Betsy Pelles’s hands were trembling when she walked into the silent courtroom. Christopher was perhaps one of the only ones close enough to catch sight of this — surely the jury was too far away to take note of it, and at the end of the day, in this strange country, it was only what the jury saw that really mattered.
What the jury would see was that Betsy Pelles was dressed neatly and presentably, in clothes so starched it was a miracle she could move in them and an apron so white she must have painted it so. They would see her walk to the witness’s chair with her head held high, but not too high, and they would hear her give her oath with a voice that was clear even if it wavered a little with nerves.
And if Betsy was truly lucky — and Lady Morgause truly unlucky — somebody in that jury would see the murderous look the lady shot her former housekeeper.
They probably all saw Betsy gulp when she was hit by it, though. That would probably be bad. In Christopher’s experience, a little bit of nervousness from witnesses didn’t tend to phase juries — most Sims were capable of that much basic empathy. Too much nervousness, though, and the jury convinced itself that you were lying.
But Betsy pursed her lips together and folded her hands primly in her lap until Sir William came up to ask her his questions. “Mistress Pelles,” he started, “could you explain to the jury your connection to the defendant — Lady Morgause?”
“I was her housekeeper, m’lord.”
“For how long?”
“Thirteen years, sir.”
“And how did you get that job?”
“I — well, sir, one day me Martin — me husband — came home, an’ told me that Lord Lot an’ Lady Morgause needed a new housekeeper, seein’ as theirs … er, left, an’ he told to me that Lady Morgause wanted me ter come up ter the castle an’ see if I suited fer the job. So the next day I did, an’ Lady Morgause axed me some questions, an’ she said I suited fine an’ so I started the next day.”
“I see. And in your thirteen years of working there, did you and your mistress ever have a quarrel?”
“Oh, no, sir! I’d’a been out o’ a job if I spoke beyond me place!”
“How would you rate Lady Morgause as a mistress? Was she difficult, easygoing, particular …?”
“She were particular, sir, I shan’t lie. But … it were never unjustified. She wanted her home ter look good an’ be run well, an’ ye can’t blame her fer that. She … I don’t like ter air family secrets, sir, but she weren’t very patient. Wanted things done an’ she wanted ’em done well the first time. But ye can’t blame her fer that, I don’t think. Once I learned what she wanted, everythin’ was … well enough, I suppose. All things considered.”
“All things considered? What do you mean by that?”
“She … well, sir, I knew she was a witch. An’ — an’ I knew she weren’t a nice witch, if ye understand what I’m sayin’? But she never used no magic on me, I’ll say that.”
“I see. So would you say that you got along well with your mistress?”
“Yes, sir, well enough. Until …”
“Until, well, sir, I found Thorn.”
“Ah. That day. Could you please tell the jury, in your own words, how it was that you came to find Thorn?”
Betsy took a deep breath, and Christopher couldn’t blame her. This, after all, was it, the reason why she was here. After Sir William had established who she was and her relationship with Lady Morgause, there really was nothing else to do but tell her story, with questions from Sir William to guide her along the way.
Christopher paid little attention to her words. He knew what she was going to say, being familiar enough with the charges against Lady Morgause. What he watched was how she said it, for that, more than what she said, was what would sell the jury.
She was … good, Christopher thought. Any fool could see that what she had seen that day had upset her, but she tried to keep herself calm and under control. That, Christopher thought, was … good. A liar, or more importantly, a witness most jurymen might peg as a liar, wouldn’t hold it in. They’d let out all the stops, trying to win the jury with a passionate performance if the good old-fashioned truth was somehow deficient. Yes, Betsy’s dignity would only help her.
And the few tears that she couldn’t help but let fall when she spoke of the condition in which she had found the boy … well, they would help her, too. A woman that compassionate couldn’t be a liar, and somebody that compassionate wouldn’t be putting their old employer on trial for her life just for spite or vengeance or annoyance.
