A spell flung the door open before him without Mordred even bothering to knock. And why should he knock? He had every right to be here, did he not? His wife was here. His children were here. He was practically family, wasn’t he? And he did not mean anybody here any harm.
Family. The thought made him want to spit. With in-laws like this — to say nothing of his blood relatives, all of which had abandoned him and his mother — who needed enemies? Except, of course, he would soon have those as well, if he did not already. Sir Bors, as Albion’s self-appointed guardian of morality and propriety, would probably abandon any pretense at civility soon, if he hadn’t already. As for the du Lacs … if they wanted to pretend that there was no hard feelings when the daughter-in-law helped to trap his mother, the heir prosecuted her, and the head of the household voted her guilty, they would soon be disabused. The fact that Jessica was his cousin was just the icing on the cake of the betrayal.
And speaking of traitors … “Lamorak,” Mordred greeted in tones even more clipped than usual. “Allow me to guess. I am still not to be allowed to speak to my own wife alone?”
Lamorak sighed. “Mordred …”
“You and I were friends, once, were we not?” Mordred mused. “I never experienced many qualms leaving you alone with my sister — and she an innocent maiden, too, nobody’s own wedded wife.”
“I hope we’re friends still,” was all Lamorak would reply.
Mordred leveled what could only be called a glare at him. If that is what you think–
“Look, I had nothing to do with — with what’s happened with your mother,” Lamorak tried to argue. “I tried my best to stay out of it! But — but, Mordred, you can’t go isolating yourself from everybody who had anything to do with what happened to her. You’ll only succeed in isolating yourself.”
That was, unfortunately, rather true. The other noble families were already ranged against him — of the higher merchant families, Richard Ferreira had read out the verdict against Mordred’s mother, and Mark Wesleyan was nobody in politics. His son, despite his good marriage, had seemed to be going the same way even before his wife had died. Still, it would do him no good to admit that.
He sighed. “Frankly, Lamorak, I was just reflecting on the fact that, considering my impressive stable of so-called friends, I have no need for enemies.”
“But it doesn’t have to be that way! Mordred, we all know that you had nothing to do with what your mother did. Of course you defended her, because she’s your mother –”
“I defended her,” Mordred snapped, “because she is innocent of the charges against her.”
Lamorak stared at him. “Er …” Mordred could read the thoughts flashing across his former friend’s face: You don’t actually believe that? Well, of course you would believe that … You surely don’t believe that?
As if the woman who had raised him so well could possibly have committed such an atrocity against a child! She had not even protested her innocence to him — that was how certain she was that he knew the truth of the matter.
“That being said,” Mordred snarled, “you, who call yourself my friend, can surely understand how it is that I might … dislike those who conspired to throw her into the straits she is now in?”
“But Mordred … nobody conspired against her. Why would we?”
Why would they? Why would they? Only a truly dull wit, like Lamorak, could even think to ask such a foolish question! There were dozens of reasons why the other families might conspire against Morgause! Hundreds! Thousands! So many that it was no wonder they all crowded into Mordred’s mind — or at least they must have been crowding — so that he could not coherently name a single one!
Or, perhaps he could find one: the root one, the one from which all the others sprung. “She is the sister of the King and a powerful sorceress! Such a woman would attract enemies and ill-wishers the way — the way horse shit attracts flies!”
… That was probably not the best metaphor to use …
Lamorak blinked, taken aback. “But –”
“Lady Morgan is the King’s sister, and a powerful sorceress — and except for your mother, I don’t think she has any enemies.”
“Oh, for the love of Wright! She has no real power! She’s been washed up, useless, ever since she married that zombie!”
Lamorak knit his brows together. “Er … how much power did your mother have, before …?”
“She is the King’s sister!”
“But she never seemed to display much … interest in politics.”
That stung, probably because it was truthful. “What would you know of the matter?” he snapped. “How well do you know her?”
Lamorak reddened, and stammered, and stared at his boots as they scuffed the stone flooring.
