Pellinore crouched with his head in his hands and wondered if he really had to look up.
Perhaps he was just dreaming this. Yes, that had to be the most sensible explanation. Because there could be no way … absolutely no way … what he had just heard could not possibly be real. And if it was — but he didn’t want to think what this would mean for himself, his daughter, the kingdom if it were real.
Yet there was Accolon, husband of the King’s sister. If he ever needed proof that this could be true, no matter how uncanny it seemed …
And Betsy Pelles was Accolon’s sister-in-law. If what they were saying was true — if this wasn’t some horrible dream — then the woman sitting before him, twisting her hands in her skirt, could be in great danger.
Pellinore took a deep breath and sat up. “All right. Dindrane, tell that to me again — and slowly.”
“You saw the boy,” Dindrane replied.
“Thorn,” Betsy murmured, then blushed as her lady’s and her lady’s father’s eyes fell upon her.
Dindrane was the first to look away from Betsy. “Father. You saw him.”
“I could hardly forget having seen him,” Pellinore sighed. He wished Eilwen had been spared that sight, but of course, when the steward had told them both that Dindrane was here, both had gone to greet her. Still, Eilwen was sometimes stronger than Pellinore gave her credit for. She’d gasped when she saw the little boy’s face — so had Pellinore, for that matter — but having seen the boy, she called servants to help treat his wounds and had taken him up to the twins’ old nursery to rest and maybe even play a little.
“Morgause did that,” Dindrane replied.
“You mentioned. Why did you come to me with this information?”
“Because,” Dindrane answered, her chin higher and stuck out farther than he had ever seen it, “you have to arrest her.”
Pellinore sighed. He had been afraid that was what Dindrane was about to say. “Dindrane …”
“She tried to kill that little boy, Father!”
“You have no proof of that. You can only speculate …” Pellinore shook his head. “Based on a leaf you found! Dindrane, that leaf could belong to any plant under the sun. You can’t expect a jury to believe it’s the leaf of a — of a cowplant just on your say-so. Not when there’s no living Sim who has seen a cowplant!”
Pellinore watched Dindrane purse her lips together. Her eyes slid away from him, to the Gwynedd banner behind his head. However, he doubted very much that it was the banner — or the stonework — or anything else behind him that she saw.
Suddenly, Dindrane’s eyes focused again, boring into his with the intensity of the blue heart of a flame. “What if I told you that there is a Sim living who has seen a cowplant?”
“Dindrane, you can’t trust the word of so-called explorers –”
“What if I told you that I had seen a cowplant?”
“Eh?” Pellinore choked, and Betsy turned to stare at her lady.
“What if I could show you a cowplant?”
“Now, Dindrane, you’re just being –”
“There’s one growing in the back garden of the Orkney Keep,” Dindrane interrupted.
“There’s a what growing where?” Pellinore exclaimed, while Betsy gasped.
However, this was nothing compared to what Dindrane said next:
“I grew it there.”
Then he exploded.
“I grew it there,” Dindrane repeated. “I wanted to see if it was possible. If I could. I wanted to study it. We barely know anything about the Laganaphyllis Simnovorii –”
“And that’s a good reason to put one in the backyard?” Pellinore snapped.
Dindrane scarcely showed a blink. “I didn’t think it would be possible, given the high magical ambiance of the Orkney Keep.”
“Again, that’s a good reason to put one in the backyard?”
“It certainly seemed to reduce the risk,” Dindrane shrugged.
“And the plant itself is not dangerous to those who know how to handle it.”
“Those who know how to handle it! And how many Sims, do you think, know how to handle it?”
Dindrane’s eyebrows lifted slightly. “Any Sim intelligent enough to realize that a plant holding out a piece of cake on its tongue ought not to be approached should, I believe, be fine.”
“You’d be surprised how few Sims are that intelligent, as you put it,” Pellinore scoffed. “And what of children, eh? Do you think a child would be ‘intelligent’ enough to walk away from the cake?”
“The Laganaphyllis Simnovorii does not feed on children,” was the only reply Dindrane had for that.
