“Sorry,” Delyth giggled breathlessly as George rubbed his nose. She darted in with a quick kiss to the truth. “I just got a little — excited.”
George would believe that, except Delyth always got excited when she saw him — it was the only reason he could think of for their constant nose-on-nose collisions. Or maybe it had something to do with the sizes of their noses. George knew he had an above-average model, and before he’d gone with Delyth, he’d never really minded. Hell, once he heard what big noses were supposed to signify, he’d practically pranced his nose around. And he knew that Delyth had a big nose, too, at least, one that was big for her sharp, foxy face. George never minded that much, either, even once they got together. But when he was pretty sure that they were doing permanent damage to each other …
“It’s all right,” George lied, smiling as best he could. “Where’s your –”
He was going to ask family — or even doorman, since George was pretty sure that girls from families like Delyth’s weren’t in the habit of answering the doors themselves — but Delyth managed to make goodcontact with him, contact with his lips this time, and … well …
Could anyone blame him for being a little distracted?
Indeed, the only thing that could have woken him up, so to speak, was the little strangled yelp just on the edge of his hearing. He broke away, eyes following the sound —
And yelped himself. “Delyth! They’re all sitting right there!”
“Oh, come on, it’s just Dilys who can see, and it’s nothing she hasn’t witnessed before!” Delyth replied. “Besides, I tell her everything anyway.”
You tell her what?
“Still, time’s a-wasting!” Delyth linked her hand in his and half-dragged him into the drawing room. “I want to introduce you to everybody!”
Everybody. Oh, boy. George’s stomach dropped to somewhere in the vicinity of his feet. And for the first time, he regretted not taking up his parents’ offer to accompany him on this, his first real meeting with Delyth’s parents.
His parents had only been too happy to come, once they got the invitation. George could practically see alliances and advancement dancing in their eyes. Maybe that was what had made George explode, “No!” even though he knew it was rude. He’d never seen his mother look so surprised, or so hurt. His father, on the other hand, had watched George with calculating eyes before he turned to Bianca and shrugged. “It’s his decision,” he had said.”Let’s do whatever makes him more comfortable, eh? After all, not all boys are like Freddy.”
George still didn’t know what he meant by that. And he didn’t have time to ponder, either, for Lord Pellinore was advancing upon him with his hand outstretched.
“George,” he said in a tone of voice that, had he not been the father of George’s sweetheart, George would have pegged as “warm.” Since he was, though, George had to assume that something nefarious was at work. “A pleasure to meet you again!”
“Yes indeed, sir. You too, sir.” George smiled nervously. His father might have been happy enough to let George be his own man for this evening, but there had nonetheless been unspoken but keenly heard threats about just what would happen if George wasn’t on his best behavior tonight. With possibilities like that ringing in one’s ears, it was a wonder George wasn’t making every other word “sir” instead of just ending every sentence with it.
“George!” Delyth laughed. “Relax. Papa doesn’t bite, do you, Papa?”
“I should certainly hope not!” replied Lord Pellinore.
No, he might not, but that brother of Delyth’s — Sir Lamorak — certainly looked like he might. And even if he didn’t, his muscles were practically bursting out of that doublet of his. Add that to the way he was eying George, clearly measuring his intentions toward Delyth with every blink, and it was no wonder that it took George a full minute to remember that he was a wizard, proof against anything this lout could think to work against him, and glare back.
Unfortunately, that didn’t have quite the effect intended. The older man snorted slightly and looked away, clearly amused. George didn’t have much time to process that, though, before Lady Eilwen was up and advancing toward him.
“George!” She swooped in and kissed him on each cheek. “Welcome to our home! I hope you’ve brought your appetite, my boy, for I think our cook has outdone herself this evening.”
Lady Eilwen pulled away with a smile that, for some reason, put George much in mind of Granny. His stomach unknotted at the very sight. “And I swear to you, my husband does not bite. And nor will my son.” George couldn’t catch her expression when she sent a glance back at said son, but he would have bet his whole allowance that it said, Not if he knows what’s good for him.
George didn’t bother to monitor Lamorak’s expression in turn; he was too sure that it would be one of many — Who, me? or But I haven’t done anything yet! for two — that often graced his. Besides, it was more interesting to watch Delyth and her sister. Delyth, of course, was beaming, but Dilys … Dilys was watching him with those eyes of hers that seemed to take in everything, but the moment George’s eyes met his, she seemed to find something utterly fascinating to study in her skirts.
