Emmeline finished applying a faint dusting of makeup with a fine hair brush to her cheeks and sat back to study her reflection in the small, polished mirror. The room in which she sat seemed very plush to her. The Baron’s castle was a much more matter-of-fact residence, since it was built first for defense and secondarily as the Baron’s home, yet she thought it quite comfortable in comparison to the cheap, rough inn rooms she had far more often stayed because she could get one for free in exchange for a performance. In comparison, the room here, with it’s wall hangings, thick rugs and very soft bed, was luxurious.
Em rose and walked gracefully from the room, practicing the sort of flowing if inefficient pace she’d seen ladies adopt. It wasn’t difficult for her; it was like a switch in her mind she could flick as she moved from one persona to another. Here she switched from traveling entertainer to gentlewoman and made her around balcony to the stairs and down to the Contessa’s sitting room.
Upon arrival, Emmeline presented the Contessa with a graceful curtsy and bow as she had learned was due one’s superiors in the Periphery. A glance around the room proved she had the Contessa to herself for a little while. The Contessa sat with a little dog laying next to her
Since they were alone, Emmeline knew she needn’t adhere too strictly to formality. “Ma maré, I appreciate your providing me time to visit with you like this.”
“Of course my sweet,” she replied. “To be honest, life here in Protreaux suites me better. Things move at a much more comfortable pace here compared to Thalassa.”
Em was a little surprised but it made sense too. “Do you receive as many visitors here?”
“Oh I do receive some,” the Contessa repled, “but when winter comes a touch of solitude and rejuvenation is in order. I love people, the suitors, the crowds, the revelry. But like anyone there is a time for reflection and learning. This is that time.”
Enmeline wondered if she might learn that lesson one day. Right now she couldn’t stand still for long.
“After you are married, do you think you will still come to Thalassa as you have?”
“I would hope so dear!” she replied with a laugh, “there is only so much reflection one can take.” She added, “The Count has some interests in Thalassa himself, so likely we will go there. How we winter, summer, or attend our friends and allies is up in the air at the moment. Isn’t it exciting!”
Emmeline smiled. “Yes, it is. I love a little uncertainty to add to the fun. Although I’m a little worried about unpleasant surprises awaiting us in Adera and beyond.”
“When I was young, those were the spice of life! But you are right to worry. Beyond the League are a collection of poor kingdoms, cruel barbarians, and outright murderous realms. You will need to keep a low profile, within reason. In Adera you will be fine, but in the Riftlands your are as much prey as you are entertainers. Be aware of that. You have to keep your wits about you and be extra alert. You need to know where you want to go, how to get there and what is along the way. Adventurers are a dime a dozen out there, and most die early, tragic deaths. You have a bit of experience, as do your friends. That will help.” she said.
“Thank you, ma maré,” Emmeline said. “I really value your advice. We’ll be careful, and I’ll ask Elemix to put away his wizard robes after Adera.”
She shifted in her seat and looked even more attentive. She made no attempt to conceal the fact something really important to her was at the fore of her mind. “If you don’t mind, I have a lot of questions I could really use your help answering?
“Please ask my dear,” Adela replied.
Emmeline began, “I’ve found I can navigate most court situations by simply doing what people expect in terms of social graces. But the truth is, I’m really lost. I never grew up with any of this. I grew up playing music and singing for common folk. So, when Baron Roland named me his mistress, I was very excited. I got to be with him and still go on adventures. He is the only man I’ve let touch me, and I do love him. He told me that I would be called Lady in the bounds of Uzec and respected as one, which was a happy surprise to me. But when he told me I needed to appoint ladies in waiting, I must confess I had no idea what I was supposed to do with them. The Baron was kind enough to let me know that I needed one as Mistress of Robes, someone to run the household and things like that.
“But honestly, I haven’t the faintest what to do with them. I’ve appointed one, a Mademoiselle Amelie and sent a letter to Uncle Mazarin about his eldest daughter. I know I need to make sure they both marry well, but honestly! I have four nice dresses. Four! And I carry them with me on a pack horse. I can’t expect them to follow me around — my life is too dangerous for them. What in the world will I tell these two ladies?”
