“Five coppers,” muttered Tom from the corner of his mouth, “that we spend now until luncheon dealing with tradesmen’s disputes and complaints about the taxes.” Tom frowned. “Either that or waiting for someone to come.”
“Haven’t you grown out of thinking with your stomach?” Arthur replied. He could not, after all, say that a day of royal audiences that only dealt with tradesmen’s disputes or tax complaints was an exceptionally good day — at least, not while he was sitting on the throne itself. Later, probably, he would let Tom have an earful.
“Dad! I protest!” Tom mock-gasped. “Why, if I still thought only with my stomach, I would have brought at least one or two snacks along to keep my strength up.”
This time, despite the inherent dignity of his office, despite the crown weighing on his head, despite the Reman diplomats lollygagging to the side of the throne room, Arthur could not help it. He snickered.
But the snicker could not last long; the presence of the Reman diplomats killed it stone dead. Arthur did not sigh — he’d learned to control himself better than that — but his heart did. If he was going to be charitable with Tom, he would have to admit that they were almost solely responsible for his son’s impatience. They had important things to discuss — everybody knew that they had important things to discuss — but today was Arthur’s audience day, and the envoys would not dream of asking Arthur to defer it. All well and good … but of course they insisted on dancing attendance on him at the audience, and Arthur didn’t like it.
The plain and simple truth was that he wasn’t used to it. In great courts, of course, this was how it was done. Anybody who was anybody showed up at the royal audience, to see and to be seen if not to beg for favors. But in a new land like Albion, any favors sought generally came with a price tag of hard work attached. And most of the nobles had too much of that already to waste a day sitting at Arthur’s side. Today was a bit of an exception in that Pellinore and Lancelot were both present. Pellinore at least had some duties to nominally occupy him — even if said duties could have been easily left to Ambrosius — but as for Lancelot, Arthur suspected him of wanting to take the measure of the Remans. Hopefully he would —
The great doors opened, and Arthur felt himself sit at attention and compose his face into the most regal expression he could muster. He would put on a good show —
Except Tom saw who it was coming in and went and ruined the whole show. “Milo! What brings you here today, my friend?”
Milo barely managed a smile for his cousin as he walked inside. Arthur saw how Gordanus nudged Rodnius. Rodnius only sent him a look of faint scorn.So they know who Milo is, Arthur noted. It was only to be expected: the Reman envoys would be fools not to be keeping tabs on Arthur’s ties to Vortigern’s bastards. Those ties could be their way of gauging how he would jump.
Arthur also saw how Milo took in the Remans. For some reason, the sight — especially that of the Reman eagle on Rodnius’s bib — made him pale. Arthur’s eyebrows moved a fraction of a hair upward. Scared to see Remans? I should have thought him above that particular prejudice.
But he said nothing to any of the men; if anything, his steps hurried. He moved to the edge of the white tiles, a quite respectful distance. Then, still without a word, he dropped to one knee.
The Remans didn’t blink to see this: most of the subjects who had been to see Arthur this morning had done the same. Pellinore and Lancelot and the envoys themselves had acquitted themselves with bows, but that was to be expected. The commoners were quaking in their boots when they saw Arthur, a stance that apparently even twenty years of kindness and fairness couldn’t cure them of. Furthermore, Pellinore and Lancelot and even Tom had been — there was no other word for it — on their best behavior this morning. The Remans could have no idea how casually the court of Arthur was usually run.
Milo nearly spoiled that useful illusion — not through his gesture of respect, but in the way everyone reacted to it. Lancelot gaped. Tom’s eyes went wide. Even Pellinore turned around on his stool and surveyed the scene with an open jaw — and he was always the one pointing out the advantages of decorum!
As for Arthur, his eyebrows only rose another fraction of a hair. “Greetings, Sir Milo. What is your business with us this morning?”
“I have a petition for Your Majesty.”
“Indeed. Well, speak, and you will an answer, Wright willing.”
Milo gulped, glanced sidelong at the Remans, and spoke. “Your Majesty, I request permission to wed.”
And that was when the careful masquerade played out for the Remans’ benefit went out the window.
“I’m — beg your pardon?” asked Arthur.
“Permission to wed?” blurted out Lancelot. Even Pellinore looked startled.
As for Milo, if he became much paler, he would probably need immediate medical attention. But none of the other Albionese in the room paid him any mind.
“Has anyone asked me for permission to wed?” Arthur asked aloud.
