“And you think I’m bad.”
Aglovale winked at the girl — young woman, really — at the other end of the bar before turning back to his friend. “I don’t think your bad, my friend — I merely envy your success. All Prince Kay has to do is whistle, and the maids come a-flocking.”
“The ‘prince’ bit probably has something to do with it.”
Hence its mention, my friend. But Aglovale wouldn’t say that, not out loud. Prince Kay might be his friend, and a remarkably even-tempered one — but he was still a prince.
Instead Aglovale asked, turning back to Kay, “You think so?” He cocked one eyebrow. “You don’t think it’s your rakish good looks, your indefatigable charm?”
“Nope, those just get the maids to actually enjoy my company once they flock — doesn’t have anything to do with the flocking.” He gestured to the barmaid. “But I thought you were happy with Babette?”
Why, oh why had he told Kay Babette’s name? Because of course he would remember. The King doubtless trained both of his sons to remember names, to remember faces, to put them together. It was a way to show good leadership, to make men feel confident in your skills — and to make them feel important, valued. He’d learned as much listening in to conversations between Lord Lot and his son Sir Mordred during his training sessions.
And whenever Kay said Babette’s name, somehow — somehow it made Aglovale feel wrong. Guilty, somehow. Because he knew how Kay treated women; he ran through them like a besieging army ran through beer, but they never left him broken-hearted. Never left angry at him, either. No, they all saw their time with the prince as a gift, a gift made doubly better by the fact when Kay left them, he said was because he “wasn’t good enough” for them — and somehow managed to find someone waiting in the wings who was “good enough for them.”
The first girl that Kay had tried that on was going to get married to the boy he had set her up with, next spring …
“Is that a no?”
Aglovale glanced at Kay, who was wearing a small smile. What that smile meant … Aglovale hadn’t the least idea. And he had known Kay since the two of them were still in napkins.
“Barmaid! More ale!” Aglovale called. Aglovale used the young woman’s business as an excuse not to answer for a few moments. When she’d filled two tankards and shoved them in front of the young men — bending as she shoved so they could both get a good view of her cleavage — Aglovale found the words to speak again. But he waited until she moved away before he spoke.
“Eh — things are all right with us. But it’s not like it could ever go anywhere, so …”
Kay didn’t answer — or when he did, it wasn’t at all to the purpose. “Does she know that?”
“She ought to. I’ve only been telling her since we first started that she had to keep it quiet, since if anyone found we’d get split up.”
“That’s not the same as the relationship not going anywhere.”
“Of course it is. She knows it’s not permanent — hell, if I can’t afford to have it getting out about the two of us, I sure as hell won’t ever be in a position to marry her, if that’s what she’s thinking!”
Kay just raised one eyebrow.
“Oh, for Wright’s sake, don’t look at me like that. She’s a commoner. A commoner! I could never wed a commoner. Surely you understand that.”
“I don’t know, Aglovale … she’s from a wealthy background, and it’s not like you have to carry on the family line or anything. And your father is a good man. He’d probably let you marry her, if that’s what you wanted.”
Aglovale almost spit his ale out — which would have been very unfortunate, because not only was this good ale, the barmaid was in his direct trajectory and he didn’t want to have to be paying for a new dress for her. But didn’t Kay get it? He was a second son, too!
But no — Kay might be a second son, but he wasn’t in Aglovale’s position. His father had a whole bloody country to apportion to his sons; he could well afford to give Kay a decent chunk of land and he’d gain a guaranteed-loyal vassal to boot. Kay would never want for anything. Whereas Aglovale would only get a second son’s meager portion, whatever that amounted to — the rest he would have to accomplish on his own.
And marrying well — as in, marrying a well-dowered, well-bred, noble girl — was the first step in accomplishing anyway. Hell, if he found the right girl, he might never have to accomplish anything else, ever again — he still would, of course, he just wouldn’t have to.
