Well, hello ladies.
Prince Kay grinned. Even though his father had dragged him to the Gwynedd keep for no discernible reason — when Aglovale was out training — he grinned. Even though his father had deposited him in the front courtyard and told him he didn’t need to come in — in other words, “Lord Pellinore and I are going to discuss important things and you’re not welcome” — he grinned. How could he not, with two such lovely specimens of femininity before him?
It was too bad they were only twelve. And that they were his best friend’s younger sisters. Because otherwise — oh, otherwise, this would be wonderful.
“What’s the matter, your highness, cat got your tongue?” Delyth asked. Though Aglovale’s little sisters were twins, it was impossible not to tell them apart. Of course there was the whole Delyth-redhead and Dilys-blonde thing, but it went deeper than that. Though Kay had known both sisters as long as they had been alive, he doubted he’d heard more than a dozen words together from Dilys in all that time — a monosyllable a year. Delyth, on the other hand …
“Are you blown away by our beauty? Is that it, your highness?” She patted her hair and turned so as to show her body at the best possible angle, but there was an amused light in her blue eyes that did not at all match the flirtatious attitude the rest of her body presented.
Kay found that the most attractive thing about her at the moment.
“Something like that,” he admitted.
He noticed Dilys, though she still seemed involved with the dog, seem to tilt her head in the direction of their conversation.
“Something like that?” Delyth asked.
“More wondering just how many pieces your brother would tear me into if I were to allow myself to be blown away by your beauty.”
“Aglovale? Please. He’s too busy with his own amours to pay any attention to ours.”
“Amours? Delyth, you’re far too young for that kind of thing.”
“Says who?” Delyth giggled.
Kay leaned in closer, just so his breath would tickle her ear. “Says me.”
“You’re terrible!” Delyth giggled again — a very good giggle, really — but it was belied by the widening of her eyes.
Kay grinned a crooked, rakish grin, but before Delyth could grow more alarmed, he took a step back. Kids. Delyth was playing with fire, and he knew it — hell, she probably knew it — just to see if she would get burned. And she would get burned, sooner or later. Everybody did. But she’d get burned worse if she didn’t find some kid closer to her own age to play with. Kids, at least, only burned each other through carelessness or ignorance. Usually. Whereas people his age, people older … they gave out burns because they could. Because they liked to see the sizzle, hear the screams of pain.
Now, Kay liked to play with fire as much as anyone. But he never, ever gave out burns. Not on purpose, anyway.
“So,” Kay asked in a tone much closer to normal, “how are the upper grades treating you?” He tilted his head so to as to include Dilys in the question.
Delyth answered anyway. “Oh, Mother Julian is far more strict than Sister Margery ever was,” she sighed.
“Aww, what’s wrong, does she actually want you to use your brains?”
“Shut up! You sound like Aglovale.”
“So?” He chuckled. “Have some pity on me. I’m the baby at home — no little sisters to pick on.” He sighed and pretended to pout.
“Right, you just have a big sister to give you some well-deserved teasing!”
“Well deserved? I resent that. Delyth, I would have that you, at least, would appreciate my charms and have some sympathy for me!”
“Because I’m the baby of the family too?”
“Naw — just because you’re gullible.”
“I try, Delyth, I try.”
“I feel like a voyeur.”
“With all due respect, your majesty — if that’s how you feel, how do you think I feel?”
The King of Albion and his Chief Magistrate looked at each other and sighed. “There’s no logical reason for us to feel so uncomfortable,” Arthur grumbled.
“None in the world.”
“We’ve already determined that an alliance between our families would be the best thing for the kingdom — better than a foreign alliance, better than Kay asking the hand of one of the de Ganis girls or Lady Leona.”
“All of whom are taken, in any case.”
Arthur chuckled. “And Lady Garnet is not only taken, but also his cousin.”
“Indeed. So really, if you want your son to marry a maid from this kingdom — my girls were your only options.”
