“Freddy, for the last time, I am telling you — what Sir Bors doesn’t know won’t hurt you!” Kay laughed.
Easy for Kay to laugh. Kay didn’t have one of the most important decisions of his young life staring at him. Kay didn’t have to worry about ruining his whole future with one romantic gesture.
Freddy rested his chin on his palms and sighed. “I … I don’t want to risk … anything … to upset him.”
“You planning to take a vow of silence, then?” asked Kay, one eyebrow raised. Aglovale snickered. “That’s the only way, Freddy. And I don’t think Clarice would be very happy with you if you did.”
“It — it’ll be one thing, after we’re married,” Freddy tried to reason. “Then we can do what we like, say what we like. But until then …” Freddy shook his head. Kay would never understand. Kay was royalty. No mere future father-in-law would ever tear the rug out from under his feet for a gesture of love and appreciation. Kay’s willingness to take the man’s daughter’s hand in marriage would be too great a prize to risk. A mere Freddy could not measure up to Kay’s eligibility. Freddy sighed, trying to think of a way to explain.
He decided to be honest. Aglovale might smirk, but Kay, he thought, would save his laughter for when Freddy wasn’t around. “Kay … has anybody ever handed you everything you ever wanted, on a silver platter, practically?”
“Of course they have,” Aglovale replied laconically. “He’s a prince.”
Freddy spared a glare for Aglovale before he turned back to Kay. “Then think of it like this. Has anybody ever handed you the one thing you wanted most in the world — the thing you’re not even sure you can live without — and still kept their hands on that silver platter?”
For that was how Freddy had felt when Lady Claire had burst in upon him and Clarice. For a moment, he had been sure it was all over, that Lady Claire would report her findings to Sir Bors, that he would explode as everyone assured Freddy he was more than capable of doing, and he would call off the whole arrangement and spirit Clarice away to Lord knew what misery. And then Lady Claire had smiled and said she was happy for them. Happy for them! Everything was going to be all right!
But Bors’s hand was still on that silver platter.
“Not … yet,” Kay admitted, for some reason shooting an uncomfortable glance at Aglovale. Aglovale still looked skeptically at Freddy’s face and barely seemed to register the look.
“Then you can’t understand how badly I don’t want to screw this up.”
“For Wright’s sake,” Aglovale snorted, rolling his eyes, “we get that you don’t want to screw it up. What we’re saying is that it’s not likely that you would! As Kay said — what Sir Bors doesn’t know won’t hurt you!”
“Aye, listen to the old married man, he –”
” — he’s about to be a father and everything, so he certainly knows –”
Kay snickered and punched Aglovale’s arm. “Would you relax? Lord, can’t a man get away with teasing his best friend on one of the most important occasions of his life?”
Aglovale leaned his face on his hand and looked a bit green, as he always did whenever somebody mentioned the coming baby. “Shut. Up.”
“You can tease me right back when I’m about to become a father. And we can both gang up on Freddy when it’s his turn!”
Freddy only smiled. It was hard to turn green at the thought of impending fatherhood when any such chance was over a year — and therefore an eternity — away. Besides, any babies he would have would be with Clarice, and who could be sick at that notion? Freddy just hoped, whenever he considered the prospect, that he wouldn’t manage to ruin it all with his contributions to their progeny.
“Uh oh,” Kay murmured. “Don’t look now, but …”
If there was ever a Sim on earth who had responded to the command “don’t look now” by doing as requested, it was not Freddy.
“Bloody hell,” Aglovale muttered. “Here we go again.”
“How on earth are we going to break him of that habit before Leona finds out about it?” Kay worried.
“I say we let her find out about it and let her break him of it.”
“I said break the habit, Kay, not break his nose.”
It was not precisely a charitable feeling to have toward one’s future brother-in-law … but Freddy could not help but feel that Aglovale’s solution to the problem Elyan was presenting to them had a certain amount of merit to it.
