever heal
Well that's how broken I would be
What my life would seem to me
If I didn't have your love to make it real
"Finally, something that folk would want to hear. A gold piece says you didn't write that."
Rachel hit a sour note in her surprise, wincing as it reverberated. Her nemesis, the unnamed girl with blonde hair and hazel eyes that seemed green in a certain light –
She ground her teeth. She would just have to remember that turn of phrase for later; defending her own honour took priority now. "It's you," said Rachel flatly.
The girl looked like she was fighting a scowl. Or afflicted with some facial tic; Rachel didn't care to find out. "You remember me?"
"It's hard to forget someone who is my most vocal critic, and who is the only person in town who loathes my craft enough to harass me in the daylight hours." Rachel tried to fold her arms across her chest and scowl, but forgot she was still holding her lute; her scowl deepened as she tried to put the instrument down gently and yet maintain the air of hostility she was trying to project. "I see you've come back for more."
"I don't know what you're talking about," lied Quinn.
"It doesn't matter. I have no audience to perform for tonight, and you need not make your ears bleed listening to my latest compositions about our beloved liege."
Rachel shrugged. "There was an unfortunate incident in the tavern that hires me last night; a drunken brawl, or even perhaps someone took issue with the ale. The place was quite badly damaged. No tavern, no performing, no money."
"Yes, oh." Rachel tweaked at a tuning peg on her lute. "I suppose in a way you've won, good woman. I should be moving on to another town soon, and the people there won't appreciate songs about a lord they don't know."
"I, um." The woman cleared her throat. "I am… sorry to hear that."
Rachel nearly broke another string in her surprise. "Excuse me? Not that I don't appreciate your sentiments," she added hastily, "but this is a surprise indeed. I thought you would be glad to see me gone."
"I did not want you gone. Your voice isn't… as unpleasant as I may have insinuated, but…" She cleared her throat, quite red in the face, and continued in a louder voice: "I had only intended you not slander the le Favre family as you cruelly and falsely did."
Rachel grinned, latching onto the compliment with both hands. "Not unpleasant. Thank you, lady; I find that high praise indeed."
The woman scowled. "You vain peacock. Trust you to only hear what you wish, and cast off the rest."
Rachel started grinding her teeth. It was a horrible habit her father and her mistress had long chided her for, and she had mostly managed to suppress it – except for occasions like this, when she was angered beyond belief. The woman was prickly beyond human comprehension. "You, my good lady, are really, really, starting to annoy me."
The girl arched an eyebrow in clear disbelief. "Only now? Have you been turning a deaf ear to me all this while?"
"That does it!" Rachel snapped. "Do you say I cannot write a proper song? Come back in a week, and I shall show you what I, Rachel de Baya, am capable of!"
"What, making empty threats?" The woman scoffed, and added: "Can you even survive a week? I don't think a minstrel can sustain on noise and vellum scratchings, especially an unemployed one."
Rachel, by now, had learned not to respond to the apparent kindness hidden in insults her opponent seemed fond of. "I have savings and friends. I won't starve, if that's what you're concerned about."
The woman's lip twisted. "Feh. No such thing. A week it is, then," she said, her tone deeply derisive.
If her lute wasn't a prized instrument of her craft, made in Picardy by a famed luthier and engraved with her name as a parting gift from her mistress, Rachel would have flung it at the girl. As it were, she had to content herself with stomping her foot and hurling curses in all the languages she could think of, before walking away.
There was nothing more she hated than people who belittled her.
Quinn was so preoccupied with the strange little minstrel that she dawdled through an official opening of a civic hall, she lost her place when conducting the ritual launching of a new naval vessel, and quite forgot she was supposed to grace a charity event that supported the fief's orphanages.
"Is something bothering you, daughter?" asked Lord Rousel over dinner that evening.
"Nothing, Father," lied Quinn. She certainly wasn't about to tell him the truth; not when the truth involved her sneaking out of the castle to mingle with the common folk, especially not a minstrel. Her father was a practical man with little time or patience for someone who sang songs and recited epic poems for a living.
"Then there can be no excuse for the lapses of your duty that I hear you have committed. You have been neglectful of late."
Quinn pushed her plate away. "Yes, Father."
"This does not reflect well on you, especially not after your betrothal to Sir Finnegan was called off," said the older man severely. "I don't understand you. He is a baronet, God's blood; he has a place in the royal court with the promise of more to come." He paused. "For a man with land of his own, wedded to a wife with more."
She kept her eyes trained on the half-eaten food in front of her, and said nothing.
The lord grunted. "Go to your room. I will speak with you later."
Quinn practically ran upstairs.
"Are you still working on that fancy song for your maiden?"
"I wish you wouldn't say it like that," muttered Rachel, "but yes, I am." She jotted down a bar, frowning at it, biting absently at the end of her quill pen. Kurt deliberately looked away as she tried to discreetly spit out some feathery bits. "It's not a fancy song."
"Ah, but you didn't deny she's your maiden."
Rachel ignored him. "Is there a reason apart from jibing me that brings you here this fine afternoon, Kurt?"
"Can't a friend bid you good day?"
She dug her writing knife out of her bag and waited patiently. Her quill was starting to smear horribly, and a sharpening was long overdue. "I wouldn't call you a friend."
"Oh, all right." He folded his arms across his chest. "My father wished me to tell you he found you an opportunity for a patron."
Rachel gave a shriek, dropping her knife into the fountain. "A patron?"
"That's what I said," muttered Kurt darkly. Rachel being Rachel, and a minstrel to boot, meant that her cries of surprise tended to be exceedingly ear-piercing. "Our liege finds himself wanting entertainment for his feasts apart from gorging himself on meats and watching animals tear each other's limbs off, after Master Will's unfortunate run-in with said limb-tearing bear."
She beamed at him, much too excited by the prospect of finding steady employment to be put off by his graphic description of her potential employer, and her predecessor's misfortune.
"You dropped your knife," pointed out Kurt.
"Blow the knife," said Rachel vehemently, "I must prepare! Let me see; first I must give notice at the tavern. They are still rebuilding, but they will surely miss my performances once they are reopened for business; perhaps I will make arrangements with Mistress Schuester to give a farewell concert to ease the sorrow of parting."
"... You haven't secured the position yet, Rachel."
"I promised Master St. James I'd let him land one of his missiles on my person. He was so distraught when none of the foul eggs he'd kept from his farm specially to throw at me came close." Rachel frowned. "His aim would be much better if he would drink less ale."
She was already packing her things, stuffing everything back into her bag and tossing it over her shoulder. The lute was slung over the other shoulder, and Rachel de Baya was headed to the castle.
Quinn hated it. All her life, she had been saddled with the burden of being her father's heir; being the younger daughter had only made it heavier. People expected great things of her because it was more common that the elder inherit, and they reasoned that Quinn must have showed some great promise. She was hardly going to tell them that a soothsayer had predicted she would be born a boy; her overjoyed father had immediately proclaimed that his second-born would follow after him.
No one spoke of that incident, especially not Lord Rousel, but there were times Quinn would catch him looking scornfully at her. Especially when she had just done something that he disapproved of.
The lord didn't bother knocking on the door. "Your behaviour disappoints me, daughter," he said, adding a sneer to the last word.
She kept her head bowed, eyes demurely downcast.
"You shame your kind," he went on, "you shame your sire. What daughter does not obey her father's wishes when it comes to marriage? I am taking great pains to choose a man that will look after you once I am dead. You humiliated me by defying my wishes, and embarrassing the baronet."
Lord Rousel paused to stare at her coldly. "Your dereliction of duty is just the latest in the string of things that vex me. You are already a great disappointment to me," he said. "Don't make me wish I had drowned you in the moat at birth."
Quinn's hands clenched into fists, hidden by her dress. She had vowed she would never cry in front of her father.
"You will attend me in my duties for the entirety of tomorrow. Disappoint me again, and I will be less than merciful. Do you understand?"
"Perfectly, my lord."
Quinn was desperately bored. She had far better things to do than attend her father as he went about his daily business. At least the meetings of the burghers and the councils held by the stewards were interesting. But inspecting the quality of the food from the market? Checking to ensure there were no valuables lost in the nightsoil?
"You're hiring servants. I don't need to be here," she grumbled.
"This is a tedious but necessary chore you must be accustomed to," said Lord Rousel grandly. "Once I am gone, all this will be yours – now that your sister is in France, wedded to that count of hers. I did not approve of him – a Frenchman, God's belly! – but his popularity in the French court cannot be ignored."
"Praise God," said Quinn dully. She felt sorry for her sister, but of the two children, one had to be married off so there was no competition for the inheritance – and at least, her sister liked the man she was marrying. Quinn was already lucky enough that her father had established his youngest as his heir over the traditional eldest. She put her elbow on the table, letting her head rest on her clenched fist, and watched as Lord Rousel made his mark on the vellum, and welcomed yet another brace of serving boys to his household.
Then her head promptly slipped off as she caught sight of the person who had entered the hall.
Rachel, judging from the round eyes and little 'o' of her mouth, had spotted her too. Quinn couldn't keep the blush from staining her cheeks when she saw Rachel's eyes take in their surroundings, go to her father, and then rest on her.
"May I be excused?" she asked Lord Rousel.
"Daughter, your impudence astounds me. I have said you may not leave me for today, and therefore you shall not."
Defeated, Quinn slumped a little in her chair – pulling herself up scant seconds later. She really didn't need an emergency session with her etiquette tutor; the woman may have been pushing forty, but she was still a force to be reckoned with.
"Good even," said the lord. "You must be a minstrel," he added, taking in the brightly-patterned jerkin Rachel wore.
Rachel curtsied. "Good even, milord, and well met. I am Rachel de Baya, and I have heard there was an opening in your household for a performer and entertainer. I have come in hope that I would be meeting your standards."
"I know you can sing. Do you know the poems?"
"All the most popular ones, sir; the Arthurian romances, of course. The Song of Roland. A few of the great older tales like that of Beowulf, and the Poetic Edda."
Lord Rousel grunted. He had never been patient enough to sit through a recital. "Hnn. Who was your master?"
