“And what the hell took you so long to get here?”
So much for a warm welcome. “Leona …” Lamorak snarled in the tone that usually only came out when Delyth did something absolutely infuriating, like smuggling all his braises from his drawers and hiding them amongst his father’s books.
Leona, however — possibly because she had been on the receiving end of that kind of snarl too often — did not care to heed it. “Do you have any idea who’s been here to help Garnet?”
“Nobody! No — fucking — body! And don’t look shocked, either, I’ve got brothers and I’ve got ears!” Leona shouted. “You know who’s been helping her out? Us!”
“Oh, so she has had help?”
“Aye — but just us! And by us I’m not including Heloise, because she wouldn’t know how to be nice if you handed her an illustrated instruction manual, or Aglovale, because he just avoids her whenever he can! I mean Kay, who’s been great, and Clarice, who’s been trying but has to go home to officially meet Freddy in a few days –”
Some of Lamorak’s anger vanished, or rather, succumbed to confusion. “Wait, what?”
“It’s Bors-logic! Don’t question it; your mind will explode. Anyway, you know what Freddy did?”
“He punched a guy who was trash-talking Lady Morgause! Punched him! Freddy, who barely knows Garnet! He was just asking to get his arse handed him for that — although he’s fine now that Clarice has splinted up his hand. But you know who wasn’t helping Garnet? Her own betrothed! So where were you?”
Lamorak glared. “Perhaps I was at home,” he growled, “keeping an eye on my pregnant sister, and my elderly mother, and my two little sisters?”
“Lady Dindrane’s a genius! What’s she need you to keep an eye on her for?”
“Because being a genius wouldn’t help her much if Sir Mordred decided to blame his mother’s death on her.”
That was supposed to end the argument and get Lamorak complete entry into the house. It was not supposed to make Leona raise her eyebrow, put her hands on her hips, look down her nose at him, and ask, “And just what would you have done against Sir Mordred?”
… Unfortunately, she had a bit of a point there. “It doesn’t matter. I couldn’t very well leave them alone!”
“And what about your father?”
“He’s been running in circles since this all started! Today’s the first day he’s had where he could work from home!”
Leona narrowed her eyes at him. “You still should have been here.”
“I already told you –”
“She’s got nobody. Her father is dead, her mother never cared about her, her older brother is a — was a mama’s boy, and while Lady Morgan was always on her side, she’s understandably a little tied up right now –”
“Oh, she’s understandably tied up? And I wasn’t?”
“She’s got other responsibilities! You don’t! Look, Clarice and I, and Kay and Freddy, we’ve all tried to be there for Garnet, but we’re not enough! You’re the one she needs! And you don’t even send her a note to let her know when you might deign to show up!”
“I –” Well, that was a point he hadn’t prepared for. But he’d wanted to come! He’d intended to come as soon as he was able! Surely Garnet knew that?
Lamorak glanced up to the trembling form at the top of the stairs, a form that suddenly looked so small and fragile …
He bounded up the stairs two at a time, catching Garnet around the waist. “Lamorak!”
She was shaking — had she been shaking all through these past days? Was that why Leona was so angry with him? “Garnet.”
She burrowed against his shoulder, even though he knew darn well that the surcoat was not thick enough to protect her from the sting of the chain maille. “Where were you?” she murmured.
Maybe that was where Leona’s vehemence had come from. Lamorak winced. “I had to keep an eye on my mother and my sisters. Especially Dindrane. In case your brother …”
Garnet gave a soft sob and Lamorak held her tighter. “He won’t get to you! I — I won’t let him!”
“But now he hates me, too,” Garnet sobbed.
“No, no, of course he doesn’t. He –”
“I wasn’t there for her! That’s all he’ll ever see; that’s all he’ll ever care about!”
Lamorak closed his eyes. Maybe Sir Mordred’s madness would pass. Maybe his railing at the King the afternoon after Lady Morgause’s death — railing that might have gotten him beheaded for treason in any other country — had gotten the worst of it out of his system. Certainly he had not been seen near the Gwynedd castle in days and days … “He — he hasn’t been here, has he?”
