Actions

Work Header

A Chalion Romance

Work Text:

I.

The young ladies, still dripping in their sheer white cotton shifts, walk ahead of their tutor through the woods to the Provincara's castle. No, Caz mentally amends, they scamper, rapidly outpacing him, for which he is supremely grateful, the more distance between Betriz and his arousal the better. What would she think of his lechery?

Certainly she would not drop suddenly to a crouch on the forest floor, grass and bits of leaves attaching themselves to her wet garment, pluck a cluster of blue flowers, and present them to him with a flourish: "For a soldier of the Daughter's Order."

 

II.

Her Darthican pronunciation might almost pass for native now, and she knows enough Roknari swear words to give Cazaril's former captors a piece of her mind should they ever have the misfortune of crossing her path. She's sure she could find her way home from anywhere on the continent thanks to his tutelage in geography, and she swims adeptly enough that she needn't drown if she should fall overboard a rowboat in a calm lake.

But there are other lessons Betriz is learning from the Royesse's secretary-tutor: that laugh lines are different from the ones etched by care and age, and lend more character to a man's face than a young courtier can achieve through preening and practiced charm; that a man dressed in ill-fitting, borrowed clothes can carry himself with a more regal bearing than the most richly-clothed roya; that the callused fingertips of a disfigured hand can be capable of a far gentler touch than the untried, velvet skin of a noble; that quiet humor speaks more profoundly to her heart than flowery poetry; that she can dislike a man's beard, yet still want to know the prickle of it against her cheek as she kisses its owner's lips.

 

III.

When Betriz first beholds the Zangre, she floats on the power and grandeur of the citadel, which washes over her with the same promises of adulthood and independence she'd felt during her recent swimming lessons with Cazaril. To think that she, the daughter of a minor country nobleman, should live here, in such close quarters with the royal family! The gods have showered her with good fortune.

Then she sees the ruined tower.

Even before Cazaril tells her the greusome story of Roya Fonza's death magic, her buoyant mood sinks under a sudden, oppressive swell that floods her with the sensation of being trapped underwater. This is an ill-fated place. She wants to turn around and go back home to Valenda, but she can't seem to swim.

She draws close to Cazaril, as to a life preserver or an anchor, as a crow's warning caw pierces the complacent afternoon air.

 

IV.

A line of red, like blood seeping from a neat slash of a sword, divides the black land from the black sky. For the first time since mounting her horse, Betriz has a sense of the time: dawn is coming.

When they rode out under the full moon, she'd wondered if dy Jironal's men would ride them down and slay them before she saw another sunrise. Now she sees the first red sliver, and, not only that, but the silhouette of the castle , as well. They have made it.

Well--nearly so. Another mile or two, and they will be safe, though her legs, screaming in the stirrups, and her back, burning as she leans low in her saddle, and her fingers, incapable of uncurling around the reins (she has an inkling of what Caz experienced all those months at the oar), protest at the thought of another yard, much less another mile.

But she digs in her heels, lays over her horse's neck, holds on tighter--for Iselle, who looks as if she could ride from dusk till dawn again if it would save her family and her kingdom, for Caz, who rode for the Royesse even though he might well be the least fit person in the realm to do so. Because they would be free--of dy Jironal, of curses, of demons…

And by the gods, Betriz dy Ferrej will be free, too. To serve her Lady. To marry Caz.

She rides toward the red dawn.

 

V.

During Iselle's wedding festivities Betriz manages to turn her ankle, but instead of having an excuse to at last go and sit with Caz, she finds herself escorted off the dance floor by her gallant partner, dy Tagille. Before she can protest he's seated her in one chair and propped her injured foot on another; when he drops to one knee in front of her, pushes up her petticoat and slips off her shoe, she does get out a gasp.

Dy Tagille raises his hands in a gesture of innocence. "Forgive my forwardness, Lady Betriz! I meant no impropriety, only to ascertain the extent of your injuries."

