Clatan 25, 1014
Richard leaned back in his chair and took a deep breath. Dinner was over; the plates and platters and silverware had all been cleared. The ladies had withdrawn. Now the wine was out, the men had clustered around his end of the table …
And they could talk.
Bors lifted up his brimming goblet, admired the play of the candlelight against the gold, and brought it to his nose. “Port?” he asked in some surprise.
“Port,” Richard agreed.
Lancelot’s eyes widened and he reached for his goblet and took a sip. “My goodness! This is wonderful. I haven’t had port since …” He narrowed his eyes and glanced at Bors. “When did we last have port?”
“Before Porto fell to the Smoors, for certain. Baron Ferreira, how did you get this?”
“Hmm?” asked Richard. He had been too busy watching the younger men to pay much attention. Both Will and Freddy had taken curious sniffs and sips of their wine, only to exchange glances and share a mutual shrug. But they would. They had been too young for this kind of wine when Porto fell to the Smoors. They wouldn’t have missed it for years and years.
“The wine, man! How did you get it?”
“Oh, the wine.” Richard shrugged it off as if it was nothing. A certain insouciance, he had realized, was the most important part of a nobleman’s stock-in-trade. “Now that the Smoors are trading with the Gaulish, most Gaulish merchants are sending out their goods via the Simspanish ports. So trade has picked up there. And even though the Church wouldn’t like the idea of direct trade with the Smoors … well, there’s no harm in picking up a few ‘local curiosities’ while at a foreign port, is there?”
Lancelot grinned, but Bors shuddered and drew his hand back from the goblet like it was burning him. “Trading with infidels? Blasphemy!”
Poor Lancelot’s eyes widened. But it was Freddy, of all people, who came to the rescue. “Actually, the Smoors are just in charge of Simspain — most of the people are still Wrightian. At least, that’s what Captain Turner said.”
“What? That doesn’t make sense,” Bors dismissed. “The Smoors are barbarians! They would never allow the True Faith to exist where they are!”
“According to Captain Turner,” Freddy replied doggedly, “they Smoors are happy to let the people continue in their faith, as long as they pay extra taxes.”
“Which is actually quite a brilliant move for a conqueror,” Richard said before Bors could jump down Freddy’s throat again, “at least from an economic perspective. War is expensive. Looting usually only recoups some of the investment. Far better to keep the people alive, reasonably happy, and paying taxes high enough to fill your coffers without draining their own overmuch.”
“That’s how the Remans do it,” Lancelot agreed. “Or at least, how they used to do it before being converted.”
“Naturally, before being converted,” replied Bors. “One brand of heresy and barbarism is much the same as another. But once you know the True Faith, you simply won’t tolerate error and heresy around you.”
“Assuming that you hold the sword,” answered Will. It did not escape Richard’s notice how he followed that with an immediate sip of the port – probably to hide his expression.
“As long as you provide the faith, the Lord will provide the power. That is never in doubt,” Bors sniffed. “Why –”
It was time to change the subject. The list of topics that were acceptable to be brought up in polite, noble society was one that Richard could never get the hang of, but he was pretty sure “topics bound to cause a screaming row once Bors is allowed to pontificate on them” were expressly banned. So Richard lifted his goblet and pretended to be fascinated by the reflection of the flames on the red surface of the wine. “I just wanted to see if it tasted as I remembered it did in my youth. I’m glad I wasn’t disappointed.”
Bors almost choked. “You–your youth? How on earth did you manage to taste this when you were young?”
“It was when you were sailing with your father — wasn’t it, Dad?” asked Freddy.
“Indeed,” answered Richard. “I had my first sip of it in Porto itself. I was only about thirteen,” Richard added to Lancelot, “so my father was not exactly keen on giving me a glass of my own.”
“Not unless he wanted to carry you home!” laughed Lancelot.
“He would have, if he had to,” murmured Richard. “But … he did want to avoid it, if at all possible.” Strange how he was thinking of his own father more and more these days. He liked to pretend that the decision to send the White Lady to Porto had been strictly business, aimed at procuring access to landlocked Gaulish markets, but it had been more than that. Ricardo Ferreira, Richard’s father, had been born in Porto. He had met and married Richard’s mother in Port Graal. Then he had sailed off again, leaving his pregnant wife to stay with her sister and her family until he could come back with more money and buy a house of their own.
