“Sister Margery, for the last time, I am telling you,” snapped Sister Vyn, shaking her head, “you wouldn’t be doing this for any other parent in that school. Don’t do this for Lady Dindrane.”
Margery made no reply. Sister Vyn didn’t understand. This wasn’t just any parent of any student — this was Dindrane. And Nimue. And Mordred’s bastards.
And they were, all four of them, the reason why she had been so robbed of sleep these past few weeks. But Margery had to tell Dindrane about this. She was going to find out sooner or later, from Nimue if nobody else. She deserved to find out from somebody who would try to soften the blow, not deal it heedlessly.
Or cruelly, if she found out from her husband.
“If anything,” continued Sister Vyn, “I would understand telling the father. It’s going to be a right mess when the mothers find out — which they will — and it might spill into the children’s school life, so let him try to head that off at the pass. But to tell one of the mothers! Sister, have you lost your mind?”
Margery winced, but there was nothing for it: she had to turn around. “It’s not a question of the mind,” she replied. “It’s a question –”
“Of the heart?” sneered Sister Vyn.
Margery did not wince, perhaps because she knew that was what Sister Vyn wanted. She seemed to triumph every time Margery reacted to her numerous suggestions there was something improper, even unnatural, in Margery and Dindrane’s friendship. Or perhaps Margery was imagining it. After all, there could be nothing improper in her feelings for Dindrane, certainly nothing unnatural!
… Could there?
So she kept her voice low and level, her gaze even. “Of course my friendship for Lady Dindrane comes into this, if that is what you mean by ‘of the heart.’ But that is not what I was going to say. It is a question of — decency. She’s been hurt badly by her husband. She deserves to find out this — latest injury from somebody who will tell her as gently as possible.” And give her a shoulder to cry on when she’s heard. And listen to her, let her get the pain out, before she has to go and put on a brave face for the world.
At least, I hope she’ll get the pain out, and let me listen to her.
“Injury?” gasped Sister Vyn. “From what you say, it’s just some children playing together! Nothing more! By St. Agnes’s knitting needles,” Sister Vyn continued, gaining heat as she went on, “I’d even call this a good thing. Lady Nimue, those boys — they’re kin, brothers and sisters, whether they like it or not. If they can get along, never mind which side of the blanket they were born on, it’ll be a good thing for everybody in the long run.”
In the long run? In the long run? What right had Sister Vyn to think, much less speak, of the long run, when so much could go wrong in the short run! That — woman’s — two offspring could be allowed into Dindrane’s pristine home any day now, invited in all innocence by Nimue. Or — worse! — she could be invited to Avilion, to that house of sin, by them. Who cared about the long run when there were such disasters to head off in the short run?
“Perhaps,” replied Margery as evenly as she was able. “Certainly nobody can argue against an — an excess of fraternal love. But –“
“There’s certainly no excess of fraternal love here,” spat Sister Vyn. “Let me remind you: It’s a group of children playing together here. Getting along beautifully, aye, I’ll give you that. But it’s hardly anything excessive.”
“Perhaps, but –“
“Let me share something with you, Sister — something about the real world,” interrupted Sister Vyn. “Lady Dindrane is nothing other than lucky in how she’s been treated by her husband. A man of that stature, the King’s nephew? He could beat her bloody every day, and twice on Sundays, and who would gainsay him? Instead, all he does is have a discreet mistress, far away where Lady Dindrane won’t have to see, and dares to father a few children on her, and — horror of horrors! — supports them! He could have fathered half-a-dozen bastards under her very nose and made her look at them day in and day out, but instead he acts in a way to spare her feelings. And how does she repay him? She leaves him!” Sister Vyn flung her hands up. “And now she’s seeking an annulment! An annulment! She wants to get rid of a husband plenty of women would give their right arms to have!”
“It wasn’t just that,” replied Margery softly, though her stomach churned to call the way Dindrane’s name and reputation had been dragged through the mud just that. “Remember how he reacted when Lady Dindrane reported what his mother had done to the proper authorities. She had every reason to fear for her safety.”
