Oh, what a tangled web we weave! Alison had no idea who had said that, but she thought the web the Lord Wright wove had far more snarls and knots than any mere mortal could hope to create, let alone untangle. It was not her idea, after all, to celebrate a wedding one month, gladly wave the newlyweds off for their respective trips, and then be welcoming one pair back all too soon, and for a funeral, no less.
But such was life, and it could always be worse — much worse. She did not envy Morgause, Mordred and Garnet, and of course little Agravaine, who would never truly know his father. And so as she embraced her new daughter-in-law, she counted her blessings.
“How was your trip?” she asked, pulling away even as Arthur and Tommy already began to murmur about the implications of Lot’s death.
“It went very well, thank you. And how are you — madam?” Lynn’s voice lifted a little on the last syllable and her smile was a touch shyer than normal, if that was even possible. Apparently a few weeks away had not helped her to get used to the idea of calling the King and Queen not “Your Majesty” but “Father” and “Mother,” “Dad” and “Mum,” or even “Arthur” and “Alison” — whichever she prefered. Alison wondered how long she would be “madam” before Lynn got over her nerves.
“Oh, we’re well enough,” Alison replied with a smile. “It’s been a bit of a shock, though. Lot and all …” He was the first of their number, their small band of nobles, to pass. They should have been grateful that they had twenty good years together — twenty years! Twenty years and how many illnesses? Twenty years and how many babies? Twenty years and how many pairs of twins and late-in-life pregnancies?
Twenty years, and how many of them spent with the most powerful Light witch and the most powerful Dark witch feuding?
“Aye,” Lynn agreed. She glanced sidelong at Tommy. “We — we should have been expecting it … but all the same, we …” Her voice glowed with pride whenever the word “we” crossed her lips. “We were so surprised when we got the message.”
“It came on very suddenly. There was enough time to send for Garnet, but beyond that …” Alison sighed. “It’s probably for the best. Poor man. At least he’s past his suffering now.” She made the sign of the plumbbob, Lynn echoing her movements.
“So Garnet did make it home?”
“Aye, poor dear. Just in time, too …” Alison did not want to long think of poor Garnet stumbling to her father’s bedside, managing to gasp out her last good-byes, and then, once Lot had passed, collapsing into Lamorak’s arms in a storm of grief. Lamorak could just barely console her, and Alison and Arthur were the only blood relatives whom she allowed near her. Then again, perhaps Dindrane might have been allowed to stroke her shoulder or whisper something soothing, but Dindrane had her hands more than full with the little ones.
Alison wished Jessie was home; if Garnet could not get to Morgan and Accolon — and Alison dreaded Morgause’s reaction if Garnet even attempted it, and luckily Garnet dreaded it enough not to make that attempt — then Jessie was the next best hope for comforting her. But she and Will were honeymooning on a small island off the coast, not more than a day’s sail, but long enough for bad storms to make crossing an issue. Arthur had ordered the captain of the ship he commissioned to take the message not to attempt sailing until the crossing was safe enough to be chanced. “After all,” Arthur had murmured, mostly to himself after the captain had left but as Alison still remained in the room, “Lot was a practical man. He’d hardly see the point of sending a ship full of good sailors to the bottom just to attempt to have a few more guests make it to his funeral.”
“Poor Garnet,” Lynn murmured. “And Lady Morgause, and Sir Mordred and little Agravaine too.”
“Aye,” Alison replied, more unnerved than she cared to admit by the echoing of her own thoughts. But Lynn was nothing if not polite.
“Should we go there soon, and pay our respects?”
“We’ll have to, soon enough. But …” Alison narrowed her eyes. “My dear, what’s the matter? You’re looking a bit green.”
“Oh …” The green was completely overlaid with a rosy hue. “Just the carriage ride. If I might rest a bit …?”
“Oh, Lynn! Why didn’t you say so? There’s no rush. The funeral is tomorrow, and we can visit anytime after that.”
