“I still think we shouldn’t be here.”
“Nonetheless, here we are.”
And there they were indeed. They had completed the ride. Their horses were at the bottom of the however-many-hundred steps that led to the Orkney Keep. For men of Arthur and Lancelot’s age, that was no mean consideration. One could keep oneself in the best shape possible, but at the end of the day, sometimes the knees just didn’t want do any more. There was also the matter of pride: to turn back now, with all of the Orkney servants having seen them arrive, would be to admit to cowardice.
That sort of thing mattered to Arthur, who was the King and thus had a reputation to uphold. Lancelot, who had proved his reputation as a brave knight a thousand times over and who had enough gray hairs to safely stop caring about his reputation, only shook his head. “It’s still foolish.”
To be called a fool, implicitly or explicitly, by Lancelot was no mean thing. It was, in fact, the sort of thing a wise man would take as a warning. Lancelot was far less of a fool than he seemed, but he was so used to thinking of himself as a fool that he did not use the word lightly.
“Maybe,” Arthur agreed, “but I believe we passed the point of no return somewhere in the second flight of stairs.”
“The second flight of stairs?”
“Aye. I don’t know about you, friend, but that was about the time I realized that going down would hurt just as much as going all the way up — so I might as well go all the way up.”
Lancelot sniggered. “It’ll hurt even more going down, now.”
“Not if we can get my nephew to send us down by magic.”
Lancelot turned to Arthur with a fallen jaw and saucer-like eyes.
“Allow an old man’s knees some hope, Lance.”
Lancelot snorted and looked away, but not before Arthur saw him crack a smile.
That was enough for Arthur. That gave him the strength to push through the door and into the foyer.
John Barber, Mordred’s steward, was waiting for him, as Arthur expected he would be. News, especially that of the surprising or bad sort, tended to travel faster than mere old men. “Your M-Majesty!” Barber stammered. “I — we — sire, to what do we owe –” He broke off, staring at the King with panic in his eyes.
“Forgive our intrusion. Sir Lancelot and I were in the neighborhood, and thought we would stop by to see Sir Mordred. Is he in? We can come back some other time if it’s not convenient.”
Barber’s jaw dropped, and well it might. The King did not simply stop by the homes of his lords — at least, those lords with whom he was not currently on good terms, or who did not share a home with, say, his grandchildren — because that would not do. The King sent for those with whom he was displeased.
But Mordred had, most humbly, requested a meeting with Arthur through Ambrosius. So, that in mind, when the King happened to be near the Orkney demesne, why should he not simply come by? Mordred wasn’t any erring lord, he was Arthur’s own nephew.
And if this call put the little bastard off his guard — well, so much the better. Of course, it could all be in Mordred’s plan. It was very difficult to tell with Mordred.
It was strange, though, how this message had come just on the heels of a confirmation of Princess Viviette’s pregnancy, through a formal letter from King Vortigern exhorting Arthur to join him in prayer for “a healthy grandson and Prince.” Arthur would pray for a healthy baby, all right, but he hadn’t committed himself to the gender he would pray for, but to make up for that, he would pray for a healthy Princess Viviette, too. Surely that would make up the deficit.
“Ah — ah –” Barber stuttered. “My lord is in his study, should you wish to see him –”
“Fantastic! Come Lancelot. Oh, Barber, don’t trouble yourself –” Arthur held out a monarch’s staying hand. “Lance and I know the way.”
They left poor Barber standing there, quite possibly gibbering, as Arthur and Lancelot made their way to the study.
They knocked at the door, and Mordred called laconically, “Enter!” Arthur and Lancelot entered.
Mordred’s quill was busy scratching itself along the paper. “Yes, what –” He just glanced up …
His jaw fell, the pen dropped, and Mordred said nothing for a full fifteen seconds before he popped up from his seat, squeaking, “My liege!”
“Nephew,” Arthur replied. “My apologies for intruding on you like this. But Ambrosius said that you had requested to meet with me, and since Sir Lancelot and I were in the neighborhood …”
“Of course. Of course.”