“I know I didn’t,” Tom answered. “In fact, I think your words on the subject when Ly–er, the Crown Princess and I were courting, were, ‘Are you ever going to ask that girl to marry you, or do I have to do everything around here?'”
“You made Will ask your permission!” Lancelot protested.
“Oh, that doesn’t count!” Tom replied. “Dad only did it to watch him squirm.”
“More to the point,” Arthur broke in, watching Milo’s eyes volley around the room in growing alarm, “Sir William was asking to marry my daughter, which — unless some tragedy has occurred which no one has deemed fit to mention to me, or unless some woman is making claims about her paternity which, again, no one has deemed fit to mention to me — is certainly not the case here. So, Milo, get up and tell me,” for Arthur’s mind had already leapt from surprise at being asked the question to the next logical step, “why it is you think you need my permission to take a wife.”
“Aye, and who’s the lucky lady?” Tom asked.
Milo rose, a bit unsteadily, perhaps, but he did rise. He took a deep breath and straightened his tunic. “As — as I am your nephew, my liege, I assumed — I assumed that of course your permission would have to be granted. After all, you might have plans, or alliances that need to be settled, or at the very least preferences …”
That wasn’t why he was asking permission. Arthur knew that almost immediately. However, it was only almost immediately, for a far more instinctual thought took its place first. “No, no!” Stage-managing Kay and Dilys’s betrothal, for all that the couple were very fond of each other — indeed, because they were very fond of each other — was a job and a half. Getting Garnet and Lamorak’s betrothal set had been another job and a half. He daily thanked Heaven that Morgan had informed him in no uncertain terms that his assistance would not be needed for Ravenna. No, the last thing he needed was to have to shepherd another young person safely to the altar.
But sometimes, what the King needed or wanted was not what was best for the kingdom. “You are free to wed as your heart — and your head — are inclined,” Arthur replied. For there was something here. There had to be. A young man in Milo’s position ought to be overjoyed, not worried half out of his mind.
“And you still haven’t told us who the girl is!” Tom added.
Milo gulped. He did not even look at his cousin. “Majesty, if — if at all possible, I should like to discuss the question of my choice of bride in private.” Milo glanced at the Remans as he said this.
As for Arthur, he looked to Tom.
Tom looked no more enlightened than Arthur felt. If Tom didn’t even know … Arthur almost bit his lip. Damn. Whatever had been going on, Milo had been playing his cards close enough to his vest that even Tom didn’t know about it. That could not be good.
And why did Milo keep looking at the Remans — and why did he shift his weight from foot to foot — and why did his hand keep going to where his sword would have been?
“That is most understandable. I declare a brief recess. My lords, gentlemen, you may spend the next hour or so as you please. Milo, Tom …” Arthur pointed to the little council chamber tucked to the right of the throne room for emergencies such as these. “Come. We’ll discuss this immediately.”
Milo’s nervousness seemed to redouble, but Tom hopped merrily enough down the steps. And well he might — it wasn’t his matrimonial future on the line.
The three men entered the small room, each taking a seat at the table. Milo made sure to close the door firmly, seeming to check it for cracks or weaknesses. He even looked around the room, as if he could tell by looking whether it was possible to listen in on the conversation. Freed of the necessities of the throne room, Arthur let his eyebrows climb as high as they pleased.
He intended to start the proceedings with a gentle question. But he never got the chance; Tom beat him to it. “All right, Milo,” he started, jovially enough, “just what the hell is going on here?”
Arthur’s jaw fell. Maybe Tom was learning … maybe his mask when seated on the throne was just different from Arthur’s, neither better nor worse.
Milo jumped. “I — I want to get –”
“We heard,” Tom replied, and with that, Arthur sat back and let his son take the lead — for now. “Who’s the lady?”
Milo glanced at the table. His finger started tracing the golden inlay. “Her name — er — the one she goes by now — is Nicole. Nicole Saquina.”
Saquina? Arthur blinked. He’d never heard that name before, and surely heknew all the names of the families of note in the kingdom.
Milo sighed and continued. “She’s currently a waitress at the Spring Onion.”
“That peasant pub in Avilion that we visited in our senior year?” Tom asked.
“Yes,” Milo growled through set teeth.
Arthur, however, had other fish to fry. “Peasant pub?”
“Oh, don’t worry about that, Dad, it was years ago. Milo? You want to marry a waitress?”
“Yes,” Milo snarled.
“So she’s with child?” Tom asked.
