“It was, uh, really kind of you to come,” Kay said, trying his best to grin at Dilys and not let his nervousness show through. Then he remembered her sister’s presence and widened the grin to include her. “You too, Lady Dindrane. Especially since I know how, um, busy you are with … everything … not that you aren’t busy too, Dilys …”
Good Lord, what was the matter with him? He hadn’t been so tongue-tied since he was fourteen — no, thirteen! It wasn’t like he hadn’t spoken to gorgeous young ladies before.
… But never before had he spoken to the girl that he had known, for a fact, that he would marry someday.
Part of him wished he could have seen his own face when his father had informed him that it was both his and Lord Pellinore’s wish that he and Dilys make a match of it. Or, better yet, he wished he could have seen his own face when Arthur had added that Dilys wanted to marry him. And he’d been a boor to her! Pushing too far, then trying to back off, and leaving her all the more hurt and confused for it. Even with all of that, she wanted him.
And once he had known that, Kay had been forced to deal with the knowledge of just how badly he wanted Dilys.
“Oh, I’m just glad you were able to make some time for m–for us! You — you’re not home for very long, and I know how b-busy you are … isn’t he busy, Dindrane?”
“Very busy, I’m sure.” Kay glanced sidelong at Lady Dindrane. He had known her, distantly, his whole life, but he was damned if he knew how to read her. Did anyone know how to read her? All the same, he was left with the distinct impression that she was making fun of him.
However, she was smiling at him, and Kay had to wonder how often Lady Dindrane had had cause to smile over the past few years. Perhaps being allowed to witness it was a rare form of honor. Perhaps the teasing, too, was a form of honor.
“Not so busy that I can’t make time for you,” Kay answer, reaching for her hand — and thinking better of it. After all, there was only one reason why Lady Dindrane was there, and it wasn’t to facilitate physical displays of affection. “Besides, I’m sure my mother is counting down the days until I go back. She’d be chasing me out of the palace with a broom if she knew where to find one; she’s that sick of me making messes in her nice clean castle.”
Lady Dindrane rolled her eyes, but Dilys giggled, and that made the self-deprecation more than worth it.
“So,” Lady Dindrane murmured, “since you two seem to be hitting it off so well, I’ll be over there,” she gestured, “if that will be all right, Dilys?”
“Oh … oh, that will be fine,” Dilys said, smile present but wobbling.
“You don’t need me,” Lady Dindrane replied, much more gently. She tapped her sister’s arm. “And if you do, I’ll be right over there. Well within sight. You won’t even need to shout. But you don’t need me to be an awkward third wheel.” She kissed her sister’s forehead, shot Kay a look that was quite, quite easy to read, and meandered over to the nearest bench.
Dilys watched her go with her lip caught between her teeth. Kay wanted to reach out, touch her arm, reassure her that everything would be all right. That he didn’t bite. The trouble with that last bit, however, was that his dirty mind instantly added, Unless you’re into that kind of thing, which led to other thoughts … all pleasant ones, but not ones you shared with your sixteen-year-old not-quite-betrothed.
So he said the next best thing, which really wasn’t very good at all. “Shall we walk, my lady?”
“Oh, c-certainly!” She tried to smile, and then, as if to hide her nervousness, struck out for the bridge over the artificial pool, leaving Kay with little choice but to follow her.
She smiled, she hummed — she did, in short, everything in her power to show that everything was fine and she wasn’t at all nervous. Kay wished he knew how to tell her that she didn’t have to try so hard for him. He knew she was nervous, hell, he was nervous. He still couldn’t believe she wanted him. And it wasn’t just because he was a prince — a shy, retiring girl like Dilys would never want a prince just because he was a prince. They weren’t in Glasonland, where a noble girl could romanticize about the court and royalty because she never really saw them. She knew what the Albionese court was like, and if a Sim could learn anything by observation — and if any Sim could, then Dilys could — she knew what life as a royal was like. She knew it wasn’t all parties and balls and swimming in pools of gold coins.
Yet she still wanted him.
Kay might have wanted to see his own face when he heard that Dilys wanted him, but the only man who had seen his face at that moment — his father — he didn’t envy. Arthur had hemmed and hawed and stammered, explaining his way toward an apology. Yes, it was true that both his elder brother and sister had gotten to pick their own prospective partners, but the fact was that their intendeds had fit in quite nicely with Arthur’s plans — both married into the other noble families of Albion — and if Kay would just consider Dilys, both in the personal and the political sense, Arthur would greatly appreciate it —
Then Kay had broken in with, “But are you sure she wants me?” and Arthur’s eyebrows had practically disappeared into his hair.
“Why wouldn’t she want you?” he had asked.
