“It was good of you to meet with me on such short notice, Brother,” said Sir Mordred as he took Tuck’s hand and gave it a purposeful pump — not too long, not too short, grip neither too firm nor too yielding. Just right in every particular.
That was only one of the many impressions that warred in Tuck’s mind for due attention. It was unfair to expect him to deal with them all at once — but deal with them he must. Still keeping his most ingratiating smile plastered on his face, Tuck tried to catalog them, sort them, and deal with them in the order in which they mattered, not merely the order in which they appeared.
Item: Sir Mordred was dressed finely, in his dress uniform. Now, there were some men who dressed finely for the sake of looking better than everyone else. Sir Mordred was not one of them. There were others who could only be wrestled into their finery by their sternest womenfolk. Sir Mordred was not one of these, either. There was a third type: those who chose their dress each and every day with the same care a monk might put into finding verses for his sermons. Tuck very much feared that Sir Mordred was one of those.
Item: Sir Mordred’s expression was open, frank, unassuming, and tinged with the smallest bit of sadness, hinting at a deeper sadness manfully hidden. It was exactly how a man in Sir Mordred’s position should look like. It was so exactly what Tuck would want to see that it worried him.
Item: King Arthur had granted Sir Mordred and Lady Dindrane a legal separation only the day before.
“I’m sure,” Sir Mordred sighed, “that you can guess why I requested this meeting?”
“I believe I can. Sir Mordred …” Tuck sighed, employing the exhale as he might a choice bit of Scripture. “If you come here only for counsel and succor, of course I or any other monk will do everything we can to help you. But if you come here for an annulment, you know that the Church will not consider such a thing until you and y–Lady Dindrane have been legally separated for a time of a year and a day.”
“Oh, I understand. And it is commendable — of course you want to give both parties a chance to reconcile. However …” He sighed. “You know how difficult it is to procure a legal separation — I must say that I doubt any reconciliation is likely.”
In nine cases out of ten, Tuck would have agreed with Mordred — privately if not out loud. Unfortunately for Mordred, his case was the tenth. The King had not hesitated to grant the parties the legal separation they desired. Tuck only wished he could believe it was simple family favoritism at work, but he thought it far too likely that the King was bowing to the wishes of Lady Dindrane. Family unfavoritism was always more disturbing than mere nepotism.
“You must hope and have faith, Sir Mordred,” Tuck hedged.
“Hope? Have faith? Brother …” Mordred sighed. “I do not know how to explain it to you — but if you yourself had ever watched one of the people you honor most in the world work ceaselessly and tirelessly to destroy one of the people you care for most in the world, you would not be urging me to have hope and faith in a reconciliation.”
“I hope I would be urging it all the more strongly. Sir Mordred, it is not when we are sure of ourselves and our hearts are whole that we need hope and faith the most. Rather it is when we are the least sure and the most hurt that we must lean on the Lord Wright for the succor and support only he can provide.”
“It is more than succor and support that I need, Brother. It is a new start. But,” Sir Mordred said, “please do not misunderstand me. I do not wish to ask you to act against the rules of your order or the larger church. I am simply a … practical man, let us say. And I understand –”
“Sir Mordred, forgive me for interrupting, but perhaps it is best we take this into the library.” Tuck began walking and waited only for Sir Mordred to catch up. “I fear that even in a monastery, walls have ears.”
Sir Mordred fell into step with him without a word. There was another worrying item.
But nothing worried Tuck quite as much as his own edginess. He knew where Brother Andy was, out seeing to the sick. Tuck had arranged for many more sick to be put on the rolls once he had taken Brother Andy’s measure: it was best to get a monk like that out and about and into the world as often as possible. But Father Hugh? Where was he at this precise moment?
The library was the third door down on the right, it was the work of a moment to slip inside and usher Sir Mordred to a seat. Tuck too the seat opposite. “Now, Sir Mordred, you were saying? You are a practical man?”
“Most practical. And I understand that the Church will want to know a great deal about my … former marriage –”
“You are still married, Sir Mordred.”