"My mistress," said Rachel, with just a touch of dramatic flair, "is Shelby of Carcassonne."
The lord grunted again. "I've actually heard that name, Saint Francis be thanked," he said, not actually sounding thankful. "Can you juggle?"
"Swallow fire? Tell jokes? Mimic wild animals?"
"I can hiss like a teakettle dragon," offered Rachel helpfully.
Lord Rousel leaned back in his seat, arms folded across his chest. Quinn's heart sank; she knew that look.
What she wasn't familiar with, though, was the brief, pleading look on the minstrel's face sent her way.
Quinn made her decision.
"Father," said Quinn urgently, "she knows Beowulf."
"You know the consequences for speaking out of turn, daughter; and so impudently, at that," he said, shooting her a quick baleful look.
"My lord. Please." Quinn wondered why she was jeopardising her – already severely limited freedom – for Rachel's sake. "There are precious few minstrels who know King Arthur and Beowulf, let alone obscure tales like The Song of Roland. It would impress visitors that you managed to find and keep such a talent. It says a lot about your discerning taste."
"French poetry is becoming quite popular in the royal court, because His Majesty himself is an accomplished poet and minstrel," continued Quinn relentlessly, careful not to look at Rachel – who had been staring at her for the past ten minutes. "You – minstrel. Can you compose songs?"
"Of course, milady," answered Rachel, her eyes never leaving Quinn.
She turned to her father. "She can compose songs about your great deeds, Father. Your fame will live on."
He scowled. "Like those outrageous songs that I heard have surfaced of late?"
"Uh – not as vulgar as those," said Quinn quickly; Rachel had ducked her head. "Epic songs recited at feasts. Our family's name, synonymous with glory long after we are dust."
"The le Favres will never be dust, by God's grace," said the lord sharply.
"Amen," said Quinn and Rachel.
Lord Rousel drummed his fingers on the table. Rachel stared at Quinn; Quinn stared at anywhere but Rachel. "Fine," he said at length. "Not like anyone listens to the minstrel at a feast anyway." He pushed the contract across the table towards Rachel. "Make your mark here," he said, pointing at the bottom of the page, "and you'll be my court minstrel."
Rachel curtsied deeply – mostly so she could attempt to catch Quinn's eye. "I thank you, my liege, my lady; and may God bless your boundless generosity."
Quinn nodded tightly. "I'm afraid I'm not feeling well, Father. A touch of my womanly ailment, I think."
"Of the monthly variety."
Lord Rousel blanched. "Go rest in your chamber. I will see you at dinner, if you feel up to it."
She rose gracefully, sweeping a fluid curtsey. "I thank you, my lord. Mistress Rachel," she nodded to Rachel, and left the hall.
"That was my daughter and heir, Quinn," said the lord; Rachel snapped her attention back to him. "I daresay you'll see more of her as time goes by. She reads too much – that mother of hers fills her head with romances and pagan stories – and she'll want to hear those Rolling Stones – "
"Roland," corrected Rachel.
" – Rock and Roll poems soon enough. You won't catch forty winks, mark my words." Lord Rousel stood up from the table, grunting with the effort. "Thomas, my seneschal, will get you settled." He nodded at the thin man who had stepped forward when his name was mentioned. "Good even to you."
Apart from lodging (a straw-stuffed mattress in the ladies' quarters, three meals a day, and the right to wear her new lord's colours (plus two sets of clothing in the same), Rachel also earned twenty-three shillings a year for her position as court minstrel. It was a generous sum given that she was only required to perform at feasts and at the lord's pleasure, and obliged to compose new music when asked.
"You are free to come and go between the castle and the town," explained Thomas. "The castle gates open at matins and close for the night after vespers. If you are locked out, you will need to fend for yourself for the night. Though," he paused to sniff, "a young woman like you should not be out of doors at that late hour."
Rachel bristled. "I am more than capable of taking care of myself; I traveled to Aquitaine alone to begin my apprenticeship."
Thomas eyed her and gave another sniff. "Indeed."
She was almost incandescent with anger, but swallowed it with difficulty. She liked this new job and wanted to keep it. It would be a pity to lose it, especially after her arch-nemesis had gone to great lengths to secure it for her.
Arch-nemesis no longer, thought Rachel.
"I hear you hired a new minstrel."
Quinn turned at the sound of the voice, and sighed. "Hello, Santana. I see you've returned from Wurttemberg safely. What a pity."
The Spaniard grinned. "With a honeyed tongue like that, it's a wonder you're still unmarried. Men do love a skilled tongue."
"Stop your vulgar blathering," ordered Quinn without force. Santana technically came from a very old Spanish family, but her father had been an unlucky younger son who'd lost the battle for the inheritance, and been forced to flee Andalusia to find refuge among distant relatives. Santana was his eldest daughter, the only one of her siblings who still remembered the arid air of their homeland.
The two had grown up together, even though Santana was supposed to be a lesser noble and therefore Quinn's vassal. In reality, she was Quinn's trusted lieutenant and right hand, who often treated Quinn like an equal – much to the latter's annoyance. Quinn, however, took little actual offense to Santana's ways. She was the closest thing Quinn had to a friend within the castle walls.
"I will, when you give me something more interesting to talk about." She sat in the chair opposite Quinn's desk. "I saw the girl earlier, on my way in. Pretty little thing."
"I thought you'd stopped your philandering?"
"Merely on hold while I woo sweet Brittany out of her bedclothes and into mine."
"You nasty creature."
"You're one to talk! Who was the one who sent Sir Finnegan packing? Is a baronet not good enough for you?"
Quinn pinched the bridge of her nose. "I didn't want to marry him."
The cocky smirk Santana wore faltered a little. "You know that's not a decision we noble daughters can make." She was betrothed to another retainer in Quinn's household; Ivan Karovski, thirty years her senior, who was known for his fondness for pretty young women. She had wept for days when told the news, but he was the best her impoverished family could manage; so she was making the most of her last years of freedom sleeping with whomever caught her fancy.
"I know," responded Quinn softly.
Santana got up, moving over to Quinn's side, and squeezed her shoulder. "Don't work too hard," she said. "If you need me, I'll be in the scullery."
"In the scullery maid, you mean," retorted Quinn scornfully.
"Knuckle-deep!" she called over her shoulder with a cackle.
Summer move forward and stitch me the fabric of fall
Wrap life in the brilliance of death to humble us all
How sweet is the day
I'm craving a darkness
As I sit tucked away with my back to the wall
And the taste –
"Every time I find you, you're always singing."
"And every time I sing, it attracts you somehow," responded Rachel lightly. She put her lute down and sprang to her feet, curtsying low. "What can I do for you, milady?"
Quinn crossed her arms across her chest, the ghost of a smile on her face. "We are very polite now you know who I am, Rachel de Baya."
Rachel shrugged. "One does what one has to do to get by, my lady."
"Was that the song you were going to impress me with?" said Quinn, changing the subject. Rachel's cool deference left a sour taste in her mouth, for some reason.
"Certainly not, Lady le Favre. I would sing praises of your generosity, your fair features, how your beauty would make blind men see and kings weep."
"Kings weep over pretty girls a lot," observed Quinn dispassionately. "Look at Penelope."
"There were a lot of songs written about the face that launched a thousand ships; I could sing one for you, if you'd like."
"You're well-read for a minstrel."
Rachel smiled. "One of my mistress' friends is Christine de Pisan."
If Quinn felt a flutter of jealousy at that, she tamped it down effectively. "Your mistress is well-connected for a minstrel."
"Our songs are what keep us employed," said Rachel, seemingly unperturbed by Quinn's subtle insult. "We need to hone our wits, and read widely to find sources of inspiration."
"You need inspiration to flatter a lord?"
"To write clever allusions and turns of phrase that flatter a lord, yes."
"To earn a bag of gold."
Rachel raised an eyebrow, but said: "We need to eat."
Quinn's lip curled. "Money-grubbing."
"Not all of us are lucky enough to be born into a good family," replied Rachel. Throughout the entire conversation, her voice had yet to rise above normal tones. Quinn felt a sudden rush of shame.
"... I liked it," she muttered. "Your song."
"Oh. Well, I'm glad," responded Rachel. The smile on her face was far more genuine now. "Would you like me to sing it again?"
Quinn nodded. She watched, fascinated, as the minstrel fiddled with the tuning pegs of her lute and played a few notes before clearing her throat.
Summer move forward and stitch me the fabric of fall
Wrap life in the brilliance of death to humble us all
How sweet is the day
I'm craving a darkness
As I sit tucked away with my back to the wall
And the taste of dried-up hopes in my mouth
And the landscape of merry and desperate drought
How much longer dear angels
Let winterlight come
And spread your white sheets over my empty house
Summer move forward and leave your heat anchored in dust
Forgotten him, cheated him, painted illusions of lust
Now language escape, fugitive of forgiveness
Leaving as trace only circles of rust
And the taste of dried-up hopes in my mouth
And the landscape of merry and desperate drought
How much longer dear angels
Come break me with ice
Let the water of calm trickle over my doubts
Listening to doggerel put to music was one thing, but when Rachel was putting her heart into her music… Quinn couldn't tear her eyes away.
Quinn breathed out softly, reluctant to break the spell. "That was lovely."
"I'm glad you think so." They smiled shyly at one another, until a woman's voice echoing around the stone halls made the smile drop from Quinn's face.
"I need to go. That's my mother searching for me."
"Then go," prompted Rachel. "You know where to find me."
Quinn stood, completely dumbfounded. There, standing in front of her, flanked by her grinning parents, stood Sir Finnegan.
"M'lady," he said, dropping a stiff bow (he was in full armour, which clanked with every move he made). "You are as radiant as the morning sun, more so than… uhh…"
"More so than before, just the last time I laid eyes on your face," supplied Lady Judith.
"More so than before, the last time I eyed your just-laid face."
The lady's expression remained dignified. "Not precisely, sir knight."
Quinn turned on her father. "I thought I told you that I didn't want to marry him."
