“You know what, Gwen?”
“You were wrong.”
“Wrong?” Her eyebrow arched so deliciously over that clear blue eye. Lancelot wanted to lean her back and kiss every last hair of it. He settled for tracing circles on her back instead. “Lance, honey, have you forgotten who you’re talking to?”
“Even you can be wrong sometimes,” Lancelot shrugged. “And you were wrong, oh … seven, eight months ago?”
“And it took you this long to realize it?”
“No, dear. It took me this long to prove it.”
“Ah. That’s a different story.” Gwen’s thumb started to play with his earlobe. “So what, O Husband, did I get wrong about seven or eight months ago?”
“You said that when Will came back with his bride we’d have to behave ourselves and stop acting like a pair of goggle-eyed newlyweds –”
“Goggle-eyed newlyweds? I never would have said that.”
“Well, that was the sentiment of it. We’d have to start acting like the old staid married couple we are, because we would have a pair of actual goggle-eyed newlyweds about, and if we carried on the way were used to, we’d embarrass them.”
“And we have had to behave ourselves.”
Both of Gwen’s eyebrows went up.
“Well, look, honey.” Lancelot tilted his head toward the sofa opposite. “We’re not behaving. And not only are they not embarrassed, they’re not even noticing.”
“Oh, you silly sweetheart,” Gwen laughed low in her throat — if Lancelot held her close enough, he could feel it as well as hear it. “That’s because they just shared their news with us, and frankly I think we could be naked right now and they wouldn’t notice.”
“Care to test that theory?”
“No,” answered Will. And Jessie giggled before leaning her head on Will’s shoulder.
“Our boy doesn’t miss a thing,” Gwen chortled proudly.
“Baby evil mastermind — ow!” yelled Lancelot as she pulled on the hair nearest his scalp.
“Our baby,” Gwen snarled, “was never an evil mastermind.”
“Well,” Lancelot sighed, “maybe our grandbaby will be.”
For that was the news they had finally shared — a grandbaby on the way. They had both looked so shyly proud when Jessie finally blurted it out that Lancelot, at least, had not had the heart to tell them that he had guessed the news weeks ago. Lancelot knew his boy well enough to know that even with all that he had on his mind, there were few things that could make him stagger like a drunken man and walk into walls. The news of his own impending fatherhood might just be one of them.
But before Lancelot could lose himself in happy speculation about the new grandbaby — or just-as-happy speculation about how far he and Gwen could go before the dazed couple on the other couch would lodge a protest — a knocking came from the door, followed by their new steward Benoic. “The King, my lord.”
“Arthur!” Lancelot laughed. “What brings you –”
But he had barely started to untangle himself from Gwen when Jessie leaped up with a speed she had, over the past few weeks, only used when she needed to run for the privy. “Daddy!”
“Hello, baby,” Arthur smiled as he took his daughter into his arms. Will followed her, still beaming.
“Where’s Mum?” Jessie asked as soon as she pulled away.
“What, not a word of welcome for your old man?”
“You won’t mind once I tell you and Mum my news.”
Arthur’s smile, which had come out in full force when he saw his daughter running toward him, vanished. Lancelot sighed. He hadn’t seen Arthur smile like that in weeks, and to see it disappear so soon …
“Your mother is at home. I came by myself.”
“… Oh.” Lancelot didn’t need to see his daughter-in-law’s face to know how it fell. Will’s arm came up over her shoulder, stroking her as he went.
“I don’t suppose you could just tell me, and trust me to pass on the message?”
“Mum would have my head if I told you before her,” Jessie shrugged.
“Ah! So it’s that kind of news. Congratulations, daughter.” Arthur kissed her forehead. “And to you too, I suppose,” he added to Will, with a wry grin.
“But –” Jessie started.
“You didn’t tell me a thing, baby, and that’s what we’ll tell your mother.” Arthur winked at her. And then he turned a beseeching look to Lancelot.
“Arthur?” asked Lancelot.
“I need a … word with you, Lancelot. And not that kind of word,” he added with a pair of waggled eyebrows to Jessie. “Have you … some time?”
“Always for you, friend.”
“Thank you.” Arthur clapped Lancelot’s shoulder and glanced over the assembled company. “My apologies to you all for not being more social …”
“I’ve got a manuscript that needs working on anyway,” Gwen answered, “and I’m sure these two can find something to do with their evening.” She laughed as the King winced and both Jessie and Will blushed.
“Did you see the card room on the grand tour?” Lancelot asked as he drew Arthur away. “Benoic, come. You’re a deft hand with a tankard of ale.”
The servo steward padded behind them as quietly as he could on his metallic feet — which was to say, not very quietly at all. Lancelot and Arthur didn’t exchange a word until they got into the poker room and took seats at the bar.
Even once both had sat down and Benoic began to make the drinks, Arthur was silent, staring at the crest on Benoic’s helmet with eyes that didn’t really see. Lancelot started to fidget.