“In name only, Brother.”
“In the eyes of the Lord Wright, Sir Mordred.”
“Perhaps not!” Sir Mordred’s eyes lit up. “For is not an annulment a declaration that there was no marriage? If I am destined to get this annulment, surely the Lord Wright already knows this — and surely He knows that there was no marriage to begin with.”
“I should be careful of saying such things, Sir Mordred. You have three children with Lady Dindrane.” Or would he deny them? Tuck hesitated. He had little talent at determining the resemblances of young children — one excepted — but he knew little Lady Nimue, and nobody could look at little Lady Nimue’s face and not know immediately who her father was.
“Gawain will remain my legal heir no matter what happens, and Gareth should — Lord forbid — anything happen to Gawain. That was one of the … one of the points of the separation,” Mordred answered.
Points, eh? Had it been something Lord Pellinore insisted upon? Or — worse — had it been the King himself who insisted on it? Even if Lady Dindrane and Mordred themselves had not dragged it into open court, everyone from the lowliest peasant on up knew of Mordred’s other family, the twin boys who were older and, rumor insisted, better-loved than their legitimate brothers.
“And indeed,” Mordred continued, “as long as any of my children with Lady Dindrane live, or their children live, they will be my heirs over the children of any … other connections. I assure you, it is all in the document. An annulment will not affect the legal status of my children with Lady Dindrane in any way.”
“But in the eyes of the Church, and of the Lord, they may be counted illegitimate. Is that something you wish to do to your own children, Sir Mordred?”
Mordred sighed and spread his hands. “Brother Tuck … the Lord Wright is a loving father to us all, is he not? What loving father bestows less love on his own children because of the sins of their mother?”
If only it could be that simple. But, on the other hand, Tuck had never heard of a case where the Church treated children who were conceived in good faith, so to speak, within what both parties assumed was a marriage at the time, any differently than children who were fully legitimate. It was far more likely that the children would be disinherited … but if this was not to happen …
If only Tuck could believe that it was Mordred’s own insistence that they remain his legal heirs, and not an insistence imposed upon him!
Still, it seemed that the children were a non-issue. Tuck let them pass. “But you know, again, that the Church will consider nothing for a year.”
“Yes. And before it considers, the Church wants, of course, the fullest and most complete information. I simply wish to know all that the Church will wish to know, so I may gather my information, put everything in train, and be fully prepared once the Church is prepared to consider my request.”
There, Mordred’s tone and expression seemed to ask, that won’t be so terribly hard, now, will it? Part of Tuck wished that it could be that easy.
The trouble was, of course, the way the Church handled annulments. She could be very … capricious if she chose to be. She could grant only a partial annulment, allowing one partner to remarry and the other not. She could impose a penance on both parties and force them to wait. She could do just about anything, in fact, and no man could gainsay her — which was as it should be, of course, but …
But the Church was composed of Sims. Any annulment had to be approved by the head of the Order that had married the couple. Mordred and Lady Dindrane had been married by the Pascalians, of course, which was highly unusual for highly-born couples. So it would go to Father Peter. Tuck had no idea what Father Peter would do. He could follow Father Hugh’s advice, simply add the rubber stamp of his approval — he could issue an independent judgement — he could toss the measure onto Brother Bernard’s desk. Who was to know?
But if the third course of action was followed … then there would be no way that Lady Dindrane, even with her canny judge of a father, would have any hope of having her way with the annulment. Mordred would have a whole year to get his story straight before Lady Dindrane’s family was asked to give evidence. And Tuck very much feared that Lady Dindrane and her family would be constrained by the truth. That would mean …
Well, that would mean that Brother Bernard would be far more likely to favor Mordred’s side of the story than Lady Dindrane’s. The truth was not the sort of thing to be believed by a Sim who had not witnessed it himself, not unless he was of a very discerning mind or unusually close connection to the Lord Wright.
“Sir Mordred, I think it would be far wiser of you to spend this next year in prayer and reflection, perhaps in determining how your marriage went wrong, than devoting all of your energies to trying to get out of it.”