"And I thought I told you I might consider your thoughts," retorted Lord Rousel. "With no small effort on my part, Sir Finnegan has graciously agreed to return and ask for your hand in marriage, again. Which I am certain is gladly given."
"And you should have saved yourself that effort, Father," said Quinn through gritted teeth.
"The weather is quite pleasant today," said Lady Judith loudly as she stepped in to defuse the situation. Her constant throat-clearing and demure nudging of Sir Finnegan for the past few minutes had gone nowhere, and she was forced to take direct, but unladylike, action. "Perhaps, my lord, Quinn could show Sir Finnegan the gardens?"
Lord Rousel had no clue what his wife was trying to do, but years of marriage had taught him to ignore her interventions at his own peril. "A good idea, wife." He turned to the knight. "You must stay for dinner afterwards. We'll have a feast in your honour – and I hope to celebrate the good news then." Speech done, he let Lady Judith sweep him out of the hall before Quinn could kill him with her eyes.
Alone, Sir Finnegan proffered his arm to her. "My lady Quinn."
Quinn sighed. The man was a simpleton, true, but he was genuinely sweet and kind; a rarity in their society. It wasn't fair for her to take out her frustrations on him. She returned his smile and placed her hand in the crook of his arm. "Thank you, sir knight."
They walked several circuits of the gardens in silence (they were quite small) until Quinn cleared her throat. "You desire my hand in marriage, Sir Finnegan?"
He stared dumbly back. "Uh, not just your hand. I want to marry all of you. I think being married to a hand would be weird."
"... I see." She stared straight ahead, willing herself not to react. "And why do you wish to marry me?"
"You're pretty." The answer came without hesitation; Quinn couldn't help but smile. "I've only known you for a short while, but I think you're really nice, and we get along fine. Even when you asked me that question and said we couldn't get married if I got the answer wrong." He frowned. "Your father said that you didn't mean that. It was just your monthly womanly ailment acting up."
Quinn found herself at a rare loss for words.
"Oh, beg pardon, Sir Finnegan. I was simply… distracted."
"Think nothing of it."
She scrambled for other topics of conversation. "Do you joust, sir?"
Beside her, the knight visibly perked up. "Oh, yeah, I do. It's fun, and I'm good at it."
An idea sparked to life in Quinn's head. Slowly, she turned to him. "Oh, do you?"
"Yeah. But, my lady? Can I ask you a question?"
"Yes, Sir Finnegan?"
"Are you a werewolf? I mean – that's also monthly, right?"
"Father, Mother, I have news," she called as she returned to the great hall, the hapless knight trailing after her.
"The lord and lady are in their chambers, milady," said Thomas. "Shall I summon them?"
"No, they're not. They're over by yonder window, behind the tapestry, where they've been spying on myself and Sir Finnegan on our walk."
The lord and lady emerged from said hiding place rather sheepishly. "I needed to inspect the quality of the tapestries your mother ordered," said Lord Rousel, dusting himself off. "Some of the merchants might substitute French wool for our good English wool. And I paid handsomely for Flemish weavework."
"Your father," said Lady Judith, "takes the management of his household very seriously."
"Of course," said Quinn dryly. "But wool quality aside, I have news of great importance for both of you."
Both her parents' faces split into grins. "Yes?"
"Sir Finnegan," here the knight stepped forward, grinning bashfully, "has agreed to make me his lady love."
"His – what now?"
"My lady love. The lady in whose name I ride into battle, whose token I wear in tournaments, and whose favour I strive to seek," explained the knight. "I must remain devoted to Lady Quinn even if I may never prove worthy of her."
Lord Rousel's grin grew fixed with every word spoken. "Yes, I know that, sir; but lady love? That's an outdated custom, isn't it? We are living in the sixteenth century, you know."
"It is not outdated, and it is the honourable thing to do," said Quinn. "He has agreed that he needs to do more great deeds to be worthy of my hand."
Sir Finnegan cleared his throat.
"And the rest of me."
He beamed at her.
There was a feast on the eve of the new moon which Rachel was required to perform at. She was looking forward to it, as it would be her first performance at the castle.
"What's the occasion?" she asked the seneschal.
"Does it matter? It's a celebratory occasion, so prepare your happy songs," he sneered.
"Certainly, Master Thomas," replied Rachel. To be honest, she hadn't been in the mood for happy songs of late; Quinn had been avoiding her.
She had a strong feeling it had something to do with said celebratory occasion.
The great hall was buzzing with activity by the time Rachel arrived. The long tables had already been set, the guests already seated, the servants bringing tray after tray of food from the kitchens. Rachel had strict instructions to play a few ballads – nothing that required much attention – just enough to provide pleasant background noise.
Needless to say, she was aghast.
"I sang at the courts of King Louis! King Ferdinand!" protested Rachel.
"And now you'll sing for Lord Rousel," said Thomas. "First of his line. Isn't that an honour?"
She grumbled something under her breath about creative places he could stick that honour of his, but refrained. Taking her place in the centre of the small raised dais (her liege was too cheap to hire all the customary musicians that would occupy the space), Rachel took her time strumming the chords.
She sang a few Arthurian songs – classic fare that most educated men knew, based on the few appreciative murmurs that followed after she was done. Mostly, the noise continued unabated.
She was thirsty. Snatching a tankard of ale from a passing tray, Rachel finally had a chance to survey the guests as she drank. On the high dais was the lord's table, with lord and lady present; to Lord Rousel's right was the honoured guest, a handsome young knight Rachel found vaguely familiar…
One look at Quinn – the person seated on Lady Judith's left – and her forced smile, and Rachel knew who the knight was, and the occasion for celebration.
The Song of Roland didn't receive as much recognition as the Arthurian songs had, but Quinn caught her eye and nodded, and it was enough.
Something pricked deep within Rachel. As she began the opening verses of Tristan and Iseult, the minstrel noted Quinn's furrowed brow (she was singing it in its original classical French) and then –
– the slow relaxing of her features into resigned understanding.
The lord waved for Rachel to put down her lute immediately. "A pretty song," he bellowed so he would be heard from his seat. Rachel breathed easy; if he didn't understand the words, there was no chance he heard the underlying message. "Play us something more stirring. We are going to war soon."
"Yes, my lord."
She didn't miss the sharp glance Quinn sent her father.
Quinn was seething. Their country was currently at war, the King campaigning in France for the Pope. She had heard the rumours from London of trouble brewing north, but had never imagined that it would be that serious.
"You overstep your bounds, daughter," warned Lord Rousel when Quinn entered his study.
"Is it true? We go to war?"
"I go, not you," he corrected her. "The Queen, bless her, has decided to defend our kingdom from the treacherous Scots. Every fief is to send men for her campaign."
"I have trained for battle my entire life. You brought me up as the son you believed I would be."
She had pushed dangerously far; her father's eyes glittered coldly. "And you repay me by behaving like the daughter you turned out to be." He waved a dismissive hand. "You need to stay and look after your mother and our people."
"I am wasted minding the crops at home.
"You do more than enough by marrying Sir Finnegan – rock-headed as he is, to our advantage, because he is still adamant on wedding you. In the end, that is all daughters are meant to do."
The old songs tell of fair maidens with pretty faces
But is there all there is to her?
Long of limb, radiant of skin, full of graces
I do truly wonder
What more of them through ages endure.
Of knights there be great deeds
Justice dispensed, great wisdom found
Of maidens only appearance precedes
any qualities, personalities that abound
And no great poems their lives expound.
Though we may become dust like the rest
Your memory shall always remain
The ghost of a fond caress
The laughter a beloved refrain
Of a promise that we shall meet again.
"There's no one here," said Rachel, just loud enough so her voice carried over the sound of the lute. "Come in."
Quinn walked in, still in her clothes from the feast, bolting the door behind her. "I'm sorry."
"You had to find out like that."
"Find out what, my lady?" asked Rachel. "I knew about Sir Finnegan long before I knew you."
"I'm not marrying him." Quinn looked distressed; Rachel suspected she knew why, but chose to keep her expression neutral. "I was lucky that he's simple and honourable enough to agree to what we did."
"And why did you get him to agree to that?"
"I'm not marrying him," repeated Quinn.
"Yes, I know, but…"
"I don't know what else I'm going to do. All I know is I can't marry him."
Rachel sighed. "Calm down, my lady."
"I am calm," said Quinn, her tone rising in pitch.
"No, you're not." Rachel put her lute down and got to her feet. "My lady. I know we got off to a rocky start, and you don't know me that well, but… I'd like to help you."
Quinn snorted. "You? Help me? And pray, what power does a minstrel in my father's employ have to help me?"
"Not much," admitted Rachel, "but I'm better than nothing."
"... fine. I suppose so." A muscle twitched in Quinn's jaw. "I must go. Even if I will not be missed, I shouldn't be absent for too long."
"Alright." Rachel dipped a short curtsey. "My door is always open, and you know where to find me."
"Yes," replied Quinn, "just follow the singing."
There was a pause, and then Rachel smiled widely. "Did milady make a jest?"
"Don't get used to it," retorted Quinn.
Quinn had been prepared to talk Sir Finnegan into leaving. She'd come up with another story – she had told him she wasn't a werewolf, and she wondered if he could be convinced that she was a faerie or some other such creature – but the conscription affected him too; he was needed to lead his fief's forces to London in place of his recently-deceased father.
So she found herself standing in the courtyard, bidding her father and – champion – farewell.
"Be well, milady," said Sir Finnegan, kissing Quinn's hand.
"I shall pray for your safety," replied Quinn, meaning it. She wasn't in love with him, but she cared enough not to want him dead on a battlefield somewhere. "Be well, Sir Finnegan."
"Since we're going to be married eventually," said the knight, "you could call me Finn. I mean – it's rather queer, isn't it? You calling me by my full name and title all the time?"
"Await news of our triumph," said Lord Rousel heartily to his wife. He thumped the knight on the back, hard enough that he made an 'oof' noise despite being fully armoured. "Let us be on our way."
Quinn got over the disappointment of not going to war eventually. She had grown up on dreams of glorious battle from childhood, and had trained alongside the castle guard; it was a blow to lose something she'd always taken for granted would be her right. It made sense; she couldn't dispute that. She was her father's only heir, and he was of the age when begetting more was difficult. As much as she resented the man, Quinn could appreciate his pragmatism.
