The High Hall was decorated beautifully for Elyana’s wedding. Her health had improved greatly and she looked better than she had in months. Opposites though they be, she was genuinely happy for her cousin. Lord Connington’s affection was evident to all and Charlotte found herself unusually wistful.
She toyed with the deep red pendant at her neck and chided herself for the slight case of nerves that she couldn’t seem to banish. She almost reconsidered having that glass of wine but white was hard enough to keep clean without getting red stains all over her cherished gown. She resolutely dropped the necklace and tried to focus on what – oh, what DID she say her name was?
A small, pale hand looped around her arm and she knew she was being rescued.
“I am SO sorry to interrupt, milady…? Lady Valencia let the last syllable linger, inviting the elder woman to introduce herself. Her smile was easy and warm, her eyes kind, putting their verbose guest at ease.
“Fatima,” she offered, “of House Yronwood? We met at the wedding, I believe.”
“Yes, of course!” Lady Dent briefly laid her other hand on the elder lady’s arm, as if they were old friends. Lady Fatima’s smile grew. “My age is catching up with me, I didn’t recognize you. We’re trading visits it seems.” Both women laughed and Charlotte couldn’t help thinking how her first opinion of this petite woman had changed. Upon arrival, that woman had practically leapt off of her horse, hiked up her skirts and, with no noble dignity whatsoever, ran to her son, shoving aside any who would try to intercept her. True to Devon’s prediction, she had clung to him, sobbing inconsolably and thanking every god who would listen. Lady Christina had tried vainly to calm her mother but as soon as she was within arm’s reach she, too, was captured. Lord Michael approached, much calmer but the relief on his face no less evident. Charlotte had felt very awkward standing there witnessing the emotional reunion; she was happy for them but this kind of emotional outburst made her uneasy. All she could think about was her mother, reliving all the times she had cried outside her door, her mother sobbing just like Lady Dent, oblivious to her and her pain.
Lord Michael and Devon had exchanged a warm, long-suffering look but Devon had held his mother carefully where she had collapsed to the ground, continually assuring her that he was fine. After a few minutes, Lord Michael finally intervened.
“Val, let the boy up, he needs to breathe.” His words may have seemed gruff but he was gentle as he lifted her up. She had turned and embraced Lady Christina, to Charlotte’s relief finally seeming to regain some control, allowing Devon and his father to finally embrace. The warmth of it all had made Charlotte uncomfortably jealous but then Lady Valencia had walked toward her and she was embraced, also, Lady Dent still crying softly, thanking her and blessing the rest of her days for her part in Devon’s rescue. She had stood frozen, not knowing how to respond, until Devon had rescued her.
“Mother, stop, you’re scaring her,” he had laughed. “These people aren’t like us, they’re normal.” Lady Dent had laughed and released her but she had grasped her hands and looked her in the eye with an intensity that was uncomfortable. After a moment she had nodded and said, “She will understand one day.”
Then the intensity was gone, replaced by warmth and charm – the same warmth and charm she was now lavishing on Lady Fatima so effectively. “I’m afraid I need a guide,” Lady Valencia was saying. “I still get hopelessly lost in Lady Charlotte’s beautiful home and she has been most patient with me. I won’t be long and then we can finish that glass of Dornish red, shall we?” Lady Fatima was by now quite willing to excuse Charlotte to her duties and practically glowed from the attention Lady Dent had shown her. While it accomplished the mission – freeing Charlotte – Charlotte also had learned it was genuine – she was genuine. Lady Valencia cared about people and she showed it, be they noble or smallfolk. She abhorred politics for that very reason – the “necessity of falsehood,” as she called it – a trait they shared. She had gone often down to the village with Charlotte and Devon, who had been spending quite a bit of time together lately, where she charmed the men and ladies equally. The Dent family loved their smallfolk, she had explained, often sharing meals and always helping where they could. At home, she said, she could do more, including rolling up her sleeves to help with work if needed or playing tag with the children. But away from home she had to maintain at least some semblance of noble propriety, another necessity she despised. So she did what she could, especially spoiling the children, passing out coppers for treats but always making them ask their parents first. When Lord Michael would join them, she would send them to him for the coppers and laugh when the children would swarm the big, gruff lord. He seemed the opposite of his wife in every way but there was no mistaking the love between them. And they watched with unabashed love and pride as Devon would engage the young boys in mock sword fights or give the girls “pony rides.” She had seen him in the practice yard as he recovered, regaining his strength, and she knew he was a warrior with few equals. But with the children he had infinite gentleness and patience and, looking back, she thought that was when the change in her had begun.
“Thank you,” she breathed as Lady Valencia took her arm and led them away. “I don’t know what’s wrong with me tonight.”
Lady Dent laughed softly and patted her arm. “I do.” As they walked across the room Charlotte didn’t fail to notice that her eyes continually scanned the room, always noting first where her family was, as she had known where Charlotte was; nodding slightly to Lord Michael, who nodded back. This Lady Dent was sharp, perceptive and protective. She had seen this look before, at other gatherings. She could take the measure of a person even better than Charlotte, and since the attacks on Devon and, she had learned, her daughter Magan last year, she was constantly scanning for threats to her family. A family Charlotte had begun to feel a part of and, she had discovered, she wanted. They were leaving soon after the wedding and she had made her decision, she would speak to her grandmother tonight.
“It seems my anti-social son is taking his time making an appearance,” Lady Dent said as they reached the doorway. “I will deal with Lady Fatima – at least she’s harmless, Seven bless her.” She took Charlotte’s hands in hers and smiled up at her knowingly. “You look beautiful tonight, dear. Now, go and get your man.”
Charlotte looked at this woman she had once thought weak and hysterical, and couldn’t help wondering if her mother had been strong enough to deal with her grief, if maybe she wouldn’t have been something like her. She was emotional, true, and her family was her weakness but, along with her faith, it was also her strength. She had told Charlotte once that everyone had that capacity, to be both weak and strong, both soft and hard, but we were that way for a reason and that reason was to help each other.
“Knowing we live for others gives us purpose,” she had said. “Knowing why gives us peace.”
Charlotte smiled, full and warm, and went to find Devon.