Queen Alison stood at one of the many windows of the palace, watching the rain pour down, and remembered.
She remembered the night of the ball, the ball where she’d told Arthur — shocked that he hadn’t already known — that she wasn’t a duke’s daughter, or an earl’s, or a baron’s. That she wasn’t even a knight or squire’s daughter, that she was the daughter of a simple (if extremely wealthy) merchant, and hadn’t so much as a drop of noble blood in her veins. Arthur had been courting her for some time — two, three months? — by then, so how it was that he hadn’t known … but he hadn’t. The confusion and surprise that had shown on his face when she had told him, laughingly, just who she was, told him that he hadn’t the least idea. Somehow, they’d managed to get through the rest of the ball without either making a disgrace of themselves, but later on, in the early morning hours, as she rode home in her father’s coach, she’d been certain she’d lost Arthur, and had stared out another window, moisture running down her face instead of the outside of the pane.
But no, Arthur had appeared at her father’s home the next morning — well, afternoon, technically — ready with his silver tongue and winking eyes, acting as if nothing earth-shattering had occurred the night before. It hadn’t been until after they were married that Alison had the courage to ask him why hearing of her lineage, or rather the lack thereof, hadn’t discouraged him.
He’d stared at her quite seriously for a moment, then said simply, “Because I love you. Besides,” he’d added, turning onto his back and gathering Alison to his side (for they’d been in bed at the time), “the nice thing about being a second son, and a bastard to boot, is that nobody cares who you marry. So you can marry who you want, and not who everyone else wants you to marry.”
“And if everyone had cared about who you married? Would you still have married me?” Alison had asked.
Arthur had watched her for a moment, then said, “You know … and my father would kill me for saying this … but I think I would.”
Of course, things hadn’t been as simple as Arthur had presented them that night, as Alison had very quickly found out. She had always known that the court of Glasonland was a cesspool of deceit, ambition and intrigue, but going from the very fringes of the court to suddenly being at its center was a shock. So, too, was the way she was regarded by the court. She’d expected, when she could bring herself to expect anything, thinly veneered superiority, words coated in sugar but meant to cut all the same, everything just shy of outright ostracism. She’d gotten it, too, from some of the court, Arthur’s sister Morgause especially. But what she hadn’t expected was the relief on the councillor’s faces as they looked at her, or at the way that Vortigern’s partisans and close friends had personally congratulated her on her marriage, and even more than that, when she had finally become pregnant.
She’d realized why later, and not too much later, either. Her common blood brought Arthur down a rung, several of them, on the social ladder. And it brought any children he might have — they might have — down several rungs as well. Alison was, frankly, a liability to Arthur if he ever intended to seek the throne, even more of a liability if she produced children who shared her lack of noble blood. Of course Vortigern’s allies and associates would approve of her — thanks to her, they had a much-increased chance of reaping all the benefits of longtime friendship with a king.
The thought had troubled her for a time, particularly after she became pregnant; then she reflected that her common blood, and the liability it represented, could very well keep Arthur from being summarily executed at the end of his father’s reign and stopped worrying (well, about that, at least). Besides, knowing Arthur, he wasn’t about to let a little thing like his wife’s common ancestry stand between him and the throne, if he was truly convinced that he needed to take the throne. In fact, knowing him, if he ever became King, the first thing he would probably do would be to grant her father a knighthood or barony, just to thumb his nose at all those who had sneered at Alison or downplayed his chances for the throne because of his marriage to her.
And he wonders where Tommy gets it from, Alison thought, shaking her head.
It never came to that, though, and not only because her father had predeceased Uther by a good five years. It never came to that because of Albion. And now here Alison was, eighteen years after her father’s death, and twenty-one years since her transition from Mistress Blaise to Lady Alison, Duchess of Salisford (Arthur being its duke at the time), just beginning the planning of not one but two royal weddings.
If only her father could see her now …
“Majesty?” came a familiar, mechanical voice from behind her. Alison turned around. “Majesty,” Ambrosius continued, “Lady Guinevere and Lady Claire are here.”
“Excellent. Thank you, Ambrosius. Are the sweetmeats ready in my sitting-room?”
“Yes, Majesty. Tea will be arriving momentarily.”
“You’re a treasure, Ambrosius.” She tapped the robot’s shoulder with a smile, then made her way toward the vestibule, where her guests were waiting.
She only had to see Guinevere to envelope her in a hug. “Gwen!”
“Hello, Alison!” Guinevere pulled away with a big smile. “Heard anything about my son from yours? Or from your daughter?”
“Rats,” Guinevere laughed. “And I’ve not heard anything incriminating about your two, either. Maybe we should think that no news is good news?”
“Probably,” Alison chuckled. Then she turned to her second visitor. “Lady Claire.”
“Your Majesty.” Claire curtseyed, then, rising, folded her hands before her with every intimation of docility and sedateness.
“And how are you, Lady Claire? Your family?”
