It was going to be a good day. So Milo had decided, and so the world would arrange itself. As a son of royalty, even a bastard son, he thought the universe could manage that much for him.
The weather was good – there was his first checkmark for the day. He and Lamorak had been commissioned to inspect the some of the defenses along the Albion-Glasonland border. A duty like that could be heaven or it could be hell. On a day like today, with the sun shining, the birds singing, and a crisp breeze to keep the circulation going? Heaven. On a day like yesterday, with thunder and driving rains and cold winds designed to sneak through every link in one’s maille? Hell.
The next checkmark was the lively hubbub of voices that reached his ears as soon as he stepped over the threshold of his quarters. Men were talking, laughing, joking, engaging in strength and conditioning exercises. Everyone, it seemed, had come out to enjoy the unseasonably good weather. And what kind of Sim would Milo be, to not take pleasure in what brought happiness to so many?
Unfortunately, he would not be able to assess his next checkmark until later, after their duties were over. But he and Lamorak were riding north and probably wouldn’t be able to make it home before nightfall. Lamorak had already vouchsafed them beds at Avilion, with Will and the du Lacs. Milo had a change of clothes packed … three, actually. One for tomorrow … and one for tonight, at the Spring Onion. He’d packed another set of shabby clothing for Lamorak.
As long as the stars aligned and the heavens were willing, he was going to see Nicole tonight.
If there hadn’t been a great deal of burly, heavily-armed men before him, Milo may well have skipped down the stairs, singing. As it was, thought, his happiness made him almost able to hear Nicole’s voice.
“But sir –”
Milo turned in the direction from where the definitely-female voice had come.
Brown hair that caught the sunlight, the customary outfit of servers at the Spring Onion, curves to make a geometrist weep, a soft and pleading voice …
That was Nicole. Even with only her back to him, Milo knew it.
And she was – arguing with the quartermaster?
Oh, Lord! Oh, Lord! He’d never even told Horsley about her! He’d assumed, when he woke up the next morning, fully sober in more ways than one, that Nicole would never take him up on the job. A woman alone, working for a bunch of soldiers? It was a recipe for lewd comments, harassment and worse. Milo could protect her – or rather, Sir Milo could protect her, but she didn’t know he was Sir Milo. She was a smart girl; she’d seen right through his attempt at disguise that second time. She’d never put herself into that kind of danger.
Except, apparently, she would. Milo could hear her pleading from here. Her high, clear voice soared as much above the gruff and rumbling voices of the men as a lark would soar over a lowly possum.
Milo had to close his eyes.
“But, but sir –”
“Look, I don’t know ‘oo told ye that there were a job open, but he was a madman, he was! What, ye think the King’s gonna put anyone not willin’ ter take up a lance an’ fight fer ‘im on the army payroll?”
That was just cruel. (Although it did explain a lot about the food the poor infantrymen had to suffer through. Milo had taken one look at it, once, and swiftly retreated from the mess hall. If he never returned – unless Nicole was at the stove – it would be too soon.) Did Quartermaster Horsley think the King as daft as he himself was? Surely the King would see the value in his loyal men not being slowly poisoned or oozing from the inside out in grease?
“But I’m a good cook, sir. I can – I can cook something for you! Let me try, please?”
“Cook? Why, girl, any fool can cook. Ye jest throw meat an’ vegetables an’ water in the pot til it boils! Then serve! ‘Tain’t hard!”
Nicole visibly recoiled. Milo winced. Of course hearing that would kill her. He remembered her bright and shining face that last night at the tavern, basking in the applause and appreciation of many full and happy stomachs. There were knights who returned home war heroes who did not look half so happy, half so proud.
“But sir … my … my friend –”
“My friend … Milo …”
For a moment Milo’s distress vanished. He would have traded half a kingdom to see her face. Was she smiling? Blushing? Did that quaver when she said “friend” mean everything he thought it might?
“Milo?” barked Horsley.
Nicole straightened. “Please — please tell me that there’s a Milo here.”
“Depends,” Horsley slowly drawled. “Milo ‘oo?”
“Milo Carpenter!” Horsley barked. “Ye’re callin’ ‘im yer friend?”
Milo came crashing back to earth. This, he knew, was only going to get worse.
“Yes?” Nicole replied, but he could hear the uncertainty in her voice from here.
