Clatan 4, 1015
Of course Freddy would be here first.
Rob managed a small smile as he crossed the worn flagstones that made up the floor of the Dragon’s Teeth. He wished he could be in a more cheerful mood tonight. He was having a guys’ night out, wasn’t he? Far from being annoyed or put out by that, Dannie had practically chase him out the door with a broom, hadn’t she? Business was going well, the children were happy and healthy, Elena was blessedly between teeth at the moment.
But he could never manage to be as happy as he ought to have been at their impromptu fraternity reunions. Not because of the men who came without fail. But because of the one man who couldn’t come any more.
“There you are,” said Freddy as Rob sauntered to the bar. “I was hoping someone would show up soon.”
“If you didn’t constantly show up early for everything, my friend, you’d never have to worry about being left all alone at the bar,” Rob answered. He hopped onto the stool to Freddy’s right.
“Hard not to show up early when your house is only a couple of miles away,” Freddy shrugged.
“Not that hard. Just stop constantly overestimating the time it would take you to get anywhere.” Rob tried to wink and failed. He tried not to sigh and was lucky enough to succeed.
And Freddy noticed. Rob could see that in the narrowing of his friend and brother-in-law’s eyes. But he didn’t press. Freddy was a good man in that way — well, in a lot of ways, but particularly in that way.
Rob swallowed and turned to the bartender. “An ale, please,” he said. The bartender smiled and nodded.
They both watched the poor bartender, who really hadn’t done anything to deserve such scrutiny, pour out Rob’s drink and shoot it down the length of the bar to him. “It’s all on the one tab, Sam,” said Freddy before Rob could start to fish for coins in his purse.
“As ye please, Master Ferreira,” nodded Sam. “Is it all the young nobles what are comin’ ternight?”
“Well, not all of us — but a good number. We’re the ones who all went to Camford together. More or less.”
More or less, thought Rob. He, Milo, Tom, and Will — and Lamorak — had all been in the same year. Then came Freddy and Galahad two years later, for all that Galahad never joined them on these excursions because for some reason he thought it inappropriate for a churchman. Kay had been another year later — but Kay was sailing to Takemizu.
Perhaps they could have invited Aglovale Gwynedd and now Sir Elyan de Ganis. But Aglovale was Rob’s brother-in-law and Sir Elyan Tom’s as well as Freddy’s, and if there was any one thing that united Rob and Tom, it was the shared misery of having brothers-in-law that one preferred to only see at family obligations. So Aglovale and Sir Elyan were left out on the admittedly shaky grounds that they weren’t members of the fraternity at the same time as Tom and Milo and Will and Rob. Who knew how long that excuse would hold up?
“So,” asked Freddy, drawing Rob from his reverie, “how’s your little sister?”
Heloise? Rob wondered. Babette? And then he realized that Freddy wasn’t asking after either of them. He meant Takara.
Good Lord, it was strange, having a sister younger than both of your own daughters. “She’s doing well,” he answered. “The usual baby litany. Eat, sleep, cry, excrete. Perhaps not in that order, but, well …”
“I know,” Freddy chuckled. “Believe me, I know. Cedric … well …” He shrugged. “And how is your father? And … her mother?”
Rob barely held back a chuckle, wondering what Babette would say if she was here. She insisted that Wei Li wasn’t to be hinted at, much less mentioned in polite company — and Freddy was the politest company that Rob had. Except Freddy’s not what she means by polite company. Polite company, at least in Babette’s conception of it, had nothing to do with the manners of any of the company and everything to do with their ranks.
“They’re both doing well. Though …” Rob hesitated, taking a long draught from his tankard to gather courage for what he was going to say next.
