There were benefits to houseguests. Morgan supposed she knew this in theory, since Sims regularly allowed other Sims to stay over from time to time despite the myriad inconveniences and sacrifices this entailed, but she had never before understood it viscerally. And now …
Well, now she had someone to read with her.
She had never fully known, either, what a joy it was to have someone to sit next to her and just read. None of her family had been much into books. Her father, her brother — her sister — all of them had been doers. And Igraine, her mother, was the social one. Her marriage ran along similar lines; Accolon certainly had little use or interest for books. As for Ravenna, she loved books as her mother did, but when one read by her side, one often didn’t get much reading done. There was too much gasping and exclaiming over the wonderful things she found.
Father Hugh, though, was quiet. They could sit side-by-side for hours with no sound but soft sighs, mumbles and murmurs, and the flipping of pages. Yet at the same time, Father Hugh managed to radiate a quiet sense of being there that made it clear Morgan was never quite alone —
Morgan looked up to see her husband shuffling into the room, something very like panic in his dark brown eyes.
“We’ve got visitors.”
“Visitors?” asked Father Hugh, looking up with interest. Then he paled.
Morgan was already on her feet. “How do we get rid of them?”
“Um …” Accolon scratched the back of his head. “Well, here’s the thing …”
“Yes?” Morgan asked when he seemed content to let the sentence dangle there.
“It’s … well … it’s Lord Pellinore, Lady Dindrane –”
“Mordred’s wife?” Morgan squawked.
“Yes, and Betsy,” Accolon continued, “and a little boy. Who, um … well, if I was being charitable, I’d say he looks like he’s been dragged through a bush backwards.”
“So like most little boys, then?” Father Hugh chuckled.
“No, because if I was being truthful, I’d say he looks like was dragged through a snake-infested thorn bush backwards.”
So Lady Dindrane, Morgan repeated mentally, Lord Pellinore, Betsy, and a little boy who’s been through the wringer …
“Father, upstairs,” Morgan ordered.
“As quickly as possible, please.”
Father Hugh glanced at the two of them, gulped, and without a word waddled his way to the stairs.
Watching him go, Accolon murmured, “Should he be quite so big? I thought –”
Morgan strode for the door, leaving him little choice but to follow in her wake. She threw it open, stepped outside, and found herself out in the bright summer sun, staring down her visitors.
Or trying to.
Only Lady Dindrane met her gaze without fear. Lord Pellinore’s eyes dropped after scarcely a moment; Betsy never looked up at all, and the little boy’s back was to them. As they stared, the wind moved through the trees; the branches and leaves rubbed together with a sound too similar to whispering to be comforting.
“Good day,” Morgan said, doing her best to smile and pretend that she hadn’t just smuggled a pregnant monk out of sight.
“Good — good day, my lady,” said Lord Pellinore with a smile as courtly as he could muster. Lady Dindrane nodded, and Betsy curtsied as best as she could while ruffling the little boy’s hair.
It was the ruffling that caught Morgan’s attention. Not so much the gesture itself, but the fact that the little boy’s head moved slightly when she did so. Morgan caught a glance, just a glance but —
She gasped. “What — what on earth happened to you, lad?”
It was Lady Dindrane who answered. “Morgause.”
Accolon choked, Pellinore winced, the little boy whimpered and Betsy pulled him closer to her. Morgan, Morgan only blinked. Then she swallowed.
“Please — please, come in.”
As hostess it was her right to lead the way, and as the hostess of a pregnant monk it was her duty to keep an eye on other guests at all times. She led them into the dining room, waving to seats. Lord Pellinore and Lady Dindrane took a pair instantly; Betsy had to be waved again. Morgan sat herself down, and the only ones left standing were Accolon and the little boy.
“Accolon, why don’t you take the lad out to play?” Morgan asked.
Accolon glared, but Morgan glared back. Then Accolon looked at the boy. “Ever pulled a zombie’s finger, kid?” he asked, leading the little boy out the door.
“I know that trick,” the boy replied with the full-bodied scorn of the very-young-but-not-born-yesterday.
“Oh, do you? What’ll happen when you pull my finger?”
“Aw, that’s just what the imitators do. Real zombies? Their fingers come off.”
Silence. Then skepticism. “Truly?”
“Aye. Try it, kid.”
A pause — then a pop. “WOW!”
Morgan sighed and smiled to her lily-white (even Betsy was a bit pale) guests. “I just hope the little lad doesn’t want to try that too many times. Ravenna pulled off all of Accolon’s fingers at a go, once. That was a pain to repair.”
“Heh,” Lord Pellinore murmured, pulling at his collar.
Lady Dindrane, however, looked to Morgan, then to Betsy, and then to the door. Her gaze finally returned to Morgan. “I hope you won’t begrudge Thorn what amusement he can get. He’s had a … difficult day.”
