Seryl 30, 1013
“Can you believe it?” laughed Lamorak. “The two of them, finally having a duel! And with us here to watch, too! When’s the last time that happened?”
“Aye, aye,” Milo replied. It was all he could think to say. He knew today was supposed to be a momentous occasion. Tom had bet Will that today would finally be the day he beat him in a practice fight. He had said he was sure of it. Will might have been the better duelist at Camford, but Camford was years ago now. Will was a man of the law, spending much of his time (too much, according to Tom’s tease) behind a desk, reading over papers, or else on the back of his horse, solving the disputes that old Pellinore was no longer strong enough to go and sort out himself. He didn’t train the way Tom did. Tom would win, really win, this time. He was so confident of it, he had promised Will the first foal his horse, Midnight, had sired — a foal that was due to be born sometime in the next few days.
Lamorak and Milo had both been present for the slightly-drunken gathering that had been the scene of the bet. Lamorak had laughed hysterically to see it, and had sworn that both he and Milo would be there to see the fight. As for Milo, he had been laughing and anticipating right along until Tom got to the part about the foal and the date of the duel.
Today was the last day of Seryl. Nicole and the midwife both agreed that their baby would come sometime around the end of Hybel, or perhaps the beginning of Lenona. Milo had two months — perhaps more, perhaps less — before he became a father. And that was assuming everything went well!
A bet over a practice duel seemed completely … silly … in comparison with that.
“So! Milo!” Lamorak nudged him as he sat. “Who’s your money on?”
“I … er …” Milo stammered, but he saved from answering by Esperaunce, the grizzled squire who had had the training of the young men of Albion for years.
“If I were you, sir, I wouldn’t be betting on this match at all.”
“And what’s that supposed to mean?” asked Lamorak. “What, you think we can’t afford the coin?”
Esperaunce chuckled. “Not at all, sir — I just don’t see either of you as betting men … at least, when there’s no way of telling which way the coin will fall, so to speak.”
“Ah, but that’s the fun of it!” Lamorak protested. “Only a skinflint will only bet if he’s sure things will go his way. For the rest of us, it’s the mystery of it that makes the bet worthwhile.”
“Only if you’re wise enough not to bet more than you can afford to lose,” Milo replied.
“Aye,” Esperaunce agreed, nodding to them both. “Listen to Sir Milo, Sir Lamorak. He’s got a good head on his shoulders if I ever saw one.”
Milo grinned. But Lamorak only laughed. “Please! What fool bets more than he can afford to lose? Of course you only bet–”
A shrill whistle — Tom’s — cut them off. “Ho! Peanut gallery! Quiet down there!” He clambered onto the exhibition stage, Will following behind. “Prepare to see,” Tom continued, holding his blunt sword high and shaking it, “the most overdue comeuppance in the history of Albion, as I beat Will for the first time since we were …” He paused and looked at Will. “When was the last time I beat you?”
Will smiled with just one corner of his lip. “I believe we were about–”
“Sixteen, m’lord,” called out Esperaunce. “Just after Sir William started courting the Princess.”
“Ah, right! When I had to let you know just what awaited you if you broke her heart!” Tom replied. “And thank you, Esperaunce, for putting the odds heavily in my favor. Now — en garde, you sister-stealing brute!”
Milo turned to Lamorak. “Did Tom truly just call Will a sister-stealing brute?”
“Well, that’s what I heard,” Lamorak replied as blade crashed against blade.
“I never thought Tom had a problem with that …” Milo murmured, watching Will parry a well-aimed thrust of Tom’s. He turned the parry into a clever dodge of his own, one that Tom had to scramble to keep out of the way of.
“I don’t think he does anymore …” Lamorak murmured. “At least, I’ve never heard him say anything about it. But when Will and Princess Jessie first started courting in earnest, Tom laid Will flat.”
“Why?” Milo gasped. Well, he didn’t really need to ask why. He had sisters. If his best friend had started courting one of them, that friend would have been told in a hurry just what awaited him if Ella or Brianna’s heart had been so much as dented or scratched, let alone broken.
“Oh, it was during a practice duel, like this,” Lamorak answered. “It’s not like Tom went and found Will and beat him bloody in cold blood. But aye, the first practice duel they fought after it got out that Will and the Princess were a couple, Tom managed to not just win, but knock him down, and … well, I don’t know what he said to him, but whatever it was, Will seemed to take it all right.”
Milo looked to the exhibition stage. Tom was normally so jovial, and that, Milo thought, would make him all the more dangerous if crossed. Look at the King! Milo hadn’t seen that last royal rage, but he had heard of it, and the way Lamorak had described his normally affable uncle had made Milo’s hair stand on end. The fact that it was so utterly believable only made it worse.
