Kess tossed her head. As if Leith would even find Esdragon without Valadan’s help. The Warhorse would certainly carry him back to her. She turned the moonstone ring on her finger, caressing the warm silver.
If he wanted to come back. No, he’d refused to leave her, no matter how she’d striven to shed him. And she was his luck—if he tried to venture anything other than a great circle back to her, his curse would return full-force. At least so Leith believed. She had never set much store by his curse, herself, but it was what he believed that mattered. That was how curses worked.
She did not do well in idleness. Kess glared at the sea-stained chest of precious fabrics, lighter by a great length of velvet that shifted between palest pink, blue, lavender and silver, the cloth she had selected for her gown. She was of Esdragon, she knew shipwrecks. Ill-luck had less to do with them than the power of the sea and foolish captains who dared its waves incautiously. But to be reunited with the very chest a prince had been carrying to his promised bride…that made one believe in luck. It did not do much to divert her. She turned the ring again. The moonstone shone as it caught the light.
Who had she been, that king’s daughter they were packing their prince off to wed? Had she been a beauty?
Well, he didn’t get to her, did he? His ill-luck stopped him. In fact, prevented his ever meeting her. And Leith was not such a fool as to regret that. She’d see to it he never did. If she ever saw him again.
She had no pastimes, that was the trouble. She’d rather go riding than pick up a needle and attempt embroidery. And she couldn’t ride out—Leith had the horse, while she was mewed in the inn. She could read, but books were for the rich, or they were ledgers for men of business. The inn offered neither. There might be singing, card-playing, in the taproom below—and plenty of trouble to find there, but she had no heart for it.
There was a discreet tap at her door.
“Go away! I’m not hungry!” He could never be back so soon, and she was ashamed of how her heart had leapt—and fallen. Where was her pride? Why was she hiding in the shuttered dimness? She was free to take her meals in the common room, or walk the city if she chose. Alone. She found no delight in the prospect. She missed Leith. How had that happened? And then she felt a flush rise to her face.
“Go away!” She wouldn’t be able to eat a bite, no matter how tasty the inn’s food was. Nor sleep—she felt tight as a bowstring, ready to snap. And she feared it would be worse when they reached Esdragon…
“My lady, they told me the gown had been sent. May I come in?”
Kess said nothing. She did not require to have her gown fitted. She’d tried it already. She had insisted on a style she could manage to don without a maid’s help, no laces up the back. And one she could ride in. She was Duchess of Esdragon, not some cloistered princess.
She had asked Leith to bring her one of her father’s horses—another reason he could not be back so soon. None of the coursers was swift as Valadan, and the palfreys were bred for smooth gaits, not speed. If he insisted on a palfrey…which he might. He’d probably choose by color, so white, or cream. None of the coursers had coats of either color, that she recalled. Maybe he’d let Valadan choose. There was hope of that. He wouldn’t choose a tame lady’s mount for her.
“My lady, I’m not the maid. I haven’t brought your dinner. I am a portrait painter.” A pause. “I’ve been hired to paint you. In the gown. If it’s here?” Another pause. “The cloth merchant said it had been delivered.”
Someone saw the gown being delivered, and a ruse was launched! Now there was a diversion! Kess lifted the latch and jerked the door open. “Go away!”
A woman stood outside, feet planted, a basket over her arm. No tray of food. A seamstress, for sure.
But the short, silver-haired woman was also carrying a frame of hinged wood—an easel—as well as the basket—and that basket had a sheaf of paintbrushes poking out of it. “Paint my portrait?” Kess asked, frowning.
“The gentleman asked that I come as soon as the gown was delivered.” The woman juggled the easel through the doorway, forcing Kess to step back, or be bumped by the basket. “The tailor told me the gown had been sent this morning, so here I am.”
I’ve never had my portrait done. But this painter did not need to know that her father had not busied himself arranging a marriage for his only child and heir. “But…he knows what I look like.” Portraits were for marriages arranged between parties who had not met. Who might never actually meet. Princes and princesses, political alliances. Why would Leith want her portrait done? “Did the…gentleman…say I was to be painted in the gown?” Kess could not decide whether this was better or worse than a ruse. Had she opened her door to men bent on abducting her, demanding a ransom—she knew she could deal with that. But this…
“Actually, my lady, he said to wait till the gown was delivered, but that you were to choose what to wear. And that ‘twas why he chose me—the only woman painter in all the city.” She beamed at Kess. “He said there would be time only to paint what we name a pocket portrait.”
So it was no ruse. Kess felt an odd flutter in her stomach. Leith had found a way to divert her without wounding her pride. He hadn’t sent a minstrel to torment her with songs. He hadn’t sent her books of love-poetry to fling across the room. He wasn’t devious enough to send false abductors…or mad enough.
The painter fetched out an object that looked like a small book, two thin leaves of pale wood hinged at one side and latched at the other. Kess observed that with interest. Very small. Little of whatever she wore would show, post rider garb or gown. And latched.
Latched. So, a very private portrait. For Leith’s eyes only. And he gave her the choice of how private it needed to be…
Kess shook her hair free of its braid, let it cascade over her shoulders. She was his luck—and his Lady come to earth. There was a style to that, and her moon-pale hair was part of it. Under the night sky…the full moon above them…
“Is there light enough? Where shall I sit?”
The painter drew a tall stool over, sat Kess on it. The shutters were adjusted, a lamp was moved, the easel was positioned, pots of paint were set out. All was ready. “What about the gown?”
Why did he want a portrait anyway? Leith would see her every day, in one gown or another. What did he want to remember?
“Can you paint the moon in the sky behind me? A full moon?”
“As my lady chooses.” A stick of charcoal was moving busily over the panel.
“It doesn’t matter if it’s really daylight?”
“It doesn’t matter a bit. I watch the moon every night.” Now she was lifting a brush, as she squinted at Kess. The painter laid down the brush, crossed to Kess, posed her with gentle fingers, turning her head just so, lifting her chin. Repeated a moment later, as Kess fidgeted. The gown was draped over the trunk, shimmering in plain view.
“Should I fetch the gown?” the painter asked.
A very private portrait. Not to intrigue a stranger, nor to secure a betrothal. Not to offer a daughter like a prize cow at the fair. A portrait for Leith’s eyes only. Kess thought of their nights beneath the moon, the sky their only roof. His eyes, the green and the brown, looking into hers…and she knew what Leith wanted to remember.
She combed her fingers through her hair again. The moonstone ring caught on the ribbon that fastened her blue linen sark, and the loose knot came undone. She slipped the garment off, let it slide down over her shoulders. “We won’t bother with the gown,” Kess said. “Just the moon.”
Copyright Susan Dexter 2022