“What’s the matter, Will? You look so nervous — like you were getting married in the morning or something! Oh, wait …” Tom said.
He pretended to sigh. “We’re not getting married in the morning. We’re getting married the morning after tomorrow morning, because somebody decided he’d rather spend his last night of freedom sleeping than partying and living it up with his friends.”
“I’ll be sure to tell Lynn you characterized the night before your wedding as ‘the last night of freedom.'”
Will shut it, but his lips were pursed too close together and too close to turning up at the ends for it to be satisfactory.
“And stop laughing!” Tom punched Will’s arm.
Unfortunately, that had the opposite of the intended effect, for Will’s smothered laugh burst out in a snort.
“Oh, Lord,” Tom replied, chuckling himself. “Can you believe it?” He leaned against the wall, his hair flopping around his face. “Less than two days, mate. And finally all this wedding nonsense will be over!”
“Yes, and then we can move on to the marriage nonsense.”
“Bah.” Tom waved his hand. “There’s nothing nonsensical about that. I mean, it’s all about keeping the lady happy, and at this point, if I don’t know how to keep Lynn happy, there must be something wrong with my brain.”
“Now that you mention that …”
“Knock it off!” Tom cried, but it was hard to force the right amount of princely outrage around the laughing. “Oh, Wright! Can you believe it? This time in two days, we’ll be family. Brothers!”
“Wright Almighty,” Will agreed. “I don’t know who’s more to be pitied.”
“I know! Both of our families have enough madness without adding the other’s into it.”
“All we need is for Leona to finally throw Elyan over and run away with your brother, and it’ll be the perfect storm of insanity.”
“Oh no!” Tom protested. “If –”
He glanced over his shoulder, but Elyan seemed completely engrossed in his conversation with Galahad and not to be paying attention to them at all. Tom made a mental note to make sure that he paid for all of Galahad’s drinks — it was the least he could do for the boy, seeing that he was taking Elyan off their hands.
Tom turned back to Will. “If I have to have Elyan as a brother-in-law, you have to have Elyan as a brother-in-law! You’re not escaping that … joy so easily!”
“That’s not fair. You chose to marry into … that.”
“And what, pray, is the that you’re calling my lovely soon-to-be wife?”
“I’m not calling Lynn anything. Her family, however … or at least the male members of it …”
“Hold on, mate. Barkeep!” Tom called. “Another pint, please, I’m going to need at least three more to get through this conversation.”
Will patted Tom’s shoulder. “Cheer up, mate. At least you’re not related to it by blood.”
“But my children will be. Oy! My poor children!” He held his hands in front of his eyes. “They haven’t even been conceived yet and I’m afraid of what they’ll end up getting from it!”
“Perhaps your contribution to their … formation will cancel out anything Lynn might be hiding.”
“Or maybe it will mix with my family craziness and form some new and dreaded form of insanity. Gah! Barkeep! I need another!”
“Yer Highness, I ain’t gotten ye yer first drink yet!” the barmaid laughed.
“Doesn’t matter, I still need the second!” Tom turned again to Will. “But can you imagine? Having Sir Bors come –”
The door creaked open, and the barmaid called, “Sorry, sirs, but the bar’s closed tonight, it’s a private party –”
“We know,” answered a familiar tenor. “We were invited.”
Tom had barely drawn his mind away from various topics that could only lead to alcoholism and focused it on the need to greet the newest guests when the silence registered.
Wright Almighty, are they really going to be like this? He didn’t expect more than a smile and a wave from Will, because generally it took a poker to the ass to get Will to talk more than that, but everyone else? A few days ago in Camford they had all been chums, buddies, brothers for the good Lord’s sake.
Well, not all of them. The silence seemed to be thickest in the vicinities of Mordred, Aglovale and Elyan, none of whom had been at Camford. And all of whom could be the most self-righteous pricks under the sun given half a chance.
The ever-ready (especially after the graduation party back at Camford) smile started to drop from Freddy’s face, and that was the last straw for Tom. “Rob!” he called, grabbing his friend for an embrace. “What the hell took you so long to get here?”
“Sorry. We got a little lost.”
