“… absolutely ridiculous,” Bors muttered, half to his daughter, half to himself. “Won’t stay away from the Queen … says he loves her—ridiculous!” He stood up, began to pace around the room. “Ridiculous!”
Lynn said nothing in reply—her father never expected her to in these “conversations”—nodding was usually enough for him. Instead, she kept her eyes trained on the surcoat on her lap, carefully re-embroidering silver stitches where some of the old ones that made up the dragon had worked loose. Her mind treacherously sent her back to the empty solarium—to where Tommy had—
“… needs to learn to keep away from sin,” Bors grumbled. “And if what he’s doing to his soul isn’t enough—he ought to consider what he’s doing to his family—”
His family! That was half the problem—at least if she wanted to convince her father to view Tommy as a possible suitor. Bors could hardly gripe about his being a bastard—after all, Lynn herself was one—but he was unlikely to look with favor on some of Tommy’s relatives. Two witches, at least—no, wait, more than that—three or four, perhaps. Queen Igraine had been mad—and possibly a witch as well. Tommy’s mother had been born a commoner – though she was noble now, had been since well before the twins were born – and a foreign one at that, at any rate not French or even English. Tommy’s father and grandfather, though both kings, were hardly without stain—Uther Pendragon had dabbled second-hand in witchcraft himself, using Merlin’s spells in order to impersonate the duke Gorlois of Cornwall, and Arthur was no angel, either … and that was before you even factored in the family-mad, matricidal Orkney brothers—
“… love, he calls it—hah! If he’d really loved her, he would have found her before she was married and married her then—now all he wants is a bit of ‘fun’—”
More problems there. Lynn sighed. For all she knew, Tommy had no thought whatsoever of marrying her … all she was was a bit of fun to him. He respected her enough to not push her too far—yes—but if he could get his way with her without making her too uncomfortable … he could just be using her as a fill-in for Mairwen, whom she knew was only waiting for the chance to throw away her virtue …
“… and even if she wasn’t married—to his king!—her Majesty wouldn’t be a good choice of a woman anyway … paints her face, is too vain with her hair, wears scent …”
The scent! That tiny amount from her precious store—Lynn wondered if that had had anything to do with how forward Tommy had been, just that last evening. She had been wearing it, hoping to meet him all day, before finally winding up in the solarium and having him find her … Mairwen and Elaine had always touted the use of perfumes as a way to secure the attentions of their favored knight …
“… utter fool, he is, they both are, and someday we’ll all suffer for it—are you listening to me, Gwendolyn?” Bors barked, breaking off from his muttering long enough to stare at her, his eyebrows melding into one.
Long practice made Lynn immune from even jumping. “Yes, Father,” she said dully.
“Good. Now … where was I …”
Lynn just sighed below her breath as she added a few more stitches into the surcoat.
Mairwen gave herself a week of asking around, trading gossip, and loudly complaining to Elaine how she could not figure out whom Tommy was chasing. She even had asked that pale, silent blonde girl – Gwendolyn de Ganis – if she had any idea; Mairwen had a vague idea in her head that she and Tommy had been childhood friends or some such nonsense. But the girl had only stammered out a negative, so even that lead had turned up empty.
Now it was time for drastic measures.
She waited until she had waved her brothers across the drawbridge on a minor hunting expedition—and given her tame great-aunt a whole list of distractions to keep her off her back for the afternoon—then she wandered over to the archery range, at this time of the afternoon likely to be inhabited only by the squires, and leaned against the fence. She had a trick—one that she was careful never to share with any other maiden—of leaning at just the right angle, so that her bust attracted a good amount of attention … she said nothing, like a proper young lady should, and waited to be noticed.
The first to look behind him was Sir William—he nudged Thomas, standing next to him, jerking his dark head in her direction. Thomas turned around, saw her, scowled and deliberately picked up his bow.
“What’s with you two?” Dai wondered aloud—Mairwen grinned. Perfect. He also looked, just as Mairwen had planned—and she waved to him.
“Dai!” she called out. “Just the person I wanted to see!”
Dai looked around and pointed to himself, as if to ask, Who, me? Mairwen giggled. “Oh, silly Dai … you must have known that I would come looking for you as soon as Andras, Einion and Padrig would be gone for the day.”
“I did?” Dai wondered. Mairwen leaned her cheek on her arm and smiled alluringly at him. A change came over him—his eyes became unfocused for a moment, then fixed on her with even greater intensity, yet there was a dullness to them. “I did!”
Thomas looked over his shoulder—he laughed. “Have fun, Dai.”
