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And to Tilt with Lips

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. . .This is no world/
To play with mammets and to tilt with lips

- Hotspur, H4.1.II.iii.

Kate Percy had learned, from much experience and intensive practice, when to float along with the force of her husband's conversational torrents, when to block them off, and when to channel their energies in a more productive direction. So when he stood in front of the mirror, examining the line of his doublet, and started ranting about the Prince of Wales, she decided, for the moment, to let his eloquence flow.

"It might shock you to learn, Kate," Percy was saying to his reflection, "but Hal was once considered a very promising young man."

"And why would this shock me, Harry?" Kate emphasized his given name the way he liked to say hers, almost as though it were an oath. She walked across the bedroom toward him as she spoke, slowly and with shoulders raised in the manner her mother had taught her, to accentuate the neckline of her evening gown. He could watch her approach this way, in the mirror. Provided he took the trouble to look.

"It should shock you because he's such an utter layabout now. I knew him when we were boys, when he was plain old Harry Monmouth and could mount a moving horse as well as any man in the kingdom." Percy pulled at his collar, which sat on his handsome shoulder in a way that was absolutely perfect and, apparently, not at all the way he wanted it. "Damned thing," he muttered, then whirled around, and walked straight into Kate.

"I have it." Kate pretended to fix the collar that didn't need fixing. Turning back to the mirror, he seemed satisfied, and so she said, "I can get your hair, if you like."

There was a curl by his left ear that never quite lay down -- and looked very fetching, as far as she was concerned, but might have kept him another ten minutes if he fancied it looked wrong. This wasn't vanity on his part, Kate had learned, so much as a compulsion to control what he could, and it increased in proportion to whatever might be going on in the world outside his mirror that lay beyond his ability to command.

Percy frowned back toward his reflection, and wet his fingers with his tongue to rub them through his hair. This only created chaos where order had been (Kate continued to find it very fetching), driving Percy to swear at his image, pivot back toward his wife, and demand, "Why in the devil's very name are we talking about Harry Monmouth?"

Kate put her hands on Percy's cheeks, pulled his face toward her, and kissed his forehead. "We are not talking about Prince Hal. You were talking about him for the same reason you ever talk of anything. Because you thought of it and, while other gentlemen of the court measure their thoughts and carefully weigh their speech, whatever flits through my Harry's mind --" She accentuated the next with a playful pat to his new-shaven cheeks on each word "-- must - needs - come - out - of - his - mouth."

At this, Percy pulled back from Kate, met her eyes, and opened his mouth, then shut it, then again, as though to prove to her he could contain his speech. This was needless, because Kate knew he was occasionally capable of silence. He was only proving how much effort it required.

"As for why you are thinking of Hal in particular," Kate said, "it's because on the chance that he actually shows his face at the King's banquet tonight, the bored and curious population of this court would like nothing better than for the two of you to come to blows. And because you are trying to convince yourself that would be a very bad idea."

"My wife is trying to convince me," he said with a scowl, "because she does not believe I can look after myself."

"Your wife," Kate answered, "needs no lecture on Harry Monmouth's history, and furthermore could not be shocked by anything concerning the man. To be shocked she would need to have given him more than two thoughts in the past year. Do not look so surprised. Tales of dissipation and vice don't hold such attraction for ladies as you men seem to believe. Besides. Your Kate has her own Harry to worry about, and that worry is worry enough." She placed her hands on his neck again and tilted his head forward, but this time, she brought her lips to meet his lips. The first touch was brief, but then he moved his head back to look at her better, and (finally!) his eyes drifted down to her breasts, her bodice, the waist that hardly showed a sign she had borne a son less than two years before.

"It may be," he said in a husky voice, "that your Harry has more important things to worry him as well."

"It may." Kate tried to speak gravely, but laughter bubbled up in her throat of its own accord, as Percy's hands moved to her sides, as his kisses came longer and deeper. So much for the doublet, she thought. So much for the collar, his ridiculous hair, and all the work on her skirts and bodice. It would all end up in a heap on the floor as he took her to bed. Afterward, they would rush to reassemble themselves, stagger into the banquet late with Percy's collar undone and his hair in disarray. King Henry would frown (what was new there?), Kate and Percy's fathers would frown because the king was frowning, Kate's brother Edmund (Harry's bosom friend) would fidget, and Hal -- what would Hal with his Eastcheap dissipation think then?

Not that Kate was thinking about Prince Hal.

Percy pulled out of the kiss so abruptly it took Kate a moment to realize he had done so. "We can take this up later," he said with a sigh. "But if we must make an appearance for this hateful ceremony, I suppose we must." He gave her such a smile, then, that she realised he must be doing what he thought she wanted, as though she had any more appetite for the court and its tedious displays of pomp than he did.

"Of course," Kate said, smoothing down her dress. Because even if he only thought he was doing what she wanted, the effort deserved encouragement. Besides, Percy was correct that they needed to make an appearance and, in spite of Kate's fantasies, it needed to be a proper one. "Please, Harry, try not to start a fight with Hal. Everyone knows how far you'd outmatch him, and it would be awkward if you killed the heir apparent."

"You never know," Percy answered. "The way things stand between Hal and his father, the King might reward me with a dukedom."

"Let's not risk it." Kate offered him another kiss, which she generously allowed him to extend. It was a comfort, at least, that he wanted this evening over as much as she did.

*

Whatever might happen between them, Kate could never say that she hadn't known exactly what sort of man she had agreed to marry. As long as she could remember, Harry Percy had been part of her elder brother's games, one of the boys who started playing with wooden swords and imaginary horses as soon they could walk. Her first encounter with Harry had involved the boy tearing around a corner, running square into her, and, before tearing off again, babbling out an apology that was at once loquacious and incomprehensible. He spoke English faster than anyone she'd ever met -- a habit he had never grown out of. He also ran faster, rode better, trained the best dogs, stood a head taller, and could defeat any of the boys in their self-made war games with embarrassing ease.

As they grew into their teen years and the boys aged into real swords, the games that Kate had stolen glances of on her way to some more decorous activity metamorphosed into a more organised attempt to catch the eye of the ladies. The young men began dedicating their feats of strength to some maiden of their choice, and Kate watched as her sisters and cousins, one by one, succumbed to the flattery. She didn't. A youth or two attempted, in the way of courtly love, to declare that his deeds were done in the name of Katherine Mortimer; once, she even had to endure a ballad sung (badly) in praise of her charms.

Inevitably, though, Kate's icy smile and terse statements of gratitude discouraged repeat offenses, and the other girls began to tease her about why she bothered to attend at all. Kate only smiled and silently noted that Percy never dedicated his (inevitable) victories in any direction save the honour of the Percy name. Except once, in the same tournament in which his dazzling equestrian skills (and not, as some rumours would have it, his proclivity for temper tantrums) earned him the nickname "Harry Hotspur." That time he had, at Edmund's insistence that he observe the solemnity of the moment, dedicated his triumph to his favorite horse. Kate had laughed for hours about that.