Of course, once the parents had greeted George, Lamorak had to be introduced in his turn, and George had to pay his respects to Dilys. When that was done, Lady Eilwen beamed at her brood — well, three-fifths of it — her husband, and her guest. “Well! I’m sure everyone here is hungry. Shall we go in, Pellinore?”
“As you wish, my lady,” replied Lord Pellinore. He offered his arm to Lady Eilwen, which she took. George panicked. Was he supposed to do the same for Delyth? He’d never —
He didn’t have to worry. Delyth took his hand with no prompting from him. Lamorak shepherded Dilys in. And when they sat, it surprised George not at all that his place was between Delyth and Lord Pellinore.
“So, George,” Lord Pellinore began after all had been served and the prayer had been said, “Delyth tells us that you are studying with the Professors Emrys at their school?”
“Aye, sir,” George replied. It was only long practice at reigning in his emotions that kept his voice even and calm. This wasn’t going to be the start of the,”So, how do you plan to support my daughter in the lifestyle to which she is accustomed?” speech, was it?
“You must forgive an old man’s inquisitiveness,” Lord Pellinore continued, “but I must admit, ever since that school began, I’ve always had a bit of a curiosity about what it is you study there. And, alas, I have no way of satisfying it, for of course were I to ask the Professors, they would assume I was seeking an excuse to investigate it for some wrongdoing!”
“Oh, well, you know, we study the usual sorts of things, sir,” George replied. “Literature — maths — natural philosophy and history — and of course religion.” What George didn’t mention was that they only got enough religious instruction to ensure that they would pass that section on the Camford examination, and that the tone of the instruction was quietly far more skeptical than anything George would have heard in the cathedral school. Still, to add an extra gloss of virtue to his record, George added, “Professor Naomi often confers with Mother Julian about the curriculum. She and Professor Merlin want to be sure we’re on track with the rest of our classmates. And then there’s the magic, of course.”“I think,” chuckled Lady Eilwen, “it’s the magic that Pellinore is most interested in.” Lord Pellinore looked a little — abashed? But he was nodding. “Er …” George started. Damn, damn, damn! The Professors had talked a lot about being good “ambassadors” to the non-magical world, about trying not to keep more secrets than were necessary, about being open and upfront with magic where it was prudent so as to make it less frightening. Unfortunately, that didn’t really cover how one went about explaining magic to a layperson. He glanced at Delyth, begging her to help him out here. But it was Dilys, and Ravenna of all people, who saved him. “Ravenna says …” she started, and trailed off, reddening. “Ravenna says what?” asked Delyth. George couldn’t help but notice the ferocity with which she cut her fish, even if her gaze on Dilys was guileless and unblinking. Dilys swallowed, and George had a feeling it was only air going down. “Ravenna says that you’ve been working on — research projects?” She popped another bite of fish in her mouth, probably to avoid having to speak again for as long as possible. “Oh, aye!” George replied, finally having something specific to latch onto. He turned back to Lord Pellinore. “The Professors said we could research anything we wanted — well, magical, that is — so I decided to do mine on stone circles. There’s a group of them right outside the school.” “Stone circles?” asked Lady Eilwen. “Forgive me, but I thought those were — well — what I’ve always heard is that they were pagan temples to false gods. Have I heard wrong?” “Well, um …” Drat, drat, drat! Here he was, back on dangerous ground. The trouble with trying to be a goodwill ambassador of magic was that a lot of what you found out as a wizard tended to fly in the face of most Sims’ religious beliefs, and it didn’t matter how many puppies you carried in your pockets or how many kittens you magicked safely out of trees, Sims didn’t like those who stomped on their religion. “What — what the Professors have taught us is that, unfortunately, sometimes the line between magic and false gods isn’t as thick as we’d like it to be.” He followed Dilys’s example and popped a quick bite of fish into his mouth. He was half-hoping to have accidentally gotten a bone; trying to grind that down to powder ought to give him enough time to think a way out of this. “Indeed?” asked Lord Pellinore, his eyebrows arching slightly, clearly inviting George to continue. The fish was so well-cooked it barely took George any time to chew, but all the same, he had gained enough time to think out a reply. It would borrow a lot from the substance of some