Days later, on the evening of the Feast, the entire castle staff was treated to Luveday the cook’s estimation of Feasttime: “Methinks this be the most cursed season of the year. All the cookin’, all the visitors, all the hustle and bustle and scourin’ and guttin’ and choppin’ and boilin’ and roastin’ and grindin’ and bakin’ and fryin’ and stewin’—it’s almost more than a body can ‘andle.” The remark, addressed to no one in particular, had been repeated every year for at least two decades, but each time fell on unsympathetic ears.
“You haven’t got a jolly bone in your body, Luveday.” Robbie Brooker tweaked her wimple askew. “This is a time for rejoicing! A chance to celebrate.”
“Not at all, ye young rogue! When ye’re my age and ye have some real responsibilities ye’ll know what “celebratin’” is. If ye had as many meats and treats and whatall as I have to prepare, ye would’na be so merry.” Someone laughed and someone else rolled their eyes, and Cecily collapsed on a low stool in one fragrant corner of the kitchen, out of the way of jostling feet and carving knives. As much as she loved the warmth and plenty of Feasttime, she was forced to admit that the daily workload seemed to double. Every garment had to be fresh and spotless, every floor in the castle must be scrubbed, broken furniture mended, gardens weeded and pruned, and everything generally cleansed for the greatest day of the year, and, as Luveday had duly noted, mountains of food must be prepared. The cooking began a good week before the Feast, with cracking nuts and cleaning game, pounding spices, churning butter, and constantly scrubbing the tools and utensils. Five cattle had been slaughtered for the event (one of which was hissing and dripping over a spit at that moment), the ponds were dragged for all the fish possible, and frigid eels had been speared out of the mud to grace his lordship’s table. Cecily had spent that morning hacking up the entrails of several deer for the venison pie, and assisting young Milo with stirring the innumerable soups that were bubbling in three-legged pots, then helped Bess with a batch of mouthwatering aniseed comfits. Everyone seemed to be in an optimistic mood despite the extra work, and even the faeries were on their best behavior.
Guests had begun to trickle into the castle about ten days ago—various friends, foes, acquaintances, and unpleasant relatives of Lord Geoffrey and Lady Mallkyn. Ladies in their tall headdresses and spiderweb veils tittered together like so many quivering rushes, while great gentlemen busting with jewels drank tankards of ale by the fire in the great hall, telling stories far into the night. A minstrel was hired specially for the occasion, and the moment he kicked the wet snow off his pointed shoes the castle was filled from kitchen to solars with the sweet sound of harp and rhyme. Two or three guests in particular caught Cecily’s attention: a plump lady with sparkling eyes and ready wit, Sir Warin (a regular visitor) of the angular face and wandering eye, and a rather young lady, Leticia, who was very white and demure but seemed on closer inspection to be playing the coquette with several castle guards.
The Feast of Sages was always eaten after a service in Granton’s small chapel. It was one of the few times that servants and townsfolk could sit in the same building with the nobility at the same service, instead of coming hours ahead of time to perform their devotions apart from the gentry. Lying behind some of Cecily’s youngest memories was the vague comfort of candlelight playing on the ancient walls of that chapel. Shadowy forms glittering and swaying, a rich elderly voice, angelic songs and an impression of safety and calm pervaded them.
Cecily brought her head up with a jerk and realized that she had drifted into sleep. Luveday was standing red-faced, hands on hips, directly in front of her. “Up wid ye, missy, or ye will find the wrong end o’ my wooden spoon! We’ve got a lot of pies to make afore the service commences.” This was no the time for memories.
Several more sweaty hours in the kitchen passed before the bells tolled the half hour before midnight. Covered in flour from hair to boot, Bess and Cecily scrambled with all the others out into the servery to wipe their greasy hands and snag their capes to prepare for the nippy walk. They were briefly delayed by the minor uproar caused by Milo putting a mouse in Gunnora’s shoe, then everyone rushed in a motley cluster out into the night.
The black and stars above them were pure magic, and the chill wind seemed almost friendly for once as they half-ran across the courtyard pavement, through the gates, and down the road to the chapel. It rose tall and gray before them, ruddy candlelight peeping through diamond-paned glass. Once inside the servants crowded together and climbed up a narrow stair to find room in the balcony above.
It was warmer there, high above the crowd and pulpit, and the balcony was barely lit with the dim candlelight filtering up from below. Cecily waited near the door until her mother arrived, lagging behind the crowd, and took her hand to guide her to the best space available, then wrapped them both in her cloak as tightly as possible. Cecily tried to warm her toes with constant tapping, and Alis gave her a smile, pinching her knee good-humoredly.
