The next morning, Elizabeth got to sleep a little later, and Kate and Laura were both on time to attend her and more awake than the previous day. Just as she finished dressing, there was a knock on the door. Laura went to open it and then cried in surprise, "Master Grodin!"
Elizabeth grinned even before Peter appeared. "Peter, I am glad to have you back." During his long recovery, he had spent a few hours here and there with her, but John had seen far more of him, for Elizabeth had not wanted him to overexert himself.
Kate sent for breakfast, and they all sat down together near one of the windows in Elizabeth's sitting room. Peter had not yet eaten, and Elizabeth persuaded him to join her and her ladies when food arrived. It did not take much to get him to talk of the work he had done in the last few weeks, searching through the palace archives on what evidently had been a fool's errand.
"If I had more time, I might be able to find something," Peter said apologetically, "but it seems that when Philip of Weir was crowned, no permanent record of the ceremony was made. Sir Ernest looked through the archives of Langford and I consulted the Asgard, but no one seems to know how it was done."
Elizabeth's good spirits fell a little. "You have found nothing?"
"I found a painting," he offered. "It seems he was the owner of that hideous crown with the flames."
"So men did wear opals," Kate said, which set her and Laura giggling.
"Not just any man, Kate. Your ancestor as well as Elizabeth's," Laura pointed out.
Kate and Laura had given Elizabeth a moment to collect her thoughts. "I will speak with Lord David about it as soon as I can," she replied. "He may have an opinion."
Peter arranged the meeting for later that morning. In the meantime she met with the Dorandan party, and Lord David was waiting for her when the ambassador finally left her in peace. "I was beginning to hope that he had not come," she said irritably as David stood before her. "Evidently he decided to make up for his tardiness by making a nuisance of himself upon his arrival."
David smiled. "You have but one wedding, my lady. And he will not be ambassador forever, I imagine."
"One can only hope."
The earl nodded in understanding. "Master Grodin said this had something to do with Lord John's coronation."
"Yes," Elizabeth said. "He has been researching the matter for weeks now and cannot find any record of how such investitures have been done in the past."
David's eyes widened for a moment, but he composed himself quickly. "I must confess myself a poor student of history, your Majesty. And my family is far enough removed from the throne that my estate has little in the way of royal artifacts."
"I have begun to believe that we must invent something of our own, Lord David," she replied. "I thought perhaps you should formally grant him the title."
"Not Lord Daniel?" he asked.
"No. It was proper for him to perform my coronation, as the highest noble in the land, but the crown was mine by right of birth. John's title is bestowed by the college. As you are the chancellor of the college, I thought you ought to administer the ceremony."
David nodded for a second time. "Perhaps you should crown him yourself," he said. "The wedding ceremony would allow you the opportunity."
"That is true," Elizabeth replied. She had not considered that, but he was right. "But I think the title should be bestowed upon him before the wedding. It will make things simpler." She did not want John's title to appear to be a gift from her. He was joining the college of lords as an equal member of it, not as her puppet, so it felt right that the college should grant John's title, not her. And she wanted no additional distractions at her wedding. Lady Catherine had enough to contend with already.
"I will consult Master Grodin, my lady. I am certain we can conjure something."
"Very good," Elizabeth said with a nod. "And make sure you write down whatever you do, preferably in more than one place. I will not have my descendants cursing me for my lack of record keeping."
Teyla let out a sigh of relief as she and her maid finished settling her belongings in her room in Atlantis. Her return from Dakara had barely been in time for Kate's wedding, which kept her in the palace for several days. Now Elizabeth's wedding would occupy the rest of the week, and she expected that the queen would welcome additional hands to deal with the business of the state so that she could have some time with her new husband once the wedding was over. So Teyla had hastily gone to Athos for a few days to ensure all was well there. Now she at least knew she had a couple of weeks where she would sleep in the same bed every night.
The journey to the Jaffa capital had been a unique experience. Traveling with a set of armed guards who deferred to her was off-putting. Teyla did not hold such a formal relationship with her own people. Then arriving in Dakara and being treated as a dignitary had added to her stress, though the Jaffa, being a people without a noble class, were less formal than other nations. Master Teal'c and his wife had been gracious and keen to accommodate her during her stay, and she chanced to speak with Master Bra'tac, who had been the previous ambassador to Atalan. Hearing his stories gave Teyla new insight to the Jaffa and their relationship with her own country.
