It was looking to be a good day for Elyan de Ganis. Granted, most days were good days for once such as Elyan. The oldest — only — son of one of Albion’s leading families, the heir apparent to the de Ganis fortune (er … such as it was), the happy receiver of much female attention, how could most days not be good for him?
But today, especially, was looking up.
He couldn’t help putting a strut in his step as he stepped closer to the young … woman, not lady, whom he’d hinted to meet him at the copse of trees by the family château. How wonderful it was, to have a female around — not counting his mother and his sisters, they didn’t count — who was properly obedient to his desires! He probably gave the maiden a wider smile than she deserved for that.
“Hello, my …” he began.
Shit — what’s her name?!
Violet? Flora? Betony? Fern? Something plant-based, of that he was certain. “Flower,” he concluded, drawing one of his fingers down her arm in a slow caress.
The girl giggled. “Oh, Sir Elyan! You’re so romantic!”
He wasn’t a Sir — not yet — but somehow Elyan found no reason to correct her. “It’s a gift,” he said easily, shrugging.
She giggled again, soft titters that would very swiftly get annoying if he wasn’t careful. “Though,” she added with more giggles, “Rosemary is a herb, not a flower.”
Rosemary! Thank you, my dear! “A horrible mistake on the part of the horticulturists,” Elyan said, shaking his head. “A woman of your caliber — and whatever plant that bears your name — should be known as a flower only.”
“Oh, Sir Elyan!” And she giggled — again.
That would have to stop. Quickly.
He grabbed her hand and bestowed an impulsive kiss on it — or at least, it would look impulsive. “Forgive me, my flower,” he said. He might as well establish that as a pet name now, so that the next time he forgot her name, he could use the pet name and she would suitably melt. But hopefully not giggle. “Forgive me for not bestowing this testament to your beauty sooner.”
She waved her hand in front of her face, and her annoying, creaky giggles were replaced by the far-more-agreeable sound of sighs. Agreeable if only because they were quieter. “Oh, Sir Elyan!”
Could she say anything else? Yes, she could, she had told him her name. And he was fairly certain that she had given a verbal agreement to meet him at the copse. Or maybe she hadn’t. Maybe it was just more giggling. He couldn’t really remember. “Yes, rosebud?” he asked. Maybe if he kept working the word “rose” into conversation with her, he’d remember her name better — or if he didn’t, he’d have another pet name.
“I — what?”
“You keep saying my name.” He grinned in a manner that he thought was rakish — and if she didn’t interpret it that way, she was too clever to say so. Clever, not intelligent, because as Elyan well knew, women could never be intelligent. Clever, witty, even cunning — all those things — but intelligence, true intelligence, was a man’s purview. “I assume you have something to add to it?”
He hoped she knew how gracious he was being, soliciting her opinion like this. Though, if he was to be honest, the, “Yes, rosebud?” had been a test. If she had responded instantly with some statement or request, he would know that she was far too forward for his tastes and would be sure to drop her. But gently, women, even when they were too forward, were still the weaker vessels. But since she had passed the test, he would pretend to listen to, because, as his father had said many of time, women loved to believe that they had something to say that a man would be willing to hear. Unfortunately, that as generally only true in two instances: one, a wife telling her lord that she was carrying his child, and the second, the midwife telling the lord that his wife had borne him a healthy son.
When Elyan was younger, he used to wonder why a man wouldn’t be willing to hear that his wife had borne him a healthy daughter, or a sickly child of either sex — after all, the lord would be having to deal with consequences of any such announcement, anyway, so it was useful information to know. Now he understood that his father had been exaggerating, and of course the midwife’s information was necessary. It just wasn’t welcome.
“I guess I didn’t really have anything else to say,” the girl said, blushing deeply enough that he could see it even through her unattractive olive complexion. He wasn’t sure which possible explanation for that unfortunate skintone was worse: bad breeding, or an unfeminine inclination toward time in the sunlight. He would have to watch her carefully over the winter months to see if she paled at all — if she did, he would know it was from sunlight.
“I hope you don’t mind,” she added. Elyan’s confusion as to what he wasn’t supposed to be minding must have shown on his face, for she added, with a giggle, “That I didn’t have anything else to say.”
