Endskel 30, 1013
The Day of the Dead. New Year’s Eve. The last night of the year. A thin time. There were many things to call this night.
Mordred would not call it much of anything. To call it something would require speaking to someone this night. He did not intend to do that. The servants had long gone to bed; Agravaine was sleeping, too. As for his children, they were with their mothers. Mordred supposed he could have presumed upon his connection to the royal family to join their vigil … but he would not. They would welcome him, because they had to … but they would not want him there. And Mordred did not want to be where he was not wanted.
He would be wanted still less at the Gwynedd Keep, though he supposed he might have traded on his connection to Garnet and to Dindrane to get in there. But Mordred would not break bread at their house and join in the traditional remembrances that characterized the Day of the Dead. The people he wanted to remember had either been hounded to death or dishonored by the people in that house. To remember his father and mother there would be a travesty, a sick joke.
Besides, who knew how much reminiscing would happen at the Gwynedd Keep? They had things other than the past to occupy them. They had a future to plan.
For Garnet and Lamorak had become parents the day before.
Garnet had given birth to a boy, strong and healthy. His name was Percival — a name that had some meaning to the Gwynedds, though what it was exactly was not something Mordred cared to inquire about. He was grateful enough that his own children had not been saddled with names that the Gwynedds had nursed for generations, preparing to inflict them on whatever squalling newborns came next.
But Mordred was being unfair. Whatever he might feel about every other person to bear the last name of Gwynedd, he certainly wished his nephew no harm. Indeed, he wished him all the health in the world. Because for Mordred’s plan to work, that little boy would have to stay very, very healthy for a long time to come.
It was the only way to destroy the Gwynedds.
Mordred swished his wine from side to side and took a slow sip. He ought to be overjoyed at this development. If Garnet had born a daughter, or a weak and sickly son, his plans would have been pushed back to who-knew-when. A delay was the last thing Mordred wanted. Things were proceeding apace in Glasonland; Francis and Port Graal could not hold out much longer. The only reason why the city still resisted was because they feared reprisals for welcoming Francis in at the first. Eventually, though, their will and their ability to resist would be spent. Then Constantine’s army would rush through the gates, there would be some unfortunate carnage and looting, Francis would be dead …
And Constantine would, in short order, be king.
And — then what? For Mordred, at least. Constantine had been happy enough to have Mordred’s assistance while he was still merely Baron of Caernavon, but with the crown of Glasonland on his head, what use would he have for Mordred? Or, more to the point, what reason would have had to continue to trust Mordred? He’d been happy enough to do so when it served his purpose. But it was only a matter of time before Constantine realized that the oh-so-powerful wizard who had helped him onto the throne could push him off it just as easily. When that happened, Constantine would start to fear him … and what he feared, he would seek to destroy, unless Mordred could think of ways to keep their partnership fruitful for the both of them.
“And that’s all very nice, dear,” said a voice — such a familiar voice — from behind him, “but what’s it got to do with me?”
Mordred was midway through the act of taking another sip of his wine. He paused. But he did not stop. Slowly, he continued to sip and swallow until he judged enough time had passed. His mother had always prized unflappability. She called it a mark of true nobility. Mordred would make her proud.
So slowly, he drank; slowly, he put his tankard on the table; slowly, he turned around. “Mother.”
“My boy.” Her voice was warm, her smile broad — just as it had been in his best memories, when he had done something or said something to make her proud.
“I am surprised to see you,” he said.
“Silly boy. Where else would I be?” Morgause smiled and she held out her arms. “Now let me have a look at you.”
Mordred came closer and kissed her on both cheeks. She felt solid in his grip, but not as warm as he remembered.
Then Morgause held him at an arm’s length. Her touch was feather-light on his arms. “You look well, my boy. Is Rosette taking good care of you?”
“Yes–of course.” There was something there, some undercurrent … Mordred knew that his mother had never actively disapproved of his relationship with Rosette, but on some level, she had never quite approved, either. At the very least, Rosette was not the sort of woman Morgause would have picked out as the love of his life … for all that Morgause had no qualms with Mordred taking a peasant mistress and was probably grateful that he had chosen one with Rosette’s temperament.
If she thought that Mordred could want anything else, then that showed how little she truly knew him … but mothers could often be deceived about their children, even their beloved firstborn sons.
Speaking of sons … “Have you seen Agravaine, Mother?”
“I checked on him before I came to you. He is looking well. You are taking excellent care of him.” As I expected, Morgause added via a satisfied look in her eye.