Lamorak muttered something — something suspiciously close to, “Better him than me.” Milo’s gaze snapped to him.
“Eh?” Milo murmured.
“What — what was that?”
“That …” Lamorak did not answer at first. He watched the stage.
Tom came within a hairsbreadth of a winning hit there; it was only quick footwork on Will’s part that kept him in the fight at all. Perhaps Tom wouldn’t be giving up that foal after all.
“I … uh … well, when I was young and foolish, I … may have made a play for Princess Jess.”
Milo’s jaw dropped. “You what?”
“As I said — young and foolish, that was me.”
“You two …” Milo scrunched his brows. Lamorak and Princess Jess? How could that have possibly worked? “What — what about Garnet?” Milo asked instead.
“She was about ten at the time,” Lamorak shrugged. “As I said — better Will than me. I was only … half-interested because she was a Princess. It would have never worked. She always kept me at an arm’s length, anyway.”
Milo blinked. He would have never pegged Lamorak as the type to place social-climbing considerations over love. But then again, by Lamorak’s own account, Garnet was the first girl to turn his head in a serious way. It was impossible to know just how strong the draught of love was before you had your first real sip. Perhaps Milo shouldn’t judge so harshly. Wasn’t he willing to marry Lady Erica without feeling a tenth of what he felt for Nicole?
He changed the subject. “So … how is Garnet, by the by?”
“Well, well! Very well. She’s so much happier, now that we’re married.” Lamorak leaned back and beamed. “We both are.” Hands folded behind his head, he asked, almost offhandedly, “And your lady?”
Clash! The crash of blades sent Milo’s eyes to the stage. Tom had stumbled back a few steps, and Will had lifted his sword and was preparing to advance.
Tom, however, recovered quickly and charged for Will. Will vaulted backward over the low stone wall put on the stage for that express purpose. “Coward!” Tom called, half-laughing.
“There’s nothing stopping you from joining me back here,” Will replied, stabbing at Tom.
“Except the fact that I can’t jump like you can! Damn you! You’ve been practicing with your father all this time, haven’t you?”
Will’s only response was to vault back over the wall, coming within inches of kicking the blade from Tom’s hand.
“Milo?” murmured Lamorak as the two men began to settle again into the ancient rhythm of parry-thrust, thrust-parry, parry-thrust.
“I asked how your … your lady was doing,” Lamorak replied.
“Oh! Nicole! She’s fine. Fine, fine.”
And the devil of it was that she was fine. According to her, according to the midwife, the pregnancy was going very smoothly. No complaints so far, other than the normal ones of swollen feet, backaches, and some mood changes. Nicole’s belly was growing big and round now, and sometimes, if Nicole’s dress or shift was pulled tight over it and the baby was kicking, Milo could see little lumps pushed forward and then retreat. In comparison to that, even the miracles of the saints seemed cheap and tawdry.
She said, too, that she wasn’t lonely. She said she had a grand time with her Young Mother’s Club. She said that she was lucky to be blessed with friends like Erin and Roma, who managed, “with everything else they’ve got going on,” as Nicole put it, to come and see her now that it was getting more difficult for Nicole to leave the shire. She said she wanted for nothing in the world.
But what Milo saw was the way Lady Gwynedd, Lamorak’s sister-in-law, stuck her nose in the air and would not so much as look at Nicole if the two passed in the square. He saw the way his friends’ wives treated her, should they chance to meet at church or on a visit. They were always very polite, but there was a distance. He saw the fact that Nicole was often left alone in the house for hours and hours when he had to go out. If she wasn’t lonely, then she must have superhuman powers of endurance — powers far, far beyond Milo’s.
“… Are you sure?” Lamorak asked, shrugging.
Milo jumped into life. He had forgotten Lamorak had been sitting there. “I … she’s fine.”
He had to say that, didn’t he? What else could he say to Lamorak? That he feared his wife was getting lonely? Lamorak wouldn’t understand.
No — Lamorak couldn’t understand. He had grown up in the bosom of a lovely family. He was blessed with a disposition that allowed him to make friends easily, and keep them, too. It was the same for Milo (or so he thought). It was absolutely the same for Nicole. But unlike Milo, unlike Nicole, Lamorak had never been — exiled. He had never been surrounded by friends and loved ones, and then cut off from them. Forever.
Milo was beginning to fear that it had happened to Nicole twice. No. Lamorak would never understand that.
Maybe Milo would do well to talk to somebody other than Lamorak.
There was no lack of options. Tom, he thought, would understand. Tom was gregarious, yes, and always surrounded by a passel of friends, but royalty always was a bit of an island. Milo was only slantwise royal, but he understood that. Even in the relatively placid court of Albion, where there was so much to be done that nobody had time for pointless backstabbing schemes, a man of royal blood could only let so many people so close. He had to weigh the motives of each new acquaintance — could he be trusted? If so, how far? If not — how best to shove him away without giving undue offense?