Elyan was chatting up yet another girl. He was practically betrothed, and he spent all his time flirting with anything in a skirt … well, almost anything in a skirt. He never seemed to try to flirt with Leona. And what was worse, he never tried to flirt with the serving girls or village maids, which, for some reason, the nobles seemed to think was forgivable, but he always focused his attention on noble girls or commoner girls of good family. Good Lord, hadn’t he learned from Aglovale how dangerous that road could be?
Then again … Elyan restricted his flirting, as far as Freddy could see, to fellow students. Any young lady who got into Camford had to have a certain amount of brains. And while Freddy wouldn’t say so in Aglovale’s hearing, a certain amount of brains was precisely what Babette lacked. Elyan was probably safe enough.
The lackluster quality of most of the lines he fed to those poor girls probably only rendered him safer. Freddy had once or twice been allowed to hear Elyan “at work,” as the younger man put it. Freddy was rather certain that even Babette wouldn’t fall for those lines.
“He just doesn’t understand, does he?” Kay sighed.
“Yes,” replied Aglovale.
“You don’t even know what I was saying he didn’t understand!”
“Doesn’t change the answer.”
Freddy had to duck his head to hide his smile. It would not do to agree with everything acerbic Aglovale said about his future brother-in-law.
“Anyway,” Kay continued, glaring at Aglovale, “what I was going to say, before I was so rudely interrupted, is that he doesn’t understand that noblemen are as thick on the ground as clover here, does he?”
“See? Doesn’t change the answer,” muttered Aglovale. Kay smacked the upside of Aglovale’s head.
Freddy dared a glance over his shoulder, watching Elyan, with his typical serious, boorish (and, Freddy was beginning to realize, Bors-ish) expression, try to get the young lady to see his point of view. “Kay?” he murmured.
“If … if the young ladies’ reactions to his lines don’t teach him anything … I don’t think there’s anything we could tell him.” There. It wasn’t as cruel as taking Aglovale’s part and suggesting leaving him to Leona’s tender mercies, but it meant Freddy didn’t have to do anything.
“Ah, Freddy! Don’t you understand that a friend in need …” Kay hesitated. “You know what? Never mind that.”
Freddy looked up, eyes wide and an attempt at a smile on his face. Was his antipathy that obvious? He had tried to hide it … although he now considered that his method of hiding it, which was usually to remember a pressing appointment elsewhere whenever Elyan decided to pay a visit, may not have been the most subtle.
“He’s family, for you. Or will be. Not quite a friend, eh?”
“And you haven’t had an opportunity to slam him into a wall yet, like Tom did with Sir Bors,” Kay mused.
“I’m — I’m not sure that — that resorting to violence would be the best answer,” Freddy hedged. More to the point, Elyan, Bors and Tom had all trained as knights, and Freddy hadn’t. Tom was gifted with a muscular, powerful physique, which Freddy wasn’t. Tom was also a price, which Freddy also wasn’t. Resorting to violence would probably end with Freddy needing to be mopped up from the floor, not Bors or Elyan.
Besides, Elyan hadn’t done anything to Freddy that merited being slammed into a wall … other than being a complete and total ass and making it absolutely clear that he did not deem Freddy good enough for his sister. Granted, there were times when Freddy that shared that opinion, but when Freddy convinced himself of that fact, he at least was considering more than his ancestry, which was all that seemed to matter to Elyan.
However, Kay seemed to sense Freddy’s first reservation, and not so much the second, because he said, “Don’t worry, if it came to that, Aglovale and I would back you up.”
“We would?” asked Aglovale.
“Of course we would. If Elyan does anything like Sir Bors did — something that would set Freddy over the edge — he’d richly deserve to get slammed into a wall.”
“Well, maybe, but –”
“And besides, all things considered, shouldn’t you and Freddy stick together? Show solidarity among noble-commoner couples and all?” Kay pointed out.
Aglovale, as he always did whenever Babette’s antecedents were mentioned, scowled.
“Speaking of which, how is Lady Babette doing these days?” asked Kay.
