“Point number four,” Delyth Gwynedd said, shuffling the parchment on her father’s podium, “the Emperor of Reme is supposed to be crazy. I don’t mean that he just does stupid stuff from time to time, because anybody can do that, I mean he’s certifiably nuts. They say his guards have caught him dancing through the corridors with a lampshade on his head! And he almost did that dance in the main — um,” she shuffled the papers again, “for-um of Reme, but his guards caught him sneaking out and stopped him before he got that far. Would you trust someone like that to be running your country? I don’t think so.”
Delyth grinned at her mostly imaginary audience, then glanced at her papers again.
“In conclusion,” she continued, “I don’t see any reason why we — I mean, why King Arthur — shouldn’t start taking more land to the west. Like I said before, the Reman army pulled out of the frontier before any of us — well, any of us students — were even born. That’s because they’re stretched so thin, taking care of all of Reme’s other frontiers. And, we all know that the Reman army isn’t what it used to be. Once upon a time, aye, it was a world-famous fighting force, but not anymore. Remember last winter, the Reman army got creamed by some rebels from Smina. And those weren’t even soldiers, just some angry peasants with pitchforks!”
She paused, clearly letting the effect of the words sink in. “And lastly — the Reman government isn’t in a position to try to stop us. Even if their army was up to snuff, there’s nobody competent to tell it where to go. Everyone knows that the Senate doesn’t have any real power, and even if they did, they haven’t accomplished anything in over a century. The Emperor, who’s supposed to the powerful one, is off his rocker.
“So, why not expand?” Delyth asked. “The land to the west doesn’t have a lot of people, so they can’t get annoyed at us for coming in. The Reman army can’t defend it. And even if they could, there’s nobody who’s sane or smart enough to tell them to march over here and whip our butts for taking their land. So I say, let’s take the land! King Arthur should send settlers in, before someone else grabs it from under our noses!”
She took a deep breath and folded her hands on the podium. “And that’s my oral report.” Then she turned to the sole member of her audience with a smile. “So, how’d I do, Dad?”
Pellinore smiled and chuckled. “Well, Delyth, if you were to present that report of yours to the King, I daresay you’d give him something to think about.”
“Maybe, but it doesn’t matter what the King thinks, it matters what Sister Margery thinks.” She hopped off the step stool and walked over to Pellinore. “So do you think she’ll like it?”
That was a bit tougher. Sister Margery — the teacher of the lower grades in general and Delyth and Dilys in particular — was, Pellinore knew from when she and Dindrane had been friends, a gentle soul. All this talk of invading and land there for the taking wasn’t likely to sit well with her.
On the other hand, she was also a fair teacher. Moreover, she’d picked out the question of taking lands to the west as a possible topic for the childrens’ oral reports herself, so the thought of some of her students arguing to take the land couldn’t bother her too much.
“I think,” Pellinore said, “that Sister Margery will probably think you did a good job — but I also think there are some things you could improve upon.”
Delyth sighed. “You always think there’s something that I could do better.”
“Naturally, sweetheart. There’s always room for improvement,” Pellinore replied. “Would you like to hear my suggestions?”
“First of all, I like your animation,” Pellinore began. “You’re clearly very comfortable with your topic and know it well. On the other hand, it’s also very clear that, while you have notes laid out in front of you, you haven’t prepared and memorized a speech beforehand.”
“We weren’t supposed to! Sister Margery said we could use notes!”
“And that was very wise of her. Even the King generally has notes close to hand when he gives a speech. However, he also does his very best to memorize what he’s about to say beforehand, so he can give the speech smoothly.”
“Now, the only reason I’m saying this is that, if you’ll listen when the King gives a speech, you’ll notice that one word goes right to the next. There are no awkward pauses, and no — well, I call them ‘filler words.’ Words such as, ‘like,’ ‘um,’ and ‘so,’ when used in excess. Do you understand?”
“I noticed that you tend to use these words rather often. Don’t you think your speech would be better if you could use less of them, by memorizing at least some of your speech beforehand?”
“I guess,” Delyth admitted. “But, um, Daddy?”
“I have to give the report tomorrow.”
Pellinore’s shoulders slumped — then he reminded himself that, after all, Delyth was only eleven. Nobody was expecting prize-winning oratory out of her. Sister Margery would probably be more than happy with the fact that Delyth had researched her topic and was able to speak clearly, confidently, and with an organized flow and coherent argument to her ideas.
“Well, then I guess I don’t have much more to say,” he chuckled. “Except — Delyth?”
“That part when you talked about the ‘world-famous fighting force’ — that was very good. The alliteration was very clever. It makes it stick in your memory. Make sure you use that in your report tomorrow.”
Delyth grinned. “Mummy suggested that.”
“Well, I always knew your mother was a smart lady,” Pellinore chuckled. “Do you have any questions?”
“All right, well, if you’re done, I’m done.”
“All right!” Delyth grinned. “I’d better go finish up the rest of my homework.”
“Aye, you’d better.” As Delyth started to walk away, another thought struck Pellinore. “Wait a moment. Does Dilys have her report due tomorrow, too?”
“Yes, she does.”
“Hmm,” Pellinore murmured. “Do you know if she’s been practicing?”
“I don’t think she has.”
“All right. Well, you run along, I’ll go find your sister.”
“All right, Daddy.” And Delyth disappeared, probably to finish up the rest of that homework.
It didn’t take Pellinore long to find Dilys — the sound of notes being patiently plunked out on the piano led him straight to her. “Dilys?” he asked as he entered the music room.
Dilys looked up, blinking slowly. “Yes?”
“I was just helping your sister practice for her oral report tomorrow. Don’t you have a report, too?”
