“This is the third proposal you have rejected in as many months, Aline, and the fifth in total. When are you going to do your duty and choose a husband as you know you must?”
The Duke of Leavingham and High Lord of the Five Provinces settled back in his chair with a frown. Lady Aline returned his stare, ignoring the whispers of the assembled council seated round the heavy oak table. She let out an audible sigh and glanced once more at the thick parchment lying on the table.
“My lord, if the offer was from the Count himself I would consider it. On behalf of his son however my answer is no. The boy is nine years old!”
“Most young women would consider themselves honoured to ally themselves with such a wealthy and respected family,” remarked a dark haired man seated at the end of the table. His voice was abrupt and Aline’s cheeks reddened at the discourteous tone. She adopted a well-practised smile she did not feel as she faced the speaker.
“Baron Hennessey, as I have explained, the terms of the proposal are generous indeed, but there are those of you here who believe rule of Leavingham should not pass to a woman. Would you prefer it to pass to a child instead?”
A shaft of watery sunlight broke through the clouds and Aline’s eyes drifted to the window as she half listened to the murmurs of agreement. In the stableyard her groom would be waiting patiently with horses. The unexpected summons had already made her late for her daily ride. The prospect of missing one of the few chances for a long expedition before Autumn turned to Winter was almost unbearable. She straightened her shoulders and brushed back a strand of ash blonde hair, running through different ways to bring the audience to a conclusion.
“My Lords, I know I must marry and I will. Had my brother lived to be heir my choice of husband would barely have mattered, however the man I marry will rule not only Leavingham, but the whole of the Five Provinces. I will not make that choice lightly.”
Silence hung in the air, then the High Lord chuckled. “Well said, granddaughter.”
Out of the corner of her eye Aline caught a wink of approval from Sir Godfrey, her brother’s friend since childhood. Quinter, the High Lord’s chamberlain leaned in towards the old man and whispered in his ear. Aline knew she had won. She walked round the table and took hold of her grandfather’s hands. “Please, Grandfather, you will not force me to accept him?”
“No, Aline, you need not accept this proposal. Remember however, there are barely four months until your twentieth birthday. One of the pledges I made when I named you heir was that you would be wed by then. I suggest you find any future offers more appealing or I shall have to make the choice for you.” The High Lord lowered his voice, “You may leave us. I know your mind is elsewhere today. Enjoy your ride, my dear.”
Aline curtseyed deeply to the assembled men and left the room, her heart beating rapidly. She ran up the winding staircase that led to her chamber, instructed the waiting maid to braid her hair and changed into her riding gown. Examining her reflection in the polished bronze mirror she was pleased with what she saw. The deep green linen set off her grey eyes perfectly, the tightly laced bodice emphasised the curves of her figure, and the full sleeves of her under-tunic rippled as she moved.
Aline made her way down to smaller of the castle’s two halls, fastening the clasp of her green riding cloak around her neck as she went. The hall was alive with activity as groups of courtiers sat around the trestle tables drinking and servants moved purposefully between tables. A piper’s reel floated across the room and Aline took up the tune, humming to herself, her feet treading the steps of the dance as she moved through the corridors. Halfway to the low door that led to the stableyard she recognised familiar footsteps and slowed to greet Godfrey.
“I do not know what you are thinking but I doubt the High Lord would approve!” he said as he stroked his short beard, a look of mock severity on his face.
Usually Aline would have responded with a lighthearted retort to her friend but after the morning’s audience she found she could not summon the energy. “You know I give him no cause for disapproval,” she replied defensively. “I read all the dusty old histories and treatises on diplomacy I am tasked with learning. I sit for hours listening to the council discuss matters of the province and beyond. I am a gracious hostess and a dutiful, modest lady of court. I play every part he expects. There is nothing he has asked of me that I have not done!”
|Miranda Otto||as Aline|
|Charlie Cox||as Dickon|
|Tom Ellis||as Hugh|
|Arthur Darvill||as Jack|
|Scott Bakula||as Duncan|
|Henry Cavill||as Stephen|