Chapter 5 Part 6 | Son in Sorrow | IHGK Book 2
In the end, she and an ecstatic Tennoc returned to Gwyrfal. Though Gwynna had rejected a borrowed mother the year before, now she clung to Lassa if not as mother then as a beloved aunt; Kenver, nearly ten years old and his tow hair darkening, held himself a little more aloof but not for long. Lassa was soon a part of the royal family to all its members but Dunnoc, through no fault of his.
Dunnoc made a respectful, determined assault on her. Her favorite dishes appeared on every menu. Music and dancing reappeared now that public mourning for Hallia had ended, and Lassa's favored musicians appeared at Gwyrfal. To Dunnoc's dismay, she kept herself from merriment, preferring to live quietly near the children. This was so unlike her, for while Hallia lived Lassa was the merriest of ladies imaginable, much given to dancing and laughter. That was the Lassa he wanted, and the Lassa he missed.
He took another tack. Gifts began arriving in Lassa's bower with alarming regularity, everything from rare silks from the Western Isles to even more rare incensewood combs from Sairland.
In return, Lassa gave respectful, determined regrets to Dunnoc's invitations to walk with him, dance with him, ride with him, hunt with him, until finally he came to her bower, dismissed the women and children, and thudded into the chair opposite her. "Lady, you give me no chance to press my suit and I grow impatient. Are my attentions so very unwelcome?"
"Your Majesty, may I speak freely?"
Dunnoc leaned forward. "You may always speak your mind, Lassa, I have ever allowed intimacy between us."
"While your gifts are intended with the utmost kindness," she began cautiously, "they are…reminiscent of an earlier time in my life, when luxury blinded me into making unwise decisions."
"What are you saying?"
Lassa lifted her chin. "Do not try to buy me, Dunnoc. I was bought before, and buying myself back cost a great deal."
"Buy you!" Dunnoc stood, his sword sheath banging against his leg. "Lady, those presents were tokens of my esteem alone! To throw them in my face--"
"I'm not throwing them in your face. I have accepted every one of them."
"You reject every attempt I have made at greater intimacy!"
Lassa reached for his hand; he paused, but gave it to her. "I will be more obliging if you stop this shower of goods. I know you mean no harm, but it reminds me of Tennoc's father." She examined the hand in her own. His fingers were long and square-tipped, his hand stiff with scars gained from both war and hunting--quite different from Andrin's smooth, almost girlish skin that had never seen real struggle. "If I come to you, I wish it to be free of past memories and present obligations. Can you understand that?"
Dunnoc sank to one knee, the better to meet her eyes. "Then come riding with me, come walking with me. Talk with me, Lassa, as we used to. I own I have perhaps wooed you the wrong way. I am no sophisticate, merely an old soldier. But when the ghost of that bastard Andrin rises before your eyes, remember this: I have never required your attendance on me, though by rights I could have--I could have required much more of you than that. I hold you in higher esteem than ever he did, or ever will."
Lassa examined the older man's face as she had his hand. Sun and salt wind had tanned his skin and carved lines around his eyes; gray was just beginning to dominate his sandy brown beard. This was a fighting king, hardened in skirmishes against the Tremontines and the would-be Sairish rulers of the continent, and his own sorties across the border into Corland. She wondered if Temmin the Great had been this sort of fighting man; certainly his great-grandson wasn't, though rumor had it that Tremont intended to take the castles along the border with Sairish-held Valleysmouth. Andrin would rely on magic, his own and Teacher's, and stay well away from the fighting. Dunnoc held Kellen's magic, a lesser magic than Tremont's as Kellen was the smaller, but still strong enough that he didn't have to follow his men into the worst of it--and yet he did.
Dunnoc's brows drew together; his expression reminded her of Kenver worrying he'd done something wrong and wondering if he'd be forgiven. Lassa cradled his cheek in her free hand. "You are twice the man Andrin of Tremont is, Dunnoc."
His face lost its uncertainty and came to abrupt attention. "Then will you dance with me tonight?" he whispered.
"I will," she answered.
They danced every night, rode every day, and hunted in fine weather. In the spring they married. Perhaps, thought Lassa, she might miraculously bear Dunnoc a son and fulfill Eddin's prophecy. No, for it would mean something would happen to Kenver, and she loved the boy almost as much as she did her Tennoc. Perhaps the prophecy meant Kenver--he was her stepson.
She didn't want to think about Tennoc being the prophecy's fulfillment. How could he be? Inglatine had written; Andrin had finally set her aside after the births of two more girls, and she lived comfortably at Marsury Castle in Barley with the youngest four of her seven daughters. The new Queen would surely give him a son.
Despite her own certainty, Dunnoc's lords remained unconvinced. "I don't like it," said young Lord Daevys ar Ulvyn one night not long after the wedding. The men drinking around the fireplace in his Gwyrfal apartments grunted in agreement. "Bad enough she spread her legs for a man before she was properly married."
"Eh, I seem to recall your firstborn arriving into the world a wee bit earlier than is common, Ulvyn," snorted Lord Bryth ar Brennow to general laughter.
Ulvyn glared. "I married her. This boy is the only son of the Tremontine king, and far too close to the Prince."
"You fear for Prince Kenver's life?" said Sian ar Lifris.
"No, no, only the influence the Tremontine boy has over him, and the new Queen has over the King. Tremont wants Kellen, there have been skirmishes between us since before the days of the first Temmin."
"They are far too busy with the Sairish colonies along the Valleysmouth border to worry us," scoffed Bryth.
"Not forever. What if the Tremontine bitch gets her hooks so deeply into the King that he looks to a Tremontine princess as a wife for Kenver?"
"Then perhaps Kenver's son becomes king of Tremont as well as Kellen. We take the country in marriage, since so far Andrin has no Heir but the bastard Dunnoc has taken to his bosom," said Lifris. "There's much to recommend the idea."
"There's nothing to recommend the idea," growled Ulvyn. "Tremontines are barbarians. The children of princesses are not in the succession. Tremont is three times our size, and if they succeed in grafting a Tremontine wife onto Prince Kenver, Kellen will become no better than an occupied territory, with nary an arrow nor spell cast. A hundred years ago, Whitehorse and Barley were independent. Now look at them. Do you want Kellen to fall without a drop of blood? Then sit at your ease while Tremont takes us from within!"
"What should we do?" said one.
"There's nothing we can do but counter their influence as we may," shrugged Bryth.
"There's more, but we must be canny," said Ulvyn, "canny and patient. Individually our power is weak. We each have only so many men, and so little magic. But were we to pool our men and magic… When the time comes, and it will, we must be ready, whether it is to oppose Dunnoc or his son."
"This wouldn't be because you're Dunnoc's cousin and next in line after Kenver?" said Bryth.
"You have said enough among this assembly to hang with me, Bryth. You all have. If you support me, help me in coming years. If you oppose me, go and say nothing." The lords shifted uneasily; a few took long pulls from their wine. None left the room.