“Well, she — and I — and I never thought she would — and I’ve been trying so hard to –”
Arthur’s eyebrows had, if it were possible, gone even higher. “Son, is there anything you might want to tell me?”
“No!” Kay had snapped. “I haven’t done anything! I’ve been trying not to do anything! She’s only –”
Arthur had raised his hand. “Slow down. Now, let’s retrace our steps through this conversation. Let’s pretend, just for a moment, that I’m not your King, sovereign, etc., but your dad, and I may have — oh, long ago, it’s true! — had dealings with the strange species known as women, and may, perhaps, have some helpful bits of advice for a young man in your situation?”
It was always easier to talk to Dad than to the King. And it was Kay’s father who had suggested this — this nice little walk in the park, only one chaperone, no pressure. He had also suggested that Kay try to tell Dilys what he felt.
Every now and then, the old man did have a good idea. “Dilys?” Kay asked, only with effort keeping his voice from hitting a register it hadn’t hit since he was thirteen. “Might we … talk?”
“Of — of course,” she said. But she kept walking — maybe even a little faster.
Still, it was no hardship for Kay to keep up. “I just …” He sighed. There was no way to just straight out ask a woman why it was that she had picked him. Not if he didn’t want to cause offense. “I just wanted to tell you how honored I am, that you accepted my suit.”
That made Dilys stop dead. She revolved to face him, delicate lips parted, blinking quickly. “You’re — honored? You’re honored? But — you’re a prince! And I’m just … and you are …” She shook her head and forced out one more sentence: “The, the honor is all mine!”
And just like that, his nervousness was gone. Maybe it would return in five minutes — maybe it was gone forever. But in reassuring a wonderful woman that she was wanted, desired — that the honor, in other words, was all his — he was on firm ground. “Dilys, my lady, if you think that there isn’t a king or emperor on this earth who wouldn’t be honored to have you accept him, you have no idea of your own true worth.”
His reward for that was her blush, but it was gone all too soon. In its place was a smile that was trying very hard to be brave and eyes that were trying very hard to hide their hurt. “You don’t have to pretend. I know that our fathers fixed this up. It’s — it’s very kind of you to act like this was all your idea, but –”
“No.” Impulsively, not caring that Lady Dindrane was just across the ornamental pond and watching every move he made, Kay reached out and grasped Dilys’s hand. “That is — maybe it was their idea, but that doesn’t change –”
Tell her how you feel, his father had said. But Kay was not yet ready to take that leap. Later — soon — but not quite yet. “Dilys, maybe this was originally their idea, but what we make of it? What we do with it? That’s up to us. And all I know is that I was never more honored or astounded than the moment my father told me that you had consented to take my hand.” He rubbed the back of her hand with his thumb. “And if there is anything I regret, it is that I was not given the opportunity to press my suit in person, instead of having to hide behind my father and yours.”
And there, at least, he had some kind of success.
But it was gone all too soon. Those eyes, wide with pleasure, were soon downcast again. He wanted to touch her cheek and turn her to look at him again, but — not yet. Not unless he thought she would be comfortable with it, and that she wasn’t, yet.
She pushed a stray strand of hair back behind her ear — or at least, her hand made a vague tucking-hair-behind-the-ear motion. If there was an actual hair loose from its precise arrangement, Kay had yet to see it. Then her eyes darted up to meet his. Then they darted back down again.
Kay waited, unaware he was holding his breath until a pressure started to build in his chest and he was forced to huff it all out at once, like a horse. Dilys looked up. But as soon as the startled look faded from her eyes, she began to giggle. And Kay had to join her.
When their giggling was over, however, Dilys tilted her little chin and did her best to stare him down. “If — if I ask you something, would you promise to be honest?”
“I don’t think we’ll get very far if we’re not honest with each other, love,” Kay replied. He just dared to stroke her arm, slowly, with only the tips of his fingers. Could she even feel it under her heavy winter coat?
Maybe she could — or maybe she just saw what he was doing, for her cheeks colored again. She took a deep breath. “Why me?”
“If — if it’s just the p-politics –”
“No! No, of course not! I mean — sure, our fathers only care about the politics, but if you were a milkmaid and I was lucky enough to know you, I’d still want to marry you.”
She looked skeptical, proving that she had perhaps spent too much time speaking with her older sister — or, given the reason that Sir Mordred had treated Lady Dindrane as abominably as he had, maybe not enough time. But Dilys swallowed her skepticism and asked again, “Why?”
“Because I’ve never met anyone like you before.” One hand came up of its own accord to stroke Dilys’s cheek. “You … you see everything. And you think about it. And you want to show it to everybody else, and show them how to make it better. Don’t — don’t you?” he asked.
“Ye-es …” she replied, blinking rapidly, lovely lips parted in surprise. “How — how do you know all that?”
“You think I don’t listen when we talk?” Kay teased.
