|Two New Brides|
|Summary:||Two women in the first year of their second marriages, exchange thanks and confidences beneath the dome of the Starry Sept. So what if one of them's the Queen's sister and the other's the butcher's mother?|
|Related:||Morning Devotions, The Seasons Change.|
The Starry Sept provides a refuge for the busy minds of worshippers, as well as from the crisp grey morning. Perhaps it's no cooler than it used to be on a damp morning, but since the white ravens flew from the Citadel, it might be easier to imagine the chill in the air is greater.
Lady Marsei has spent much of her morning in earnest prayer in front of the statue of the Mother. The candle burns low. Around it, a rainbow of intact blossoms have been laid. There is a peace to the way she bows her coppery, braided head; a calm stillness to her fair features. When, every so often, she opens her eyes to gaze upon the Mother's benevolent face, her gaze lacks the desperation it's sometimes had when ensconced in such prayer. Still, there must be a reason her prayer has lasted so long this morn.
Not counting the other worshippers who trail in and out of the sept, she seems to be alone, absent even Siva, Septa Leire, Camillo, or an escort from the Hightower.
Marsei's prayer does eventually move toward an end, indicated by her slow rise and the gathering of her gown, a gentle shade of blue with delicate, winding yellow embroidery. She seems reluctant to part ways, however, linking her hands together where they fall. It's only then that a flash of worry intensifies the lady's gaze, faced with the thought of leaving the safe seclusion of the sept, as though the Mother will not follow her with such nurturing once she turns her back.
The same small, discreet, low-down wave which arrested the lady's gaze five months past on a morning like and unlike this one, makes another bid for her attention. This time Esme is waiting nearer, holding her head straight — no longer the slightest of smallfolk acquaintances but a woman whose life is inextricably linked with the Flower's own by the marriages they've both made. Who'd have thought it? The little shopkeeper is wearing a blue and white striped dress, less than usually violent in its contrast, and a Tyroshi-red scarf tied about her grey hair perhaps in the fear that she wouldn't otherwise stand out sufficiently in a crowd. Her head seems to glow in the candlelit sept, an unmissably bright point of colour on this grey morning.
Marsei's reaction is not unlike the day those months past. Surprise — some of her growing worry, carrying over — followed by delight in the form of one of her sincere smiles. She takes a moment to absorb the sight of the shopkeeper with blue and white stripes and glowing Tyrosh-red scarf. "Esme." The quiet level of her voice, in respect to the sept, is balanced with the vivid expressions of her cheery face. "How natural I would see you here this morning!"
Seeing Lady Marsei smile Esme smiles likewise, her wrinkled features forming a picture of simple grandmotherly pleasure at the sight of so beautiful and kind-hearted a lady. She comes nearer, to spare them both the lifting of their voices in this holy place: "Good mornin', milady," she says respectfully, and then, "Natural? Well, I don't know about that," a tiny chuckle, "but when I saw you were here, I couldn't help wantin' to see if I might thank you pers'nally for the very generous gifts you and your husband sent to me and mine. I hope you did get my letter," a carefully-composed paean of gratitude in black ink and slightly stilted phrasing, on a fresh sheet of parchment sealed with good wax borrowed from Flox and thus probably the same as Prince Dhraegon's, "but I wanted to be sure you knew how much we've been enjoyin' them. The fruit compote especially, that's been a treat — though we're puttin' most of it away for the winter, o' course," like the conscientious smallfolk housewife she is.
"Oh?" Marsei's features escalate with further delight and she raises her clasped hands in front of her. "I did get the letter — it was so lovely of you to write — but it's good to hear it! I was so pleased to know you and Flox were married; it took us awhile to figure out what to give you that seemed right." As if that wasn't obvious in the couple's overabundance of generosity. "I hope you shan't worry that we miss him too terribly three nights a week; I wouldn't want you to think it's an imposition," she says with concern that this may be the case, wanting the grandmotherly newlywed to enjoy her new marriage without thought.
Esme is quick to reassure the lady, and to reach out with a hand which then thinks the better of its presumption before it reaches hers. "Now, that I'm not worried about at all, milady. I know Flox wouldn't do anythin' to His Grace's detriment," she says, softly but firmly — it's a habit of hers, using Hightower and Citadel words in that broad Shambles accent, "and he wouldn't be any good to me if he did, would he? … First time we talked about marriage," she confides, lowering her voice still further and speaking woman-to-woman as they did that last time they met, "it was all the way back a few weeks after the Dolphin Festival, and it was just to say that we both knew all the reasons why we couldn't. He couldn't let His Grace down — and if he had, well, I'd've had no use for the man who did," she maintains, with absolute sincerity.
Then she clears her throat with an embarrassed little cough. "I'm gladder than I know how to say that we were wrong," and the look in her eye is that of any new bride, tender and hopeful and too besotted to hide it well, "but it's down to your generosity as well as His Grace's that he has found a way of havin' both, and it's for that, really, that I want to thank you, milady. Don't think I don't know it," she insists. "And I truly don't mind the nights bein' moved round when His Grace needs him." She nods. "I'd not ever like to think you were reluctant to keep him at the tower when he's needed at the tower, see? As long as they balance out in the end, I don't mind, I truly don't."
