Rosette had not been to the Orkney keep in years. Had it grown more intimidating in the meanwhile? Or had she merely forgotten the terror it was wont to inspire?
It crouched on its hill, silent and watching. The very stones must have been holding their breath in shock at her presumption; she couldn’t think of any other explanation for the unnatural stillness that blanketed the keep. Rosette’s legs quaked beneath her, and try as she might, Rosette could not put down the effect to simple tiredness after climbing the hundred steps from the base of the hill to the foundation of the castle. This was madness. She shouldn’t have come.
But if Rosette did not come, then who would?
She looked up to the windows, searching for a torchlight, a familiar form, something — anything to give her hope and direction, to show her that Mordred was near. But the red sunset winked off the windows like off blind eyes. They would show her nothing.
So there was nothing for it but to go in. Rosette took a deep breath, squared her shoulders, and marched into the vestibule.
Once under the doorway, she hesitated — expecting a servant to emerge at any moment, demanding to know her business. But what would she say? “Oh, I’m Sir Mordred’s mistress, here to see him”? What if the servants were all loyal to Lady Dindrane? What if —
Rosette spun with a gasp. “Master Barber!” The steward who always faithfully delivered her allowance. “Oh, Master Barber –”
“You shouldn’t be here.”
Rosette blinked. Master Barber had never been anything other than polite to her, frostily polite, but polite. She had never been anything other than polite to him. She had offered him pies and cakes dozens of times, always to have them refused. She had thought at first he was abstemious, that he was an ascetic, that he didn’t like sweets. But now she knew why he refused. She could see it in his eyes.
Master Barber was a man who believed in place: a place for everyone, and everyone in their place. Rosette had been born into a place, but she had quitted it. She had quitted it for a place that was acceptable to a woman of her rank and station at birth, though, so that was acceptable. But now Rosette was taking liberties. She was presuming. She was acting as if she was better than she was.
She had, in short, proved herself to be truly lower than the bug beneath Master Barber’s boot. It was almost enough to make her creep away again.
But if she did not help Mordred, than who would?
Rosette closed her eyes and stuck her chin out before speaking. “I need to see Sir Mordred.”
He — he laughed! “Mistress Chevaux, the King himself has been here to see his lordship and hasn’t gotten an audience. What makes you think you’ll get one?”
But I love him! And he loves me!
“I –” Rosette closed her eyes. “I need to see him.”
“Is it something important?” Master Barber’s eyebrow rose laconically. “You can count on me to send the message on if it is.”
Is it important? IS IT IMPORTANT?! Would she be here, quaking in her boots, if it wasn’t important? What sort of fool did Master Barber take her for? “I need to see him,” she repeated. “I …” Master Barber’s scornful glare left her no choice but to offer her reason. “I’m worried about him.”
Master Barber’s eyes went wide, then narrowed. “Leave now,” he replied, “and I won’t tell him about such — such –”
Presumption. Pride. Uppity-ness. But surely, such things didn’t matter between the two of them? Hadn’t they carved out their own little niche, sheltered from the storms of the hostile world, where their love could light them and warm them and help raise their children? Wasn’t that the point? If not — on what had she spent the past nine years of her life?
“Master Barber, who — who has been taking care of him?” asked Rosette.
The steward blinked. “I beg your pardon?”
“Who — who has been taking care of him? Not … not fixing his meals and making his bed and doing his laundry, but taking care — of him? Are — are you married, Master Barber? Doesn’t your wife …”
He narrowed his eyes. Apparently he did not even need to hear the question. “You are not, Mistress Chevaux. And Sir Mordred has a wife.”
“But — but –” Why couldn’t she think of anything better than stamping her foot on the ground like a little girl? “She doesn’t take care of him!”
Master Barber did not reply: his eyes said it all. She doesn’t have to. She takes far better care of him than you ever could, even not even trying. She is a noblewoman; you are not. She understands him in ways you never will. She knows what he needs, and you can only give him what pitiful love you possess.
