Serena stood on the marbled balcony, fidgeting.
“What do you think of Deepmoor, my young lord, now that you’ve seen it?” she asked.
“Father says I am to be addressed as Lord Nathaniel, now that I am old enough to marry.” came the response.
“Of course.” Serena replied. “Would the young lord accept my most humble apology?”
“Apology accepted.” he replied, smiling with all the glib arrogance of youth, until he realized she had immediately addressed him as ‘young lord’ again and his smile curdled. He decided to change the subject.
“Father says I am to stand my knightly vigil on a night such as this one.”
“It is a lovely night now that the rain has finally stopped.” Serena agreed.
“Do you think our lord fathers and lady mothers mean to betroth us?” he asked.
“I am not privy to such things; and as a lady myself, it would be unseemly for me to guess.” Serena replied. “Were you told that I am nearly eighteen?” she asked.
“I was not. But among proper families it is not unusual for age to be one of the least things considered when planning a match. Families and estates and favors and dowries are much more important. Whatever our parents are discussing, you can be sure it is bigger than either of us.”
Serena cast Nathaniel an astonished look. “You are a very smart boy, Lord Nathaniel.”
“I’m not a boy.” Nathaniel said coldly. “I’m almost fourteen.”
“You are right, my lord.” Serena replied. “Any young lord who can see his future betrothal with such clarity, is surely no longer a boy.”
“Mother is very proud.” he added with a smile.
“She ought not be.” Serena said.
Before Nathaniel could respond, two messengers in Haunton livery appeared at the balcony entrance and stood to attention. “Begging pardon of the young lord and lady, but the Lords and Ladies Haunton and Spalding have bid you attend Their Excellencies in the south solar.”
Serena nodded to the messengers. As they spun on their heels to lead the way, she fell in behind them, expecting Nathaniel to follow. “It appears you were right about that betrothal, my lord.”
As the two guards entered the solar with the young lord and lady just steps behind, the Lords and Ladies Haunton and Spalding abruptly halted their conversation as if to appraise them as a couple. Garbed in the white lace-trimmed velvet gown her mother had set out for her, Lady Serena presented a trim, though voluptuous, womanly figure. Not so, Lord Nathaniel, whose short pants and high hose combined with his brocade doublet to make him appear almost comically child-like. After they entered, Lady Haunton and Lady Spalding, shot each other threatening looks, communicating anger to each other in that peculiar way reserved to sisters. Lord Spalding spoke to break the tension.
“Haunton, if we are here to discuss whether our agreement is to be sealed with a betrothal, it would be foolish of me if I failed to point out that despite your seniority, I hold a distinct advantage in that my son is just now entering marriageable age whereas your daughter seems quite past hers. Only one who is as dense as your Bostwyke fog would fail to speculate how it could be that with all of Deepmoor’s wealth you’ve yet to offer sufficient dowry for the girl.”
“How and when I choose to betroth my daughter is my business, Spalding.”
“So it is. But her season grows short. Any astute man would wonder why.”
I assure you, it is not for my daughter’s lack” Lord Bradford replied, casting a reflexive glance at his wife.
“Still, the unreasonable delay diminishes your position,” Nigel Spalding began. “For me to agree to this betrothal, I will want more favorable terms in this trade agreement you’ve proposed. I will require exclusive rights for Deepmoor timber and peat not just for transportation, but for purchase as well.”
Lord Bradford’s mouth fell open as both Viscountesses seemed to hold their breath as they waited for the Viscount of Deepmoor to respond. “Do you think for one minute I would grant you exclusive license to purchase all my timber and all my peat, thus allowing you to set the price, plus allow you to charge me to truck it to you also and again at whatever price you fancy? I think that rain has soaked your head, Spalding.”
“I know what you want, Haunton,” Lord Nigel said slowly. “You want to unite Paldingham and Deepmoor and have the unified territory elevated as a march estate. Clearly your machinations to wed your wife’s sister to me were part of this scheme of yours. As senior Viscount, the Marquesate would have been yours and my estate of Paldingham would have been under your banner. Well, you hear me, Haunton. The city of Spalding is named so because a Spalding has always ruled Paldingham from it, and I’ll never allow a Haunton banner to fly from the ramparts of my city. I don’t hate you, Haunton. But all the same, I’ll be flayed with steel and doused in salt before I bend the knee to you.” Both Viscountesses seemed to breathe a little easier.