“When are you going home to see her again? I’d like to come with you. I’d like to see how much trouble my niece is getting into.”
“And I’d like to see my nephew,” Freddy said. “If — if you wouldn’t mind the company,” he added when Aglovale glared at him.
“I wouldn’t think your nephew would be old enough to get into trouble,” Kay replied.
“Well, no, but I still would like to see him.”
“You want to get started on the corruption process early? Wise, Freddy, very wise!”
“Corr–what?” Freddy laughed.
“Corrupting the nieces and nephews,” Kay explained. “You know. To get back at your sister — or in my case, my brother — for all the things they did to us when we were kids. Teach the little ones to do all sorts of things that’s sure to drive them batty!”
Freddy blinked. He’d never thought of it quite that way before, and suddenly quite an agreeable vista of opportunities for revenge was opening up before him. It was a good thing Rob was so patient and unflappable, otherwise Freddy was sure he’d never have the heart to go through with any of them.
“Aglovale can show us how it’s done, he’s got lots of practice — haven’t you, Aglovale?”
“What? Oh, come on –”
“Lamorak hasn’t had children yet, and Dindrane never tormented me like he did. And Dindrane …” Aglovale didn’t say anything more, but he didn’t need to.
“So you’re saving your revenge,” Kay joked weakly. “I see. Much — oh, no.”
Even Aglovale had gone ashen-faced. Freddy did his best not to gulp. “Do I even want to know?”
“No,” said Aglovale.
“But I’m sure you’ll be able to guess in a minute,” Kay added. “In the meantime, see if you can scout out an exit that’s not the door or the stairs.”
“Think the windows would break if we threw a chair at them?” Aglovale muttered.
“The glass would, but would the iron?”
“I don’t know, that’s what I’m asking you.”
“Ask the future engineer. Freddy?”
“Well, it would depend on how hard you threw the chair –”
Freddy stopped when he heard something. It was, to date, the most terrifying sound he had ever heard. It was enough to stop the breath in his throat and make him consider what it would take to break through the iron surrounds of the windows with a new urgency. He wondered where he might get a hold of a trebuchet at such short notice?
It was, in short, the sound of Leona laughing.
“Oh, Lord!” she gasped. “Your father, the principle landowner in the kingdom? Elyan, if you actually believe that, you’re dumber than even I ever gave you credit for!”
Freddy couldn’t help it. It was like a gruesome wagon accident or a house fire or a terrible fight. It was horrible — but it was Sim nature to turn and stare.
“He owns over a quarter of the land in the kingdom!” Elyan protested. “And nobody asked for your opinion!”
“A quarter of the land in the kingdom …” the girl Elyan was flirting with repeated dazedly.
“Honey,” Leona turned to the girl, “it’s Albion. It’s not a big kingdom. I’m pretty sure there are some lords in Glasonland whose holdings are twice the size of the kingdom.”
“That’s not very — very — loyal!” Elyan sputtered.
Leona rolled her eyes. “Well, it’s not the size that matters, but what you do with you’ve got.”
Freddy’s eyes bulged. There was no way — Leona couldn’t have known what she was saying, or implying — even if she had lived in the same house with Dannie for two years —
“Madam! You will not say such things in the hearing of — of — anyone!” Elyan snapped. “At least –” He glanced at his “new friend.” “Not if you want to protect your reputation!”
Freddy couldn’t read whether the remark confused Leona at all, but he did hear her sigh. “I think my reputation is going to be forever ruined once word of this gets out no matter what I say. Once everyone finds out that we –”
“Sir Elyan?” Elyan’s new “friend” quavered.
“Pay her no mind, my lady. She was just leaving.” He glared at Leona. Leona, as anybody could have told Elyan, didn’t budge, nor did she seem likely to budge for any reason less than a fire — and perhaps not even then, if Elyan was the one telling her to get out of the building. “I said she was just leaving!”
“You know, Elyan, you really ought to have realized by now that just because you say something doesn’t make it true.”
