Jessie had never before been so conscious of being the only woman in the room.
It was only the fact that she was a princess born, even if not of this country, and that she knew she had every right to be here that kept her back straight and her head held high. For she could feel the barely-veiled hostility rising from these men. Sensed every eye that turned to her just before the punchline of an off-color joke, generally to stop in embarrassment. Sensed, too, every head that glanced in her direction before a mental or physical shrug and a continuation of the political discussion.
Idiots. Idiots all. She could guess the punchline half the time; the other half, she was sure she could come up with a better one. As for the political discussion, maybe she didn’t understand as much of that as a Glasonlander man would have. But the key word there wasn’t man, but Glasonlander. She would bet that Will understood no more and no less than she did. There was no shame in that.
Will … her hand reached for his of its own accord. It only took one stray touch of her finger for Will to grasp it. Of course — he was as nervous as she was, more, probably. And if it helped him to gain comfort by pretending to comfort her, then she would give him that.
“How are you doing?” murmured Will.
“Fine, fine.” She turned to him with a slight smile. “You?”
“The same,” Will replied with a slight nod. That was enough to tell her that he was lying, even if the faint clamminess of his sweating palm didn’t. He would do well, and Jessie knew that, but there was no way to reassure him here and now. Not without letting the whole room know who they were. They had decided not to be obvious about their identity before they were formally presented to Vortimer, the better to learn what they could. Of course, anybody in this room who was any kind of political player doubtless already knew who they were. If Will had wanted to go incognito, she should not have brought his wife with her bright red and very conspicuous hair along. But it was too late to worry about that now.
So for now Jessie would sit quietly and watch the people as much as she could. A group of graybeards near the entrance to the throne room caught her eye. Two of them were merely conversing. But the third, the one in the brown tunic, he stood as if slowly simmering over with fury.
“Adam of Howell,” said a voice from quite nearby — Jessie’s gaze snapped to see from whence it came. It was the man sitting across from her, the one with the dark hair in a rather leonine cut, and the brown tunic that was … Jessie glanced again at the older man. Yes, that was an identical tunic. Very odd, that.
She glanced again at the man across from her. “I beg your pardon, sir?”
“If you are observing the man whom I believe you are observing,” the man continued with a faint smile, “he is Adam of Howell. Lately the High Constable of the King’s armies. Now … no longer.” The smile turned enigmatic, then polite again in the blink of an eye. “But I fear we have not been introduced. I am Constantine, Baron of Caernavon. And you?” The man — Constantine’s — eyes went to Will as he spoke.
So it was Will who answered. “Sir William du Lac at your service, my lord. And this is my wife,” Will gestured to Jessie, “Princess Jessica.”
This was the one time — just the once — when Jessie would have been happy to let her identity be subsumed in Will’s. For it was clear that the name du Lac meant nothing to the Baron. His eyes narrowed and his nose wrinkled. But then, when Will said her name, the Baron’s lips parted slightly and he drew in his breath very quickly. “The — the envoys from Albion?”
So much for being incognito. Will, however, only nodded, as if he didn’t care at all whether the whole court knew who they were before they were officially received. He was getting the hang of this diplomat thing already. “Aye, indeed.”
“I see,” murmured the Baron, “I see. Well, allow me to welcome you to our country. How do you like it so far?”
“Very well,” Jessie replied, because she knew she could carry off the polite lie better than Will could. Not that there was much wrong with the country, per se. It wasn’t Albion, but much of the scenery they had passed through was very pretty, and many of the roads and lands they had seen were relatively well-maintained. No, it was just the fact that the people were obviously hushed and nervous, that whole cities seemed to be on tenterhooks, that apprentices rioted every other day that made the polite remark necessarily a lie.
The Baron looked to ask another question, but at that moment an usher came out, and into the hush that followed his appearance said clearly, “The King and Queen will now receive Sir William du Lac and his lady.”
Well, there’s our cue, Jessie thought as Will hopped up and extended a hand to help her up, a hand that she was for once glad to take. They bid a polite farewell to Baron Caernavon before being ushered into the throne room.
Will didn’t let go of her hand until the time came for him to bow and Jessie to curtsey.
Lord Lucinius’s frown pronounced him displeased with the length and depth of their bow and curtsey, but mission or no mission, Jessie found it hard to care. And why should they get down on their knees to Vortimer as if they were his subjects? They weren’t. They gave him exactly the respect to which he was entitled, no more, no less.
Besides, Vortimer himself looked just as nervous and unsure as Jessie felt herself to be. Somehow, she found it in herself to send him a reassuring smile. Vortimer perked up visibly, and the Queen shot Jessie a strange and surprised look.