of Professor Merlin’s lectures, but it would have to do. “You see, sir, it’s like this,” George started. “In the olden days, Sims didn’t — we still don’t — understand a lot about the natural world and how it works. But we do understand some things, enough to know when something is out of the norm. And when something is outside the norm — and to our favor — then either one of two things is going on. It’s either a miracle, or it’s magic.” “And if it’s not to our favor?” asked Delyth, eyebrows waggling. “Well, then it could still be magic, or …” He needed a word that started with an “m.” “Malevolence,” he replied, grinning with some of that evil force. “And, you know, if you haven’t been enlightened by the true religion yet, and if you don’t understand that some Sims can sort of bend the laws of nature to their favor, then what are you going to think? You’re going to call it — if whatever happened is in your favor — a miracle. And you’re going to worship whatever you think caused it. That’s how good witches and wizards got caught up in false religions without really meaning to. Because, you see, half the timethey didn’t understand what was going on, either, and thought that a god or goddess was working through them. As for the bad witches and wizards, well, if they figured out what was going on, you can bet they milked the situation for all it was worth. Sir.” “But what’s all that got to do with standing stones?” asked Delyth, pulling him back onto safe ground again. His heart swelled for her, even as his muscles loosened in relief. “A couple of things. First of all, a lot of themwere built to honor false gods, like you said, Lady Eilwen, but they have to have been built by magic. Well — Freddy — er, my brother Frederick — says that they didn’t have to have been built by magic, but …” He shrugged and smiled his most rakish smile. “I don’t believe him.” He hoped that nobody asked him why. If they did, he would have to point out something about Freddy being an engineer, and that Freddy was altogether too confident about what ropes and pulleys and treadmills could do. Because if he told the truth … the truth about what he had found … There some places in the land which pulsed with power. George didn’t know where it came from; he didn’t know why it was there. He hoped one of the old manuscripts on the Emrys’s shelves might have an answer, or at least a theory. But none of the ones he had found so far had. Still, the manuscripts tended to agree on one thing: most of those places of power were marked by a stone circle. And who could have known and understood that those places were powerful, worth marking? Witches and wizards. “Ah, but George!” Lord Pellinore argued. “Think of the great cathedrals in Ludenwic, Sulis, some of the other great cities of Glasonland — think of the ancient temples, the great circi and amphitheatra of Reme! Truly, mere Sim ingenuity is capable of many marvels, without help from magic or any other outside force.” “That’s certainly true, my lord,” replied George, “that Sim ingenuity can do a lot — but magic isn’t an outside force, not really. That’s …” He was grateful, at that moment, that he at least had the sense to pause before blundering into the next bit. “That’s what some prejudiced Sims say. But magic is a talent that some Sims are naturally born with, even if a lot aren’t. Just like some Sims are naturally born with a good singing voice, even if a lot aren’t.” Lamorak suddenly choked. “Lamorak!” gasped Dilys, clapping him on the back. “Sorry,” Lamorak rasped when he could breathe again. “Just …” He sent a smile toward George, one that managed to be halfway friendly. “I don’t suppose Freddy ever told you about Galahad — Brother Galahad now?” “Um … well, he’s mentioned some things — sir.” “Nothing about singing?” Lamorak asked hopefully. George could only shake his head. “Well, Freddy probably wouldn’t bring it up,” Lamorak replied. “He’s too … kind for that. But in any case — well, Galahad … is not one of those Sims blessed with a good singing voice. And he used to like to sing in the bath …” Lamorak leaned forward, shoulders shaking slightly. “We had to plug up all the cracks in the door with towels, it was that bad!” “I’m surprised Sir William let you get away with that!” Lady Eilwen gasped. “When I knew him, he was always so protective of his brother.” “Mother, are you jesting? Will was the first one to grab the towels! He’s a good man with his brother, don’t get me wrong,” Lamorak chortled, “but he likes his hearing, too.” “Brother Galahad can’t possibly be that bad,” replied Lady Eilwen, shaking her head. “Delyth, your friend Cherry, she attends Brother Galahad’s parish, doesn’t she? Has she said anything about his singing?” “He doesn’t sing, Mama,” replied Delyth. “What? You’re joking! You have to sing to lead a church service!” Delyth