“All right,” said Dannie, fiddling with the last of the ties and taking a step back. “What do you think?”
“I … I like it,” Lynn replied with an experimental swish of her hips. “It’s a bit loose though, don’t you think?”
“Hon, that’s on purpose. You don’t want to smush the baby, now, do you?”
As she always did whenever anyone mentioned her baby, Lynn blushed. And as Jessie was starting to do whenever somebody mentioned Lynn’s baby, she bit her lip and tried to tell the roiling in her stomach to calm down.
Lynn’s baby. Tommy and Lynn’s baby. As if thinking of Tommy actually reproducing wasn’t unsettling enough. At least that baby would be half made of Lynn, and so would have a chance to have qualities like tact, sensitivity, and solid common sense. But of course, thinking of the qualities that Lynn’s baby would have only brought Jessie back around to what she did not want to think about: how Lynn already had a belly on her and a cute waddle to her walk, while Jessie was still as scrawny as ever, and any difficulties she had with walking were unfortunately inborn.
“Now, see this?” Dannie asked, gesturing to something about the level of Lynn’s middle.
“I’ve deliberately left a lot of fabric here. So you won’t have to get a new gown every fortnight. And the overdress, as I’m sure you’ve figured out, is pretty loose — if you need any more room, you can just loosen the laces under the bust and there you’ll have it.”
“That’s wonderful!” Lynn rubbed her belly, and Jessie wondered what was so wonderful about it. Surely if Lynn needed a new dress every week to accommodate Tommy’s baby, Tommy would get her that dress. It was the least he could do, considering.
Then again … this was a pretty dress. Jessie wouldn’t want to only wear it for a week in a nine-month period that came and went, either.
“And even though I know you can afford to get a new dress every week if you want,” Dannie was saying, oddly echoing Jessie’s thoughts, “you’re pretty much the only woman in the kingdom who can, so I went for flexibility and versatility in what I’m counting on being the next craze.”
“The next craze?” Lynn asked. “Why?”
“Because you’re wearing it, silly!”
“I thought I was wearing the next craze,” Jessie tried to pout.
“You’re wearing the current craze for the not-pregnant or not-yet-showing, Jess.”
“So when will I be hopelessly out of style?”
“When enough of us find ourselves in Lynn’s condition!” Dannie laughed. Jessie tried to smile.
“And when will that be for you?” Lynn asked Dannie slyly.
Dannie only smirked. “The dressmaker doesn’t wear the craze. She doesn’t want to look better than her clients, after all.” She winked. “However … there’s a reason why I want that to be the next craze.”
“And why would that be?” asked Lynn.
“Because if my baby wants a pony, she’s getting a pony!”
… So Dannie, too, Jessie thought.
“Oh, I thought you were! You’re just glowing, Dannie!” Lynn cried, wrapping Dannie in a big hug. “When are you due?”
“End of the year, I’m thinking. Or maybe the beginning of next year.”
“Right at the cusp! What a wonderful time to be having a baby!”
Yes, wonderful, Jessie thought, but managed to croak, “Congratulations, Dannie.”
“Thanks, you,” Dannie winked.
And then Lynn pounced. “And what about you, Jessie?” She grinned, so serene and confident, waiting for the good news.
But Jessie could only shrug, and try to smile, and say as light-heartedly as she could, “Oh — nothing to report.”
Lynn’s mouth was already open to give her congratulations when it was forced to shut again. “Oh … oh, well, I’m sure it’ll be soon!”
Mum had to wait two years to get Tommy and me. Maybe whatever it was that caused that was hereditary. Maybe Jessie shouldn’t even be thinking of this yet. Maybe she should just be taking each day as it came.
Maybe she ought to talk to Morgan before she made herself sick with fruitless worry.
“I …” Lynn said, swallowed, and continued, “I had a favor to ask both of you … but I’m not so sure, now, I mean, with everything …”
“Eh, ask, Lynn; the worst we can say is no,” Dannie shrugged.
Lynn bit her lip. “Well — well, I was wondering — you see, my baby’s likely to come at a bad time for Clarice to be here. I mean, with exams and studying and all. You know how serious she is.”
“Aye, we know,” Dannie answered for both of them.