The sister, Richard’s aunt, had sworn that Ricardo would never come back. She had been wrong. He did come back, though not with as much money as he had hoped. But it didn’t matter. His wife was dead, having died shortly after delivering her only son and making her sister swear to call him Richard. It had been hard, but Ricardo and his former sister-in-law had worked it out that Richard would stay with them and be raised by them until he was twelve, then he would go sailing with his father. And so it had come to pass. Before he went sailing, Richard had only known his father as a dark, quiet man who smiled a good deal at Richard those few times a year (if that) when he was in Port Graal, bought him toys, took him out. After sailing … especially after going to Porto, where Richard had met an abuela who pressed him to her bosom and exclaimed over him in Simspanish, a host of tias and tios, and more primos than you could shake a stick at — well, Ricardo changed. He became laughing and gregarious, the first with a joke, the life of the party. When they left, Richard’s abuela weeping over the both of them, he promised that both of them would return soon.
They never did. Ricardo died at sea two years later. And Richard’s life took him sailing in a different direction.
“Well, you always will,” said Lancelot, and Richard realized, belatedly, that Lancelot was referring to his earlier remark about his father being willing to carry him home if he had to. “Even if you have to get three footmen to help you get them up the stairs! You’ll always carry your children up to bed.” Lancelot beamed at Will.
“… What are you looking at me for?” asked Will, mystified. “You haven’t had to carry me up to bed since I was six.”
“You’re the only one of my offspring present. I can’t help that you’re the responsible one.”
“Freddy and I will probably have to be wrestling George up to bed whenever he next comes home from Camford,” Richard sighed.
“You never know, Dad. He could always decide to behave himself.”
“Ha! That boy wouldn’t know how to behave if the Behavior Fairy herself came from fairyland and gave him personal lessons!”
For some reason, that made Will start. It couldn’t be because Richard had mentioned fairies, could it? Nonsense — Will was an educated man! He couldn’t believe in all that nonsense.
What he said, though, was much more to the point. “Jessie has a sobriety potion,” he said. “I’ll see if she’s willing to make you up a few batches for the next time George comes home.”
“Will! Don’t do that!” Freddy protested, half laughing. “You know how awful Tommy and Kay felt whenever they had to use it!”
“What’s this?” asked Bors, glaring at Will — as if it was somehow all his fault. Richard only wished he knew what “it” was. “What did she do to the Princes?”
“Enabled them to be sober enough to discharge their responsibilities the day after a night of drunken revelry, sir,” replied Will, eyes narrowed. “And if, perhaps, they had the worst hangover of their lives as soon as said responsibilities were discharged — well, drunkenness always carries a price.”
“I like the sound of this more and more,” chuckled Richard. “Sir William, if Princess Jessica would not mind, I would love to have a few doses at hand for the next time George comes home.”
“She’s made some alterations to the recipe,” Will said to Freddy. “George will only get a very bad hangover — not the worst of his life.”
“And if he’s drunk enough that we’re needing to drug him to get him up the stairs, Freddy, he’ll be having a bad hangover anyway,” added Richard. “I say let him have his just desserts.” He sighed and shook his head. “And I’m just glad that he’ll have graduated before Geoff is old enough to go. That’s all Blanche would need — Geoff under George’s tutelage!”
“Geoff is a good kid,” answered Freddy. “He wouldn’t–”
“Geoff?” interrupted Bors. “Who is this … Geoff?”
“Ah–my nephew. Well, great-nephew by marriage, technically,” Richard laughed. “He’s a bright lad, and I’m putting him through the Cathedral School — and hopefully into Camford, when he’s old enough.”
“And his parents …?” asked Bors.
“His father is, unfortunately, deceased — and his mother and her mother own the chausseur’s shop over yonder,” Richard gestured.
“So … you are putting a boy of thoroughly common stock through a high-born boy’s education?” gasped Bors.
“A boy on scholarship?” asked Lancelot. “That’s …” He looked at his son, and his son looked at him, and the glance that they shared was simple: Why didn’t WE think of this?
Richard smiled, but only for a moment. Yes, he could trust the du Lacs to be right behind him on any kind of forward-thinking plan. But Bors … He turned to Bors with a grin. “And why not? After all, I did it with two other boys …” He gestured to Freddy. “And, so far, they seem to have turned out all right, and as the father-in-law of one of them, I doubt you would disagree with me on that. Indeed, it seems to me that it would be a brilliant idea to put many more resources into educating our best and brightest. We ought to be ensuring that the cream rises to the top, after all.”