“Poor lad!” Betsy murmured.
With that, what little levity there was grew wings and took flight. Morgan folded her hands on the table. “What did Morgause do to him?”
Lord Pellinore and Betsy both looked at Lady Dindrane. Lady Dindrane in her turn kept her gaze focused on Morgan. Those eyes — blue as a heart of a flame, equipped with a single-minded stare that hinted at the over-focused mind behind them —
What was Morgause thinking, bringing such a brain into her household? If it ever turned against her …
“I believe,” Lady Dindrane replied in a tone of voice better suited to discussing the chance of rain in the afternoon, “that she attempted to use a … a new variety of the Laganaphyllis Simnovorii to suck the life from him and make Elixir of Life.”
A lesser woman might have blinked and asked, “Come again?” Morgan, however, asked, “How sure are you of this?”
“Betsy,” Lady Dindrane replied, nodding to the woman, “found Thorn in Garnet’s bedroom, looking … well, a shade worse than you saw him. I myself found a leaf near him from the Laganaphyllis Simnovorii.”
“And you are sure of that because …?”
Lord Pellinore sighed. “She grew one in the backyard.”
Now it was Morgan’s turn to be the lesser woman, for she blinked and asked, “Come again?”
So the whole story came out. The researches, the miraculous plant, the blackmail, leading like a trail marked on a map to the present moment: the kingdom’s Chief Magistrate, Morgause’s daughter-in-law, and Morgan’s own sister-in-law seated around her dining room table, all staring at her with varying degrees of hope and fear in their eyes.
Morgan closed her own eyes. “There is one thing,” she murmured, “that I do not understand. A cowplant has to kill in order to extract the Sim’s life essence and create the Elixir of Life. How — forgive me, but how is the little boy still alive?”
She heard the shift and rustle of cloth as the other Sims around the table turned to look at her.
Yet when she opened her eyes, there was Lady Dindrane’s unblinking gaze. “When Betsy found Thorn, he was in a deep coma. She was able to revive him, and we got Thorn out of there before Morgause could do him any more damage.”
Morgan blinked. “When was this?”
“This morning,” Pellinore answered.
There were many things — many, many things — Morgan could have said in reply to that. All, however, that she allowed to escape her lips was a simple, “I see.” She folded her hands and popped her knuckles under the table. “And why did you bring him here?”
“We — we thought ye might be able ter keep him safe, m’lady,”
“Morgan,” Morgan corrected, as she always had to do with her sister-in-law. Today, though, Betsy did not meekly repeat, “Morgan” only to slip up the next time they spoke — today, she looked away.
“Would you be able to protect him, my lady?” asked Lord Pellinore. His eyes were just as blue and dark as Lady Dindrane’s, but somehow, they were less intense — more pleading.
Morgan’s mouth opened and shut. If I ever find out which of the Good Folk impregnated Father Hugh, she decided, and if I find out that he — or she — knew this was going to happen … I’ll brain him with my best Cold Iron frying pan. If this had been any other time — any other time at all! — the answer would have been so easy …
But what was more important, Father Hugh’s secret, or a little boy’s safety?
“If you leave him here, aye. Morgause has never breached my wards.”
“And my grandchildren?” asked Lord Pellinore. “Nimue and Gawaine?”
“What — what about them?”
“Could you keep them safe, too?”
“Aye,” murmured Lady Dindrane. The flame in her eyes seemed to bank down, and worry took its place.
“That … depends. Would Mordred know where the children were?”
“He’d tell Morgause!” Lady Dindrane gasped.
What a terror it would be, Morgan thought, gulping, to not trust your own husband to keep your children safe. “Then no, I cannot keep them.” She raised a hand to forestall protests. “If I were to take them, Mordred would almost certainly be able to find where they were. And I do not know if my wards would hold against a parent determined to get to his children. That’s quite aside from any protective spells he may have put onto them. … Tell me, do you think Mordred himself would harm them, or allow them to come to harm?”
“Certainly not!” Lord Pellinore gasped.
It was Lady Dindrane, however, whom Morgan watched. After a long moment of brow-furrowed thought, she shook her head.
“Then, if you want them away from Morgause, I suggest you take them — and yourself — to your parents’ home for a visit. A long visit. And once they are there, I suggest you speak to Merlin or Naomi Emrys. They could provide the home with some wards to hopefully keep Morgause away.”
Lady Dindrane turned to her father, but Lord Pellinore was too busy furrowing his brow to take note. “Would the Emryses not want to know why I suddenly needed this protection?”
“You would not tell them?”
“Until such a time as Morgause could be captured and hopefully brought to justice … secrecy would be the order of the day, don’t you think?” he asked.