The girl, whose gaze had been volleying between Elyan and Leona this whole time, finally made up her mind. She turned to Leona. “You know,” she squeaked, “you really ought to show some respect to Sir Elyan!”
Now it was Elyan’s turn to begin scouting for an exit. He saw the other young men and shot a glance at them that said in any language, Help me!
Freddy looked away. When he glanced at the other young men, he was somehow not surprised to find that Aglovale was surveying his nails with some urgency and that Kay was looking to the side, whistling the cheeriest tune he could muster.
Leona, however, was sighing. “My lady, if you had any idea what he was like –”
“And you really ought to have a care before you say things that could — that could damage your reputation! Or his!”
“Believe me, there’s nothing I could say that would have a worse effect on his reputation than the things Elyan manages to do on a daily basis.”
“I would venture to disagree! You — you’re treating Sir Elyan as if he was less than an honorable man! Why, you all but called him a liar!” she sniffed, turning away. “Only a lady of impure heart would say such a thing about an honorable man!”
Elyan’s cringing showed that he knew what was coming. So did Freddy, for that matter. And even if he was not precisely fond of Elyan, that did not make the sympathetic embarrassment any less humiliating when it finally came.
Leona scrunched her eyebrows and asked, “Er, we are still talking about Elyan, right?”
The girl gasped. “You dare!”
“You would, too, if you knew him as well as I did.”
“And just who are you to him, anyway?” the girl sniffed. “To say such things?”
A corner of Leona’s mouth quirked up. “I’m not sure I want to admit that in public.”
Suddenly the girl’s face cleared, something like comprehension dawning. “Oooh. Oh, I get it! Are you his sister?” she asked eagerly.
“What?” Elyan moaned.
“Well,” the girl giggled, “sometimes sisters will give their brothers a hard time, even if they should know better –”
Unfortunately Leona ruined that happy and potentially face-saving lie by laughing out loud.
“His sister? His sister? Oh, Lord, I almost wish I was! Maybe he wouldn’t be such an ass if he’d had a sister like me!”
“You’re … not? Then what …”
“It’s worse than that!” Leona laughed. “I’m his betrothed!”
The girl gasped and turned to Elyan, the look of betrayal she wore making Freddy cringe in sympathy. “Is — Sir Elyan, that can’t be true!”
“If only!” Leona sighed.
“It’s not quite official!” Elyan tried to save himself — which, as any of the men sitting around the table could have told him, had approximately the same effect as throwing an iron life ring to a drowning man would have.
“You — you — you!” was all the girl could get out before her hand hit Elyan’s face with a sound that echoed through the room. “You cad!”
“But — but — wait!” Elyan called, and Leona watched the girl walk off with an unreadable expression.
“What’d you do that for?” Elyan snapped.
Leona only tossed him a glance as the summer sun on rainless crops before striding to the young men’s table. “This seat taken?” she asked, pulling out the seat by Freddy.
“Of course not,” Kay replied, and Freddy can’t have been the only one who thought that Leona sank into it more gratefully than gracefully.
“You all right?” Freddy asked in a low voice. Leona responded with a smile that was so brittle and sad that Freddy almost wanted to go beat Elyan up himself.
“Hey!” Elyan snapped. “Leona! I’m not done with you!”
Kay sighed. “Who wants to explain to him why … why …”
“He should be apologizing to you, my lady,” Aglovale murmured to Leona.
“He should be fed feet-first to a wild bear. Or maybe a wild boar,” Leona muttered. “Maybe that would teach him some manners.”
“Leona!” Elyan snapped. “Leona, come here this instant!”
Kay watched Elyan with a speculative expression. “Damn,” he swore. “The only thing that I can think to say that might get through to him is too low for even him to hear …”
“What is it? I can tell it to him,” Aglovale volunteered.
Leona smiled weakly and turned to Freddy. “So, Freddy. I never did get to hear your version — how did dinner at the de Ganises go?”