Thursday, June 7, 2012

Choices Chapter Four

(Previous chapters can be found here.)

I was awoken the next morning as Liam climbed out of bed to answer a knocking at the outer door. I rolled over and began to sit up, but he gestured for me to stay where I was, pulling on a silk robe as he shut the bedroom door behind himself. I lay back down and stretched deeply, wincing at the pain between my legs. Liam had taken me twice more during the night, and each time had been more pleasurable than painful, but I suspected I would still be sore for some time to come yet.

More than worth it, I told myself, grinning foolishly. This part of married life I suspected I would adapt to fairly quickly. Voices on the other side of the door told me that a servant had come to deliver breakfast. My stomach rumbled loudly at the thought. I sat up and stretched again, looking around the room. It was beautifully furnished, certainly. The bed was accompanied by a matching armoire and vanity. A large, intricately carved trunk rested at the foot of the bed. There was a medium sized sofa tucked into the corner, and a cushioned seat was also built in to the alcove under the room's large window. Sunlight filtered in through the sheer curtains, causing the polished wood paneling to glow. Beautiful, as I had noted already, but unfinished. There were no decorations in the room at all, it felt a little sterile to me.

Glancing around again I noticed another silk robe folded on the trunk. I slid out of the bed, burying my toes in the thick carpet, relishing the feel for a moment before getting up and donning the robe. I caught sight of my reflection in the vanity's mirror and winced. My hair, which had been so carefully pinned up the evening before, had fallen apart rather spectacularly. Most of the pins were still in place, but my hair had pulled loose in many places, aided greatly by the night's exertions, I was sure. I pulled out the small stool and sat gingerly, setting about the process of removing the pins from my hair. I brushed it through as best as I could with my fingers but it was still something of a mess, falling around my face and back just past my shoulder blades. It will have to do. I sighed and stood once more, pausing as a glint of blue and silver in the reflection caught my eye. I had utterly forgotten that I still wore my jewelry from the night before. In our haste to fall into bed, neither Liam nor I had thought to remove it. I carefully slipped off the bracelet and set it upon the vanity, then unfastened my necklace and placed it beside the bracelet. I reached up to remove my earrings as well but they were not there. I hurried over to the bed and rooted around in the covers a bit, relieved when I quickly found them both undamaged. After putting them with their companions I finally made my way to the door.

I listened for a moment and, hearing the voices no more, turned the handle and peeked my head through the opening. Liam was sitting at a small table in front of a set of glass-paneled doors that stood open. They appeared to lead out to a small enclosure of some kind. The table was spread with a simple breakfast and a pot of tea sat steaming in the center of the rest. Liam looked up from buttering a piece of bread when he heard the bedroom door open.

"Ah, Laren, good morning. I did not want to wake you," he gestured at the food, "this will all keep if you want to get some more sleep."

"Thank you, no. I am feeling quite awake, actually."

"In that case then, join me." I moved to sit across from him and he offered me a plate of fruit. I selected a plump grape and popped it in my mouth. "You are feeling well this morning, I trust?" A wicked grin flashed across his face. I swallowed the grape and smiled back serenely, reaching for the pot of tea to pour myself a cup.

"I am very well, thank you. And you, Liam? Did you rest well?" He nodded and turned to a stack of letters sitting next to his plate. As he perused them I began assembling a plate of my own, taking in the new room as I did so. I had not really seen much of it in the previous evening, my attention having been otherwise occupied by my intriguing new husband.