As for Sir William, he had to keep asking questions, but they were mostly phrased to prod her along and let her talk. Every now and then he would interject with a question meant to clarify or give more detail, but those were fairly rare. He didn’t even ask anything that made Sir Mordred leap to his feet with an objection, which was obviously making the other knight stew.
He did skate very near the line, though, when he asked after Betsy described Thorn’s sudden awakening, “Just like that? And all you did was rub his legs and arms?”
“Aye, sir. I thought — I thought an’ think, sir, that it was a miracle.”
He didn’t comment on it. Maybe he could sense Sir Mordred’s muscles bunched up, awaiting the moment to jump up with an objection, an objection he might have won. The comment did its work, anyway. Christopher glanced over to the jury box, and saw both Lady Claire and Master Chevaux sit up when the word “miracle” came out.
It was much easier to make a charge of attempted murder stick when at least one witness was convinced that only the good Lord Wright’s intervention kept the intended victim alive.
After Betsy’s story was told, Sir William stepped back. “No further questions, your honor.” He nodded to Sir Mordred. “Your witness, sir.”
Sir Mordred only smiled. The jury couldn’t see it. But Betsy did, and she paled even as she folded her hands once again primly in her lap.
Sir Mordred stood over her for a moment, one hand on his hip, the other beneath his chin. “You know,” he began, almost conversationally, “I could force you to tell me about the act of base treachery that led to your being fired. I think it would do the jury good to hear it. I daresay their opinion of your testimony would be quite swayed if they –”
“Objection!” Sir William interjected. “The question is argumentative. Your honor, he’s not asking for her to give information, he’s only trying to blacken her name.”
“If I had been permitted to finish,” Sir Mordred replied, rolling his eyes, “it would have been quite clear that I was not going to ask that question. However, I withdraw it in any case. You may strike it from the record as you please.”
“The jury will disregard …” Lord Pellinore began, but it was all Christopher could do to keep from snorting. As if that ever worked. Those on the jury who didn’t know what the “treachery” was would be both dying to find out and prejudiced against Betsy, and the one man who did would probably follow the rules to the letter and not tell the rest of the jury what it was that had happened. Sir William would have done better to let Sir Mordred ask his question and hope that Betsy managed to clear her own name.
“Instead,” Sir Mordred said, turning back to Betsy, “I would like you to tell the jury what you think happened to your brother-in-law Accolon to put him in his present, zombified state.”
“Sir Mordred?” asked Lord Pellinore.
“Your honor, this speaks directly to the witness’s credibility. And before my honored colleague says anything about speculation, let me put forth that what I want is Betsy’s honest opinion of her mistress, and if that opinion is founded on speculation, then so be it.”
Lord Pellinore sighed. “Overruled.”
“Thank you, your honor. Now, Betsy, what do you think your mistress did to Accolon?”
“Well, m’lord, I — we –” She faltered and flushed. “Me husband, Martin, an’ I always thought … we thought, after Accolon got into an — improper relationship with Lady Morgan, that yer mother … killed him an’ made him into what he is now.” She hung her head as if she were ashamed to say this.
“Indeed! And how did that make you feel about your mistress?”
“I am asking for you to give your honest opinion of your mistress as a fellow Sim, not merely as an employer.”
Betsy flushed and sent a beseeching look at Sir William. But when she looked back, there was Sir Mordred, looming over her and demanding an answer with his presence if not his looks. “I were afraid, m’lord.”
“Afraid? What about angry?”
“Angry? No, sir.”
“Well — well, Accolon weren’t me brother — an’ there are some folk who’d say that Lady Morgause did right — an’ — an’, m’lord, yer lady mother was me lady, me an’ Martin’s. We — we couldn’t be angry. What if she — found out? She’d be angry, then, an’ …” Betsy gulped, and her gulp probably did more to restore her credibility than any chance to explain her “treachery” would have. She’d been afraid of Lady Morgause. She was probably afraid still. There would be no swaying her from that.
