“I’m so glad you could make it,” said Queen Alison as she kissed her sister-in-law’s cheek. Since this was the sister-in-law she liked, she did not even have to coat her words in an acceptable level of faux enthusiasm.
“Wouldn’t miss it for the world,” Morgan replied as she pulled back, smiling. Alison’s eyebrows went up.
“Even though we both know who should be walking through that door any minute now?”
“Sir Bors?” Morgan asked, her eyelashes fluttering in doe-eyed innocence.
“He sent his polite regrets — with his wife being so near to her time …”
“Ah, I see. I’m surprised he would show her so much consideration …” Morgan let the arch of her eyebrow ask the question she deliberately left silent: Or is it?
If Alison had ever had a pregnancy half as rough as Lady Claire’s, she would have thrown a fit if Arthur thought he was going out to have a fun time with his friends while she sat at home and waited for their child to be born. However, if she was married to Bors …
“Apparently, the world still holds surprises in store for all of us,” was all Alison would reply to that.
Sensing a change of subject was in order, she turned to Ravenna. “Ravenna, look at you! I’m sure you’re sick of hearing this, but you’re getting so big — and so grown-up. That’s such a lovely gown, by the way.”
Ravenna smiled. “Thank you — Mother let me design it with Mistress Ferreira myself.”
“You’re raising a little fashion plate,” Alison remarked to Morgan.
“She’s a multi-talented girl,” Morgan answered.
It was impossible not to grin, seeing Morgan glowing with that warm, proud maternal smile. And how could a mother not be proud of such a clever, kind and (apparently) fashionable little lady? The only bitter to the sweet was Accolon’s condition and the knowledge that brilliant Ravenna would be the only chance Morgan had at motherhood. Alison could not imagine being forced to only be mother to one child — then again, she never had been mother to but one child, given that her first birth had been twins.
“Aunt Alison?” asked Ravenna. “Is Jessie going to be here?”
“I’m afraid not — they’re neck-deep in exams right now,” Alison shook her head. “But Garnet should be here soon –”
“What are they doing here?”
And speak of the devil!
Not Garnet, of course — while Alison privately enjoyed the company of Ravenna more than that of Garnet, her niece was by no means a devil — but her parents. Her mother, in particular, looking at Morgan and Accolon as if they were so many unsightly pieces of animal faeces that had somehow-or-other gotten attached to the bottom of her shoe. Lot’s expression was not much more welcoming to the two of them. And Mordred, whom Alison could just barely see … was inscrutable as always.
“Morgause, considering that Kay is their nephew as much as he is yours and Lot’s, and Garnet their niece just as much as she is Alison and mine, why should they not be here?” replied Arthur with a question. He glared at his sister with one eyebrow uplifted, and did not move from Accolon’s side.
Morgause glared at Arthur, glared at Accolon, glared at Morgan. And the look she turned to Ravenna was so positively withering that Alison was half-tempted to step between Morgause and the girl and shield her from it. Luckily, she did not have to; Morgan’s left hand placed on Ravenna’s shoulder, her right shaking her wand from her sleeve, was enough to convince Morgause to shift her evil eye elsewhere.
To Alison, as luck would have it.
“Sister,” she simpered. Alison’s stomach turned. How wrong was it that Morgause barely acknowledged her only sister by blood, while she bestowed that term on Alison, who was only a sister-in-law and did not want to be any closer a relation! Once again, Alison wondered how it was that a woman like Morgause could spring from the same (wonderful) mother that had given birth to Arthur and Morgan.
“Lady Morgause,” Alison replied with a polite nod of greeting. “Lord Lot — Sir Mordred — and I assume Lady Dindrane and Garnet are lurking behind you, somewhere?”
“Indeed, majesty,” said Mordred as he extended a careless hand to his wife. Dindrane took it, but for form’s sake only. Their fingers barely touched, and both let go as soon as possible.
“Well, you are all most welcome,” Alison replied, curtseying to all of them, extending her hand to Lord Lot to be kissed for form’s sake. “I trust your ride was pleasant?”
“Quite, majesty,” replied the lord.
“And how do the children?” Alison asked. “Little Agravaine must be crawling about and getting into everything by now.”
“Aye, ’tis a job and a half to keep up with all of them,” Lord Lot laughed. Behind him, Alison could see Dindrane wearing a gentle maternal smile. Unnoticed by either parent, Garnet gave a polite nod and curtsey to the King and Queen, then went over to hug what was probably one of her favorite people in the room.
