A shawl tied around her hips. One arm trying to modestly cover up her breasts, which, strictly speaking, did not appear to have anything to cover. It was official: this was the ugliest statue Will had ever seen, and he had no idea why his father had put it in the card room.
Or maybe his mother had put it into the card room so that she wouldn’t have to look at it every day. But why would she purchase anything so hideous? Maybe it had been a gift?
Whatever the statue’s origin, Will had come to a decision: when he inherited the castle (may the day be long in coming), that statue was going to be the first thing to go.
Or maybe not. He had been living here for over a year, and he had never bothered to look closely at the statue before now. It was only tonight that he had spent any time looking at it. Maybe he could go back to ignoring it tomorrow.
Tomorrow was shaping up to be either the best day or the worst day of his life.
“Will, for the love of all that is good and holy, would you stop staring at that thing? You’re giving me the creeps. Here,” Tom said, rising from the chess table, “I’m getting you a drink.”
“I don’t need another drink.”
“When was your last one?”
Last one? Will tried to cast his mind back — but all the hours, minutes and seconds since Jessie had yelped and, eyes wide, stared at the growing puddle between her feet were a blur. All Will remembered was that he had been banished down here an age ago, nobody was bringing any news, and he couldn’t even hear Jessie yelling. He was told that women in labor yelled. Why couldn’t he hear Jessie?
“Never mind. If you can’t remember, you need another,” Tom muttered.
“I’m not thirsty.”
“Did I ask if you were thirsty?” Tom clapped a hand on Will’s shoulder and led — pushed him — forward to the bar.
“I want to remember meeting my baby,” Will protested. And hopefully he would meet the little lad — or lass — soon. And pray the Lord Jessie would be all right.
“Oh, you will,” Tom murmured. “Doesn’t matter how much you’ve had to drink before, you will. Besides, with the way you’re sweating it out, I doubt any of the alcohol is even hitting you.”
“And Will,” Accolon added, “you know if you want to play, take the edge off, distract yourself, all you’ve got to do is say so.”
“No, he doesn’t!” Lancelot laughed. “Lord, Accolon, he’s about to have a baby! You can’t be taking him for all he has now!”
Accolon chortled, shuffling the cards with far more dexterity than someone whose muscles weren’t firmly attached to the bone. “The baby will have two doting grandsires to spoil it rotten. I’m not worried.”
“I am!” Lancelot replied.
“But maybe he’ll feel better if he distracts himself,” Arthur pointed out. “We can stake him, Lance. Accolon won’t dare try to fleece us.”
“Says who?” Accolon chortled.
“Says your wife,” Arthur answered.
“… Damn,” Accolon sighed. “You’re right, aren’t you?”
“You want to play?” Tom asked, nudging Will with a cold tankard. “It might help you take the edge off. You could probably even get Accolon to bow off — then you won’t have to worry about getting fleeced.”
“Rob’s just as capable of fleecing me,” Will shrugged, taking the tankard. “To say nothing of your father.”
“Yes, but Will, they won’t. I can’t make that guarantee for Accolon.”
“Did it help?” Will asked, glancing sidelong at the table. “When Lynn …?”
Will had been sitting right by Tom’s side while Lynn labored and they played cards to pass the time — but had it helped? Tom always … all that came to Will’s mind were poker metaphors. Played his cards close to his vest, had a good poker face. You never knew that something was bothering Tom unless he wanted you to know. Even when his wife was bringing his first child into the world … he was nervous, edgy, of course, jumping whenever anybody came from upstairs, but if you didn’t know what was happening, you might not have guessed that Tom was waiting to be made either the happiest or most despondent man alive.
“That depends,” Tom replied slowly, “on what you mean by ‘help.’ I have a feeling that I’ve managed to pay for most of Paschal and Chloe’s baby dresses, so I suppose I helped in that …”
Will glanced at the table. “I don’t think I need to buy their toddler … things,” Will finished, lamely.
“You’re no fun, Will!” Accolon called, proving his hearing sharper than Will would have ever guessed. Will could only shrug.
Tom clapped Will on the shoulder. “She’ll be fine, you know.”
There was only one she to whom Tom could be referring. Will watched his amber reflection in the tankard. His eyes were shadowed and his face haggard, and the sleepless nights hadn’t even started yet. “You don’t know that.”
“Of course I know that. Morgan’s with her. Do you think she’d let anything happen to Jess?”
“She might not want to –”
“Will. Not to be morbid, but she regularly reattaches limbs to a zombie. Anything that might go wrong with Jess, she could fix in her sleep. Right, Accolon?” Tom called.
“Oh, aye,” Accolon agreed. “Much harder to fix dead flesh than living. She’ll be fine, Will.”
“But it’s still taking such a long time …” Will murmured.