“I thank you.” Mordred bowed his head.
“But, my boy,” Morgause lightly stroked his arm, “you know I did not come here to discuss child-rearing. I came to discuss …”
“And your other plans.” Morgause nodded.
Mordred took a deep breath and shifted his weight from foot to foot. He would have never done this in front of anyone else — but if he could not trust his mother, then whom could he trust? “Well … where would you like me to start?”
“With Glasonland, if you please. As I asked before — what has that got to do with me?”
Mordred felt like he was six or seven years old. He’d been called into his mother’s boudoir, for … did it matter what? He had done something wrong. And his mother … she would not shout, as other mothers did. She would not scold. She would simply watch Mordred as he explained himself, stumbling over his words and his apologies. Then when he was done, she would sigh and send him away. She would not punish him. Withdrawing her affection, her love — that was always punishment enough.
“I–I will be honest with you, Mother. Now it does not have much to do with you.”
Morgause did not give him any encouraging words. Not even an encouraging glance. She simply watched him with one eyebrow raised, just as she used to.
Hopefully she would not send him away … Mordred did not think he could bear it …
“But at the beginning — Arthur wanted peace in Glasonland. I wanted to hurt Arthur. The swiftest, surest way I could think to do that was to ensure that there was no peace in Glasonland.”
“But he has profited from the war. And so have you,” Morgause pointed out.
Part of Mordred wanted to back away from that, like the shamefaced little boy that part of him still was. But why should he? He was a man now. He had acted as a man ought. And if he had profited from his schemes of revenge — should that not make Morgause proud rather than disappointed?
“Yes. I have.” Mordred held his head up high and rested one hand on his hip. He reminded himself that he was a man, a lord, and a dark wizard of no mean powers. “I have started a civil war, and I have put in motion the events that will end it. I have raised a mere Baron to the kingship. I have …” Prudence stopped him, even now, from admitting to the murder of Vortimer. What if one of the servants was up and about? “I have the man who will be King of Glasonland in my back pocket. Even if … even if my original plan, Mother, went awry, I think I have profited mightily from it.”
“You have landed on your feet,” Morgause noted approvingly.
Part of Mordred’s tension rushed out of him. She would not send him away. She would not be disappointed. All would be well.
“And …” Morgause smiled. It was the self-satisfied smile of a cat licking canary feathers from its whiskers. “I think, Mordred, that you are not telling me the truth when you say your original plan — your revenge — went awry. For you took some very important steps toward it, did you not?”
Mordred smiled and nodded.
“Because King Vortimer was not poisoned.”
“No, Mother. He was not.” That was safe enough to say.
“He died …” Morgause’s grin grew wider. “He died of dysentery. Just as his doctors said.”
Mordred chuckled. “He did indeed.”
“And you gave it to him.”
Mordred did not admit that — not out loud. But he was sure his grin told his mother all she needed to know.
And it was so simple, when you thought of it. Light wizards were excellent healers. None could marshal the powers of the natural world with all of its cures and remedies, and none could control the Sim body, better than they could. But if Light wizards could heal … then it followed that Dark wizards could hurt.
And they had hurt. Mordred was certain that there was nary a plague nor a pestilence in Sim history … well, no, he wasn’t certain of that. Dark wizards didn’t need to have a hand in every bout of the pox or dysentery that whipped through a crowded city or army camp. But the big ones — the ones that had felled city after city, the ones that had brought empires to their knees and flung Sim after Sim into the grave — those, he was certain, were the products of Dark wizards.
A plague — or, not a plague, but a simple disease — was so easy to make, too, when you had the proper ingredients. What those ingredients were varied from disease to disease. Some were passed through water, some through the air, some through blood and spit and semen. But if you got a little bit, just a little bit, of the disease-ridden whatever-it-was — then you could grow the disease, and experiment with it, and hone it into the perfect weapon to destroy either a single foe or an army of them.
The best part was that it was virtually undetectable to Light magic.
“And that is why you gave it to King Vortimer — is it not?” asked Morgause, tilting her head to one side.
“I–I beg your pardon, Mother?”
“Silly boy. You know I know what you’re thinking.” She patted his cheek and smiled. “You gave dysentery to King Vortimer so that you could be sure that no Light wizard would be able to tell that Dark magic gave him the disease.”
