Milo couldn’t believe he was doing this. In a lifetime of doing stupid things, it had to rank up there as one of the all-time stupidest. Yet, here he was, at the prison when he should have been training, or hunting with Lamorak, or following Tom around the kingdom on one “fact-finding” mission or another, or bothering Will in his office, or bothering Rob at his shop. And he had no idea what he would say when he found Christopher. If he found Christopher.
But if there was anyone in this kingdom who would understand, who could help or advise him … wouldn’t it be Christopher?
For a moment, Milo paused at the top of the stairs, taking it in. He shuddered involuntarily. King Arthur must have gone to the Tower in Glasonland on a “fact-finding” mission of his own and taken copious notes. Milo had, of course, seen the Tower — it was sometimes used, even these days, as a royal residence, and somehow or other Vortigern always managed to be there when he had to meet with his bastards — but he tried to avoid the place, like most of Vortigern’s bastard sons. Still, the King had managed, without replicating the exact floor plans or layout, to re-create that familiar feeling of menace and doom impending. He’d somehow managed to do it without all the leering and laughing gargoyles, too. Truly the man was a genius.
“Sir? Can I be helpin’ ye?”
Milo almost jumped when the dark-haired guard broke off his joke with the blonde one and turned to him. “Er, yes,” Milo said. “I’m looking for Warden, er, Tower. I don’t suppose you could tell me where he is?”
“He’s on his rounds at the moment. Is it urgent?”
“Crown business, sir?” the guard asked with a bit of a smile.
“What? Oh — oh!” Milo glanced at his surcoat. It wasn’t a royal one — but that was the point, wasn’t it? If you weren’t wearing a royal surcoat, then you were a knight. Non-knights didn’t get to wear their own family surcoats. Furthermore, the population here was still sparse enough that the lords hadn’t built up their own private armies of surcoated guards. “Er, no. I just need to … see him …”
The guard’s eyebrow rose.
“Er — I’m his — his brother,” Milo finally stammered out. The words felt strange on his tongue. He had brothers, of course, but he’d never before called one of his relations by his father that name. They were always … the others. The other bastards. You didn’t think of them as family: if you did, you might have to take it personally if something happened to one of them.
But this was Albion, and nobody was gunning for them here. Perhaps here, things could be different.
“Oh! Oh, sorry, sir. Ye can go ter the family quarters ter wait fer ‘im, then. He’ll probably be checkin’ on Mistress Tower as soon as his rounds are done — but ye’d know more about than I would, eh?” The guard winked.
“Oh — thank you. Er … which way are the family …?”
“Back tower on the left, sir.”
“Thank you. Thank you.” Head bowed and trying not to wring his hands together, Milo strode across the courtyard. He just prayed that the guard wouldn’t think it odd that Warden Tower’s brother didn’t know where the family quarters were.
He found the door easily, and when he knocked, it was opened by a dark-haired, exotic-looking woman. She was pretty, no denying that, even as she wore a half-confused little smile. “Hello? May I help you?”
“Mistress Tower?” Milo asked, trying to sound a bit more brave and a bit less like an intruder than he actually felt. “Good — good morning. I’m Sir Milo Carpenter.”
Her eyes widened. “Oh! Oh, please do come in!”
“Thank — thank you. The guard outside told me to wait here — your husband, he said, would be in … soon?”
Mistress Tower smiled. “He’s been checking up on me when he finishes his morning rounds. I’d tell him it was silly and he should focus on his duties, but, well, he’s already kept Coralie occupied twice this week while I … well, you don’t need to hear about that. Have a seat?” she asked.
Milo wondered just what it was he didn’t want to know about, and whether it was connected to whatever it was that the guard assumed he already knew about. However, he took the seat with a smile of thanks, even as Mistress Tower already sat down.
“Can I get you anything?” she asked, suddenly, as if she’d only just thought of it. “Tea? Some biscuits?”
“No, no — no, thank you,” he corrected. He glanced sidelong at the little girl playing at the table. He was a little started to see her glancing at him as well. Milo smiled, and she waved back before returning to her construction site of blocks.
“Er –” Milo added, glancing again at the little girl. “Please, if you have things you need to be doing, don’t let me keep you.” Christopher had two children, didn’t he? Where was the other one?
“Oh, don’t worry about it, I wasn’t doing anything that can’t keep until Chris comes in.” Mistress Tower smiled. “Besides, Coralie can keep herself pretty well entertained, and Jason is down for his nap at the moment, so I haven’t much that desperately needs doing.”
“Oh. That’s … that’s lovely.”
She was smiling, steadily if not over-widely, and Milo, who was usually good at filling a room with conversation, could find nothing but emptiness in his head. “I’m sorry,” he heard himself blurt out when the silence grew too much. “I — I didn’t mean to intrude — I just told the guard that I was … your husband’s brother …”
“Well, you are, aren’t you?”
Of all the responses Milo had been expecting … that wasn’t it.
“Er, well, yes. I suppose.” Milo rubbed the back of his neck. “It’s just … back in Glasonland, we never really …”
Milo sighed. “You do.”