“And — and who knows with Mother. And while your mother will of course be here, Jess, I … I sort of wanted …” Lynn twisted her wedding ring around her finger. “Would — would you two mind terribly coming for the birth? Or will it be too difficult?” she asked Dannie especially.
“Lynn, are you kidding? It’d be an honor! Who else is coming?” Dannie asked.
Lynn looked to Jessie. “I’ll be there,” Jessie squeaked. “Wouldn’t — wouldn’t miss it for the world.”
Lynn’s smile was more than worth the twinge she felt giving that assurance. Then Lynn turned back to Dannie. “You two are the first two I asked — well, after Clarice, of course. And Angelique, but I haven’t heard back from her yet. I think she’s thinking of a polite way to say, ‘Please, please, no.'”
Dannie’s eyebrow went up, but Jessie’s did not. Angelique would not be Jessie’s first choice to help her through the birth of her first child; you’d need to have at least one other person to pick up Angelique from where she had fainted. Make that two other people; you’d need someone else to be helping you while Angelique fainted and the first person helped her.
“Angelique is not … is not the best person when it comes to blood and … such,” Lynn explained. “But — but you two were the first people I asked. Well, after my sisters and Lady Morgan.”
“We keep falling farther and farther on the list, Jess,” Dannie remarked.
Jessie, however, sat up. “Morgan?”
“Aye, Lady Morgan — she came for a visit today, and I thought, well, Widow Thatcher is going to be the midwife, but it can’t … it can’t hurt … anyway,” she turned back to Dannie, “I’ll definitely ask Lady Dindrane, and maybe Lady Eilwen, too.”
“Huh, among the noblewomen, that only leaves …” Dannie paused. “Well, Garnet and Leona, for starters, but if Clarice can’t come I guess they can’t come, either.”
“And doesn’t Lady Eilwen have twin daughters? And, Jess, doesn’t your aunt have a daughter too?”
“Which one? Morgan?”
Jessie nodded. “Right. Ravenna. But … well, Ravenna’s only fourteen, and Delyth and Dilys are the same age. That’s a bit young, I think.”
“That’s what I was thinking, too, and the Queen agrees,” Lynn replied. “So not them.”
“That only leaves … Lady Morgause. Are you inviting her?”
“Don’t!” Jessie gasped.
“Oh, but that would be … rude …” Lynn blushed.
“But –” Jessie started, and stopped. “Er — that is, you don’t want her and Morgan in the same room. And I don’t know about you, but I’d want Morgan in the room when … when I was having my first baby.”
“But since she and Lady Morgan don’t get along, surely Lady Morgause would stay away?”
“No,” Jessie replied. “She’d –”
“Come in!” Lynn called to the door. It opened silently and Ambrosius slipped in. He bowed to each of the women — Dannie too — but it was to Jessie that he turned.
“Princess,” Ambrosius said without further preamble, “your presence is requested downstairs in the council chamber.”
Silence, then a rushing — her heart, beating like mad and pushing the blood through the veins near her ears. “C-come again?”
“Your father would like to see you downstairs, in the council chamber,” Ambrosius repeated.
Jessie glanced at her friends. Lynn’s jaw was openly agape, while Dannie only narrowed her eyes. “Oh … all right. I’ll, um, I’ll be back when I’m back?” Jessie said to her friends. She rose, and Ambrosius opened the door and waved her through it.
It wasn’t until she heard the door click shut and she was already partly down the winding staircase that she dared to ask, “Ambrosius, what is this all about?”
“I don’t know, Princess.”
“You don’t know?”
“It’s a secret session.”
Jessie froze. “Secret?”
“You should keep moving, Princess. Your father won’t want to be kept waiting.”
“Oh … of course.” Jessie started down the stairs again. And question after question popped into her head. Secret session? Doesn’t want to be kept waiting? What can I have to do with any of that?
They met no one other than servants on their way to the council chamber, and the sight of the princess walking with the steward was a familiar enough one that no one — scullery-maid to serving-man — so much as blinked to see it. When they came to the council chamber, there was no one to be seen. Ambrosius knocked on the door, announced her presence …
And Jessie went in.