They were standing quite near the front of the balcony, where Cecily could get a good look at Lord Geoffrey and Lady Mallkyn seated in state below. The earl was an underwhelming man with thinning, washed out hair. While his enormous stomach resembled the inflated pig bladders that children kicked around the village green, his wife was tall and her bones stuck out as though the life had been sucked right out of her. Stately and intimidating, and wearing a constant sneer, Lady Mallkyn was well known as the sharpest-tongued woman in Carellshire. It was said that she never loved anyone unless they were beneath her, and she loved everyone. At the moment she was swatting an inattentive waiting maid with her pearl purse, afterwards turning to smile sweetly at Lady Letitia and make some comment that Cecily could not make out in the noisy murmur.
The service began quite soon after everyone was situated, and commenced with the vicar standing up in the great wooden pulpit and greeting them all with warm grace. After prayers were said for the night’s festivities, a song was heard from the small castle choir. Six men and four women stood behind the pulpit and burst forth into full-blooded and joyful melody. The golden notes soared to the high rafters, and Cecily breathed in their scent with the candle smoke. For many minutes they listened to the choir, and then the entire chapel burst into song to a familiar Feasttime hymn. Silks and linen, wool and leather, feather, fur, and pewter rejoiced together, peering through the softened light to see each other, and yet to see angels.
When the vicar began to speak Cecily looked around about her with a smile, watching the animated faces of her old friends. Gracia Walpole stood next to her husband Lander, stroking his hand with absentminded fingers; Bess kept whispering amusing anecdotes in her neighbors’ ears; little Gaynor’s eyes were fixed on the speaker, and her mum…Cecily’s smile gave way. The shadows brought out in eerie definition every crease in the too-thin face, and showed her skin to be waxy pale. This was worse than she had ever seen her mother. If any outbreak of sickness were to come that winter…. Turning her attention back to the vicar, all the gold and glitter of the evening seemed washed away.
Before the end of the service Luveday barged through the loft, elbowing everyone and announcing in a loud whisper that it was time they were all in the kitchen. They bustled back under a cloudless sky, and last-minute preparations were made to the gorgeous feast; boughs of holly and mistletoe were sprinkled around the hall, and the earl’s silver goblet was filled with foaming spiced wine. The Feast of Sages was ready to begin.
It was a tradition that the noble guests would seat themselves at the great oaken table and drink a toast to the Sages of old, with all of the castle staff and local villagers looking on and hurrahing in hearty agreement. Cecily, Bess and Alis gathered together near the fire (Gracia joined them once she had rescued Milo from the clutches of the beady-eyed Gunnora) and stood expectantly until the earl should begin the toast. The nobility trickled inside out of the cold by pairs, laughing and talking loudly, then took their places under the high vaulted ceiling, alive with shadows in the rafters. Lady Mallkyn began complaining about the damp while a squat lady sitting next to the long-faced Sir Warin gave a little shriek of startled pleasure at his flirting pinch under the table.
The bustle gradually died down and a hush descended on the hall until naught was heard but the crackling of the fire and a village boy’s petulant coughing. Cecily thought that Lord Geoffrey looked a bit odd that night, now that she could see him at close range. His face, usually florid, was slightly pale. It was unnatural for him to look worried, especially on a day of rejoicing. The silence dragged on a few moments too long, the boy coughed again, and—Cecily might have been mistaken, but she thought that Lady Mallkyn gave her husband a significant look. Lord Geoffrey stood up suddenly and raised his goblet like a fist towards the ceiling, booming out, “Welcome my noble friends and loyal churls. On this day of feasting we thank God for His goodness to us in the year past. He will no doubt continue to bless us in the coming year, now that we at long last have an heir to our lands.” The jaw of more than one loyal churl dropped, and Milo elbowed a few skeptical neighbors as the astonished guests burst in cheers, clashed their goblets together, and shouted congratulations.
So it is true. Lord Geoffrey motioned for quiet and went on. “The young man in question is Jevan Auvray, my sister Mary’s only son. She—er—recently went on to her reward, and was soon followed by her good husband. Their son will be joining us late next spring to learn the ways of government and ceremony.” He stopped and after a short pause began again in a slightly hoarse tone, “I hope that he will receive a warm and heartfelt greeting from all of you upon his arrival.” The room erupted into goodwill once more and Lord Geoffrey collapsed, draining his goblet in a single gulp. Everyone, except perhaps a few of the more intoxicated guests, could tell that there was something a little less than warm and heartfelt in the earl’s demeanor. Lady Mallkyn, with eyes downcast, picked at the food on her plate. Cecily eyed her narrowly, and noticed the slightest dimple creasing one fair cheek.