“Ma?” Lucas Pelles asked. “Ma, can I ax ye somethin’?”
“Ye can ax me anythin’, ye know that, sweetheart,” Betsy remarked, but in truth she wasn’t paying much attention. Her mind was on food preparation; on three-year-old Davy, kicking absently at the bottom bar of his high chair; on the problems the new nanny for young Agravaine Orkney was presenting on a daily basis …
“Well, um — what are we gonna have fer dinner?”
Her hand, halfway into the larder, froze. Betsy stood still, blinked three times, and forced herself to count to ten. It was because of this that she was able to keep her voice level and her mind calm. “Sweetheart, I ain’t even started makin’ breakfast yet.”
“Er — well, I don’ mean — that is — is what yer plannin’ on makin’ easy ter add one more to? I — er — that didn’t come out right …”
“Ye’d like ter invite a friend over fer dinner? Is that what ye’re axin’?”
“Well, why didn’t ye jest say so?” Betsy chuckled, tousling Lukas’s hair. Lukas pulled away and made a face, reminding Betsy once again that her little boy wasn’t so little anymore. At least Davy will be little for a while longer yet.
“I … well, I dunno. If — if it’s too much trouble — I mean — I didn’t want ye ter feel — like ye had ter say yes or nothin’ like that.”
“Nonsense,” Betsy said warmly as she brought the oats to the counter and began to chop the kernels. “Ye know any friend o’ yours is welcome here anytime. ‘Tain’t nothin’ ter add an extra serving …” She paused in her chopping. “Er — this friend o’ yours — he ain’t a — a big eater, is he?” Will I need some more fish than what I was planning?
“Naw, Ella eats like a bird.”
“Ah, good.” Betsy smiled to herself as she continued to chop and as she added water to the pot.
Then what Lukas had said hit her.
She spun around with more speed than since — well, since she and Martin were courting, probably. “Ye’re invitin’ a girl over?” she asked, grinning and clapping her hands together.
“Oh, Ma, don’t start!”
“Well, ye are, aren’t ye? Ella, never heard of no boy named Ella!” Betsy couldn’t help a quick clap of glee. “Now, ye tell me all about her. When did ye meet? An’ how long have ye known her?”
“If I told ye that we was jest friends, would ye leave me alone?”
Betsy grabbed the wooden spoon and tapped him on the shoulder. “Don’t lie ter yer mother. It ain’t nice.” She turned back to the oats. “I don’t suppose ye’d be willin’ ter tell me her last name, at least?”
“It’s Thatcher, Ma.”
She paused in her stirring. “Not — not Kata’s girl?”
Any thoughts of teasing her son — or, truthfully, of doing a jig around the kitchen — vanished from her mind. “Oh, that poor girl,” Betsy said. “How’s she doin’? An’ her ma an’ her sibs?”
“Well — um — she says her ma an’ her big sis are holdin’ up — but her little brother, he ain’t doin’ so well — and Ella …” Lukas sighed. “She — she’s been a bit of a mess. I try ter help her, but …”
Oh, Lukas, why didn’t ye tell me that ye were seein’ her when her da died? Betsy wondered. Yer da an’ I could have thought of things ter tell ye, things ter help the poor girl out!
“‘Cause, ye see — she was the one who — who found her da …”
“Oh!” Betsy said, the sound coming from her heart as much as from her mouth. “Oh, that poor girl!”
“Aye,” Lukas agreed. “Aye, I know.”
“Poor thing,” Betsy clucked. “Well, I’ll be sure to give her a right good meal, ye can be sure o’ that.” She was already re-writing her shopping list, crossing out the cheaper bass and substituting good rainbow trout instead.
” … Ma? If ask ye somethin’ else, will ye be mad?”
“Depends on what it is,” Betsy replied with a smile in her voice.
“Well — I noticed that Ella — that she seems happier when people don’t bring up her da. I mean — it’s like when she’s with people, an’ laughin’ an’ talkin’ ’bout nothin’ an’ stuff, she can ferget that her da’s gone fer a bit … an’ then someone brings it up, an’ everythin’ — it’s like a cut or somethin’, it just opens up again an’ …”
“Ah. Ye don’t want yer da an’ I ter be bringin’ her da up, is that it?”