The only silver lining to this was the slim chance that she might inherit sooner rather than later, and be free of her father…
Quinn touched the gold crucifix around her neck and said a short prayer for forgiveness. Hated or no, he was still her father and she owed him her existence. She should not be ungrateful.
In Lord Rousel's absence, Quinn was unchallenged master of the castle. This meant she was free to carry on the daily duties in any way she saw fit, and that meant joining the castle guard for their daily weapon drill as she had used to do before her father had put a stop to it.
Santana raised a hand in greeting when she saw Quinn. "Your father hasn't even left his fief yet, and you're already picking up your weapon. What next; drunken carousing in the town?"
Quinn turned a pinched smile towards her friend and thrust the boiled-leather practice helm into her stomach. Santana grunted in pain. "You can be my first sparring partner, after you've taken fifty shots at the quintain."
Santana's jaw dropped. "Fifty…!"
"And your aim had better be perfect," said Quinn smugly. They both knew, through long hours of training in their childhood, that the wooden mannequin spun around and smacked the back of one's head if not properly hit. "I'll know if it isn't."
Santana made a rude gesture, and then stalked off towards the quintain.
"Well?" called Quinn, staring at the assembled soldiers. "Carry on as normal; you know what to do."
Of all days to lose her way, it had to be that day.
Since taking employment with Lord Rousel, Rachel had no real reason to venture back to the town. Even then, it was a simple matter to leave the servants' quarters and cross the courtyard towards the gate, but…
To put it kindly, Rachel's talents lay in singing, not in travel. She would rather cut off her own nose than say it, but the only reason she had managed to find her way to whichever town she needed to go was because she had been lucky enough to attach herself to a group of travelers headed in that direction.
She was certain she had seen that horse before, but Rachel was too proud to ask someone to lead her to the gate.
"Are you lost, de Baya?" called Quinn, unable to keep the smirk from her face.
Rachel crossed her arms across her chest – the first time Quinn had ever seen her do so – and scowled. "I am not. It is a beautiful day, and I thought I would go to the town and visit some friends."
"Oh, so you meant to wander past the courtyard three times…?"
Quinn laughed. The scowl deepened, making Quinn laugh even harder. "Go straight through the arch with the crossed swords carved above them, and then through the first door on your left. You can't miss the gates after that, they'll be right in front of you."
"I knew that," said Rachel loftily. She glanced at Quinn, taking in the light armour she wore, and the training sword at her waist. "I was merely curious about your training regime."
Santana materialised at Quinn's elbow, grinning. Her ear was red and swollen, but she didn't seem to care. "Is this the minstrel I've heard so much about? She's quite a beauty, Q; you've been holding out on me." To Rachel she said: "Santana Lopez, at your service."
Judging from the familiar way she behaved around Quinn, Rachel guessed she was nobility of some form and immediately curtsied. "My lady. I am Rachel de Baya, minstrel to Lord le Favre."
"That's enough socializing," grumbled Quinn. She nodded at the drill sergeant, who barked out commands to the other soldiers in the yard. "Good day, de Baya."
The dismissal was clear; but instead of being on her way, Rachel lingered. It was her first time seeing Quinn not in feminine clothing, and she was captivated by how different the lady looked.
The soldiers split into pairs, each armed with a wooden sword and shield, and started sparring. Santana, Quinn's sparring partner, was completely aware of Rachel's presence – judging from the numerous smirks sent her way – and seemed to take pleasure in embarrassing Quinn.
Quinn, however, was not the sort to be easily embarrassed. For every buffet Santana gave her, Quinn returned it twofold.
Rachel left eventually, deciding that Quinn was more skilled with a sword than with her tongue.
Kurt was seated in his father's shop when Rachel entered. "If it isn't the castle minstrel," he chuckled, putting aside his handsaw. "Finally come to mingle with us common townsfolk, have you?"
"You're a special case," she retorted, smiling widely. "Do you have time for a drink?"
"For you? Of course."
He led the way to a new eating house near the shop and ordered them two tankards of ale, looking at her expectantly until she pulled a few coins out of her purse, and slid them across the table to the waiting alewife. "Thank you, milady."
"Shut up." She didn't really mean it; she was enjoying her life in the castle (and the friends she'd made), but Kurt was one of her oldest friends, and she'd missed him dearly. "How are you?"
"Quite well, actually! Business has been brisk of late; the soldiers are talking of a war coming."
"Yes, apparently we're now at war with the French and the Scots."
"And what else is new?" asked Kurt rhetorically. "Honestly, I'm not complaining; we get plenty of men from other provinces passing through on their way to London. That means plenty of business for a wagoner like my father, and plenty of glorious sights for me."
Rachel grinned at him. "You're shameless."
"I can be discreet. You, on the other hand, got employed just to be around a certain lady of noble birth. Always the ambitious one, Rachel."
Rachel choked on her ale, pretending it was because it tasted like sewage water, and not because of anything Kurt had said. "What are you – no, you're moon-touched. You have no idea what you're talking about, Kurt."
He smirked at her. "Mmmhmm. So you say."
"I can't – she is – you're delusional."
"Methinks you protest too much."
"Stuff and nonsense."
"Prove it. Answer me this: did you or did you not talk to your young patron this morning?" When Rachel rapidly reddened, he laughed. "Don't underestimate me, de Baya. You've always set your sights on things above our station."
"I don't know whether to take that as a compliment."
Rachel was lost in thought, plucking absently at her lute. Kurt was delusional, moon-touched, a babbling lunatic. The hordes of handsome men in armour patronising his shop had addled his brains.
But she couldn't help but agree that Quinn le Favre was dangerously beautiful. And talented. And completely out of her social strata.
On the other hand… this was what she lived for. The thrill of romance. The pang of unrequited love, a love that could never be. It was heady stuff that would supply her with inspiration for years to come.
She could feel lyrics bubbling up inside her. Her quill pen was out and writing before she knew it.
I have begun to long for you,
I who have no greed;
I have begun to ask for you,
I who have no need.
You say you've gone away from me,
but I can feel you when you breathe.
"de Baya? Is she Spanish?"
"How would I know?" replied Quinn testily. She wasn't having the best day; she was buried in paperwork and decrees, her father's latest letter to reply, and there were people to meet. To top it all off, Santana had followed her around all day and she hadn't shut up about the minstrel.
Santana snorted. "I'm just saying that it's not a common English name. She doesn't look Spanish, though. Not with that nose… you talk to her, right? Did she say where she was from?"
"Do I look like I know? Or care?"
"You so do. Don't look at me like that, le Favre; I've known you long enough to distinguish fondness from that ice queen facade you usually wear. You like the girl."
"I do not," said Quinn. "She's loud, and naive, and foolish. She wears her emotions on her sleeve, and she talks like she knows everything. She's insufferable, and annoying, and constantly fancies herself above her station."
"Yes, you certainly don't know anything about her, and you don't care at all." Santana looked smug. "You've convinced me."
Quinn opened her mouth, and closed it again. "Go find your scullery maid and leave me alone," she managed eventually, aiming a heavy swipe at Santana's leg with her wooden sword. It connected with a dull thud that should have lamed the other woman, but Santana was laughing too hard to show any pain.
"I'm done with her," announced Santana triumphantly. "I've got my Britt now."
"What? How?" With a last flourish of her pen, she signed her name to the bottom of the document and sent Thomas away.
"The lady has finally agreed to my courting."
"Well, they did say she wasn't the cleverest maiden in the castle."
Santana punched her shoulder. "Says the one who fancies the castle minstrel."
"I do not fancy the castle minstrel."
"You keep telling yourself that."
With her father away, it fell to Quinn to act as the arbitrator of justice. Normally this entailed sorting out the odd farmer's squabble over whose cow was entitled to graze on whose strip of land, or arguing with the minister over how large a tithe should be sent to the Crown that year.
The visit of a Spaniard priest on his way to London was not a major issue, and it was only hospitable that he be invited to preach at Sunday mass in the castle chapel.
She wasn't expecting Rachel to set a foot through the door, turn white at the sight of the priest, and flee.
It was a chore, to say the least, for her to find Rachel after that incident.
Quinn was all but ready to pull her hair out. Her official request for the minstrel to compose celebratory poems for when Lord Rousel returned from the latest war were received humbly, with apologies that the minstrel was ill and thus unable to meet with the lady personally. Visits to the minstrel's quarters were met with uproar that the noble-born lady would set foot in such a mean place, and create enough of a warning that Rachel was long gone by the time Quinn reached the room.
She'd even tried stalking the towers in the hope that she would find Rachel sitting there with her lute, but Quinn found nothing but pigeon droppings and cold stone.
When she'd issued a formal summons, Quinn was greeted by her steward, and informed that Rachel de Baya was on indefinite leave due to illness. He wouldn't say what, but the portion of the servant quarters Rachel resided in was currently being visited by plague doctors.
She rubbed her temples.
Something had to give.
Kurt Hummel's apprenticeship under his father was rapidly coming to an end. He was more than competent in turning the wood into wheels and axles, with a creative flair that customers swore made their carts sturdier. Kurt dreamed of opening up shop elsewhere, but they were a small town, and whatever money they made was quickly funneled back into the costs of operation.
Even with the upswing in business, the most Kurt could afford was lunch bought outside, and a tankard or two of ale; often in the company of whoever's master's cart was badly damaged enough that the repairs took a few days to complete. Dull, routine business.
Until the young woman slid into the seat opposite him and whispered urgently: "Where's Rachel?"
He took a moment to compose himself. "Rachel who?" asked Kurt, setting down his tankard.
The stranger made an irritated noise. "You're Kurt Hummel, aren't you? Wagoner apprentice?"
"That I am."
"And Rachel's friend. You know Rachel de Baya? Court minstrel wearing the le Favre livery, with dark hair, won't stop singing?"
"That description could fit any other minstrel," replied Kurt with a straight face.
The stranger was silent for a moment, before leaning over the table to stare menacingly at Kurt. "Do you know who I am?"
