(122-04-13) Banquet Politics

Carolis can only dream of having a castle like this someday. Not that Winterfell isn't well-defended. It would take nothing short of an act of treachery to bring about its fall, and one would not find a traitor with a Stark's blood in his veins. Not one with the guile to pull it off. Except Carolis, and he would never. But this. This was built for him. His snipers, his band. It did his heart good. He could hold his own in a place like this. If it came t it. He wasn't there yet, though. For now, he was at the point where he dressed nicely, groomed himself to his best look. He let Southron influence into his attire, though the cloak pin he wore was still that kingdom-era wolf's head. A subject of the Targaryen on the throne in the South, but he still knew who he was. He shares the trencher of the stern mother, to show that his daughter is safe from untoward flirtation; to keep the daughter's interest unrequited, thus whetted; and so that he can chat with his (potential) enemy's wife in a venue where she must remain polite and conversational. "I must thank you again for your invitation, Lady."

The Lady Mouston gives Lord Carolis another of her fleeting smiles of approval. His second so far from her. Blink and one would miss it. The young lady pouts, but not for long, She is soon enough sharing her trencher with the other guest and talking to him of hawking. Though he says not a word, he is quick enough with nods and encouraging sounds. The Lady Mouston herself nods and says, "The hospitality of our house is always open for a weary traveler and especially one of your name. What brings you so far East?"

Carolis keeps an ear on the young lady, and when their gazes meet in his occasional glance, he smiles at her warmly. One could not accuse him of being improper! Just charming. Lady Mouston herself receives a smile in response to… why nothing, really. He saw nothing. Nothing at all. "House Mouston's generosity won't soon be forgotten." He eats with polite manners for the North. Not too precious. He is still Winterfell's boy. As for why he's here, he says, "I've heard disturbing reports coming from the coast. Do you recall how, coming up on a year ago, the wildlings who came down the west coast were beaten back?" What few of them were left. "If there are raiders coming down from beyond the Wall or Skagos, it would be better to know sooner rather than later. These aren't bypassing the North."

Lord Carolis being significantly better looking than her companion, she looks on Lord Carolis and smiles and blushes at him often. It's all knives and fingers here. None of these fancy just for table accoutrements coming into fashion in other places, though at the high table, they all use their sleeves before drinking from the shared goblet so a to not leave a grease sheen on top. The women do eat daintily. There is a fine subtlety in the shape of a wolf in Lord Carolis' honor and they manage five courses, with chicken, goat, rabbit, fish, and pork as well as vegetable dishes and rich northern sauces all over everything and cheese. So much cheese. Lord Carolis is given first choice of everything and the right to choose the dishes in each course to be sent down to the lower tables. Lady Mouton raises her eyebrows, "We had heard you and your brother had slaughtered those Wildlings and everyone knows Wildlings have no boats. Odds are it's just a bit of panic over Ibbanese raiding for slaves or the like." her tone implies that lowlanders are known for easy panic over small things.

It is usually polite to take a good selection but not the very best while leaving nothing fine for the others. However, there is cheese on the line. He plays it cool. A little of each, maybe more than a little. And meat. Lots of meat. They eat less meat in the South. He does, of course, defer to the lady for the choicest bits on their trencher. Though he's deeply aware of the cheese situation. "Oh, we were as confounded as anyone, Lady Mouston, but I was at the battle. There were prisoners. They were wildlings." His tone is conversational, not challenging, truly, merely offering her more information she has no other way of knowing. "Regardless, I was in the area on business of my own, and it's no trouble to go see."

The cheese is of the stinky goat and sheep variety and in a variety of textures and styles. The Lady is sharp eyed and starts slicing extra cheese off when the platters go buy and leaving much of it close at hand to Lord Carolis. She takes in this information. There is a sharp interest under the Lady Mouston's stoicism, "Really. Tell us of the battle and of your deeds therein?" The Lady Lylla leans closer, talk of kestrels momentarily forgotten. The Dowager does not turn her head from her companion, but there is a listening air about the set of her shoulders.

