Never, never in a million years did Morgause imagine that, in her old age, she would take up gardening.
Then again, Morgause had never been quite able to imagine that she would reach what was conventionally known as “old age,” either. How could a woman of such alabaster and coal beauty ever survive the indignity of becoming old? It was impossible to dream, and so Morgause did not dream of it.
At the same time, dying young and leaving a beautiful corpse behind also had its drawbacks. It was all well and good for empty-headed beauties, court favorites, princesses and queens to take that route. But though many adjectives had been applied to Morgause’s head and various features thereof, “empty” was not one of them. She had more important things to do than die.
Such as discovering the secret to eternal youth.
She smirked as she stroked the slightly gummy leaf of one of her many cuttings. Poor Dindrane, such a little fool! Morgause had kept one close eye on the cowplant in the backyard. Instead of doing the sensible thing, what Morgause would have done, and finding some peasants who would not be missed and using them to prolong her youth indefinitely, she was … feeding the thing! Watching the thing! Taking notes!
Morgause would have thought it the arrogance of youth, but Dindrane was not that young. She was twenty-five — a quarter of a century had passed her by! The best, most blooming years of her youth had already passed her by, wasted in the musty libraries of Camford. But Dindrane did not seem to realize that.
Poor fool. She’ll be regretting not using that cowplant when she had the chance. Perhaps I’ll share a bit of my formula with her, once I perfect it.
Morgause craned her neck back, though there was only one person who that could be — one person whom the wards on her workroom would let pass without question. “Mordred. Good evening.”
Mordred did not even look sidelong at her cuttings, for of course a witch of the Dark path could be expected to have many plants and herbs of indeterminate origin and purpose cluttering her workroom. Instead, he paced over to the couch and threw himself down.
“Something wrong?” Morgause allowed herself to ask before turning back to the plants. She took the gummy residue and tested it between two fingers. In texture, it was so close to the secretion of the cowplant that she had milked to such good effect …
But texture was nothing. She’d tested this residue on servant after servant. On none did it seem to improve youthfulness and good looks. There was still something missing.
Mordred sighed. “Father Hugh just left.”
“It’s a bit late for him to be calling, isn’t it?”
“He came when he could make time,” Mordred spat. “That is how low Father has fallen.”
Morgause turned to see her son slouched and sulking like a child. “Sit up, Mordred.”
He did not. “He’s barely trying, Mother. He just drops by to check in every now and again.”
It was all Morgause could do to keep her shrug from reaching her shoulders. “Father Hugh has a great deal of things on his plate. The royal wedding is less than a fortnight away.”
“You’d think a man’s life would be worth more than a hundred royal weddings.”
“Your father is still alive, so clearly Father Hugh is still placing him above my dear brother’s spoiled brats.”
“He’s not improved in … in …”
He hasn’t improved since before he had that brainstorm, Morgause thought, but did not say. Except in looks, thanks to your wife and that excellent example of bovine vegetation she has in the garden.
“Can’t we ask the Lady Morgan for assistance?” Mordred asked.
Morgause froze. “What?”
“The Lady Morgan. We can ask her for assistance, can we not? Even if she refused … even if she tried to harm Father … she can’t possibly leave him in a worse state than he’s in now.”
Her son’s sulk said everything she needed to hear about his thoughts on her refusal.
Or so she thought. “In Father’s … illness,” he finally said, “I am the master of this house.”
“And whether your father is sick or well, I am the mistress of this house, and I refuse Morgan entrance.”
“If Father is … is no more,” Mordred murmured, “then Dindrane is mistress here.”
“Ha! That underfed milksop! Do you really think she could ever take the title of mistress here?”
“To the King, to the other nobles …”
“Mordred, please. If those such as you and I ever bothered to bow to the opinions of fools like your uncle and the rest of his court, we should never accomplish anything.” She sniffed. “No. You know very well that I shall be mistress of this place until I leave it, Dindrane’s presence notwithstanding. And so Morgan will not set foot on this land. Unless, of course …”
Mordred perked up. “Unless?”
