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Authors: Mercedes Lackey

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BOOK: Winter Moon
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With her knightly escort holding to her arm and walking on the outside of the stair, Moira descended the stair to the tower top, and then passed into the keep itself.

Inside, the stair broadened, and continued descending into the Great Hall. There was only one set of windows in the Great Hall—because the glass had to be very thick, recessed into the stone, and protected by an overhang on the sea side. That set of windows stood in back of the lord's dais, so that the lord of the sea-keep was haloed by light.
He
had a fine view of whoever entered his hall—but to those who came down that stair, or stood in the hall below, he was nothing more than a silhouette.

Moira was prepared for this, of course. She took only a glance to assure herself that her father was standing on the dais as she had anticipated, then paid careful attention to her footing.

I suppose it must be Father, anyway. I can't think who else would dare to stand there.

Every step echoed in the vast hall, and she was glad of her cloak, because it was nearly as cold here as it was on the cliff with the sea wind blowing. During a winter storm there were rooms in the keep that were nearly uninhabitable, they were so damp and cold, and even with a roaring fire in the fireplace, more heat was sucked up the chimney than went into the room.

At last, she reached the floor, and her escort immediately let go of her arm. He released her so quickly, in fact, that it was rather funny. Was he afraid her father would be offended if he held to her arm a heartbeat longer than absolutely necessary?

Moira kept her expression sober, however. Lord Ferson would not find it that amusing.

She walked with her head up and her eyes on the dais between two of the long, rough wooden tables that would hold anyone of any consequence here in the keep at meals. Well, except for the kitchen staff. But everyone else, except for the very lowest of bound serfs, ate in the Great Hall. Lord Ferson liked it that way; he wanted his people under his eye three times a day. Moira wasn't quite sure why that was; perhaps he thought it would be harder for anyone to foment rebellion undetected with the lord of the keep keeping a sharp eye out for the signs. Perhaps it was only because he enjoyed all the trappings of his position, and those trappings included having his underlings arrayed before him on a regular basis. She had been very young and entirely unschooled in reading men when she had left, and memory, as she
had come to understand, was a most imprecise tool when it was untrained.

But except for those times when Lord Ferson had shared his position with a spouse, he had never in
her
memory had another person on the dais with him.

And as her eyes adjusted to the light, just before she sank into a deep curtsy, she realized with a sense of slight shock that he had someone up there with him now, standing deferentially behind him. There was something odd about the second person's silhouette, as if he was standing slightly askew.

“And what do
you
make of the wench, Kedric? She's learned some graces, at least.” Her father's voice hadn't changed much, except, perhaps, to take on a touch of roughness. Probably from all the years of shouting orders over a roaring ocean. It was still deep, still resonant, and still layered with hints of impatience and contempt. Moira remained where she was, deep in her curtsy, head down.

“Comely, my lord. And graceful. Obedient and respectful.” This was a new voice, presumably that of the man who sat at her father's feet. Not much higher, but smoother, and definitely softer. A much more pleasant voice to listen to.

“Graceful, that I'll grant, and it's as well, since I sent her away an awkward, half-fledged thing. Obedient and respectful, so it seems. But comely? Stand up, girl! Look at me!”

Girl? Can it be that he doesn't remember my name?

Moira raised her eyes and stood up. Lord Ferson had thickened a bit—not that he was fat, but he no
longer had a discernible waistline. There was grey in his black hair and beard, and lines in his face. He peered down at her with a faint frown, hands on hips. “Comely, no. Properly groomed, neat, seemly, but pale as the belly of a dead fish. So girl, what have you to say to your father of that?”

“I am as God made me, my lord,” she replied, in an utterly neutral tone of voice.

“Oh, a
properly
modest, maidenly, and pious response!” Lord Ferson barked what might have been a laugh, had it possessed any humor at all. “And I suppose you wonder why I brought you home, don't you, girl?”

“My lord will tell me when he feels it is needful for me to know,” she said, dropping her eyes, as much to keep him from reading her dislike of him as to feign maiden modesty.

“Another proper answer. You've been taught well, that I'll grant.” Lord Ferson snorted. “You, men—report back to your captain. Go on, Kedric, escort the lady to her chambers. You'll be joining us at dinner as is the custom, daughter.”

“Yes, my lord,” she replied, and dropped another curtsy—this one not nearly as deep—as the man, dressed in fool's patchwork motley (though oddly enough, it was patterned in black-and-white rather than colors) descended from the dais at her father's orders. He offered her his arm, and she took it, examining him through her eyelashes.

He was just as pale as she, though she couldn't tell what color his hair was under the fool's hood that
covered his head. For a fool, he had a strange air of dignity, and of melancholy, though one didn't have to look much past the hunched shoulder to understand the reason for the latter. He also was not very tall—just about her height—and quite slender, with long, sensitive-looking hands. There did seem to be something wrong with his shoulder. He wasn't a hunchback, but it did seem to be slightly twisted upward. Perhaps an old injury—

“If you will come with me, my lady Moira,” he said, with a slight tug on her hand. He truly had a very pleasant voice, low and warm.

“Certainly, though I know the way,” she replied as he guided her to the door beneath the stair that led deeper into the keep.

But he shook his head. “You are not to be quartered in your old chamber, my lady,” he said, directing her down another stair, this one a spiraling stone stair cut into the rock of the cliff that she knew well, lit by oil lamps fastened to the wall just above head height at intervals. “You have been given new quarters from those you remember. The old nursery chamber would not suit your new stature.”

She bit off the question she was going to ask—
And what is my stature?
It was best to remember that she needed to tread as carefully here as if she was in an enemy stronghold, because, if the King and the Countess's suspicions were correct, she might be.