But she only laughed in private.

Kate would never have admitted that her interest in the tournaments was tied to the one man who showed so little regard for any woman's attention. First, because it was none of anyone else's business. Also, though, and much more basically, Kate knew that expressing such an attachment would make no real difference. Kate had seen too many girls who dreamed of dashing knights, to be matched instead with old men. She had witnessed their tears and heartaches, had even comforted them from time to time, while all the while saying to herself that her expectations would remain sensible. She would do what her father and her family needed, make no fuss about it, and certainly never lie crying in a younger girl's arms because the man she was engaged to marry -- who was, after all, the Earl of Somesuch and so an excellent prospect for future advancement of the woman and her children -- had a fat belly or a white beard.

Kate took pride in being realistic about her marriage prospects. Of course, from a practical viewpoint, those prospects were very good. As the granddaughter of Lionel of Antwerp and the sister of Edmund Mortimer -- who, during the reign of Richard II, seemed the most likely candidate to inherit the throne in the absence of direct heirs -- her connections were fine indeed. She also knew that she was not a great beauty, but she took care with her appearance and was considered acceptably pretty. She was an active and healthy girl, and her mother had borne a good number of children (including strong boys like Edmund), without losing her health or her looks. These were all desirable qualities in a wife, and if Kate had been known to speak her mind more than her cousins, she believed she was seen as practical, rather than willful, and this reputation was likely to dissuade any man who thought he could bully her. Those were the considerations Kate Mortimer kept in mind as she prepared herself for marriage. Not anything so foolish as imagining herself in love.

So it was with genuine shock (and a bit of well-concealed elation) that Kate began to digest the rumours flying around court, as her sixteenth birthday approached, that her father was arranging a marriage to Harry Percy. The arrangements were well in order by the time the old Earl thought to mention it to his daughter. "Whatever you think best, sir," Kate said, with such a show of duty and deference that her father rephrased the question several times to make sure she was really consenting so easily.

She saved her real excitement until she was alone in her chambers. The news seemed too good to believe; she had resigned herself so thoroughly to the possibility of being matched with an unappealing stranger that the idea of a young man she knew -- a man she liked, in her private thoughts, better than any other -- took some adjustment. After all, though -- someone had to marry the handsome young men. Why not Kate Mortimer? In the privacy of her room, she might even have been heard to sing to herself; Kate would have insisted that anyone who thought they heard such a thing must be mistaken.

The giddy-anticipation period of the engagement eventually gave way to practicalities, including a tiring journey to his father's castle in Northumberland. This seemed slightly odd, because she had always known the Percys at court in London, where she had spent most of her life. Harry had gone off a few years before, to be a soldier in some capacity that she didn't quite understand. Until the current Irish campaign -- which Percy was evidently not part of, since he was in the north of England -- there had been few wars during Richard's reign. She had heard her relatives complaining about how the King squandered his resources on peace rather than on fighting; why this was supposed to be bad was another thing Kate did not understand.

Later, she would realize the significance of these pieces of information, but at the time, the journey seemed like a fitting part of her new life. She was still only a girl.

After arriving at his father's home, Kate had only had a short time to prepare to meet her fiancé apparent alone, but she took extra care in the preparation. Pinching her cheeks and regarding herself in the glass, she thought that she looked uncommonly well. Despite her weariness from travel, the glow of youthful love might even have elevated her from "pretty enough" to a genuine beauty.

Percy looked even better than she had remembered or imagined. He was approaching twenty years of age, and had put on several inches of height and quite a bit of muscle from the teenaged boy she had last seen. His formal attire also fit him well, though he moved in a way that suggested he'd had to be squeezed into it. The slight discomfort suited him, and Kate was entirely ready to be won over.

Until Percy opened his mouth. "Well then, Kate, my father has spoken to your father." The words came out in a near-mumbled rush. "And I'm given to understand your father has spoken to you. If that's all in order, you're a sensible girl, and everybody seems to agree it's a good match, so whenever you're ready we can get everything in order. Do you think?"

She stared at him for a long moment, flashing suddenly back to the memory of a ten-year-old boy running into her and babbling out an apology. If anything, Percy looked more embarrassed, now; maybe because he didn't see any prospect of running away when he was done.

When they were children, it had been endearing. Now. . .well, Kate hadn't traveled across an entire country and put on her best clothes -- she hadn't let herself be happy so she could watch a so-called gentleman behave like a dirty-faced boy. "What are you saying to me?"

He lowered his eyes and raised a hand to the back of his neck. "Your father didn't talk to you?"

"Yes!" Kate stamped her foot. "Of course he did. Do you think I rode across the bloody kingdom for a holiday?"

His eyes widened a bit when she swore, but Kate was too worked up to care.

"Do you not want to marry me?" he demanded.

"That depends. Do you not want to ask me properly?"

"Dammit!" Percy turned and punched into the wall, which was stone and had the predictable effect on his fist. To his credit, he didn't cry out too much, just winced and clutched his fingers as he turned back toward Kate. (Kate resisted the instinct to ask him to look at it. She had a feeling she would have plenty of opportunities to fuss over his self-inflicted injuries in the future.) Shaking his knuckles out, Percy said,"I told Edmund you'd be wanting a blasted sonnet. He swore his sister had better sense than that."

"I have got better sense. Thank God I don't have to pretend to be interested in a poem on top of everything. But if you really want to marry me, I'd like for you actually to ask me."

"I just now did!"

Kate decided to bypass the issue of whether an exasperated rhetorical question actually counted as asking. "You could at least pretend it had something to do with you and with me, and not only with our fathers."

Percy stood for a long moment without speaking -- maybe not that long, but it felt like an eternity in the context of Percy. "I don't --" he finally said, "I don't have any idea what to say. I'm not used to talking to women."

She was equally surprised by his apparent honesty and by how abject he looked. This is hard for you, Kate thought. And you're not used to doing things that are hard for you. There probably aren't very many of them.

She stepped closer to him, and tried to put more tenderness into her voice as she said, "I'm not women, Harry. I'm Kate. Try talking to me like I'm a person. Like you'd talk to my brother."

"Well, I never tried to marry your brother."

"Pretend you're trying to sell me a horse, then," she snapped.

"I wouldn't sell your brother a horse, either. I mean no disrespect to the Mortimer name, but Edmund is one of the worst riders I know!"

"Harry! I don't want to talk about horses!"

"Oh." he straightened, then, still a bit sullen, tried, "I want to marry you, Kate."

"Why?"

"Should I make something up?"

"Only the truth, Harry. Speak truth and shame the devil."

"You really want to know why I'm proposing?" He looked unsettled by the question, and she was a little surprised she had asked it. She probably shouldn't have asked unless she knew what he would say. But he did try to give her an answer. "It's a good time to do it. Before we go to -- I mean, with the way times are now. It's a good time for a man like me to marry. On top of that -- Edmund says you're a sensible girl, so you'll understand this. If you and I -- it's a sign that your father has faith in my father."

