First Chapter - Lady in Red

Lady in Red - A Medieval Romance Here is the first chapter for Lady In Red - A Medieval Romance.

Chapter 1

England, 1198

“Time discovers truth.”
-- Seneca, Roman philosopher

Jessame sauntered into the boisterous hubbub of the evening party with a wide smile. Instantly all eyes turned to her, drawing in her riotous, uncovered curls of ebony hair, her shocking exposure of décolletage, the clingingly tight cut of her hellfire-red dress, the outright indecent exposure of her ankles above the matching red silk slippers. A trio of jack-a-dandy teenage boys nudged one another with open-mouthed delight, a young girl with blonde ringlets had eyes as wide as pound coins, and an elderly woman in widow’s garb nearly swooned, supported by a pair of scowling matrons whose eyes shot poniards.

Jessame grinned with delight and curtseyed to the crowd. The night’s festivities were beginning exactly as planned.

The noise rose around her as she strolled across the polished plank floor toward the refreshment table. Now the voices held a sharper, hushed tone, and shocked outrage rang from all sides.

She chuckled in satisfaction as she looked down the heavy oak table, perusing her options. A collection of pewter cups to her left were grouped as neatly as schoolchildren on their first day of class. A large wooden bowl held a red wine punch, apple pieces floating merrily on top. Further to the right were a juicy roast duck, a fragrant apple pie, a lush bowl of fresh raspberries, a pungent platter of minced onion, and several other treats.

Her mouth watered. It had been a long while since she had eaten this well. She would make the most of the night’s offering, at least for as long as she was allowed to stay.

Her hand was just reaching for an elegant, wide-brimmed cup when a sharp, hissing voice drilled into her ear.

“Are you sure you are in the right place, woman? This party is for proper members of our village.”

Ah, the welcoming committee had arrived.

Jessame turned with a bright smile on her lips. Standing before her was a woman in her mid-twenties who, she had to admit, was stunningly beautiful. Her honey-gold hair cascaded around her face, and the richly woven fabrics which embraced her curvaceous figure spoke of a life of luxury.

Jessame’s eyes danced with delight. “Ah, Lady Cavendish,” she purred. “I was not aware this was your home.”

The woman’s alabaster skin pinkened and she drew her lips into a tight line, drawing herself up haughtily. “You well know that it is not,” she retorted. “However, I am sure I represent the thoughts of the entire village when I state you are not welcome here.”

Jessame’s eyes twinkled. “What, only a brief two months since you deigned to descend from London to wed our wealthiest citizen, and already you speak for our community?” Her voice dropped into a murmur of teasing reproach. “And here you call me a fast woman.”

Lady Cavendish’s mouth opened into a round O of shock, but, before she could formulate a response, her eyes shifted to look behind Jessame. Her features froze in place.

A low rumble of a voice came from behind Jessame, calm, pleasant, and openly curious.

“My dear Lady Cavendish, would you please introduce me to my newest guest?”

Every inch of Jessame’s skin tingled; time slowed down to the gentle dripping of water from a leaf after a rainstorm. She knew that voice, at least knew the echo of it from its greener days. She and Berenger had played together in the fields of her home, had fished in her trout pond on lazy spring days, had stretched side by side on those long summer nights gazing at the stars and watching for comets. From the moment she could toddle on two feet she had chased after him, raced with him, dug for earthworms, twined reeds into chains, carved branches into whistles. She could almost feel his eyebrow arch as he looked her over, wondering at this strange new addition to his homecoming celebration.

Ten long years. She would have known him in an instant, known the rich sound of his voice, the steady set of his dark brown eyes. But it was critical for her task, absolutely core to what she was doing, that he not recognize her. She hoped that his decade in the Crusades, amongst Saracen and Italian and Arabic cultures, had made him long since forget their simple childhood times together.

To make sure, she would do everything in her power to make a strong impression on him. She had to convince him that this wild woman before him was nothing like the sensible girl he had grown up with.

She turned slowly and gave an elaborate curtsey, head lowered, making sure his first vision was of the low cut of her body-hugging crimson dress, of the tousled curls of hair which had grown far darker since her youth. She kept her eyes lowered as Lady Cavendish was reluctantly drawn into the role demanded by custom.

“Yes, certainly Berenger,” the blonde stiffly agreed. “This woman is a relative newcomer to our cozy village; a visitor, you might almost say. I get the sense she might be moving along any time now. She is temporarily lodging at the old Sawyer house down by the stream. Her name is Besame.”

Jessame focused on the strongest London gutter accent she could draw into her mind. She barely made any effort for most of the villagers – there was little need to try to throw them off her true identity. They rarely gave her a kind word in her Besame role and saw no further than her bright red clothes and flouncy manner. She had been isolated from village life for so many years that it never occurred to them that Besame the prostitute and Jessame of the Dwinnel family might be the same person.

