Radenth 28, 1014
The sun was shining. The gulls called to each other, doing reconnaissance for their eternal mission of stealing food out of Sims’ hands or, when it could be managed, their mouths. Waves crashed into the dock and the strand below; a powerful wind puffed down the lane, carrying with it the scent of sun, salt, fish, and dodgy dockside takeaway guaranteed to keep you on the pot all day and all night.
And best of all? Best of all?
Guinevere’s girl was home.
The thought made Guinevere want to run down the lane and clamber onto the dock, but prudence held her back. Firstly, she was a little old for that kind of thing. We both are, she thought, tucking her arm into Lancelot’s and grinning at him as they walked down the lane as quickly as old people could. Secondly, she did have some dignity. Her dress wasn’t designed for running, and whether she ended the trip down the lane in a pile of legs and skirts or whether it ended by her bodice slipping and giving some poor dockworker an eyeful he’d never forget was essentially the same from the perspective of dignity. Thirdly … well, if she started running, then so would everybody else, and Guinevere knew exactly where she stood in the du Lac hierarchy of athleticism. They’d beat her, all of them, and that would never do. A mother had her rights.
But nobody ever said anything against walking fast — especially not after she could see the athletic but feminine figure in the blue tunic standing astride the dock, one hand in the air, shouting orders. Not when she saw the sunlight glinting off the blue-black streaks in her hair. For once in their mutual lives, it was Lancelot who was having a hard time keeping up with Guinevere.
Though … there was something a little odd about the way she was standing …
But even if they had to dodge at least ten stevedores and a donkey cart to do it, damn it, they were going to make record time. “Leona!” Guinevere called as soon as she judged she was able to be heard over the gulls and the surf and the sailors. “Leona!”
Leona spun around. “Mum! Dad! Galahad–Will–Jessie!”
Her smile lit up the room just like it had since she was a baby. Guinevere hitched up her skirts in her free hand and jogged toward it, dragging Lancelot with her. She could hear a sailor whistle and catcall when they caught sight of her stockings, but a young man in a teal tunic and plaid shirt whacked the sailor and that shut him up. That was good — Guinevere would have hated to have to sic Leona on someone five minutes after she had returned home.
But there was something odd about the way Leona was walking, the way she seemed to have gained a good amount of weight around the middle. If Guinevere hadn’t known better, she would have said that Leona looked … but that was ridiculous.
She hoped it wasn’t some kind of sea-bloat. Was there such a thing as a sea-bloat? So many things happened to sailors —
“Mum!” Leona called again, vaulting herself into Guinevere’s arms, and for a second all thoughts about Leona’s odd weight issues were blown from her mind by the wind off the sea.
“My baby! You’re home!”
The idyll only lasted for a second. There were some things that could be felt even through a shirt, leather, mail, and surcoat — to say nothing of Guinevere’s own gown and chemise. There were some feelings that a mother recognized instantly, even if she’d only felt them from the opposite direction, as it were.
Guinevere’s eyes flew open.
How is she …?
Her gaze swung sidelong to Lancelot, standing at the perfect viewing angle. He was staring at Leona’s stomach, his jaw hanging open. If he was noticing, this couldn’t possibly be good.
Galahad didn’t seem to notice anything amiss. He was the only one. Will’s eyes were about twice their usual size and also fixed on Leona’s stomach. Jessie was not staring at Leona’s stomach; instead she watched her face with something between confusion, fascination, and fear. Then again, as Morgan had told Guinevere on more than one occasion, there were some things a Light witch did not need to be told.
“L-Leona,” Guinevere finally stumbled after Leona let her go. “You — you look …”
How the hell did one casually remark to one’s daughter whom one hadn’t seen in almost two years, Gee, honey, you look pregnant!*
“Well …” Guinevere finally squeaked out.
Leona didn’t seem to sense anything amiss in that. “Really? Thanks, Mum!” She laughed. “I figured I’d look like a wreck after all those months on that ship!”