Though why should he hesitate to tell Freddy? Freddy’s personality aside, he’d probably heard it all already from his parents via Dannie. “Well–besides Madam Kwan having all the usual, erm, fun experiences that come with new motherhood–my father …”
He sighed and rested the tankard on the table. “Josh and Cressida and Dannie and I all went to meet Takara at once. And–well, that went well. It was incredibly awkward, but Cressida and Dannie fussed more over Takara than I swear they’ve fussed over any other baby, including their own, and Madam Kwan was so accommodating …” Rob shrugged. “I think Josh and I realized — bloody hell, Dad’s happy, and even if we don’t want to think about what he spends most of his time doing with Madam Kwan, she’s a hell of a lot nicer than we had any right to expect. And … I think she’s got feelings for him. It’s not all a business transaction on her side, any more than it is on my father’s.”
“But that’s wonderful!” Freddy interrupted.
“Don’t let Brother Tuck hear you say that — but aye. That part is. But Babette …”
“Babette won’t come.”
Freddy was silent.
“Aye,” Rob replied. “Exactly.” And there was the impasse. Given how gaga Babette could go for babies, if she could just see Takara, then perhaps she might begin to make peace with the situation … but she didn’t want to come, wouldn’t even deign to notice her own little sister. There was nothing any of them could do to force her, and even worse, as Cressida had pointed out, no way to get Babette to just shut up about it.
But Takara isn’t Babette’s little sister, is she? whispered something in Rob’s mind that wasn’t quite the voice of reason, but at the same time, wasn’t so unreasonable that he felt justified ignoring it. He sighed.
He began to spin his tankard, watching the ale inside whirlpool, when —
“There you two are! Making us look late as always!”
There was only one man in the kingdom who did that.
Rob turned around, so did Freddy. “But, Tom!” Freddy called. “Weren’t you the one who said a prince is never late?”
“Nor is he early,” Milo snickered, nudging Tom.
“Aye, aye,” Tom sighed as he wove through the tables and hopped onto the other stool next to Freddy. “He always arrives exactly when he means to. Good Lord, saying that seemed like a good idea at the time –“
“But we won’t shut up about it,” Rob filled in.
“Aye. You are all the worst when it comes to the failure to shut up,” Tom replied. He looked up and down the length of the bar. “Where’s Will?”
“Presumably somewhere between here and Avilion,” Rob shrugged.
“Is that so? Hey, Milo, will you look at that!” Now it was Tom’s turn to nudge Milo. “We beat him!”
“Not hard. He did have the farthest to go of all of us,” Milo pointed out.
“And there will be none of that,” Tom answered. “No pointing out the logic, or rather the lack thereof, in my statements until Will gets here. He does it best, so I shan’t put up with inferior imitations.”
“He does it best?” Rob repeated. “I should be offended by that.”
“No, you shouldn’t. You never point out the lack of logic in what I say. You just laugh behind your tankard until the fact that I’m an idiot either becomes entirely obvious to all, or else Will puts me out of my misery with a well-timed sarcasm.”
“A well-timed sarcasm?” Freddy repeated. “Is that even a thing?”
“Well, I would have said witticism, but Will doesn’t go much in for those, and ‘sarcastic quip’ just didn’t have the same ring to it,” Tom shrugged. “So, let’s see, what is there to drink around–“
He stopped. He stared at the bartender. “You–you’re Sam.”
Sam — the bartender — started to wipe her hands on the towel she kept tucked into her bodice. “Er, yes, yer highness.”
“You work here, too?” Tom asked, leaning his elbows on the bar as he edged forward.
“Fascinating,” Tom replied in that — way of his. Most men, when they said “fascinating,” would have meant it sarcastically. Tom didn’t. When Tom said that, he made you want to lean forward to meet him and spill all your secrets to him. “It seems to me, Mistress Sam, that if you’re having to work two bars, one of them isn’t paying you enough.”
“Oh, no, m’lord!” laughed Sam. “I’m paid jest fine, I am. But I like the variety. Ye work jest one place, well, then ye an’ the custom get to know each other right well — an’ don’t get me wrong, there ain’t nothin’ wrong with gettin’ ter know yer regulars, but sometimes, ye jest get sick o’ each other’s faces. If I split me nights between here an’ the docks, why, I see twice as many faces, an’ nobody’s getting sick o’ each other.”