But Berenger … he was no fool. He could see through people, gaze into their inner soul …

She shook off the notion. She could not falter now. His return home had been quite unexpected, but she would deal with it as she had dealt with so many other hurdles. She would see her task through.

Resolved, she drew herself up, speaking with a heavy accent, making sure he was distracted by the dress, the movements, the voice, before he saw her face.

“‘At’s all right, guv’n’r, I’ll settle in right as rain soon enuff,” she offered heartily, “Pleased ta meet ya, I’m sure!”

She steadied herself, then raised her eyes up to meet his.

Her heart thundered in her chest, and she sucked in a deep breath, willing herself to stay steady. He was exactly as she remembered him. The gold flecks in his tawny brown eyes, the right eyebrow nudged up in surprise and curiosity as he took in the woman before him. He was the same; the same full, dark head of hair, falling in waves to his shoulder, the same strong set to his jaw.

And yet he was changed. When he had left that abrupt July morning, he was just turning eighteen. He had been verging on thin, still more boy than man, even to her untutored young eyes. Now he was a week shy of twenty-eight and life had filled him in. His muscles were strong and supple beneath his leather jerkin. He wore a sword at his hip and its well-worn scabbard indicated he was proficient in its use. He smelled not of the fresh fields and clean waters, but a more heady mixture of leather and sweet sweat and some exotic spice she could not name.

God’s teeth, how she had missed him.

His eyes narrowed; she turned quickly to the table, giving herself a moment to recover. On impulse she grabbed a handful of raspberries. She’d regret this in the morning, when the rash spread across her chest and drove her into an itching frenzy, but for now it would serve to drive home the idea that she was not Jessame but an entirely different creature altogether.

She turned back to face him, popping a plump berry into her mouth with a bright smile, then gushing with pleasure, “My, but you put out quite the spread ‘ere, mate! My t’anks for the open invite!” She tossed another raspberry into her mouth, adding, “Mmm, delicious!”

The door opened at the far end of the room, and Lady Cavendish had her hand on Berenger’s shoulder as quickly as a hawk pounces on a field mouse. “Ah, it is Father Stockman,” she advised Berenger with enthusiasm. “We must go and greet him at once.” In a moment the two had moved into the general throng and Jessame was left alone.

She let out a long, deep breath. She had done it. The worst was over. He had not seen through her disguise, and now he would get more and more used to her in this new persona as the days went on. Hopefully her deception would only have to last a few weeks longer.

She sighed, turning back to the table and ladling out some of the fruited wine into a pewter cup. She drank down the punch in one long draw. She followed it up with another raspberry, giving a wry smile. She did enjoy their flavor, and if she was going to develop a rash anyway, she might as well enjoy herself while she could. Soon she would have to return to her normal life.

Normal life. Despite the dangers of her current position, Jessame was enjoying herself immensely and did not want her masquerade to end too quickly. As much as she loved her father, remaining cooped up in the house with him for these six long years had worn down her soul. She would do anything to have him cured from his illness, to have their routine return to its former, happy times.

She let out a resigned sigh. It was but a dream to think any hope of a remedy still existed. She would have her few weeks of freedom. She would cherish her days of enjoying the pleasures of the community – what few were afforded to her in the guise she wore – before she returned to the virtual nunnery of her childhood home.

She poured herself another large helping of red wine, then glanced around the room. Most of the townspeople were ignoring her now, talking amongst themselves or examining the room’s décor with hushed conversation. Jessame found herself gazing around as well. She had visited Berenger’s home only a few times during their childhood; he had come to her doorstep every morning, and in her youthful innocence she had never thought to question it. She had only been allowed to visit him the times he had encountered accidents at his home. Strange, he had always been surefooted and agile when he was with her, but somehow at home he had ended up with broken arms, twisted ankles, even a burned leg one time.

During those few visits she would play with Berenger here in the main receiving room, or sometimes in his father’s library. Those were the only two rooms she had been granted access to. She remembered them as being sumptuous, almost garish, stocked with golden knick-knacks and embroidered tapestries. She recalled a beautiful desk with inlaid wood and carved legs that she and Berenger would play beneath.

Now the son had returned home after his father’s death and the room had been redone in a much more elegant fashion. Dark burgundy tapestries hung on the walls, and the solid oak furniture had been pushed to the sides to make room for the guests. Candles shone on all walls to hold back the falling darkness.

All except one corner, which remained steadfastly tucked in shadows.