“No!” Milo snapped. His hands balled themselves into fists and shook, just resting on the table. “I’m — I’m not –”
For a moment, Arthur was a quarter of a century younger, and he was not a king, but mere bastard duke called in to settle a dispute between his wife and the housekeeper over a maid. The housekeeper was insisting that the maid, who had turned up pregnant, must be sacked immediately. Alison would have none of it. She said there was more to the story, that she had seen a guest sizing the girl up at just about the time when the child was conceived. Then the housekeeper had offhandedly referred to the maid as a slut.
The maid had stood, not sat, but in all other respects her posture was the twin of Milo’s. Her hands and her voice both had shaken. And she said, “I am not — I am not –”
The maid’s name had been Anna Carpenter.
“Easy,” Arthur barked, laying a hand on Tom’s arm. “You too,” he added to Milo. “Now — since a child doesn’t seem to have anything to do with it — why is it that you wish to marry this young woman? You could do much better for yourself, Milo –”
“No,” Milo interrupted. “I love her. I won’t find a girl better than Nicole. And she — she needs me. My protection.”
Tom sighed. “Milo, can’t you see this girl is playing–”
“Tom, shush,” Arthur scolded. He turned back to Milo. “What do you mean, your protection?”
Milo looked again at the table. “Her real name is — is — damn, it’s long and convoluted and … Reman,” he admitted. “But — her surname is Saquinarius.” His dark blue eyes peeked through his hair, clearly expecting Arthur to take exception to that.
“Er …” was all Arthur could reply.
“It is — or it was — a patrician family, Nicole said. Her father — he was accused of treason. And in Reme … if one member of the family is accused of treason …”
“Aye. We know. The salt mines,” Arthur replied.
Milo shuddered. “A slave warned her and got her out of there. She — she barely escaped with her life. And then she came here.”
“If what she says is true,” Tom replied.
“Tom!” Milo yelped.
“Don’t you ‘Tom‘ me,” Tom answered. “She could have spun that yarn to get you to marry her. Come on, what proof to you have that she’s telling the truth, eh?”
“I know she’s being truthful!”
“That isn’t proof.”
“She only told me last night!” Milo turned. “She — she saw those Remans,” Milo jerked his thumb at the door, “at the Onion last night, and she was terrified! She ran to me in the middle of a snowstorm! From Avilion! She could have caught her death of cold!” Milo glared at Tom. “What kind of fool would take that kind of risk to — to –?”
“To win a knight for her husband?” Tom replied. “Plenty, I think.”
“What? I’m being the voice of reason here, Milo. Your young lady may be telling the truth … or she might want to be a lady instead of a waitress, and she might be spinning you a yarn to get you to offer to marry her. And if it turns out that she lied, and if you don’t find out until after the wedding, what will you do then, eh?”
“Nothing! I would have married her even if I didn’t know about this!” Milo snapped. “She didn’t have to make anything up to get me to ask! This just — this just makes it sooner!”
Tom sighed and shook his head. “Maybe she wasn’t sure –”
“Any girl who is capable of — of — pretending to be as frightened as Nicole was last night is a good enough fraud that she would be able to tell I was going to ask her to marry me with or without a crazy story like that. Tom! If she was going to make something up, wouldn’t she have chosen something a little more plausible?”
“You know,” Arthur rumbled before Tom could retort, “there’s an easy way to check her story.”
Tom turned to him with eyebrows raised, and Milo crossed his arms over his chest.
“We have three envoys from Reme here,” Arthur pointed out. “We can simply ask them –”
“No! She’s terrified they’ll bring her back! Or they’ll try to kill her outright!”
Arthur sighed. “I am not suggesting we ask them to identify your young lady. I am simply going to ask if they know of a family called the Saquinarii, and if so, what happened to them.”
“That won’t prove anything,” Tom scoffed. “If the story is true, what happened to them, she could be –”
“It may not prove anything,” Arthur interrupted, “but I think the odds of this young lady happening to choose a family that was accused of treason, as Milo points out, in the correct time frame, etc., would drastically lower the odds that she is making the story up. And with that in mind,” Arthur concluded, “I will grant you permission to wed her — but on the condition, Milo, that you do not hold the wedding until after I have questioned the Reman envoys on this point.”
“No!” Milo yelped. “If they — if they know she’s here — they might –”
“They will not take her out of the country. I give you my word as a king on that. First of all, I have no intention of telling them that any escaped member of the Saquinarius clan is here. Secondly, if they do find out, I will surround her with a guard of knights every day and every night if I have to. Tom will head it up.” Tom smiled and shook his head. “We will not have our sovereignty threatened by Reme. If what this young lady says is true, she has been a good and productive subject of Albion for four years now. I will not have any of my subjects hauled off in chains to certain death.” And the Remans, he thought, would not test him on that. Not given the haste with which they had come to Albion. No — Vortigern’s death had unnerved them as badly as it had unnerved him. They would not be playing games with Arthur now.
