How had this happened? She had taken precautions. Her regimen was strict, and she followed it every day. Every damned day. She’d even invented new potions and creams to prevent just this occurence. How many hours had she spent slaving over a hot cauldron, cloths tied to her forehead to keep the sweat from dripping off her brow and into the bubbling cauldron? How many days had she spent searching obscure texts for new ideas, new remedies? How many times had she berated the servants for coming back from the foothills with the wrong herbs? How long had she spent working, toiling with her magic, only to find that her hard work had come to naught?
Morgause leaned closer to the mirror, to make sure that she was truly seeing what she thought she was seeing, and that it was not her eyes playing tricks on here.
They were still there.
Wrinkles, grown up in the course of a night.
Crow’s feet, eye bags, laugh lines. Her forehead was still as smooth and unbroken as any young girl’s, but that was hardly any consolation in view of the larger damage that had taken over her face.
Gingerly, she touched the skin, hoping for — what? That the lines she saw were just cosmetics, carelessly applied? Dirt smudges?
But no. Her skin was no longer smooth and supple; it dipped, it creased, it was rough to the touch. And this was just her face! Who knew what other damage might lurk in the other unexplored corners of her body?
She fought the urge to rip off her jewelry, gown and headdress and examine every inch of her skin. She fought it not because it was silly and irrational. She fought it because she knew not what she would do if she found something. A liver spot, a stretch mark, a breast no longer as perky as it once had been, cellulite. One’s face, after all, was the least part of one’s arsenal of charms. How many times had she heard men joke about putting a bag over their partner’s head? Though, truly, she doubted anyone would ever need to go to that extremity with her. Even in ruins, her face, like an ancient Reman temple, would still be beautiful. It already was in ruins, and still was beautiful.
Perhaps the damage is not so bad, Morgause thought. I have creams that could cover this — fill the gaps — preserve the illusion of unbroken skin. But she frowned. Yes, the illusion of unbroken skin — that was all she had left! She saw the future rising up before her. She saw creams and cosmetics applied to her face like a mask, hiding it from the world. She, who had always used cosmetics to enhance her beauty, now forced to lean on them as other women did! It did not bear thinking of!
And with that vision of the future, came something else — a memory. A memory of her sister’s voice.
“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.”
“You will not win, Morgan!” Morgause hissed to the mirror, her mouth pursed vampire-like at her reflection. No, not vampire-like. Vampires did not look like someone’s grandmother when they hissed. Vampires’ faces were forever frozen in a paler version of their youthful beauty. After all, Morgause knew the story of Contessa Clemencia and Count Henrik, none better. Had she not researched that path when she realized that her sister was not aging, as she should be, but staying forever young so as to never abandon her zombie — zombie! — husband? Had she not, at the time, rejected it as being too dangerous and difficult? Her brother, after all, had specifically said that he would tolerate no more deaths from her. At the time, she had believed him. Besides, if she were to walk down a path that required frequent murder, she preferred that the path not come with built-in weaknesses that would make it easier for her brother to live up to his threat — assuming he was not too soft-hearted to do so.
Besides, even if he was too soft-hearted, he would not rule Albion forever. And if she became a vampire, she would be around forever. Sooner or later there would come a king, or a nobleman, or a churchman who decided that she was an abomination that must be destroyed. And then she would need to deal with that threat — and the threat after that, and after that, and after that … sooner or later they would get her. The Contessa and Count might still be alive, but they had only survived by going into hiding for seven hundred years. And what was the point of immortality if it was spent in hiding?
What was the point of ageless beauty if no one ever saw it?
And at this point — well, if Morgause were to turn herself into a vampire now, she would only be freezing those wrinkles onto her face for all time. She doubted that skin that was technically dead could regenerate itself and look fresh and young again.
Someone was puttering around in the bedroom beyond the stool chamber. Morgause waved her hand at the door, locking it. The servant could just wait outside until she was done in here. After all, what was the point of servants if not to wait upon one?
She needed to think. She need to think of a way to regain her fleeing youth. Perhaps whatever potion Morgan used? Just because only a light witch could make it did not mean that only a light witch could use it. Morgan would never give it to her willingly, of course, but there were ways around that. Why, all she would have to do is kidnap that half-peasant brat and–
Morgause as the thud of something heavy falling to the floor rudely interrupted her reverie.
“What was that?” she demanded of the servant. No answer. “Excuse me! I asked you a question!”
Still no answer.
Maybe she had sound-proofed the door? Another wave of her hand removed all spells from the door. “What was that?”
