“Are you thinking what I’m thinking?” Guinevere’s eyes sparkled when she asked the question — probably because she had remembered the one time Alison had asked that question unawares, and Guinevere had answered it honestly.
Alison had not, at the time, been thinking how good Lancelot’s behind looked in those hosen — but the thought, once thought, could not be unthought. She still blushed whenever Guinevere brought the conversation up. Which was probably why Guinevere did so so often. “It keeps you honest,” she would laugh. “Keeps you down on earth with the rest of us.”
She had a point — and at this point in her life, Alison’s blush was just a little rose-hue to her cheeks, not a full-blown attack of tomato redness. Besides, by the way Guinevere’s eyebrows waggled and the barely restrained way which she kept her seat, she was probably not, for once, thinking of Lancelot’s behind.
Or if she was, she wasn’t expecting Alison to be thinking the same thing.
“I don’t believe so,” Alison answered as honestly as possible. “What would that be?”
Guinevere grinned. “Look at the belly on your daughter.”
Alison looked. “Oooh?”
“Now, are you thinking what I’m thinking?” Guinevere asked.
“Shush, she’ll hear.”
“Not over Lynn’s baby-talk,” Guinevere murmured, and momentarily Jessie’s high laugh rang out, proving that she probably wasn’t paying attention. Which was odd, because Jessie did tend to notice things … but maybe she was enjoying her first day away from the du Lac castle since Morgause’s death as she should. Hopefully that was all it was. “Anyway, what do you think?”
Alison smirked. “Oh, you know what I’m thinking.”
Guinevere grinned and did a little dance with her arms. “Two grandbabies!”
“Aye. Morgan’s coming for the birth, isn’t she?” Alison asked, looking around Guinevere at her daughter.
“Of course she is! I’ve got a guest room set up and everything. And a guest nursery! On top of the real one.” Guinevere chortled. “It’s been a great chance for me to smuggle in some extra cradles, too.”
“So you haven’t told Jess what you’re thinking?”
“Not yet.” Alison raised her eyebrows to ask her friend — Or not ever? “I wasn’t going to say anything until you confirmed it. The last time I saw a belly like that, I was looking at it from above, not from the side.”
“And what do Eilwen’s girls count for, then? Chopped liver? And Claire’s babies!”
“Oh, shush! I wasn’t looking so closely with them!”
“Until we had to look, with Claire,” Alison murmured.
“Even then … she wasn’t in good health. And it would be just like that man to impregnate her with an abnormally large baby just for spite.”
“Aye,” Alison agreed, mechanically, keeping an eye on Lynn. But she was still too busy with her conversation with Jessie’s belly to pay much attention to her.
But, she wondered, if she could be brought back to her first pregnancy, with a laughing Guinevere making faces at her belly while her new baby kicked and giggled in the crib by her feet, would she have noticed the conversation that her mother-in-law and her friend’s mother-in-law were having? No — Alison didn’t think she would have.
“You know, it’s odd,” Guinevere remarked. “We’ve all had twins — all of us women who came over from Glasonland. Well, all except for Morgan and — oh, damn!”
She hadn’t said it. She hadn’t needed to say it. But her name hung in the room all the same. Morgause. Just one day, Alison had wanted — one day since the day when Lord Pellinore had ridden up to the palace and closeted himself with her husband, one day when Morgause’s name wasn’t mentioned.
“Even Morgan didn’t escape,” Alison tried to laugh. “She’s got twins now.”
Guinevere smiled, but nothing came of this new — and even potentially scandalous! — twist to the conversation. But why would Alison expect that it would? Morgause was in death what she had always been in life: a pall cast over any conversation.
“Has Sir Mordred been by?” Guinevere asked, probably because it was better to ask that than the other obvious question — How is Arthur holding up?
“Not since the day … after.”
“Oh, bloody hell. I heard all about that.”
“He blamed Arthur,” Alison murmured — not because Guinevere needed to know, but because she needed to say it out loud, to somebody, somebody who would not be burdened by the revelation. She could not talk about these things with Arthur. Arthur put up a stone wall around any and all mentions of his sister that did not have to do with reasons of state. “All but accused him of having her murdered in her cell. Or driving her to do it.”
