The Betrothal (Philippa)
Six years ago
The engagement had been settled months ago, but they only met when House Darry arrived at Coastwatch for the official announcement and subsequent festivities. Horses and litters spilled into the yard, and Philippa stood, straight as a rail, afraid that she would trip on her pattens, cursing the rain that had fallen the night before and turned their yard into mud.
He was handsome. She was relieved, and let out a breath she didn’t realize she had been holding. A hand pushed gently against her back, and she realized Vhetin was giving her a cue. A small step forward, her chin held high, as the riders fell in around her.
“On behalf of my house, I, Philippa, first-born of House Ronnel, do welcome you to Coastwatch and offer you a place at our table and under our roof.”
And suddenly he was there, and he was bowing, and murmuring thanks from his House, and Vhetin was moving her inside. She was worried about the little things – did they have enough candles? Vhetin told her that it was just nerves, that things would settle down, and yes, they had enough candles, Lady Ronnel had seen to that.
The night they were engaged was something else altogether. They had been making conversation, and she was drinking her wine far too fast. Between spearing asparagus, she heard him ask his valet to find his herald. An odd choice, given the timing of the meal, and she looked at him out of the corner of her eye.
Heralds, as a rule, were not hired for their subtlety. The herald for House Darry was no different, giving a lengthy account of Connor’s recent adventures fighting orks — I met him, blasted in alien gore from head to toe — and Philippa would have stopped listening altogether if she hadn’t heard Connor mutter how much his herald clearly loved his job.
Philippa couldn’t help but giggle. The speech was reaching its hagiographic apex. “So does my herald,” she whispered conspiratorially, and he looked at her, surprised. She gave him a smile over her wineglass, and turned back to her asparagus.
The herald was wrapping up, and she noticed movement out of the corner of her eye. Connor stood and raised a cup, praising her father and the House for their hospitality. Then the toast’s tone changed, and — God on Terra — he was kneeling in front of her, this boy — this man — this stranger — and her eyes widened.
“Dame Philippa Ronnel,” he said, “will you marry me?”
Everything she knew about him flashed before her eyes, rather like the list of accomplishments his herald had just rattled off. He was handsome, he had just made her laugh, it was expected, she heard he was kind — she was taking too long. Had everyone noticed that she was taking too long?
Philippa reached out her hand to take his, and nodded. She didn’t remember saying anything, but must have said yes, because the room erupted in cheers. The cheering crowd pressed towards the dais, and Connor gave her hand a tight squeeze before offering his arm. Again, she felt Vhetin, her shadow, moving her into position.
The gardens at night were enchanting, with sweet smelling arbors and small benches to sit and watch the sea. She pulled her mantle tighter against the breeze from off the water. They walked together towards the balcony, and she realized that they were alone.
He watched the waves crash beneath them, and after a moment, he turned to face her. “How are you fairing?” he asked.
“Well enough,” she said, with perhaps more of a tremor in her voice than she intended.
“Have you anything to say to me now that we’re alone?”
She blinked, confused. “Should I have?”
“Not precisely, no.” He spoke quickly, a rush of words overcoming her like the waves below, “I suppose I wanted a moment alone. This is not to say that I would retract what I declared, but I wished to ensure that we spoke frankly about — ” He paused, and looked down. Was he blushing? He continued after a moment, a bit more confidently, “I would like to believe myself not the sort of man to keep concubines or to visit whores overmuch — that is,” he paused again, “should you not desire conjugal relations frequently following your marriage, I should not think to shame you in that way more often than absolutely necessary, in light of the…”
He trailed off, then met her eyes. “That is to say, madam, I had undertaken to ask for your hand out of the strictest sense of filial and feudal duties, but I must confess, when once I saw your face, directly I fell — that is to say, the prospect took on a very different aspect.”
It was her turn to blush, and she hoped it wasn’t as visible as she feared in the evening light. Her eyes fell to her shoes, and she stammered out a response. “Sir — I find myself quite flattered with your most recent revelations and find myself of a similar sentiment regarding yourself.” She glanced up at him, and back down again. “That is, I consider myself blessed by the Emperor to have a man of your caliber to be betrothed to. I cannot foresee a reason that I would forsake any vow I take, and so would endeavor to be faithful to you, and would hope that you would do me the same honor.”
With that, she took a deep breath and looked up to meet his eyes, which watched her intently.
“I wonder,” he said softly, “if, perhaps, in light of the circumstances, I might kiss you?”
She nodded ever so slightly, and he leaned down and kissed her. It was a gentle kiss, rather full of new beginnings, she would think later. But then, all that mattered was this warm night, reaching out to hold his hands, and feeling his lips on hers.