shook her head. “He doesn’t. Cherry swears. She even asked him why once, too — in class, where we could all see!” “She … did?” asked Lord Pellinore, one eyebrow raised. George barely avoided a wince. He liked Cherry. She was … refreshingly unpretentious and uninhibited. And he knew how Delyth liked Cherry. If her parents took it into their heads to disapprove of her, then where would Delyth be? And more importantly, where would George be, because if Cherry was bad in their view, he was surely worse! George glanced at Dilys, wondering if her face might be a better map of where this might go than his own thoughts could be, but she stared only at her food, or straight ahead, with a face carefully expressionless. “Oh, never mind that, Father!” laughed Lamorak. “I want to know what he said!” “Well, he said,” replied Delyth, her lips curling like a cat’s liking cream off its whiskers, “that he was informed by no less important personages than Brother Tuck, Brother Andy, Mother Julian, and Father Hugh that he was under no circumstances to dare to lift his voice in song.” “No wonder!” Lamorak replied. “If he did that once, nobody would ever show up for a service of his again!” “Lamorak!” Lady Eilwen slapped Lamorak’s arm, but it was the sort of smack that was more heard than felt, more absorbed by one’s doublet or tunic and shirt than one’s skin. “Don’t be silly! People would still come to services, no matter how bad the monk’s singing.” “Certainly, Mother. Just not Brother Galahad’s services.” “He has a point, my dear,” interjected Lord Pellinore. “Remember in Ludenwic, how the fashionable church changed from week to week? Good Sims will always see to it that they acquit themselves of their duty to the Lord, but, fortunately or unfortunately, since the Lord never specifiedwhere he wanted them to acquit this duty, they will tend to shop around until they find the best fit. And, George, speaking of duty …” George’s stomach fell. Where the hell could this be heading? “I was wondering, do you plan to join your father and your brother in the operation of the family business after you graduate from Camford, or were you hoping to follow a different path?” Oh, that! That was an easy enough question to answer, given how he was asked it all the time. George leaned forward to answer without a second thought. “Well, sir, my father has told me that he would love my help once I get older, but I think I’d rather go away to sea, at least for a little while, than manage things from home. You see, there are some rather fascinating wizards in the Twikkii Islands, and I’d love to talk with them, see what’s true and what isn’t, and maybe set up trade contacts for magical goods …” *** “Well,” said George as he finally made his escape, Delyth walking by his side, “that could have gone worse, aye?” “Oh, don’t be silly,” Delyth replied, shaking her head and clicking her tongue. “They liked you a lot. Mama couldn’t stop laughing at your jokes!” Yes, it was amazing what a second glass of wine could do for one’s sense of humor. George only prayed his head was clear enough for flying. “I’m glad she liked them.” “She has good taste.” Delyth linked her arm in his and winked. “It’s hereditary, in case you didn’t notice.” “Heh.” George pulled at his collar, which had suddenly grown unnaturally tight. “But I’m nothing like your father.” “Eh, I’m not so sure about that.” Delyth shrugged. “You know, once you got comfortable enough to go into all that esoteric magical theory, he was lapping it right up. I think you two are more alike than you give yourselves credit for.” “If we are, then what does that make you?” Delyth pondered that, then shuddered. “You know what — never mind.” They walked in silence to the end of the drive, George looking up at the stars. The night air was cold, bracing — refreshing, almost. In contrast the castle was stuffy — stultifying, even. And where did that come from, George? But too soon they were at the end of the drive. George took both of Delyth’s hands in his own. “I’ll see you next Friday, at the Tricross?” “Wouldn’t miss it for the world,” Delyth grinned. “Good.” George smiled and tried to think of something else to say. “Thanks — thanks for inviting me. This was … fun.” Yes. Fun, fun was a good word for it. And he’d gotten a good meal out of it, too, so what was there to complain about? He looked at the sky, charting the progress of the stars with his eyes. “Well, it’s getting late … so I really ought to be going, Delyth …” He held out his hand to call his broom — “Wait!” When Delyth finally let them part for air, she whispered, “You almost forgot to say goodbye, George.” Later — when George was almost halfway back to the school, aloft and so far away from all the troubles on the ground below — he would wonder how, of all things, it was that he almost came to forget.