FIRE SONGby Roberta Gellis
Fenice d’Aix and Aubery of Ilmer both had unhappy first marriages. Both had guilty secrets related to those marriages, but each found in the other what had been lacking in their first unions. Each longed for the passionate love offered by their new partners. Nonetheless, neither dared expose their hidden secrets lest they lose everything.
The hidden deceptions made more hazardous Aubery’s political duties and his orders from King Henry to lead the party escorting Prince Edward and Queen Eleanor to Castile. Edward was to marry the sister of the King of Castile and had chosen his own leader but King Henry brushed aside Aubery’s old enemy in Aubery’s favor. Having failed twice in his attempts to kill Aubery, that enemy decided to violate and then murder Fenice as his only fit revenge. Fenice’s abduction made the naked truth a necessity between her and Aubery. But it was not until he lost Fenice that Aubery’s pride bent enough to allow him to declare his love ... almost too late.
Completely absorbed in political questions, Raymond had no eyes for his daughter, who had been summoned to the Hall by Alys, nor for Aubery, who was staring at Fenice with no expression at all on his face.
Since his acceptance of Raymond’s proposal, Aubery had managed not to think about Fenice. The idea of a second marriage raised violently conflicting emotions and made him uncomfortable. After that he had been fully involved in the hectic activity of making ready to leave England. He had had several discussions with William about the forms of the quittances, the disposition of Marlowe in the marriage contract, and the allowance to be made to Fenice from Marlowe’s revenues. But not once had Fenice herself been mentioned.
Aubery had forgotten that Alys’s letter contained a description of his bride-to-be, and even if he remembered, he would have been too embarrassed to ask to see the letter again. He also felt too much curiosity about Fenice to be wrong, a violation of his mourning for Matilda. Thus, Aubery had no preconception about Fenice, or, if he had any, it was a very slight feeling that Fenice must be unattractive. The way William said Alys waxed lyrical about her step-daughter’s perfections, and the additional comment that there was some reason neither Alys nor Raymond made plain for wanting the girl out of Provance and Gascony, had settled into his mind as a very vague picture of a plain girl, good, clever, and obedient—the perfect wife.
What was now before him was a beauty with a smooth, creamy skin that cried out to be tasted, brilliant eyes, a full, rich, red mouth, and what must be, from the way the gold net that held it bulged, a magnificent mane of dark hair. If a fault could be found in her, it was that she was a trifle too pale. Aubery flushed slightly himself when he realized she was staring at him with an intensity equal to his own. That bold look gave him a mild shock.
Fenice, of course, had no intention of being bold. She was merely regarding Aubery with great curiosity and trust, since Alys had assured her of his goodness and kindness. She was not at all surprised by his appearance; Alys had given her an accurate enough description, but she thought him far more handsome than Alys had implied. She was, in fact, entranced by his blond hair and fair skin. Aubery was the first man she had seen with such coloring, and Fenice thought he looked like an angel.
Properly, of course, Raymond should have presented Fenice to her future husband. But having cast a single glance at her husband and father, who were moving toward a secluded corner to talk, Alys decided that no good would come of attempting to draw their attention from public to private business. Alys also noted that Aubery’s eyes had remained fixed on Fenice as if he were unaware that the other men had moved away.
Alys was no stickler for forms, and she believed in striking while the iron was hot. Taking Fenice by the hand, she led her a few steps forward and said, “You know each other by repute, I am sure, but to remove all doubt let me present Lady Fenice to you Aubery. And this, of course, is Sir Aubery of Ilmer, my love.”
Fenice dropped into a deep curtsey, and Aubery took her hand to lift her from the bow, himself bowed deeply, and kissed the hand he held. Fenice blushed with pleasure. Never had she been treated with such grave courtesy. A tiny prick of guilt made her drop her eyes, a feeling that it was not quite right that so fine a gentleman should bow to the daughter of a common woman, but Alys’s command that she must put the matter out of her mind reassured her.
The blush almost undid Aubery. Although he had not been totally celibate since Matilda’s death, a strong restraint on his sexual impulses had been one of the penances he had imposed upon himself. It was particularly appropriate because Matilda had never taken pleasure in coupling, submitting without protest but always with distaste. It was, she had told her husband, a sin to feel pleasure in the act that was designed by God for the procreation of children. The pleasure was an evil temptaton, a thing to be resisted. But the pleasure, Aubery had snarled at her more than once when she preached at him, was unavoidable to a male—whatever it was to a female–and thus could not be a sin. It was like calling pissing a sin.
Matilda had no answer for that the first time he said it, but the second time she was prepared, repeating the lesson taught by her priest, that pissing was not a sin, but taking pleasure, even in that was.
