A Bed of Spices
HE FILLED HER DREAMS WITH DESPERATE LONGING
The exquisite Frederica der Esslingen fled the castle to the herbalist’s cottage. Rica could never give in to her father’s wishes and marry the man her twin sister loved. Another man, a stranger, set her blood racing and understood her bold, searching heart. Yet he was denied her forever.
SHE SET HIM AFIRE WITH FORBIDDEN DESIRE
Son of a wealthy Strassburg merchant, and determined to become a physician, Soloman had come to study the herbalist’s art. It was there, in a wild garden, that he first set eyes on Rica. Her golden-haired beauty and bold spirit bewitched him. As plague ravaged Europe, he struggled against his passion, risking his life for the woman he longed to hold in his arms forever on…A BED OF SPICES
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Charles der Esslingen stood near the embrasure of his chamber and looked to the courtyard below. His solar filled the top floor in the keep of the old castle, and the builders had been generous with light so high, where arrow slits and protection were no longer necessities. Buttery May sunshine splashed into the room, warming the sweet herbs in the rushes beneath his feet.
It was a glorious view, and all he surveyed belonged to him; all had been won with his sword in his youth. There was the keep and the manor, the upper and lower baileys with their whitewashed walls. Beyond was a meadow dotted with sheep, their newly shorn bodies oddly naked. There was a forest, thick with game birds and animals, a vineyard where grew some of the finest Rhenish grapes in the empire, and an orchard where apple and pear trees flourished. In the distance, beyond his eye’s reach, was a smattering of peasant dwellings and the fields with their new crops.
In the greening baileys, the morning bustle had begun. Scullery maids washed pots in a tub nearby the open kitchen door. Another girl gathered herbs in her apron from the garden close to the wall. A vassal paced the walk in obvious boredom.
As Charles lifted his cup, his daughter Frederica bustled from the kitchen, headed with purpose across the grass. Taking in the busy swish of her skirts, he half smiled, feeding his hawk a crust of bread. “On her morning rounds,” he commented to the bird, who cocked an eye toward the yard.
The vassal on the walk called out to Rica in some jest Charles could not hear. She paused to laugh over her shoulder, and the sound rang through the hazy morning, teasing and ripe, like the girl herself.
Charles stepped closer to the embrasure to watch her progress. Chickens scurried in alarm before her, squawking in protest of the flying skirts. Within the confines of the bailey, she was bareheaded, and her hair glistened in the morning sun as if laced with silver and gold, the tresses flowing well past her waist. The dark woolen cotehardie she wore clung to the curves of breast and hip that had been so long in coming, and even the billowing surcoat hid little of the final result of her long wait for a woman’s body.
The vassal on the walk had kept pace with her, calling out. Ignored, he finally stopped, but looked after the girl with such wistfulness and frustration that even her father had to laugh.
Rica slipped into the brewhouse. Charles turned from his post, still smiling softly at the besotted youth on the walk. Poor fool was hardly alone.
He sipped from the cup of wine his servants had brought him, along with a dry bit of stale bread from last night’s supper. Rica teased him over his indulgence in early morning food—she teased everyone about something—but Charles grappled with weakness enough as it was. Without food in the morning, he sometimes shook like an old woman.
A soft sigh came from the corner. Charles eyed his second daughter over the rim of his wooden cup. Head bent over her needlework—her endless, endless needlework—she was utterly still but for the flying fingers.
Etta. Her hair, too, streamed over slender shoulders and a fine, lush woman’s form. The face was oval, as pale and flawless as a field of fresh snow at evening, her lips red and tender. As if she sensed his gaze, she lifted her eyes to her father. Fringed with almost unnaturally long lashes, the irises were a deep purplish blue.
His daughters. Twins. So utterly identical that no one would have been able to tell them apart but for the tragedy that made the physical similarities almost a parody. The tragedy that was, perhaps, his judgment from God for the violence of his youth.
Etta, for all her shining loveliness, had no besotted youths trailing in her wake. She rarely went abroad. She never spoke to anyone except Rica, who swore that Etta was not simple-minded, only deeply wounded somewhere in the darkest heart of her.
Without a smile or any acknowledgment, she lowered her gaze back to the tapestry on her lap. A familiar pluck of grief touched his heart. To have lost his beloved and beautiful wife so violently ten years before was sorrow enough. That his six-year-old daughter had been so brutalized was beyond his imagination.