Jessame gently smiled; she knew who would be hidden away there. She walked forward to stand before him. His once handsome face was now creased by a jagged scar which began just over his left ear, zigged its way across his closed left eye, then crossed his brow to vanish into his greying sandy-blonde hair. His look was distant and haunted, deepening the wrinkles which lined his face. Even his clothing was somber grey, blending him further into the gloom.

She curtsied before him. “Roger. How did I know I would find you here?” she offered tenderly. “It looks like we are both the ignored ones tonight. You at least have a profession the townsfolk respect. For me, whether it is my look or my actions, the little ones are hurried off lest they be tainted by my breath.”

Roger’s eyes shadowed. “You can at least take off your dress, while I cannot undo my damaged face.”

Jessame’s laugh bubbled out of her rich and full. “You think things would go better for me if I removed my dress, then?”

Roger’s mouth quirked, and then a smile spread across it as well. “I imagine not,” he conceded with a chuckle.

“That’s better,” teased Jessame. “You are the only one who has been kind to me since I arrived; well, you and Mary, the seamstress who helped me with this new dress. I appreciate your welcome.”

“I know what it is like to feel the displeasure of these townsfolk,” he noted, nodding. “They are happy to have me make barrels for them or fix their shelves. However, when it comes to social events, they act as if my scar is catching.”

“They are just jealous of your skills,” she responded soothingly. She was fond of Roger; he was like the kindly uncle she never had. He smelled of sawdust and wood oils and, when she could get him talking, had shown a gentle, understanding nature.

“Well, apparently they want me to turn coal into gold,” he grumbled, his gaze dimming again. “Just last week Lord Cavendish waltzed into my shop and instructed me to create him a new dining table made of his favorite elm tree, which had come down in those wild rain storms we had last month. I had it pulled in to my shop – and the bug damage is immense. There’s no way to create the table that Lord Cavendish wants.”

He sighed, his shoulders dropping. “He is adamant; he thinks I am simply holding out for additional money. He thinks more gold will fix any malady. But I am not a miracle worker.”

Jessame’s eyes lit up with delight. “Come with me for a moment, and I will show you a miracle,” she promised.

Roger’s gaze was wary, but he followed behind her as they left the noise and brightness of the main hall for the secluded quiet of the library. It was just as Jessame had remembered it. Shelves holding codices and scrolls lined the back wall, and windows, with thick curtains drawn, faced them. A large desk stood before the shelves, its fine inlay and imposing carved legs making an impressive sight in the flickering candlelight.

Roger’s look became morose. “Oh, yes, the famous desk of Aldric. Is this supposed to make me feel any better?”

Jessame gave him a pat on the arm. “Bring over that candle from the shelf, will you?”

Roger retrieved the beeswax candle in its pewter holder, carrying it to the desk. In the light the desk almost glowed with its oak, elm, and birch inlays.

Jessame nodded her head at the ground. “Now sit on the rug with me.”

Roger’s lips pursed. “Besame,” he ground out hesitantly, “it is not that I do not appreciate your offer, but -”

Jessame shook her head. “I am not suggesting anything improper,” she countered. “I just want to show you something. Something about the desk. However, you must swear to me that you will never mention this to another living soul.”

Roger blinked, but nodded. “Yes, certainly. I promise.”

He paused a moment, then eased himself to sit on the thick brown rug which the desk rested on. Jessame sat alongside him, then leant back and looked up at the underneath of the desk.

She waved a hand to him. “Bring the candle over and take a look.”

Roger leaned over on one arm and held up the candle with the other. Then he stopped, took in a long breath, and raised the flame higher for a better view.

Twisted folds of intertwining layered wood shimmered in candle light. The burl of a tree could be discerned, sawn length-wise. The result shimmered in the light, almost moving before their eyes, resembling an oceanscape with curling waves and receding foam.

Roger’s voice was quiet awe. “Beautiful, simply beautiful.”

Jessame smiled. “I thought, of all people, that you would appreciate this,” she murmured.

Roger’s eyes drank in the grain of the wood. “I never would have thought it. Thank you for sharing that with me; it has changed my outlook on what I can do.”

Jessame’s eyes drifted to the heavy wood leg which was closest to her, and she froze. There, carved into the oak in a hand she knew intimately, was a fish. The elegant, curved shape drew a half a circle with its body. She put a finger hesitantly to the figure, tracing its lines, feeling a connection through time to the boy who had made it. It seemed like yesterday …

There was a loud voice-clearing sound from the doorway, and Jessame scrambled to her feet, with Roger close beside her.

Berenger stepped around the corner of the doorway, his eyes moving from Roger’s rumpled clothes to Jessame’s quick smoothing down of her dress.

His eyes were unreadable in the dark. “I was just checking that everything was all right in here,” he offered in a smooth voice.

Jessame’s throat drew tight; she was unable to make a sound. It was all so sudden, still, to see him before her, to see her dreams brought to life.

