“This game is so confusin’,” Lyndsay remarked, scratching her head as she surveyed the board. “I don’t understand what the noble-folks see in it. Seems to me that ye’d get more fun out o’ a good ol-fashioned game o’ dice or such-like.”
She wasn’t telling the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, as the magistrate would say. (Not that Lyndsay had any recent experience with a magistrate, but on winter days on the road, if you wound up in a county seat on a court day, watching the trials was a free way to keep warm — and as long as you were quiet and didn’t look like you were about to go picking a pocket, nobody would kick you out, even if you were a shifty-looking gypsy child.) Lyndsay knew the rules of chess as well as anyone, her grandfather had had a traveling set and they’d played many a game on the road. But a few offhand remarks about the game might be just what it took to get her guest — her oh-so-mysterious guest — talking.
Lyndsay peeked through her lashes at the woman sitting across from her. She was a nice young woman, no question about that — but a quiet one. She had begun working at the Spring Onion about a month or so ago, washing dishes, mopping floors, cleaning up after the cooks and being a general, all-around dogsbody. But unlike most dogsbodies, who performed their tasks only long enough to get enough coppers to move onto the next town or simply to get a bit of bread for the night, this young woman seemed to want to stick around.
And then there was her name. Nicole Saquina. It wasn’t the “Nicole” part that got Lyndsay thinking, but the Saquina. The name wasn’t one of Glasonland, nor one of Reme. It might have been Simspanish, but Nicole’s accent was all wrong for that. She had an accent, all right, but it was a neutral, upper-crust one, not the accent of a native speaker of Simspanish. Or any other language that Lyndsay had come across in her many years of travels, before she met Ash — Ash, the very epitome of rooted — and settled down with him.
As Lyndsay watched her, Nicole shrugged. “I think — I think the noblemen use it to plan military strategies and such. And their wives play it because … well, I assume because everyone just does.” She looked up with a small smile. “I was never much good at it, either.”
“But ye learned,” Lyndsay remarked. “Not everyone does that.”
“I …” Nicole bit her lip. She shrugged. “My — my father knew, and he taught me.”
“Now where would a travelin’ peddlar learn how to play chess?” Lyndsay asked.
Nicole looked up. “I beg your pardon?”
“A travelin’ peddlar? Ain’t that what ye said yer father was?”
Nicole shook her head.
Lyndsay waited, but no follow-up statement came on its heels, no No, my father was a farmer, or, My father was a blacksmith, or even, My father was a great lord, but my ma and I were never allowed to mention that outside the family circle. “Guess I must’ve got ye mixed up with someone else. Sorry about that,” Lyndsay replied after a suitable interval have passed. She hesitated for a split-second, then asked, “So what did yer pa do?”
Nicole looked down, biting her lip, almost entirely focused on the board.
“He was — a farmer,” Nicole finally said, slowly, all the while blushing like a young girl meeting her first swain.
Ha. If yer pa was a farmer, mine was the King of Glasonland! Actually, knowing her ma’s reputation and the King of Glasonland’s, that was just within the realm of possibility … or it would have been, if Lyndsay hadn’t been conceived at the gypsies’ winter camp in Gaul. Or at least, that’s where she thought she was conceived. Trying to pin down one’s elders’ recollections on silly things like that was borderline impossible, anyway.
But all of that was beside the point. “Was?” Lyndsay asked, delicately — or at least, she tried to make it sound delicate.
“He — he’s dead.”
“Aw, I’m so sorry to hear that!” Lyndsay truly was — something in the younger woman’s voice told her that this was no made-up story meant to build sympathy or whatnot. “Must be awful on ye. An’ yer ma, of course.”
“My — my mother?” The blush was gone, replaced by an awful paleness. “No — I mean — it’s not — it’s not so bad for her. She — she’s dead, too.”
That … Lyndsay wasn’t too sure about that. There was pain being masked in the girl’s voice, that was certain; but why? Because of her mother’s death? Or because of … what?
“Ye poor thing!” Lyndsay cried out, patting the other woman’s hand. “Must ‘ave been awful for ye. Lemme guess, ye were half-raised by the church, and yer lord took yer land?”
“I — what?”
“Well … I assumed …” Lyndsay stroked her chin. “I mean, since yer here — an’ ye ain’t from here, I mean, Nicole, ye only got open yer mouth fer folks ter know that — an’ since folks don’t often move too far from where they were born — ‘specially not young women, all on their own — well, I thought …” An’ ye sure as hell ain’t no gypsy, that’s fer sure! “Anyway — that’s what I thought. If I’m wrong, though — I’m sorry.”
“There’s nothing to apologize for,” Nicole said with a small smile. After a moment’s hesitation, she added, “Our — our lord did take our land, you might say. But I wasn’t raised by the Church.” She fiddled with one of the pieces, then, at the last minute, decided to move another one. “I — I was too old for the Church to take me in.”
“Well, ain’t that jest like a lord!” Lyndsay said, shaking her head. “Let a young girl get orphaned — ’cause, I know ye’d like ter think yer older, Wright knows I did at yer age, but ye really ain’t that old — but anyway, let a young girl get orphaned, then take away her only chance o’ keepin’ herself! Makes ye wonder if they’re thinkin’ with their heads, their hearts, or their wallets!”
Nicole gave a quick, restrained shrug.
“Don’t blame ye fer runnin’ away after that happened — nope, don’t blame ye at all.”
Nicole looked up, her eyes rather wider than they should have been.
“Lords!” Lyndsay continued, throwing her hands up in the air. “Now, don’t get me wrong, some of ’em ain’t half-bad — but most of ’em … work a man an’ his wife ter death, then, if the kids ain’t strong enough ter give a good amount of work before they croak, well, toss the kiddies off the land an’ put someone else on it who can. An’ who cares what happens to the kiddies?”
“I — well — don’t lords have a right to make sure that their land produces as much as it should?”
“Their land? Pshaw! Lemme tell ye something, my folk don’t hold much with holdin’ land fer ourselves — we’re rollin’ stones, most of us, anyway — but lemme put it to ye this way — who’s got a better right to land, the family that works it an’ sweats over it year in an’ year out, until Kingdom come, practically, or –”
Knock knock knock!
“Blast it,” Lyndsay murmured. “Jest when this was gettin’ interestin’. I’ll be right back, ye jest sit tight.” Hopefully she would sit tight. She’d been looking mighty uncomfortable as Lyndsay started to pick up steam.
If her parents were farmers, simple farmers, mine were the King an’ Queen o’ Glasonland!
But that wasn’t getting her anywhere. Still shaking her head, Lyndsay opened the door —
Only to come face-to-face with the closest thing she had to a mother-in-law.
“Kata,” Lyndsay said, as she reached out to embrace the older woman. “Kata, how are ye?”
“Oh, I’m fine,” she said — she lied, more like. Lyndsay pulled back and surveyed Kata closely. The poor woman looked like she had aged ten years since Jeremiah’s death. There were dark circles under her eyes, wrinkles on her forehead — no, she didn’t look well at all.
“Well, come in, come in,” Lyndsay said, ushering Kata inside. “Here, I’ll take yer cloak — oh. Kata, this is Nicole — friend o’ mine from the Onion — Nicole, this is Kata.” How exactly to introduce her without going into extremely complex family history? “Ash’s stepmother,” seemed to be the easiest explanation.
“How do you do?” Nicole asked, while Kata only smiled.
“Can I get ye somethin’?” Lyndsay asked, when the well-known sound of a shrieking toddler, up from her nap, cut off Kata’s answer. “Blast,” Lyndsay murmured. “I’ll be right back.”
“Do ye mind if I come?” Kata asked. “Been a long time since I saw the little ones.”
“Ye want ter help me with the little noisemakers? Be my guest! Hey — Nicole, why don’t ye come up, too? Ye ain’t even met the babies yet.”
“Oh — well, if I wouldn’t be intruding …”
Lyndsay winced. “Ye’d better bring earplugs. All right, all right, Ginny! Mama’s comin’!”
“Auntie an’ Mama are the same person!” Lyndsay called up the stairs as Kata and Nicole followed. After they entered the nursery, Lyndsay went straight to Ginny’s crib while Kata liberated Thorn.
“What an adorable little girl,” Nicole said, smiling gently down at the little one.
“Ye heard that, Ginny?” Lyndsay asked, tickling her daughter under the chin. “Nicole here thinks ye’re pretty. What do ye say ter her?”
Ginny sucked her thumb and stared up at Nicole with big eyes. Then, pulling her thumb out and smiling a smile that exposed all of her baby-teeth to full view, she said, “Thank’ee!”
“Aww. How old is she?”
“Jest turned two a couple months ago.”
“Two?” Nicole glanced over her shoulder at Thorn, who was happily playing a game of peek-a-boo with Kata. “Are they twins?”
Kata laughed. “Not a bit! Cousins!”
“Gwamma! Do again!”
“Hold yer horses, lad, hold yer horses …” Kata covered her eyes with her hands. “Peek-a-boo!”
Nicole, however, was looking at Lyndsay, frowning. “Cousins?”
“Aye — Thorn is Ash’s sister’s son. She — er — well, she ain’t in no position ter be takin’ care o’ him, so Ash an’ I have had him since … since he was born, practically.” Lyndsay frowned. “Ye — can ye do me a favor, though, an’ not mention that to anyone?”
“Um … all right? Can I ask why?”
“Because that Church is gettin’ way too big fer it’s britches, that’s why,” Kata called up from the floor. “I know they’ve got some good Sims, Wright knows that Father Hugh is one o’ the best folk to walk under the sun … but …” She shook her head. “It just ain’t right, takin’ babies from their mothers!”
“Marigold told ye?” Lyndsay asked, while Nicole looked between the two of them in what could only be described as shock.
“Aye, between her an’ Cerise, I think I’ve got the whole story — an’ I saw Erin, when Marigold called me fer another of the girls … er, I’m a midwife,” Kata added as a sop to Nicole’s growing confusion. “But anyway. I saw Erin when I had ten minute’s break from Tambu. Poor girl, she’s takin’ it awful hard.”
“Erin is …?” Nicole asked.
“Another one o’ Marigold’s girls. The one who’s little one got taken away from her.”
“Whores,” Lyndsay mouthed. Nicole’s eyes practically fell from her head, they went so wide.
“Marigold says she disappears fer hours an’ hours every day — an’ she don’t have a clue where the girl goes. Said she’s afraid one o’ these nights she — Erin, I mean — ain’t gonna come back, an’ then one o’ these days, Marigold’s gonna get asked to identify a body they pulled up from the river. She was askin’ me if I could do somethin’ ter help,” Kata continued, rising. “I wish I could, but aside from lockin’ the poor girl up an’ not takin’ yer eyes from ‘er ’til the worst is over, what can ye do?” She dusted herself off. “But I didn’t come ‘ere ter talk about yer sister-in-law’s problems.”
No, Kata probably hadn’t, and Wright knew that Lyndsay was already responsible for two many of Marigold’s problems, more than enough to make her not relish taking on any more of them … but Kata sounded almost normal as she gossiped. Not like a grieving widow at all. And if gossiping about Marigold’s problems gave Kata that distraction, who was Lyndsay to refuse to listen?
“Maybe not, but if ye want to go on …” Lyndsay said. She set Ginny down on the floor to play with Thorn. “What were ye doin’ talkin’ ter Cerise, anyway? Thought ye couldn’t stand the ol’ busybody — an’ it ain’t like ye’d be callin’ there in a professional sense anytime soon. Not if Meg has half a spine.”
“Er — actually, that’s what I wanted ter talk ter ye about. Well, somethin’ that has ter do with why I wanted ter talk to Cerise …” She glanced, uneasily, at Nicole. “But if this is a bad time …”
“Actually, I was just leaving,” Nicole said — lied, really. Wright, but that girl was fast to take a hint! “Thank you so much for inviting me over, Lyndsay. It was a lovely visit. And your daughter and nephew are adorable.”
“Thank’ee, Nicole. You come over any time ye feel like, now. Don’t be a stranger!” They went downstairs, Kata coming with them, and said their goodbyes at the door. Then Lyndsay and Kata headed to the kitchen table.
Once they were seated, Kata didn’t beat around the bush. “Lyndsay, I’m an old woman.”
Ye don’t say. Oh, but she had a bad feeling about where this was going …
“I didn’t think I was old before,” she said. “But I didn’t think Jeremiah was old, neither. An’ — well — ye saw what happened.”
“He weren’t that old, Kata.”
“Maybe not, but he was old enough ter be here one minute, an’ gone the next.”
We all are, Kata, Lyndsay thought, but she forced herself to restrain her reaction to a nod.
“An’ — an’ ever since he — went — I keep thinkin’ ter meself, what’s gonna happen ter our kids if I — go?”
Oh, she definitely didn’t like where this was going! She was already responsible for the leftovers from one other person’s inability to take care of their children, who had designated her — and Ash — as Albion’s supplemental orphanage?
But that wasn’t fair, Lyndsay decided — wasn’t fair to Kata, that was. It wasn’t like Kata was going to choose to die anytime soon. She would probably much prefer to still be alive when Billy’s children were at the same stage as Ginny and Thorn! It wasn’t like she was deliberately trying to foist off her responsibilities on someone else …
Besides, Roma, Ella and Billy were older. If worst came to worst — and she prayed, more for Kata and the children’s sake than for her own, that worst wouldn’t come to worst for a good long time — then they wouldn’t be her and Ash’s responsiblity for very long. They’d be starting their own lives, soon enough.
So she took a deep breath, and forced herself to smile.
“If somethin’ — Wright forbid — were to happen ter ye, Kata, ye wouldn’t have nothin’ ter worry about — because ye know that Ash an’ I would make sure Roma, Ella and Billy wouldn’t want fer nothin’. And that’s a promise.”
She just prayed she wouldn’t be called to keep it anytime soon.