“If it doesn’t feed on children, then what happened to your young Thorn, eh?” Pellinore spat, eyebrow twitching up in some horrible parody of his triumphs of argument in court.
“Morgause happened to him.”
“My lady,” Betsy whispered, blushing as both Pellinore and Dindrane’s heads swiveled to face her. “My lady, we don’t know — we can’t know it was her –” She tried to smile, probably out of reflex or habit rather than any actual feeling.
“You can’t. I can.” Dindrane turned again to Pellinore. “Morgause found the plant. She tried to blackmail me with it. She — she said she would tell Mordred about it, and have it destroyed, if I didn’t give her cuttings. So I gave cuttings to her.”
“You — you –” Pellinore sputtered. “Why?”
“She said she would destroy it –”
“So let her destroy it!” Pellinore snapped. “Better than — than putting a knife into the hands of a known murderess! Dindrane! What were you thinking?”
“She wanted to try to develop a variety of it that would be resistant to magic,” Dindrane answered, her voice as calm and still as a mirrored lake at sunset. “I did not think she could succeed.”
“As you couldn’t possibly succeed in growing it around the Orkney Keep?” Pellinore asked.
“I very much doubted that two outside chances could occur so close together. And she has not succeeded in growing her own Laganaphyllis Simnovorii, has she, Betsy?”
Betsy jumped to find all the eyes in the room upon her. “My lady …”
“You clean her workroom, do you not?”
“Well, yes, but …” She glanced sidelong at Pellinore, as if begging for help.
“And you would surely have noticed had she had a very large plant in there, with a flower like a cow’s head with an enormous mouth and udders?” Dindrane asked, eyebrow lifting slightly.
“I — well …” Betsy flushed and stared at her lap. “She could have made it invisible, m’lady.”
The thought of a lady like Lady Morgause being able to turn anything she liked invisible was the sort of thing that would give Pellinore nightmares, but Dindrane didn’t turn a hair. “Let us say she did,” she shrugged. “It’s very big. Did you ever bump into something very large and invisible?”
“I — I –”
“Surely you would have noticed that.”
“I — I don’t remember ever doin’ so, m’lady,” Betsy admitted.
“And if she could make a Laganaphyllis Simnovorii invisible, could she not do the same for a small boy?” Dindrane pressed.
“Aye — aye, surely she could.”
“And yet, when you went into Garnet’s room, there was Thorn — visible for all to see.”
“Aye, m’lady, he was. Poor lad,” whispered Betsy.
Dindrane turned again to Pellinore. “I think we can reasonably assume that she did not manage to grow a Laganaphyllis Simnovorii, and instead chose to — to –”
Dindrane’s lips pursed together in the manner of a woman biting them from the inside. “I think … I think she tried to … to take the leaves and use the oils and compounds within them to … to suck Thorn’s life from him, without producing a full Laganaphyllis Simnovorii. I will admit …” Her composure seemed to crack — not by much, but by a little. “I will admit that it did not occur to me that she might try to do that.”
“Ah.” Pellinore managed a mirthless chuckle. “You admit, my dear, that you did not think of everything.”
“Yes, Father. I admit it.”
“You may know a great deal about — about cowplants and things of that nature, my dear, but you still have much to learn about the nature of your fellow Sims. If you knew what I knew –”
“If you don’t take this case,” Dindrane interrupted, “I will have a great deal more to learn about the nature of my fellow Sims, starting with the nature of my own father.”
Pellinore sighed. “Dindrane –”
“Or would you prefer to wait until after Morgause finds out where Thorn is and kills him properly? Then you can go after Morgause for murder instead of just attempted murder.”
“Dindrane!” Pellinore scolded, while Betsy gasped, “My lady!”
Dindrane, however, crossed her arms over her chest. “Those are your choices, Father. Unless the King is willing to go back on his word and tolerate a second murder by his sister.”
“My dear –”
“Well? Which do you prefer?”
Pellinore sighed and shook his head. “It is not that simple — and well you know it.”
