|Subject: Honor on the Field 2/26
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Date Posted: Wednesday, November 02, 01:41:54pm
In reply to:
's message, "Honor on the Field" on Tuesday, November 01, 08:53:54pm
~*~*~*~ Chapter 2 ~*~*~*~
Michel Samuelle stood quietly listening, or rather, appearing to listen, to the conversation swirling about Edward, and wondered, not for the first time, how in Christ’s name Edward had managed to talk him into attending this insipid house party. He could perfectly well have gone ahead to Edward’s castle in Wales, or better still, stayed in comfort in London until he could rejoin Edward to continue their planning for the next military campaign Edward hoped to wage. One glance at the sprawling, disjointed, and rather small manor house had made all too clear that whatever else he was, Lord Phillip Wirth was not a very important member of the English nobility and had nothing to do with the business that was the only thing detaining Samuelle in England when he would much have preferred to be returning to France.
Just then the big front door opened slightly and a grinning young woman slipped in. After closing the door behind her against the autumn chill she turned to face the Hall, and had he been moving, Samuelle was certain he would have faltered, for she was the most beautiful girl he had ever seen. Tall, perhaps even as tall as he, she had square shoulders tapering to a narrow waist and slim hips. Her dress, in shades of blue and green, set off her fair complexion and long blond plaits. She swayed gracefully across the floor toward his little group, and as she drew nearer, Samuelle was struck her air of calm assurance and her aura of command. He admired her straight nose, strong jaw and determined chin, her full, generous mouth, and most stunning of all, her large, clear, blue eyes, dancing with humor and anticipation as she glided towards him. Then her glance caught his, their gazes locked, and for a moment time stood still. He felt a strange heat rippling across his skin, almost as though he had suddenly fallen victim to a fever. In a second she dropped her eyes, and the disorienting sensations passed, leaving him feeling shaken and chilled and gasping for air.
He leaned into to Edward and, sotto voice, asked, “Who is that?” as he nodded slightly in the girl’s direction.
Edward looked up and, catching sight of the young woman nearly upon them, laughingly exclaimed, “Good God! Nikita? Is that you, child? All grown up and more beautiful than anyone ever dared to imagine!”
Flushing with pleasure, which Samuelle was quick to note made her pale skin pinken most attractively, Nikita dropped into a deep curtsey, grinning up familiarly at the Prince as she raised her head and replied, “Yes, Sire, it’s Nikita. All grown up – though I can’t speak for my looks.”
Samuelle spoke before he could think better of it. Bowing his head slightly in her direction, he said, “You have no need to, they speak eloquently on your behalf.”
Nikita glanced quickly at the speaker, the same tall, auburn-haired man who had been staring so boldly at her as she crossed the floor. Hearing his deep, strongly-accented voice echoing across the sudden chasm between them, she felt naked and afraid, which was ridiculous. She was fully clothed, safe in her father’s house, and surrounded by knights of the realm. Once again, she found herself staring into his eyes, a most mesmerizing shade of green, and feeling her pulse quicken and heat steal up her neck, all her senses on full alert; conscious for the first time of how a lamb might feel in the company of a wolf.
Above the slow buzzing in her ears, Nikita heard the Prince say, “Nikita, grant me leave to introduce Lord Michel Samuelle, Duke of Rouen and Count of Argentan, and current Jousting Champion!”
Nikita curtsied again, this time at the Duke, grateful for an opportunity to drop her eyes to the floor. “My Lord.”
“Rouen, this is Nikita Wirth, Sir Phillip’s eldest daughter.” Turning back to Nikita without giving the Duke a chance to murmur his acknowledgements, Edward exclaimed, “Nikita, you should have been there to see it, he was magnificent, taking out eleven opponents, five of them on the first charge! I’ve never seen anything like it!”
Slipping easily into her old role, Nikita smiled at the Prince, slightly shocked to realize that she was now tall enough to look him in the eye, and said, “Then, I pray your Highness, tell me all about it!”
Despite her pleasure that the Prince did indeed remember her, and seemed genuinely pleased to see her again as well, and to make use of her as an audience for his clearly unabated love for the games, Nikita found she could listen with only half an ear. She was all too aware of the Duke of Rouen, hovering just over her shoulder, making slightly strangled sounds of embarrassed acknowledgment whenever the Prince directed a particularly effusive comment his way.
Samuelle hated listening to others shower excessive praise on him, or carry on as though jousting were difficult, which it certainly was not, though perhaps it was for Edward, who, once he came to think on it, was not very good at it all. Edward occasionally competed under a false name, fooling almost no-one, and usually lost early on. But in any case, it was embarrassing to listen to himself being praised to the fair Nikita. However, being able to observe her expressive face as she listened appreciatively and apparently enthusiastically to the Prince, without the danger of catching her eye again, held him despite his intention to walk away immediately, and he stayed right where he was until she was summoned by Baron Wirth.
Samuelle was distracted from watching Nikita glide through the room as she made her way to Phillip’s side by Edward’s voice, low and vaguely lethal in his ear, "I have known Nikita since she was a little girl, and I will not see you trifle with her, Michel."