“Hello, Dad … everyone …” she squeaked. But it was not everyone. The Orkneys were rather conspicuously absent. So were Sir Bors and Lamorak. And so was any representative of the Church. So not even a full session, then. Oh boy.
Morgan was there, though, and smiling — and so was Will, but he wasn’t smiling. Her father, however, wore a smile almost as bright and comforting as the one that had soothed her after a hundred nightmares and all of childhood’s other setbacks. “Jessie. Come on in.”
Jessie came in. The door shut behind her with the softest of clicks. It might as well as boomed with the ponderous force of a portcullis crashing down for all that put Jessie at her ease.
“Have a seat, honey.” Her father was smiling the smile he used when he was trying desperately to calm one of his children down. Oddly enough, it was not that reassuring. But the fact that he wanted her to be calm and at her ease did do something to still her racing heart.
The way Will managed a small smile for her and patted the chair beside him did a lot more.
“So — so — what’s going on?” Jessie asked as she sat.
And everyone was staring at her. Jessie counted the different expressions. Lord Pellinore looked skeptical, Morgan calculating, Tommy hopeful, her father inscrutable, Lancelot worried, and Will … Will wouldn’t meet her eyes. He also conspicuously kept his hands below the table. Jessie didn’t have to listen hard to hear the crack of knuckle after knuckle.
It was Lord Pellinore who finally spoke. “Sir William informed us, Princess, that he told you about … about your aunt’s alleged crimes. Is this true?”
“You must understand, this is very privileged information,” Lord Pellinore said. “Outside of this room, I should say only half-a-dozen people know of it. And that does not include Lady Morgause herself.”
“Oh?” Jessie asked, trying to keep her voice level. If they had called her in here solely to lecture her about the need to keep this a secret, she would be more than annoyed. Her father could have told her that. Will could have told her that. Hell, she had already managed to avoid telling Lynn the real reason not to invite Lady Morgause to the birth!
“That being said …” Lord Pellinore bit his lip. “Well, Princess, we — er — that is to say, Lady Morgan and the King have a question to ask of you.”
“More like — a request.”
Jessie turned a raised eyebrow to Morgan.
Morgan had to know what the question in her mind was, but Morgan-like, she did not answer it right away. “Jess, did Wi–Sir William tell you exactly what it was that Morgause did?”
“Allegedly did,” Lord Pellinore interrupted.
Morgan looked at him, then looked at Jessie with one eyebrow raised. For the first time since arriving here and listening to Lynn chatter excitedly about her baby, while she sat empty and useless, Jessie cracked a real smile.
“Will didn’t give me a lot of details …” Jessie glanced at him. “You — you didn’t know much before we left, did you?”
Will shook his head.
“Then I don’t know much,” Jessie replied.
Morgan nodded. “Morgause … has not been taking the idea of aging gracefully.” She glanced at Lord Pellinore. “I can say that, can’t I? I don’t have to add ‘allegedly’?”
Jessie had to bite her lip to keep from laughing out loud; she glanced at Will to see the corner of his lip nearest to her twitching in a manner that could only be called suspicious.
Lord Pellinore shook his head, brow furrowing. Morgan turned back to Jessie. “Anyway, Jess, Morgause … managed to get a hold of a cowplant, thanks in no small part to Lady Dindrane, who happened to have one growing in the backyard.”
If Jessie hadn’t been too busy feeling her jaw fall and hissing, “What?” she might have had a chance to enjoy the way fussy Lord Pellinore cringed.
“I know, believe me, I know,” Morgan replied. “Anyway, Morgause found out about this cowplant, blackmailed Lady Dindrane into providing her with cuttings, and proceeded to — we think — try to breed a strain of the cowplant that is immune to the effects of magic.”
“But — but that’s impossible,” Jessie protested. “It’s too sensitive. The least magical discharge and it shrivels up and dies. How — how did she …?”
“We don’t know if she succeeded entirely. We haven’t had a chance to search the Orkney keep yet. We do know that she managed to get far enough to begin extracting the — the digestive juices from the plant.”
Jessie’s stomach twisted. “Is that — is that — did she try to –”
“Yes,” was all Morgan replied.
“That poor little boy …” Jessie whispered. “How — how far did she get?”
“Far enough that he had gone into shock by the time he was found. Luckily he was able to be restored to consciousness and functioning and smuggled out of there before Morgause could come back.”