Politics and diplomacy were mostly on hold, though, until the royal wedding was over. Aside from formalities, no serious business would be conducted this week, unless something disrupted the proceedings. And Teyla had to admit, when John had told her of his conviction that something would go horribly wrong, she couldn't entirely disagree.
Knowing Elizabeth probably needed all hands on deck to deal with the various guests, her mind was focused on wedding matters. So she was greatly startled when someone suddenly appeared in her path as she headed for the royal audience chamber.
"What are – oh!" Teyla froze, looking up at Prince Ronon, who was looking down at her with an amused expression. He evidently had stepped into her path on purpose. "Your Highness," she said, somewhat irritated as she curtsied.
"My lady. It is good to see you."
Teyla exerted herself to conceal how flustered she was by his abrupt appearance. "And you, my lord. When did you arrive?"
There was a dreadful pause. She did not know what to say. Elizabeth had invited him to the wedding before he left Atlantis in the spring, but Teyla had not been sure if he would return for it or not.
Ronon, as she well remembered, was not speaking much either. Finally the silence was too much and she asked, "How was your journey?"
"It was... quiet," he said, looking uncomfortable. After another pause he volunteered, "I went home."
Her own nervousness was momentarily forgotten and Teyla reached forward and took his hand. "That must have been difficult." She'd had enough nightmares during her life of finding Athos razed to the ground that she could imagine Ronon's feelings on seeing his devastated homeland.
Ronon nodded, then shook himself. Teyla was sensible enough to know he did not wish to speak about Sateda just now. Casting about for something to say, she ventured, "And you are settled in well enough?"
"Yes." He was looking at her uneasily, as though he wanted to say something else, but he stayed silent. It reminded her of how he had looked the morning after the battle, when they were out by the well alone. They had never spoken aloud of what happened then, and Teyla still was not sure what to say about it, even if this had been a proper time and place to bring the subject up.
"I am on my way to find the queen," she blurted out. "The wedding will be keeping everyone busy, I'm sure."
Ronon shifted again and sighed. "About that..."
Now he looked more embarrassed than anything, and her curiosity was piqued. "Yes?"
"Lady Catherine informed me I would be seated at the queen's table at the feast." Teyla nodded. Despite no longer having a throne to inherit, Ronon would outrank everyone in attendance except Elizabeth herself, John, Prince Cameron and Princess Carolyn. Protocol dictated he be seated with them.
Ronon continued to fidget for a moment before grimacing. "I don't have any suitable clothing."
Teyla blinked, a grin tugging at her lips. Ronon glared at her expression as she barely kept herself from laughing. "I see. I believe I can assist you with that, my lord." Still smiling, she beckoned him to follow her and they made their way to the tailor's workshop. Teyla left a sour-faced Ronon there to be poked and measured by the tailor, who wearily assured her that he could outfit the prince with appropriate attire for the wedding festivities in the allotted time. She resumed her course to locate the queen, still grinning to herself.
Carson had just visited Lady Sarah to look in on her and her new daughter when a page found him, informing him the queen required his presence. Elizabeth had not seemed ill the night before, but Carson wondered if the strain of the wedding preparations might be bothering her. He still blamed himself for not noting her condition the previous summer, when she succumbed to the fever. It was his duty to look after her health, and he had not been as diligent as he should have been then. He was determined not to make a similar mistake.
When he arrived in the queen's audience chamber, however, she looked perfectly well. "Carson, thank you for coming so quickly."
Lord John was with her and she nodded briefly to her betrothed, who said, "Carson, I have a favor to ask of you."
John shifted his weight restlessly. "I do not know if you heard what Lady Catherine said last night, but I find myself short a groomsman for the wedding party. Would you stand up with me during the ceremony?"
Carson gaped for a moment before remembering himself. "My lord, I would be honored," he said, somewhat haltingly.
Elizabeth was shrewd enough to sense his hesitation. "What is it, Carson?"
He didn't pay much attention to court protocol, but Carson had heard enough from Laura to know one thing. "Will it not cause difficulties, having a member of the wedding party who is not of commensurate rank?"
The couple shared a look and Elizabeth sighed. "I suspect there will be some squawking from the court, but I will not foist a stranger onto my betrothed simply to silence some wagging tongues."
Carson smiled at that. John glanced at Elizabeth, smirking. "Could you not just knight him and solve the problem?"