“I need to see him,” Rosette heard herself start to plead. “Please? Please let me see him. Just — just so I know he’s all right — I haven’t seen him since before … before …”
She felt the hairs on the back of her arms begin to stand up. Her head turned before she could sure in which direction to look. And then she saw the golden light.
Rosette stood still as a startled hare, waiting for him to fully materialize, to join again the world they both shared. And when both of his feet touched the ground, when the golden light faded, when he was fully there … Mordred could only stare at her in shock.
Out of the corner of her eye, Rosette saw Master Barber smirk. So it was coming, her chastisement. But at least she had seen that Mordred was still all right, still breathing, still whole and hearty. That had to be worth something.
No sooner had Mordred taken her in than his eyes grew dark, stormy. His voice, though, when it came out was not with the full-throated looseness of thunder, but the tightness of fear. “Rosette? The — the children?”
“Oh!” Rosette gasped. “No, no, they’re fine! They’re with El–a friend of mine.”
He blinked — and then he smiled. And that was all the encouragement Rosette needed to hurl herself into his arms.
“Rosette!” laughed Mordred. He laughed! He still knew how! For some weeks after his father’s death — so long as Mordred had not an audience to perform for — she had wondered if he had forgotten. But he laughed for her, and if Master Barber scowled over her shoulder, well, Rosette didn’t have to see it.
As soon as Mordred pushed her away, gently, but away, he smiled at her and ran a finger down her cheek. “Now to what do I owe the honor of this visit, then?”
“I …” I wanted to see you wanted to rise impishly, bubbly in her throat, as if she was no more than the scared girl who had once waited in the gardens of the keep for no other reason than that. But she was a woman now, a mother of three children, neither impish nor bubbly. “I was … worried about you, my lord.”
She would not mention how he had not been to see her in weeks. She would not. That would only succeed in making her look childish and selfish. But Mordred frowned all the same.
He frowned at her only a moment before his frown was transferred to Master Barber. “Barber. I am taking my lady to my chambers. We are not to be disturbed.”
Master Barber did not argue; he only nodded. “Come.” Mordred took her hand and led her through the winding corridors and turning stairwells of the castle.
And Rosette knew not which was more surprising: the fine and rare woods, silken cushions, prize wall-hangings and all the other trappings and accoutrements of noble life — trappings, despite her four years in Camford, in Mordred’s very dwelling, that she had never seen close-up — or the fact that Mordred had called her his lady.
They met no one. If Rosette had had the leisure to think, she would have been — probably — grateful for that. She still felt like an intruder in this place. And if it got out that all Lady Dindrane had to do was to leave and she would be here, why, things could easily get worse between Mordred and his wife, and how could she live with herself if she caused that? More importantly, how would all the other citizens of Albion deign to live with her?
Mordred led her, finally, to a heavy door that he tapped upon a few times before it opened. When it did, he pulled her in so swiftly that Rosette barely had time to register the feeling of spiders crawling over her skin as she crossed the threshold. Still, she gasped and held her breath. Was he bringing her into his workroom? She had never seen his workroom at Camford —
But the room into which she emerged was not his workroom, or if it was, it was only his workroom in the sense that he completed the work of his estate in it. The only potential sign of the arcane she saw was a book on a stand with strange writing that skittered across the page when she tried to look at it.
“My Rosette,” Mordred crooned, reaching for her hands and springing her from her reverie. “You were worried about me?”
She didn’t know how to answer that. A simple yes was not sufficient. But to tell him that it was because he hadn’t come to see her … that was selfish. Yet it was not selfish! If he wasn’t coming to see her — if he didn’t get one pure dose of love every fortnight or sennight — who was to say that anyone was loving him?
Rosette swallowed. “Yes. Are — how are you?”
“Well, now.” He fingered her palms gently. The cold burn of his wedding ring against her skin made her almost jump, but Rosette forced herself to keep calm. “Very well, now that you’re here.”
He was lying. No — no, he was not lying. Mordred would never lie to her, would he? Surely for him to lie to her was as unthinkable, impossible, as it was for her to lie to him. But those new shadows under and more worryingly in his eyes said that he was not telling the truth.