"Not at all," says Betriz, believing the young Ibran for Bergon's sake, though he's obviously drunk too much of the good wine, but nonetheless unable to stop herself hmphing a little as she flicks her skirts back down over her ankle. She'd put her shoe on, too, but must admit that her foot feels a little better with it off.

"I'm sure it's only a sprain. Nothing a night's rest won't heal."

She glances around the great hall. Where is Caz?

"It's true what they're saying, then?"

Is dy Tagille talking?

"I beg your pardon?" says Betriz, tearing her roving eyes away from their unseen quarry.

"That you carry a torch for dy Cazaril."

She must be goggling--damn dy Palliar-- because dy Tagille goes rather white, and his Adam's apple bobs in his long neck as he swallows hard, looking quite adolescent. She notes stubble about his chin and cheeks that grows so patchily as to make Caz's beard look filled out.

But, boldly or recklessly, dy Tagille presses on. "They also say that dy Cazaril is dying."

Betriz's ankle ceases to hurt; in fact, her entire body seems to go numb, except for her eyes, which prick hotly at the corners, and she feels the warm wetness rolling down her cheeks. But she wouldn't know dy Tagille has taken her hands if she didn't see the large fingers closed around hers. For some reason she can't seem to pull away from him, and she hopes to the gods Caz really isn't nearby to see the tableaux which appears so contrary to the steadfast love she has promised him.

"I am deeply sorry that so worthy a lady as yourself should be so disappointed in love," says dy Tagille.

In the midst of her sorrow, Betriz thinks how she and Iselle will mock this courtly language together later. Once a cure has been found for Caz and she is able to look back at these fraught days without pain.

"But you are very young, Lady Betriz…"

Five Gods, is he still talking?

"…and you are so lovely that when your heart has healed, you will not want for suitors."

This is too much, and Betriz opens her mouth to let fly her rebuttals to dy Tagille's assumptions.

Just as quickly, she closes it again. For who is he that she must explain to him that no man could be half the man Caz is, Dondo and the death demon notwithstanding, that to lose Caz would widow her in her heart as surely as if she had been married to him? Only Caz need hear these professions from her, and he has. And he will continue to do so, until he can fight them no longer and stop the incessant wagging of tongues and vying of young noblemen to be the one to heal the poor unlucky-in-love handmaid's heart by marrying her already.

So she thanks dy Tagille for his concern and pulls her hand from his grasp, refusing it when she stands on her injured ankle.

On her way to her chamber, she runs into Caz.

"You're limping," he says, but his gaze is on her puffy eyes and tear-stained cheeks rather than on her foot. "Are you badly injured?"

"It's the dancing," says Betriz, continuing on her way. Over her shoulder, she calls back, "Someone kept stepping on your toes."

 


VI.

A nose by any other name at all
Could never smell as sweet, nor could enthrall
Me with its perch on my dear Lady's face
Long and slender, and upturned with such grace.

 

Betriz looks up from the parchment scrawled over in Cazaril's hand. If she was amused while reading his strange ode to her nose, she is fairly alarmed, now, by his broad grin.

Not losing her own smile, she leans toward Palli and says through her teeth, "Is he quite mad?"

Palli lays a reassuring hand upon her shoulder. "Fear not, Lady Betriz. His poetry was always this bad."

"And my nose always was rather long," says Betriz, her smile faltering.

"Long loved by me!" says Cazaril.

Betriz turns to Palli. "You are certain he is not mad?"

"Mad?" Cazaril doesn't make a good case for himself, with that irrepressible grin beaming on despite his evident concern. "Why should you be angry, my Lady? Haven't you always wished for me to express my devotion to you? What better vehicle than verse?"

"Er," says Palli, "Perhaps he is a little fevered, withal."

Wordlessly, Betriz turns on her heel and makes haste from the room, presumably to fetch the physician.

"When you return," Cazaril calls after her, taking up his pen from the bedside table, "I shall have composed a quatrain to your fingertips. Or perhaps an epic!"