His expression must have given away his distaste at that idea for both the queen and her betrothed laughed out loud. "I would not subject the good doctor to the vagaries of court in addition to his current responsibilities, John," she teased.
The laughter subsided and John stepped forward and put a hand on Carson's shoulder. "I would have a friend at my side, Carson, and you have been one of the few who offered his friendship long before Elizabeth and I were to be married. I have not forgotten that. And without you, my lady would not be here to see this day."
It was true that Carson had spent time with John during his first months in Atlantis. He had seen less of the man since his return from Caldora, but that did not erase the past. He held out his hand then and repeated, this time with more certainty, "It would be my honor, my lord."
John smiled, as did Elizabeth. She rose and came to stand at John’s side. "I fear I must send you immediately to the tailor's, Carson, to ensure you are outfitted properly for this occasion. It would not do to have you standing with the party without matching your colors." John made a face at that, and she swatted absently at his arm. Elizabeth nodded to the door. "We have not informed Laura of this, though, so I imagine you will wish to go tell her first."
Carson grinned and bowed as he quit the room. It would be pleasant for once to be the one with the surprising news to share.
At noon, Kate answered her father's summons, leaving the queen with Lord John and a number of ambassadors. She imagined her parents wanted to dine with her, though in that case she couldn't fathom why her mother had not sent the request, or why her husband was not included. She was surprised, then, when she entered and found her father with Master Grodin and Lord George. Her mother was nowhere to be seen.
She nodded quickly to Lord George before focusing her attention elsewhere. "Father?"
"The queen asked me to devise a plan for bestowing the title upon Lord John," he said. Kate knew this already but held her tongue. "I knew Master Grodin and Lord George would be able to help, and I thought perhaps you might represent her Majesty in this discussion."
That explained the invitation and the company. They sat down to eat the luncheon that had been brought, and Lord David asked Peter to explain what he had learned in his research. He told the others much the same information he had told Elizabeth and Laura and Kate that morning. "I thought about having the painting of the investiture of Prince Philip brought, but truthfully, there is little information in it. He was before the college and he was kneeling before a gentleman."
"Well, that does tell us something," Kate said. "He did not kneel before Queen Helena."
"That is true," Lord George replied. "Queen Elizabeth's desire that you preside over the ceremony, Lord David, was a good impulse on her part."
"I retrieved a few things from the royal archive," David said. "We have kept records of the oaths the last few monarchs have sworn, as well as some of the oaths taken by the noblemen serving them. We have a great deal of latitude here, however, as most of the monarchs have taken slightly different vows."
"Most?" Kate repeated. Her father and Lord George had both sworn loyalty to King Edmund, of course, but while Lord George had been at that coronation, she was not sure her father had been.
"The queen took the same oaths her father did," Lord George said. "That was Daniel's doing, though I imagine her Majesty did not mind."
They went to work then, poring over the documents Kate's father had unearthed. By the time Kate had read them all, she could no longer keep them separate in her mind. The coronation oaths were all some variation on swearing loyalty to Atalan, to the people, to the laws, to the spirit of the nation, whatever that meant. The pledges made by the nobility were not much better.
The food was long gone when Kate blew out a breath. "Is there any reason he must take any oath at all?" she asked. "He did swear an oath when she knighted him."
"It may not be critical legally," Lord George pointed out, "but can you imagine the uproar from certain quarters if he did not swear loyalty?"
Lord David laughed at that, and Peter replied, "I understand it caused no end of consternation in Caldora that he did not swear loyalty to King Henry when he returned. It would be ironic if no such renewed oath were required of him here, but perhaps not expedient."
"Indeed," David said.
Kate nodded. "Should this ceremony also include a formal renunciation to his claims in Caldora?"
"I think that is between him and his cousin, and that you are distracting us from our central task, Kate," Lord George teased.
"I am doing no such thing, sir," she replied in kind. He smiled at her warmly, and Kate found herself wishing for a moment that this would not be such a short stay on his part. She understood why Elizabeth had urged him to retire, as none of them could bear the thought of losing him, but everyone in court had missed his counsel over the winter.
The consensus was that John's formal resignation from his role in Caldora was a private matter, and only needed to be concluded before John could take the oath to Atalan. By the middle of the afternoon they had come up with a reasonable draft of a ceremony, but it would need the approval of the queen and soon-to-be prince. And Lord Daniel, probably, and Lady Catherine. And Master Thor – he would have an opinion as well. There would be revisions to make, and probably a rehearsal as they had done with Elizabeth's coronation and would do with the wedding. The whole college would no doubt give their opinion once all was said and done. And all of this needed to be managed in a matter of days.
