“You’re mad, Tom. MAD.”
The ease with which Will came out with that statement to Tom, and others like it, never failed to astonish Milo. If someone had said that to Crown Prince Vortimer — even if it had not been so obviously true that it would have taken a crueler man than Will to say it — they would have been charged with treason. In Albion, however, the Crown Prince, upon being called mad, barely even blinked.
Instead, Tom proceeded to clean out his ear with his finger, glance at Milo, and ask, “D’you suppose this makes me look rough and unwashed enough?”
And so Milo was forced to decide which was more astonishing: that Will would say such a thing to the Crown Prince, or that he might very well be right.
Will, however, was openly smacking his forehead with his palm. “You’re going to get us killed.”
“I? I am going to get us killed? You’re the one who’s going to get us found out, but I’m going to get us killed?”
“How am I going to get us ‘found out’?”
Tom made as if to pat Will’s shoulder, though from Milo’s vantage point it looked and sounded more like a smack. “Because you, my friend, are not acting natural.”
“Aye, natural. As if you do this everyday. I am the perfect picture of unwashed peasantry … and you are acting like a cat on hot tiles.”
“Isn’t that natural, for Will?” Milo tried to joke.
His reward was one of those bruise-leaving “pats” on the shoulder. “Say, good point, Milo! Alas, the good people here at the …”
“Spring Onion,” Will filled in.
“Indeed, the Spring Onion, cannot be expected to know that. More’s the pity, considering how much we could get away with, if people knew that. However! Since you are such a cat on hot tiles, you are unlikely to offend anyone who seems to be of higher social status than we, as Kay did the last time I tried this.”
“As Kay — what do you mean, the last time?”
It must have been a Pendragon trait, that ability to blithely ignore any commentary that disagreed with the goals and pleasures of the moment. Certainly Tom gave no indication that he had heard Will as he sailed into the pub and bespoke them a table. It was one of the few traits of his father’s side of the family that Milo wished he had, rather than considered himself lucky to have avoided.
His father … the thought sent a familiar shiver down his spine. What would his father, his birth father, do if he knew that Milo was spending the break in Albion? He wasn’t doing anything wrong — Tom had invited him and he had accepted, that was all — but if the royal court at Glasonland found out …
Well, if there was any one answer the torturers at the Tower didn’t like to hear, it was, “I’m innocent! I swear, I’m innocent!”
Milo would just have to hope that nobody found out.
A waiter passed him the bill of fare, and Milo busied himself with looking it over, mainly to hide his discomfiture. Meanwhile, Tom turned to Will. “Isn’t this great, my friend? A chance to observe your future lands, your people — without them being aware they’re observed?”
Milo looked up. “Are these your lands, Will? Or your father’s? I didn’t know.”
“Er … not quite yet …”
“These lands, Milo, are part of the reason why my dear sister is regarded to be such a catch in these parts — aside, of course, from her impeccable family connections (if I do say so myself), and her myriad personal charms … none of which Will be getting to know until after the wedding, of course. Not if he knows what’s good for him.”
“Not even her personality?”
“If you want to consider that one of her charms …”
Will raised one eyebrow. “I never say things like that about Leona.”
“Leona’s never threatened to turn you into a frog!”
“No, just threatened to pound me into the dirt.”
“Aye, and she’s done her damnedest to make good on that threat — which tells you the worst you can expect from her. Whereas Jessie has never actually attempted to turn me into a frog.”
Milo turned his head to one side. “Wouldn’t that be a good thing?”
“To the uninitiated, yes — but when you’re dealing with Jess …” Tom shuddered. Will rolled his eyes. “It’s best to know the worst, so you know what not to do, in order to avoid provoking it.” And then Tom turned on his widest smile, the kind of smile no Glasonlander royal would allow to cross his lips. “Aren’t you glad your sisters are reasonable?”
Milo was still chuckling over that when the waiter came over and took their orders.
“Anyway,” Tom poked Will’s bicep, “you never answered my question. How does it feel, seeing your future vassals?”
Will’s nose wrinkled, and Milo sat up. “Why do you want to know?”
“I just want to know if you’re supposed to feel something special. I mean, I’ve been looking at my future vassals and subjects since I was two –”
“Well, I have been!”
