“That ship, you may have noticed, had two very fine cabins that I hired out for us at no small expense,” said Countess Jasnah, with a sigh of dignified resignation. “It is rather a shame that I cannot say likewise for the quality of these ... lodgings. And it seems my dearest cousin shan't be gracing us with his presence – he has engaged a proxy to escort us to the Court.”
Shallan hadn't thought the journey tedious – not at all: it was one thousand nautical miles from Kharbranth to the great port of Varikev in Roionshire, most of it spent splendidly barefoot and scandalously clad only in her chemise and petticoats. The days on the road since had been less pleasant, of course: fifty miles a day by carriage, a night spent in a common coaching house, fifty miles the next. It was only a wonder that the constant rhythmic rattle and clop of the horses hadn't been drummed permanently into her head.
But now they had arrived at the very last coaching house, curiously named “The Black Thorn Inn”. The idea of her marrying still seemed strange to Shallan, though it hadn't necessarily been one she was dreading. Day by day the journey had shortened ahead of her, and though she was glad of it, she had mused on what few joys she had left. Kholinar Court, the hereditary seat of the Kholin dukes, was the destination – the terminal, one could say, and Shallan was briefly solemn as she was reminded that it could very well be the place where her body was interred. It was not her home; it could never be – it was not a place where friends awaited her arrival with fond welcome.
Shallan and Countess Jasnah stood under the shaded eaves of the inn, porters scurrying around them to pile up their numerous steamer trunks, travel valises and awkwardly shaped hatboxes. As they watched, a cloud of dust slowly drifted over the horizon to soften the sharp blue of the sky with a fringe of golden mist. A line of carts – that was it – clattering down the road, gaily painted in Kholin blue, preceded by a carriage with the Duke's arms in white upon the doors.
“Hallo!” cried the man sitting on the high driver's seat next to the coachman. He was a lanky man whose long legs bumped up against the coachman's on the narrow shelf of a seat. With unexpected grace, he swung himself to the ground, and Shallan noticed that his shoulder-length hair had not been tied into a tail as current fashion dictated. He had on a plain gentleman's suit – no sign of ducal livery – the wool worn shiny on knees and elbows. “There you are. We must make haste—”
“If it pleases you ... sir,” said Countess Jasnah, rather coldly. “Might I have the pleasure of an introduction? Cousin Adolin promised a trusted proxy to receive us, but I am afraid I do not recognise you.”
She did not hold out her hand for a kiss. He did not bow.
“Doctor Kaladin,” said he, pulling a leather wallet from the inside of his coat. “The Duke's personal physician. My letter of introduction, addendum by the Prince Dalinar and reference from the Duke's brother the Marquess of Kholinshire.”
He held it out to Countess Jasnah, who stared at it for a second, then took it stiffly.
“You must be the girl, then. A Scot,” Doctor Kaladin said, as he turned to Shallan, looking her up and down, then added, “though I can hardly imagine that you could be any more of a nuisance than the Duke's, ah, previous matches.”
Shallan felt unpleasant emotions rise up in her throat; she was scarcely aware of what exactly they were, though she was certain they were neither becoming nor ladylike. She did know, however, that impertinence answered by impudence was fair and just, and that Jasnah was out of earshot directing the porters to load the carts with their luggage.
If this stranger, this Doctor Kaladin, had been properly courteous – or even good-humoured in the least, in his manner – Shallan would have felt no inclination to respond with insolence. But he had not the air of an elegant gentleman; that surely would have made her shy instinctively toward girlish hesitance. Doctor Kaladin had instead a dark face with heavy brow furrowed in irritation; though he was young – not much older than she, on inspection – his face had none of the softness or gentleness of youth; his lips were set into a stern line. This Kaladin creature spoke with the cultured tones of gentle breeding; despite this, he seemed set on being disagreeable from the start: Shallan had always thought herself sympathetic with those of lesser station, but here, she could feel nothing but antipathy.
“Aye, ye be addressing the Lady Shallan,” said Shallan, exaggerating her rural accent to one fitting of the servants back home. Her former governess, Madame Tyn, made a study of regional accents and dialects, and had taught her on the condition to never speak like that in front of distinguished company. That would hardly apply to Kaladin. “Pledged clanswoman and shieldbearer to The McValam.”
“You don't sound like a lady,” remarked Kaladin bluntly.
She gave him shallow curtsey, no more than a mere dip of the knees, and with a curt toss of her head, circled around him.
“Ye dinna look like any doctor I ken,” Shallan said. “A real surgeon would ha' better hair than yers, I reckon. Do ye keep it for emergency bandages?”
Kaladin sputtered. “Emergency bandages—”
“Too stringy fer tha', maybe. Emergency sutures, more like.”
Kaladin's brows gathered together, and his mouth twisted down with ire. “You do not seem like any lady, would I not be mistaken if I judge you an opportunistic impostor who has managed to deceive herself into Lady Jasnah's good graces? And I, Miss, am no leech-peddling barber surgeon.”
“E'en tha' job's got folks looking forward to yer comin', aye,” said Shallan, "I'd think ye'd be better suited fer bailiff ... or hangman. Ye would'na need a rope when yer breath would work faster.”
Kaladin's face reddened pleasantly, or so Shallan thought, and his body stiffened. He took a breath, then stepped closer to her, hands clenched in tense fists by his side. “Look, you—” he began.
“Lady Shallan, the carriage awaits,” called Countess Jasnah. The last trunk had been loaded onto the last cart; the first had already departed and was now a merry puff of golden dust on the road ahead. “Doctor, your credentials are in order. My uncle the Prince recommends you warmly, I am most astonished to see.”
“Yes,” Kaladin said, and after a pause, “thank you.” He turned finally away from Shallan, and took the offered wallet from Jasnah's hands. He did not offer the wallet to Shallan; instead he tucked it into his coat's inner pocket.
Lady Jasnah nodded; a footman bowed as he held open the carriage door painted with the tower-and-crown in white with gold details. The folding steps had already been pulled out.
“A Kharbranth Academy scholar, I was naturally impressed to see,” said Jasnah, holding her skirts, as she ducked into the soft curtained dimness. “Will you be joining us for the ride to the house, Doctor?”
Doctor Kaladin's eyes flicked sideways at Shallan. He had composed himself by now, and she observed that when he wasn't dis-tempered, he made a well-formed figure of a man – taller than most, with handsome breadth of shoulders, and graceful hands etched here and there with pale white scars over tanned fingers and knuckles. His face, though it lacked in beauty or elegance, had its own decisive character made more distinguished by darkly perceptive eyes.
Shallan tore herself away and took the footman's guiding arm into the carriage. She did not look back.
“I shall ride with the coachman, if it pleases you, Lady Jasnah,” said Kaladin after a few moments. “I would not want the road dust from my journey here to soil your clothes nor the upholstery – my Duke had it cleaned for your arrival. He comes from the City to-night and expects Lady Shallan's informal presentation for this evening after supper.”
There were a few clinks and creaks as footmen found their places, and the horses shuffled impatiently in their traces, then the carriage started moving.
Shallan twitched aside the pale blue lace curtains on the window and watched the warm green countryside trundle by, dotted and dashed with the occasional hayrick or wind-breaking treeline. She now felt a thrill; elation gently warmed in her chest: the world suddenly seemed to blossom around her when not very long ago she had imagined that it was like a box folding inward and unstoppably inward. She had dealt with that Doctor Kaladin, unpleasant as he was, with remarkable ease; no doubt this unfamiliar southern land would be filled with many such as he, but she could – yes she would – crest over such trifling difficulties and find herself comfortably settled as a lady Duchess that all of Anglethi society would look to.