It was the night before his twins’ wedding, and Arthur, King of Albion, couldn’t sleep.
He stared at the canopy above him, curious about the threads winking in the moonlight. He so rarely got a chance to see them, after all. Normally he was asleep as soon as his head hit the pillow. Some might call that the benefit of a clear conscience and few worries; Arthur called it “exhaustion” and stopped there.
He rolled onto his side, the better to stare at the embossed table. He knew that some — perhaps most — of his subjects and his former countrymen of Glasonland called him a dreamer, a visionary, an idealist. Perhaps there was even some truth in that; Arthur had not spent enough time inhabiting the minds of other men to accurately judge whether they had vision and dreams in the same qualities he did. Perhaps they truly did not. But what Arthur always thought separated his mind from his fellow Sims’ was its practicality. Dreams were all well and good, but what use was dreaming if you could not conceive of a way to bring those dreams into the waking world?
It was also, or so Arthur thought, his practicality that also ensured his usual excellent sleeping habits. If he was in bed, it was because both mind and body were too exhausted to accomplish anything else this day. (Or because Alison dragged him there with a certain look in her eye, but that was not Arthur’s situation now.) If that was the case, there was no point in doing anything other than sleeping. If he was awake enough for the thousand and one worries that could plague a king’s mind before drifting into sleep to actually keep him from sleeping, then he was awake enough to be up and doing something about them (or so he thought). Therefore, he generally had no difficulties in sleeping.
But not tonight.
He rolled to his other side. “Allie?” he whispered. Perhaps a bit of conversation would help him.
All he could hear, though, was her deep breathing. He scooted across the mattress, resting his head on the same pillow as she did. One finger traced the embroidered nightgown along the small of her back. If this didn’t wake Alison …
It didn’t. But then again, the wedding tomorrow would be more her triumph than it would ever be his. All Arthur did was sign the papers and provide the necessary funding. Alison did all the work for this, and well he knew it.
Besides, perhaps it was different when a woman watched her children get married. Tom and his bride would stay with them; neither Alison nor Arthur would lose any companionship or miss anything by it. But Jessie … well, Alison could tell herself that Jessie was now joining an elite fellowship of married women and that their relationship was merely moving onto the next stage. For Arthur, Jessie getting married meant only that his baby girl was all grown up and was leaving.
He took Alison’s hair between his fingers and stroked it. Alison hated her hair. She said that too much honey and paste for styling in her younger days had ruined it, had darkened its red to the point where it was barely believable, and had turned what were once curls like their daughter’s to scraggly frizz. Now she never went with her hair uncovered in public. Arthur never understood it himself; to his eyes her hair was as lovely as the rest of her. But he had not lived as long as he had as the younger bastard son of a powerful king without knowing that there were times when it was best to keep his mouth shut, and so he let Alison do what she liked with her hair — it was, after all, her hair.
Perhaps it was something that separated men and women. Arthur considered himself, at his age, merely lucky to have as much of his hair as he did, and to have as much of it its natural color as he had. Whereas he remembered Jessie at eight, nine, ten, and Lord knew throughout her teen years, checking the mirror before each public appearance, pulling this lock that way and that lock this way, making faces, and finally asking plaintively, “Mum, are you sure it looks all right?”
And there he was — right back at thinking what he was trying not to think about. Well, if he was awake enough to be thinking, he was awake enough to be up and doing. So he sat up on one elbow and tried to untangle himself from the blankets.
“Mmmm … Arthur?”
Now you wake up. He smiled. “Just checking on the kids, Allie.”
“Oh … don’t be long …”
“I know. Busy day tomorrow.” He kissed her cheek. “I’ll be back in a few minutes.”
“Mmm …” If she had anything more to say, she would have to say it in her dreams. Her head slipped sideways and landed again on the pillow with a thump. Arthur slipped from the bed and thence the room as quietly as he could.
The only sound in those moonlit castle corridors was the soft slapping of his slippers against the wooden floors. He poked his head first into Tom’s room to find his elder son sleeping the sleep of the man who had spent the night before in drunken debauchery, then the day in yawn-inducing wedding-robe fittings, and who was anticipating a busy day and then another sleepless night. In other words, Arthur probably could have clapped a pair of cymbals over Tom’s head and still not woken him up.
He ventured across the hall to find Kay not sleeping as heavily as he might have been, but with his blankets all bunched by his feet. He’d done that ever since he was a baby; it had caused the nurses no end of worry, especially during the winter months. Now, though, it only caused Arthur vague pity for Kay’s future wife, who would probably need a separate bedroom if she wanted to sleep in comfort in the cold season.
