Justin was at the center of a knot of people, in conversation with Lord and Lady Kimbrechton about the possibility of war in western Orlan. Meg, Justin’s sister, stood a few feet away and distracted some of his admirers. After waiting too long, Justin had invited Miss Rubane to the Ascension Ball and received a chagrined refusal: the girl had a prior commitment. He could doubtless have found another single young woman to bring, but this year the whole game struck him as even stupider and more irksome than usual. So he’d brought Meg, who adored the Ascension Ball and was excellent company at it, and who would not expect him to either wed or bed her afterwards. No doubt there’d be gossip about his decision to escort his sister; likely absurd gossip, such as that he was pining for Miss Rubane.
Sister or not, Meg certainly did him credit. She was forty-two and had three children, but was nonetheless in fine form in an Ascension gown of wine and gold that complemented Justin’s attire without mirroring it. She looked nothing like Justin: she was of medium height with a well-padded figure and a round pretty face with large hazel eyes. Her skin was nearly as light as Nikola’s, though not in the Haventure-pink hue, and her hair medium brown. While he was thinking of him, Justin took a moment to look around for Nikola, but the room was too crowded to see much beyond his immediate group. He did note a few furtive glances in his direction, and caught the sound of his name. Excusing himself from the Kimbrechtons, he slipped closer to the other group.
One young man, with his back to Justin, was relating the story of the race from two weeks ago. “No, no, Comfrey was losing the race.”
A girl tittered. “I hear Lord Comfrey doesn’t lose at anything.”
One of the people turned in his direction noticed Justin’s approach and tried to get the first speaker’s attention, but the youth paid them no heed. “Well he was losing this time. Maybe it was his greatcat. So they’re trying to get up one of those steep cliffs, and that’s when he fell.”
“My dear sir,” Justin said from behind the youngster, “you are telling this all wrong.”
The boy almost jumped out of his finery, coattails fluttering as he spun about. “Lord Comfrey! My lord – I – that is—”
“Has no one ever shown you how to relate a tale properly? Here, allow me.” Justin turned to the tittering girl, who was blushing deeply. “First, you must understand that I was not merely ‘losing’. I was being thoroughly thrashed. Lord Nikola and Fel Fireholt knocked off halfway through the course, went back to the lodge for a snack, came back to the course, and were still ahead of us.” He went through the entire story again, with even more ridiculous exaggerations and hyperbole than the last time, while people gathered close to listen and laugh.
When Justin was done, Meg reclaimed his arm: it was nearly time for the Blessing of Newlant. “I don’t see why you have to encourage them so,” she murmured, steering him towards their place. “Do you want to be the laughingstock of Gracehaven?”
“Why not? They need something to entertain them,” Justin replied, grinning. “Besides, if they hear it from me they’ll take it less seriously than if they hear it from anyone else.”
“Certainly I can’t take anything you say seriously,” Meg chided.
“Exactly, my dear. See how well my plan works?”
She slapped his wrist with the trailing end of her beaded sleeve, but her smile betrayed her amusement as they retrieved their coats and filed out through great glass doors to the rear lawn.
The Blessing of Newlant was held ‘outside’, nominally, although in inclement weather a vast canopy would be erected over the open lawn and snow cleared. Even on a clear cold night like this, large braziers on pillars burned gas to warm the wintery air and light the night. But there were plants and ground beneath their feet, which was what mattered. Outside, the Blessed gathered together, rank after rank of them. For this ceremony, every soul who carried a Blessing was welcome, even the untitled who held Blessings for plants or stone, or children too young for an invitation. Justin’s place was in the audience and determined by rank, which placed him in the second row of this assemblage of peerage – behind a row of royalty, dukes, margraves, and counts. The king and queen alone sat, in thrones placed prominently on the lawn before the gathering of Blessed. The ranks of peers stood to either side and behind their majesties. Meg craned her neck to peer between the duke and duchess in front of them, then seized Justin’s arm and pointed. “There’s Daniel, do you see him?” she whispered proudly. Daniel was her eleven year-old son; he held a Blessing for healing bodies. Justin gave her an indulgent smile and nodded as his own eyes scanned for Nikola. The tall blond lord was easier to spot; he stood head and shoulders above most of his fellows. It was too much to hope he’d have ordered a new suit, Justin thought wryly. Of course, he was magnificent even in a four-year-old suit, but people had expectations of a count’s heir and Justin was sick of having his friend maligned and snubbed for not meeting them.
A cold breeze swept through the crowd, and Meg pressed closer against Justin’s side, hugging her wrap about her shoulders. Justin made a stoic pretense of perfect comfort as he put an arm around her.
It took some time for everyone to get into position, even with a small army of ushers to ensure each person knew where they belonged. A few stragglers were taking their places at the back when the heralds played the royal fanfare and the queen rose from her throne. The herald at her right hand barked, “All kneel to Felicia, Queen of Newlant, Protectress of Havenset, Guardian of the Riven Sea, Duchess of Viant, Lady of Anjaholt, by the grace of the Savior Blessed of stone.”
The entire crowd, both the ranks of Blessed and the audience, bent before her royal majesty. She stepped away from her throne to stand before the ranks of the Blessed, and turned to survey first them and then the crowd. “Peers, Blessed, and guests, my loyal subjects of Newlant, in the Savior’s name I bid you welcome to this Paradise, his great gift to us. Please, rise.” She was a small figure to bear so many titles, short and round and draped in a daunting array of jewels, a heavy crown upon her brow, gown stiff with layers to make it stand out. After all had risen, she continued, “On this, the anniversary of our Ascension to Paradise, we ask those whom the Savior has Blessed to bless our nation in turn.” In a strong chorus, the entire assembled peerage spoke with the queen for her next words: “O Blessed of the Savior, we petition you: heal what is sick, mend what is broken, and make right aught that is wrong in Newlant.”
Rank upon rank of Blessed knelt as one, the queen herself among them, gloves off, and extended their hands through the cropped frost-touched grass to touch the cold earth.
Justin was not a spiritual man. He’d hired a gentleman to preach for his people rather than do it himself, and what services he attended – he was not above skipping them if he had any reasonable pretext at all – rarely left him moved. But this ceremony – even if he were stone, it would touch him. The Savior’s presence filled the grounds, a palpable warmth that cut off the breeze like a windbreak. A sense of true, pure, unconditional love washed through Justin. For a few moments, he was suffused and transfixed, feeling both loved and loving, unable to conceive of ill-will, much less feel it. For a few moments, everything was right in the world.
Slowly, the sensation faded. Meg smiled and dabbed at her eyes; she was far from the only one weeping for joy. She hugged his arm, whispering, “Thank you for bringing me, Justin.” Justin flashed a half-smile to her. The experience discomfited him; it was not a rebuke, but as if the Savior had lifted and shaken him, saying however you may feel about me, I will always love and be there for you. Whether you realize it or not. It was unsettling. Justin wondered if Nik felt that way all the time.
The Crown offered a brief traditional speech in thanks, to both the Savior and his Blessed, to which the peerage lent their voices in closing. Then everyone filed back inside for the formal supper.
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