Milo, however, had more prosaic concerns foremost in his mind. “And would Tom be willing to head up the guard on a girl he thinks is a fraud?” Milo grumbled.
“Sure,” Tom shrugged. “Face it, Milo — if the Remans decide they want your young lady for the salt mines, that would be pretty good confirmation that she’s telling the truth, eh?”
“And if you can’t get the confirmation you want, I will be barred from marrying her?” Milo asked sullenly.
“No,” Arthur replied. “It is your business, and no one else’s, whom you choose to marry. I merely wish to see that you do so with your eyes as open as possible — to all the possibilities. Because even if she is telling the truth … Milo, I doubt very much that you or she would want that spread about. The Remans can be subtle and devious, and try as I might, I cannot guarantee her safety if they choose to perceive her remaining at large a threat to their sovereignty and honor.You would have to let the kingdom at large think that you married a mere waitress. They will not look on you kindly for that.”
Milo shrugged. “I’ll take my chances.”
Yes, Arthur thought he would. This was not a young man who had conceived a momentary passion for a pretty girl. This was a man, for better or for worse, in love.
And there was only one thing to do with men in love. Arthur stood. Milo stood as well.
Arthur hugged him before the boy could struggle out of it. “Then congratulations, Milo. I wish you and your bride-to-be joy.
“Oh — and there is one more condition I have for you,” Arthur added. He felt Milo go stiff. “Since I doubt very much that your mother and stepfather will find it easy to leave Glasonland for the wedding … your aunt and I will be reserving the front pew for ourselves. See to it that the rest of the guests know that.”
Nicole stopped in her washing up. Milo!
He was back! Finally! She had awoken — far later than her normal wont — to a bed half-empty, with a note left on the bedside table. It was from Milo, saying that he had important business to see to, and begging her not to leave until he came back. So she had stayed. But her stomach had worked itself in knots the whole time. What if Rodnius found her? What if he demanded she be handed over? The Remans had the best army in the world. If they insisted, King Arthur would be mad to refuse.
But if Milo was back … she hurried to the front room. “Milo!”
He peeked around the door and grinned at her. “The kitchen! I should have known.”
He hurried inside, kicking the door behind him. “Everything’s going to be fine,” he said, his hands spanning her waist, drawing her closer to him. “I talked to the King. He said that if the Remans want you, they’ll have to get through a guard of knights to get you. He swore it on his honor as a king!”
Nicole’s jaw fell. “T-truly?”
“Aye, of course. You think I’d lie to you on that?”
“He did that for me?”
“You’re his subject.” Milo pulled away, stroking her cheek. “He won’t let the Remans push us around.”
Then he was mad. Truly he was mad. To risk a war with the Reman empire over one person … he was madder than Emperor Tertius, and that was saying something.
“But,” Milo rested his hands on both of her cheeks and kissed her gently, “he — he also said something better. He — he gave his blessing for …”
Something better? Something hopefully saner?
Milo took a deep breath, staring into her eyes even as his hands absently played with her hair. “Nicole … you know how much I care about you, don’t you?”
“Milo! Of course I do!” He had said he would protect her! He would run away with her to Simspain! If that wasn’t proof of love — that everything he had been telling her was true?
“And — and we’ve been happy together, these past few months, haven’t we?”
Happier than Nicole had ever dared to dream she would be, after her world crashed around her. “Yes,” she replied.
Milo dropped to one knee before her. Nicole gasped. He brought a box out of his pocket.
“Nicoletta Cornelia Augusta Quarta Saquinarius, will you marry me?”
She had known what was coming from the moment he dropped down to one knee, but still, she was so surprised that she could not even correct him on her name. “M-Milo!”
His smile began to waver. “Is — is that a yes?”
“Milo … I’m a waitress … you’re –”
“The bastard son of a king and his brother’s maid, only made a knight because said brother cared more for me and my mother than my father ever did, and saw to it that my mother and I were taken care of.” Milo tried to hold his grin. “But who’s counting?”
“But are you — are you sure? Really, truly sure?”
“More sure of this than I have been of anything.”
Nicole gulped — she wiped a tear from her eye — then she gave the only answer that, if Milo was sure, made any sense to her. “Then yes.”