He felt Garnet shake her head and breathed a sigh of relief.
“I … I’ve got letters,” Lamorak added. “From — from lots of people back home.”
“Aye — and her daughter, and Princess Jessica — and the King and the Queen, too! Separate letters!” He pulled away the tiniest bit, to try to smile so she could see. “How many people do you think can say that, eh? I don’t think even Tom used to get separate letters from the King and the Queen.”
Garnet, however, had paled. “The K-King?”
“He — um — he told me to tell you that he was writing as Uncle Arthur.” He still wasn’t quite sure what that meant and had little time to ponder it as Garnet sagged against him in what he was pretty sure was relief. “Hey … you didn’t think he would get you in trouble for this, would he?”
“I don’t know,” Garnet muttered. “I heard some Remans talking.”
“They were wondering why I hadn’t been arrested yet.”
“By the King,” Garnet continued. “For being … Mother’s daughter.”
“You know he’d never do that!”
“That’s what Kay tried to tell me,” Garnet sighed. “He said that by their logic, too, that the King would have to arrest himself.”
“Well, he would know, right?” Lamorak pulled away to get a closer look at her expression. “Garnet …”
Garnet hung her head. “The Remans just told him to shut up. I don’t think they knew who he was.”
Well, damn. Lamorak pushed her hair away from her face, letting his fingers tangle in the curls. “When was this?”
“The day … after.”
“You were getting out of the house? That’s good.”
“I was going to a lecture. They’d advertised it for months. I’d wanted to go to it … before …” She sighed. “Well, Clarice thought it was best that I go anyway.”
“Well, Heloise thought it was best, too, but her opinion hardly counts,” Garnet muttered. “Clarice thought I could use a distraction. And Kay was willing to walk me there and back.”
Lamorak decided he owed Kay one, even if he was only defending his kinswoman. “Has somebody been walking to all the lectures you wanted to go to?”
“Have you been getting out other than that?”
Garnet shook her head.
Was that good? Bad? Only to be expected, with all that Garnet had been through? “Have you been –”
A cough from the foot of the stairs interrupted Lamorak in what could only be called a most rude way. “Just so the both of you know,” Leona called out, “Clarice will be in class for the next hour, Heloise went out to the library and probably won’t be back for hours, and I think I can chaperone you two just fine from the living room.”
For the first time, Lamorak saw Garnet perk up. No sooner had she perked up than she slipped away from him, hurrying to her bedroom door. Lamorak followed.
No sooner had Lamorak shut the door behind him than Garnet turned around and tackled him. Oof! he thought as he tried to catch her and steady her.
“What’s going to happen to us?”
Oh, Lord, did she have to start thinking about that now? Couldn’t she have waited for a few weeks or a month to elapse following her mother’s death? Lamorak leaned his forehead against hers. “I don’t know.”
“You haven’t talked to your father about it?”
“I … haven’t found a good time.” Lord help him — if he brought up Garnet to his father now, Pellinore might just say he thought it wise to call the whole thing off. But Father wouldn’t do that, would he?
Garnet whimpered. “Even if — even if — even if we weren’t us, you’re the only man who’d have me.”
“Garnet, don’t –”
But it was true — wasn’t it?
Sir Bors would never consider Garnet for either of his sons. Even before this — she was a witch, and the daughter of a witch, and thus too impure and unholy for his precious heir. That wasn’t even taking into account that Elyan stood an even smaller chance of surviving a marriage to Garnet than he did a marriage to Leona.
As for the rest … Tom and Kay were too close kin to her. Will was already married and Galahad was for the church. Even if Pellinore would countenance a marriage between Aglovale and Garnet (and why would he, if he wouldn’t for Lamorak and Garnet?), the two of them would claw each other’s eyes out before a week had passed. And what Glasonlander or Reman would take her now?
“You know it’s true,” Garnet sighed, slipping out of his arms. “And you think it’s right — don’t you?”