“How’d that make Arthur feel?”
Alison could only shrug.
“Well, I was afraid of that,” Guinevere sighed.
“He hasn’t … he hasn’t been near you, has he?” Alison asked. Somehow they both knew to which “he” she referred.
“No. Jessie’s put up wards, too. We’d know if he was anywhere near — well, nearer than his mistress’s …” Guinevere bit her lip and looked over her shoulder at the gossiping girls.
“So that’s where she is?” Alison asked.
“You didn’t know?” Guinevere gasped.
“No! I never bothered to find out! Well, until Lady Dindrane mentioned it …”
“In open court, no less,” Guinevere sighed. “I could have told you, if you’d asked.”
“I didn’t think you’d know. If anybody knew, I thought it would be Lord Pellinore — and you know he wouldn’t share that information with a woman.”
“Even the Queen?”
“Not if he thought she just wanted the gossip.”
“Damn. You’ve got a point, though.”
“I know I do. So how did you find out about it?”
“… Lance owns the building where she lives.”
“He owns –” Alison gasped. Then she recovered herself. “Don’t let the Gwynedds know that.”
“I’m sure Lord Pellinore already knows exactly where she is. If he didn’t know before now, he damn well has found out by now.”
“Not that she’s staying on your lands,” Alison shook her head. “You and Lance can’t help that, and as long as her taxes are paid on time and she’s not breaking any laws, why should you? She has to live somewhere. But don’t let them know that you know who she is.”
“Have no fear of that,” Guinevere replied. “Lance and I are blaming the property manager for everything. The last thing we want to do is get Will in hot water with Lord Pellinore.”
Alison nodded, even if she was thinking more strategically than that: the last thing the du Lacs needed or wanted was to get themselves in trouble with both sides of what was looking to be the biggest feud in Albion since Morgause killed Accolon.
Wright damn it …
Alison glanced at the girls, who still giggled over something, something that hopefully had nothing to do with politics or feuds or strife. It was stupid — they were both women now, and they both had already taken their places in the great dance of the kingdom — but part of her still wanted to shelter them both.
“Care to take a walk?” Alison murmured to Guinevere out of the side of her mouth. It took only a moment for Guinevere to leap to her feet.
“Oh, girls!” Guinevere called. “The Queen is going to show me her chrysanthemums. I don’t suppose you’d care to join us?”
The girls blanched and shook their heads. Alison barely bit back a smile. Only once it had taken — one excruciatingly boring walk, and excruciatingly boring talk, about the flowers in the garden, and there was no young lady in Albion who would dare accompany the Queen and Lady Guinevere when they went out to look at the chrysanthemums, or the orchids, or the hydrangeas.
No sooner had they quit the room when Alison heard the sofa creak as two girls sat upon it. “Shall I order some food, Jess? I know I was hungry all the time when I was that big with Elise.”
“I’m not that big,” Jessie murmured, “but a snack sounds lovely.”
As Guinevere and Alison slipped into the music room, Alison murmured, “She has no idea, has she?”
“Jess? You’re her mother — she’d tell you before she’d tell me.”
“Oh, stop that. You’re a wonderful mother-in-law.”
“I know I am, dear, but you’re her mother. There’s a difference. Besides, you didn’t know yourself that you were carrying twins until the midwife said, ‘Wait, there’s another baby coming!'”
Alison chuckled, glad of having a reason to do so. “No, but I did sometimes wonder if I was going to give birth to a spider.”
“There were times when I felt like I was being kicked in eight places at once …”
“Good Lord. So they were fighting in the womb?”
“I liked to think of it as dancing,” Alison shrugged. “At least at the time. Now … now, well, I think you might have a point.”
Guinevere grinned. “Leona and Galahad were actually fairly quiet,” she mused. “I mean, for two babies. Will … well, Will must have gotten all the fidgets and fighting spirit out of his system before he got out, that’s all I can guess.”
“I hope not,” Alison murmured. “He might still need some.”
“No, I mean — Mordred? That’s who you’re worried about?”
Alison sighed. “Aye.”
“Have you got …” Guinevere started, and stopped.
“Morgan has the palace warded. If he comes near here with … more anger or malice than usual, he won’t be able to get in, and Morgan will know. And the Emryses are watching the house.”