“And he had every reason to be angry! Not that I’d condone what Lady Morgause did for a moment — but she was still his mother! At the very least, she should have brought her suspicions to him, and let him decide what was to be done.”
“And leave a child’s life in danger?” Margery snapped. “That’s what she was thinking about first — that child! Not Lady Morgause, not her husband! The innocent little boy! Will you fault her for that, too?”
“No,” replied Sister Vyn, “but I won’t elevate her to sainthood, either, as you seem to have done. And I hope I wouldn’t let my — other feelings — for someone get in the way of my sisterly duties to teach all the children in my class, without favor or prejudice. I hope –“
A brisk knock sounded from the door. “That must be her,” murmured Margery. “I must ask you, Sister Vyn, to keep your opinions about Lady Dindrane’s conduct — and mine — to yourself, at least until she leaves. This is going to be difficult enough as it is.”
Sister Vyn’s only reply was a snort. She said nothing as Margery let Dindrane in and Dindrane politely greeted her. She said nothing when Margery kissed Dindrane on both cheeks — a greeting merely as polite as Dindrane’s own, nothing more. But Sister Vyn’s scowl as soon as Dindrane’s head was turned spoke volumes. Margery could only hope that she was the only one to notice.
Of course, with Dindrane’s sharp eyes, that was probably a futile hope at best.
Luckily, at the moment Dindrane’s eyes were focused only on Margery. “Brr!” she shivered, rubbing her hands together. “I’ve forgotten how long a ride it is here. It seems so short and pleasant when the weather is warm.”
“Oh, Dindrane, you rode? In all this snow?”
Dindrane only shrugged. “As I said — I forgot how long it is. Besides, I kept warmer on horseback than I would in a carriage or litter. At least I had the exercise on the horse.”
“I suppose, but if it’s so cold, how will you get home?”
“Margery! It’s not that cold!” laughed Dindrane. “And if it is, the palace isn’t that far. I doubt the Queen would begrudge me a bed for the night — and my children will only be too happy to spend the night with Grandma and Grandpapa to spoil them.”
“To say nothing of Uncle Lamorak, Auntie Delyth, and Auntie Dilys,” replied Margery. “Can I take your cloak?”
“Certainly, thank you.”
Margery moved to remove Dindrane’s cloak, shivering slightly at the cold winter air that still hung around it. But the inside was still warm from Dindrane’s body. Somehow that made her shiver more.
Sister Vyn chose that moment to nod once to Dindrane and once again to Margery before she marched up the stairs.
Dindrane removed her own riding headdress and patted her hair into place as she watched Sister Vyn go, frowning slightly. As soon as she judged Sister Vyn out of earshot — at least, Margery prayed that she was out of earshot — Dindrane asked, her mouth half-lifting in a smile, “She really doesn’t like me, does she?”
It was their ritual, or at least, Dindrane’s ritual whenever she saw Sister Vyn and whenever Sister Vyn did something more-or-less rude. Sometimes Margery had to laugh, especially at Dindrane’s face as she said it. Today … today the best she could do was to try to smile. “Please don’t mind her.”
“I don’t.” Dindrane probably didn’t. It took more than a bit of half-hearted rudeness to get to Dindrane. She swept into the living room and pulled a book from her bag. “But I wanted to talk to you, Margery, about some story books I’ve bought for Nimue and Gawaine. They’re a bit rare, but if you look through the stories and like them, I can –“
“Actually — actually, Dindrane, I was wondering — might we talk in my office?” Margery squeaked.
Dindrane turned around with her eyebrows arching skyward. But she nodded.
Margery smiled in return and led the way into her one sanctum, if one could even call it that. Dindrane followed, flipping through the book. “There’s one story in particular I want to show you …”
Margery was sure that there was. And she was also sure that one story would lead to another, and another. Such was the way with Dindrane and books. She should have been flattered that Dindrane gave so much thought to the orphans, not just to food to fill their bellies and clothes to keep them warm, but to books to expand their mind. But Margery could find no room in her now for anything but apprehension.