Arthur smiled and laid a hand on his Chief Magistrate’s shoulder. “I was trying to make you feel, Pellinore, that it was something other than sheer necessity.”
“Your majesty, with all due respect — sheer necessity works.”
“Truly, old friend?”
Arthur glanced sidelong at his companion. It was true that Pellinore was not the friend to him that say, Lancelot was — there were few friends who could compare to the one who had been your bosom buddy since you were both too small to remember anything different — but he was a good man, and a good civil servant. Lancelot had helped support his spirits and his feelings in those first hard months and years after the removal from Glasonland, but Pellinore — Pellinore had helped him build his kingdom. Without Pellinore, there may not have not have been a kingdom. Since the twins had chosen for themselves so young, how better could he reward his top lawman than to give one his daughters the chance to become cadet royalty?
Pellinore turned to him with a smile. “Majesty, I would be a fool to think anything otherwise — assuming, of course, that the Prince and one of my girls hit it off. Which …” He glanced out the window. “Majesty?”
“Yes?” Arthur looked quickly, to make sure his son wasn’t up to anything he’d have to smack him silly for.
He wasn’t. “Perhaps,” Pellinore suggested, “we would feel less … voyeuristic if we were to move away from the window.”
“Now why didn’t I think of that?”
“Because you still need me around, Majesty.” Pellinore gestured to the desk, clearly waiting for Arthur to take the larger, more comfortable chair behind it. Arthur gave him a look and took one of the guest chairs.
“So,” Pellinore asked as he sat, “which do you think he’ll fancy?”
“Which do I think he’ll fancy? My lord, they’re your daughters.”
“With all due respect, Majesty, he’s your son.”
Arthur sighed. “I’m feeling like a voyeur again.”
“Would you rather discuss the latest headache to arrive by way of Glasonland?”
“Wright, no! Not today!” Arthur smiled and shook his head. “Very well, since our minds are not likely to be able to consider any other subject — we may as well stick with the one we have.”
The two men stared at each other, each clearly waiting for the other to venture an opinion.
Since he was the King, Arthur sighed and spoke further — but only to duck the question. If, as King, he had to take responsibility for a lot of things he wanted nothing to do with, he thought he had the right to pass the copper on those subjects that didn’t need his input. “Pellinore … though you are right that I would be expected to know my son better than you do, may I point out that while my son has spent those hours not spent raising hell at my home, raising hell at yours — whereas your daughters, alas, have not returned the favor?”
“Dilys and Delyth’s hobbies have never tended much in the way of raising hell, but I perceive your meaning, Majesty. Very well, I will go first.” Pellinore pursed his lips together and considered the problem. “Well, if I were a betting man …”
Pellinore wasn’t a betting man, and Arthur knew it. Too much of a lawyer’s stolid caution for that. But he nodded for Pellinore to continue.
“Well, I would lay my money … Wright, this is too crude. Very well. I think it far more likely that Delyth will catch Prince Kay’s eye, and that Prince Kay will hold her attention in return.”
“May I ask why?”
“Of course. Delyth is a lively, sprightly girl — not as modest and retiring as my Dilys. To be … well, to be honest, as one father to another, I’m not sure how I’ll find her a husband she can be happy with.”
Arthur nodded. “You’re afraid most men would … overpower her?”
“In a manner of speaking — I’m sure I could find one who would respect her and not mistreat her, that does not bother me, but at the same time … one can be overpowered without necessarily being disrespected or mistreated.”
“You want a husband who will not overwhelm her simply by virtue of being who he is.”
“And I doubt very much there are very many men in the world capable of doing that — nor ladies either, I’m afraid!” Pellinore laughed.
“Perhaps she’ll surprise you,” Arthur suggested. “She’s still quite young — when my Jess was that age, I frankly despaired of … well, I had the opposite problem. I thought it was all but certain that I would never find a an who would give her the respect that she was due, who would … well. Who would not attempt to turn my daughter into a submissive, meek woman that she could never be without breaking her spirit entirely. And then she went and found one for herself!”
