“Mordred, what are we doing here?” Rosette asked as they walked through one of the interior doors of the old keep. He turned to her with a strange, secret smile.
He laughed, and Rosette shook her head. “Well?” he asked as soon as she crossed the threshold. “What do you think?
“I …” Rosette looked around at the spacious room, easily as big — or bigger — that the whole lower story of her old home. “It’s nice?” she hazarded. “A bit plain.”
Mordred chuckled. “Well, it’s supposed to be like that, to appeal to the greatest number of people.”
Rosette nodded hurriedly, blushing at her ignorance. Truth to tell she, like most of the peasants of Albion, had thought Lord Ban du Lac (father of Sir Lancelot) a bit mad when he’d bought this old, ruined keep, fixed it up, and offered portions of it for rent to the populace. If you weren’t indentured to your lord and made to live on his land, why would you want to pay rent to anyone? And even if you did, why would you want to live in only a quarter of the remains of what had been a much larger castle?
If Mordred noticed the blush, he said nothing. “Come on,” he said, grabbing her hand like an eager little boy. “I want to show you the rest.” And he took off at a sprint for the spiraling stairs, leaving Rosette to laugh and try to follow in his wake.
He showed her the next floor — easily as big at the first — the full bathroom on that floor, and then shooed her up the stairs to show her not the one but the three bedrooms the apartment possessed. Rosette was suitably impressed; she’d slept her whole life up to her time in University sleeping in the same large loft as her parents and her siblings. Though her mother wrote that they had added on a small room at the back of the house for Pierre and his new bride, for everyone to sleep in the same space was by far the norm.
Her mother. Rosette winced at the thought. She’d been back in Albion for three weeks and, though she’d written to her family to let them know she was back, she hadn’t seen any of them yet. It was too — too difficult, too complicated. Too many questions she didn’t know how to answer. Best to let them all think, for now, that she was living and serving at the Orkney keep and would visit when she had a day off. In the meantime, she’d been staying at an inn, mostly keeping to her room, and praying that Mordred would come up with something more permanent before her pregnancy started to show.
“So do you like it?” Mordred asked, rounding on her and breaking her reverie after they had examined the biggest bedroom, the one Mordred casually referred to as the “master” bedroom.
“I …” she stuttered — then suddenly realized why he was showing her around the apartment. “Mordred! You can’t — I can’t live here!”
His face fell. “You don’t like it?”
“No, no, of course not.” Truth to tell she hadn’t given it much thought one way or the other. “But it’s too much!”
He lifted one eyebrow. “Too much?”
“Look at all this space …” She waved her hand to punctuate the point. “I don’t need all this room! I’m just one person!”
“But soon there will be two of you, so you’ll need twice as much space, won’t you?” he asked, cheeky grin returning.
“Don’t be silly; a baby won’t take that much room.”
“Babies grow,” Mordred pointed out, “and besides,” he moved closer so that his lips grazed her cheek and his breath tickled her ear, “who’s to say that there will only be one babe for long?”
“Mordred …” Rosette blushed. “One child at a time, please.”
“As you wish.” He pulled back to look into her face, putting his hands on her shoulders. “Now, Rosette, love … tell me truly. Do you like this place?” Before she could open her mouth, he added, “And not a word about how it’s too much, you don’t deserve it or some such nonsense … just tell me whether you like what is here.”
Rosette closed her eyes and tried to picture the apartment with furniture … quilts and tapestries to warm up the drab walls … an old fur or two on the floor … she opened her eyes with a smile. “I love it.”