“The truth of course,” Adela replied. “My dear they are your servants, but special ones as they should be your friends and confidants. Your duty is to elevate them for marriage, but their duty is to elevate you in the eyes of the baronial court, which by extension reflects well on your Baron. What you ask them to do is entirely up to you. The system really is not codified, it is simply a tradition. Now some women have older ladies serving them, which draws on their experience, makes the younger mistress look more youthful, and frankly keeps their lover’s hands off the help. Others, well, lets say they end up serving the nobleman as well. But, they must look respectable no matter what.”
She smiled, “Of course with a beauty like yourself I doubt the Baron would think of anyone but you. Worry not. But, what you do with your ladies is up to you. You have one so far, Mademoiselle Amelie you said. Well you should have her attend you, dress you, advise you on the latest gossip and courtly goings on. Is she knowledgable about Uzec?”
A shadow of worry did pass over Emmeline’s face when Adela mentioned the idea the Baron might take one of her ladies in waiting to his bed, but her unease turned into a modest blush at Adela’s compliment to her appearance. “More-so than I, I would suspect, but I don’t really know. I acquired my first lady in waiting out of sympathy for her plight.” She went on to explain Amelie’s loss of fiancé and the arrangement she made with Amelie’s parents.
“So I haven’t had time to really make friends with Mademoiselle Amelie,” Em continued. “But I will try my best, as you recommend. I can see the wisdom there, especially since I must trust her with matters as personal as how I dress and am presented to the other nobles.”
Emmeline reached over to let Adela’s petite dog sniff her hand while she paused to switch topics. She puzzled over what she needed to say but didn’t know how to put it.
“What is it dear?” Adela asked.
“I’ve recently noticed that it isn’t… I mean, if I get… you know, while unmarried. As a mistress things can happen.” Emmeline floundered. “Unexpected things, even if I’m careful. Or maybe I make a mistake at some point…”
Adela looked quizzical. “You mean become pregnant?”
“Yes, that’s what I mean,” Em said, relieved she didn’t have to say it. “Recently I noticed that pregnant, unmarried women not only struggle on their own, but people seem to think ill toward them moreso than in Thalassa. If an unmarried mistress has a child, what happens with the child? Keeping in mind I have nothing in Uzec that’s inheritable.” Her questions came out with barely a pause. this had clearly been weighing on Emmeline’s mind. “What are the implications? Would the mistress, already not exactly respected in other realms, be thought a common whore? I know the child would be a bastard, then, but that doesn’t mean all that much in Thalassa. What does that mean in the Periphery? For the child’s future, I mean?”
“It is still difficult on Thalassa, especially among the patricians. Worst case in the Periphery is the same as Thalassa, the Aarithines will care for them. But that is only if there are no other options, usually. Your position as an acknowledged mistress, in effect a concubine is a good thing. The Baron cannot marry you due to your class. Even on Thalassa you are seen as a country girl, granddaughter of two n’er do wells. But that is changing. Think on this Emmeline dear: so you do not have the Baron’s name. You have his heart, you have his moments of tenderness, and you have his respect. Should you have children, they are his, no question. You are acknowledged. They may not inherit his lands or title, but legally he would have to care for them.”
She paused, “In any event, once I marry my second count, you need not worry about anything. You will be Robert’s step-daughter. Now, he is not rich, but he has something that will be another stone on the path of becoming the Baron’s wife. He has a title. While my step-son, whom you will meet this evening, does not acknowledge you formally, Count Robert just might. Then you will be a lady in title as well! As far as all that courtly stuff, well pick good people to teach you. Lady d’Uzec is a good one from what I hear. She knows all about court intrigue. Even I feel as an amateur compared to her,” she added with a laugh. “Now Emmeline, does that all make sense? Can you let your worry subside for a short time and enjoy the future unfolding for you?”
“I will try,” Emmeline replied. She did feel. “Though I think I should probably avoid the Baron’s ex-wife. I understand they did not part on pleasant terms.” Hoping to keep things positive, she added, “I do really look forward to meeting your step-son.”
“Lady Millicent stills loves the Baron I believe. He chose his daughter over his wife and that caused love to become hate. From what I understand it was a huge scandal. Her father even challenged Baron Roland to a duel.”
