There were rumors, of course. There were always rumors; it came with having a court. There was battle, or there were bored knights gossiping like children. And Arthur was not so tired of the rumors yet that he would inflict battle upon his lands.
That didn't mean he approved of them.
"They would make of me a cuckold, too blind to see my own bedchamber," he growled. "And they would make of you a traitor."
Guinevere smiled and kissed his cheek. "Peace, husband. We know the truth of it. I will discover the reason for this rumor, if it be anything more than a mistimed visit and a misplaced maid."
If that were all it had been, it would have been simpler. Lancelot had been seen entering the queen's chambers when the king was not present. Not by an easily foisted-off maid, but by Sir Agravain.
"No doubt instigated by his brother." Arthur rubbed his face. "He does nothing that Mordred did not begin." Agravain was stalwart and strong, but not particularly bright. "Thank you, my queen."
She kissed him in answer. "Mordred is a man of royal birth who will never inherit, not as things stand. Nor does he have the advantage of taking my way to power, all the kingdoms having sons for heirs."
"So he would discredit any of mine?" Arthur scowled. "He is reckless!"
"He is young," Guinevere answered, laughing. "He thinks too much, sometimes, and not always well. As did another young man I might mention, some years ago."
Arthur gave her a sardonic look. "I did a fine job."
"Of course," she answered. "You had a very good queen."
He chuckled despite himself. "Go to your queenly duties, then, and have a servant fetch Sir Lancelot to me."
"I am truly sorry, my king." Lancelot bowed his knee and head to Arthur. "Though you know my intentions, I should have been more careful."
"You should have been," Arthur agreed, and sighed. He set a hand on Lancelot's head. "But the fault is not entirely yours. If not this time, they would have found another. I should have addressed this issue long ago."
Lancelot picked up his head enough to quirk a smile at him. "Yes, you should have."
Arthur swiped at him for the insolence. "From you as well?"
"I have spent much time around the queen lately," he pointed out. Then the humor left him and he grasped Arthur's hand, pressing his lips to the palm. "We will be more circumspect in our dealings, my king. My Arthur. I would never wish you grief from them. Or from anything."
"Even you cannot protect me from wicked rumors, my knight." Arthur stroked his face. "But we will find a way."
The ladies-in-waiting bowed their way past Arthur and he shut the door behind them, wrapping his arms around Guinevere from behind.
"Careful, my love," she cautioned gently. "You will catch my hair."
"We can't have that, my perfect, beautiful queen," he teased. "My courtly lady who would never be caught running and tumbling in grass, her skirts around her knees and a twig in her belt like a sword."
"Never." She turned and gave him a haughty look, her eyes dancing.
He smiled back and kissed her, then sobered. "Are you certain of this? There is no retracting our word later."
She kissed him. "I am certain as I've ever been. You need me as much now as you did when we first met. This is the right decision, trust me."
He kissed her hand. "I always have."
They met with the boys in Arthur's private parlor, the seats set for a formal audience, and Arthur watched them as they approached. Gawain was forthright, head held high and demeanor sober. He seemed wary, but prepared as ever to do his duty. Mordred was closed off and harder to read, his face calm but his eyes taking in everything from the queen's courtly gown to the lack of servants in the room. He met Arthur's eyes in challenge, defiant in a way that was almost hostile. Only almost, but that could easily become full-fledged. Both of them fine knights, as were their brothers, even the youngest. They are not boys any longer, Arthur reluctantly admitted. Guinevere was right; Lancelot, too. He should have addressed this long ago.
"My king," Gawain addressed him, fist to his breast in salute. Mordred followed suit.
"My sister's son," Arthur greeted him in turn. Gawain smiled, relieved at the lack of court formality, but Mordred raised an eyebrow, calculating. Despite the gravity of the situation, Arthur relaxed a little.
"Recent events have given me cause to reflect upon the future of my kingdom," Arthur began. "And upon certain rumors that have been heard throughout the court."
"Rumors gain lives of their own," Guinevere continued, the picture of regal and slightly sorrowful dignity. "They often may come to harm those they were not intended to."
"What rumors are these that you speak of, Uncle?" Mordred asked, still eyeing him cannily.
"Nephew," Arthur addressed him. "Since you came to this court, there have been rumors. I should have put stop to them some time ago, but they will be ignored no longer." He looked to Gawain. "You are your father's heir, although the second eldest."
Gawain nodded, giving Mordred an apologetic glance.
"And as my sister's eldest legitimate son would currently be mine." Arthur shook his head. "However, my people are unlikely to accept combining their kingdom with your father's. Britain must have its own ruler. Regrettably," he took Guinevere's hand, and she squeezed back as if consoling him, of all things. Despite his knowledge of the truth, it stopped him for a moment in sadness. Then he cleared his throat and continued. "My wife, the queen, is barren."
That got them wide eyes from both, though Arthur could nearly see the thoughts tumbling through Mordred's mind as he tried best to turn this to his advantage. The queen is right. You think too much at times, he thought wryly.
