“Just think about it!” Elyan sighed. “Only a few more weeks to go! A few more weeks and you’ll be gone, out of here — your own man!”
Aglovale stared at the contents of the wardrobe and thought about that. He stared at the tunics, the surcoats, the hosen and the chausses. He fingered a bit of the linen padding meant to go beneath full plate armor. He glanced at the other odds and ends that had made their way into the wardrobe, the odd arrows divorced from the quiver, the tests and assignments that had been retrieved from a pocket and tossed inside, the half-carved figure of a fox he had begun, and abandoned, making Babette when they had first met. He thought of it all at the bottom of some trunk, piled in a creaking cart rolling into Camford. He thought of the things that would not make it into the cart packed away in one of the castle’s storerooms, or in the midden heap.
He turned to Elyan and snapped, “Would you get your dirty boots the hell off the bed?”
“Oh, so what if the blanket has to be washed?” Elyan turned his feet this way and that, as if he would grind the dust from his bootsoles into the embroidered linen. “Not like your father can’t afford extra washerwomen.”
“Doesn’t mean I want to listen to his bullshit about taking good care of my things,” Aglovale muttered, stomping over. “Besides, it won’t get washed until after I leave, dumbass.”
“If it was dirty?”
“Elyan. I’m leaving in a few weeks.”
“So it’s going to have to get washed after I go!”
“Why? Wouldn’t it make more sense to wash it right before you get back for a visit?”
Aglovale sighed. “Because this is Lamorak’s room.”
Elyan raised one eyebrow up. “Then why is all your shit in here?”
“Because my parents let me have it when he was off at Camford! But since he’s coming back, he gets his room back! Now will you move your damn feet?”
Elyan sighed and swung his legs over the side of the bed. “You worry too much.”
Funny, Kay tended to say the same thing, quite often. But if he’d asked Kay to take his dirty boots off the bedspread, Kay would have done it without questioning.
Aglovale plopped himself onto the squashy mattress. “I guess, when I come back to visit, I’ll be sleeping in my old room.”
“I don’t get why you didn’t get to have Dindrane’s room,” Elyan muttered.
“She’s a girl. She got married. She has a new home and she won’t be coming back, unlike Lamorak. So why didn’t you get her room?” Elyan looked around. “I mean, granted, it wouldn’t have been as big as this one, but it would have at least been yours.”
“Until I went to Camford. Same as this room.”
Elyan snorted. “Nonsense. This is your father’s house. You’ll always have a place here.”
Aglovale stared at the closest thing he had to a best friend with Kay away and finally forced himself to ask, “How the hell is it that Dindrane has a new home, while I’ll always have a place here?”
Elyan stared at him as … well, as Aglovale’s father often stared at Elyan’s father. “She’s a woman. She got married.”
“New home? New family?”
Aglovale snorted. “Like the Orkneys could replace her family.”
“Nonsense. She’s part of their family now.”
“You know, I hate it when you say that.”
“Aye. You sound like …” Your father, when he’s acting the most like an arse hole. Excessive time spent at the de Ganis château — which Aglovale had been forced to spend since Kay had gone to Camford — had shown Aglovale just why it was that his father’s temple throbbed and his fists clenched whenever Elyan’s father walked into the room. The man’s intelligence was so low he seemed to steal wit and cleverness from his companions to make up for his deficit. And yet Elyan was the only man in the kingdom who could not see that! Even Sir Lancelot, a dull knife if there ever was one, was a veritable genius in comparison to his cousin — and what’s more, he knew it!
“You sound like,” Aglovale decided, “you’re not really listening when you say that. Like you’re just dismissing what I say out of hand.”
Elyan snorted. “And you sound like a woman when you say that. Is that what Babette says to you? ‘You’re not really listening to me, Aglovale!'” he minced.
“Shut the hell up.”
“‘Oh, Aglovale! I don’t think you understand what I’m saying! You’re not listening!'”
“‘You just don’t understand how often we girls need new dresses! If we don’t get them, we –‘”
Aglovale smacked the chain mail headdress. “As if Babette even mentions dresses when we’re together.”
“As if I would know what girls like to talk about,” Elyan snorted.
“I wouldn’t think you would,” Aglovale murmured.
“My lady and I,” Elyan began, sagely, “when we’re together –”
“Your lady? Which one are you calling that?”
Elyan flinched. “What the hell is that supposed to mean?”
“Perfectly simple question. Which one –”
“Well, it’s not Leona! I might have to make her my wife someday, but she’s too much of a prude to do things other than talk. Not that I’d want to do them with her anyway.”
“She’s a prude, and you can’t even say the word sex. Figures,” Aglovale snorted. “Anyway, I wasn’t even talking about Leona.”
“I’m done with Rosamund. Well, not that I’ve told her that. Got to keep her happy while she’s acting as … as housekeeper.”
