“In the name of Wright, Amen.” Their mealtime prayer concluded, the Chevaux family could finally get to what they most wanted to do at this hour: eat.
“This fish is lovely, Meg,” Edmond remarked between mouthfuls. Pierre sensed that would be all he heard from his father, all night.
Then again, the fish was lovely. And it hit the spot perfectly after a hard day’s work. The de Ganis lands were poor and yielded little, but Sir Bors always had grand plans for improvement, come spring. Unfortunately for Pierre, those plans involved a good deal of preparation through the winter. So when most workers got a bit of a break during the cold season, not Pierre.
Trying not to sigh, Pierre tucked into his own meal with a will — all the more so since it was his night to mind Basil as they ate, and who knew how much or little time he would have to his own meal?
“Thank’ee, Grandpa,” Meg replied. It was so odd, hearing his father being called Grandpa — but now they had to use those sorts of names all the time, or at least all the time when Basil was awake. He was learning to talk now, picking up a new word every day, and if they went on calling each other by their first names as they had when he was still too little to notice, it would only confuse him.
Speaking of Basil. “An’ Basil,” Meg was saying, her voice as calm and unruffled as if she was pointing out a flake of snow or a bunny rabbit to the little one, “yer food’s fer eatin’, not fer throwin’.”
Pierre looked over his shoulder to see his son setting the mush back on his plate with a pout.
“How did ye …” Pierre started.
“Eyes in the back o’ the head, me lad, they come with motherhood!” Cerise chortled.
“An’ not fatherhood?” Pierre asked.
“Guess not,” Edmond announced ruefully. “‘Cause I didn’t notice ‘im, either.” He frowned. “An’ I swear, I spent more time pickin’ mashed carrots out o’ me hair when ye all were little than I did ticklin’ ye or playin’ with ye …”
“That ain’t an invitation, Bas–”
Meg’s sentence was interrupted by a loud knocking at the door.
“Wright above, who can that be at this hour?” Cerise wondered. Before any of them could answer her question, the knocking came again — more like a pounding this time.
“I’ll get it,” Pierre said, throwing his napkin to the table. “An’ ye, sir,” he ticked Basil under the chin, “behave. I don’t want no half-chewed fish greetin’ me when I go ter sit down again, ye hear?”
Knock knock knock!
“All right, all right, I’m comin’!” Pierre marched over to the door, threw it open, and —
It was Erin, all right — the whore with whom he had lain all of two times. Two times. She must have had a dozen johns who’d seen her more than that! What was she doing here?
And why did she look ready to cry?
“Pierre! Oh, Pierre, ye gotta help me!” She went to throw her arms around his neck — Pierre took a quick step back and held out his arm to ward her off. Holding her steady, holding her back, he glanced at his family.
His parents were watching with mixed amounts of curiosity, confusion, and, in Cerise’s case, rapidly growing anger. Basil was taking advantage of their inattention by throwing his fish into Edmond’s hair.
Meg watched with no readable expression — not even a raised eyebrow.
“Erin … miss …”
“They took ‘im!” she cried out, her breath hitching on a sob.
“Wulf!” Who the bloody hell is Wulf? “They took ‘im away from me! They took ‘im screamin’ from me arms! Oh, Pierre, ye have ter help me!”
She wants me to help track down one of her johns for her? “Erin …”
He glanced again at his family.
Before Erin could say anything else, he grabbed her shoulder. “We’ll talk about this outside.” Not even bothering to grab a cloak or scarf for himself, he hustled her out the door. “Now, what the hell’s going on?” And why are you here?
“I told ye! They took Wulf!”
There she goes, claimin’ I fathered a kid on her again. I’ve only been with her twice, an’ she says she’s got two kids by me! Where does she–
Somebody took her kid?
That — that was different. If someone was stealing babies in Albion —
“Wright Almighty, Erin, ye been to the town guards yet?”
“What are ye talkin’ about? They helped take ‘im!” She covered her face with her hands and started sobbing again. “They came with that awful monk Brother Tuck, an’ I tried to hide, but they found us anyway!”
