“Is it so much to ask,” Elyan wailed, “for a little respect from one’s betrothed? I mean, really! I don’t make any demands on her physically! I don’t tell her to accompany me places! I don’t care how she spends her time when I’m not with her! I just want a little respect!”
Why was it that Leona couldn’t give him just that little bit, that littlest littlest bit? He wanted her to stop laughing at him every chance she got. He wanted her to listen to him with proper attention and gravity. He wanted her to seek his advice and take it when he chose to instruct her in how she should act. He wanted to treat her as a delicate lady should treat her lord, not as any fishwife would treat an annoying boy.
Was that really so very much to ask?
Aglovale seemed to think so, insofar as Aglovale was bothering to show any opinion at all. Instead, he bent over the paper he was writing — or the notes he was completing — or just whatever it was he was doing. Elyan could not understand how it was that Aglovale devoted so much time to his studies when surely Lord Pellinore would see to it that there was some important post waiting for him when he got home, but that was Aglovale for you. As for Elyan, he knew he was going to be a knight — his father had spoken, and so it would be done — and so saw no reason to put forth more effort in his classes than what was absolutely necessary in order to pass and graduate.
“Look, Elyan,” Aglovale sighed, the familiar long-suffering sigh that seemed to be his favorite whenever he spoke to Elyan, “we both know Leona. We both know that … unearned respect is not her strong suit.”
“Unearned?” Elyan gasped. “How in the good Lord’s name have I not earned Leona’s respect?”
Aglovale actually paused in his writing long enough to fix Elyan with something like the stare of a cat. It managed to communicate boundless contempt in nothing more than a few moments of unblinking gaze and a slight twitch of the whiskers. But Elyan must have been reading too much into Aglovale’s look, for certainly his sigh was not contemptuous but merely exasperated. “Perhaps you had best ask yourself what you’ve done recently to earn it.”
“I am her betrothed!”
“Again, you know Leona. Do you really think she’s going to grant respect to someone whose only talent — as far as she can tell — is to sign his name on a piece of paper?”
Elyan flushed. Of course, when Aglovale put it like that … they hadn’t actually signed anything. His father didn’t favor long betrothals. Nothing would be signed until they were almost ready to wed. Elyan tried to tell himself that that was only sensible and just, for …
He couldn’t think of a single good reason.
“I’ll be her lord and master as soon as we graduate,” Elyan grumbled. “It would go much easier for her if she were to start treating me as such now.”
“Mmm. Is that really what you think?”
“Of course it is!” Look at his own parent’s marriage. It had been rough and wearing, and he knew that his mother had always treated his father with proper respect and deference from the beginning. Maybe even too much respect and deference. If she had dared to voice her preferences a bit more from the beginning — allow Bors to accommodate her every once and a while instead of ceaselessly striving only to please him — maybe she might have been healthier and happier throughout.
But Leona took things too far. If Elyan had to be married to her as she was now, he doubted he would be able to last twenty-plus years before he needed a long spell at the monastery in order to recover.
He just hoped — it felt awful to hope it, but he did — that his father would have passed on by that point. Elyan doubted he would ever be able to face his father before or after a similar breakdown. He didn’t know how his mother had done it.
“I am not,” Elyan continued, more to fill the silence than anything else, “a cruel or harsh man, I don’t think. Again, I’m not asking for much. But I may very well become one, if I have to spend my life reining her in! I wish someone would explain that to her!”
Aglovale signed and leaned his forehead on his hand. Perhaps his assignment or paper or what-have-you was proving to be more difficult than he had anticipated. Elyan could only sympathize.
“I mean, the whole kingdom — for reasons I don’t pretend to understand — thinks my father is unduly harsh. When he never raised a hand to my mother or my sisters! And I would like to follow in his footsteps –”
Aglovale made a noise very like choking.
“– but she is not making it easy! Lord! What do I have to do to get some sense out of that woman!”
“Elyan,” Aglovale sighed, “if you’re convinced that you have to be the sensible one in this relationship, I’m sorry, but I don’t know if there’s anything I could say that would make that easier for you.”
“I doubt there is,” Elyan sighed, shaking his head. “But I appreciate the effort.”
“Oh, please don’t mention it, Elyan,” Aglovale replied. He kept his head bent over his assignment. “Goodness, what are friends for if not to commiserate in times like these?”
“Of course,” Elyan replied. But something in those words set him a little on edge. “And …” he added, “if, er, you need anyone to commiserate with … I know your wife has been having a rough time of late …”
“If I ever need to talk with anyone about my wife, Elyan,” Aglovale replied, “rest assured that you will be on the very top of an important list in that regard.”
Elyan smiled — but something in that statement didn’t sit right. He just wished he could pinpoint what it was.
“Anyway!” he blustered on. If there was anything living with Bors had taught him, it was this: when it doubt, continue on with your original point and so turn the conversation back to a place where you felt comfortable. “I just don’t know what to do with her, Aglovale, I really don’t. Especially since she keeps being encouraged!”
“Encouraged,” Aglovale repeated, flat as the carpet beneath his feet.