She put a hand to her heart as, laughing again. And then Guinevere’s mother’s eyes — woman’s eyes — spotted something that was a little less obvious than the belly, but was perhaps equally alarming … or comforting, depending on how one chose to look at it.
“Is that a wedding ring?” Guinevere gasped, snatching Leona’s hand and bringing it closer to her.
“Oh — right! That!” Leona smiled — but there was more than a bit of nervous laughter behind the smile. “Um — yes. Yes, it is. And …” Leona glanced down at her stomach, which, by this point, was probably interfering with her view of her feet. “Well, our baby is due in Darid! … Or maybe Clatan. It’s kind of hard to guess when you’re the only woman on board and can’t ask anyone for advice!” Out came that nervous laugh again, paired with eyes darting from one family member to the next.
All she got for her efforts, alas, was shocked silence. Except, of course, from Galahad.
“You’re having a BABY?” Galahad leaped forward, and Guinevere actually saw him make Leona sway and stumble to regain her footing for the first time since they were — toddlers? It must have been the pregnancy interfering with her balance.
“Don’t knock her down!” Lancelot shouted, jumping after Galahad.
But Leona had already recovered, thanks in no small part to Galahad’s bear hug making it quite impossible for her to go anywhere. “Ack!”
“This is the best news I’ve had ALL WEEK!” Galahad shouted. He loosened his grip on Leona enough to kiss her on both cheeks. “I’m going to be an uncle!”
“You’re … already … an uncle …” Guinevere heard Will mutter.
“Well, now YOU’RE going to be an uncle too! Isn’t this great?” Galahad asked. “Isn’t it, Leona?”
“Galahad …” Leona forced out. “I think you’re smushing the baby …”
Galahad gasped and jumped back. “Sorry!”
“Don’t … worry about it …” Leona gasped as she bent from side to side, rolling her back and shoulders, patting her belly to make sure it was still there and still in one piece.
“But where’s your husband?” Galahad asked as Leona barely began her recovery. “When do we get to meet him? And what’s his name?”
“Um …” Leona swallowed. “Well …” She looked to her right. “Mum, Dad — everybody — this is Gino. My husband.” She gestured …
And Guinevere’s gaze fell on the man in the teal tunic and plaid shirt who had — was defended her honor the word? It would have to do for now.
Leona’s introduction might have been casual, desperately casual, meant to diffuse tension, but it was clear that this husband of hers had some idea of what he’d gotten himself into. He swallowed, smiling the impossibly cheerful smile of a man who had every reason to believe that the people facing him were not going to react well to his presence. He was trying to make a good impression. You had to give him credit for that.
Then the voice in Guinevere’s head that she privately called the imp chose to speak. The imp — that voice that resided in everybody, that little devil whispering the truths that could never be spoken aloud, but nonetheless were worth hearing. The source of Guinevere’s best ideas and truest advice.
Well, said the imp, look at this way, Gwen — he can’t possibly be worse than Elyan.
But whatever this Gino was, or would turn out to be — or wherever Leona had found him — one thing was certain. He was not expecting the reception he got, in the form of Leona’s brother flying at him —
And wrapping him in a bear hug. “Gino! Hi! Welcome to the family!”
“Um … hello …”
Guinevere found herself taking a step back, mentally, turning off her mother-voice and her duchess-voice and hell, even her common-sense voice. And two things came to the forefront, even if she’d sworn that she was done writing to publish, even if now she just wanted to dabble and tinker and write what would please her instead of her audience: her author-eyes and her author-ears.
Gino swallowed, his Adam’s apple bobbing. His eyes darted over all of them. Guinevere could see him taking in the silks and the velvets, the jewelry worth a working man’s yearly wages, the tooled leather shoes and hair that had to take at least one maid to style. (At least, Guinevere’s did; Jessie didn’t have a lady’s maid and instead relied on magic and laundresses to keep herself presentable. But Gino wouldn’t know that.) She could especially see him watching Will’s face, and Lancelot’s, then coming back to rest, confused and uncertain, on Galahad’s grin.