The dark thoughts were interrupted by the appearance of a vassal at the door of his chamber.
“Ah, Rudolf,” Charles said in greeting. “Come in. Tell me what you have learned.”
The young man settled on a bench nearby the wall and rubbed his hands to warm them by the fire. “The pestilence is widespread, my lord. They say there has never been such as this.”
Charles grunted, chewing his hard crust of bread.
“They say that India is gone, so littered with bodies the stench travels for a hundred miles. Italy has suffered the same fate for nearly a year. France is in chaos . . . now the pestilence moves north.”
“And what, pray tell, have the famed doctors and astrologers to say?”
“A demon in the air and an alignment of planets,” Rudolf said in disgust. “It should be plainly obvious it is a punishment from—”
Charles raised a weary hand and pressed with the heel of his palm to his chest, trying to ease the ache there. Thin rumors had wound through the countryside for many months, telling of the disease. With the rumors came grim prophecies of death for all mankind. “Heard you a tale of its look?”
“Yes, the sufferers—”
“I need no more gruesome stories. Tell the guards to watch for it in travelers along the river. We will admit no such victims here.”
“Yes, my lord.” Rudolf stood, and he cleared his throat. His nerves were betrayed by the clutch of his fists at his side. “Have you given thought to my suit?”
“I have.” Settling himself upon a stool, Charles waved toward a bench and Rudolf sat, back straight. Against the sunlight, his hair took on a glorious blaze of yellow, the ends curled at his shoulders, his handsome face earnest. Rudolf had served him well. The link to his powerful family would help erase the less noble blood running through Charles’s own veins. Beyond that, Rudolf was the most besotted of the field of Rica’s admirers. He would make a good husband to her. “I will agree to the betrothal—”
Rudolf jumped to his feet in exuberance. “Oh, thank you, my lord!”
Charles forestalled any further display. “There is a condition.”
“She is headstrong,” he warned.
Rudolf gave him a rueful smile. “Of that, my lord, I am all too aware.”
Charles walked to the embrasure. Rica stood now in the gardens, conversing with a servant. He gestured to Rudolf, who joined him.
“She is also a romantic girl,” Charles said slowly. “Her head is filled with the tragic poems written by the ladies and knights of the courts.” He paused. “I want you to take the summer to woo her, so I am not forced to wed her against her will.”
“And if I cannot capture that wild heart?”
“I think I know a little of the romantic dreams of young girls.” Charles inclined his head. “You are not without your gifts … I watch the eyes of the women here.”
Rudolf flushed darkly. “Foolish wenches with only coupling to fill their brains.”
“Seemed a lovely pastime when I was a youth,” Charles said mildly, but raised a hand once again to forestall Rudolf’s protestations. This was the only flaw of the young man—a certain grim piety that manifested itself at odd times. “Speak not to Rica of religion and God,” he cautioned. “She is not concerned with matters of the spirit at this point in her life. Women grow more serious when their bellies swell.”
“She is all I wish as she is,” Rudolf murmured, leaning out to watch her, his eyes glowing. “Whatever I must do to win her—” He straightened and clasped his hands behind his back. “You need not worry. For the summer I will be a model of courtly love.”
“Good.” Charles turned away. “If summer’s end finds her still reluctant, I will tell her of the betrothal and you will be wed. By All Saint’s Day, you will have a wife—willing or no.”
From the corner, the ordinarily silent Etta cried out, and Charles started. Both men stared at her, but she ignored them, her gaze fixed on a cut on her palm. She whimpered in terror as blood trickled over her hand and began to run down her arm.
Charles sprang forward, for once not annoyed with the girl. Her aversion to blood was well known and understandable given the trauma of her childhood.
“There, my sweet,” he murmured, taking her arm. He plucked a length of fabric from the basket beside her and twisted it around her hand. “Your scissors slipped, that’s all.”
But as the blood soaked through the cloth, Charles felt a tremor of foreboding pass through his belly. As Etta fixed terrified eyes on his face, he felt as if there were something he should be seeing, something just beyond his reach.
He dismissed it. “Rudolf, fetch Olga.” To Etta, he added, “She will attend you quickly. All will be well.”
Rica knelt in the confessional, smelling the sour, sharp scent of beeswax that had been rubbed into the wood. Stone flags met her knees. Beyond the screen, blocked with sheer white linen, the old priest wheezed, as he always did in the spring.
