She was just where he knew she would be: the nursery, bidding goodnight to the children. Will stopped in the doorway, arrested by the sight. Before their marriage, he would have never pegged Jessie as a domestic woman, forever basking in the charms of hearth and home. And she wasn’t. But still, bending over the cradle in the dim candlelight, her fingers slipping through the few locks Celeste’s fine blonde hair that escaped from her cap, she was as beautiful as he had ever seen her.
He gulped and looked at Jessie, then at what he could see of the babies. Seeing her, and them, like this was going to make it even harder to have to leave her, and them. And leaving them was already going to be the hardest thing he had ever done.
But there was no helping it. So Will squared his shoulders and marched into the nursery.
Jessie saw him, looked up and smiled. “Hey,” she whispered. “How did it go?”
Will only smiled back in reply. “It” was the Council meeting he was just returning from, and “it” was quite positively the last thing he wanted to talk about right now. But there was no helping it. To hide it, even for the evening, would be unfair to Jessie, especially since Will was sure that Lancelot was right now narrating everything that had come to pass to Guinevere.
So instead he bowed over Corentin’s crib, smiling over it. The locks hair that escaped from Corentin’s cap were thick and curly, already a nuisance to the boy and his nurse alike. They were just like Jessie’s curls. Jessie laughed and called them “proof of maternity,” since in every other particular she swore that Corentin was just like Will. Will still wasn’t sure he could see that, even if everyone else in the household agreed with Jessie.
Maybe, but the time he got back, Corentin would have grown out of being “just like him” or else grown enough into it that even Will could spot the resemblance.
Jessie turned to him, frowning as he bid Corentin good night. “Will?” she whispered.
Will took a deep breath. Even if what had been discussed at the Council meeting had been something that would not throw Jessie’s life into disarray for the next few weeks or months, she still needed to know. No: she still deserved to know. There was no woman in the kingdom born into more of a right to it than she.
Will straightened. “So.”
Jessie tossed her hair back, as regal and imperious as a Princess could ever hope to be. “So. What’s true and what isn’t?”
If Glasonland had a Princess like her, it wouldn’t be in half the trouble it was in now. The smile that the thought brought to Will lasted the longest of any smile since this morning. “Well, King Vortigern is dead. And Princess — Queen, now — Viviette was brought safely to bed of a daughter. They called her Lucilla, for Prince — sorry — King Vortimer’s mother.”
Jessie nodded only once. “Is she healthy?”
“According to the official communication we received, aye, but …”
“But of course they would say that, even if it’s a bald-faced lie,” Jessie answered. “And the news would be weeks old at this point …” Jessie looked from one cradle to the other, from one baby to the other, and shuddered. Will barely restrained his own shudder as he circled around Corentin’s cradle to stand nearer to Jessie. Poor Vortimer. Poor Viviette. Poor baby, for all that she doesn’t know the half of it.
Still, it was not long before Jessie shook herself and again was resolute. “So. What does this mean for us?”
“We’re not sure yet,” Will began. “But …”
He hesitated, if only for lack of knowledge as to where to start. Jessie’s mutely raised eyebrows gave him the encouragement he needed. Will took a deep breath. “We’ve doubled the border guard. And … there are already Reman envoys en route to us, as we speak.”
Jessie blinked. “Already? We’ve only just gotten the official notification.”
“Aye. But …” Will scratched his head. “Well, we waited for the official notification. And … the Glasonlanders kept things a secret for something like three days, Jess. Not the birth of the Princess, but the death of Vortigern. But rumors still escaped, and some made their way to the coast.”
“And thence to Reme,” Jessie filled in. Will nodded, grateful that he did not have to explain. “And so they jumped.”
“They don’t want an invasion of Reme by way of Albion any more than we do,” Will shrugged.
“And how likely is that?” Jessie asked, cutting to heart of the matter as ever.
“We don’t know,” Will replied. “Which …”
His face fell. He couldn’t help it. But maybe if he indulged now, he would store up fortitude for later. “Jess …”
She didn’t say anything. But the look of concern she wore said it all.
Will scratched the side of his head. “The King, our King, he can deal with the Remans. But he needs a man on the spot in Glasonland. An envoy of his own. High-ranking.” Will gulped. “And well-connected. Jess — he — your father, he wants me to go.”