Betsy smiled. “Don’t ye fret about a thing,” she said, kissing her son’s forehead. “We won’t be sayin’ nothin’ ter upset her.” Then she sighed. “Ye know, it’s too bad yer sister’s workin’ tonight … an’ o’ course things with Meg, well … but it would have been nice ter invite them.”
Lukas didn’t say anything — but Betsy would have bet her last copper, by the look on his face, that the fact that both of his sisters were going to be busy that night was exactly why he had picked that night to ask Ella over.
Betsy shook her head. Ah, young love — so careful, so sensitive, so afraid of steppin’ on toes … thank Wright I won’t be goin’ through that again!
She may have been over the pleasant agonies of young love, but as she soon discovered, waiting to meet one’s son’s mate could be just agonizing and nowhere near as pleasant. She hadn’t felt this with either Pierre, Wright rot that stupid man, or Berach — while Berach was still a figure of importance in Joyce’s life — but then again, it was different with daughters. Her daughters had both confided in her when Pierre and Berach had crossed their paths. Lukas hadn’t said a word to either her or Martin, as she had discovered when she’d whispered Lukas’s plans into Martin’s ear before the two of them had left for work. And though she knew Ella distantly, as Kata-the-midwife’s daughter, it wasn’t as all the same as when she had subtly gotten to know Pierre and Berach before they’d “officially” become parts of her daughters’ lives.
And now Ella was coming to dinner — and evening couldn’t come fast enough.
Lukas was to walk her over on his way home from his afternoon work in Lord Lot’s fields. No sooner did the door creak open (Martin had come home a good two hours before) then did Betsy drop her spoon and rush over to greet them. “Ella! Oh, I’m so happy ter see ye!”
“Ma!” Lukas groaned as she hugged Ella.
“Don’t worry, Lukas, it ain’t nothin’,” Ella said. She looked up at Betsy with a smile that was almost — almost — shy. “Good evenin’, Mistress Pelles. How are ye?”
“I’m well, thank’ee — an’ yerself?”
“How’s yer –” She bit her tongue on the word parents. “How’s yer ma?”
“Well, thank’ee. She told me ter say hello ter ye, an’ that it’s been too long since ye had a nice long chat.”
“That’s true enough,” Betsy replied. The last time she had long, sustained interaction with Kata was when she was in labor with Davy. “Well, ye tell her ter come over anytime fer tea an’ a chat — I don’t work on Sundays or Mondays.”
“I’ll tell her that, Mistress Pelles.”
Betsy smiled. “Well! Anyway, I’m sure ye know Mister Pelles.”
“How do ye do, Ella?” Martin asked, rising to shake her hand.
“Well, thank’ee. An’ ye?”
“An’ this is Davy,” Betsy said, gesturing to her son, who was already in his high chair. “Hope ye don’t mind that I fed him his supper already — he gets a bit fussy if I feed him too close to his goin’ ter bed.”
Davy, hearing his name, looked up and at the stranger with big brown eyes.
“Oh!” Ella said, coming closer and crouching to Davy’s level. “Oh, ain’t those little curls the cutest thing! How old are ye, little man?” she asked.
Davy gave a wide, toothy grin. “I’m fwee!” he said, holding up the appropriate amount of fingers.
“Three? Three? That’s almost a whole hand!”
“Uh-huh!” Davy nodded. Then, looking up into Ella’s face with a big grin, he added, “You pwetty!”
“Aww, what a little heartbreaker!”
“She’s very pretty, munchkin,” Lukas said, moving closer to Ella and laying a hand on her shoulder, “but she’s mine — an’ don’t ye ferget it!”
Davy cocked his head a little to one side and sucked on his mush-covered finger, watching the two of them with interest and not a little confusion.
“Aw, don’t ye mind yer big brother — he’s just jealous.” Ella rumpled his hair.
A little bit of attention was all it took to make Davy grin again. “Sit nex’ to me?” he asked.
“Er …” Ella glanced at Betsy and Martin.
“He’s no messy eater — ye can sit next ter him, if ye like,” Betsy replied as she went back to check on the fish.
“An’ I’ll sit on the other side,” Lukas said.
They suited the action to the word, and the fish being done, Betsy began to serve it. “I hate ter say this, bein’ as Lukas is me own boy an’ all,” Martin said with a wink in Lukas’s direction, “but ye might want ter think twice about ‘im — I mean, look at ‘im, jealous of a toddler!”
