“Wizards,” Megan said stupidly.
“That’s right,” Ben said.
“We are. I am the senior, Hywel is the recently appointed junior Royal Wizard. He’s a thousand times the mage and spellcaster that I am, though. He’s good, don’t you know?”
“I don’t,” Megan said.
“I suppose not,” Ben said, with a twinkle that let Megan know that Howell had gone and aired more of their family’s dirty laundry than he ought.
“Well, I don’t. About any of that, I mean,” Megan said.
But she knew there was a reason she had liked Ben Sullivan from the start.
“Mrs. Parry,” he said kindly, “I hope it will please you to know that not two months ago, with the help of the young lady who is about to become his wife, your brother saved my life and the life of the King’s brother. He saved our entire country, if the truth were told. Needless to say, he is held in high honour in this place. So is she.”
Mari said, “Ooh!”
Neil said, “Cool!”
Gareth said, “I’ll be damned.”
Megan said nothing. She was afraid she was either going to find the nearest thing she could throw, or cry.
Mari said, “Uncle Howell told me he wanted to marry Sophie that day when they came to our house. Don’t you remember, Mam?”
“I remember, yeah,” Megan replied sullenly. She supposed she should stop tuning out whenever Mari and Howell got going in Welsh, and start tuning in. But she’d left it too late.
“He said he was trying to help her get well again,” Mari said. “I asked him, ‘Uncle Howell, does Sophie love you?’ He said he didn’t know for sure but he thought if she didn’t then she’d have already kicked him to Rashpuht and back again.”
“Quiet now, Mari! I want to ask Ben something. Who is this girl, anyway?”
“Mam, you already met her,” Mari insisted.
“Sophie Hatter,” Ben said.
That name sounded familiar, all right.
“Lovely girl, very good family,” Ben said, then added sheepishly, “I’ve set my cap for her younger sister, if you must know.”
“Excellent!” Neil said.
The coach passed through a gate like you might see at a palace, all ivy-covered stone walls and iron curlicues with pink and white roses climbing all over everything. Beyond it was a garden with fountains and statues and big box trees in rows. And beyond that was a big, ornate, stately house of grey stone, with a sweeping staircase and rank on rank of gleaming windows and gargoyled chimneys. It was just as grand as you please, and it seemed to fit perfectly here, in this place—whatever it was—and in this time—whenever it was.
A woman rushed up to them in a cloud of perfume, a very grand woman in a turquoise gown who looked like a Victorian painting come to life: she had mounds of yellow hair, an immense fancy hat with roses all under the brim, and a complexion like an advertisement for soap.
She looked them all up and down, said she was Mrs. Smith, mother of the bride, that she couldn’t stop just then but that she was so delighted they had come, and that she looked forward to good a chat with them later. In the meantime they were honoured guests and were welcome to wander the house and grounds and to please consider themselves at home. She produced from somewhere a dark-haired young man called Michael and told them that Michael and Ben would look after them until time for the wedding.
Mrs. Smith departed graciously, but more coaches were pulling up at the garden gate. People all in period costume got out of them, only it wasn’t period costume. This was confusing. Even Ben looked different; Megan hadn’t noticed his hair being particularly long before, but now it was done back in a sort of pigtail like they wore two hundred years ago, or was it three?. His suit jacket had become an elegant frock-coat of brown velvet brocaded with copper, and—this for sure he wasn’t wearing before—he had a fancy cravat of ivory lace.
Megan began to feel quite out of her element here. Never thought I’d have to worry about Howell being ashamed of me, she thought in dismay.
“Where is my brother?” she whispered to Ben. “Where is Howell? I want to speak to him before this wedding gets started, if I could—”
“Certainly,” Ben said. “I’ll take you to him. And they’ll be fine,” he added, noticing her uneasy backward glances at her family.
Neil and the boy Michael, who was a bit older, had found something to talk about and were scuffling along together. Michael was richly dressed in a coat much like Ben’s, only in dark green. Meanwhile Gareth, holding Mari, was talking to a gorgeously-dressed, somewhat stout man who had approached them, along with his plump, equally gorgeously-dressed wife. The man held his own little daughter, barely a toddler but all done up in a pale blue frock that was to die for. The little girl was making happy friendly faces at Mari, who was returning them like mad.
“Who were those people?” Megan whispered to Ben as he led her, wobbling a little in her high-heels, round one wing of the mansion, through another gate and down a flower-lined path to a side door that opened into its own miniature garden.
“They are our king and queen,” Ben said.
“We’re rather less formal here,” Ben added.
“Aren’t we, though?” Megan said. “Any more surprises and I’ll fall right through the ground.”
“You’ll get used to it,” Ben said, laughing.
What a place! The house went on forever, up stairs and down corridors, and how Ben knew which door was the right one to leave her off, Megan had no idea.
“He’s in there, dressing. He’ll be expecting you. And here, I’m afraid, I shall have to leave you, Mrs. Parry.”
He bowed grandly. Megan, not sure if she should nod, curtsey, or bow in return, stood there with her teeth in her mouth. Ben merely smiled and departed.
It was a big oak door with brass fittings, slightly ajar. It took her a good five minutes just to get up the courage to give it a light knock. “Howell,” she ventured, “are you decent?”
“I’m never decent. Come in, Meggie.”
He was decent, all right; in fact he looked not bad at all, standing straightening his lapels in front of an enormous mirror. Not that Megan got a very good look at him before he turned and threw his arms around her.
“I’m so glad you came,” he said.
“Couldn’t miss my own little brother’s wedding, now could I?” she said, with a tentative pat on his back.
“No, no, you couldn’t, thank goodness,” he said. “So. What do you think? Is it all right? Will I do?” He held out his arms and turned round slowly for her to admire his finery. And truth to tell, he really did look good, in an elegant frock coat of midnight-blue brocaded velvet, very fine and rich, with a froth of white lace at his collar and cuffs.
“You, and this place, this style of thing, all go very well together,” she said.
“Yes they do, thanks,” Howell said. “It seems to agree with me. Even better, I seem to agree with it.” He grinned.
“It’s all a bit Doctor Who, if you ask me,” Megan said.
“It is. The Doctor sent his regrets, by the way,” Howell said.
Megan glared, then realised that Howell just might not be joking.
“But I shouldn’t mention that to Neil and Mari,” Howell went on. “They will be so disappointed they missed him. I know the Princess Valeria was when she found out. Screamed for days.”
The silence that followed was the kind that made you want to put a bin liner over your head and throw yourself in.
“So,” Megan said. “I’m dying to see this girl. They say she’s something amazing.”
“Amazing isn’t the half of it,” Howell said.
“And you are deeply, madly, totally in love with her, yeah?”
“You seem unconvinced, Megan dear.”
“I know you, Howell. But I don’t know her,” Megan said. “I assume she’s beautiful. Brides always are, at least until the honeymoon dries up and reality rears its ugly head.”
All at once he started to cry. “Oh, Meggie,” he said. “She’s seen me at my absolute worst, and she still wants me.”
Good lord! What on earth to do? With all his saucing and joking, Howell always made you forget that he had feelings just like other people.
“That’s why they call it lurve, you know,” Megan said, trying and miserably failing to make it light. And then she did something she knew she should have done more of, all along: she reached up and hugged him close, at the same time groping one-handed in her handbag for a tissue to dry his tears.
She’d forgot to bring any. To a wedding, no less.
“Oh, hell,” she said. “Now don’t cry. You’re looking wonderful today. Just wonderful. But you’ll only mess it up if you cry.”