He watched her shoulders slump. “I’m damaged goods, aren’t I?”
“No, no! Of course not! Garnet!” He cupped her face in his hands. “None of this has anything to do with you!”
“It’s got everything to do with me.”
“I’m her daughter, Lamorak! If I don’t end up like her, who will I end up like?”
“Your father. Lady — Lady Morgan!” Though heaven help him if he woke up twenty years from now married to Lady Morgan — before Lady Morgause had set her claws into him, he would have said that he wasn’t sure which of the two sisters was scarier. “The King, even. You — you could never be like her.”
“She must have been young, once,” Garnet sighed. “Innocent. And she became –“
“You’re not her. She — there must have always been something wrong with her. Even when she was a little girl. And look at yourself, Garnet. You’re — there’s nothing wrong with you. There’s never been anything wrong with you.”
Garnet blinked. “Then — then will you still have me?”
“I … I …” Lord, how was he supposed to reply to that? If the choice was his, that was one thing, but there was his father to consider … Garnet’s brother … the King, even, might have an opinion …
She started to wilt again and Lamorak had to answer. “Yes,” he said, holding her again. “Yes, I’ll still have you.”
She glanced over her shoulder. “N-now?”
And Lamorak saw where she was looking.
Now it was time for Lamorak’s shoulders to slump. “Garnet …”
“I’m eighteen now,” she replied, not waiting for him to finish. “You … you said when I was eighteen, if I still wanted to …”
Well, yes, because I wasn’t expecting your mother to have killed herself days before and our whole future to have been thrown up into the air! “Garnet, you’re distraught.”
“So? I know what I want.”
“Garnet …” He rested his head on her shoulder. “The whole … the whole point of you being distraught is that you might not know what you want.”
“But I do.”
“No, you –“
“I do!” She wriggled out of his grasp like a fish unhooking itself from the line. “Don’t you get that? I do know! I might be young, but I’m not stupid!”
“I never said you –“
“I know what I want, and I want you! You!” Her lips started to tremble. “Most men would take a woman up just on that!”
“Am I that ugly? That deformed, that you don’t want to be with me?”
“Garnet! You’re not ugly!”
“But I’m not as pretty as her!
Lamorak’s heart skipped a beat. Leona — Leona must have heard that — and if Leona got any inkling —
No. No, Leona wouldn’t get an inkling. Would she? It was preposterous that she would. Let her think that he’d been untrue to Garnet — maybe he had been — but not that he’d been with Morgause.
“You’re twice as pretty,” Lamorak said, trying to calm her, not paying attention to how he sounded.
Garnet blinked and looked up at him with those warm brown eyes of hers. How could she think she wasn’t as pretty as her mother? Her mother’s eyes had been green and all-knowing, like a housecat’s. Garnet’s were dark and unsure, like a tigress’s. There was always something wild in Garnet, something you could never quite catch … Morguase had had none of the wildness, only the predator’s instinct.
“Then are you afraid,” Garnet whispered, “that I won’t measure up to her?”
“How could I? She — she — she knew what she was doing! And I –” She looked away, twisting her hands together.
“Garnet. Don’t … don’t be a fool.” She started up and blinked. “No sane man wants an experienced woman for his wife — for his whore, maybe, but not his wife.”
“So now I’m the daughter of a witch, a murderess, and a whore,” Garnet sighed.
Lamorak paused — listening — but there was no sign that Leona, curious about this mysterious “she,” had crept closer to listen at the door. Still, he lowered his voice. “That means you’re better than her, Garnet. I can’t see how you could possibly be worse. You’d have a job to do just to be as bad.”
“Everybody will think that I’m just like her.”
“Nobody who knows you.”
“And how many people know me? Or will know me?”
“Everybody who matters,” Lamorak replied, glad that for once he knew just what to say.
Except … it didn’t work. “No! Not everybody who matters! Otherwise my life wouldn’t be a living hell here!”