Like the bedroom, this room was also richly furnished. It was clearly intended as a sitting room. The floor was tiled in large wooden squares that complimented the paneling on the walls. Much of the floor was covered in a woven rug, on which were arranged another sofa (it seemed to match the one in the bedroom, though it was larger), two thickly cushioned chairs with footstools, and a low table in yet another kind of wood. The table in the sitting area matched the one at which Liam and I sat. It was placed on a slightly higher section of the room, with two shallow steps leading up from the sitting area to the eating area. A large fireplace sat in the wall between the front room and bedroom. It was situated in the same place as the bedroom fireplace, covered with a screen like its counterpart since the days and nights were still quite warm this time of year. On closer inspection, I saw that it was one large fireplace that serviced both rooms. It struck me as a rather ingenious design. I felt a breeze on my cheek and turned to follow it, and realized it was coming from the enclosure beyond the open doors. It was actually a balcony, I could see the stone balustrade clearly now. An intricately carved wooden lattice was fitted between the balustrade and the overhanging roof.

I got up from my seat and stepped out onto the balcony, my curiosity aroused. It was about six paces wide and seemed to run the length of both rooms. Two wrought iron benches were the only furnishings out here. Each end of the balcony was created by a solid wall of pale grey stone. I stepped up to the wooden screen, trailing my fingers along the latticework. It was quite beautiful, though I could see very little through it, even though it did allow in plenty of sunlight. I could just make out a general sense of green. My fingers brushed across a seam and I exclaimed happily as the found a catch. I made to unfasten it but was stopped by a low laugh from behind me.

"I would wait to open the screen, if I were you, my dear," Liam cautioned, clearly amused. I turned to find him leaning back in his chair, watching me. I must have gained his attention when I left the table. "The balcony overlooks the inner courtyard," he said in answer to my unasked question. "Even so early in the day there will likely be quite a few servants or other members of the House about. Best their first glimpse of their new lady is one in which she is properly attired." I looked down at my thin robe and blushed despite myself. That would have been quite embarrassing. I had completely forgotten my state of dress, or rather, undress. Still, I was not to be deterred.

"But it does open?"

"Of course, Laren. The screen is there to provide privacy when we wish it, not to block our view completely. Now, come back to eat. There will be plenty of time for exploring later."

I rejoined him at the table, still blushing. As I did so I noticed something I had missed earlier. My trunks were stacked neatly along the far wall of the room, behind one of the chairs. Well, at least I had solved the mystery of where my clothes had gotten to. Liam followed the direction of my gaze.

"Ah, yes. I asked the servants not to unpack your things yet, I didn't know if you would prefer to do that. But if you like, I can send for someone to see to that now."

" thank you, Liam, I can unpack my things." I frowned and looked around the room again. I had assumed these quarters were not lived in, by the lack of personal belongings and decoration I had noticed. I would have assumed that Liam would have moved his things in to our quarters already, or that I would just be moved in to his existing rooms...

"Is something wrong? Do you not like these rooms? I can have you moved if you wish. I chose these because I thought you might like them best. They offer a good view and this part of the wing is largely unoccupied, which should provide you a bit of the privacy you are used to. But if they are not to your taste you can have your choice of any of the empty suites."

"Oh, no, these rooms are quite wonderful!" They truly were. The front room alone was larger than my old suite in its entirety. Part of my mind was already racing with possibilities for the balcony. No, that wasn't the part that had thrown me. "I suppose I am just a little confused. Where are your belongings, Liam?"

" belongings? Laren, why would my belongings be in your rooms? I suppose I might keep some spare clothing in here for when I spend the entire evening of course, but...." He trailed off, seeing the shock on my face. " thought we would be sharing rooms?" He did not seem offended by the idea, exactly, but he was certainly as surprised that I had assumed that would be the case as I was that he hadn't. He gave me a considering look. I could tell he was searching for a way to explain that would neither hurt nor anger me.

"It's alright Liam, truly." I shook my head gently and tried to smile at my foolishness. "I suppose I just assumed the living arrangements would be similar to those in the House of Jade. I should have realized that might not be the case." I should have considered the possibility. I was aware that not every couple shared quarters among the nobility. My parents did, however, and whenever I did happen to think of myself as married, the scenario was always much more closely modeled after their marriage than I would care to admit.