“But as you say, you had the opposite problem … my Dilys is not at all likely to go out and find a young man for herself. Fortunately or unfortunately.”
“Indeed. Well, don’t fret, old chap. She’s only twelve … and since marriage won’t even be in the cards until after she’s spent some time at Camford …?”
“Well, then, don’t worry about it, my lord. You’ve only got ten years. Something will present itself.”
Dilys was still playing with the dog. If Kay didn’t know better, he would have wondered if it was something he said.
“What’s his name?” he asked suddenly, crouching to allow the dog to sniff his hand. Dilys’s head flew up, her eyes wide and startled.
They were very blue, he noticed. It shouldn’t have startled him — for Wright’s sake, Aglovale, Delyth, Lamorak, even Dindrane and his baby cousin Nimue had the same eyes! But somehow, in her, they were — different. Fathomless, like a clear blue lake reflecting the clear blue sky. An endless circle of brilliant, clean, clear, healthy, life-giving blue.
Easy, Kay! She’s twelve!
He smiled at her — not the rakish grin he had given to Delyth, but a gentle smile he would give to a little sister, assuming he had one. Anything else would just upset her. She wasn’t ready to warm her hands at the fire yet, much less play with it. Not like her sister at all.
“I — his n-n-name –”
“Is Roland,” Delyth filled in. “We bought him to — breed with Charity.” And Delyth waggled her eyebrows up and down, almost suggestively, if there hadn’t been an edge of humor to it.
Kay was too busy looking up at Delyth as she talked, and thus wasn’t in a position to notice the look Dilys shot her sister. Not that it would have mattered; it was too quick for him to be able to interpret. Was it a grateful look — an annoyed one — a jealous one? Whatever it was, it was quickly turned to the dog, where the look died and was replaced by a smile.
“Indeed,” Kay murmured. “I wonder what kind of pups this mangy mutt will make with Charity?” He winked to let Dilys know he was kidding — let Delyth take offense if she would.
“Adorable ones,” was the only answer he got — and surprisingly enough, it came from Dilys.
“Ah, well, with that I must quit the field. I never argue the question of whether puppies are cute with a lady.”
“And why would that be?” Delyth asked.
“Because I tried to tell Lady Leona that Charity and Chastity were far more adorable to visitors than to people who, for better or worse, had share the house with them — and would you believe it, she almost clocked me!”
“No!” Dilys whispered.
“Oh, aye, almost he says — don’t believe him, Dilys, she probably just gave him a dirty look.”
“I say almost because it was almost — as in, I’d never run faster in my life than I did, to avoid that thrashing!” Kay laughed.
He rose, extending a hand to Dilys out of careless gallantry. It hung there, suspended in air, for a few moments before Dilys finally took it. As she helped herself up, her hand trembled in his, a windblown leaf.
When she was safely on her feet again, Dilys allowed herself one quick glance at his profile before her gaze dropped. She held her hand close to herself, twisting it against the fabric of her dress.
“Well, my ladies, this conversation has been lovely — quite lovely,” Kay said, “but my better instincts tell me that I had better go in and pay my respects to your mother — lest my mother hear of my appalling rudeness and give me the thrashing Lady Leona narrowly avoided giving me. Shall I bid you good day, or are you coming in as well?”
“We’ll probably be in before you leave,” Delyth replied. “But not right away. Dilys wanted to teach Roland to fetch.”
“Ah. Well, hopefully I shall see you later. Delyth — Dilys.” He bowed to both of them. Both of them curtsied, but Dilys blushed as she did so. It was adorable — or at least it would have been, if she wasn’t twelve.
“Dilys?” he asked. “Did I mention — forgive me if I have — but did I mention that your dress is quite becoming on you.”
“It — you think it is?” she gasped, flushing again.
“Oh, Wright! That’s so cheesy! Don’t believe him, Dilys, he’s just trying to bother you.”
Kay ignored her. “It brings out the color of your eyes,” he whispered. And with a wink, he left them.