“I thought they weren’t happy about Morgause? I mean, her arrest, and …?”
“No. They weren’t. But Naomi Emrys herself found her guilty. And I don’t think they can come up with a better solution for what to do with a …”
“That’s what she was, Allie. A menace. Good Lord, don’t tell me you’re mourning her!”
“She was Arthur’s sister,” Alison sighed. “And she …”
Guinevere put her hands on her hips and waited.
“Well, she was a good wife to Lot.”
“If by ‘good’ you mean ‘she gave him an heir and a spare.'”
“Lot was never unhappy with her.”
“That’s because all Lot wanted out of Morgause was her dowry, her connections, healthy children and a minimum of scandal. Although I suppose did him a favor, saving up her big one until after he’d passed on,” Guinevere shrugged.
“Aye,” Alison sighed. “I just wish …”
“Just wish what?”
“I just wish we knew why!” Alison exploded. “That’s one thing Will didn’t answer. Why? Why was she so desperate to remain young that she risked putting her head on a block?”
“Oh, Allie,” Guinevere shook her head. “Does there have to be a why?”
“Of course there has to be a why!”
“One that sane Sims, like you and I, can understand?”
“Don’t do that, Gwen. Don’t play the madness card.”
“She wasn’t sane,” Guinevere held fast. “And no, that doesn’t explain everything. But it explains most of it. Her mind didn’t work the way yours and mine do.”
“That doesn’t mean that there was no reason. There had to be a reason.” And Guinevere, the writer of stories that haunted the heart and enthralled the mind, ought to know that, Alison felt.
“She built her life on her looks. You know damn well that she always wanted to be the most stunning woman to walk into any room. And we let her get away with it for years.”
Alison winced. Could they be responsible for —
“You — Allie, you’re a lovely woman, don’t get me wrong, but your style has always been a bit on the … the modest side, compared to Morgause’s –”
“I’m pretty sure there are ladies of the night with more real modesty in their dress than Morgause had,” Alison muttered. “And you can say it, you know. Dowdy.”
“I wasn’t going to say that!”
“That’s what you were thinking. Don’t worry. You know I was never offended by it.” A Queen had to look dignified and stately — and if that crossed over to the dowdy side, well, Alison couldn’t bring herself to care. It was never as if she had to keep Arthur’s attention from straying to the lissome young lasses.
“Well, if you think you’re dowdy, far be it from me to argue. Anyway, that meant you weren’t competition for Morgause. I wasn’t, either, because I couldn’t bring myself to care. Claire and Eilwen — Claire has always been a bit delicate, fragile, at least until recently, and Eilwen has always been just so comfortable — Morgause would never class them as competition. Her only competition was Morgan, and Morgan took herself out of the race.”
“But now, you see, things are different. There’s a new generation coming up. The de Ganis girls, for one.”
“They’d never be foolish enough to get into it with Morgause! Lynn, certainly not –”
“No, no, not Lynn,” Guinevere mused. “She’s … a different class, I think. Morgause would have held her in contempt, I think.”
“She’s a lovely girl!”
“But not bewitching. Not — alluring, the way Morgause was. Or wanted to be. Lynn’s the sort of girl a man wants to hold close and protect; Morgause was the sort of woman a man would fall down and worship.”
“Only if he was mad!”
“Well, if Morgause wasn’t … er … as Morgause as she was. If she’d had a heart under that too-tight bodice of hers, let’s say. Or at least if she hadn’t gone completely off the deep end. Clarice has some of that air, you know. Not all of it, but some of it.”
“Clarice? That sensible girl?”
“Sense doesn’t have anything to do with it. Of course, Angelique has — or looked to have — a bigger dose of it, but Angelique’s a nun and out of the running. So there was Clarice, one form of competition. … And of course there was Garnet.”
“Oh, Lord,” Alison sighed. “Garnet.”
“Aye. Garnet’s not a queen of snow and ice, you see, like Morgause. She’s much more fiery. And that brings its own set of problems. Because, I think, Morgause would have been always sure she could win if the fight was on ground of her choosing — but not if it wasn’t, you see. Garnet moved the ground. And then you add in the age factor …”
“And so you’re saying we created the monster? By never giving her a run for her money, and waiting for a new generation to come up and threaten her?”