Will’s uplifted eyebrow said more than any mere words could have done.
Tom sighed. “Well, if you insist …” He leaned forward. Milo felt the rough wood catch the equally rough material of his sleeve as he echoed Tom. Meanwhile, from under the table came the telltale sound of knuckles cracking.
Yet, to Milo’s surprise, it was at him that Tom nodded. “Tell him,” he nudged his head in Will’s direction, “what you told me at the beginning of the year.”
Milo blanched. “Tom …”
“It’s not a crime here,” Tom replied. “You’re safe.”
As if it not being a crime here would make a difference! “Tom, no. You — I shouldn’t have told you –”
“News that should be public property?” Tom tapped his fingers along the table. “Just tell him, Milo. You shan’t be telling him anything that a dozen merchants haven’t brought to Albion’s shores already.”
“But …” But there was no arguing with those narrowed silver eyes. Milo had always thought that the Glasonland Pendragon’s power of persuasion came from the fact that they had swords, maces, Iron Maidens to back up those narrowed eyes. Yet, so far as Milo knew, the Albionese Pendragons had none of those things. Perhaps there was more to it than Milo had thought.
Whatever it was, it made Milo turn to Will and tell him — not all he knew — but all that he had told Tom.
When he finished, Will put his tankard down and stared long and hard at the wall. Milo watched the fingers grip the pewter with a strength just shy of a convulsion.
Will spoke, finally, in only a brief phrase. “Son of a bitch.”
“Well, you took that far better than I did,” Tom smirked.
“What are we going to do?”
“Plans are … in place,” Tom replied with a telling glance at Milo.
“Tom! You practically browbeat him into telling me how his country’s about to go up like brush in a forest fire, but you can’t trust him enough to say what we’re planning on doing? For Wright’s sake, that’s not like you.”
“If it was just a question of trusting Milo, I would,” Tom answered. He took a coin from his pouch — a battered circle of copper — and spun it. His silver eyes never left the coin as he continued to speak. “However, the … the civil servants of Glasonland have ways of making a man talk.”
Will glanced at Milo; his eyes went wide and he turned back to Tom. “You’re making him risk torture to talk to –”
“I never made him risk anything, I merely invited –”
Whether it was Will’s raised voice, or his swiftly lowered fist, that attracted the attention of the whole pub, Milo was never sure. He was too busy looking somewhere, anywhere else to pay much attention.
That pretty brunette waitress walking by would be an excellent place to rest his eyes …
Tom took a loud swallow and set his tankard down with an audible clink. “Milo is hardly risking anything. If — if worst comes to worst, he might become one of the most valuable knights in Lord Lucinius’s army.”
That was enough to take his attention away from the brunette. “Huh?”
“How many other knights of Glasonland have been to Albion?” Tom asked, leaning forward with a dancing light in his eyes and a half-smile.
“I … surely messengers, diplomats …”
“Who are generally escorted — in all honor, of course — from the border to my father’s castle and then back again. They know the road to the capital, and perhaps how to find the lavatory in the castle, but that’s about it. Not exactly good information if someone cares to invade, no?
“Whereas Milo here,” Milo wanted to edge away from Tom’s lopsided grin and narrowed eyes, “will have seen a great deal of Albion, including its famed northern coast.”
“Famed,” Will repeated. “Famed how?”
“Famed as in, home to such famous residents as Marigold Thatcher the Plantsim, Mirelle Peaseblossom the vampire, and Lady Jessica du Lac, the sorceress.”
“What the hell are you playing at?” Will asked, as Milo squeaked, “Vampire?”
“Vampire,” Tom chose to repeat. “And Plantsim, and sorceress. You’ll be seeing two out of the three very shortly, and of course you’ve already met my sister.”
“And speaking of your sister, Tom –”
“Did I mention,” Tom continued, his eyes glinting like two coins, “while we’re on the subject of the supernatural and my family, that my cousin — cousin Garnet — is also a sorceress, my aunt is one too — hell, both my aunts are — and one of my aunts is married to a zombie? I know, I know, the ‘until death do us part’ is a bit difficult when one partner is already undead, however –”
Milo could no longer hold back his gulp.
