It never failed to amaze Arthur how his sister managed to live in such isolation, yet have such a well-worn road lead to her home. Morgan did live in isolation, didn’t she? Oh, Arthur knew that she had frequent visitors — Garnet before all of this had blown up, and Jessie until she had grown too big around the middle to safely fly — but witches on their broomsticks did not create such well-worn ruts in the grassy paths.
But then again, who was to say that Arthur knew which way was up anymore, especially after this mad year?
“Penny for your thoughts, Your Majesty?” asked an oddly echoing voice at his elbow. It was all Arthur could do to avoid jumping.
“You …” A pause. “Is it not customary, Your Majesty, for there to be conversation on long rides like these?”
Damn it all, he was doing it again — ignoring Ambrosius, treating him as if he was no more than the metal that formed his parts. But hadn’t he asked Ambrosius to accompany on this trip precisely so he wouldn’t have to talk? Any other guard would have demanded some conversation, if only from Arthur’s sense of duty. But Ambrosius …
He sighed. “Aye, sometimes it is. But today, I … I know not how to answer you, Ambrosius. Today my thoughts scatter in so many directions, it would take more than a penny to convince me to hunt them down.”
“It is just as well,” replied Ambrosius as he always did — levelly. “I have no money on me, anyway.”
Arthur glanced over his shoulder, but the servo’s face was as impassive as ever. If Ambrosius ever learned sarcasm, Arthur decided, they would all be doomed. Even without sarcasm, he seemed to manage Arthur’s guilt well enough. “Well, what think you of Baby Elise, Ambrosius?”
“It is customary,” Arthur said in the most jovial tone he could manage at the moment, all things considered, “for friends and family of new grandparents to praise the new grand-progeny as often and as thoroughly as seems appropriate.”
“Ah! She is …”
Arthur turned around with raised eyebrows only just preserved from waggling. Lord, if a bit of teasing didn’t do him good. “She is?”
“I’m sorry, Majesty. She seems much like a Sim baby to me.” Ambrosius could not regulate his tone as Sims could, but he could bow his shoulders and head and thus look the picture of abject shame. He hesitated, then added, “Though perhaps, not quite as loud as Prince Kay.”
Arthur barked out a laugh. “Lord! Do you know, you’re the first ma–one to say that in my hearing?”
“Aye — not that there isn’t justice in what you say. Babies are a lot alike. It’s only if they’re yours — or the next best thing to yours — that you start to notice differences between them.” Arthur paused and thought the matter over. “If anything, Elise seems to me what Lynn might have been as a baby, if I’d been paying attention to her at the time.”
“You were not, Majesty? But were you and Sir Bors not friends?”
“Oh, aye — even back then, we were. But …” Arthur paused. “It’s not much for men, you know, to go goggle-eyed over babies — at least, the ones who aren’t theirs.”
“Or the next best thing to it?”
“Aye, or the next best thing. And of course, I had two lovely little babies at my own at home to goggle over. So I hadn’t the time or energy for too many other babies. I’d look at them all in the nursery, remark on how sweet they looked together, and then go back down for port in the hall.”
No, Arthur thought, you don’t. And I’m damned if I quite see what was so important about port in the great hall now, either. But Apple Keep was riding up into view, and Arthur spurred Passelande closer to it.
They dismounted and ground-tied the horses without a word, Arthur fishing a carrot out of his pocket to keep Passelande happy while he waited. As for Ambrosius’s nondescript brown horse, he meandered over to the side of the road and began to crop the grass. Poor Ambrosius didn’t seem to have much luck with keeping the affection of his mounts when he wasn’t on them.
“My lord? If I may ask a question?”
“You may ask any question, Ambrosius.” I just have no guarantee that I’ll answer.
“What is the purpose of this visit?”
“Ah! The purpose! The purpose …” He hesitated. “The purpose is to visit my esteemed sister.”
Ambrosius did not reply to that. His silence, however, was distinctly inviting of confidences. However, Arthur was not sure that was the sense in which Ambrosius meant his silence. Sometimes, he wasn’t sure that Ambrosius knew how he meant his silences.
But he would not confide the rumors he had heard to Ambrosius, not now, when they may not be —
“Does this have to do with Lady Morgause, sir?”
Arthur froze, as he always did when he heard his … un-esteemed sister’s name.
Arthur sighed. “No,” he said. “No, it is not.” And he had just gone a good five minutes without thinking about her, too, until Ambrosius ruined it.