“Not … created the monster. No, no. There must have always been something wrong in her head. Because there are aging beauties — or former beauties — in every court, you know.”
“But they don’t try to kill little boys and wash their faces in their blood to restore their youth, or nonsense like that. Well, most of the time. Most of the time, they have a much better-developed sense of self-preservation than to try that.”
“But ladies like that are challenged all the time. They — they learn to accept defeat before it gets to that point. Or they make a fool of themselves and nobody speaks to them again. But Morgause, nobody ever challenged Morgause,” Alison whispered. “Nobody ever tried to knock her off her throne. We just let her think what she would, as long as she only competed in things that we didn’t care about. We did make the monster, Guinevere.”
“No, no, we didn’t. We’re not blaming ourselves for this. Whatever was wrong in Morgause’s head was wrong from the day she was born — there was nothing we could have said or done that would have made what was wrong right again,” Guinevere shrugged. “And we’re not going to blame ourselves for not giving a damn about her mad — yes, I’m saying it, mad — quest to be the most beautiful woman ever, anywhere. It wasn’t just that we didn’t care, Allie. We were doing more important things. We were making our lives and raising our children. We didn’t have time for Morgause’s obsessions. And I’m not going to apologize for that. I hope you won’t, either.”
But it was different for Guinevere: Guinevere was Morgause’s equal and not even her particular friend. Alison was Morgause’s Queen and her sister-in-law. If anyone should have seen … should have noticed, should have done something …
She voiced none of those thoughts. “Well, I hope you’ll mention as much to Arthur,” she replied, only half-seriously. “He hasn’t said much about … anything, but I know that he –”
“Mention what to me?” Arthur asked.
And speak of the devil!
“Hello, dear,” Alison murmured.
“Allie,” Arthur grinned — even if he was hurting like hell inside, he still found that grin for her. It made Alison’s heart break, the more so because she could never tell him how it hurt her. “And Gwen,” he added. “You know, I looked in the sitting room and almost thought I saw the two of you, albeit from twenty-odd years past.”
“Oh, no. Lynn doesn’t look a thing like me!” Guinevere laughed. “We’re not even related — and she’s her mother’s spit and image, besides.”
Alison shuffled out of the way, to sit on the bench while Arthur and Guinevere conversed. It would do Arthur some good, she thought, to get a dose of Guinevere’s writer’s wisdom. Lord knew that Alison’s own common sense couldn’t chip away that wall he’d put up.
Except, unfortunately, though Guinevere had a certain amount of wisdom … there were days when she sorely lacked common sense. Today was one of them. “You know, Arthur,” she murmured musingly, “Allie told me to tell you something, and the more I look at you, the more I see the wisdom of it.”
“You’re blaming yourself for Lady Morgause, aren’t you?” Guinevere asked.
Arthur blinked. “Gwen –”
“Don’t,” Guinevere said. “You weren’t responsible for her. Even if she was your sister and your subject. I don’t pretend to know was the matter with her — and there was something the matter with her — but I don’t think it’s something you could have fixed.” She glanced at Alison. “Either of you.”
Arthur stared at her with mouth agape. “Guinevere,” he said finally, “you don’t know anything about being a King or a Queen if that’s what you believe.”
Guinevere snorted. “I don’t need to. I know enough about being a Sim, thank you very much.”
“Gwen –” Alison started.
“I’m sorry — somebody needed to tell it to the two of you. What happened to and with Morgause was not your fault — either of your faults. You had a kingdom to build. And you built it. I’d consider that an achievement. And if a few things escaped your notice until it was too late and they’d snowballed out of control … that’s not because you were a bad King and Queen. It’s because you were a Sim King and Queen.”
Arthur turned to Alison, unable to reply to Guinevere, and for once … he didn’t smile.
Alison was up and embracing him before she was quite aware of leaving the bench. For a moment — just a moment — he let it out. She knew that by the way he crushed her to him.
Maybe it helped him — maybe it even helped Alison. But by the way Guinevere looked at the two of them … well, there was still one person in the room who wasn’t sure of that.