The penance of abstinence, Aubery found, had seemed to increase rather than diminish sexual temptation. Told by Matilda’s priest that he should fast and scourge his body to cure his desire, he had flung away in a temper and found a willing girl in the village to ease his need. He was a knight, not a hermit. His body was his stock in trade and as much the property of his overlord and his stepfather as his own. It had to be fit and whole as he could keep it to fight on command and to win.
Nonetheless, Aubery did try to be faithful to Matilda’s memory, indulging himself in relief only when the tension become unbearable and he began to see every woman in an indecent condition regardless of her propriety of dress and behavior. Reasonably enough, he also tried to think as little as possible about both his occasional lapses and the time between them. The fact that he had been unusually busy over the month of June further obscured his growing need, and the long, bad sea voyage during which he had too frequently been sick, plus the absence of women on the ship, brought him to Blancheforte in a more precarious condition than he had realized.
That he had, immediately upon seeing Fenice, a desire to lick her skin should have warned him, but he had been distracted by the bold brightness of her eyes and then by Alys’s speech and movement. However, when he lifted her hand to kiss it, he was assailed by a heavy, rich perfume, very unlike the light scent of violets Matilda had worn. The odor sent a sensual wave of passion through him, which was intensified by Fenice’s blush. That brought an immediate image of strawberries whipped into sweet cream and roused in him an inordinate urge to bite her.
Between the violent turmoil in his loins and his mental recoil from the animal urge to bite, Aubery was stricken mute. He straightened from his bow and stepped back, but quite unaware of it, he retained Fenice’s hand. In a fleeting glance, Alys noted the lingering grip; she looked briefly then at Fenice’s face, not realizing she was worrying about the wrong person.
Well satisfied with both observations, she said, “Go to the window seat and be out of my way, both of you. There are chambers to be made ready and dinner to be enlarged in case Raymond thinks we should summon guests from town to hear what Papa has to say.”
Aubery was still so confused by his violent physical reaction and so concentrated on controlling it that he moved mechanically in the direction Alys indicated. At the moment, his mind was completely out of contact with reality. If he had been told in a firm enough voice to do it, he would likely have jumped off the tower. And Fenice, who ordinarily would have inquired at once what she could do to help her stepmother, only looked down at the hand Aubery was holding and followed him.
By the time they reached the window, Aubery became aware that he was holding Fenice’s hand and released it, but he was still fighting a battle with his body, and he did not sit down at once. Thinking he was politely waiting for her to seat herself first, which Aubery indeed would have done had he been in a condition to think about it, Fenice blushed with pleasure again. Aubery drew in his breath.
“Will you not be seated?” Fenice asked gently, gesturing toward a spot that was in cool shadow. Despite what she believed to be his polite gesture, she was hesitant.
The voice, very low and musical, was also totally unlike Matilda’s high-pitched, girlish tones. Aubery stiffened his muscles to resist a sensuous shudder, feeling almost as if she were stroking him. Desperately he looked out into the hall, hoping that Alys would come or that William or Raymond would call out to him.
“May I bring you some wine or some other refreshment?” Fenice asked, noticing the outward look.
Oh, that voice. It was like soft velvet sliding across the skin of one’s naked belly. Aubery licked his lips, trying to concentrate. At first the words made no sense, only drew his eyes back to that lovely face, but by this time Fenice was beginning to find her prospective husband’s silence disturbing. She reached out and touched his hand, about to repeat her question. Aubery recoiled.
Fenice’s eyes filled with tears, and her head dropped as a terrible conviction, born of her insecurity, rose in her. She had taken his first fixed stare to be no more than the same kind of interest she felt, but it might as easily have been horror. The formal politeness might be a result of his kindness, a concealment of his unwillingness to fulfill his promise.
“My lord,” she said, her voice trembling, “if you find me displeasing, I am sure—”
“I find you lovely,” Aubery said, the words wrenched out of him in response to the wave of fear and shame that Fenice communicated.
Startled, Aubery took in her tear-filled eyes, bent head, and shaking voice, from which the music had disappeared. Her reaction gave him a shock as effective as a splash of cold water, restoring his voice and, at least temporarily, his control over himself.
“I am sorry to have frightened you,” he added more naturally, wondering suddenly if he had read too much into her look and if she had only been making a coy strike for attention.
Fenice’s head came up, and the relief and eagerness in her expression made Aubery ashamed of his doubts. But now a new question rose in his mind. There was a reason, he remembered why Raymond and Alys wanted to send the girl away from the place of her birth. It must be a strong reason, he thought, to make her so fearful of displeasing him and so willing to accept a husband who would take her such a distance from the protection of her blood relations. But then Fenice smiled, and Aubery lost the train of his thoughts.