No, not ruined it … but damn it, Arthur’s decision had already been made, did he have to keep revisiting it? Did he have to keep seeing Morgause’s face, back when they were both young — children still — rising up to haunt his dreams at night? Did he have to keep telling her son, desperate to save her, no and no and no, and beg the Emryses to keep an eye on him, and keep Arthur from having to execute his nephew as well as his sister? To beg was one thing — but if Mordred finally were to understand that saving his mother was impossible … and still keep his desperation, and to act in spite of the law instead of in concordance with it …
Damn it all, Morgause had made her own bed! And Arthur had given her fair warning! Any more deaths — any more trouble — and he would show no mercy. Could show no mercy. Didn’t she know that Albion was poised between two sleeping giants and a vicious goblin? If the goblin woke the giants —
They passed under the bridge of one of the exterior walkways, and a sharp bark woke Arthur from his reverie.
“Why, hello, little fella,” Arthur murmured as the black-and-white dog came trotting out from between the shadows. He knelt to give the dog a scratch behind the ears, to which the dog responded by barking enthusiastically. “Morgan never mentioned getting a dog.”
“It looks like one of Lord Pellinore’s get,” Ambrosius remarked. Arthur barely had a moment to freeze before Ambrosius added, “Er — that is, the get of his dogs.”
“Ah! Hmm.” Pellinore — actually, Eilwen — had mentioned to Alison inviting the le Fays and Ravenna for a dinner party shortly after Morgause’s arrest. Perhaps this dog was something on the order of a thank-you gift for all of Morgan’s help with Morgause, and for caring for young Thorn? But it would be odd that Morgan or Accolon wouldn’t mention the dog. Accolon was awfully fond of living things for one undead …
Then again, considering the other thing neither Morgan Accolon had mentioned …
Arthur gave the dog a last pat and rose up as quickly as his creaky knees could allow. “Ambrosius, do me a favor and make friends with the dog — I’m going to go see my sister.”
Arthur did not wait for Ambrosius’s assent before he strode off to the door to the library, which was where Morgan was generally to be found if she wasn’t in her workroom. He knocked on the outer door and was rewarded by Morgan’s voice calling, “Door’s open!”
In Arthur strode.
And stopped. For what happened next … he blamed the stress of the last months. If his every last nerve had not been frayed practically to snapping, he was sure he would have been more circumspect, more politic.
For what he said next was neither: “Oh, good Lord!”
Morgan and Accolon barely had time to put their books down slightly and stare at him before Arthur exploded, “And two of them! Woman, I just got through sorting the problems of one sister! Wright Almighty! Why must you go and toss another set of them on me?”
“Hey!” Accolon growled, but it was Morgan’s swift rising — tossing her precious book to clatter onto the bench and then fall to the floor! — that silenced Arthur, for the moment.
“I would be very, very careful what you say next,” Morgan told him in a voice just shy of a growl — she! Growling at him! — “for they are listening always, and have even more cause to be listening here — don’t you think?”
Don’t I think? Didn’t he — think? “And so that’s a brilliant reason to have — to have — to have two of the Gentry’s children in your own home? When so many of the problems of the kingdom seem to coalesce here to begin with?”
“Well, better that they be well-cared for than the alternative, no?” Morgan shrugged.
“Well-cared for?” Arthur snapped. “Is that any reason to go out — to go out dancing with the Gentry?”
“Danc–I didn’t go out dancing with the Gentry!” Morgan gasped.
She hadn’t? But Arthur could have sworn … “You wanted to!”
“When you’re eighteen and bored and powerful, you want all sorts of stupid things!” Morgan snapped.
“Not when you were eighteen — when you — when you took that stupid name — now! In the past few years! Because …” He waved toward Accolon vaguely. “Because!”
Morgan did not even have the grace to look embarrassed or piqued that he had found out her secret. But she had to have wanted it, didn’t she? He knew damn well that she and Accolon had wanted more children, and this seemed like the best way to get some — it didn’t involve Morgan laying with another man, for one, and the Church wasn’t likely to take fae babies away from a zombie and a witch, however hesitant they might be to give normal Sim babies to a zombie and a witch. Instead, she raised one eyebrow at him.
“The wise,” she replied, “do not seek the Gentry. They allow the Gentry to come to them.” She waved to the babies. “As these have.”
“What, you expect me to believe that the Gentry just rode up to your doorstep on their moon-white horses and said, ‘Here, raise these babies for us’?”
“No — but their human parent did …” Morgan hesitated. “Did come to us, you might say.”
Human parent? Arthur rattled his brains for any women who had seemed to be pregnant recently but who had not brought a baby to term, or had brought a “dead” baby to term. “And who would that be?”
“You don’t want to know,” Morgan replied.
“Don’t want to know? I am the King! I need to know!”
“No. What you need is to have plausible deniability , if anyone should find out who … carried our little angels.”