“Why would Brother Tuck take –”
“‘Cause I ain’t fit ter be his mother, they said!” she screamed, wiping away the tears that had started to stream from her eyes. “Because I carried ‘im, I gave birth to ‘im, an’ I fed ‘im an’ I changed ‘im an’ I held ‘im an’ I took care o’ ‘im when he was sick — but none of that matters, because I earn me livin’ on me back, so I ain’t fit ter take care o’ him!” she shrieked to the night.
“Erin — Erin, calm down –”
“Don’t tell me ter calm down!” she shouted. “They took my baby away from me, I ain’t calmin’ down ’til I get ‘im back!”
“Er …” He took a deep breath. “Fine, ye won’t calm down. But Wright above — look, I’m sorry about yer kid, I know that must — hurt,” Wright, he could feel the inadequacy of what he was saying, hurt? When they took the little one straight from her arms, it seemed? “Anyway, it sucks balls ter be ye right now, I get it, but what do ye want me ter do? I can’t fight against the church!”
“But yer sister can!”
“Rosette! She’s Sir Mordred’s mistress, ain’t she?”
Wright above, how did this woman know every detail in his sister’s life like that?
“She can talk to ‘im!” Erin shouted. “Get ‘im ter — ter lean on the Church an’ make ’em give me Wulf back! He won’t do it just fer me, an’ Marigold already axed him an’ he said no, but if Rosette axed ‘im — oh, he won’t say no ter her! He couldn’t say no ter her!”
“I don’t know about–”
“Pierre! If someone took yer kid, an’ I could help, I’d help ye!”
“Now, that’s enough!” he snapped. “I ain’t spoken face-ter-face with Rosette since before she left fer that blasted school. Who’s ter say she’d say yes to me, even if I did ask ‘er?”
“She’d have to! She’s got kids o’ her own, ain’t she? What if the Church took them next?”
That made his blood run cold.
But — no. No, that wasn’t possible. Rosette, though she’d given up the protection of her family and the Church by her — unconventional lifestyle — she still had a protector. Sir Mordred. And, if Pierre knew his sister as well as he thought he did — and if Sir Mordred valued Rosette’s happiness at all, and not just her body — there would be no way that Sir Mordred would ever allow the Church to take Rosette’s children away.
But there was no reason why Sir Mordred would feel the need to do the same for an anonymous whore — even if Rosette did ask him.
“I’m sorry, Erin, but I can’t help ye. Yer better off beggin’ at the church door yerself fer ‘im. Sir Mordred ain’t gonna go out of his way ter help a poor man — an’ he sure ain’t gonna go out of his way ter help a whore. I’m sorry, but that’s jest how it is. I wish ye luck, though, in gettin’ ‘im back.” He turned and began to walk back toward the house.
“Pierre! Pierre, ye can’t do that! He’s yer son too! Pierre! PIE–”
He shut the door behind him.
Pierre turned to look at his family.
Basil and Edmond were gone. Meg was washing the dishes. And Cerise was standing at the end of the table, fuming.
“What the hell was that about?” she snapped. “I thought I raised ye better than this! Now ye’ve got whores callin’ at the house at all hours –”
“Ma, don’t start.”
“I’ll start if I want ter start! How many babes have ye gone an’ fathered out o’ wedlock? Wright, I thought it was yer brother I need to be worryin’ about, an’ now–”
“Cerise.” Both of them jumped to hear Meg’s soft voice. “Even if Pierre is sleepin’ with whores every night,” she said quietly, still up to her elbows in suds, “I don’t see how it’s any business o’ yers.”
“None of my business! How –”
“He’s a grown man,” Meg continued as if she hadn’t even heard Cerise, “he makes his own money, an’ what he spends it on — whatever he spends it on — ain’t none o’ yer business. Conversely, it ain’t like ye’ve got any reason ter be checkin’ up on his sex life, now, ain’t it?”
“I’m his mother!”