He didn’t realize how much of his inner peace or lack thereof was riding on her reaction until Jessie didn’t, strictly speaking, react. Oh, she gasped. And she blinked several times in rapid succession. Then the mask clamped down over her face, the Princess-mask, the one that was, right now, succeeding in hiding her thoughts even from Will.
Then she smiled. It was not, perhaps, much of a smile. But it was enough. “So you’re telling me that my dad picked the best man for the job he’s got?”
“He did.” She laid her hand against Will’s cheek. “There are no two ways about that. You’re — you’re just the man he’s looking for. High ranking in his own right, his own son-in-law, the sharpest knife in the drawer, and you … you keep your own counsel like no other. He couldn’t have found a better man.”
He smiled in spite of himself, basking in her praise. Jessie saw it and rested her hand against his cheek. “Don’t sell yourself short, Will. You’re the best man Dad has.”
Maybe. Will doubted it, but Jessie had an annoying tendency to be right about these things. He just wished that the best man for the job was someone else, someone who wouldn’t be leaving his wife and his infant twins.
Jessie took a deep breath and ran her hands along his hood, down his shoulders. “So. When?”
Will closed his eyes. “Soon. But — not before the coronation. Your father was insistent on that.”
“Wise,” Jessie replied. Good, she had seen right to her father’s reasoning. A coronation was typically where one’s vassals showed up to renew their vows of fealty. Not all of them, of course, but the principal ones were expected to attend or send a representative. If Will was to show up for the coronation, there might be a presumption that the Albionese were to swear fealty to Glasonland. That would only embroil Will in his very first international incident. “And it will give us more time to pack.”
She could have just meant that, as his wife, she would oversee the packing of his belongings. It was just possible. But this was Jessie …
So Will gulped and asked, “Us?”
“Aye, of course, us. I can’t just be throwing an extra tunic and a tooth-brushing wand in a …” Jessie started, then Will could see the wagon of her thoughts veering off course. “What do you mean, ‘us‘? Of course I’m coming with you!”
There was a part of Will that supposed he ought to take some sort of masculine offense at that. Wives weren’t supposed to just presume that they would accompany their husbands on politically sensitive and potentially dangerous missions. There was certainly something to the ideal of the wife waiting placid at home, keeping a steady hand on the reigns of the hearth and home, looking off to the horizon and waiting for her man to come home …
Luckily the better part of him realized that this idea was ridiculous, for two reasons. Firstly, his parents could and would handle the running of hearth and home whether or not Jessie went with him. Secondly, this was Jessie. Who better to accompany her husband on a politically sensitive mission than a Princess born?
“Jess, this could be dangerous. And I’m not just talking about bandits on the road or backbiting at court.”
“All the more reason for me to come with you,” Jessie replied, a faint blue glow lighting by her hand. Both of the babies stirred slightly.
Will grasped her hand, feeling that blue glow tingle through his skin, crawl up his veins. “Jess, witchcraft is illegal in Glasonland.”
“I know,” she replied. The blue glow vanished. “But if I need to use it … we’ll already be in trouble you couldn’t have gotten out of on your own. And there’s always diplomatic immunity.”
How flattering. But it was practical. You had to give her that much.
“Besides,” Jessie continued, “if they touched a hair on my head, it would be an act of war. Even if Dad was willing to let it stand, he couldn’t and keep face with any other country.”
“And what if that’s what they want?” Will pointed out.
That stopped her for a moment, her lovely eyes blinking rapidly. Then she took a deep breath. “If — if things look to be shaping that way …” Her nostrils flared, and for a moment an expression lit into her eyes — Tom or Arthur in a temper. “Then we make damn sure they know that Dad has already been treating with the Remans.”
“That’s one of the first things I’m to tell them,” Will muttered miserably.
“Smart,” Jessie murmured.
And the patriarch in Will, who was never that strong in any case, suffered another blow. This, this was why bringing Jessie would not be the unmitigated disaster that everyone — whoever they were — thought it ought to be. She understood instantly that the situation in Glasonland was unstable enough that the Brothers Tarquinii would balk at the thought of going toe-to-toe with Reme now. For all that their long-term sights might be the Emperor’s throne, now, if the Brothers Tarquinii were intelligent men, they would want only to secure their hold on Vortimer and Vortimer’s hold on the country. War with Reme would lose them whatever little legitimacy they had in the minds of the people.
Still, though, the patriarch in Will was not done yet. “It’s still dangerous. Jessie, I’m serious. If — if anything happened to you –”
I’d never forgive myself, I wouldn’t be able to live with myself, Lord, Jess, don’t put me through that!