Sir Mordred seemed to sense as much, but he pressed on anyway. “Would you deny, though, that you had a reason to wish your mistress harm? As the — in your opinion — murderess of your brother-in-law?”
“Answer the question, Betsy.”
She stared at her lap. “No, m’lord. I wouldn’t deny that I had a reason. But that don’t mean–”
“Thank you. No further questions.” He took his seat, and Lord Pellinore dismissed Betsy.
The next witness was Lady Dindrane.
After she was sworn in and had seated herself comfortably, smoothing her gown over her just-protruding belly, Sir William approached her. “Lady Dindrane, could you please state your relationship to the accused for the record?”
“I am her daughter-in-law. Sir Mordred’s wife.”
“I see. Lady Dindrane, how would you describe your relationship with your mother-in-law?”
“… Variable,” Lady Dindrane replied after a moment’s thought. “When Sir Mordred and I were first married, it was … neutral. Devoid of both hostilities and affection. As time went on, however, it became more and more hostile.”
“Why is this?”
“Many reasons. Perhaps the simplest is that she tried to blackmail me after discovering my Laganaphyllis Simnovorii, a plant commonly known as the cowplant.”
Christopher could see why. Good Lord, what a mouthful.
“Would you explain, for the benefit of the jury, just what a cowplant is?”
“Certainly.” And so Lady Dindrane explained. It was all similar to the legends Christopher had heard as a child, although knowing that it was real — and more importantly, that there was one in Albion if Sir Mordred hadn’t destroyed it — well, that was probably fuel for nightmares, that one.
When she had finished, Sir William asked, “Given that this is a very dangerous plant, I must ask, why did you decide to plant one in the back garden?”
“To study it,” Lady Dindrane replied. “We know very little about the true habits of the Laganaphyllis Simnovorii. It is certainly a unique and intriguing life form, and if properly cultivated, who knows to what good uses it may be put? For instance, the plant could be cultivated outside vital fortifications to act as a sort of … guard-plant. Furthermore, I must add that I was not at all certain I would succeed in my endeavor. I thought failure far more likely than success.”
“I see. You mentioned earlier that Lady Morgause — and I use your words here — ‘blackmailed’ you the discovery of the cowplant. Could you please explain to the jury what happened?”
“I shall.” Her explanation was short: Lady Morgause found the plant (how, Lady Dindrane admitted, she did not know), and instead of running to her son or demanding that it be destroyed, she threatened to reveal her discovery to her son if Lady Dindrane did not meet certain demands. “I met them, because I thought her demands were slight. She only wanted a few cuttings of the plant. She said that she wanted to make it useful to witches and wizards, which it is not at present.”
“Was it easy for you to give up the cuttings?”
“No. I was nervous and afraid. I did not trust Lady Morgause. But I realized — or thought I realized — soon that it was very unlikely that Lady Morgause would be able to cause any harm with the plant. I thought it very unlikely that she would be able to create a variant of the plant immune to the harmful effects of magic. And since one unlikely event — my own successful cultivation of the plant — had occurred, I thought it doubly unlikely that another unlikely event would follow so close on its heels.” She frowned. “I should have remembered that the laws of probability do not work that way.”
Sir William nodded. “Do you think that Lady Morgause caused harm with the plant?”
“Yes. I believe she used her cuttings to try to kill Thorn Michaelson in order to create Elixir of Life.”
“Why do you believe that?”
“The little boy’s wounds. When Bet–Mistress Pelles led me to him …” Lady Dindrane paused, a delicate hand in front of her mouth, a suspicious shine in her eyes. Unfortunately, she turned away from the jury while she collected herself. “I saw burns on his skin similar to those that would be caused by a strong . They match exactly the burns described by Martin of Ruben when he came into contact with the digestive juices of the Laganaphyllis Simnovorii. Furthermore, I found a leaf of the plant in the folds of Thorn’s clothing.”
“Besides the wounds, how would you describe Thorn’s appearance when you were brought to see him?”