With a sigh, Kate headed to the queen's chambers with the draft, wondering what her royal ancestors had been thinking, not leaving a record for their descendants.
Jack had spent part of the morning fussing over his wife until Sarah, with an expression that suggested she was rapidly losing patience, suggested he see to some of his other duties. She was up from her bed now and able to get around well enough in their bedchamber to tend to the baby, so he reluctantly left.
He spoke to his second in command and also to Daniel, who informed him a group was meeting to sort out John's coronation ceremony. "I am grateful Lord George is here, for I suspect if he were not, I would have been corralled into the meeting myself," Daniel observed wryly.
The wedding plans were set with the most important guests now all accounted for, though the mysterious absence of the Tok'ra ambassador worried Jack a little. He hoped that if the Goa'uld had made some sort of threat toward them, Atalan would know of it. Teal'c reported the Jaffa had heard nothing from their neighbors, though the terrain between the Jaffa territory and the Tok'ra lands was not hospitable to travel. There was little to be done about it at this point, other than to wait for news.
Jack brought the reports from the borders to Elizabeth, but there was mercifully nothing of interest in them. Truthfully, short of an invasion, Jack would have been reluctant to share any bad news with the queen just now. Through the winter the memory of Kinsey's trial and execution had stayed with him, reminding him of just how much the young woman had endured in her short life. She deserved these few days of happiness.
With most of the court engaged with wedding planning or celebrations surrounding the happy event, there was little for him to do, and after eating luncheon with Daniel and Elizabeth, Jack departed back to his rooms. Both Sarah and the baby were asleep, according to the young nursemaid, so Jack settled himself to read for a spell. His thoughts kept drifting, though, and he was staring out the window when Sarah stirred.
"You look introspective," she said sleepily.
"I am capable of deep thoughts on occasion," he retorted with mock haughtiness.
Sarah rolled her eyes, sitting up more in bed. "What were you thinking of?"
He got up and came to sit next to her. "The wedding. Elizabeth's childhood. Many things have changed in the last two years."
The baby began to fuss before he could say more, and he brought her over to her mother carefully. Sarah began to nurse her before glancing at him somewhat shyly. "I was thinking this morning while you were gone, about her future. If she is to be Viscountess of Berwynn someday, she should know the place and the people. I spent most of my first summer working to build relationships with the leaders of the province. Many might as well have been total strangers for all I remembered of them. I do not want our daughter to face such obstacles."
Jack nodded. "Charles spent the entirety of his childhood in Neill. It is good for him in his capacity as steward, though I believe he lost other advantages by never coming to Atlantis when he was younger." The reasons for Charles remaining away, even after his mother's death, made Jack look at the baby.
Sarah noticed the expression on his face and raised her eyebrows in silent question. "There is far more peace and stability in the country now than when Charles was born," he observed slowly. With the Goa'uld fighting amongst themselves, the Wraith decimated and the new gunpowder weapons in hand, the military no longer needed to be as great a priority for Elizabeth. He had vowed through most of Sarah's pregnancy that he would be present for this child's life in ways that had not been possible before, but he could not quite articulate such thoughts. Sarah seemed to understand anyway.
"Berwynn is not all that far from Atlantis," she observed calmly. "It will not be nearly as difficult to spend time in both places, once she is old enough for the journey."
"Indeed. And I don't know..." He trailed off, the thoughts that had been chasing around in his mind all afternoon becoming clear all of a sudden.
He shook his head. "I find myself wondering how much use Elizabeth will have for the advice of an old soldier in the future."
"Especially when she has a young soldier for a husband?" Sarah teased.
It was true, of course. John of Sheppard was a capable soldier who had experience leading men in battle. His thinking might be strange to Jack or Daniel, who had fought other wars against different enemies, but he would be a sound advisor to Elizabeth on military matters. He would also be far more likely to get her to listen, given how much Elizabeth implicitly trusted him.
That thought brought up another issue. "Lady Catherine asked if you are planning to attend the wedding ceremony. There is a corner in one of the balconies she can keep for us where you will be out of the way of the crowds and we can slip out without disturbing the proceedings."