Morgan pursed her lips together. “I see. And how do you plan on capturing Morgause without their assistance?”
The only sound was the creaking of chairs as their occupants shifted and glanced sidelong at each other. Finally Lord Pellinore spoke. “Er … I thought … surely you …?”
Oh, so now you want me to capture her, too, now that it’s been thirteen years and she’s gained that much more power — when you could have captured her once we figured out what she did to Accolon? When you could have taken care of this all before that poor little boy was even born?
“I see,” was all she permitted herself to say aloud.
“After what she did to Accolon, and now this little boy …” Lord Pellinore continued.
“Have you spoken to my brother about this yet?” Morgan asked.
“No,” answered Lady Dindrane. “We wanted to see to Thorn’s safety first.”
Morgan had to bite back a smile. Perhaps it should have been Lady Dindrane who was the lawyer. She seemed to be the one gifted with the knack for unanswerable arguments.
“And speaking of Thorn,” Morgan asked, “where are his parents? Do they know where he is?”
Lady Dindrane turned to Betsy. “Didn’t you say something in the carriage about knowing his parents, Betsy?”
“Not his parents, m’lady!” Betsy gasped. “That — that is — I’ve met his aunt an’ uncle, once er twice. They’re …” Betsy turned to Morgan, catching her lower lip between her teeth. “M’l–M-M-Morgan, he’s Kata Thatcher’s grandson. Er. Step-grandson, I guess.”
“The midwife?” asked Morgan.
“Aye — aye, her. Ye — ye heard what happened ter her husband, Jeremiah, may he rest in peace?”
Before he died, I take it? Morgan wondered — and then she remembered. “You mean when he was turned into a plantsim?”
“A plantsim?” Lord Pellinore sputtered; a glare from Morgan shut him up and gave Betsy time to respond.
“Aye, m–ma’am. Jeremiah, he had two wee plantbabies, I guess ye might call ’em. Thorn — Thorn’s the son o’ the girl. Marigold.”
“Marigold?” Lord Pellinore choked. “The — the –” He glanced sidelong at his daughter.
Lady Dindrane filled it in for him. “The brothel madam?”
Betsy’s flush was all the answer they needed to see.
“Oh, goodness,” Lord Pellinore murmured, cradling his head in his hands.
“Father,” Lady Dindrane laid her hand on his shoulder, “perhaps — perhaps we ought to leave Lady Morgan alone now, and notify the King, before we get any deeper into this.”
Lord Pellinore sighed. “Aye. And tell the boy’s — well, the boy’s mother, since the odds of locating his father must be –“
“M’lord,” Betsy interrupted, “m’lord — with all due respect — Thorn, he told me he don’t live with his ma. He lives with his aunt an’ uncle. Ash an’ Lyndsay Thatcher.”
“Ah. Then it is they who we must notify. If Lady Morgan is agreeable …?” Lord Pellinore asked.
Morgan bit back a sigh. More people to hide Father Hugh from. But if it were Ravenna, would she not want to know — would she not rest until she knew? “Aye, aye, tell them.”
“Thank you, my lady. For — for everything.” Lord Pellinore smiled at her. “Dindrane, will you accompany to the King — or perhaps … Betsy, would you mind going to speak to the Thatchers?”
“Not at all, m’lord, I know where they live.”
“Excellent. Now, Dindrane –“
Morgan coughed. “Actually — if it is at all possible, I’d like to invite Lady Dindrane to stay here a little while longer.” Morgan smiled. “I — have some questions for her. In order to better understand what Morgause was attempting to do.”
“Ah. Well, Dindrane, if you don’t mind …” Lord Pellinore said. Lady Dindrane shook her head. Then leaves were taken, and Lord Pellinore and Betsy left.
Leaving Morgan and Lady Dindrane alone.
“What did you need to know, my lady?” asked Lady Dindrane.
Morgan did not answer at first. First, she listened. Then, she rose and cast soundproofing spells — spells to let sound in but not out — on all the doors, all the windows, and the stairs for good measure. Lastly, she walked back to Lady Dindrane, who herself had risen and was watching Morgan.
“All right, Lady Dindrane,” Morgan began, “now you can tell me what the hell is going on.”
Lady Dindrane said nothing at first, and that in itself was suspect. She only raised her eyebrows.
“I am unsure,” Lady Dindrane began, “what it is you are referring –“
“That boy,” Morgan interrupted. “There’s no way he could have been in a ‘deep’ coma this morning and be pulling off my husband’s fingers this afternoon. What happened?”
“I told you. Betsy found him in a deep coma and revived –“
Lady Dindrane blinked. “I — beg your pardon?”
“I know Betsy. She’s a good enough nurse, but she’s not a miracle worker. How did she revive the little boy?”