"I'm still waiting for what any of this has to do with me. I'm fairly certain the two earls won't be the ones expected to go to bed --"

Percy's eyes widened again, as they had when she swore. She wondered if he thought she didn't know what went on between married people, or if it simply hadn't been on his mind until she mentioned it. "You're very pretty," he said, and his eyes moved down her body as though he'd just been given permission to notice.

"You could have said that earlier."

Suddenly, she felt his eyes in a way she hadn't before, and for the first time since she'd known him, he spoke clearly and slowly. "I supposed that you knew." Kate felt a blush rise to her cheeks for the first time. He smiled. "This got fun at some point," he said, then laced his fingers through her fingers and pulled her gently toward him. They stood quietly for a moment, as though they were both understanding the reality of what they were agreeing to, and he repeated, "You're very pretty."

"Yes," Kate said, and they both knew what (perhaps, technically, still unasked) question she was answering.

When they left the room, arm in arm, Kate saw the relief in the eyes of both their fathers. At first, she thought their early raised voices had been overheard, and that the men expected she would have refused him. But then she heard old Percy say, "I knew that would go well," in a way that told her he hadn't known it at all, and it crossed her mind for the first time that she might not be the only person who found Harry to be a challenge.

Still. Kate was not one to regret decisions she had made. And, after wrangling a proposal out of the only man she had ever actually wanted to marry, she couldn't begin to feel that this decision was anyone's but hers.

The engagement was short, a matter of weeks -- mercifully and, she later learned, by necessity. The marriage itself was scheduled late in the day, and the circumstances led to plenty of jokes about Harry's hot spur and his short fuse. She supposed some people thought she didn't understand the implications of the jests, but Kate's practicality had extended to the question of the wedding night. While she had no doubt Percy would expect a virgin bride, which she was, she suspected he'd have little use for a blushing, naïve one. She had pressed her older cousins for as much information as they would give -- focusing on the ones who actually seemed to enjoy their husbands' company, and, by extension, their marital duties. She wouldn't have said so, because it wasn't anyone's business, but she was certain she anticipated the wedding night every bit as much as her husband did.

Harry didn't have a short fuse in the bedroom. He took his time with her, and though his body was strong, he was also unabashedly eager to please her, sensitive to what she liked and ready to do it again. While he tired her out, and there was quite a bit of pain, at the end of the night she found herself lying exhausted and satisfied in his arms.

"You really are good at everything," she said.

"Except bloody poetry," he mumbled, nearly unintelligible -- this time not because he was talking fast but because he had his mouth on her earlobe.

"Doesn't count," she assured him, giggling as she pulled away.

"Thank God," he agreed, then sighed. "I'm almost sorry the honeymoon will be over so soon."

She sat up and looked at him, "How soon? Why?"

"No one's said anything for certain -- I'm no politician, Kate, but I saw the earls with their heads together today. The wedding means your father supports my father, and both of them support Bolingbroke."

"Support Bolingbroke in what?"

"Look, Kate, I've said too much. I don't know too much myself. Never mind. Can't we just --?" He started to kiss the top of her breast.

Kate slid her hand under his chin, grabbed his Adam's apple, and lifted his neck away from her. "You are going to tell me what you're talking about," she said, "and if grabbing you by the throat doesn't do the trick, I'm very close to more sensitive areas. You see if I don't take advantage."

"All right!" When Percy finished hacking from where she had choked him, he gave her a look that told her he'd never see her as harmless again. Then, he returned the favor by giving her a political education. It was quick, dirty, peppered with digressions, and filtered through Percy's habit of paying very little attention to things that didn't concern him directly. Nonetheless, she learned more about the divisions and conflicts within the kingdom than it had ever occurred to her to wonder. She learned that King Richard, who she had been taught to honour as God's anointed, stood on one side of the conflict, and her father, brother, and the man she had married stood on another. Kate would always remember that she had lost her innocence on her wedding night in ways that had nothing to do with what her husband had done to her body.

She listened without asking any questions, until he finally drew a breath and she couldn't contain herself any longer. "Are you afraid there will be a war?"

"No!" He answered so quickly that she sighed in relief, until he said, "I'm not afraid. I'm a Percy. I'm only afraid my life will go by without a war in which I can prove myself. What would there be in a world like that, for a man like me?"

It was only because she was so tired, Kate was certain. Only because her body was exhausted, because the act of love had stirred up unaccustomed humours in her. She had seen women who used tears as weapons against their men, and she had looked on such tricks with disdain. But now Kate's body rose up in spite of her wishes, and she wept.

"Kate!" Percy spoke with real alarm. "Kate, I didn't mean -- I'm sorry. I don't know what I said. I'm sorry. I don't know what to do or say or -- I'm sorry." He stroked her hair and kissed her face as he spoke, but she only cried harder.

She never knew which of them was the first to fall asleep.

*

Percy got his war, of course. It was a matter of weeks before he marched off with his father and uncle, to capture the crown for Henry Bolingbroke. At that early date, Kate wasn't yet sure whether she was carrying Harry's child, but she told him that she was.

He crowed in triumph, and lifted her to spin her around; this left her dizzy and a bit sick, in a way that reassured her she had probably made the right guess. She shouldn't have told him as he was readying his horse, because it turned into an occasion for him to run around and brag, exchanging backslaps and, she was sure, vulgarities on the subject of his virility, with his fellow soldiers.

But he came back to her quickly, wrapped his arms around her shoulders and spoke softly in her ear. "This is good news, Kate. This is the best. It's perfect. Thank you," he said, and she giggled at the way he made it sound as though she might have done this for him on her own, without his assistance.

"You were involved a bit."

"I should hope so." He stroked her cheek and teased, "Just behave while I'm gone. And. Speaking in earnest --" His hand moved from her face to touch her belly. "This is good. This is important for the family. And a comfort for you if I don't come home."

She grabbed his wrist, yanking his hand viciously from her stomach, and threw it from her. "You're mad, Harry. The whole damned warmongering lot of you." Kate felt the stupid righteous tears in her eyes again. "You're going to be a father, you foolish man. That's a reason for you to come home. It's not some kind of bloody consolation for your widow."

"Kate! You knew when you married me --"

"Oh, let's not talk about what I knew when I married you."

"What do you want me to say?"

"I want you to promise you'll come home."

"You know I can't promise that."

"Then I hate you."

Percy's tense limbs went slack, and turned away. "My horse!" he called.

He would have walked away with those words, too. Kate was certain. Instead she ran and threw her arms around him. "Just come home," she said.

This time he didn't try to answer.

*

Kate had her baby, in Northumberland, while Harry was winning his war.