Tom said nothing, no reassuring words — Will’s head snapped up. “It is! It is taking longer than it should!”
“No, lad, it’s not,” Arthur rumbled. “Longer than Lynn took — aye — but not longer than it should.”
“When she’s been at it for over a day — a whole day, from dawn to dawn,” Arthur continued, impassive, “then you’ll know it’s taking longer than it should. Then you start to worry because of just the length of time it’s taking. Before then? Before then, don’t go fretting about the time.”
“Isabel took half a night and most of a day — from dawn to sunset — for Darius,” Rob added. “I shouldn’t start worrying yet if I were you, Will.”
Yet. Will tried not to shudder. Rob’s sister-in-law Isabel had taken long with her first child … and her second baby had killed her. His fingers tightened around the tankard. To think he used to lie awake at nights, wondering if he’d be a good father — now he’d give a thousand sleepless nights just to know that he would be a father and remain a husband.
“But …” Will tried to protest, “I can’t even hear her …”
“Oh, that’s probably Morgan’s doing,” Accolon answered. “You probably don’t want to hear her.”
Yes, I do! YES I DO!
“She’s probably saying all kinds of nasty things about you just about now,” Accolon mused.
“At least she won’t have anyone egging her on,” Rob pointed out. “I’m pretty sure Granny …” He started, and fell silent, and Will remembered just what a favor Dannie was doing for Jessie, and Rob for him, being here tonight. Even on a good horse, it was an hour’s ride between Avilion and the capital. Anything could happen in two hours with a very sick old woman.
“How is she, Rob?” Tom asked, and Will was grateful, for that meant he did not have find the words.
Rob sighed and shrugged. “No worse … but no better. We think she’s waiting for Freddy to get home to see her. And maybe to give George and Dannie time to … get used to the idea.”
Will stared into his tankard. He remembered how Dannie back in Camford would talk incessantly about her grandmother, and how Freddy didn’t take much coaxing to get a story or two out of him. Will barely remembered his grandfather, but he did remember that his absence had taken a great deal of getting used to. He could not imagine what Dannie and Freddy and their younger brother were going through right now.
Or perhaps he could. Will tossed back the rest of his ale without even tasting it.
Silence, awkward and knobby-kneed rather than golden and pure, descended over the room. Even the cards made no noise as they were shuffled and dealt. The ale in Tom’s glass swirled with the roar of the sea. Chips clinked, and —
The thin, high wail of a newborn pierced the air. Will dropped his tankard.
The door to the room flew open. “Hello, boys!” Guinevere called. “Somebody here wants to meet her daddy!”
Her daddy. A girl, then. But — a healthy girl. A girl with lungs strong enough to wail when she was unhappy. A girl who was quickly calming down as Guinevere shushed her. A girl with big eyes that weren’t closed in sleep, as so many newborns’ were, but wide and trying to watch everything that went on around her.
A baby girl!
He was a daddy!
Will could only grin as he watched the baby. He didn’t notice how quickly Guinevere shut the door behind her. He didn’t see the quick little grin that flitted across her face as she did so. He only barely noticed Tom pushing him forward, and that was because Will went flying forward and nearly tripped over his tankard.
He’d been a father for not five minutes and he was already an embarrassment to his child, he knew it.
“Well?” Guinevere asked, smiling and holding the baby forward. “Come see! Ah-ah!” She glared at the grandsires, already leaping up. “The father gets first dibs!” Out of the corner of her mouth, she added, “And he’d better hurry, because I don’t know how long I can hold the grandfathers off.”
Will hurried as well as he could to get a glimpse at his daughter.
Will gulped when he got closer. He’d never seen anything more beautiful … except … “Jessie?” he croaked.
“Is absolutely fine. She did beautifully, all things considered.” When Will’s head came up from a minute examination of the tiny fingers in a panic, Guinevere sighed. “She’s fine. There were … complications, but she’s fine and she’s going to be fine.”
“Are you –”
“Morgan’s sure. That’s good enough for me, and that’s good enough for Jess.”
If it was good enough for Jess, then it would be good enough for Will.
He stroked the baby’s cheek, ignoring the hubbub behind him of congratulations and slaps on the back and demands to move to the side so they could see the baby. He deserved at least a couple of minutes. The baby’s big silver eyes followed his every moment, and Will smiled.
Silver eyes — Tom’s eyes and Arthur’s eyes, technically, but he wouldn’t think of that just now. He would think instead of Igraine’s silver eyes. The silver eyes that had charmed a king. Silver eyes charming him already. And how fitting, since she would be named for Igraine of the Silver Eyes.
“Her eyes are beautiful,” Will whispered. “Silver.”
