A Saturday evening at the Wesleyan household. Usually such evenings were calm, relaxed affairs. Nobody in the household worked or went to school on Sunday, and though church was a necessity, the next day otherwise was free and empty. It was a good time to sit back, put one’s feet up, and enjoy a quiet evening.
That was what three members of the family were doing, or at least trying to do. Of the three, Joshua and Isabel were probably the most genuinely relaxed. They sat on the sofa, cuddling and whispering into each other’s ears. Helena, meanwhile, stumbled her way through a piece on the piano that was probably too hard for her, but she’d be damned if she would admit it — since Isabel, after all, had been playing it the evening before.
Mark and Heloise were not involved in this family tableau. Mark was, as he usually was on Saturday evening, squirreled away in his study, going over the week’s accounts. Heloise was … well, probably in her room. She had disappeared shortly after dinner and was probably reading.
And Babette … Babette sat in the corner and fidgeted.
She chewed on her lower lip, ventured a glance every now and then out the window — then to the water-clock mounted on the wall. Finally, just as Helena was butchering a series of notes that Isabel had, the night previously, performed flawlessly, she announced, “I’m going to bed.”
Joshua and Isabel — who, from the smiles on their faces and the way they whispered to each other, were probably mentally in a place far away from Helena’s bad playing — looked up, startled. From the wince Isabel gave, she probably did not appreciate the recall to reality. But Joshua only shrugged. “All right. Good night. See you in the morning.”
“Good night, Babette,” Isabel added in her thick accent. It probably wasn’t polite, but Babette thought Isabel had been a bit of a … well, a disappointment, really, since the wedding. She’d seemed so sophisticated, so courtly — and her clothes! Babette would die for clothes like hers! But Isabel barely even talked about her life back in Simspain (and Joshua had told Babette, rather harshly, not to “pester” her about it, saying that there were bad memories she shouldn’t be dredging up), the only hint of sophistication Babette could see was a certain distaste for what chores their hired woman didn’t take care of. And ever since Isabel’s pregnancy had begun to show, she’d put those beautiful, ornate, silken clothes into a trunk and begun to parade around in the sort of outfits any other merchant wife would wear.
And that pregnancy … not that Babette didn’t want a little niece or nephew, she was looking forward to a baby to cuddle and kiss and play with (and hand back to Joshua when it cried!), but it was scary. Isabel had been throwing up nonstop within a couple weeks of the marriage. Heloise had remarked — in Joshua’s hearing — that Isabel must have gotten pregnant the first time they did it.
“That can happen?” Babette had asked, aghast. Heloise had shrugged, and Joshua … Joshua had walked away very quickly, and Babette could hear him guffawing two rooms down. He never explained the joke, though. And Heloise told her not to worry about it.
And Babette wasn’t worrying about it. Not tonight, at any rate. She had bigger things to worry about.
So she bid her mother good night — Helena didn’t even look up — and her father. Mark smiled and kissed her cheek. And then she went upstairs, into her bedroom.
But she didn’t go to sleep. Oh, she went to bed — right into bed, and pulled the covers up to her chin. Just in case someone checked on her. But she didn’t undress or undo her hair. She rolled onto her side, stared at the wall, and waited.
She counted bedroom doors opening and closing. Three times, she figured, would do it. Once for her mother, once for her father, and once for Joshua and Isabel, who generally went to bed at the same time. Heloise was already in bed, so she didn’t need to count her.
She waited. Finally — after the last, heavy tread up the stairs — her father’s tread — after the last bit of shuffling about and bed-creaking in the master bedroom — she thought it was safe.
Slowly, slowly, she got up. Slowly, slowly, she fixed her hair. Slowly, slowly, she crept to the door. She opened it — slowly — and waited.
Nobody came out. No footsteps sounded along the boards. Not a sound, not even the creak of the bed as one of her parents turned over, rang through the house. Babette slowly tip-toed out the door and down the hall.
“And just where do you think you’re going?” came a hiss.
Wearing a nervous smile, Babette turned around. “Um–I wanted a glass of water?” she whispered back.
“In your clothes?” Heloise replied. Then she rolled her eyes. “Never mind. I don’t want to know. Then I won’t have lie to Mum and Dad about it.”
“Aw, thanks Heloise! You’re the best.”
“No, I’m not. I’m just too self-centered to want to get dragged into the middle of your drama.” Heloise turned to retreat back into her room, but she paused, her hand resting on the doorknob. “Babette? If I can offer one word of sisterly advice?”
What kind of advice can she give me? But, “Hmm?” was all Babette would allow herself to reply.
“Don’t. Whatever you’re going to do — wherever you’re going to go — do yourself a favor — and don’t.”
Not even waiting for a reply, Heloise slipped back into her bedroom. And Babette could only scowl at her back. “Like you know anything about … anything!” Babette hissed under her breath. Then she crept down the hall, the stairs, and out the front door.
Being the daughter of the man who owned the only livery stables in the kingdom, Babette knew her way around a stable. Since this was her family’s stable — and since she’d taken the precaution of getting everything ready this afternoon — she knew her way around in the dark. She even know how to get her horse saddled and bridled without help. And most importantly — she knew how to ride.