“Comatose. Although …” Lady Dindrane made a face, as if the admission cost her something, before she added, “I am not a doctor. I have no medical training, so I could be wrong.”
“Could you describe what you mean by ‘comatose’?”
“He was unconscious,” Lady Dindrane replied, the face quite gone. “An untutored eye might have thought he was dead. Betsy did. If she had not found him when she did … well, if he hadn’t gotten some medical attention, I doubt he would have survived.”
Another point for the attempted murder charge. Christopher nodded to himself. Sir William was doing well so far, he thought.
Sir William asked a question or two about how Thorn had recovered so quickly, and made sure to get Lady Dindrane’s testimony as to how she and Betsy had found Thorn, but his point being made, he soon wrapped it up. He looked up and nodded to Sir Mordred. “Your witness.”
Sir Mordred rose and sauntered to where his wife sat. Lady Dindrane sat up straighter, but Christopher had to hiss — though she laid her hands protectively over her belly, Sir William’s books blocked the jury from seeing that unconscious gesture. It would have been pure gold for him if the jury had seen that.
Or perhaps not. A woman who was so afraid of her husband that she feared for her unborn child in an open courtroom, with other Sims nearby who would leap to her assistance in an instant, might make up any lie to get out of that marriage.
Sir Mordred seemed to be thinking along those lines, too, for he put his hands on his hips, surveyed his wife, and asked, “Tell me, Dindrane, and tell the jury — just how unhappy are you in this marriage?”
Sir William was half out of his seat to raise an objection, but Lady Dindrane never gave him a chance to open his mouth. “I never expected to be happy,” she replied. “I expected to do my duty, as any young woman of our station expects.”
She carefully didn’t look at the Princess or Crown Princess. But Christopher could not have been the only man in the courtroom to notice how those two young ladies leaned around the Crown Prince and looked at each other.
Because he was too busy looking at the Princess and Crown Princess, Christopher didn’t see Lady Claire wince and look stricken.
“That does not absolve you of being miserable, if miserable you are. Are you miserable?”
“No,” replied Lady Dindrane. “I have our children. I have my work. I am as content as it is possible to be. Or I was, until your mother tried to kill a little boy who is only a bit older than Nimue.”
“‘Content as it is possible to be’?” Sir Mordred repeated. “What does that mean, Dindrane?”
She did not reply at first. Her eyes slid to Sir William.
“Your honor, I object –”
“It is quite relevant,” Sir Mordred interrupted. “It speaks directly to her credibility as a witness. It gives her a motivation for lying. She needs to answer this question.”
Lord Pellinore sighed. “Sir Mordred, I do not appreciate you interrupting the opposing counsel. Sir William, was that your objection?”
“Then, unfortunately, I must overrule it. Dindrane … answer the question.” Something — some wordless communication — passed between father and daughter. When Lady Dindrane finally spoke, Christopher prayed that it was Lord Pellinore’s assurance that what Lady Dindrane was about to say would make Sir Mordred look worse than she.
“There are many reasons why I can only be content in this marriage, and why I cannot be fully content. However, I believe the most … salient one is that you have a mistress, you have had that mistress since before we wed, you have three children with her, and you love her and them more than you will ever love me and my children.”
As for what happened next, well, Christopher was familiar with it. It was the sound, the rushing feeling, of all the air being sucked out of the room as every person in it gasped. What he wasn’t familiar with was being one of the gaspers.
Sir Mordred had his hand on his hip and his head cocked in the manner of a man smirking, a man who had gotten just what he wanted. Christopher was familiar with that, too. “So you’re jealous.”
Lady Dindrane’s mouth opened, but slowly shut again. She knit her brows. “I suppose I am. But not of her. And not for myself. I’m jealous of her children and the care you lavish on them, and I’m jealous for Nimue and Gawaine and … the new baby.”
Sir Mordred didn’t pursue that. Presumably, he had gotten what he wanted. “Now, Dindrane, where have you been living since you first went to your father with your accusations against my mother?”
“With my parents.”
“No. I took the children.”
