From the fantasy series by R L Davis Hays
Many leagues away from the monastery…
“So young to be a widow. How sad.”
It was a reoccurring theme around the Quithai royal court this night. Lauralei had overheard the not so subtle whispers several times as she would pass bundles of courtiers. She did her best to hide her smile and look demur, casting her eyes down or moving away to a new corner.
She wanted to spin across the floor in the arms of some new acquaintance, however her public mourning was far from over. Decorum dictated that she not dance, sing, or partake of intoxicating substances for a minimum of three months. It was her Terme du Sorwen.
Her one consolation was that she could wait out her Terme in the long and glorious royal house of Quithai. The widow of a conte was considered noble regardless of her former station in life, and as long as she was not actively seeking remarriage, her rights to her husband’s title would remain hers. Lauralei could agree to that. Being bonded to a man once in her life was quite enough. Now, she was enjoying being unbound.
The palace was a labyrinth of intricately decorated passages and great rooms hollowing one of the highest mountains in the kingdom. Completely hidden from the upper world, the Halles du Monarchie could only be entered by underground roads in the subterranean city of Whiteholl. Each tunnel to the Halles was closed and guarded. It seemed the safest place in the whole world to Lauralei. Yet, she was just beginning to realize that one is not safe locked in a cage if the tigers are in the cage along with one.
Nearing one dim lit corner, she noticed one of the servants standing at a casual attention, holding a tray of sweet meats, and watching the crowd with a sideways smirk on his square jaw. She sidled up and took a small dainty from the tray, turning her back to the wall as she asked him, “What’s amusing you this fine night, sirra?”
He glanced at her veiled face in brief shock before averting his eyes. “Do you address me, good madam?”
“Of course. I rarely talk to myself in public,” Lauralei said with a chuckle clogging her throat. “Although I haven’t truly been in public for quite some time.”
The servant haltingly responded to her question. “I was watching the Lords Cornwal and Alver trying to best one another to impress Lady Duruss. Neither can dance a lick, but that doesn’t stop them.”
Lauralei snorted, almost choking on her sweet meat. The young servant looked over and smiled at her as she wiped her gloved hand across her lips.
“I thought they were both having seizures,” she replied. The fellow held back a laugh, his face turning a bit pink.
“My good madam,” he said, “I must admit that it is rare to find a lady of your state who would spend her time chatting with a servant, let alone mocking her peers.”
Taking another tasty meat off his platter, she glanced up at his face. A rather pleasing face, at that. “Well, I can’t dance or drink. And I don’t really know anyone else yet. Who else can I mock my peers with?”
He couldn’t rip his eyes off her now. “If it is not too improper, may I know your name, my good madam?”
“As long as you stop incessantly calling me My Good Madam. I’m Lauralei, Contes of Jeullion unda Revota. And you?”
“I’m no one of importance, Contes.”
“Please, I feel awkward enough in this white veil and stupid hat; don’t make me call you Servant-boy all night if we are going to enjoy each others company here.”
This made him chuckle aloud. “If you insist. You may call me… Ramon.”
She paused, her eyes squinted a bit. “You seem uncertain of your name, Ramon.”
His stumble was shorter this time. “I’m not accustomed to speaking with my betters, let alone telling them my name. I apologize.”
“For what?” Lauralei turned to face him directly. “Do I make you nervous? I simply want some pleasant conversation. Unless, I’ve interrupted your entertainment, in which case maybe I should be the one apologizing.”
Ramon looked dumbfounded. His tray lowered to his waist. “You would apologize to a servant?”
“If I’m bothering you, I would.” She was mystified by his sudden fluster. His eyes darted to various faces in the room of hundreds and he then blushed in earnest.
“I had best get back to my duties, madam.”
“Yes, Madam Lauralei.”
With that, he clutched his tray in both fists and ducked into a tight hall to the kitchen. Lauralei was stranded amid dancing and laughter. She felt his loss keenly and no longer wished to be in the company of others. Sulking to her appointed apartments, she wondered what had disturbed the young man.
As her steps neared her door which provided the only real privacy in this herd of gossip mongers, she began to wonder if her flippant attitude towards her “peers” may have drifted into the wrong ears. It was not uncommon for nobles to maintain watchers to weed out their enemies, or even those of which they could take advantage.
Lauralei felt naked and ashamed. It was an unusual combination for her. Slipping behind her bedroom door, she hoped that she had not just sabotaged her chances for real influence at this court. Her landholdings needed her success here in order to thrive.
“Now I know why they call it court,” she huffed to herself. “Too many judges.”