"It is not the...tradition here, in the House of the Stag, for newly married couples to share their rooms," he answered quietly after a few moments. "The tradition is to have separate quarters for at least the first cycle of the marriage, so that a couple might better get to know each other and see if they are compatible enough to share their space more intimately. More often than not the couples choose to each keep their own rooms."

Well that is certainly telling. My brow furrowed in thought as I strove to recall the genealogies of the House that I had been subjected to in the past week. I nibbled on a piece of bread to buy myself time to answer. The information flashed through my mind's eye and it dawned on me that almost every marriage of a major member of the House of Stag over the last several generations had been political, and therefore likely arranged. I supposed it made sense for two people who barely knew each other but found themselves suddenly thrown together in such an intimate way to be given the courtesy of growing their relationship naturally. The non-physical parts of the relationship, at least.

I had thought, I had certainly hoped, that in Liam I had found a potential friend and ally, someone who would want me to actually be a part of his life, rather than just...rather than just a baby factory and set dressing at events of state. I could see now that all he had really expected was the latter. It wasn't a surprising expectation, perhaps, given the usual manner of marriages in his family. That he could enjoy my company as opposed to just tolerate it was a pleasant surprise to him, but it had not changed his expectations of my purpose in his House. It certainly accounted for his changeable behavior. Perhaps in time our relationship would grow as I hoped, but it was certainly not a goal of Liam's. He was watching me carefully, curious to see my reaction to this revelation.

"The rooms really are quite lovely, Liam, thank you. I am sure I will be settled in to them in no time at all." He seemed to relax, understanding that I would not fight the arrangement. Maybe this is for the best, I told myself, trying to convince that small part of me that was still reeling in disappointment. It will certainly be nice to have my own retreat as I adjust to life here, and it will give me time to better learn his ways. I thought I had a good understanding of him thus far, but there was clearly more to Liam than was readily observable to a casual bystander. Last night notwithstanding, that was still what I was. For the moment at least.

"Excellent! And if there is anything else you need, you have only to let me know."

"Actually, if I might request two things..."

"Of course, my dear."

"You were quite right, I am rather fond of books," he beamed at me and nodded for me to go on. "I brought my personal collection along, and I would like to keep them in here, of course, but I will need--"

"A shelf, of course, I should have thought of that! I will see that you have it before lunch." He glanced around the room, assessing its merits, and looked back at me shrewdly, "Perhaps a writing desk as well?"

"I...yes, please. That would be lovely, thank you!" I could probably just use the table for writing, to be honest, but a desk would fit in nicely for my plans for the balcony, so I was not about to object. "Last night, you said something about a tour of the manor?" I thought perhaps a change in the subject would be best for both of us.

"Yes, and a tour you shall have! I have cleared my calendar for the day and I will be glad to show you around your new home. Mother has claimed us both for lunch though, I should warn you." He stood up and stretched, looking around. The silk of his robe was thin and I could see the outline of his body quite clearly. I bit my lip and looked away, chiding myself for being so easily distracted. "I believe we should start with the baths."

I nodded vigorously. I definitely had need of a bath after last night. I stood and walked over to my trunks, thinking to grab a thicker robe as well as new clothing to wear for the day. It seemed the suites here did not have attached bathing spaces. I realized with some surprise that my clothing of the evening before was no longer in floor of the sitting room. The servant who brought breakfast must have taken the items away for cleaning. Liam's clothes were gone as well. What would he wear to the baths, I wondered?

"That won't be necessary, Laren," He took the clothing out of my hands. I looked up at him questioningly. "We have private stairs to the baths, you needn't worry overly much about modesty in getting to them. We should have fresh clothes awaiting us when we have finished. No need to wear something from your trunk.

"Oh, of course. Thank you." I recalled that Mother had requested Louise send my new wardrobe directly here upon completion. Likely it had arrived yesterday. I hadn't looked inside the armoire in my bedroom. I now suspected that if I did, I would find it quite full.

