Author’s Note: You’ll find that Morgan and Accolon’s house looks a little, um … different in this post. It’s because the lot threw a hissy fit, wouldn’t load, and even when I bulldozed it and replaced it with an unmodified version I had in my downloads folder, that wouldn’t load either. So I had to find a new house in a hurry. As for the story … well, there’s no in-story reason for Morgan and Accolon to have moved, so we’re just gonna hand wave the differences and pretend this is the same house. Ok? Ok!
Osgary 30, 1013
Two showers of golden light erupted in the front garden of Apple Keep. Luckily, nobody (barring a few birds and a rabbit that went running out of the garden as fast as its little legs could take it) was around to notice — the mundanes did tend to get so bent out of shape when they saw magical folk materialize or dematerialize. Even more luckily, this was Albion, and nobody could do anything about it anyway. Otherwise, Naomi and Merlin wouldn’t have attempted it.
Still, the method of their arrival was the least of their problems. Naomi cocked her head to one side and listened to the sounds coming from the house. The thick brick walls and the heavy wooden doors should have blocked all sound. But there were some things no mere house could be proof against.
“We are still late.”
Merlin had the grace to look sheepish as he tugged nervously at his beard. “I honestly didn’t think the Draught of Peace would take that long.”
Naomi sighed. At least she had sent Ravenna and George on ahead. It wouldn’t have done for Ravenna to be late for her own mother’s birthday party. “Someday, my dear, we need to have a talk about time management.”
Merlin flushed. “Yes, dear.”
Naomi smiled and patted his arm. “But — not now. Come on. Let’s go in.”
They walked up to the door, which opened at Merlin’s touch. Morgan’s wards truly were a wonder. Merlin waved Naomi inside, and Naomi went inside.
The first thing she saw was George’s terrified eyes above a smile frozen in fear: Please, help me! Which was no wonder, really. Somehow or other, he had gotten stuck next to Accolon.
“And let me tell you, son, you think getting your arm ripped off is painful? That’s nothing compared to the fingers going one by one. Why, I remember when I first started learning the piano and I wasn’t very good at it — one wrong note and pop! goes the finger!”
“Oh dear,” murmured George. He shot another pleading glance at Naomi and Merlin.
Naomi hesitated. Zombies were reputed to be evil … and there were rumors that some of them had strength no mere mortal could replicate … but …
But this was Accolon. And more importantly, George was courting Accolon’s daughter. This wasn’t evil. This was only natural.
Besides, George had a better champion than either Naomi or Merlin to hand. “Dad!” sighed Ravenna — Naomi stood on tiptoe to see where she was, playing on the floor with her little sister. “Stop threatening George!”
“Threatening? Honey, I’m not threatening anybody! I’m simply telling George some very amusing stories of bodily dismemberment, that’s all. Boys love these kinds of things. Don’t they, George?”
“Of course, sir.”
It was just a hunch — Naomi had never actually seen George with his former lady-love’s father — but Naomi would bet half of George’s yearly tuition that the sir he used to address Accolon was far, far more respectful than the sir he had used for Lord Pellinore.
But Naomi hadn’t long to reflect on it. Merlin had already made his way over to greet Accolon and, by taking a seat on one of the armchairs opposite, rescue George, and a sudden flash of blue from the other room attracted Naomi’s attention. “Naomi!”
“Morgan!” Naomi hurried to greet her. “Happy birthday!”
“Oh, thank you!” Morgan leaned back with the easy nonchalance of a woman who had mastered the brewing of the strong Elixir of Life, for whom a birthday was not a stopping-point on the slow march to the grave but an excuse for a party. “Have some cake, won’t you?”
“Cake?” Naomi gulped. “Goodness! I didn’t know we were that late!”
“Oh, you’re not late,” laughed Lady Garnet. Naomi glanced at her. That poor girl — that was what she always had thought when she saw her when Morgause was alive, and she still thought so now. There was something glimmering in the girl’s eyes always, a hardness that tried to look like a diamond so to disguise that it had all the brittleness of glass. But it seemed to Naomi that every time she saw Lady Garnet now (which, granted, was not often) that both the hardness and the brittleness were melting away, bit by bit. How good — and yet, how sad.
“Morgan,” Lady Garnet continued, “always starts with cake at her birthday parties — and we only advance backwards from dessert if we feel like it.”
