“Now how did we get here before Richard? He said he’d be at the warehouse all day! That’s just across the lane!”
Joshua looked over his shoulder. “Maybe we should go ask after him?”
Perhaps … Mark shook his head. “We shan’t get him out of there any faster than he wants to get out. Might as well leave him be.”
“And have a cup or two of the bar’s best bitter in his absence?”
“Drink it all up in his absence, more like,” Mark chuckled.
Josh threw back his head and laughed. Mark felt himself start to grin. Josh was laughing more and more these days. He wasn’t joking like he used to, and there were still days when he barely laughed at all. Shadows, too, crossed his face like those on a moor on a cloudy day. But at least he was laughing again.
When Josh’s head came down again, he glanced over Mark’s shoulder and out the door. “I feel like an old woman at the marketplace,” he muttered.
“I know,” Mark replied.
“Coming for all the latest gossip. And none too pleased when I don’t get it immediately.”
“Everyone’s talking about it,” Mark rationalized. “And besides, if there’s a man in Albion who’s likely to know what’s going on …”
“A common man in Albion likely to have a feel for the nobles’ secrets,” Josh corrected.
“Aye, aye, that. A man all the same. Well, it’s Richard Ferreira.”
“Amen,” Josh replied. “Well, we may as well get started on that bitter. Before the sailors drink it all.”
“Aye,” Mark agreed as he strode the few steps to the bar, climbed onto a bar stool and placed his order, Josh following in his footsteps.
“Tankard of your best, ma’am,” said Mark.
“Aye, same for me — only put it on Richard Ferreira’s tab.” When Mark turned to Josh with his eyebrow raised, Josh put on an innocent face. “What? It’s no more than what he deserves for keeping us waiting!”
When you put it like that … “Put mine on Richard’s tab, too.”
The barmaid looked between the two of them, then she smirked. “Ye’d be the Wesleyans, wouldn’t ye?”
“Last we checked,” Josh replied.
“Master Ferreira warned me ye might try somethin’ like that,” the barmaid said wisely. “When he came in for lunch today, he did.”
“And what did he tell you to do if we did try that?” Josh asked.
“Depends, sir. Are either o’ ye named Robert?”
“That’s my son,” Mark replied, and winked at Josh.
The barmaid put her hands on her ample hips. “Is he, now? An’ where might he be?”
“… He’ll be here in a minute,” Mark admitted, chastened.
“Here in a minute, eh? Well, I’ll ye what. He gets here, an’ I’ll put all yer drinks on Master Ferreira’s tab,” the barmaid compromised.
“That’ll be fine,” Mark replied. As the barmaid turned away to pour them their drinks, Mark remarked, “Well, we handled that well. And we’re still drinking on Richard!”
“You handled that well. Hmph.” Josh rolled his eyes. “It’s just dumb luck that Rob was coming tonight.”
“Dumb luck? Don’t be ridiculous. He wants to know what happened as badly as we do.”
“I wonder why he doesn’t just send off a note to Sir William or the Prince?” Josh asked. “He was at their bachelor party, for heaven’s sake.”
The barmaid put his tankard before him, but before taking a drink Mark traced his finger along the rim. “If what they’re saying about the Princess is true …”
That was the wrong thing to say. Mark watched his son deflate, rest his arm on the bar, bow his head and rub his neck with the other hand. “Wright.”
“I’m sure she’s fine,” Mark murmured. At least, he was sure nothing serious had happened. If it had been serious, the rumors would be much more focused and tense, wouldn’t they? One person wouldn’t be claiming that they had seen the Princess whizzing by on her broomstick just this morning while another swore she was at death’s very door.
Mark glanced sidelong at Josh, who kept his head bowed. “Josh …”
“I don’t envy her husband.”
“No one does. But I’m sure she’s fine. If she … Josh, look at me.”
Josh looked up.
A cold breeze told the back of Mark’s neck that the door had opened, but he didn’t bother to confirm it with his eyes. “That’s my lad. Look, if the Princess was seriously hurt, we’d all know it. They couldn’t keep something like that under wraps. If nothing else, the Queen would be staying the du Lacs, and we know very well that she isn’t.”
“Try telling that to my–to Dannie,” Rob muttered as he seemingly appeared out of nowhere. “Hi, Dad. Hi, Josh.”
“What — hey, barmaid! This is Rob!” Josh called as he grabbed his brother’s sleeve and dragged him forward.
“Oh, is he, now?” the barmaid asked. She put her hands on her hips.
“Aye! You can start charging everything to Master Ferreira now! I’ll have another pint of your best!” Josh waved his drink in the air.
“Ye ain’t even finished yer first one yet, so hold yer horses, mister. Now, Master Rob — if ye are Master Rob — if ye want ter be drinkin’ on Master Ferreira tonight, ye got ter do one thing fer me, an’ answer me one question.”
