“He will not listen to reason, Mother! I have tried every argument I can think of! But he refuses to end this — this — this farce!”
Morgause folded her hands on her lap and made herself the very picture of maternal disappointment. “Then it seems that on the morrow, I must die. Pray send –”
“No! No, that will not happen! You will not — Mother, that’s impossible!”
And that is what I’m talking about.
It would not do, however, to let him know how he had been prodded and poked into the position she wanted him in. He had exhausted every last legal possibility — sometimes three times over — well, good. Why turn your mind to the illegal when the legal would work just as well? But the time for exhausting the legal opportunities was past, long past. It was time to start looking into the illegal ones.
Unfortunately, Mordred’s queer insistence, his stubborn belief that Arthur would come around eventually had wasted a great deal of time. Morgause did not share his delusion. Arthur was weak — he would do always what he felt was right rather than what was expedient — but his weakness had veins of strength running through it. Morgause had managed to stumble right into one of those veins.
“But Mordred,” she sighed, trying to sound as resigned and close to despair (but bravely staving it off) as she could, “if none of your importunities will convince Arthur to yield, what else can I do?”
Come now, Mordred. You’re a bright boy, you truly are. Tell Mother what you’re planning.
“He will yield! He — he must yield!”
Wright damn it!
If it were her who was free to think and move and plan, and not Mordred, she would have conceived of a dozen plans for escape by now, and tried at least three or four of them. But Mordred was, unfortunately, in some ways too much his father’s son. Lot was as ambitious and coldly cunning as they came, but he had limits, standards. They usually came into play right about the place where the actual law did.
Worse, she could not even contrive of plans and feed them to Mordred, because she would lose her whole hold over him if she did. Poor boy, he seemed desperate to see his mother innocent. She knew not what in all of their acquaintance would have led him to think her incapable of the crimes of which she was accused, but all the same he seemed to think it. And he was enough of Lot’s son that he would refuse to help her if he realized she was guilty. Or at least, he would not help her in any material way. Hence this farce of innocence and resignation.
But if she could just get his thoughts to move in the right direction … “Mordred, please … if you cannot convince Arthur, what else can we do? Is it not better for me to seek spiritual solace now, and prepare myself for –”
It was almost touching, how he could not bear to hear her say “death” or “die” — but goodness, she could get more articulate responses from Agravaine! “There must be something,” Mordred continued feverishly, “something — something I could — Princess Jessica!”
“Princess Jessica?” Morgause repeated incredulously.
“Everyone knows that Arthur will do anything if she bats her eyelashes and asks nicely enough! I shall recruit her! She’s too soft-hearted to want to see her own aunt … hurt …”
Oh, Lord, where to begin? The fact that Jessica was Sir William’s wife and had been at his side every step of the trial? The fact that Jessica was Morgan’s apprentice and shadow? The fact that Jessica had helped to capture her?
“Mordred,” Morgause settled for saying, as gently as she could manage, “I don’t think asking her father to change his mind on something he has deemed a vital matter of state will garner quite the same results as asking for a pony.”
“She loves justice! Surely she will not see the justice in allowing an innocent woman to … to be punished for a crime she did not commit!”
There it was! He was getting there!
“Mordred … that seems to be my fate,” Morgause sighed. “Unless, of course, you can …”
Bust me out of here, bust me out of here! If the force of a woman’s eyes could ever drive a thought into a man’s skull, it would have at that moment. He was so close! She could almost taste it. Now if only he would take that final step, arrive at the logical conclusion, and apply his not-inconsiderable mental resources to the task at hand, she would be as good as over the border and taking steps to regain her powers.
And when she regained them, oh, what a reckoning there would be …
“I will convince him yet, Mother.” Mordred took a deep breath.
“Perhaps his … stubbornness comes from his desire to milk the situation for all it is worth, politically! Aye, aye! Would not a last-minute pardon or reprieve win him so much more praise as a merciful monarch than an immediate one?”