“S’all right, mate.” They parted with a friendly slap on the back. “So how’s that new place shaping up?” Tom asked with all the wondering jealousy of a young man who had moved back into his parents’ home upon graduation. Granted, that home was a palace, but … independence was a strange and tempting thing, especially when viewed from the outside.
“It’s nice. Not too big, not too small.”
“Is it a mess already?” Tom laughed.
“Oh, no,” Freddy put in. “Dannie pays a girl from the village to come by and straighten up every day.”
Tom stared at Rob. “Every day?”
“She says she doesn’t want to have to spend the day after her wedding helping the house recover from two weeks of bachelordom.”
“Mate, you were the only one of us who could reasonably be expected to put his dirty braises into the hamper at least semi-regularly.”
Tom snorted. “Good Lord. Well, come up and have a drink with us — sounds like you’ll be needing it.” He turned to Freddy to invite him as well, but Freddy had already disappeared.
… No, not disappeared, he’d just taken the bar stool next to Galahad. Or rather, between Galahad and Elyan.
Poor bastard. Best of luck with that!
“So,” Tom said as he hopped onto the stool next to Rob and Will hopped onto the stool next to him, “when do you get your ball and chain fitted, my friend?”
“About a week after you get yours locked on.”
“Only a week?” Tom asked. “Bloody hell. We,” he jerked his head in Will’s direction, “won’t be able to make it if you’re only waiting a week.”
“Aye, I know, your wedding trips won’t be over by then. But …”
“But?” Will asked, even as he gestured to the barmaid to fill his tankard.
“Well, the convenience of actual brothers and sister does tend to outweigh that of frat brothers and sorority sisters.” Rob nodded to Freddy.
“Right. You’re afflicted with those too,” Tom said, nodding slowly.
“Tom,” Will shook his head.
“Kay’s right over there.”
“So? He knows how much of an affliction he is!”
Rob grinned. “He’d probably same the same of you.”
“Of me? Nonsense. Little brothers are the affliction, everyone knows that.”
“Really,” Tom replied. “I’ll stake my best horse on it.”
“Uh huh,” Rob answered with his eyebrows lifting. “Let me ask you this. Did you ever steal your brother’s cap, or ball, or favorite toy and hold it above his head where he couldn’t reach it?”
“Or deliberately throw the ball too high or too hard for him to catch it?”
“Or how about noogies? Ever give Kay one of those?”
“Only when he deserved it!”
Rob shook his head. “And you think we’re the affliction. I take it that the story is the same with you, Will?”
“Not really,” Will shrugged. “I was always too busy dragging Galahad out of trouble to want to start any with him myself.”
The remark was wide open for some kind of disparagement, but Tom ignored it. Such was the force of habit — when “trouble” and “Galahad” were mentioned in the same sentence, all those who knew him and felt some responsibility toward protecting him glanced around to make sure he hadn’t gotten into any.
So far he seemed safe enough, though the expression on Elyan’s face made Tom glad that he was not in charge of protecting Freddy. Get used to it, jackass, Tom thought to Elyan, you’re going to have to be living with Freddy once you get to Camford, and if I can finagle any say in the matter, he’ll be getting a bigger room.
“Truly?” Rob asked.
“Rob,” Tom answered. “You know Galahad. Much as we all love him … remember the time he told that Glasonlander that their laws on treason were the dumbest thing he’d ever heard?”
“Or when he told the Reman that slavery was economically unfeasible and the system would eventually collapse under its own weight?” Will pointed out.
“Or the time he told that ugly guy that his betrothed was probably flirting with the good-looking guy of her own free will and if he was betrothed to him, he’d be flirting with anyone else too?”
Rob winced, and with good reason, for in the ensuing scuffle he had managed to catch a fist to the jaw that was a good week or so in turning colors before it finally healed. “Point taken.”
Before Tom could bask in his triumph, though, Rob added, “That would only make Galahad the exception that proves the rule, though. He’s going into the Church, though, isn’t he?”
“Aye,” Will answered. “Moving into the chapter house for the Brothers of St. Pascal as soon as he goes back to Camford.”
“The Church is sworn to nonviolence, isn’t it?” Rob murmured.
