“DINDRANE! Would you get your damned nose out of the book and get over here?”
“In a minute,” Dindrane replied, not even bothering to let her eyes wander from the page. “And you really shouldn’t swear, Allison*.”
“In front of a priest, no less!” added a shocked Alice.
“Actually, I’m a monk,” Brother Andy corrected. “But you should watch your language, Allison, it truly isn’t ladylike.”
“Oh, phooey … it’s not like we have any potential husbands here,” Allison replied, tossing her black curls over one shoulder, with only one quick look to show that she noticed as Dindrane started and almost dropped her book. “Just us girls and a priest.”
Keeping her hands steady through willpower alone, Dindrane stood and made her way to the gaming table, where she joined vivacious Allison, sweet if dim Alice, and careful Brother Andy. Looking around the table, she couldn’t hold back a smile, and, try though she might, neither could she hold back the urge to commit this picture to memory and lock it in her heart forever, for proof against hard times.
Brother Andy shot her a quizzical look, but whatever question he may have asked was swallowed by Allison’s playful query. “So,” she asked, drawing some tiles near her, “what stakes?”
“I haven’t got any money,” Alice admitted with a downcast stare. “Papa won’t send any more — said I’ve had enough for the semester.”
“That’s all right,” Allison replied easily–too easily. Her green eyes slid quickly over to Dindrane. “We’ll play for secrets.”
“Secrets?” Brother Andy asked.
“Yes. Whenever you lose a hand, you have to tell the table something no one else knows about you … something that the winner of the hand will pick.”
“Huh? How can they pick it if no one else knows about it?” Alice asked.
“I think she means the topic,” Dindrane replied.
“Yes, exactly. Like … love secrets, or embarrassing moments, or things you like but you’ve never told anyone about. That sort of thing.”
Love secrets? Dindrane thought, catching Allison’s sidelong glance at her. Can she …?
With a mental shake of the head, Dindrane forced her mind away from the subject and attended to her tiles. If Allison wanted love secrets out of her, then she would have to fight for them.
And unfortunately for Allison, Dindrane was a very good Mah-Jong player.
Some hours later, after Brother Andy had realized he had better be getting back to the abbey (not wanting to be caught in a female dormitory after dark) and Alice had belatedly realized that she had a test in the morning, Dindrane and Allison repaired to the chess table.
Allison was in a rather foul mood, not surprisingly, given that over the course of the game she’d been forced to tell not only about her first kiss (a disaster, as it had turned out), but also about the time she accidentally walked in on her brother and his betrothed and the fact that she always cried at the end of the lay of Tristan and Isolde. Dindrane, on the other hand, had managed to escape the game with only having to divulge the worst mark she had ever received on an assignment.
“You might have told me, you know,” Allison remarked to her chess piece.
“I beg your pardon?”
“About your betrothal.” She picked up a pawn, evidently changed her mind and put it down again. “It’s all over campus.”
“… Oh,” Dindrane replied. “I’m sorry.”
“Why didn’t you say anything?” Allison asked. “I would be shouting from the rooftops if my father had finally found me someone to wed.”
“I suppose because it wasn’t really news. Father and Lord Lot have been negotiating this for years, it’s only just become final,” Dindrane answered with a shrug. “I’ve known I was meant to marry Sir Mordred since I was a child.”
Allison looked up in startlement. “That long?”
“Then why–why did it only become final now?”
“Oh.” Dindrane chuckled. “Well, there are a couple of reasons.”
“Well, firstly–in Albion, marriages and betrothals aren’t as … as forced as they are in other countries. Well, they are, in a way, but King Arthur set it up so that a betrothal cannot legally be entered into until both parties come of age. The parents can negotiate all they want, but nothing is final until the participants are can legally consent — it’s supposed to give the people about to be married a chance to refuse, although that’s only in theory. I doubt it would work in practice.”
“The parents still control the money.”
“Oh. Well, that’s true enough, I suppose … but you said there were a couple reasons why it only became final now, what’s the other one?”
Dindrane chuckled. “Well, I can’t speak for certain, not having been home to witness it … but I suspect Sir Lancelot–or maybe it was Lady Guinevere–finally sent Lord Lot away with a flea in his ear.”