She clasped her hands together. “Forgive me, Father, for I have sinned,” she murmured. “It has been six days since my last confession.”
Pursing her lips, she tried to remember the pockets of wickedness that riddled those six days. She had nearly forgotten to be shriven at all, and now, breathless with the run across the courtyard, she found her mind a blank. “I borrowed my sister’s scarf without telling her, the good one she embroidered for Assumption.”
“Mmmm.” The priest coughed, the sound shallow but wheezing.
Beginning was difficult, but once reminded, she seemed to recall an avalanche of transgressions to confess each time—there were so many ways to err! “I spoke sharply to Cook this morning and disobeyed my father’s order to wear my hat when I leave the castle grounds. It was too hot.”
A murmur came through the screen. Rica shifted on the flags, uncomfortable with the need to confess the next sin. It had been told and repented a hundred times—and would be told a hundred more, for she could not overcome it. Her voice dropped. “I dreamed I slew my mother’s murderer.”
A short pause marked the air. He was supposed to be anonymous, a figure of shadowy authority, although he was the chapel priest and everyone knew it.
“Is there nothing else you would tell me?” the priest prodded. Obviously, he had some concern she might have omitted something.
Swallowing a smile, Rica realized what it would be. She did not help him. The priest had been in her father’s chapel for most of her life. He had given her instruction in the catechism and taught her to read Latin. It was the gentle old priest who supplied Rica with her beloved texts, and although he disapproved of the path her thoughts took at times, she knew he was fond of her. Now he was worried that the poems of the courts, those passionate avowals of tragic love, would corrupt her completely.
More worried, she thought with a frown, about her reading those stories of illicit love than he was about her repeated dreams of revenge.
Bloody dreams they were, in which she was armed with only a dagger and her hatred. In light of such, the romances in which she so delighted carried little weight. “I have read no more of the literature you forbade me,” she said quietly.
“Ahhh.” Relief soughed through the word. He gave her prayers of penance. “God bless you, child. Pray for me, who sins as you do.”
He coughed and Rica promised herself she would prepare a tea to soothe that ticklish hacking. Her father, too, needed a fresh batch of his medicine. She would go see Helga this afternoon. Perhaps even Etta could be persuaded to go along.
Her spirits rose in anticipation. She hurried from the chapel into the warmth of the spring day, her limbs lightened with confession and the promised break in routine.
But in spite of her eagerness to be away, it was the middle of the afternoon before her duties allowed her to set out for Helga’s cottage. Her sister, Etta, walked silently alongside her, a serene expression on her beautiful face. Although they were said to be identical twins, Rica knew Etta was far more beautiful than she. Her heart was pure, and that virtue shone in her complexion, in her eyes, in her almost unbearably sweet smile.
Their dog, a monstrous wolfhound, knew it, too. Leo trotted steadfastly at Etta’s side, licking her fingers every few steps as if to assure himself of her continued presence. He loved Rica, and always came with her as protection when she walked alone to the cottage for herbs, but it was to Etta he was devoted.
Rica slipped her hand into the bend of her sister’s elbow. “The day is beautiful, is it not?” she said, gesturing toward the Vosges Mountains standing blue to the west. The river 111 rose from a secret spring in those hills, its path lined with thick trees.
To the east wound the great Rhine. Nestled against a bend in the waterway spilled the city of Strassburg, its rooftops piled one atop the other like a tumble of chess pieces. At some times of day, the city glowed with a magical, rosy wash, but this afternoon the walls wavered in a haze of heat.
Faintly from the monastery on the river came the echo of monks at prayer, a melancholy song Rica loved in spite of its sadness. “Listen,” she said to Etta. “Do you hear them?”
Etta cocked her head toward the sound and smiled softly, but she made no reply. Rica had not really expected one. Etta was not mute—nor simple-minded—as the servants and her father were wont to believe. She spoke to Rica, usually about God, if the truth were known, when Rica would much rather have discussed a new fabric she had purchased from a wandering peddler, or a bangled belt she’d found in the city. God and embroidery proved Etta’s only topics, however, and Rica had learned to live with that.
