“So, Ferreira,” the Prince said, “what’ll it be?” He waggled his eyebrows. “Come on, let’s see the color of that too-copious merchant gold.”
“If it’s gold, you wouldn’t need to see the color,” Rob remarked as Freddy glanced at the cards he had been given, absently playing with a couple of chips.
“It might have tarnished.”
“Gold doesn’t,” Sir William remarked from his shuffling and dealing daze.
“Damn it, Tom, I lost count!”
“Oops, did I do that?”
Sir William glared at the Prince from the corner of his eye, then clearly mentally counted up all of their cards, and resumed dealing.
Freddy had been living in the Albionese fraternity for nearly a week now and a faint tinge of unreality still hung over everything. How was he, a gauche commoner, sharing living quarters with the sons of some of the most powerful men in his land? He had known since he was small that his own father wanted to break into those ranks, into that magic circle, but … well, it had seemed fantastic, like a fairy story, when he was young, and now it just seemed … insane. How in Wright’s name did his father expect them to take their place with these king’s sons and lord’s sons?
It wasn’t that they were unfriendly; the other young men had been nothing but welcoming. Even the darkly-murmured-of initiation rituals had ended up coming to naught. (Freddy suspected that was Galahad’s fault; it was quite hard to boss around the younger members of the house when one of those members just stared blankly at you and asked why — and then told you that your reason wasn’t good enough, since the older men would have to let Freddy and Galahad in if they wanted the King to continue paying the bills on the house. The fact that, whenever Galahad said this, Sir William looked at the one giving the order — either the Prince or Sir Lamorak — and said, “I told you so” lent credence to this hypothesis.) If anything, they were too friendly, too self-assured, too casually confident.
And there were, of course, barriers — subtle barriers, but barriers. The Prince and Sir William had one of those barriers; you could see it whenever they did anything together. The way they could communicate more in a glance or a gesture than any other pair of people in the house could do with a whole conversation. The way Tommy could rib Will for hours, and Will would listen with eyebrows slowly going up, up, up — until he let out one deadpan remark and took his own back and more.
Not that the two of them were unfriendly, just the opposite, in fact. The Prince treated them all as his bosom buddies, enlisting one and all on whatever scheme he had cooking. Sir William … if he wasn’t the son of one of the most powerful men in Albion, Freddy would have said that Sir William was shy. He was certainly quiet, always preferring to listen than to speak, more at home sitting off in the corner of the party and watching, or finding a good friend or two and spending the evening with them. But it wasn’t a quietness like Rob’s quietness. Freddy had known Rob most of his life, and he always got the sense that Rob was quiet because if he tried to share his thoughts, he’d end up laughing too hard to speak. While sometimes a flicker of a smile would betray Sir William’s emotions, most of the time he was outwardly as stoic as if he was watching a series of dry debates instead of the perfectly amusing spectacle of his friends and house-mates making asses of themselves.
Sir Lamorak, the other noble denizen of the house, was also friendly, if distant. But it wasn’t because of blood; Freddy knew that. Sir Lamorak spent too much time with Rob for Freddy to think that he held his lineage against him. A couple stray remarks that the others let fall indicated that Sir Lamorak had had a rough year the year before — none of them were quite sure why, though Sir William bit his lip whenever the subject came up — maybe he was just recovering from that, and had no patience for forming new friendships just now.
Next there was Sir Milo. Though he didn’t live with them, technically, he spent so much time at the fraternity (and crashed so many nights in one of the spare bedrooms) that Freddy could perhaps be forgiven for classing him with the other noblemen. He was closest to Sir Lamorak and Rob, but quite gregarious with everyone — and always seemed to try to get closest to the Prince, especially during parties and other public events. Why this should be, since Sir Milo was a knight of Glasonland, Freddy wasn’t sure. He doubted it was assassination — Sir Milo could no more assassinate someone, Freddy thought, than a happy puppy could. Besides, Freddy frankly pitied anyone who tried to assassinate the Prince. They’d end up with their asses handed to them in very short order. The Prince was a good hand with a sword, even dead drunk — Freddy knew this, since the Prince had, on more than one occasion, suggested sparring with someone while drunk. For someone who seemed to barely know which was up, he was damn good, keeping pace with much soberer companions.
