“Ti! Ti! Ti Lo-lo!”
“There you are, Corey,” Leona murmured, scooping him up in her arms. “Where were you when I needed a human dollie to hold close, huh?”
Corey giggled — which proved, despite everything Jessie swore about her son, every point of resemblance she cataloged between him and Will, that he wasn’t as quick on the uptake as his father. Yet. They’d see how long that would last.
He already had a sense of how to grasp for what he wanted. As soon as Corey was safely snuggled in Leona’s arms, his chubby little hands reached for Leona’s necklace. Leona let him. After all, he couldn’t do it much harm. And it couldn’t do him much harm: it was far too big for him to swallow.
More importantly, she’d also gotten good about swatting the hand away when he looked about ready to pop the pendant in his mouth. She’d had a lot of practice keeping Celeste’s grabby hands under control.
But it wasn’t long before Corey bored of that and instead climbed his way up Leona’s side, his tiny hands locking around her neck. Leona closed her eyes and snuggled him that much closer.
“I miss your papa, Corey,” Leona admitted into his hair. “And your mama, too.”
“Mama?” Corey repeated, as he and his sister always did when the word was brought up in their hearing. Corey would repeat “papa,” too, if you gave him the space to do so. Celeste would repeat it whether you gave her the space or not.
“Aye, kid, your mama. Remember her?” Leona leaned Corey back, the better to smile at him and have him see it. “Red hair, curly like yours? Purple eyes? Always the one holding you and playing with you and taking care of you when you’re sick?”
“Ti?” Corey questioned. It was the closest he could get to Auntie.
“She and your papa are the common sense around this place,” Leona murmured. “Grandpapa, he’s got all the heart but none of the sense. Grandma, she’s turning into a battleaxe in her old age — a great one if she’s on your side, no doubt, but still a battleaxe. And me …” Leona sighed. “I’ve got a head full as full of dreams as a sail is full of winds, but I don’t have an anchor to hold me back.”
“Sad Ti?” Corey asked.
“I wish not, kid, but …” But the truth was the tension was rising at the palace, and being over there so often, there was no way Leona couldn’t feed off it. Every day reports came in — and every day, after scouring them, Prince Tom and the King looked grimmer and grimmer. There hadn’t been any news of Will and Jessie. If there had been, the King would have told them. But it was looking more and more like no news was anything but good news.
And then, today, after hearing whatever news there was to hear with his father and coming back to their meeting room with a sigh, Prince Tom had flung himself into his chair, stared at the wall a few moments, then turned that steely gray gaze onto Leona and asked her if she had mentioned her plans for the voyage to her parents yet.
“No sad Ti,” Corey said suddenly. He ducked closer to Leona and kissed her on the lips. “Kiss better!”
“Have you been learning from your sister?” laughed Leona, chasing the troublesome thoughts away for only a moment. Celeste had started that trick a week ago.
Corey giggled and laid his head on her shoulder.
“Oh, Corey,” Leona sighed, the sad thoughts rushing back in as quickly as they had rushed out. “What am I going to do?”
Well, she knew what she ought to do: tell her parents. She’d resolved to do so today, rather than waste another minute dawdling. She had told herself, originally, that she would tell her parents what she had decided only after Will and Jess got back. That, she had thought, would be the most fair.
But with every day that passed … well, they hadn’t given up hope. And they wouldn’t. Not while Leona was on the watch. But it was becoming more and more apparent that her parents needed some warning.
The door to the nursery suddenly flew open. “Lunch time!” cried the pretty nursemaid, Ada. “Corey, are ye — oh! M’lady! I’m sorry ter interrupt!”
“Oh — no trouble.” Leona kissed the top of Corey’s head and handed him off to his nurse. “This little fellow is probably hungry. And I …” She tried not to sigh. “I’ve got … things to do.”
Things like tell her parents, finally, what was going on.
It didn’t take her long to go from the nursery to the library, which was where she guessed her parents were at this hour. At the very least, her mother would be there. And if Leona couldn’t tell both of her parents at once, she wanted to tell Guinevere first. Guinevere would understand first and be saddened later.
However, when Leona came to stand outside the library door, she could hear voices. The doors were too thick to make them out, but who else could they be — the servants? Leona knocked on the doors. “Mum? Dad? Please tell me you’re decent in there!”
“Of course we’re decent!” Guinevere called back. “We’re in the library!”
“In broad daylight!” added Lancelot.
“Oh, honey, don’t go there,” Guinevere added. “When has it being broad daylight ever stopped us?”