“Well, we clearly know you’ve found your truly calling, Mistress Sam,” answered Milo. Turning to the other men, he added, “You can’t be a good bartender without being able to dispense worldly wisdom to all your patrons.”
“Oh, m’lord, it ain’t that wise!” laughed Sam as she poured Milo’s and Tom’s drinks for them. “It’s jest, anythin’ sounds wise when you’re comparin’ it ter the kind o’ advice plenty o’ folks seem to think they’ll find at the bottom o’ a tankard.”
“Advice such as, ‘Solve your problems, don’t go pouring good ale all over them in the hopes that they’ll drown’?” asked Tom, lifting the tankard Sam handed him in a silent toast to her.
“Aye, precisely, m’lord. Though ye young men don’t look like the types what are worryin’ too hard about problems.”
“You think noblemen don’t have problems, Sam?” asked Freddy.
“Oh, no, m’lord, I didn’t mean that,” Sam corrected herself. “I jest thought ye all looked happy ternight, that’s all. Ain’t nothin’ wrong with downin’ a few tankards in celebration o’ good friends an’ good company!”
“I’ll drink to that!” laughed Milo, and did so.
Rob smiled. It was good to see Milo in a good mood — good, too, that he was getting out and about these days. After all, the husband of the president of the Young Mother’s Club of Albion was in the perfect position to know that the secretary of said club was getting a bit wide about the middle and would be welcoming her second child into the world come Hybel.
But for most men, the prospect of meeting your second child was less gut-wrenching than the first. It was only when you had … other family circumstances intervening that things got a bit twisted.
Tom drummed his fingers on the bar. “I wonder what’s keeping Will,” he murmured.
“Could be anything,” Freddy shrugged. “All it takes is one little thing at your work to get a little off-kilter, and then, well …”
“Aye,” Tom murmured. Rob’s eyes narrowed. The way he said that … it was as if there was something in particular he was imagining …
“Do you know,” Tom remarked, so suddenly it seemed unstudied — except this was Tom, so it couldn’t have been. “Do you know — it’s been almost six months since we were all together?”
“Six months? No, it couldn’t have–” Freddy started. He stopped. “Oh.”
All together. That could only mean one thing.
Rob felt his shoulders begin to hunch together. “They still haven’t caught the bastards,” he spat.
“Or bastard,” Tom mused.
The three of them turned to him with sharp looks. Only Freddy had the courage — or the foolhardiness — to raise the obvious question. “Bastard?”
“Lamorak couldn’t have been killed by just one man,” Milo replied. “That would be — impossible.”
“You think?” asked Tom.
“I know!” Milo insisted. “It–it was hard enough to believe that all it would take would be a group of thieves, or forest outlaws, to — to best Lamorak, but one? Impossible. He’d have sliced the man to ribbons before he got more than one punch thrown.”
“Besides …” murmured Freddy, “even if the thief didn’t know Lamorak’s reputation … there’s no way that one man acting alone would have been brave or foolhardy enough to attack a knight — is there?”
Tom shrugged. “Stranger things have happened.” He took a long sip of his ale. “Say–Rob–have you heard from your brother-in-law recently?”
Rob blinked. “Which one?”
“Well, obviously you’ve heard from Freddy,” Tom pointed, “and if I were to ask after young George, I’d be asking you and Freddy, so that leaves …”
“Aglovale,” Rob huffed.
He ought not to huff. If he was thinking of Lamorak — well, Lamorak had been a good friend, a great friend to him, but at the end of the day, that’s all he was. A friend. If Rob ever lost Joshua the way Aglovale had lost Lamorak … Rob shuddered. He couldn’t begin to imagine it, and he didn’t want to try.
All the same, grieving had not improved Aglovale’s personality in the slightest.
“Not to be rude — but I’m guessing he’s making an ass of himself?” asked Rob.
“Eh …” Tom shrugged. “I just … want to know how he’s been recently.”
“Well enough, I suppose,” Rob shrugged.