“And that bein’ said, I hope ye ain’t sleepin’ with ‘im.” Both Cerise and Pierre gasped at that. “Seein’ as though ye aren’t, though, an’ seein’ as though ye ain’t got no right to inquire as to how he spends his hard-earned money — why don’t ye let the one person in this house who is sleepin’ with him determine how best ter rip his head off?” Meg looked over her shoulder at Cerise, one eyebrow slightly raised. Other than that, her face was a neutral mask.
So much fer thinkin’ that she’d taken me side …
“It’s a moral failin’, Meg, an’ as his mother –”
“It still don’t concern ye. Ye lost the right ter be concerned with his moral failings once they stopped reflectin’ on ye — an’ they stopped doin’ that a while ago.” She turned back to the water-filled barrel. “Pierre, if ye could wait in the bedroom, I’ll be there in jest a minute, I jest need to finish these last dishes up.”
For a minute, he debated ignoring her — but realizing that he was going to be screamed at no matter what he did, and in short order, too, he decided to shuffle into the bedroom.
When Meg finally entered the room, the neutral mask was gone, replaced only by an angry glower. She crossed her arms before her chest. “Explain.”
“Meg, I’m sorry.”
“That’s very nice, but that ain’t an explanation.”
“I only was — was with her twice, I swear it!”
“Only twice? So ye only dishonored our marriage vows twice. Am I supposed ter be grateful ye didn’t do it a third time?”
“No, no! It was only once since we were married! The first time — we weren’t married yet!”
“Only once since we were married. Well, that makes me feel better,” she snapped. “What about the child?”
“What — what child?”
“The one she’s claimin’ is yours! The one she was screamin’ about! No point lyin’, we all heard her!”
“I — Meg, I don’t know any more than ye do. I never heard of no second kid–”
Pierre closed his eyes. “She claims that — that the first time we — that she — I — anyways, she says I fathered her first kid. But she’s a whore, Meg! There ain’t no way she can know whose kid either of them are!”
She snorted. “If she’s right, then that makes ye the most virile man in Albion — with everyone but yer wife.”
“So, this one time ye were with her — why? Am I not good enough fer ye, Pierre? Needed a woman with more fancy tricks?”
“No, no! Meg, ye’re all I want, all I dreamed — that other time — it just — it just happened.”
“When did it just — happen?”
“I …” Pierre gulped. “I — I don’t suppose ye’d remember, but … oh, about a month or so after we were married — ye remember Simon took me out drinkin’, an’ he got drunk off his arse, an’, well, I had to take ‘im home an’ by the time I got there –”
“Ye mean that night that I stayed up half the night, sick with worry about ye — sure ye’d been set on by robbers or murderers or worse — ye were with a WHORE the whole time?!”
“No, no! Not the whole time! I — I swear, everythin’ I told ye about that night was true! Except …”
“Except everythin’ important!”
“No! Except that Simon — Simon dragged me to the whorehouse, not to — not just to the pub.”
“And ye were with that woman?”
“Yes,” Simon admitted, staring at the floor.
Meg stared at him, breathing quickly. “An’ ye think that makes it better?” she snapped. “That ye were only with her once since ye were married? An’ that somehow it was all yer brother’s fault?”
“It was! He didn’t even tell me –”
“That don’t matter! Ye could have walked away! Ye could have been a man!”
“I did! I mean, I have! Since that night, I ain’t been anywhere near that place! Meg, I swear –”
“I don’t care!” Meg shouted. “Wright above! I helped me sister set herself up so he wouldn’t have to marry Berach, an’ I supported her — but if she’d forgiven him, I swear she would have found the better man!”
“Meg — Meg, ye don’t mean that –”
“Who says I don’t?” Meg snapped. “He ain’t never been untrue to no woman he’s married to — an’ what’s more, when the woman he was with showed up on his doorstep an’ begged for some help with her baby — he manned up an’ helped!”
Later that night — as Pierre made his cold bed on the sofa — that was the one insult she hurled that stung most.