The Betrothal (Connor)

Six years ago

Connor felt naked. He wondered if it was all the windows. Coastwatch was a very different sort of castle than Orkhold. The Darry seat had grown up over centuries of building, fortress built upon fortress, so that it sprawled over the landscape in a maze of keeps and curtain walls. Even the warrens of the inner baileys felt like fortresses, ancient arrow loops looking out over the newer construction. Coastwatch had been renovated more consistently, and as a result boasted more luxuries. Among these were plate glass windows in some of the castle buildings, including what they called the West Hall. House Ronnel evidently felt no great need to fortify that part of the castle that faced the sea, warded as it was by the fantastic cliffs that let the castle survey the sea from nearly sixty kilometers away.

The view was beautiful. Connor still felt naked.

Of course, he needn’t blame the castle. There was plenty of reason for anxiety right here on the dais. Philippa sat immediately to his right, sweating in the heat of the hall under the weight of red velvet. Her golden hair had been swept back under a sanguinite circlet for dinner, giving him a clear view of the sweat as it trickled down her neck. From there it would be wicked away by her silk camise, he supposed, and then down over her —

Shit. Could she see him blush? He would have to ask Smithers what he thought about Connor growing a beard. The valet stood behind Connor’s chair according to the custom of a high feast, silent and attentive.

For some reason Connor hadn’t expected her to be pretty. That was his own fault. Thatcher had said she was fair, and a herald ought to know. But all Connor could think about was her father. Lord Gareth had been a handsome enough man, but his features in the miniature that Thatcher had shown Connor were very … masculine. Evidently Philippa took after her late mother — who had, it seemed, been a very well-endowed woman.

God on Terra, he was staring again. Look up! Father was four seats away, in the place of honor at Lord and Lady Ronnel’s right. He might have been on the other side of the world. His older brother Hubert was no help, separated from Connor as he was by his new wife Danielle. Besides, Connor was supposed to be getting to know his own dining partner. Dining partner! He had traveled thousands of kilometers to propose to this girl sight unseen, because Father felt that the red lords had forgotten whose blood held the orks at bay in the south. It had all seemed very straightforward and dutiful until he saw her for the first time.

Oh, be honest. Until I saw her tits. Well, all right, he had been expecting someone less … woman-shaped. Philippa was sixteen, but she had been dedicated as an axe maiden at the age of eight and trained to be a knight since then. He’d assumed she would be muscular and … well, flat. God’s Throne, he sounded childish, even tohimself. But seeing Philippa had shocked him into realizing that she was, after all, a person, and one whose opinion on his expected proposal he did not know. He had a week to figure it out, on top of getting to know the girl herself, and plan a moment suitable to propose.

Smithers, ever alert, gave the back of his chair a discreet kick to bring his attention back to reality an instant before Philippa turned to him. She had the most fascinating eyes — a blue so pale they were almost gray. They shone like steel — or no, like the sun on the morning sea.

“Is the wine to your liking, sir?” she asked. “In the south, I suppose you must be used to vintages from the Vale.”

She was holding a goblet, close to her mouth so that he could not make out her expression. But there was something about her eyes that resolved him. He took his own goblet without looking away from her and sipped appreciatively.

“The wine is very fine, madam,” he said. “Much finer than I had hoped to find, iftruth be told.”

She smiled a little at that and turned away, apparently intent on her asparagus. Connor waved Smithers to lean forward. “Find Thatcher,” he whispered, loud enough that Philippa could hear over the din of the feast. “Let him know I require him to beg Lord Ronnel’s indulgence for a toast.”

“Herald Thatcher?” Smithers’voice remained politely neutral, but the fact that he had repeated the instruction at all was for him the equivalent of fainting shock. His eyes flicked to Lord Gareth, only two seats to Connor’s right. “Are you quite certain that’s necessary, Sir?”

“Never more,” Connor said. His eyes were locked on Philippa’s now, as she studied the vinegar drizzled over her plate.

Understanding lit Smithers’ eyes. “Ah,” was all he said, and he sketched a short bow. “Very good, Sir.”

It took another twenty minutes for Smithers to find Connor’s personal herald, William Thatcher, and for Thatcher to approach and be acknowledged by Lord Ronnel. Thatcher thumped his bronze-shod staff on the flagstones for silence, a steady tattoo that cut through every conversation until the hall was still.

“My lords, my ladies,” Thatcher said with a touch of his cap to Lord and Lady Ronnel, “good sirs, noble women” — Thatcher turned with a dramatic flourish of his herald’s cloak to address the hall in his best tournament-ground roar — “honest faithful of Coastwatch and House Ronnel —”

Thatcher continued to wax eloquent on the subjects of Connor’s personal virtues, parentage, and martial honors — these last consisting of managing to strike several orks during last year’s campaign without getting his head smashed in, a fact that Thatcher was skillfully glossing over. Smithers must have told him what Connor intended to do.

“Thatcher does so love his job,” Connor muttered under his breath.

To his surprise, Philippa giggled briefly. “So does my herald,” she whispered.

“—defender of the south, a comfort to his parents and support to his brother. A moment’s silence, I pray you all, for my master, Sir Connor Darry, would address his lord host.”

Connor took his goblet and moved to push his chair back,only to find that Smithers was already doing so. Balding old Lord Gareth looked at him with inscrutable blandness. His wife, Lady Olivia, wore an expression of puzzlement. He stood and faced them, pitching his words to carry through the hall.

“My good lord and lady,” he said, “you have made my House and family most welcome, and for this I add my thanks to those of my lord father, lady mother, and honored elder brother. The virtues of House Ronnel’s wines are known even in the jungles of — in my homeland. You have served us on — tonight I have —”

His hand was shaking, he realized. He glanced down, afraid he would spill wine on Philippa’s court gown. She was looking at him with eyes narrowed in puzzlement. Those eyes.

He looked up again, voice steady. “You have accepted me before your hearth as a guest. It is to the credit of your House before all men to show this courtesy, when it is plain to see that my visit is a matter of state. And now I must beg you extend that courtesy farther, my lord, once because I have a question to ask that is no matter of state at all, but personal; and twice because it is not addressed to you.”

Connor knelt so that his eyes were on a level with Philippa’s. Smithers, a part of his mind noted, had already withdrawn the chair further to make room. Those gray eyes were widening now, as he asked, “Dame Philippa Ronnel, will you marry me?”

The Betrothal (Connor)

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