White HousesI’d offer a rose for a rose, except the roses aren’t blooming yet.
Lynn hurried into her bedchamber, shutting the door behind her and leaning against it, panting. Did he know?
For a moment she told herself to stop being silly—even if Tommy did know, which was a big if in and of itself, it was highly unlikely that he would tell her father … not with the way he had been acting, that easy charmer’s grin turned on her, the compliment, the wink, the way he had held onto her arm – he had not had a betrayal in mind. And Tommy was not always the most observant of people—and he would have had to be very, very observant to have guessed out her secret …
Of course that small, quiet voice buried deep within her gently whispered that maybe what she was doing—the secret she kept hidden in her petticoats and chemises—maybe that secret was not quite so wrong. After all, many women used such … Lynn stopped her train of thought, cocked an ear for her father’s footsteps (he had probably already left their apartments), and quickly crossed to her wardrobe.
She opened the wide doors, pulled out one of the drawers, dug under the undergarments (the drawer was such a useful place to hide things, it was the absolute last place her father would look), and pulled out a small vial, the stopper on very tight. She automatically ran her fingers up and down the sides – no moisture had escaped. She gave a small sigh of relief. Then she took the cap off.
A pleasant odor of roses wafted through the room … Lynn sat on the edge of her bed, frowning to herself. The rose water was expensive – she had been saving what pocket money she was given since she had first caught a whiff of it from the perfume-seller’s booth, at the spring fair when she was nine. Of course, it had been easier before her father returned from the Holy Land – first of all, Guinevere, the queen, had given her more, and she had not expected any of it to be returned. Her father … well, if Lynn had apparently “nothing to show” for how she had spent her money, she had best be giving some of it back, in his opinion.
So it had taken her several years to save up enough for this small vial – and she had a feeling that the vendor, a somewhat short, hefty man with eyes like the spruce wreaths that decked Camelot at Christmas, had given something of a discount to the small girl with big dark eyes who had come faithfully to his booth for six years running. That had been a year ago. And—even though she used it sparingly, when her father was least likely to notice (since he would hardly be likely to approve of such “frivolities” as perfume)—she was now starting to run out …
The heavy glass vial was a solid, almost reassuring presence in her hand as Lynn wondered … men were supposed to be susceptible to scent, at least that was what Mairwen and Elaine were always saying … but was this worth using up her precious store? If it was not—what was?
And should, Lynn wondered with a sigh, I even be doing this at all?
“Oh, hell,” Tommy muttered as he leaned against the fence that separated the squire’s fencing ground from the rest of the courtyard, “here comes trouble.”
“What?” Ben asked, as he broke away from his sparring with Will, rubbing his upper forearm.
“Told you he wouldn’t last ten minutes,” Dai murmured. Ben faked a lunge at him.
Tommy ignored both. “Look who just rode in,” he said, nodding to the gate.
Three horses were clipping over the drawbridge – fine prancing ponies, their trappings hardly dirty from the trip, buckles sparkling, leather buffed to the point of mirror-shine. Robber bait, Tommy thought disparagingly, and I’ll be damned if the ponies could actually last through a whole tournament—never mind a quest or battle.
The head rider turned his horse easily into the yard as Will quietly stepped up to the fence, just on Tommy’s right. Dai was to Tommy’s left, Ben next to Dai. The three riders of the horses were every bit as self-consciously preened as the horses – their light travel-armor gleaming; surcoats, green with the Pendragon dragon emblazoned in yellow, hardly bearing a trace of the dust from the road. None of them wore helmets – the head rider turned his peridot eyes to the four boys leaning against the fence. He gave a feral grin, then, nodding to the other two riders, dismounted. The three started to move over, closer to the fence.
“I think I hear my mother calling,” Ben muttered under his breath.
“Your mother died when you were born,” Dai shot back.
“I know—that’s my point.”
“We’re not dead yet,” Tommy said robustly. Then, noticing how Will stiffened and narrowed his eyes, he turned. “What?”
“It—” Will narrowed his cornflower eyes more. “Nothing.”
Meanwhile, the three riders were within spitting distance of the squires’ fence. All three were tall, with hair in a dark golden brown and eyes of differing shades of gemstone green. The leader of the group, the eldest, had the kind of physique that set the young ladies fanning themselves with their handkerchiefs and swooning – his eyes were peridot. The second, both in age and importance, was merely beefy, with eyes in a dull tektite. And next to the other two, the third one looked scrawny, though his build was about average. His eyes were emerald green. The faces of all three bore a striking similarity, though the eldest was the most charming, the second blank, the third cruel and mocking. “Well, well,” murmured the eldest, “the pampered babies of the court – haven’t quite left the playpen, now, have we?”
Tommy gave a brittle smile. “Hello to you too, Andras.”
“Sir Andras, squire—just because your daddy’s the king doesn’t mean you don’t have to show knights proper respect,” taunted the third one.
