First Kiss

Three days later, Jevan Auvray reined in his sweat-streaked horse at the crest of a small hill above Granton Castle. He gave Grane the slightest pressure of the knees and they flew down the hill, one last sprint before arriving in a frothy stumble at the gates. Grane headed to the stables where a drink and food awaited him, and Jevan stroked his neck. “No hart of ten today, my lad, but we have had a fine day of riding, haven’t we?”

He entrusted Grane to a pimply stableboy, then strode across the courtyard toward his own supper when Lady Letitia appeared at his elbow. “Jevan! Where have you been? We are all missing you so dreadfully.”

Jevan started away from the wide eyes and upturned chin. “Forgive me, milady, I meant to tell my aunt that I was riding.”

“Well, I suppose it doesn’t matter really. You are always riding. Your Uncle Geoffrey was rather upset that you didn’t come into the library this afternoon; he had to sit by himself for hours.”

“I’m sure his ale kept him company enough. No, don’t repeat that.”

She crossed her arms beneath her insubstantial bosom and was about to reply when Jevan caught sight of a figure across the courtyard—Cecily, walking in the direction of the gardens. He stood motionless for a moment, then patted Letitia’s shoulder and walked toward Cecily, leaving the lady gawping behind him.

Into Pan's Labyrinth by alexbrn
Into Pan's Labyrinth, a photo by alexbrn on Flickr.
“Cecily, I have not seen you in days!”

She nearly dropped her mattock. “Forgive me, milord—Jevan, I have been working in the gardens all week. It’s a busy time of year and I am one of the few whom Rivens will allow to tend to certain jobs—”

“And I have not taken the trouble to visit the gardens. I see, you condemn me for my negligence.” He laughed as she opened her mouth to deny it. “Ah Cecily, you should know me by now. I was only jesting. Let us take a short walk around the gardens now and enjoy the sunlight while it lasts.”

She had been examining the pavement beneath her feet, but now glanced up at Jevan’s face. All she saw was a look of quiet interest. A slight touch of his hand to hers and they were going out the courtyard gates and down the path toward a garden entrance.

They walked the curving pathways between neat-clipped hedges, noted the already monstrous salvigia bushes, and approached the Balcony—a sort of folly made of two curving staircases that joined to create an overlook.
Climbing the steps to stand above the garden, they admired in silence before Cecily said, “I’ve been working here for nearly twelve years, ever since I was a little girl.”

“I suppose that this is as much your home as the village.”

“If not more! The cottage is where I sleep, but this is where I live.” She gave him a shy glance and fiddled with a chipped bit of the railing. “Did you have gardens at your home back East?”

“Oh, yes. Enormous gardens. Probably thrice the size of these, actually.”
“No! You don’t say. How many gardeners did you have?”

“Oh, an absolute battalion. Forty odd, I suppose. And those were just for the flower gardens—nevermind the vegetables, and the herber and orchards. My mother was passionate about growing things. Used to go out into the gardens with a spade and trowel…ruined every nice dress she ever owned.”

Cecily giggled. “Can you possibly imagine the Countess coming out here with a shovel? She’d sooner jump in the duck pond.” Jevan didn’t reply, but a very small smile tugged at the corner of his mouth.

“But you do not always work in the gardens, do you? I see you cleaning clothes, scrubbing floors, serving food—you seem to do everything.”

“That’s how it works at Granton. Some castles are large enough for cooks to be cooks and gardeners to be gardeners, but not here. We all do a bit of everything. Rivens, though—he’s only a gardener and always will be. Too good to be wasted doing anything else. He’s the best in the county, and we couldn’t do without him. He’s a master. Knows exactly how colors and height and soil and season work together to create the most beautiful gardens in the world. Do they have anything this fine in the East?”

Jevan led her down the curving staircase and back to the gravel path. “Rivens would not be shamed to have his work displayed at His Majesty’s own palace.”

Cecily stumbled and pretended to check her boot toggles. “Oh, you’ve been to the royal palace! It must have been wonderful, absolutely amazing. What was it like?”

