As if her thoughts were contagious, the scribe echoed here, “And I, if I may! I confess, in my hasty packing, I neglected to bring as many warm things as I would be happy to have here. And I wonder if the market would have any wax tablets? As my students progress, I would like each to have his own for his work.”
My heart sank. This was our day, the day promised to me. Surely my father would defend it. He looked toward me but I lowered my eyes. After a moment he spoke. “Of course. If you wish, I suppose we can delay for a little.”
We delayed the whole morning. Shun behaved as if she had only by chance heard of our expedition, but I was certain she had known of it by servant gossip and only chose to invite herself in such an untimely way. For one thing, she had arrived at breakfast dressed as if she were a dish for a feast table. That did not mean she was quickly ready to leave. No. She must flounce and twist her hair and try on a dozen pair of earrings, and scold her maid for not having a certain jacket mended and ready for her to wear. These things I knew because she left the door of her chambers open and the sound of her strident displeasure carried well down the corridor to my chambers. I lay back down on my bed to await the announcement that she was ready, and dozed off. I fell right back into my discordant dreams, and when my father came to find me I felt disconnected and strange as I found my wraps and then followed him out to the ponderous wagon that would now transport us to town, for Lady Shun had chosen skirts that were certain to be ruined by riding horseback.
My father waved away a driver and climbed up to take the reins himself before gesturing that I should join him on the seat. Riddle’s horse and his laden pack animal were tethered to the rear of the wagon and would follow. He climbed up next to us. So at least I had the novelty of riding beside my father and watching him manage the team, and not having to listen to Shun’s vapid chatter. I glanced back at the stable in time to see Perseverance leading Prissy out on an exercise lead. He nodded to me, and I ducked my head in response. We had managed to find time for exactly one riding lesson since our other schooling had started. I had looked forward to making my father proud of me today with my riding skills. Trust Shun to spoil that!
But for all that, I enjoyed the ride to town. FitzVigilant and Shun were tucked into the back of the wagon with a mound of cushions, lap robes, and blankets. I heard her telling him some tale of a grand carriage her grandmother had owned, all leather and velvet curtains. I was warm as I sat between my father and Riddle. They spoke over my head of boring manly things. I watched the snow falling, and the tossing of the horses’ manes, and listened to the music of the creaking wagon and thudding hooves. I went off into a sort of waking dream of gentle light that shone on us from the falling snow and drew us on and on. I roused from it only as we got closer to the trading town. First the woods gave way to open fields with little farmhouses in clusters. Then we began to see more houses on smaller holdings, and finally we were in the town itself, with all the merchants and fine houses and inns clustered around an open square. And over it all, a gleaming pearly haze made me want to rub my eyes. The falling snow diffused the winter light so that it seemed to me it came as much from the snowy ground as the sky overhead. I felt myself drifting. It was such a wonderful sensation. My nose and cheeks were chilled, as were my hands, but the rest of me was warm trapped between the two men and their deep cheerful voices. Garlands and lanterns on poles were set out for Winterfest to come, and the bright attire of the merchants and the folk wandering the shops added to the festive air. Evergreen garlands draped doors and windows, enlivened with branches bare but for clinging red berries, brown cones, or white berries. The wealthier establishments had tiny bells woven into the cedar fronds, and they chimed softly in the wind.
My father pulled in near a stable and tossed a boy a coin to see to our team. He lifted me down after him as Shun and FitzVigilant were scrambling down from the tail of the wagon. My father took my hand, exclaiming over how cold it was. His hand was warm, and his walls were up enough that I could endure the skin-to-skin touch. I smiled up at him. The snow was falling and light surrounded us.
We came to the town commons. Oaksbywater had three great oaks in the center of their commons, and young holly trees, freshly trimmed of their prickly leaves and berries. In the open spaces of the commons, a new town seemed to have sprung up. Peddlers and tinkers had pulled up their carts and sold pans from racks and whistles and bracelets from trays and late apples and nuts from bushel baskets. There was so much to choose from, we could not look at it all. We passed people dressed in furs and bright cloaks. So many people and I knew none of them! So different from Withywoods. Some of the girls wore holly crowns. It would not be Winterfest for two more days, but there were garlands and music and a man cooking and selling hot chestnuts. “Chestnuts, chestnuts, piping hot! Chestnuts, chestnuts, hopping in the pot!”