Stung, Samuelle retorted, "I’m a married man! And she is the daughter of the house!"
"You haven’t been home in two months, your wife has been ill for a long time, and Nikita is Phillip’s bastard.” He paused, then added in a tone of unmistakable command, “You will not hurt her."
Only the arrival of another lord, anxious for Edward’s ear, saved Samuelle from an extremely impolitic rejoinder.
Even after Edward’s revelation of Nikita’s special vulnerability, and despite his resolution to do so, Samuelle was quite unable to ignore her. He found himself watching her whenever she was in the room, and seeking her out whenever he had been forced to loose track of her whereabouts to reply to one idiotic conversational sally or another on the part of Wirth’s guests.
By the time the pages brought in the roasted boar, he had learned a great deal from his observations.
He learned that though Nikita may have been Wirth’s bastard, she was also in charge of the household and the servants looked to her for direction and approval; moreover, that she was a skilled chatelaine. The small manor staff appeared to be effortlessly dealing with the chaos of more than fifty knightly and noble guests and their retinues, the manor house was clean and well cared for, and despite the crush, a place appeared to have been found for everyone. Furthermore, when the dinner was served it proved to be excellently prepared, though not terribly exotic or elaborate, and in more than ample quantities.
He also saw that her bastard status was never wholly forgotten. Her father had certainly shown her an extremely unusual amount of consideration in openly acknowledging her and raising her as his own in his own household, even to the point of placing her in charge of it. Sir Phillip also appeared to be both proud of and extremely fond of his eldest daughter, breaking into a pleased smile on the odd occasions his glance fell her way as she attended to her duties. Nonetheless, her condition was always marked.
Nikita had a place at the head table, but not in the center. She was seated at the end furthest from Prince Edward, her father and her younger sister, and from Samuelle himself, and closest to the kitchens. And though she did not use his title, she addressed her father only as ‘sir,’ and never used the familiar ‘papa’ of her sister. She was openly snubbed by some of the titled ladies who had accompanied their husbands, despite the obvious fact that she was their hostess, and her father did nothing to shield her from these insults.
With mixed emotions, he also realized that he was hardly the only man present who felt moved to protect her in her father’s place. A few of the younger knights, seemingly claiming prior acquaintance with her from previous house parties, appeared perfectly content to follow her about the room for no apparent purpose except to glower around her shoulder at those who would insult her, adopting the airs of pugnacious bulldogs as they did so.
Of course an even larger number of the unattached, or presently unaccompanied, knights were obviously flirting with her, some with the playful familiarity of long standing friendships, others equally clearly new to the game. On the one hand, he was pleased to see that she handled all the attention gracefully and with careful propriety, on the other, he was unaccountably irritated by the ease with which she laughed and gently joked with, or when required, coolly repulsed, the flower of the tourney circuit. Some of course, were not so easily dissuaded, especially as the wine began to flow more freely. An especially impertinent fellow, (a pathetically incompetent man with a lance from whom Samuelle had won at least a half-dozen horses at the joust, which he could well afford because his father had more money than sense), actually flung his arms around Nikita.
Samuelle found himself getting angry on her behalf, and half-wishing that there were something he could do to prevent her embarrassment, and at the same time experiencing a rush of quite undeserved pride in her when she met the insult with a calm politeness that diffused a potentially violent confrontation between her admirer and her protectors. Unfortunately, the realization that her demeanor was undoubtedly the result of long practice only served to make him angrier.
Ironically enough, his rising sympathy made it that much harder to remember his chivalrous intention to do nothing to jeopardize her reputation. Not only could he not stop watching her, at least twice during dinner he wasn’t quick enough at looking away to avoid eye contact. Meeting her gaze full on, he lost himself in her eyes, discovering in them a multitude of hues, each new shade a revelation on the special beauty of blue. He saw that her countenance was full of humor and intelligence, of self-confidence, and, with a faint twinge of guilt, he also noted apprehension, curiosity, and, he was certain, an echo of the desire he knew was growing in him with every passing breath. The first time he managed to jerk his gaze away, the second, he was recalled to himself only by the solid weight of Prince Edward’s boot heel grinding into his foot.
When the duke suddenly scowled and dropped his eyes, Nikita felt oddly breathless, as though she had been pulling hard on a string, only to have it snap off unexpectedly in her hands. Still reeling from the impact of his gaze, which she had felt all the way to her belly and lower still, and the sudden hollow emptiness inside from the loss of it, she could feel her pulse pounding and worried her cheeks must be flushed. She started to raise her hands to her face to cool her skin, but realized with a stab of angry embarrassment that such a gesture would only call more attention to her stupidity in allowing herself to become aware of, and worse, respond to Rouen’s interest in her.
Damn him, she thought! What right did he have to be so obvious about his interest in her? Just because she was a bastard did not mean that she should have to put up with any more ill-mannered, dishonorable treatment in her own father’s house than she already received, even from the current jousting champion himself. He was supposed to be a knight after all, schooled in courtly chivalric behavior and dedicated to the ideal of preserving the honor and purity of all women – not that she wasn’t fully aware that this last was honored, pretty much, only in the breach – still, as a Duke and a champion, he should do better. He should not, had no right to, make her an object of further contempt by his open admiration.