Tommy looked from one side of the courtyard to the other. “What knights?”
The second started forward, pounding his fist against his palm. “Why, you—them’s—”
“Easy, Einion,” Andras said, lightly grabbing onto his brother’s collar. “There’s no honor in beating babes.”
“The youngest of them,” Andras said lightly, “will be a knight, come November—as long as he doesn’t disgrace himself before then.”
Ben straightened angrily. The youngest brother nudged Andras. “They’re not all squires still.”
“That’s right—the du Lac boy has been made a knight, hasn’t he, Padrig?” asked Andras with a cruel smile.
Will, before this staring at the ground, slowly looked up, his blue eyes boring into Andras’s. Tommy’s hand went to his dagger of its own accord. “You challenge one of us, ap Vaughan,” Tommy warned, “you challenge us all.”
“Challenge?” Andras asked, feigning surprise. “Did I issue a challenge, Einion—Padrig?”
Einion shook his head, while Padrig seconded, “Certainly not!”
“Of course,” Andras said magnanimously, “if Sir William feels that his honor has been affronted, I hope I am enough of a knight enough to merit such a challenge from him.”
Tommy glanced at his friend—but when Will spoke, it was oddly off-topic. “Your father is a reputable sorcerer, isn’t he?”
Tommy was surprised – but satisfied – to see how all three of the knights jumped. Einion cast a panicked glance at Andras—Andras blinked a couple times, then smoothed his countenance over with a laugh. “And what has that to do with anything, Sir William?”
“Oh—nothing,” Will said lightly. “Though … while any man can wear as many crosses as he likes to tourney … to carry certain amulets … wards … spells for protection … I’m pretty sure that would be cheating.” He gave an odd, almost feral grin. “Don’t you agree?”
“Andras!” Einion hissed, looking between Will and his brother in a near-frenzy.
Andras smacked him on the arm. “Of course—that would be—cheating. Are you accusing us of doing so?”
Will shook his head. “No.”
The three brothers seemed to relax.
“However—” They stiffened again. Will just smiled. “If … I should ever have … cause to believe such cheating occurred – I think it would be my duty to challenge you three …”
They exchanged glances. “Alone?” Andras demanded.
“No … given my youth and … inexperience, I think I would be in my rights to bring one … second.” As if his second was in any possible doubt, he added, “I’m sure Uncle Lance would support me.”
Three sets of eyes widened—Andras grabbed both of his brothers by the arms. “Come—we have to check on Mairwen—we haven’t even greeted her yet.” He started calling over shoulder for the stable boys and servants to see to the horses while he dragged his brothers to the door.
Will just watched them leave with a peculiar smile on his face—Tommy, Dai, and Ben looked at him in incredulity. “How in God’s name,” Dai asked irreverently, as soon as the three brothers were gone, “did you manage that?”
“Hmm?” Will asked, looking up. “Oh … that …” He smiled again – then, without another word, he vaulted over the fence and walked away, to the other side of the courtyard.
Dai and Ben watched him go with open jaws—Tommy merely looked thoughtful. “Tom,” Dai finally managed to croak, “you have one … strange friend …”
“Hmm … perhaps …”
“Look, Dai—you can rag Will all you want about his ‘mystery girl’—about his pig-headedness—but believe me, there are some things you just don’t ask.”
“Is this seat taken?”
Lynn jumped up from the small handkerchief she was embroidering. She blinked in the bright sunlight—Tommy’s shadow had fallen over her, and she could see the smile he wore.
Words stuck in the back of her throat, but Lynn felt herself shake her head and move to the side. Tommy sat down beside her, still smiling – and just a little closer than she would have wished.
Or maybe—Lynn turned to her embroidery and swallowed—maybe he was not closer than she would like …
“So … Lynn …” Lynn looked up, tongue absently flickering over her lips. Tommy frowned momentarily—Lynn felt her heart drop, until he made his reasons for frowning clear by his speech: “I didn’t—get you in trouble with your father the other day—did I?”
“Oh …” Lynn shook her head, glancing down at her embroidery. “No—not really.”
She shrugged. “He scolded—but that’s nothing new …”
“Scolded? Why? You didn’t do anything.”
“I—” Lynn paused, and then shrugged again. “Well—of course—you know—if anything … happens, it’s always the woman, who … you know …”
“And you can help being beautiful? Because that’s about the only thing you’ve done to encourage me—if that’s how your father has been thinking.” Lynn felt her skin start to heat up—she stiffened as Tommy’s finger gently tucked under her chin, turning her head to face him. “Can you—Lynn?”
“I …” Her eyes dropped. “I’m not beautiful.”
“Of course you are. Have you checked a mirror lately?” She thought there was something like bitterness replacing the gentle teasing in his tone as he added, “Or has your father prohibited them, too?”
“No—no—he wants me to look presentable—it’s just … when I look into a mirror … all I see is my mother.”
