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A Taste of Home by John C Adams

A Taste of Home

The morning after her arrival in Murkar, Princess Emer sat with her stepmother-in-law Queen Dextra bent over their embroidery.

As Princess Mechteld wandered around the room, Emer glanced up from her stitching and looked over at her new sister-in-law.

Mechteld sat on the stone sill, staring out of the window. She’d been bored since the men disappeared off for the day into the wild forests around Zwaarstad.

“You should’ve gone hunting too,” Emer said. “Eugene would’ve liked that.”

Dextra chuckled without looking up from her sewing. She smoothed the red thread to make a neat stitch and pushed the needle through again, drawing the thread all the way out.

She sat poised with the needle in her hand gazing at the design in satisfaction. Then she chuckled again.

“But Eugene didn’t go with the men today,” Mechteld replied.

Dextra sniggered.

Emer didn’t answer but she felt her chest tighten. She had to force herself to breathe calmly in and out.

She didn’t trust herself to speak without betraying her nervousness about where her new husband had disappeared off to today.

Eugene had been gone for hours yesterday evening. Emer’s innocent enquiries about his absence had met with feigned misunderstanding from the castle servants.

None of the family had had any idea where he was. Eventually, she’d gone to bed and lain waiting into the small hours for him to return.

Dextra laid her embroidery down on the table next to her chair and rang her silver bell with an arch tinkle. Her maidservant entered and curtseyed.

“Bring me something sweet to nibble on. Whatever the kitchens have prepared. I’m starving,” Dextra snapped.

Emer waited for the maidservant to leave before she spoke. “I thought Eugene was so keen to spend a day out with the wolfhounds. He said they might get a boar.”

Mechteld opened her mouth to answer, but Dextra forestalled her.

“I saw him hurrying towards the kitchens after breakfast just as the men were leaving. I pity you, Emer, for being unable to keep your new husband completely amused even for a short time. What have things come to when the kitchen maids are more obliging to a young man than his new bride?” the queen mocked.

Emer wanted to retaliate that Dextra would know all about young wives who didn’t want to oblige their husbands.

Mechteld leapt down off the sill and tripped across the room to Emer. She took her hand and said, “Eugene would never betray you with another woman! I swear to you there’s an innocent explanation.”

Mechteld broke off as the door opened and Dextra’s maidservant entered carrying a tray. She set it down and poured a cup of ale for each of the ladies.

A plate of meringues lay next to the jug. They were flat and slightly burnt. Today’s taste of home for Emer’s benefit had turned out no better than yesterday’s attempt at the Eiran national dish.

“Is Prince Eugene in the kitchen?” Dextra asked her maid.

The maidservant bobbed a curtsey and glanced over at Emer, a cheeky smile on her face. “Been there all morning. None of us can get any work done.”

“My, what staying power!” Dextra murmured.

Emer ran from the room. She slammed her bedchamber door and threw herself on the bed.

Last night, too proud to face her new husband with tears streaked all over her face, she’d locked her door against him. In the middle of the night, she’d heard him try the handle, knock, and whisper her name. She’d ignored him, buried her face in her pillow and cried herself to sleep.

This morning, she was pale and exhausted.

Emer waited until lunch was ready before creeping down the spiralling back stone stairs to the kitchens. She lingered in an alcove just by the main door. Roars of laughter percolated out as the doors were flung open and a serving man came out laden with a platter destined for the main dining hall. Emer pressed back into the alcove as he passed her.

The young bride heard clapping and merriment inside the kitchen. Eugene’s voice, shouting and laughing, drifted out to her as a maid came past and opened the kitchen door. She ran from the nook and back up the stairs, choking back sobs. She flung herself into her bedchamber and onto her bed. She was still weeping uncontrollably when the door opened again.

Mechteld sat on the edge of the bed. She stroked Emer’s blonde hair and took her hand but Emer snatched it away, pouting at her sister-in-law.

“Don’t be like that with me,” Mechteld said. “And don’t let the evil one get to you either. Eugene wouldn’t sleep with other women in the same week as you’ve married. He wouldn’t!”

Emer turned her face away from her sister-in-law. She tried not to think about how her older brothers had sooner or later sought out old mistresses, or formed new liaisons, after their marriages had begun to chafe.

It hadn’t taken long. Their wives had plotted and schemed to separate these men from their mistresses, but no matter how much bloodletting had occurred in corridors late into the night, and no matter how much effort her father King Domhnall had gone to in order to cover it all up, the infidelities had continued.

Emer’s life back in the Eiran capital had become one long process of looking the other way, and sneaking around trying to avoid detection for the royal brothers. Not even Emer’s mother, Queen Gala, had been able to change the way Emer’s brothers behaved for long.

“What, so next week Eugene’s cheating would be much more likely? A short honeymoon indeed,” Emer snapped.