 

Her son (called Harry, of course) was healthy and robust. Kate had excellent nurses to attend her, and the doting affection of both her mother and Percy's. She valued their company, valued all of the wives and mothers, daughters and sisters of Bolingbroke's faction. It only bothered her, as the months went on, how little any of them could or would tell her about the actual progress of the conflict. Before the birth, she attributed this reticence to concern for her health. But once the child was with her, once she found herself grouped with her fellow mothers, she discovered they didn't talk about it even among themselves.

"No one knows anything, Kate," sighed Lady Worcester, rocking her own child. She was no older than Kate, but the second wife of Percy's uncle, and so already a countess. Kate counted her a friend, but found her habit of lording over former equals rather tedious. "We are all just as solicitous as you for the safety of our men, but when there is news that is important, we will be told."

Kate's wedding night had given her decided opinions on the importance of information that men chose to share. But she resigned herself to knowing little, and devoted the time to improving her music (she played the harp with no real skill, but it passed the time), to prayer, and to her son. He was truly a lovely boy. Kate believed in motherhood as a virtue and as a vocation. She could see Percy in the baby's features.

Only rarely did she entertain the heretic thought that this small, wordless, mewling creature provided a poor consolation for her husband's company. Some part of the young wife was still a lovestruck girl, and she was not entirely prepared to leave that girl behind her.

But good news came at last. The war was over, Richard had been deposed, the Percys honoured above all others for their support in bringing Henry Bolingbroke to the throne. The women were sent to come back to London, and by the time they arrived, the rumour had reached them that Richard was dead. This had a sobering effect, but it was hard to maintain too much solemnity in the face of all the happy reunions.

Kate pressed young Harry into his father's arms. Percy's delight was so vocal, and so unfeigned, that she pushed her resentment over his talk of consolation out of her mind.

"We won," she said. "It's over."

"Now for the fruits of victory," Percy answered.

She had to keep him from crushing the baby between them as he kissed her.

*

Nothing was over, of course. They were caught up in history, which never really ended until someone put it in a book.

This dawning realization unsettled them in different ways. Kate was ready to view her husband as a conquering hero based on these youthful triumphs, and never have him out of her sight again. But Percy. . .

She teased him, once, that he couldn't wait to be dead to find out what they would say about him in history books, but he seemed to take the jest seriously enough for her not to repeat it. The months went on, and he began to mutter discontentedly about his own role in the war. Richard's side had given up too easily. There had hardly been any proper fighting to speak of. Percy and his father had done a lot of bowing and scraping to Bolingbroke, but there had been little opportunity to earn the true glory the Percy name deserved.

For a while, Kate made sympathetic noises in response to his grumbles. In truth, it was a relief to know that there had been less to the war, at least on her husband's end, than she realized. She only wished someone would have bothered to tell her this at the time, when she was sick with worry.

As time passed, her husband's discontent grew louder and sharper. He would ride off with his men for a week or a month, and return with news of prospective rebellions, vibrating with an impatience that showed how badly he wanted the rumours of war to be truths.

On the night of the King's banquet, Kate was relieved to think that she only had to worry about Percy finding some excuse to issue a challenge to the Prince of Wales.

But her relief was short-lived. The banquet was being held in honour of Archibald, Earl of Douglas, a Scotsman Kate vaguely remembered, the way she remembered both her future husband and the future Prince Hal, as one of her brother's youthful playmates. The occasion seemed as harmless as it was dull, until Percy casually mentioned, on the way to the great hall, that Douglas was likely to be at war with the King's forces within a year.

"I don't imagine it behooves one to ask," Kate said, pulling up short at the news, "why King Henry is having a man who wants to go to war with him over for dinner."

"Diplomacy," Percy spit out, the way a different man might have said, "Syphilis." But as for Douglas, he continued in a much brighter tone, Archie really was an excellent fellow -- a premise that, as expanded by Percy, had something to do with the quality of his horses.

"I will never understand men," Kate muttered.

"I don't see what this has to do with men."

"You wouldn't. Men never do. It's part of what makes you men."

Prince Hal's appearance, at this exact moment, turned out to be a relief. Hal was the problem that Kate had prepared to deal with. "Why it's Lord Hotspur of the North and Lady Firebrand of the West," said the Prince, slurring his words enough that it was clear he'd gotten a start on the evening's libations. "I suppose it's too much to hope that you two are talking about me?"

Percy, predictably, went rigid. "Yes," he said, between clenched teeth.

"So you are talking about me. Splendid." Hal's identity was unmistakable, both from his royal insignia and from Percy's reaction, but Kate was surprised how little she recognized the man. He had been away from court so long that he bore little resemblance to the youth that Kate remembered -- and, in truth, before his father's sudden ascension had transformed Harry Monmouth into a person of interest, she had never found anything particularly noteworthy about him. His face was unremarkable; his form, while strong and tall, was not a spot on Percy's and, as far as Kate could recall, the boy had never had much to say for himself. She certainly didn't remember the playful smile he was now using on Percy.

Playfulness, Hal was about to learn, was not high on the list of her husband's favorite virtues. Percy scowled and tossed his head. "No. We were not talking about you."

"Only in a general sense." Kate amended. Since she had been discussing the incomprehensibility of men as a species, and Hal was doing little to harm her case.

Percy looked slightly betrayed by her contradiction, and so retreated -- or advanced -- into sarcasm. "Oh, yes," he said. "The Prince of Wales is on the tongue of every man and woman at all times."

Hal's eyebrows went up. "I regret to report that my degeneracy is not nearly so advanced as you suppose. Every tongue would be quite an accomplishment. And balancing my degeneracy against my idleness, in all honesty, I don't believe I could achieve it. However," he said, with a look at Kate, "a man of Lord Percy's fortitude, with his reputation for assiduity. Well, Kate. Who knows what heights such a man as your husband could attain. In respect of tongues."

He hit the last word hard, and Kate giggled into her hand. Percy gave her a look, as though to remind her that she was a lady and wasn't supposed to know what Hal meant. "Was that some sort of pun?" he asked Hal in a weary voice. As though puns were the only thing in Christendom worse than diplomacy.

Hal considered before saying, "Metonymy, I think. Or synecdoche. I used to know the difference, but I've done my best to drink enough that I forget everything my Greek tutor put into me."

"Everything --" Percy began, then glanced at Kate. His face turned a little red and he was visibly torn between the jest Hal had left wide open, and the need to pretend that he thought his wife was too much of a lady to hear it.

She didn't like where things were going. "Don't fight." She bit her tongue as she realized that it would only drive him in the wrong direction if she continued by saying, You promised.

Fortunately, Hal cut her off before she could misspeak and said, with a hopeful voice, "Did you make a wager on it?"

"On the two of you fighting? No, I'm afraid --" I wish I'd had that idea, she thought, but adopted a newly proper tone, "I'm a lady of His Majesty's court. I don't know how to wager." She gave Percy a significant look; he rolled his eyes at her -- he'd taught her to play dice on a rainy afternoon in Northumberland, because, he said, he was bored and no one in his father's household could game for a damn -- but didn't give her away. He even relaxed a bit.