“Silver?” Guinevere gasped, or pretended to gasp, turning the baby around and away from Will. She pushed the baby’s dress up and peeked under the napkin. “Will, forgive me — I must have gotten them mixed up. This one is the boy.”
Mixed up —
There was a sudden silence behind him.
Will could only squeak, “Boy?”
“Aye,” came a voice from the door — the Queen’s. “This one is the girl.”
Will looked at the baby in the Queen’s arms, then again at the baby in his mother’s. He looked again. And again.
There were definitely two babies. He was not imagining that.
“Will!” Tom hollered, clapping him on the back. “You dog! Twins! On the first try!”
“But Jess said she wasn’t having twins!” Will wailed, gaze still volleying from one twin to the other.
“Oh, poo! What did she know about it!” Guinevere laughed. “There were twins, all right!”
“See? And you were worrying for nothing! No wonder it took so long!” Tom laughed. “Two babies! You dog!”
“You already mentioned that,” Will muttered.
“It deserves mentioning again!”
“Welcome to the club!” Lancelot laughed, clapping Will on exactly that same spot in the back where Tom had been clapping him all night. “Doesn’t it feel great?”
Great? If great was a mix of shock and sudden terror — one baby was scary enough, but two? — and overwhelming relief that it had been twins, twice as dangerous as one baby, and somehow everyone was all right —
“He’ll probably feel better once the shock’s worn off,” Arthur said kindly. “If you think it’s a shock the second time around, imagine it the first time.”
“Aye, aye …”
The voices were washing over him like those in the market square: a thousand conversations, not one intelligible remark. Except for the Queen’s. “Here,” she said, pushing the girl into Will’s arms. “I think she wants to get to know her papa.”
Will almost panicked as he took her. She was so tiny! Tinier than Elise had been, that one time Tom had pressed her into his arms before she got a bit bigger and sturdier! He was going to drop her, or break her, or —
The baby snuggled and rooted in his tunic, and Will slowly brought her up to his shoulder. “Majesty –” he started, and stopped.
There was no way any mere inquiry about whether the baby — babies — had fed was going to get through this hubbub. “Hope you’re not hungry, baby,” Will whispered, bouncing her up and down. “I don’t think anybody is going to pay attention to me. You’ll have to … to sing for your own supper.”
The baby burped, but she didn’t sing, so hopefully she wasn’t hungry.
Tom, Will heard vaguely, was going on and on about his godson — apparently he had already decided that he would stand as B–as the boy’s–
He had Jess had thought of names — but they hadn’t been twin names. Perhaps Tom and Jessie had gotten along fine without obviously related names … as had Galahad and Leona, but … damn it, he wanted these two to be special!
Will cleared his through. “Majesty?”
Both of their Majesties turned to him. “Will,” Alison sighed, “for heaven’s sake, it’s –”
“Er — can I go up and see Jess?” He looked at the babies. “Can we go up and see Jess?”
“No!” Lancelot wailed. “I didn’t even get a chance to hold one of them!”
Guinevere and the Queen shared glances around Will’s head. “You can hold both of them all you want in the morning,” Guinevere pronounced. “Sure, Will, come with us.”
“No! He can go, but leave the babies!” Lancelot made an ineffectual grab for the boy, and Will held more tightly to the girl.
“You’ve been eclipsed, Will!” Tom laughed.
“They’re tired, Lance. And we might as well let their parents have some time with them,” the Queen said. “Jessie barely held them all, except when she was feeding them.”
“She’s carried them for the last nine months!” Lancelot protested.
“Not the same thing!” Guinevere laughed. “Will, come on! We’d better smuggle them out before the grandfathers mount an offensive. Lance, Arthur, you can get to hold them all you want — in the morning. Will, come!”
Guinevere led the way, and Will followed, gratefully, before anybody else could protest. They made their way to the bedroom, Will trying to walk without jiggling the girl too much. It was harder than it looked.
When they got to the door, Guinevere waved him forward … and Will walked into a far calmer scene than he was expecting.
He bounced his daughter gently and looked about him. Everything had been — must have been — cleaned up. He couldn’t even detect an afterhint of coppery blood, and he was sure there would be blood. How wasn’t there?
Morgan conferred with Jessie, who, oddly, was giggling after every other word. Dannie and Lynn were deep in some conversation. Lynn saw him first. “Oh! Will! Congratulations! Two healthy babies!” Was there a shade of sadness in her eyes?
Dannie turned to him and grinned, though there was something brittle in it. “Twins!” she said in the tone of a woman thinking many, many thoughts that Will was fairly sure women were not supposed to have — not that that ever stopped them. “All right, spill. What inappropriate comments has my husband made, so I know which ones are taken?”
“Er, none, but Tom …” He bounced his daughter and looked down at her face for a hint on how to get out of this — but she stared back up at him with the wide-eyed gaze of the very young. Jessie’s eyes, he realized, his heart melting all over again. It was better than the silver-eyed daughter he had been envisioning before he realized it was a silver-eyed son he had.