Elyan leaned forward and whispered, “Rosemary, I don’t mind at all.”
She grinned and very cleverly said nothing. It was a pity she was so plain — lips thin as a reed, league-long face, hair unfortunately pulled back so as to reveal every uninspiring angle and curve. Maybe she would be prettier if she was paler? Probably not, Elyan thought. Even so, part of him pitied not just himself, forcing to recourse to her in order to gain an acceptable amount of female attention, but to her as well. Too plain to be a nobleman’s mistress, and not well-bred enough for a nobleman’s wife — what would happen to Rosemary, when he was done with her? She’d probably be married off to some shopkeeper, or maybe, if she was lucky, a bailiff or reeve of some lord’s lands. Her surname, he remembered suddenly, was “Steward” — probably her father had some connections among the servants of the royal family and nobility and would arrange a suitable match for her among their ranks.
Just as well that she was so plain, then. Even if her husband’s rank within his lord’s household was high enough that she herself would not have to serve, her sons would, and her daughters would probably be drawn into the life of the household to some extent. And it wouldn’t do for servants, especially servant girls, to be pretty. Pretty servant girls only led to trouble. Being pretty gave them ideas, ideas that usually figured their lords’ sons (or their lord himself, if he was a young man) prominently. At first it was only a few presents — an extra bolt of cloth, some nice ribbons, maybe a coin or two — traded for a kiss or two, later it was bigger presents in exchange for greater favors. Finally they became pregnant and either demanded marriage, if they thought their lord was gullible enough, or healthy settlement if he wasn’t. Either way, what seemed like good fun at first soon turned into mess and bother for the lord, and eventually produced more pretty servants to plague a new generation of lords. In other words, it wasn’t worth the bother.
She was blushing and giggling again, so Elyan let drop another pretty compliment — what it was didn’t matter, since women would lap up anything you told them, as long as you said it in a sweet voice and didn’t sound completely insulting. And another. And another. She, true to form, lapped them all up.
If only he could graft Leona’s face and breeding onto this girl’s personality! Or perhaps graft this girl’s personality onto Leona. That would probably be the better option. Elyan knew his father was a stubborn man, and it wouldn’t matter that a young noble woman, lovely, gently reared and obedient (if a bit over-giggly), and even well-dowered were to descend straight from Heaven, sent by the Lord Wright himself, Elyan’s perfect match — Sir Bors had decided that Elyan would marry Leona, and so he would marry Leona.
He scowled at the mere thought of that ill-bred (despite her established pedigree) harpy. But he would show her — sooner or later. He would teach her to be obedient, and to give up her foolish thoughts of independence and self-reliance to rely on him. He would teach her her duty, soon enough.
Rosemary’s lips were quivering — at least that’s what he thought they were doing, they were so thin it was hard to tell — and Elyan’s attention was momentarily drawn back to her. “What’s wrong?”
“You’re scowling. Did I do something wrong?”
He smiled. How exquisitely feminine, instantly taking the blame for his bad mood upon herself! “No, my flower,” he said. “I just realized …” A glance at the sun’s progress told him everything he needed to know. “Alas, I just realized that our time grows short. I’ll see you later, Rosemary.” Then, to reward her for her compliance, he drew her near to him and planted a chaste peck on her lips.
Ebullient with his success, Elyan saw Rosemary off the property — no use letting his father catch her, that would only lead to problems — and went back into the château. Oh, how triumphant he would be tomorrow with Kay and Aglovale! They had teased him mercilessly ever since he had grown old enough to be expected to pay attention to Leona and for Leona to pay attention to him. They had — somehow or other — known how willful and disobedient she was, and had somehow acted as if that was his fault! “What’s the matter, don’t know how to treat a woman right?” Kay had asked, while Aglovale had cackled and accused him of being castrated or worse.
Well, he would show them. He would show them both! They would see, soon enough, while Aglovale only had his merchant girl and Kay chased anything that wore a skirt but couldn’t stick to one girl to save his life, that Elyan had two girls all to himself. One was his betrothed (or close enough), his guaranteed, his future wife. The other — the other was just for now, just for fun, but soon enough she would be replaced by something more pretty, more permanent, and more skillful.