Why, that little– Her servants thought she was a terror to deal with when they broke something? They were right. But they had not yet seen what a terror she could be to a servant to dared to break something, and then not to own up to it.
She marched to the door and threw it open. “I said–”
And then she shrieked.
“Lot! Oh, Wright! Can you hear me? LOT!”
If Lot could hear her, he made no sign. Instead, he lay on the ground, motionless, one side of his face slack and expressionless.
“Oh, HELP! HELP! Somebody, help!”
If there was one thing in his life that Mordred absolutely hated, it was waiting. Waiting, he was sure, was the invention of the cow demons and the Grim Reaper when they were in a particularly sadistic mood. Surely the Lord Wright could have never had anything to do with something as purely evil as waiting. Even Mordred hesitated to touch the evils inherent in waiting, and there were very few evils to which he would not put his hand.
But for now, as he had for the past two hours, he had no choice but to wait.
He sat in the corner of the parlor, his mind relentlessly replaying the events of the past four hours. Four hours ago, he and his father had been in his father’s study, going over the accounts. Lot had complained of a headache, Mordred had told him to rest and he would take care of the rest. Lot had left without another word. Had Mordred been worried? Grace of Wright, no. Lot had always been prone to headaches; it was one of the reason why he had pursued tactical training and infantry leadership and not traditional knighthood. He often got searing headaches, followed by nausea and vomiting, when the weather was warm and he overextended himself. Mordred hadn’t even worried when Lot had left without another word — at Lot’s age, he ought to have known that the only solution for him was to rest when he felt one of those headaches coming on, either that or spend the rest of the day emptying the contents of his stomach into the close stool. And Lot was too sensible a man not to rest when he knew that was the only solution to his problems. So, Mordred thought, four hours ago he had been completely justified in not taking his father’s complaints more seriously.
Three and three-quarters of an hour ago, of course, things had gotten much more serious, and Mordred had duly taken them more seriously.
He had heard his mother screaming, materialized into his parents’ bedroom. He had seen his father on the floor and his mother rapidly approaching hysterics. For once in his life, he ignored his mother and went to his father. Lot was unconscious, one half of his face slack, one half of his body entirely unmoving. Mordred had just gotten Lot into the bed when a pack of frightened servants ran into the room, Dindrane in their midst.
He never thought he would have cause to say this, but, thank Wright for Dindrane. While Mordred stood helpless, the servants panicked and Morgause shrieked, she had rushed to Lot, checked his pulse and barked at one of the servants to bring her chamomile.
“Chamomile?” Mordred had hissed.
Dindrane had turned to him and shrugged. “It’s the only thing I can think of that might help. But I don’t know. We need Father Hugh.”
Father Hugh was the best doctor in Albion. He was the only doctor in Albion. Mordred had nodded once, then called his broom, ran to the courtyard, and flew to the monastery.
The flight took twenty minutes. Locating Father Hugh, explaining the situation and forcing the older priest onto the broom took another fifteen. The flight back took half an hour, since with the added weight and panic of the priest, the broom could not travel so fast. Still, to give the old man credit, after touching down he only took a brief minute to kiss the terra firma before he had run, under Mordred’s direction, to where Lot was.
Father Hugh had been with his father for about two and a half hours, now. And still he sent no word.
“Oh, what am I going to do?” Morgause wailed. “Lot was everything to me! How will I survive if he dies?”
“Hush, Morgause,” Dindrane said. Mordred had never seen her so tender with anyone over the age of — how old was Nimue? Two? “Shush. Everything will be all right.”
“I can’t find another husband! Look at me! I look like an old woman!”
“Don’t be silly, Morgause. There’s every chance that Lot will recover. A doctor came to him in only a little more than an hour! An hour! Men suffer collapses like Lot’s, wait without medical attention for hours and hours — days, even! — and some still survive. He could still be all right.”
“Aye, I’ve heard of such men!” Morgause sobbed. “They lie on their beds like vegetables, they can’t speak, they can barely eat –”
Dindrane shuddered. “Maybe the Lord Wright will spare Lot that fate.”
Is she wishing my father dead? Mordred’s eyebrow went up, and then down. No, Dindrane would not wish Lot dead. She liked Lot. And if she did wish him dead right now, well, considering the possible alternative … Mordred would rather be dead himself than face a fate like that. He doubted Lot would prefer otherwise.
“Can you imagine being married to a man in that condition?”
“It would be very hard.”
“It would be like being a widow, without actually being widowed!” Morgause wailed. “Think of it! You have no husband to speak of, but you cannot seek elsewhere — oh, Wright, spare me that!”