"It's very simple," Hal said gravely. "Never bet money. You probably won't pay it back, and you definitely won't get it back. More friendships are lost that way --"

"Marriages, too?"

"Wagers between man and wife are the worst. So -" He leaned close to her, "choose stakes you won't mind paying. And play to lose."

"Oh. My." Kate stroke her neckline and looked Percy in the eye again. She'd grown very fond of dice, in Northumberland. There had been little available, in the way of material possessions, to use as stakes, and the newly married couple had been forced to fall back on their own energy and imagination to provide them. Fortunately they'd had these in abundance.

Percy looked past her, and his eyes settled on Hal. "Admirable rules," he said. "Chapter and verse from the book of Jack Falstaff, I presume."

For a second, Hal looked to be caught off his guard, not expecting to be called on the source of his bon mots. But he channeled his discomfiture into a lazy shrug and said, "Unlike my Greek tutor, fat Jack teaches me things worth remembering."

"Who's Jack Falstaff?" Kate asked.

"No one," said Percy -- as though he hadn't been the one to bring up the name.

Hal's eyebrow went up. "Someone," he said, "whose name is so disreputable, nice wives aren't even allowed to gossip about him in court."

"Remember," said Percy. "This is my wife."

Running out of patience with him, Kate said, "Don't be such a prig, Harry."

It sounded witty in her mind, and cruel when it came out of her mouth. Percy turned his eyes away from her. If Hal hadn't been there, she would have said she was sorry.

Instead, Kate weaved her fingers through her husband's, and pressed her palm against his palm, hoping he'd understand the affection behind the gesture. She nodded at Hal, and said, "Don't fight. I wouldn't want my husband to hurt you."

"Don't fear, my lady," Hal answered. "I have every intention of being too drunk by the end of the night to wield a sword."

Kate ran her eyes pointedly down Hal's body. "Don't follow his example, my love." She lowered her voice, which had the intended effect of getting Hal to lean toward her as she rested her head back against her husband's shoulder. "I intend to have my Harry's sword intact at the end of the night."

"A saucy girl you've got there," said Hal. "I have a feeling she would quite hold her own in any tavern in Eastcheap."

"My wife --" Percy wasn't wearing a sword, but his hand went to his side.

Kate touched his shoulder. "No fighting over me certainly. I'm quite in control of my honour, and besides, it would be cheating on the bet."

"Did we make a bet?"

Hal clapped his hand on Percy's arm. "You need to have a drink! Seeing you this confused while you're sober makes a man weep." He spoke to Percy, but looked at Kate as though it were her decision -- an idea she was happy to encourage.

"Hal, will you keep an eye on him over supper? I need to join my mother and the ladies."

The Prince agreed to be her husband's "chaperon," with an exaggerated show of chivalry. Percy rolled his eyes but didn't make a vocal protest, and that was as well as Kate hoped to do.

As Kate walked away, she felt two pair of eyes burning into her back. She had never learned to flirt -- hadn't wanted to as a girl, and as a married woman, certainly didn't need to engage in any activities that would make her husband harder to manage. Tonight was different, for some reason. She had been worried about him fighting at the banquet, a worry now outpaced by the specter that he had raised so casually of their soon going to war in Scotland. Then Hal had been there, and flirting had given her something to focus on. At least Percy hadn't seemed overly inclined to pick a fight. Maybe the two men could have a drink together and actually talk out whatever differences they had. A novel thought.

Men.

Meanwhile, Kate could do her duty by the other women, and try to discover if anyone else had word of Percy's impending war. Perhaps it would turn out to be the wishful thinking of a restless soldier itching for a shot at glory. Kate longed to discuss the question, but the mothers and aunts wanted to talk about Douglas's fine figure, and his exotic Scottish dress, while the simmering rebellion Harry had spoken of crossed no one's tongue. Kate couldn't raise the matter herself, because she was never entirely clear at any time how much information her husband was supposed to have shared with her. Kate had no desire to discourage Percy's frequent indiscretions. She preferred to know as much as she could about when and by whom her child's father might be killed. The problem was that she had to be exceptionally discreet, lest Percy's loose lips be discovered and punished -- which she did not want for his sake, or for her own.

There were other women, she was certain, who shared her situation, anxious for the future of their sons and husbands, yet unable to speak of their fears. Her own mother she discounted, on the basis of nineteen years of speaking little but platitudes about duty, leaving Kate to discover the truths behind them for herself. Of Percy's mother, Lady Northumberland, Kate was less sure, but tonight, certainly, both matrons wanted only to speak of their grandchild, and to ask circuitous questions regarding the prospective arrival of another. Kate was in no mood to discuss the details of her marital arrangements with either woman at the best of times -- what was she supposed to say? "We've been at it constantly since he got back from Wales, I'm sure it's only a matter of time"? -- and she certainly didn't feel like it tonight. Even if they had known the details of an impending war, she doubted they could see it as she did. They were the wives of men who had survived the skirmishes of youth, the mothers of sons who had grown to adulthood. She had no doubt they loved their men, but they had a false complacency born of fortunate experience, which gave no consolation to Kate. You believe because your men have always triumphed that they always will. No, she wouldn't fall into such a deception. Scanning the crowd, she thought, If I'm to learn anything, I must ask a widow, not a wife.

Her gaze fell on the dowager Duchess of York. Newly out of mourning for her husband, the lady had accompanied her unmarried son, the former Earl of Aumerle, who now held the title of Duke. A son who, if rumour and Percy had informed Kate correctly, should have been declared a traitor to Henry's throne, and owed the mercy he had gained largely to his mother's pleading. If the Duke knew anything about impending wars, the Duchess would know as well.

As the evening's meal was being cleared, Kate approached the older woman with a warm smile and a curtsy. "Lady York, it is so lovely to have you among us once again."

The Duchess returned her courtliness with a smile that promised genuine warmth. "Kate," she said, taking her by both hands. "What a woman you have become. How fares your young Harry? I hope he's not getting into too much mischief."

"Well you might ask. I left him with the Prince, so they could be up to anything." This was a gambit on Kate's part-- she knew the lady meant to ask after little Harry -- but Kate couldn't stop herself from glancing to where she'd left Percy and Hal. The look told her nothing, though, and she turned back to the Duchess with a laugh. "But I suppose you mean the small one."

"Yes," Lady York answered, but now her eyes were fixed on the men's side of the room. Perhaps she was seeking out her own son.

"He's quite lively," Kate said, then made the obligatory and preemptive joke. "Yet he's so well-behaved no one quite believes he's Percy's. I expect I'll spend tomorrow with him. In the gardens, if the weather is nice." She hadn't formed the intent until she said it, but it seemed like a good resolution. It was the sort of thing she meant to do, more often than she did. The nurses took excellent care of the boy, and he always seemed relieved to return to them. Certainly, if she followed through on her intent more often, the attachment he felt to her would grow.