“Din–Dindrane, could you close the door, please?” Margery interrupted.
Dindrane looked up, blinked, put the book on the table, and stared at Margery. “What’s wrong?”
“I — I –” Margery tried to smile. “That’s — that’s a lovely gown,” she began, for lack of other place to start. “Is it new?”
Dindrane’s eyebrows rose expressively even as she gave a ghost of a smile. Margery’s heart contracted in anguish to see it. Dindrane used to smile like that when married to Mordred! It was only recently that the full, carefree smiles were coming back! And Margery hadn’t even told her yet!
But Dindrane answered her all the same. “Yes,” she replied. “It is. My — my mother and Lady Ferreira both thought the color would suit me.”
“It does. Green is a good color on you, Dindrane.”
“Well, if you agree, it must be so,” Dindrane answered. “But Margery …” She reached for Margery’s hand and held it loosely, gently. Just as a friend would hold her friend’s hand. “You didn’t ask me into your office to compliment my gown. What’s going on?”
“We should sit.”
Dindrane only hesitated long enough to smooth her skirts before sitting. Margery followed in her wake.
And that left Margery nothing to do — but to tell her.
“Dindrane, I hope — I hope you’ll forgive me for waiting as long as I have to tell you this,” Margery began. “But I had a great deal of things to weigh in my mind before I could hope to speak. Starting with whether it would be proper to tell you this at all.”
“You … did?” asked Dindrane. Her face had entirely drained of color, save for two bright spots of pink on her cheeks.
“Yes. You see, some — Sister Vyn especially — would say it’s highly improper for me to even mention this at all, much less to you. But …” Margery’s head bowed, and she could only whisper to the general vicinity of her lap. “I had no choice. I have to tell you, Dindrane. I don’t think I could live with myself,” she began to play with the tails of her belt, “if you found out — some other way, and you got … hurt.”
“Hurt?” croaked Dindrane. Margery almost didn’t dare to look at her.
Almost. She had to at least respect Dindrane enough to look her in the eyes as she said this. Margery looked up to find her friend staring at her with — what? Something she was trying with all her might to hide, but which flamed out from her blue eyes regardless. Something that burned but dared not show the colors of its flames. Margery gulped. “Yes. You see — it’s about Nimue.”
Dindrane blinked several times in rapid succession. Each time was like turning the page of a book — a new expression greeted Margery’s view. She saw something like shock — hurt — disappointment — and then …?
She couldn’t tell. Dindrane closed her eyes and looked away. When she looked back, there was nothing but careful blank impassivity. Oh, Dindrane, don’t be like that!
But she would be like that, and Margery could not argue, for Dindrane asked in a voice as expressionless as her face, “Nimue?”
“Aye — something I’ve noticed at school. She’s not in any kind of trouble,” she hastened to add, “or struggling with her work, or anything like that. It’s about … her friends.”
“Her friends?” Dindrane did not bother to hide her emotion this time. No wonder, it was only innocent surprise.
“Indeed. She … she has become quite good friends with two little boys in my class, twins …” Even as Dindrane was blinking with every heartbeat, Margery had to add the names, to spell it out. “Melou and Melehan …”
The color drained entirely from Dindrane’s face.
“FitzOrk,” Margery whispered.
Dindrane’s lips parted. “Lou and Han,” she murmured.
Then — without a further word — she faced straight ahead, her spine locked straight, her breath coming in shallow pants.
“Dindrane …” Margery laid her hand on Dindrane’s shoulder. “It — it could be worse,” she started. Worse? Worse how? “The boys don’t know who she is, I’m sure of it. I — who knows if they even know about their father’s true family? I haven’t said anything to them, either. But I had to tell you. You … you see that, don’t you?” Absently, she began to stroke Dindrane’s shoulder, then her back. “Dindrane?”
Dindrane didn’t even shake her off. Somehow, that felt worse than Margery thought it would have if she had.
But because she didn’t, Margery felt the first rumblings of the deep that were the signs of the earthquake to follow.