The relieved sag of the shoulders was all it took for Alison to know that she had made the right decision with that, had she cared for any more reassurance. But she did not. There were, after all, advantages to being queen.
“Come, Lynn — let’s get you upstairs and resting.” Alison touched her arm and gestured to the stairs.
Lynn glanced sidelong at Arthur and Tommy, who had already moved onto the changes that would have to be made with the command structure of the army with Lot’s death. Alison rolled her eyes; Lot had been incapacitated for a year! Hadn’t they already figured this all out? “Never you mind them. They’ll come inside sometime before they get heat stroke. Or if it starts raining.”
“Are you sure …?”
“Aye, I am. Watch this. Boys! We’re going inside. Please manage to make it inside for dinner.”
“All right, Mum.”
“Aye, dinner, Alison.”
“Now come along, dear,” Alison said with a wink.
Lynn spared one glance at her husband and father-in-law before following on Alison’s heels.
The trouble with the suite they had prepared for Lynn and Tommy was that it was quite high up. Tommy had requested it that way, but it did make it a bit of a pain to get to. So when they entered the main hall, the servants all bowing and scuttling out of the way, Alison slowed her steps. If Lynn really wanted to rest, perhaps the parlor …
Lynn caught up to her and watched her expectantly. Alison headed up the stairs.
And up the stairs. And up the stairs. Really, she didn’t envy Lynn once she got a bit of a belly on her.
Then Alison kicked herself. She had promised herself — again and again she promised herself — that she would not be that mother-in-law. She would not. She would not make Lynn feel as if she was a walking womb procured for the delivery of grandchildren. The poor girl would be facing enough pressure from her own family to produce an heir quickly and so prove her worth. Alison would not add to it.
More importantly, she had been there before. Igraine had not been a bad mother-in-law — she had never presumed to question Alison or scold her on her slowness to get pregnant. The light of hope in her eyes whenever Alison reached for a second or third apple, or spent the morning heaving her guts out after consuming some wine, though, was worse than any scolding. The soft sigh she let escape when Alison complained of cramps was worse than any questioning.
It had taken Alison over two years after her wedding to finally get pregnant. The first six months, before it occurred to her to worry about how soon she was or wasn’t getting pregnant, had been heaven. The next six an uneasy purgatory. The next year was just shy of hell. She didn’t know how many nights she had cried herself to sleep as hope for a baby in the next nine months was killed. She didn’t want to remember how many times she was three days or two or one or an hour late, and worked herself up into hope only to have it dashed. She did her best to put aside the feelings of failure and guilt, her conviction that this was her punishment for daring to rise so far above her station. To marry a prince, or the next best thing to it, only to not be able to give him an heir. If she hadn’t gotten pregnant when she had, she didn’t want to know what would have happened to her and Arthur’s marriage.
If there was one thing she could do as Queen, she would protect her daughter and daughters-in-law from ever being made to feel so worthless.
“Well, here we are!” she announced uselessly as they entered Lynn’s pink-painted sitting room, and moved through to the bedchamber. “Shall I call for your maid?” Alison asked as she sat herself on the sofa by the door.
She expected Lynn to perch beside her. She did not. Instead, she moved toward the large mirror, imported at no small expense from the silversmiths of Glasonland. “No, thank you, madam.”
Alison watched with more than a little confusion as Lynn turned this way and that in the mirror, examining her reflection for — what? What could she possibly want to see? “Lynn, is everything all right?”
“Oh! Oh, yes, everything is fine!” She bit her lip and leaned closer to the mirror. “… Madam?”
“Do — do you think this dress makes me look …”
Alison’s eyes bulged. “Fat? No, no, of course not! You look as slender as birch rod in that gown!”
“Oh,” Lynn sighed. Yet it did not sound as if she disbelieved.
