The German Princess
“May I present Faulke Segrave, Lord of Derllys, heir to the Baron of Carreg.” The English knight gestured for the second man to step forward, and then he cleared his throat. “May I also present Lord Faulke’s cousin, Sir Richard Segrave of Hawksforth.”
At my nod, Sir Roland bowed low, and then returned to his station by the door. I tried to show no outward expression as I eyed the two newcomers.
Everyone who knew Faulke Segrave claimed he was tall with dark hair and blue eyes, and a face most ladies found pleasing. What stood before me was definitely tall and blue eyed. A chain mail hood covered his hair, which made confirmation of its color difficult to determine. The color of his beard was just as mysterious, since it was caked with dried mud that was an unpleasant shade of grayish brown. Even his facial features were difficult to distinguish under the streaks of muck and dirt that covered his face and beard. As for a pleasing personality, I did not hold out much hope.
Faulke’s cousin, Richard, was a near twin in appearance as well as in filth. My gaze lingered on their eyes, the whites made more vivid by the mud that surrounded them, the blue even more intense against the white. It was a rather startling effect, as if they were staring at me from behind Venetian masks. The hairs on the back of my neck stood up, and I forced my gaze lower.
The surcoats they wore might have the Segrave dragon on their chests, but it was impossible to know for certain. Everything they wore, from head to foot, was covered with dried mud. They both looked—-and smelled—-as if they had recently rolled through a bog.
I lifted the fingers of my right hand, just a little, and then let them settle again onto the arm of my chair. Gerhardt, the captain of my guard, recognized the signal and stepped forward to introduce me to our visitors in his painfully precise French.
“I present to you Her Royal Highness, Isabel of Ascalon, Dowager Crown Princess of Rheinbaden, Princess of England, Countess of Maldon, Baroness Helmsford, Baroness Sildon, daughter of King Edward of England, and widow of Crown Prince Hartman of Rheinbaden.”
The list of titles was meant to intimidate, to make certain the Segraves understood who held the advantage between us. Gerhardt returned to his place by my side and we all waited as the Segraves stared back at us.
No one shifted their weight or cleared their throat or coughed. The only sounds were the chirps of songbirds in the gardens, and the distant rumble from beyond our walls of the beast that was London.
The longer the silence stretched out, the more I had to convince myself that I was the only one who could hear the telltale beat of my heart as it pattered out a nervous rhythm. On the outside I presented a practiced portrait to the world of a mature woman nearly twenty--four years old. On the inside I cowered like a child. I had dreaded this day from the moment I received word that my husband had drowned. An accident fueled by idiotic male pride and too much wine had shattered my ordered world just over a year ago. I had left Rheinbaden the day after my official year of mourning ended, and landed in England a month later to meet a father I had forgotten and visit the grave of a mother I could scarcely remember. And now I found myself staring into the angry face of my future.
The differences between us might be comical, under different circumstances. Their garments were covered in mud. Mine smelled pleasantly of the sandalwood--lined trunks where I stored my finest clothing. I doubt they had washed their hands or faces in the last week. I had taken a long, leisurely bath in rosewater just that morning. Indeed, I had spent hours preparing for this meeting, determined there would be no doubt in the Segraves’ minds that they were dealing with a very wealthy, very powerful noblewoman.
I wore my finest jewels, my pink gown and surcoat fashioned from the richest fabrics then liberally embellished with designs made of seed pearls. The colors were nicely offset by my dark hair and Plantagenet--blue eyes, but the entire ensemble probably outweighed the Se-graves’ armor. The effect was worth a little discomfort. I had greeted kings in these garments. They were seeing me at my very best.
In contrast, the Segraves looked as if someone had just dragged them from a ditch. I sincerely hoped I was seeing them at their worst.
Most people consider an audience with royalty an occasion of some importance. At the very least, they bathed and donned clean clothing. Big and broad shouldered, the two warriors looked and smelled so fierce they were more likely to be taken for Welsh barbarians than knights of the realm.
Just that morning, my friend Avalene de Forshay had surveyed us with a critical eye and claimed we were so radiant that only a religious painting could inspire greater awe. It was the effect I had hoped for, but the mocking looks from the Segraves gave me pause. My people wore their finest court clothing, which meant they were dressed in white and pink, the royal colors of Rheinbaden. And then I recalled that most English considered pink an unmanly color. They did not understand that in the Alps of Rheinbaden, pink symbolized the color of blood mixed with snow.
The uncomfortable silence was finally broken as the nearby bells of All Hallows by the Tower began to ring, a seemingly endless reverberation echoed by scores of churches across the city. The cacophony of sound made conversation temporarily impossible, unless I wanted to resort to rude shouts, which I did not.
Several strikes later, Richard leaned closer to his cousin, obviously counting on the bells to cover his words, but the ringing suddenly ceased and the silence amplified his voice. “We should have insisted—-”
Faulke cut him off with a sharp look, and then he turned to glare again at me. It was a good thing I didn’t scare easily.
Gerhardt, the captain of my guard, expressed my sentiments exactly. “Sie sind beleidigend.”
Sometimes Gerhardt saw insult where none existed, but in this instance, I had to agree with him. They were insulting. My hopes for a civil first meeting evaporated.
Gerhardt was too stoic for foolish notions such as hope. Like most of my people, the captain of my guard bore the obvious marks of his Germanic heritage: blond hair, blue eyes, lean and tall, with absolutely no sense of humor. His steely eyed presence at my side cowed most men, and I watched his hand flex on the hilt of his sword as his mouth became a flat line.
I looked back at the Segraves. Richard watched Gerhardt as if my captain were a viper. Faulke’s gaze had returned to me. His scowl left little doubt about his impressions of what he saw. I let my mouth curve into what I hoped was a condescending smile.
Faulke’s hands became fists at his sides and his gaze went to Gerhardt. “Does your princess speak French?”
The room fell silent again.
His voice was deeper than I expected, and I found myself momentarily distracted by the sound of it. And then I was amazed that he would ask such a question. French was the native language of every English noble, although most could also speak the English tongue of their Saxon vassals and peasants. French was also the common language of nobles throughout the civilized world.
Except in Rheinbaden. There, visitors spoke in German or they were not heard. Even the Rheinbaden nobles who spoke French pretended ignorance, since they considered every foreign language inferior to German. As a result, very few of my people spoke French, and fewer still spoke English. Not that it mattered.
Regardless of who spoke what language, one did not address a servant when their master or mistress was present. It would serve him right if we all pretended ignorance. I actually toyed with the idea until Faulke took a threatening step toward Gerhardt. Political posturing was not worth spilled blood. Not yet, anyway.
I rose from my seat and saw Faulke’s eyes widen. He stood taller than most men, but then again, so do I. The pearl--encrusted crown made me appear even taller. I answered his question in flawless French. “My subjects do not speak to ausländers without my permission, Lord Faulke. You are ausländers. Outsiders. If you have something to say to me, I can converse fluently in French, Latin, English, Italian, and German.”
He simply stared at me.
“I believe additional introductions are in order,” I went on, my tone brisk. “The man you just addressed is the captain of my guard. Gerhardt speaks French, although my ladies and most of my soldiers and servants speak only German. That should not matter, since anything you wish to say to them should be said first to me.”
I folded my hands and gave him a serene look. This was the moment I had waited for. They were men and therefore thought themselves above me. I had just corrected their thinking. Now would come the well--deserved apologies.
“An hour ago I was faced with the prospect of immediate imprisonment or a royal bride. You may be happy to know that I have just signed our betrothal papers. It seems we shall be married within the month.” He folded his arms across his broad chest, dislodging a few clumps of dried mud that crumbled to the floor. “You might be a princess, but I am the man you will soon call your lord and master.”