Less giggly, too. He would have to make that a top priority in his search for Rosemary’s replacement.
The only trouble was that he had no one with whom to share his triumph with now — it was too late in the afternoon to call at either the palace or at Caer Dyfed, the Gwynedd family keep. His father, he knew, wouldn’t want to hear about it; women, to him, were good for one thing only, and that one thing was only to be enjoyed with one’s wife. Any other enjoyment was liable to produce bastards, and bastards were only an endless source of trouble and expense. He couldn’t confide in any of the menservants, either — assuming, of course, that he would willingly associate with any so low — for fear that word would get back to his father.
But his mother …
Of course he couldn’t tell his mother the whole truth; she was both a woman — too delicate — and a compassionate one. She would be too soft-hearted to take well the knowledge that Elyan was only using Rosemary for practice; she would try to convince him — gently, of course — to either try to care for Rosemary entirely, or to drop her before he was ready to. Either way would lead to a great deal of inconvenience for him. But he could still share his sense of triumph with her, making up a suitable reason for it. It would be enough to his mother that he had had a triumph, and she would celebrate it with him.
Nodding, he went in search of his mother.
His plan ran into an immediate snag, though, in that he found that she was not in any of the usual places. Not in the parlor, sewing — not in the music room, practicing upon one of the instruments. Not in the dining room or kitchen, making certain that all was in readiness for supper. Perhaps she was upstairs, resting. Wright knew his mother was properly delicate and needed her rest. He would check upstairs.
He had no sooner mounted the steps when he heard his father bellow. “I tell you it’s not acceptable!”
“Bors, please –”
Elyan froze. What — what could his mother have possibly done that was anything less than acceptable?
“I tell you, I won’t have it!” Bors shouted. “That woman — that witch — is ten years your senior and due to give birth at any minute, while you — you haven’t even had a late course since Elyan was born! It’s not right, and I won’t have it!”
“Bors, you know we’re both doing everything in our power –”
“Wrong! I am doing everything in my power to engender another son! You are clearly failing, somehow, otherwise Elyan would have had a brother by now!” He sighed, exasperated. “I never should have given in to your request for a rest after his birth! Clearly, not bearing another son as soon as it was possible has destroyed your fertility!”
“My dear, I’ve talked to the midwife many times, she assures me that — that waiting after Elyan’s birth was the only sensible thing to do. Bors, please — I bore four children in our first six years of marriage–”
“Well, that wasn’t my fault! If you had only borne a son the first time or the second — or even the third — there would have been no need to space the births so close together!”
“My lord, please! I’m doing everything I can, short of witchcraft, to conceive another child!”
Silence. Elyan heard himself breathing a sigh of relief — maybe Bors would leave his mother alone now —
No such luck. “What do you mean, short of witchcraft?”
“I — my lord — Bors –”
“What do you mean?”
Elyan heard a sound that seemed suspiciously like a gulp. “Bors, you said yourself — Lady Morgause is a witch. And she’s almost ten years my senior. How — how unlikely is it, really, that she would turn to — to demonic powers to conceive?”
Silence again. This time, though, Elyan held his breath.
He didn’t have to hold it for long. “NO EXCUSES!” Bors bellowed. “I don’t care how she conceived her child, you’ll be conceiving one of your own within a year — or else! That tea — that tea the midwife told you to drink –”
Claire sighed. “The nettle tea, Bors?”
“Aye, that! You’ll be drinking it for breakfast, lunch and dinner until you’re pregnant — and that’s final!” On the words “that’s final,” Elyan knew it was his cue to get out of the way. He ducked into his bedchamber and waited.
Soon enough, there was a slam, and then several stomping footsteps down the hallway. Elyan waited. When five minutes passed with no resumption of stomping, he crept out of his bedchamber and into his parents’.
Claire was standing in the middle of the room, staring into space. Elyan knocked and she looked up, suddenly, as if she was coming from a daze. “Elyan.”
“Mother.” He gave her his best, his strongest smile. “Are — are you all right?”
“Of course I am, dear.”
Of course she wasn’t, but she wouldn’t say that. And Elyan knew she wouldn’t say that. He frowned. “He — he should be more sensitive with you,” he said.