"I think, old friend," says Palli, sitting himself down with a side, "your poetic endeavors are a little ambitious at present."

"Oh." Cazaril's smile wavers--briefly. "Perhaps just a couplet."

 

VII.

He writes poetry to her nose.

Caz, who wouldn't love her, wouldn't kiss her except when he was dying, now lives to compose lyric ballads on her various bits of anatomy.

She laughs and smiles, displaying her not unreasonable hope that he who died and is born again is free of his demons and free to love.

What she doesn't say is that she is also a little wary of this new poetry-spouting Caz, who knows the Gods in a way she never will. That, while grateful for all the second chances he has, they have, she envies the Lady of Spring for being the one to make him into the man she always believed he was meant to be.

She tells no one, not even Iselle, that she fears the Daughter will be first Lady in Cazaril's heart.

For how can a mere mortal nose compete with a God?

 

VIII.

When they are alone, at last, after the dancing and the feasting and, of course, the wedding, Cazaril tells her she's a beautiful bride.

"So you've said!" Betriz dimples. "What do you like best? Besides me, in my gown."

"In a moment, you, out of your gown," Caz replies, surprisingly bold, in husky tones.

Betriz shivers, slightly, when his callused fingertip brushes her skin as it trails along the slightly tarnished silver jeweled necklace draped over her collar bones.

"My mother wore it on her wedding day," she tells him, in answer to his questioning look, "and before her, my grandmother. An heirloom of the house of dy Ferrej."

Caz unfastens the clasp and moves on to finger the diamond and pearl-encrusted hoops that dangle from her earlobes and tinkle like miniature temple bells whenever she moves.

"Those were a wedding present," says Betriz. "You know from whom."

She warms under her husband's longing gaze, the same he wore last night when he gave the earrings to her; as she takes them off, his fingers move on to trace the intricate patterns in the train of lace cascading from her headpiece to the floor.

"You've seen that before," Betriz says. "At Iselle's wedding."

"If you weren't wearing it at Iselle's wedding," Caz replies, "then I didn't see it."

His fingers release the pins that hold the veil in place; it flutters to the floor like a swarm of butterflies descending upon spring blossoms, as Cazaril's fingers find the flowers tucked among the ringlets of her hair.

"Knight's spur!" His smile is delighted, and Betriz returns it.

"In Daughter's blue," she says.

"We'll leave those in," Caz says.

Betriz lifts an eyebrow. "You like them best?"

"Didn't we already establish that I like you, not in your gown, the very best?"

 

IX.

Caz looks up from his papers with a smile when his lady sweeps into his office. His greeting dies on his tongue as she approaches his desk, her face purposeful. Wordlessly she takes his face in her hands and kisses him deeply.

But, as abruptly as she kissed him, Betriz pulls her lips from Cazaril's. Her forehead dimples between sharply sloping eyebrows as her thumbs create a gentle friction along his jawline.

"Did you shave this morning?" she demands.

"I…" Caz swallows, hard "…might have forgotten."

 

X.

The heady fragrance of apple blossoms beckons them down to the Provincara's orchards.

Betriz hitches up her skirts, undaunted by the mud, though she does remark that it's a shame they're not visiting in summer, when the trees are heavy with fruit. Not even the Zangre's orchards produce sweeter apples than Iselle's Grandmother's. Nothing, Betriz insists, is more refreshing on a hot summer's day than biting into a crisp, juicy apple.

Cazaril merely makes a noncommittal hmm, waiting until they stand in the midst of the even rows of pink perfume to partake of the sweetest fruit of the season.

 

XI.

When Cazaril makes such statements as I have suffered much, but the Five Gods, in their great wisdom, knew that my suffering was necessary to find the path laid out for me, Betriz smiles, and squeezes his hand, indicating to all that she supports and is proud of her husband's faith. And she does, of course--for Caz's faith allows him to heal from wounds which have left other men's souls as scarred as his back. There is value in that, she is sure; at least, such faith can do no harm…

Or can it?