The Queen, Jessie noted, who was sitting on a seat far less impressive and probably far less comfortable than Lord Lucinius’s …
“Sir William, Lady Jessica,” began Lord Lucinius unctuously. “We,” he gestured, as if to make it obvious that he included Vortimer, that he was not using the royal “we,” “bid you welcome to our fair land. We have looked over the papers sent by your royal master, and his Majesty approves them.”
Vortimer looked up and smiled when he was mentioned to have approved the papers. The Queen folded her hands in her skirts and stared at her knees.
“Naturally,” continued Lord Lucinius, “our first order of business will be to see to it that your royal master backs his Majesty’s claim to the throne in full against all who might otherwise claim it. Surely you will be willing to make that announcement to the court very soon?”
“His Majesty King Arthur certainly has no desire to see the throne of Glasonland inhabited by anyone other than the man who has the best right to it,” replied Will, nodding to Vortimer. Lord Lucinius, figuring out exactly what that meant — especially since he had met Arthur, and could probably guess that Arthur believed the man with the best right to a throne was he who would use it to best serve the people — scowled. “However, my King wishes for me to clear up a few trifling matters before making any general announcement.”
“A few — trifling — matters?” Lord Lucinius growled.
“Indeed, my lord. Surely you must be aware that the treaty between our two nations — the one promising mutual nonaggression and mutual defense — lapsed at the death of great King Vortigern. My King, understandably, wants that treaty reconfirmed before any other business is seen to.”
“Ah!” Lord Lucinius leaned back. “Well, of course. We can reconfirm it as soon as it is convenient. However, given the recent … changes in both of our nations, perhaps it might be sensible to renegotiate some of the terms. But –”
“Such as?” Will asked. Lord Lucinius stopped and stared, but Will blinked guilelessly up at him. Oh, honey, Jessie thought, keeping her grin from showing with only the greatest of efforts, you are good at this!
“I hardly think,” Lord Lucinius waved his hand dismissively, “that that needs to be discussed now.”
“But my lord,” Will replied, “we are both here, now, and at the very least we can give each other bare outlines of what each desires, so that Albion can pledge its support to King Vortimer as soon as possible.”
Will, Jessie thought, had Lord Lucinius there. He leaned back in some surprise. “Well …” Lord Lucinius began. “Certainly you must admit, Sir William, that some of the terms in the original treaty are a bit … vague. For instance, the legal relationship between the two countries is not at all clear. You, as a man of law, should appreciate that better than anyone.”
“Perhaps my legal training here is a handicap,” replied Will, barely holding back a smile, “for I fear the relationship between the two countries is quite clear. They are both sovereign nations, treating with each other as equals — in a purely legal sense, of course,” Will continued, as calm and as unabashed as if he hadn’t just made the vein in Lord Lucinius’s temple begin to throb, “for obviously, no countries can truly be equals — especially not two nations as different as Glasonland and Albion. But of course, my lord, if you think it is unclear, it would be nothing to make our equal status obvious even to those without any training at all.”
Lord Lucinius started. “My dear sir,” he purred, “do you truly think that this is a legal fiction that ought to be sustained? Surely, you must see the advantages for Albion if it were to cast itself in its proper role as compared to Glasonland. As a daughter state, she would merit even more of Glasonland’s maternal care that is lavished upon her already.”
What maternal care? wondered Jessie, and the twitch of Will’s lips showed him to be thinking much the same thing. “Perhaps, my lord, but my King would refuse to agree to those terms. It would be very difficult for him to continue his negotiations with other countries, such as the Gaulish and the Remans, if Albion were to be suddenly regarded as nothing more than a daughter state of Gaul.”
“The Remans?” asked Vortimer, breaking into the conversation as carelessly as a child. “Uncle, why is Albion talking with the Remans? You said they were our allies.”
“That,” replied Lord Lucinius, “would be a question for Sir William.” He smirked at Will, as if daring him to think of a way out that.
But Jessie knew her Will would be up to that challenge. “Majesty,” replied Will, “Reme is just on the other side of Albion. We have to talk to the Remans, for we wish to be good neighbors.”
“But you are supposed to be our friends, not the Remans’,” replied Vortimer staunchly.
“Majesty, my King does not see any reason why we cannot all be friends. Albion has never been enemies with Reme or Glasonland, and Glasonland and Reme have not fought in almost thirty years. Why should we not all try to get along as well as we can?” asked Will.
Vortimer’s brow furrowed, and he tapped a finger against his lower lip. “That’s a good question, Uncle,” he said finally, turning to Lord Lucinius. “I don’t want to make the Remans my enemies if I don’t have to. My mama was a Reman.”
“Majesty, I understand very well your wish — indeed, I share it!” replied Lord Lucinius. “But, alas, the current Reman emperor may not see things as we do. We must be prepared for everything, not just those things we wish to happen.”
