Yvanne Skipton is wrestling with unrequited love, the Christmas Eve ball and preparations for her sister’s wedding. She’s much too busy to start courting the delightful Quinn, so she marries him instead. Wedding first. Courtship after. It can only happen over there.
Yvanne stood on the bridge near Skipton Manor, sunk in a miserable reverie, staring at her soft shoes. She’d been doing that a lot, lately. It had got to be a habit, and she desperately wanted to move on. The pain of unrequited love had dulled to a faint background ache. She barely thought of it anymore, but it was there because…well, because she had nothing to take its place.
This is so undignified. I am a courtfolk lady. Courtfolk ladies do not mope over men who are betrothed to other ladies.
She tore her mind away and tried to remember where she was going and why. It couldn’t be important, surely, since it had slipped her mind.
Great bogle, what was it? Something to do with the wedding? With Christmas? The ball tomorrow?
She went on staring until someone tapped her on the shoulder.
“Hurry, ‘Vanne. Maman’s fussing.”
Yvanne swung to look at her younger sister, Giselle. “What about?”
“You haven’t forgotten again?” Giselle sounded impatient, but her fine grey eyes showed a crease of worry. She held out her flute and waggled it. “Does this ring a so-distant chime in your memory, sister dear?”
Giselle sounded sarcastic, but Yvanne thought it was justified this time.
“Oh. I was supposed to go down to the pixie forest and get the sweetwood out of the soak.”
“You know it has to be got out before it spoils.”
“It’ll be spoiled anyway. It should have been got out yesterday.”
“It might be retrievable. Maman’s mortified enough that she forgot it while Mistress Bakewell was here. I’d go, but Parsifal is coming to take me riding.”
“Since when do you need anyone to take you riding?”
“Court Leopold used to go with you.”
“That’s years ago. I was eleven,” Yvanne snapped. She’d had an entanglement with Master Leopold and his mother, Mistress Fanshaw, back in autumn, and she was still angry at the way she’d been used. Mistress Fanshaw had slapped a compulsion on her which was not only unkind but highly ill-mannered.
She took a deep breath and looked closely at Giselle. “Is he courting you?”
“Court Leopold is wed to a stable hob. You know that.”
“I mean Master Brioche.”
Giselle examined a heart-strung bracelet on her slim arm. “Maybe. He wants to.”
“Have you told Maman?”
“No, he did. I’m not sure that she registered it properly, though. She’s so busy with Suzette’s wedding.”
Their sister, Suzette, was set to wed Ancel de Libre the day after Christmas. They were both to be bridesmaidens, and Mistress Bakewell had made their gowns, a soft bronze pink for Giselle and a lovely confection of gold so pale it was almost cream for Yvanne. It was the prettiest gown she’d ever had, and it almost compensated for the accompanying fuss at the manor and for being sent hither and yon on errands while Suzette, who was the cause and the centre of the fuss, entertained her betrothed. At present, Suzette and Ancel were supposed to be decorating the Christmas tree, but they were probably kissing under it instead.
“All right. I’ll go.” Yvanne waved her sister away, finished crossing the bridge and turned down towards the pixie forest. She didn’t want to go there, and she wasn’t going to think about the reason.
Too close to the gateway.
There. She’d thought about it.
Great bogle! What if I meet them on the path?
She switched off her mind and let her feet take over.
Down the hill, over the bridge in the chalky stream…
“Greet you, milady!” A warm arm came around her waist, and someone kissed her on the cheek.
Yvanne’s heart bounded, and she froze. She stepped away. “Greet you, lad,” she said cordially, to soften her rejection.
The water lad who had stopped her gave her an assessing look. He was tall and well-made, with sleepy grey eyes and dark red hair. He wore nothing at all. Very few waterfolk bothered with clothing.
“Play?” he suggested.
“I’m sorry. I don’t do that.”
“Are you not Mistress Skipton?”
“One of them.” She was surprised that he knew. Waterfolk had names, but usually only one. They didn’t bother with honorifics.
“You three all play at the ceilidhs and balls. I hoped you’d play for me.” He sounded hurt, and she saw he was holding reed pipes in his free hand.
“Oh, play music, you mean!”
He nodded and then gave her an impish smile. “Play other ways, too, if you will. I can lift the shadow from your heart and make you squeal right merrily.”
“So I’ve heard, but I’m courtfolk, and we generally practise court-to-court.”
He nodded again. “I know what you are by your gown. Pretty green, but old.”
She was surprised that he’d even noticed her dress, let alone commented on it, but answered, “I wear it for tending Uncle Luc’s bees. It’s charmed, so they don’t sting me.”
He offered her the pipes. “I made these. They sing for me. I want to know how they sing for you.”
Yvanne took them and examined the workmanship. They were beautifully crafted, made from eight stout reeds pierced and bound together and polished until they gleamed. She lifted them to her lips. She’d never played an eight-reed before, but she knew she could do it. She blew and found the fingering natural, although the water lad’s hands were larger than hers. The tone was sweet, and she felt the twinge of joy that always came from making music. She gave him the old Water Carol, as seemed fitting for one of his order.
She went on playing for a while, and he watched. When she’d finished, she examined the pipes again, admiring them. “These are wonderfully made,” she said.
He nodded without vanity. “I have a good touch. The maids all say so.”
She offered them back.
“For you, Mistress. I have others, and these sing better for you than for me. You must be openhearted.”