But Kay, he knew, never responded well to such mercenary motives when it came to women. He could understand marrying to cement a family alliance or something like that, but not just marrying a woman for her money. Especially not when the match was so obviously unequal on that point.
Aglovale sighed. “Well, maybe he would,” he forced himself to agree. Actually agreeing in and of itself wasn’t that difficult, because Pellinore would let him marry Babette if that’s what he wanted. That was why he was keeping the whole relationship secret, not in case his father disapproved, but in case he approved. “But still — I don’t see us going anywhere. You know I’m going to Camford the year after you are — and Babette isn’t going at all. There’s no way she’d want to wait that long.”
She’d be a fool if she did. In the three years between her coming of age and Aglovale graduating, she’d be sure to find a much better prospect for herself if she kept her wits about her. All Aglovale would have to offer her would be a noble bloodline, and ambitions — ambitions that would be severely hampered by marrying too soon, and marrying the wrong woman.
“Well, that’s a point,” Kay agreed. “If you’re sure she’s not going, that is.”
“Oh, trust me. She’s not — oh, hell,” Aglovale muttered into his tankard. “Here comes the spoil sport.”
Kay turned around to see what he had seen — Elyan walking into the pub.
Elyan paused, then, catching Kay’s eye, he bowed, deep and respectful. Then he saw Aglovale and gave — hell, it wasn’t a bow, a slight bob of the head with shoulders following.
If Aglovale had been Sir Mordred or Lamorak, Elyan would have bowed. If he had been Prince Thomas, Elyan definitely would have bowed. Hell, he would have even bowed for Sir William, and the two of them were family — cousins or something!
But no, because Aglovale was a second son and not royal, he didn’t merit that kind of respect. Fine. Elyan might be an elder son, but if he couldn’t give the basic modicum of respect, he wasn’t getting it either. Aglovale returned the nod.
Before Elyan could do more than begin a glare, Kay had slid from his bar stool to great the other young man. “Elyan,” he said, giving the other boy’s hand a hearty shake, “how are you?”
“Well enough. And yourself, your highness?”
“For Wright’s sake, Elyan — it’s Kay. Just Kay, for now and for the forseeable future.”
Elyan always did that — always went for formality, and only toned it down when specifically asked to. Disgusting arse-licker.
“If you insist.”
Aglovale took another swig of his ale.
“Anyway, come up, have a seat — plenty of room for all of us.” Kay resumed his seat, and Elyan … Elyan took one appraising look at Aglovale and took a seat one down from him.
Aye, that’s right, you’ll be so much safer with one seat between you and me!
Kay waved to the barmaid and gestured to Elyan. “Ale,” Elyan said when she glanced toward him. When the barmaid gave him his drink, he took a long, appreciative sip.
“So how is your mother doing?” Kay asked.
His mother? What — oh. Right. Aglovale put down his tankard and, for once, didn’t have a smart comment — not even a mental smart comment. He had heard his mother talking about the incident to the twins, and even though he wouldn’t admit it to anyone, not even to himself … it made him very glad to think that his mother was surely past child-bearing by now.
Maybe not, Mum’s the same age as Lady Morgause …
Well, in any case, his mother wasn’t a witch. And she was far older than Lady Claire.
Elyan waited only to swallow his ale before answering. “She’s — well. As well as can be expected. She — she’s resting, she’s not so sick anymore — the midwife said to make sure to eat lots of good food and drink lots of water, so — so she hasn’t been spending much time out of bed, but other than that, she’s good.” Elyan took another swallow of ale. “She’s very good.”
Aglovale counted his fingers — from “well,” to “as well as can be expected” to “good” to “very good.” Four different reports on Lady Claire’s status, all slightly different, but mostly accentuating the positive. Was it just his imagination, or was Elyan perhaps hoping that if he said she was well enough times, she would actually be well?
“Rest will probably fix her up well,” Kay said with a note of false cheerfulness to his voice. He waved for the barmaid to bring refills all around.