The Duchess turned slowly back to Kate and said, "Children are a blessing," although she said it in a voice that suggested the question might still be undecided.

For an instant, Kate feared that the conversation would once again turn to her own child-bearing future. So she placed her hand on the Duchess's arm, nudging her a little toward the edge of the crowd and said in a low voice. "Have you heard anything about this man Douglas?" The older woman frowned but offered no other answer. Kate prompted. "About a possible rebellion, I mean. That he might take the Scots to war against King Henry."

"I understood your meaning at once," said the Duchess, the warmth gone from her voice in an instant. "I was only considering that my son was correct when he said the King ought to fashion a muzzle for your boy. And I don't mean the small one."

"Why?" Kate felt her heart rate rising, as her grip on the Duchess's arm tightened. "Because my husband speaks the truth to me, then he should forcibly be silenced? As though I were a helpless child with no standing, and no right to know of things that could harm my family?"

The Duchess lifted Kate's hand from her arm and dropped it to her side. Her voice remained quiet, but there was no mistaking the force with which she said, "In respect to such matters, you are a helpless child. And your husband is worse than a helpless child, because he is a reckless one. He does not govern himself."

"This came from your son?" Kate's voice rose with her heartbeat. She didn't care who heard her now, she hoped everyone did. "Your son? Traitor to Henry and old Richard's. . ." Kate tried to summon the words for what she had heard that Aumerle had been to Richard. "Richard's pet? He questions whether my husband can govern himself?"

The Duchess answered in a calm tone -- full-voiced, but not as loud as Kate had been -- but the color in her cheek and the twitching of her hand told a different story. "Everyone in this court questions Percy's ability to govern himself. Few might say so to you, because Percys and Mortimers are in favour here, as I well know my family is not. But one day, you or your Harry will cross someone whose displeasure is reckoned of greater consequence than mine."

Kate stepped back, the blood still rushing in her ears. "I only asked a question," she said, and then, a note of pleading tainting her anger, "I thought you were my friend."

"More the fool you, then," the Duchess said, and turned her back.

Kate understood, for the first time, something about men and their continual throwing of gauntlets and issuing of challenges. But all she could do was face the curious eyes of the women around them, and fume, "Where is Percy?" Kate didn't wait for an answer, but strode away, across the room, not daring to look behind her.

It was Hal who signaled to her, with a desultory wave. Percy was standing next to him again (or was it still?). Kate kissed his cheek, which smelled like liquor. "Ready to call it an evening, darling?"

Hal leaned in toward them, nearly between them. "Did you just fight with the Duchess of York and then storm off?"

"No," she answered reflexively, then, guessing from Hal's look that he would be happier if she had (and that he'd seen everything anyway), she straightened her back and said, "Yes. I told her that her son is a bloody traitor."

"He is," Percy said. "I saw it all. I was in an audience with Bolingbroke -- with the King -- when old Aumerle came charging in, looking like a madman, to tell tales on his confederates and beg for mercy." Heads turned around them during this speech. York wasn't among them, but some of his friends must be, and this was how gauntlets ended up getting thrown. Kate had no doubt every work her husband spoke was true, but that was hardly the point. "After that I heard --"

She twisted Percy's hand back, to shut him up. "She also said that you have a loud mouth, and they ought to put a muzzle on you!"

At this, Hal launched into a coughing fit -- a pretense he quickly abandoned in favor of out-and-out laughter.

Percy pulled his hand free, shook it out, and gave a baleful look that encompassed Kate, Hal, and the court in general. "I hate it here."

"I believe that constitutes a consensus of the three of us," said Hal.

"I don't hate it here," Kate said. "How could I? I never go anywhere else."

"All the more reason. I've paid my fealty to the King, and his treasury. I'm more than ready to leave, and my carriage certainly seats two more. Join me?"

"We should go to Eastcheap?" Kate demanded, surprised how her heart began to race at the thought.

"Despite what you may have heard, Kate, I don't actually live in a tavern. I have my own rooms. Respectable, even."

Percy shrugged, and looked at Kate. "Any place but here. I wager no one will even notice."

"Oh, everyone will notice." Hal said. "But a bit of scandal could be just the spice your reputation needs." Hal looked to Kate, who realized that it was going to be her decision.

"Let's go," she said, surprised again at the thrill she got from the idea, then nudged Percy. "Who knows? You and I might reform the wayward Prince, and then you would deserve a dukedom."

Percy put an arm over her shoulder, and said -- rather less discreetly than he probably thought -- "Though I rather hoped I was going to have some time with my wife tonight."

Hal muttered something that might have been, "Please, don't rule that out." She decided not to think about what he meant by that.

As they made their way into the carriage, it became apparent that Percy was quite drunk -- while Hal, who helped him in after Kate, and got in after him, was suspiciously sure footed.

"Why are you drunker than he is?" she asked her husband. Then, deciding she should direct the question to the guilty party, leaned over Percy and asked Hal, "Why is he drunker than you are? And yes, before you turn that shrug into an excuse, I think you are about as innocent as you look." She didn't quite have her mind around why the Prince would care if Percy was drunk, or where his sudden impulse for camaraderie had come from. Maybe he was just that bored. What did men do if they weren't constantly preparing to go to war with each other, anyway?

"Now, Kate," Percy cradled her neck with his hand. "Hal did keep pouring me drinks, and I'll confess that I took a few. But can you cast blame my way? Would you want me to walk into that nest of vipers sober?"

"And can you blame me?" Hal asked. "Putting something in his mouth was the only way I could think of to shut him up."

"I've found other ways," Kate laughed, and, with Percy's active encouragement stopped his mouth with a kiss. He tasted like strong liquor, and by the time they finished, Percy's hand was halfway down her bodice.

Kate lifted her head, and Hal's eyes were on them. "Maybe I should have tried that," he said.

"If you like. . ." Feeling a kick of spirit -- maybe she was drunk off Percy's breath -- she leaned her body all the way over Percy's and pecked Hal quickly on the lips. Underneath her, Percy's chest shook with laughter.

"That's not what he meant," Percy gasped out. "He didn't mean you."

"Oh." Kate sat back, starting to understand, thinking for the second time tonight of the whispers she'd heard about Richard and Aumerle. "Oh. Well. Don't let me get in the way."

Percy gave her a look and then, either satisfied that she'd given her permission or deciding not to care, leaned in and kissed Hal. Not a short touch, like Kate had given the Prince, but a long, deep kiss. His hand was still on Kate's breast; his fingers traced her nipple as he continued. It was odd. Of course, she had thought about Percy kissing other women -- she knew he must have when he was young, that it wasn't unlikely he still did, in the long months they were apart -- but this was a new idea. Perhaps she had been more naïve that she supposed, but she felt no great desire to stay that way.