Even though he knew he was going to be in so much trouble for it, he said: "Someone with an unhealthy fixation on Rachel de Baya?"
"No, someone who has the power to make your life miserable."
Kurt lost all pretence of ignorance and stared back, equally as menacing. "I won't let you turn her in."
Quinn was taken aback. "Wait, turn her in? What?"
"You don't know?"
"I clearly don't know anything, given that I am currently sitting in this filthy tavern, drinking this rat piss you peasants call ale, playing at word games with a man who is a mere hair's breadth away from being put in the village stocks on the morrow, bombarded by the castle guard with all of the fief's rotten produce," spat Quinn. A small part of her questioned the wisdom of taking out her frustrations on the only person who apparently knew where Rachel was, but the larger part didn't care. "And whatever the castle stables can contribute," she added as an afterthought.
Kurt paled. "Not the stocks! Fine, fine, I'll talk. What do you want to know? You want to talk to Rachel, don't you?"
Quinn blinked. "I – that actually worked?"
"My pride will survive it, but not my clothing. Do you know how hard it is to find purple dye at a reasonable cost in this Godforsaken kingdom?" asked Kurt, plucking at the purple stitching on his jerkin. "Or decent Flemish weave? Clearly not, milady," he added disdainfully.
She waved him off. She'd gotten what she wanted, and all other insults and insinuations that she'd revealed her identity were meaningless to her. "Where is she?"
Rachel picked idly at her shirt. She wasn't sick – she'd never been seriously ill in her life because she adhered to a strict regime of frequent washing – but she needed to keep up the pretence.
She had chosen to hide at Mistress Schuester's place; the lodging rooms were intact, and the mistress of the house was sympathetic, even if she had to be dissuaded from getting too close (a handful of shillings satisfied her curiosity).
Rachel didn't blame Quinn. It was highly unlikely that her employer knew who the man was, or – more importantly – who Rachel really was. And yet, it served as a reminder that her past could potentially catch up with her.
She had stayed too long. Maybe it was time to move on.
The door creaked open. "Kurt? Is that you?"
The face that peeked around the door was pale and pinched and although welcome, was assuredly not Kurt Hummel.
Rachel blanched and pulled up the bedclothes. "Milady!" she squeaked. "Don't come any closer! I have the plague! I woke up with the dreaded blackness in my extremities this morning!"
Quinn shut the door behind her, pushing the bolts into place, before turning on Rachel. "Shut up, de Baya," she hissed. "You don't have the plague, you're not even sick. You're avoiding me, and I want to know why."
"That's not true! I – I am feverish, and I have the sweat. My limbs are heavy." She placed a hand to her forehead, letting an exaggerated shiver rack her body, fluttering her eyelids for emphasis. "I beg you, please leave before I enter my death throes. I grow faint! I am going! I – "
"Kurt told me everything," said Quinn, neatly cutting off the list of symptoms.
Rachel let the bedclothes fall and slumped against her pillows in defeat. "I suppose Kurt betrayed me," she said sniffily. "What did you do to him? Threaten banishment? Torture? Death?"
"A day in the stocks, under a continuous barrage of the entire fief's rotten produce, and the contents of the castle stables."
"That was unspeakably cruel of you, Lady Quinn."
"You were avoiding me," repeated Quinn. She vaguely registered the rebuke, focusing on the fact Rachel had addresses her by name for the first time. "I went through all this trouble to find you. I drank a pint of the worst ale on God's green earth just to find out where you were hiding, and then another because the alewife downstairs is working on a new brew."
This got a smile from Rachel. "It's terrible, isn't it?"
Quinn sighed. "I sent the Spaniard on his way."
"I assumed you were avoiding the castle because of him, and me because I was actively looking for you."
There was no reply.
"You're not French, are you? You're Spanish." What Santana had said was starting to make sense.
"Please stop talking," said Rachel lowly. She was actually trembling, hands white-knuckled over her blankets, eyes fixed on a distant point beyond the wall. It was the only reason Quinn didn't reprimand Rachel for speaking so rudely to her.
Quinn made another surprising decision. "I'll come back tomorrow," she said.
Rachel didn't even move or respond.
Rachel wasn't in her nightshirt when Quinn returned; but she wasn't wearing the le Favre livery either. She was clad in a simple shirt and leggings, seated by the window, the familiar lute in her lap.
She nodded and smiled faintly when Quinn bolted the door behind her, and that was it.
Quinn said nothing. She sat on the bed (her best option, since Rachel had taken the only chair) facing Rachel. It didn't feel right for her to demand the chair like a member of the nobility had the right to do.
Judging from the look Rachel shot her, she had realised the breach of protocol but was surprised Quinn remained silent.
The lady waved for her to talk.
"I recognised that man," said Rachel lowly. Her left hand twitched along the neck of her lute. "He was present when my father was burned for being a heretic."
That was a dangerous crime to even be accused of, let alone burned for; Quinn glanced sharply at Rachel.
"He was a converso. His only crime was being a Marrano in a small village full of ignorant people, who mistook whatever they didn't understand for heresy." She looked away. "I was out on an errand when they came to the house. The next time I saw him, he was tied to a stake and a list of his sins were being read out."
Rachel rubbed at her eyes. "A close family friend adopted me. He and some of our friends got us out of Spain and brought us here." She lifted her head and met Quinn's eyes challengingly. "I may have been born a Jew, but I was baptised."
"I… honestly don't care," admitted Quinn.
Rachel choked out a scandalised sound. "My lady!"
"What? There's no one here but us."
"Yes, but you can't say those things! They'll burn you for heresy!" Fearfully, she closed the window shutters.
"I think you may also have realised this, but nobles are less likely to be burnt for heresy than commoners unless they pose some political threat," remarked Quinn dryly.
"That is also true."
"Come back to the castle, Rachel."
The minstrel's fingers slipped, and a discordant chord rang out. "What?"
"I won't tell anyone what you've just told me. Come back to the castle. You promised you would help me, despite being only a minstrel." She was grasping at straws, but Quinn was at a loss to explain why else it mattered so much that Rachel return.
"You don't mind? That I…"
"It hardly matters," replied Quinn. "You're loud and annoying, and you can't take no for an answer, but…"
"But?" prompted Rachel, smiling wider than Quinn had ever seen her.
"I don't hate you," said Quinn. She hated how Rachel lit up at that, made practically incandescent by words that sane and regular people would find less joyous. "And you promised you would help me."
Rachel laughed. "I did." Standing up, she dipped an abbreviation of the court curtsey. "My lady Quinn."
Quinn smiled back, finally succumbing to the infectiousness of Rachel's smile.
It took Quinn a relatively short time to convince Thomas that Rachel didn't have the plague, and that her absence from the castle was merely self-sacrificing in the odd chance that she was truly ill. Apart from that, everything was soon as it had always been, save for Lord Rousel's absence.
Quinn quickly figured out most of her work could be delegated to Thomas, and soon many of her days started out in the southeast tower, which got the most of the early sun before getting too hot, in the company of the castle minstrel.
"Is your name really de Baya?"
"I mean, I don't know if you're really who you say you are. You could be a murderer who blew up the Infanta or something. I could be unwittingly aiding you." It was the first time they had spoken of Rachel's past since she had told Quinn; the only reason she was bringing it up now was because she had been sitting on the question too long.
Rachel made a sound that was between a snort and a laugh. "I'm happy to assure you that I haven't committed any acts of treason or murder." She cast a knowing look at Quinn and added, as an afterthought: "Notwithstanding any recent allegations you may have made about the effects of my music on people, milady."
Quinn smirked. "I don't know what you're talking about."
"Oh, so it was a different Lady Quinn le Favre who made those insinuations about how Lazarus' resurrection might have been undone had I been present to celebrate the occasion with a song?"
"That was a very detailed and blasphemous statement, Rachel de Baya," said Quinn dryly, "one which is all the more offensive for being attributed to myself."
"I know what I heard."
"Your hearing must be faulty."
"I would know if my hearing is faulty, given that my livelihood depends on it."
"Are you sure about that?" asked Quinn, finally cracking a smile when Rachel huffed. A strange warmth arose in her as she watched Rachel's mock anger.
Santana was the only person who Quinn trusted with the truth about Rachel. Much to Santana's credit (and Quinn's relief), the other woman had only made a single lewd insinuation about how Quinn had found out about that, gloated about her "third eye from her gypsy blood" before promising to keep their secret.
"On the condition, of course," said Santana, "that you cover for me and Britt."
Quinn rolled her eyes. "Half the castle already knows about you and Brittany."
"Yes, and you owe it to me not to let the other half know." Grinning broadly, she clapped Quinn on the shoulder. "Though that's one favour you owe me now?"
"What are you talking about?" Quinn snapped. "Has the sun addled your wits more than it normally does?"
Santana smiled; the biggest, shit-eating-est grin Quinn had ever seen. It chilled her to the marrow.
"Why, Lady Quinn," she said, "your minstrel's origins is one secret, your love affair with her surely counts as another. My affair for a birth story; that leaves your affair unaccounted for."
"I am not having an affair with the minstrel!" hissed Quinn.
"'Tis but a matter of time. Even Wold Henderson would blush like a maiden if anyone looked at him the way you two look at each other."
A golden summer afternoon found Quinn seated in the window of the southeast tower, and Rachel on the floor to the side. Quinn had her knees drawn up to her chin as she watched the castle go about its daily business below; Rachel was occupied with composing.
"How did you become a minstrel?"
Quinn repeated her question. Rachel paused to mull over her answer.
"To be honest with you, milady; I don't know," she said, putting her quill down. "I always thought I'd follow my father's trade and spend my life turning out barrels. Fortunately – or unfortunately, depending on what you think of my music, milady – I learned to read."
Quinn scowled. She remembered her days with the governess, the raps to her knuckles, the hated Latin primer. It must have shown on her face, because Rachel chuckled and added: "We had the Bible, and a ragged old copy of Le Morte d'Arthur."
"High reading for low birth."