“Quite well, Majesty. And yours?”
If Claire had been Guinevere, or Morgan, or even Eilwen, Alison would have made a jest about everyone still being alive and sane, so therefore, everything must be well. But she wasn’t, so Alison only said, “They’re well also.” She took a deep breath. “Well, my ladies, Ambrosius has just informed me that there are sweetmeats and soon will be tea in the sitting room — shall we withdraw?”
“Sweetmeats, you say?” Guinevere asked, her eyes alight. “Those good ones you get from Glasonland?”
“The same,” Alison chuckled, “or close enough.” The sweetmeats themselves weren’t from Glasonland — they wouldn’t keep over the journey — but some of the principal ingredients were, others came to Albion by way of Glasonland, and the recipe had most certainly been invented in Glasonland. It was on those ingredients and that carefully guarded recipe (and others like it) that Alison’s grandfather had laid the foundations for the family fortune.
“Then I say that sounds lovely. Lady Claire?”
Claire nodded once, and the ladies withdrew.
When they were seated, Guinevere waited politely enough, but once Alison had made the obligatory statement of, “Please, help yourselves,” she grabbed a sweetmeat with relish she didn’t bother to hide. If it had been just her and Alison, Guinevere wouldn’t have even waited for that, and Alison wouldn’t have expected her to. But it wasn’t just them.
The chat was desultory for a few moments, at least until Guinevere went for her second sweetmeat. Alison didn’t even notice, but Claire’s nose wrinkled. “My goodness, Lady Guinevere, I should be worried about my figure if I were to eat as you do.”
“And so would I, if Lance hadn’t promised me that the training regimen he was putting me on would ensure that I could eat all the sweetmeats I wanted. He’s teaching me how to box, you see,” Guinevere said, daintily wiping her fingers on a napkin.
Forgetting herself for a moment, Alison sat up. “No!” But her eyes were bright even as her voice rang with disbelief.
“Oh, Lady Guinevere, why would he do such a thing?” Claire gasped.
“Mostly because I asked him to,” Guinevere replied with a shrug. “Considering the — pugilistic feats that my husband and children, all three of them, are capable of, I decided it would be to my advantage to know at least a thing or two about self-defense. If only to follow dinnertime conversation.”
“Oh, indeed,” Alison said, almost managing to sound serious.
“Really, Alison, if you can get Arthur to teach you some sort of martial art, I would highly recommend it,” Guinevere continued, ignoring Claire’s increasingly horrified looks. “Aside from helping to shed those unwanted pounds, Lance and I find the shared exercise quite … invigorating, if you know what I mean.”
“I believe I do,” Alison replied, guessing that Lancelot and Guinevere’s training sessions generally came to their conclusion in the bedroom.
“But anyway,” Guinevere continued, “you didn’t invite us here to hear about my diet and exercise routine, I’m sure. What did you want to discuss, Alison?”
“Indeed, Majesty, for what reason did you summon us here?”
Summon? It wasn’t a summons, it was an invitation! Alison took a deep breath and smoothed out her skirts. “Well, ladies — as you well know, in a little more than two very short years, we’ll have occasion for not one but two royal weddings.”
Claire preened and Guinevere nodded.
“Now as you all know, planning a royal wedding is … well … time-consuming. And I admit that I was not looking forward to the prospect of trying to plan two at once, or back-to-back — and of course, knowing my two, there would be endless bickering over who got to marry their true love first, and no sympathy for their poor mother …” Alison rolled her eyes, though the eye nearest to Guinevere winked. “So I thought — or rather, Ar–the King did, when I was complaining about this to him — what about a double wedding?”
Guinevere looked intrigued, but Claire bit her lip. “Majesty, I understand — indeed, you said as much — that you consulted your husband before making any such suggestion, but hadn’t we best consult our husbands’ wishes before proceeding further?”
Oh, Wright, no! “Well, naturally I should hope to have both of their input before making any final decisions,” Alison hedged, “but I don’t see any reasons why we ladies can’t make some tentative plans, instead of needing to consult them over every little thing.”
“I second that,” Guinevere replied. “Poor Lance’s eyes glaze over whenever I mention the word wedding. Besides,” she added, “I don’t see how any of our husbands’ opinions in this matter when we don’t know what the people getting married think about it.” And she cocked her eyebrow in Alison’s direction.
“I’ve already asked my two,” Alison answered. “Jessie was enthusiastically in favor of it, Tommy …” Alison shook her head and rolled her eyes.
“Was not in favor?” Claire asked, far too eagerly for Alison’s taste.
“No, it just took me a couple of letters to get a straight answer out of him,” Alison corrected, seventeen years of Queenship somehow keeping the edge out of her voice. “You, Lady Claire, should know what he’s like.”
In case Claire had blinded herself to her future son-in-law’s faults — highly probable, considering who that future son-in-law was — Alison turned to Guinevere. “He told me, in his first letter, that it was a wedding, and all he needed to know was where to stand and when to show up — the rest was up to Lady Gwendolyn and I.”