Horsley narrowed his eyes at Nicole. “Either ye’re a liar,” he replied, “or yer ‘friend’ is, or ye need ter learn ter respect yer betters, lass. Get ye gone, lass, ‘fore someone else hears ye talkin’ like that.” There was a gruff gentleness in that last bit — it was that that could have made Milo strangle Horsley most cheerfully.
“My — my betters?”
Horsley sighed. “Ain’t ye heard nothin’, or ye been slavin’ too long over that stove o’ yern?”
“I — beg your pardon?”
“Ain’t ye heard nothin’ ’bout Sir Milo?”
Nicole jumped. “Sir Milo?”
“Aye. Not likely ter be a friend o’ ye, don’t ye think?” The quartermaster’s eyebrow arched. “Now get out o’ here, lass. This ain’t no place fer ye. Either ye’re as innocent as all that — or ye’re cunnin’ as a serpent, an’ I ain’t got no room nor time fer girls who are either.”
Milo could imagine Nicole slowly blinking, her jaw parting, her eyes welling up with hurt. Just like she had that night —
Milo was marching up to the pair of them before he was quite aware of what he was doing. “Horsley! A word with you!”
Nicole had heard his voice and scuttled out of his way. He didn’t dare look at her. He heard her gasp — he knew she recognized him, even with his neat hair and his knightly clothing. That was enough.
“Sir?” Horsley asked. He glanced at Nicole and put one arm behind his back. Milo could well imagine that he was making shooing motions to Nicole. Maybe he even meant it as a kindness.
“I have a favor to ask you. Need you any extra help in the kitchens?
Horsley’s eyes bulged. Milo let his slide briefly to Nicole. She had not moved — she scarcely seemed to breathe.
“Extra — help?”
“I couldn’t help but notice that the meals normally given to the men were rather … er … not as strengthening and nourishing as they could be?”
“They — me staff does the best they can.”
“Of course, of course, sir. But perhaps a bit of extra help would make a difference?”
Milo glanced at Nicole. She stared at the hem of her skirt. Could she look at him? Just for a moment? So he would at least know how she was feeling?
“Well, now –”
“Because, you see,” Milo continued, “I have a … friend who would be most helpful around here. I think.” He pointed. “Her name is Nicole, as a matter of a fact.”
She would have to look up then, wouldn’t she? But Nicole only looked away.
“A — friend, sir?” And then Horsley made his biggest, his only true mistake.
“No!” Milo exploded. “Not a friend like that!”
Horsley startled backward. “S-sir, I didn’t mean –”
“You will not insult my honor that way, sir! Nor hers! I am not –” My father, he thought, and bit his tongue until the blood came. No. He’d only ever been half-claimed by King Vortigern at the best of times. And this man — he’d never understand that. To most men, how could being a son of a king be anything other than good? Even a bastard son.
They never thought to reckon on the king being a complete bastard himself.
“I don’t know how many noblemen you’ve met,” Milo continued. “Perhaps — some don’t have a problem with that. I am not one of them. Understood?”
“I don’t — take advantage –” He dared to glance at Nicole. She had looked up — their eyes met — Nicole looked away.
Milo gulped and looked again at Horsely. “So if I say that I think Nicole would be a good fit here, it’s because I think she would be, aye?”
“Would she, sir?” Horsley asked. “If ye’re only her … friend …”
And Milo saw, truly saw, the other soldiers milling around in their chain maille and their armor and their muscles. Saw how Nicole was so small and frail next to them. Remembered his earlier conclusion.
But she had come here anyway, and he thought he owed to her to let her leave here the victor, or at any rate not the loser to the likes of Quartermaster Horsley. “She makes the best porridge on the continent. Try it sometime,” he snarled.
And who knew? The way to a man’s heart was through his stomach; everyone knew that. If Nicole charmed all the men with her cooking, they might be respectful for fear of chasing her away, otherwise.
Horsley sighed. “Right ye are, sir. All right, lass,” he turned to Nicole, “when are ye willin’ ter make this porridge fer me?”
Say now, say now!
“Perhaps in a few days,” Nicole replied. “I don’t want to be a bother. And I already have a good job.”
“Perhaps, eh?” Horsley muttered into his beard. He made a sound that was suspiciously similar to a sigh. “Whatever, lass, whatever ye say. Ye come back in a few days, axe fer Berenger Horsley — I’ll be ready ter taste yer porridge. Mind, though, ye’re makin’ it in front o’ me. No tricks, now.” He glanced up at the progress of the sun. “An’ if ye’ll excuse me, sir, I got things ter be doin’.”
