Garnet stood at the doorway to her parents’ bedroom, her heart pounding, palms wet. But she had to confront her mother. Had to. She’d put it off long enough.
She had ignored her mother for weeks, ever since Lot had brought her back from Morgan and Accolon’s home. It hadn’t been anywhere near as difficult as one might have supposed it would be. There was school, there was Morgan and Accolon’s home, there was the library — where Morgause never went — if she had to be at home. The only times she was hard-pressed to avoid her mother were mealtimes, and lately, Morgause had been having her meals sent up to her bedchamber.
Lazy sow. Morgause had put herself on bed rest since the baby had progressed from being a slight bump, easily covered by her dresses, to a large swelling that no amount of creative dressing could hide. Part of Garnet, the part that wanted to see Morgause’s comeuppance come, from anyone, for anything, was hoping that the midwife would say it was unnecessary. But the midwife hadn’t been around in weeks — some sort of family problems, Garnet had heard.
But all this thinking wasn’t getting Morgause confronted. Taking a deep breath, Garnet pushed the door open — not bothering to knock — and slipped inside.
“I know what you did, Mother.”
Not even looking up from her book, Morgause replied laconically, “If you are referring to polishing off the last of the sweetmeats, do recall that I am eating for two — and your little brother is a hungry little lad.”
Sweetmeats? She thinks this about SWEETMEATS?! Garnet took a deep breath and closed the door behind her. She stood — or, to be more accurate, leaned — against it, gathering her courage once again. “Not — that.” With another deep breath, she said, “I know what you did with Lamorak.”
Morgause looked up from her book. Only for a moment, and her face was inscrutable. “And what,” she asked, “would that be?”
Garnet murmured a spell to soundproof the room. Morgause smirked even as her eyes refused to leave her page. “You — you –” If she had to say it, she would choke! “You know what it was!”
“Not necessarily. It cannot have escaped Lamorak that my voice is the loudest in protesting this — I must say it again — most imprudent match. If he were to be nervous of losing you, well, who knows what he might make up?
For a moment Garnet’s stomach dropped — if Lamorak had made it up —
No, he couldn’t have! He’s not that creative!
“You seduced him,” Garnet whispered.
“Pardon? I couldn’t quite catch that.”
Damn you! Like a child, she ran up to her mother’s bedside and screamed, “YOU SEDUCED HIM!”
That at least got Morgause to put her book away.
“Is that how he put it?” she asked, drumming her fingers over her engorged stomach. “Seduction? Tell me, what did I do to seduce him? Get him drunk? Show him my — not at all bad, for my age, let me tell you — body? Shower him with kisses, caresses, flirtations?”
“You used a love potion!”
Morgause smirked. “Is that what he told you? To assuage his guilt, I presume?”
“He told me what you smelled like,” Garnet whispered.
For the first time, Morgause’s eyes widened. “Indeed.” She surveyed her nails — but was it Garnet’s imagination, or was Morgause’s hand a bit less steady than usual? “I’m surprised he would note that.”
“You don’t even deny it?”
“Why should I?” Morgause shrugged. “Clearly, he told you everything — and, given your misplaced priorities, you believed him. There’s no point trying to change your mind.”
“I could tell Father! He’d have every right to have you killed! The King wouldn’t stop him — not after what you did to Accolon!”
“Misplaced priorities,” Morgause muttered, shaking her head. She glanced again at Garnet. “Let us say, for the sake of argument, that you did tell your father. And let us also assume that he believed you, instead of brushing off your concerns as the ravings of a half-deranged girl–”
“I am NOT half-deranged!”
“Your actions do not make that at all clear. Anyway, let us suppose that you tell him, and he believes you. And let us also suppose that he wreaks, or does not wreak, whatever vengeance he deems appropriate against me. What do you suppose would be his next move?”
Garnet hiccuped. Lamorak …
Morgause slowly smiled, the smile a cat might give when she saw the canary perched within pouncing distance. “If your father were to challenge Lamorak — which he surely would — then one of the men you loved most in the world would die. And needless to say, no matter how the fight ended, you would not be marrying Lamorak.”
“I hate you,” Garnet whispered.
“If that,” Morgause said, slowly swinging her legs over the bed and rising, “is how you care to admit defeat, I am more than willing to accept your surrender.”
“Surrender? You won’t win!”
“Won’t win? My dear, I already have.” Morgause chuckled. “Your young Lamorak has not only had the pleasure of bedding an experienced woman, he’s had the pleasure of bedding a near-perfect speciman of womanhood. I’ve been making grown men weep with pleasure since before he was born. You, on the other hand, will not only — seven years from now — come to his bed as a frightened virgin, you will soon enough prove to him just what you really are — a defective copy of a superb original. How long do you think it will be before he is turning back to me, in his fantasies if nothing else?”
“He loves me!”
“But he bedded me.”
“That doesn’t matter! He hates you! You — you –”
“Gave him the best sex he’ll ever have,” Morgause replied, “and really, I don’t envy the position you’ll be in once he realizes it.”
How her palm itched! Morgause’s smirk sat there, taunting her, practically begging her to smack it away–
And suddenly Garnet’s palm stung, her hand hung in mid-air, and Morgause’s cheek was red.
Slowly, Morgause brought her own hand to her cheek. She rubbed it, and pulled her hand away as if to check for blood.
Then — what was truly, horribly, unmistakably unforgivable in Garnet’s eyes — Morgause started to laugh.
How do you fight, when your enemy sees the most powerful weapons you have in your arsenal and can’t hold back the guffaws? How do you even begin to do battle when the opposing army can’t even get into line for laughing at you? How can you hope to win against a foe that can’t even take you seriously long enough to fight you?