“Hush, hush. Hope is not lost yet.”
Unless you are hoping for compassion from Mother.
Mordred sighed and did his best to transport himself mentally somewhere else. At least until he heard the shuffling of sandaled feet on the stone corridors, heard a door open, and saw Father Hugh standing on the threshold.
Mordred was up from his chair in a moment and sprinting for the monk. “Well?” he demanded. “How is he?”
Father Hugh sighed and shook his head. “Not well.”
“Will he recover?”
“I don’t know.”
“You don’t know? What do you mean, you don’t know?”
“Sir Mordred, the Lord Wright has not yet seen fit to illuminate all the details of the Sim body. I have an idea of what has afflicted your father, but –”
“What do you mean, you just have an idea? Aren’t you a doctor? Shouldn’t you know?”
“Sir Mordred, please calm down.”
“I won’t calm down until you tell me what is wrong and whether he’s going to recover or not!”
Father Hugh sighed. “I believe he suffered a … a brainstorm, you might call it.”
“Meaning that there is something — wrong with his mind. He … it is not working correctly. It cannot control his body. Half of his body is effectively paralyzed, I tried–”
“Oh, for Wright’s sake! I could have told you all that!”
“Mordred, please!” Dindrane snapped. “Let Father Hugh speak!”
Mordred’s mouth opened, ready to tell Dindrane that this was not her affair, when her father was lying on his bed with half of his body paralyzed, then she could be as calm and collected as she liked — while it was his father, Mordred would react as he so pleased.
“Sir Mordred, indeed, you could have told me that — but would you have known what to do next?”
“I — perhaps not. So what do you plan to do?”
“I’ve dosed him with more chamomile. Hopefully, it will prevent more damage.”
Father Hugh shrugged. “It seems to work.”
“Oh, Wright, if that is the best you can come up with –”
“Sir Mordred, please! I understand you are upset, any son in your position would be, but taking the Lord Wright’s name in vain will not help matters! You must calm yourself!”
Mordred ground his teeth. One day, he would tell this idiot priest what he must and must not do. For now … “What are my father’s chances of recovery?”
Father Hugh sighed. “It’s in the Lord Wright’s hands.”
“Do you mean to tell me that you can do nothing?”
“I’m sorry, Sir Mordred, but — yes. Perhaps the Lord Wright will favor a recovery, perhaps–“
“What’s the extent of the damage?” Mordred snapped.
“He cannot move the left side of his body. He does not seem able to speak. I could not tell whether he could understand what I was saying or not — the parts of his body that he could control were … spastic. Jerky.”
Mordred assembled the information. “Can he communicate at all?”
“Perhaps, in time, when the — the symptoms lessen.”
“But in the meantime — he cannot.”
“So he could not run the estate.”
Father Hugh blinked. “Surely, Sir Mordred, he has more important things to do than worry about the estate!”
Mordred glared. “If my father was able to properly communicate, Father Hugh,” he hissed, “he would tell you that there is nothing in his life more important than the Orkney estate. Now, can I see him?”
“Of course — though I did give him a sleeping draught–“
Mordred did not bother to listen to the old priest as he de-materialized from the room, into the corridor outside his parents’ bedchamber.
The housekeeper, Betsy Pelles, shrieked and threw her towel into the air, but Mordred ignored her. He pushed the door open, strode inside, and stood over his father’s prone form.
Lot seemed to be asleep — even peacefully asleep. Mordred frowned. “Father,” he said. No answer. “Father!”
Mordred sighed, then pointed his finger at his father’s shining bald pate — the pate he took so many pains not to show when awake — and murmured a spell he had used many times before, on himself. It was a spell to quicken the thought processes, to make the mind sharper. Perhaps …?
Lot’s body jerked, but he did not roll over, he did not open his eyes, he did not say anything.
Mordred stood over his father’s body — for, if what Father Hugh had said was true and Lot was incapable of communicating, incapable of functioning like a normal Sim, he was little more than a body — his fists clenched.
“Son of a bitch,” he hissed. Then he turned on one heel and marched out of the bedroom.
“Betsy!” he called. “Betsy, get me Lord Pellinore! And get him for me now!”
Lot, meanwhile, lay motionless on the bed. If the Lord Wright was just, perhaps he was asleep. If the Lord Wright had compassion, perhaps he could not hear. If the Lord Wright had any mercy at all in him, perhaps he simply could not understand.
But despite the testimony of His monks and nuns, no one had yet proved that the Lord Wright truly was just, compassionate, or merciful.