“And if you feel like being a little healthier,” Morgan winked, “there’s always berry pie.”
Naomi snickered. But she took advantage of her hostess’s hospitality, and she cut for herself a slice of berry pie before joining the rest of the ladies at the table.
And they were indeed ladies. It seemed to Naomi that half the witches and wizards of Albion were somehow related to the royal family. On the one hand it made sense, if you cared to approach cause and effect that way: King Arthur had a great many relations who were witches and wizards, and so he had turned his country into a sanctuary for all witches and wizards. On the other hand … well, Merlin did tend to grumble that it made wizards an even harder breed of cat to herd. In Glasonland, in Reme, they were afraid to gather for the sakes of their lives. Now they were just too intimidated to show up to a meeting that was sure to include the King’s sister, his daughter, two of his nieces (one of whom being married to the heir of Albion’s wealthiest earl), and a distant cousin who nonetheless still had a drop or two of the royal blood flowing in her veins. And as sympathetic as Naomi was to her husband, privately, she couldn’t blame the other witches and wizards.
As soon as Naomi was seated, though, Morgan was smiling slyly at her. “I have to thank you,” she said. “And I’m sure you know why — we got the results back for Ravenna’s entrance exam to Camford.”
Naomi chuckled. “Ravenna worked very hard. It’s her you should be praising, not me.”
“Oh, and we have, believe me …” Morgan looked through the arch, smiling at her daughter. “But even the best student can only go so far if she doesn’t have good teachers. So–thank you.” Pausing only to pop another forkful of cake in her mouth, chew, and swallow, Morgan added, “And I have no idea how you managed to get her to do so well on the religion questions. Top marks! She certainly didn’t learn that here!”
Naomi laughed. “Oh, it’s easy enough, once you deduce what it is that the examiners want you to say, and tell it to them. And you know, Mother Julian is actually a perfectly willing resource when it comes to those kinds of questions. I would have thought she might be more reluctant to give us aid, but she’s really been very helpful.”
“Can you blame her?” chuckled the Princess. “She’s had wizards and witches in her school. She’s probably just grateful that she doesn’t have to tell anyone else that they’re not allowed to cast spells on school grounds, aye, Garnet?”
Well. Naomi had never thought of it that way.
“Don’t look at me!” gasped Lady Garnet. “I wasn’t the one threatening to turn my brother into a toad on a daily basis.”
Penelope Argent looked between her cousins, then settled on the Princess. “Which brother?”
You know, Naomi thought, addressing herself to her pie for the moment — it was a very good pie — of all the things in my life I never predicted would come to pass … I never thought I’d be sitting next to a princess talking so very calmly about how she used to threaten to turn the heir to the throne into an amphibian.
“But he deserved it,” the Princess added, cutting herself another forkful of cake. She paused with the fork midway to her mouth. “Usually.”
“You should have spared poor Tom the threats,” put in Lady Garnet, “and just done it to Elyan.”
“I couldn’t do that to Lynn and Clarice,” the Princess demurred. “Imagine having to carry him home from school and explain that to Sir Bors.”
Morgan snorted. “Hear, hear.”
“Well, I wouldn’t suggest that you keep him that way,” Lady Garnet replied. “Just–you know, change him for an hour or so. Just so he got to experience life in a form closer to his natural form.”
Penelope glanced between the Princess and Lady Garnet with an open mouth. “Is he truly that bad?”
“Sir Elyan? Oh, aye,” Lady Garnet nodded. “He’s just like his father — you’ve met Sir Bors, haven’t you?”
“I haven’t had the … pleasure,” replied Penelope. “But I’ve met Princess Gwendolyn, and she seems like a lovely person.”
“Oh, she is!” replied Lady Garnet. “But she gets it all from her mother.”
“Indeed,” replied Naomi, mainly just to say something, add to the conversation somehow — but she regretted it immediately. Where else had she interacted in any prolonged way with Lady Claire, after all, but at the trial of Lady Morgause?
If Lady Garnet was able to put the pieces together, she said nothing — or perhaps it was Morgan’s quick reply that prevented her from putting those pieces together. “She certainly does take after Lady Claire in terms of personality. But I think, at the end of the day, it’s a question of respect. Princess Lynn believes that she owes it to people other than those at her rank and above. Sir Bors … does not.”
“That’s putting it mildly,” Lady Garnet snorted.