Her vivid, bloody dream flitted through her mind again. Gone now was the contrition she felt in the confessional. She always told the priest it was her mother she was avenging in her dream, and perhaps it was in some small way. But when she lifted her hand, dagger shining in the moonlight of her dream, it was Etta who was in her mind; Etta who was avenged in the murder of the man who had brutally handled Rica’s twin. One day, she promised herself grimly. Perhaps then, the wounded spirit of Etta would be freed.
Rica led them around a muddy hole in the road, lifting her skirts. It made little difference, for the hems dragged the ground as fashion insisted. For the hundredth time, Rica swore to shorten her tunics and coats.
The dog whined suddenly, ear cocked in alertness. Rica smiled. “What is it, Leo?” She scanned the trees along the road. A flurry of sparrows danced through the branches of pine and birch, but the dog cared little for birds, though he snapped at them as a matter of course if they got too close. He made a soft whimper in his throat.
Rica spied the squirrel at the same instant it began to chatter and scold. Its tail flicked indignantly at the intruders, and it scrambled for the safety of a branch from which it kept up its haranguing.
Three months ago, nothing would have kept Leo in his place beside them, but Rica had worked with him patiently, rewarding him when he did not give chase to some succulent little animal in the fields and forests. With a pang, she realized she had forgotten to bring treats with her today.
She nudged her sister. “Etta, bend down and give Leo a hug. Tell him what a good dog he is for not giving chase.”
For a moment, Etta only looked at Rica with a blank expression in her wide, lavender eyes. Then she knelt, unmindful of the mud in the road, and buried her face in Leo’s gray-and-brown fur. “Good dog,” she said quietly. Leo made a small, grateful noise in his throat and licked Etta’s face.
A wild, searing sense of hope unfurled in Rica’s breast, an almost painful sensation. It was the first time Rica could remember Etta ever speaking to any human or animal save Rica herself. Were the demons passing, then? Or was the dog a link to the world that Rica had never thought to use before?
Biting her lip to contain her excitement—for anything sudden or unexpected sent Etta scurrying behind a mask of silent terror—Rica watched them, dog and girl in the humid warmth of a late spring day. “Good dog,” Etta said again, and offered her face for his licks. A bubble of laughter slipped from the pale throat.
Rica’s hands shook. Out of a need to move somehow, she tore the barbette from her hair and tossed it above her head, catching it just as Etta stood up again. Her face again held the slight, virtuous smile, but Rica didn’t miss the way her hand lingered on Leo’s back, protective and loving.
Sweet mother of God, Rica thought in joy. Thank you.
It was only then she realized she had sinned twice on this walk, the same sins she had confessed this very morning. It seemed she could never keep a day clean of them.
And yet, she didn’t replace her hat. It was too hot, and the damage, after all, had been done.
Helga’s cottage squatted at the edge of a thick stand of trees, a plain thatch-roofed dwelling surrounded with neat beds of herbs, the medium of her commerce. The widow of a minor squire, Helga had raised seven healthy children with her concoctions and potions. It was a miracle so near to the river, and some said she was a witch, but when needy enough, even they sneaked through the woods to her cottage.
It had been Helga who had delivered the twins; Helga who had nursed a six-year-old Etta back from the edge of the grave; Helga who had kept the old priest healthy and had even put a stop to the worst of Rica’s father’s bellyaches.
Rica thought she might also be her father’s mistress but knew better than to ask either of them.
The twins approached the cottage, their hems tangling in stands of borage and lavender alongside paths covered in red clover. The pungent odor of dill wafted through the air as Leo waved his eager tail into a stand of it.
Rica heard voices from behind the cottage, where Helga worked in warm weather. Helga’s was one, of course. That throaty, rich sound was unmistakable—”the voice of a bawdy,” her father always said. Rica liked it.
The other one was deeper, thick with laughter, unfamiliar. Rica hung back for a moment, trying to place it, wondering if she ought to put back her hat and smooth her hair before she appeared. But what if it were only some peasant come for Helga’s spring tonic?
She peeked around the corner. The midwife’s broad body blocked Rica’s view of the male visitor and she bit the inside of her lip, waiting. A fly buzzed nearby her ear and she shooed it away distractedly, setting the tiny bells on her bracelet jingling.
Helga’s broad figure swiveled with more grace than one would have suspected. “Rica!” she said, beckoning with one hand. “Come, girl. No need to hide yourself.”
