Blake paused at the foot of the stairs, looking around the public room of the cottage. It was still hard to believe this was his. Being the third son of a merchant who was not known for a hardheaded practicality where the cashbox was concerned, Blake was pretty sure that there were more “to be paid later” notes in his father’s old ledger than there was actual notations of payment.
While he had always loved his father’s soft-hearted approach, he couldn’t bear to turn someone who needed something away just because they didn’t have the money right then, it had meant that Blake was set to have a lot of years of traveling to do before he would have a cozy little cottage like this one. And yet here he had one, it was all his, well it was all his for now. Soon-meaning depending on what progress could be made restoring the old chapel-he’d be sharing it.
Lady Tiffany had promised that no matter what state the old chapel was in, she could have it done by week’s end. No one had even thought about it. It had been abandoned after the priests had all died. Not that they didn’t pray, well, he didn’t know what King Lachlan or the nobles did. Nor, actually, what the ladies did. But Fox gathered them once a week and they prayed. It just wasn’t a formal thing. No sermons or speeches or preaching, just a man and the gods and whatever thoughts went between them.
It had remained abandoned all this time, mostly because no one really seemed to think about it, or why they might be needed it. But Blake couldn’t ask Raquel to marry him in the cottage. She deserved a real wedding, in the church. With all the pomp and circumstance that Shadowcrest could provide. Admittedly minimal as it might be.
He hadn’t intended to ask Raquel to marry him, not this winter, not so soon. He would have waited. Maybe he should have. But they’d been sitting on one of the hills outside of town, Shadowhaven’s walls at their backs, the light warm, even if the breeze hadn’t been. She’d shivered and he’d put an arm around her still-too-thin shoulders. She’d turned her face into his neck, and sighed. “What?” Blake had asked.
“I wish this could be like this forever.” She had admitted. And then, in a tumble of fumbled words that had made him wish that he had a silver tongue like Fox, he’d asked. And she’d smiled, one of those all-too-rare smiles that lit not just her face, but her eyes.
A knock came a moment later, startling him out of his reverie. “So, what are you up to?” Ren asked.
“Oh, just kinda rattling around the house. It’s still-what’s Raquel’s word-surreal? that it’s mine and even-odder that by this time next week, it’ll be-ours.” Blake pushed a hand through his hair, looking at the falling snow.
“Oh? What about the chapel?” Ren asked. Blake shrugged, which became an almost shiver. It was too cold for shirtsleeves out and of course he hadn’t grabbed his cloak from the coatrack.
“Would you like to come in?” Blake asked. “It might do a bit better to talk where it’s warm.”
“Aye. This is-different.” Ren hesitated in the door, looking around at the newly decorated cottage. Before, it had just been furniture really. Now it really wasn’t.
“Aye, Raquel and some of the other ladies came over the past couple of days. It is different.” Not that it looked bad, he didn’t think it looked bad at all, just it looked nothing like the cottage that he had grown up in, with it’s tapestries that had hung there for generations and the jumbled, slightly mismatched furniture. Nor like any of the other cottages he knew. It didn’t even really look like Lady Kennedy’s barn.
“Where did they get all this stuff?” Ren asked, sitting down on the sofa that Blake gestured to. Blake settled into the chair both of which were now padded with purple cushions and pillows.
“I didn’t ask, some of it was probably made, but I would assume some of it was procured with the King’s help.” Blake echoed the smith’s swallow. It was one thing to know that your king could do things that most men couldn’t, it was different to sit down on cushions that could have been created with magic. But, as he’d told himself probably fifty times today alone, the dye might have been magicked, but the fabric was most likely woven by Fox or maybe Lady Peyton or Raquel who had both gotten pretty good at weaving.
“Doesn’t it seem a bit-disrespectful-to ask the king to-to-to do something like that?” Ren asked.
“Well, to you and me, maybe, but perhaps not so much to Raquel-and definitely not to Lady Kennedy.” Ren chuckled. Raquel called Lady Kennedy a steamroller. Whatever that meant. She did, though, have a way of getting more or less exactly what she wanted. A second knock came at the door, startling Blake although Ren didn’t seem so surprised by it. The young carpenter’s eyes narrowed slightly but before he could stand, Fox had stuck his head in the door.
“May I?” The tailor asked, kicking the snow off his boots.
“Sure.” Blake said standing up. Fox looked around the cottage and said everything that Ren had said with one quirked eyebrow. Blake tried not to blush. Fox had a way of making Blake feel awkward and clumsy, like a lad rather than a man. Still his handshake was warm and hearty, and his smile genuine.
“It was Raquel’s idea.” Blake said with a blush. Rather than the sardonic grin Blake expected, Fox just nodded and sat down.
“I figured, she likes purple.” Blake nodded. He had no idea how he was going to keep her in purple fabric and dye, it was a bit beyond his or anyone he’d ever personally known’s pocketbooks, but he knew he wanted to, because Raquel liked purple.
Fox hadn’t even gotten settled on the sofa when another knock came at the door. Blake shot a suspicious look at his friends but answered the door anyway. Emanuel was standing on the small stoop, looking-well mostly cold. A lot colder than he should have been given his cottage was right next door. Then movement caught the corner of his eye and his jaw dropped a little.
At the foot of his stairs stood Jarrett. “What’s this all about?” Blake asked.