Emmeline’s eyebrows rose. “That doesn’t sound good at all. Ma maré, why would Lady Millicent want to ever have anything to do with me, much less teach me how to survive in court? Wouldn’t she rather see me, and by extension, the Baron fall to ruin?”
“It is the past now. Eight years ago, and she was remarried within two years to Sir Aubrey Lord d’Evian, a fine match if I say so. Yet there is bad blood. You are right though, she may try to destroy to or dissuade you, but you may not be able to avoid running into her. Poor Lady Rivanon is sadly the more likely object of her derision.” replied Adela, “You can use that to your advantage.”
Emmeline reviewed the situation in her mind. Rivanon had advised her to avoid Milicent and she had a lot of respect for Rivanon’s opinions. But at the same time, she was not a meek person to scurry away at a social challenge. Or any challenge, really. Adela was also likely correct in that Rivanon herself was a much more tempting target than she was.
Still it seemed inappropriate for the current mistress of the Baron of Uzec to approach an ex-wife of his for advice. She could imagine the frown the Baron would have at that situation. Men tended toward paranoia when it came to women kibitzing about them, and justifiably so. They were a prime topic of discussing for women.
Therefore, she’d observe. She wouldn’t go out of her way to find Lady Millicent, but she wouldn’t hide, either. She would instead observe as best she can. If she ran into Lady Millicent, then she would do as she always did; think on her feet. Whatever happened, she wouldn’t allow any sort of injury to Lady Rivanon or Baron Roland.
“Thank you, ma maré,” Em said. “I’ll take what you said to heart, of course.” Changing topics again, she asked, “Will I have an opportunity to meet Count Robert before I must leave for Adera?”
Adela smiled and said, “But of course. You don’t even have your ship arranged yet! So my lord Robert should be here in a week. I should tell you more about him of course before you meet him, but if he is to have a step-daughter, well he should meet you. Your new step-brother and sister-in-law are probably a higher priority, though the gulf between your classes will be difficult to bridge. You must be gracious and the perfect socialite.”
“They will all be of higher rank than I,” Emmeline acknowledged with a nod. “I’ll do my best to ignore my Thalassan egalitarianism and be polite, deferential, and as proper as the situation dictates. In truth, I’m used to it and I don’t mind. Even when I am alone with my Baron, he prefers me to refer to him by title, not name.” She paused, then added with a smile, “I’m already excited to meet all of them.”
“That is wonderful. And they you. But, so you know what you are getting into my dear, I must ask how much do you know about your Baron?” Adela asked.
Emmeline listed off the traits she knew. “He’s kind, protective of his people, never rash, very strong and powerful when he needs to be, yet never with me. He loves his people but doesn’t always know how to show them a gentle side when they need it. He’s also tragic in that he’s lost two wives. Once to… to misfortune and sadness. The second time because he had to choose — but you know these things. I know his barony will expand, that is no secret.” She stopped and looked to Adela curiously. “Is there something else you mean?”
“You may know this, you may not, but this is what I have gathered. Listen patiently and ask what you wish when I am done,” said Adela. “So, Roland’s father was the younger brother by some twenty years of the Duke of Derrien, Henri Lord of Derrienport and Lord Warder of Calder Keep. Neither the Duke, nor the Lord were the warrior type, more philosopers. His mother was M’selle Rivanon d’Aubrey, a Thalassan diplomat in the Duke of Breven’s court. How they met is unknown, but I do know that they were around the same age and courted intermittently for several years. At some point Lord Henri left the service of his father the former Duke to journey to Thalassa with her and marry. A year later, Roland was born, with his sister Delphine coming shortly after that. As both of them were older that is all the children they had. So, for at least a few years Roland was the de facto heir to all of Derrien. Then came the Duke’s first son, now disinherited due to a court scandal, Lord Hugo, and his second son Lord Arles of Derrienport who has children, but secretly married a commoner, invalidating the children’s inheritance of title, though the Duke has come to appreciate his grandchildren. Lord Hugo was a good friend of the Baron and both served in the Thalassan Legion as officers. I think they still are, which is a sore spot for the Duke.
