Endskel 6, 1014
So there they were. Lady Guinevere du Lac and her daughter Lady Leona. Lady Guinevere, a writer Tamsin had admired since her mother had left one of her romances lying open on an end table and Tamsin had given it a cursory glance, only to be spellbound before the end of a single page. And Lady Leona … Elyan’s almost-fiancee.
Which of them, wondered Tamsin, was making her so queasy?
She stared down at her hands, folding themselves into and out of each other, while Lady Claire chatted with the new arrivals. But she watched the three women through her lashes. Her mother had always said that a woman could learn a lot by looking demure and watching the proceedings from the background. It was a lesson Tamsin had put to good use from the time she was twelve. Soren used to say …
She tried not to flinch. Even though Tamsin told herself she had made peace with it, sometimes remembering Soren still managed to cut her to the quick. Surely, knowing that kind of pain, she could understand whatever complicated feelings Elyan still bore for Lady Leona?
And they were complicated. Tamsin would bet her favorite gown that Elyan couldn’t even put a name to half of them. When he had asked her to accompany him for this trip home — the ostensible reason for it being to make an appearance at the gathering the royal family was throwing to celebrate Lady Leona’s safe homecoming, marriage, and impending motherhood — he had prevaricated, and hemmed, and hawed, and insisted throughout that he had no problem with Lady Leona coming home again with a husband and a baby on the way. No, he was happy for her, he really was.
Whatever Elyan was, Tamsin knew he wasn’t happy about this, about any of it. But it seemed to mean something for him to pretend he was, so Tamsin would pretend that she never suspected otherwise. A few well-placed white lies were the grease that made a marriage go.
“But hello there!” Tamsin looked up. That booming, jovial voice could only belong to one person: the older lady beaming at her. “You must be Maid Tamsin! And you must now be sure that the Albionese are as boorish as you Glasonlanders always say we are!”
“Oh, heavens!” gasped Lady Claire. “Tamsin — I didn’t know you were standing there! Please, allow me to make the introductions. Lady Guinevere, Lady Leona, this is Maid Tamsin. Tamsin, this is Lady Guinevere and her daughter, Lady Leona.”
Tamsin curtseyed — it was what you did before a duchess and her daughter — but she wasn’t sure who to look at more. Lady Leona watched her with frank and open interest; Lady Guinevere merely smiled.
“I’m — I’m most pleased to meet you — both of you — but especially you, Lady Guinevere …” Tamsin swallowed, but — well, this was less awkward than trying to start a conversation with Lady Leona, wasn’t it? And hadn’t she fantasized about meeting Lady Guinevere since she was thirteen? “You see, I’ve greatly enjoyed your romances …”
“Have you? That’s very kind of you to say.”
“Oh, it’s not! I mean–it’s true! I think–I spent a great deal of my time at Camford hunting down all of them and reading them — because the libraries manage to have copies of all of them, but it was hard for us to manage to get copies at home –”
Lady Guinevere laughed. “Oh, I know — I mean, about the library having a copy. I always made sure to donate a copy of each new romance to the great library there.” She chuckled. “I always got a kick out of imagining the face of the librarian, when he had to read it to make sure it was appropriate for the shelves.”
“But — but none of your works are inappropriate!” Tamsin heard herself gasp. “Even in Beaumains, when Beaumains and Lady Lyonesse seem about to — well, you know — you always had Lady Lynette send in a magical enemy for Beaumains to fight, so she would prevent that!”
“Oh, honey.” Lady Guinevere patted her shoulder. It was perhaps overly familiar — but Tamsin’s favorite author had just touched her! “Wait until you’re married. Then you’ll understand.”
“Mum!” laughed Lady Leona. “Don’t be gross!”
Tamsin glanced at Lady Leona — and blinked to see Lady Claire fussing and cooing over Lady Leona’s belly. This could have been her grandchild, yet she was not upset? Interesting …
What was more interesting was Lady Guinevere’s reaction to her daughter. “Gross, young lady? I taught you better than that!” She playfully whacked her daughter on the arm. “What passes betwixt man and maid when the Dian shoots her silv’ry arrows o’er the land is never gross. More importantly, you ought to understand what I’m talking about better than anyone else, given what I’m imagining you and Gino had to pull if you were to get any ‘happy time’ on that tiny ship full of would-be peeping sailors.”