Marsei is heartened by Esme's words, and it's bright on her smiling face. "Any time things can come to such a balance is beautiful," she expresses, "and any time two people who love each other are brought together is even more so." She beams, thinking on Flox and Esme, even though it was not truly so long ago she was baffled by the mere concept of Flox having a life outside of service. "Siva is learning to help where she can, and of course we can always trust Camillo."
To be fair to Lady Marsei, it wasn't so long ago that Flox didn't have a life outside service… And now his private life is standing there in the flesh, ducking her head bashfully when the word 'love' is spoken, and clearing her throat and seizing upon a fortuitous change of subject. "I noticed Siva ain't with you today, milady." Or anyone else, come to think of it. "I hope she's quite well…?" she asks, in an innocent but leading manner.
People so rarely inquires about Siva, the quiet constant in her life, that it takes Marsei a moment of innocent-eyed staring to answer. "Oh— ! She's well," she assures. "She just thought— I just thought I should be alone for this prayer, so she's at home going through my wardrobe to see what might be suitable for winter." It's one of those thoughts that causes her to look down with minor consternation, reflective but not letting her thoughts divert too far from Esme. She smiles. "It's nice of you to ask after her."
Having mirrored so many of Lady Marsei's smiles, Esme looks down when she looks down: perhaps it's that gesture which drops the copper. She looks up again with another smile, this one encouraging. "She seems like a very nice young girl," maintains Esme, "and I'm glad she's well and you're not havin' to see if you can get along without her. I reckon that must be hard, when you're so used to havin' the same person by you… But," and she clears her throat, "if you're wantin' to be alone, milady, I beg your pardon for interruptin'."
"Oh, it's no worry at all, Mistress Esme. I…" Marsei starts off quickly only to slow down, turning her head to look thoughtfully toward the Mother's gem-eyed likeness. "I've finished with my prayers for the morning, I think. At least, I feel I've run out," she says with a smile of good humour toward herself. "It's not the same as Flox and Dhraegon, but … I don't know what I would do without Siva," she admits, albeit cheerfully.
Esme allows herself to appear reassured, and settles again the weight that was tilted forward onto her toes in preparation for curtseying and/or retreat. "If you're sure it's all right, then," she allows, "and I'm not botherin' you…" Another of those grandmotherly smiles touches her lips as she looks at Lady Marsei and then nods to the beautiful painted figure of the Mother beyond her.
"I know it's none of my business," she begins delicately, "but I've been thinkin' of you, milady, and your particular conundrum, ever since we spoke on it before. May I ask just— if you're any… quieter in your mind, these days?"
Marsei dips her head. "Yes, thank you," she replies, the simplest of polite words the most earnest, coming from her. "There is something…" she searches, "freeing in the act of making a decision, isn't there? One way or another." She looks up to Esme, smiling gently. Her eyes sparkle with the thrill of optimism. "I don't know how long the quiet will last," she admits with a soft laugh; too warm to be self-deprecating, yet certainly directed inward. "However…" With fondness, she looks again to the Mother. "For now… the Mother is seeing me through." She pauses before she ever-so-quietly repeats, "One way or another."
Esme studies her with benevolent curiosity; and the lady's optimism proves so infectious that the shopkeeper is soon smiling again too. "I'm very glad to hear that," she says, and then, in the old retainer manner she slips into now and again when they're alone — truly alone, in the cabin of a boat, or speaking softly in the midst of septons giving the Flower a wide birth, "I'm sure whatever you've decided, with Her guidance," the capital letter is easily audible, "will turn out right. Like I said to you that other day, milady, every marriage is unique, and you've only really got two people to consider and to do right for — your husband and yourself. And if the two of you are happy with whatever you've decided," she rather takes for granted that Lady Marsei's happiness betokens Prince Dhraegon's, "well, nobody else's opinion is worth two coppers next to that. Not mine, not your kin's, not nobody's," she says firmly and ungrammatically. "I hope you'll keep on feelin' so free and so certain, milady. There ain't nobody deserves it more than you do."
Esme spurs a rather contrary reaction in the noblewoman, and not for the first time. Nervous tension rises like a shiver to listen to all that exists in the subtleties betwixt the lines, only to be quashed swiftly by a burst of warmth. "When I … am feeling uncertain," and she's certain she will, "I … I will try my best to remember those very words," she says with an almost insistent tone of gratitude. "As well as the look on Dhraegon's face when I told him my decision." Marsei can't help but smile wider, as though emulating that delight. "He is much happier than could have been expected once."
This time, confirmed in her every cunning suspicion, Esme does take hold of Lady Marsei's hand between her own and give it a reassuring squeeze. "And ain't that a wife's first duty in her marriage," she reminds the lady softly, "to make her husband as happy as you've just made His Grace…?"
"Yes," Marsei is pleased — even relieved, in this case, thinking on Dhraegon's delight — to say, placing her other hand, a soft hand that's never seen a day's work, atop Esme's in turn. "And I am glad for the opportunity again. Although of course it is— too soon. But I have faith in the Mother."
