"Why, about how difficult tomorrow will be for you—sitting in your husband’s gallery at the tourney and giving him your favor with your own kinsmen looking on."
"I’ve no intention of doing either," Jenny said with calm firm.
Katherine’s reaction was anything but calm. "Jenny, you aren’t planning to sit on the other side—with the Scots."
"I am a Scot," Jenny said, but her stomach was twisting into tight knots.
"You are now a Westmoreland—even God decreed a woman must cleave to her husband!" Before Jenny could reply, Katherine took her by the shoulders and said desperately, "You don’t know what you’ll cause if you publicly take sides with his opponents! Jenny, this is England and your husband is—is a legend! You’ll make a laughingstock of him! Everyone who’s come to like you will despise you for it, even while they’re deriding your husband for not being able to conquer his own wife. Please, I implore you—don’t do this!"
"I—I have to remind my husband about the time." Jenny replied desperately. "Before we realized we’d have so many guests, this night was set aside for the vassals to come to Claymore for the swearing of fealty."
Behind Jenny, two of her serfs stared after her as if they’d been slapped, then they rushed over to the smithy who was standing with two dozen Claymore grooms. "Her ladyship," one of the serfs burst out in anxiety and disbelief, "is sittin’ with the Scots tomorrow. She’s sidin’ agin us!"
"You’re lyin’!" exploded a young groom whose burned hand Jenny had tended and bandaged herself yesterday. "She’d never do that. She’s one o’ us.
"My lord," Jenny said when she reached Royce, and he turned to her at once, cutting off Lord Melbrook in the middle of his sentence. "You said," Jenny reminded him, unable to banish Katherine’s words about the way her husband looked at her. It did seem, Jenny thought dazedly, that there was something in his eyes when he gazed at her…
"I said what?" he asked quietly.
"You said everyone normally retires early on the night before a tourney," Jenny explained, recovering her composure and arranging her face in the same politely impersonal expression she’d tried to adopt with him since William’s death. "And if you mean for everyone to do that, then ‘twould be wise to get the swearing of fealty over and done with before it grows any later."
"Are you feeling unwell?" he asked, his narrowed eyes searching her face.
"No," Jenny lied. "Just tired."
The swearing of fealty took place in the great hall, where Royce’s vassals had all assembled. For nearly a full hour, Jenny stood with Katherine, Brenna, Sir Stefan, and several others, watching as each of Royce’s vassals approached him one at a time. In accordance with ancient custom, each one knelt before him, placed his hands in Royce’s, humbly bowed his head, and swore him fealty. It was an act of obeisance, oft portrayed in paintings of lofty nobles with their lowly subjects, instantly recognizable by posture alone. Jenny, who’d seen it done at Merrick, had always thought it needlessly humbling to the vassal. So, in a way, did Katherine Melbrook, who quietly observed, "It must be very demeaning to a vassal."
" ‘Tis meant to be," said Lord Melbrook, obviously not sharing his wife’s distaste for it. "But then, I have assumed exactly the same position before King Henry, so you see, ’tis not quite the debasing gesture you ladies obviously find it. However," he amended after a moment’s additional thought, "perhaps it feels different where you’re a noble bending your knee to a king."
As soon as the last vassal had knelt and sworn his fealty, Jenny quietly excused herself and slipped upstairs. Agnes had just finished helping her into a bedgown of soft white lawn embroidered with pink silk roses when Royce knocked on the door to her chamber and entered. "I’ll just go down to the Lady Elinor and see if she needs me," Agnes said to Jenny, then she bobbed a quick curtsy to Royce.
Realizing the linen gown was nearly transparent, Jenny snatched up a silver velvet dressing gown and hastily put it on. Instead of mocking the modest gesture—or teasing her about it—as he might have done when they’d been happy together, Jenny noticed that his handsome face remained perfectly expressionless.
"I wanted to talk to you about a few things," he began quietly, when she had belted the robe. "First of all, about the badges you handed out to the villagers—"
"If you’re angry about that, I don’t blame you," Jenny said honestly. "I should have consulted with you or Sir Albert first. Especially because I handed them out in your name. You weren’t available at the time, and I—I don’t like Sir Albert."
"I’m far from angry, Jennifer," he said politely. "And after the tournament I’ll replace Prisham. Actually, I came in here to thank you for noticing the problem and for solving it so cleverly. Most of all, I wanted to thank you for not letting your hatred for me show to the serfs."
Jenny’s stomach lurched sickly at the word hatred, as he continued, "You’ve done the opposite, in fact." He glanced toward the door by which Agnes had just departed and added ironically, "No one crosses themselves any more when they walk near me. Not even your maid."
Jenny, who had no idea he’d ever noticed that before, nodded, unable to think of what to say.
He hesitated and then said with a sardonic twist to his lips. "Your father, your brother, and three other Merricks have each challenged me to a joust tomorrow."
The sensual awareness of him that had been plaguing Jenny ever since Katherine had remarked on Royce’s alleged tenderness toward her was demolished by his next words:
"Naturally," she said with unhidden bitterness.
"I had no choice," he said tautly. "I am under a specific command from my king not to decline if challenged by your family."
"You’re going to have a very busy day," she remarked, giving him a freezing look. It was common knowledge that Scotland and France had each picked their two premier knights, and that Royce was to confront them as well tomorrow. "How many matches have you agreed to?"
"Eleven," he said flatly, "in addition to the tournament."
"Eleven," Jenny repeated, her scathing voice filled with frustration and the endless pain of his betrayal. "Three is the customary number. I take it you require four times the amount of violence as other men to make you feel brave and strong?"
His face whitened at that. "I have accepted only those matches which I was specifically commanded to accept. I’ve declined more than two hundred others."