There was also Will. Will was not a soul as in need of company as Tom, as Milo, as Lamorak. But he had known exile of a kind, wandering for months through war-torn Glasonland, trying to make his way back home. There must have been so many times when he wished he had another man to talk to, someone with whom he could unburden himself, someone who he didn’t have to be strong for all the time. He would understand, surely. Perhaps Milo should —
“Yoo-hoo! Sir Milo! Wake up, man!”
Milo looked up and blinked. Tom and Will were no longer on the stage; their practice swords were nowhere to be seen. “You — you’re done?”
“What, you missed it?” Tom gasped, hand over his heard. “My noble victory over the son of the great Lancelot du Lac?”
“Now, now, your highness,” rumbled Esperaunce. “You know right well it was a draw.”
“You call that a draw? If those swords were sharp, he would have gotten me under the armpit! The armpit!”
“Which would have made you just as dead as the sword you had at my throat would have made me,” Will pointed out.
“Of course it would have! That’s why I’m so annoyed about it. Killed by a blade to the armpit — it’s the sort of death for a court jester, not a Prince!”
“Need there be a difference?” Will asked, smirking. Tom leaned toward him, fist raised — and doing his best to hold back a smile.
Then he sighed and step back. “Enough! This is all beneath my princely dignity. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to get these sweaty things off so I can sit mostly-naked in a tub of near-scalding water with knights who I will have to hope are loyal to me.”
Will, Lamorak and Milo watched him go, Will shaking his head. “He’s just upset that he won’t get that cask of Gaulish wine.”
“But he’ll get to keep his foal,” Lamorak pointed out. “And come on. I don’t know about the rest of you, but after the morning I had, I think I’ve spent enough time letting my sweat turn my mail to rust.”
They all had had a hard morning training — except Will, who had other business. Still, Will had had that duel, and he raised no more argument against the idea of going inside and cleaning up than Lamorak had. A few minutes saw all of them mostly stripped and in the calidarium beside Tom.
Tom leaned back, hands behind his head. “You know, I must say … you could have done much worse out there, Will. That was well-played.”
“Same to you, your highness,” Will answered.
Tom let the true extent of his princely dignity show by sticking his tongue out at his brother-in-law and supposed best friend.
“So, Tom,” Lamorak said, changing the subject, “I’ll have you know that your wife has gotten my wife into a tizzy that has to be seen to be believed. It’s always ‘masque this, masque that’ these days.”
Milo’s ears perked up. A masque? What was this?
Tom laughed, but something in it rang false. “Well — what can I say? It … it keeps Lynn happy. Which keeps me happy.” Tom’s grin turned slightly rakish, but that, too, was false. “Surely you can do that service for your prince?”
Lamorak laughed. But Milo was not so easily satisfied. So he did as he often did when something about Tom did not sit right. He watched Will.
Will was watching Tom. And he was frowning. Milo gulped. If whatever was going on was enough to trouble Will, it was more than enough to trouble Milo.
But what could be troubling about a masque?
“Er …” Milo asked, glancing at Will. “What masque is this?”
Will blinked, but that was all the answer he had time to give. Lamorak burst in instead. “What, you haven’t heard? It’s all the women will–oh,” he trailed off.
Milo looked around the calidarium. Tom, Will, Lamorak — their expressions were all only slightly different versions of sheepish. Milo hesitated. He could let them off easily, point out the obvious truth that Nicole wasn’t exactly zipping about the kingdom these days and could have missed out on the gossip. But somehow, he didn’t want to do that.
So instead, he told the truth. “Nicole hasn’t mentioned anything about a masque. If it was that … big a deal, I think she would have said something.”
He didn’t add, if she knew about it.
“She probably hasn’t been told much about it,” Will answered. Milo looked at him in some surprise — was — was Will really coming right out and saying this? “She … well. Our wives are a rather close group.”
“And, well …” Lamorak began. And stopped.
As if Milo would let him get away with that. “And, well, what?”
“Well … you know …” Lamorak squirmed. “She … look, she’s lovely, and she’s very polite and such, but — but you know what she — well — blood tells, you know?”
“Oh, does it?” Milo snapped. He only barely kept it from being a snarl. His blood was far worse than Nicole’s, for all that she didn’t want it spread about. “And what about my blood? I’m the bastard son of a carpenter’s daughter, remember.”
“Yes, but you’re …” Lamorak could only shrug. “And she’s …”
“I’m what? She’s what?”
“Lamorak, don’t answer that,” Tom said — no, not said. Ordered, more like. “I do not want to explain to Garnet how it was that I let you get into a duel to the death with this one,” he jerked his thumb at Milo. “And Milo …” Tom sighed. “Allow me to attempt to defend all of our wives, because I think I’m the man best placed to do it, aye?”