“Great! You can move in as soon as I move our old furniture from university from the warehouse!” He kissed her in that way he had, the way that made a low moan come from the back of her throat. “Now,” he added as they came up for air, that little-boy grin back in full force, “let me show you the rooftop. You’ll love it, you can see the sea from here …”
As he took her hand and led her up the stairs at a run, Rosette reflected that this would not be the time to tell him that she really, really didn’t like heights …
The next few weeks passed by in a blur of hammers, sanding, paint and stone. As it turned out, she didn’t need to fret about warming the place up with tapestries and quilts: Mordred had fixed everything up with Sir Lancelot, and as long as they didn’t try to add or remove any of the walls and were willing to set everything to rights when they were done, he didn’t care what they did to the place. And much to her surprise, she did find that she enjoyed the rooftop. The battlements were nice and high, reaching to her waist, keeping all but the most determined ninny from falling over the edge. True, she couldn’t go within three steps of that edge, but the area of the roof that was hers was big enough that she could enjoy the lovely summer sunshine without going any nearer to that nasty edge than she wanted to. She brought (or rather asked a couple of the burlier workmen to bring) the desk she and Mordred had used in university up there and spent many happy hours sketching out her plans for the various rooms.
The workmen probably thought she was mad with her intricate plans for the walls of every room, but they tolerated it with good grace, and as long as she drew the design she wanted on the walls they were happy to fill in the lines with the colors she picked out. And no matter how hard they worked, they wouldn’t take anything in payment — or rather, anything more than a freshly prepared lunch, or perhaps a pie to take home with them. “It’s all taken care o’, miss,” the foreman would say with a gentle smile whenever she tried to give them anything.
As the apartment slowly came together, and the summer heat became more and more oppressive, Rosette moved from the rooftop to a small corner of the living room. She sewed there, often for hours, putting together blankets and little gowns for the baby. Mordred on one of his visits laughed when he saw the sheer amount of clothing she produced, saying that the babe would have to be changed six times a day to make proper use of all the clothing she’d prepared. “Well, whatever this one doesn’t tear to pieces can be used for the next,” Rosette had replied with a shrug.
“What happened to ‘one child at a time’?” Mordred had asked with a sly smile, and Rosette laughed.
But truth to tell, Mordred’s visits were rarer than she would like. And once the apartment was finished and the workmen gone, the place was oddly lonely. Rosette tried to get to know the neighbors, but though they were friendly in a detached sort of way, they tended to ask questions — simple questions, really, like who were her parents and what she did for a living — that she didn’t know how to answer.
So she adopted a puppy. She’d named him, in a fit of romanticism, “Chevalier,” but the black pup’s mischievousness soon necessitated a truncation of the name to just “Chevy.” He was adorable, though, and the mere presence of the pup did a lot to relieve Rosette’s loneliness.
So the days passed, one very like the next, the only real difference being how tightly she could lace her dress from day to day. Graduation had come just in time; her pregnancy was starting to show. Strangely, her neighbors did not ostracize her for this — she got a few knowing glances, a few secretive smiles, but no comments, no marked snubs. Rosette chalked it up to luck, or perhaps broad-mindedness — for the alternative, that everyone knew who her babe’s father was and why she was ensconced here, was too much for her to contemplate.
Life settled into a routine, and so far, Rosette had no reason to be discontent with her lot.
At least until one late summer night, when a knock came on the door.
Who can that be? Rosette thought, looking up from her dessert with a start. It couldn’t be Mordred, he never showed up after it had passed dark; usually he arrived by midafternoon so he could share supper with her. And he always sent a messenger with a note to let her know when to expect him.
He’d also warned her about opening the door after dark, for though she lived in a nice apartment in a relatively safe area, she was still a young woman alone.
So it was with some trepidation that Rosette went to the door. “H-hello?” she called, not daring to open it, as per Mordred’s warning. “W-who is it?”
A moment’s silence. Then, “Rosette? Is that–is that ye?”
“Mama!” Rosette pulled the door open. “Mama, what are you doing here?”
“I — I heard …” Cerise stammered. Rosette’s jaw fell; it was the first time she’d heard or seen her mother at anything less than her brassy, bossy best. “But I never thought …” She stared, uncomprehending, at her daughter’s face.
Rosette felt herself start to flush, but covered it by opening the door. “Where are my manners? Come in, Mama, come in …”
Cerise took a few wobbly steps into the room, looking about her in a mix of awe and confusion. If Rosette hadn’t known her mother so well, she would have said she was drunk.