Leona didn’t hear a reply for a moment, which was probably a stumped Lancelot nonverbally admitting that Guinevere had that right. “Well,” Lancelot called finally, “even if we weren’t, what business is it of yours?”
“I want to talk to you!”
“Oh!” Her poor father sounded almost apologetic. “Well, come on in, honey! What do you need?”
Saying a brief prayer for strength to St. Brandi, St. Robert, and whoever else might be listening, Leona pushed open the library door.
And smacked her forehead as soon as she entered. “Mum, Dad … we need to have a talk about what ‘decent’ means.”
Guinevere looked up from her busy … whatever it was she was doing Lancelot’s neck. She glared at Leona. “‘Decent,'” she replied, “always has, and in this house, always will mean that all parties are fully clothed, with said clothes in a neat enough state that nothing … shall we say, essential, is showing. What the occupants of said clothing happen to be doing has nothing to do with whether or not they are ‘decent.'”
“But Mum …”
“No buts,” Guinevere replied.
Leona sighed — and Lancelot craned to get a better look at her over his shoulder. “Honey, what’s wrong?”
“I …” Leona twitched her loose sleeve around and around her forearm. “I need to … talk to you two …”
Leona kept her eyes focused on her sleeve, so she wouldn’t have to see the way her mother narrowed her eyes and studied her. But she knew what the results of the study were by the rustle of cloth and sudden thud of a rear hitting a wooden bench. “Well, we’re all here, Leona, so tell us what’s on your mind.”
Leona took a deep breath. “It’s … well, it’s complicated.”
“It usually is,” Lancelot murmured. He shot Leona a wan smile. “Affairs … affairs of the heart …”
Oh, no! Leona cringed. They think this is about Elyan!
What else could they think it was? The carefully neutral expressions, ready to turn supportive in a moment — the way Guinevere in particular was watching her with the wary expression of the hawk waiting for the rabbit to move — Lancelot’s smile that tried to be so brave, but really was so disappointed. The worst was that he didn’t even look disappointed with her — maybe more with himself.
Well, at least she could disabuse them of that. They’d probably wish that was all she was saying in a minute, though. “Well, the good news is,” Leona plastered her biggest smile on and summoned up her cheeriest voice, “I haven’t decided not to marry Elyan yet!”
“You — haven’t?” Lancelot gasped.
“You haven’t?” Guinevere squawked.
“No. Not — not yet,” Leona repeated. “I thought I … well. I thought I would take some more time to myself, to think about it. Say … a year or more.”
“A year?” Lancelot gasped. “Honey, don’t — don’t think you have to put off the day of — of your decision on our account. No. If, if the answer is no, you don’t have to spend so much time trying to convince yourself to do so — or to get your courage up –”
“No, no!” Leona shook her head. “No, Dad, that’s not why I’m waiting. I’m waiting because …” She took a deep breath and straightened her skirts. “Because … well, um, to be honest, I’ve decided to do something that will make Elyan … honestly, once he gets wind of this, he’s probably not going to want to marry me.”
Silence. Leona looked into her father’s rapidly blinking eyes for as long as she dared.
Then, flatly, “Do tell,” replied Guinevere.
“Well, you — you know about the Caliburn, right? And how she’s setting sail for the Twikkiis come spring?”
They didn’t say anything — merely nodded. Leona had been hoping for a, “Honey, you’ve been talking about nothing else for months” out of one or the other of them. But without it … well, she had no choice but to go on. “Well — I’ve decided, and Prince Tom agrees, that I should be on it. And so — I — well, I hope to be!”
Once again, silence. Lancelot’s jaw fell. Guinevere merely looked thoughtful.
“Although …” Leona stumbled on. She was going to regret saying this in a moment, she knew it — but if she didn’t say it, she’d regret it more. “If … if you two aren’t all right with it … even though Prince Tom really thinks I should …”
“No — no, Leona, we’re not going to stop you,” Lancelot replied. “Right — right, Gwen?”
“Aye,” Guinevere murmured.
“This — this is just a surprise.” Lancelot rubbed the back of his neck. “A — a rather large surprise. That’s all. We …” Lancelot cast a quick, nervous glance at his wife. “We thought maybe …”
Guinevere was stroking her chin with one hand, seemingly having nothing to say in reply.
“Well — never mind,” Lancelot mumbled to his lap. Then he looked up again. “Are — are you sure this is what you want to do?”