"The healers have confirmed it," Guinevere continued, her face the picture of tragedy. "I will have no children of my own."
"And I will have no other wife," Arthur said firmly. He nodded to the boys — no, call them the young men they are, he reminded himself. "And yet that leaves the question of succession. I will not leave the kingdom in turmoil as my father did at his death. I have spoken to your father. He believes, as do I, that you are most suited to inherit Lothian, as you have ever been trained for it." He nodded to Gawain. "However, we also share the belief that the most suited to be my heir is you, Mordred."
He continued as if he hadn't noticed Mordred's hope, suspicion, and confusion. "Your father, King Lot, is prepared to acknowledge you, if you will give up claim to Lothian in favor of his chosen heir. But there are the rumors to contend with." He set his jaw and looked at Mordred sternly. "Are you prepared to speak to those who perpetuate them, to explain you were mistaken in believing yourself my son? If these rumors are ended — truly ended — you will stand a legitimized son of my sister's husband. Give up claim to Lothian, and stand as heir to my throne."
Mordred frowned. "If it were me who began these rumors, and I were to admit to fault, it would damage my credibility with my future subjects."
Arthur nodded. "You will have to work to regain their trust." Which should nicely slice the head from other rumors, as well as giving Arthur a few years before he need worry about assassination attempts. Enough time for Mordred to mature out of those thoughts and, with luck, into the king they suspected he could be.
Mordred looked back at him for several long moments, weighing the possibilities, then nodded. "I will speak to those I'm aware of who have spread these rumors, uncle. I will inform them they are mistaken, as they will know when my father the king formally acknowledges me."
After that, it was merely a matter of the formal pronouncements. Lot had his heir and would be father to two kings, and the specter of his wife lying with her brother was as laid to rest as it would ever be. Mordred had his legitimacy and the inheritance he had wanted. And Arthur had the only thing he'd ever desired.
There was gossip enough and to spare for a while, and then true to Mordred's agreement, the rumors stopped. Not without grumblings and misgivings, and Arthur was not so naïve as to think there were none who saw through it all, but they kept it to themselves if so. More importantly, the other rumors stopped. The shine of Arthur's court remained untarnished.
"You will sit with me and learn what you need of this kingdom you will rule," Arthur told him. "And you will hear much, though not everything, from my spies." He gave Mordred a sharp look. "A king never spies for himself. You cannot be seen to be doing such things in future; you will need others to do it for you. Choose them wisely, and cultivate their trust."
"You will need a proper queen," Guinevere added. "Consider Brangaine of Cornwall; she is of noble birth, and I believe her temperament would suit you."
"You'll need a captain you can trust, once your brothers return to Lothian," Lancelot told him. "One who has no designs on the kingdom or your queen, and will act in your best interests. He should not be of royal birth, lest he inherit and you lose his support. Might I suggest Galahad or Dinadan? They are young and quick of thought."
"I am still not certain this is wise." Lancelot laid his head on Guinevere's breast, his arms going around her beneath the sheets. "I don't trust him."
"You trust no-one; that is what makes you a good captain," she answered, smiling. "And you, Arthur; do you not trust him, either?"
Arthur stroked her unbound hair and kissed her shoulder as he thought. "I trust your judgment. I trust that Mordred wants to rule, and has the capacity to do so well. I trust that he wishes the kingdom to flourish long enough for that to happen. I also trust he isn't terribly fond of me, but that he may come to respect me."
She smiled at him. "Well spoken."
Lancelot took one arm from around her waist to rub Arthur's leg. "In that case, I will defer to the two of you. Although I trust you will forgive me if I remain by your side when he meets with either of you."
Guinevere chuckled. "There is my champion."
"We would expect nothing less," Arthur answered.
"And your reasons for remaining close will be well-known now." Guinevere smiled at him.
"One of my reasons," Lancelot answered, smiling back.
"Ah, but the rumor-mongers won't think to look for another." She leaned against Arthur and sighed. "And we will have a respite." She gave Arthur a stern look. "So long as you get no other heirs."
"I would never wish to!" Arthur protested. "Not with such a lovely queen waiting for me."
"You would never dare to," Lancelot said smugly. "Even if you did wish. One of us would see you unable to in future."
"I am king!" Arthur looked from one of them to the other, both giving him amused glances. "This is the treatment I get in my own bed?"
"Yes," Lancelot answered simply.
Guinevere laughed. "Aren't you lucky?"
"For how long, do you think?" Arthur stroked her arm. "The kingdom is at peace, within and without. How long can it last?"
"The future is never certain, my love," Guinevere answered. "But whatever may come, we will face it together."
"All of us," Lancelot agreed. He leaned forward to kiss Arthur, then Guinevere, sealing the promise. She kissed Arthur, finishing the circle.
Arthur wrapped his arms around them both, content in the circles of their arms. He had his kingdom and his loves; he would do what he must, but the rumors would never touch them again.