It didn’t take her long to arrive at their “spot” and the boy waiting for her there. He stood by his family’s carriage (why hadn’t he just ridden? Babette wondered, but didn’t have the courage to ask). And when she saw him, she squealed, vaulted from her horse, and ran to him.
“Aglovale!” she cried, throwing her arms around him.
After a moment that wasn’t nearly long enough, Aglovale pulled away. “Wright almighty, Babette, give a man room to breathe.” His tone might have been surly, but that smile — the tiny little upturn to the corners of his lips — was all it took for Babette’s heart to go pitter-patter.
“Sorry,” she said with a grin she hoped was winsome and impish. “I’m just so happy to see you!”
“Are you?” Aglovale asked. He glanced up at the stars. “You’re late.”
Babette flushed. “Sorry — my family didn’t go to sleep as quickly as I thought they would.” No use mentioning Heloise and her comments. No boys liked Heloise — and no boys liked it when she was brought up.
But boys like me …
“Ah, well,” Aglovale said with a shrug, “I suppose it just means we’ll have less time to spend.”
“No! Why, Aglovale? Can’t you stay a little longer? Just a little?” Babette pouted.
“Wright’s thumbs, no! Do you have any idea how exhausted I am? I spent the whole day training!”
“Oh,” Babette murmured to her feet.
“But … well, we’ll see. Maybe I can stay awake a little longer.” He glanced around. “Come on … let’s go someplace a little less … exposed.”
Babette nodded. They had to keep their courtship under wraps — Aglovale had explained it to her at the beginning. If they were seen in public too often, their parents would surely put a stop to it. Aglovale’s, because Babette was after all, only a merchant girl — and Babette’s, because Aglovale was above her station and her parents would want her to concentrate on more attainable men.
So they would keep it a secret. Looking around one more time, Aglovale set off with long, confident strides toward the one place he knew they wouldn’t be disturbed — the hedge maze.
Babette caught up, catching hold of his hand. “I’m always so nervous I’m going to get lost,” she giggled.
“It’s not that difficult a maze.”
“I know, but …” She sighed and looked up. “Wow … look at all those stars …”
“Lovely,” Aglovale remarked, clearly disinterested. “Here we are,” he said, gesturing toward their “spot” — the little bench in the center of the hedge maze.
Babette sat down, Aglovale following. He stretched and shifted, rolling his shoulders. “Are you comfortable?” Babette asked.
He sighed. “Not really.” He shifted. “Hard training session today … Kay and I sparred, and now I’m bruised all over.”
Babette’s eyes went wide. Imagine, referring to the second-in-line to the throne so casually! Just “Kay”! Not “his royal highness, Prince Kay” or “his highness” or even just “Prince Kay.” Just Kay!
But she knew, if she was going to hear anything more about the royal family — or anyone else for that matter — she had to do her part. “Poor baby,” she crooned. “Here, let me rub your back.” Her arm slowly made its way along his shoulders, massaging as it went. Aglovale sighed and leaned his head against her shoulder.
She rubbed for a few moments, before venturing, “So is Prince Kay really good?”
“Um … sparring?”
“He’s pretty good,” Aglovale replied. “Not as good as Prince Thomas, though … but that’s to be expected.”
Babette nodded sagely; of course it was to be expected that the heir to the throne would be the best at sparring. Whatever that was. The more prosaic reason that Prince Thomas might be better at sparring — that he was three years older than Prince Kay and had already reached his full growth — never even crossed her mind.
“He’s the best of the young knights, isn’t he? Prince Thomas?” Babette asked.
“Eh … I don’t know about that. He’s good, don’t get me wrong … very good … but I think Lamorak is better … personally …”
Babette nodded, of course he would say that, Lamorak was his older brother.
“Though Lamorak says differently … he says you really have to watch out for Sir William … but I think he’s lying … if Sir William was so good at being a knight, why does he want to study law? Huh?”
“I don’t know,” Babette murmured.
“Exactly … and of course Sir Mordred’s good too, but he’s a wizard, so he cheats … oops … shouldn’t have said that, now that Dindrane’s married to him.”
“Lucky her! Getting to be a fine lady, with a castle all hers … well, someday …”
“Eh … don’t know if Dindrane would think that … but she’s odd, though. Papa says she’s got brains … but all she wants to do is be left alone to read …” Aglovale smiled at her and stroked her cheek. “She’s not half as sensible as you.”
Babette grinned … and after that, well, it didn’t take long for the two of them to both get what they had come there for.
Some time later — a few hours, as it happened — Babette arrived home, the horse’s hooves clattering quite loudly against the cobbled driveway. “Shush,” Babette whispered, giggling. “You’ll get me in trouble!”
She quickly stabled the horse and made her way back to the house. But she walked slowly, savoring the night, its cooling breezes against her still-warm cheeks. She stood in the middle of the yard, sighing as she stared at the sky.
Then she shook her head. Really, she was being a fool. She’d have to be up bright and early and pretending to be well-rested tomorrow — best to get to bed pronto.
But still, she couldn’t keep the jaunt out of her step, or the hum from her voice as she crossed the yard and snuck back into in the house. She wasn’t as careful going back in as she had been going out … no, not nearly as careful.
Not that it mattered. For her father was standing at the door as soon as she walked into the house — and he didn’t look happy.
“And just where,” Mark asked, as Babette quailed, “have you BEEN, young lady?”