“Isn’t — isn’t adventuring in the du Lac blood?” Leona replied, smiling her most winsome, winning smile. She was never very good at that kind of thing — but the good news was that winsome smiles given by daughters tended to work on fathers no matter how bad the smiler was at them. Better still for Leona, she didn’t have any competition in the winsomely-smiling-daughter department.
“It is indeed,” Lancelot sighed.
And there it was — she’d gone and done it. Disappointed her easygoing father. Lancelot put up with a lot from the three of them, and he’d put up with this too, but he wouldn’t be happy about it.
“Dad –” Leona started.
“How — how dangerous is it?” asked Lancelot. “Be honest, Leona. Your … well, when Will left, he didn’t say anything about danger.”
Guinevere pursed her lips together in the manner of one trying to hold back some emotion and stared at the bookshelves opposite.
“Well …” Leona could start by standing up for Will and worry about standing up for herself afterward. “I — I don’t think Will was expecting it to be that dangerous. He — he wouldn’t have brought Jess along if he was!”
“Ha!” Guinevere laughed, the sound falling into that awkward valley between a chuckle and a sob. “Do you think that would have stopped her?”
“Well, no,” Leona admitted, “but they didn’t even fight about it, that I know of. There would have been huge fights if Will thought it was really dangerous.”
“Aye. There would have been,” Lancelot agreed. “But, Leona … that doesn’t tell us about your journey.”
“Ah, well! People sail to the Twikkiis and make it back all right every day!” Leona replied, wearing her strongest grin. “It’s a well-known route, too. We’re hardly heading out across uncharted seas!”
“But Leona, you’ve never captained a ship before …” Lancelot murmured.
“Oh, I won’t be captaining it! Captain Love is.” Both Lancelot and Guinevere stared at her open-mouthed. “Um, aye, I know the name is unfortunate, but he’s a good captain. He sailed with and under Baron Ferreira for … decades, I think. He’s made the trip to the Twikkiis and back dozens of times. And the Caliburn is a brand-new ship, built to all the latest specifications — Freddy and I both helped to design it! There isn’t a better ship in Albion’s navy!”
“Leona, honey,” Guinevere pointed out, seemingly coming to from her reverie, “it’s the only ship in Albion’s navy.”
“Well, aye, but the point still stands! It was designed as the flagship! And once the seas open up, we’ll be buying and building a lot more ships, so the point will be even more … pointy.”
Lancelot still looked unconvinced, Guinevere merely thoughtful, so Leona added, “Mum, Dad, I’ll be fine. I promise! The Caliburn is the best ship I could take, and it’ll be helmed by the best captain we have.”
“That’s as may be, but …” Guinevere frowned, staring into the middle distance, away from Leona. “Leona … there’s something your father and I should tell you.”
“Gwen, no!” Lancelot protested.
“No. We can’t be superstitious about this, Lance. And Leona deserves to know.”
… I deserve to know what?
Guinevere rose to her feet, Lancelot following her. Even though she was standing and had no puddle of skirts on her lap in which to hide her hands, Guinevere’s fingers were still twisting together. Any minute now, she’d start cracking her knuckles. Lancelot, meanwhile, was chewing his much-abused lower lip.
But whatever Leona was expecting — bracing herself — to hear her mother say, it wasn’t what came out next from Guinevere’s mouth. “Leona … we need to talk about Corentin and Celeste.”
“Huh?” Leona squeaked.
“They …” Lancelot started. “Well, if your brother — Lord forbid! — but –”
Guinevere laid a hand on Lancelot’s arm as he broke off, gulping in every breath. “Before your brother left, he made a will,” Guinevere began. “The most important thing in it was guardianship for Corentin and Celeste, if — if something should happen to both Will and Jessie. Lord forbid!” Guinevere made a plumb bob over herself, Leona mutely following. “He named us — your father and I — as the primary guardians.”
“… Oh,” Leona replied, unsure what all of this had to do with her, even though it seemed to make sense so far.
“And the thing is … your father and I aren’t getting any younger. So … look, I don’t like to think about it, and your father doesn’t like to think about it, but we may or may not be around for the whole of Corey and Celeste’s minority. And we’re not around, somebody has to take care of those kids.”
“Oh,” Leona murmured. “Surely — surely you and Will and Jess would have talked about this?”
“We did,” Guinevere agreed. “But it’s complicated. Will could only name us as guardians, he couldn’t name a second set of guardians. Especially since any guardians of the kids would effectively become guardians of the estate as well, and your brother can’t name a guardian of the estate — only your father can. But Will and Jess did have preferences. They thought about it a lot, and they thought that if anything happened to us, too, that Galahad would be the kids’ guardian. Churchmen from noble families do it all the time, and we’ve talked about it with Father Hugh — he wouldn’t dream of standing in the way. But …”
“He can’t look after the estate,” Lancelot mumbled to his feet.