“Aye! Aye! Do you know her mad scheme about a — a navy?”
“Kay mentioned something about that.”
Elyan froze. “He — he what?”
“He mentioned Albion was going to get a navy. And Leona had something to do with it.” Aglovale shrugged and turned the parchment over. “I thought he would have told you, if he thought you ought to know.”
How on the good Lord’s green earth, Elyan wondered, did Kay not see this as something Elyan needed to know? If he had known, he would have put a stop to it!
Or maybe, he began to realize, that was the point.
“Do you know what Prince Thomas said,” Elyan demanded, several puzzle pieces beginning to click together in his mind, “when I went to him before I left Albion and demanded that he tell me what my betrothed was involving herself in — and when I asked him why he was putting this important project in the hands of a woman?”
Aglovale sighed, flung his quill to the table — causing yet another ink stain that the maid would have to endeavor to clean — and began to turn his chair around. “No,” he muttered, “but I’m sure you’ll tell me in a minute.”
“‘We need a navy!‘” Elyan wailed. “That’s what he said! ‘We need a Navy!’ I ask you, is that a good excuse?”
Elyan groaned. “For what? For what? For interfering with another man’s betrothed! For giving a girl ideas outside of her station! For encouraging Leona, of all people! Look, my father says this about women — give them an inch and they’ll take an ell. I know that’s not true for all women; that would just be silly. But it is true for Leona!”
“In my experience, Leona never waited for you to give her the inch,” Aglovale remarked. “In fact, she always just seemed to take the ell and demand you or anyone else to gainsay her.”
“I know!” Elyan groaned.
“But, you know, you really can’t argue with what Prince Thomas is saying,” Aglovale continued. “We need a navy. And –”
“Says who?” Elyan exploded. “As far as I can tell, this whole navy idea was just cooked up by Leona in one of her mad fits! Neither Reme nor Glasonland has much of a navy! So why do we need one?”
“You know, Elyan, this might sound a bit mad — but don’t you think that the fact that Reme and Glasonland don’t have much of a navy is all the more reason for us to have a good one?”
“I fail to see,” Elyan snarled, “what good having a wonderful navy would do if — Lord forbid! — Reme or Glasonland were to invade by way of land. You know — as armies generally do. You of all people ought to know about that, since you’re so insistent on studying strategy.”
“And wouldn’t it be quite a pity if we retaliated by attacking port city after port city? Think on it, Elyan. The troops would have to pull out. A small, mobile navy could deal more damage for the money’s worth than any army Albion might be able to raise.”
“But isa woman — Leona! — the man to lead that navy? I ask you!” Elyan demanded, smirking, certain he finally had an objection that Aglovale could not answer.
“Certainly she’s not the man to do it — unless there’s something she intends for you to discover on the wedding night,” Aglovale smirked, “but how many men have volunteered for the post?”
“Surely there would be plenty, should His Majesty advertise the need!”
“Oh, really? Like you?”
Elyan blinked and stepped back. “What?”
“Like you? Would you be willing to lead the navy if Leona wasn’t?”
“That’s …” Elyan colored and looked away. “That’s preposterous!” It was worse than preposterous, it was — unthinkable. Elyan got seasick on a dinghy. No, he got seasick just looking at a dinghy. That he would lead a navy …
And besides, true knights were not seamen. The sea, and boats — that was for men of common stock, like Richard Ferreira. Or that insufferable Frederick. And barbarians, too, they seemed to like to attack by sea. So did pirates. True knights were mounted men, proving their courage on horseback in the very thick of battle. Where was the honor, the glory, in a sneak attack on a port city like Aglovale described?
Unfortunately, while Elyan could imagine very little honor in that attack, he could very easily see it won … which meant that there would be rather more glory than perhaps was strictly necessary.
But all of that was neither here nor there. “I would certainly never destroy my dignity by taking on such a lowly post. Let the Ferreiras do it — they like the sea.”
“Oh, come now. If it’s so lowly, why not let a woman do it? Leona can hardly bring down the job in your eyes.”
“It’s not about a woman doing it! It’s about my betrothed doing it!” Elyan yelled, not sure if he might be contradicting himself — and frankly not caring. Of course for a woman to lead a navy was unthinkable. But for Leona to do it was worse than unthinkable. It was blasphemy. It was wholehearted destruction of any life they might hope to make together. Why couldn’t anyone see that?
“It’s almost as bad as my sister — my own sister!” Elyan wailed, “soiling her name and mine by becoming a doctor! A doctor! I am sure every one of my grandfathers is rolling in his grave!”
“Leave Lady Clarice out of this,” Aglovale growled. “She …” He looked away. “She made my mother-in-law’s last illness bearable, all right? Just leave her out of this.”
“But at the cost of two months of her life!” Elyan announced smugly. Really, as much as he loved his sister, all would be better off the sooner she gave up this mad dream of doctoring. Look at how she had bungled the job with her first true patient of note!
Aglovale, however, had his gaze whip to Elyan, and before Elyan could properly react, Aglovale was on his feet. “What did you say?”