“What you say is true,” Lord Bradford admitted. “I did arrange your wedding to Ermiline and I was, in fact, hoping that my wife’s sister could soften your stubbornness and that you would eventually relent. But after twenty years that is clearly not going to happen. And I am not the impulsive schemer I was in my youth. Deepmoor may be the senior viscounty, Spalding, but your family is older than mine and I can well understand that you’d never tolerate paying homage to a junior line. I am relenting, and that is why I am making you this proposal. This way, no Spalding will ever bend knee to a Haunton, no Haunton banner will ever fly over Spalding, and when our estates are united it will be your son and the Spalding name that will rule it. In time, your colors will fly here in Stirling Deep and it will be your son, Lord… Nathaniel that will become not just Viscount of Paldingham, but Marquis over Deepmoor as well.” Lord Spalding began to consider the offer. The Viscountesses faces blanched.
“Why would you do all of this, Haunton?” Lord Nigel asked after a moment. “Where is the gain for Deepmoor in this scheme? You are willing to give me your fortune and subordinate your family line to mine in perpetuity, and for what? What are you gaining that I am missing?”
Lord Bradford let out a heavy sigh. “Peace of mind, Spalding. Power is not so precious nor wealth so dear that I am willing to waste my life in schemes. You and I have battled over timber and peat, over cargo rights on wagon and galley, we’ve almost even drawn swords against each other. And for what, I ask you? A higher seat in Carlisle? Well sod all that. All I want from my life now is to serve my king and liege and have a happy wife and daughter.” Silence throbbed in the still night air.
“I almost believe you, Haunton,” Lord Nigel said softly. “If you tell me what changed you, I just might.”
“My wife, actually. I’ve not discussed this with her, but over the past two months since I thought of this proposal I’ve watched my wife grow increasingly ill. No doubt it is all the uncertainty and how much Dorothea has invested in our daughter’s future that has her so anxious. I have been driven by ambition all my life, but I am not a cruel man, Spalding. Dorothea is the mother of my only child, a young woman every bit as beautiful as her mother, thank goodness. If you think you’ve robbed me, Spalding, could you imagine her bride price if she had taken after me?” he said as Lord Nigel joined him in laughter. Lady Dorothea dropped her near-empty wine glass; shards skittering across the floor.
“Are you alright, Dot? What’s wrong? You’re shaking!” Lord Bradford observed as he rushed to her side.
“I understand what’s wrong with her.” Ermiline began. “All these years I thought it was you, Lord Bradford, trying to perpetrate fraud against noble society. It appears I owe you an apology.”
“What are you talking about?” Lord Bradford demanded.
“Erma! No!” Dorothea gasped.
“How cruel you are, Dot, to allow your family to believe all these years-” Ermiline continued.
“No! You mustn’t! Please!” Dorothea cried, tears steaming down her cheeks.
“I’m sorry Dot, but this fraud cannot continue.”
Dorothea slumped to the floor and crawled toward Ermiline, oblivious to the glass. “Please, Erma. For all the love you ever bore me, please don’t!” she begged, collapsing into a sobbing, trembling, wreck at Ermiline’s feet having left smears of blood across the stone floor of the solar.
“Lord Bradford Haunton,” Ermiline began, “The Lady Serena is not your daughter.” Dorothea wailed as if grief-stricken.
“What?” Serena said softly, inaudible over her mother’s screaming.
“No! No! No! No! No!” Dorothea cried, pounding her fists uselessly against the chair where her sister was seated.
“I don’t believe it” Lord Bradford said, finally finding his voice. “Dorothea, is this true?”
Dorothea never paused in her agonized crying to hear the question, simply repeating the word “No” until she ran out of breath, gasped, and began again, her body wracked with heavy sobs.
“I don’t think she can hear you, my lord,” Ermiline said gently.
“What can I do?” Lord Bradford sat stiffly in Dorothea’s chair, cradling his head in his hands. “I am undone. Undone. We are all of us undone.”
Lord Nigel spoke softly to his wife. “Ermiline, let us retire to our quarters and allow our hosts to regain their composure.”
Lady Ermiline nodded as she started to leave the room with him. “Come, Nathaniel. Let us leave the Hauntons to their sorrow.”
“Yes, Mother,” the young lord replied somewhat absently.
The Spaldings made their way toward the door to the solar.
“Mother?” Lord Nathaniel asked.
“I am sure you have many questions, son.” Lady Ermiline said gently.
Just one, Mother. Where did Serena go?”