“Of course you l-listen, but I never thought you’d …remember …”
“Why wouldn’t I remember? You say such interesting things, Dilys.”
“Of course you do. Don’t you listen to yourself when you speak, Dilys? How many other girls — how many other Sims have you heard say the things you say? How many want to — to go out, do something, truly make this world better than it was when they found it?”
“I thought everybody wanted that,” Dilys murmured.
“You’d be surprised,” Kay sighed.
“But …” Dilys pursed her lips together, eyebrows thrust in, thoughtful. He wanted to wipe the expression away, make her smile again — but it was when Dilys had thought a bit that she was at her most interesting, her most exquisite. “I know that some people — they only want money, or power, or — or what have you, but … all I want to do is make paintings, and ma–” She stopped, the blush flaming into her cheeks.
Kay grinned but didn’t press — well, didn’t press on that. “Why, Dilys? Why do you want to paint?”
She looked not at him, but at her hands. She also did not answer for a long time.
And when she did answer, it was so softly that Kay was not entirely sure he was meant to hear. “Because we are surrounded by so much beauty, and so many people refuse to see it.”
“Funny,” he answered, his hand resting on her shoulder and drawing her closer. “I was about to say nearly the same thing to you.”
She closed her eyes and soaked it in, like a cat basking in the warmth of a patch of winter sun. Her eyes opened only slowly. “You’re too kind.”
“And you’re too modest. Have you looked at yourself in a mirror lately, love?” He fingered just a bit of her shining hair, so straight and smooth and perfectly even. “Even if you weren’t so fascinating, you’d still be the loveliest lady in the kingdom. In any kingdom.”
“You’re still trying to tell me I’m the prettiest girl at the ball,” Dilys laughed.
“It’s still true.”
Dilys ducked her head, smiling. Then, after a moment’s consideration, she looked up and took a deep breath. “If I was the prettiest girl at the ball, then why were you sorry for kissing me?”
Kay’s stomach did not so much sink as plummet. So she still remembered that. Well — of course she still remembered that. He would certainly never forget how crestfallen she had looked, how her eyes had welled with tears that she hadn’t been able to shed until he grabbed Lamorak by the hair and dragged him over to her. She’d sobbed, then. He’d stood outside the the throne room door, well out of her sight (and Lamorak’s, for that matter) and cursed himself for being such a stupid ass.
But there was nothing for it, now, but to be honest. “I didn’t want to take advantage of you.”
“You didn’t take advantage of me.”
He would beg to differ, given how he had flirted with her so shamelessly, danced with her, and kissed her when he’d gotten her well buttered up. But that was only the half of it. “You were so young …”
“Fourteen is old enough to kiss a boy and enjoy it,” Dilys replied, tilting her chin up and holding herself very still — so still that Kay did not have to look very hard to see her trembling.
“Yes,” he agreed, “but … you may not have noticed this, but I happen to be a prince.” He winked.
Her eyebrows knit, but it wasn’t long before she cracked a smile.
Kay grinned back, but that levity achieved, it was time to return to seriousness. “And if you happen to be royalty, and you want to avoid stepping all over people’s toes and faces and anything else they’ll let you step on — and they will let you step on just about anything — you have to be careful. You have to be twice as good as reading people. And if you’re not sure, you have to back off.” He scratched the back of his head and admitted ruefully, “Even if you back off a bit too late.”
“You didn’t back off too late,” Dilys insisted. “You backed off too soon!”
“Maybe,” he compromised, “but I’m glad, then, that I backed off when I did, because …” He stroked her cheek with his thumb. “I would have hated to have done something you would have regretted letting me do.”
“You — you wouldn’t have g-gone that far.” Dilys’s face had bloomed into a full rosy hue, but she forced herself forward, even if she stumbled with every other step. “I know you. You would have stopped long before that!”
“Yes,” Kay agreed, because even though he would admit to have been an ass and a bit of a cad with her, he wouldn’t have been a potential rapist. “But there … might have been a point in the middle distance where you wouldn’t have been comfortable. And — I couldn’t risk getting there and you not knowing how to stay there. I have to be able to sleep at night, love.”
She pursed her lips together again, and Kay wondered whether it had been good enough — whether he had somehow made up for the hurt he had caused her. Whether his reasons would even make sense to her.
“What — what about now?” she asked.
“Um — what about now?”
“Do you trust me to — to tell you no? To tell you if we’ve gone too far?” She gulped. “After all, we’re — we’re going to g-get married someday, and — and we ought to be able to talk to each other if we are.”
He stroked her cheek, his hand moving under her chin of its own accord, drawing her closer. “I … I, yes. Yes. I do.”
“And if you were to k-kiss me now …”
“Would you — apologize?”
Kay considered that. Then he grinned.