“Naturally, he chooses the wisest general answer to wedding questions at precisely the time when you actually want his opinion.”
“Naturally,” Alison nodded. “So after a bit of prodding, I was finally able to get him to tell me that, no, he doesn’t mind the thought of a double wedding at all. So, you see, we have two in favor.”
“And you want us to write to our children to see what they think?” Guinevere asked, catching on quickly. “Are you sure the Prince or Princess didn’t let it slip already?”
“I asked them not to,” Alison replied. “I didn’t — well — I want to know what Will and Lady Gwendolyn really think about the proposal, not what they think would be the best answer to give when the royal family is clearly in favor of a double wedding.”
“Of course,” Guinevere nodded.
Claire was frowning. “I do think, though, Majesty, that I should consult my husband about this — if only so I know best how to advise Lady Gwendolyn how to answer.”
“Oh, for Wright’s sake,” Guinevere replied. “Is Sir Bors getting married?”
“Is he paying for the wedding?”
Claire flushed and picked at her skirt — with reason, since usually the bride’s family paid for the wedding celebrations. Since Arthur knew of the straightened circumstances of the de Ganis family, though, he wasn’t asking for this. “Well — no.”
“Then what business is it of his?”
Claire looked to the side. “I don’t believe Lady Gwendolyn should make such a momentous decision without the benefit of her father’s advice. That’s all.”
“Momentous? Lady Claire, the momentous decision is already made. Who to marry,” Guinevere replied. “The rest — the rest is just details.”
“Well,” Claire said, staring superciliously off into the distance, “they may be just details, Lady Guinevere, but I can’t help but notice that you, in your books, pay a great deal of attention so such details. So much attention as to end the stories with them.”
“Of course I do. Readers expect that. Besides, after what I’ve put my heroes and heroines through, the least I can do for them is give them a nice wedding to start off their lives together,” Guinevere shrugged. Thankfully, she didn’t say what both she and Alison were thinking — namely, that if Lynn received her “father’s advice” on her decision, she wouldn’t be making a decision — instead, she would just be parroting back whatever her father told her to say.
Poor thing, Alison thought, barely refraining from shaking her head.
“Very well, Lady Guinevere, very well. But whether or not the wedding consists, as you put it, ‘details’ in the larger scheme of Gwendolyn’s life,” Claire retorted, “might I be allowed to say that Gwendolyn’s wedding will be the first time at which she appears before the people of Albion as — forgive me, Majesty — as their future queen? Will there not be important political ramifications to this?”
Alison tried not to wince. Of course Claire would pick up this line of argument.
“And naturally,” Claire continued, “as an innocent young girl, Gwendolyn is quite ill-equipped to correctly assess and judge between those political ramifications. So she will need her father’s advice.”
Alison glanced at Guinevere, but Guinevere could only shrug. So Alison was on her own.
She took a deep breath. “It is true that this will be Lady Gwendolyn’s introduction, so to speak, to the people of Albion at large,” she said. “And believe me, Lady Claire, I have thought long and hard about how to manage this introduction. You, of course, know your daughter better than I do — so if I am completely wrong in my assessment, I beg of you to correct me — but I do believe that, for someone with as modest and maidenly a disposition as Lady Gwendolyn’s, a double wedding might actually be advisable. She won’t have all the attention forced upon her — for, fortunately or unfortunately, we all know that it’s the bride who inhabits the spotlight at a wedding — but at the same time, she’s sure to get more than her due of homage and respects paid to her, if only because the people will know that she is the future queen.”
Guinevere nudged Alison with her foot, winked and mimed clapping deep within the folds of her skirts, where Claire couldn’t see her hands.
“Well … well, I’ll admit that I hadn’t thought of it like that,” Claire said slowly. “I — I suppose a double wedding would be easier on Gwendolyn … but … but still … the men ought to fully consider how this will look, politically.”
Alison sighed. “And so they shall, Lady Claire, and so they shall. I simply don’t want to put the question to them before I’m certain that each one of our children is in favor of a double wedding. Because, frankly, a single veto from one of them and I’m perfectly willing to give up the idea.”
She hesitated for a moment, but, upon seeing the way Claire’s eyes lit up, decided to go for it and play the Queen card. “And when I say a single veto from one of them, I mean exactly what I say — from one of them. I do not, at this juncture, frankly care about the political ramifications of this action. I also don’t care what our husbands think.” Claire gasped but Alison ignored her. “So — and I know, of course, that I don’t have to say this to you, but I want to be sure I’m absolutely clear about this — I am going to ask you to write to each of your children, and, as best you can, solicit their opinion without swaying them one way again. Is that acceptable?”
“Of course, Alison,” said Guinevere with a bright note in her voice.
“Lady Claire?” Alison asked, turning to her.
Claire sighed. “As you wish, your Majesty.”
And that, Alison supposed, was the best she going to get.