Mordred nodded. Constantine hadn’t understood why Mordred was so insistent on giving Vortimer a natural disease, but at the end of the day, he had shrugged and gone along with it — it mattered not how Vortimer died as long as he did. What Constantine did not know was that one of Vortimer’s doctors was the best Light healer in Glasonland — if only because Mordred had seen to that hiring himself and had not seen fit to tell Constantine about it. The doctor hadn’t suspected a thing. With luck, neither would Morgan, if …
“You mean when,” Morgause filled in for Mordred.
“Yes. When.” He took a deep breath. “Would you like a drink, Mother?”
“I cannot eat or drink while I am here.” She patted his shoulder. “But don’t you deprive yourself on my account.”
Mordred picked up his tankard and took her at her word.
“Now, tell me, my boy.” Morgause stepped behind him, practically whispering in his ear. “Tell me what you have in your desk.”
Mordred took a sip of wine. “The … thorn.”
“Yes,” Morgause hissed. He could almost hear her smiling.
“It’s … not much. Just a bit …” He might as well be honest — but first he put a spell on the door to soundproof it. “A great deal of influenza. A particularly virulent strain of it. One nick of that thorn, enough will enter the blood …” Mordred took another draught of wine. “Even the young and strong would have difficulty surviving that. But an old man, borne down under years of care …”
“And a thorn! A thorn! Oh, how clever of you, my boy!”
Mordred smiled. It was rather clever. He was glad she had seen it. “Lord Pellinore used … a Thorn to destroy you. Why should I not use a thorn to destroy him?”
“Yes. I know! But tell me, Mordred … will he suffer? Will he feel all the agony I felt, wasting away in my cell, fearing and wishing for death in equal measure?”
Mordred felt himself slowly lower his tankard. That was something he had wondered often himself. “I … I do not know, Mother. This is … hardly exact. It was all I could do to ensure death — as much as I was able to ensure it. To ensure suffering as well …” He took a long swig of his wine. “I need it to be quick, Mother. Understand that. The moment he falls ill, you know Garnet will go running to Morgan. Do I think she will know that the disease was sent by me? No. But … given enough time, she could manage to cure him. If the disease moves quickly …”
“Then she cannot cure him. I see what you’re thinking.” But Mordred knew she was frowning. “But if only there was a way to make him suffer …”
“Lamorak will suffer enough for both of them.”
Silence. Then, “Ah. Yes. Lamorak …”
Mordred would not turn around to look at her. “He must die for what he did to you. You cannot argue with that, Mother.”
“You cannot be so naive, Mordred, to think for a moment that he did anything to me without my eager and willing participation.”
Mordred bowed his head, his grip tightening on the tankard. “Do not test me, Mother.”
“Oh, I don’t mean to test you. I just want to make sure you’re thinking clearly. And I do not want you to think me a victim — at least,” she added, “not a victim of rape.”
“When–when did it happen?” asked Mordred.
“That is none of your business.”
“None of my business?” Mordred cried. “If it is not my business — whose is it? I need to know — I need to know because of Father! Was it before or after he died, Mother? Tell me that if you won’t tell me anything else!”
“I will not tell you that.”
“Mother! Father’s honor–”
“Your father is dead.”
“So are you!”
“No, Mordred.” Morgause stepped around Mordred’s other side. “At least — not the same way he is. Your father … he is resting now. He is at peace. His honor was never impugned, not while he lived. And it cannot be, now that he is at peace.”
“And how is that different from you?” Mordred snapped.
“I live on, you see.” Morgause smiled. “I live on in you. You know that I need to be avenged — and as long as that revenge remains incomplete, then part of me will continue to live and be part of this world.”
Mordred sighed and swirled his wine.
“Tell me, Mother,” Mordred interrupted, “if you were a free and willing participant in — in whatever you and Lamorak got up to — what purpose will be served in killing him?”
Morgause did not hesitate. “First of all, it will help destroy the Gwynedds — but I do not need to lecture you on that plan. I thought it rather clever, by the way. But to take down the Gwynedds — that alone is well worth the price of Lamorak’s life. But as for why he should suffer …” Morgause turned sad, soulful eyes to Mordred. “I died because of him. You know that, right?”
Mordred blinked. “Mother …”
“I wanted him. I won’t lie to you, Mordred, not now. After your father died — I wanted Lamorak for my husband. I was first to his bed, you know, so I deserved it if anybody did.” Morgause flipped her hair over her shoulder, just as a girl first reveling in her power over a man would. “And I was experimenting with magic, to make myself young enough to be attractive to him. But Dindrane found out. And she decided to stop me.”