“It would be a bit hard to miss,” she said gently.
“I did,” Milo admitted, a little shamefacedly. “I mean — when I was young. I never once thought … or didn’t think often … of all of the rest of us.”
Mistress Tower’s eyebrows drew in. “That’s … that’s interesting.”
“Interesting?” Milo faltered.
She colored, at least insofar as it was possible for someone of her dark skin to flush. “Well — Christopher has said the opposite. He always wondered about his other brothers and sisters, he said. But … well, you would have lived with your mother, wouldn’t you have?”
“Did you have … other brothers and sisters?”
Milo grinned. “Four of them. I’m the eldest.”
“Oh!” She laughed. “No wonder!”
“There were days when the last thing I wanted was more of them,” Milo chuckled, then winced. “Er — that is to say — I don’t mean –”
“Don’t worry — I — believe me, I understand. It’s not fun to be just … one of a crowd.” Her smile faltered for a moment, then returned in full force.
“But …” Milo cast about for a somewhat friendlier subject. “Wouldn’t Ch–your husband have other brothers and sisters, too? I know the King often gave good dowries to the women he … well …”
“His mother married when Chris was very young,” replied Mistress Tower. “She went to live with her husband, and Chris stayed in the Tower with his grandfather. After all …”
“A Tower has been in charge of the Tower as long as there’s been a Tower?” Milo asked.
Mistress Tower laughed. “You know that saying? I thought it was only something the Tower folks trotted out!”
“I’ve heard it once or twice,” Milo smiled smugly. “I think anyone around the reins of power has. However … distantly near the reins of power.”
“Ah,” was all Mistress Tower had to say in reply to that. She too seemed to be searching for something innocuous to say as she twisted her wedding ring round and round her finger. “So … how do you like Albion?”
“Well!” Milo replied, relieved that she found something truly innocuous so he wouldn’t have to. “It’s a bit flatter than back home, though. But it’s a wonderful land. Full of opportunity. And you?”
“Oh, I’m pretty well settled in now. It was … rough at first. I’m used to there being so many more people about, back home.”
“Where were you from?” asked Milo.
“Ludenwic,” she replied.
The capital. No wonder she was used to there being more people about. The capital alone probably held twice the entire population of Albion. Milo slowly nodded. “My fa–my step-father had a house there. You won’t find that kind of bustle in Albion.”
“No, you won’t,” she admitted softly to the table.
Milo winced, watching her. He thought he had had it rough, fleeing his homeland as he had. At least he hadn’t had a family to drag along with him. The little girl — she looked old enough to have been born in Glasonland — she wouldn’t remember or miss the land of her birth, but a wife would. A wife dragged from everything she knew … it beat dying, sure, and it probably beat widowhood, but by how much?
Milo would ever have to wonder, for his chance to ask vanished with the creak of the door. “I leave for my morning rounds,” chuckled a honey-smooth, deep voice, “and I come back to find you entertaining strange men. What have I done to deserve that, Sandra?”
“Chris!” Mistress Tower laughed, although her voice was cut off by the sound of a crumbling wooden structure.
“Papa!” Milo watched as the little girl moved — faster than he would have ever given her credit for — running across the floor to be caught in her papa’s strong arms. “Papa Papa Papa!”
“Cora, remember the baby …” Mistress Tower murmured.
“Aye, Coralie, Baby Jason’s sleeping. Er — that is the baby you were talking about, right, honey?” Christopher winked, dodging Coralie’s baby kisses in order to do so.
“Chris!” Sandra laughed, flushing again. Well, that explained what the guard was so certain Milo would know about.
“Cora — Coralie — Papa has to put you down, now, so he can say hello to his guest. Thank you, Cora.” Christopher put her down, and Milo jumped up to shake his hand.
The warden smiled the same half-smile Milo had seen a thousand times on Tom, on Kay, on the King even. “Call me Christopher.”
And did Milo but know it, he smiled that same half-smile back at Christopher. “Call me Milo.”
Christopher leaned back on his hips and surveyed Milo up and down with the long look of a man well used to judging other men. “Well, Milo, the men said you needed to see me — on some business that wasn’t Crown business?”
“Er … yes, you see, I …” He glanced sidelong at Mistress Tower. “I just needed to … chat?”
“I really should go get lunch started,” Mistress Tower murmured, rising. Good Lord but that woman could take a hint.
Christopher, however, was nodding. “I see. We’ll go up to my study?”
“Sure …” Milo knit his brows together as Christopher grabbed a chair, but followed him up the stairs without a word.
His confusion must have become even more evident as they reached the landing … and stayed there, as Christopher put his chair down and turned the chair from the desk around. Christopher smiled a bit ruefully as he sat. “I’ve another office in the Court Tower. Most of my work gets done there. This is just a … desk. But I like to keep work a bit separate, aye?”
Milo nodded. “That’s … sensible.”
“So!” Christopher said, hands slapping on his knees. “What is it that you needed?”
Milo’s mouth opened. It shut. It opened again. “It’s a girl!” he finally blurted out.
Christopher blinked. “Er …”
“I mean — I mean, I need some advice. About a girl.”
“I know we barely know each other, but — but — I thought you would understand. Out of everybody. You see, she’s a tavern girl.”
“Ah!” Milo had been right. Nobody could nod as Christopher was nodding and not understand.
“And I thought … you see why I can’t ask any of my friends about this?”
“Milo … I don’t think I know exactly what ‘this’ is, just yet.”
“She’s beautiful,” Milo blurted out. “And she’s sweet, and gentle — and genteel, too, or at least she acts like it. And she … she knows I’m a knight, and she’s a … a good girl. So she … I barely convinced her to take a chance on me …”
“Ah,” Christopher murmured.
“And I don’t know what to do,” Milo concluded miserably. “I want her, but …”
“You don’t want to become … King Vortigern.”
Milo looked up. “You don’t call him father, either?”
Christopher shrugged. “He’s not the sort to inspire … warm and fuzzy feelings, is he?”
Milo shook his head. But remembering what Mistress Tower had said — how Christopher had been raised only by his grandfather, how his mother had married and gone to live with her husband when he was very young — he prudently did not mention that that was part of the reason why he never called King Vortigern “father.” The other part of the reason was Milo’s stepfather, the man who had raised him and been a father to him in all but name and certain details of heredity.
“Well,” Christopher shrugged, “the way I see it … if you don’t want to turn into King Vortigern, then you’ve got two choices: either give the girl up, or court her honorably.”
Milo blinked. “Wait — what?”
“Anything else and you’d be like him, wouldn’t you?”
“I wouldn’t treat her half as badly as he treats his — his –”
“It’s hard, isn’t it?” Christopher murmured. “Finding a word that disparages him but retains some honor for our mothers?”
“All of the dishonor is on his side,” Milo snorted. “I don’t care what the world says — he — how can any woman say no to a King?”
“How can a tavern wench say no to a knight — a nephew of the King, no less?”
Milo winced. “I wouldn’t … force her into anything … look, I just asked about her family and she didn’t want to talk — I didn’t force her!”
“So you see her as a Sim, then.”
“I — I what?”
Christopher leaned back in his chair, staring speculatively at the ceiling. “I’ve had a … theory about him. King Vortigern, I mean. And why he could go on to do what he did without any guilt.”
“You do? What — what is it?”
“He doesn’t see the women … the men, either, the husbands and the fathers, the brothers … the children … as Sims, Sims like him. Or at least he doesn’t think they deserve the same kind of … care, consideration, courtesy that he deserves.” Milo was about to point out that this was natural, Vortigern was the king, when Christopher continued, “You see it a lot with a certain type of criminal. They think they’re above the law, you see. Above the rest of us.”
“But … Vortigern is the King. He is above the law! Above the rest of us! He’s not like a criminal!”
“I always did shudder to imagine what one of those criminals would become if somebody handed them a crown,” Christopher mused.
“But they’re different! They’re not — they’re not noble! Not royal!”
Christopher shrugged. “Sometimes I wonder if any of us are all that different, under the skin.”
“Look, Milo — I don’t quite expect you to understand. You’re … well, you’re a knight, you’ve only really been exposed to a certain … class of people. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. But you haven’t seen … everybody. A jailer, he sees everybody.”
“You see criminals!”
“And plenty of Sims who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time — or who made a bad, bad choice when presented with an array of bad options — and sometimes, every now and then, noblemen, men of good family and excellent breeding, whose worst sin was annoying the wrong person, or speaking the truth at the wrong place and time, or refusing to abandon their principles in order to bow to the whims of power.”
Milo shuddered and held his head in his hands.
“You said that your young lady was genteel, didn’t you?” Christopher asked.
Milo looked up. “What’s that got to do with … oh.”
“If a tavern wench can be genteel …” Christopher shrugged.
“Then … a King can be …”
“Like a criminal? Aye.” Christopher scratched his head. “Look, Milo …”
Milo glanced up.
“I was once in a position like yours, aye? So … I think I can advise you, perhaps, a bit better than most.”
Milo stared. “You — you were?”
“Aye. There was … a young girl … much lower than I was, socially … and I wanted her. Needed her. Couldn’t sleep for thinking about her.” Christopher shivered at the memory, and Milo felt himself relax. So Christopher did understand … and perhaps, if Christopher was here, and whole, he would know the best option for Milo to take …
“And I realized,” Christopher continued — Milo sat up to pay attention — “that I had three options. I could give her up, stop thinking about her — I could court her honorably and pray that she’d have me — or I could, well, turn into Vortigern. Take what I wanted and never mind the consequences for the young girl.”
Milo nodded, slowly. “So … what did you do?”
Milo was expecting a story. He was expecting a long, drawn-out tale of temptation, suffering, a decision, maybe some redemption at the end. He was hoping that Christopher’s answer would hold the solution to all of his problems as long as he cared to look hard enough for it.
He wasn’t expecting an enigmatic smile and an answer of three words that was just as enigmatic as the smile — or else wasn’t enigmatic at all.
“I married her.”