No, it would only make the people think he was weak. Arthur was weak, of course, but that was beside the point. Morgause sighed and bent her head. This wasn’t working — she would have to pull out all the stops. “Perhaps, Mordred, perhaps. I cannot bring myself to believe it. I fear … I fear, if that is your feeling, you had best go. Staying here will advance your cause not at all, and I truly must be composing my thoughts for the morrow.”
“Precisely what I was thinking,” replied a low rumbling voice from the corridor. “Sir Mordred, bid your mother good night. It’s time for you to go home.”
It was all Morgause could do to avoid jumping. She cursed her lack of magic. If she’d had her magic, she could have set a spell to alert her to Arthur and the wizard’s coming and figure out some other way to drive Mordred’s thoughts where she needed them to go. Then again, if she’d had her magic, she wouldn’t have been in this predicament in this first place.
Mordred, however, did not jump — instead he spun around and snarled at the King. “You plan to destroy her tomorrow, and you tell me to bid her good night?”
“You may say your goodbyes in the morning. I am not a cruel man. Now, however, you must leave. Madam, Mother Julian is below. Would you have me send her up?”
If this was to be her last night in this world — not that it would be — the last way Morgause wished to spend it was listening to Mother Julian’s attempts at spiritual solace. But she couldn’t say that in front of Mordred — at least, not now. A year ago, she could have said it and Mordred would have laughed.
Morgause closed her eyes and let her head fall against the high back of the chair, as if she was too tired and weakened by her trials to hold it up. “No-o,” she said, slowly. “No. Mother Julian has been …” a world-class bore and thorn in my side, “… most helpful, but I must face this alone.”
“Mother!” Mordred called in a strangled voice, before he shot a glance at Arthur that probably would have gotten him convicted of treason in Glasonland.
Slowly, she stood, allowing her arms to shake, looking for all the world like a frail woman grown old before her time. “Fare thee well, my son,” she said, embracing him and kissing his cheek. “May Wright go with you in whatever you do.”
“You will see me in the morning,” Mordred replied. “And for many days afterward, I trust.” He tried to glare at Arthur, but Arthur had turned to the Emrys man. Perhaps he could not trust himself to maintain his expression if he had to watch them. Morgause could only wish it was because he was trying to hold back tears or guilt.
“Then au revoir, as the Gaulish say.” She kissed him one last time, and made a faint shooing motion to get him out the door. It would be best if she were to be seen cooperating.
The wizard waved his hand and the door creaked open. Morgause stood still, knowing damn well that if she tried to run out beside Mordred, the way would be blocked to her. Besides, where would she go but right into a guard’s arms? Arthur was not entirely stupid.
Arthur nodded once to her and started down the steps. “Come, Mordred,” he said, and Mordred, after one beseeching glance at her, followed.
Only Merlin hesitated. “Madam, you will not see him before tomorrow — I intend to make certain of that.”
Morgause closed her eyes and curtseyed, even as she decided that, if she had one last spell to wield, she would use it to turn that infernal commoner into a pile of dust and hang the consequences.
Once the tramp of boots had well faded, and once she could be reasonably certain that she would not again be interrupted, she walked to the chest of drawers on the far wall. She had a great deal of thinking to do ere the dawn — especially ere noon, the hour that had been selected as the hour of her execution — and she might as well slip into something more comfortable as she did it.
However, she scarcely had time to change her dress, re-do her hair, and put her clothing safely away before the reflection of golden light made her stop short and spin around.
“The wards,” Morgan said by way of greeting, “are quite a masterwork, I see. They go berserk at the first sense of dark magic. But they’ll let in almost any user of the light.”
“Or any user of the light who helped to design them?” Morgause snarled.
“Perhaps that as well.”
Morgause put her hands on her hips and tilted her head up. “So. Come to gloat, dearest sister? Come to celebrate your final triumph?” She sighed, the persona of the injured, resigned, waiting martyr-to-be coming to the fore all too easily …
“Save it from someone who’ll believe it,” Morgan said dismissively, sauntering up to her. “And for what it’s worth, I’m not here to gloat.”