Ah, bless Lady Mouston. Carolis partakes of the delicious stinky goodness. It goes well with the sauces from the meat, and the way the roasted heat melts it into the sauce just a little. Carolis inclines his head with all due modesty. He is a third (now second) son. Glory belongs to Lord Stark, not his heir. "I led a small band of archers," he says. "My men are of no small skill, and we were able to lay out their archers and provide cover for our horsemen. Lord Cregan rallied his men to join the fray, and he routed them into a valley that gave us the advantage." Carolis was nearly killed in that battle. His reunion with his brother was one of near panic. "It was rather straightforward." He eats pleasantly as he relates the tale. "They outnumbered us, but my brother is a brilliant general. Twice their number wouldn't have stood a chance."

The chamber music plays softly in the rafters, but otherwise the conversation quiets. People really do want to hear about the battle and these are folk who take archery VERY seriously. Also clever use of terrain. They are also proud folk and prone to warrior modesty themselves. As a result the puffing up of his brother and his modesty about his own role makes them assume he did something very heroic indeed with his archers. It is Lady Lylla who asks a little breathlessly, "Were you Wounded Lord Carolis?"

Carolis does know this, and of course wouldn't be above using it to his advantage, but in this case the modesty isn't a ploy. He knows Cregan is the warrior. He knows that, by Stark standards, he is the runt of the litter and thus not nearly the soldier Cregan is, nor even that his little brother will be. Of course it does not occur to Carolis at all that others might see him in a light all the better for how he takes up arms anyway and fights harder for it. So the modesty is all too real. As is the boyish smile as he admits with some chagrin, "I was. Lord Andolin Stark was firing away, dropping wildling after wildling with an accuracy I can only admire. I was doing my best by Winterfell, but a small band of them ambushed us. I took an arrow in the leg, and I fended them off so that Andy could keep firing. My men joined the fray, but wouldn't you know it, one of the lucky buggers got me in the side."

Lady Lylla's full red lips are parted as she listens, displaying the strong teeth of a young woman with little access to sweets and much access to milk, who has not lost any yet to child bearing. Her incisors are endearingly slightly crooked. Her gown is cut to show off a particularly impressive cleavage. The household is fascinated. Heroic archer stories are much in vogue at hunter's Home and here is a man telling exactly the sort of story to please this audience. Lady Mouston eyes her daughter and clears her throat, "Have a little more of this cheese, Lord Carolis. It is from a special breed of goat that makes particularly rich cream and butter as well." The Dowager asks, "This cousin of yours, surely he is well married by now?"

Carolis inclines his head to Lady Lylla as he says, "It was but a scratch, milady. In the camp that night I was raising a cup at my brother's fire." Never mind that he was there out of sheer stubbornness and would hear nothing of common sense nor caution. He smiles at Lady Mouston as she offers him this rare cheese. "You are too kind, Lady Mouston. This is amazing." They need an allegiance with this House. Or at least someone needs to steal some of their goats. "Ah, Andy? No, not yet." With a wry smile, he adds, "He is breaking hearts in Oldtown." Oh yes, he just did, Andy.

And they are all Northerners so they assume they propped him up half dead so he could make that toast while knuckling through agony. Lady Mouston asks with an air of studies casualness, "Might he be riding North soon to help you with Things?" Is that a slender hand brushing Lord Carolis thigh from the Lady Lylla's side?

Is it? Carolis just shifts his leg toward the touch because he doesn't even notice it. Honest. "Alas, I couldn't speak to that, Lady Mouson." Equally casual. "The warm climate agrees with him. Andy was the one hunting with Rickon the day of his death. Andy's horse spooked as Rickon fell, and the beast rolled onto Andy. His leg twinges once in awhile, and the warm weather is more forgiving." Andy owes him one. Though a crippled man who can still bury two dozen wildlings without taking a scratch might still be a catch. And listen to how Carolis doesn't outright say Rickon was murdered, nor that it was an accident. And he is curious to the way his listeners take to his tale.