“Well, I went there a few times with the crown prince, but don’t remember much.”
“How can you not remember?”

“Er…” He coughed once or twice and bent to finger a sprig of lavender. “Was a bit disoriented at the time. Had a little too much wine, perhaps. But I do remember gold everywhere. Even the garderobes were gilded.” Cecily gave the faintest laugh and he walked a little closer to her as they felt their way between the hedges. “You would like to see such a sight?”

“Oh, more than anything. I’ve heard of palaces and universities, places to learn and converse with brilliant men. In the Old Tales valiant knights are always serving the king in his beautiful castle, eating at banquet tables as wide as a river, competing in tournaments and doing brave deeds…. I’ll never leave Whitcrowe, I know, but it would be—just once—to see the City.”

“I don’t think there is any reason that you should not see the City. It’s there for anyone to visit. I have been there many times.”

“Yes, but you are a lord, an earl’s heir. What am I? A cotter who isn’t allowed to bake her own bread. Ah, you don’t know. His Lordship commands that we must grind our grain in his mills and bake our bread in his ovens. And we pay for the privilege.” She knelt to uproot a pestilential weed, then rose with a smile. “It must have been lovely to grow up surrounded by such magnificent gardens.”

“It was my world, to tell the truth. In summer I spent whole days together in the gardens. My nursemaid, Ingrid, would allow me to wander wherever I liked. I certainly got into trouble, but she never cared about that. In fact, she was a co-conspirator in many of my little adventures.”

“You make it sound as if you had quite an exciting childhood.”

“Oh, you should have seen some of the capers we ran. My father always disapproved, of course, but he didn’t know about half of them. There was one sneak, a bloated old fellow this big around and covered in warts. He was always snitching tales to my parents of what I’d done, but one day Ingrid and I got the better of him. He was snoozing in the kitchen corner, and we were there to get a seed cake covered in honey—Have you ever tasted one of those? Finest food this side of the sea, if you ask me.—and Ingrid took the honey pot and ladled the stuff right on top of his head, till his hair was full of it.”

“Heavens! You were caught, I suppose.”

“Not a bit of it. The old bloke slept on and never knew a thing. ‘Course he guessed who had done it, but by that time we were minding our own business up in the tower. Father was furious when he found out.” The sound of birds fluttering in the fountain became loud, and they were both more aware of the rustling breeze.

“Granton must be quite a change from such a place.”

“Yes, it is quite different. A bit colder, I think, and darker. Far from town. But I’m enjoying myself all the same.”

A few more couples glided through the twilit gardens, speaking in whispers and barely crunching the gravel. Cecily half expected Jevan to give her a terse farewell at any moment and rush to join his relatives and their prestigious guests, but he continued to walk beside her in a gentle, steady rhythm. The girl who was always sure of herself felt bashful for the first time in her life.

Cecily had drifted into thought for a moment while Jevan continued to explain his escapades with the energetic Ingrid. When he mentioned his afternoons of frolicking among herbs and peonies, she let out a laugh much louder than she’d intended. It was hard to imagine the man beside her “frolicking” in anything.

“What? Do you find that humorous?”

“No, no, of course not.”

He moved his hand, the one wearing the lovely ring, downward as if to touch her hair, but then it strayed further, to the stem of a sleeping rose. “Roses were my mother’s favorite, and my own. Noble flowers—they keep to themselves, entirely aware of their own beauty and caring nothing for the pathetic others.”

“But each flower only blooms once, to die after a season.” Cecily shivered and hugged herself. “They leave nothing behind but a withered petals.”

Jevan’s gaze remained on the rose stem, one finger gently stroking the dull edge of a thorn. “Is that what you fear, Cecily?”

Their words were uncomfortable now, hovering on the brink of something that neither wanted to name. “I fear living a life full of nothing worth having—a dull, purposeless, ordinary life. I want to decide my own fate. I wish…have you—have you ever felt helpless?”


“Yes. Nothing more than a pawn in the hands of something—or someone—much larger than you are. All of the decisions you make being manipulated, cast aside in favor of something ‘better’ that you never would have chosen.”