"It certainly put ideas in my head," replied Rachel, letting the jab go by. "Even before... it happened, I had decided I wanted more than to spend my life in my village. I found myself a mistress, and here I am; writing verses at your leisure."
Quinn sighed. "How do you make it so easy?"
"Make what easy?"
"You decide what you want, and then? You go out and do it."
Rachel cocked her head to one side. "It is easy, Lady Quinn," she said, reaching for her pocketknife and quill. "Why should it be difficult?"
"You don't understand. I have to inherit this land one day, and I need to be groomed for that role. I have to marry that knight."
"I'm guessing you don't want any of those things?" Rachel asked as she started to sharpen her quill nib. The rhythmic shickshick of her pocketknife filled in the silence as Quinn considered her answer.
Quinn bit on her lower lip. "The trouble is not that I don't want those things, but... I don't know what I do want. Does that make sense?"
Rachel took a moment to ponder her words. "It does."
Quinn let out a breath she hadn't realised she'd been holding as the minstrel set aside her things, offering up a smile. "I know I'm not in any position to say this, milady, but I believe you'll know what you want when the time is right."
Quinn didn't really believe her, but she smiled back anyway.
The letters she received from her father and Sir Finnegan were varied, to say the least; Lord Rousel's missives were terse and filled with instructions on how to govern the fief in his absence; the occasional comment on the progress of the war could be found towards the end of the letter.
Sir Finnegan's letters were either rendered in poor script and poorer grammar (presumably his own hand, which Quinn found strangely endearing), or elegantly written letters that were about as shallow as a puddle in June.
"What news from the front?" asked Lady Judith.
"They've won a few skirmishes, but the queen doesn't think the Scots are beaten yet," replied Quinn.
The lady of the castle wrinkled her nose. "I suppose that means we shan't expect your father home for Christmas, or to celebrate your wedding next spring." And she was gone, muttering to herself about giving instructions to the servants.
Quinn followed. "Beg pardon? My wedding, Mother?"
"Your wedding," replied Lady Judith firmly. "Your little games may have fooled your father, but I know exactly what you're trying to do."
"Then you should know I don't want to marry him."
"Even if I do, that shouldn't change the fact that you will marry Sir Finnegan." The older woman stared Quinn down. "You know this is the way things are. Stop fighting the inevitable; you'll only bring yourself years of pain, daughter."
Quinn bit back the stinging tears. "Speaking from personal experience, Mother?"
Lady Judith drew herself up, every inch a le Favre. "How else am I able to advise you with such certainty?"
Quinn didn't very much feel like being alone on gloomy, overcast days. She sent Thomas to summon the minstrel to her study.
"Milady," said the seneschal, "Minstrel de Baya, as requested."
"Oh. Good." She waved for Rachel to come in and Thomas to leave. "Shut the door behind you."
"So this is why you didn't come find me in my tower." Rachel, impertinent as always, was already wandering the room, admiring the books on the shelves.
"You imply that I come looking for you when I have nothing better to do, like a stray dog," remarked Quinn.
At this stage in their acquaintanceship, Rachel knew better than to take Quinn's acerbic words to heart. "No, milady; that would be me. A tamed dog, waiting for my lady's whistle."
"You read too much into this. The weather today is foul; your tower will be cold and wet, and I simply had no time to inform you of that."
"And this study is a far better place to compose. I thank you, Lady Quinn, for your kind thought." Rachel settled on the chaise lounge in front of the fireplace, unpacking her little bag. "I'll write a madrigal in your honour."
Quinn sighed. No matter how cold and formal she phrased her words, this minstrel seemed to have a knack for spinning them into gentle and affectionate sentiments. "Suit yourself."
But Rachel was smiling, holding out a hand to her, saying: "Come, my lady; you would do me a great honour if you would give me the beginning notes of your madrigal."
"I have work, and urgent missives to be sent."
"Just strum. Pick out a melody that pleases your ear; you did comment on my voice and the hearing of my audience. I would hate to compose something that's supposed to be in your honour but you loathe it."
Quinn shot her a glare that would have caused lesser men to soil their breeches. Rachel was no man, however, and simply continued smiling back. The lute was held out between them, patiently awaiting Quinn's input.
"You are surprisingly inattentive for a minstrel," grumbled Quinn. She gripped the neck of the lute, settling beside Rachel and taking the instrument into her lap. Haltingly, she plucked at the strings, her fingers moving up and down the fretboard.
Rachel nodded approvingly. "Ho, my lady; I didn't know you knew how to play."
"My father believes music is the foundation of a noble education," replied Quinn. "I barely remember my tutor's instruction, though."
"It will do!" Rachel pulled out her quill and a piece of parchment with musical staves already drawn. "If you please, milady."
Quinn plucked out a muffled chord progression. "Here," she said, cheeks tinted red from embarrassment, practically thrusting the lute into Rachel's lap, "now I must return to my work."
"Certainly, lady." Rachel was already bending over her lute, composing furiously; the tip of her tongue protruded from her mouth as she worked.
"What is that music you kept humming when we were sparring?"
"It didn't sound like nothing to me. In fact, it sounded a lot like the song the little minstrel was singing the other day. You know. The one which she said was in honour of – ow! You haggard cunny!"
"You should take care to look where you're going," said Quinn, face pink.
The very minute the weather turned clement again, Rachel was back in the southeast tower, claiming that the fresh air did wonders for her composing. Quinn had begged off her letters and was in the tower with a book in her hands.
"Are you still composing that madrigal you promised?"
"Yes. You can't rush perfection."
Quinn scoffed. "Says she who promised a song in a week."
"I was under duress to prove my talent. Certainly, now I have more time to truly compose something befitting you." Rachel's hair, normally bound into a tail by a piece of catgut, hung loosely around her face. She constantly blew at it.
"What happened to your hair tie?"
"It snapped," replied Rachel sheepishly.
Quinn tutted. "Don't you use leather? It's far more durable."
"I couldn't afford it back then. Also, it's a convenient place to keep my spare strings."
"That is, if you don't snap them."
Quinn reached into the pocket of her jerkin. "I have a spare; I'll give it to you."
Rachel brightened. "Again, you are too kind to me, milady."
"Again, you read too much into this. It's a hair tie, not a parcel of land. Here." Before Rachel could get up to take it, Quinn decided to act on the strange feelings that had been gathering for a while. "No, stay there; I'll help you tie back your hair."
Rachel's mouth dropped open. "My lady…?"
"It's fine." She moved behind Rachel, gathering her hair back into one tail, fingers combing briefly through the strands.
Rachel allowed herself to relax into Quinn's touch a fraction. She was playing a dangerous game, but couldn't quite bring herself to stop. "Do you have any news from the front?" she asked, attempting to alleviate some of the tension that had surfaced.
"Not much. My father says that King James has sent an invitation to the Queen to do battle, but no word if she has accepted."
Rachel wrinkled her nose. "Invitation to battle?"
"It's good manners."
"You nobles are strange."
"Stranger than someone who wears spare lute strings in her hair?"
Quinn finished the knot, and withdrew her hands. "There. It'll hold; I find leather best for tying hair because the knots are secure. It's not as slippery or fragile as catgut, I think."
Rachel turned her head to examine Quinn's handiwork as it fell over her shoulder. "This is lovely. Thank you, Lady Quinn." What else she had wanted to say was forgotten when Quinn leaned in to kiss her.
Rachel was surprised, naturally. But she soon kissed back, parting only so she could put down her lute safely. Quinn's hands were in her hair, mussing the just-tidied tail, but Rachel found she couldn't care less.
Just as she had been the one to initiate it unexpectedly, Quinn broke the kiss without warning, leaving Rachel hazy and disheveled.
Neither girl spoke for a long moment.
"Is this something you want?" asked Quinn neutrally.
Rachel gathered her wits. "I – yes, very much so! But you – you're a noblewoman, and I'm a minstrel."
"Of all the times to acknowledge the difference in our stations."
Rachel caught the hem of Quinn's jerkin before she could pull away. "I don't regret it," she said fiercely. "I'm not afraid."
"You should be." Quinn found it difficult to meet Rachel's eye. "This could destroy us."
"I'm fairly certain we're not the first minstrel and noble to carry on a love affair."
Quinn snorted. "A love affair?"
"Isn't that what this is?" asked Rachel timidly. She knew, of course, the great doomed romances that were the subject of epic poems. More practically, she knew about the torrid physical trysts that ended badly because of the difference between the social statuses of the lovers.
If it ended badly, it would end badly for her alone. She dared not hope for better.
"I still don't know what I want in life," said Quinn flatly. Rachel's heart sank.
"... I see."
She felt a gentle pressure on her chin, tilting her head up so she could look into hazel eyes. "The only thing I am certain of is wanting to kiss you."
Rachel smiled. "Then kiss me."
By the time Quinn slipped from the tower, her lips reddened and hair wild, the sun had begun to cast lengthy shadows across the land. It was almost time for vespers; she'd timed her departure so they would have enough time to restore their appearance before the service.
Rachel had insisted, saying it was suspicious if they missed vespers.
Unfortunately for Quinn, she'd ran into a smirking Santana on her way back to her chambers. One glance at her appearance and the Spanish lady had burst into raucous laughter.
"Finally! It's about time; the unfulfilled lust between you two was setting the castle's collective loins afire. I swear I have had to pull apart more trysting couples in the past month than Wold Henderson has in his lifetime."
She yanked on the neck of Santana's doublet and dragged her into the room, bolting the door behind them. "You can't tell anyone," whispered Quinn fearfully, "no one must know. They'll punish her, not me."
Santana's expression turned serious. "Of course not, le Favre. Quinn. It's our secret." She squeezed Quinn's shoulder. "I'll look out for her, alright? No one needs to know."
Quinn's body sagged in relief. "Thank God."
"Can you stop calling me that?"
"Calling you what?"
Quinn brushed her hair from her face. "Those titles. It's strange, given that we are… intimates."
Rachel rolled her eyes. "Best friends?"
"You know that's not what I meant."
"Call a spade a spade. I believe the term is lovers." She tucked her head in the crook of Quinn's neck. "The same way that this would be a tryst, and not a madrigal composition session."