Rica slid around the corner, tossing a handful of hair over her shoulder as she came forward, her eyes downcast as befitted a maid—even if her hat was gone, she thought with a flush. In her wake trailed Etta and the dog.
“Ah!” exclaimed Helga. “Both my pretties are here today.” She kissed them soundly.
That ritual finished, Rica looked at the man in the yard. At first, she only peeped through her lashes to see how embarrassed she ought to be, but one glance astonished her so fully, she opened her eyes wide and stared.
His voice had led her to expect a man, full-grown and burly. And in ways, she supposed he was a man, as much as she was a woman. His hair tumbled over his head in thick, unruly curls, the color black as a starling’s tail, and glossier still. His brow was high and wide above black eyes that twinkled with the lingering humor of the joke he and Helga had shared.
Her stomach squeezed. She pressed her palm to the place, dumbstruck for once in her life. His skin gleamed with color: a fine ruddiness in his cheeks, a warm walnut on his hands and neck.
He was beautiful, as beautiful as a fallen angel or a pagan god. And he stared back at her as if he could not believe she stood there, as if he knew her, as if he were as dazzled as she.
She turned in panic toward Helga. “My f-father sent me for some tonic,” she said breathlessly. “Oh, and I need yarrow and lungwort for the priest.”
Helga gave her a curious look. “Did you run all the way?”
“Er, w-well,” Rica stammered, then realized what a good excuse it made for breathlessness. “Only through the meadow.”
Helga laughed. “Our Rica is not a lazy girl—she’s been seeing to the kitchens and gardens since she was ten—but she loves to escape when she does.”
The visitor laughed and Rica glanced sideways at him. His teeth were big and strong and white, his lips red as apples.
A little ache bloomed in her breast. Like a lady stricken with the beauty of a knight in one of the poems the priest had forbidden her, Rica felt faint and star-struck and bewitched.
She smiled at him.
He swallowed, then glanced away quickly, a dusky stain on his cheekbones. “Is that so?” he asked.
Having lost the thread of conversation, Rica frowned. “Is what so?”
“That you like to escape when you have finished your chores?”
“Er, yes.” She looked at Helga. “Shall I get the tonic? I know what to do.”
“Oh, I’ll fetch it, child.” She patted her shoulder. “Stay here and keep the young man company while I get it. He is a good student. Tell him about your thoughts on sickness.”
Rica nearly bolted, followed after the robust old woman no matter how odd it seemed. But the stranger’s voice halted her. “Please,” he said in his resonant voice. “Do not go. It is rare enough a girl thinks at all. I would hear your thoughts, if you would tell them.”
“It is nothing,” she said. “I only see that my father is much better when he does not eat certain things “
“Oh? What sort of things?”
She twisted the stem of a stalk of chamomile lying on the table. “Goose and duck, old mutton, beef. Even frumerity seems to sit ill with him.” With a slight shrug, she again glanced at him shyly. “He growled a lot at first, but he no longer gets the bellyaches he once did.”
“And how came you to this thought?”
“I watched to see when he grew ill.” She frowned. “Not such a difficult step to take.”
He leaned forward. “But not a step all would see.” He met her eyes and Rica, unwillingly, saw a glimmer of respect there. A man who would listen to the thoughts of a woman?
She inclined her head and felt her hair fall over her arm and wrist. “Anyone with any intelligence would see it.”
“Ah,” his grin was swift and devastating. “And we all know how widespread intelligence is.”
His phrasing somehow made them a unit, two apart from the teeming masses. It was the first time anyone had thought to recognize her ability to reason.
“Common as tamed boars.”
He laughed. What a beautiful mouth he had, Rica thought. Generous, as if it could give—
Startled, she flushed with a painful intensity. A third sin in less than an hour—perhaps four if she counted thinking of the poetry that the priest had forbidden her to read.
But, as with her hat, the damage had been done. Her gaze caught on his throat, long and brown. His shoulders were broad beneath the dark jupon, his calves well shaped in his hose.
The small ache in her chest bloomed as wide as a poppy, touching her breasts and belly.
Then her wandering gaze fell upon his hands. Powerful they were, with the look of hard work in the long dark fingers. But it was the cleanliness of them that struck her. No dirt clung beneath his neatly trimmed nails. The knuckles were scrubbed.
And she became aware of a heady, warm scent the wind blew toward her, a scent of clean male skin mixed with a unique, elusive smell. His smell.