“Father was always faithful to Mother,” Mechteld replied patiently. “For the sakes of the Gods he’s even faithful to that harpy he married this time around! It’s a point of honour for Father never to cheat on his wife. He only took a mistress a year after Mother died, and had that same mistress for a decade before he remarried. Why would Eugene be different, when you’re right here under his roof? Of course he’d want to follow Father’s example. It’s expected here, whatever men in Eira feel they can get away with. He had his fun before he was married, but he always knew that stopped the day you met.”

Emer wiped the tears away and sat up. She couldn’t bring herself to look Mechteld in the face. She wasn’t entirely convinced by Mechteld’s confidence in her brother, even though it was very touching. Eugene was King Gortah’s military commander. He’d be away fighting for most of their marriage, for months at a time. Perhaps it was better to get the pain of his sleeping with other women over and done with.

“I know what an unfaithful lover looks like, believe me,” Mechteld added. “And what it feels like to have to overcome the agony of witnessing it. Don’t go looking for pain that doesn’t exist, and may never do.”

Emer got up, smoothed down her long skirts and stormed down to the kitchens. She was about to barge in there when the wooden doors swung open and Eugene appeared. He was wearing his undergarment and boots, but his blue tunic was crumpled up in his hands.

She folded her arms. “Had fun this morning? We heard all about it from Queen Dextra’s maid.”

A red flush spread across his handsome face, making him endearingly boyish.

“Sorry. Thought I’d hidden it better. You’re so smart, much smarter than me. Of course you found out. Stupid of me to think you wouldn’t. Ah well. Sorry. Let’s hope I have better luck next time.”

Emer raised an eyebrow. “Is that all you have to say to me?”

Eugene frowned but Emer didn’t wait for him to reply. She grabbed his tunic and turned the bundle over. Filmy whitish stains, sticky, all over it. She threw the tunic back at Eugene. He looked at it, at Emer, and back at the tunic again. Gradually, a sort of dawning realisation spread across his face. He chewed his lip. Then he burst out laughing.

Emer battered Eugene’s chest with her fists. He picked her up and carried her, struggling in his arms, up the back stairs to his bedroom. He kicked the door open and threw her on the bed. He slammed the door and jumped onto the bed next to her.

“Gods, I need you! I was late last night, I know, but why did you bolt your door against me? Is it that time, for you? Was that it?”

She shoved her husband away. “Four o’clock in the morning is an inconvenient time for a woman all the way through the month, you oaf.”

When the way he frowned, she knew that, whatever else, she had overstepped the mark speaking to her husband like that. She swallowed nervously and toyed with the tassel on his undergarment.

“It isn’t that,” she muttered. “I’m sorry.”

Eugene looked very thoughtful. He seemed to take the notion that his new wife would expect infidelity in his stride, and didn’t intend to see it as a slur on his character that she suspected him so swiftly, but it appeared to cut him to the quick she was so upset by it.

“A husband who’s spent two days around the kitchen maids doing what you fear doesn’t come straight upstairs with his wife, gnawing his own leg off with desire to have her in the middle of the afternoon,” he pointed out.

Emer burst into tears all over again.

Eugene shouted for his valet to bring the princess’s surprise up immediately. The couple sat in uneasy silence until he returned with a wooden platter. A row of feather-light meringues was arranged on the dish.

“I’ve been busy downstairs for wholly different reasons. The cooks here had no idea how to produce them so it took a while to get it right. And you won’t have to worry about infidelity when I’m away. Father doesn’t allow military leaders to have whores with them at the front. He says it’s bad for morale for their wives, left behind, to fret about their antics. He doesn’t want our women to feel any element of relief if we don’t come back. He knows how infidelity destroys a marriage. I never knew him of course but everyone says Grandfather was exactly like that and Father says all he can remember growing up is his mother being in tears. He wanted something better for all of us.”

Emer spluttered into an explanation, and Eugene listened carefully to what Dextra had been up to.

“There’s only one woman under this roof who should be apologising for making you doubt me. Father brought her to Zwaarstad. I say we let him handle this,” he said.

That evening the royal court gathered as usual for dinner. Emer, Mechteld, and Emer’s other sisters-in-law were dressed in their best clothes and dripping with jewels.

The noble men wore full formal regalia and King Gortah was wearing his favourite crown. He seemed unusually smug about something. He ordered the best ale to be brought up from the cellars and distributed freely to everyone present. Then he dismissed the jester and told everyone that there would be other entertainment tonight.

Dextra arrived in a white dress without jewellery. When she saw how the other women were dressed she scowled. She sat down next to Gortah and said, “If you told me to come to dinner in rags, I’d still look better than the rest of them put together.”

A serving man laid a platter piled high with meringues before Dextra. She set her jaw. She glared at her husband. When Dextra tried to shove the huge dish away, Gortah rested his hand in front of it.

“Eat up, my dear,” he said. “I’d hate Eugene to feel his hard work wasn’t appreciated.”

John C Adams A Taste of Home

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