“Well, you’d think that, wouldn’t you?” Tom replied. “But we all know it’s not true. Look at what they do to wi — er, persons of magical ability.”
“Galahad’s doomed, isn’t he?” Rob asked.
“No.” Will glared daggers at Tom over the rim of his tankard. “Churchmen generally don’t haul off others and slug them for any little thing.”
“No, they just accuse you of heresy and burn you at the stake.”
“Even Galahad won’t blunder into something obviously heretical,” Will replied.
“And something that’s not-so-obviously heretical?” Rob asked.
“You have to get the whole Abbot’s Council to agree that it’s heretical, and they only meet once every ten years and can’t really agree on everything, so …” Will shrugged. At Tom and Rob’s incredulous expressions, he added, “Sorry. Living with Galahad, it rubs off.”
“No kidding, mate,” Tom laughed. “So, what do you … oh dear.”
“What?” Rob asked.
“Freddy.” Tommy gestured toward him with his tankard in the younger man’s direction. “Still trying to make friends with Elyan, the poor sap. D’you think we should rescue him?”
“Elyan?” Rob asked. “That the bloke in the blue with the fur?”
“Freddy needs rescue from that bite-sized twerp?” Rob stammered.
Tom clapped him on the shoulder. “Ah, Rob! I see that you’ve not yet had the pleasure of meeting my dearest betrothed’s utter affliction of a little brother.” He glanced sidelong at Rob. “I assure you, if you try to argue with me on whether or not he’s an affliction, you will lose.”
“Elyan’s the eldest boy in his family, isn’t he?” Rob asked instead of arguing.
“Aye …” Tom murmured, letting his eyebrow doing the rest of the talking.
“And he’s got two elder sisters.”
“… Well?” Tom finally had to ask.
Rob grinned. “Aren’t brothers always afflictions to their sisters?”
“Spoken like a true man with sisters,” Tom nodded, which made Will snort into his tankard — it was either that or choke, and the ale was too good to waste on choking.
“Aye. So what’s so bad about Elyan?” Rob asked.
“Oh, Wright, where to begin …” Tom sighed. “For starters, he’s just like his father.”
“Sir Bors de Ganis?”
“Aye,” Will answered, with the kind of long-suffering sigh only a man who had the misfortune to be related to Sir Bors by blood could muster. Even Tom couldn’t top that sigh, though he was certain he’d be running that sigh into the ground within a year or so of marriage.
“Hmm,” Rob murmured. “Do I even want to know what’s so bad about Sir Bors?”
“They say knowledge is power,” Tom shrugged.
“Aye, but I already know through my father and Josh that if you want to watch Master Ferreira turn six shades of red and purple, all you have to do is mention his name.”
Tom leaned his elbow on the bar. “Is that so?” Intriguing. So Albion’s likely-to-be-newest-nobleman already hates Sir Bors? He glanced sidelong at Will. Now, where might that put him for alliances?
… Especially since he’s tried to betroth his son and heir to Sir Bors’s second daughter, who will in less than forty-eight hours be my sister-in-law …
As if Elyan could read his thoughts — which was about the last thing Tom could ever wish — Elyan snapped, loudly enough for the whole bar to hear, “Family? In what realm, sirrah, could you ever become my family?”
“Shit,” Rob whispered. “Well, at least you can’t say that Sir Bors isn’t fair. He keeps his sons in as much ignorance as his daughters.”
“You’re wrong, Rob,” Tom shook his head. “The girls Sir Bors keeps in ignorance. The boys he tells all he knows — which doesn’t amount to much, ergo, they appear just as ignorant as the girls.”
“But — but I thought — our fathers –” poor Freddy was sputtering.
“If not more so,” Tom added in an undertone to Rob. He knocked back the rest of his tankard and gestured to the barmaid to refill it.
“I daresay they’ve met on matters of business,” Elyan snarled, “but that hardly makes us family –”
“But Clarice –”
“How dare you presume to speak of my lady sister so familiarly?” Elyan snapped. He began to rise —
“Will!” Galahad called plaintively.
Will sighed and drained the rest of his tankard in a single swallow. “Excuse me.”