Even though he knew from experience what a futile effort it would be, Arthur straightened the blankets and rubbed his son’s head before slipping from the room.
When he climbed the stairs to Jessie’s room, however, he encountered every parent’s worst nightmare: an empty bed, unslept in.
It was followed immediately by what Arthur suspected was his own private kick-yourself-in-the-arse moment: the sight of his daughter, sitting on the rug before him, scribbling into what he guessed was her diary.
Good Lord, Arthur, you really have gotten yourself worked up. He allowed himself one small smile before coughing.
Jessie gasped and slammed her diary shut with the speed only a girl with two bratty brothers could manage. She sprang to her feet. “Wha –”
And laughed. “Dad! You scared me half to death.”
“Sorry, baby.” The smile turned rueful. “Everything all right? You have …”
“A busy day tomorrow. Aye, I know.” She chuckled. “I’ve been telling myself that all night.”
She shook her head. “What about you?”
“The same, I must admit.”
“Need some help with your paperwork?” Jessie chuckled.
And suddenly Jessie was five years old again, padding into his study in her bare feet and with her stuffed bear under one arm, her hair even redder in the flickering candlelight. “Daddy, I can’t sleep.”
“Can’t sleep?” he would ask, feigning shock. “Want some warm milk?”
“Nurse tried that.”
“What about a story?”
“Mummy told me one before she blew the candle out.”
“Would you like to help me with my paperwork, then?”
She would slowly wander over to the desk that she could barely put her nose over. “What do I gotta do?”
“Just sit on my lap,” Arthur would say as he lifted her up so she could see, “and tell me whether I should say ‘yes’ or ‘no.'” So he would tell her what all the paperwork was about, and answer her questions, until it finally became too much for her and he would have a heavy red head resting on his chest and soft breathing to punctuate the scratches of his pen. Then he would pick her (and invariably her bear) up and carry her to bed himself.
Arthur blinked away the wetness and sat down quickly to cover it up. “Why don’t we just have a talk and skip the paperwork?”
Jessie tilted her head a little to one side, but was on the ground with him without a protest. She scooted closer and adjusted her skirt so that it covered her legs. “What do you want to talk about?”
“Oh, anything. Anything you want, baby.”
She sat with her hands behind her and tilted her head upward to stare at the ceiling. “Dad?”
“Were you … nervous before marrying Mum?”
“Nervous? Not really. At least, not the night before. I think I was too drunk to be nervous.” Arthur chuckled. “I must say, that’s one place where your brother showed a bit more wisdom than his old man, despite his tender years.”
“Oh, that wasn’t Tommy’s idea, that was Will’s.”
Arthur sighed. “Should have guessed.”
“For what? Spoiling my illusions of your brother?”
Arthur chuckled. “If I may presume to give you a bit of advice before you quite need it … having one’s illusions about one’s children continually spoiled could be called a definition of ‘parenting.'”
Jessie giggled. “I’ll keep that in mind.”
“Do.” He patted her knee. “So what’s got you nervous, baby?”
“Oh … everything, I guess,” she sighed. “I don’t know. I thought I was over it, you know?”
“Being nervous. Especially after talking to Morgan. Because … because …”
“Well, she just showed me that I could — well — you know — still be me, even being married.”
“… Er, please excuse your dear old dad and his approaching senility, but who exactly would you be if not yourself?”
She shot him a smile that was a little bit sad, a little bit exasperated, and a little bit — just a little bit — wise. “Lady du Lac.”
“I’m afraid I don’t follow.”
“That’s because you’re not a girl, Dad.”
“Ah.” Arthur filed away that comment for later follow-up with Alison. “So what has you nervous now, if not that?”
“Everything, I guess. Moving away — for good this time — and being a wife, and … and this being it, you know? The die’s been cast.”
“Perhaps,” Arthur agreed. “But aren’t you a little bit excited, too?”
Jessie did not answer. She did look at her lap, though, and she did smile, and perhaps Arthur’s eyes and the moonlight deceived him, but he thought that she did blush. That’s my girl.
“You don’t think he’ll be … disappointed, do you?” Jessie asked as she picked a loose thread on her nightgown.
“Disappointed? Will? In you?”
“Well, he signed up for a — for a princess, and a lady, and all that, and at the end of the day, he’s going to get … well, me.”
“Bah! If that boy of yours knows what’s good for him, he’ll be thanking his lucky stars he got a princess and a lady and what’s better than both of those combined, a Jessica Pendragon.”
“Oh, Dad,” she sighed.