Tom’s normal grin suddenly bloomed forth. “Did you see that?” He shook Will’s shoulder and pointed. “Did you see that? That’s what we want to see Lord Lucinius, Sir Septimus, all the Glasonlander army doing!”
Will did not look. “What the hell are you signing Jessie on for?”
“It’s her country too, she’ll be glad to help –”
“It’s not the same, Tom!”
Milo felt his eyes and attention start to drift as the pretty waitress came into view again.
“Not the same? Not the same as what?”
“Drafting her into — into — into this war is not the same as her volunteering to help out because it’s her country too!”
“But she will volunteer, if it comes to that … before it comes to that, once she knows –”
“She doesn’t even know yet?!”
“Wright, Will! I only just got Dad’s permission to tell –”
“So let me get this straight,” Will snarled. “You haven’t told Jess a damn thing about this, as far as she’s concerned, everything’s peachy — but you’re blathering on about –”
The food came, and Will fell silent.
It only took, however, for the server to walk away for Will to continue in a sibilant hiss, “You’re blathering on about using her as a weapon to a — to a bloody Glasonlander! Damn it, Tom! You didn’t possibly consider that if anyone thinks she’s a danger, they might just …”
Will glanced over his shoulder to see if anyone was listening.
He took a deep breath and murmured to Tom — Milo had to lean forward to catch it — “They might just have her killed while she’s at Camford and be done with it?”
“I shan’t tell a soul,” Milo heard himself promise as he watched Tom’s freckles grow a shade darker.
Tom did not so much as nod to him, however. “Do you really think they have the balls to kill a woman — in Camford — and a princess to boot?”
“They murdered a monk, in his bed, in the Order of St. Robert to boot!”
“Well, Jess is a witch,” Tom switched tactics. “You think they’d be able to, even if –”
“They kill witches every week in Glasonland!”
“No, they kill poor saps who they call witches — not necessarily the real thing. Come now, you’ve met Aunt Morgan, Lady Morgause — Jess, obviously — how long do you think any committee that came to arrest them would last?”
“If someone comes to arrest you, you usually have warning,” Will growled. “If someone tries to — tries to …” Milo watched as the fingers around Will’s fork grew whiter and whiter, and he spoke no more.
“That won’t happen,” Tom answered. “We’ve only got another couple months until graduation. Nobody is going to be asking Milo’s opinion on military matters before then. And by the time anybody asks Milo, we’ll all be safely out of Camford and Jess will be forewarned, forearmed, and will have had a chance to ward your new place from the deepest cellar to the topmost tower. Now keep eating — look natural.”
Tom suited the action to his words, but Will stared at the wall. And Milo could only look at his food.
“You’re a heartless bastard, Tom.”
“I am not.”
“She’s your sister — don’t you even care?”
“Of course I care. Why the hell do you think I’m trying to scare him, and by extension the entire Glasonlander army, shitless? With any luck, after we visit the whorehouse –”
The whorehouse? He’s bringing his sister’s betrothed to a whorehouse? They’re best friends, but Wright …
“– and introduce Milo here to Mistress Thatcher and Mistress Peaseblossom, he’ll have enough scary stories to keep the Glasonlander army out of the north, keeping Jess and any — Wright help me — black-haired, blue-eyed babies she might have out of the line of fire. And now, you can thank me.”
“I am not going to thank you for –”
“Be back in a minute,” Milo muttered to his plate and hastily thrown napkin. Tom gave him only a fraction of a nod, his eyes barely leaving Will.
How lucky they were, Milo thought as he clambered up the stairs, to even have betrotheds to fight over, to disagree on how to protect. How lucky Will was to feel that he had a say in how his betrothed was protected. Milo would have loved to have a say in protecting Erica.
Too bad her father had taken that say away from —
There was that pretty waitress.
Milo felt himself hesitate for half a second, then he ran up to her. “Excuse me, miss — can you show me the way to the privy?”
She pointed. “Right behind you, sir.”
Milo turned his head — and there was the sign, painted in obnoxious orange, announcing that this was in fact the men’s privy. “Oh, Lord.”
The waitress giggled. “It’s all right. It’s so easy to get turn around, going up those stairs.”