“She — he came out of the coma naturally.”
“Stop lying.” Before the noblewoman could do more than flinch, Morgan continued, “You have two choices, you see. One, you can stick to this story, and have it all fall apart in court and then watch Morgause walk away. Leaving her free to hurt Thorn again, your children, you … or you can tell me the truth, and if for some reason we can’t say the truth in court, we can cook up a somewhat more plausible explanation.”
Lady Dindrane said nothing.
“So?” Morgan asked, tapping her foot on the floor. “What’ll it be?”
Lady Dindrane bit her lip. “The only person — other than you — who has the medical knowledge to refute what I just told you is Father Hugh. And he is on pilgrimage.”
“And he could easily be back by the time Morgause goes to trial. Don’t you think Morgause would ask him how that boy came out of his coma? And don’t you think that Father Hugh would consider himself honor-bound to tell the King if it was impossible?”
Rapid blinks almost managed to shield Lady Dindrane’s eyes from view. Almost. “He is a monk,” she finally said slowly. “He would not say it was impossible. He might say it was a miracle, but not impossible.”
“And how much would you want to bet that the King or a jury, if it came to that, would believe that you and Betsy between you managed to get a miracle on demand for Thorn?”
“Perhaps we did.”
“Or perhaps something else happened, which you ought to tell me if what you really want is to see Morgause –” Morgan grasped for a word. “See Morgause neutralized.”
Lady Dindrane bit her lip.
Finally she sighed. “Lady Morgan … have you heard of Sylvia Marie the Mashuga?”
“And her resurrection device?”
“I believe I may have found it.”
It took a minute for the implications of that to sink in. Then Morgan exploded, “You did what?”
“Saved a young boy’s life?”
“Using a — using the — have you never heard that there are some things in which Sims were not meant to meddle?”
“Did you listen?”
Lady Dindrane shrugged.
“You — you could have — had anybody found out — and not even that –” Morgan sputtered. “Do you have any idea what bringing people back from the dead willy-nilly might do?”
“From what I understand,” Lady Dindrane snarled, “bringing people back from the dead is a particular talent of Light wizards and witches, is it not?”
“Oh, no! You’re not going there, young lady!”
“Because it’s not the same thing! Restoring a Sim who’s barely dead — not even fully dead! — is not the same as bringing back any Sim you choose! Did it ever occur to you that there is a balance? That there’s a reason for people dying when they do?”
“Perhaps. But would you like to explain that to the boy’s aunt and uncle? To the boy himself? And for your information,” Lady Dindrane snarled, “I do not bring people back from the dead ‘willy-nilly.’ Aside from an experiment or two –“
“What the hell is that supposed to mean?”
Lady Dindrane continued without a pause, “– the only person whom I have brought back, to date, is young Thorn.” Lady Dindrane’s eyebrow cocked upward. “And I repeat, would you like to explain to the boy’s aunt and uncle, his mother, why that was such a terrible idea?”
She would never get anywhere arguing this — not when there was a little boy laughing and playing with her Accolon, not when there was a worried-sick aunt, uncle and mother lurking at the corners of her consciousness. Instead, Morgan said, “You also have a cowplant.”
“On the same property as Morgause.”
Lady Dindrane paled, and like lightning comprehension flashed through Morgan’s mind. That’s what Morgause was blackmailing her over — not just the cowplant — “Morgause knows about this?” Morgan half-shrieked.
“Of course not! If there’s any Sim in Wrightendom who least deserves to have power over life and death, it’s her! Why do you think I gave her the cuttings? It’s so she wouldn’t investigate beyond the cowplant!” Lady Dindrane snapped.
“Still! Having an object with that kind of power anywhere near –“
“It is not anywhere near her any longer, I assure –“
“I don’t give a damn about your assurances! The fact that you were playing with — not fire — molten lava in Morgause’s backyard shows me you can’t be trusted enough to assure me about anything! Wright! If I didn’t know better –“
Morgan’s soundproofing spells were good, very good. Anything of note that happened outside, she would hear. Her skills of observation were equally acute. So when she heard an unfamiliar voice call, “Thorn!” she froze.
A quick glance at Lady Dindrane’s face showed her to be equally ignorant as to the speaker. Without another word, Morgan turned on her heel and marched out the door, Lady Dindrane following.
Morgan only stopped when she saw a leafy-haired man embracing the little boy, while a brown-haired woman stood to the side and sobbed noisily into her hands.
“Well?” asked Lady Dindrane as she took her place beside Morgan. “Are you truly prepared to argue that I did wrong?”
“Did what wrong?” asked Accolon.
“Nothing, dear,” was all Morgan would reply as she tried to plaster a smile onto her face. “Nothing at all.”
Yet still she smoldered.