As the small talk, the meaningless nothings continued, more and more guests started to filter in. Everyone, in fact, over the age of twelve and with a jot of noble blood in their veins was there — except of course the de Ganises. The du Lacs came in next, and with them the volume in the room increased tenfold. Lastly were the Gwynedds, or the Gwynedds that were not Dindrane. Lady Eilwen barely was able to greet Alison and Arthur before she grabbed her daughter’s shoulder and began a whispered consultation in which the names “Nimue” and “Gawaine” figured heavily. Lord Pellinore gravitated to the side of Arthur and the other men (though Lord Lot and Mordred found an excuse to wander off in another direction), while Aglovale went on a hunt for Kay, doubtless. Drat it, where was that boy? He ought to have been here, greeting the guests …
As for the Gwynedd twins, they stood in the doorway behind their parents, Delyth looking about her with eager curiosity, Dilys playing with a fold on her dress and not meeting anyone’s eyes. Alison looked for Ravenna and Garnet — Ravenna was exactly the twins’ age, even if Garnet, well, wasn’t — but they had already disappeared.
They are witches, Alison.
But in any case, Ambrosius soon came out bearing a tray of hors d’oeuvres, and with that, the party was officially in full swing.
“You’re quiet,” Aglovale remarked to Kay some time later, after the official meal, when all the guests had dispersed from the table and been sent to find amusement as best they might.
“Hmm?” Kay asked, glancing at his buddy over his shoulder.
“It’s because you’ll miss me, isn’t it?” Aglovale said, slinging his arm over Kay’s shoulder. “Admit it. You can’t imagine how you’ll survive without me to raise hell by your side.”
“Bah! Tom will have nothing but the best hellraisers in three kingdoms by his side. I’ll be admitted into an elite club — I’ll just have to study hard, learn all their tricks, and do my best to pass them on to you next year.”
“Nothing but the best hellraisers in three kingdoms? You sure about that?”
“Of course I am. I know Tom.”
“Aye, I’m sure you have, but mate … have you met Will du Lac?”
“Oh, shut up,” Kay chuckled. “He gets into trouble with Tom the same as the rest of them — it’s thanks to him that they don’t get caught half as often as they should.”
“If you insist.”
“And I do insist.”
Aglovale rolled his eyes. “Very well, my prince — if the prospect of leaving me behind with only Elyan for company isn’t making you pensive, then what is?”
Kay hesitated. “Something’s … missing.”
“The de Ganises didn’t make it.”
“No — something other than that.”
“Hmm. Free-flowing wine?” Of course, the alcohol was flowing rather freely, but with both of their fathers sitting not fifteen feet away, it was difficult to partake of as much as they might have otherwise. “Willing women of easy virtue?”
“Aglovale, my parents threw this party. Do you really think there is any way they would be hiring prostitutes as entertainment?”
“You said something was missing!”
“Aye, aye …” Kay frowned. “It’s someone. Someone’s missing.”
“Kay, are you blind? Other than the de Ganises, who you weren’t missing — everyone’s here!”
Well, at least everyone of the male persuasion was there. Arthur, Lord Pellinore, Sir Lancelot and Uncle Accolon sat around the card table, gambling lightly. “Lance,” Arthur chuckled, “do yourself a favor and quit while you’re ahead.”
“The game isn’t over yet. Besides, anything I lose, I’ll just make back with the Princess’s dowry.”
“Sir Lancelot,” Lord Pellinore laughed, “I doubt very much your son would appreciate you using his bride’s dowry to cover your gambling debts.”
“Aye, bow out before we’re forced to relieve you of your overtunic, friend,” Arthur replied.
“My king, while you are my lord and sovereign, and I but your loyal knight — there is only one person with whom I play strip poker, and it isn’t you.”
“And that would be officially too much information,” Uncle Accolon murmured, and Kay was inclined to agree with him. “And you all think the zombie’s gross. Ha! At least I keep the innuendo with my Morgan where it belongs!”
“If you value your head’s attachment to your spine, sirrah,” Arthur mock-growled, “you’ll leave your comments about my sister at that.”
“I will, I will. Morgan hates having to reattach my fingers, I don’t think she’d find having to reattach my head very pleasant at all. Anyway, it’s my turn to shuffle, isn’t it?” he asked, wiggling those selfsame fingers at the other men, whose expressions warred between disgust and disbelief.