Arthur had long mastered the trick of wearing an affable smile while studying his opponent as closely as he could. Now, he watched Mordred. His nephew was never one to show his hand. But he did not show his usual laconic insouciance. His smile was just a touch nervous, his hands just a tad jittery, his eyes just a bit reluctant to light on any one place … the only question was, were these the natural reactions of a man unpleasantly startled, or were they a mask for something else?
“However, if this is a bad time, Sir Lancelot and I will hasten home. I’d only trespass on your hospitality to ask for a quick tankard before we go — Sir Lancelot’s trick knee did not like all those stairs, and I’m afraid he’ll need a few more moments to rest if he’s going to be bearable company on the way home.”
“No, no, this isn’t a bad time at all!” Mordred made his way around the desk and pumped Arthur’s hand with no small amount of force. “It was too kind of you to come by. I thought I should be waiting on tenterhooks for a week or more while you searched for a good time to send for me.”
“Well, I do aim to please.”
It was just enough of a bald-faced lie to be taken for sarcasm. Luckily — or perhaps unluckily — Mordred did not so much as raise a brow before turning to Lancelot. It was certainly lucky that Lancelot had resumed mastery of his facial expression before Mordred turned to him. “Sir Lancelot. Welcome — I do not think you have come here since my father’s day?”
“Aye …” Oh, Mordred was in decent form already: poor Lancelot only barely refrained from squirming. “I did not want to … intrude on a house of mourners.”
“How polite of you.” Mordred’s smile was every bit as smug and self-satisfied as a well-fed snake’s. Arthur half-expected to see a flicker of tongue escaping the lips. “But, my lords! Where are my manners? Please have a seat — those stairs are a bit much, especially for men with joints who complain as long and loudly as a bitter fishwife.”
Arthur and Lancelot sat without a further word. Mordred made to sit, too, but paused halfway through the very act. “Ah, my lords — might I offer you some refreshment? A drink, some comfits …?”
For this one Arthur actually did look to Lancelot. He himself was fine, but they were, after all, old men, and Lancelot might need something to keep his strength up.
But Lancelot looked Mordred square in the eye, and in tones that brooked no argument pronounced, “No, thank you, my lord.”
Interesting. So Lance would not eat here. Arthur would have to ask him about that later.
“Ah. Well, then, gentlemen.” Mordred sat and carefully did not look at Lancelot. “How may I help you?”
“On the contrary, nephew, we came here to help you. Unfortunately, Ambrosius was not very forthcoming on the details as to what it is you wanted … I only hope I am able to assist you, here and now.” Arthur blinked guilelessly. After all, when faced with a predator, prey made sure never to blink.
“Ah! How … kind of you, my liege.” Mordred did not say that in his usual drawl. Rather, he sounded … hesitant, unsure. But Mordred was never unsure. “The truth is …”
Mordred took a deep breath. “The truth is …”
Arthur smiled, making sure his eyes crinkled at the corner, letting Mordred know he could wait all day and all evening, if necessary.
“The truth is that I wish to apologize to you, my liege,” Mordred spat out. He did not sag against the chair in relief after he had said it, but there was a subtle loosening — a lack of tension in the shoulders, a posture that was only good and not ramrod-straight. There was even a hint of a smile underneath the obvious worry about how it would be taken.
Of course, Arthur chose to act the innocent. “Apologize?” he asked, eyes wide.
“I have been …” Mordred paused. “Pardon my language, but I have been quite the ass these past months. I offer no excuse for it, only my deepest apologies.”
Lancelot shot an incredulous glance at Arthur, practically demanding to know whether Arthur believed this or not.
Poor Lancelot. He wasn’t getting any answers this evening. “Well,” Arthur replied, fond and indulgent, “a man under the type of strain you faced …”
“That is no excuse, Majesty. I should have realized …” Mordred hung his head. “I — I am afraid I took all the unpleasantness of last year personally. I believe I thought, deep in my soul — it is selfish but true — that all of this, everything with Mother, was somehow aimed at me! Or rather, my family. I thought that it was nothing more than a plot to take us down. But now …” He gave a world-weary, half-hearted chuckle. “Now I see, of course, that the affairs of a kingdom are far greater than one man, indeed one family. What are any individual’s needs or desires compared with the needs of Albion?”