“Enjoying yourself?” Sir Mordred spat.
“Objection!” Sir William interjected.
“Withdrawn,” Sir Mordred replied. He turned again to his wife. “Do you plan to return?”
“Not while your mother is alive.”
Sir Mordred blinked, taken aback. “And the children?”
“If you want them while she still lives, you’ll have to go over my dead body to get them.”
“You wouldn’t have a legal leg to stand upon. Your father can tell you that.”
“I’m their mother. If I don’t defend them, nobody will.”
“I,” Sir Mordred snarled, “am their father.”
“If you have no problem bringing them into the same dwelling as a woman who has already tried to kill one child, then I am clearly the only one capable of protecting them.”
“That is –”
“Would you bring her children into your house?” Lady Dindrane snapped. “With your mother? Would you risk that? Answer me that!”
“I will ask the questions here!”
Lady Dindrane only blinked up at him. “Then answer it for yourself,” she whispered.
Christopher had once stood beyond a fence watching two bulls pawing the earth, heads down, their breath misting around them in the cold, still air. The suspense of that moment had taken his breath away. And it seemed to stretch on, and on, and on, seconds dragging into hours, hours into days, days into weeks …
He felt that again, watching Sir Mordred glower at his wife and Lady Dindrane stare limpidly back up at him.
Finally one of the bulls backed away. “No more questions,” Sir Mordred snapped, and stalked back to his seat.
Christopher started forward to help her out of the chair, but Lady Dindrane was already up and sailing from the courtroom before he could take a step. Lady Eilwen, too, was half out of her seat, but Lady Dindrane shook her head and was gone.
There was not even a rustle of cloth to break the silence until Lord Pellinore awkwardly cleared his throat. “Next witness?”
“Ash Thatcher, your honor,” replied Sir William.
That just wasn’t fair.
It wasn’t fair on anybody in that courtroom, to follow up that testimony with what was possibly the first instance of a Plantsim gypsy testifying against a noblewoman, ever. Barely anybody had a chance to breathe before the door opened again and the Plantsim came in.
Hell, it wasn’t even fair on the Plantsim. He hesitated at the threshold, his hand on the knob, trembling — it was terrible but it was true — like a leaf.
Then he hunched his shoulders, the way a man would if he was putting a hood farther over his head, and scuttled to the witness’s chair. After he was sworn in, Sir William approached him.
“Master Thatcher, will you please state your relationship to Thorn Michaelson for the jury?”
“Aye, sir. I’m his uncle an’ guardian.”
“Why his guardian?”
“His — his ma, she can’t take care o’ him.”
“She …” The Plantsim ran a hand through his leaves. “She — her profession, sir. She’s a … lady o’ the night. The Church, they don’t like those types of women raisin’ their own kids. But rather than puttin’ him in some orphanage where she might never see him again, Marigold — me sister — axed me an’ me wife, Lyndsay, if we’d take him. An’ so we did.”
“Why did you?”
“Why did you take the child? You have other children, don’t you? And your sister’s child is not your responsibility. You didn’t have to take him in. So why did you?”
“Because — because he’s family? I don’t know, sir. I — what else could we do? He’s family. Marigold, she’s family too. They needed help, me an’ Lyndsay could give it. How could we say no?”
Sir William only nodded. “Could you describe a typical day in your household for the jury?”
“Objection!” Sir Mordred snapped. “That is irrelevant!”
“It’s quite relevant,” Sir William replied. “It speaks to my next witness’s credibility. Since he is so young, the jury ought to have an idea how he is being raised so that they can determine whether his testimony is to be believed.”
He didn’t say, The jury won’t believe a word the boy says, since he is the son of a whore being raised by a Plantsim, unless I do some damage control. But that wasn’t the sort of thing you said in open court. All the same, Lord Pellinore seemed to hear it. He nodded. “Overruled.”
“Thank you, your honor. Master Thatcher?”