Kay glanced away. It was only across the room, but Lord Lot and Sir Mordred seemed leagues and leagues away from the joking party around the poker table. Odd, it was, how Kay could remember — just barely, but he could remember — a time before Uncle Accolon, but somehow the zombie managed to fit far better Kay’s definition of an “uncle” than Lord Lot did. And he and Lady Morgause had been married since before Kay, or even Jessie and Tom, were born!
Then again, Uncle Accolon actually liked people, for all that he might pretend he didn’t at times. Lord Lot … Lord Lot seemed to either find people useful, and thus good to cultivate, or not. As a child, and even as a young man, Kay was not useful. Since he was but the second in line to the throne, and Tom would probably have a mess of kids with Lynn, each one with a better claim to the kingdom than he, Kay doubted he would ever be useful.
Oh, well. He didn’t have much time for people who didn’t even find him useful, anyway.
“Hmm,” Kay remarked to Aglovale. “Whatever’s missing — it’s not up here.”
“Shut up. Come on — maybe she’s downstairs.”
“She?” asked Aglovale.
She? asked the voice in Kay’s head.
Kay ignored them both. Instead he led the way down the stairs, then, pausing at the steps, he listened.
The soft flutter of women’s voices came from the left — the drawing-room, of course. Kay waved Aglovale forward and went in that direction.
Seven of the party’s ten female guests were in the drawing-room. The three red-haired Gwynedd women — Lady Eilwen, Lady Dindrane and Delyth — sat together on one of the sofas.
“So is Nimue any less jealous of her brother?”
“It’s gotten better now that I’m spending a bit more time with her,” Lady Dindrane replied. “Poor thing, she was feeling quite neglected just after Gawaine was born — even Garnet wasn’t able to shower as much attention on her as usual, since her exam was right around the corner …”
“Dindrane, were you that jealous when Lamorak was born?”
Lady Dindrane looked at Lady Eilwen, who chuckled. “I doubt it. If anything, I daresay she was happy just to be left alone for a bit.”
Kay glanced away from them, to the sofa nearest the door. As usual, his mother and Lady Guinevere were sitting on that sofa, talking about — something. He couldn’t tell, even though he was standing right there; the conversation was too quiet and too quick for him to make out.
And across the room, Aunt Morgan turned away from Lady Morgause.
“Just shut up, Morgause,” Aunt Morgan snapped. “You lost, you lost eleven years ago, how many more years is it going to be before you accept that?”
“What I do not understand, sister, is why you think there was ever a question of winning or losing.” Kay hated Lady Morgause’s voice; it carried within it the sound a cobra would make before leaping into the air and biting its victim. “I admit freely that I did not and do not approve of your relationship with a clod of a peasant –”
“Accolon is not and never was a clod!”
“But he is a peasant, dear, you must admit that.”
“Like he once was a living being?”
Morgan turned on her heel and glared at Morgause. “Morgause, I want you to remember something — when you are lying on your deathbed, with your skin slack and wrinkled, your hair gray and falling out around you, your limbs too weak and atrophied to move — I want you to think of me. I want you to think of me, and know that I look as youthful and vibrant and lovely as the day when you first began to hate me, all those years ago — and I want you to remember, that if you hadn’t made Accolon what he is now, I never would have sought out that path. I want you to think of my smooth skin and my shining hair and my supple limbs, and I want you to eat. Your. Heart. Out.”
The look on Morgause’s face was enough to make Kay back away a full step, and the look wasn’t even aimed for him! Perhaps it was because of that that Delyth caught site of Aglovale. “Aglovale, come here a minute! You’ll never guess what Nimue did to Agravaine!”
Before Aglovale could respond that he had no interest in hearing that, Lady Eilwen seconded, “Oh, indeed, please do come, Aglovale.”
Aglovale couldn’t say no to that — and perhaps it was cowardly, but Kay hightailed it out of there before anyone could rope him into hearing baby stories.
The next stop, the next home of female voices, was the music room. Kay poked his head inside.
“Garnet, I — I don’t know what to say,” Ravenna was saying. “I don’t understand — I mean, I see why you think she hates you, but she wasn’t even happy when you found out that you passed the exam? What kind of mother wouldn’t be happy about that?”
A bad one, Kay thought, before slipping from the music room before either of his cousins could notice his presence. After all, their conversation was certainly not meant for his ears.
So many rooms, so many people, and he still had not found what he was looking for. He wandered down the long corridor, to the other end of the castle. This was the business end, the end that held his father’s study and the council chamber and the throne room–
He heard a rustle — the whisper of silk on velvet — he glanced into the throne room —
There she was.