“After all,” Mordred snarled, “I cannot imagine that constantly chasing my sister gave you much time to sit down and get to know any other members of the family on a personal level.”
“Something — something like that.”
Something very like a smile crept over Mordred’s lips. “Thank you. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to speak to my wife. Alone.”
Lamorak shook his head. “No. Mordred, I’m sorry. I can’t let you do that.”
“You cannot?” Mordred snarled.
Lamorak squared his shoulders. “Aye.”
“Not will not?”
“Does it make a difference?”
“Not, ‘My father has me on so short a leash that I dare not’?”
Lamorak winced, and the corner of Mordred’s lip quirked up. So there was a shot that struck home. He leaned his shoulders back and hooked his thumbs in his belt.
Lamorak, however, looked up, and Mordred saw something … unfamiliar staring out at him from the younger knight’s eyes. “Mordred, you’re in a foul temper right now, and you’ve been in a foul temper for months. I wouldn’t trust you with your sister right now, let alone mine.”
Mordred’s eyes bulged. “You did not,” he snarled, “just say that aloud.”
Lamorak gulped but held his gaze.
A rushing sound filled his ears — his heart, beating out of control. Mordred’s hands longed to clench themselves into fists, but if they did — what then would happen? Would he strike the young man? Would he shake his wand from his sleeve and do something to land himself in gaol — or worse — with his mother? Mordred did not know. And that, he thought, knocked him more off balance than anything he said said had knocked Lamorak off balance.
There was only one way to deal with that — try to regain the upper hand, in his own mind if nowhere else. “Lamorak, listen to us,” he sighed, trying to sound calm if he could not feel calm. “We’re arguing like children. Please, just tell me where Dindrane is. If you would like to accompany –”
“I’m right here.”
Mordred glanced through the open archway to see that, yes, indeed, there she was.
“If you had bothered to look,” Dindrane added, “you might have noticed earlier.”
Her words were barbed and meant to draw blood. Mordred’s armor, however, was by this point more than proof against such sharpness. It did not escape him, however, that Lamorak winced. Well, the younger knight had always been laughably thin-skinned.
“So I see. My apologies, my dear,” Mordred replied. He swept past Lamorak before the other could recover from his drubbing. Mordred heard Lamorak’s hobnailed boots ringing against the flagstones as he tried to catch up.
Mordred, however, was quick for his size, especially when he had a goal in mind. His goal was simple: the seat next to Dindrane. “Madam? May I?” His stiff back dared Lamorak to protest.
Lamorak did not dare — but he did wait.
“Of course. My lord,” Dindrane replied. Mordred sat, and so did Lamorak.
Mordred’s gaze went immediately to Dindrane’s swelling stomach. “How does the babe?”
For once, Dindrane’s typical reticence agreed with him. “I hope you are not stinting — or asking your father to assist you — in caring for yourself and your child. Should you need any assistance from the midwife, only send word to my steward and all shall be taken care of.”
“Thank you,” Dindrane replied, as if what he had just said was something that deserved thanks — was it not his duty to be sure that child he had fathered was well cared for? Whatever he might think of the mother … and whatever else he may be, whatever other traits lurked underneath the surface he had always thought was so smooth and urbane, he was not a monster.
Nobody would ever have cause to call him a monster.
But now he had seen to his duty, he could move into the true purpose of his visit. “When are you planning to return home?”
There were a dozen answers riddling, enigmatic Dindrane could have given for that question. Thus, her taking the direct route, with a set of raised eyebrows and a querying voice, was somewhat unnerving. “You wish me to?”
Well, not particularly, but … “It would be a travesty if the child was not born in the house of his father, would it not be?”
“The babe will not be born until after the new year,” Dindrane shrugged. “We need not discuss it until then.”
And what is that to mean? wondered Mordred — or he tried to wonder, at any rate. The knot in his stomach told him that he knew quite well what Dindrane meant. She intended, apparently, to stand by what she had said at the trial.