So many things crowded into Arthur’s mind that he scarcely knew which one to pick first. Angels?!? warred with Who are you to tell me what I need?! battled with Carried? dueled with Who the hell would believe that I didn’t know the mother of the fae babies my own sister was caring for?
But what won out was the thought of the King seeing a possible problem on the horizon. “Oh, fu–” He stopped, though he wasn’t sure for which set of ears. Morgan had certainly heard the word before, Accolon wouldn’t care, and the babes were too young to understand, even if they were … listening.
“Yes, precisely,” Morgan replied.
“Nobody’s going to believe I didn’t know!”
“They will if they’ve met Morgan!” Accolon chortled.
“Will they have met you?” Arthur challenged her.
“Most likely. Before it’s all over, certainly.”
“What the hell have you gotten me into?”
“Nothing!” Morgan snapped. “Accolon and I gave two children — children, Arthur, just like your own when they were babies! — a home and love and everything we can when they desperately needed it! Would you rather we dropped these babies at the orphanage door?”
“Aye!” Arthur snapped, although he knew it was a mistake as soon as it was out. “You know how close an eye they’ve been keeping on us, with — with everything! Let them deal with this problem!”
“And bring the wrath of the Gentry down on all our heads?”
“Bring it down on the Church’s head, you mean!” The Church, Arthur thought, could use a visit from the Gentry. It — or at least those portions of it against which Arthur could not help but rebel against, like that odious Brother Lodwicke who had spoken at Morgause’s trial — could perhaps use a reminder that there were more things in heaven and earth than were dreamt of in its philosophy.
But then again, perhaps he was still angry at the way the Church had treated his mother — the way her convent education had stifled all the magic within her, the way her early marriage had almost starved it out of her. He saw how Morgan, how his baby Jessie thrived upon their magic. Some might argue that Igraine had turned out well enough without magic — Arthur always thought she could have been even more amazing with it than she was without it. He would not forgive the Church for treating his sweet and caring mother so, or for burning thousands of innocents in the name of misguided sanctity. That was why he had rebelled against it so radically when he declared his land a safe haven for witches and wizards.
“On sweet Sister Margery’s head, and all her little orphan babies’ heads?” Morgan asked.
And damn it, there was the rub. It was always the innocents who were first in the line of fire, wasn’t it?
Before Arthur managed a perfunctory protest that the Gentry liked babies — and hopefully not to eat, as some of the peasants claimed — Morgan added, “And before it was the Gentry, it would be the riots, you know. The Church aren’t the only ones who don’t like the Gentry.”
“And you can handle riots?” asked Arthur peevishly.
For an answer, Morgan sent a trail of blue sparks flying from her hand.
… She probably can handle riots.
Arthur took a deep breath. “And just when,” he snarled, “were you going to tell me about your latest … acquisition?”
“After –” Accolon started, and stopped.
“After the new year,” Morgan murmured.
“You mean after Morgause is dead.”
Arthur sighed and hung his head. “Damn it, Morgan. Why? Why not just tell me as soon as you … had them?”
“You have enough on your plate.”
“It’s on my plate whether you tell me or not!” Arthur exploded. “I’d like to know if I’ve been served an extra helping of — of — toil and trouble before I bite right into it!”
“We figured the toil and trouble you knew about would keep you well occupied until after the new year,” Accolon answered ruefully.
“Well, it hasn’t! Obviously!”
Morgan narrowed her eyes at him. “She’s not worth it, you know.”
“Who do you think?”
Arthur closed his eyes. “Damn it all … don’t start with me on that.”
“She would have killed you that night if she still had her powers.”
“She would have killed your daughter, too, given half the chance.”
“And then gone after my sons as well, too?” snarled Arthur.
“Possibly — if she thought they would be a threat to her.”
“So you need feel no guilt for destroying her. Arthur, would you feel guilt for destroying a rabid dog?”
“She’s my sister!” Arthur recoiled. “No dog! My sister! Just because the two of you hate each other –”
“With excellent reason!” Accolon pointed out.
“Don’t you start! Morgan! She is still my sister! What kind of man — what kind of King would I be if I did not — did not …”
“There is normal guilt, and natural,” Morgan replied. “You are letting this tear you apart inside, are you not? I’m telling you, Arthur: she’s not worth it.”
“She wouldn’t feel it for you. For me. For anyone who stood in the way of whatever twisted goal she had in mind. You’re trying to protect your whole kingdom from hell. What’s the life of one woman, even your own sister, to that?”
“Considering the messes you get in, I’d be careful about taking that line of reasoning,” Arthur grumbled.