“Come now! I heard what Heloise said her mother’s prognosis was. Six months to a –”
“Shut up! Wright, Elyan! Don’t you have any idea when to stop talking? My wife lost her mother barely a fortnight ago! The last thing she or anybody else needs to hear is that she might have lived longer if she had a different doctor!”
“But –” Elyan started, and stopped. So what if Babette wasn’t here now, and Elyan would never bring this up in her hearing? Aglovale was growing upset. That was reason enough to stop.
“But!” Apparently the one word was enough to keep Aglovale upset. “But, but, but! It’s always but with you, Elyan! If you had the brains the Lord Wright gave a fucking doornail, you’d know when to quit it already!”
“Hey!” Elyan was quitting it. He didn’t know why Aglovale didn’t see that.
“And you know what? If you had those brains, you’d realize how good you bloody well had it! You’re the eldest son! You’re never going to have to want or work for anything in your life! Hell, you don’t even think you have use the Wright-damned brains the good Lord gave you to keep from running your estate even further into the ground than your father has!”
“HEY!” Elyan would never be as terrible at running the estate as his father was. At the very least, he knew how to run a ledger. He’d trained himself under the steward!
“But no, Saint Elyan the Arse-Wipe isn’t content with getting his whole fucking life delivered to him on a silver platter. Hell, his daddy actually does one bloody thing right and hooks him up with a girl who’s well-connected, well-dowered and drop-dead gorgeous to boot, and what does he do? Complain that she isn’t demure and obedient enough! Elyan, the only bride who would be demure and obedient enough for you is a dishtowel!”
“That isn’t true!” Elyan retorted, though if he had been asked, he wouldn’t have been able to say precisely what wasn’t true. The dishtowel remark, certainly. There had to be living women out there who were demure and obedient — who was he kidding, Lynn was one of them! They just seemed to be an increasingly rare breed, that was all. And maybe the bit about Leona being drop-dead gorgeous. Oh, she could be pretty enough when she chose to pretend to be a girl …
Actually, nowadays she was looking quite pretty …
“Yes, it is! It is!” Aglovale shouted. “Admit it, and –”
“You’re just jealous!”
Aglovale only laughed. “You idiot! Of course I’m bloody jealous! You get everything, I get squat, and I would do so much more with what you’ve got than you would ever –”
“You could have gotten a well-dowered, well-connected girl, too!” Elyan yelled back. “But instead you had to blow it with that two-bit commoner whore! Now who’s fault is –”
“Elyan! That’s enough!”
Elyan froze. He hadn’t even heard the door open …
But he turned around, slowly, only to see a rather familiar prince scowling an unfortunately familiar scowl at him. Except, somehow, on Kay, it was worse. Prince Thomas’s scowl had only lasted a moment, and had soon been replaced by wry amusement. The King’s scowls didn’t really last very long, either.
Yet the beats of Elyan’s heart were drawing out … and out … and out … and Kay still scowled.
“Thank you!” Aglovale sighed. “You have no idea –”
“Don’t you start, either!” Kay snapped. “Aye, it was Elyan who crossed the line here, Aglovale, but you let him get right up to that line!”
“You. Were. Encouraging him!” Kay yelled. Something in the way he said “encouraging” … and something in the way Aglovale flinched … there was a conversation here being referenced. Something Elyan didn’t know about. Were these two talking behind his back?
“Look, Elyan,” Kay snapped, turning to Elyan, “I am only going to say this once, so pay attention. I don’t want to hear your … your mad opinions, your stupid justifications, any more, all right? Aglovale and I, we’ve put up with them for far too long. It was bad enough when you had your claws out for Freddy, but now you’re insulting a lady, and that won’t happen under my roof again!”
“Babette is only half a lady, and –”
“I was talking about Leona!” Kay roared. “Though,” he added in a somewhat softer tone, “if you ever say or imply something of that nature against Aglovale’s lady wife again, I will simply walk away and let him do to you whatever he will!”
“She is!” Elyan shouted, more for lack of anything to say than anything else.
Kay glanced at Aglovale. “My offer to walk away still stands.”
Aglovale snorted. “Don’t worry about it. There’d be no satisfaction in it.”
Kay snorted. “That makes you a lucky man, Elyan. Now — I am going to explain this again, since you didn’t seem to get it the first time. I know your father let you get away with anything you wanted to say about women or Leona or — even your own sisters! But that does apply here, all right? I’m sick of it! I don’t want to hear it again, and I know Aglovale doesn’t, either! Damn it, Elyan, don’t you see that if you keep talking like this, you’re going to end up as isolated as your father!”
“My father isn’t isolated …”
“Who, other than Sir Lancelot, is willing to stand by him and be his ally?” Kay asked.
“I — well, Prince Thomas is my brother-in-law! And so will Sir William be! Surely –”
Kay only stared at him. Then he slapped his palm against his forehead. “Elyan,” he muttered, “Elyan, Elyan. If you keep saying the kinds of things you’re saying … how long do you think either one of them will be your allies?”
And that was the first inkling Elyan had — really had — that perhaps his future was not quite as secure as he had always planned it to be.