"I do not understand," she confides to him after those moments, when they are sequestered from those who would equate her doubts with heresy at worst, or female ignorance at best, and call her a contentious wife in either case. "How can you be so certain of the Gods' wisdom? What you deem wisdom could just as likely be their sadism. They laid out the path for you--therefore it is because of them that you suffered."

When Betriz makes such statements, Cazaril never condescends to her by stating the obvious--that if his path had not taken him to the galleys, then Bergon would have been killed and Iselle would not have been able to marry and Chalion would have been lost--because Caz sees the logic in her argument, that Bergon's path needn't have taken him to the galleys, either. Caz squeezes her hand, and smiles--sadly.

"I am certain because I have met the Lady of Spring," he says. "More than anything, I wish for you to meet her, too."

"Perhaps someday she will show herself to me," Betriz says, and it is enough to assuage Cazaril's worries over his wife's lack of faith.

But not enough to assuage her own.

 

XII.

Though Cazaril hasn't seen his wife in a fortnight, Betriz refuses to give him more than a peck on his lips till he sees to his beard. Rather than argue (for Caz has learned, finally, that doing so gets him nowhere), he laughs. And when Betriz asks why he's not taking this seriously, he assures her that he is; but when he considers that of all the parts of him that should repulse her, it's his dratted beard she can't abide, all he can do is laugh.

The flogging scars he carries on his back are as good as healed.

 

XIII.

He wakes to the rustling sounds of Betriz moving about their bedchamber. Silently, to avoid alerting her to his also being awake, he cracks open an eye and watches her standing at the foot of the bed, laying out a set of fine new clothing for him, in festive blues and white for today's Daughter's Day celebrations. At his inadvertent chuckle, she looks up from her work.

"How long have you been awake, husband?"

"Only a moment." Caz opens his arms, and she sidles round the bed, not minding her own fancy clothes as she rejoins him in their bed.

"What could be so amusing when you only just awoke?" she asks "Funny dream?"

Caz draws her closer against him and kisses her shiny, dark hair, which hangs loose about her shoulders in readiness for her lady to arrange it. "I remembered our first Daughter's Day, when you came to my chamber early to lend some of your father's old clothes as I had none suitable for the festival."

"You were in your nightshirt," Betriz reminisces with him, her fingers tracing patterns on his stomach. "And you were horribly modest about it."

"I had awakened in a bit of a, erm, state, and I was afraid you'd notice."

Betriz's hand drifts lower. "You seem to have awakened a similar state today."

"Indeed," says Caz. "And you seem to have noticed."

She smiles enticingly and makes quick work of shedding her festival garments.

"Oh, the difference a year makes," says Caz as she pushes him back onto the bed.

Betriz lifts her head. "Two years, my love. You haven't forgotten your last Daughter's Day, with the Lady Herself?"

"Right. Of course." He hopes the Lady won't mind that in such moments as this, there is only one lady in his thoughts. "The difference two years--ungh."

 

XIV.

The farther north Royina Iselle's army rides, Cazaril's thoughts turn farther south, to the wife he left in Chalion. Thinking of her keeps the fear at bay as he comes closer to the place where his dreams of glory and honor were traded for nightmares.

How he would like to show Betriz these mountains; he will have to settle for describing them to her in his next letter home, though his descriptive abilities have the unfortunate tendency to turn into bad poetry. Rather than impressing upon his wife the beauty of the north, he's far more likely to induce head-scratching or laughter--or both--by comparing the fortitude of the mountains to her. Having so recently been with child, Palli tells him, she might even find the analogy vaguely insulting.

Caz forgoes mentioning the mountains altogether, and instead plucks a flower to press and send to her. He will write that he is thinking of the time she courted him with flowers, before he ever dreamed she could love him.

He will tell her how the seemingly delicate plant grows in the shadow of the mountain, belying its hardiness, hoping Betriz will understand his meaning and not take it amiss.