Alison shook her head — she’d known Lynn since she could just toddle, and never before had she heard a whisper of self-consciousness about her figure out of her. Nor had she heard anything of that nature out of Claire, or even Guinevere (by way of Leona by way of Clarice) or Jessie. Indeed, it had always been Jessie who had complained of being too thin, “skinny and scrawny as a boy,” as she’d put it on more than one occasion, and she had always claimed jealousy for Lynn’s more ample curves.
Then again … Alison glanced down at her own none-too-shabby … “charms,” as Arthur had called them as they just sort of grew there when she’d been expecting the twins. Dear Lord, did Bors put some nonsense into her head about what a Princess ought to look like? How she ought to follow the Queen?
It made no sense, of course, that a Princess should be expected to follow the fashion cues of a woman a quarter-century her senior and having a completely different figure and coloring besides, but that was Bors all over. Perhaps after visiting the Orkneys, she ought to bring Lynn down to the nunnery for a chat with her mother. It would take at least the two of them to figure out what Bors had planted into that pretty blonde head and dig it out again.
“I think my bodice is too tight, though,” Lynn murmured. She gave an odd sort of wiggle, like she was trying to scratch an itch without actually being able to reach it.
“Hmm. I think if Tommy can still span your waist with his hands, that bodice should be fine.”
“But …” Lynn murmured.
“It’s not — it’s not my waist that it’s getting tight around …”
“Not your …” Then Alison watched as Lynn gave that odd wiggle again — the twitch of the shoulders, the meant-to-be subtle attempt to twist her bodice around her … “Oh! Your bust, dear?”
Lynn stopped and flushed, her hands on her stomach. “Aye.”
“You can go ahead and say it, we’re just women together,” Alison laughed, and let out a sigh of relief. If that was only it! The de Ganis girls tended to favor (probably under their father’s influence) looser, more flowing, more so-called modest gowns. Lynn, as anyone could have expected, had probably taken her first chance to rebel with a more daring cut of a gown, and found out a little too late that it wasn’t as comfortable as she thought it would be. You did have to construct those types of bodices almost perfectly if you didn’t want to feel like some adventurous girl who had cut her hair and bound her breasts to run away to the army or to the sea. Doubtless the tailor or seamstress had botched the job.
But that was easily fixed, at least when you were royalty. A new bodice, measured and fitted properly, ought to do the trick. They could even salvage the cloth for something else, trimming maybe, or a bodice on a less curvy young lady. “Here, why don’t you let me call your maid, you can put on a nice robe and be more comfortable for a while? You can dress in something else more comfortable when it’s time for dinner.”
“Maybe in a bit,” Lynn murmured. Without a further word, she joined Alison on the sofa. Yet once she sat, she took a deep breath and her mouth opened …
Then it shut again and she stared at the mirror opposite, watching her reflection.
“Lynn,” Alison started, then stopped. She started again with a deep breath. “I know I’m not your mother … but … could you stand a bit of motherly advice, just for a moment?”
“Of course, madam.”
“You have to be careful with bodices like that,” she smiled. “They have to be fitted properly if you’re going to get any kind of support and still feel like you’re able to breathe. In fact, it’s best to make it looser and rely on support from your undergarments. That’s what I always told Jessie, anyway.” Much as she complains she doesn’t have anything that needs supporting.
“Oh …” Lynn glanced down at her bust. “I think it’s still too tight, though. It was fine when it was fitted …”
“Well, that’s possible,” Alison replied. Especially if you’re bloating a bit now. She didn’t ask that question, though. The giggling maidservants who cared for Lynn’s linen would probably have the whole kingdom knowing her schedule before long, poor thing. Alison sighed. At least she hadn’t had to endure that while she was waiting for Tommy and Jessie to come to her.
“But if you want, we can have the whole thing refitted,” Alison replied. “Won’t be any trouble.”
“Oh, that would be such a waste …”
“Only if we let it be,” Alison answered. “We can reuse the cloth.”
“But — but it would just have to be refitted again, when I …” Lynn bit her lip.
“When you …”
“Lose the weight,” Lynn flushed and looked at her lap, though her dark eyes darted up and down again from time to time.