“Wasn’t talking about Rosamund, either.”
“No, again. Look, mate, it’s a simple question. Right hand, or left?”
Elyan stared at him for a full twenty seconds before he shouted, “Asshole!”
“Aw, come on, you set yourself up for that one.”
“I did not! I haven’t — haven’t — haven’t had to recourse to my hand for a long time!”
“Aye, you tell yourself that.”
“I haven’t! When you have women throwing themselves at you like I do –”
“Maybe they figure if they throw themselves at you hard enough, they’ll locate your cock by feel if not by sight.”
“Stranger things have –”
” — happened –”
“Aglovale, if you don’t shut your Wright-damned, mother-fu–”
Lady Eilwen Gwynedd had not successfully raised two boys without developing a certain … look. Kay swore his own mother’s look was scarier, but Kay didn’t understand. The Queen just looked like she might skin you alive and eat the remains for breakfast if you didn’t choose your next words carefully. Eilwen never looked like that. She just looked … disappointed.
Aglovale was trained as a knight. He could deal with death threats. He trained every day to deal with death threats. But disappointment? Who taught him to deal with that?
“L-Lady Eilwen!” Elyan squeaked as he tried to scramble to his feet.
“Oh, please, Elyan, don’t get up! I only plan to be in here for a minute.” She smiled, that gentle smile that no other mother in the kingdom could manage — or so Aglovale thought. The Queen had too much steel in her spine, Lady Guinevere was too flighty and empty-headed to focus on maternal smiles, he was not even sure Lady Claire had known how to smile even before she lost her mind and had to be put in a nunnery, and Lady Morgause was … scary in ways that were decidedly non-maternal. When she smiled, Aglovale was sure it was because she had just eaten a kitten and found the taste to her liking.
“Though while I’m here,” she continued, stepping toward the bed, “how is your mother?”
Nobody, Aglovale thought, could fail to respond to that kind of voiced concern. Elyan did not fail. “She’s getting better, m’lady.”
Elyan nodded. And said nothing further.
Eilwen said nothing as well.
“Well — she — um — the nuns haven’t said she can come home yet. But I’m sure she will come soon. Soon, it’ll hurt her more than help her, to be away from us.”
Either he’s completely full of shit, or someone else is and he believes them. The thought of spending a night at the de Ganis château — and he had been invited — was enough to make him consider slitting his wrists. He couldn’t imagine how Lady Claire could possibly get any better around the same nutters that had driven her mad in the first place.
“A mother does often want to be near her children,” Eilwen replied, smiling at Aglovale — quite clever, really, of her to put that “often” in there.
“Yes, yes, exactly. And her husband, of course.”
Apparently Eilwen couldn’t think of any possible way to reply to that in a way that would work equally well with both reality and the typical de Ganis perception of it, for she said nothing.
“And the wedding!”
“Oh, naturally, the wedding! She’ll want to be on the spot, to help dear Gwendolyn with her dress, and her hair, and …” Eilwen sighed. “That’s such a proud day in a mother’s life. A sad day, but a proud one.”
“I don’t see why Gwendolyn should be making Mother sad!” Elyan snapped. “It’s a splendid match! She’s advancing the whole family!”
“Oh, oh, dear, I didn’t mean it’s anything Gwendolyn did — and of course your mother will be so happy for her, and happy that she’s found such happiness — it’s just that, well …” Eilwen patted his shoulder. “I can’t explain it. You’ll understand someday, when you have daughters of your own.”
Clearly, Elyan had never considered the possibility that his seed might miscarry and sire a daughter, or else he just found the thought distasteful, for he made a face. Aglovale felt sorry for Leona, then — if Leona ever thought of having children, Aglovale was sure she would have wanted daughters. Maybe, the first time they had a daughter, Leona would just have to beat some sense into Elyan.
That was, of course, assuming she didn’t kick his ass all the way across the room the first time he tried to claim his “marital right” … was it wrong, Aglovale wondered, for him to gain such pleasure from the image of a naked Elyan flying across the room on his wedding night?
The way his mother glanced sidelong at him, Aglovale was sure she could hear that thought, and knew it was wrong.
“Anyway, like I said, I didn’t mean to stay long, I only wanted to tell Aglovale that I needed to talk to him –”
“Now?” Aglovale asked, and hoped that he sounded apprehensive, and not absurdly hopeful, to Elyan.
“Oh, not now! You have –”
“Elyan doesn’t mind. Do you, Elyan?”
“Well, if it’s important …”
“I’m sure it is. Mum wouldn’t be bothering us if it wasn’t, would you, Mum?” Aglovale did not wait for an answer to that, but instead grabbed his mother’s arm and led her, as a gallant would his lady, out of the room.
When he glanced sidelong up at her, he thought he saw her smirking. But his mother never smirked!
Aglovale did, though. And so he was able, when he led her out of the room and shut the door, to grin up at her and ask, “So what did you need, Mum?”