“Because he’s a churchman,” Guinevere filled in, “and — well, all right, it’s not because he’s a churchman, so much as your father and I aren’t about to let Brother Tuck within spitting distance of our lands. But it’s because of that, and because of the fact that your brother … well … you know we love you all dearly, but …”
“Nobody in their right mind would put Galahad in charge of the financial future of the estate,” Leona replied.
Lancelot nodded, and Guinevere breathed a sigh of relief. “Exactly. Exactly. But your father and I were in a pickle, trying to think of someone to run things — just in case! — and then …” Guinevere shrugged. “It started to seem like … like things wouldn’t be happening between you and Elyan, and …”
“Wait,” Leona replied, “you — you wanted me to break things off with Elyan?”
“We want you to do what will make you happy, Leona,” Lancelot replied. “And — and before that horrible dinner, before we found out about what happened in Glasonland, we never thought — not seriously! — that this would be a problem we’d have to worry about. But now … with everything …”
“Leona, we know we could trust you with the estate,” Guinevere continued. “And we could trust you with the children, too. Galahad would still be their primary guardian, but the two of you would make a great team. You’d raise them just the way Will and Jess would want, if — Lord forbid — it comes to that.”
“But you couldn’t,” Leona replied flatly, “if I was married to Elyan.”
“Will and Jess don’t want their children in Bors’s household,” Lancelot interjected. “Or any other household, really. They want them raised here.”
“But that’s not all there is, is there, Mum — Dad?” Leona asked.
Guinevere and Lancelot exchanged a nervous glance. “… No,” Lancelot admitted. “We …” He sighed. “Bors … Bors has had a combination of bad luck and bad choices. His estate … well, we all know about his estate. Elyan, I think, is sharper, but … I think that would be more of a problem than anything else. I wouldn’t want to give him … any temptations.”
“You think I’d let him steal everything you and Mum and Grandpa worked so hard for?” Leona gasped.
“No, honey,” Guinevere answered. “We’d never think you’d let him. But neither would we want to sentence you to constantly having to fend him off. You know we’d help Bors if he would accept it. And we’d like to help Elyan, too, if he grows up to have enough sense to ask for help when he needs it. But if Bors and Elyan between them would be constantly badgering you — no, demanding that you finance whatever crackpot idea they’ve got cooking, eventually you’d lose your ability to pick out the good ideas, the ones that are worth helping, from the bad.” Guinevere did her best to smile. “We wouldn’t want that to happen.”
“So …” Leona pushed her hair back with one hand. “As — as long as I don’t marry Elyan, you’d want me to be the financial guardian to the estate. If it came to that, which … it shouldn’t.”
“Aye,” replied Guinevere, and Lancelot nodded.
“And that’s why,” Leona sighed, her heart sinking, “you don’t want me to go.”
She didn’t even see the glance Lancelot and Guinevere shared between them. “We want,” Lancelot said finally, “for you to be happy.”
“Do we relish the idea of you going out and risking your life for your country? Frankly, no,” Guinevere added. “We weren’t that crazy about the idea when your brother broached it, either.”
“It’s not that much of a risk, Mum! Dad!”
“That’s what Will thought, too,” Lancelot murmured.
“But — that aside — we … we wouldn’t want to make you miserable, honey.” Guinevere continued. “So if you want to — then you should go. But could you …” Guinevere sighed. “Wait?”
“Wait?” Leona repeated.
“For us to — hopefully — find out about Will and Jess. One way or the other.” Guinevere gulped. “Because all of this, it only applies if it’s … both. Not just one or the other. If one or both of them are safe — then …”
“Aye,” Leona agreed. “But … I can’t wait forever.”
“It’s been two months already since we found out,” Lancelot replied glumly. “We … well, if they’re coming back, it can’t take them forever. If not … we’ll find out. Sooner or later.”
“We’re supposed to sail as soon as the seas clear in the spring.”
“Then we’ll talk again when spring gets closer,” Guinevere answered, trying to smile. “Who knows? They could be back by then!” But the words, though they tried to be cheerful, lost spirit when compared to the fear in Guinevere’s eyes.
Leona tried to smile. “Aye. Aye. We’ll talk then.”
Then, without warning, Lancelot stepped closer and pulled Leona in for an embrace. He didn’t say anything …
But he didn’t need to. And neither did Leona.