“What? That’s nonsense! The cream already is at the top! That’s why it’s the cream!”
“Oh, come now, Bors,” said Lancelot, “we all know that the Lord is just as apt do distribute intelligence and sense to a man in the lower orders as he is to a man in the upper.”
This debate, Richard judged, would probably keep going until the port was finished. But he didn’t mind. It was an interesting topic, and if he had to sit next to Bors, at least he got to watch him sputter for a while.
However, it did enter his mind to wonder just what it was the ladies were discussing …
“… and the knight was barely a mile away from the castle when he saw a cloud of dust following him. Figuring it was an important message from his wife, he stopped and turned around.
“He saw it was his best friend riding hell-for-leather after him. He was holding something in the air — the key! The key to the knight’s wife’s chastity belt!
“And as soon as he got in earshot, the best friend yelled,” Guinevere paused for breath and finished triumphantly, “‘Hey! You gave me the wrong key!'”
Bianca let out a hearty guffaw before she could stop herself. But she needn’t have worried. She was in good company, as Claire let out a scandalized giggle, Clarice a happy chuckle, and Jessie laughed aloud.
Guinevere pointed at her. “Oh no! None of that! You’ve heard this one a dozen times! You are not allowed to laugh that hard!”
“But you tell it so well!” Jessie laughed.
“It doesn’t matter! You laugh too hard, and you might go into labor — and you are now allowed to do that on Lady Ferreira’s sofa!”
Jessie pretended to huff and leaned back with a sigh. “If you insist, Guinevere.”
“And I do insist,” she replied. Then she turned to Bianca. “After all, if we’re not making rude and impossible demands of our daughters-in-law, then we’re just not doing our jobs as mothers-in-law, are we?”
The only reply Bianca was able to make to that was a chuckle. On the one hand, that sounded much like something her own mother would have said. On the other … Maude had had an irrepressible joie de vivre that Bianca had not quite managed to inherit, and Guinevere was a duchess. A duchess could get away with things a mere baroness, especially one of recent vintage, could not. And Maude was able to get away with just about anything by virtue of not caring a fig what others thought of her.
At least Claire was willing to make a more intelligent reply. “You are comfortable, aren’t you, dear?” She patted Jessie’s knee. “It’s awfully late for you to be out and about like this.”
“Oh, I’m fine!” Jessie laughed. “Compared to how I felt at this stage last time — I feel like I could run a marathon!”
“A — marathon,” Bianca repeated. “That’s … that’s a Mysimean race, isn’t it? A very long one?”
Jessie nodded and smiled. There was no hint of condescension or hidden laughter in that. Was that merely royal politeness? Or did it have to do with something Dannie had always said — that Jessie was bookish and well-read, and often dropped words into conversation that she later had to go back and explain? Bianca wished she knew. Sometimes she found the noblewomen candid and easy to read — and sometimes trying to find their meaning was like hacking one’s way through a thicket of duplicitous words, vague gestures, and facial expressions so perfectly controlled that they were impossible to read.
“It is a long way to travel this close to your time, Jessie,” murmured Clarice. Bianca felt herself nodding — there was a reason why she had offed the du Lacs, and not the de Ganises, accommodation for the night. And she sensed there was was a reason why the du Lacs had accepted. “I don’t mean to be rude, but — I wouldn’t suggest you make a habit of this.”
Jessie smiled. “And believe me — if I weren’t going to the home of a Camford-trained physician, I would have sent my politest regrets. But I don’t think this baby is going anywhere for another week or so.”
Clarice beamed, and Bianca breathed easier. That should be all right, then.
And now, as hostess, it was her duty to move the conversation along to more neutral topics than their chances of helping out with a birth tonight. “Well! Does anybody have plans for the Feast of Free Will?” That was coming up on the first of Tyves — not even a week away! It was a holiday that was more popular with the younger set, given its emphasis on tomfoolery and silliness, but adults with young children also often got a lot of fun out of it. Bianca certainly had when her children were growing up.
For some reason, though, Guinevere sighed. “My lady?” asked Bianca.
She smiled. “Sorry — it’s the twins’ birthday. And from Leona’s last letter, she won’t even leave the Twikkiis until the end of Seryl.”
“The end of Seryl?” asked Clarice. “So she would be back … around the end of Radenth?”
