Mordred would never admit it outside of his own head, but even for an Orkney luncheon, this was a pretty pathetic showing.
The food, of course, was exquisite — or at least as exquisite as one could get away with, given the palates of a four-year-old and a five-year-old. But the conversation … it shouldn’t be like this. Children, of course, should know their place, and in company they should be seen and not heard. But intimate family luncheons were different. Mordred himself could never remember being so silent at simple family meals. Or at the very least, he could not remember being like that all the time. Nimue, when she came to stay with him, barely said two words together at family meals. Agravaine lived with him all the time and barely said anything at all.
Melehan and Melou — even Aimée — were never like this. And from what Mordred could gleam from pointed questions to the children’s nurses and Sister Margery, Nimue and even Agravaine were not like this way from him. What was going wrong?
He could stand the silence no longer. He turned to Nimue. “So, Nimue, how is school going for you?”
Well, he wanted to say, well, sir. But he hesitated. She was only five years old, and she already had the “sir” part down. Perhaps that was enough to expect from her?
He pushed the traitorous thought aside. “Well. School is going well.” After all, it was the duty of children to learn how to be adults, and it was the duty of adults to teach them.
“Yes, sir. Well, sir.”
Mordred smiled broadly at her, but Nimue barely let her lips curve upward in reply before she turned back to her food.
For a moment, Mordred watched her eat. He would grant Dindrane this much: Nimue’s table manners were impeccable, especially for a child so young. She cut her food into pieces just big enough for her little mouth to fit around, and never piled more onto one forkful than could fit. She also never chewed with her mouth open. If only Agravaine could be so manageable.
Mordred sighed. “Agravaine.”
Agravaine froze, sat up, and stared at Mordred with those huge blue eyes of his. “Yes, sir?”
It would only hold for the next five or ten minutes. Mordred knew that, even as he watched Agravaine from the corner of his eye. But perhaps they could still make progress. He was only four. If Mordred kept at it, soon Agravaine would be remembering his manners for ten or fifteen minutes at a stretch. Then it would be fifteen to twenty, then twenty to twenty-five … sooner or later he would manage to remember his manners through a whole meal. It would just be a matter of patience to get him there.
He turned back to Nimue. “What sorts of books are you reading …” He almost added in school, but thought better of it. Too often, when Mordred asked her a specific question about school, Nimue looked to Agravaine and let him do the talking. That was not how he wanted his daughter to behave. She needed to know how to speak for herself, to have her own voice and make her own decisions (within reason). How else would she be able to navigate this world where so many men thought that no opinion worth hearing would come from a woman?
So he cleared his throat and tried again. “What sorts of books are you reading at your other house?”
Nimue squirmed a little. “Mama –” she started, and stopped, eyes wide, as if she had just said a naughty word.
That was probably his fault. Mordred barely pushed down a wince. She didn’t need to be more confused. “Yes? What about your mother?”
Nimue turned back to her plate. She mumbled into it, “Mama and I are reading animal fables. Mama said they were her favorite when she was little.”
“Animal fables!” Mordred smiled. “You know, I read some when I was a little boy, just like your mother read them when she was a little girl. Which one is your favorite, Nimue?”
“The ones with the fox!” Nimue replied.
“The ones with the fox? Why, Nimue — those were my own favorites when I was a little boy!”
“They were — sir?” The boys, Melehan and Melou, would have crowed over this. But Nimue blinked and frowned.
“Indeed, they were,” Mordred replied, smiling to hide the discomfort he felt. What was Dindrane telling this girl? He was her father! There was no shame if she was like him! “I especially like the one with the fox and the crow. Have you heard how that one goes?”
Nimue frowned, eyes narrowed in thought. But after a moment she shook her head, and after a further moment, she remembered her manners. “No, sir.”
She really was a very well-bred little girl. Whatever else Dindrane was doing, she was doing something right. “Well,” Mordred replied, “a crow has gotten himself a bit of cheese, and he flew up, high into a tree, in order to eat it without any of the other animals stealing it. And a fox was passing by below the tree, and he wanted some of that cheese.
“Now, the fox was, as you both know, very clever. So he thought and he thought,” Mordred only barely refrained from stroking his chin and beard as he would have for Melehan and Melou and Aimée; it would not do to get too carried away, “and finally he came up with a plan. He called up to the top of the tree, ‘Brother Crow, I have heard so much of your good singing voice. Would you be kind enough to favor me with a concert?'”
“But, sir!” Agravaine laughed, “crows don’t have a good singing voice! They just go, Caw! Caw! And it’s loud and it’s not pretty!”
Mordred smiled down at Agravaine. His smile was all the wider because Nimue was nodding in agreement. “Indeed, Agravaine. And the crow knew that very few of the other forest creatures liked his voice. So, he was so very flattered that he opened his mouth wide and began to sing at once.
“But he forgot about his cheese, and when the crow opened his beak, the cheese fell out! And can you guess what happened next?” he asked, turning to Nimue.
