He wasn’t home yet.
Emilia sighed and rocked too and fro on the balls of her feet. She would not become irritated. She would not turn into a sniveling, clinging, weepy excuse for a wife. She had the blood of Reman emperors in her veins. She would be strong, or at the very least, she would not be silly.
But Constantine had promised to be back home by nightfall! And the only thing redder than the sky at this moment was her dress!
But all of this speculation, this worry, was getting her nowhere. Constantine was a good man, and if he was not home yet, then there had to be a reason for it. A good reason. His horse had probably thrown a shoe, or else his meeting had taken longer than he intended. In the meantime, worrying would not profit her at all.
And who knew what damage worry would do to the baby?
She had brought this baby, this special little one, this far — farther than she had brought his brothers and sisters. She would not put him at risk now with fruitless worry.
Her back ached and protested her time on her feet, but still Emilia stood. She had no fewer than three midwives on hand to help her when her time came, and she had asked all of them what signs to expect when her child came. All three had agreed that sometimes intense pain in the back could be a sign. But they had also said that the pain would be intense, hard to miss. This, this was just the backache that had been with her ever since her baby became more than just an adorable bump in the front of her dresses.
At least, Constantine said it was adorable. Emilia thought it spoiled the symmetry of her figure — but it was worth it, more than worth it, for a baby. Everything — the swollen feet, bloated middle, back pains and running for the privy every half hour — everything was worth it if she could only get to a point where she could hold her son in her arms.
But the midwives had told Emilia to listen to her body, troublesome as it was being. Now Emilia’s body wanted to sit. So she sat.
Perhaps she ought to go to bed. The day had been long, dull but long. She had, for once in her life, license to sleep and indulge every lazy cat tendency she had ever possessed. And she should get her sleep now, for once the baby came, who knew when she would get a chance? Most noblewomen would hand their child off to a wet nurse as soon as he was born, but Emilia would nurse hers herself. She had waited too long to let some other woman have the care of her magnum opus.
Where was Constantine? Emilia rubbed her belly for luck, as Constantine had started to do when she grew a belly to rub. Her baby sent a hearty kick in reply — a good omen? She would call it a good omen.
Maybe it meant that the baby could sense his father’s presence. Maybe Constantine was on his way. Once she had entered her eighth month, he had promised that he would take no overnight trips. It was a grave inconvenience to their plans, but as he had pointed out, there were some things that were more important.
So she would not go to bed, just yet. She would wait, just for a little while. She stretched out on her side, curled up like the midwives said her baby was curled inside her. Her eyes locked on the door. She would be here when Constantine came in.
The candle-boy had already been through and lit everything. Emilia would watch the candles, for at least there was motion in the flames of the candles, and there was none in the door. She would wait for at least a few moments. She would not close her eyes.
But the candles flickered and danced, and the flames hypnotized her. Each eyelid weighed twice as much as the stomach that dragged before her. Perhaps … perhaps she could close them …
Just for a few moments …
“Well. It seems somebody is up past her bedtime.”
Emilia’s eyes blinked open. And blinked again. The room was dark — dark but for the candles — but a moment ago, there had been the sun … and her baby, she was realizing, was practically dancing in glee. Why …?
Then Emilia’s fuzzy mind registered the meaning of the tunic before her, and the smiling face over the tunic. “Constantine!”
“Hello, my dear.” He crouched and kissed her full on the lips — the kind of kiss that had turned her, five years ago, from seductress into seduced. One of his hands tangled in her hair, the other lightly fingered the gold cross around her neck before making a passing swipe at her breast. Then it moved down … down to rub her belly. “And how is Baby?” he asked, breaking away.
Emilia slowly sat up, twisting her head from side to side to relieve the crick in her neck. “Dancing, to hear you come home.”
He grinned — the same shocked, proud grin he had worn when Emilia had first grabbed his hand and put it over her stomach to feel the baby kick. It had been the first time a baby had lasted long enough to kick. Then he swallowed. “Good. And how is Emilia?”
“Tired. And disgruntled. You said you would be home by nightfall.”
“Hmm.” He rose in a motion that filled her with envy for its leonine fluidity. “Things with Lothario took … longer than anticipated.”
“He was not at all eager to trust me.”
Emilia snorted. “Perhaps he isn’t as much of a fool as we’ve anticipated.”
“Oh, he is. Doubt not that. But …” Constantine turned around, hands on his hips, looking at her even though his thoughts were miles away. “He is a cautious fool. For better or worse. But he seems to believe me, for now.”
Constantine smiled. “Indeed.” He extended a hand. “Shall we to bed, my lady?”
“Not yet. I’ll be asleep as soon as my head hits the pillow, and I want to know how this went.”
“We can discuss it in the morning then. I won’t …” Constantine bit his lip. He would not say what he refused to do, but Emilia knew what it was anyway: he would not put her at risk. He would not put the baby at risk.