“That’s — that’s not quite an answer,” Rosette tried to giggle. She swung their hands this way and that, like a girl courting with her first lover. “How — how have you been?”
Mordred sighed. “Rosette … can we not just be happy now? You and I, with no one to interrupt us for a long time?”
“Mordred — Mordred, listen to me.” She felt his hands start to slip from her grasp and gripped them tighter. “I love you. I want to see you … I want to see you happy. And I know … I know that …”
He hung his head. “My mother died but a few short weeks ago, Rosette. What do you want me to say?”
“That you — that you — that you’re not well, and not happy!”
Mordred looked up with an eyebrow raised. “And that would make you happy?”
“If — if it was the truth. Not, not because that’s the truth it is — but because you trust me enough to tell the truth even when it’s not pleasant.”
He smiled and stroked her cheek. “Now what in all of our long acquaintance would ever lead you to think that I would lie to you?”
“Nothing. But there’s a difference between lying and — and not telling the truth. Isn’t there?”
He sighed. “Rosette, I am a man, a lord, a wizard … there are things I cannot tell you. Can you not understand that?”
“I don’t want all your secrets, Mordred, but –”
“Then why can you not leave them in peace?”
“They are not the sorts of things pretty girls like you should know or hear.” His voice took on a ring of steel. “Trust me.” And then — before the chills could finish snaking their way down her spine — he added in a perfectly normal tone, “Most of them wouldn’t interest you anyway.”
“Then don’t tell me those things. But … but Mordred, the things I want to know, they aren’t secrets.”
“I wouldn’t –”
She laid both of her little hands on his chest, one above his heart. Mordred was silenced. “It’s no secret that you lost your mother recently, Mordred. It can’t be a secret that you’re hurting inside. That’s all I want to know. What you’re feeling and how I can … help,” she concluded, her hand coming to rest over her own heart.
Mordred sighed and let his head fall back. “What do you want me to say, Rosette? We went over this when … when my father …”
“I know.” You never actually managed to talk about it.
“Can you not trust me to know what I need?” he asked, sighing.
She let a hand stroke through his hair, the silky strands parting like water before her fingers. “I … I wish I could.”
He raised an eyebrow.
“But, but Mordred, you never let me in. Do you — do you ever let anybody in?”
“You make quite a dramatic leap, to assume because I choose not to share certain … facets of my emotions with you, that I therefore must share them with nobody.”
Rosette winced. He might as well have slapped her. And Mordred — he didn’t even blink. He watched her impassively, as he might watch the rabbit his dog or his hawk brought back to him.
She changed tactics. “But I — I worry. They … they were spreading awful rumors about you at the marketplace.”
Mordred stiffened. “And you listen to common gossip? I thought better than that of you, Rosette.”
Rosette swallowed, tongue sticking to her dry mouth. “I … if you won’t tell me anything, what else am I supposed to do?”
“Not listen! Will of Wright! Do you truly have so little understanding of the way the world works? The great, the powerful, are always the subject of gossip! Do you believe every little thing you hear about the King?”
Rosette quailed before the onslaught.
“Well?” he barked. “Do you?”
“Sir Bors, your old lord?”
“No, but –”
“Lord Pellinore? Sir Lancelot?”
“No, b-but –”
“Then why is it only me?” he roared.
“Because I care about you!” Rosette sobbed. “Only you! I don’t care about the rest of them! And the things they were saying about you, Mordred! If — I hope if they had been saying things like that about me, and you didn’t know if they were true or not, that you would listen, if only so you knew and could help! They said — they said, since your mother’s death, you’ve …”
A change seemed to come over Mordred. He no longer smouldered, bristled; he retreated, set his shoulders at an angle, seemed to have one hand near where he kept his wand. “They’ve said … what, precisely?” he asked.
“They’ve said that you’ve been locked in your rooms for days! That you’ve been taking food on trays! Oh, Mordred, if that’s true — can’t you see why I was worried? That can’t be healthy!”