“Unless you — or Dindrane, I suppose — are able to lift my wards and grant that woman free access. Then, I suppose, I shall not have room to argue.”
Mordred sighed. “Perhaps Garnet would be able to do it,” he spat. “She will be home for the wedding.”
“Oh, please. Garnet? She hasn’t the strength of purpose to commit herself to either the Light path or the Dark. You think she could summon the will and the knowledge to alter my wards?”
“She summoned the will and the knowledge to pass the entrance examination for Camford two years early.”
Morgause waved her hand dismissively. “Please. It was not so long ago that you were taking that examination. How hard was it, truly?”
Morgause raised one eyebrow.
“Well, I barely studied, and so –”
“You still passed, barely studying, and had enough leisure time during the course of your studies to get twins on your little mistress. Whereas Garnet barely passed, studying like a regular bluestocking, and as far as I can determine has been so busy trying to keep abreast of her studies that she has barely had time to get herself into any trouble. No. It is not the same for you and for Garnet. If you will not even try to break through my wards, then you can rest assured that she cannot possibly succeed.”
Mordred sighed. “Must you start on Garnet?”
“You brought her up.”
Mordred shook his head. “Did it ever occur to you that I am not willing to try not for lack of power or ability, but for lack of patience to deal with you if I should succeed?”
“Good boy,” Morgause replied. “I’ve trained you well.”
“This isn’t the time to joke.”
“If you insist.” Morgause crouched to examine a cutting on the lowest shelf. A bit more water? she thought, examining the yellowing leaf. She tested the soil. Damp. A bit less?
Mordred rubbed his temple. “You know, Garnet still might do it.”
“What makes you say that?” She felt the underside of the leaf. Not a hint of residue. She murmured a quick spell for the extermination of insectiod life. The plant suddenly shuddered and shriveled between her fingertips. Damn it!
“What … why did you kill it?” Mordred murmured.
Morgause almost jumped. She narrowed her eyes at her son. “It was dying anyway. I could use the pot for a hardier plant.” Damn it all. I thought I had bred the resistance to magic out of the damn things.
Then again, she mused, it was hard to breed a certain trait out of the plant if she could barely get it to the stage where it would germinate. Perhaps she should find a way to break Dindrane’s leg, laying her up for a time, and simply feed a few peasants nobody would miss to the cowplant after all.
Though with her luck, Dindrane was already pregnant with a spare for Gawaine, and breaking the girl’s leg would cause her to miscarry, which would only —
Morgause was returned to reality by the sound of her son’s sigh. “Mordred?”
“He is my father, Mother,” Mordred said. “Not some … weak plant filling a pot you can use for a hardier specimen.”
What in Wright’s name is he talking about?
“And even if you think that Father’s time is past, that we should all be better off if he were to … to pass on –”
“Mordred. Say it.”
Mordred only looked up at her, his silver eyes glinting unnaturally in the orb she had set above the plants to give them constant light and heat.
Those silver eyes. It was all Morgause could do to avoid a shudder. Somehow, out of all her children, Mordred was the only one to end up with those silver eyes. Morgause could not help but be glad of it. Those silver eyes had been her mother’s, and no one had known better than Igraine how to put reproach and shame into a pair of eyes.
As if she had any right! I did all I was supposed to! I behaved myself — mostly — I married well at my king’s directing, and I never abandoned my infant into some drafty dowager’s castle so I could take up with a king before my husband was cold in his grave!
Though, in truth, Morgause had no idea if the dowager’s castle was drafty or not — she could not remember it. King Uther had given her mother a lovely palace on the banks of the River Sarras as soon as she became pregnant with Arthur, and as it was spring, Igraine had sent for Morgause as soon as the weather was warm enough for travel. It was in that palace that she had grown up.
Second place to Arthur and Morgan, of course. They had a right to be there. I was just the baggage from the first marriage.
Morgause turned to see Mordred staring at the wall opposite. “Die,” he repeated. “You think we all should be better off if he were to die.”
“I never said that,” Morgause demurred.
“You never said that you hated Accolon or Morgan, either, but that doesn’t make it any less true.”