Jessie shuddered. “Poor little boy …”
“And what we’d like to know, Jess,” Tommy put in, “is whether you’d be willing to help Morgan capture Morgause.”
“Wh–” Jessie started.
“Tom!” Arthur snapped.
“What? That’s why we called her down here, isn’t it?”
“A little subtlety might have been appreciated –”
“Subtlety? It’s Jess. She’d much rather we get to the point and get on with it, wouldn’t you, Jess?”
“I — I –” Jessie shot a pleading glance at Morgan, though she had no idea what she pleaded for.
“I would like your assistance, Jess,” Morgan replied. “This will take at least two people.”
Jessie kept her breathing steady and even only with an effort. Then she felt something. A faint pressure — a rubbing — by her foot. She glanced under the table.
Will’s foot was rubbing hers.
She looked to his face, but again he refused to meet her eyes. Putting her hand on his thigh, however, resulted in him grabbing her hand and clinging to it.
She wasn’t sure what he meant by that, but she could guess.
Still, though, Jessie gulped, turned to Morgan, and asked, “What’s the plan?”
Morgan grinned. “I’m so glad you asked.”
And she told her.
When Jessie felt she could breathe normally again, she gulped. “That’s — Morgan, that’s bringing an awful lot of … of other people into this.”
“Some of them are in it already,” Morgan pointed out.
“But — but — what about –?”
She didn’t need to finish — the stricken look on Morgan’s face told Jessie that her aunt had read her mind. “She — she’s as protected as she can be. With — with all things considered.”
“Does she know?”
Morgan shook her head.
“Oh, Morgan …”
“I can’t tell her, Jess. Surely you can understand why?”
Jessie nodded. Yes, yes, she could understand why. And if all went well … there wouldn’t be a need for her to know.
“And you see, Jessie, why I need your help? If this is going to work, you’re the only one who can help me.”
“Right … right.” Jessie bit her lip and stared at the table, trying to clear the extraneous emotions out of her mind long enough so that she could think.
That voice could always cut through whatever emotions or thoughts might be giving her trouble. Jessie looked up to see Will’s bright eyes boring into hers.
“You do not have to do this if you don’t want to. Nobody will force you.” He left off looking at her to glare at Tommy. “Or pressure you.”
“Oh, for Wright’s sake, Will, do you have a better idea?” Tommy asked.
“We’ll come up with one if we have to.”
“Will! We’ve been racking our brains for days! This is the best we’ve got!”
“And if we need to,” Will repeated, “we will come up with something else.”
So, no pressure. None whatsoever. Fantastic! Jessie bit her lip and forced herself to keep breathing.
She looked around the table. Lord Pellinore still watched her with skepticism. Morgan seemed almost pleading. Tommy watched her with one eyebrow raised, as if to ask, Are you really going to let this opportunity to bag the most dangerous witch in the kingdom pass you by? Her father stared at the table. Lancelot shot her a nervous smile. And Will … Will only held her hand tighter, and he, too, pleaded his case with his eyes.
“Jessie.” Her father’s voice broke the silence as a dropped stone broke the stillness of a mirror-smooth lake. “Is there … is there a reason why it would be unwise for you to join in this mission?”
It was, Jessie realized, probably the closest her father would ever come to flat-out asking if she was pregnant yet.
She started to pant. “Daddy …”
“Any reason at all, sweetheart? You don’t have to tell us what it is.” He smiled for her his same warm smile, the one he had probably smiled to her when she was in her cradle. Maybe, if she hadn’t been focused on the one particular lack of reason to decline, she might have seen what he was trying to do.
She did not, though. All she saw was the fact that her womb was empty, and her father, brother, father-in-law, husband and Lord Pellinore, who wasn’t anything to her, were all sitting right there, and in a minute she would have to admit to all of them that she wasn’t even pregnant yet. That she’d only been six months married and already she was screwing it up. That what every other girl in the kingdom could easily manage was beyond her.
And yet …
Every other girl in the kingdom couldn’t do this.
The lump in her throat vanished away, and Jessie tossed her hair over one shoulder. “When do we start, Morgan?”
Morgan just smiled. “Tomorrow night.”