“Hungwy, hungwy, hungwy!”
“I know, Melou,” Rosette said as she set the wooden bowl onto Melehan’s tray. “Give Mummy just a second and she’ll get you your breakfast.”
“I know, Melou! Give Mummy a minute!”
Melou did not seem at all inclined to be giving his mother much of anything. He savagely kicked the leg of his high chair and glared as his clearly favored, better-fed brother.
Melehan, sensing this, trailed his finger in his mush, then slowly, slowly, brought the mush-covered finger to his mouth, where he proceeded to lick it clean, all the while staring at Melou and grinning at him.
“Melou! Shush!” Rosette hurried to the high chair with Melou’s bowl. “There now. Are you happy?”
Melou looked at his brother’s portion, saw that it was less (since Melehan had been munching the whole time), and nodded eagerly at his mother. “Silly boy,” Rosette chuckled, tousling his hair. “Now, what do you say, Melou?”
Melou sent her a blank look.
“Come now, Melou, you know what you say.”
Melehan looked up from his breakfast. “Dank oo.” And he grinned at Melou.
“You’re very welcome, Melehan,” Rosette said absently, continuing to look at Melou.
Melou looked up at her and smiled a smile that would melt any mother’s heart, not less so since the grin left open to inspection many of the places where his teeth hadn’t quite grown in yet. “Dank you.”
“Very good, Melou! You’re welcome.” She bestowed a quick kiss on his forehead — and one for Melehan too — before she went back to the fireplace to check on her own breakfast.
“Now who can that be, at this hour?” Rosette wondered to herself. She’d gotten somewhat in the habit of talking to herself since the little ones were infants; she wasn’t sure whether it was helping them in picking up speech-patterns, but it certainly was nice to hear an adult voice among the cacophony of baby babble and dog barking. “Who is it?” she called.
“It’s — it’s me, Rosette.” As if Rosette hadn’t already dropped her spoon in recognition, the voice continued, “Pierre — that is.”
Rosette ran to the door and flung it open, only to find that the voice she heard matched the face she now saw.
“Pierre! Oh, come in, come in! How are you? Did anyone else …” Rosette glanced around him, even as she waved him in and divested him of his cloak, and saw that no, he was alone. “Well, never mind that. How is everyone? Papa? Mama? Meg and the little one?” She saw — something — flicker across his face, and asked again, with more concern than curiosity, “Pierre, is everything all right?”
“No,” he muttered. “But — but Ma an’ Pa an’ — an’ everybody are all right,” he added, hearing Rosette’s panicked gasp. “There ain’t — there ain’t nothin’ like that wrong.”
“Oh,” Rosette murmured.
“Fer Wright’s sake — I know ye still talk to Toinette and Simon — tell me they told ye what happened?”
“They — did,” Rosette admitted. But they didn’t say how hard you were taking it. Toinette, when she brought up the matter, had a great deal to say about it, but it was all along the lines of how foolish men in general were and how foolish Pierre in particular had been — whereas Simon had only griped about the whole thing being “blamed” on him. “I jest wanted ter bring me big brother along fer a good time, is that so wrong?” Simon had asked, before Toinette smacked him on the back of the head.
“But don’t you mind about that,” Rosette said, grabbing Pierre’s hand. “We don’t have to say a word about — about any of that, if you don’t want to.”
“Here,” Rosette said, dragging him to where Melehan and Melou were still sitting in their high chairs, looking up at Pierre with huge eyes, “meet your nephews. Melehan is the one on the left, in the brown tunic; Melou’s tunic is black. And his hair is curly,” she added as an afterthought. His hair, after all, hadn’t been at its present length for very long. “Melehan, Melou — this is your Uncle Pierre.”
Melehan seemed to shrink a little in his chair, while Melou stared at Pierre with very wide eyes — and a grin that Rosette was beginning to identify as wicked. “Uncle Pee-Pee?”
Melehan shrieked with laughter.
“Melehan, that’s not funny — and Melou, that isn’t very nice!”
“Uncle Pee-Pee! Uncle Pee-Pee!”
“Melou! If you don’t stop that right now …” Rosette occupied the ominous pause with a deep breath — and derailed her train of thought. “Oh, Wright! The pancakes!”
Somehow or other, she managed to save the pancakes before they got too burned, though it didn’t seem like she would save Pierre from the ridicule of his nephews. “I’m afraid it’s what you get for not showing up in their lives until it’s time to start toilet-training,” Rosette apologized on she set two plates of pancakes on the table. “Did you eat?” she asked, gesturing to the table.
“Er — I didn’t have much before I left fer here …”
“Then you must be famished! Have some, there’s plenty for both of us.” And she smiled.
Pierre sat down and began to eat.
