Christopher Key, chapter four scene two cont’d

Mere took the shortcut behind the tilting field to reach Solborough. The stone stairs were slimy and slippery, and the chill numbed her nose. Nothing else; she’d put on her thickest felt-lined cloak, the hood up, and carried one of those newfangled wonders called umbrellas; but still, her nose. Her halberdiers held their lanterns high. They didn’t know Palace Hill as well as Mere did, but then they didn’t have the advantage of having grown up here.
She didn’t bother with the great entrance doors of Solborough House, with their immense iron knocker. Instead she led her halberdiers around the back, to the supply postern by the cellars. These being dangerous times, a guard sat yawning in the little watchpost above the gate. Mere called up to him, and he waved and then disappeared from his window. There. He’d let them in without rousing the whole house.
But to her surprise, the postern gate swung open upon Lady Melanike herself, Sir Surrey’s wife, the lady of the house, in her dressing gown. She held a candlestick, and she was biting her lip. Her daughters, Pellime and Imelline—but everyone called them Pellmell—peered out from behind her. There was also the guard, a pair of footmen, spaniels underfoot going whuff, and several housemaids with perplexed faces.
“Surrey sent me word,” Lady Melanike said. “Here they are.”
She sounded as if she was choking back a sob. She’d dressed the twins Pellmell in sensible clothing, cloaks and hoods and boots, with bags slung over their shoulders. Their bright eyes peeped out of the shadow of their hoods. Lady Melanike knelt suddenly and hugged them both, and they set up the roaring of protest Mere knew so well from them, though thankfully subdued because of the late hour. Pell and Mell. Absolutely identical, with great big mouths, and a roar like that of the city menagerie tigers.
“Oh, be quiet,” their mother scolded. “When people are sleeping you stay quiet as mice, how many times have I told you? Mere, are you stopping at Nonesuch on your way back?” A fair guess, since Nonesuch House was so close. Mere nodded. Lady Melanike snuffed her candle and threw a cloak over her dressing gown. “I’m going with you. Come along, girls. Rose may need arguing with.”
Mere hadn’t been looking forward to convincing Aunt Rosalante to send her only child out into the cold wet black dangerous night, at nothing but an order from the king. Aunt Rosalante wouldn’t be impressed by the king’s warrant. Not her. She’d probably flash her eyes and fling up her hands and slam the door in Mere’s face.
Or set the dogs on them, halberdiers and all. Mere would have done the same in Aunt Rosalante’s place, if she had a little daughter of six and someone tried to take her away in the middle of the night.
Another thing. Thinking on the king’s list of knights’ daughters, Mere wondered at the names left out. The king’s sister had married Sir Balsam, and now resided at Darry House with three daughters all named for different trees—what about those girls? They were of an age with Mere and Alexane. Why weren’t they on the list?
But everyone knew the king detested his sister.
Mere didn’t care. She was well out of palace politics. She’d planned her whole future, a lifetime on her own. She’d told Father that she intended to never marry, nor would she live on Palace Hill. She’d settle elsewhere, travel and discover the world, find out what she wanted to do and pursue it freely. For now she served Alexane, but her adult life would be spent far, far from the constraints of court.
They took the arcaded walkway to the neighboring house, which was the grandest of the knightly mansions, beautiful with white stone walls and ornamental ironwork, banners hung from its upper windows. It was beginning to be misty, vapor steaming off the wet lawns; there would be pea-soup fog in the city by sunrise. Dogs were barking from several quarters. That meant people were abroad, wee hours though these were. A rooster crowed sleepily somewhere.
Lady Melanike took the lead, heading straight to the guardhouse. Soon enough they were all in Nonesuch’s hall, chafing their cold hands, and Lady Melanike was giving orders for mulled wine as if she owned the house.
“What is this?”
Aunt Rosalante, perhaps the loveliest woman in all Everie. On Palace Hill, everyone called her the Golden Rose. All heads turned when she walked into the room, they always had and probably always would; even when she became silver with age she’d command all eyes. Her beauty was all the more striking because it had nothing to do with her face or figure—oh, there was no fault to be found with those, but the color of her eyes and hair were not unusual, nor were her features that striking. It was more a matter of her straight back and the tilt of her head, a smile that nobody ever forgot, her floating walk and the swift gestures of her hands.
She smiled that smile at first, but not for long. Soon enough she’d broken into crystal tears, long fingers pressed to her lips; then she buried her face in her hands.
Mere felt exhausted by the time the argument ended. It was no better to see tiny Rosamotte brought in at last, a precious jewel of a child who shared the same mystery of loveliness as her mother. The little girl had been dressed in a coat of swansdown and velvet and white silk lace ribbon. Her nurserymaids would have come along with her if they could. “No you won’t,” Lady Melanike snapped. “And stop that snivelling, you’ll upset the child.” To Aunt Rosalante, who showed signs of coming along too, she said, “And not you either, Rose. Are we the wives of knights, or not? We have our duty.”
But she swooped down on Pell and Mell for another compulsive hug, and gave Mere one too, to Mere’s surprise, before shooing them out into the night. She herself stayed behind with Aunt Rosalante. The last thing Mere saw was the two of them waving from the doorway.

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