“You know, Aglovale,” she murmured, “if you’re not that fond of Elyan, you shouldn’t pretend that you are.”
Aglovale sighed. “Mum …”
“I know, I know, there aren’t so many boys of your age and station in these … parts. I do understand that. If I were your age, I would be just as lonely, and just as willing to … to grasp at straws. But that isn’t right. Elyan has feelings, and nobody wants to feel used.”
“Used? How am I using Elyan?”
“You’re only putting up with him because you have no one else.”
“And neither does he. It’s a win-win.” As Eilwen raised one eyebrow, Aglovale added, “Besides, Elyan’s more Kay’s friend than mine — I’m just being his friend in Kay’s absence. How is that using him?”
Eilwen only sighed and shook her head.
“Anyway, is that what you needed, Mum?” he asked with his best puppy stare.
“No, actually, it isn’t.” She frowned and tousled Aglovale’s hair. “Aglovale …”
“Sweetheart, is everything all right? You’ve been so … so quiet, so pensive these past few days … your father and I have both noticed it.”
His heart made a flying jump and grabbed onto his larynx, where it proceeded to do somersaults.
“And this past Sunday — in church — you …” She pushed his hair out of his face and stared into his eyes. “You usually don’t pray that hard, sweetheart. Even during the prayers for the dead.”
The prayers which had been sent up primarily for Isabel Wesleyan.
Aglovale forced himself to smile, and then to shrug. “Well, I — you know that friend of Lamorak’s, the one he writes so often about. Robert Wesleyan. I thought that was his sister …”
“Oh! Oh, dear! Was it?”
“No — no, that is, I … I asked Mother Julian about it, and she said she was only his sister-in-law.”
“Not ‘only,’ dear,” Eilwen softly corrected. “Certainly not to her poor husband.” She made the sign of the plumbbob and Aglovale’s had followed her movements without even considering it.
“Is that it, though?” she asked, startling him from his reverie.
Aglovale blinked and was too startled by the question, and its arrowhead accuracy, to manage a quick denial.
“Oh, oh dear! There is, isn’t there? Is it Camford? Are you –”
“No!” Aglovale blurted out before realizing that he had just thrown away his best excuse. If he had just said yes, then Eilwen would have simply sat him down and had a long talk with him, about how he was old enough to handle the responsiblity, and he would be fine, and if he ever needed anything, all he would have to do is …
But perhaps it was best he didn’t say that. Because it was the last part that would turn his stomach. Maybe, for the next year or so, all he would have to do was ask and he would have what he needed. But that wouldn’t hold true forever. By graduation he would be pushed out, expected to make his way on his own. Just because he had the misfortune to be born second, while Lamorak, lucky Lamorak, was born first.
He needed another excuse, though — “There’s a girl!” he blurted out. Ack! Damn! “A — a girl … I can’t be with …”
Eilwen’s face went very still.
Then, softly, she asked, “Sweetheart, are you … are you sure that’s true? Who is she? You’re … you’re not the eldest, you know, as long as she is … mostly suitable, we could talk your father around …?”
“I — I doubt it.” No, his father wouldn’t be talked around. Even if Aglovale wanted him to be. His father had proper views on commoners and nobles, and their respective places in this world. He wouldn’t be talked around, even if Aglovale had wanted to be. And Aglovale didn’t.
“I know she’s probably a commoner, but as long as she’s not –”
“Mum, she — she –” She WHAT? “She’s spoken for!” he blurted out.
He just a flash of sympathy begin on his mother’s face, and could look up no more.
“Oh! Oh, Aglovale! Oh, sweetie …”
“I don’t want to talk about it, Mum.”
He heard his mother’s stiff curls brush against the brocade of her dress. “Are you sure?” she asked, softly.
His cheeks burning, Aglovale nodded.
“Are — are you leaving her alone?” Eilwen asked. “You’re not — you’re not making it hard for her, are you?”
Was he? Was he making their ultimate separation hard for Babette?
“I — I’m trying not to.”
“But it’ll be easier, you know, once I get to Camford. We won’t — we won’t see each other so much. She’s not going.”
“No, I imagine you won’t be.”
“And, and, I’ve never promised her anything … anything that would lead her to think this was permanent.”
“Are you sure?” Eilwen asked. “You’re not a young lady, you know. You’d be amazed what an imaginative young lady can take for a promise.”
He was pretty sure he would remember if he had said anything that was, or could be construed as, a promise. “I’m sure.”
And suddenly he felt his mother’s arms around him. “Then I’m proud of you, baby,” she whispered into his hair. “It’s a brave thing you’re doing. Not all boys your age could do it.”
Aglovale accepted the hug — and found he could say nothing. But it was not because his heart was in his throat, doing somersaults.
It was because his heart was in the pit of his stomach, churning in acid.