“But, my lord,” asked the Queen, her voice quavering, “is it not true that sometimes our expectations determine the outcome of events? If — if we were to treat with the Remans expecting them to become our enemies, then surely they will become our enemies all the quicker for it.”
Lord Lucinius glared at the Queen, and she quailed. That was when Jessie made her mistake: standing up for the other woman in the room. “And surely,” Jessie added, “we should all try to get along that much harder, since we are all bound by ties of kinship?”
Before Lord Lucinius could glare at her — and let him try, Jessie had faced down worse than one Reman uncle’s glare — Vortimer turned to Jessie, his head tilted like a confused bird’s. “We are?”
“Of course,” Jessie replied. Will was smiling at her, urging her to continue, so she did, “Your mama was a Reman, so you’re bound to them. And my father — the King of Albion, King Arthur — is your uncle, so Albion and Glasonland are bound together.”
“Your father is King Arthur?” gasped Vortimer. “But — but — what’s your name, again, ma’am?”
“Jessica, Majesty. Princess Jessica.”
Vortimer leaned forward, squinting at Jessie. Then he gasped. “I remember you! You …” He frowned. “No. The Jessie I remember was only a baby.”
Jessie laughed. “I was, Majesty. But it’s been a long time since we saw each other. I’m all grown up now.”
“Re–” started Vortimer.
“My Queen,” interrupted Lord Lucinius, staring at the poor Queen, “would it not be wise for you to take Lady Jessica to your chambers, and introduce her to your ladies? Surely both you and she must be bored by all this diplomatic talk.”
Say no, Jessie hoped, say no, say no, say no! They might have a chance of getting past Lord Lucinius if all three of the other competent adults in the room played against him.
But the Queen only nodded. “Of course, my lord. Lady Jessica?” she asked, trying very hard to smile.
And once invited, Jessie could hardly refuse. “Of course, your Majesty.” Poor Vortimer looked confused, but Jessie had other things to worry about. She squeezed Will’s hand goodbye, then followed the Queen as she left the room.
The last thing Jessie heard before the doors swung shut was Vortimer calling plaintively, “Goodbye, Viviette! Goodbye, Jessie!”
As for Jessie, she followed the Queen through the waiting chamber, then up several flights of stairs and down a series of winding corridors that got Jessie quite, quite lost. She barely bit back a sigh. She would need a page just to lead her back to her room. The palace in Albion wasn’t anywhere near this confusing.
Finally they came to a door, and the Queen stopped. She turned to Jessie with an embarrassed blush. “I — might I ask you a question?”
“… Sure,” Jessie replied.
“Do you — do you truly prefer to be called Lady Jessica? I mean, since you used to be a princess, and all …” The Queen wrung her hands together, a gesture so like a nervous Lynn — only more nervous than Jessie had seen Lynn in a long time — that Jessie’s heart cracked.
“My father,” Jessie replied, “said that while I was in Albion, and while he and Tommy were kings of it, I would be Princess Jessica. But this isn’t Albion.”
“But — but you prefer to be called Princess, and so Princess you shall be called.” The Queen tilted her jaw up, trying to look brave despite its quivering. Then she opened the door. “Ladies!” she called to the women in the room. “I have someone to introduce to you. This is Princess Jessica of Albion, wife to Sir William du Lac — the envoy from Albion.”
Jessie followed, curious. She expected to see ten or twelve ladies — at least half-a-dozen, since Glasonland was so much bigger and better-established than Albion. Why, her own mother had been a Lady-in-Waiting to Queen Lucilla briefly — that was how she and Arthur had met!
But Jessie only saw two ladies: one in yellow at the spinning wheel, and the other in red, sitting beside the crib.
“Princess Jessica,” the Queen continued, smoothing her hands on her skirts as if to rid them of sweat, “this is Emilia, Baroness of Caernavon,” she gestured to the lady in red, who got up and curtseyed, “and this is Lady Sandy Fairchild.” The woman in yellow also stood and curtseyed.
Jessie barely had time to curtsey to them both in turn, wondering if this Baroness was the wife of the Baron she had met earlier, before the Queen turned to the cradle. “And this,” she cooed, “is another Princess who’s just dying to meet you. Aren’t you, Lilla?”
The woman in red — the Baroness — her eyes fixed on Jessie with a look just shy of threatening. Jessie remembered facing down Morgause and tilted her chin up. I am not afraid of you. I have faced down so, so much worse than the occasional bitchy Lady-in-Waiting. Amazing, Jessie thought, how quickly she remembered her mother’s stories: the backbiting and jealously, the constant clawing for status.
But before Jessie could do more than remember those stories, the Queen had turned to her, holding out her offspring.
“Oh,” Jessie murmured, waving to the baby, “she’s darling.”