She shrugged. “That’s … that’s just … well, you’re supposed to say that, aren’t you? Because you’re my dad.”
“Hey.” He leaned forward and tugged on one of the many curls she had hanging around her face. Jessie looked up. Arthur grinned at her. “I’m not saying that just because I’m your father. I’m saying that because I’ve watched you grow up from a tiny little baby who cried if you held her wrong to the intelligent, caring, compassionate young lady you are and I thank the Lord every day for the privilege. If that young man of yours doesn’t realize that, then I shall have to be teaching him otherwise — with my fist, if need be!”
But he doubted he would need to parcel out that lesson. He remembered, even if Jessie didn’t, how Will had hung puppy-like at her heels for what must have felt like an age for him before Jessie realized that she could not live without him being there. He had watched, day after day, party after party, state occasion after state occasion, how Will’s eyes would follow her around the room. He had seen the way the boy smiled whenever Jessie felt his gaze and grinned at him.
Arthur could still remember the first time he had seen them dance. It had been at that moment when he had finally and forever shelved the tentative plans for foreign alliance through marriage that had always lurked in the back of his mind. He had known at that moment that he would never forgive himself if he let Jessie go to any man who didn’t look at her like that, who didn’t hold her as if he dreaded ever having to let her go, who didn’t seem to come alive when she smiled at him.
And he could never force his baby to go to a man who didn’t make her light up when he smiled at her, who she didn’t look around the room for only to relax when she found him, who couldn’t make her content just by holding her and talking to her. Nor would he be able to sleep at night if he separated her from the man who so obviously did all these things.
“You all right there? You got quiet for a minute …”
Arthur did his best to smile. “Just remembering,” he whispered.
As if she could read his thoughts, Jessie began to pick at a loose thread on her nightgown. “It’s not that far away,” she murmured. “I mean, Avilion.”
“Not at all,” Arthur agreed.
“Only a couple of hours by carriage — barely an hour if you ride.”
“Indeed. And less than an hour by broomstick, or so your aunt assures me.”
Jessie grinned. “And you can go by broomstick even if … well, even if you can’t ride.” She blushed.
“Really?” Arthur asked. Morgan had certainly never mentioned that.
She shrugged. “It’s not as jostling as riding. And if you fall …”
Arthur waited, and when she seemed disinclined to go on, asked, “If you fall?”
“Well, Dad, if you fall, damage to a baby is likely to be the least of your problems.”
Arthur chuckled. “Hadn’t thought of it that way. But, honey?”
She grinned. “I’ll try.”
“Good girl.” He patted her knee. “I know I can trust you to avoid the things that will lead to bodily harm. Your brothers, on the other hand …”
“I thought surviving death-defying stunts was something all guys did? To prove they were grown up or something like that?”
“Or just to prove they’re smarter or stronger or luckier than their peers, who tried those same stunts, except …”
“They didn’t defy death?”
Jessie giggled. “If I didn’t know better, I’d say you were speaking from experience, Daddy.”
“Perhaps I am. Don’t tell your brothers.”
“I won’t. Promise.” She stretched, and though the stretching seemed designed to prevent it, a yawn still escaped.
A rueful smile and a little shrug. “Maybe a little.”
“It was the mention of paperwork that did it, wasn’t it? Damn. I knew I shouldn’t have brought it up.”
“It must have been. Because it couldn’t have been the conversation.”
“Never.” Arthur rubbed her shoulder. “You should get some rest, sweetie.”
“I guess I should.”
He wouldn’t leave room open for argument. He rose, extending a hand to help her up, and up she came.
Before she could say anything, he embraced her. “I love you — you know that, don’t you, baby?”
“I love you too, Daddy.”
He held her at an arm’s length. “And if you ever need anything — you know I’ll be there for you, don’t you?”
He watched Jessie gulp, and he felt her nod.
“That’s my baby.” A kiss to her forehead and he was shooing her off to bed. “Now get some sleep. You’ve got a big day tomorrow.”
“I know. Good night, Daddy.”
“Good night, Jessie.”
He probably should have left as soon as she got into bed, but for some reason … he lingered. For who knew when he would next get a chance to wait in his daughter’s room to make sure she was sleeping soundly?
And perhaps his being there helped, for scarcely had five minutes passed before Jessie was breathing the deep and slow rhythm of the deeply asleep. Arthur tiptoed up to her bed and kissed her forehead before backing away toward the door.
Still, though, he lingered. “Good night, sweetie,” he whispered. “Daddy loves you. Daddy always loves you. Whatever happens — remember that.”