Aglovale gladly took another tankard-full, as did Kay, but Elyan waved her away. “Barely made a dent on yours?” Kay asked, conversationally.
“Er — er, yes, that’s right.”
Aglovale leaned forward. Elyan was telling the truth; the two swallows he’d seen him take had barely taken the froth off the glass. “What’s the matter, Elyan, afraid you can’t hold your ale tonight?” Aglovale jeered.
“Don’t be ridiculous — I’ve a better head for it than either of you two ever have, that’s certain.”
“If you’ve still got a head for your alcohol, that means you haven’t drunk enough yet!” Kay called merrily.
“Some of us,” Elyan said — he sounded like a prim old school-marm, or worse, “prefer not to drink to the point where we lose all inhibitions and make fools of ourselves.”
“You know, Elyan,” Aglovale grinned, “that’s the kind of thing a nun would say — and not a nun like your sister, either.” He elbowed Kay and grinned.
“Angelique is a model lady of the church!”
“If she is, then Mother Julian must have bewitched her — because the Angelique I knew would as soon be a model moll as a model nun!”
“She would not!”
“Enough, Aglovale, leave him be — you know you wouldn’t want someone saying that about Dilys — or Delyth.”
“Or Lady Dindrane, for that matter,” Elyan muttered, taking a long swig of his ale.
It wouldn’t be true about Dindrane, Dilys or Delyth, Aglovale thought. But the prince had spoken, so he held his peace.
Elyan put his mug down; it clunked hollowly. Kay made to wave the barmaid over, but Elyan shook his head.
Kay only raised one eyebrow, but Aglovale chuckled into his tankard. “Nun.”
“I’m not being a nun! I just — I can’t — I’m running a bit low on my allowance, all right? Happy?”
Kay and Aglovale stared. Both of them had fathers that were strict with money, so both knew what it was like to run near to the end of the month and not have all they wanted for their pleasures — and Elyan’s father had that much less to spare for Elyan — but Elyan was always so careful, so clever with his money — surely he couldn’t be …?
“Wright almighty, Elyan,” Aglovale chuckled, “what did you buy?”
“That’s for me to know — and you to find out.”
Something about the look on his face — Aglovale put his mug down. “Did you finally pay that Steward girl to sleep with you?”
“It’s the only way you’re going to get anything, my friend — Wright knows Lady Leona won’t touch you with a ten-foot pole!”
“I wouldn’t pay Rosamund for that! If I was going to pay a woman for that, I’d pay one who already had set her virtue for sale!”
“Whew — so how much does your ‘Rosamund’ charge for a kiss, then?” Aglovale snickered. “Because you’re probably overpaying her, mate … or maybe not, considering …”
“I am not paying her for KISSING! I’m paying her –” And Elyan clamped his mouth shut.
Kay’s jaw fell. “You mean you actually are paying her?”
“I — well, not for anything like that!”
“To stay faithful to you, then, instead of finding a real man?” Aglovale jeered.
“No! I — er — look — the midwife said Mother had to take it easy, right? So she — we — needed someone to take over her duties — and, well, Father’s idea of appropriate wages for a housekeeper are … well … look, I’m just making up the difference so Rosalie isn’t completely wasting her time, all right? Does that satisfy you?”
Now it was Aglovale’s turn to feel his jaw give way from his skull — though why? Because Bors was such a skinflint that he couldn’t even find the cash to keep his son’s girlfriend from quitting on him? Or because Elyan was paying the girl himself?
Kay turned to the barmaid. “Get that man another drink.”
“Kay, I already –”
“I don’t care. If you’re the only thing keeping your mother alive and well-rested — well, no man who gives up most of his allowance to do what his father should be doing is going to go thirsty in my presence.”
“Aye,” Aglovale heard himself say. “Aye. Nor mine. Your next one’s on me, Elyan.”