"Enough with the words. I didn't mean for us to spend the afternoon debating semantics." Quinn's arm tightened around Rachel's bare waist. "I meant that… I would like for you to use my given name."
"We are getting serious, indeed."
Quinn rolled her eyes. "You never know when to shut up. I'm beginning to wonder why I love you."
Rachel sat up abruptly.
"Rachel? What's wrong?"
"Are you sure?"
Quinn took a deep breath. "I'm sure." She wrapped a hand around Rachel's elbow, gently coaxing her to lie down again. "You said I would know when the time is right. I believe now is that time."
The smile blossomed across Rachel's face. "I love you too, Quinn."
"Finally," said Quinn. Rachel quickly kissed her mock-frown away.
A great battle was to be waged at Flodden. Quinn knew this from the hurried notes sent to her from her father and Sir Finnegan. There was no word from either man for a long time afterwards.
Quinn and her mother spent many hours on their knees in the chapel.
"They'll be fine," said Rachel.
"You don't know for sure." Quinn swiped at her eyes with her sleeve. "The Scots have cannon. Sir Finnegan wrote about them; they were so big that he could see them from the English lines. They're knights, their armour won't stand up to a cannon blast."
Rachel stroked Quinn's hair from her face. "They're knights," she said flatly, "they'll have peasants as shields. Don't worry; they'll be fine."
"What if my father dies? I'm not ready to inherit."
"Yes, you are. I've been watching you run the fief for the past few months. You've prepared your entire life. Quinn, you're strong and clever. You'll be fine." She kissed Quinn's forehead. "You know all this without needing me to remind you."
"Is there something else bothering you?" Rachel waited for Quinn to respond, perfectly content if her lover chose not to answer. She was beginning to understand why Quinn was as taciturn as she was, given the dark and treacherous world she had been born into.
"Guilt, mostly." Quinn clutched at the gold crucifix around her neck. "I hate him, but he's my father. I shouldn't want him to die."
"And I still wish the people who had murdered my father would die horribly," replied Rachel. "I know they believed they were doing something good by protecting their families, but killing them won't bring my father back."
Quinn shook her head. "Wanting a group of people to die for killing your father isn't the same as my wishing my father would be killed in battle."
"I suppose not," said Rachel. "But nevertheless, everything is out of our hands."
She had known for a while now that her lover possessed a mercurial temperament. There were days where Quinn blew hot and cold, and sometimes even within the brief space of time between nones and vespers.
Rachel honestly didn't mind. She loved the woman, and loved the make-up process almost as much.
Until the dusty messenger showed up at the castle. He was ushered up to Quinn's private rooms, and his appearance hushed up; Rachel wouldn't even know he was there if she hadn't caught a glimpse of him and Thomas as she was rushing from Quinn's rooms.
She would have left it to some private family matter until Quinn started avoiding her.
Since she was a member of the ruling family, and not a minstrel, it was remarkably easy for Quinn to simply instruct Thomas to deny Rachel entry. The seneschal agreed readily, guessing that the minstrel had done something to offend her.
Rachel was pissed, to put it vulgarly.
After the fourth straight day in which she had been forcefully ejected from the study while attempting to waylay her after a meeting with the town burghers, Rachel stalked to the courtyard intending to go find Kurt – and ran into Santana. Literally.
Santana happened to be wearing training armour, and so it was Rachel that was knocked off her feet and onto the ground. "Watch where you're going, you – de Baya?"
"Oh, Lady Santana." Rachel blushed, accepting the hand proffered to her and letting herself be pulled upright. "My humblest apologies, I – I wasn't looking, and I deeply apologise for laying hands on your person."
Santana waved the apologies away, saying: "If Q favours your company I suppose I can withstand your presence a little – de Baya, are you crying?"
"I am not."
"Begging your pardon, milady, but I am not."
Santana sighed. "It's Q, isn't it?"
"I don't understand your meaning, Lady Santana; I apologise for taking up your time, and I must be on my way." She squeaked as the grip on her hand tightened, and she was whisked into a storeroom, the heavy wooden door bolted behind them. "My lady, I don't understand the meaning of this," stammered Rachel. From Quinn, she knew Santana had a reputation for seduction, and the sight of a stack of straw in the corner only increased her trepidation.
"Shut up, I'm not boning you. I'm not interested in string beans, and anyway Q is particular about her things." Santana leveled her with a stern look. "You're upset because of her, aren't you? What did she do? Is she avoiding you?"
"I know. She told me."
With that, all traces of Rachel's hesitation disappeared. "She told – have you talked to her? Is she alright? Does she hate me? Does she regret it? Did I say something wrong to upset her?"
"And thus cementing the fact that I will never understand what the woman sees in a halfling like you," said Santana. Rachel shut up.
"It's not you, I'm assured of that," continued Santana. "If le Favre has problems, it's all on her. She doesn't open up, and who can blame her, growing up the way she did?"
"I would never betray her," insisted Rachel.
"Who can say for certain? You're just this minstrel that wormed her way into the castle a few months ago." She sighed. "We're nobility. You probably don't understand it, but there are inescapable burdens we carry, and expectations of us that must be fulfilled."
"Damn it all," said Rachel fervently. "I need to talk to her."
"With what army?"
"I'll get in somehow. I just haven't found the right method yet." She tried the wooden door; Santana slapped her hands away.
"Stop that," barked Santana. "I'm trying to help you, so just sit down and listen."
Quinn frowned. "An audience?"
"Regarding the captain of the castle guard, milady," said Thomas. "I received the formal request from Lady Lopez this morning."
She had been avoiding trainings in favour of moping in her private rooms, so Quinn supposed it was a matter of time before Santana got mad and came to yell at her. "I explicitly told you to tell everyonne that I'm not seeing anyone until further notice."
"And yet Lady Lopez took great pains to impress upon me the urgency of this meeting."
Quinn sighed. "I suppose it must be important."
Thomas said nothing, awaiting his orders.
"A quick audience," said Quinn. "Have a guard outside to come if called, but no other time. He is not to barge in without my say so."
"Yes, my lady."
A short time elapsed before the doors opened again, and then the bar was slid into place. "I'm not in the mood for this, Santana," said Quinn without looking up.
"I'm worried about you, milady."
Quinn's head shot up. "Rachel?"
Rachel smiled wanly. "You're avoiding me."
"I don't need to explain myself."
"I know, but… are you alright?"
"Never better," replied Quinn through clenched teeth. "Why did you use Santana's name? Do you not know how much trouble you could be in for this?"
Rachel took a step forward. "I didn't. She offered to help me. She's worried about you too. Quinn… please don't shut me out. I promised I would help you, in any way I can."
"You can't help me with this."
"I can try."
Quinn scowled. "You can try? I fail to see how trying can help with this." She banged her fist upon a vellum letter on her desk.
"What is that?"
"A letter from my father," said Quinn darkly, "telling me that the Queen is victorious, and that he and Sir Finnegan are coming home."
Rachel's heart sank.
"He has earned the attention of Her Majesty, and they have spoken." Quinn was looking away from her. "Queen Katherine does not understand why his daughter wishes to remain unmarried given the suitability of the man her father has chosen, and his prowess in battle. Being herself very aware of the duty of an arranged marriage, she has given her royal endorsement of my marriage to Sir Finnegan as soon as they return here in triumph."
"Do you understand now? Just when I thought something was different in my life, that I had found something of my own – this happens." Quinn angrily brushed tears away. "I can try and defy my father. I can't defy the queen herself. They would do something to you, I know it."
"Quinn, Quinn," said Rachel. She had rushed forward, wrapping her arms around Quinn, rubbing her hands in an attempt to calm her down. "Everything will be fine. Please don't be upset, love; I'm here. I'm not going anywhere, I'll be here as long as you want me to."
Quinn rested her forehead against Rachel's. "They'll make me deny you."
"No!" Quinn looked aghast; Rachel caught her sleeves before she could draw back.
"Then I have nothing to worry about." She rubbed circles on Quinn's back. "We'll cross that bridge when we come to it. Did your father say when he'll be arriving?"
"No. They have matters to settle there, and then there is the long trip here. I don't know for certain how long it will be."
"Then we have time to be with each other," said Rachel simply. "I intend to make the most of it, Quinn. These months I have been here have been the happiest in my life."
Quinn laughed in spite of herself. "Then you must not have had a very happy life."
"Put it this way; I would be happy never to see an inquisitor again." She led Quinn over to the lounge, arms still around her. "I love you."
"I love you, too."
"Good to hear."
The silence went unbroken for a while longer, before Quinn said: "What are we going to do?"
"I don't know," said Rachel.
Quinn finally pulled away, scowling. "You're not being very helpful."
"Quinn, I'm a penniless minstrel," said Rachel. She cupped Quinn's cheek with a hand. "I'm more helpless than you are."
"That didn't stop you from mouthing off before."
A small smile tugged at Rachel's lips. "To be fair, very little stops me from mouthing off."
"You, mostly." She pulled on Quinn's dress, urging her to sit in her lap. Quinn balked.
"I'll squash you."
She laughed and shook her head. "If I could survive the weight of your disdain, I'll survive this. Peasants are very sturdy." Rachel won the battle eventually; Quinn settled in Rachel's arms, her head tucked under Rachel's chin. "Are you comfortable?"
"Very," admitted Quinn.
Rachel continued to run her fingers through Quinn's hair. "Feeling better?" she asked, after some time.
"A lot better." Quinn sighed. "I can't stop thinking about the worst that could happen."
Rachel stopped the motion of her hand. "I wish I had an answer for you."
"Don't you have any noble blood in you?"
"Not unless I fight for the king. We're still at war with the French," said Rachel very seriously. "I think I could be a fair footsoldier; I do have excellent arm strength and dexterity, thanks to my lute-playing skills."
Quinn sat up. "That's not funny at all."
"I was making a jest. The only weapon I know how to use is my tongue."
Here Quinn smirked. "I know."
"Quoth the one who read Sappho. And knows Christine de Pisan."
"I can write to my mistress for some of her books."
Quinn fell silent. "I would like that," she said, winding strands of Rachel's hair around her fingers.
