Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die.
Well, maybe not literally. Hopefully not literally. Tom wasn’t exactly looking forward to the last semester of his college experience, but he was sure that it would be better than death.
But if he died tomorrow, at least he would have had fun today. He stroked Lynn’s side, smiled up into her warm brown eyes. “Having fun, sweetheart?”
“Oh, Tommy.” She kissed his nose and rested her forehead against his. Her two eyes became one, but Tom thought he saw a smile all the same.
“Is that a yes?”
“How could it be anything else?”
“Good answer, love,” Tom chuckled.
Lynn smiled again, and nestled against his shoulder. Tom said nothing, knowing, from six years and more of being together, that all she wanted right now was to be held. No kissing, no heavy caressing, just holding. And to say that Tom minded that …
Well, anyone who said that Tom minded that would be a liar, plain and simple.
If they were alone, he would have been able to close his eyes and just sit there for a while. But they weren’t alone. No, they were in the middle of a party, and he was, in theory, hosting this thing … so Tom opened one eye, and peeked.
The first thing he saw was Clarice, poor Clarice, sitting by herself and twiddling her thumbs. He saw the stiffness in her spine and the set of her shoulder — if someone could have screamed, “Leave me alone!” without words or without making a sound at all, Clarice would be doing it. Lynn used to sit like that, from time to time, in large gatherings or in intimate ones, when she was afraid of being intimate with the people around her. Now she’d learned to at least look more approachable, even if she didn’t want to be approachable — and besides, it helped that now, three and a half years mostly removed from her father’s influence, she was more approachable.
But the devil was, Tom knew, that neither Lynn nor Clarice really wanted to be left alone. To say they wanted rescue would be melodramatic, but they did want someone — anyone — to throw out a branch or a rope and help drag them from this whirlpool of timidity and self-hate. Lynn had had a rope thrown to her, and she had mostly pulled herself out. Mostly. Tom — and not just Tom, either, but Jessie and Dannie and Leona and everyone else who cared about Lynn — still had to tug from time to time. Clarice, Clarice was in the thick of it.
And by the way Clarice’s eyes flickered upward from their steadfast study of her lap, she knew just who she wanted to be on the other side of that rope …
All things considered, it was a shame that Freddy was sitting with his back to Clarice. If he sat with his front to her, maybe he would have seen those glances and gone out and got himself a rope. Or at least tried to talk to the girl. Wright knew how those two were going to handle being married to each other, if they both yearned for each other but couldn’t talk to each other.
Then again, maybe Freddy was a smart man in other ways. By keeping his back to Clarice, he kept his mind focused on the game at hand, which was important when you played against Dannie. Tom had only been playing poker against her for three and a half years, and he knew enough to keep all distractions at his back when he played with Dannie. And Milo … poor Milo did have all distractions at his back, and he was still going to get fleeced, if only because Dannie’s brother and her fiancé could play well enough against her to hold their own.
But still. Money lost at poker could be won again. A chance to win the girl you wanted … once that was gone, who was to say it would ever come again?
Tom glanced at his brother. Kay and Jess, he knew, had cooked up some mad scheme to set Clarice and Freddy up. How was Kay taking this?
He stood sipping his ale, saying nothing, just watching Freddy. His eyes darted to Clarice from time to time, as well.
Then Kay’s gaze suddenly went to Tom, and Kay crossed his eyes and made moose ears (moose ear?) at him with the one hand that wasn’t occupied with the ale. Tom stuck his tongue out in reply.
He would ask Kay later how things were progressing with Freddy and Clarice. Maybe tomorrow, when they moved him into the fraternity. Kay would probably be too hung over then to give any cheeky replies to his nosiness. Or else he would just be ornery, and he would try to start something, and Tom would have to show him who was boss, because, even if he wasn’t bigger and stronger anymore, when it came to holding his liquor and dealing with hangovers, he still had three years of practice on Kay.
Oh, well. Those two lovebirds would sort themselves out sooner or later. Look at he and Lynn — or better still, look at Lamorak and Garnet! They had been at it hammer and tongs this time last year, or so it seemed from the little he could coax out of Lamorak, and now look at them!
… Or not. It was actually rather disgusting, to be honest. Not least because that was Tom’s sixteen-year-old cousin that Lamorak had his grubby paws all over. Not least because that was Tom’s friend and drinking buddy that Garnet had her well-manicured hands all over!
But still, they were happy enough, and if Tom didn’t want to wonder if he and Lynn looked that revoltingly happy to others, well, nobody said that he had to look in their direction. And in fact, as Lamorak’s lips darted to Garnet’s neck, Tom did in fact move his gaze elsewhere.
He moved it everywhere else, in fact. They were missing a set of revoltingly happy lovebirds. Where were Will and Jess?
They weren’t in the library, Tom knew that because Jessie had ducked in there earlier in the party and ducked out again. He wasn’t sure why, though. The library certainly wasn’t occupied — the only people likely to occupy it were out here, of all places, in the thick of the party. Tom would have thought it strange, but since the chessboard was out here, he supposed he could see the attraction of the being out in the company.