But a half an hour’s conversation was a risk the baby could well withstand, Emilia judged. And the midwives were always telling her to trust her instincts. “The baby could be on his way in the morning.”
Constantine thudded to the bench beside her. “You — you think?”
Emilia had asked the midwives about this, too: the management of one’s husband in the late stages of pregnancy. They had laughed at her — but who else had she to ask? Her mother had died when she was a child. At least the laughter had not be cruel, but kind, even inviting. They had assured her, one and all, that her husband would be as nervous as she, and that this was normal, and while it was better for her to try to keep herself calm, nobody would blame her if she was unable to keep him from melting into a quivering ball of panic.
Constantine was not the panicky type of man, but he was about to become a father. That brought out the panic in even the best of men.
So Emilia was calm and patient. “It’s going to be any day now.”
“Any day now,” he repeated, though he knew this as well as she. He coaxed her closer without a word, and without a word she came.
Emilia snuggled against his side like a cat twining around his master’s ankles. Constantine carelessly draped one arm over her back; the other half moved up and down the steep incline of her belly. Between the soothing nature of it and the sound his hand made as it went over the velvet, Emilia felt herself to be stroked, petted. She found it very difficult to mind.
“So. Tell me. How did it go?” Emilia asked.
Constantine sighed. “I thought he would never get to the point. He kept hemming and hawing about the evils facing the country … foreign influence, undue influence, fourteen kinds of influence before he was done, I would swear.”
“Ah. So that was his line.”
“Yes. Yes, indeed. He assumed that I, as a red-blooded Glasonlander, would be aghast at the thought of Reman interests ruling the country, solely because they were Reman.” Constantine grinned at her. “I made sure not to mention you, my dear.”
“As if I would would object to that line of argument.”
“But if all goes well, we shall have a Reman on the throne, no?” he asked, jostling her shoulder. “And a half-Reman for an heir.”
“No. Reman by ancestry only,” Emilia replied. “And on paper, half Glasonlander, remember. That would make our baby quarter-Reman.”
“On paper. On paper,” Constantine repeated. He kissed her forehead. “But, you know, on paper, you should be upset at the idea of men disparaging the brothers Tarquinii solely because of their ancestry.”
“Oh, I am upset by that. There are so many better ways to disparage them.”
“I know,” Constantine replied. He smoothed a lock of her hair back into the arrangement. “But Emilia, think of it like this. Had Lord Lucinius married your mother, then you would not have had a thoroughly inattentive stepfather to not pay any attention to what you were doing. And you might have never set your cap at the Baron of Caernavon to gain some recognition and standing for yourself …”
“And I never would have been swept off my feet by him. I know, I know.” Emilia sighed. “That does not make Lord Lucinius a good man. Or even a good ruler.”
“Indeed it does not. So you can imagine it was not at all difficult for me to agree with Lothario that the country will not be in good hands if the brother Tarquinii take the reins.”
“And what remedy did you suggest?”
“I frankly admitted that I knew no remedy.”
“Short of killing the three of them and dumping their bodies in the nearest convenient ditch.”
“Obviously, darling, but I couldn’t say that.” He turned to Emilia with a grin. Emilia tried to keep her face grave … but after a moment, she had to laugh as well.
“Besides,” Constantine continued, “you know as well as I do that will only lead to a power vacuum, and there is no point in creating a vacuum unless one is prepared to fill it — which we, my dear, are not, though Lothario believes he is, I daresay.”
“I’m sure he does. Pompous little popinjay.”
“Indeed. He’s grown more confident since he got that Albionese wizard into his court.”
Emilia sat up. “He trusted you enough to tell you of that?”
“Not in so many words. But he waxed quite eloquent on his ‘foreign aid’ and ‘support from all estates and walks of life.'”
Emilia snorted. “Only the truly desperate would refer to a backwater wizard as ‘foreign aid’ — after all he said to you about the Tarquinii, too.”
“You forget,” Constantine cautioned, “that he is the backwater king’s own nephew. And that king is our King’s brother, and Vortimer’s … other uncle. He may want a slice of this pie for himself.”
“The people have cause to fear that Reme could use the Tarquinii to have Glasonland pander to their interests,” Emilia mused. “But Albion? Albion has no power. With what army would he presume to cut himself a slice of the pie?”
“Glasonland’s own, if he played his cards right,” Constantine murmured. “Arthur is Uther’s son through and through. Folks wonder about Vortigern. If things got bad enough … King Arthur, with his successful backwater, his two grown, sane sons — one married with a child already — he could seem quite attractive. Especially if it comes to civil war. Especially if he is able to keep Albion out of it for a long enough time.”
“In other words,” Emilia filled in, “Lothario’s wizard could be our undoing.”
“Only if he has the backing of his uncle. If he does not … remember that it is only a year ago that his mother died while Arthur’s prisoner. If he is a lone agent, he might be easier to manage.”