It would have taken a very observant man to notice the way Dilys’s hands fell to her lap and clenched, but in Pellinore’s profession, it paid to be observant. That went double for being a father. “Yes, Daddy.” Her voice was scarcely above a whisper.
“Have you practiced it yet?”
Dilys looked at the keys and shook her head.
“Would you like to?” Pellinore asked. Gently, he added, “I’ve found that it helps to practice what you’re going to say before you have to give a speech. You’re much less nervous when it comes time to actually speak.”
She stared at her lap and kicked her legs slowly. “I don’t want to.”
“Are you sure?” Pellinore asked. “Come on, it’ll make you feel much more calm tomorrow. I promise.”
“What if it’s bad? It’s too late to fix it if it is …”
“It won’t be, I promise. You’re a bright young lady, I’m sure your report will be wonderful. Won’t you at least give me a preview?”
Dilys’s shoulders slumped. “All right.”
“Thank you, sweetheart. You’ll do a wonderful job. Now, come with me.” And, putting a comforting hand on her shoulder, Pellinore led her to the podium. Luckily, her notes were already in her pocket, so there was no delay to their starting.
Sometimes, watching his youngest daughters together — or apart — Pellinore wondered how it was possible that they could be twins. Their demeanors, in some things, were so totally opposite as to provoke disbelief that they were even related. Take now, for instance. Where Delyth had stepped confidently up to the podium, a brilliant smile on her face, making eye contact with Pellinore and several imaginary members of the audience, Dilys shambled to it, her hands shaking as she smoothed out her notes. She didn’t even look up once.
“My r-r-report,” she began, “is on whether the k-k-kingdom of Albion sh-should try to t-t-take some l-l-land from the E-e-empire of R-reme.”
Pellinore smiled and nodded encouragement, though if she’d been anyone else, he would have been asking her to speak up. It wouldn’t do to criticize — even constructively — Dilys at this stage, however.
“I d-d-don’t th-think we sh-should,” Dilys continued. “R-r-reme is a b-b-big empire, and though it’s s-s-suffered some m-military s-s-setbacks, their m-might is s-s-still stronger than anything Albion c-c-could cope with.” She took a deep, shaky breath.
“Very good, sweetheart,” Pellinore interjected. And it was good, she was barely a sentence into her report and she’d already hit upon the prime reason the King wasn’t seriously considering any expansionist moves, whatever hawks like Delyth might say to the contrary.
Dilys looked up and almost smiled before turning back to her notes. “Um — the p-p-problem is, Albion doesn’t have a v-v-very b-big army. We only have a f-f-few h-hundred m-m-men. And the R-r-reman Empire can raise an army of t-t-tens of th-th-thousands, if they w-w-want their land b-b-back.” She took another deep breath. “And even th-though our c-c-country is supposed to be allied with and g-g-get help from G-g-glasonland, G-g-glasonland is experiencing its own p-p-problems and m-might not be able to h-h-help us if we n-n-needed it. Especially if they s-s-say that we got ourselves into this m-m-mess and we should g-get ourselves o-o-out of it.”
Pellinore nodded and smiled, trying to keep her going.
“And …” Dilys turned one of her notes over — the crinkling of the parchment rattled through the room, louder than her voice had ever been — and went pale. This was quite an accomplishment for Dilys, whose complexion was normally rather bloodless to begin with. “Oh, no.”
“Dilys, what is it?”
“Oh, no, no, no, no …” She waved the parchment in his face; all Pellinore could make out was a set of black squiggles. “Daddy, the ink wasn’t dry when I put it in my pocket! It’s all black smudges now! I can’t read what I’m supposed to say!”
Before Pellinore could comfort her and point out that she had the rest of the evening to re-write those notes — and that he would give her all the assistance necessary in doing so — Dilys covered her face with her hands and sobbed, “I knew it was hopeless! I’m going to fail!”
“Sweetheart! Of course you won’t!”
“Yes, I will! I knew it when Sister Margery first gave out this project! I couldn’t pass if my life depended on it!” She pulled her hands over her eyes. “I can’t give a speech in front of the whole class! I can’t even do it with just you!”
“You’re nervous, that’s natural. Sister Margery won’t take off just for you being nervous.”
“She will when she compares me to Delyth!”
“She’s most certainly not going to be comparing you to your–”
“Yes she will! Did you know that Delyth picked the same topic? And she’s arguing the opposite side?” Dilys covered her eyes with her hands. “The whole class is going to agree with her, and she’s going to get an A, and I’m going to fail!”
“Dilys. Dilys, calm down.” Pellinore put a hand on her shoulder. “First of all, Sister Margery is not going to fail you even if the whole class agrees with Delyth and not you — and personally, I don’t think it’s very likely that they would.”
Dilys looked up. “Why not?”
“Because, sweetheart, you’ve only just begun and you’ve made some very good points. Besides, the whole grade isn’t based on just how well you speak, is it?”
She stared at her feet. “Sister Margery said it was a big part.”
“But is it the whole thing?”
“So there you have it. And — do you want me to let you in on a little secret?”
“Even if you don’t do very well on this project,” Pellinore confided in a conspiratorial whisper, “it’s not going to matter much in the long run.”
Dilys’s eyes went wide. “But you and Mummy always want us to get good grades!”
“No, your mother and I want you to work hard and do your best, and to always ask for help when you need it. If that means you get very good grades, that’s wonderful. If it doesn’t, you’ve done everything you can, and nobody can be good at everything, anyway. Now, come here.” He threw his arms open for a hug. Dilys stepped into it and buried her head on his shoulder.
“Feel better?” he asked after a tight squeeze.
“Want some help straightening out those notes of yours?”
“If — if you don’t mind.”
“Of course I don’t.” He pulled away with a smile. “After all, what are fathers for?”