Dindrane smiled. “I suppose I should first explain about Lord Lot … he’s one of the wealthiest men in the kingdom, barring the king, but …”
“He’s greedy. He always wants more,” Dindrane said simply. “Don’t get me wrong, he’s not altogether a bad sort … just a money-grubber. Anyway, Sir Lancelot is the second-wealthiest man in the kingdom. So his daughter — and he only has one — would have a bigger dowry than mine.”
“Oh. Bigger even than the king’s daughter’s?”
“You said Lord Lot was money-grubbing … I thought …”
“Oh!” Dindrane chuckled. “Silly me, I forgot, how would you know? Lord Lot can’t marry Sir Mordred off to Princess Jessica. First of all, King Arthur can’t stand Lord Lot, oh, they’re civil enough, but he wouldn’t put Princess Jessica in that household if Sir Mordred was the last man on earth. I don’t mean to suggest anything improper — I mean, Princess Jessica’s honor would be quite safe from Lord Lot — but still, the king doesn’t like him and he can afford to be choosy. Luckily it’s not an issue, though.”
“Why? Is Princess Jessica still a babe in arms?”
“No, but Lady Morgause — Sir Mordred’s mother — is King Arthur’s sister. That makes Princess Jessica and Sir Mordred first cousins, and first-cousin marriages are illegal in Albion.”
Allison’s mouth opened to protest, but swiftly shut. “You know,” she mused, “that might not be such a bad idea …”
“Well, when you marry the king of Elsinore, you can tell him that,” Dindrane remarked with a smile. “Now where was I?”
“Sir Lancelot’s well-dowered daughter.”
“Ah, yes. Lord Lot would have liked Sir Mordred to marry Lady Leona — that’s the daughter’s name — if he could manage it. But she’s much younger than Sir Mordred, which, though that wouldn’t be a problem with Lord Lot, seems to bother Lady Guinevere. More to the point, Lady Guinevere and Lady Morgause simply cannot abide each other.”
“The Orkneys seem to have a lot of enemies.”
“Not ‘enemies’ per se … but they’re certainly not popular. And besides, would you choose a woman you despised to be your daughter’s mother-in-law?”
“Not if I could help it,” Allison admitted. “Still, I’m astonished that Sir Lancelot would allow his wife to take such a stand — and that Lord Lot would accept it!”
Dindrane decided it would not be prudent to remark on just how free a rein the ladies of Albion were accustomed to give to their tongues. Instead she just replied, “Well, no doubt Sir Lancelot let her because it accords with his views. He and his cousin, Sir Bors, have been seeking to fix up a marriage between their houses for years.”
“Oh,” Allison replied. “So Sir Lancelot and Lady Guinevere are in agreement, and your betrothal is final …” She paused and tilted her head to one side. “Aren’t you happy?”
“To finally be betrothed, to have your future set, to know you’re not going to end up an old maid …” She stared narrowly at Dindrane. “You’re not happy.”
Dindrane thought it prudent to direct her attention to the chessboard.
“Why not?” Allison asked. “Is–oh no–he’s not cruel, is he? I mean, he wouldn’t beat you or anything like that?”
Dindrane had her own thoughts about Sir Mordred’s propensity for cruelty, but she knew better than to voice them with Allison sounding geniunely worried. “My father would never marry me to a man that he thought for a moment would mistreat me,” she said, entirely truthfully. “I have no doubt that as long as I perform my duties toward him, Sir Mordred will treat me with all honor and respect.” This last statement also had the virtue of being entirely truthful. She glanced toward the board again. “My … lack of excitement towards this marriage has nothing to do with Sir Mordred, I can assure you.”
Allison stared at her open-mouthed. “There’s someone else?”
“How did you–” Dindrane started, then clamped her mouth shut.
But it was too late. “There’s someone else!” Allison repeated. “Oh, Dindrane, I never thought you had it in you! Tell me–tell me who it is!”
“No one you’ve met,” Dindrane said quickly. Allison raised one eyebrow. “I mean it. Ma–the person came to this university before you could have.”
“How do you know that?”
“Because you and I came here the same year, nit-wit,” Dindrane replied with a roll of her eyes.
“Oh … true. Damn, and here I thought I was being clever.” She hesitated for just a moment, then asked, “But there is someone else, isn’t there?”
Dindrane and looked away. “Yes,” she said in a low voice, “there is.”
*Allison: Not the queen, just a random dormie. So is Alice, for that matter.