“I very much doubt that capturing her will be simple. I wouldn’t even bet that convicting her, once she was captured, would be simple. However, I thought that the decision on your part — whether to proceed or not — would be simple.”
“Dindrane … you are living in the same dwelling as that woman. Mistress Pelles here, she works for that woman. My grandchildren, your children, are in the same house as that woman. Have you truly thought about the risks you entail by moving against her?”
That seemed to get through to her. She had no pat answer to that — no answer at all, in fact.
Until she did. “Lady Morgan.”
“I’ll take the children to Lady Morgan. She won’t refuse them.”
“Father, do you really think they’ll be any safer if you refuse to prosecute?” Dindrane asked.
“I never said they would –”
“I should think they would be less safe. If your prosecute her, you might convict her. And if she is convicted, she will no longer pose a risk to my children, to any children — or to Betsy, for that matter.” Dindrane shrugged.
“The risk to Mistress Pelles –” Pellinore began, glancing sidelong at the housekeeper.
“Has existed, I daresay, ever since Lady Morgan ran off with Accolon,” Dindrane shrugged.
“Aye,” Betsy agreed. “Aye. It has. Lady Morgause, she didn’t hire me until after Accolon run off.”
“Madam, I imagine that was because –” Pellinore began.
“It were ter keep Martin quiet,” Betsy murmured to her lap. “So’s — so’s he wouldn’t say nothin’ ter the king about Accolon. So’s if the king axed, he would say it weren’t a problem.”
Pellinore stared. “My dear,” he murmured, “Mistress Pelles — are you saying that Lady Morgause hired you so that she could fire you if your husband complained about his brother’s treatment?”
“Oh, no, sir! If that were what she was after, she could jest have had Lord Lot — may he rest in peace — fire Martin. No, no, it weren’t that. She … she wanted …” Betsy flushed and looked away.
“She wanted you in her power for several hours every day, didn’t she?” Dindrane asked.
“But surely … surely, if you were in danger, you could quit!” Pellinore protested.
“Quit, m’lord? Me job? Oh, no. We had to show we was still loyal ter her. Ter the family, that is. If we hadn’t … I don’t want ter know what she woulda done.” Betsy admitted, twisting her hands together.
“You see, Father? She’s a menace! She must be stopped!”
“Considering what a menace she is, you might have thought twice before you grew a Sim-eating shrub in her garden,” Pellinore snapped. “We simply cannot –”
Pellinore stopped. And he watched his daughter. Her arms trembling, her gaze fixed somewhere on the table, her chest heaving —
“Considering what a menace she is,” Dindrane snarled, “you might have thought twice before marrying your eldest child into that family, might you not have?”
There were many times in his professional life that Pellinore had found himself faced with an argument which was, at that moment, unanswerable. There had been times when even given time to think and plan, Pellinore could not think of a way to refute such an argument. And so he had faced defeat in his professional life.
None of that prepared him for this.
“It is a conundrum, isn’t it?” she spat. “She’s a menace. She’s dangerous. Dindrane, you should have known better. Dindrane, you should have thought about that. Dindrane, you should have seen that coming. Dindrane, Dindrane, Dindrane. Why didn’t you think? Why didn’t you plan? Why were you so stupid? And all the time — all the time you knew what she was like! And yet you had no problem marrying me off to that — to that woman’s son!” Dindrane looked up, her eyes burning and wet at once. “Who’s the stupid one now, Father?”
“Are you that unhappy there, Dindrane?” was what Pellinore asked. “You never …”
“I’m not worried about being unhappy. I’m worried about living under the same roof as — and having my children living under the same roof as — a woman who has just demonstrated, most clearly, that she’s not afraid to murder little children in order to get what she wants!”
“Dindrane … Dindrane, I never thought it would come to this. Never. I never — the only person whom she tried to harm was someone who, arguably, dishonored her family. If … if she had been a man and slain him for what he did to Lady Morgan, you know, in Glasonland nobody would have batted an eye.”
“That doesn’t make it right.”
“No. But that doesn’t mean that I thought it likely she could be a danger to you, or to your children. If I thought you would be in danger … Dindrane, I never would have countenanced the marriage. Please believe me when I say that.”