Liam led me to a corner at the back of the room, and showed me a very subtle carving of a delicate fish on one of the wall panels. He pressed it and there was a click in the wall, revealing a small door that blended seamlessly with the panels and which slid into the wall, opening to show a very narrow staircase leading down. It was just wider than one person, and there was a lamp burning on the wall opposite the opening. I followed Liam down the stairs, there was a small landing with another lamp and the stairs doubled back on themselves. We stopped at the bottom of this second flight to find another sliding door panel, this one was not hidden though. Liam led me through this door and as I stepped through he grinned widely at me and spread out his arms.

"Welcome to your bathing chamber," he said. The room was unlike any I had seen before, the floor and walls all lined with small pale blue tiles. In some places the same fish pattern that was carved into the panel in my rooms above was picked out in a mosaic of dark green tiles. The room was comfortably warm, the air steamy. It seemed to be about the same size as my sitting room, and if I had my bearings correct, directly underneath it. Another door was set into the wall opposite the entrance we had used. I guessed that it led to the rest of the manor. A pile of thick toweling rested on a marble bench along one wall, fresh clothing folded beside it. Two sets of clothing, I noted, turning to cock an eyebrow at Liam. "If you don't object," he answered, "I thought we would share our bath today. It will be more...expedient." The look he was giving me left me no doubt that expediency was the last thing on his mind. For a man who so clearly wants to keep his own space, he certainly is clinging rather closely to me today. I wondered if perhaps he just wanted to make sure I was thoroughly under his spell before setting me loose on the rest of the manor.

"As you wish, Liam." I gave him a small smile and then turned to survey the tub itself, hiding a small sigh as I did so. I feared his plan was working. It wouldn't have bothered me had I thought he sincerely wanted to spend the time getting to know me for the simple joy of doing so. Instead of the copper tubs I was used to, this tub was set into the floor, with steps leading down inside of it. Arched spigots stood at one end of the tub. I had heard of such devices, where water was kept in cisterns on the roof or in a constantly pumping chamber so that one had only to turn a handle to have water pour from the spigot. I had never actually seen one before, and I wondered that this tub had two. I had read descriptions of how they worked but the mechanics had gone far over my head. I was more than happy to reap the benefits, however, of such ingenuity. I vaguely recalled that the manor had been built only a few generations ago, after a fire had burned down the original seat of the House of the Stag. The architect who had designed the current building must have had a unique perspective indeed. The tub was full and I could see small tendrils of steam climbing from the water--no doubt the source of the room's balmy atmosphere. A small basket holding washcloths and soaps sat next to the spigots.

Without further delay I slipped off my robe and placed it on the bench, then walked over to the tub, gently dipping one foot in to test the temperature before fully placing my foot on the first step. It was perfect, just a bit too warm, but not so hot that I couldn't settle right in. There was a sound of surprise from Liam and then a rustle as he removed his own robe and moved to follow me into the water. The tub was big enough for both of us and even my doubt of my husband's intentions did not dim my enjoyment of the bath.

As we bathed I asked Liam about the unusual design of the chamber. He explained that each suite of rooms had its own attached bathing chamber, with the stairs built into the walls in between the suites, which occupied the two floors above us on the manor's south wing. The bathing chamber directly underneath my bedroom belonged to the suite one floor above me. Apparently Liam's great-great-great-something-or-other had been prone to take multiple baths a day, at all hours of the day and night. When the new manor had been commissioned, his wife had chosen an architect who could design the bathing chambers to allow for this habit without the need to interfere with the servants' normal duties. He showed me how the spigots worked and explained that one was for hot water--stored in a cistern that was kept heated at all times--and another was for cold, so that each individual bather could customize the temperature of his or her bath as it was being poured. He also showed me the plug at the bottom of the tub to pull when I was done so that the water would drain.

Once we had finished our ablutions and lingered over other no less pleasant activities, we dried off and dressed and I headed back for the private stairs. Liam left through the other door, however, explaining that he had one small matter to take care of and would join me in my rooms again shortly. I started to pick up our robes but he bade me leave them where they were, explaining that a servant would retrieve them later.