“He is a lord, Emilia, and a king’s nephew, even if he may be a traitor. Such men are rarely easy to manage.”
“And I suppose you won’t be able to tell exactly what he is until you meet him.”
Emilia shrugged. “Well, it cannot be helped. But at least we can take heart that this is one man unlikely to be seeking the throne for himself.”
“And how sure are you of that?” Constantine asked, though his lips were half-lifted in a tease.
“Constantine, really.” Emilia smirked. “It will be hard enough for a man without a jot of royal blood to take the throne — but a wizard? An open and practicing wizard?”
“True. We stand a better chance of Prince Vortimer waking tomorrow morning and coming to his senses.”
“Perhaps another blow to the head might help,” Emilia snickered.
“I do believe,” Constantine murmured, “that that has already been tried.”
Emilia’s snickers died. And she could not help it — she shuddered. It was Viviette’s face that floated before her, drawn and worried as ever. And Vortimer’s, too, childish and open. And then there was their baby, who would be so close in age to her own …
She would not think of it. Vortimer, Viviette, their child — they were not the only innocents drawn into this crossfire. If she worried herself over all of them, why, what strength would she have to go on? Besides, Viviette could yet be saved — perhaps even the child, if luck was with them. It was only Vortimer who was doomed. And perhaps Vortimer’s doom would be a boon to Viviette, to the baby, as much as it would be to the kingdom.
As if he had read her thoughts, Constantine added, “It is for the best. He won’t last, Emilia. We can pity him — but he will never be able to hold onto the throne. If Vortigern had cared at all for his son’s life, he would have disinherited him and sent him to a monastery the day after the accident.”
“Yes,” Emilia agreed. “Yes, he would have. But go on. Tell me. What’s Lothario’s plan?”
“At the moment, to eliminate the brothers Tarquinii and set up a regency council to rule until Vortimer can produce an heir and the heir comes of age.”
“That’s what he told you?”
“Believe me, it was not easy to keep a straight face.”
“He expected you to believe that?” Emilia gasped.
“He could hardly tell me the truth, dear. The truth shows his ruthless opportunism and grandiose ambition. This story? This story makes him look like a true patriot. He couldn’t hope to win over a true patriot without appearing to be one himself.”
“True enough,” Emilia agreed. “I wonder how he proposes to move from ‘regency council’ to ‘Francis of Lothario as king.'”
“He places himself at the forefront of the movement to remove the brothers Tarquinii from power, and when Vortimer falls with them — as he surely will — then he becomes the natural candidate to take the empty throne.”
“Assuming that Princess Viviette does not have a boy.”
“No, my dear. Assuming that Princess Viviette does not have a living boy.”
Emilia shuddered again. A year ago she would not have blinked at this contingency. But now …
“It will have to be done — if she has a boy. She could well have a girl. And then that child would be safe. Or as safe as an infant princess can be in the middle of a civil war.”
“It will come to that, then.”
“Francis of Lothario thinks no. Or at least …” Constantine smirked. “That is what he says.”
“But we know better.”
“That we do,” Constantine agreed.
Emilia leaned her head against her husband’s shoulder. A year ago she would have shrugged off the idea of civil war, too. But now …
Well, it was too late now. And if it was her child who made her think differently — well, what a waste it would have been, for she and Constantine to claw their way to the throne only for Emilia to be unable to produce an heir for it! This way, this way was better. Perhaps her baby was a sign that the Lord Wright was smiling on them in all they did.
Besides, they had laid their plans for years. They just needed, now, to stick to them. And then all would be theirs.
“So you have agreed to Lothario’s plans?” Emilia asked.
“Indeed. We shook on it, like true gentlemen.”
Emilia chuckled. “I almost pity him.”
“Pity him? Pity your poor husband! Now I have to manage him from up close, instead of from afar. And his Albionese wizard. It will not be much pleasure, I think.”
“But it will be worth it. And I said that I almost pitied him.” Emilia’s eyes sparkled as she grinned at Constantine. “Is there anything else I should know, dear?”
“Well, I had the pleasure of meeting his mother …”
“Oh, no!” Emilia chortled. “If you make me laugh, something watery will come out — and I am too tired to go into labor now. If you’ve told me everything important, I’m ready for bed.”
“I’ve told you everything important.”
“Excellent.” Emilia put both hands on the edge of the sofa, pushed forward —
And fell back. “Er …”
Constantine hopped to his feet and held out a hand. “A bit of assistance, my lady?”
“I thank you, my lord.” Emilia grasped his hand, and Constantine’s strong hand drew her up. But before Emilia could say anything else, he had crouched to address her belly.
“And you, my lad — you must behave yourself tonight. Your mother is drawn and tired, and I have a great deal of work to do tomorrow. For I am trying very hard,” he smiled, “to make you Crown Prince Uther ere you’ve seen your first year.”