“Well, lad, we haven’t really got a tavern to take you out to, but you are gettin’ married this week an’ all. You didn’t really think we’d forget did you?” Jarrett said with a smile that while slightly shadowed was still warm.
“Come in, won’t you?” Blake asked, gesturing toward the house. As he shut up the door, he shook his head wryly. “You should have told me, I haven’t got anything for you except tea and soup.”
“We couldn’t tell you. That takes the fun out of it. Maybe it can’t be like it was, when there’d have been somewhere to go, something to do. But it’s always been a surprise, that part at least we could keep.” Ren said. Blake nodded, he had been just old enough to go to the tavern with Gregory when he’d been taken out before his wedding.
Everyone, straight down to Blake’s mother, had known what night they were going, but Gregory hadn’t.
“Lord Gray sent his-and the king’s-regrets, but between the weather and all, they figured it was probably better not to come all this way. Although he did send some ale.” Ren said with a grin.
“You invited the king?” Blake blinked.
“‘Tisn’t like it was with King Phillip.” Jarrett reminded him softly.
“Aye.” They all agreed. Emanuel passed around the bottles of ale, though Jarrett shook his head.
“I’m fine. An’ if I do need somethin’, I’ll be better off with that tea Blake’s got. Can’t be getting a head, I’ve still gotta be up to milk in the mornin’.”
Milking. Looking at Jarrett, Blake felt a wave of guilt wash over him. If anyone should have a warm snug cottage and all to be in, it should be Jarrett. He shouldn’t be living in a barn loft with the animals.
“Jarrett, do you need any help?” Blake asked, noticing that his weren’t the only eyes showing guilt.
“Lads.” The butcher laughed. “Sawyer an’ I manage jist fine, an’ if it’s too bad, we can usually nag M’lord to put in some help. We manage.” He repeated. “An’ the loft is jist fine too, I know you an’ Emanuel have space, Fox. But damned if the barn isn’t near as snug as these cottages, dunno how she did it. Sawyer says Lady Tiffany’s a wizard in her own right.”
“Still.” Fox said looking at his ale bottle.
“Aye, I’ve heard it all before. This wasn’t to be about how can we help poor ol’ Jarrett, you know. So you excited, lad? Nervous?”
“Kinda all of the above.” Blake admitted. Jarrett nodded in understanding.
“I-I remember feeling that way. It’ll pass, I think.” Shadows flickered over Jarrett’s face, settling in the other man’s dark eyes.
“So, do you know when the ceremony will be?”
“Lady Tiffany says she’ll have the chapel done by this weekend. An’ she’s never been wrong before.”
“How’s she getting that done anyway, have you been helping?” Ren asked.
“Not me.” Blake looked around at his friends all of whom shook their head. “Either Lady Kennedy bullied all the nobles into helping-0r…” Blake cut off and left it hanging.
“You never know, Lady Kennedy probably could bully all the nobles into helping.” Ren said with a nervous laugh.
“Aye, we had a talk about children the other day, Lady Kennedy and I.” Blake nodded. The other men looked at him mostly with puzzlement, except for Ren, who’d heard the story. “She told me that she didn’t care that here sixteen wasn’t too young to be having babies, nor that we were supposed to repopulating the country. I’d better respect Raquel’s wishes and-learn to keep it in my hose-I believe is what she said.”
“Keep what in your hose?” Fox asked. Blake blushed scarlet.
“You know, it.” As painfully embarrassing as it was to be talking about this with his friends it had been worse when he realized just what it was Lady Kennedy had been referring to. Women weren’t supposed to so casually refer to your manly bits. Understanding slowly crossed Fox’s face, along with horror. “And if I didn’t, she was going to break my legs, and if that didn’t work, she’d-er-do something worse.”
Jarrett chuckled as the other men cringed.
“And you like her.” Fox said, almost accusingly to Emanuel.
“Aye, so?” The apothecary shrugged. The conversation turned after that, perhaps because castration isn’t anything that most men really wish to linger on for very long. But all too soon Jarrett looked at the snow through the curtains.
“Well, lads, I’d probably be heading on home.” Jarrett said.
“I’ll walk with you.” Emanuel offered.
“Thank you, but ’tis a little out of your way. Considering it’s not even the right direction. Don’t worry, Emanuel, I can find my way home. Just follow the wall, really.” Jarrett dismissed. Blake warmly embraced the older man, thanking him again for coming, as he really hadn’t had to.
Fox was the next to leave, Emanuel right after him. As Blake saw them both off, with slightly less worry, as they only lived across the street and next door respectively, Ren put the dining chairs back and took his seat once more on the sofa.
“Thanks.” Blake said as he sat down himself.
“That’s what friends are for.” Ren told him.
“Aye. So when do you think I’ll be returning the favor.” Blake asked with a faith smile. Ren shrugged.
“Haven’t any of the ladies caught your fancy?”
“Not really, no.” Ren admitted. “But there’s only half here, you know.” Blake nodded in understanding. “Besides, I’d rather not be in Sawyer’s position. He is completely moonstruck.”
“Aye.” Blake agreed. He hoped that he wasn’t nearly that bad with Raquel, but even if he were Raquel didn’t seem to mind.
“Well, I ought to be off myself,” Ren said after a stretch. “I’ll see you tomorrow, then?”
“Aye, more than likely.” Blake said. After all if there was one thing the survivors of Shadowcrest knew, it was that life kept marching on.