"I believe so," Sarah said, shifting the baby to her shoulder. "I do not want to miss the wedding itself, though the feasting would likely be too much." Once the child had burped, Sarah cuddled her in her arms, touching her small fingers and smiling in a way Jack had never seen before. It was a contented look, pure and untainted by any hint of the past. He decided he liked seeing Sarah this way.
She looked up at him, her expression becoming mischievous. "I sent word that the naming ceremony will be tomorrow morning. Teyla warned me that unless we wished to delay until after the wedding it was our only option."
Jack gave his wife a wry smile. "So I am not allowed to leave the room until we settle on a name?"
Sarah nodded. "No, Jack, you are not."
After luncheon, Carolyn let her husband leave with John and Lord David, as she and Lady Juliana had been invited to spend the afternoon with the queen. A page led them to the room where they had congregated the night before, and the two ladies entered to hear laughter. Carolyn smiled at the sound, even though she had not heard what had preceded it.
"Princess," the queen said, standing to greet them, "Lady Juliana. Allow me to introduce my dear friend Lady Teyla, the Countess of Athos."
The small, dark-skinned woman rose to curtsey to Carolyn. She found herself warming to the countess rather quickly. Teyla had a reserve that Carolyn quite liked, yet at the same time she was not above teasing the queen about her responsibility in the wedding to come.
"I am surprised, my lady, that you did not take the opportunity to tell the college to blame me for all of this," she said merrily. "After all, I did present Lord John to you."
"And in such a vulnerable hour," the queen replied, and Teyla and the queen's companions all laughed. Seeing Carolyn and Juliana's perplexed looks, Queen Elizabeth added, "I met John only a few days before my coronation. He had been of great assistance to Lady Teyla's people during a raid by the Wraith, and she brought him here to meet me as a kind of thanks."
"And I do believe it was love at first sight," Lady Laura teased.
The queen smiled and did not deny it. She turned her attention instead to Carolyn. "And what of you? How did you meet your husband?"
Carolyn looked down at her hands. "It was when the Goa'uld invaded," she said quietly, and the room seemed to grow more serious all at once. "Cameron's uncle sent him to Redwater to tell my father of the invasion. Father had summoned me from Landry, and I came into his chambers expecting to be alone. Suffice it to say I was not."
Lady Kate, who had come in after Carolyn and Juliana, was smiling at that. "Did Prince Cameron at least apologize for startling you?"
"Yes, he did," Carolyn replied. "And then the next time I saw him, I startled him so badly that he tripped over a trunk and hit his head. The time after that, we only startled each other a little bit." She did not tell them of the time she had come upon him suddenly in a corridor when he was wearing naught but his boots and trousers. Not even Juliana knew that detail, and Carolyn preferred to keep it that way.
Juliana was soon playing with Moira; Carolyn imagined that it was difficult for her to be away from her children for so long. While Juliana and Teyla entertained the baby and the queen heard Lady Kate report on a matter, Carolyn drew Lady Laura's attention away. "Forgive me," she said, "but I understand one of the queen's other friends has recently given birth."
Laura nodded, though frowning. "Two nights ago, the night before you arrived."
Carolyn lowered her voice. "Is the midwife still in Atlantis?"
Only a moment passed before Laura's eyes grew wide. "Oh!"
Carolyn grasped her arm. "I have not even told my husband yet."
"Of course," Laura replied with a shake of her head. "But to answer your question, yes. Mistress Perna will be here for a few days more. Would you like me to arrange a meeting?"
"If it would not be a trouble."
"'Tis no such thing."
The women spent a pleasant hour together talking of various things and laughing a good deal. As supper drew near, the queen was called away, and Laura stayed behind, ostensibly to care for her fussy daughter. She took Carolyn to her own chambers and called for the midwife, who came with all haste.
Mistress Perna was surprised to see Carolyn, and even more startled when Laura introduced her. But she understood quickly, and before long she was assuring Carolyn that all was well, and her suspicions were well-founded.
Carolyn retired to her chambers to prepare for supper and to wait for her husband. Her maid had already helped her get ready by the time Cameron arrived in their chambers. She was pacing nervously before the empty fireplace.
Either her agitation was quite apparent, or her husband had become alarmingly good at reading her. Cameron shut the door quickly, frowning. "Carolyn, whatever is the matter?"
She stared at him, debating with herself over how to tell him. Finally she decided that bluntness would be best. She took a breath to calm herself and said, "I am with child, Cameron."