Rosette would have been blind not to notice the way Pierre ate, his nose practically touching his plate, food being shoveled into his mouth at frightening speeds. She glared at the boys before they could get any ideas. Then, “Goodness, Pierre,” she remarked, taking a far more — civilized — portion of her own pancakes, “you eat like you haven’t had a square meal in a fortnight!”
“Longer,” Pierre remarked, which almost made Rosette panic again, at least until he explained. “I’ve been the one feedin’ Basil — an’ if ye’re in charge o’ feedin’ the little one, that means ye don’ get yer food ’til it’s cold.”
“Oh,” Rosette remarked. Then she forced herself to laugh. “When the twins were — well, they still are messy — but when they couldn’t even attempt to feed themselves, I used to feed them and me at completely different times, just so I could eat a meal in peace.”
“Well — I guess it’s different when it’s just one o’ ye, and two o’ them — at least Meg an’ me ain’t outnumbered.” He frowned. “If … if things keep goin’ the way they’re goin’ … we might never be outnumbered.”
“Now, now, Pierre,” Rosette tried to comfort, “you’re a good man at heart,” or at least you were when I left for Camford, “I’m sure Meg will come to realize that soon enough, and she’ll forgive you.”
Pierre looked up. “An’ how soon do ye think Sir Mordred’s wife will be forgivin’ him?”
Rosette started. “I — I — that’s different,” she concluded softly — lamely.”
She pushed the pat of butter, still melting, from one end of the pancake to the other. “Mordred never even mentions — his — his –” She couldn’t even bring herself to say his wife, or the more neutral his lady. “The Lady Dindrane,” she finally concluded.
Pierre shrugged. “I wasn’t exactly goin’ on an’ on about Meg to — to her either.”
Interesting, that Pierre seemed to have some of the same vocalization problems that she had. Rosette forced herself to shrug. “Perhaps. But still — it’s different. Mordred and — and the Lady Dindrane — they — they never cared for each other, so far as I know.”
“So far as ye know,” Pierre murmured. “That’s the rub, ain’t it?”
Rosette stared at him for a long moment before she felt her eyes drop to her plate.
“Look, Rosie,” Pierre continued, “I ain’t tryin’ to judge ye here — Wright knows I ain’t got no room ter be judgin’ nobody — but I jest want ter say …” He sighed. “If anythin’, ye’re more likely ter get hurt by some — some dog like me, than ye are ter be the one doin’ the hurtin’.”
“Mordred’s no dog, Pierre!”
“Meg would’ve said the same thing about me, a year ago,” Pierre shrugged.
“I don’t care! It’s true! He — he loves me!”
“Aye, that’s the devil of it,” Pierre whispered. “I love Meg, too.”
Rosette stared at him, then turned back to her plate. “Why don’t we discuss … something else. Anything else. Do you have today off or something along those lines?”
“Not really — I couldn’t get out o’ the house if it were my day off,” he said. “Leastaways not without sayin’ where I was goin’, an’ invitin’ Meg ter come with me.”
“Oh.” Rosette popped a couple of bites into her mouth before speaking again. “I take it that — that Mama still doesn’t want to have anything to do with me?”
“Ma still thinks ye’ll be comin’ home any day now,” Pierre said. He shook his head and tried to smile. “An’ ye know how she is — she won’t suffer nothin’ ter to meddle with her thinkin’ o’ the way the world should be. Why, did ye know she thinks that Simon’ll settle down and start keepin’ reasonable hours, like a reasonable folk, if he jest gets married?”
“Simon? Married? Oh, Wright! He ain’t ready fer that yet!”
“I know! But Ma’s tryin’ ter set ‘im up all the same!”
“Really?” Rosette asked. “With whom?”
They drove the conversation into neutral family topics for the rest of breakfast — or at least until Melou started banging his plate on his tray and watching the bare remains of food fly about the room. Rosette sighed. “Looks like my boys are done eating,” she said, rolling her eyes.
“Guess so,” Pierre chuckled. Rosette bustled over to the boys, Pierre following.
Rosette liberated Melou from what he clearly saw to be his prison, then asked over her shoulder, “Pierre, would you do me a favor and bring Melehan up? The boys can’t really handle stairs yet, and you’d save me a trip.”
“I — well, I wouldn’t mind, but …” Pierre looked at Melehan, who was in turn looking at Rosette, his eyes asking, Are you abandoning me here, all alone with this strange man? “Are ye sure he’ll let me?”
“Oh, of course he will, he’s not shy.”
“Er — I hope so,” Pierre said. He got Melehan out of the chair. Despite her confidence, she kept an ear cocked for any protests on Melehan’s side. None came.
They made it upstairs without incident, Rosette setting Melou on the floor and Pierre doing the same with Melehan. The two of them tottered over to the play table while Pierre looked around in surprise.