She thought his hand was going to drop for a moment—but Tommy’s finger stayed under her chin—no, not quite, his thumb was gently stroking her cheek. Lynn smiled a little in spite of herself. “You miss her?” Tommy asked quietly.
Lynn pursed her lips together. “No—yes—it’s … complicated.”
“I’m not going anywhere.”
She said nothing for a long moment, staring at her lap. Then, “I … never really knew her enough to miss her.”
Tommy said nothing – as if waiting for her to finish.
“She was always—very quiet—very distant—almost cold, but it was more like—she was hiding. From the world—but by the time I was old enough to remember, she had been hiding for a long time … since I was born, probably. Or even—before that. Maybe once she realized that I was …” Lynn blushed. “Well—you know.”
Lynn sighed. “I—look like her—at least I think I do—but I don’t want to be her. Because—the last thing I want—”
Both Lynn and Tommy jumped, scooting apart of one mind—even though the bellow had been from a few gardens away. Lynn hopped up. “I should—go.”
Tommy sighed as he stood as well. “Maybe you should.”
Lynn gave a small smile. “Thank you—thank you for listening.”
“It was nothing,” Tommy replied with a grin. Lynn bobbed down in a quick curtsy, but right before she was ready to go—“Lynn—wait.”
She turned around. Tommy stepped forward, maybe a little too close for propriety, his eyes holding her own. “You know—if you ever want to talk more—I’m right here.”
“I—” She was about to thank him for his offer, but assure him that it was not necessary, before she noticed … something in his eyes … her. Just her—that was all she could see. It was as if Tommy had laid bare her soul—but he was not judging, not criticizing, just seeing and—accepting …
Lynn’s jaw fell—then her mouth widened, in a big smile. “Thank you.”
Mairwen ap Vaughan stared into her mirror, hairpins precariously balanced in her mouth as she carefully brushed out a long plait—then she stopped, took the hairpins out, and turned around. “Elaine—what has your brother been telling you recently?”
Elaine started from her seat on Mairwen’s bed. “I—about what? And Bennett?”
“You have no other brothers at court—do you not?”
“Well—true—there is Richard, but he’s only three.” Elaine shook her head. “What has Bennett been saying about what?”
“Will?” Elaine sighed. “He never says anything about Will—”
“Not Will—though—you should really stop wasting yourself on him—he’s just like his uncle—he doesn’t acknowledge any … attention given to him.” Then Mairwen glanced at her reflection—and laughed. “If Guinevere had a daughter, I’d assume he was courting her—because of the family resemblance.”
“Oh, Mairwen, don’t say that—I’m sure the Queen …” Elaine paused. “Mairwen …”
“The Queen doesn’t have a daughter—but the King does—”
“What—Lady Jessica?” Mairwen laughed again. “Please—if Sir William won’t respond to the flowers of the court, it’s hardly because he has a secret yen for her—she never acts like a lady, she’s not all that pretty—and she’s a witch besides.”
“But Lady Jessica is Thomas’s sister, Mairwen …”
“Hmm—true, unfortunately. But they look nothing alike—and that was who I wanted to know if Bennett has said anything about.”
“Oh! Thomas!” Elaine paused, biting her lower lip.
“Don’t do that—I can’t always be lending you cosmetics.”
“Yes, Mairwen.” With an effort Elaine moved her teeth from her bottom lip. “Well—Bennett hasn’t said much …”
“When is he coming back—that’s all I need to know.”
Elaine was quiet. “Bennett doesn’t really talk to me, you know—why don’t you ask Padrig to talk to Thomas? They’re close enough in age …”
“Padrig?” Mairwen replied with a laugh. “He hates Thomas almost as much as Andras and Einion do—I can’t send him out for this vital intelligence.” She glanced in the mirror, fluffing her hair. “But Bennett hasn’t said anything?”
“No, Mairwen …”
Mairwen turned around. “What?”
“Well … it’s been over a week, Mairwen … Thomas has never waited this long—even when you decided to spare his pride, the last time …”
“Oh, that—he’s probably just a little bit more sore than usual—after all, he’s insisting that there was nothing wrong in his chasing after other … girls …” Mairwen broke off, her ivory skin whitening a few more degrees—her knuckles locked onto the seat.
Elaine started up. “Mairwen—Mairwen, is something wrong?”
“I—” She waved Elaine back down. “Elaine—another girl?”
“Another girl—what if Thomas has found—another girl?”
“Oh, don’t be silly, Thomas could never find anyone to compare to you!”
“No—he must have—because the only reason Tommy would leave me waiting is because he thinks he’s found someone else …” Mairwen gulped—then, in an instant, she was back to normal, turned around and began to brush out her hair again. “Well—we’ll just have to figure out who she is, then.”
“We?” Elaine questioned tremulously.
“Yes—we—and once we do …” Mairwen smiled into her reflection, her jade-green eyes hardening. “Well, I’ll just have to win Tommy back from her—that’s all.”