“Aye, if all goes well.” Guinevere took a deep breath and smiled bravely — a smile that Bianca recognized, seeing how often she’d had reason to use it herself when Richard was sailing. “Which it had better!”
“It will,” said Bianca, because that was the sort of thing you said. You had to say it. The alternative was simply not to be thought of.
“I wonder …” began Clarice, then she glanced sidelong at her mother. Then, with a brisk shake of her head, she turned again to Guinevere. “I wonder why the mission is taking so long?”
“From Leona’s letters, it seems to be all diplomacy,” replied Guinevere. “She’s a bit cagey on the details, but … well, it seems that she’s working around the Church as much as with it, and you know how that can make everything take twice as long.”
“The Church?” Clarice glanced at her mother again. Claire was biting her lip. That — somehow — gave Clarice a reason to go on. “Has — has anyone else here gotten a visit from Angeli–er, Sister Angelique? She came here for tea about a week ago, and … well, Bianca, you were there too …”
“I think you’d best say what’s on your mind, dear,” Bianca replied. That tea certainly had been odd — Sister Angelique had been talking round and round about orthodoxy, and the place of Albion in the wider church, and other things that Bianca couldn’t quite be sure the nun herself believed. But Clarice was her sister, and she would be a much better judge of what was odd behavior from Sister Angelique and what wasn’t.
“She was just … odd. It felt like there was something she was trying to tell us, but she wouldn’t — or couldn’t — just spit it out. And watching An–Sister Angelique attempt doublespeak …” Clarice shook her head.
“Well, I only saw her for a moment,” replied Guinevere, “but Jessie had tea with her about three weeks ago — Jessie, what did she say to you?”
There was a slight — slight — hesitation Jessie’s part. Then, simply, “She tried to be cagey with me, too. But … I got her to say what was on her mind. Mother Julian is worried that … that my father might be putting us on a path that might lead to conflict with the Robertians or the Agnesites.”
“That’s what she was trying to say?” gasped Clarice. “Why didn’t she just say it?”
Jessie could only shrug.
“But if that’s what Mother Julian is worried about,” asked Guinevere, “why doesn’t she just speak to the King about it? She hasn’t blotted her copybook recently, unlike other clergymen who shall remain nameless. Arthur would listen to her.”
Another slight hesitation — then a deep breath from Jessie. “I already spoke to — to my father about what Sister Angelique said to me. He … he didn’t say much … but I think he took it under consideration.”
Bianca was prepared to breathe a relieved sigh — but Guinevere snorted. “Oh, really? And don’t look at me like that, Jessie — I’ve known your father longer than you have, and I know what it means when he takes something under consideration. It means he files it away under a mental drawer, usually one marked, ‘Find Token Way to Appease if Possible, Otherwise Ignore.'”
“That does sound like his Majesty,” agreed Claire. Bianca wondered how often she had heard him take something her husband said “under consideration.”
As for Jessie, she ducked her head — but Bianca was reasonably certain that it was to hide her smile.
“Still …” murmured Clarice. “If you’ve already spoken to your father, Jessie, why is Mother Julian still sending Angelique around? Not that I mind a chance to have tea with her, but …”
The ladies could only shrug in reply, and none could answer — not least because Bianca could hear the sudden scraping of chairs against stone, and she was the least surprised of all when the men chose that moment to come to the drawing room.
“Hello, ladies!” said Lancelot. “I hope you didn’t miss us too much!”
“Miss us? Nonsense, Lance. Why, they were doubtless having the time of their lives with gossip and embroidery patterns — they’re probably resentful of us for coming back in. Isn’t that right, ladies?” Bors beamed at them.
Oh, he was right — but for entirely the wrong reasons. Once again, Bianca found herself sneaking a glance of equal parts bewilderment and admiration to Claire. How did she stay married to that man? Bianca would have whacked him over the head with a rolling pin decades ago and been done with it!
But she didn’t have a chance to do more than wonder, for Richard, bringing up the rear with Freddy, made his way around the sofa and helped her up. “And what did you talk about, my dear? All dress patterns and gossip, as our good friend Sir Bors would have it?”
“Oh, this and that,” laughed Bianca. “Although I could ask the same of you. Let me guess — it was all business and politics?”
“Eh … it was this and that, my dear.” Richard leaned in and kissed her gently. “Just … this and that.”