When Rachel appeared at the door of his father's shop, Kurt immediately knew. "I heard we won," he said, ushering her inside. "Her father's alive? Sir Finnegan?"
Rachel nodded. "Her father's gotten the queen's backing. She has to marry him once they return."
"She can't defy her father for me. He's her father, and her liege lord. She'll inherit everything from him. I'm not worth all that."
"What are you talking about?"
Rachel's jaw firmed. "I'll leave. I trust her; she won't forsake me, so I have to be the one to do it. I'm just a travelling minstrel; it'll be impossible to find someone in this huge country, it's easy to say that I was just here for the money and left when the fancy struck me – "
Kurt slapped her.
"Sorry, when you said struck I thought that's what you were asking me to do." He folded his arms and glared at her. "I'll pretend you didn't say any of that. We didn't risk our lives getting you out of Spain for nothing, Rachel."
"Then what do you want me to do? Stay? Explain to her father that I'm in love with his daughter? Insist on marrying her?"
Kurt winced. "Rachel…"
"I know. I got myself into this situation."
"Do you regret it?"
Her head snapped up. "Not for a single second. I love her, Kurt. She's the best thing that has ever happened to me."
He sighed. "Then wait. Stay with her, and have faith that God will hear our prayers."
"Are you going back to the castle tonight?"
She glanced out the window at the dark silhouette of the towers. "Yes. She shouldn't be alone."
Heralds came to announce the imminent arrival of Lord Rousel le Favre, and his future son-in-law Sir Finnegan, who had acquitted themselves honourably in the recent wars.
Quinn directed the preparations to receive them with a heavy heart. She had been unusually quiet lately, as Rachel had been. Quinn trusted no one – especially not Rachel – for what she was about to do.
"Thomas," she said to the seneschal, "once my father and Sir Finnegan arrive, have them come into my private rooms for an urgent matter of discussion. It concerns my imminent marriage."
"Rachel, listen to me."
She scowled. "I will not. You want me to stay here, don't you?"
"Just listen, God damn it, for once in your life. I need you to stay out of this while I speak to my father."
"Then let me stay. You don't have to lock me in this room." She rattled the iron lock. "I must say that it was unspeakably cruel of you to distract me with a kiss before locking me in here."
Quinn had to smile. "You're an incredibly stubborn woman. I have to take extreme measures." Her expression sobered. "Rachel, please," she said urgently through the lock. "I know you have some grand and noble plans to sacrifice yourself…"
"I do not," said Rachel indignantly, suddenly very glad that Quinn couldn't see her.
"... but I finally know what I want, and it's you."
"Stay here." She pressed a kiss to the door handle, and was gone.
Sir Finnegan had found the time to clean up before arriving; his armour, though dented in some places, was clean and polished. He kissed Quinn's hand. "I've missed you."
"As have I," she said hastily. "Father, welcome home."
"Daughter," he said formally. "I trust you have received my letters?"
"All of them."
"Good. Her Majesty intends to celebrate her God-given victory through largesse; to celebrate your marriage to Sir Finnegan, she has promised to add to your combined lands, and to raise Sir Finnegan in rank."
Quinn steadied herself, and lifted her head. "Actually, that was what I wished to speak to you about, Father. I cannot marry Sir Finnegan."
"God's blood, why?" bellowed Lord Rousel.
They were interrupted by a muffled crashing outside, and voices ("The lord has given his orders not to be disturbed, Lady Lopez!" "I'll show you where you can put your orders if you don't let us through!"), and more loud thumping until the door flew open, and Rachel flew in, followed by Santana.
"Santana?" asked Quinn, confused. "Rachel? I thought I told you to stay out of this."
Quinn figured that action was better than words – since they were uncomfortably stuck in her throat – and crossed the room to where Santana and Rachel stood. She reached for Rachel's hand, entwining their fingers, and lifted her head to look at her father defiantly.
There was silence, and then the room erupted into chaos.
"A minstrel?" roared Lord Rousel. "You picked a minstrel over a baronet?"
"Quinn, dear heart," twittered Lady Judith, "I didn't know you were involved with someone from the… lower classes."
"You chose a minstrel over me?" said Sir Finnegan bemusedly. "But… I'm a knight."
"All of you, shut up!" snapped Quinn. They fell silent, even the lord. "Yes, Rachel and I are lovers."
The lord grew crimson with rage. "Tarquinia!"
Quinn paused. The use of her full baptismal name meant her father was truly angered. Rachel's fingers tightened around hers.
"I love her, Father," said Quinn, looking Lord Rousel in the eye, "and I will not forsake her."
"Even at the risk of forsaking your family?" responded the lord. "I will not stand for this throwing away of our name on a lowly minstrel."
"Don't," hissed Rachel beside her.
"Actually, she doesn't have to forsake her family," cut in a voice.
Slowly, all eyes turned on Santana.
"Santana, now is not a good time," said Quinn through gritted teeth.
"No, now is the best time." She stood on Rachel's other side. "I did some investigation into her ancestry."
Quinn closed her eyes.
"Rachel here is also a descendant of the Mendoza family."
Quinn's eyes flew open at the sound of the words, and the painful press of Rachel's fingers in her arm. Santana looked completely self-assured. "Her father was – like mine – a disinherited younger son, banished from the ancestral home, forced to deny his birthright… all the usual occurrences."
"Do you have documents that prove the veracity – " began Lord Rousel.
"Of course not," interjected Santana. "There should be no need for that; unless you doubt my words, my Lord le Favre; the words of Santana Lopez de Vivar y Mendoza?"
Rachel's eyes went wide.
Quinn blinked. The weight of Santana's full name – an ancient and powerful one, despite its poverty and its disfavour with the main branch – was nevertheless not to be trifled with. There were very few occasions in which Santana trotted out her full name and ancestry.
And with that, the battle was won.
"Yes, well; nobility should not be seeking employment as a mere minstrel; it is unbecoming and mean. You represented yourself falsely, my lady," was all Lord Rousel said, his gaze still fixed on Santana.
"Being on good relations with the Mendoza family would be a triumph for many, if not all, my lord; my family is large enough that there will always be friends to those who protect a Mendoza," said Santana sweetly. "Is that not why your father generously agreed to take my father and his family in, years ago?"
"Then you lose nothing by making this match," concluded Santana. "I trust the matter is settled? I do not mind writing to my great-uncle otherwise?"
Lord Rousel blanched. "Ah… no, my lady. You are too kind to offer, but… there is no need to bother your great-uncle on such a trifling matter such as this. I am simply surprised that my daughter has chosen her wife without informing her parents, but her choice of spouse… delights me."
Santana smiled. It sent a shiver down Quinn's spine. "I suppose you will have to write to Her Majesty to explain that the engagement to Sir Finnegan is off. I have a feeling that she will not mind, despite my lord knight being in high favour, since her knight's daughter is marrying one of her countrywomen."
"Praise God," said Lord Rousel dully. "Now, if you would excuse me, I would like to rest in my chambers. It has been a long journey."
He beckoned to his dumbfounded wife and exited the room.
Quinn could only blink, caught off-guard by the complete turn of events.
"You're a Mendoza?" asked Rachel.
Santana smirked. "Only when it suits me."
"Did you really – I'm a member of your family?" The soft, reverent way Rachel said the word family tore at Quinn's heart a little.
"I have no fucking clue," Santana replied, shrugging her emotions off like an old coat, "I only said that because Quinn over there – take a damned breath already, le Favre, you absolute disgrace – now owes me a favour. Screw that. She's in-fucking-debted to me for the rest of our lives." She grinned at an uncharacteristically silent Rachel. "Yeah. I guess you're family now. Try not to tarnish the name."
"And what about me?" asked Sir Finnegan loudly.
The three women blinked and turned to him. In the shock of the confrontation, and Rachel's spontaneous adoption into Santana's family, they had forgotten about him.
"What about you, Longshanks?" said Santana dismissively.
"My lady," said Rachel, scandalised.
Quinn would normally have reprimanded Santana for that, but she really wanted to fucking kiss the woman for saving her life, and so it looked like Santana would be getting a free pass for the conceivable future.
Then Santana scoffed and said: "No one here wants to marry you, so I think you should bugger off and maybe try buggering your pretty destrier. You'd have better luck there, and at least she's got limbs more suited to the length of yours. And can carry your freakishly tall progeny."
Well, that free pass was done. "Santana," said Quinn through gritted teeth, "you have no idea how indebted I am to you for what you just did, but you are pushing the limits of that debt."
The Spanish noblewoman laughed. "I knew you still had some life in you, le Favre." She doffed a mocking salute. "Come on, de Baya; you're a Mendoza now, and that warrants a lesson in etiquette," said Santana to Rachel, tugging on her elbow.
Rachel took one look at Quinn and Sir Finnegan, and nodded, letting Santana drag her out before Quinn could retaliate.
"Don't," he interrupted gently. "I might not have the sharpest wit, but I saw the way you looked at her."
"Me too. How long? No, rather; have you ever intended on marrying me?"
The truth was painfully jagged on her tongue, but it was a relief for Quinn to say: "I'm so sorry, Finn, but I have never wanted to marry you."
"Sic fiat," said the knight with a sigh. "So be it. I do wish you had told me earlier. It's rather disheartening to fight in your name and come back to find that it was all in vain."
She placed a hand on his arm, gratified when he did not jerk away. "There will be other women, better women for you than I."
"There are always better women," he replied, "but there is only one Quinn le Favre."
Just when she was about to comment on his hitherto-displayed wit, the knight added: "Like, you don't have a twin? And Quinn is a pretty uncommon name. I didn't know it was short for anything. Is your name really Tarquinia? Is that why everyone calls you Quinn?"
Quinn sighed. "Farewell, Sir Finnegan."
It was easy to find Rachel, as always; she was in the southeast tower. Quinn followed the sound of her voice.
Rachel was still wearing her minstrel's livery. "It all seems unreal," she confessed once Quinn drew closer.
"What? Your sudden ennobling? Santana's saving the day?"
Rachel cupped Quinn's face with a hand. "Being able to have you."
"... That too."