“I know what it is to be trivialized and condemned. Someone is always telling me what I should do. That is nearly the same thing. Of course life should be one great victory. Who would not wish to live above those who pull down and make us nothing more than a means to an end? But I do not think an empty life will be your fate, Cecily Lockton.”

She lifted her face to his but made no reply, her pulse thumping in her ears with increasing regularity. Jevan slipped his hand into hers, leaned close, then without warning dashed ahead down the path, dragging her behind him. They ran full-tilt, dodging arbors and barrows as they flashed past, half-falling, laughing at each other like children, frightening a flock of doves into the air, and earning pointed looks from a trio of men conversing among the topiaries. Diving into a maze of privet hedges higher than their heads, they wound around in circles, finally collapsing onto a bench in a quiet alcove surrounded by towering green walls. Heaving in the cold air, Jevan briefly laid his head on Cecily’s shoulder, both still shaking with laughter.

Once they’d breathed themselves into silence. Cecily’s voice spoke, almost without her will. “Why are you here with me? Why do you speak with me? Any other man of your stature would think it below him to be seen with someone like me.”

“Because I see you as a woman, not a slave.”

“And you speak to Rivens too?”

“Yes, he reminds me of a particular old gardener we once had, long dead now. He was also eccentric—and constantly moralizing.”

“I thought that you were arrogant, conceited, and completely full of your own importance.” Her mother had always told Cecily that she could be “blunt as a cart wheel,” and she supposed that was about right.

“Oh, did you?”

“Yes. The first time I met you I thought there could not be a more unpleasant person in the world. I imagined that you could love nothing in the world so much as yourself.”

“Well, that certainly isn’t true.”

“Prove it to me!” Her white knuckles gripped the seat of the bench to stop her arms from shaking. If this was all a dream, a lie, then it would be better to wake up now before being shaken out of sleep.

“Prove that I’m not an egotistical ass?”


“What if I were to say that I love you? Well?”


“Please, please, dear Cecily, don’t call me that, I beg you.” The next instant his lips locked on hers and they were sharing the first real kiss of Cecily’s life. There was no room for thought as his fingers cupped her head and brought it closer to him. At that moment it seemed entirely natural that she was loving and being loved by the man who had haunted her dreams since childhood, the magnificent prince who would whisk her away from filth and the commonplace to bring her into his world where greatness and beauty were food of the everyday. And it seemed natural that his hand should begin to work its way from her hand up her arm, tracing the veins beneath her sleeve, fingering her shoulder, then her throat. And for some reason the air was no longer chill, but quite warm, and she was clasping Jevan around the neck, now kissing him with all her might, and loving every movement of his fingers.

It was something she’d imagined before, but never thought possible. She had always cringed at the thought of someone like Odo the butcher’s son caressing her with hands like meat hooks, leering at her with piggish eyes. No cotter boy could ever be like this, never feel like this. She was now aware of the lines of her own body—where she curved and flowed and where she was soft and vulnerable. She was feeling herself with Jevan’s eyes. This is what Mum warned me about. It’s harder than I would have thought possible.

“No.” She didn’t realize that she’d said it aloud.

Cecily jumped off the bench and moved to the break in the hedge. When she looked back she saw Jevan sitting placidly on the bench as if awaiting her orders, hands neatly folded in his lap. A sigh shook her shoulders.

“You’ve given me nothing—no promise I can hold you to. How do I know that you love me?” Jevan raised himself to meet her, stopping a few inches away and leaning his warm forehead against hers. Cecily whispered, “I do not wish to cause any trouble. I am—grateful—for your attention, but I cannot accept it.” His reply was a patient smile and the slightest press of the hand.

In their silence they heard a sharp cry from a far distance. Two seconds later came another. Then they recognized it as a scream.

Their moment was broken. “Who—?” Cecily felt Jevan grab her hand in the darkness and they left the alcove at a brisk pace, retracing their steps without laughter this time, taking a shortcut across the grass to the garden entrance as they heard the panic in the cries increase.

1 comment:

Constructive criticism is welcome! Please remember, though, that nearly every excerpt posted here is my first rough draft.