A rich laugh came from the doorway, both Liam and Anaria looked around, startled.
“You put him on the floor easily enough but he got back up again far too quickly.”
Liam smiled, “Anaria, I know you’ve met her before, but I would like you to properly meet my mother, and that may even be Father lurking behind.”
The Duchess laughed again and crossed the room, the Duke remained just inside the door, but nodded in a friendly way.
She leaned over Anaria and picked up the breakfast tray, food now finished, and handed it to Liam, shooing him off the bed so she could take a seat there instead.
“Your father is here to collect you for morning audience, I’m taking the day off to spend time with my future daughter-in-law.”
She paused, “I hope she has agreed to marry you Liam, or I’m going to be most put out.”
“She has, although I think the idea of the wedding itself might be a sticking point. Ana doesn’t like parties.”
Anaria humphed, “I like parties perfectly well, I just don’t like being pinched and I don’t like being laughed at.”
“Well then, we’ll just have to put our heads together and come up with a party where neither of those can happen.”
Liam put the tray down, then leaned across to kiss Anaria, “Have fun town girl, I’ll see you this afternoon.”
He then retrieved the tray and left the room, followed by his father.
Anaria watched them both leave, then turned to the woman watching her, who patted her hand reassuringly.
“It’s an awful lot of change in very little time I know. You’ve been in almost constant upheaval for months now but I do think it’s been for the best, or it will be once you’re better.”
Anaria learned a great deal that morning. About Liam, his family, the responsibilities and roles of a duchess, and what it all would mean for her and her future. In many ways, the duchy was a business, working to deliver stability and prosperity for the people under its care. Anaria’s mind started to wake to new ideas and possibilities.
Sarah intervened part way through the morning, fussing Anaria through a bath, fresh clothes and more food and water.
“You’ve been barely taking anything for two weeks, we need to build you back up, slowly and surely.”
The Duchess, who’d asked Anaria to call her Miriam (Anaria was still working up to it), tutted at that, “And here I was, all ready for her wedding dress fittings. Well we can at least start choosing fabrics and designs – the dressmaker’s been collecting ideas and samples and is simply bursting to share them.”
Sarah smiled fondly at Anaria, who was looking nervous again, “It’s just a day, and it’s just a dress, the biggest thing you want from it is happy memories.”
“Thank you Sarah, you’re right. Although an event like this will need to be used for other purposes.”
Sarah looked puzzled and Miriam laughed again, “Spoken like a duchess. You are absolutely right, a wedding of this nature is a key opportunity for alliances and agreements. Which means you’ll have plenty of time to regain your bloom, although I’m going to put you to work as soon as possible to help me organise it.”
Sarah humphed good-naturedly, “She’ll be ready to start with simple tasks and decisions tomorrow. I’d like to keep her abed and resting longer but her mind’s already racing away with her, she’s completely forgotten her tea.”
Anaria came back to the present with a start, “Oh, I’m sorry, I was getting a bit caught up in ideas.”
She looked down, twisting her fingers in her lap, the two other women looked on, waiting for her to work up to whatever was on her mind.
“I know I can’t do it immediately, and it’ll need to just be odd moments here and there but, in between the organising and everything. Would it still be alright if I spent the occasional afternoon in the village? I can be useful, sit with Maggie and card wool and then tell the children stories to keep them from getting dirty – not every day, but it just feels important.”
Sarah gave her a hug, “Well you’re welcome any time you wish to come by. No bread baking though?”
Anaria laughed, “No, I think I’m a better fit elsewhere.”
Liam walked into the room just in time to hear the last comment and smiled, “So you’ve found somewhere you fit, town girl?”
He sat beside her and she snuggled under his arm, “I don’t fit quite yet, but I think I can, and I will, and I’m going enjoy getting there.”
The following weeks were busy, but fulfilling. Anaria knew she had a lot to learn still, but it was different.
In the castle, she had knowledge and skills that were already useful and could be built on. Both the Duke and Duchess included her in plans and conversations about the duchy, and she felt she was able to add to the discussions in ways that were helpful and useful. Liam’s proud smile across the meeting room, or dinner table made her glow with a deep inner warmth.
She still occasionally helped out in the kitchens and, true to her wish, she spent one or two afternoons each week in the village. The second time she appeared at Maggie’s door to card wool, she explained herself with a faint blush.
“I’m in a place now where I’m good at things, and feel like I belong, or will soon enough and it’s lovely but I want to make sure I remember that I’m not good at everything and the things I’m not good at are important.”, she smiled at Maggie, “And I also like to remember that people are still kind and generous even when I’m not that useful.”
Maggie smiled back and shook her head, “You know perfectly well you’ve been a help to me from the start. If you really want to stay humble, you’ll need to look at that bread of yours, or gardening.”
“I could not do that to Sarah, or Cook, but speaking of baking, I haven’t seen Martha around the village recently.”
“Well that would be because the girl took advice for the first time in her life and is now apprenticed to that baker of yours in town. Word is she’s got herself quite a reputation for hard work, quality bread, and a bright mind.”
“Oh good, I’m sure town will suit her better than the village. Although it’s probably putting more work onto her family back here.”
Maggie snorted, “It’s meaning young Patty can’t be running wild the way she used to and you can bet she’ll be starting to come up with better ways to do things in order to be able to finish them quicker. Best thing that could happen in my opinion.”
It was the third or fourth visit when Anaria asked a question that had been playing on her mind for a while, “Who in the village knew who Liam was, beyond being John’s apprentice?”
“As few as possible. John obviously, and because of that, Sarah. I doubt even Ingrid was told although I’m sure she had her suspicions.”
“I think you knew though.”
Maggie chuckled, “I did, though nothing was said. I was employed at the castle in earlier years and made most of his clothes for him as a boy. He hasn’t changed to much over the years that I’d not recognise him in an instant.”
The weeks went by swiftly now and before Anaria realised what was happening, the end of spring and the date of her wedding suddenly loomed large, right in front of her.