Nimue grinned. “The fox gobbled it up!”
“That’s right!” Mordred answered. He really did have an exceptionally clever daughter. But with parents such as he and Dindrane, what else was to be expected? “Now, wasn’t that very clever of the fox?”
Nimue nodded slowly. Agravaine called out, “I know a fox story, too!”
Mordred turned to him. “Oh, do you? Which one?”
“It’s the one about the fox, and the bear, and the lion! The bear and the lion were fighting over a fawn, and they fought so long and so hard, that they both got really tired and fell asleep. And then the fox snuck in and gobbled up the fawn!”
“Clever fox,” Mordred chuckled. “Very clever fox indeed. We must all strive to be clever like the fox, mustn’t we?”
“Aye, sir!” replied Agravaine. But Nimue’s little lips were pursed together, and she looked quiet, and thoughtful.
Mordred’s eyebrows arched in surprise. She was a clever girl — so what could she have against cleverness? “Nimue?” asked Mordred.
She bit her lip. “Mama likes to tell a different story about the fox, sir.”
Probably one of the ones in which the fox gets a comeuppance. Mordred barely refrained from rolling his eyes. Of course Dindrane would try to stamp out any sign of useful cleverness in her daughter. Better, Dindrane would think, for any child of hers to be as isolated and disconnected from the real world as she. Well, Mordred would have to correct that, especially in the boys.
But for now, he could humor Nimue. Perhaps it would even be better in the long run. It was a foolish general who did not know the lay of the land before he attacked. “Oh?” asked Mordred. “And which one is that?”
“The fox and the stork, sir.”
“The fox and the stork?” Agravaine asked. It so nearly mirrored Mordred’s own confusion that he only nodded and waved for Nimue to go on.
“The — the fox invited the stork to supper,” Nimue replied. “And when he came, the fox served a big bowl of soup for them both to share.”
“How does a fox make soup?” asked Agravaine.
Nimue turned to him with a shrug. “I dunno. Mama said it’s because he’s a special fox. Anyway … um …”
“The fox had served a bowl of soup for him and the stork to share,” Mordred prodded.
“Oh, aye! And though the fox could lap it up with his tongue,” for a moment Mordred thought he was about to be treated to a demonstration of that, but luckily Nimue thought better of it and went on, “the stork couldn’t, ’cause his beak was too long and pointy. So the stork got mad.”
Well he might, thought Mordred. Mordred himself would have been a little less than pleased at such a self-serving fox. But he doubted the stork would have any better luck in revenging himself against the fox than the bear, or the wolf, or the ass in the lion’s clothing.
“So the stork decided to invite the fox to dinner,” Nimue continued, “and when he served the dinner, he served it in a big jug with a teeny-weeny neck. So the stork could get his beak in there, but the fox couldn’t eat anything, because his nose was too big.”
“Muzzle,” Mordred corrected, but it was with only half of his attention. An intriguing tale, that. Mordred would have never thought the stork to have it in him. “And what lesson comes from the tale?” he asked.
“Mama says,” Nimue started, and Mordred only barely avoided rolling his eyes, “that it means that tricksters should expect to get tricked in return, and that we should be nice to people instead, and treat them like we would want to be treated, and then we won’t get tricked.”
You jest! It was a lucky thing that Mordred did not say that, despite how clearly he thought it. Still — she must be jesting! He would have understood a moral like that coming from Sister Margery’s mouth. Sister Margery could hardly be called the most practical of souls, or the most grounded. Besides, even if she was, it was practically her job to delude youngsters into thinking that the world was a just and moral place, ruled through fair play and following the rules. Those sorts of delusions ensured that enough of them grew up into fools who could be controlled by their intellectual and social betters.
But for Dindrane to espouse such a moral … she knew better. Surely she knew better? No — no, Dindrane was a Gwynedd through and through. If there was any family that actually believed in fair play, in following the rules simply because they were the rules, it was the hidebound and legalistic Gwynedds.
Still, his daughter was an Orkney, and any true Orkney knew that the rules were only worth following when they either worked to your favor, or were too much trouble or too risky to break. Perhaps —
“Sir!” Agravaine called. “Sir, I’m done!”
Mordred clapped his hands, and a servant came to clear Agravaine’s plate away. “Excellent. Now you may wait until Nimue and I have finished, and then you and Nimue may go out to play.”
Agravaine’s shoulders slumped, even though he ought to know that this was the rule by now. Mordred let him have his sulk in peace, then he turned back to his daughter. “Perhaps your mother has a point, my dear, in that tricksters ought to expect to be tricked. But I do not believe that ‘treat others as you wish to be treated’ is the correct moral to be drawn from the story. For,” he pointed out, “did not the fox and the stork each serve the other in the exact vessel in which he would like to be served?”