Heloise, Rob’s younger sister, was winning, but she was cheating. It was the only way one or the other of them would win — they had already played three games, all of which had ended in stalemate. The rules were clearly not meant to hold a mind like Heloise’s.
Nor a mind like Galahad’s, for Tom was sure he would get his own back, sooner or later.
But if Jess and Will weren’t in the library, where could they be? They wouldn’t be upstairs, for there was a reason why Tom had put the chess set, so sure to attract inquisitive Galahad and Heloise, by the staircase. If any couple attempted to mount it together, or even if any one Sim tried to mount it singly, one or the other of them was sure to ask, “Hey, where are you going?” It made it much harder for people to misbehave — Tom included.
They wouldn’t be downstairs, either, for the simple and excellent reason that there was nothing downstairs but damp and spiders, and Jessie hated spiders. They weren’t in the fencing hall, if for no other reason than you had to through the library to get to it and Tom knew that they weren’t in the library. They weren’t in the stool chamber, either, because Leona had just come out of there.
Jess had said something earlier about checking up on the food in the kitchen, but they couldn’t still be there, for there was no food in the kitchen …
Ah, never mind it, Tom, they’ll turn up eventually! Tom turned his attention back where it belonged, to his lovely Lynn.
“Tommy?” she whispered into his ear after a few moments of cuddling.
“I — er — I think you need to let me up.”
“What’s wrong? Did I hurt you?”
“No, no! I just …” She nuzzled against his neck and whispered — the tickle of her breath against his ear sent shivers down his spine — “I need to get up and go …”
“You — you, oh! Oh, well, why didn’t you just say so?” Tom asked, as he tried to figure out just where to put his limbs so as to let Lynn up. Lynn blushed and shrugged.
“Be right back,” she murmured, hurrying off to the stool chamber. Tom took the opportunity to dust himself off and pour himself another drink — Kay had disappeared sometime when he was otherwise occupied — no, he hadn’t disappeared, he was watching the poker game with no little interest. And maybe murmuring to Freddy that Clarice was watching him, so — what? Look sharp? Try to talk to her? Tom shook his head. At least I already have my de Ganis girl. Thank heaven for small blessings and all that wrong.
As he sipped, he poured a sweet malmsey for Lynn — she liked the malmsey wines, and she was probably thirsty. And what kind of gentleman would he be, to drink without preparing something for his lady?
But before his lady could return, another lady slipped into the space before him. “Hello, Tom.”
“Leona!” He took another gulp of his ale. “Enjoying yourself?” he smiled.
“Um … sort of.”
“What’s wrong, Leona? Left all by yourself, no one to kiss in the dark corners?” he winked. “Let’s see, who can we find for you … hmm, Lamorak is rather obviously taken, Rob’s fiancé moonlights as a fire-breathing dragon; Freddy, too, is taken; I am very, very taken; Will and Galahad are obviously out … that leaves Kay and Milo. Milo is nursing a broken heart, for all that he claims it isn’t broken, which means it’s even more broken than you might expect –”
“And I’ve pounded Kay into the dirt too many times through our childhood for him to be at all appealing as a lover.”
Tom raised his eyebrows over his ale. “Leona, don’t tell your brother I said this –”
“Your big brother. He can pound me into the dirt if he thinks I’ve been too fresh with his sister. But in all seriousness, if pounding someone into the dirt make them … not at all appealing as a lover, I fear you are going to have a very miserable marriage.”
“For Wright’s sake, don’t remind me. Hey, what’s in that glass?”
“Malmsey, for Lynn.”
“Figures. Where do you keep the Scotch?”
“Over there. Want me to pour some for you?”
“Hey, I’m a lady, not a helpless infant — but thanks anyway.” Leona poured a generous measure and tossed it back with all of the assurance of a senior, and not the sophomore she was. “Liquid courage,” she added with a silly grin.”
“Liquid courage? I thought you had buckets of the real thing and were in no need of a supplement!”
“Everyone needs a little liquid courage when they’re about to ask their prince for a favor.”
“Oh?” Tom asked, his voice flat.
“Aye,” Leona answered. She poured another Scotch and tossed it back.
“Chaser?” Tom asked. “There’s some –”
“Tom, I need to talk before the courage wears off. I want to ask you about ships.”
“Aye. I want you to build more.”
“You see …” Leona took a deep breath. “Albion’s navy is crap,” she began.
“Leona, my friend, Albion doesn’t have a navy.”
“Which is why it’s so crappy!” Leona replied. “But in a way, that’s all right, since Glasonland’s navy and Reme’s navy are crap too.”
“And,” Leona went on, waving her finger in the air, “they’re likely to stay that way!”
“And why would that be?”
“Because the people who rule Reme and Glasonland are idiots, who think that the only way to fight is on horseback, against people who are on foot, preferably.”
“Remind me never to make you a diplomat.”
“But I don’t want to be a diplomat! I want to be an admiral!”
“– You want to what?”