Freddy was just glad they were using practice blades.
“So, Ferreira,” the Prince said, “how are things going with your lovely de Ganis lady?”
He smiled and Freddy tried not to flush. He had no idea how the Prince had found out about that. Freddy had certainly mentioned their all-but-betrothal to no one — and Clarice didn’t even seem to know about it! But the Prince seemed to be waiting for an answer, so Freddy just shrugged.
“They’re not easy young ladies to catch,” the Prince remarked. “They’ll run from you as fast as their legs will take them — and, of course, it’s very difficult to tell whether they want you to catch up or not.”
“Oh?” Freddy croaked.
“Aye.” The Prince tossed a couple of chips into the center of the table. “At least that was how it was with Lynn. I could flirt with her for hours, and most of what she would do is look at the ground and blush — the worst of it was that I couldn’t tell whether she was blushing because she was enjoying it, or because she wished the earth would open up to swallow her and deliver her from this royal bore.”
“I didn’t think royalty could be boring,” Rob replied, smiling at his cards.
“You ever sit through one of my father’s speeches?”
Rob waved his hand. “Not like that. Everybody is boring when they have to give a speech. I mean to a lady.”
“If you listen to my sister, neither Kay nor I could find an interesting subject to bring into conversation if our lives depended on it.”
“Sisters’ opinions don’t count. If I took all of Heloise’s insults to heart, I would have laid down and died years ago, relieving the world of an idiot and a bore.”
“Oy. First speeches don’t count, then sisters don’t count — what else doesn’t count, Rob?”
“I won’t know until you tell me how else royalty can be boring.”
“When we discuss a boring subject?”
Rob pursed his lips together, tapping his cards against the edge of the table. “It’s dangerously close to speeches,” he decided finally, “but I’ll give it to you. Even so — most ladies won’t admit it. Not if the royalty is unattached and she’s fixing to change that.”
The Prince set his cards down on the table. “Lynn is not that kind of lady.”
The Prince surveyed him for a long moment — before he laughed, suddenly. “You win, Wesleyan, you win.”
“No,” Rob remarked, “I think you do.” And he gestured to the door, opening to reveal the Princess — and Lady Gwendolyn.
Freddy barely had time to jump to his feet and bow before he was subjected to the show of the Prince and his best friend greeting their respective ladies in their own unique ways.
“Don’t bother,” Rob remarked from his seat. “They won’t notice, either of them.”
“Oh, Tommy!” Lady Gwendolyn said when the Prince finally let her up for air. “People are watching!”
“Good, let’s give ’em a show –”
“Tommy!” But the severity in her voice was belied by the giggle that escaped as soon as she finished speaking.
“Besides, I’m going to be kissing you in front of the whole kingdom ere long — what’s this but practice?”
Before Lady Gwendolyn could reply, the Princess looked at Sir William — who was still holding her hand, but who had offered her no further physical signs of affection — and murmured, “You know, I could say the same thing to you.”
“When I kiss you in front of the whole kingdom,” Sir William replied, “I intend to do so when your brother is far too occupied with … other matters to object.”
“I heard that.”
“I know you did, Tom.”
“You’re such a hypocrite, Tommy — you can do whatever you want with your betrothed, but heaven forbid mine do more than hold my hand!” the Princess said, rolling her eyes.
“You say that as if it were a bad thing!”
Lady Gwendolyn, Freddy noticed absently, was blushing quite prettily throughout all of this. He wondered what Clarice would look like if she blushed. He’d never really seen it; once or twice, he thought, he had seen a faint sheen of rose begin to creep along her pale freckled cheeks, but that had been right before she bolted. Had Lady Gwendolyn, he wondered, bolted from the Prince as often as her sister bolted from him? The Prince certainly seemed far more forward with her than he ever was with Clarice …
“Come on,” Rob said, taking the cards and the chips and re-shuffling. “They’ll be busy for a while. We’ll just play by ourselves.”
“Um — all right.”