“Who are you?” she asked, suddenly frightened.
“Has your Helga not told you of her student?” His voice dropped to a rough, low tone. “She has told me of you.”
“You?” Rica’s eyes widened. She sought and found the round yellow patch on his chest, the mark of his Jewry. Her heart squeezed painfully and her words came out on a disappointed note she could not control. “I thought you a burgher’s son, by your clothes.”
The black eyes hardened a notch. “My father is a merchant,” he said. “A rich one—but I am his fourth son and he has granted permission to let me study medicine.” He turned his face toward the city. “The pestilence chased me home, but as I wait for better days, Helga has been kind enough to share her knowledge of herbal cures with me.”
“And a bright, quick student he is,” Helga interjected, emerging from the cottage with several packets of muslin tied in string. A fat black-and-white cat wound around her ankles, and somehow she avoided tripping. “Solomon has learned in a few months what’s taken me four years to teach you.”
Piqued, Rica lifted her chin. “Perhaps he has better reason.” The words came out on a rather more annoyed note than she had intended, and she caught the tail of a grin hidden behind Solomon’s hand.
“Oh, now, sweet,” Helga said with her husky chuckle, “I meant no harm.”
Rica clasped the packets close to her chest and lifted her skirts. “Come, Etta, it is time to return.”
Etta rose from the ground, where she had squatted to stroke the cat’s wild long fur. Next to her, Leo whined jealously and licked her hand. “Good dog,” she said in a clear, high voice.
Helga gasped. Rica glanced at her in alarm, shaking her head quickly once. Then, unable to stop the swell of joy in her chest, she crossed the yard and hugged the midwife. “It’s the third time today,” she whispered against her ear.
“You must come tell me about this soon,” Helga whispered in return, squeezing Rica’s arms.
Rica smiled and lifting her skirts, hurried after her sister, who was heading back toward the castle.
* * *
In spite of the fact that Rica watched her sister almost continuously, there was no further manifestation of the strange, alert behavior until late afternoon.
Upon returning to the castle, Etta bent over her tapestry frame and with monotonous concentration, poked the needle in and out, in and out of the fabric. The dog flopped next to her on the rushes, content to sleep nearby his mistress if nothing else were required of him.
Rica leaned restlessly against the embrasure, waiting for her father. There was a newer wing than this two-hundred-year-old keep with its damp walls, but Charles clung stubbornly to his solar, giving the newer quarters to his guests. The lower-slung addition could not hope to compete with this eagle’s view of the courtyard and all its goings on.
Below were kitchen maids in the garden, collecting new greens for supper. From some unseen place, a musician plucked a lute, readying it for the evening’s entertainment. The priest sneezed his way across the courtyard. Along the walk, two men-at-arms paced slowly, their lackadaisical attitudes shouting of the peace that had reigned since the new emperor had taken his throne. There were always dangers so close to the river, but the reckless, bloody days of Rica’s childhood had settled now in this simple peace.
Charles came in, his hawk on his arm. His face was pale and beaded with sweat. “Papa!” Rica exclaimed. “Come sit down.”
“Do not flutter so, child,” he grumbled, but did not shake off her hands. He allowed her to remove his outer garment, then wash his face with a cloth dipped in cool water.
“You are too fat, Papa,” Rica said with a frown. “If you do not stop putting food in your mouth every minute, all summer you will suffer thus.”
He waved a beefy hand. “You have taken all my favorites from me. I eat only what is left.”
Rica smiled as the color began to return to his cheeks. He was not, in truth, terribly fat, although a round belly filled his tunic well enough. But even the moderate extra weight had him billowing as he took the stairs, flushing in the heat of a summer’s day, and sleeping poorly. “It will be easier now we have fresh food. I will go pick cherries for you tomorrow.”
He winked and patted her hand, his good humor returning with his wind. “As you wish, liebling. You have been right thus far.” He shifted to pour a cup of ale. “Did you bring me some magic potion from Helga?”
“I gave it to Matilda. She will send a girl up with it.” She kissed his cheek. “I will leave you,” she said with a smile, knowing he would nap until supper and that he hated admitting to an old man’s weakness.
Charles caught sight of Etta and frowned. “Take her with you, girl. I am weary of her sitting like a stone in my corner.”
“She is not deaf, Papa.” Rica whirled, furious at his bad-tempered words, and touched her sister’s slim shoulder. “Come, I will dress your hair and you may do mine.”