“I’m Galahad,” Galahad went on guilelessly, “and this is my mother, Guinevere — my father Lancelot — my brother Will — Will’s wife Jessie — oh, she’s a princess, did Leona mention that?”
“Galahad.” Lancelot stepped forward and laid a hand on Galahad’s shoulder. “Let’s not send Gino running back to the boat.” He smiled as best as he could, then stuck out his hand. “Sir Lancelot, Duke of Avilion, at your service.”
Gino swallowed, then he shook it. “Gino Trentson, m’lord. Nobody in particular. But — at your service, all the same.”
“Gino!” Leona gasped. “You are not nobody! Don’t say things like that about yourself!”
Gino looked at Leona, and Guinevere’s mother-eyes … well, they didn’t come to the fore, not exactly, but they did shove the author-eyes over and demand an equal view. At least they were content to let the author-eyes do the interpreting.
The author-eyes knew that look. It was wonder, and admiration, and above all, confusion. It was how Lancelot had often looked at her, early in their marriage and sometimes still, how Will looked at Jessie when she wasn’t looking back. It was a look of equal parts humility and disbelief. It asked: You … you’re a wonderful woman. Amazing. Everything I could have dreamed of, and plenty I didn’t know how to dream.
Why are you with me?
Guinevere looked at Leona. She had her hands on her hips and a mulish glint in her eyes. Guinevere didn’t look like this at Lancelot; Jessie didn’t look like this at Will. But that was only due to differences in personality. The message was the same.
Because you’re the one I want, you idiot.
“So … so, Gino,” Lancelot stumbled, “I’m pretty sure you’ve got us all at a disadvantage. I mean — Leona’s bound to have mentioned a thing or two about us –”
“A thing or two?” Leona called from over Galahad’s shoulder. He was hugging her again. “Dad!”
“Or maybe more than a thing or two … but she hasn’t said much of anything about you … why don’t you tell us a little about yourself?”
Poor Lancelot. She ought to rescue him. But then again, she supposed she ought to look out for her pregnant — pregnant! — daughter first, and make sure that Galahad wasn’t about to turn her grandbaby-to-be into a pancake. Priorities — but Lancelot would understand.
At least Galahad was being gentle this time. He was already making sure to introduce himself to the baby, endearing himself already, the little stinker.
“Don’t you go telling that poor baby you’re his — or her — favorite uncle,” Guinevere scolded. “Let Will get a chance to state his case first. And what about Gino — does he have any brothers?” Guinevere asked.
Leona bit her lip and shook her head. Guinevere guessed that the reticence didn’t just mean that Gino had an abundance of sisters but no brothers.
“Besides, Mum,” Leona went on, forcing out a laugh, “let’s be serious — the only way Will can hope to state his case and have it be heard is to state it with candy.”
Will … Guinevere glanced at her eldest, to see that he had been pulled to the side by his wife and was being given a whispered lecture that could be summed up in two words: Be nice. Guinevere tried not to wince. Will would be looking at everything through jade-colored glasses, wouldn’t he? Being made Chief Justiciar, and then Lamorak’s death, hadn’t done much for his view of Sim nature …
And as Guinevere watched, Will kissed Jessie’s cheek, probably smiled at her, and went over to introduce himself to Gino.
Jessie drifted closer to Guinevere — or maybe, in truth, to Leona, but her chances of getting through Galahad being what they were, she chose to stay by Guinevere. “Do you think any of us will get to say hello to her?” Jessie asked.
Guinevere glanced again at Galahad, who was still talking to the baby. “Honestly? I’m just glad I got my hug in before Galahad could.”
Jessie snickered. Then her eyes flickered to Will and Gino.
“Hopefully he’ll behave himself,” Guinevere murmured.