He slipped from the stool and marched over to Elyan, who had at this point stood and drawn himself to his full (and none-too-impressive) height and was attempting to look down on Freddy while being hampered by the fact that Freddy was still higher up than he was. Will grabbed his shoulder and turned strength that was generally utilized in dragging Galahad away from trouble by the ear to pull Elyan to the wall for what looked like a heart-to-heart conversation … or as close to that as you could get when one of the conversationalists didn’t actually have a heart.
“Poor mate,” Tom sighed, watching Elyan scowl his way through Will’s speech.
“Maybe you should relieve him — you are practically Elyan’s brother-in-law.”
Tom snorted. “So’s Will.” As Rob took a sip, he added, “Leona’s going to marry Elyan someday.”
Rob’s ale sprayed forth from his mouth and the tankard hit the counter with a clang. “What?”
“You heard me. Leona is going to marry Elyan.”
“Leona du Lac?”
“Last I checked,” Tom shrugged.
Rob stared at Elyan, his wrinkled piggish nose and his hand waving in a matter that might have been imperious if he had any kind of substance to back it up. “She’ll eat him alive!”
“From what I understand,” Tom mused, “theirs is the sort of betrothal that the parents enter into before either party has grown a personality, and do not think to exit once said parties have grown their personalities and made it very clear that the betrothal is, on a personal level, a very, very bad idea.”
Tom took a swig of his refilled tankard. “She’ll chew him up for breakfast every morning of their married life and spit him out before lunch.”
“Should we feel sorry for Elyan?” Rob asked, tilting his head to one side.
“Nah. He wouldn’t get the regurgitation treatment if he didn’t deserve it.”
“If I didn’t know better,” Rob said, swishing his ale dangerously near the rim, “I’d say that you were already thoroughly annoyed with your future brother-in-law.”
Tom sighed. “When Lynn and I finally got up the courage to tell her father that we were courting, Sir Bors was his … usual self and decided that it would be improper if I so much as asked her for an extra pen without proper chaperonage. And somehow, he decided that ten-year-old, gawky, sniveling, thoroughly bratty Elyan constituted a proper chaperone. Now, imagine trying to whisper sweet nothings in your lady’s ear with that looking on and snapping at you if you got within ten feet of her.”
Rob looked again at Elyan. “How is he still alive?”
“How is who still alive?” Kay asked, slipping into Will’s seat.
“Elyan, and to answer your question, Lynn’s skinflint father could only rarely be persuaded to buy new dresses for his daughters, so I didn’t want to get blood all over what dresses Lynn had.”
“You still haven’t forgiven him for the whole chaperoning thing, have you?” Kay laughed.
“You laugh now, but wait until Dad decides to set you up with his little sister, and you have to deal with brother Elyan watching you with her.”
“Good Lord! Baby Evette? Even I don’t go for girls that young!” Kay shook his head. “Er … you don’t think Dad would do that, do you?”
“Probably not, like you pointed out, she’s just a baby and there’s no way you would keep it in your hose until she came of age,” Tom shrugged. “Why? You’ve already got someone in mind?”
Were his little brother’s ears turning … red? That was impossible — or rather, it was very possible, all three of the Pendragon siblings had the same faintly translucent complexion that was such a disadvantage to royalty — but usually Kay was unflappable. Still, before Tom could open his mouth to question or tease, he saw something else. “Oh, bloody hell.”
“What?” Kay asked, only to be pointed in the direction of Will, Elyan, and … Freddy.
“Poor Freddy,” Kay remarked as Elyan jerked his hand away from Freddy’s, staring at the five fingers as if they were covered in slime and had worms growing from them. “Somebody should have warned him that all the decentness in the de Ganis family got apportioned between Lynn and Clarice.”
“You’d better hope not, in case Dad does decide to set you up with Baby Evette.”
“You should probably give Freddy a talking-to,” Rob murmured as Elyan stomped away, his nose held so high in the hair he’d probably breathe in any chamber-pot filth the good residents of Avilion tossed from their bedroom windows. “Let him know there’s still hope.”
“Aye,” Tom remarked, slipping from the stool. “Aye, I’d better.”