“I see. You know …” He hesitated, then went for it. “I daily expect to hear word from the King that my mother’s sentence has been commuted — or her crimes pardoned entirely. So my mother should be able to welcome her newest grandchild into the world.” At least — his constant petitions had to bear some fruit! Arthur was not a cruel man. Surely he did not want to send his own sister to the block — and surely with enough pressure, he would bend.
Would he not?
“Pardoned?” asked Dindrane. Her arched eyebrow said far more than her single word, or even the mildly questioning tone.
… No, a pardon would surely be too much to expect. Arthur was not cruel, but he did have queer ideas about justice and fairness. Morgause had, however unfortunately, been found guilty in a court of law. The best he could hope for was imprisonment, or, pray Wright, exile.
“The least I expect is a commutation,” Mordred replied, shrugging. No use letting her know how slim his hopes truly were.
As he spoke, Mordred watched Dindrane’s face for signs of her thoughts, but it was as carefully blank as ever. Lamorak starting, though Mordred only saw it out of the corner of his eye, attracted far more attention than his wife’s expression.
And when Dindrane replied, it was, as ever, brief and not terribly informative. “How unfortunate.”
“Forgive me,” Dindrane answered. “I do not mean to sound callous — I merely allowed myself to think, for a moment, that you actually wished me to return.”
“You believe that I do not? Whatever led you to think that?”
“The fact that you relayed the news of your mother’s possible pardon as if it were good news, news to be wished for,” Dindrane shrugged. “Yet you surely remember that I said, under oath, that I will not return to your house until Lady Morgause is no more.”
“I doubt anybody would prosecute you for perjury for breaking that particular word.”
“Perjury would be the least of my problems, were I to return to your house with Lady Morgause in it.”
“Your home,” Dindrane replied.
Mordred’s jaw tightened. “We have been married almost five years,” he growled. “Surely, at this point, it is your home as well? And our children’s home?”
“It will not be their home, or mine, so long as your mother is in it, or could possibly enter into it.”
Mordred forced himself to breathe. He wished that for once, just once, she would yell or shout at him — anything other than this damnable calmness. “Do you think you could truly keep the children with you, if it came to that?”
“Because I am their mother,” Dindrane answered, “and I would not be a very good one if I let them part from me while there was still breath in my body.”
“You think I would allow my own children to come to harm?” Mordred snapped.
Dindrane smiled slightly. “So you admit that the possibility exists.”
“I admit no such thing!” Mordred yelled, jumping to his feet. “My mother would never harm our children! Wright almighty! What sort of monster do you take her for? Despite your delusions –“
“My delusions?” Dindrane gasped — finally, a rise from her! “I am not the one deluded, sir!”
“Forgive me, madam,” Mordred simpered, “I merely thought the term more polite than lies.”
Two spots of pink appeared on Dindrane’s cheeks. Intriguing — he had never seen them before. “I do not know which is more pathetic,” Dindrane panted, “that you might actually believe that — or that you would rather claim to believe that than that your mother may actually be less than perfect.”
“Less than perfect? Good Lord! I know my mother is far from perfect! I also know that she is no murderess — or attempted murderess! But since you persist in so believing, clearly, this conversation can go nowhere. Good day, madam!” Mordred turned on his heel, ready to leave –“
“Wright damn it, Mordred!” came the sudden shriek — a shriek such as he had never heard before. “Get back here and listen to me!”
Two rises from her — and the second one quite difficult, since she had actually, huge girth and all, risen to her feet to protest! Both in a single day! Mordred turned back with a gloat, certain this was some kind of record —
And then she spoke, and all thoughts of gloating fled.
“Your mother is a monster! And if you are the only man in the kingdom who cannot see that, then it is only a matter of time before you are just like her!”
Mordred spun around. “Say that again,” he snarled.
“Your mother is a monster,” Dindrane replied, heedless of her own danger. Her nostrils flared like those of a bull about to charge.
He would step forward. He would grab her — and he would shake her. Shake her until her bones broke under his hands and her brains splattered in her skull and the blood came pouring out of every orifice —
But the baby —
Mordred stayed still.
