Chapter 5 Part 5 | Lovers and Beloveds | IHGK Book One
Temmin slept late the next day, but went out on his usual ride; while he had no marketing of his own to do this Paggday, he had the day off with everyone else. "No hangover, Jebby! There's a rare thing after a party. I wouldn't even have minded one today, what a night," Temmin said to his horse. The gelding snorted. They walked at a leisurely pace through the King's Woods, down a tributary path of the War Road. He knew the Woods were safe, but he still half-expected to see Brothers secreted in the underbrush.
The morning chill lifted. Mist rose thready from the meadows he glimpsed through the trees; birdsong and the murmur of streams rushing down to the Shadow River were the only sounds. A beautiful day, the kind of day that made him wish to ride until dark, and sleep where he stopped. He certainly hadn't slept well the night before. He knew the assassination attempt was political, but in his young heart he could not get over it: why would anyone want to kill him?
Into this green restfulness came a discordant sob. Temmin pulled Jebby up short, listening. It came from just ahead on the trail; he urged Jebby toward it, until they came to a downed log just off the path, and a girl sitting atop it, crying tears enough to join the Shadow in their own little salty stream.
Temmin dismounted. "Miss? Are you all right? Miss?" He crept forward, wary of frightening her.
The girl hid in her bonnet, but at his voice, she lifted her tear-stained face. "Your Highness?" she said. It was the pretty maid with the curly hair: Arta Dannikson, he remembered. His father's advice came to mind--"She won't deny you, I guarantee it"--and he flushed. "Why are you here?" she quavered.
"Why are you here? These are the King's Woods."
"I know," she said miserably. "I know I shouldn't be here. I sneak off sometimes to be by myself, and I needed to be by myself. Please don't tell Mr Affton!"
"For the last time, Dannikson, I'm not going to tell anyone! That's twice I've had to rescue you from the wrath of Affton, you antic girl," said Temmin. He handed her his handkerchief; she hesitated, took it, and wiped her turned-up nose. "Now, what's amiss?" he said. "Why would a pretty girl come out here, against the rules, to cry her eyes out?"
"It's nothing to concern yourself over, sir," she said to her boots.
"I choose to concern myself," he said, sinking down onto the log.
She scooted self-consciously to one end. "There's really nowhere else to go to have a good cry. I share my room with three other girls, and there's no privacy anywhere at the Keep."
"Don't I know it," Temmin grumbled.
"It's just a beautiful wood. Even when I'm sad I feel better here."
"Why are you sad? Come on, out with it, Arta."
"My sweetheart ain' my sweetheart any more," she wailed, lapsing fully into a mid-Valmouth accent. "He says he don' love me!" Arta buried her face in the borrowed handkerchief.
"A pretty girl like you? Why would he say that? Your sweetheart's the redheaded footman with all the freckles--Wallek, is it?"
"Fen Wallek, yes, sir," she said into the handkerchief.
"What did you fight about?" She closed her eyes tightly and shook her head, sending the curls around her forehead bobbing in an uneasy dance. "Come now," he said. He gently pried the used handkerchief from her hand and gave her a fresh one, silently thanking Jenks for making him carry two at all times. "You can tell me," he coaxed, keeping hold of her hand. "I should think by now you'd trust me a little."
"I can'," she sniffled. "I'm afraid to."
"It's all right. Nothing will happen to you, I promise."
She wiped her nose again, and glanced blearily from under her plain straw bonnet. "We fought over you, sir. Miss Ellika, too, but he started it."
"Elly? Me?" said Temmin.
"Someone saw us in the service hallway, sir. Word got around we were alone, an now people think--things--about me an you." Arta noticed her hand clasped in Temmin's, and slipped it free.
"What sort of things?"
She gazed at him in disbelief. "What sorta things d'you think? Oh!" She clapped her hands over her mouth.
"We only danced."
She dropped her hands. "Sir, that was enough! An the gossip ain'--isn't--" she hastily corrected as she remembered her training-- "about us dancin. No one saw that, or I'd've gotten the boot. Bein seen alone was enough! It's never good when the family notices one of us--whatever family we're with."
"No," he said, thinking of Tellis, and Mattie. "I imagine not. What happened with Wallek?"
She bit her lower lip, looking off into the forest. "Fen asked me about the gossip. I told him there was nothin to gossip about, but he said he didn' believe me, and no one else did, either. I said, everyone knows about you danglin after Miss Ellika, as if a redheaded junior footman would come to her notice. But he has, sir," she said, turning to Temmin, her face wretched. "We were to go today to get our promise rings in town, and instead he told me the princess asked him to move furniture for her. I said, let the on-duty men do it. An he said, no, she asked for me by name, an I can' say no. An I said, of course you can say no!"
She warmed to the memory, the wretched look giving way to wrath. Words came rushing out, angry and hurt. "He's always goin on about how beautiful she is, she's so graceful a dancer, she's a fairytale princess, his ideal, and on and on! An she is, she's all that, but really! He's a junior footman, not the Duke of Valmouth! I said, who d'you think you are, Fen Wallek, that a princess would pay you any mind? An he said, you're just jealous because she's prettier than you! An I said, if you're stupid enough to dangle after a princess, you git, then don' expect me to declare for you! An then he said--he said--why would--I want you to!" She broke down in sobs again.
Temmin took her hand again, and this time she didn't pull it away. "Now, then, you know you're a very fetching girl! He's a lucky man, that you love him!"
"I don' know I do any more," she sniffed through the last of her tears. She looked sideways at him. "You really think I'm pretty?"
"I can't imagine anyone who'd think you weren't," he said. He thought of her in his arms, her light steps as they danced, the scent of her hair, and her happy, eager face turned up to his. He slipped an arm around her, and stole closer to her along the log. Maybe his father was right. Maybe this would be for the best. She wouldn't say no. And then he'd go to Allis and not think about the rest. He put a tentative finger under her chin, tipped her face until their eyes met. She looked so serious, lips parted. He could kiss her right now, and she wouldn't say no. He slipped his hand round her neck, fingers tangled in the hair at her nape, drew her close, and kissed her.