The game he and Rob played was sufficiently engrossing that Freddy only dimly took notice of what was going on in the rest of the room. Sir William and the Princess were the first to leave; Sir William mentioned something about a book in the library, and the Princess followed him past their gaming table and into that selfsame room. If Freddy had been paying more than cursory attention to their faces, he would have known that they were not wearing the expressions of people going to read — but he wasn’t.
The Prince and Lady Gwendolyn continued to flirt, until the Prince walked off to the bar and began to mix a drink. That was about the time that Sir Lamorak came downstairs and said something polite to Lady Gwendolyn, to which she responded with a question, and then —
“What?” Lady Gwendolyn shrieked. “What do you mean, she collapsed?”
“I — I — that’s what my mother wrote to me — she just said –”
“What the hell is going on?” the Prince called out, practically running to his betrothed’s side and putting his arm around her shoulder. She nestled within it, trembling like a flower tossed about by a hurricane.
“I just asked her how her mother was doing!” Sir Lamorak said, taking a full step back and waving his hands as if to ward off a blow.
The Prince only looked confused and glanced down at his lady. “You said she collapsed!” Lady Gwendolyn repeated. “When? Where?”
“I — I –” Sir Lamorak looked between the shaking Lady Gwendolyn and the almost-glowering Prince. “Your mother was there!” Sir Lamorak said finally.
“She was there! At the du Lac keep — that’s what my mother said in her letter!”
“At the du Lac keep when?”
“When — when — look, she didn’t give me a lot of details!” Sir Lamorak hedged. “Just told me to ask Lady Gwendolyn about her mother and to give her our sympathies!”
“What details did she give you?” the Prince pressed, almost gently.
“Just — just that Lady Claire collapsed and that they were worried she was going to lose her baby –”
Lady Gwendolyn shrieked and the Prince held her closer. Sir William and the Princess ran in from the library, Sir William straightening his tunic and the Princess fiddling with the bodice of her dress. Hell, at this point, even Galahad was looking up from his book!
“What’s going on?” Sir William asked.
“Apparently Gwendolyn’s mother fainted on your mother’s living room floor, with the Prince’s mother watching everything — but this is the first any of us other than Lamorak have heard of it,” Rob filled him in.
“Our thoughts exactly, Will,” the Prince murmured.
“What about Mother?” Lady Gwendolyn was saying. “And the baby? Are they all right? They’re not — she didn’t –”
“I don’t know the details!” Sir Lamorak called out. “I — Lady Gwendolyn, I just know what my mother wrote about it –”
“Just tell her what you know!”
Sir Lamorak took a deep breath. “She didn’t lose the baby, last my mother heard,” he answered. “And — from what my mother heard — they managed to get your mother home all right, but she’s been having to rest ever since then. My mother doesn’t know much more than that, the last thing she wanted to do was go over there and disturb your mother when she was supposed to be resting.”
“That sounds like Lady Eilwen, Tom,” Sir William said. The Prince nodded once.
“How long ago was this?” Lady Gwendolyn whispered.
“Um — a month? Maybe two? My mother wasn’t –” Whatever Lamorak was going to say next was instantly drowned in the sound of Lady Gwendolyn throwing herself into the Prince’s arms, sobbing.
“There, there, love, it’s all right, it’s all right …” the Prince began to murmur into Lady Gwendolyn’s hair.
“Oh, that Bors!” the Princess hissed — it was just meant for Sir William’s ears, if Freddy had been ten feet further away, he would have never heard. “I swear I’m going to turn him into a toad next time I see him!”
“You can’t blame this all on him …”
“Says who? Did your mother write anything about this to you?”
“Er, no …”
“And my mother hasn’t breathed a word — and your mother didn’t say a thing to Leona or we all would have heard about it by now — who do you think was responsible for the gag order, huh?”
“Maybe Lady Claire …” Sir William sighed. “She wouldn’t.”
How, exactly, Sir William managed to dissuade his furious fiancée from turning Sir Bors into a toad or some other vile creature, Freddy never knew … he was too busy watching Lady Gwendolyn and the Prince, and wondering.
Who was going to tell Clarice this news?
And when she was told, who would hold her when she cried?