The Plantsim started to speak, but even though he listened, something niggled at Christopher’s mind. Something … wasn’t right. Even though everything sounded so normal —
And then it hit him.
Everything sounded so normal.
How did Ash Thatcher and his family spend a typical day? They got up. They got ready for work and school. They tried to eat breakfast while getting dressed and finding their boots and feeding the baby. Then the family scattered to their respective occupations, only to rejoin sometime in the afternoon or evening. The kids played or did their schoolwork or their chores. The adults did the chores the kids were too little to do. The baby needed to be fed or changed or just held for a while. The family sat down for supper, then afterward cleaned up, and maybe got a few moment or an hour to sit as it was getting dark, tell stories, talk, sew, work on small projects.
When they kids acted up, they were punished. When they did well, they were rewarded. When they cried, somebody dried their tears. When they laughed, somebody smiled to see it. It was just how Christopher had been raised. It was just how he wanted to raise Coralie and Jason. It was —
It’s madness! The man and his family live in a tree! He has leaves for hair! How can they be normal?
And then Sir William took his quill and underscored the point in glistening red ink.
“So what you are saying, Master Thatcher, is that your typical day bears a certain amount of resemblance to the typical day of any other family that is similar to yours in size, composition, and station?”
Sir William must have given him warning that the question was coming and told him ahead of time what he meant by size, composition and station, for the Plantsim nodded. “Aye, sir.”
“And what about Thorn? Do you treat him as your treat your other children?”
“O’ course, sir. Me an’ Lyndsay are tryin’ ter raise him like our own.”
“Does he act in a way that’s substantially different from your other children?”
The Plantsim knit his brows. “Not … really, sir? I mean, all kids is different. Thorn’s himself, but … well, kids is kids, an’ he’s a kid like any other.”
“How did you and Mistress Thatcher feel when you discovered that Thorn was missing?”
“Oh, Lord, sir! It — I don’t know how ter describe it. It’s the worst feelin’. The worst feelin’ anyway. I’d — I’d rather face down a ragin’ bear than go through that again. The worst a bear’ll do is kill ye. This — with Thorn gone — an’ not knowin’ what happened ter him — knowin’ anythin’ could’ve happened to him — I can’t explain it ter nobody who don’t have kids, sir. It’s … it’s like all yer worst fears about what could happen ter yer kid, rolled up into one. An’ made worse, because suddenly ye’ve got fears ye didn’t even know he had.” The Plantsim shuddered and cradled his head in his hands.
Sir William nodded, and his eyes slid over to the jury, as if to ask, Are you getting this? Are you paying attention? Then he turned back to the Plantsim. “Master Thatcher, we’re almost done here. Just a few more questions. First, how often does Thorn see his mother?”
“Not — not often, sir,” replied the Plantsim. “She — she comes when she can, but it ain’t that often. It’s — it’s hard for folks like us ter travel, sir.”
“Do you ever bring Thorn to see her?”
“Oh, Lord, no, sir! Lyndsay won’t got near that — that place! An’ — an’ ye can’t bring kids ter a place like that!”
Christopher thought he saw Sir William smile at that. “I see. My next question is, how are you and your family doing financially?”
“Well enough, sir. We can’t complain. Got a — a roof over our heads, food on the table, clothes on our backs … can’t axe fer much more than that.”
“Were you aware, when you decided to press chargers, that, if Lady Morgause is found guilty, you and your nephew will be entitled to reparations?”
“Sir — sir, all we knowed when we decided was that that woman did somethin’ awful ter Thorn. An’ if we didn’t do somethin’ — well, she might do it again ter Thorn, or to some other kid. We couldn’t have that.”
Sir William nodded. “I see. Thank you, Master Thatcher, that will be all from me. Your witness, Sir Mordred.”
Sir Mordred didn’t answer at first. Then he grunted. “No questions.”
“Then, Master Thatcher,” said Lord Pellinore, “you are free to go, and Sir William, you may call your next witness.”
“Thank you, sir. For my next witness, I call Thorn Michaelson to the stand.”