When the kiss finished, both men looked at her. A glint of green flashed in Hal's deep amber eyes, and he said, "Poor Kate. Don't be lonely." Kate laughed, then gave him a long kiss of her own. She had never kissed a man besides her husband before and, while it wasn't exactly the same as kissing Percy, it wasn't entirely different.

"We were supposed to be reforming you," Kate gasped, as she pulled away from Hal's mouth. "Now here I am, letting you corrupt my husband."

"Corrupt this one?" Hal lifted Percy's chin and kissed under his throat. "That's an odd thought. There was a rumour -- when we were younger, of course -- Percy used to try and order his mates to bugger him before a joust, because he heard that was what Achilles used to do with Hector."

"Not Hector," said Percy. "Patroclus. And I never said such a thing." It occurred to Kate that the first part of the statement contradicted the second, but she put the question aside for later. Whatever her husband might have gotten up to when he was younger, he was clearly enjoying himself now.

"Why is it," Hal asked Percy, "that the only time you care about knowing your Greeks is when there's fighting or fucking involved?"

"To be fair," Kate said, "that's the only time he cares about anything." And then, enjoying the sound of the words, she repeated, "Fighting or fucking."

Percy stroked her throat and looked down into her eyes. "So which are we all doing tonight?"

"How far to your apartments, Hal?" Kate asked. "Because I can't get this dress off in here."

Hal looked as though he might want to dispute her statement, with copious evidence gleaned from experience. But, it turned out, they weren't that far from his rooms at all.

Hal practically hauled both of them out of the carriage, and called out some instructions to the coachman, before leading Kate and Percy into the courtyard.

"What must he think?" Kate murmured, looking back at the driver.

"This isn't the worst thing he's caught me doing," Hal said, matter-of-factly, then raised an eyebrow. "What? I've earned my reputation. Better than your husband has, I wager. Percy, how many men have you actually killed with your bare hands? Before breakfast, I mean. On a single day."

Hal was working the lock to his rooms as he spoke. Kate swatted his arm. "Percy has no such reputation," she said, trying to act playful, but genuinely unhappy at this allusion to the business of war.

"There was one morning in Gloucestershire. . ." Percy said.

Kate whirled on him. "Don't! I won't stand here and listen to you trying to defend your reputation as a murderer."

"A soldier isn't a murderer. I fight for the King!".

"All right," Hal said. "We're not starting this, for any number of reasons." Hal had the door open, took each of the Percys by an arm, and pulled them toward it. "We decided against fighting, remember? We chose the other option."

Percy looked down at Kate, questioningly. She breathed deeply, then nodded. He put his hands on her waist, pulled her into a kiss, then took her in his arms and carried her over the threshold.

Kate would remember the next hour as a blur, and a happy one. Percy lay her down across Hal's bed, and then two pairs of hands undressed her, taking time sliding over her breasts, and between her legs. Two mouths kissed up and down her body. Then she watched, and laughed, as they undressed each other, pushing their forms close together. Then both lay down on either side of her (and on top, and under), in a tangle of limbs. She didn't think about what it meant to them. She barely thought about what it meant to her, and after a while she closed her eyes and didn't even think about whose mouth or hands was on her, whose prick she was touching. Kate didn't think at all, and after the noise and the intrigue of the court, after the worries about gauntlets and armies, she had never needed such relief from thought in her life.

They only stopped when Percy fell asleep. Between the alcohol and the exertion she was surprised he wasn't done for sooner, but still she giggled and shook her head at Hal as they listened to his breathing slow down.

"It took a long time," the Prince said, "but we did get him quiet."

"Not for long. He talks in his sleep like you'd hardly believe. Usually to his horse."

"Now that I would believe." He glanced at Kate. "Are you tired?"

"I'm finished, Your Grace, but thank you."

"No, I meant --" Hal pointed to his outer room, and made a gesture to indicate drinking from a glass. She nodded. Hal pulled on his clothes; she donned her slip and followed him into the outer room.

The bedroom door closed behind them, Hal pulled out two glasses and a bottle of some golden liquid.

Kate watched him pour, then took the glass from his hand and asked, carefully, "What do you know about Scotland?"

Hal's brow furrowed. "It's. . . north of here, I think?"

She wet her fingers in the glass and flicked a bit of liquid toward him. "I'm not joking. Percy tells me that Douglas may be planning a rebellion, and there may be a war, and he'll have to go to Scotland."

Looking fully serious for the first time, Hal said, "I haven't been invited to many war councils lately. Or, in point of fact, ever. But that sounds premature."

"Oh, good," Kate sighed in relief, and drank. She tasted something strong and bitter, but managed not to gasp. Smiling, she said. "Percy does go on about things."

"Yes, the old lady's right about that." He ran a finger around the rim of his glass, and laughed. "Get Hotspur a muzzle. I'll have to tell Poins that one."

"That's not funny." Hal looked up. "I mean it. People can't be saying such things about Percy. They aren't saying that, are they, behind our backs?"

"The Duchess of York said it to your face. What do you think they're saying behind your backs? Because I can guarantee you it's worse."

"Percy's hardly at his best at court. It hurts his pride to have to spend so much time among false people."

"And it hurts his liver to drink as much aquavit as he had tonight, I've no doubt."

"You're a fine one to talk about someone else getting drunk." Suddenly her hand clenched around the glass, and she remembered how nimble Hal had been getting into the coach. Kate stepped closer, and a good look at the Prince's face confirmed her suspicion. "You're perfectly sober. You have been all night."

Hal shrugged, then did a perfect imitation of Percy. "Would you want me to walk into that nest of vipers drunk?"

Kate slapped his face.

"Oww!" Hal stared at her. "What was that for?"

"What sport are you having with us? Did you want him in your bed that badly?"

"No." Hal glanced toward the bedroom. "That was -- well, it was collateral. That was for fun. Which, I think you'd agree --"

"It was fun," Kate snapped, annoyed that it was true. "That isn't the point. You played the carefree drunk to get something out of Percy and if it wasn't information -- since I'm sure you have better sources -- and it wasn't sex - because that's only collateral. . ."

"Would 'friendship' be too much to believe?"

"It would, since it's clear you don't even like him."

"I like him a good deal." His eyes flitted to the bedroom door and back. "I'm a bit surprised to find you do."

"He's my husband."

Hal laughed. "And Henry Bolingbroke's my father, and if were to be kidnapped and gutted by Barbary pirates, he's find a way to make them peers of the realm. That you happen to have been married off to a man is no guarantee you care for him."

"I do."

"You've made that clear enough. I was mistaken. I shouldn't have spoken ill of him."

"That we can agree on. And as Harry Percy's wife and the woman who loves him, I would like to know what in the devil's name you want with him."

Hal poured himself another drink, and stared at the ceiling. "My father only got to be King," he said, "with a brace of Percys at his back, something the late Richard very much lacked. I thought it might do well to have a Percy of my own. Certainly better than to have him as an enemy, which court gossip was doing its best to make of us."