Then Cerise’s eyes fell on Rosette, and any impression of confusion was gone. “What,” she hissed, “is that?”
She pointed directly at Rosette’s bulging stomach, impossible to hide in the candlelight.
Rosette put a hand protectively over her belly. “It’s not what you think, Mama–“
“Not what I think? I think ye’re in the family way, missie!”
“Well — I am.”
“An’ where’s yer wedding ring?” Cerise demanded, giving Rosette just enough time to flush, but not enough time answer. “Oh, I knew it! I knew somethin’ like this would happen if I let ye go off t’ that hoity-toity university! Yer pa wouldn’t hear a word of it, said that ye had too good a head on yer shoulders to let yerself get taken advantage o’, but I knew it!” Cerise rounded on her. “What’s his name?”
“The name o’ the bloke who’s responsible for this!” Cerise shouted, jabbing her finger at Rosette’s stomach.
“Why do you want to know?”
“So yer pa — nah, not yer pa, he’s too old and too slow — so one o’ yer brothers can thrash him within an inch of his life! Or make him marry ye,” Cerise added as an afterthought.
“Mama! You wouldn’t!”
“Watch me.” Rosette clammed up, crossing her arms over her chest. “His name, girl!”
“It’s none of your business,” Rosette spat. “And for the record he didn’t take advantage of me! He’s the one who provided all — this!” she said, waving her hand around vaguely.
Some of the fight seemed to leave Cerise, like the air from a pricked balloon. “Good Lord, it’s worse than I thought,” she whispered. “So it’s true, then?”
“What’s bein’ whispered all over the kingdom, girl! That ye’re Sir Mordred’s kept woman!”
“I’m not–” she started, but backtracked. “We’re in love, yes.”
“Love! Love, she says!” Cerise threw her hands up. “Where’s yer common sense, girl? Love! He’s a lord!”
“He loves me!”
“No, he don’t, oh, he might think yer pretty, he might tell ye pretty things, buy ye nice trinkets, tell ye pretty words, but that ain’t love! He’s only after one thing, an’ for some reason he don’t want to go to whore for it!”
“Don’t ye act fine with me, missie! Ye say he bought all this for ye, do ye? Because ye laid with him?”
“It’s not like that! He wants to provide for me and the babe!”
“Provide? Trap ye, more like! Put ye in this — this — sin-palace, get ye used to the little luxuries, so when ye want to try t’ get some of yer virtue back like the good girl I know ye are, ye’ll be so used t’ the golden cage ye won’t know how to escape!
“An’ that’s assumin’,” Cerise continued, her voice rising with each syllable, “that he don’t get tired o’ ye and toss ye and the little one out on the street! See how far his love gets ye then, missie!”
“Mordred would never do that!”
“Tell that t’ the girls at the whorehouse! They all thought their man would never leave them, too, I’m guessin’!” Cerise shouted. “Oh, enough o’ this — come on,” she said, grabbing Rosette’s arm. “We’re leavin’.”
“Don’t be silly, now — I’m takin’ ye home, where ye belong, t’ get this lord an’ his promises out o’ yer head!”
“Rosette, shush and come on now!”
“NO!” Rosette pulled her hand away, leaving her mother to goggle in shock for the second time that evening. “I won’t leave him!”
Cerise blinked. “Are ye mad, girl?”
“I love him. And,” Rosette’s voice quavered, “if you can’t accept that — then you can leave. Now.”
Cerise stared … then slowly, she turned and walked toward the door.
Before she quite crossed the threshold, though, she turned around. “This ain’t over, ye know,” she said. “When ye come to yer senses — yer pa an’ I will still take ye back. Ye’ve always got a home with us.”
“I’ll never come back,” Rosette swore. “Never. And I’ll never leave him!”
Cerise raised one eyebrow. “We’ll see about that.”
And with that Parthian shot she vanished into the night.