“Sometimes, mildly is the only way to put it,” countered Morgan.
“Aye,” the Princess agreed, “especially since–” She bit her lip. “Well, especially since his youngest two are close in age to Chloe and Pascal, right? Lynn says that her mother is hoping Chloe and Evette hit it off well, once Chloe starts school.”
“Oh,” Naomi murmured. “So you’re planning on sending the twins to the cathedral school?”
“Why wouldn’t–” Lady Garnet began. And stopped.
The Princess stopped eating. So did Penelope. Three sets of eyes turned to Morgan.
And Naomi? Naomi was kicking herself. She’d meant the remark to be light, offhanded. But now that she thought about it …
Well, it was half a miracle that the cathedral school was as accommodating to openly practicing witches and wizards as it was. But Gentry children? Products of what was essentially rape, rape by demons in the minds of some Churchmen? No wonder it was a sensitive subject …
Morgan cleared her throat. “Naomi? I’ve got another cake in the oven. Would you mind coming with me into the kitchen to check on it?”
“Of–of course not.”
Nobody said a word as Morgan led Naomi out of the dining room, down the hall, and into the airy kitchen. Naomi chewed her lip the whole way. How was she ever to apologize? She just hadn’t thought, and that was all there was to it. Usually Morgan was so easygoing, if she wanted a private talk, she must really want to lay into Naomi —
“Sorry about that,” Morgan sighed as she opened the door and slipped into the kitchen. Naomi blinked. She was sorry? “It’s just — well. We’re least likely to be overheard in here.”
Naomi wondered what that meant — and then, suddenly, she understood.
Frying pans. Skillets. Pots for cooking and pans for baking. The racks in the oven — the oven door itself. Knives in various sizes. Even the candle holders on the walls. All were made of worked iron. Cold Iron, if Naomi was any judge. She found herself checking the doors and windows, wondering if Morgan might have tacked up horseshoes as an extra precaution.
She hadn’t. But while that might be a good thing in another household … it would be a bad one here, where there were two Gentry children already. The cookware, the candlesticks, the knives could all be seen as natural and economical. But horseshoes would look hostile.
“Is it safe in here?” Naomi asked as Morgan waved her to the barstools by one of the kitchen counters. “For the children, I mean.”
“Naomi. It’s a kitchen. And they’re three years old. It’s not safe at all!”
“You know what I mean,” replied Naomi.
Morgan hesitated. “I’ve got a set of brass cookware,” she admitted. “And it’s what I use for … well, for the cooking with that. And I’ve got silver knives, too. But I’ve brought both the twins in here from time to time. It doesn’t seem to bother them, but …”
“Better safe than sorry,” Naomi agreed.
“They don’t seem to mind the iron in … in the nails, and in the house, and things,” Morgan went on. “But … they haven’t been cut yet. So … I don’t know.”
“There’s no way to keep them away from iron completely,” Naomi shrugged. “Although I wouldn’t suggest a field trip to a smithy.”
“You don’t think Mother Julian is likely to try that in the cathedral school, do you?”
“What? Morgan! Don’t be silly! Even if she could be that … malicious …” Naomi shook her head. “The other parents would never stand for it. Their precious sons and daughters, standing around a humble smithy? What if they get soot all over their good clothes?”
“You never know. You never know.” Morgan drummed her fingernails against the wooden countertop. “You see … we can joke all we like about Sir Bors, but …”
“He certainly wouldn’t advocate for harm to come to a child!” Naomi gasped.
“A child? No. A demon spawn?”
And there was the rub, wasn’t it? To people like Sir Bors, Pascal and Chloe were not children. They were … other. Not Sims. Not worthy of care or consideration, in the very best case. In the worst …
The worst wasn’t something you wanted to think about. You’d have to — in the broadest of terms, at least. But you didn’t want to.
“Do you think it’s likely he’d be that … foolish, though?” Naomi asked. “The Gentry … well, folks pick on the Plantsims, but at the end of the day, the Gentry aren’t Plantsims. They can fight back. And if they fight back, they win.”
“Yes, but I’d like to avoid that, if at all possible,” Morgan muttered. “Naomi … well, I’m sure you understand if anybody does. I just …”
Morgan paused. Naomi waited.