“Please. Let us not bring that maggot-infested corpse into this.” Morgause rolled her eyes.
“You prove my point even with that.”
“No, no, I do not.” Morgause sighed. “For Wright’s sake. If I really wanted your father dead, do you think he’d still be alive?”
“Well? Do you?”
Mordred hung his head. “I cannot imagine you would kill Father.”
“Then you,” Morgause replied, sidling away from the plant cuttings, “have a very limited imagination, my boy.”
Fire sprang into Mordred’s eyes.
“Now, I will admit, it’s never seriously crossed my mind to actually do it,” she continued. “Your father has always been most tolerable as a husband, and he’s been an excellent father, if a trifle indulgent, to you and your siblings. I’d be a fool to trade that for whatever husband it might please my stepfather or worse, your uncle to marry me to without excellent reason — and your father, bless him, never provided me with that reason. So, you can see that I do not desire him dead.”
Mordred closed his eyes. “I never said that you did.”
“Then what did you say, if not that?”
He stared up at her. “That you think we would all be better off if he were dead.”
Morgause watched lack of expression after lack of expression pass over her son’s face before seating herself on the couch beside him. “Mordred, I would have never thought that a year ago. Your father was a clever man and a capable one.”
“Was? He’s not dead!”
“His body is not, no.”
“Nor is his mind!”
“Oh, Mordred,” Morgause sighed. “If you cared for your father at all, you would pray it was.”
“No,” Mordred whispered.
“Yes. Yes, you would. Put yourself in his shoes!” Morgause shook her head. “Unable to move, to speak — cared for in all things like an infant — Agravaine, your son Gawaine, they are less helpless than he is! His dignity is gone, his ability to affect the world, to be a man — and you would wish him cognizant of all of this! You would wish he was aware and understanding!”
Mordred squeezed his eyes shut and leaned forward like a child with a stomach ache.
“However,” Morgause purred, “all the same, I do not think we would all be better off if he were dead.”
Mordred sat up.
“I only think that he would be better off dead.”
“Then why not kill him yourself? Put him out of his misery, if you feel that way?” Mordred snapped.
“Your sake, mostly,” Morgause replied. “And your sister’s, and your brother’s. Don’t forget, I know what it is to lose one’s father before one is ready to.”
“You never knew your father.”
Mordred stared at the wall opposite. “It is not the same. You had King Uther. He was … he was your father figure from since you were too little to know differently.”
“You are right. It is not the same. You were never lied to, led to believe that there was a man who loved you as his own, only to have your illusions rudely shattered when that man got a daughter of his own and then proceeded to shower affection on her, leaving you out in the cold.”
“You know what your father was like. You will someday be able to tell your children, ‘This is what Grandfather used to say, this is how he used to walk, this was his favorite story that he used to tell me and that I will tell you.’ So yes, it is different! It is very different for you.”
Mordred turned away. “I see.”
“You see? Good. I hope you do see how much more fortunate you are than your poor mother ever was. And I hope you understand why I am not willing to end your poor father’s suffering before his time. Even if there is little hope left … well, I must have hope. For your sake, for Garnet’s sake … and for Agravaine’s.”
“But all the same, if the Lord Wright were to take your father soon … it would be a mercy, for your father if for no one else.”
“So you say.”
“And I do say.”
Mordred rose. “I’m going out, Mother.”
“To see Rosette?”
“That is none of your concern.”
But Mordred never left the room that quickly, that decisively, if he were not going to see Rosette.
Morgause allowed herself a moment’s luxury to roll her eyes, and then she was up again.
Her search had gained a new urgency. If she was soon to be widow — and Father Hugh’s conduct did hint at that — then she would soon be on the marriage market again, and she would need to regain what youth and beauty she had carelessly allowed to slip through her fingers quickly. She already had someone lined up for husband number two, and she would need to be young and fertile enough to conceivably bear him an heir.
Not that that would be too much of a problem, Morgause smirked. After all — I’ve already born him one fine son. Surely, it won’t be much trouble to bear him another.
Alone in her workroom, Morgause could finally permit herself to smirk her feline smirk.