Tilting her head and listening closely, Jenny slowly followed the voice toward the opposite end of the great hall, searching for the body that belonged to the sound.
"And the weather was perfectly abominable!" Aunt Elinor continued. "Just when I thought the rain would surely drown me, the sun came out and baked me alive! My head began to ache, my bones began to ache, and I surely would have caught my death, had Sir Stefan not finally agreed to let us stop for a short while so that I could gather curative herbs."
Aunt Elinor descended the last step and materialized before Jenny’s eyes twenty-five yards away, walking toward her and still talking: "Which was a very good thing, for once I convinced him to swallow my secret tisane, which he was loathe to do at first, he did not get so much as a snuffle." She glanced toward Stefan Westmoreland, who was about to lift a tankard of ale to his lips, and interrupted him to insist on confirmation of her words: "You did not get so much as a tiny snuffle, did you, dear boy?"
Stefan lowered his tankard of ale. Obediently, he replied, "No, ma’am," bowed slightly, then he lifted his tankard of ale to his lips, carefully averting his eyes from Royce’s mocking, sidewise glance. Arik stalked into the hall and went over to the fire, and Aunt Elinor gave him a reproving look as she continued to Jenny, who was walking toward her: "Altogether, it was not such a very bad journey. At least it wasn’t when I was not forced to ride with that fellow, Arik, as I was forced to do when we first left Merrick…"
The knights by the fire turned to stare, and Jenny broke into an alarmed run, heading for her aunt in a futile effort to stop her from treading into such dangerous territory as the axe-wielding giant.
Opening her arms wide to Jennifer, her face wreathed in a beaming smile, Aunt Elinor continued: "Arik returned here a full twenty minutes before you arrived, and would not answer my anxious inquiries about you." Anticipating that she might not have time to finish her thought before Jennifer got to her, Aunt Elinor doubled the speed of her words: "Although I do not think ’tis meanness that makes him look so sour. I think he has trouble with his—"
Jenny flung her arms around her aunt, wrapping her in a tight hug, but Aunt Elinor managed to wriggle free enough to finish triumphantly, "bowel!"
The split-second of taut silence that followed that slander was exploded by a loud guffaw that suddenly erupted from Sir Godfrey and was abruptly choked off by an icy glance from Arik. To Jenny’s horror, helpless laughter welled up inside of her, too, brought on partly by the incredible stress of the last day, and by the sounds of stifled mirth at the fireplace. "Oh, Aunt Elinor!" she giggled helplessly and buried her laughing face in her aunt’s neck to hide it.
"Now, now, sweet little dove," Aunt Elinor soothed, but her attention was on the knights who’d laughed at her diagnosis. Over Jenny’s shaking shoulders, she aimed a severe look at the fascinated audience of five knights and one lord. In her severest voice she informed them, "A bad bowel is not a laughing matter." Then she switched her focus to the glowering Arik and commiserated, "Just look at the sour expression on your face, poor man—an unmistakable sign that a purgative is called for. I shall fix one for you from my own secret recipe. In no time at all, you’ll be smiling and cheerful again!"
Grabbing her aunt’s hand, and scrupulously avoiding meeting the laughing gazes of the other knights, Jenny looked at her amused husband. "Your grace," she said, "my aunt and I have much to discuss, and I am wishful of a rest. If you would pardon us, we will retire to—to—" it occurred to her that the discussion of sleeping arrangements was not a subject she wanted to approach any sooner than absolutely necessary, and she hastily finished "—to—er—my aunt’s chamber."
Her husband, with a tankard of ale arrested in his hand in exactly the same place it had been when Aunt Elinor had first said Arik’s name, managed to keep his face straight and to gravely reply, "By all means, Jennifer."
"What a delightful idea, child," Aunt Elinor exclaimed at once. "You must be fatigued to death."
"However," Royce interjected, directing a calm, implacable look in Jennifer’s direction, "have one of the maids upstairs show you to your chamber, which I’m certain you’ll find more comfortable. There will be a celebration this evening, so ask her for whatever you need to prepare yourself when you awaken."
"Yes, well, er… thank you," she said lamely.
But as she guided her aunt toward the stairs at the far end of the hall, she was acutely aware of the stark silence from the fireplace, and equally certain they were all waiting to hear whatever outrageous thing Aunt Elinor might say next. Aunt Elinor did not disappoint them.
A few steps beyond the fireplace, she drew back in order to point out to Jennifer some of the merits of Jennifer’s new home—several of which Jennifer had already noted. "Look up there, my dear," said Aunt Elinor with pleasure, pointing to the stained-glass window. "Isn’t it delightful? Stained-glass windows! You won’t believe the size of the gallery above, nor the comforts in the solar. And the candlesticks are gold. The beds are hung with silk, and nearly all the goblets have jewels in them! In fact," she declared in a thoughtful voice, "after seeing this place as I have done, I’m quite convinced pillaging and plundering must be a very profitable thing—" With that, Aunt Elinor turned back to the fireplace and politely inquired of the "pillager and plunderer" who owned the castle, "Would you say there is great profit to be had from pillaging and plundering, your grace, or am I mistaken?"
Through her haze of mortification, Jenny saw that her husband’s tankard of ale was now frozen in midair a few inches from his lips. He lowered it very slowly, causing Jenny to fear he was about to have Aunt Elinor pitched over the castle wall. Instead he inclined his head politely and said, straight-faced, "A very great profit indeed, madame, I recommend it highly as a profession."
"How very nice to hear," Aunt Elinor exclaimed, "that you speak French!"
Jenny caught her aunt’s arm in an unbreakable grip and began marching her toward the steps as Aunt Elinor continued brightly, "We must speak to Sir Albert at once about finding you some suitable gowns to wear. There are trunks of things belonging to the former owners. Sir Albert is the steward here, and he is not a well man. He has worms, I believe. I made him a nice tisane yesterday and insisted he drink it. He’s dreadfully ill today, but he’ll be fit tomorrow, you’ll see. And you ought to have a nap at once, you look pale and exhausted…"