“Oh, the Crown Prince has been at it? Well, hmm, how I do top that –” Dannie started, interrupted by Morgan pushing her way past both Lynn and Dannie.
“Dannie, could you take …” Morgan glanced at the baby in Will’s arms. “Er …”
“The girl,” Will filled in.
“Right. Gwen, you put yours in his crib, Dannie, take Will’s. We need a word.”
“A — word?” Will choked. As Dannie took his daughter from his arms. He glanced to Jessie, who was staring at the ceiling, and was … giggling?
“Lady Morgan?” Will whispered.
“I think you should know,” Will continued to watch Jessie as she spoke, Jessie who turned to look at her babies and kept laughing, “that there were some … complications.”
“Complications?” Will squeaked. He stared at Jessie. But she looked —
“Jess is fine,” Morgan insisted. “And so are both the babies. You have nothing to worry about.”
“But — but you said –”
Morgan gripped both his shoulders and stared into his eyes. “Will. It was her first pregnancy, and she had twins. Two babies means twice as many things that can go wrong — all of which were put right. But still. What happened … hurt, more than is normal for a baby. So I gave Jessie something to take the edge off. And it has …” Morgan glanced at Jessie, who seemed to find the bedcurtains very funny. “Side effects.”
“What — what kind of side effects?” Will whispered.
“She’ll just be giggling for a few hours, or until she drops off to sleep. Nothing to worry about. But … well, I wouldn’t try to hold any serious conversations with her just now.”
Will looked at Jessie again, who saw him looking and grinned hugely at him. “… Oh.”
“You sound disappointed?”
“I … wanted to discuss names …”
“Oh!” Morgan put one finger against her lip. “Well, you can try. You just might have to talk about it again in the morning.”
“Oh. All … all right.” Will took one hesitant step toward the bed — then reassessed his audience.
“Ladies!” Guinevere clapped her hands. “Let’s give them some privacy, shall we? And no funny business, young man!”
Will could only watch with his jaw fallen as the rest of the ladies filed out. Morgan hesitated in the doorway. “I’ll be — checking up on Jess every few hours,” she said. “You might want to sleep elsewhere tonight, Will.”
Sleep? Will wondered, but said nothing. He only waited for them to leave before he sat, hesitantly, on the edge of the bed.
“Oh!” Jessie gasped.
Will froze. “Did I — did I hurt you?”
“No.” She giggled. “I just wasn’t expecting you to join me.” She frowned — or tried to, it was hard to frown when one was starting to laugh again. “But no funny business!”
“I promise the utmost seriousness,” Will answered dryly. Jessie seemed to find that hilarious. Will glanced sidelong at the cradles — the babies barely noticed.
“… Jess?” Will asked when her laughter died down. “What about names?”
Jessie turned her head to one side. “What was wrong with Ban and Igraine?”
“They’re … they’re twins, Jess.”
Her nose wrinkled for a moment, then Jessie giggled. “Twins!” she repeated. “Can you believe it!”
“Barely,” Will admitted.
“I don’t either,” Jessie whispered in the tone of one admitting the existence of a great and secret conspiracy. It was unfortunately rather spoiled by the laughter at the end. “But I had them! We had them!”
“I think you can take most of the credit.” Will moved to stroke her stomach, but stopped. “Jess?”
“Hmm?” she asked, head tilted, her hair falling charmingly over one eye.
“You don’t … hurt, do you?”
“Oh, Will, I am feeling no pain,” Jessie laughed, and somehow Will did not find it at all difficult to believe her.
Still, he moved slowly and gingerly toward her, because even if she was feeling no pain, she might still be injured. There had been … complications. He slipped an arm around her shoulder, and she nestled against him. For a moment, all was perfect.
Jessie sighed. It was a contented sigh, but a sigh nonetheless. “So … names.”
“Names,” Will agreed. “We can make Ban and Igraine their middle names.”
“Maybe …” Jessie tapped her fingers against his knuckles. “You … have some ancestor named Corentin, don’t you?”
“… Somewhere,” Will admitted. Was a great-grandfather or a great-great-grandfather?
“And I always liked Celeste,” Jessie mused. “It means ‘of the sky.’ Or ‘heavenly.'”
“Heavenly,” Will repeated. “Kind of like her eyes.”
Jessie’s eyes narrowed. “I thought she was the one with my eyes.”
She giggled. But she smiled. And that smile was worth so much more than the giggle. Was it any surprise that Will had to kiss her?
And on Will’s side of the bed, in their double cradles whose origin Will would have to find out the next morning, Corentin and Celeste squirmed and kicked and made their first impressions of this strange new world.