But it wasn’t until there were four filled tankards on the bar before them that Arthur began to speak. “Lance, I have a great favor to ask you.”
“Ah, a favor! That’s easy. The answer’s yes.”
“Don’t say that until I tell you what the favor’s to be.”
Lancelot’s eyebrows went up. “… You know I’m a bit past my dragon-slaying days, don’t you? As a grandsire-to-be–oh, damn!”
Arthur chuckled. “All I promised Jess was that I would tell her mother that she didn’t tell me a thing. I said nothing on your behalf.”
“So you’re going to let Alison have my head.”
“You’re a big boy. You can handle it,” Arthur laughed, but all too soon his face grew grave again.
Lancelot chewed on his bottom lip, and finally asked, “Look, Arthur, I wish you would just tell me already. The favor can’t be worse than the suspense.”
Arthur stared into space. He seemed to be listening for something.
When the door opened and softly shut, Arthur nodded once. Then without a further word, he took one of the tankards and drained it in a single swallow. The hollow clang as Arthur slammed it down filled the room.
Lancelot passed him another and took one for himself.
Of this other one, Arthur took a more reasonable sip. Then he sighed. “I want you on the jury for Morgause’s trial.”
“But — but Will’s prosecuting!”
“I was there when she was arrested!”
“You’ve told me everything about the case!”
Lancelot blinked. “No?”
“Not after I decided that you had to be on the jury.”
“You — you decided that a long time ago?”
Arthur sighed. “There was no one else.”
“I mean it, Lance. Oh, I suppose I could have gotten another commoner onto the jury, but Mordred wouldn’t have stood for Morgause to be tried by a jury of mostly commoners. And most of the ones who came over with us are somehow connected with Betsy Pelles or the little boy. I was barely able to slip Edmond Chevaux under his nose. Lord help me if Mordred figures that out … but you’re the only one I have that I can trust.”
“Don’t ‘ah’ me like that, Lance,” Arthur snapped and took a moody sip of his ale.
“Like you know what I mean.”
“Shouldn’t I? You need … you need your man on that jury. I don’t know who else is on there, but –”
“No!” Arthur slammed his fist on the bar. “No, damn it! That’s exactly what I don’t need! I need someone on that jury who’s going to decide the case the way he thinks it ought to be decided! Not how I want it to be, not how Mordred wants it to be, not how Pellinore wants it to be, not even how Will wants it to be!” He sighed and rested his head on his hand. “How it ought to be, Lance. That’s what I need.”
“You’re not a fool, you know,” Arthur replied, traveling along his own train of thought without paying much attention to anyone else’s wants or questions. “I know we like to tease you about not being very clever, but that’s not the same as being a fool. You … there are plenty of clever fools out there, you know. Men who might be quick but aren’t deep. Who think they see everything and therefore see nothing. You’re so used to being the last man to laugh at a joke that you take your time in everything, look about you, think about it, and so you’re likelier to come to the right conclusion than most.”
“Don’t mention it.”
Lancelot watched his friend continue to sit huddled into himself, not daring to look up. “Arthur?”
“Am I the only — the only one you’ve got who will be impartial?”
Arthur heaved a great sigh.
Then he began to tick jurors off his fingers. “Edmond Chevaux is a wise man, but his lady — Lady Claire — is also on the jury and I can’t be sure he’ll be willing to go against her, if he needs to go against her. Naomi Emrys … Lord, I don’t even know. Mordred wanted her or her husband on the jury, and that worries me. She was also … angry about how we arrested Morgause. Richard Ferreira … aye, I think he’ll be impartial enough. He’s bound to upset people no matter what he does, but I think I impressed upon him that what I want is for him to decide the case as it ought to be decided.”
“So I’m not the only man you’ve got, then.”
“Yes, you are. First, he’s a commoner, and even after he gets that barony, he’ll still be a commoner in the minds of many. You know that. Second … Richard Ferreira is for Richard Ferreira. Not in a bad way, mind you, just in a …”
Lancelot cocked his head to one side, eyebrows raised. “In a … ?”
“In a very narrow way. He’ll be impartial because he knows it’s in his best interests to be impartial. Not because it is right.”
Lancelot shrugged. “Arthur, how different is that from most Sims? You wouldn’t need half as many laws, with half as many penalties, if Sims just did what was right without caring about what was in their own interest.”
“See what I mean?” Arthur snorted. “You’re no fool.”
“You’re welcome. And that brings us to … Aglovale,” he sighed.
“He was a protege of Lot’s, too, wasn’t he?”
“That could be good or bad.”
“It’s not that that worries me … it’s that he’s, well, he’s his own man more than Richard Ferreira is, if that makes sense. He’ll decide what’s best for Aglovale, I think. Not necessarily what’s … best.”
“Then why did you pick him?”
“Because I think I can stack the deck so that what’s best for Aglovale and what’s best might happily coincide.” Arthur straightened long enough to sigh. “I’m old and getting tired of stacking decks, Lance.”