“Well, you’re right about one thing,” mumbled Lady Leona, “I do get that bit of Beaumains now. However, Lady Claire — before my mother makes all of us die of embarrassment — you did promise us a tour.”
“Oh, yes!” added Lady Guinevere, rubbing her hands together. “I want to see the damage. All of it!”
“Damage?” asked Tamsin. Of course, she had seen the redone main floor of the chateau before — when she and Elyan had first arrived, as a point of fact. She had thought it very fine, and realizing that the work had been ordered at least in part to celebrate Elyan’s marriage to her, she had been rather flattered. What she had not quite understood was why Elyan had blanched when he walked in the door and found a very different house from the one he was used to, or why his face progressed from merely white to positively green as they continued their tour.
“Well, you’ve seen how Sir Bors dresses himself, haven’t you?” snickered Lady Leona. “I doubt he’ll dress his house much better. Though this room is rather nice … nice and bright and airy. Did you decorate it, Lady Claire?”
“What do you think?” asked Lady Claire, causing the other two women to laugh. “But come on, ladies. We’ll start with the dining room.”
Lady Claire led the way to the first door on the right, throwing it open and preceding the ladies in. She flung her arms out. “And here it is!”
What Tamsin didn’t understand was why Lady Guinevere gasped and Lady Leona burst out laughing as soon as they entered the room.
It was certainly an … opulent room; Tamsin would grant them that. Some might have called the gold on the carpet, the gold leaf on the walls, and the golden chandelier all a bit much. But somebody with an eye for color and design had put everything together. The white dining table and chairs made for a clean, calming respite for the eyes. The dark wood of the floor faded into the background, allowing everything else to stand out. The marble fireplace sparkled and gleamed. And while perhaps the decor bordered a bit too much on the masculine side, with the hunting trophies and full suits of armor, there was nothing wrong with a bit of masculinity, was there?
“A BOAR’S head! Bors’s head!” Lady Leona called out. “I can’t believe it! Lady Claire, please tell me this was your idea! I’ll admire you forever!”
Tamsin glanced to where Lady Leona was pointing — and she finally saw. She hadn’t noticed that beforehand …
“Oh … my …” Tamsin murmured.
“Isn’t it great!” Lady Leona giggled. She nudged Tamsin and grinned, inviting her to join in the joke. Tamsin couldn’t help smiling back.
“Rest assured, Leona, that was not my idea,” Lady Claire sighed. “I do try to avoid … well …”
“Making your husband the laughingstock of the kingdom?” asked Lady Guinevere.
Lady Claire winced. “I wasn’t going to say that.”
“I know, dear, that’s why I said it for you.” Lady Guinevere stared at the boar’s head, hands on her hips and clucking her tongue. “However, I must say — I’m not surprised you didn’t think of it. This is just the sort of thing your husband would come up with, and be so pleased with his own cleverness — isn’t it?”
“Alas, yes,” sighed Lady Claire.
“And meanwhile, he won’t realize that we’re all laughing our rears off at him. Oh, well. If it makes him happy …” Lady Guinevere shrugged, then her eyes went inexorably to the painting that dominated the north wall. “However, Claire, I have to ask — whose idea was it to put a danse macabre in the dining room?”
She pointed to the painting. Tamsin looked again. When she’d first seen it, she’d merely thought that it was a very nice painting — well-done, with excellent details — but now that Lady Guinevere mentioned it …
Who would want to look at that while they were eating?
Lady Claire sighed and shook her head. “Bors commissioned the painting without consulting me. We had two pieces that would fit in the space — this, or a wedding tapestry. Whichever one didn’t go in here would have to go into my music room.” Lady Claire turned to Lady Guinevere with an eyebrow raised. “Which do you think I chose?”
“Impeccably argued, Claire. Old Lord Pellinore couldn’t have done it better,” Lady Guinevere chuckled.
“Thank you.” Lady Claire looked at the painting and sighed. “It’s a pity, because it is a good painting … but the silver lining is that Lionel loves it, and Evette and I can manage to sit with our backs to it when it’s just a family dinner.”
“Of course Lionel loves it. He’s six! Or will be soon enough. To a six-year-old boy, the only thing better than a shroud-wrapped skeleton is a farting shroud-wrapped skeleton.”
Tamsin supposed she ought to have been shocked to hear the word “fart” issue from a duchess’s mouth, but she was too busy giggling to bother. Besides, this was Lady Guinevere, and if any duchess had an idea for what the underbelly of life looked like, it would be Lady Guinevere.