Mairwen narrowed her eyes, but she turned back to Dai all smiles. She gently crooked one finger, beckoning him closer. As if hypnotized, Dai came.
Out of the corner of her eyes she saw Will look at her curiously—but her entire attention was fixated on Dai. She tilted her head so her hair fell around her face in luxurious, lazy waves. “So …” she murmured, hooking her finger into Dai’s shirt and pulling him a little closer—he came willingly, if a little stumblingly. “What should we do with our afternoon?”
Dai licked his lips and swallowed, hard. “Wh—what do you want to do?”
Mairwen pretended to gasp, pressing a hand gently to her mouth. “Oh, Dai, Dai, Dai—don’t ever ask a lady that, it’s not proper!”
Dai seemed to awaken—almost—from his near-stupor. “You—you want to do something not proper?”
Mairwen pretended to gasp again, then ducked her head, a most becoming maidenly blush appearing on her cheeks—her jade-green eyes peeked up in a coy manner. “Really, Dai, not in public, you’re embarrassing me …”
The short, blonde one—Elaine’s brother Ben—stared. “What’s up with her? And what’s wrong with Dai?”
“Don’t get too close,” Will murmured, almost too low for Mairwen to hear.
Ben looked at him incredulously. “What?”
“Don’t get too close—to her. I …” He gave a searching stare. “I—don’t know what she’s doing—but stay away.”
Ben looked from Will to Mairwen to Dai, and then back again. He nudged Tommy. “Hey—Will’s being strange—what’s up with those two?”
“With who?” Tommy asked. Ben gestured to Dai and Mairwen. Tommy glanced over, quickly and without interest, before shrugging. “Heaven only knows.” Without any more emotion, he lifted his bow and calmly shot.
Mairwen narrowed her eyes, blowing out a forceful breath—then turned back to Dai with a simpering smile. She began to toy with his ash-brown bangs; she saw his eyes fixing on her hand. Mairwen’s smile took on a predatory curve, but in an instant it was flirtatious again. “You know … you mentioned that you had a new horse you wanted to show me … in the stables …”
“Stables?” Dai murmured, clearly puzzled. Mairwen rolled her eyes inwardly. Come on, get it already! His olive-hazel eyes widened. “The—the stables?”
“Where else would you keep a horse?” Mairwen teased. Dai licked his lips. “And of course … I always love the … smell of hay …” She leaned seductively closer, to his ear, carefully keying her whisper so Tommy could hear it, “You know … when I was little I used to … play in it …”
She did not bother to watch what Dai’s response to that would be—she knew the routine so well. Instead, she stared beyond him, at Tommy … she had the satisfaction of seeing him stiffen, but it only lasted until she realized he was not looking at her—he was looking at—something else …
Mairwen’s head snapped in the direction Tommy’s had been staring in—but there was no one she could see. Yet Tommy was muttering an excuse—dropping his precious bow, wandering over to the fence and hopping over—walking quickly away.
Mairwen narrowed her eyes—she felt Dai twitch, heard him say quietly, “Stables? You said something about the stables?”
She fixed him with a withering glance—one that held no pity as she took in the lusting, hypnotized eyes. She had seen it too often before … she stepped away from him, tossing her head imperiously. Dai blinked, as if he was waking up from a long nap. “Stables? Why would I want to go to the stables? It’s messy and dirty and it stinks.”
With that she turned and angrily flounced off.
Lynn spun around quickly—with a quick gasp. “T-Tommy.”
He gave a smile, not the usual charming grin, but something softer, gentler. She wrung her hands as she noticed—with something that felt like disappointment—how he leaned against the trunk of one of the trees, not even attempting to come too near. So Lynn came closer. She told herself that it was to get under the shade of the tree; the last thing she needed was a ruined complexion.
Tommy raised his eyebrows, but it was only for a moment—he rather forcefully stuck his hands in his pockets. “I’ve—been meaning to talk to you. Only …” He frowned. “It wasn’t the sort of conversation we could have when your father was around.”
“Oh.” Lynn murmured. She stared at the ground.
“You know—last week—in the solarium …” Tommy stared to gnaw on one thumbnail. “Is it—me?”
Lynn’s head snapped back up, her eyes wide and very round. “Oh, no! No, it’s nothing to you with you! I mean—if there’s anyone that I—well—it’s you, Tommy.”
“Good—I didn’t think so.” His cocky grin would make anyone think that he was only telling the truth—except—Lynn could see that he had relaxed a good deal. But in an instant he was tense again, frowning even. “But if it’s not me—then what is it?”
She turned her back to him and muttered to the ground, “What do you think?”
“Your father?” She thought there was bitterness in his tone.