I climbed my private stairs, trying not to think about how much of the House of the Stag's budget must go towards lamp oil and heating costs. Keeping that cistern of water always heated, not to mention maintaining the lamps in the private stairways, must be a fairly expensive venture. Roslyn of the Stag struck me as a rather practical woman, however, and by the time I returned to my chambers I had decided that if she felt the expense worthwhile, I was certainly not one to complain. Hassle-free hot baths at my beck and call were not a trifle to be scoffed at.

I surveyed my sitting room and noticed that the remnants of our breakfast had already been cleared away. It seemed the servants in the House of the Stag had free access to the residents' rooms. It would pay to remember that. Not that I had any secrets I wished to keep, but one never knew. I turned to my trunks and finding the one that contained my vanity set, pulled out the ivory comb my mother had given me on my fifth birthday. I also found a length of ribbon that matched my clothes and ventured into my room to try to make my hair presentable.

Unsure if I had time to allow my hair to dry, I combed it through and then pulled it back in a simple plait, weaving the ribbon in with the hair and then using it to tie off the end. With that done I stood back and examined my new clothing in the mirror that hung over the vanity table. The servants had selected a simple linen blouse to go under a fitted vest that stopped just below my waist. They were paired with a slim floor-length skirt that fell from my waist at a narrow angle, allowing fairly free movement. No corset or stiffened underskirts, thankfully, just my drawers under a modest chemise. Hoping that the rest of my wardrobe followed this simple style, which was surprisingly comfortable and elegant, I crossed the room to investigate my armoire.

As I had suspected, it was filled with my new clothing. Many blouses and skirts similar in cut and style to what I wore accompanied a few dresses, also thankfully in the same vein. There were more vests as well, in a variety of colors and cuts. I supposed vests were the popular fashion these days. I was also delightfully surprised to find three riding skirts—divided like trousers to preserve modesty when I rode but that would give the appearance of a full skirt otherwise. Drawers behind the second door of the armoire revealed a new set of nightgowns, underthings, and stockings. I was well set.

I returned to the sitting room and opened each trunk, quickly adding the few clothes I had brought with me to my armoire and then beginning to unpack everything else. I had not been occupied so for very long before a quick series of knocks on the door were followed by Liam entering the room.

“Oh, excellent! You are getting settled in. Good. I’ve spoken with the head of the staff and she will see to it that your shelves and desk are delivered shortly.”

“Thank you,” I replied. I glanced at the pile of books that had completely covered the low table in the sitting area. It would be good to have a place to put them. That reminded me of the gift I had purchased for Liam and I turned back to the trunks, rummaging around for a moment before I found it. I turned back to him, suddenly hesitant. Would he appreciate the gift? “I got you this,” I said quietly, extending the wrapped parcel to him.

“A present?” He sounded pleased and accepted it eagerly, He turned it over in his hands a few times and before pulling loose the twine holding the package closed, then made quick work of the brown paper wrapping. He was quiet for a moment as he examined the tome, a thick leather-bound book chronicling the history of Pelos’ laws and how and when they had diverged from those of Denara and Dumais. It was a recent work, and I hoped he did not have a copy already. I waited as he examined it, biting my lip nervously. A small curious smile played across his face as he flipped through its pages. "You chose this for me?" He finally looked up at me.

"It seemed like something that might appeal to your interests," I told him, tucking a loose strand of hair behind my ear. "I thought you would enjoy it."

"I think I will too, Laren. Thank you, this is..." He trailed off, looking back toward the suite's door for a moment. When he turned back he smiled gently and stepped forward to where I knelt on the floor. He leaned down an placed a soft kiss on the top of my head, squeezing my shoulder quickly before stepping back again. "Thank you. I look forward to reading this."

For a moment we just looked at each other. I felt that I was missing something important, but could not begin to fathom what that something might be. Before I had much chance to ponder his odd reaction to the gift there was another knock on the door. Liam seemed to perk up, his face sliding into the expression I was beginning to think of as his "public face." He moved to open the door, glancing back at me over his shoulder.

"I got you something too, actually."

Two servants entered carrying a very large object over which a sheet had been draped. They looked a question at Liam and he glanced around the room, then turned back to them and said, "In the bedroom I think," and strode into said room, the servants following slowly. Curious, I got up and smoothed out my skirt, about to follow them. I stopped when two more servants came in carrying a long, low, glass-fronted bookcase.

"Oh!" I quickly hurried to clear a path for them, indicating the wall behind the sofa. "There, please." They moved to comply, and I gave myself a happy little hug as they settled it carefully into its place. Yes, that would be a very good spot for it. I suppose I shouldn't have been surprised that it complimented the room's other furniture so well, and yet I was. A noise behind me caused me to turn and I found yet another servant carrying in a small writing desk, a young boy trailing behind him with the matching stool.

"Where would you like this one, my lady?" I had not yet planned on where the desk would go, beyond that it would be on the balcony. A quick assessment of the piece assured me that I would likely be able to move it myself, however, so I indicated a free spot along the wall and he set it down, the boy tucking the stool gently underneath.

"Thank you," I said to all of them sincerely. They each bowed their heads and excused themselves, returning to their duties. I stood for a moment admiring the clutter in the room. It wasn't as neat as I liked my space to be, but at least it did feel more lived in now. Muffled thumps from the bedroom reminded me of Liam's surprise and I finally joined him in the second room.

"Ah, there you are, my dear," Liam said. The large object had been positioned in a corner between the armoire and window, but it was still covered up. "I think this will be the best place for it, but I will let you have the final say, of course." The servants stood back and Liam looked at me expectantly. "Well?" He gestured at the object and I realized that he wanted me to unveil it. Hurriedly I strode over and pulled off the sheet. Beneath it was immense and ornate wrought-iron stand mirror. I stared at it in surprise for a moment, amazed that the two servants had carried it all of the way up here by themselves. Perhaps it had only been moved from another suite on the floor. I hoped so for the servants' sake. Liam was still watching me expectantly, waiting for my reaction.

"It's beautiful, Liam, thank you." It was. The metal frame of the mirror was worked in an intricate design mimicking ivy. The mirror itself was quite clear and flawless. I supposed that now that I would be expected to make so many more public appearances it was a very practical gift. I would be required to look my part, after all.

"It was my grandmother's," Liam explained, beaming. "I wanted to wait to have it brought in until I knew you wanted these rooms. Do you like it here or is there another spot you would prefer to have it placed?" The servants shot each other dour looks behind Liam's back, confirming my guess that it was as heavy as it looked. I glanced at my reflection and saw that to look in the mirror correctly, I would be standing in the full light from the window. I also realized I could angle myself to see the reflection of my back in the mirror over the vanity.

"This spot will do quite nicely," I answered him, thankful I would not have to make the servants move it again. I turned to them and smiled graciously, "Thank you so much for bringing this to me." They returned the smile and bowed their heads, then looked to Liam, who nodded a dismissal. They bowed to him and left. I turned back to examine the mirror's frame more closely and saw in its reflection that Liam was watching me intently. I met his eyes and smiled again. "Thank you," I said once more.

He stepped up behind me and pulled me to him, wrapping his arms around my waist. A look of contentment rested on his face. I could not help but look at the two of us in the mirror. I placed my hands upon him, intrigued by the contrast in our skin, my dark honey against his pale cream. We were two sides of a coin, now, my dark hair and eyes against his light coloring. I wondered what our children would look like. Liam let out a small satisfied sigh.

"Yes, we do make a rather nice pair, don't we? We shall be the talk of the nobility, I think." He sounded quite proud of the fact. "Now," he said, stepping back and turning me around. "Shall I give you that tour of the manor before lunch?"

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