Claire smiled. “That’s very kind of you to say, Elyan.”
“It’s common sense,” Elyan replied, doggedly. “If he wants — wants another son that badly, he must know that you want one just as badly. If not more badly.”
Was it Elyan’s imagination, or did a flash of — something make its way across Claire’s face? “Your father is quite desperate … you must understand, Lord Lot has been — has been justifiably proud over fathering another child on his wife, at his age and at her age, and, well, your father …” She stopped, shaking her head. “I’ve — I’ve accepted the possibility that the Lord Wright might not send us any more children. Your father — your father has not.”
How good of his mother, to hide her hurt behind a mask of virtuous resignation! But she wouldn’t fool Elyan. “Mother, you don’t have to lie to me,” he said. “You can tell me how you really feel. I won’t — I won’t tell Father.”
“Even if I told you,” Claire near-whispered — was he even supposed to hear her — “that I’m perfectly content with not having any more children?”
Elyan stared. “Do — do you mean that you’re happy with the children you have — or that you don’t want another one?” It was the former, it had to be the former, there was no way that it couldn’t be the former —
Claire sighed. “Shut the door, Elyan — and sit down. I can explain, I promise.”
He complied, sitting on the velvet-upholstered bench beside his mother. Claire took a deep breath and began to speak.
“Elyan, I’m thirty-nine years old,” she said. “If I were to have a child tomorrow, do you know how old I would be when he was your age?” Elyan didn’t have a chance to calculate before she answered. “Fifty-four. I would be fifty-four years old, with a fifteen-year-old child. And, unless the child was a girl and was sent–dedicated to the nunnery at — at a young age, like your … like Angelique — unless that was the case, I would be responsible, in some way or another, for that child until he or she turned eighteen at the earliest, or perhaps twenty-two. So I would either be fifty-seven or perhaps even sixty-one before my child was old enough to stand on his or her own two feet.”
“But Father would be ultimately responsible for the child, not you.”
“Yes, but your father is four years older than I am. So he would be sixty-one or even sixty-five when the child was old enough to be left on his or her own.” Claire turned an almost beseeching look to him. “Elyan, what are the odds that either your father or I would live to be that old?”
“You’re — you’re both in good health –”
“Aye, so we are now — and so was Farmer Thatcher, two days before he died.” Elyan cocked his head to one side. “Mistress Thatcher — er — the midwife’s husband. He died about a month ago.”
“Oh,” Elyan murmured.
“He was only fifty-two,” Claire murmured to her skirt. “He left three children behind. Elyan — is it such a crime to not want to bear a child that I might not live to see grow up? Is it so bad, not to want to leave a child to someone else — someone like you, who will doubtless want to be raising your own children and not your father’s and mine — to raise?”
Well, when she put it like that … “But surely Father has done the math as well,” Elyan said. “If he — if he thinks it’s acceptable …” No, Elyan, whispered the voice of his better sense, no, that won’t do at all. He knew his father too well to think that Bors would have thought the whole proposition out in as obsessive a detail as Claire would have. As Claire had.
“And what,” Claire murmured, “if the child were to be a girl?” She sighed. “I — I couldn’t bear — I wouldn’t want to …”
That Elyan understood completely.
Of course Claire wouldn’t want to fail in her wifely duties for a fourth time! The first three had surely delivered their series of disappointments to Claire. No wonder she didn’t want to risk another failure. If a general had fought four battles, lost three and only won one, well, who would blame him for wanting to get out of the army before he lost anymore?
And Claire had already won her most important battle. So why should she continue to fight, and risk more failure — or risk winning the battle but not being to enjoy the fruits of victory?
“It’s all right, Mother,” Elyan said, rising and helping Claire to her feet. “I understand. It all makes perfect sense.” He embraced her.
“Do you really believe that?” Claire asked. He could hear the smile in her voice and knew that he had succeeded in making her feel better.
“Of course. Just pray to the Lord Wright, and I’m sure he’ll make sure everything takes the right path. You’ll see.”
And then Claire sighed. “I pray all the time for the Lord Wright’s help and guidance, Elyan … we shall see if, this time, His plan for me matches up with my desires.”
But by the sound of her voice — she didn’t hold out much hope.