“In all my messes,” Morgan pointed out with her damnable, inexorable logic, “who, other than my own self and perhaps Accolon and — regrettably — Ravenna, have I put at risk?”
Arthur sighed. “Morgan … don’t.”
He heard wood creak — then other wood creak — then the slow, shambling gait that was Accolon’s walk. “Here,” Accolon said, holding something about before him, “hold Chloe for a bit. I find it helps me when I’m feeling down.”
Arthur yelped and jumped away.
“Are you mad?”
“What? Don’t tell me you’ve forgotten how?” Accolon replied, putting the baby on his shoulder far too effortlessly for a man whose muscles were only tenuously attached to the bone. “You’d better remember. Baby Elise needs one sane grandpapa to spoil her rotten!”
Arthur almost smiled. If that had been all that was on his mind … his grandbaby, his radiantly happy son and daughter-in-law, he would have smiled.
As it was, he sighed and shuffled over to the bench. “Don’t start, please.”
He could feel them hovering over him, two would-be doctors at the patient’s bedside. He let them hover.
“He has a point,” Morgan murmured. “It’s been a hell of a year for him. First the weddings, then Lot, then Morgause, then Elise, then more Morgause –”
“Shut up. I’m not one of your patients.”
Most women would gasp and faint at being told to shut up by their king, lord and brother. Morgan chuckled. “If you need someone to talk to, the door is always open.”
“Oh, hell no. You already tell me just what I’m doing wrong even when I don’t solicit it. Wright help me if I did!”
“You should talk to somebody.”
“It is the duty of the King to bear the problems of the kingdom on his shoulders. If he cannot do that … well, he is not much of a king, is he?”
“You’re still a man under that crown, Arthur.”
Yes. He knew that. Much as he tried to forget it, some days.
He looked up at the baby. “So … Chloe?”
“The other one’s Pascal,” Accolon offered in response to the unspoken question. “Boy and a girl. Twins! Just like yours!”
“Pascal?” Arthur asked Morgan.
Morgan surveyed her nails. “Brother Tuck will be pretty well muzzled regarding these two if one of them is named after the very founder of his Order, won’t he?”
He didn’t want to know. Plausible deniability. That was what Morgan was trying to tell him.
Arthur rose, and Accolon held Chloe out to him. “I don’t think so,” Arthur demurred, waving to the baby. “Babies and chain maille don’t mix. Especially not … Gentry babies.”
Accolon yelped and looked at Chloe. “She doesn’t look uncomfortable!”
“Then she probably isn’t,” Morgan calmed him, tickling Chloe under the chin. “But best not to take more chances.”
Arthur glanced sidelong at her. “I suppose I shan’t get any farther with you?”
“No,” Morgan replied, honestly, at least. That was but one thing Morgan had over Morgause — honesty. Morgause, she still hadn’t admitted what she did. If she had … well, if she had, Arthur would feel less guilty about it. And Morgause probably knew it.
“Arthur …” Morgan looked up at him, then enveloped him in a hug. “I mean it. If you need someone to talk to, I’m here. I won’t even tell you everything you did wrong.”
“I’ll leave that to your wife.”
Arthur managed a laugh, if only because it would make Morgan feel better. The sad thing was, Alison hadn’t been bringing up his myriad faults and failings lately. She was nothing if not tactful. That worried Arthur more than anything else.
Morgan must have heard it, for she pulled back from him and surveyed him with narrowed eyes. He thought he saw the light of a decision spark there. He looked away before it could become his problem.
“Peace be with you two. And your two new babies,” Arthur said.
“Aye. And you come by any time, now!” Accolon called after him. “And bring the Queen! And Tommy! And Princess Gwendolyn and Baby Elise!” Accolon cuddled Chloe. “She ought to meet her best friend and her first suitor soon, you know.”
“Oh, bother. Don’t say that in front of her father,” Arthur rolled his eyes. “But I shall take the two of you up on that offer … soon. When things calm. I promise.”
“I shall hold you to that, Arthur,” was Morgan’s only reply.
Out he walked, into the bright sunlight. “Ambrosius — Ambrosius — oh! There you are!” He walked over to Ambrosius and the dog, to see him … “Ambrosius, what are you doing?”
“You told me to make friends with the dog, Majesty.”
“Er … yes?”
“Well, is not the first step in friendship shaking hands? Although we seem to have gotten stuck on that step.” The poor dog was indeed looking at his imprisoned paw with what could only be called bafflement.
“You know, Ambrosius,” Arthur replied, “you … have an interesting way of thinking. But … I know not what I would do without it. Come. Let’s go home.”
And with any luck, I will have missed Mordred and his importunities for one blessed day.