Chapter 9 - Banquet

Rhiannon sat in her room, idly brushing her long, dark curls, wishing she was anywhere else but in this room, in this castle, on this day. She glanced over her shoulder at the stiff folds of shining fabric covering her narrow bed.

Her dress was delivered to her room and she was ordered to be excited about this banquet? It was sure to be overpopulated with arrogant nobles, she was supposed to play the demure bride of the old count.

As a bastard, she was not quite a noble, but not quite a servant, therefore fitting in nowhere. The servant girls instantly ceased their gossiping when she approached. The girls of noble birth snubbed her as beneath their station as if she wanted to spend her time in their stiflingly dull company in any fashion. They bonded with Margaret though.

She sighed. On the brighter side, she was finally allowed to be out of the room.

She turned away from the mirror and toward the small tower window, guessing the sun was hovering at about midday. She stood up and pulled on her everyday coat over her dress, and slid her feet into her slippers. She opened the door of her small chamber. She quickly tiptoed around to curving wall of the tower to the stairs, moving swiftly but carefully down to the wide vestibule with passages that led away to the kitchen, out to the courtyard, up to the main stairs leading to the Duke and Duchess' chambers, and into the great hall.

She padded softly to the kitchen, dodging harried kitchen workers laden with bowls and baskets preparing for the banquet and poked her head around the corner. Alice, the fat cook, was fussing here and there over bubbling pots, pinching and tasting and pronouncing whether all was fit to serve. She glanced over and saw Rhiannon sneaking out from the doorway and reaching for an apple from a brimming bowl.

She smiled at her, most workers were kind to her."Stay out of trouble miss," she cackled behind her as Rhiannon ran out. "You have done enough yesterday." Of course, her falling in the lake was talk of the castle.

She casually looked around to make sure no one was around before dashing halfway up the stairs and taking the little travelled halfway to the castle's small library. She'd read most of the books in there already, but she thought she would pass her time before getting ready by flipping through one of her favourites. 

She pushed open the door and ducked into the chamber, bigger than her bedchamber, and closed the door behind her. She peered about in the semi-dark. Someone had closed the curtain? She walked a dozen steps to the window and drew the drape aside.

"Well, hello there," a voice rumbled from behind her. 

A suppressed scream escaped her as she spun around to see to whom the voice belonged. There, draped across a reading couch, was prince Matthew. A soft smile decorated his full mouth and his almond-shaped eyes glinted in the sun from the now-uncovered window. He was dressed in a loose tunic and close-fitting trousers tucked into calf-high boots.

"Your grace, what are you doing in here?" Rhiannon asked, breathless.

 Collecting herself and standing as tall as she could, she clutched her beating heart. 

"Pardon me, my lady, I was not aware this was your private library," Matthew said, a slightly mocking tone in his voice, one eyebrow lifting high. "I beg your forgiveness."

"No need to apologise, your grace, I was just frightened. I did not expect anyone to be here at this hour. I just came in to get a book to pass the time before the banquet. I am sorry to have disturbed you." 

She tried to retreat quickly out into the hall and back to her quarters, but he jumped to his feet, holding out his hand to stay her departure.

"Wait, lady Rhiannon, I am sorry to have given you a fright, please allow me to atone for my ill behaviour, you can look for your book, I hope you are alright after your ordeal?"

Bowing low, he raised his eyes to peer through the fringe of his hair as it hung over his brow, an enigmatic smile playing on his lips.

"Yes, I am fine now, sorry for spoiling your outing yesterday." She apologized.

"Don't worry, " he smirked eyeing her. At 18, her body was more of a woman than a girl.

"So this count you are engaged to, are you happy with the arrangement?" He asked casually, sitting down on a table.

Rhiannon was at a loss for words, she was not supposed to be here, she was not supposed to be talking to the prince at all!

"I....I.....can't say much, it is my father's decision, your grace," she stammered.

He looked down ", Hmmmmm I thought so."

"If you excuse me, I should leave now, I..... mother might be looking for me," she mumbled.

"Of course, my lady," he caught her hand and put it near his lips placing a chaste kiss on then.

Forgetting the book, she hurried out into the hallway, looking both ways before running to her chamber. She wasnt that naive to realize that prince Matthew was favouring her over other ladies.

But it would end in a disaster, she knew it. The king would never allow such an unsuitable match for the crown prince, and it would only result in her ill repute. Not that she had any good reputation.

She just prayed for this season to get over quickly.

"Here," old nan said, tightening the corset until Rhiannon's waist stood in sharp contrast to her hips.

 Slipping her dark green dress over her head, Rhiannon silently released the breath she had been holding in. The dress was quite simple but its colour matched her eyes and it suited her.

She ran her hands down and around the soft, generous swell of her breasts, "its lovely, nan." 

She looked in the mirror critically, turning her head to the left and right. Her hair shone from brushing and her cheeks were lightly flushed with pink.

Nan wrinkled her nose," it could have been better, a few more laces and frill maybe, but the lady is such a miser."

Rhiannon laughed, at least she got a dress that fitted her. She was happy about it.

The great hall was full of activity. Servants finished setting the long tables with platters, bowls, and goblets, polishing knives and spoons and placing them on the linen napkins. 

Servant girls decked the tables with fresh greenery and flowers.

Two hours later the great hall was echoing with laughter and excited voices as the last of the guests arrived and took their places at the long tables, helping themselves to the bread and cheese, fresh and dried fruits, nuts and savouries heaped in bowls and arranged on platters on each table. Servants hurried among the guest filling and refilling goblets with mead and wine.

Rhiannon was seated in the front along with the count. Her father, Lady Catherine, their children sat at the high table with the king of course.

Since it was a masquerade ball everyone was wearing masks. She wore a simple white mask. There was a variety of masks. From ostentatious ones full of feathers to simple ones like her.

The count took another swig of his wine. He had been drinking ever since he had arrived.

Her skin had crawled when he took her hands to place a kiss on them.

They had barely spoken a word, most of her efforts went in trying to keep his hands off her.

She glanced at the high table, Margaret was dressed as usual in pink which clashed badly with her hair there were so many laces and frills that she looked like a stuffed chicken.

Rhiannon stifled a laugh.

There were also some guests, whom she didnt know, she couldn't see their faces, due to the mask. At the table was the young man, dressed in a white brocaded surcoat trimmed in gold over fitted trousers and high leather boots. He has a simple black mask on.

His grey-blue eyes were staring at her constantly. Now that she looked carefully, that entire guest party had an aura of mystery around them. They looked almost dangerous. 

Rhiannon wondered who they were and why was that man staring at her.

"How rude," she thought and turned away.

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