At noon the next day, Zaeraiah stood quietly beside her mother, who sat in a chair in the Great Hall of the castle. Lord Jarrad had just arrived and was about to be presented to the Lord and Lady of the Realm, and of course, to his intended.
Dame Biani, who was known for her flair and fashion, had chosen Zaeraiah’s dress for the occasion, a new pale rose gown with cream lace trim, and matching rose slippers. She had pulled in Zaeraiah’s stays more tightly than she had ever worn them before, so that Zaeraiah could barely breathe.
“You have a beautiful shape, my Lady,” Dame Biani told her. “You may as well show it off when you can. After the babies come it will not be so easy.”
Zaeraiah prevented herself from rolling her eyes to the heavens, but could not avoid complaining about the pink dress to her mother. “Must I have this pale one, Mother? It has no character. I don’t feel like me. Can I not wear the scarlet one, or perhaps my emerald gown instead?”
Dame Biani looked shocked. “Such bold colors in the summer? Child, it’s a time for light frocks! Didn’t you know that?”
I think she meant tight, Zaeraiah thought rebelliously, facing her mother’s looking-glass. With her chestnut curls brushed and tamed, and in that pale rose dress, she looked shockingly unlike herself. Ladylike and serene, like her mother.
I look almost demure, Zaeraiah thought. Resigned, she sighed and followed her mother out of her chambers.
“You look beautiful, daughter, and Dame Biani is right,” Lady Sonaly whispered to her as she took her place, squeezing her hand, and even Lord Jondell gave her an approving glance when she entered the Great Hall.
“No twigs in your hair today, Zaeraiah?” asked the Crone, smiling at her.
The whole household, and the Council of Elders were present, and waiting to meet Lord Jarrad.
“No, madam,” Zaeraiah answered. And then she saw Dame Hulde look over worriedly at her mother, who looked wan.
“Perhaps it would be good to have some smelling salts at the ready,” Zaeraiah heard the Crone whisper to Dame Oshetta, who nodded, and patted the pocket of her gown.
A light sheen of sweat had formed on her mother’s brow, and Zaeraiah saw white knuckles in the hands clasped on her lap, which meant that Lady Somaly was in some degree of pain or discomfort, but had put on a brave face.
Zaeraiah sighed inwardly. If my lady mother can do this, so can I.
She hoped this whole awkward meeting with her intended would be mercifully short, for her mother’s sake. She also hoped that Lord Jarrad would at least be kind and gentlemanly.
She skimmed the room with her eyes, looking for Korbin. He stood beside his father, his expression unreadable. The only sign of strain she could see were the two white points on the side of either of his nostrils, and to those who knew him well, these were telltale signs that Korbin was less than calm.
Finally the door to the Great Hall opened and Lord Jarrad was announced. He walked in, accompanied by his uncle, the regent of Keat, and other members of the party. Lord Jondell stood, and breaking with tradition, came halfway down the steps of the dais at the front of the Great Hall, so eager he was to welcome his guest.
Zaeraiah looked at him while her father introduced him to Lady Sonaly. He was very tall and broad shouldered, with blond hair and blue-grey eyes that were…icy. Like the blue grey stones at the bottom of a cold river. She could feel Korbin’s eyes on her as she studied Lord Jarrad.
“My daughter, Lady Zaeraiah of Bast. Your intended, Lord Jarrad.”
She curtsied deeply. “My Lord.”
He stretched out his hand, and she put hers forth. He took it. “Heavens,” he boomed. “She is such a little thing. See how her hand disappears in mine!” He said loudly, and laughed. His retinue burst into laughter, as though he had said something clever. Even her father tittered.
Zaeraiah raised her chin and looked him in the eye, irked and humiliated. She spoke up, her voice as clear as a bell. “My hands may be small, my Lord, but they can do a great many things.”
The Great Hall grew quiet.
Lord Jarrad glanced at her sideways. “She is feisty! Lord Jondell, you did not tell me you have a feisty daughter!” And he burst out laughing again, along with the delegation from Keat, who were laughing loudly from relief.
Lord Jondell, sensing that beneath his daughter’s placid expression her fiery temper was rising, hastened to introduce Lord Jarrad to Dame Hulde and the other members of the Council of Elders.
Lady Sonaly interrupted him. “I’m afraid I must ask to be excused, Lord Jarrad. I ask for your leave as I am rather unwell.”
Lord Jarrad bowed in her direction. “Of course, my Lady.”
Dame Oshetta and Dame Biani started to escort Lady Sonaly from the Great Hall. Zaeraiah moved to follow them.
Lord Jarrad gave her a glance. “Tell me, Lord Jondell, does your daughter join us for the midday meal?”
Zaeraiah felt the heat rise in her cheeks, but spoke up as though Lord Jarrad had addressed her directly. “I will dine with you all today, my Lord,” she said quietly.
“Good, good.” Lord Jarrad said. In front of everyone, he boldly looked at her from head to toe, eyes lingering at her bosom, then her waistline, and then up and down the length of the skirt of her gown.
A hungry man’s eyes, Zaeraiah, thought Korbin in alarm and disgust.
I heard that, thought Zaeraiah, and I don’t disagree with you. He disgusts me too.
Korbin was so surprised he nearly took a step backwards. We can do this now? Read each other’s thoughts?
The Crone told me yesterday that my Gift would grow as I get older. This is new.
Can you do this with anyone else? Korbin asked her.
I don’t know. Maybe. I haven’t tried yet. But you know what this means, right? As long as you and I can speak with our thoughts, no one can separate us.