The House of Reuz (Part 1)

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Three years ago, the Empress of all Jovan had summoned Philomena and said, "I am going to make you an offer."

Philomena had promised to marry Prince Rainhart Dorn of Reuz, she had travelled to Deusetats, she had waited and waited, and now... now she was late to respond to the Queen's summons, her embroidery was not up to scratch, and there was a wriggling knot of unease in her stomach.

"Oh--Prince Rainhart," said Philomena, almost skidding in her surprise.

"Lady Philomena." From his position leaning against the wall, Rainhart half-bowed. His hand went to the dog--Briga's--neck. "I hope this day finds you well."

"It does, and you?"

Rainhart nodded. His hair was a darker gold than his siblings': the colour of poured honey. The fine strands were pressed close around his ears and nape by a flat cap with raffish feathers. His eyes were a deep grey-blue, like mountains in the distance. She could feel the mortification in the pit of her stomach: every time she saw Rainhart, all she thought of was that the first time he saw her she had been being held hostage by Briga.

It was ridiculous: she had grown up around dogs, around the Empress' spaniels and lapdogs, but the big wolfhound bounding towards her had startled her. Blessed few, Rainhart must think her a complete idiot.

Philomena watched as the restraining hand on Briga's neck became a caress behind the ear. Briga cocked her head and closed her eyes, thumping her foot in time with Rainhart's scratches.

"She's a beautiful dog," said Philomena.

"Briga is a wolfhound," said Rainhart. Did Philomena detect a note of censure? "She's saved me from the dangers of the high mountains more than once. Where are you bound?"

"To your--the Queen's solar." Philomena kept her tone neutral. "The seamstress fitted the mock-up of my new dress this morning, and this afternoon we are embroidering linens."

"I'd best let you get on then," said Rainhart, pushing away from the wall. "My mother hates tardiness."

"I've learned that," said Philomena. "You--I hope you have a good day."

Rainhart touched his cap with his hand and smiled, then he was gone down the hall, Briga trotting beside him. Philomena watched for a moment, then turned her steps towards the Queen's rooms.

The Queen looked up when Philomena entered, and her lips thinned in displeasure. The collection of women sitting around the Queen all stilled and looked at Philomena. Princess Holle looked up last.

"Lady Philomena, come in, child, don't dawdle about in the doorway. Sit down here beside me so I can supervise your stitching." She patted a cushion beside her on the window seat. "Such a pity that Lord Valentin's wife never taught the girl to sew," she lamented, fishing out one of Philomena's projects and showed it to the woman sitting beside her, whom Philomena didn't recognise.

"I was too busy learning to write," said Philomena.

"A useless skill for a lady," said the Queen, again to her companion. "Then again, I am sure Lady Luvina must be a saint to take those two unfortunate offspring of her husband's in. I do not think I could have stood to have a bastard of the King's under my roof."

She turned back to Philomena. "See, here, this stitch is crooked. You will need to unpick it. You and my son may lay your heads on these pillowcases someday."

Philomena rode out the bolt of fright that followed that image, unclenched her fists, and took the pillowcase. "How is Prince Maldwyn today?" she said, confident that the topic of her eldest son would distract the Queen and give Philomena some peace.

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