Mordred blinked. That–that was the perfect explanation. For, though he thought–no, he knew his mother to be innocent–part of him had always wondered, Why? Why would Dindrane destroy her marriage and throw her children’s lives into upheaval to hurt Morgause? Morgause had never even been unkind to her!
But … but if she was acting to keep her brother from marrying Morgause .. she had always been far more fond of Garnet than Morgause …
“Is–is that why?” Mordred asked. “Why she made up that story about that boy? Why she got her father–why her father went along in her scheme?”
Morgause grinned. The torchlight behind her surrounded her head with a fiery halo. “What do you think, my boy?”
Mordred smiled in return.
But that was not the end of his questions. “What about Betsy? How did Dindrane get her to go along with her scheme?”
“She’s a weak peasant woman, Mordred. Do you think she would refuse her mistress — for, as your lady,” Morgause rolled her eyes, “she would be Betsy’s mistress. And …” Morgause sighed. “She was always afraid of me. Terrified, really. I … may have miscalculated with Betsy. There is a certain type of person, who, once they are afraid enough … they’re like a cornered animal. They will bite even the hand that feeds them.”
“So you think I should leave Betsy alone.”
“You took her husband from her,” Morgause shrugged. “And you have her just afraid enough — so much that she will obey you, but not so much that she will turn against you if she thinks she has a chance. You have achieved a good balance. I would not rock the boat.”
Mordred chuckled. “She’s afraid I will turn her husband into a zombie … Father Hugh all but told me so. Did you know that?”
Morgause grinned. “Did I.”
“So. That … let us see. That is the Gwynedds taken care of … the Pelleses … that leaves the Thatchers, and of course Morgan and Arthur.”
“Do not strike against Morgan unless you are sure you can win,” Morgause cautioned. “Even I never quite dared to go against her one-on-one.”
“Yes …” Mordred agreed. It seemed most politic. He was, after all, a stronger user of magic than his mother — but he would not tell her that. Besides, it was good advice. “But what I do to Lamorak will hurt Garnet — and what I do to Garnet will hurt Morgan. What I have done to Betsy hurts Accolon, and through him, so is Morgan hurt.”
“And anything I do to Arthur …”
“Will also hurt Morgan.”
Mordred turned away. “I am … not sure what to do about Arthur.”
“Take your time, my boy. They stumble that run fast,” Morgause pointed out.
“Ye-es,” Mordred agreed. He could feel tension slipping from his shoulders. It was good to know that there was no reason to rush things with Arthur. “And the Thatchers …”
Morgause raised an eyebrow at him. “Mordred. They were pawns in the scheme of others. Do you truly think it would befit your dignity to attack them?”
“Ash Thatcher’s woman intends to use the money that I was forced to pay to them as … seed money. She intends to see her children as freemen and merchants.”
“Well, obviously you cannot allow that to happen,” Morgause agreed. “But do not trouble yourself unduly about them. They are lower than the dirt beneath your boot, you know that.”
“Do I ever,” Mordred sniffed.
“I know you do.” Morgause petted his shoulder, then she leaned closer and kissed him. “My darling boy. You’re doing so well on your own. I didn’t even need to come and visit you, did I?”
“Per–perhaps not.” What else could Mordred say to her? He could not show himself to be so weak as to still desire overt affection, much less require it. He was a man and a nobleman, after all. “But … all the same, I am glad you did.”
Morgause did not answer. She only smiled at him. That smile looked no different than the smile she had had for him in his earliest memories.
“I …” I miss you, he wanted to say. But he could not. He could not show himself to be weak. And …
And what if she didn’t say, I miss you too?
So Mordred stood there like an ass, wondering what to say — until he saw something. “Look, Mother!” He stepped around her. “The dawn!”
For a moment he was eight years old again, the first time he had been allowed to keep vigil all the night of New Year’s Eve and ring in the dawn that would bring the new year. He eagerly turned around. “It’s here! Happy New–”
There was no one there.
He stared at the space that his mother had last inhabited. But–it made sense. Of course it did. With the advent of the new year, the Day of the Dead was over. And if the Day of the Dead was over …
Then his mother could no longer be here.
The sadness threatened to rise up and overwhelm him. He had lost his mother. Again. He would not see her for another year — if he saw her then. He hadn’t seen her since the night she died. She might not …
The sadness vanished as quickly as it had come. Because, in a flash, he realized what Morgause had come there to tell him.
A new year had come. He had fooled around long enough. There was work to be done.
And Mordred could hardly wait to get started.