Rob shot them both a look as if to ask, What are you getting me into? but when he turned to the barmaid, all he said was, “All right …”
“The doin’ is easy. Jest move yer hair so’s I can see yer ears.”
Rob’s eyebrows went up, but he complied.
“Now fer the question, ’tis an easy one, so ye need never no mind answerin’ it. What did Mistress Wesleyan — yer Mistress Wesleyan — get ye fer a weddin’ present?”
Rob didn’t say anything. But he smiled — slowly, sickly — and his ears started to turn red.
“Aye, ye’re him, all right! Drinks are on Master Ferreira tonight.”
Rob only grunted, but Josh turned to Mark. “Do you think he’ll ever tell us what she got him?”
“No,” replied Rob.
“It can’t be that bad,” Josh pestered.
“It wasn’t … bad …”
“Then what was it? Was it good? Or maybe very good?”
“Josh, enough,” Mark grunted as Rob started to turn redder and redder. “Harass your brother somewhere I don’t have to watch.”
“What’s the fun in that?” Josh laughed.
“It’s not the fun or the lack of fun I worry about … it’s the mental scars,” Mark replied. “Mine.”
“Aw, Dad, what will we do with you?” Josh clucked, shaking his head.
Mark didn’t answer. It was either that or admit that he’d stopped the jesting as much for Josh’s sake as for Rob’s. The first time Josh had tried to tease Rob about his mysterious wedding gift, he had slipped into mentioning that it couldn’t be worse than what Isabel had gotten him for his wedding. At least, that was what Mark thought he had been about to say. Josh had frozen halfway through “Isabel.”
He’d never forget the particular ghastly shade of white his son had turned when he remembered about Isabel. But to chase the memory from his mind, he took a long swallow of his bitter.
“We’ll leave him be,” Rob replied, elbowing Josh. “Wright. … Any sign of Mas–Richard?”
There was a crack begging to be made about being on a first-name basis with one’s father-in-law. Josh didn’t make it. And because Josh didn’t make it, Mark let the opportunity pass.
“Not yet. But we’re drinking on him,” Josh replied. “Cheers!”
The barmaid pushed a wooden tankard to Rob, and he lifted it to meet Josh’s. “Cheers.”
“Hear anything?” Josh asked after the two of them took a drink.
“It depends on what you mean by ‘anything’ … I can certainly say I’ve heard anything today …”
“Oh, aye. We’ve heard anything, too. Anything and everything,” Josh rolled his eyes. “Did you know that Lady Morgause turned the King into a newt before she was finally taken down? But he got better.”
“A newt, eh?” Rob asked. “Why not a frog?”
“Haven’t a clue.” Josh admitted, taking a sip of his bitter. “Maybe they thought frogs were overdone.”
“I think Princess Jessica threatened to turn one of the princes into a frog on a weekly basis,” Rob mused.
“The Princess?” Mark craned around Josh to see Rob better. “Heard anything — er — anything reliable — on that front?”
“No. Which is why I’m here. Dannie’ll have my head if I come home without any news, preferably about Princess Jessica.”
There was a crack waiting to be made about newly-wedded bliss. A year ago Josh would have leapt all over it, and Mark would have laughed. Now … now, though at least three such cracks sprang to Mark’s mind, he did not make them, because he could not be sure Josh would laugh.
“Well, the Princess can’t be that bad if Dannie doesn’t have definite news. They’re close, aren’t they?” Josh asked.
“Aye, but there’s a long way between ‘so bad we’ll tell you’ and ‘everything’s peachy,'” Rob pointed out.
“True, that,” Josh murmured.
“Ah, cheer up, lads!” Mark tried to laugh. “I shan’t be a fool enough to say that I’m sure she’s fine, but there’s no reason to be as scowling as a thunderstorm over a girl … er, young lady that only one of us has ever met.”
“Perhaps,” Josh admitted, but what his mouth said and what his eyes said didn’t match. Mark sent a beseeching glance to Rob.
Rob took a drink. He swished his bitter in the tankard after he pulled it away from his face. Then he sighed. “Where is Richard?”
“Maybe a ship of his came in late?” Josh asked.
“I think we’d have noticed …” Mark murmured, looking over his shoulder. But the ship moored outside looked the same as it had, and he would have noticed another ship.
“Late meaning ‘later than he was expecting,’ not late as in ‘half an hour ago,’ Dad,” Josh murmured.
“If he’s not going to get here …” Rob murmured, and he started to slip off his stool.
“If who’s not going to get here?” boomed a voice from the doorway.
“Richard!” Mark called out.
“Our host!” Josh added.
Rob only smiled and nodded.