She bit her lip and watched his face carefully for his reaction. He was surprised, more surprised than she would have expected. Silently he walked to the bed and sat down stiffly. "You're with child," he repeated.
One corner of her mouth twitched upward despite herself. "Yes." When he made no reply, Carolyn stepped forward slowly. "I began to suspect some days ago, but I was not sure," she explained. "I learned there was a midwife in the court. One of the queen's ladies arranged a meeting for me."
He nodded. "Are you all right?"
"Yes, of course," Carolyn replied. Then with a little humor, she asked, "Are you?"
If he noticed that she was teasing, he ignored it. "I suppose I should not be surprised, but I am."
Carolyn stood before him and threaded her fingers through his hair, drawing his gaze up to meet hers. "Tell me the truth, my lord. Are you troubled by this?"
Cameron rested his hand on her hip and pulled her even closer. "Do not call me lord, Carolyn. You are my wife, and I am not your master."
Many months had passed since the first time Cameron had treated her as an equal rather than as a young woman whose opinions were not worth hearing. His words still warmed her. "I know a number of ladies in Redwater who would find such an attitude quite shocking," she said, to distract him from her blushing.
"Then it is well that I married you and not one of them," he teased in return. He set her back a few steps and stood, but he would not be separated from her long. Once on his feet, he bowed his head and kissed her sweetly. "Do not take my surprise for displeasure, Carolyn," he said in that low tone that never failed to make her shiver. "This is the best of news."
Carolyn let out a sigh of relief. That set Cameron laughing, and she was not far behind, so they were smiling as they set off for supper.
John was anxious when he received a summons from Elizabeth late in the afternoon. His conviction that something awful was going to happen and thwart the entire wedding seemed to get worse every day, and since he had not expected to see her until supper, this sudden request alarmed him.
The expression on her face didn't quell his nerves. She was alone in her private receiving room, a piece of paper in her hand and a grim look on her face. She nodded to Lorne and he retreated to the hallway, leaving John alone with her, which only heightened his worry.
"Elizabeth, what's wrong?"
She shook her head, but offered him the paper. "I have received a wedding gift. From Ba'al."
He froze in place, staring at her. "Surely not."
Elizabeth's voice was full of contempt. "Of course he was brazen enough to send a gift. It is exactly like him."
John forced himself forward, trying to suppress the rage he instantly felt. He took the paper and read the short note, which indeed bore the crest of the Goa'uld lord and a few supercilious words of congratulations to the queen on her upcoming wedding with no mention of John anywhere.
A box sat upon the table before them, and John saw some sort of crystal vase inside it. "It's ugly," he observed nastily.
"Profoundly," Elizabeth agreed with a small smile.
"You are not intending to accept the gift, are you?" The words came out more belligerently than he intended and Elizabeth glared.
"It was hardly my idea to have that man sending me gifts, John."
"I know that," he protested. "But Elizabeth, after what he did, deliberately, to Cheyenne, he must know you know about my history with him. You cannot countenance this. Not after what he's done to me, to my people."
"They aren't your people any longer, my lord," Elizabeth snapped. The correction only angered him further.
"You know what I meant. Ba'al sent this to you to bait me."
"You do not think I am an equal target here, John? I met him well before he became your enemy."
John stilled. "And is he not also your enemy?" He had assumed that whatever secrets Elizabeth had to keep from him, her feelings toward the Goa'uld in general and Ba'al in particular matched his own.
"Of course he is!" Elizabeth exploded. "I've told you what he did to Jack, how he's attempted to use me in the past. I despise him."
Despite the reassurance, John demanded, "Then why will you not send this ridiculous piece of junk back and throw it in his face?"
"Returning it would only provide that loathsome man with more attention. It will prove to him that he caused discord, that I had to waste time during the days before my wedding on him. I will not give him the satisfaction," she retorted.
John subsided. It was a fair point. He was doing exactly what Ba'al would want him to do right now. After a moment of strained silence, he observed with a weak attempt at casualness, "It could just get misplaced. Accidentally."
Elizabeth rolled her eyes, though her anger had lessened. "Honestly, my first impulse was to set it on the table and then knock it over. Accidentally."
He grinned, putting the note down and pulling Elizabeth into his arms. "My lady, how very immature of you."