That sweet little smile — Erica might have smiled like that as she directed a lost guest through her family’s labyrinthine manor. Milo barely bit back a sigh. It was true what he had said to Tom, all those months ago. He and Erica were not a love match.
But they so easily could have been.
“But if that’s all you’re needing, sir, I’ve got –”
“Wait!” Milo heard himself say. “Can’t — can’t you stay a moment? And talk?”
“I thought you needed to –”
“I lied,” Milo admitted. “I couldn’t think of anything else to say to — to — get your attention. Look, my friends just got into an argument, and I was going to go to the bar, but if you’ll just chat with me for a few minutes — I’ll make it worth your while –”
“I’m not that type of girl, sir,” she said, taking a step back.
“I didn’t mean that!” The part of Milo that was from his father wanted to add, Unless you want me to mean that, beautiful. But the part of Milo that loved his mother and listened to her knew what those words could mean to a poor girl.
“I mean — look,” Milo said, “my — my mother was a … a girl like you, once upon a time. And I wouldn’t be here, if some … some nobleman hadn’t meant that.”
The girl’s pretty topaz eyes glanced sidelong up at him, though the rest of her face was tilted toward the ground. “Oh?”
She was searching for some resemblance to an Albionese nobleman — well, let her look, she wouldn’t find one. “I take after my mother.”
“I’m — I’m sorry?”
“I –” He had meant it physically, and that was true, but that wasn’t how she heard it. “I mean, I learned from her how to treat a lady.”
Why did she flinch? “I’m no lady.”
“My mother told me that the only real difference between a lady and a scullery maid is how she’s treated.”
She looked up. “And so you treat all women like they’re ladies?”
“I try. I get into enough trouble for being my father’s son, I don’t need to act like him too.”
She had Erica’s pretty little head tilt down pat — that slight angle of the neck that indicated a willingness to listen if the speaker was willing to talk, and a willingness to change the subject if the speaker wasn’t. And yet this girl had been learning to scrub floors back when Erica’s expensive governesses were teaching her that little head tilt! Truly, his mother had been more right than she realized.
Milo ran a sweaty hand through his hair. “So — er — what’s your name, again?”
Was it just his imagination, or did she hesitate? “Nicole Saquina — and yours?”
Now it was his turn to hesitate. Then, “Milo Carpenter,” he admitted. After all, why not? It sounded like a working man’s name — hell, it was a working man’s name; his grandfather had borne it before Milo had. And the odds of her having heard of Sir Milo Carpenter of Glasonland were remote.
“That’s a nice name. Milo.”
“So’s Nicole.” The blush that crept over her face was well worth the foolish grin he felt crawling across his.
She glanced at her feet. “So — a carpenter? That … that must be …”
“Oh, I’m not a carpenter! That — that was my grandfather’s trade.” Which was true. But now how was he to lie? “I’m a soldier.” And so he would be — more than likely — soon enough.
“Home on leave.”
Nicole’s brows drew together. “I thought — I thought that the army wasn’t going anywhere?”
“Er — so speak …” She leaned closer, her brows up and a tiny little smile inviting further confidences — or, in his case, requiring further lies. Or half-truths, he would call them.
“That is — it’s my buddies who are home on leave, and I … came with them.”
Her eyebrow went up. “It is.”
“Er — yes. You see, my home is … too far away for the amount of leave we were given.”
“My mother’s in Glasonland.”
“Oh! So — so you’re far from home, too.”
His mouth opened — and shut. “Too?”
What a pretty blush she had! “I’m from Reme.”
“Reme?” Milo grinned. “I didn’t think girls from Reme were allowed to be this pretty.”
“I didn’t think men from Glasonland were allowed to speak in complete sentences or walk outside without being covered in furs.”
“Touché,” Milo murmured. He leaned closer. “So, what else have you heard –”
“NICOLE! Yer order’s up!”
“Coming, Lyndsay!” Nicole called over her shoulder. She glanced at Milo and flushed. “Sorry — duty calls.”
“I — I understand. Here, you did –” He started to fish in his purse for a coin of suitable denomination.
“No, keep it.” Her hand, light on his wrist, stayed him. She smiled. “It was –”
“Coming! — nice talking to you.”
As Milo made his woozy way toward the bar, that was the sentence that kept ringing in his ears.