“And you,” Dindrane repeated, stepping forward to him, “will be just like her, unless you wake up and see that she is evil!”
“She is not –” Mordred started, his hand rising —
“Mordred!” Lamorak yelped.
He did not strike her. Not this time. Blue fire blazed in Dindrane’s eyes, and her cheeks grew as red as if he had slapped her.
“Do you think you frighten me?” she snarled. “You and your hands — and your wand, and all your magic? If it weren’t for Nimue and Gawaine, I would tell you to kill me now and be done with it. Then you could finally marry your little mistress, like you always wanted to, and kill her too, when she finally did something to upset you.”
“Dindrane!” Lamorak gasped, jumping to his feet.
“Lamorak, sit down — this is not your affair!” Dindrane snapped.
As for Mordred … as for Mordred … the rushing in his ears clogged his very thoughts. Kill Rosette? His only darling Rosette? He would rather perish than harm a hair on her sweet head — if it had not been for the baby, he might have complied with Dindrane’s goading wish.
Was that all she was doing? Goading him?
At that thought, the rage rushed out of him, though plenty of anger remained. If all she was doing was goading him and trusting her belly to save her from his fury, well, that was different. If she did not mean anything of what she said, if she was, perhaps, trying to get him to strike her, in full view of her brother, and so have some evidence to keep the children away from him … well, he could hardly then let her win, could he?
“Kill you now? What sort of man do you take me for?” he asked as laconically as he could, to show her that her foolish strategy would avail her naught. “If ever such a barbaric thought had crossed my mind — which I assure you, it has not — why, why should I do it now, and destroy my child with you as well?”
“If such a barbaric thought truly has not crossed your mind,” Dindrane answered, so quietly Lamorak may not have been able to hear, “then there is still hope for you yet.”
Still hope for me? He almost had to credit Dindrane’s acting abilities. Truly, he never would have thought she had it in her to say that with a straight face — never mind a voice so low and faux-sincere! “Are you mad, or are you that desperate to get out of this marriage?” Mordred half-snapped, half-laughed. “Hope? What the hell do you even mean by that?”
“You’re her son.”
“Aye, and so is Agravaine! And Garnet is her daughter! I do not see you claiming that they are liable to snap and kill someone at any moment!”
“Snap? Oh, no, Mordred. You — and your mother — you don’t snap. You plan it out. You watch for your moment. And then — you spring.”
“You’re mad!” Mordred laughed. Really, it was too absurd! Was this the image she had in her head of him — of them? They sounded like some sort of animal, not Sims! Spring? Truly, spring?
“I am not mad!” Dindrane shouted. “That woman is a murderess! And you are just like her!”
“Now, even your father did not accuse her of true murder!” Mordred snarled. “Attempted murder was the worst even he would dare to say!”
“A — a — technicality!” Dindrane howled.
“Mordred,” Lamorak called. “Leave — leave her be — this can’t be good for –“
“Lamorak, enough!” Dindrane yelled, saving Mordred the trouble. She turned back to him, the blue fires blazing in her eyes. “She would have killed that boy — her potions would have killed that boy — if — if Betsy hadn’t –“
“Hadn’t rubbed the boy’s limbs?” Mordred laughed as he always laughed these days, mirthlessly. “My dear, surely you know that of all that madcap story you concocted, that was the least believable part?”
“I did not concoct that story! And well you know it!”
“Oh, for the love of –“
“Would you bring her children near your mother?” Dindrane snarled.
“Your illegitimate children — who have some blood in them that isn’t perfectly normal — your children who some might say are not so different from Thorn?”
Mordred forced himself to continue to breathe. He rammed thoughts, one after another, through his cottony mind. The strongest of them was the urgent need not to grasp his wand and curse her into atoms.
“Clearly, madam,” Mordred breathed, “we have nothing more to say to each other. I am sorry for wasting your time. Good day.”
And out he stormed.