Nor should he be so damn compelling in his own person, she snarled to herself. Who gave him permission to have such a lean and well-honed physique, with broad shoulders tapering down to a flat belly and powerful legs, or to have such a sensual mouth, such frighteningly penetrating, dangerously beautiful green eyes, such charismatic presence that the eyes of every woman in the room, and many of the men, followed him everywhere he went? Including, to her extreme irritation, her own.
Trying desperately to regain her balance, Nikita reminded herself that she had received unsought attention in the past, and it had always been easy to ignore, evade, and if necessary, rebuff, and she could and would do the same now. Though she prayed that she wouldn’t have to, that he wouldn’t be that crude and ill-mannered, that he would get himself under control without either one of them having to make an issue of the matter.
The pages appeared to clear the trenchers and bring out the final course of fruit, nuts and pastries, and Nikita thrust aside her anger and her worries to focus on her duties as her father’s housekeeper.
An hour or so later, Nikita stood against the wall watching the crowd and smiling in satisfaction. This was the most successful event yet, and so far, everything had come off very well indeed. The food had been satisfactory and everyone appeared to have eaten their fill, even, she had checked, the mass of retainers below stairs. Tonight’s entertainment, though simple, was excellent – she had convinced her father that he should hire a few professional musicians from London rather than one of those roving companies that served country fairs, and her judgment was proving sound. They did have an actor’s troupe scheduled for the final dinner two evenings from now, but she had seen them before and was confident that they would please the company.
The guests were beginning to move away from the tables, and Nikita nodded to the servants to begin clearing them away, to make room for the dancing. This was the hardest part for her – as usual there were far too few ladies, though plenty of women among the retainers below, accompanying the guests, and so she had to dance in order to make the sets work out. But dancing with this crowd, as opposed to the county fairs and parties that her family attended the rest of the year, was always difficult because it opened her to so many possible slights and unwelcome advances. Keeping her temper grew harder the longer the evening wore on and the more tired she became.
While she was able to put off most of the knights with a combination of cool indifference, gentle rebukes and good humored scolds, not to mention, as she had once laughingly owned to Michelle, superior height, there were always those who stubbornly made an issue of it, like the short, plump fool who had actually attempted to embrace her earlier in the evening. It had taken all her diplomatic skills to keep Sir Robert Claremont, a mountain of a man and a friend of long-standing, (if somewhat inarticulate and inclined to present her with dead animals as a show of his regard), from pounding him into the ground.
The first notes of music were trickling through the hall when Nikita saw Hugh Barbant, Count of Albret, in Aquitaine, whom she knew well for making himself obnoxious at the two previous house parties, heading her way. Barbant was a handsome man, no question, tall and broad and strong, dark curly hair cut short and square across a noble brow, large luminous gray eyes framed by long thick lashes over clean regular features. He was popular with the knights because he was a perennial champion, winning his full share of tournaments, and because he was always at the center of whatever rough play was going on – wrestling, fisticuffs, fencing, hunting carousing – and witty, in a cruel sort of way. When he smiled or laughed he could be charming indeed, but too often, for Nikita’s taste anyway, his long, mobile mouth was twisted in a patronizing smirk or a thin, mean smile. He also seemed to think that as a bastard, she was not only fair game for seduction, but that her refusal of him couldn’t be serious.
Barbant was hardly alone in his attempts to engage in a dalliance with her during her father’s parties, but rest of the knights bold enough to actually make a proposition generally kept their approaches light and accepted their rejections with a show of good grace. Not so Barbant. He couldn’t seem to understand that she had no interest in him at all, and not just because she refused to sink to that level, but because she genuinely didn’t like him. Seeing him shouldering determinedly through the crowd generally set her seeking the fastest possible exit to the kitchens.
This night though, it turned out that such an exit would be unnecessary.
Barbant was neatly intercepted by Prince Edward himself, who made clear through several penetrating comments that his interest in her was entirely avuncular, and whose presence shielded her from further abuse. Then, in a further sign of his protection, Edward saw to it that for the rest of the evening she was partnered by one of his own friends or retainers, men who behaved with utmost propriety and chivalry, and so forced everyone else to do the same.
Toward the close of the evening, Nikita found herself once again with the Prince as they moved through the line, and she seized the opportunity to thank him for his kindness, but he cut her off, saying “I’ll not wear another man’s feathers, Nikita. It was Rouen who suggested that we do what we could to spare you further embarrassment in your own home.”
Stunned, Nikita responded before she could think, “Rouen! But he hasn’t danced with me at all!”
The Prince narrowed his eyes at her and Nikita winced against the disappointment she heard in her own voice.
Edward frowned at her and said, “No. And he will not, as it would undo all the good he’s accomplished this night.” His features softening, he smiled briefly, and slightly ruefully, at her. “You watch yourself, my girl! Michel is as honorable as they come, but don’t you mistake his kindness for something else. He has a wife and children already.”
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