Indeed, how was it that he didn’t know instantly that it was she who was missing? Even if she was so quiet, so withdrawn, she could light up a room with her mere presence — the throne room, for instance, normally the stiffest and dullest in the castle, was suddenly crackling with electric life–
Easy, Kay! She’s twelve!
… Almost thirteen, put in the small voice at the back of his mind.
She was staring up at the official portrait of his father, her hand up, waving through the air as if to trace the portrait’s lines. “Ambrosius painted that,” Kay let fall into the silence.
She turned around, color rushing to her cheeks, bright blue eyes blinking rapidly.
Kay smiled and leaned on the door frame. “Sorry. Didn’t mean to startle you.”
“It’s — it’s all right, your high–”
“Please,” Kay interrupted, “just Kay.”
“K-Kay,” Dilys said. Then her eyes dropped to the marble floor.
“So do you like it?” Kay asked, nodding his head toward the portrait.
“Oh, yes. It — it’s a wonderful likeness of your father. You can see the strength in the jawline — and the expression in his eyes, you can see how he’s carefully weighing, measuring everything before he makes a move. But his mouth, you can see just the hint of a smile. It shows the good humor, I … oh.”
“Just — just realizing that I’ve been talking an a-awful lot.”
“And barely a stammer at all,” Kay remarked. “Dilys, if I didn’t know better, I’d say I just found your passion.”
“You’re t-t-too kind,” Dilys murmured, ducking her head to the side.
And the stammer returns. “Too kind? Impossible, Dilys. Besides, I just spoke the truth — didn’t I?”
She didn’t look up, but she did nod.
“Why the embarrassment? Everyone has a passion … yours just happens to be art. You’re lucky, really, to have found it so early.” Very early, she’s a kid, Kay, remember that! “Some people never find there.”
“It’s — it’s not very p-practical, though.”
“So — so m-maybe I should find something else … I mean … I love to paint, but … what good will it ever do me? And even if I’m just married and having children –”
“Just married? Dilys, how could you ever describe someone being married to you as just being married?”
Dilys looked up at him, lips slightly parted. Oh, how he wanted to–
Kay! She’s a KID!
“Listen — listen, Dilys. You’re — you’re still very young.” Aye, and you listen too, Kay! “And — and don’t worry about being an adult. Truly. You — you’re still so young, you shouldn’t grow up too fast.”
But if she was still so young, just a kid, why was Kay’s hand reaching for her. Why were his fingers tucking under her chin, gently caressing the silken skin? Why was he drawing her closer, closer–
As if a shot had rang out between them, Kay and Dilys sprang apart.
“I HAVE A SON!”
One glance at each other — and the two of them were running for the main doorway.
Ah. Nothing to worry about, just Sir Bors making an ass of himself. By the look on Lady Guinevere and his mother’s faces, he wasn’t the only one to think that.
“We know you have a son. His name is Elyan, you want him to marry my daughter. Remember?” Lady Guinevere snapped.
“Aye, aye — of course — but now …” Sir Bors lurched forward and Kay wrinkled his nose. Whatever the, er, good knight had been imbibing, Kay could smell it from here. “Now I have two sons!”
“Well, congratulations, Sir Bors!” Alison said. Her voice was as strained as her smile. “How is Lady Claire?”
“Oh, she’s fine, fine, wonderful — she just gave me a son, you know!”
“Yes, we heard,” Lady Guinevere muttered.
“What’s his name?” Alison asked.
“Lionel, Lionel. A fine name, don’t you think? Lionel!” Sir Bors drew himself up in the pose of a proud Reman statue. “Named for my brother,” he added.
“How lovely,” Lady Guinevere replied.
“Aye. A strong boy, a healthy boy! An heir and a spare, what think you of that?” Sir Bors laughed.
“I think it sounds like wonderful news,” Alison answered, shooting a glare at Lady Guinevere to keep her quiet. “And you’re sure Lady Claire is well?”
“Aye, aye — very well! You see … oh! Oh, that’s what I was going to say!”
Sir Bors grinned and leaned closer to Alison and Lady Guinevere. They leaned away. “You see,” he whispered, “you see, we figured out why she was having such a rough time. Turns out she was carrying two babies. Twins, eh?” He chuckled. “Too bad the other one was just a girl — still, we named her Evette, and she’s almost as healthy as her brother.”
If that almost-moment with Dilys was not what would stick in his mind forever from this night — Kay was pretty sure that the expressions on his mother and Lady Guinevere’s faces would have been.