Milo didn’t answer. He let his raised eyebrow communicate his displeasure.
“I’ll start with Lynn. Damn it, Milo, you’ve met Lynn. You know how shy and diffident she can be. And you’ve met Bors, too. He’d pitch a fit at the thought of his daughter befriending a woman that Bors would see as a common tavern maid.”
Tom held up his hand. “Let me finish. The fact of the matter is … Lynn is, and always has been, afraid of doing wrong in somebody’s eyes. Her father’s eyes, especially. So she is, perhaps, overcautious. And I haven’t been pushing her befriending Nicole, because …” He sighed and ran a hand down his face. Will shot that troubled glance at him again. “Because I haven’t.”
It was the troubled glance that kept Milo from arguing. Something — something else was going on here. Something that, Milo trusted, had nothing to do with Nicole.
“As for Jess, well … she doesn’t let new people in easily, I’m afraid. I’m afraid you’re looking at the social twin. Add to that the fact that she’s been up to her elbows in magical whosiwhatsit since she got back from Glasonland, and you have a recipe for a Jess who’s simply not in the market for new friends at the moment, as rude as that might sound.
“And now … we come to Garnet.” Tom glanced at Lamorak, then shrugged. “There’s no getting around it. She’s got a bit of a snob in her, Milo. She’s nice enough once you get past that, but … well. Getting past that is a rather impressive trick.”
“Nicole is my wife,” Milo replied. “That makes her — if nothing else — your cousin by marriage, Tom.” And you know what else there is!
“It does — but do recall that Garnet is my cousin by blood. And she is the daughter-in-law of an earl, married to his eldest son. At the moment, Nicole is only the wife of a knight. There is a bit of a rank jump there.”
“She is still my wife,” Milo repeated. And you — all of you — are my friends.
It was Will who first caught onto the subtext. “Milo — let me talk to Jess. If she knows that Nicole is lonely, then she’d be sure to make more overtures than she’s been making.”
Milo hesitated. Would she? Would she really? She was a Princess born …
No, he knew Jess. She would. She might, as Tom pointed out, have a hard time letting people in, but that wasn’t for the lack of a kind heart. She would be kind enough, once she realized there was a need for it.
“And I’ll talk to Lynn,” Tom replied. “I think …” He paused, eyes focused on the middle distance, somewhere beyond Milo’s head. “I think she and Nicole would get along well, if Lynn gave her a chance.”
That wasn’t the reason why Tom would talk to her. Milo couldn’t fathom what the reason was, but he could tell that wasn’t it. Still … at the same time, he didn’t think that what Tom had said was untrue.
Lamorak didn’t say anything. But, to Milo’s mind, two out of three — especially when the two in question were the Crown Princess and the other Princess — was not half bad.
He smiled at the men. “Thank — thank you. From the both of us.”
He just wondered what Nicole would think of him fighting these battles for her.
He went home that night with the express purpose of finding out.
When he came in, he could smell dinner cooking, but that was not what caught his attention first. What caught his eye was Nicole, perched on the sofa, not sewing as she often was, but instead reading.
She looked up at his entry. “Milo!”
“Hello, honey,” he replied.
Nicole set the book on the table and waddled over to him. Milo met her far rather than halfway. He grinned as her arms went around him and his went around hers. After a quick hello peck, Nicole rested her head on his shoulder. “Mmm, I missed you.”
“You … you missed me?”
“Of course I did!” She kissed his nose and waggled her finger at him. “Didn’t you miss me?”
“I — aye, of course! Of course I missed you.” Milo nuzzled her neck. “But what I mean is … is … Nicole, how would you like to go to tea at the palace?”
Nicole drew back from him, head cocked to one side. “Tea at the palace?”
“Aye — well — that is — apparently the ladies are designing some kind of, um, masque, and Tom suggested that you might … they might want your input.”
“My input?” Nicole blinked. “I — my goodness!”
“Would you like that?” Milo asked, trying not to make his face be overtly pleading.
“It — it would be an honor! But I’m not sure what–oh!”
Milo jumped. “Oh? Oh? What’s oh?”
“Sorry,” Nicole giggled. “The baby just started kicking. Here,” she leaned forward, her stomach protruding even farther than normal. “It’s right about the middle.”
“The middle,” Milo repeated, softly caressing the linen of her dress as he felt for tiny bumps and bulges.
Then he felt it. Her baby. Their baby. Kicking him already. Strong and healthy already. He sent a soft smile to Nicole, and she smiled beatifically back.
Their baby was kicking. Nicole was happy. As far as Milo was concerned, at that moment … all was right was with the world.