“Hmmph! I shall believe that when I see some proof of it.”
“Why would I gloat, Morgause? You’re getting what you wanted, you know. You’ll never grow old and faded and wrinkly. You’ll leave a beautiful corpse behind — a headless one, but a beautiful one. Wasn’t that the point of the whole exercise?”
“The point, Morgan, was not dying.”
Morgan put her hands on her hips, leaned back and surveyed Morgause with eyes critically half-lidded and nostrils flaring. “If you believe that, you’re even more foolish than I imagined.”
“You had to know it would end violently, Morgause. You can’t have thought it would last forever.”
It couldn’t have lasted forever? No — perhaps it could not have. Sooner or later, she would have found a less chancy method of achieving immortality. Or she would have ended violently, as Morgan had predicted. But she would have gotten some enjoyment, first!
And it would not end so humiliatingly … there was no shame in falling to a worthy opponent, not for a witch. (Then again, Morgause had yet to meet a worth opponent, so there was also that to consider.) But to die on the scaffold, a common criminal? What kind of end was that for a self-respecting witch of Morgause’s power?
“Perhaps not forever — but surely long enough! I would have been something, Morgan. A creature of myth! Of legend! Of –”
“Nightmare,” Morgan finished flatly.
“Only to some, dearest sister, only to some.”
“Never to me.”
Morgause sneered. “What made you think I was talking about you? Really, you must learn to not be so self-centered. The world does not have you as its center, you know,” Morgause sniffed. “Besides — the world may yet still know me to be all that I truly am. I am not, after all, dead yet.”
“But by five minutes after noon tomorrow, you will be.”
“I should not be so sure. Even now, I know, Mordred is –”
“He isn’t,” Morgan interrupted. “He isn’t feverishly working a way out for you, he isn’t tunneling under the tower, he isn’t arranging a ship to take you to Glasonland or Reme. Face it, Morgause — you’ve lost.”
“You sound so sure. But you do not know my boy!”
“Yes, Morgause, I do. You and Lot did one thing right between you when raising that boy — he won’t break the law. If he broke the law to get you out of here, he’d have to believe you were guilty. And he won’t do that.”
“Believe I was guilty? My dear, don’t you know that it would be far, far more just to help an innocent person escape unjust punishment than to stand by and do nothing and let the ax fall where it may?”
“But Mordred’s been raised under Arthur’s justice. He won’t believe that Arthur would execute an innocent woman — not until it happens, anyway. Or until he thinks it’s happened. And by then, it’ll be too late for you.”
“It won’t get to that point. Trust me. Trust my boy.”
“Oh, for Wright’s –” Morgan snarled. “He won’t –”
She paused. “You know what, though? You’re right. At least, I think you’re right. But not because of anything Mordred might or might not do.”
Without a further word, Morgan turned and walked to the desk.
“But it would be because of something I did.”
She put something on the table that clinked, then turned around — her body carefully hiding the clinking object from view — and stared Morgause down, daring her to come and look.
It was only a matter of time before curiosity got the better of her. Both Morgan and Morgause knew that. And both Morgan and Morgause knew, too, that when Morgause came, it would be with her head in the air and her stride slow and measured, not displaying one unessential bit of that same curiosity.
What Morgan had put on the table was nothing more than a black and purple enamel bottle.
“Go ahead,” Morgan said, shrugging. “Have a look.”
Morgause glared at her sidelong, but she did take the bottle up and survey it. She held it up to the light to admire the glistening design, held it to her ear to listen to the liquid sloshing in its depths. And when she thought she had played out Morgan’s patience enough, and indeed her own curiosity as well, she unstopped the bottle and took a sniff.
She put it back down on the table rather too quickly for her own pride, but could not help it. “Well,” she murmured.
Morgan said nothing.
“I … must admit, my dear, that I never pictured you as so … kind a sibling.”
“Don’t think that I’m doing it for you,” Morgan whispered. “Never think that. It’s for Arthur.”