“Anyway!” Lady Claire turned around and shooed them all out. “Let’s have a look at the study. Well … it’s not as fine a study as Bors’s office, but it’s a good place for the children to do their schoolwork, and I can sew in there if I need someplace quiet.”
They crossed the hall to the last door on the left, which Lady Claire opened. In they trooped to the study.
“This is nice,” remarked Lady Leona, glancing at the light blue walls, the carved pine furnishings, even the dark tiles on the floor. “Quiet. Restful.”
“I hope the children will get a lot done in here,” Lady Claire nodded. She turned and smiled at Tamsin. “And it’ll be a good place for you to read, won’t it?”
Tamsin grinned. Right now the wide bookshelf was mostly empty. The children really only had their schoolbooks, and perhaps the occasional storybook. They barely filled the middle shelf. But when Tamsin came here to stay, that would change. That would all change.
“Not to brag, Tamsin — but just how many of my books do you, personally, own?” asked Lady Guinevere out of nowhere. But she too was studying the empty shelves.
“My mother owns three — I might be lucky if she gives me one as a wedding present,” laughed Tamsin.
“Ah,” replied Lady Guinevere. She said no more as Lady Claire led them back across the hall, to what Lady Claire called the “music room” and Tamsin privately called the parlor.
“A piano and a harp!” Lady Leona grinned. “Sir Bors has come a long way!”
Lady Claire seemed to almost smirk as she looked back at Lady Leona. “Well–I hope to teach Elise the harp, don’t you know?”
It still boggled Tamsin’s mind to hear a princess being spoken of in such a casual manner. But if the child’s own grandmother could not refer to her by her first name alone, Tamsin wondered, who could?
“The harp?” asked Lady Guinevere as Lady Claire waved them all to the white couches placed on the far wall. “She’s a bit little for that, isn’t she?”
“Lynn and Prince Tom commissioned a child-sized one,” replied Lady Claire, settling into the cushions. “As soon as it’s ready — and as soon as I play it a bit and get used to it — we’ll start.”
Meanwhile, Tamsin gingerly sat next to Lady Leona, folded her hands in her lap, and prepared to do what she did best when placed in a group of people she didn’t know well — listen.
“Do you think she’ll be musical, then, Lady Claire? Like you and Princess Lynn?” asked Lady Leona.
Lady Claire sighed and smiled. “I’d be lying if I didn’t say that I hope she will be. She certainly loved her little xylophone before she got too big for it.”
“Any chance of Wart showing the same talent? Or what about Colin?”
“W-wart?” asked Tamsin, and instantly wished she hadn’t.
Still, the smile and the explanation that Lady Leona turned to her were friendly enough. “Oh, that’s the little prince. Prince Arthur. But we all call him Wart, because … well, Prince Kay nicknamed him that, and the name stuck.”
“You … call the son of your crown prince … Wart?” Tamsin gasped.
“Why not?” Lady Leona shrugged. “It’s what everyone from his mother on down calls him!”
“Including the King,” Lady Claire was quick to add.
Tamsin looked away and shook her head. A Prince of the realm, nicknamed Wart! What next? Sims who could fly?
… Then again, Tamsin realized, such an earthy nickname might be a useful corrective to a disease often experienced by kings and princes, namely Swollen Head Syndrome. And since Elyan had already informed her, most lugubriously, that witches and wizards were not persecuted in Albion, Tamsin supposed that flying Sims were not quite as much of an impossibility as one might assume.
“But to answer your question, Leona,” replied Lady Claire, “well … Colin and Wart both seem to both enjoy their xylophones, but they both seem to prize them particularly for the ability to make noise. Even when she was their age, Elise was already trying to pick out a tune …”
“Well, blast,” chuckled Lady Guinevere. “I suppose there’s always hope for Cedric, maybe? Or perhaps Lynn’s new baby?”
Or maybe my babies, thought Tamsin. Lady Claire looked at her, for a second seeming to think the same thing — but looked away, almost shamefaced. Why? What could possibly be wrong with anticipating grandchildren from one’s future daughter-in-law? True, some mothers-in-law could take that kind of anticipation to the point of rudeness, but Lady Claire didn’t seem that type. And when all was said and done, really, wasn’t having children and raising them the whole point of marriage?