After a long moment Roger stepped in to the silence. “We were just discussing the nature of beauty,” he explained with a half-smile. “Nothing more.”

Berenger pursed his lips. “Nothing more, and yet the most meaningful of topics,” he returned, half to himself. “Beauty lies in the depths of one’s soul.”

Jessame found herself echoing the proper Latin version of the phrase without thinking. “In imo animo stat pulchritude.

Both men turned to stare at her, and she hoped the darkened room hid her furious blushing. “‘At’s what my priest used to make me repeat a ‘undred times a night, to repent for my sins,” she added, leaning heavily on her accent, hoping to explain away her slip.

“Yes, of course,” returned Berenger evenly. “Well then, I must return to my other guests. They must wonder what is going on in here.” He turned and was gone before she could say another word.

Roger looked after him. “He is right, of course,” he mused. “The moment we step out of here together, the talk will begin. If you wish, I can do my best to set them straight.”

Jessame chuckled. “Certainly, if you wish to help protect your reputation, I will do all I can. However, I fear my own is beyond salvation.”

Roger put out an arm to her. “In that case, let us face the callous town together and show them we are not afraid of their petty babble.”

Jessame smiled, taking his arm, and together they strode out into the brightly lit hall, once again bringing all conversation to a stuttering, mouth-opened halt.

Roger did not falter; he guided Jessame over to the food table and selected raspberries for her, gathering them on a plate. In a moment a middle-aged woman, slim, wearing a simple but expertly crafted dress of pale blue, came over to join them.

“Ah, Roger, Besame, there you are,” she greeted them with a smile. “I am so glad you both are here. I was beginning to feel quite alone.”

Jessame smiled tenderly at Mary. “You have clothed most of the visitors here,” she countered easily. “Of anybody, you should be the most welcome.”

Mary blushed and looked down for a moment. “You are very sweet to say that, Besame,” she whispered.

Roger handed the small plate of berries to Jessame, then assembled one for Mary. “You are well deserving of the praise,” he murmured.

At the other end of the table, Lady Cavendish strolled up, a portly matron close at her side. The blonde gazed over the offerings with an approving eye. “Berenger knows quality when he sees it,” she praised, “but no feast in London would be complete without a centerpiece of an elegant swan.”

The matron’s mouth went round with appreciation. “I have never tried such a dish,” she gushed. “What does it taste like?”

Lady Cavendish gave a vague wave. “Oh, I really am not sure,” she offered dismissively. “I hear they are a bit gamey. Their corpses are there for the display, for the show of extravagance.” Her eyes lit up. “I shall show you on Sunday, when we have our soiree. And you must come in that fine new coach of yours, so I can show it to my husband. I am sure he will want to have one just like it.” Her eyes turned to search the crowd. “Where is that man? Never around when money needs to be spent.” She turned and strode into the group, the matron hard on her heels.

Jessame put her cup of wine down hard onto the table, staring after the woman. “She would slay a swan, just to have its dead body lie on a table?” she muttered, reining in her anger with effort. “Surely she knows they mate for life. What poor partner was left behind, bereft, all to stoke her vanity?”

Roger shook his head, then turned to look at Mary. “And you spent the past week in the company of her and her vain sister? You deserve the highest honors indeed for what you put up with,” he suggested with a bit of heat. “Lady Cavendish’s younger sister is beyond extravagant. Three dresses finished in the past two days? Just so she could be sure to have backups on hand in case she changed her mind?” He let out a snort. “The girl is spoiled rotten.”

Jessame glanced around. “Is Cassandra here? I did not think I saw her.”

Roger rolled his eyes. “The woman is undoubtedly waiting outside for her opportunity to make a grand entrance, one that nobody could miss.”

Jessame bit her tongue. She had, in fact, done that very thing only a half hour earlier, although she gave herself dispensation for the cause in which she took the action. Cassandra’s sole focus was her own ego.

There was a flurry of noise by the front of the room. Roger looked up, a wry grin creasing his face. “Speak of the …”

It was indeed the blonde beauty, a stunning younger version of Lady Cavendish, her dark violet dress exceedingly proper and still exuding almost a scent of luxury and beauty. Her hair was the color of liquid honey, cascading down her shoulders and rippling against the velvet of her clothing. Her mouth artfully pouted into a smile as she drew her older sister into an embrace, and then …

Jessame’s heart pounded furiously in her chest, as if it were a trapped cat seeking to escape a cage sliding into a pond. Berenger had been brought forward. He was taking Cassandra’s hand in his own, bowing to her, drawing closer to hear her greetings, and Jessame could not watch any further. She poured herself a fresh glass of wine punch, downed it all in one long draw, and closed her eyes.

It was going to be a long night.

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