Elizabeth actually stuck her tongue out at him and John leaned in and kissed her, an unspoken apology for his temper. Elizabeth slipped her arms around his neck and returned his kiss with equal fervor, and for several minutes they merely stood there, locked tightly together.
They'd not had more than a few moments alone for several weeks and John found it hard to keep himself in check. Soon he was nibbling on Elizabeth's ear while she gasped, the sound making the ache within him intensify even more. He forgot that they were expected at supper soon, forgot the men standing guard outside and bit down on Elizabeth's neck more roughly than he intended.
Elizabeth reacted, but not with anger. Instead she almost shoved him backward so that he collided with the table. Then she was kissing him ardently, both of them moaning lowly as they clutched at each other. John was almost dizzy with the feel of her warm body aligned so closely with his.
That feeling caused sense to return, and when the kiss ended John rested his forehead against Elizabeth's. Neither of them moved for a few moments while their breathing slowed and John struggled to master his desires.
Elizabeth touched his cheek, murmuring his name lowly. He met her eyes and saw his own hunger reflected there. Before temptation could get the better of either of them, he turned and kissed her hand slowly and then set her away from him. Elizabeth nodded at him, pressing her palms against her cheeks, which were now flushed bright pink. Then she glanced at the table behind him, where the ugly vase still sat in the wooden box.
"Well, it was worth trying," she quipped with a wicked smile at him.
He imagined for a moment what would have happened if Ba'al's hideous gift had not only been broken but broken because of some sort of illicit intimacy in this room. He burst out laughing and brought her hand to his lips. "Do not add to my temptation right now, my lady. I am not sure I could hold out against such an additional enticement."
Elizabeth laughed and drew him away and toward the door. They paused before exiting the room, Elizabeth checking her garments to be sure they were in order. John sobered and looked back at the table. "Elizabeth?"
She sighed. "I will order the servants to stick it in a storeroom somewhere, and send no acknowledgment. Let him rot wondering."
Much as John would have enjoyed venting some of his hatred of Ba'al in some fashion, he knew Elizabeth's response was the most appropriate coming from the Queen of Atalan. This wasn't the first time he had to set aside some of his own feelings regarding Elizabeth's choices, and he knew it wouldn't be the last either. He took her hand again, relieved when she slipped her fingers through his as they headed out the door.
As Elizabeth was busy with the arrival of another gift, Laura and Kate shut themselves up in the receiving room's tiny antechamber. With all that was going on, personally and otherwise, they had had hardly a moment for each other in weeks, and they had business of their own to take care of.
Kate was pacing while Laura shut the door. "We have three days," Kate said.
"And no gift for Elizabeth." Kate knew this was partly her own fault. Her wedding to Marcus had distracted her for several weeks, and Laura had had her hands full caring for Moira and attending Elizabeth so Kate could deal with the wedding. Now time had flown by and the royal wedding was almost at hand, and the gift they had been looking for was nowhere to be found.
Laura nodded. "We're in trouble."
"Indeed. Who would have thought that John's gift would be easier to obtain?" Kate asked.
The door suddenly opened and Laura nearly gave a shout of surprise. Lady Juliana was on the other side. "Oh! Pardon me. I must have taken a wrong turn," she said, backing away.
"No, it's quite all right," Laura replied. "Do you need help getting somewhere?"
"If it would not be an imposition."
Kate and Laura followed her out of the room. She was looking for the palace library, so they headed in that direction. "You two look like you were up to something," Juliana remarked with a grin. They both tried to look innocent, but it was not convincing. "I have gone weeks without hearing of a proper scandal," Juliana added, although her voice was more amused than judgmental.
Laura looked at Kate for a moment before speaking. "It is not a scandal, not as such. We have had difficulty acquiring a gift for the queen."
"I see," Juliana replied more seriously. "Not a proper scandal, but quite a dilemma. What were you planning to give her?"
They were passing by a number of people, so Kate kept her voice down. "Her mother wore a crown at her wedding, loaned to her by the late king's grandmother," she explained.
"And you cannot find it?"
Laura shook her head. "Her mother only wore it that day. In the papers in Langford, Lady Catherine found a letter to her elder sister saying that she hoped her daughter might wear it on her wedding day. We were hoping to find the crown and give it to Elizabeth before the wedding."
Juliana nodded. "You said the crown was loaned to her."
"Yes, by Elizabeth's great-grandmother. She was queen mother at the time, and her father had given it to her before her own wedding," Kate replied.