Garnet couldn’t. So, daughter of the military man that she was, she brought to mind one of her father’s lessons: when you cannot hope to win if you fight, then it is time to retreat.
So she ran, Morgause’s laughter still ringing in her ears.
She ran through the winding corridors, across the battlements, toward the central tower — and almost right into her poor put-upon sister-in-law.
“Garnet! For heaven’s –” Dindrane stopped, surveying her face. “Goodness, Garnet, what happened?”
Was it that obvious? She wasn’t crying, was she? She wanted to cry, part of her wanted to go to her room like a little girl who had been sent to bed without supper and just sob — but surely, surely any tears on her eyes were from the cold, only from the cold. Right?
Garnet looked up. It was a pity Dindrane was so kind — and despite Mordred calling her the coldest woman alive, she was kind, Garnet didn’t understand how Mordred didn’t see it — because it almost made Garnet want to confide in her.
Almost. Because, first of all, her secret had to remain her secret if she wanted both her father and Lamorak to remain alive — and secondly, because Dindrane was so kind. She didn’t deserve to be dragged into the middle of this mess.
Dindrane turned her head a little to one side and surveyed her face carefully. “Your mother?”
“How — how did you know?”
Dindrane shrugged. “It would take someone far less observant than I to not notice that whenever you seem upset, somehow or other, your mother is at the bottom of it.”
Well, she was right there. As far as Garnet could tell, Dindrane didn’t miss a thing.
“Come. Sit with me. You look like you need to get something off your chest.”
Shocked, Garnet actually complied. It was the first time in over two years of living in the Orkney keep, so far as Garnet could remember, that Dindrane had actually offered to begin a conversation. Well, with her, at least. Rumor had it that Dindrane and Lot could have all sorts of deep, philosophical conversations so long as there was a chessboard between them. But though Dindrane had always been polite, she had made no effort to get close to Garnet — or anyone else, so far as Garnet could tell.
But offering to sit with her seemed to be the extent of Dindrane’s attempts to be sociable for one day, for once they sat, Dindrane said not a word. It was up to Garnet — once she realized that they had both sat there for a good five minutes without a word passing either of their lips — to speak. “Can mothers hate their children?”
“I do not know.”
Well, that was helpful. “Could you ever hate Nimue?”
“As things stand now, no.”
“Because she is the most important person in my world,” Dindrane said simply. “No matter what she did, there is no way she could hurt me enough to make me hate her.”
“What if you had other children?”
“Then — I do not know. But I doubt it.”
Garnet sighed. “And I didn’t even do anything to Mother — or Mordred, for that matter.”
“You think your mother favors Mordred?”
“Of course. He’s the boy. Mother would always favor the boy. She has no use for women outside her family, so what possible use could she have for women within it?” Garnet sighed again. “And of course, if the new baby is a boy, naturally he’ll be more important than me, too.”
“And if it is a girl?”
“Then — I don’t know. I guess it depends on how defective this copy is.”
“What she called me,” Garnet sighed. “A defective copy to her original.”
It was the first time Garnet could ever remember seeing it — but the expression on Dindrane’s face was definitely surprise. Shock, even. “She said that to you?”
Dindrane had nothing to say to that, or so Garnet thought. She turned and faced the wall opposite, one finger resting against her lip.
When Dindrane finally spoke again, it had nothing to do whatsoever with that they had been discussing. “Garnet, are you aware that Camford University does not have a minimum age requirement for admission?”
“Despite the families here in Albion preferring to send their children to Camford when they hit the age of eighteen, and not before,” Dindrane explained, “Camford actually has no age requirement. They will accept any student, of whatever age, so long as they can pass the entrance examination.”
Garnet knew about the entrance examinations. They had already started drilling for them at school.
Wait a minute …
“You mean — you mean I could get out of here tomorrow, if I wanted to?”
“Well, not tomorrow,” Dindrane replied. “You would have to wait until the start of the next academic year. And the next examination isn’t for nine months, anyway.”
“How — how do you know …?”
“About when the examination will be? It’s at the same time every year.”
“I — I know, but — that they’d let me in early?”
“If you passed the examination,” Dindrane pointed out. “And my father and I looked into that option when I was your age. Of course,” she murmured, “I hope you don’t mind me saying this — I was a bit better prepared for the examinations when I was your age.”
Garnet wasn’t offended it all; given how hard it was to dislodge Dindrane’s nose from a book, how could she be anything other than well-prepared?
“You would have to study a great deal over the next nine months,” Dindrane mused. “I daresay it would quite kill your social life.”
“I don’t need a social life!”
“Are you quite certain of that?”
“Certain? I’m positive! Anything to get me away from her!” Garnet flipped her hair over her shoulder. “And — oh, Wright — if I went to Camford early — then I would graduate early, wouldn’t I?”
“Er — earlier than you would if you went at the normal time, yes.”
“Then — then I could marry Lamorak earlier!”
“I suppose,” Dindrane murmured, sounding quite mystified as to why anyone would want to do that. Well, Garnet couldn’t understand that anyone would want to marry Mordred, either.
“Oh, thank you so much, Dindrane! Now — now all I need to do is convince Papa!”
“And study,” Dindrane pointed out.
“And study, yes. Oh! I could get to Camford next year! And out by the time I’m twenty!” The first real grin that had graced her face in weeks appeared as Garnet got up and ran for the steps.
She found her father right where she thought he would find him: at the chessboard, playing against an imaginary opponent who was — so he claimed — almost as good as Dindrane. He looked up when she entered. “Garnet? Care to join me?”
“Er — not right now, Papa. We need to talk.” She took a deep breath. “You see — Dindrane just told me that Camford doesn’t have an age minimum.”