“You’re excused.” As Horsley walked away, Milo stepped up to Nicole. “Nicole …”
He winced. Was she going to be like this? They had something … something wonderful, back at the Spring Onion …
Or had they? Did they even know each other at all? Milo knew he had been making a fool of himself, but was it possible that he was making a bigger fool of himself than he realized before?
He closed his eyes. He’d never felt this way for anybody — not even Erica. And yet he had known, in his bones, that if he’d had a chance for Erica, he might have felt this way about her. He’d lost his chance with Erica. Did he want to give up this chance as well?
“This … isn’t what it looks like,” Milo tried.
Nicole didn’t answer.
“I mean, I just — it isn’t as if I lied to you,” he pointed out. “I just … didn’t mention a few things.”
“And so, I think — that’s minor, isn’t it? I mean, in comparison to some things?”
“And I meant what I said, to Horsley,” he added. “I … am not the type to take advantage.”
She finally looked up. Milo smiled.
“I wish I could believe you,” she replied.
“Nicole! What have I ever done –”
“I’ve only met you three times, sir, before this. You’ve not done anything. Yet.”
“And I wouldn’t!”
“But I don’t — I can’t know that.”
“Can you not take my word for it? My word of honor. As a knight.”
“I wish I could.”
Nicole bowed her head. “You said …” Her voice was so low that he had to strain and lean closer to catch it. The autumn sunlight glistened off her shining skin. He’d never seen a peasant girl with skin half so smooth and creamy. There were noble girls who would have killed for skin like that.
She kept speaking, bringing him back to the real world. “You said you were hunted, sir. But I don’t think you’ve ever been prey.”
“What? No, no, I told you the truth! I — look, I can explain –”
“I’m sure you can, sir, I’m not doubting that you were hunted. If you’ve been — hunted like that, you know it, you see, when you see someone else who was.”
And she had known it. She’d known it the moment she set eyes on him that second time. But if she had known he was hunted, then why was she so upset about his not being honest with her? Surely, as fellow prey, she would understand that you never said anything that might get the hunters on your scent again —
“But being prey is different from being hunted.”
“How?” Milo howled — or came as close as he could to howling without drawing too much attention to himself and to them.
“Because you’re done being hunted now, aren’t you? I mean, you’re here under your own name, a knight, and everything. Any hunter could find you if even tried to look, couldn’t he?”
“… Perhaps …” If whoever was killing his half-brothers wanted him, he would be easy enough to find. But he trusted that he was safely out of their way now.
“So if you’re living in the open, your hunters must have stopped looking.”
“Well, maybe, but –”
“When you’re prey, you’re never far away from hunters.”
Milo blinked. “Are — are you in trouble, Nicole? Because I could help you — the King, my uncle –”
“It’s not that kind of trouble. At least …” She shuddered. Milo wanted to step closer, touch her arm, let her know he was here, she’d be safe.
But he didn’t dare. He kept his distance.
“I’ve no father or brothers, Milo. I’m …” She gulped. “Alone.”
“That doesn’t make you prey!”
“It doesn’t? No one to protect me? No one but myself and some women friends? And even if I did have a father and — and four strong brothers,” her voice almost seemed to break again, “what good would they do me if you or — or someone like you, a knight, wanted … something from me?”
Milo’s mother had had a father still living. She hadn’t had four strong brothers — only two — but she could have had twenty and they would have done her no good against the King. Milo gulped. “I’m not like that.”
“I don’t think you are. But I can’t … I can’t …” She shrugged helplessly. “I’m sorry.”
“You were willing to trust me when all you knew was my name!” Milo protested. “And now that I’m telling you more — you won’t trust me!”
“You were just a man when all I knew was your name. Now you’re a knight. It’s … different, now.”
“It doesn’t have to be,” Milo heard himself say — and knew himself for a liar. Of course it was different. She was a good girl. And while a good girl might put herself in the way of a man, it would be an attainable man. Not a knight. Girls who put themselves in the way of knights were no better than they should be, and were rightly despised for it.
“Good day, Sir Milo,” she sighed, bobbing in a curtsey that was, to his eyes, impossibly graceful for a peasant girl.
“Good … good day, Nicole.”
She walked away. The universe had not listened to the king’s son. Apparently Milo was not owed even a good day.
Yet … just when he had given up hope … she looked back.
And Hope rose unconquered from the bottom of his heart.