“What is my disposition to be, then?” she asked instead.

“You are to have the Keep Lady's suite for now,”
came the interesting reply. Interesting, because as long as Lord Ferson had evidenced any intention of remarrying, he had kept those rooms vacant. So if he was putting her in them now, did it mean that he was giving up the notion of taking another wife?

Or was it simply that the Keep Lady's suite was the most secure? Almost impossible for anyone to break into.

Or out of.

It had one window, which provided light to the inaptly named “solar,” and that one was tucked into a curve of the keep so that all one could see from it was the cliff face and a tiny slice of ocean. From the window it was a sheer drop six stories down to jagged rocks and the water. The rest of the suite, like this stair, was carved into the rock of the cliff and never saw daylight. Moira had once overheard Ferson's second wife tell the handmaiden she had brought with her that it was like living in a cave.

At least it was not
as
drafty in a storm as some of the rest of the rooms. And the chimney always drew well, no matter what the weather.

“I regret that no handmaidens have been selected for my lady as yet,” Kedric was saying, as he gestured that she should precede him through the narrow door at the bottom of the stair. “I fear my lady will be attending to the disposition of her own possessions. Lady Violetta's handmaiden departed upon Lady Violetta's death, and no suitable person has been found for my Lady Moira.”

Interesting that he would know that; the comings
and goings of servants were not usually part of a fool's purview.

“I hardly think I will fall into a decline because I need to unpack for myself,” she said drily. “The Countess's fosterlings usually took care of each other. However, if no one objects, I would not be averse to having the woman who attended me on my journey as my servant.”

“I will inform the seneschal, who will be greatly relieved, my lady,” Kedric replied. “My lord is reluctant to bring in outsiders; nearly as reluctant as they are to serve here.”

“Life in a sea-keep is not an easy one,” she said automatically as they traversed the long corridor of hewn stone that would end in the Keep Lady's rooms. Their steps, thank heavens, did not echo here; the corridors and private rooms were carpeted with thick pads of woven sea grass, or no one would ever have gotten any sleep in this place. There was an entire room and four serf women devoted to weaving sea-grass squares and sewing them into carpets, which were replaced monthly in the areas inhabited by the lord and his immediate family and whatever guests he might have. Not that the carpets so replaced went to waste—there was a steady migration of the carpets from one area of the keep to another, until at last they ended up in the kennels and the stables as bedding for hounds and horses.

And as Kedric courteously opened the massive wooden door into the Keep Lady's quarters for her, she saw that one or another of her father's wives had
made still another improvement for the sake of comfort. There were woolen carpets and fur skins atop the sea-grass carpets, and hangings on all of the stone walls.

The window—one of the few, besides the one in the Great Hall that had glass in it, a construction of panes as thick as her thumb and about the size of her hand leaded together into a frame that could be opened to let in a breeze when the weather was fair—was closed, and Moira went immediately to open it. The hinges protested, and she raised an eyebrow. Evidently Lady Violetta hadn't cared for sea air.

“I should like those oiled as soon as possible, please,” she said briskly. If Kedric was—as he seemed to be—taking responsibility for her for now, then he might as well get someone in here to do that, too. “Do you know if my things have been brought down yet?”

“I presume so, my lady,” Kedric replied. “If my lady will excuse me, I will see that the seneschal sends the servant you require.”

Something in his tone of voice made her turn, and smile at him impulsively. “Thank you, Kedric. Yours is the first kindly face and voice I have seen or heard since I left Viridian Manor.”

He blinked, as if taken entirely by surprise, and suddenly smiled back at her. “You are welcome, my lady.” He hesitated a moment, then went on. “I have fond memories of Countess Vrenable. She is a gracious lady.”

Interesting. “How is it that you came into my fa
ther's service?” she asked, now that there was no one to overhear. “When I knew him, he was not the sort of man to employ your sort of fool.”

He raised a sardonic eyebrow at her wry twist of the lips. “And by this, you imply that I am not the usual sort of fool? You would be correct. I was in the King's service, until your father entertained him a year or so ago. Your father remarked on my…usefulness, as well as my talents. I believe he found my manner of jesting to his liking.”

“And what manner of jests are those?” she asked. She knew her father. Foolery did not amuse him. The feebleminded infuriated him. But wit—at the expense of others—

“The King was wont to say that my wit was sharper than any of his knight's swords, and employed far more frequently.” The corner of his mouth twitched. “Perhaps he tired of it. More likely, his knights did, and he wearied of their complaints. My Lord Ferson finds it to his liking.” He shrugged. “At any rate, when he admired my talents, the King offered him my services, and he accepted. Like many another who serves, a fool cannot pick and choose his master.”

Now here, Moira had to school herself carefully, for she had never, ever known the King to dispose of
anyone
in his retinue in such a cavalier fashion. So either Kedric the Fool had egregiously overstepped both the bounds of his profession
and
the King's tolerance, or—

Or the King had carefully planned all of this in order to plant the fool in her father's household.

Someone
had certainly sent the information that had led to Countess Vrenable asking Moira to spy on her own father. Could that someone have been Kedric?

“When you say
talents
, I assume this means you exercise more than your wit?” she asked, carefully.

If he was, indeed, an agent of the King, he was not about to give himself away—yet. “I am a passable musician, and your father did not have a household musician. I have a wide fund of tales, and at need, I can play the scribe and secretary. And I am useful for delivering messages to his underlings, since there are no pages here, either.” He shrugged. “As, you see, I am about to do for you, if my lady will excuse me?”

BOOK: Winter Moon
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