"It's never too soon to hope," the little shopkeeper affirms, beaming up at the lady and squeezing her hand again, "or to pray. I reckon the Mother's ears must be wide open to you lately, milady, seeing how earnestly you've been speakin' to Her, and I'm sure She's only waiting to give her blessing till it's just the right time for you to receive it." She pats the lady's hand encouragingly. "… Did you really come alone, though? Are you sure you're goin' to be all right gettin' back to the island?" she asks, concerned in a different way now. "Siva'll be worryin' about you by now."
Aglow with the promising affirmations, Marsei gives her head a little shake. "I'm all right. The streets are good all the way to the Hightower," she assures, even though she usually has some manner of accompaniment to and from the sept, just to make her feel better. "You're probably right though; she does worry," she concedes with a loyal fondness toward her loyal handmaiden back at the tower.
Esme nods to show willing, but doesn't look entirely convinced. Still, she's just about reached her speaking-firmly-to-the-Quality quota for the day; she just says, "She's been with you a good long while now, hasn't she? Though…" She screws up her face. "She ain't a local girl, is she?"
"She is from far away," Marsei confirms, pleased to speak of Siva, particularly to Esme, who seems both sincerely interested and trustworthy. "She came over from Volantis when she was just a child. The circumstances were…" she pauses delicately, "A bit unusual, but … in a way fortunate. Because she was because she good in the Common tongue and was very clever, she was put into my service right away. She's been with me ever since."
As usual Esme understands a bit more than she's told; "Ahh," she says, nodding, giving Lady Marsei's hand another pat before letting it go. "I daresay there's plenty o' folk from that part of the world who're right glad to find themselves in this part, instead. Better to be a servant to a good lady of the Reach, than…" She makes another face, shrugs, and leaves it there. "I'm glad you and she are both so well-suited in each other, milady," she adds firmly.
Marsei smiles in absolute agreement, even beaming with a hint of pride for Siva. "Her life in that part of the world was good, until it wasn't. She tells me such stories— ! Have you seen drawings of elephants?" The lively, curious gleam in her eyes is telling of the fact that she very nearly reroutes whole-heartedly into an enthusiastic discussion on the reported wonders of elephants. Were she in a conversation with Dhraegon, that would probably be the way of it. Instead, she goes on, her expression fading ever-so-slightly. "I should say… that she isn't my servant, not really. She is … and she isn't, you know? She's my handmaiden, but she's not like the others — the young ladies who've come to attend me before they get married — because she's not from here, and she's not a lady, because only her Volantene father was nobly born…" She smiles and shakes her head again in modest recognition that she may be talking too much and taking up the good shopkeeper's time.
If Esme's time is being taken up she at any rate doesn't seem aware of it. She listens to Siva's story with the same friendly interest she always shows in Lady Marsei's own; she nods, and confesses, "I know the creatures you mean, milady. There's a kind of liquor I sell sometimes in my shop — I get it in as a special order for an old customer, and a few bottles extra to sell on the offchance — that comes from Volantis and has an elephant drawn on the label. Not that it's made from elephants," she chuckles, "but they're important over there, or so I hear… Aye, I see what you mean," she agrees comfortably. "Ladies-in-waitin', well, they're waitin' for as well as on — and when what they're waitin for comes, off they go. It's nice for you to have someone who stays — nice for anyone," she reflects, "to have someone who stays. And nice for someone who was born between one world and another," she adds judiciously, "to find a place that's hers for sure and for good."
"You always speak so true, Mistress Esme," Marsei states. An idea dawns on her, lighting her gaze; she ducks her head closer to the woman in eager conspiracy. "I don't suppose— I could buy one of those bottles? Siva does not drink much, but if it is from Volantis…" she wonders. "It would be a surprise."
Esme blinks at her in pleased surprise. "… You surely can, milady," she declares. "I haven't got any in just at the moment but I'm expectin' another shipment from my colleague in Volantis next week, or if not that then the week after. We trade back and forth, see," she explains, "goods from Oldtown for goods from Volantis. Beesbury honey fetches a fine price," she confides, "and so do some o' the cheeses in particular… As soon as it comes in I'll send you a bottle up to the tower, to you specially, and I'll mark it down on the Hightower's account for you, shall I? That way you needn't be bothered at all."
"That would be perfect, thank you!" Marsei exclaims — at a respectful volume, of course — and brings her hands together just shy of a clap. "I should get back. Seven keep you, Esme."
"And I'll wrap it so's Siva won't know what it is if she sees it before you do," adds Esme, because handmaidens do have a way of getting into everything. It's their job. She pats Lady Marsei's hand again. "I shouldn't have kept you nearly so long, milady," she says regretfully. "Thank you again for the weddin' presents, and Seven see you home safely, eh?"
… The Seven and the one, with her red headscarf folded up and put away in a pocket and her grey head indistinct in the city's crowds, keeping the brightly-clad lady in her sights till she's safely onto the bridge.