Nimue blinked. “Um …”
“Precisely,” Mordred replied. “The stork would like to be served in the long-necked jug, and the fox in the shallow bowl. Now, I will not argue that it was not foolish of them to serve the other in their own preferred vessel, since a basic knowledge of the other’s anatomy would serve to show how foolish that idea is. But I think, perhaps, that a better moral to draw from that would be that a host must always see to the needs of his guests — and, if necessary, serve everyone from a separate vessel. Now, Nimue, isn’t that a cleverer moral?”
“I guess so, sir,” Nimue replied. She sounded unconvinced. However, she said nothing further, and instead turned back to her plate. It could not be Mordred’s imagination that she was eating a shade faster than she had been before.
Well, what was the harm of that? Doubtless she would want to go play with Agravaine. They were children. They still had time for play. And she was not eating so quickly that Mordred had any reason to fear she would make herself sick thereby. He let her eat fast. And perhaps he, too, ate a little more quickly to help her in her goal.
Nimue finished her meal first, and since Mordred was the head of the household and could leave anything behind on his plate that he chose, he pretended to finish soon after. “You may both go,” he nodded graciously.
“Thank you, sir,” Agravaine replied, getting up and bowing slightly, as Mordred had taught him. Nimue bobbed in a brief curtsey. Then the two of them skipped, practically ran from the dining hall.
“Make sure to put on your cloaks if you’re going outside!” Mordred called over his shoulder. Then he finished up the rest of his luncheon and hurried to his study.
However, hurry though he might, he could not quite drive away the thoughts of Nimue, or concentrate on his work when he could hear childish laughter and giggles rising from the courtyard below. It was not long before he went to stand at the window of his bedchamber.
After all, there could be no harm in watching the children at play, could there be? His own father had confessed that sometimes he enjoyed taking a break from his work to watch Mordred or Garnet play in the courtyard. For what did he — or Mordred — do that work if not for their children’s benefit? And why, therefore, should he not from time to time take a break and indulge himself in the sight of his daughter and his ward at play?
Especially Nimue … he saw her so seldom. He saw Melehan and Melou and Aimée more often than he saw her, and that was saying something. Not for the first time, he toyed with the idea of insisting upon his rights as her father and demanding primary custody. She was not so little as Gawaine or Gareth; she did not need her mother’s daily care the way they did. But once again, he pushed that idea to the side. It was one thing to insist on his rights — but if he tried, the King might well decide not to uphold them. He would have far better luck in the long-term if he saved himself to go into battle over Gawaine. Gawaine was, after all, his heir.
In the meantime, though, there was nothing to stop him from watching the children.
He could hear their laughter, muffled and indistinct, from up here. But he could not hear what they were saying. He hesitated for a moment — then, why not? He cast a quick spell over them so that he could hear what they said.
It was, for now, nothing more than banter over the game they were playing. Mordred felt himself heave a sigh of relief — but what for? What else could he have possibly expected? They were children; it was their job to play childish games to ready them for the ones they would play when they were adults. All the same, he was ready to wave away the spell and return to his work, curiosity satisfied.
Then Nimue asked, “Agravaine, can we talk?”
Even as the two children sat down in the cold snow — Mordred winced for the fate of their cloaks — Mordred leaned forward, as if that would make the slightest possible difference in what he was about to hear.
“Is –” Nimue twiddled her fingers in and out of each other. “Is he always like that?”
“Is he always like what?”
“He said Mama’s moral was all wrong.” Nimue pulled on her finger again. “That you shouldn’t be nice to other Sims. Mama wouldn’t like that.”
“Your mama doesn’t like Mordred at the best of times.”
Mordred snorted. Truer words, my lad, truer words.
“But I don’t think Mama was wrong. Because the fox and the stork weren’t just being silly, like Father said! They were trying to trick each other! Mama says that if you’re nice to other Sims, they’ll be nice to you back. And Sister Margery says the same thing. And so do Grandpapa and Grandma.”
“Maybe,” Agravaine replied. “But maybe not. I don’t know. But you can sometimes be nice to other Sims, and they won’t be nice back.”
Yes! thought Mordred. Yes, you tell her! Agravaine ought to know that better than anyway. He was an orphan because Morgause’s — well, Mordred could not, even in his down head, quite manage calling his mother nice. But she had been law-abiding. And she had been cordial in company, an excellent hostess, and easily as clever as Lord Pellinore if Arthur would have let her advise him instead of that old stick-in-the mud. Yet none of Morgause’s virtues had availed her anything in the end.
“Mama says that can happen,” Nimue agreed. “But …”
“Mama still says it’s best to be nice to other people anyway,” Nimue admitted to her skirts. “Because then, even if they’re mean to you, you know it wasn’t your fault.” She swallowed and whimpered — Mordred could not even be sure if Agravaine heard — “Like Father was mean to Mama.”
As for Mordred, he winced and took a full step back, as if Nimue’s words had been a cat-o-nine-tails aimed for his very face.
Was that what she really thought of him?
And if that was what Nimue thought of him — what would Gawaine and Gareth think in their turn?