“Ah, Brother Tuck! You think there is a thought in my mind other than how my marriage went wrong? It is the first thing I consider upon waking, and the last before I can sleep for the night.” Mordred sighed. “You cannot possibly understand … all I want is a fresh start, as soon as possible. Remember, Brother. Remember what Lady Dindrane did.”
Tuck sighed. “You are still distraught over the death of your lady mother. I do not blame you …” Especially since she probably burns in Hell at this moment. If she had committed suicide as the official story claimed, then there was no other fate for her. And Tuck had no knowledge of whether the official story was true or not. If she had been quietly murdered — or perhaps privately executed was the better term for it — on King Arthur’s orders, then only one man in the kingdom would know that (other than those who had done the deed, of course): his confessor. His confessor was not Tuck but Father Hugh.
Tuck shook his head to clear it. “I do not blame you for your emotional and spiritual unrest. You lost both of your parents within the space of a year, and your mother most … most traumatically. But perhaps it would be best to feel what you feel, and let it pass, and then deal with your marriage to Lady Dindrane.”
“You want me to stop blaming her.” It was not a question.
“Sir Mordred –”
“You believe her.”
“It is not my place to take sides.” No, that was Father Hugh’s place, and for once, Tuck did not envy him. Tuck only wished that the thought did not trouble him so. He was far too afraid that Father Hugh had already taken a side — and perhaps not the most prudent side at that. “But all the same –”
“There is no all the same. Brother Tuck,” Mordred’s voice was low, icy, and so very calm that it came to anger contrariwise. His voice was a frozen lake — with a volcano rumbling beneath. Any moment now, the ice would vaporize and fire would churn into the air. “Brother Tuck, I came to you because you are, above all, a reasonable man. You would do much better simply to tell me what I must do to get my evidence in order and allow me to get to it.”
“Sir Mordred –”
“You do not want to start a war with me. Believe me. I will have out of this marriage, one way or another. With the Church’s approval –”
“Or –” Mordred stopped suddenly, and Tuck froze. He dared not look behind him.
“Or what, Sir Mordred?”
Never had Father Hugh’s cheerful, gentle voice sounded so menacing.
Tuck leapt from his chair with such haste that he almost tangled his legs in his robe and nearly dashed the chair to the ground. “Father!” Tuck tried to laugh. “Father, I thought you were … resting! I didn’t want to disturb you with –”
“Brother, please stand aside.”
Tuck stiffened and glanced at Mordred’s perfectly composed face. “Father …” He spoke in as low a voice as possible and knew that Mordred still heard him. “Father, I do not believe that would be wise.”
“Nor do I. But there are some things that are more important than wisdom.”
Tuck stumbled away before he quite understood what he was hearing. It must have been the shock. However, no sooner had he stumbled away than he followed after Father Hugh, duckling-like.
But when had a duckling ever been able to protect the mama duck from the wiles of the fox?
“Sir Mordred, stand up,” Father Hugh ordered.
Mordred turned and treated Father Hugh to a long, slow stare. It was like watching the unblinking stare of a snake. Tuck felt his bones begin to meld together, as the bones of prey did when face-to-face with death incarnate. He could only pray that he was not noticed —
Father Hugh snorted and stamped and glowered. But he said nothing. It was then that Tuck realized that to speak first in this battle of wills would be to admit defeat.
Then Mordred was up, without a word, so quickly that Tuck was almost not sure that he had seen him move. He wished there was a way to grab onto one of the bookshelves without looking weak and unmanly — or risking damaging the books.
“So,” Father Hugh snarled. “You will be free of your marriage with the Church’s approval or without it? Is that what you were to say?”
“Since you have already convinced yourself –”
“Answer me truly, Sir Mordred! None of your riddles!”
Mordred leaned laconically against a chair. “You have already convinced yourself that what you say is true, Father. What could I say that would convince you otherwise?”
“Not that,” Father Hugh snorted. “Think you that you can determine when a marriage begins and ends better than the Holy Mother Church?”