"If it was only loaned, I imagine it was given back."
Laura frowned and looked at Kate. "I would have thought Queen Adelaide's belongings were kept in the family's storerooms."
"Things do get misplaced, especially when they are used so little," Kate said. "Remember the trouble we had finding a crown for John?"
"Yes, but where else could it be?" Laura asked.
"In my husband's estate, we have a storeroom for our valuables," Lady Juliana said. "But we also have a smaller storeroom which our guests have often made use of."
Laura's eyes went wide. "Of course, the nobles' storeroom! We did not think to look there."
"It seems unlikely that it would be there after more than twenty years, but I suppose there is no harm in trying," Kate replied.
Having delivered Lady Juliana to her destination, they turned for the storeroom, but Kate hesitated. "Perhaps we should go later and bring Lord George? We may need his help." Master William, the keeper of the nobles' storeroom, was an aged and unpleasant man, but he would not dare refuse the Marquis of Hammond.
"That is an excellent notion," Laura agreed. "Particularly as is getting late and we will be missed otherwise."
That evening, Kate and Laura helped Elizabeth get ready for bed before departing for their own rooms, as was usual now. But instead of retiring themselves, they hurried off to the armory in the company of Lord George. With his help, Master William grudgingly led them past the guards and opened the storeroom with an ancient-looking key.
"I hope you have some idea what you are looking for, young ladies," he said dourly while he hovered near the door. Laura used her candle to light a small lamp near the door, which Lord George picked up.
"Well?" Kate said, turning to Laura.
"Look for something that hasn't been touched in twenty years."
It was easier said than done. While it was plain that some noblemen used the storeroom frequently, other items seemed to have been brought there and forgotten. Master William had detailed records of most items, but even his watchful eye had not kept everything in its place.
After more than an hour of digging (and occasional sneezing) Kate feared her dress was ruined, and they had nothing to show for it. Suddenly there was a knock on the door and she turned around. "Marcus?"
Laura looked up from the trunk she was searching. "Is something wrong?" she asked the captain, who was looking about the room curiously.
"No, I just wondered how much longer you would be. You really need more light in here." Without another word, he left, but when he returned he had a torch in hand. He fitted it into a ring near the door and said, "There, that's better."
"Just in time for us to have no need of it, I suspect," Laura replied. "Master William?"
The old man made his way across the room, through the maze of trunks on the floor. "Yes, my lady?"
Laura hefted up a small chest. "This is the crest of her Majesty Queen Adelaide."
"That is not supposed to be here, then," he replied indignantly.
"Whether that is true or not is not the point," Kate reminded him as politely as she could manage. "I imagine you would not have a key for it."
"I might," Lord George said.
He produced the set of keys which Kate and Laura had used weeks earlier when searching for John's crown. After some significant trial and error, a key finally turned in the lock. Laura lifted the lid, and Kate held her breath, knowing she shouldn't hope.
Laura set the box down on the bench that ran down the middle of the room. The top of it was filled with deep blue silk, the color that Margaret of Langford had worn at her wedding. "That looks promising," Lord George said, while Laura handed the silk to Kate.
Beneath it was some extremely gaudy jewelry wrapped in velvet. The size of the jewels and the amount of gold had Kate wondering at the sanity of Elizabeth's forebears. Elizabeth would never be caught dead in such loud, ostentatious things. It also made Kate wonder about the crown they were searching for. Would it be the same, or had Queen Adelaide's tastes changed over the course of her life?
Kate had her hands full by the time Laura reached the bottom of the box. The last item in it badly needed cleaning, but Laura grinned as she retrieved a golden circlet. It was not terribly ornate, only a ring of gold, etched with delicate flowers that would look well with the crown John had chosen.
"Is this the right crown?" Laura asked of Lord George.
He nodded. "I always wondered why she never wore it again. I suppose we know now."
"This time we will make sure it is stored properly," Kate assured him and Master William, who was still glowering.
Laura placed the crown back in the box, and Kate replaced the rest of the jewels. Marcus lifted the box before Kate could ask, and she and Laura followed him into the hall, Lord George trailing after them. "Do you think the jeweler will still be awake?" she asked.
Laura laughed. "He has been inundated with requests from the court, people wanting jewels reset and cleaned and all manner of things before the wedding. I am sure he is still working."
"He will not be pleased to see this."
"No," Laura answered giddily, "but Elizabeth will be."