Did he — but he couldn’t have relaxed. Or maybe he only calmed. “Ah, Rosette. Now I see. Yes — yes, of course you were worried. But you see …” He held out his hands to explain. “You don’t know the least thing about magic, Rosette.”
“No … no, I don’t,” she admitted.
“Of course you don’t. And I haven’t told you … because I did not think that you needed to know. Because I did not think that you would like to know. It is not always a pleasant study, love. Not always for pure and innocent hearts, like yours.”
Rosette hung her head.
“But I can tell you a little,” Mordred continued, and Rosette gasped and looked up. “When a … when a great witch dies, or a great wizard, there are always … magical loose ends to be cleared up. Spells, protections, wards. Without the witch’s or wizard’s magic to hold them in place, under control … they can do a great deal of damage if they are not properly tended to.”
“But … but I thought … your lady mother, her power …?”
Mordred snorted. “No. No, they didn’t take her powers away from her. Not completely. Had they done that, it would have … I daresay it would have killed her outright. A wizard’s power is too much a part of him to be removed entirely. But they did lock it away from her so that she could not use it.” Mordred shrugged. “A wizard or witch given that potion has never lived long enough to restore his access to his powers, so to the crude, it is the same as if the powers were taken away entirely.”
“When … when you say never lived long enough …”
Mordred brushed her hair away from her face. “Magic is not always a pleasant subject, my dear. And the people hate us. All of us wizards, no matter what they may say. Remember that.”
Rosette shuddered, and this time Mordred wrapped his arms around her. “You see?” he coaxed. “You see why I do not tell you these things? It is not because I do not trust you. It is because I know you, and trust you, only too well.”
“I’m sorry,” breathed Rosette.
“I’m glad,” Mordred replied. “So please promise me that you won’t ask me these sorts of questions any more. It pains me to have to destroy your innocence, my love.”
“But Mordred …” Rosette bowed her head. “I worry. You can’t — you can’t expect me not to worry.”
“You would worry more if you knew.”
She doubted anything would worry her more than hearing that. “But … but can you not just tell me, when I ask, that it is magic work, so at least I will know that much?”
“Ah! A compromise, is that what you seek?”
Mordred stared at her, head tilted to one side. Then, without answering, he kissed her. It was the sort of kiss that was contemplated to make her stop thinking — stop protesting — stop doing anything but feeling the insistent pressure of his lips on hers, the force that she knew would leave bruises as soon as the morning came again.
Was it any wonder she paid no attention to what his hands were doing until suddenly she was in his arms, feet lifted from the floor.
Rosette gasped and almost giggled like a girl, but something — the waves of vibration that flowed through her as Mordred cast some kind of spell — killed all her mirth.
At least the magic was doing nothing more sinister than opening a door. Rosette wanted to nestle against him, until he put her down and smirked at her. “Well, my lady love?”
His lady — he had called her his lady!
He gestured. “Shall we?”
“Oh! Oh, no, Mordred! We can’t!”
“Can’t?” Mordred hissed. “A few weeks and I am grown repulsive — is that it?”
“No, no, but that — not there!”
“And why not there?” Mordred asked, lifting her and carrying her unprotesting body to the bed. “It has a mattress, and a soft one, I’ll warrant — four posts — strong ropes — everything, in short, a bed needs. It shan’t bite you.”
“But it …” she whispered.
“But what?” he asked, crawling over her, his head hanging a few short inches from hers.
“It’s Lady Dindrane’s bed,” Rosette whispered.
Mordred stopped. It was, as far as Rosette was aware, the first time after his marriage that she had said the name of Lady Dindrane to his face.
He sighed. “No. It is not.”
“She never slept in it. No, listen, Rosette. She never touched it. It’s a new bed. I … I bought it, after my mother … you must understand, there are things about magic, about residue, I could not have that bed in the house any more …” He sighed. “And sleeping on it was quite out of the question.”
“Oh … oh.”
“And do you think, my lady,” Mordred asked, his eyebrows quirking, “do you truly think that I would ever defile you by laying you on the bed that she had polluted?”
Rosette no longer knew what she thought. But she did know with that answer she would have to be content.