“This — this is a nice place,” Pierre said, his eyes drinking it all in. Then they widened. “Why don’t that lady have no shirt?”
“What lady — oh!” Rosette flushed as she glanced at the statue. “That — er — well, actually that’s a reproduction of a famous Reman statue — Mordred, er, used it to decorate it his house at Camford — and I suppose you might say that I inherited it.” After a moment, she added, “I like it, honestly. If you look at the lines — and the craftsmanship — even for a reproduction, you can see what a genius the artist was.”
“I’ll — er — take yer word fer it.”
Rosette tried to smile and failed. But the smile poked out a little bit when she remembered that she was always the only one in her family apt to notice things like that — line, color, symmetry — really, the only thing that was different now from the young peasant woman she had been before Camford was that she had a vocabulary to express her preferences, and leisure to enjoy them.
“Well, have a seat!” she said as soon as the boys were playing quietly. “How long can you stay?” she asked as they sat. “Before you have to go to work.
“Er … well … about that …” Pierre rubbed his neck. “I can’t stay long — er — Sir Bors will be angry at me as ’tis, bein’ so late as I’m gonna be.”
“Oh … oh, well, I’m sorry for keeping you so long if that’s the case.”
“Naw, don’t be — it was nice ter have a … a pleasant breakfast.” He sighed. “Even nicer to have a breakfast without havin’ ter pick mashed oats out o’ me hair.”
Rosette chuckled. “Oh, Basil’s at that stage, is he?”
“Aye — aye, he is.” Pierre shook his head. “Do they grow out o’ it?”
“Eventually, or so I hear.”
“Oh boy,” Pierre mock-sighed. “Anyway … er … Rosie …”
“If I said I came here ter ax ye fer a favor — how — how mad would ye be?”
“I — well, I’d be happy to do you a favor — and I promise not to be angry if you promise to come again, when you can — and to bring Meg and Basil too, whenever that’s … feasible,” she finished. She began to pick at her apron.
“Aye — I’ll do that.” Pierre inhaled slowly and carefully. “Rosie — Toinette and Simon, they — they didn’t happen ter tell ye how — how Meg came ter find out about … her?”
“Toinette said that — that the woman dropped by the house, to … to say something about a child that she claimed was yours.”
“Aye — aye, she did,” Pierre sighed. “The Church took her babe away from her — she wanted me ter help her get him back.”
Rosette blinked. “But what could you do?”
“Nothin’ — an’ that’s what I told her.” He swallowed. “An’ then — she mentioned ye.”
“An’ Sir Mordred.” Pierre turned a pleading glance to her — one that she couldn’t ignore.
“Oh … oh, Pierre, I don’t know …”
“Why? She — I don’t think she’s a bad mother, Rosie, at least — I don’t know, she seemed so broken up by her little one bein’ taken from her …”
“It’s — it’s not that — it’s just that — I’ve never asked him for anything.”
“Anything? Rosie, he paid fer ye ter to go Camford, he got ye this nice place — an’ that naked statue an’ everythin’! An’ yer boys have the finest clothes on ’em that I’ve ever seen off a lord’s back — Rosie, ye expect me to believe ye never axed fer anythin’?”
“I haven’t!” Rosette protested. “He — he gave all this because he wanted to — he wasn’t even going to do this until I — until I was expecting the twins! And don’t you even think,” Rosette said, “that I — that I let myself get in the family way in order to get things from him — the twins were an accident!”
“Mighty profitable accident,” Pierre muttered.
“I didn’t do it for profit!” Rosette snapped. “I did it — I did it because I loved Mordred, and — and he was that generous to me because he loved me, and didn’t want our boys to lack for anything! Is that so wrong?”
Pierre looked at her, his head tilted to one side. “I believe ye,” he said finally. “But — Rosette, there ain’t one man in ten in this kingdom — or in Glasonland, or even in Reme, who would.
“They’d all think — this is hard, Rosie, but this is what they’d think — they’d think there was no difference between ye an’ Erin, ‘cept maybe the price. As far as they’d be concerned — well, ye’re sisters, will-ye-nill-ye. An’ lemme tell ye somethin’ — the Church would think exactly the way those nine men out o’ ten would.
“An’ Rosie — if they took Erin’s boy away from her, because she was no better than she should be, who’s ter say they won’t take yers next?”
She looked over her shoulder at Melehan and Melou. They were playing — for once — so peacefully, so happily at their little table. Completely oblivious that the world outside their flat was cruel, that it cared nothing for the love between a mother and her child, that it only cared about enforcing its arbitrary rules, and woe to the woman who broke them …
If they ever found that out the hard way …
Rosette gulped and turned to Pierre. “I’ll talk to Mordred the next time I see him.”