Anyway, twenty five years ago, the Lordship was elevated to a Barony and Henri returned from Thalassa with his wife to live there and colonize the Upper Calder Valley, fighting the last battle versus the goblins – until this year of course. Roland, fighting alongside his father’s men, was then one of the most eligible young bachelors in the Periphery. Meanwhile Roland encountered Marie d’Este, military tribune of the Thalassan Legion and youngest daughter of the former mayor of Thalassa Jean-Claude d’Este. I think she was also distantly related to Lady d’Aubrey, 3rd cousin or some such. I’ve heard they were deeply in love, but unlike Lord Arles, asked permission of the Duke to marry and did so some twenty-four years ago, after which they departed to fight in Brentalia as husband and wife, returning only when it was clear she was pregnant with Lady Rivanon. Seven years later, 433, was a tragic one for poor Roland. First his wife, having had several miscarriages since Rivanon, gave birth to a boy, Henri, who only lived two hours. Poor Marie took her own life in despair within the year, defying Aarith to bring her back. Then at the close of the year Baron Henri died.
In 434, Roland was elevated to Baron alone with his eight-year-old daughter and the dowager Baroness. Within three years the Baroness and the Duchess had by order of the Duke, arranged for the Baron to marry Lady Millicent LeBeau, a young beauty of pose and charm with quite the impressive dowry. It was a bad match that started well. Lady Rivanon hated her from the start, seeing Millecent as the schemer she turned out to be, and Millicent saw Rivanon as a rival, despite the child’s age. Within a year of the wedding, the dowager Baroness had returned to Thalassa, some say to Millicent’s scheming where she passed away two years ago – the last time Baron Roland was on the Isle.
Now, I don’t know the details here, but in 438, two years after the wedding, Millicent went riding and fell from her horse. She claims she was with child and lost it due to the fall. In fact, she was nearly killed. Circumstantial evidence pointed to some one in the barn poisoned the horse, causing it to collapse during a hard ride. All eyes fell on the 12-year-old Rivanon, whom everyone knew hated her step mother. The court found her innocent, but Millicent insisted she be punished anyway. Instead, Roland sent Rivanon to Thalassa to school to ease tensions. Well, as the story goes, things fell apart and when Millicent insisted that Rivanon be cast out and disinherited or lose her, Roland refused to obey and without hesitation had the Aarithine church dissolve the union within a week and sent her back to her father, Sir Andre Lord LeBeau, who challenged Roland to a dual.
On the appointed day, Roland did not kill Lord Lebeau, but he did soundly defeat him. The dowry was diligently returned. Despite an exhaustive search for another culprit, no one ever discovered who poisoned the horse. Some say it was Millicent herself, many still believe Rivanon did it. Still others saw a son born of Roland’s wife to be danger – perhaps one of the Duke’s sons. Or perhaps the horse ate a rotten apple. Who knows? In any event that is the situation we find ourselves in today.”
“I need some water,” Adela said while ringing her bell. A servant returned with water and then promptly left. “Questions my dear?”
“That is quite the history,” Emmeline said. “And I’m flattered you took enough interest to look into all this. It would seem that Lady Millicent vasty underestimated the Baron’s commitment to his daughter when she made her demands. But to the matter of the Duke’s current sons, Hugo being disinherited, that means Arles is the Duke’s heir, despite his lack of acceptable heirs himself, correct?”
“My dear, the world you are getting into does not suffer the naive for long. It is a world of sniping, intrigue, and positioning. I know it well, but even I as a Thalassan am still a learner. But to your question my dear Emmeline, yes Arles is the heir, though he is not an ideal one for the Duke. He is a man without qualities who never shakes anyone’s hand or has accomplished anything of note, save marrying and having children, seven girls so far.”
Emmeline shook her head slightly. “Terrible fortune for the Duke. He’s a hard man, even cold at times, but I respect him. I wish his prospects for his legacy were better.”
“Why do you think they were so keen to marry Lady Rivanon off? The Duke wanted a strong male heir. But word is he is very impressed with her as-is. And apparently has a positive opinion of you.” She added.
“Well, to be honest I’d be very surprised if he had any opinion of me at all,” Emmeline said. “I’ve done some things to help Uzec and managed to help uncover corruption in Derrien, but honestly, he has a whole lot of people that do a lot of even more important things. Whoever told you that he has a positive opinion of me is flattering me a little.”
“These are merely rumors my dear. It may be nothing.” she replied.