But Arthur was the King, and stacking decks — one way or another — was what he did. There was no point in bringing this up now, though, so Lancelot didn’t. “What about Claire?”
“Claire … Claire, I think, would be impartial. And she’s a noblewoman. She … might be able to better put herself into Morgause’s shoes than some of the others there. But … she’s easily intimidated, Lance. That’s why Bors chose her all these years ago, and living with him hasn’t improved that. She could be swayed, I’m afraid.”
“And … that’s where I come in?”
“Aye. You won’t be swayed, Lance. You’ll do what you think is right. No matter what the cost.” Arthur looked up. “And that’s why I need you. Don’t you see that?”
“I … suppose I might …”
“Then it’s settled.”
“No. No, Arthur, it’s not settled.”
A corner of Arthur’s mouth lifted up. “What happened to ‘that’s easy, the answer’s yes’?”
“That was before you asked me this.” Lancelot sighed. “Damn it, Arthur … this is my boy’s first case. I don’t want him to lose it.”
“You think he’d argue it that badly that he would lose?”
“You said I had to be impartial.”
“That means you decide the case on its merits, not on the fact that it’s your son arguing one side. However, if he argues that one side well …” Arthur shrugged. “And remember that there will be five other jurors with you.”
“Who you don’t trust.”
“I didn’t say that.”
Lancelot shot him a baleful stare. “Don’t go there with me. Not tonight.”
Arthur sighed. “They’re just not as good as you, Lance. That doesn’t make them bad. That doesn’t make them fools, either.”
“You’re just worried that they’ll be … swayed.”
“That is rather the poi–”
“Arthur! Not tonight! None of your word games!” Lancelot closed his eyes and rubbed his temples. “Wright Almighty, I’m going to have my head spinning with word games for weeks once this trial starts up. Don’t you dare start now.”
Lancelot counted six beats of his heart with Arthur watching him before the King finally nodded. “Aye. Aye, I’m sorry, Lance. No more games. But yes. I am worried that they’ll be swayed by one consideration or another, and not by what they’ll see in the courtroom before them. You won’t be.”
“You say that even though my son is arguing one side.”
“I say that because it’s true.”
Lancelot snorted. “You have a lot of faith in me, then.”
“None you haven’t earned.”
He sighed, rubbing his temple again. Even when Arthur said no word games, this was what came out. Riddles upon riddles upon riddles. Damn it, why did his best friend have to be a king who thought arguing semantics was a recreational activity on par with card-playing and dancing and drinking?
And Arthur was still watching him. Lancelot could feel his gaze the same way he might feel the heat of the sun on his hand or the back of his neck. He could feel the warmth that would soon turn into a burn if he wasn’t careful. And with that warmth came the persuasion. For if Arthur had one talent — only one — it was getting men to do what he wanted them to do. It made him an effective king. If he hadn’t been Arthur, it would have made him a dangerous one.
“And what about the Orkneys?” Lancelot asked.
“What about them?”
“What are going to do for me — for all of us! — if we find her guilty and they don’t like that?”
“If you find Morgause guilty …” Arthur sighed. “Well, you won’t have to worry about her.”
“Good Lord, Arthur, you’re not thinking –”
“I’ve thought about nothing else.” His voice was tight and strained. “Nothing else, Lance. Night and day. I’ve not had a proper night’s sleep since Pellinore and Lady Dindrane came to me. Don’t tell me I haven’t been thinking.”
“You know that’s not what I meant.”
“The fact remains that I have been thinking. And unthinking. And cursing this whole business to hell. And no matter what I think, no matter how I try to decide, something happens or someone says something and I think the other way. But — no matter what I decide — if Morgause is found guilty, I will make sure she is never able to harm another Sim in this land. I swear it.”
Lancelot nodded. “I see. And Mordred? They’re alike as two peas in a pod, those two.”
“I know. That might be the saving of all of us.”
“I said Richard Ferreira was for Richard Ferreira. And Aglovale is for Aglovale. But both of them have nothing on Morgause. I can stack the decks for those two. With Morgause … there is no stacking of the deck. She sees only what she wants, and does only what will be to her benefit. I’m hoping Mordred is enough of her son to see the same way.”
“In other words, you’re hoping he realizes that he’ll be better off if he leaves his mother to her fate — whatever that is — and doesn’t retaliate against the rest of us.”
“That’s Mordred. And Morgause.” Then Arthur snorted. “At least we haven’t got to worry about that with Will.”
“Aye, he’d never retaliate, that boy. Got his mother’s brains.”
“And more importantly, your heart.”
Lancelot’s jaw fell. “Oh, Arthur.”
Arthur only shrugged.
He closed his eyes. “You’re not leaving me with much of a choice, are you?”
“That was the plan.”
“Damn you,” Lancelot muttered. “But I suppose … if it’s what you want … then I’ll be your sixth man.”