“Ravenna had such a hard time,” she said finally. “Not when she was little — very little. But as she got older … it got worse every year. I always wanted her to go to your school. But it was the way she was treated that made Accolon agree. We thought — honestly? We thought her being the only student would be better than what she was going through. And … and for Accolon to think that … took a lot.”
And the worst, Naomi thought, was that the bullying hadn’t ended when Morgan and Accolon had pulled her out of the cathedral school.
“You’ve got a better rapport with many of the mothers near in age to the twins, though,” Naomi pointed out. “Lady Claire, for one — er, from what I hear.”
“And your own nephew and niece! Both royal. If you make it clear to them, and they make it clear to their children … who’s going to give a child a hard time if a princess is standing next to him or her, eh?”
“You’d think that, wouldn’t you?” Morgan answered. “But Ravenna’s got rank on her side, too. That’s what always puzzled me about those little brats. How did they dare to do that to the King’s niece?”
“Morgan–the King did let his sister get away with killing your husband. They might have calculated that you weren’t, perhaps, his favorite sister. And you’ve always been so isolated. They might not have realized just how close you and the King really are.” Naomi hesitated. “And … you know, you never did talk to the King about it. So those children never learned better. This time around …”
“You want me to turn in a bunch of bratty ten-year-olds to the King?”
Naomi chuckled. “Well–when you put it like that–no. But a royal visit to the classroom, in which the King is sure to greet his favorite niece and nephew …?”
Morgan blinked. “You are devious, Naomi.”
“Well, you know how it goes,” Naomi shrugged. “When you’ve got a husband who sees the world through rose-tinted spectacles and is sure that he can get cats to swim in sequence if he just finds the right words, you have to learn pretty quickly how to be clever and underhanded if you want to get anything done.”
“Still. I always thought I was worse than you.”
Naomi laughed — out loud, that was. Her thoughts were nowhere near so humorous. But you’re prouder than I am, Morgan. If it was some other King’s niece being bullied in school, you’d have seen the solution instantly. But because it was your daughter, you didn’t want to go to your brother for help. So you didn’t see that possibility.
But it would be different with Chloe and Pascal, Naomi sensed. First, Morgan and Accolon had done this before, and the second time around was usually easier than the first. Secondly, they were up against a more formidable foe this time. The first time around, Ravenna had been chosen as a victim because she could be. She was just weak enough. This time? This time there might be real fear directed at Pascal and Chloe.
Though, now that Naomi thought about it … “Are you sure Mother Julian will let them in? She couldn’t have kept Ravenna out if she wanted to. But Pascal and Chloe …”
“They’ll get into the school,” Morgan replied. “These two won’t encounter any problems from the Church — at least, the Church in Albion.”
In-ter-est-ing, Naomi thought. But only thought. There were some thoughts that weren’t meant to see the light of day.
“And — and you’re sure that’s what you want?” Naomi pressed.
“You just spent the past, what, fifteen minutes reassuring me — and now you ask that?” laughed Morgan.
“You know why,” Naomi replied. “Ravenna and George are graduating. The twins are certainly too young for boarding school, but Merlin and I could do day lessons …”
“No,” Morgan replied. “I–believe me, I appreciate the offer, but if we’re going to do that, we might as well hire a private tutor and be done with it. Because …” Morgan looked at the stove and sighed, and Naomi realized it wasn’t the stove she was seeing — it was something beyond the wall. The wall, Naomi realized, that separated the kitchen from the living room. “Accolon understands loneliness,” she whispered. “From–from his time with Morgause. That was part of the reason why he was so reluctant to send Ravenna to your school. He … he never wants any of the children to feel like that.”
But they would, Naomi knew. There was no avoiding it, especially for the twins. The twins were literally the only one of their kind in Albion … except, of course, for each other. And there was only so much a sibling could do to ease that kind of existential loneliness.
“However!” Morgan took a deep breath, turned a smile to Naomi as false as it was bright, and slipped off her stool. “It’s my birthday, darn it — and the twins won’t be ready for school for months yet. It’s the one day of the year I get to eat as much cake as I want. So …” She circled around the counter and grinned at Naomi. “Care to join me?”
Naomi laughed. “I thought you’d never ask.”
It wasn’t what she thought — not but a long shot. But she did know that there was a time for worry. And there was a time for celebration. The two shouldn’t mix.
And today? Today was a time for celebration. So they had best toss their worries aside — and celebrate.