“Host?” Richard added as he took a seat on the stool to Mark’s left. “When did I become the host?”
“When you started buying all of our drinks, my friend,” Mark replied with a companionable slap to his back.
“And when was that?”
“When Rob here,” Josh jerked his thumb at his brother, “passed your little … test, shall we say?”
Richard glanced at the barmaid. “Were his ears as red as I said they would be?”
“Redder, sir! An’ what’ll be yer pleasure?”
Richard ordered and the barmaid got his drink. As he waited, he turned to the other men. “So, my friends — what have you heard?”
“We were hoping you would have heard something!” Josh laughed.
“Such as …?”
“Well, what happened, for one! And what’s going on. We all know Lady Morgause was arrested, but beyond that …”
“And what makes you think I would know?” Richard smirked.
“Sailors always spread stories,” Mark replied, before either of his sons could mention Richard’s chumminess with the nobles. That was not a subject you brought up with Richard, if only because Richard seemed to take it for an excuse to brood or fume about how hard he’d worked and how chummy he still wasn’t with the nobles.
“As it so happens,” Richard murmured, “I might have heard a bit …”
Richard was still a sailor at heart — and a sailor with a tale to tell, no less. There was no disguising his smirk when the three Wesleyan men swiveled in their seats to face him.
He knew, too, when he had his audience hooked on his line. He knew just how to keep them wriggling. Richard took a long sip just to watch them squirm.
“They say,” Richard began in the slow, cautious tone of a consummate tale-teller, “that they took Lady Morgause’s magic away from here when they arrested her.”
“They can do that?” Josh gasped.
“Who says?” asked Rob.
Richard smiled, “Apparently so — and Merlin Emrys says, that’s who.”
Mark leaned back. “Merlin Emrys … he’d know.”
“Aye.” Richard sipped, then pulled away from the tankard, smacking his lips together. “He did know. Wasn’t happy about it, either. That much was obvious, even though we were talking about other things.”
“Wasn’t happy? Why?” Josh asked.
“Do you even have to ask, Josh?” Rob scoffed. “They could do it to him as easily as they did it to Lady Morgause. Or to his wife, any of his students …”
“If I were a wizard, I should be grateful that the law knew that magic could be taken away,” Mark mused. “Better no magic than dead, as he would be in Glasonland.”
“The difficulty with that — or so Master Emrys mentioned — is that you need a witch or a wizard to make the potion, which makes it rather difficult to come by in places like Glasonland.”
“Ah. Well. Never mind that, then,” Mark grunted.
“Also …” Richard mused. “There’s nothing to stop the authorities from slipping that potion to a witch or wizard, and then killing him. Or her.”
The whoosh of a dart through the air and the thunk as it hit the board were suddenly very loud.
“You don’t think …” Josh started. “The King’s own sister?”
“Stranger things have happened, my lad,” murmured Mark.
“Not in my memory,” Josh remarked.
“Nor mine,” Rob added.
“You’re younger than I am, you idiot.”
“But I’ve got a better memory.”
“Boys,” Mark muttered. He turned to Richard and the two of them shook their heads.
Josh leaned his elbows on the bar and stared into his cup as if it offered him all the secrets of the universe. “You’d think … even if she’s found guilty of everything she’s accused of, you’d think losing her magic would be punishment enough. There’s no need to go further.”
“If any one of us did what she’s said to have done to that little boy, we’d swing for it,” Richard remarked with a philosophical shrug.
“You seem remarkably unbothered by that possibility,” Mark murmured.
“That’s because I don’t kidnap four-year-olds to grind them down into beauty paste!”
“You make an unanswerable argument, my friend,” Mark chuckled.
When Rob spoke, though, there was nothing to chuckle about. “It’s a bold move. If he goes through with it.”
“Hey,” Josh clapped his back, “remember, little brother, we’re not all in your head. What are you talking about?”
“The King. And Lady Morgause.”
This time it was the shuffling of the cards that seemed to fill the whole room.
“If … if he were to sentence her to death … he would show he was serious. I’d be surprised if there was so much as a sneak-thief willing to set one toe out of line after that.”
“You underestimate the daring of sneak-thieves, son,” Mark replied. “The King’s had them put to death before this; he’ll have it done again. No. It’s the nobles who ought to be frightened, if that … if that happens.”
“Especially the new ones from Glasonland. Like your friend Sir Milo,” Richard pointed out. “It’s not like that, back in Glasonland. If you’re close enough to the Crown … well, you can do what you like, until the Crown has had enough.”
“And I think it’s safe to say,” Rob continued, “that the Crown has officially had enough with Lady Morgause.”
Clinks and scrapes as the men played with their cups and tankards.
“Aye,” said Mark finally, “aye, son. I think you’re right about that.”