“Which he?” Jessie asked, so quietly Guinevere could barely hear her. Guinevere watched as Jessie’s gaze circled Will, Gino, and Lancelot, like an eagle would wheel and wheel in the sky before it finally found its prey.
“Your husband, mostly,” Guinevere replied. “Or should I say ‘my son’?”
Jessie’s only reply to that was a slight quirk of an eyebrow.
“Well, think of it this way,” Guinevere replied. “These two,” she gestured to Leona and Galahad, “get their personality from their father, which means that if Lancelot’s going to misbehave, it’s going to be in the direction of being too welcoming. I’m not worried about that. And Gino? Gino’s no fool.”
“You’ve known him for ten minutes,” Jessie replied. There was no mistaking the sense of note-taking going on behind the scenes whenever she turned to Gino. Princess-eyes were almost as good as author-eyes for some things.
“So? I’ve seen that Leona loves him,” Guinevere shrugged. “And we all know she doesn’t suffer fools gladly. Hell … the amount of times she handed Elyan’s arse to him, if not his bollocks, would be ample evidence of that if nothing else would …”
That finally got Jessie to snicker. “And you kiss my children with that mouth.”
“It improves their vocabulary, dear.” She glanced sidelong at Jessie. “So … what think you, my dear?”
Jessie didn’t answer at first. She watched the men with pursed lips. Damn that princess training, Guinevere thought. It could make it far too difficult to figure out just what her daughter-in-law was thinking. And while Guinevere didn’t like to think of herself as a demanding mother-in-law, was it really too much to ask to have an idea what her daughter-in-law was thinking at all times?
Then Jessie’s gaze went to Leona and Galahad. It went back to the men. Jessie’s eyes narrowed and her lips pursed again — this was puzzlement, confusion, not judgement.
“They love each other,” Jessie murmured.
“I thought so. So that’s that.”
Jessie turned to her with a raised eyebrow.
“Don’t give me that look — your father does it better, and your aunt does it scarier. And don’t pretend you don’t think it matters. You know damn well it does,” Guinevere replied. “It matters a hell of a lot more than titles and dowries and all the rest of that. You can’t separate a couple that loves each other … well, you can, maybe, if you’re cruel and care more about yourself than you do about anybody else. But that only works if you can convince them both to stay separated, and good luck with that,” Guinevere jerked her thumb to Leona. “Besides, even if you could, it would be wrong — and I know that’s an argument that holds a lot of weight with a Pendragon.”
“True,” Jessie agreed. “But …”
“We’re going to have to see about getting Gino some kind of title, all the same,” Jessie murmured. “Sir Bors and Elyan are going to be insufferable otherwise.”
Guinevere glanced at Gino. She thought about the male de Ganises.
“You know, my dear,” Guinevere murmured, “it might take you a little while to do it, but in the end you always do speak sense.”
“I try,” Jessie smiled.
And that, Guinevere thought, would be that. Oh, there were still details to work out. They’d have to find someplace for Gino and Leona to live, and they’d have to work out the details of her dowry. These things could get complicated when you didn’t have a contract worked out beforehand, and they could get doubly complicated when the bride’s brother was the Chief Justiciar and had been taken by surprise with everything. And there was also the matter of squeezing nine months of pre-childbirth last-minute mothering instructions into three months …
But those were just details. They’d all come out right in the end. The only real risk would be that they would all pull their hair out in the interim, and occurrences like that were what the good Lord made wigs for.
Still, there was one detail that could be wrapped up and neatly put to bed now. Lancelot broke away from the conversation with Gino, came to Leona, and gently pushed Galahad out of the way.
Then he hugged Leona.
“Welcome home, baby,” he said, loud enough for Guinevere to hear. “All of you. You have no idea how glad we are to see you.”
But you will, Guinevere thought, staring at Leona’s stomach. And it’ll be sooner than any of us expected.
*Author’s note: Apparently the Athletic Girl alpha tunic mesh does not have a pregmorph. Naturally I did not find this out until shooting. Can we just pretend it does? Please?