“WRIGHT DAMN HIM!“
“The same bloody school! He had to put them into the same bloody school with Nimue — with Gawaine next year!” Dindrane wailed. “And then Gareth! He couldn’t — he couldn’t even show them that much respect! To not wave the children he loves better under their very noses!”
“Dindrane!” Margery gasped, leaping to her own feet. She tried to put an arm around Dindrane’s shoulder; this time, Dindrane did shake her off. “No, no, he can’t have possibly meant to have hurt them! They’re all his children, Dindrane, he loves them all.”
“He loves hers more,” Dindrane spat. “He always has, and he always will.”
“But he didn’t mean to hurt yours,” Margery insisted. “No, never, Dindrane. I won’t believe that — even of him. And you shouldn’t, either.”
Dindrane snorted. “Of course he didn’t mean to hurt my children. He’d have to think about my children to mean to hurt them.” She crossed her arms ever more tightly across her chest, hugging herself as if she doubted anyone else would ever hug her again. “He didn’t even think about how her children might be hurt, to find out about Nimue and Gawaine and Gareth. It’s as if my children don’t even exist to him. Not when he has hers to think about.”
Margery wished she could think of an argument to mount against that. It might have done them both good. But as always happened when Margery tried to cross intellectual swords with Dindrane, she was defeated before the first en garde! was heard.
“And of course,” Dindrane continued, her volume and her anger growing with every syllable, “he leaves it to me to be the bad one!”
“I’m — sorry?” Margery gasped.
“To me! Who else is going to tell her who her new friends are? What her father has done? Wright damn it! I was hoping that I wouldn’t have to tell her until she was older!” Dindrane suddenly hiccuped on something that sounded very like a sob. Margery tentatively put a hand on her shoulder; Dindrane buried her face in her hands. “And how,” she moaned, “do you explain this to a five-year-old?”
“Dindrane, Dindrane! You don’t have to tell her anything, not yet. She’s so little. Let — let her have her friends in peace. They get along so well together. And after all …” Margery’s voice grew small as she forced the next words out. “The boys, Melehan and Melou … they’re only children, too. They can’t help who their father is.”
“Of course they can’t,” Dindrane replied, with a mix of compassion and plain common sense that Margery could scarcely believe she was hearing. “It’s not their fault … what their father is.”
“So then you won’t tell her?” Margery continued hopefully. “Let her have her peace and her happiness for a little–“
“No.” Dindrane’s hands fell away from her face. “No. I won’t have her find out by accident. I won’t have my daughter hurt like that.”
Margery sighed. “Dindrane, then you will have to get Sir Mordred to explain –“
“What? Dindrane, the sin is his. Let the confession be his, too!”
“No. Nimue will find out from no one but me.” Dindrane closed her eyes, breathed deep, and opened them again. They were shining, wet with what looked like tears. “Can you imagine how he would tell her?” Dindrane whispered. “He’ll make himself seem in the right. He’ll tell her she has no reason to feel hurt. He’ll make her feel unnatural and — wrong for being shocked and frightened.”
“Dindrane, she’s so young … she might not understand that there is anything … amiss,” Margery replied gently, choosing her final word with care. “Wrong,” after all, was too strong a word to use for this situation while Sister Vyn’s snaps still rung in her ears. “She may just accept it.”
“Then may the Lord forgive me, for I shall have to explain to her how this is amiss,” replied Dindrane. “I won’t — I won’t — have her growing up to think that this is right and just. It is not. It is not!”
“Dindrane, of course it isn’t! Nobody would say otherwise!”
“To my face,” replied Dindrane. “But I know well what they say behind my back.”
“No,” Margery whispered. Though to what — to protest that people spoke so behind Dindrane’s back, or that Dindrane knew about it — she knew not.
“Wright forgive me,” Dindrane whispered again, “but I won’t — I won’t — let her grow up thinking … thinking that her father owes us as little as that. I don’t care if he does. She won’t think that. She’ll never know that. She deserves … all of my children, they deserve so much better …”
“And so do you,” replied Margery, and embraced Dindrane with all the strength she had.
At the end of the day, it was all she could do.