“For Arthur? My dear, you would be denying Arthur the chance to demonstrate his famous justice! How could … that,” she gestured to the bottle, “possibly benefit him?”
“I’d also be denying him the guilt he’d feel for putting you down like the rabid bitch you are.”
“Tsk-tsk,” Morgause murmured. “Language.”
Morgan only snorted.
“How can I be sure you’d be — straight with me?” Morgause demanded.
“Drink it and find out.”
“But remember,” Morgan continued, as the golden light started to surround her, “I’m doing this for Arthur, not you. So ask yourself, would I be straight with Arthur?” Morgan cast her one last glance — utterly inscrutable. “Farewell, sister. I’ll see you at noon, or not again in this lifetime.”
“You hope — you wish! You — Morgan!” Morgause shrieked. “Morgan! Come back!”
But she was gone. And all was silence.
Morgause’s gaze was drawn inexorably to the black and purple enamel bottle.
She watched the candlelight flicker upon it. It was, at the end of the day, a strangely beautiful thing.
She picked it up, weighed it in her hand, listened to the sloshing. She unstoppered it and eyed the mixture — but she need not have worried. There was plenty of it. Morgan was not ungenerous.
Morgause held it for another moment, feeling its reassuring weight in her hands for as long as she dared.
But what other choice did she have, after all?
She raised the glass to her lips and smiled over it. “Bottoms up,” she whispered.
As the dawn light gently tip-toed through the palace, Ambrosius clanked and clunked his way to the King’s study. It was so early that only the lowest of the scullery maids, the waiting-boys, the kitchen staff were awake and going about their duties yet.
Those — and they who had never gone to bed in the first place. As carefully and quietly as he could, Ambrosius turned the knob and slipped into the study.
All was as he had suspected it would be.
There was the King, his head bowed over the three parchment writs Ambrosius had placed before him when he returned home from the prison the night before: the death warrant, the commutation to a life sentence (or exile — it was up to the King to fill in the blank), and the royal pardon. One was signed, Ambrosius was sure of that — but which?
He could not actually cough or clear his throat; he had neither lungs to cough with nor a throat to clear. But he could mimic the sound of a Sim clearing his throat quite well. Ambrosius did so.
The King’s head jerked up. “Am–Ambrosius?”
“Aye, your majesty.”
The King rubbed the back of his neck. “What is — no — what time is it?”
“Nearly dawn, sire.”
“Bloody hell,” he muttered. “Allie will have my head.” No sooner had the words tumbled out than he winced.
“I think that the Queen will forgive you.”
“That’ll be worse,” the King grumbled. “Well, what is it, Ambrosius?”
“I have … just received a message from the prison. Your majesty, I had best warn you …” If he was a Sim, how would he say this? He could imagine nothing but to repeat a phrase (or a clause, technically) that he had once heard the King himself tell the receiver of bad news. “Sire, forgive me my presumption, but you had best remain seated.”
“What happened?” the King demanded in the voice of cold dread.
“It’s … Lady Morgause, sire. She was found dead in her cell this morning. Master Tower writes that he believes it was poison. Probably self-administered.”
Had he said too much? Should he have waited for the news to sink in first? He must have said too much. The King looked white and ghastly. A Sim would have surely known when to stop!
“Are they sure it was her?” the King demanded. “And dead? Are they sure?”
“Yes, your majesty.”
“They’ve confirmed it magically?”
“Master Tower also sent for Master Emrys to confirm it.”
“Good. Have it done. And once it’s confirmed …” The King winced. “Send for her son. Have the funeral. And cremate the body.”
“I am not taking chances. Have it done by noon, Ambrosius.”
“Aye, sire. Will you wish to –”
“No.” The King stood and strode to the door. “I am going to bed. And I am going to sleep as late as I damn well please. I don’t want to be awakened for anything less than a deathly illness, fire in the palace, or an invasion, you hear?”
“Yes, your majesty.”
So the King left. But Ambrosius still worried.
A Sim, surely, would have known what to do.