“And I the same,” I lied to her. Her face flushed, she smiled faintly at me as she pressed her hand to her breast as if to calm her fluttering heart. I smiled back at her and took her to her chair by the hearth. I had scarcely seated her before a page was at my elbow, offering to bring her wine. She nodded and sent him scampering.
“What was that, stitched all round his cap?” I asked distractedly.
“Feathers. And locks of hair from horse tails.” She was still breathless.
I looked askance at her.
“It was Patience’s fancy this year. All the boys she hired from Withy to act as pages for the holiday are dressed so. Feathers to bid all our troubles take flight, and horse tail hairs, which is what we will show to our problems as we flee them.”
“I … see.” My second lie of the evening.
“Well, it’s good that you do, as I certainly don’t. But every Winterfest, it’s something, isn’t it? Do you remember the year that Patience handed out greenwood staffs to every unmarried man who came to the festival? With the length based on her assessment of his masculinity?”
I bit down on the laugh that threatened to escape. “I do. Apparently she thought the young ladies needed a clear indication of which men would make the best mates.”
Molly lifted her brows. “Perhaps they did. There were six weddings at Springfest that year.”
My wife looked across the room. Patience, my stepmother, was dressed in a grand old gown of pale-blue velvet trimmed with black lace at the cuffs and throat. Her long gray hair had been braided and pinned to her head in a coronet. She had a single sprig of holly in it, and several dozen bright-blue feathers stuck in at all angles. A fan dangled from a bracelet at her wrist; it was blue to match her gown and feathers, and also edged with stiffened black lace. She looked both lovely and eccentric to me, as she always had. She was wagging a finger at Molly’s youngest, warning him about something. Hearth stood straight, looking solemnly down at her, but his clasped fingers fidgeted behind his back. His brother Just stood at a distance, concealing his grin and waiting for him to be released. I took pity on them both. Patience seemed to think they were still ten and twelve, despite how they towered over her. Just was barely short of his twentieth birthday, and Hearth was Molly’s youngest at seventeen. Yet he stood like a scolded boy and tolerantly accepted Patience’s rebuke.
“I want to let Lady Patience know that more of her minstrels have arrived. I hope this is the last batch of them. Any more and I suspect they’ll be coming to blows over who gets to perform and for how long.” Any minstrels invited to perform at Withywoods were assured of meals and a warm place to sleep, and a small purse for their efforts. The rest of their rewards were won from the guests, and often the musicians who performed the most reaped the greatest gain. Three sets of musicians were more than ample for a Winterfest at our holding. Four would be a challenge.
Molly nodded. She lifted her hands to her rosy cheeks. “I think I’ll just sit here a bit longer. Oh, here’s the lad with my wine!”
There was a lull in the music, and I took the opportunity to cross the dance floor quickly. Patience saw me coming and first smiled and then scowled at me. By the time I reached her side, she had completely forgotten Hearth and he had escaped with his brother. She snapped her fan shut, pointed it at me, and asked me accusingly, “What has become of your leggings? Those skirts are flapping about your legs like a ship with storm-torn canvas!”
I looked down at them, and up at her. “The new style from Jamaillia.” As her disapproval deepened, I added, “Molly chose them.”
Lady Patience stared down as if perhaps I had a litter of kittens concealed in them. Then she lifted her eyes to mine, smiled, and said, “A lovely color. And I am sure she is pleased that you wore them.”
Patience lifted her hand, I extended my arm, she placed her hand on my forearm, and we began a slow perambulation of the Great Hall. Folk parted for her, bowing and curtsying. Lady Patience, for so she was this evening, gravely inclined her head or warmly greeted or embraced as each person merited. I was content simply to be her escort, to see her enjoying herself, and to endeavor to keep a straight face through her whispered asides about Lord Durden’s breath or her pity for how quickly Tinker Dan was losing his hair. Some of the older guests remembered when she was not only the lady of Withywoods but wife to Prince Chivalry. In many ways, she still reigned here, for Nettle spent a good portion of her time at Buckkeep Castle as Skillmistress to King Dutiful, and Molly was content to let Patience have her way in most things.