“An admiral! I want to sail! I want to — oh, Tom, if you could just see it! Albion’s only a small land power, we’re scrunched in between two colossal empires that aren’t going away anytime soon. But the sea! We have two useable coasts with lots of good harbors! And we have no competition! Glasonland and Reme are ruled by idiots, Simberia doesn’t have any warm water ports, Simspain has too many problems with the Smoors to think about expanding navally, and Gaul is landlocked!”
“All right, go on.”
“And — and so, the field is wide open! If we build up our navy, we could — we could attack the pirate problem! You know there’s a pirate problem, don’t you?”
“Aye, I know it. Everyone’s merchants are complaining about it.”
“Exactly! Exactly! Everyone’s merchants are complaining about it, but no one’s willing to do anything about it! But we could! With some good ships, and better sailors, we could — we could step into that void! And everyone’s merchants would be indebted to us! Us, Tom! Just think of that!”
“Oh, I’m thinking of it.”
“They — they might even move to Albion! And imagine that! Imagine what would happen if some of the great trading houses of Glasonland decided to base their operations in Albion! Could you imagine the wealth that would pour in?”
“That would take generations to accomplish, Leona.”
“So? No reason not to start now!”
“No, no, indeed. Go on, what else do you have in mind?”
“Oh, tons of things! For instance, if we built up the northern coast, we could get an edge on trade with Simberia — we could get there before anyone else, as soon as the ports opened up in the spring! Could you imagine that? We’d have the first shot at all those furs and amber, and we could sail them straight back to Albion, transport them overland to Port Finessa in the south — that shouldn’t take more than a couple of days, at the very most, even with heavy wagons and horrible weather and the worst oxen in the world! — and from there, we could ship them anywhere, cheap!”
As she spoke, Tom poured himself another ale. He did not need the extra alcohol, but it gave him an opportunity to watch Leona over the rim of the tankard.
He didn’t really listen as the ideas poured out of her. He didn’t need to listen. He had heard enough. Now, he just wanted to watch.
Her hands moved up and down, her lips moved almost too fast for the words to escape, her eyes were bright and just this side of wild. They would get wild, he knew, if he let her go on. Sooner or later, she would climb so high in her flights of fantasy that she would forget that such a thing as earth existed, she would be sailing on her ocean of dreams, and she would be content to remain there for at least the next ten minutes.
But soon enough she would come back to earth, for she loved that ocean of dreams, and she would want to bring it to earth with her — for she must live upon the earth, and if she did not like the earth as she found it, she would change it.
Yes, Tom thought, Leona had it. She had that quality that his father had talked about, so reverently, so many times. The quality that Arthur had told Tom to watch out for. The characteristic that Arthur had told Tom to appropriate at all costs. The virtue that could make or break a kingdom.
Vision. The ability to see the world not just as it was, but as it could be. And the determination and drive to make that world a reality. Leona had determination, Tom knew that, and she had drive — but now that he knew that she had that elusive vision …
The only catch in this happy picture was that Arthur had always told Tom to be on the lookout for men with vision … and Leona was not a man.
But did it matter?
Tom considered that. They had Glasonland on one side, Reme on the other. Glasonland was ready to fall into civil war. If they didn’t, they would pounce on Reme, and Albion would once again be a bloody battlefield in a war it had no interest in fighting.
But if they had a navy …
Maybe they would have a chance.
She stopped. “Tom?”
“I can’t promise you a job — certainly not the job I think you want — right out of school. I’m sorry, but that’s beyond my power now.”
“Well, I — um –”
“However,” Tom continued, “I can promise you that if you went to my father with these ideas, he would be very interested in hearing what you have to say. And — who knows? — maybe he might be willing to let you work on that project.”
“You — you mean it? You’re serious, Tommy?”
He was serious enough to let the old name, which he had only tolerated from Lynn, Jessie and his mother from his tenth birthday onward, slide. “So serious that I’m going to write to my father as soon as I sober up and the worst of my hangover is gone.”
Leona actually squealed — and then she kissed his cheek! And then she kissed Clarice’s cheek! “Oh, Clarie!” she almost shrieked, pulling her friend up. “I told him all about it! And you know what? He’s writing to his dad about it! He’s writing to King Arthur about my idea! Mine!”
“I told you he’d listen, Leona!” Tom heard Clarice laughing as Leona pulled her away and began an impromptu jig.
Lynn wove past the two of them, glancing at Leona with one eyebrow raised. “She needs dancing lessons, Lynn,” Tom said, laying a hand on her shoulder with a grave sigh. “Here — you give them to her, and I’ll watch. How does that sound?”
Lynn’s eyebrows went up. “Did you give her some good news?”
“In a way. She had a kicka–er–very good idea about getting Albion a Royal Navy, and I told her I would write to my father about it. Somehow, she seems surprised.” His hand moved down her shoulder, to her arm, from there to her hip. “Now, where were we?”
“Oh … about — here …”
Without warning, Lynn pounced on him.
When they finally came up for air, Lynn whispered, “I think.”
Tom gulped. “Here’s good!”