“They don’t matter. Two more years and you’ll be –“
“How am I supposed to do this for two more years?”
Well, there was a good question.
“It … it won’t last that long. You’ll see,” Lamorak lied. “Wait for the next scandal to come out of Reme or Glasonland. They’ll forget all about it.”
“About me, you mean.”
“Garnet, don’t you think that would be for the best?”
Garnet stared at the bedpost. “There’s still nobody other than you who would marry me.”
“So why not?” she asked, nodding to the bed. “Out of — of pity, if nothing else. Because if you won’t have me, why, then I might as well just move in with Sister Angelique now and save everybody a lot of trouble.”
“Garnet!” he yelped — though, she’d certainly gotten him to think about the problem in a new way. He’d never thought bedding her would be a service to the public as well as to him — but Garnet as a nun? Lord preserve them all.
“We-ell?” she asked, her lips starting to tremble.
He sighed. “I’m — no. Not now. Not with everything so … up in the air. Garnet, you know I want to, but –“
She burst into tears.
“You don’t want me, either! Just say it!”
“No! No, that’s not it at all!”
“Then why won’t you make love to me? I’m eighteen! We could be betrothed then! Nobody could tear us apart!”
“It’s not that simple.”
“How not?” She glared at him through her tears. “I asked! I asked my religion professor! He said all that was needed for a betrothal was a promise to wed in front of two witnesses and a consummation! No contracts, no dowry arrangements, just that!”
“We don’t have two witnesses.”
“Leona’s here! And Clarice will be back in half an hour!”
Damn. “No … no, Garnet, listen to me. My father’s a magistrate, and I think … I think I’ve picked up a thing or two, aye? It’s not that simple. Maybe the Church wants it to be, but … but even that could still be wriggled out of. If that’s what my father or my brother wanted.”
“They couldn’t if we insisted that we consummated!”
“But I wouldn’t, Garnet, if that’s what our families wanted,” Lamorak sighed. “And if you did … well, they’d think you were a whore.”
“That’s why I wouldn’t,” Lamorak continued, stroking her shoulder to calm her down. “Say we had, I mean. Because … because powerful men can make all sorts of things go away, if that’s what they want. And if you insisted, they’d make sure it only hurt you.”
“Your father wouldn’t do something like that!”
But your brother might. Lamorak didn’t say that — but by Garnet’s sudden silence, followed by her moan, he knew that she thought it anyway. He rubbed her back and her upper arm to calm her.
“It’s not fair!”
“I just want to be with you!”
“And I’m not that bad, am I? Even with my mother — and my brother …”
“I know.” And her brother, he thought, hadn’t been half so bad before Morgause’s arrest and his mad quest to get her acquitted. “And you’re not. You’re … you’re wonderful, Garnet.”
“Then why can’t your father just accept me?”
“It’s … it’s nothing to do with you,” Lamorak sighed. He buried his face in her black curls, knowing even as he did that it wasn’t enough — it would never be enough.
“But it’s everything to me,” Garnet sighed.
“I …” Lamorak closed his eyes. “I …”
She leaned against him, and Lamorak wrapped both of his arms around her. She burrowed against him. “Look — Garnet,” he started to say, “give me six months.”
“Aye — aye. Listen. Father’s up his eyeballs in trouble, between Lady Morgause and Dindrane … if I approached him now, he might just want to call the whole thing off. And he might not go back on that decision. But in six months? When things with Dindrane have calmed down? When — when everything’s been cleared up with Lady Morgause? Then he might be willing to listen. And then I can persuade him.”
“Six months,” Garnet repeated. But this time it was a statement — a musing one, but a statement.
“Six months for me to figure everything out. That’s all I’m asking for. Do you think you can wait another six months?”
“And then what?”
“Then — then, if all goes well, we’ll have a betrothal. A true betrothal. And we can consummate it, if you still want to. And then nobody can tear us apart.”
She leaned back to look at him. “You promise? Truly, this time?”
“Aye. I promise.”
“Then,” she sighed, “I guess you have six months.”