“So you finally believe Lady Morgause guilty?” Lancelot blurted out. Arthur would have been annoyed, except this was precisely what he brought Lancelot along for. Well, that, and he did not care to face down the rest of his Council after telling them that he had gone to Mordred’s home alone, without even a guard or squire at his side.
Mordred, however, reacted precisely — well, precisely as Arthur wished he would, which was to say, truthfully. Or truthfully enough. Surely that stiffening was too swift to be feigned. And surely the voice was too low, too menacing, too dangerous to fit with the contrite image that Mordred was desperately trying to present. “Do not,” Mordred snarled, “ask me that.”
“And so we shall not. After all, Lance,” Arthur turned to his companion, “have I not always said that the men of this kingdom are free to believe what they like, so long as their actions are all in accordance with the law?”
“You have indeed said so, Majesty,” Lancelot sighed in the tones of the thoroughly put-upon. Good. With any luck Mordred would attribute that to Lancelot never having liked the notion of free thought. But it was never Lancelot who had found fault with that particular philosophy. No, Lancelot was too much like Arthur: he found it difficult enough to properly watch over men’s deeds without bothering to police their thoughts as well.
“There you have it, then.” Arthur grinned at Mordred. “So, you may believe what you like.”
“And I shall.” Mordred’s smile was only slightly less oily than the polish Ambrosius required from time to time to keep his joints in smooth operation. “But, my liege …” His smile became a tad rueful at the corners. “Here comes the part that, I am sure, you knew was coming. The part where, having given a concession, I ask a favor.”
“A favor?” Arthur asked, as slow and mystified as he dared.
“A favor?” Lancelot sputtered, just as Arthur had hoped he would.
“I know it is hardly regular for a man in my position to be asking such favors,” Mordred said, his mouth and face turned to Arthur, his eyes shooting accusations at Lancelot. “But my position is such that I fear I have nowhere else to turn. If, my liege, you would prefer to dismiss me unheard, believe me that I will understand.”
“Well,” Arthur said, laying a restraining hand on the practically choking Lancelot’s arm, “you haven’t transgressed so much that I won’t even hear what favor I am refusing.” Considering, after all, that he routinely allowed condemned criminals to beg for last favors (to his intermediaries), Arthur could hardly spare his nephew the same courtesy.
Besides, it was always good to know just what it was men wanted.
“I wish to ask your advice, my liege,” Mordred replied. “I have … well, I suppose I must admit it. I have made rather a mess of things.”
Lancelot’s face refused to hide what he was thinking, but Arthur kept his schooled into near-perfect impassivity. “A mess of things?”
Mordred shot Arthur a look. It was the sort that said, My liege, if I did not know you as well as I think you do, I would accuse you of playing the fool solely to make me admit out loud how much of an ass I was and watch me squirm thereby. Arthur only raised his eyebrows in reply, eyes mild as buttermilk, wordlessly inviting confidences.
Mordred took a deep breath. “You yourself told me, my liege, and not too long ago, that I have made a shambles of my relations with the rest of the kingdom. I fear I can do nothing but agree. However, I also fear I have not the least idea of how to go about mending things. I am, you know, a proud man, and I like not to apologize — but as you have also seen, I am certainly capable of it. However, I scarcely know to whom to apologize, or for what.”
“Your wife might be a good place to start!” Lancelot blurted out. “She was afraid of you in that courtroom! She was afraid you would hurt her child! If you wish to make things right with the rest of the kingdom, you should start with her!”
Mordred sighed. “Believe me, Sir Lancelot, when I say that I ponder daily my relationship with my lady wife, and how things got to this pass, and how to improve them.” He glanced to the window. “I cannot help but come to the conclusion that perhaps it would be better, for all of us, for me to simply let her go and allow her to start her life anew, as much as that is possible.”
Arthur hesitated. Of course to apologize to Lady Dindrane would be the right thing to do — but were Mordred to apologize, to make any overtures at reconciliation, then the pressure on all sides for Lady Dindrane to give in and go back to him would mount, and that sharply. Her father would be a bullwark against it for as long as he could, but when Pellinore left, there would only be Lamorak — and Lamorak was a weak reed, and Mordred’s friend to boot. No. No, she had perhaps — no, not perhaps, she had definitely behaved foolishly by growing a Sim-eating plant in the backyard of Lady Morgause’s home, but Arthur would not sentence her to resuming her life with Mordred if that was what she did not want.