The baby couldn’t have been more than two months old. But that was enough time to outgrow the new-baby redness, and to become more awake and alert. This baby was blinking curiously at Jessie, her green eyes flickering.
Jessie could still feel the Baroness’s eyes on the back of her head. But she found it hard to care. She remembered, quite suddenly, Celeste at that age. How she used to blink at the world around her. How she was already starting to make little sounds. How she looked up when Jessie or Will spoke, trying to find them, grinning from ear to ear when she did. She’d been a little faster at all of that than Corentin, even though Corentin, Jessie was sure, was taking in just as much as Celeste — he was just mulling it all over more quietly. Jessie had to swallow and take a deep breath.
“Is something wrong?” asked the Queen, sounding truly concerned.
“Huh?” Jessie asked.
The baby began to whimper, and the Queen began to bounce her, walking quietly. “Sorry,” the Queen apologized over the baby’s head. “She likes to be moving if she’s out of her cradle.”
“And who can blame her?” laughed Jessie. Corentin always liked to be moving, too, although now he might well be walking. If he wasn’t now, he would be in a few weeks.
And Jessie wouldn’t see it …
“Truly, Princess, is something wrong?” asked the Queen again.
“Oh — nothing!” Jessie laughed. “Just thinking of my babies.” She gulped. Do not cry, do not cry …
“Babies?” asked the Baroness.
“Aye — I have two.” Jessie took a deep breath. “They’ll be a whole year old soon. It’s,” she laughed, “it’s a little hard to believe.”
“So you’re a new mother too!” gasped the Queen. “Emilia,” she nodded to the Baroness, “she is a new mother as well. Her Uther is only a few months older than my Lilla.”
Jessie laughed. “We should start a club,” she joked, thinking of Dannie’s Young Mother’s Club.
“A — a club?” asked the Queen, her brows knitting.
“Aye — why not?” asked Jessie. “You’re the Queen — can’t you start a club if you want?”
A shadow crossed the Queen’s face, and without a word she passed the baby to the Baroness, who jumped up to receive her and begin walking with her. As for the Queen, she wandered nearer to the stove, frowning. Jessie followed.
The Queen turned after a moment, trying again to smile. “It’s — it’s just — I don’t know. A club, that seems awfully informal, don’t you think?”
Jessie’s mouth opened to tell her that she only had been joking, but she saw the desperation in the Queen’s eyes. Good Lord, Jessie thought as the Queen blinked and chewed her lower lip. Is she — is she truly that lonely?
“I think,” Jessie replied, “that a Queen ought to be formal in public, but with her friends, she can be as informal as she pleases.” How many gossip sessions between her mother and Gwen had Jessie unknowingly walked into? “Besides,” Jessie grasped at whatever straws presented themselves, “think — think about it this way. If you were to start a small group among the noble ladies here in Ludenwic — don’t call it a club if you think that’s too informal — just for new or nearly-new mothers, wouldn’t that be, in a way, a public good?”
The Baroness was staring at her again. And Jessie was sure that Lady Sandy was listening. What were these women — were they friends for the Queen …
Or were they spies?
“The — public good?” the Queen squeaked.
“Aye, certainly. A place for new mothers to talk about the challenges, and the frustrations, and the things that frighten them and the things that they’re not so sure about? You’ll make many new mothers a lot happier and a lot more relaxed, and — and if they’re more relaxed about the baby, and all it entails, won’t their husbands be, too? And won’t that be a public good?”
“I never thought of it that way …” murmured the Queen. “But …” After a moment, the hope in her eyes died. She sighed. “It would not be — fitting. I am sure that Lord–that many would say that it would not be fitting.”
And that was when Jessie got reckless. “Who cares?” she replied. The Queen looked up and gasped. Lady Sandy turned all the way around on her stool and gaped at Jessie. “You’re the Queen. If you want to make life a little easier for many of the women in the kingdom, doesn’t that mean you’re doing your job? And besides, as my mother used to say …”
Jessie shrugged. “As my mother used to say, what’s the point of being Queen if you can’t break a few rules every now and then?”
It was not a wise thing to say, certainly not just after meeting the Queen. After a longer acquaintance, Jessie might have better gotten away with it. But encouraging the Queen to rebel would hardly endear the Albionese embassy to Lord Lucinius, and since Lord Lucinius was who they had to deal with in the short term, that could be bad.
But in the long term … the goal for the long term was to hamstring Lord Lucinius so that he could not set his sights on Reme and invade Albion in order to get to it. And if planting the seeds of rebellion in the Queen’s mind helped accomplish that, then it was all to the good, wasn’t it?
As if in confirmation, when Jessie glanced behind her — having had enough of Lady Sandy’s shocked gasps and the Queen’s thoughtful look alike — she saw the Baroness staring right at her.
And she was grinning.