“There is always hope for Cedric,” agreed Lady Claire. “And Lynn’s new baby. But maybe … maybe love of music might be passed from mother to daughter. Certainly Elyan never had very much interest in it, and Lionel sometimes wants to try and sometimes doesn’t. And Evette … well, she’s not as intense as Lynn and Angelique were, but she seems like Clarice: eager to try, enjoying it when her practices are going well.”
“I still can’t believe it,” sighed Lady Leona. “Clarice having Cedric — Jessie having Alix — Dannie had Elena — even Garnet had a baby! I swear, all I had to do was turn my back, and suddenly all of my friends have new babies!”
“Turn your back, my foot!” snorted Lady Guinevere. “More like go on a voyage for almost two years! It only takes nine months, my dear, to make a baby from start to finish. You left room for twice that, let me remind you.”
“So, in other words, I should be grateful that all of my friends who weren’t even expecting when I left had only one baby, and not two?”
“Exactly!” Lady Guinevere laughed. “And you should be grateful that it wasn’t three! With the propensity we all have for t–”
“Don’t say it! You promised you wouldn’t say the t-word!”
Tamsin blinked. “The … t-word?”
“Aye,” Lady Leona agreed. “You see, I was one half of the t-word. And I don’t know about you, but I think getting the t-word on your first pregnancy,” Lady Leona patted her belly, “is just not fair. And not another word from you!” She spun and pointed to her mother. “I know what you and the Queen did to Jessie!”
Tamsin blinked, eyes volleying between mother and daughter.
Lady Guinevere sighed and pretended to roll her eyes. At least, Tamsin thought it was pretending. She couldn’t imagine any other reason for that wink aimed to Lady Claire and then … herself? “Now, Leona, I shouldn’t have to explain to a well-educated girl like you that just because the Queen and I discussed the possibility of Jessie having twins before she gave birth, it does not by any means suggest that we caused that birth –”
“Ha! That might be logical, but I know pretty well that the united will of two grandmothers bends to nothing — especially not logic!”
“It’s a good thing, then, that this baby only has one grandmother to wish that it’ll grow itself a twin between now and the end of Darid,” snickered Lady Guinevere.
For some reason, that made Lady Leona clam up — literally; Tamsin heard her teeth click together. Lady Guinevere seemed to notice, and, perhaps as a way to backtrack, she turned to Tamsin and asked her, very politely, where she had grown up.
The center of attention was not where Tamsin wanted to be. But she understood the demands of courtesy as well as anybody. So she answered, and asked another polite question — and so the conversation turned desultory, if still pleasant, until the time came for Lady Guinevere and Lady Leona to leave.
As Lady Guinevere shook Tamsin’s hand prior to going, however, she had one more question to ask. “Just out of self-centered and frankly unseemly curiosity — do you have any idea which of my books your mother might give to you as a wedding present?”
“Oh — oh, I’m not sure. But — it might be The Knight of the Cart. It’s my favorite,” Tamsin mumbled.
“The Knight of the Cart! That was always one of my favorites, too. Even if Lance got annoyed by it.” She chuckled. “He always said that he’d never be so foolish to stand staring at a comb for however-many-minutes when there was work to be done. He always thought it unfair that a character named after him would do that.”
“Oh — oh!” said Tamsin. Unfortunately, it was all she could think to say before the time for the last polite leave-taking came, and she and Lady Claire were seeing Lady Guinevere and Lady Leona out the door.
“Well,” Lady Claire said as soon as the ladies were gone and the door safely shut behind them, “I–I hope you enjoyed that, Tamsin. Hopefully at the party we can get you introduced properly to everyone, but … well, I hope you’ll like the du Lacs. They’re very nice people.”
“I–I think so,” replied Tamsin. “Lady Guinevere seems very kind. And Lady Leona …”
“She seems nice, too. If … a little odd …”
“Well … this is Albion, Tamsin,” Lady Claire replied. “I–I hate to break it to you … but sometimes, I think we’re all a little odd here.”
“Hmm,” Tamsin replied.
But all she could think was, Lady Claire might have a point …
But all the same, I’ll be damned if I can see how that’s entirely a bad thing.
Tamsin smiled and straightened, feeling entirely at ease for the first time since the betrothal papers were signed. Albion might be a strange place … but unless Tamsin was very much mistaken …
She was going to like it here.