“I fear I cannot advise you, as to your wife,” Arthur demurred. “The matter is too intimate. And if you think it would be kindest to let her alone, then I should certainly bow to your judgment. You know her better than I. However …” Arthur stroked his chin. “I would agree that the Gwynedds may be the family to which it would be hardest to build a bridge. But if you conquer them, I believe the du Lacs and even the de Ganises will be more willing to meet you halfway. So, to that end, I should start with Sir Lamorak.”
“Sir Lamorak?” Mordred repeated.
“Aye. He’s always been friendliest to you of the young men. And even if you never make things up with Lady Dindrane, winning him over will count for much in the eyes of the young men.”
“The young men,” Mordred repeated. “Forgive me, my liege, but you say nothing about their elders.”
“Well, as to their elders … I shall let Lancelot speak for himself,” Lancelot shot him a glance somewhere between panicked and murderous, “but I believe Sir Bors would swiftly be convinced to drop any ill feeling he may have toward you if he saw you making things up with the brother of the woman whom the kingdom has decided that you principally wronged. As for Lord Pellinore …”
“You think I will never get anywhere with him — do you not?” Mordred asked.
“A man does not easily forgive slights against his daughter — is that not so, Lance?” Arthur asked.
Lancelot did not even blink. “Indeed, he does not.”
“Not that we have to tell you this,” Arthur added. “Surely you would know — even though you’ve not yet had to worry about a man slighting any daughter of yours — but surely you have already imagined just what you will do to the first man who tries.”
“Oh, indeed,” Mordred admitted softly, “I have.” Arthur was convinced of the complete truth of that — he only wished he knew to which daughter Mordred was referring.
And just as, Arthur was sure, both he and Lancelot were both deep in pondering this question, Mordred turned to Lancelot. “And you, Sir Lancelot? What would it take to regain your trust?”
But Lancelot, to his credit, did not even blink. “You would have to make things up with your wife — even if you two cannot live in the same house again, she would have to trust you before I would.”
Mordred leaned back, blinking. “That is a … tall order,” Mordred murmured. “She — you know very well, both of you, that I preferred and prefer another woman to her, physically and emotionally. It is not easy for a woman to forgive that. Some might say it is impossible.”
“That doesn’t matter.” Lancelot shook his head. “She can forgive or not forgive you for that. That’s between the two of you. But she was afraid of you in that courtroom, Sir Mordred. She was carrying your child — anyone would imagine that you wouldn’t do anything to hurt your own child — and she was still afraid of you. I’m sorry, but I can’t trust any man who puts that kind of fear into his own wife.”
Mordred blinked several times, very rapidly, and leaned back in his chair. “Indeed …”
Arthur looked between the two of them. There could be nothing more to come from this meeting. Luckily the sun was sending out its very last rays. “Forgive me, Mordred,” he stood, “but I fear Lance and I must leave, if we’re not to cause our ladies undue worry. You surely remember how it is.”
“Oh — oh, of course.” Mordred hastily stood as well. “Thank you — thank you so much for coming.” He extended his hand.
Arthur used it to pull his nephew into a bear hug. “It was no difficulty. And if you feel yourself in need of advice again, come to see me at any time. I’m well aware that I’m the last older male relative of yours left standing.”
Mordred was stiff and surprised, just as Arthur thought he would be. He relaxed — he had to relax. Whether he meant to relax or not, Arthur wasn’t sure. Meanwhile, Lancelot glared daggers into Mordred’s head, even as he rose, silent and sure as a leopard.
They bid their host goodnight, and Arthur and Lancelot left Mordred’s study. The door did not even close behind them before Lancelot could hold it in no longer. “I don’t care what he says, Arthur, I don’t trust him! That boy is up to something!”
“Interesting you should say that,” was all Arthur would reply. For, so near to Mordred’s hearing, there were several things he could not say.
He could not say: What makes you say that?
He could not say: The situation bears watching, aye.
And he most definitely could not say: I agree. He’s definitely up to something. The only question is — what?