Did it bother her, then, to be putting on a few pounds? Most women were rather fond of having a recognizable waistline, of course, even if there came a point when most — except for those particularly gifted when it came to the shedding of weight — realized that they’d traded in the waistline for a baby or two or half-a-dozen.
But she’d seemed so disappointed when Alison tried to reassure her that she wasn’t looking chubby!
“We can wait, then. Or you can just wear something that makes you more comfortable. Perhaps that dress isn’t the best for traveling. All that jostling around in the carriage …”
Lynn started to turn a bit green.
“Lynn, are you all right? Do you normally get sick on long rides?”
“I — once or twice,” she admitted.
“Then if you were feeling ill, why didn’t you ride with Tommy? Your palfrey was brought along, wasn’t she?”
“Oh! Oh, no, I couldn’t!”
“Because …” Lynn blushed again. “Father — Father told me I couldn’t ride once I was married, in case — in case I might be carrying a baby.”
Alison blinked. And here I thought she’d only gotten into the carriage on the day after her wedding because she wanted to nap on the way! “Did he really tell you that?”
“Yes …” But if that were the case, why did that look of guilt flash over her face?
Maybe it was because of the “betrayal.” “Lynn, do you mind if I’m honest with you for a moment?”
“Of — of course not.”
“That’s one of the silliest pieces of so-called advice I’ve heard.” Perhaps that wasn’t being strictly honest; if Lynn hadn’t been Bors’s daughter, she would have used a stronger word than “silly” to describe what she thought of that advice. “If you don’t have any reason to think you’re with child, there’s no reason not to ride.”
“There … there isn’t? But couldn’t a fall hurt a baby?”
“Couldn’t a fall hurt you?”
“Er … of course?”
“And let me ask you, do you let that risk deter you from riding?”
“Well, I try not to do anything … silly …”
“Of course you do, Lynn, you’re not a fool. And more importantly, you’re not a man, and they all seem to think that riding in way that’s almost certain to break their necks is something to be proud of.” Alison winked and Lynn let out a scandalized giggle. “But really, if you don’t think you’re with child, you should be riding. It’ll make you stronger for when you do get child. I mean, it’s good exercise, and it’s less likely to make you carriage-sick — which is always a good thing! Besides,” Alison continued breezily, with scarcely a thought, “you don’t have any reason to think you’re with child, do you?”
She’d done it. She’d gone and done it. She’d been that mother-in-law, much as she was trying not to be. And now she would have to watch as Lynn blushed and shamefacedly shook her head, and then Alison would have to calm her down, and tell her that it had been less than six weeks since they had been married and that no one, no one was expecting Lynn to be expecting that soon —
But Lynn only smiled.
And suddenly a great many things clicked together in Alison’s head.
The greenishness. The seeming desire to look plumper. The complaints about her bodice growing tight around the bust. The refusal to ride. “Lynn …”
“I haven’t bled since before the wedding!” Lynn blurted out, her face practically splitting in half from her grin. “And I’m so sick in the mornings! And a few days ago, Tommy went hunting, he cleaned up but I could still smell a bit of blood on him — I was sick for an hour!” she laughed.
“Were — were you?” Alison gasped.
“And Tommy noticed! He got me a breakfast of quail eggs one morning! He knows!” She laughed again. “But — but we weren’t going to tell anyone until I was a few more months along. Just to be sure. Well, other than you and the King and my parents, of course. But look at me! I couldn’t even keep it a secret for half an hour!”
“I shouldn’t worry about trying to keep it a secret.” Those giggling maidservants would be sure to tell everyone that Lynn’s linen hadn’t shown a spot since before her wedding.
“I’ll try my best, though, I really will.” She laughed. “But, oh, Your Majesty! Isn’t it wonderful?”
“Oh, yes. It is.”
And indeed, as Alison crushed Lynn to her in a congratulatory hug, there was only one thought that could find its way through her cotton-filled skull: