“And I trust your studies are going well, dear?” asked the Queen.
“V-very well,” Garnet replied — no, not merely replied, stammered. She was stammering! She never stammered!
Garnet did not quite dare to glance into the Queen’s tired, worn face. She had to keep looking forward. But if she had, she would have seen how the Queen’s brows knit in concern, how her head cocked to one side, listening for an elaboration that never came. She might have seen the Queen’s hand lifted from her skirts, only to fall again. She might have even noticed the sigh.
Whether any of that would have had an effect on her was an entirely different matter. As things stood, Garnet could only look around the room and try to sit still as her stomach tied itself into knots of knots. She could only wonder a couple of things:
Why hadn’t Morgan come along?
And why did Lamorak have to be seated halfway across the room?
Lord Pellinore was seated by his side, going on and on about some stuffy topic that nobody cared about but him. Insufferable old man — after doing everything in his power to keep her and Lamorak apart, he had the gall to be polite to her when they met! Couldn’t he just admit that he hated her and be honest about it? Why did he have to pretend that he saw her as anything but some witch’s daughter who was not good enough for his son?
He was even trying to include them all — all of them — in whatever his conversation was. Garnet wanted to vomit even more than she had when she first walked into the palace and was shown to the Queen’s sitting room. Mordred, sulking by the window, had the right tactic to take. He would doubtless burn a hole through the leaded panes with his stare, but at least he wasn’t putting up with this hypocrisy.
Why couldn’t the King just come in, lay down the law, and let Garnet go back to Morgan’s or back to Camford? Why did he have to put them through this elaborate charade? He was going to pretend, Garnet knew, that he was listening to all of them, but he was going to let Lord Pellinore have his way and advise Garnet to look elsewhere. What else could he do? Why else would he call them all here?
Clank, clank, clank — Garnet froze. Was that …?
Ambrosius slipped into the room, bowed to the Queen, and gave the rest of the room’s occupants a brief nod. Garnet’s eyes were drawn to the continual nodding of his crest. Her heart was drawn, called really, to her stomach when he spoke. “Lady Garnet, the King will see you now.”
“Garnet!” The King was rising from his seat before Garnet could even curtsey. “There you are. Sorry to keep you waiting, my dear, but I had to finish a bit of business first. The wait wasn’t too tedious, was it?”
The King, halfway out of his seat, fell back into it with a thump. He watched her with gray brows narrowed over his gray eyes. How old he had gotten! It could not have been that long ago when he was her brown-haired, laughing Uncle Arthur, who always had a sweet for her when they met … could it be? But of course it was — it had been years, years, since Garnet was of an age to be placated with a sweet. She had grown and changed. Why not he?
He was not one to be placated at all, it seemed. “Majesty?” he repeated, questioning.
Garnet could not look at him when the tiles were calling her name.
She heard something, a cross between a sniff and an equine snort, escape from him. “Never mind that. Let me have a look at you, my dear.” He brooked no argument, coming up to her and bestowing a kiss on each cheek. Then he held her at an arm’s length, brows coming together as he surveyed her face.
Once again, the tile called Garnet’s name, but she could not see them and had to rest her eyes on the King’s brocaded shoulder instead. She did not see the King’s frown, or even the way he pinched the bridge of his nose as if to ward off a headache.
“Garnet …” His voice had more of the silken fur of a child’s toy bear than the growl of the real thing. “Why don’t we sit down, honey?”
Garnet nodded, expecting to sit on one side of the great desk with the King on the other. Instead, he took her arm in his, patted her hand, and led her over to the bench by the windows. It was Garnet’s turn to fall to the sitting surface with a thump. And this time, as the King looked her up and down, she did not look away — she stared back in shock.
The King seemed at a loss for words for a moment, then he sighed. “Garnet, you’ll have to forgive me for prying into your life like this — but at the moment, I think I’m the most capable guardian you can have. Ah ah!” He lifted one hand to forestall her protest. “I don’t mean anything anything against Morgan — but, well …” He scratched his head. “Morgan,” he decided, “is the type of woman to do what she wants and damn the consequences — while I prefer a … subtler route. I think you might prefer it, too, at least in this case.”
“… I would?” Do what you want and damn the consequences — it was sounding attractive right about now — but Lamorak would never go along with it. And who was Garnet fooling? She couldn’t even handle the consequences of her mother’s wrongdoing. What would she do when faced with the consequences of her own wrongdoing?
“Believe me, you would. It’s much better to get what one wants while upsetting as few people as possible. You’ll have to live with all of them, you know. Best to let Uncle Arthur try his hand at waylaying the dragons before you go after the treasure. Now, my dear, this is the part where I begin to pry. Why do you want to marry Lamorak?”
Garnet gasped and stared. “I — I — I don’t know …”
“You don’t know?” asked the King, gently. “Is it because of his title? His lands? His –”
“No, no! None of that!”
“I — I love him.” Garnet gulped and stuck her chin out. “I love him.”
Then it fell and Garnet returned to staring at the tiles. “But — but I couldn’t …”
“Couldn’t what?” the King pressed.
“Tell you … exactly why …”
He — was that a chuckle? “Garnet, believe me, you don’t get as many grey hairs in your beard — er — hair as I have without learning a few things along the way. One of those is that the heart wants what it wants, and there’s no use trying to ask it, ‘why this one and not that one?’ But surely you can tell me what it is that you like so much about him?”
Garnet blinked. Of course she could, but — where to start?
When she had first noticed him, when she was but a green girl? He’d been a fine dashing lad, then, a friend of her older brother’s, the most eligible young man in the kingdom who hadn’t already had his heart taken or his hand promised. That would be enough to set any young girl’s heart a-pittering. But there was more than that — it was the way he smiled at her, the twinkle in his eye when he looked up to find her watching him. It was the way he listened to her girlish problems, and instead of tut-tutting them and patting her head like her father, or launching solution after solution like Morgan, he seemed to indicate that he would fix them, just by his presence.
She had to say something — she might as well start with that.
“He — he listens to me,” Garnet started, “and he — he has a lot of honor, Maj–”
“Uncle Arthur will, I think, be sufficient for this conversation,” Arthur murmured with a wink.
“… Uncle Arthur,” Garnet murmured.
“He — he has a lot of honor, Uncle,” Garnet continued. “He …” She couldn’t tell him — not the ways Lamorak had shown his honor. He’d told her about Morgause — he need not have done that! He’d refused her whiles twice, which hopefully came from honor and not repulsion with her. “And he has a good heart, Uncle! Such a good heart. He …” He loved me, and he still loves me, even after everything that’s happened. “He’s the only one in the kingdom, I think, who is trying to make things up with my brother.”
“You’re probably right about that. So … listening, honor, a good heart … good reasons to love another, in my humble opinion. Good reasons to marry, too — and other than your mother’s … misdeeds, and your brother’s temper tantrums, I cannot think of any reason for you two not to marry, provided Lamorak feels the same way.”
“You — you can’t?”
“No,” Arthur replied. “You two are social equals; your dowry is sufficient to his rank. You have, if I so flatter myself, excellent familial connections, while Lamorak is the son and heir of one of my most valuable servants. Your marriage also introduces the possibility of magic in future generations of the Gwynedds, which you, my dear, may or may not see as a particular advantage, but which I — all right, well, more Tom than I at first, but now even I do. Again, other than your mother’s and your brother’s conduct, which you have no control over and are seeking to distance yourself from, I don’t see any objections.”
“But — but I thought –”
Arthur raised his eyebrows.
“I thought … I thought, when I came here and saw Lord Pellinore, that you would surely be on his side … I mean …”
“… Those are rather large objections …”
“Hmm,” Arthur murmured. “Well, I’ll grant you that. They don’t, how, outweigh your most important family connection — at least, not in my humble opinion.”
Garnet finally giggled — which must have been what Arthur was going from all along. He grinned, stood and helped her to her feet.
“Now, my dear,” he said, embracing her, “you just leave Lord Pellinore to me. And do me a favor, won’t you, honey, and send him in when you leave?”
When Pellinore entered the room, Arthur was ready. Pellinore seemed to know it, too, for he stopped dead — not even bowing! — and watched his monarch with the gaze of the most practiced lawyer.
Arthur only grinned. This did not serve to calm or mollify Pellinore in the least, which was exactly what Arthur was hoping it would do.
“My liege?” Pellinore asked.
“My lord,” Arthur answered, closing the distance between them with a single step. “I am going to get right to the point — so please forgive me. What are your objections to the match between your son Lamorak and my niece Garnet?”
Pellinore smiled faintly. “So it is like that.”
Arthur narrowed his eyes. Should he ignore that, or ask, as Pellinore clearly wanted him to do? Well, there was something to be said for walking into a trap — with one’s eyes fully open, of course. “Like what?”
“‘My niece Garnet,'” Pellinore repeated. “You … have decided to make this a personal affair. Your Majesty, I swear to you, I have no objections to the young lady personally. She is all that a young lady should be, and I wish her the best. However –”
“I trust you have no objections to her family?”
“To her extended family, there are no objections that could possibly be raised.” When Arthur’s eyebrow went up, Pellinore smirked a bit and pointed out, “After all, she is not related by blood to King Vortigern. But as for her … immediate family … well, Your Majesty, can you blame me?”
That would depend entirely upon what Arthur was blaming Pellinore for. Pellinore seemed disinclined to let him in on the secret, too, so Arthur hazarded a guess. “I did not think you the type of man to object to a young lady based on the actions of her mother — especially when that young lady had nothing to do with those actions and abhors them as much as you do. More, even.”
“I am not that type of man.”
Arthur sighed. “Mordred, then.”
“He treated my daughter abominably, Majesty. You cannot expect me to want to bring him any closer to my family than I have already, regrettably, brought him.”
“Allow me to point out that he is the father of your grandchildren. You’re not getting rid of him, Pellinore. Even if the Church annuls the marriage, you’re stuck with him.”
“As I said — I do not want to bring him any closer. And you also know …”
Arthur lifted his hand. “I know. I know. You do not think he is to be trusted.”
“He is furious, Majesty. He is furious and in his rage … I do not know what he might do in his rage. I do not want my family to be the ones to find out. He believed her — I think he still believes her — innocent, you know. He will think right is on his side, no matter what he does.”
“Pray the Lord it be so.”
If that was true, then Mordred was as much Lot’s son as he was Morgause’s. Maybe Mordred had a bit of appreciation, too, for Arthur and Arthur’s justice in him. If Mordred had to think himself right to act wrongly, then he was not all Morgause’s creature. Morgause never gave a damn about right and wrong. If Mordred did, then Mordred could still be saved.
Pellinore sighed. “Majesty, you do not seem to appreciate how dangerous he could be. I understand he is your nephew, and you care for him, but –”
“But Pellinore,” Arthur interrupted, “if everybody cuts him off, then what choice will he have but to cut everyone off in turn?”
Pellinore let his head fall back, face scrunched in a grimace to the heavens. It was the closest he would come to shouting at the heavens, or at Arthur.
Arthur continued with his logic. “You know Sir Bors won’t have anything to do with him. He’s the most conservative of us, and even he couldn’t justify Morgause this time. The du Lacs? They might come around eventually, but they won’t be making any first moves. That leaves your family.”
“The family he has most wronged!”
“The family that is already his family. Look, I’m not asking you to let or force Lady Dindrane to patch things up with Mordred. Lord forbid. I am asking you to allow — not force, allow — your son to marry a woman for whom he cares a great deal, and a woman who loves him. And let me remind you that the woman in question is also my niece. If you still want no more contact with Mordred than is absolutely necessary, then fine. I won’t ask that of you. You don’t even have to invite him to the wedding if Garnet agrees. But this leaves a door open. When we’re dead and gone, Mordred has a door open.”
Pellinore sighed. “And the matter of her dowry? Mordred would be within his rights to refuse it to her.”
“I happen to know precisely what her father promised her in his will.”
“In other words, you’d pay it.”
Arthur grinned. “No law against that, as far as I know.”
“So in other words, I have very little choice.”
“You have every choice, Pellinore.”
“Then I have only one sensible choice.”
Arthur shrugged. He often thought being King was little more than limiting a man’s sensible choices to what would be most to the King’s advantage.
“Very well, then. I accept.”
“Excellent! You won’t regret it! After all …” Arthur clapped Pellinore on the shoulder. “Remember — your heir is marrying my niece, my son’s cousin. We’ll remember that, even if Mordred would prefer to forget Garnet ever existed. And speaking of Mordred … you wouldn’t mind doing your monarch a favor, would you, and sending him in after you leave?”
Arthur was sure to be seated at his desk when Mordred came in. Mordred bowed. “My liege.”
“Nephew. Please, have a seat.”
Mordred stood for a moment, eyes narrowed, tall and imperious in his dress uniform. Both of the Orkney siblings had worn their best, though Arthur could not help but feel that they had done so with dissimilar motives. Mordred bowed again and sat without a further word.
“When my sister came out,” he remarked carelessly, “her eyes were very bright and she only had eyes for Sir Lamorak. Now, the latter is hardly a cause for concern or notice — but the former? The former, I think, is somewhat rare on her these days.”
“It is indeed,” Arthur agreed.
They stared at each other across the desk. It was really all a question of who would fold first, which would lay his cards on the table. Whoever spoke first would lose, give the other information he could use. And Mordred wore the small smirk of a man who could sit and wait and stare all day, if that meant victory.
Arthur didn’t have all day. He also didn’t have the patience for what young men with too much time on their hands might construe as a victory. He spoke first. “I wish to speak to you about your sister’s marriage to Sir Lamorak.”
Mordred’s eyebrows arched. “I was not aware that any such marriage was planned.”
“It is her wish. It is his. Lord Pellinore is amenable to the situation.”
“If she has no dowry, will he be quite as amenable?” Mordred asked.
“She will have a dowry.”
Mordred’s eyes narrowed. “Is that an order, Majesty?”
“No. It is a statement of fact. You may choose to approve — and grant her her dowry — or not, but she will have a dowry of the amount that was granted to her by her father. Not a farthing more or less.”
Mordred sat back and surveyed Arthur with something very close to shock. “You would undermine my authority? I am her guardian, you know.”
“Technically your guardianship ended on her eighteenth birthday.”
“Technically. You know it is my right to approve her suitor.”
“It is your right to grant or withhold her dowry. I am not taking that away.”
“You are just rendering it useless.”
“Only if you choose to see it that way. I do not intend to fund her dowry if she marries a swineherd, you know. Only Sir Lamorak — or any other reasonable candidate –”
“Reasonable candidate?” Mordred exploded. “The son of the man who sentenced my mother to death! The brother of the woman who accused her! The –”
“The only man in this kingdom who would look past your mother’s crimes — she was convicted in a court of law, Mordred, and most of the kingdom will not care for much beyond that — and marry Garnet regardless.”
“Then let her marry out of the kingdom! It’s what my mother wanted!”
“But not what your father wanted.”
Mordred’s jaw opened, shut, opened again. “My liege … please do not use my father’s shade against me in this. Have you no mercy?”
“I will if you grant me no other choice, Mordred. I am doing this as much for you — and for your father’s memory — as for Garnet.”
“For me? For my father’s memory?”
“He worked hard to put your family in the position that it is, or was, before Lady Morgause … well. She is beyond my judgement now. But there is no reason why you, your sister, or your younger brother should suffer for the crimes for which she was found guilty.”
“My liege …” Mordred sneered.
“And if you persist with this feud with every family in this kingdom,” Arthur continued, “they will suffer, and you will suffer.”
“I will suffer?”
“Aren’t you suffering already?” asked Arthur.
Mordred did not look at him. Arthur could have driven the point home — mentioned the crumbling family relationships, the abandonment of friends, the wife who left him. He did not. He only waited.
“My suffering,” Mordred finally snarled, “is nothing you can relieve.”
“No. It is not. I do not pretend to understand what you are going through, Mordred. But I can tell you this much: it does not have to be this way forever. You can repair all that has been broken. It will not be easy, and it will take time –”
“And if I have no interest in cleaning up others’ messes?” Mordred snapped.
“And you do not need to do so right away. You may take your time about it. But let me tell you, Mordred … if you agree to give your sister her dowry when she marries Sir Lamorak, you will have cleaned up a great deal of the mess.”
Mordred looked away. “Will I have? And why should I care for people who would care nothing for me? Who think I am in the wrong for doing my duty as a good son should?”
“If you give your sister her dowry, they will begin to wonder if you were in the wrong.”
Mordred bowed his head. But he still had one parting shot to give. “If I was not in the wrong, then who was?”
Your MOTHER! But Arthur would not say that. “If they determine that it was not you, does it truly matter?”
“It matters,” Mordred murmured, “more than you can imagine, Majesty. But … I will think upon your suggestion. That much I promise.” He ran a finger along the desk. “I will give it my deepest … and utmost … thought.”
And with that, Arthur decided, he would be content.