As Etta complaisantly settled her threads in a basket, Rica shot her father a look.
He lifted one bushy gray eyebrow, unapologetic.
Before they left the chamber, one of Charles’s vassals appeared, Rudolf der Brumath. A tall man with the grace of a young stag, he smiled genially toward the girls. “I hope I do not interrupt.”
“No.” Rica smiled. Unlike most of the rest of the castle inhabitants, Rudolf always included Etta in his greetings and she liked him for that.
He bowed now over Rica’s hand, then Etta’s, turning the latter’s over. “I see your wound has healed,” he murmured.
Etta bent her head, and a rosy flush of color stained her pale cheeks. “Aye,” she whispered.
Startled, Rica glanced quickly at her sister, then toward Rudolf, who smiled gently into Etta’s face. Although she knew Rudolf extended his kindness toward Etta in order to win Rica’s favor, she thought now there might be a way to use that kindness.
Giving him her broadest smile, she said, “Perhaps you will sit with us for the entertainment tonight.”
Rudolf bowed his golden head. “It would be an honor and a pleasure.”
Rica smiled again and took her sister’s hand. “Till later, then.”
Out in the passageway, Rica noted Etta’s flush. “He is handsome, is he not?” she whispered.
“Yes,” Etta whispered, looking with wonder at the hand he had kissed.
Rica hugged her sister. “Come. I will dress your hair with lavender flowers. Tonight, you will be a beauty such has never been seen before.”
* * *
The meat was already upon the table before Rica and Etta appeared, and by that time Charles was fuming. The scent of braised pork taunted him with savory fingers, plucking at his belly with teasing temptation. Around him, the faces of other diners were smeared with the grease of the fat, rich cut.
He picked without interest at the broth and bread before him, torn between the bellyache he would face if he indulged his hunger and the deep satisfaction of chewing hard.
So when Rica, then Etta, appeared in the great hall, he frowned. His gaze darted from one to the other. He frowned outright. Rica always led, always. But was that Rica?
For the first time in his life, he could not tell them apart. Both wore richly embroidered surcoats over pale gowns, their identically creamy shoulders displayed. One girl had braided her hair with ribbons, the other had left hers free to tumble in a glory of silver and gold over ripe breasts and graceful arms.
As they took a place at the table, Charles heard the awed stilling of speech that grew below the buzzing of the ladies. Every man in the room had fallen completely, absurdly silent—no doubt, Charles thought grimly, contemplating all manner of ménage à trois with his nubile daughters. Elbowed by wives and nudged along by his own warning glance, the men quickly lit again the flame of chatter.
Charles ate slowly, watching his children. The one with the braid . . . now, that must be Etta, for she was the more modest of the two. That one’s gown skimmed the edges of her collarbone, and she wore no bangles about her wrists or waist.
So it was Rica who had left her hair loose save for a small weaving of gillyflowers and lavender, Rica whose womanly curves swelled above a low-cut gown, Rica whose hands made bells ring on her bracelets. He smiled to himself in satisfaction. For though her head was demurely lowered as Rudolf next to her whispered something into her ear, he saw her smile in the strangely ripe way she had, even as a flush stained her cheeks.
A queer release rippled through him. Perhaps there would be no trouble over this betrothal. He’d not even known he was worried until the pair had met in his chamber this afternoon.
What a fine marriage they would make! Both were so strong and fair, and Rica was sturdy, unlike many of her class. She would bear fine sons. Rudolf, in spite of his wearying piety, was healthy, and he carried the blood of the noble Brumaths in his veins.
Charles looked at Etta, sitting quietly. Perhaps there was even hope for this girl. Surely there would be some lad willing to trade her silence for her beauty. Someone gentle but a bit stupid.
He scanned the trestle tables. Ah, he thought, spying the son of a squire—a black-haired youth of some bearing. Hugh was famed for his handling of difficult horses, but even his mother admitted that was the extent of his intelligence.
Charles lifted his cup. Perhaps. There was not only the matter of her silence, however, but that of her virginity. Sobering, he touched his belly, aching now even with the bland food he was allowed.
He must somehow see them both settled before the year was through. Then he could die in peace.
“With her unique and lyrical style, Barbara Samuel touches every emotion. The quiet brilliance of her story lingered in my mind long after the book was closed.”