"Did it work? Are we all friends now?" When he didn't answer she stepped closer. "No," she said. "We're not. Because you need your friends to be so politic as to say nothing of your business, or so disreputable that, when they do, no one will pay them any mind. So you've had your fun but it won't be repeated."

"That's. . ." Hal let out a slow laugh, then looked up at her. "That's quite true, actually. I can't dispute a word of that. Are you certain you've never met Falstaff? He's. . .quite disreputable. Never mind. Kate. Between the two of us. If I were a woman who loved Harry Percy, I'd want him far away from this court."

"I'll keep that in mind. Can you recommend a convenient gutter for him to lie in for the rest of his life? Perhaps some bawdy women and a drunken old knight or two for company?'

"I could," Hal said. "Though it seems a waste for a man of his gifts. If Percy were mine, I'd find him a good war to fight. That's what God made him for."

"So God made you the judge of what other men are for."

"No," Hal said. Then, quietly, "Not quite yet."

"And when that day comes? When you're the king and my husband's life may rest in your hands. Or my child's? I wonder if you'll be thinking back to this night, and whether we suited your pleasure well enough. What then?

"Then. Well, then. . .God speed the right." He got to his feet. "Where's my coat?"

"You're going out? This late?"

"At the most interesting houses in London, it's still quite early, but my friends Ned and Jack have been drinking on my credit for hours already. And -- if I know your husband, he'll regret most of this in the morning. He'll feel better waking up with your head on his chest than mine. I'll leave orders with my coachman to take you home whenever you're ready."

"You're done with us, then?"

"For now." He placed a hand on her shoulder. "But since you've asked. If the fate of your son is ever in my hands, it will be enough to save his life that I know he is yours. Maybe even that he's Hotspur's."

"I don't believe you."

"You shouldn't. I'd think less of you if you did."

The door shut behind him, and Kate sat out for a while, and finished the Prince's drink, before going back in to sleep in Percy's arms.

*

Early the next afternoon, Kate took young Harry to the garden at the palace. The sun shone, and the little boy laughed, as he toddled along beside her.

She found a bench and watched him, listening for familiar tones in his laughter as he fell down, giggled, and drew himself up again.

They had not been in the garden long when the Duchess of York walked slowly in and sat down by her side.

"I had hoped you would come," said Kate.

"I had hoped I would not," the Lady answered. "But as you are both Percy and Mortimer, I decided I could not refuse such an ally without hearing her out."

"I'm sorry," Kate said. "I'm so sorry we've gotten off on the wrong foot. I spoke out of turn, about your son. I was upset because no one would talk to me, and I'm afraid I had regarded idle gossip about Aumerle and so --"

"It's true."

"Oh." This stopped her.

"Whatever information idle gossip may have thrown your way, in fact, I doubt it even approaches the magnitude of the truth. I cannot hate you for saying what everyone in court knows. In turn, then, it would do you good to regard the truth of what everyone knows about your husband."

"Percy talks too much, yes." Kate hardly thought this amounted to the same thing as treason, much less the same as -- well, after the previous night, she might need to reevaluate her views on the Duke's other supposed sins.

"I will agree that enthusiasm in conversation is no sin. However. Your Hotspur speaks a good deal more than he thinks, and a good deal faster. I had thought you were wiser than he, and so to hear you compound your husband's indiscretion by repeating --"

"So there is truth to the story about Douglas!"

"There is some truth to many stories. Percy only hears the truth that suits him, which is that he may get his war. But if Bolingbroke thought war was certain, he would not be meeting with Douglas. And there might not be a war if your husband would put as much effort into pressing his longstanding friendship with Douglas as he did, last night, into getting drunk with the Prince."

"You mean diplomacy? You really think Harry could help to stop a war?'

She shook her head. "If he were a different man, perhaps. As it stands, the best diplomatic use of your husband is to discover where diplomacy is being conducted and send Hotspur in the other direction. I almost believe he would be safer on the battlefield than at court."

"That seems to be a popular opinion," she said, thinking of Hal. "But it isn't fair! He's my husband, and I want --"

"You want what, Kate? You want him in your bed at night, or you want him to live?"

"Must I choose?"

Instead of answering, the Duchess looked across the lawn at the baby and called, "Harry! Little Percy! Come to your auntie York!" The boy ran toward the Duchess, and put his face against her knee, giggling into her skirts. "That's a good boy." She lifted him into her lap. Then, to Kate, she said, "Why did you marry?"

"I -- well, I suppose -- for the alliance, of course. Mortimer and Percy, as you said. Two great names taking their place behind Bolingbroke."

Turning the child to face his mother, the Duchess said, "Here sits your alliance. The future and the fortunes that you can cultivate are here. This is your part. Winning glory where he can, and where he will, is Percy's. By now, everyone in the kingdom knows, Harry Hotspur's glory lies in making war."

Kate swallowed. "And what if I married for love?"

"Here sits your love, then, too."

"No." He was a beautiful child, and Kate would not look at him. "You know that isn't what I mean. I love him."

"Then take every moment you have, do what you can with it. Store it up. Never forget that you'll lose him someday, and -- if it is sooner, rather than later, he may not live long enough to disappoint you."

"I'm sorry," Kate said. "I didn't know. I mean, I suppose I did a bit, but --here, let me --" She resisted the urge to look into the Duchess's eyes for traces of whatever sadness her life had brought, the public shames and the hidden ones. Pulling little Harry close, Kate said, "I hate this. I hate all of it."

"We didn't make the world we live in. Not even the men did that."

"No." Kate barked out a laugh. "No man made this world, it just turned out damned conveniently for Henry Bolingbroke and his idiot son."

The Duchess gave a thin smile. "I would be lying if I said that hadn't crossed my mind." Eying Kate, she asked, "Did you learn something from the Prince last night?"

"We had -- there was a conversation, but -- I can't even begin to tell you about it." As she said this, she realized how true it was. If she could even explain the context for what she'd discovered about Hal, how would she express it? He's only half as drunk as he wants people to think, and ten times as smart? Damn the man. "I don't even hate him. I probably should, but I don't. Isn't that funny?"

"Never put too much faith in kings. They have to be what they are. But," the old woman added, her hand settling on young Harry's curls, "don't be too hard on idiot sons. You never know when you might find out that you have one."

Kate looked at her, startled, then giggled, and the Duchess joined in with a full-throated laugh. Wiping her eyes, Kate said, "You love yours, though."

"Everything I've done has been for him," the Duchess answered, and just as quickly the laughter was gone.

"Thank you," Kate said, and, starting to rise, repeated, "Thank you. Now. I need to go find my idiot boy. Not the small one. And. I don't know what I'm going to do."

"You will. You'll know, and you'll do it, when you have to."

"I will," Kate agreed. She hoped, deep in her heart, that it was true, and she went to look for her husband.

END