“Oh good,” Tom replied. “I haven’t … spoken to him in a while …” He started to drum his fingers on the table. “And you haven’t seen anything — unusual from him? Grief can … it does affect everyone differently …”
Rob narrowed his eyes. What was Tom driving at? But he hadn’t seen anything unusual from Aglovale in–well–ever.
“Other than managing to convince Lady Garnet to open an account for the Gwynedd estate in Josh’s bank — he’s been his usual sunny and friendly self,” Rob shrugged.
“Oh, come on, Rob, he’s not that bad,” Freddy replied.
“He’s not your brother-in-law.”
“Ah!” Tom interrupted. “But what our dear Freddy,” he clapped Freddy on the shoulder, “is far to polite to point out is this: Aglovale may not be our brother-in-law, but when you have a brother-in-law like Elyan — suddenly, Aglovale doesn’t seem so bad!
“And not a word from you,” Tom added, swiveling to Milo effortlessly. “You’ve been blessed with a palpable lack of brothers-in-law.”
“I wouldn’t say blessed,” Milo muttered.
Rob couldn’t see Tom’s face, but he could see the way his back stiffened and then the slump of his shoulders. “Ah. You … have a point.” He patted Milo on the back. “My apologies, friend.”
Rob and Freddy both heard the opening creak of the door and felt the cold blast of wind. They turned — and then Freddy turned back to Tom. “Milo isn’t the only one you should be apologizing too.”
Freddy gestured to the door. “He’s not your only brother-in-law.”
Tom turned. “Ah! Sir William the Late finally arrives!”
“I’m not that late,” Will muttered, hurrying over to the bar. “Though … I do apologize. Things got a little … hairy.”
“Hairy,” Tom remarked. “Nothing to do with your niece, right?”
“Thank heaven, no. She’s just fine. And so are her parents.” Will eased himself onto the stool next to Milo. “It was … work.”
“Hairy, eh?” asked Milo. “Don’t tell me we’ve got a werewolf infestation.”
“Werewolves?” laughed Freddy. “Do they even exist? I thought they were just stories made up to scare children.”
“Scare them from what?” Rob asked. “To get them to stay away from wolves?”
“Aye, you’d think any child with half a brain would know to do that already,” Tom remarked.
“Ha! Not that simple!” Milo shook his head. “Clearly your sister was never the type who saw any animal with fur and instantly wanted to run over and pet it.”
Tom blinked at him. “Your sister tried to pet a wolf?”
“Well–no,” Milo admitted. “Though that was mostly for lack of opportunity. Though I think if we’d run up against a wolf any time when she was between the ages of four and, oh, eight or so, we’d have either had to have a nice wolfskin rug on the floor, or she–well–she might have been missing a hand.”
Tom stared at the bar. “Remind me,” he muttered to no one in particular, “to have a talk with Ash Thatcher, and tell him to keep wolves of all stripes far away from the capital …”
For some reason the mention of that name — Ash Thatcher — made Will sit up, mouth opening. Then he thought better of it and leaned back. Instead he turned to Sam, mouth open to order —
Tom hopped off his stool. “Well, lads! The night’s still young! What do you say we put it to good use?”
“I haven’t even gotten my drink yet!” Will protested.
“Ah, never fear, Will! You can bring it upstairs!” Tom clapped Will on the back. “So–what do you say?”
Will sighed and turned to Sam. “I’ll have an ale — to go.”
Sam poured Will’s tankard, and while she was at it, topped off the tankards of the rest of the men. Tom said they would settle the reckoning when they came back down, and then they went up.
But five was an awfully awkward number when it came to doing anything. It was one too much for a hand of cards and three too much for pool. You could play cards with three, though …
And somehow, Will and Tom managed to gravitate toward each other and the pool table.
That left Rob and Milo and Freddy to one of the card tables. Rob told himself that he didn’t mind. After all, there were plenty of three-handed card games to choose from, or card games that could be played with three as well as they could be played with two or four. He started to shuffle and deal.
But even as he dealt, he couldn’t help but think …
Four was so much more fun than three.