“If my annulment is granted, then the marriage never was.”
“Which it will not be!”
Tuck’s eyes bugged. Father Hugh hadn’t — he didn’t — he did know that Mordred was one of the most powerful men in the kingdom, still, didn’t he?
“You cannot grant or deny my request, Father. You can only recommend –”
“I can refuse to hear it at all, Sir Mordred. You will not defame a good woman on my watch!”
“A good woman? A good woman? She grew a Sim-eating weed in the backyard! She defamed –”
“She defamed no one! She spoke the truth and did all in her power to save the life of an innocent child — an innocent child your own mother would have murdered in her deranged quest for youth and beauty!”
“My mother would have murdered no one!” Mordred shouted, his savage cry probably waking the sleeping babes in the orphanage across the lane.
“She would have! She would have! Admit it to yourself, Sir Mordred, even if you never admit it out loud. If you cannot admit what she did was wrong, then you, sir, will become nothing other than her ghost, and her sins will not have died with her!”
“And how would you know?” Mordred retorted. “You weren’t even in the country!”
“I saw the child!”
Oh, no, Tuck thought. It was all going to come out — Father Hugh would admit where he had been, he would admit that Lady Morgan’s fae foundlings were his, it would all come out and the Church would collapse on them with all the force of the fall of a cathedral roof —
“As soon as I returned to the country, I saw that boy! Did you ever see him, Sir Mordred, other than to browbeat him on the stand?”
“I did not browbeat him!”
“Did you see him?”
Mordred’s eyes narrowed. “I do not consider it to be my duty to check after the lying sons of gypsy whores.”
Father Hugh sniffed. “If you believed that poor boy to be a liar, then you are either a fool or an expert in fooling yourself.”
Father! Stop! Stop antagonizing one of the most powerful men in the kingdom!
“And if you think,” Father Hugh continued, “that having seen that boy, and your lady wife, and Betsy Pelles, and even your lady mother before she died, that I will for a moment consent to hear your petition for an annulment — unless that petition is backed in full by your lady wife — then you are sadly mistaken, my son!”
“You take her side? The lying –”
“She told no lies! She said nothing but the truth! And she would not, from what I hear of the trial, have told all the truth she told had you not pressed her to it. You have treated her shamefully, sir! You have no right to request freedom from the bonds of this marriage, since you never minded them in the first place!”
“Brother Tuck,” Mordred snarled, “do you hear what this man is saying? You are a reasonable man, a worldly man –”
“Brother Tuck is not abbot here! I am!”
Mordred turned to Father Hugh, mouth opening to speak. He evidently thought better of it, though, for he turned on his heel and shoved one of the chairs out of his way. The clatter made Tuck jump. Mordred marched from the room.
“Father …” Tuck murmured.
“He called you a worldly man, my son. What did he mean by that?”
“Father …” Tuck passed his hand over his face. How to say this without offending his best friend in the world? “I think he means that I am … a Vidcundian, Father. That I am sure to look at things from the angle from which the world would see them, not only the angle from which a holy man would.”
“Tuck … what am I going to do with you? That’s not all he meant, and well we both know it.”
“I was not going to grant his request!” Tuck protested. “I was trying to dissuade him! Just …”
“Father!” Tuck gasped. “Though … forgive me, Father, it is not as if you were particularly effective either. He’s the King’s nephew. Such men do not take kindly to being shouted at, particularly not if they are being told that they are in the wrong.”
“Tuck …” Father Hugh sighed and shook his head. “I do not know. I do not know. You have seen more than thirty winters, my son. All of them in a monastery. If you do not know by now … how can you ever be taught?”
“Taught — taught what, Father?”
“That sometimes it is not the job of a monk to be reasonable, to be accommodating, to avoid stepping on toes. He must never be cruel, of course, but sometimes … sometimes he must ring the bells of justice so that all may hear. And when he does that …” Father Hugh turned away and sighed.
“When he does that,” he whispered, so low that Tuck almost could not hear, “sometimes he must let the chips fall where they may.”