She shut the door just as I reached it. I halted and then, with a small sigh, went back for my clean leggings and soft shoes. She would expect me to dance, and I would do my best. I did know that Riddle was apt to enjoy himself at any sort of festivity at Withywoods with an abandon that was very unlike the reserved fellow he showed himself at Buckkeep, and perhaps not precisely correct for a man who was ostensibly just our former household steward. I found myself smiling. Where he led, sometimes Nettle followed, showing a merry side of herself that she, too, seldom revealed at the King’s court. Hearth and Just, the two of Molly’s six grown sons who were still at home, would need very little encouragement to join in. As Patience had invited half of Withy and far more musicians than could perform in one evening, I fully expected that our Winterfest revelry would last at least three days.
With some reluctance, I removed my leggings and pulled on the trousers. They were a dark green that was nearly black, thin linen, and almost as voluminous as a skirt. They tied at my waist with ribbons. A broad silk sash completed the ridiculous garment. I told myself that my wearing them would please Molly. I suspected that Riddle would have been bothered into donning similar garb. I sighed again, wondering why we must all emulate Jamaillian fashions, and then resigned myself to it. I finished dressing, badgered my hair into a warrior’s tail, and left our bedchamber. I paused at the top of the grand oak staircase; the sounds of merriment drifted up to me. I took a breath as if I were about to dive into deep water. I had nothing to fear, no reason to hesitate, and yet the ingrained habits of my distant boyhood still clutched at me. I had every right to descend this stair, to walk among the glad company below as master of the house and husband to the lady who owned it. Now I was known as Holder Tom Badgerlock, common-born perhaps but elevated alongside Lady Molly to gentry status. The bastard FitzChivalry Farseer—grandson and nephew and cousin to kings—had been laid to rest twoscore years ago. To the folk below, I was Holder Tom and the founder of the feast they would enjoy.
Even if I was wearing silly Jamaillian trousers.
I paused a moment longer, listening. I could hear two distinct groups of minstrels vying to tune their instruments. Riddle’s laugh rang suddenly clear and loud, making me smile. The hum of voices from the Great Hall lifted in volume and then fell again. One set of minstrels gained ascendancy, for a lively drumbeat suddenly broke through the voices to dominate all. The dancing would soon begin. Truly, I was late, and had best descend. Yet there was sweetness to standing here, above it all, imagining Nettle’s flashing feet and sparkling eyes as Riddle led her through the dance steps. Oh, and Molly! She would be waiting for me! I had become a passable dancer over the years, for her sake, as she loved it so. She would not easily forgive me if I left her standing.
I hurried down the polished oak steps two at a time, reached the hall foyer, and was there suddenly ambushed by Revel. Our new young steward was looking very fine indeed in a white shirt, black jacket, and black trousers in the Jamaillian fashion. His green house shoes were startling, as was the yellow scarf at his throat. Green and yellow were the Withywoods colors, and I suspected these accoutrements were Patience’s idea. I did not let the smile curve my mouth but I think he read it in my eyes. He stood even taller and looked down at me as he soberly informed me, “Sir, there are minstrels at the door.”
I gave him a puzzled glance. “Well, let them in, man. It’s Winterfest.”
He stood still, his lips folded in disapproval. “Sir, I do not think they were invited.”
“It’s Winterfest,” I repeated, beginning to be annoyed. Molly would not be pleased at being kept waiting. “Patience invites every minstrel, puppeteer, tumbler, tinker, or blacksmith she meets to come and sojourn with us for a time. She probably invited them months ago and forgot all about it.”
I did not think his back could get stiffer, but it did. “Sir, they were outside the stable, trying to peer in through a crack in the planking. Tallman heard the dogs barking and went to see what it was about and found them. That is when they said they were minstrels, invited for Winterfest.”
He took a short breath. “Sir, I do not think they are minstrels. They have no instruments. And while one said they were minstrels, another said, no, they were tumblers. But when Tallman said he would walk them up to the front door, they said that he needn’t, they only wished to beg shelter for the night, and the stable would be fine.” He shook his head. “Tallman spoke to me privately when he brought them up. He thinks they’re none of what they claim to be. And so do I.”