Dindrane stared at her lap.
“… Dindrane?” Pellinore asked.
She looked up. She blinked twice. Her eyes were more wet than burning, and Pellinore found himself reaching for a handkerchief to wipe the tears from his baby’s eyes, as he had done a hundred hundred times when she was still a little girl.
“Father,” she replied, “please believe me when I tell you that if I thought Morgause would use my Laganaphyllis Simnovorii to hurt other Sims, I never would have grown it.”
Pellinore smiled. “It seems we are both fallible,” he murmured.
“So it seems, Father.”
He reached across the table. Dindrane met him halfway. He took her hand and squeezed it gently.
Then he asked again, “Are you really that unhappy there, Dindrane?”
Her answer was hardly to the point. “When I had my children, and my researches, and I couldn’t see either being used for ill purposes … I was content.”
She took her hand away. “But I shan’t be content again if I know that Morgause still has the ability to harm other people, and nobody has done a thing to try to stop her. So. Father, are you willing to take this case or are you not?”
Pellinore sighed and closed his eyes. “You leave me little choice, do you?”
“That was rather the point.”
Pellinore almost managed a chuckle. “In that case …” He steepled his fingers together. “If we intend to prosecute … Betsy, you said that young Thorn definitively named Lady Morgause as the woman who led him away from his family and then … hurt him?”
“Then it is instrumental that we keep him safe. It’s always chancy putting a child on the stand, but he is the only eyewitness we have. Dindrane, are you sure that Lady Morgan would give the boy shelter? And that she’s powerful enough to keep him safe?”
“If Lady Morgause was capable of defeating her, don’t you think she would have done so already?”
“An excellent point.” Pellinore rose. “Well. Hopefully, by this point, the lad is as near to being hale and hearty as he is to be for a long time.” He glanced at Betsy. “Mistress Pelles? Will you please accompany us? The lad seems to trust you, and we don’t want to put him through any more trauma than he has already seen.”
“Aye, m’lord, if ye like.”
Pellinore waved the ladies out of the room before him, then followed them up the stairs. When they came closer to the nursery, though, he took the lead and opened the door.
Yes, they had left young Thorn in good hands. There was Eilwen, down on the flagstones in her fine skirt, playing with him and the wooden castle that the twins had outgrown years ago. Eilwen had a smile for him and for Dindrane when they walked in.
And Thorn? He had a smile for Betsy.
The boy’s face wasn’t much better — there was only so much good some salves and stitching could do in such a short amount of time — but it was a little less ghastly than it had been when he and Eilwen first saw the child. The fear in the boy’s eyes, though … Pellinore much doubted that that would disappear anytime soon.
It was for the sake of the boy that he tried to make his voice jolly when he announced to Eilwen, “Well, my dear, it seems I have no choice but to leave you bereft of a playmate! We’ve decided to take young Thorn here to see Lady Morgan.”
Eilwen’s eyes went wide. “Lady Morgan?”
“Who’s that?” asked Thorn.
“A very nice lady,” answered Betsy. “She’s auntie to my children.”
“An’ she’ll take right good care o’ ye, she will, until ye can go home ter yer auntie an’ yer uncle.”
“But why I can’t I go home now?”
“Because …” Betsy glanced sidelong at Pellinore and Dindrane. Pellinore could only nod. “Because of the bad lady what hurt ye,” Betsy answered. “We have ter make sure she’s locked away in jail before ye can go home, so she can’t hurt ye no more.”
“So,” Betsy asked, holding out her hand and putting forward her best smile, “shall we go?”
Thorn slowly stood up and took her hand.
It was without any further words that they went down the stairs and almost out the door. But as Betsy, Thorn and Dindrane stepped out into the sunlight, Eilwen laid her hand on his shoulder. “Pellinore …”
Now it was Pellinore’s turn to trot out his best smile.
“How dangerous is this?” she asked.
“More so than I care to contemplate, frankly.”
Eilwen gulped. “Be careful.”
“My dear,” he whispered, leaning forward to kiss her, “I always am.”