Slender fingers slide inward and discover something else, curious to see if this too is uninjured. Lady Hellan takes this news in. She says with what appears to be genuine sympathy, "I am sorry for your losses. I lost a brother myself at your age, off our coast in a storm. He was sailing home from a trip to Oldtown…. He was but two years younger than I, a clever and promising lad." There is a long pause in memory of the dead Lord Rikkon Stark whom likely none of them have ever even glimpsed from afar. The company sits, heads bowed, and even the questing fingers freeze. Nothing in the women's expressions suggests anything other than sympathy. The Lady Lylla looks like she might enjoy cradling him to her bosom. The Lady Mouston's sorrow is more for the lost brother long ago, but the sympathy for Carolis loss looks like a real understand of the pain such a loss must cost him still. The Dowager's expression is more distant, suggesting her own silent understanding of grief, but even this clever lady does not seem to have thought that Lord Carolis might have wanted his brother dead or arranged the accident. The only raised eyes iin the room besides the Lady Mouston are those of the guest, who's craggy face displays nothing and who's eyes are unyielding as dragon glass, though considerably paler.

That is not injured! Carolis' leg jumps a little, and he swallows. There is no squeaking nor sudden ramrod posture. No, that is not injured at all. That is quite healthy. It does help that the topic is one of siblings dying. "Thank you," he says to Lady Mouston, for her kindness. He raises the cup, and he offers it to her as he says, "They are with the gods now." He thinks about his sister. Is she with the gods now? Buried in a mass grave in Oldtown, where the weirwoods have been burned or caged in gardens of rich Andals who don't believe? The grief in the youth's eyes is very real, but so is the compassion as he drinks to Rickon and Lady Mouston's brother. Carolis sees the man in his peripheral vision and, under the pretense of bowing his head, flits a closer glance at the man. He'll make a note to ask one of them later who he is.

Lady Mouston lifts the cup, "To both their memories." They lift there cups, first one drinking then the other from the shared goblets. She hands it back so that Lord Carolis too might drink again. Carefully, the hand withdraws from it's explorations. Clearly now is not the time for curiosity.

The man is ugly and a bit past middle age, with a straight back and neutral toned clothes of a dark shade. He could be from anywhere, really, slightly too fine for a Steward or the like, but not so fine as to be higher than gentry or a wealthy merchant of sober character and a thrifty taste in clothes. They are sturdy and of a nondescript Northern cut, rather than the flash of a man trying to convince folk he is moving up in the world.

Carolis leans politely toward Lady Mouston and admits, "I don't get out this way often, and I'm dying of curiosity." It's okay, he's a cat, he can do it at least eight more times. "Who are these fine people sharing our company? I feel like a buffoon not being able to put names to faces."

Lady Mouston does have the grace to look embarrassed. She introduces the Master of arms and the steward. After a pause she says, "This is Master Djollor, who is visiting us to talk about wool." Master Djollar does a polite seated bow, his stony expression and unforgiving stare never changing as he does so. If he's a wool merchant, then there's a fine deal to be had buying the titan of Braavos. The women are impassive, much as they were when offering him that first drink on arrival.

Carolis inclines his head to Master Djollar and says, "A name and a face united. I shan't soon forget." He is nothing but polite to the man, and gives him no more attention past the introduction save a lingering glance. Then his smile is back and he says to the ladies, "Now, I heard a rumor somewhere that a certain someone was a skilled hand with a harp."

Master Djollar nods again, this time in assent. The Lady Lylla's mood brightens, "But surely you will join me, Lord Carolis? I would be heartbroken if you did not!" A medium sized harp is produced and the musicians fed up in their gallery. The company watches with some curiosity.

Carolis grins, that boyish and modest grin. "I couldn't let you be heartbroken, Lady Lylla. It would be an unforgivable crime." He offers her a sitting bow. "My hands and my voice are yours to command." He glances to the others around them. Of his music, he is modest because he can afford to be. Rather, he can't afford not to be. One of his skill cannot help looking like an utter prick save by how little they lord their talent over others.

The Lady sets hands to harp eagerly, testing the strings, "What should I play, My Lord?" Her eyes are lowered in that shyly flirtatious way she has, here with so many eyes on her.

Carolis considers. Rallies to war are right out. There are a wondrous assortment of tragic songs ending in blood and guts, but perhaps not leading with songs about soldiers running off with ladies and then them both killing themselves for love. Not when he's making nice with the Lord's daughter in his absence. "Milady, how about In Strange Fields I Roamed?" To say 'do you know' would insult her, implying she's no idea of a song written probably within a day's ride of here in any direction. The message is good, too. Alas, for the love he shall never have.

Lady Lylla nods and bites that plump lower lip for a moment, clearly thinking of cord progressions and not courtship at the moment. Then she lowers her head and begins to play. As it turns out, she actually can play, not as well as Lord Carolis sings, but quite well indeed, her fingers quick and sure on the strings.

Carolis smiles with genuine pleasure. He could tolerate a hated enemy long enough to listen if he could play well, and she's far from that. His voice joins the song flawlessly. The singer has gone wandering the fields, a stranger in an unfamiliar land, and he happens upon a lady. He walks with her, and he falls in love. There will never be another for him but her, but she is promised to another, and he bids her farewell, never telling her how he feels. The clarity of his voice rings throughout the hall. He doesn't try to outshine the harpist, but rather complement her.

Perhaps it helps to be somewhere isolated in cold weather, and to have a grandmother so fond of music. Certainly, she plays well and by the last iteration the Lady Lylla is gazing up at him in open admiration of his voice. The Dowager looks truly impressed, leaning back to watch. Even the Lady Mouston softens a smidge. The company is much impressed and tears can be sen in eyes here and there. The musicians in the gallery and at the lower tables were bracing themselves at first for bad amateur music, but are soon pleasantly surprised that the nobles actually are good at this. The applause at the end are genuine. Only three people are unmoved, the Steward, the Captin of Arms, and the guest. The Steward is sour, the Warrior worried, and the Guest is as impassive as he has been all evening.

At the applause, Carolis smiles broadly and nods in a small bow, then directs his own applause to the harpist. "Lady Lylla, I cannot remember when I've heard a harp played so sweetly." He almost feels sorry for the guest. If one has a heart that is unable to be moved by music, what meaning can his life possibly have? He looks to Lylla for a cue. Does he sing again? Does he sit? She is the one leading him.

The lady Lylla is delighted, but also holding out the harp to him, "Please, Lord Carolis? You did mention you played?" She looks so innocently hopeful…. "We could do hunter's Lament?"

"Not half so fine as you, Lady," Carolis says, and he means it. "Oh, yes, let's do Hunter's Lament." He glances to Lady Mouston and the Dowager, bowing to them both. "If miladies will indulge us once again." So very deferential. And always gauging, not only interest but subtle social currents.

The Dowager and Lady Mouston are willing indeed. This is a hall where music is highly valued and who could say no to such a charming young Lord.

Carolis does have a skilled hand with a harp. As before, he does not outshine the lady, and as he listens to her sing, and he watches her with true admiration. Beauty touches his heart, and bosoms don't hurt, but to truly captivate the man's attention, sing like the breath of the gods.

Lady Lylla's voice is clear and bright. She has not picked up bad habits and showy trills, but sings with a charming simplicity. She hasn't the heartbreaking beauty of Lord Carolis' voice, but she is good, just as good as she was with the harp. Her young voice is naturally suited to the early passages with the man and his lady love so happy, yet she finds enough darkness to make the foggy passages eerie. When he finds that he has took her for a swan in her white gown, she sings like to send shivers up the back of anyone with a heart, and by the end, half the hall is weeping and even the two ladies on the dais do so. The Steward is gazing at her with love and desire he has forgotten to hide. The Captain of the Guard is outright alarmed. The Guest looks on, heartless apparently and possibly bored from the subtle changes in his expression.

Carolis plays to honor those foggy passages and her sweet simplicity. Don't rely on tricks, is his school of thought. Develop the skill. Master it. The man's boredom is noted with small glances, as is the Steward and the Captain. Playing is nice for fading into the background while the lady commands attention. Why so alarmed, Captain?

The Captains alarm appears to be from more than one source. After all, he was tense when he greeted Lord Carolis and running _from_ somewhere fast enough to be out of breath. He seems to be unsure if he should be watching the Guest or Lord Carolis, of the Lady Lylla now standing so prettily between them There are under currents here and the Captain seems to expect trouble of one sort or another likely ending in violence despite the bread and salt shared. he has the look of a man who very much would like to settle into a peaceful retirement from war, training the House Mouston guards and boy children, and this expectation of sudden violence is putting strain on the nerves of what is no longer a young man. He is protective of the women, the youngest one in particular.

The steward is jealous as hell. A number of the men at arms, also rather craggy as a group, have a tenseness about them despite being lulled by the music.

The Craggy guest grows elaborately bored, but doesn't quite yawn. Dead looking eyes study the singer and harpist as if considering the wares in a fishmonger's stall.

Now what would be the cause for violence here tonight? The guest seems bored, uninterested, and no more a wool merchant than Carolis is. His first thought is the man has this family in some thrall. What does he have on them, that the guards are terrified and he got into this castle in the first place. When the song comes to an end, and he plays the final notes on the harp, he offers Lylla such a warm smile and — since he does not need a second smile — it is a perfectly innocent kind of warmth. "Lovely," he tells her. "If you are ever in Winterfell, you simply must play with me again."

Lady Lylla smiles back with a warmth that suggests she'd like to try rather more with those clever hands of hers than she has heretofore. She blushes, all roses and cream, a dark curl tickling her cheek that some how came loose as she sang, "I should like that. to see you in Winterfell." The Dowager is watching him like she is seriously considering having him for a late night snack. The Lady Mouston looks equal parts hopeful and worried, likely both for her daughters future.

Carolis's expression is beyond reproach. He promises nothing, tells no lies! But neither does he close the door. The gods only knew what the future would bring. For all Carolis could say, Lady Lylla could be the new Lady Stark, given the way tides turn. At the very least, there is friendship here, and he actually does want to honor her virtue. She is a rare gem. "I hope someday that can be," he tells her. Not so subtle, that. His voice is wistful with a tired edge to it. He wants peace. He rises and offers her back the harp. "May I indulge you once more?" he asks her. "A song that we sing in Winterfell?"

Lady Lylla nods eagerly and takes her seat with the harp, hands poised, expression adoring. The Guest starts cleaning his nails with the tip of his eating knife.

Carolis bows to the lady, and to her mother and grandmother, and he steps away from the guest table to stand before them, one step down but not yet among the low tables. See how he does not stand over them, but rather looks up, and down upon the low tables but not so high and mighty as the radiant women of House Mouston. Of course he favors dark colors, and it suits him well. The light of the day is dying, and the sconces are only just being lit. It comes to him so clearly, what he is going to sing. It is one of the the storm songs. The ones sung to drown out the howling winds as they descend upon the world with ice and snow. This one is favored in that too-brief, middling time of Autumn. The nights grow long, the song says, in his crystal clear voice that fills the hall so neatly. The light dies, and all there is to do now is hope we've done enough with the time we've been given.

No one in the North is immune to that feeling when the winds grow stronger, and the Maesters have declared all the way at the Citadel what the North has known for awhile now: winter is coming. Every man, woman, and child north of the Neck are denied the luxury of not feeling that tug of dread in the gut, the fear that makes a man curt and hard, and women stronger than those in warmer climes cannot truly imagine. Striding helplessly through a long night where everyone knows someone who won't make it. And though the song says nothing of it (it's meant to distract, after all), no one in the North can hear that particular cadence, meant to evoke strength, and not hear the whisper of an icy wind.

We are children of the North, strong as stone, fierce as wolves. We survive, and as our voices rise we slay the storm. Let the world freeze, but here, we're warm. It really is a catchy song, and written to make it easy for other voices to join. As is the tradition.

The audience watches with real fascination, unsure what Lord Carolis might sing next, but sure it will be beautiful, some forgetting to breath. And then they recognize the song. One by one the voices rise, the Lady Lylla's voice souring as the wind howls, the low rumble of the men at arms like threatening thunder, the voices of the singers and tumblers and jugglers and musicians all joining in, the servants, the wind in trees. Even the Steward chimes in, and the two older Ladies, not born here, but having known true Winter sing. The Lady Mouston has a rich alto, a little rusty from disuse. The Dowager's voice might freeze a man in his tracks, soft under the singing of the others, but arresting in it's womanly fascination. They stand to sing, all except the guest, who keeps cleaning his nails.

Even if the man continues to insult his hostesses by refusing their revels, Carolis has made his point. As the voices rise, he goes from performing the song to leading it. We are one, and we prevail. We've beaten winter, and though we've lost some men along the way, we'll beat it again. He knows the man does not join them, that he makes a point to dismiss him, and he doesn't show any care for it. The weak and afraid often don't join in. The dowager's voice sends a shiver down his spine in all the best ways, and that's just an added benefit. He moves along his narrow walk back and forth, singing to the low tables, to the musicians in their balcony, and finally, he turns to sing to the ladies, Lady Mouston in particular, with the hall singing along. We are strong, we will endure. The song is meant to rise to a crescendo, and the last line sung by the one who started it. Which Carolis does, and that line is a promise whose gist is 'this too shall pass.'

Lady Mouston's hand snakes out to take her good mother's and there is a particular determination there, both trying to meet Lord Carolis' eyes as they sing, the Master of Arms trying hard to do the same in a wide eyed sort of warning. The Lady Lylla sings with the oblivious defiance of youth. The Guest sighs and stands to sing along, a token effort. The stea=ward watches Lady Lylla with expression that suggests he is considering doing something incredibly stupid to prove his love for her.

That poor Captain. And here is Lord Carolis without his armor or his sword. Of course he keeps a knife in his boot, and he's already considered everything in his near vicinity he can use to slash, bash, blind, or barricade. Cregan is the tactician, but Cat is the sneaky bastard who isn't afraid to kill a man with a leg of venison. When that promise is sung to the lady, he bows before her, then lifts his gaze to meet her eyes. He smiles at her, then. Just a boy. A boy who has managed to rally all the voices in her castle to courage, but still just a boy, orphaned, tired to death of pain. Then he winks, and the spark of cheer is back in his eyes as he turns to the rest of the room and clasps his hands together. "Thank you so much for indulging me." Then to the ladies, "You are so patient and kind. It has done my spirit good to once more eat Northron food, and so exquisite, too." Is the feast coming to an end? Yesno? So many ravens to send out under the cover of night. So many ill-advised rescues to plan. He glances to the dowager, arches a brow. So many conspirings to be done.

It is the Dowager who winks back and who's eyes flick upward in the direction of the Keep and the angle to see the floor his room is on if there had not been a ceiling, and then she is all gracious hostess as if nothing happened, "More wine, Lord Carolis? And there is fruit and more cheese for pudding if you like? We have tumblers and jugglers for your entertainment."

Carolis comes back around, and he takes his seat, but not before pausing to take the dowager's hand to pay courtesy. His brow lifts, just so. Oh yes, that would be his room. "Please, milady. I look forward to all the tumbling and juggling you've got for me tonight." Then he sits, and he inclines his head to Lady Mouston and to Lady Lylla. In a tone that does not carry past their little patch of table, he says, "I've a feeling the weather may run cold tonight. I hope you ladies stay secure and warm."

The dowager gives him an amused smile then signals. A new batch of musicians begin to play. There are indeed literal tumblers and jugglers and even fools. The pitchers go round the low tables often and the cups filled with a heavy hand. The high table cider and ale offering are so much lighter, though the pitcher appears to pour often into Lord Carolis' cup, the server equivalent of Carolis' wine trick.

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