“No—well, yes, he is part of it, but—there’s more than that.” She shifted uncomfortably. “A proper maid can’t—dally with the young men—sully her reputation—she has to be careful, else no one would ever consider her as a wife—”
“Lynn—you’re about the only maid I know who even tries to live by that—everyone else just tries to be discreet—look at Mairwen, even with the way she acts I’m willing to bet serious money that Daddy still has to deal with a line of suitors—the hut can probably only fit them one at a time.”
Lynn gave a small chuckle, but she shook her head. “Mairwen is different … she’s legitimate, and her father … well, her father is willing to give a big dowry …”
Tommy was quiet for a long moment. “So this is about your father.”
“He—he is always going on about how hard it’s going to be to get me married off …”
“He’s an idiot,” Tommy said with force. “If he’d ever bothered to take a look at you he’d realize that there ought to be men lining up to have a crack at your hand—if he wasn’t such a—” She heard his footsteps crunching forward, stiffened involuntarily when his hands came from behind and pulled her close to him—but almost instantly she found herself relaxing against him …
Tommy sighed into her hair, his warm breath brushing the back of her neck like a caress … Lynn was almost content to melt into his arms, but Tommy suddenly brought his lips closer to her neck—wait a minute, he wasn’t kissing her, he was sniffing … “You smell nice—like roses or something—does Father dearest let you use perfume—what?” he asked, when she went stiff.
Lynn swallowed. “You—you won’t—tell?”
“My father—he doesn’t know that I have this—”
“He doesn’t? Then how did you get it?”
Lynn looked at the ground. “I … saved up for it … you remember how, at the spring faire, there’s a perfume stall?”
“Um—vaguely,” Tommy admitted.
“Well—there is one—I first saw it when we were nine—and I liked this perfume—so I saved the pocket-money the Queen gave me … I kept saving, until last year … I had enough to buy a small vial.” But she frowned, rubbing the side of her neck. “And … well, this was the last of it, so I’m glad you liked it.”
“You used the last of it?” Tommy asked.
Lynn stiffened—there were footsteps crunching through one of the other gardens, coming closer—of one mind she and Tommy pulled apart, each going in the opposite direction, and were in different gardens before the owners of the two approaching pairs of footsteps came crunching into the garden.
“The—the—oh! I can’t believe him!”
“Well, Mairwen,” Elaine said reassuringly as she and her friend walked into the newly deserted garden, “if Thomas is too cocksure to realize that you’re not going to wait forever for him to calm down and come back to you—it’s probably better that you found out now, and not like, after he already got your father’s approval to marry you.”
“He’s not just being stubborn! He—I was flirting with Dai, practically saying that I’d—that I’d—well, you know, with him, and what does the fool do? He doesn’t even bother to pay attention! And then he actually walks away!”
“Maybe he was just trying to conceal how angry and jealous he really was—”
“Tommy? Conceal? The git couldn’t conceal a—a needle in a haystack! He should have been jumping on Dai and fighting him for daring to dally with his lady—”
Elaine blinked. “Well, that’s hardly fair on Dai, is it?”
“If he wouldn’t have wanted to get jumped on, he wouldn’t have been flirting back with me—”
Elaine shook her head. “No—he couldn’t help himself.”
Mairwen stopped in her raging for a moment—stared at her friend curiously. “What do you mean? Does Dai …?”
“Not that I know,” Elaine replied with a shrug. “But men can never resist you when you want them to respond—except Thomas. Haven’t you ever noticed that?” Elaine shivered and crossed herself. “It’s almost—uncanny …”
Mairwen shook her head. “No—I never noticed that—it must be coincidence, Elaine.” With as little effort as it would take her to brush a speck of dirt from her sleeve, Mairwen had brushed the matter from her mind. She clenched her fists and hissed as her anger at Thomas came trooping back in full force.
“Mairwen? Are you all right?” Elaine asked, concerned.
“No—I just can’t—ugh! Who does he think he is?”
Elaine paused. “He is the king’s son …”
“A bastard son! His mother was a commoner! I can trace my lineage on both sides to men who ruled Britain since—before the Romans came!”
“Hush, Mairwen,” Elaine said quickly, looking around her nervously. “Someone will hear—you don’t want word getting back to your brothers about Thomas …”
Mairwen almost had a sharp retort—but she stopped, her eyes suddenly shining. “My … my brothers …”
“Yes—your brothers. You know they’d be frightfully upset if—” Elaine stopped. “Mairwen—wait—you aren’t …?”
“Oh, yes,” Mairwen said ominously—a cruel smile slowly spread across her face. “Oh, yes—I am.”