But Jessie only smiled the half-smile of someone trying desperately to joke in the face of despair. “What?” she asked. “Are you saying you would let something happen to me, Sir William?”
“You’ll keep me safe,” Jessie replied, taking both of his hands in hers. “I know you. You wouldn’t let anything happen to me.”
“I can’t stop everything. Anything –” Will felt himself start to stumble. Good Lord, and Arthur wanted him to be the diplomat? “Anything can happen.”
“No,” Jessie agreed. “You can’t. But ‘anything’ could happen to me just as easily here as in Glasonland.”
“Jess …” Will sighed. “What about the babies?”
That, at least, gave her pause. She glanced around the nursery, from one cradle to the other, looking at lost as he felt.
Then she gulped and turned a glare to him every bit as steely as the ones frequently shot around the Council table. Will wondered how he was possibly going to talk her out of taking the babies with them.
“I — I trust your parents and your sister to take good care of them, for however long we’re gone. Or — or if they don’t want all that responsibility, my parents would love to have them, I’m sure.”
If it wasn’t for the two sleeping babies, Will would have barked out a laugh. “Jess, what do you honestly rate as the odds of us taking my parents’ precious grandchildren out of here for anything more than an afternoon visit?”
Jessie smiled. “Not very high.” She took his hands in hers once more. “Then — then we’re settled?”
So she knew when he had played his best card. Well, if there was anyone here surprised by that, it wasn’t him. “Are you sure?” Will asked.
“We’ll be gone for weeks. Possibly a month, two — three or four, even. They …” His voice was going to break in a moment, but still he pressed on. “They might not even remember us when we come back.”
Jessie gulped, and her eyes grew glassy. “Then — then we’re just going to have to get reacquainted when we get back.”
“No.” Her hands tightened on his, shaking with every syllable. “Listen — listen, Will. What are we doing this for, if not for them? If Albion gets invaded by Glasonland, by Reme, what’s going to happen to them? We’re not that far from the border! They’re safe and comfortable now because Albion is safe and comfortable. If Albion loses that, what do we have left?”
Will bowed his head. “I don’t know.”
“We need to do this.”
“Your father charged me. Not both of us.”
“My father knows both of us. If he didn’t think that we would both be going, then he’s … well, he’s dreaming, frankly.”
Will crossed his arms over his chest and pondered that.
No, he did not think that Arthur thought Jessie would be accompanying him. If he had expected that, he would have dropped some hint, probably one subtle enough that Bors wouldn’t pick up on it and pitch a fit. But all the same … just because the thought had not been uppermost on Arthur’s mind, it did not necessarily follow that Arthur would be surprised by the development.
And Tom? Something in Tom’s smile, a few offhand remarks that had not made much sense at the time … oh, Tom expected Jessie to come along. Jessie could fool many Sims, but not her twin brother.
So, perhaps, in the unlikely even that Arthur objected, Tom would have his — their — backs. And Tom could lock horns with his father and spare them all the trouble. Arthur and Tom would probably even enjoy the scuffle.
“Are you sure?” Will repeated once again.
“Does that mean you’ve run out of reasons why I shouldn’t?”
She looked so angelic, so innocent. Will snorted under his breath. “Aye. I have.”
“Then I’m sure.” She leaned forward and kissed him gently. “We’ll be fine, Will. What you can’t think or fight us out of, I can magic us out of.”
He didn’t reply. He only wrapped his arms around her and held her as close to him as he could.
Will had thought it would be hard, nigh impossible, to leave Jessie behind. But bringing her with him, with all of the dangers and all of the things that could go wrong … that was looking to be harder.
“I’ll be fine,” she whispered into his ear. So she was reading his thoughts, as usual. “And so will you. And our babies will remember us when we come home.” She pulled away, waving her finger as firmly as any schoolmarm. But no schoolmarm ever had such a twinkle in her eye. “We’ll sort those Glasonlanders out, together. Just you wait and see.”
She, no doubt, thought she was right. And no doubt, she thought she was right. Perhaps she spoke nothing but the truth, and perhaps neither of them had anything to worry about.
But late that night, as they were both abed, with Will’s arms wrapped tight around Jessie’s middle, his nose half-buried in her hair, his mind half-lulled by her deep and even breathing, Will prayed.
He prayed that she was right, for if she was wrong, and if Will brought her into danger … then there would be no forgiveness.