“S’true, Betsy, look at ‘im!”
“I think Lukas has good instincts, Mister Pelles,” Ella said, laying her hand on Lukas’s shoulder. Betsy had to duck her head to keep from smiling overtly as Lukas’s silly grin. “After all, if Davy was ten years older, I daresay he’d be givin’ Lukas a run fer his money!”
Martin laughed and Lukas sent Ella a glare. “That ain’t funny!”
“Davy thinks it’s hilarious, don’t ye, Davy?” Davy laughed, but that was probably because Ella followed up her statement with a tickle.
“Pwetty lady funny!”
“An’ he’s sweet too, Lukas, ye ought ter be thankin’ yer lucky stars that he’s twelve years younger than ye an’ not two,” Ella chuckled.
Betsy, as she sat down with her meal, watched Lukas’s face closely. The joke was edging too near to his pride — and if Betsy had come to know anything since her boy turned thirteen, it was that the pride of a teenaged boy was as fragile as it was overweening at times. If Ella took this too far …
But out of nowhere, she scaled back. “‘Course,” Ella remarked as she began to cut into her food, “there’s one thing — one major, important that — that’s so cute about Davy now, that wouldn’t be so cute if he was thirteen.”
“The speech problems?” Lukas asked.
“Naw — those big ol’ chubby cheeks!” A quick pinch and a happy squeal from Davy, and even Lukas was smiling again.
“Ye’re awful good with little ones, Ella,” Betsy remarked.
“Aw, thank’ee, Mistress Pelles, but ’tain’t nothin’, what with me bein’ an auntie an’ all. Ginny an’ Thorn are near this little guy’s age, an’ it wasn’t too long ago that Bran was pretty much exactly his age,” Ella replied.
Auntie? Betsy wondered. She glanced at Martin, who shrugged. I thought Kata’s eldest was only a year or so older than Lukas — an’ we all would have heard if she had a kid Davy’s age!
“They’re — um — Ash an’ Marigold’s kids. Well, not Ash and Marigold’s kids together — Bran an’ Ginny are Ash’s, an’ Thorn is Marigold’s. Ye know?”
Ash and Marigold … Betsy wondered. Who are–oh!
She blushed — whether at Marigold’s profession or the remembrance of Jeremiah’s time as someone who was not quite a regular Sim — and Martin, seeing her discomfort, turned the subject to something else, namely, the celebratory gifts Lord Lot had been distributing to his workers every since the birth of his second son. And of course, mentioning the gifts (simple keepsakes, really) brought the subject around to the baby himself, who Betsy, as the housekeeper at the Orkney Keep, would be expected to have intimate knowledge of. (She did, if Agravaine had been a peasant boy, she would have said that she had the kind of intimate knowledge of the boy that only a family member should have — but everyone knew that the nobility couldn’t be expected to change the soiled diapers of their own offspring.) And of course, talking about Agravaine led to gossip about their betters generally and other neutral topics.
It wasn’t very long before it was time to clear the dishes away — Ella very sweetly offered to help, but Betsy wouldn’t hear of it — and Davy began to grown fussy, so Betsy had to take him upstairs, give him a bath, and put him to bed before he threw a tantrum and ruined the whole evening.
“Bye-bye, pwetty Ewwa!” Davy called over Betsy’s shoulder as she brought him up to the loft.
When Betsy came down again, not only were the dishes towel-dried and neatly stacked on the counter — Ella’s work, Betsy would bet on it, Martin and Lukas wouldn’t know a dish towel if she snapped them on the arse with one — but Martin was shaking Ella’s hand again.
“It was nice meetin’ ye again, Ella. Don’t be a stranger, now.”
“I won’t, thank’ee, Mister Pelles. And thank’ee, Mistress Pelles. Dinner was wonderful.” She grinned. “I’m sure me ma will be invitin’ ye over fer dinner, soon enough.”
“Aw, that’s awful nice o’ her — ye tell her thank’ee fer us,” Betsy said. She hugged Ella again before Lukas helped her in her cloak.
“Ye be careful, walkin’ back now,” Martin said to Lukas. “I know ye’re fifteen an’ ye think ye’re immortal — but it’s awful dark out there, an’ ye heard about those thieves breakin’ into Master Ferreira’s warehouse. Don’t tarry, now.”
“I won’t, Da. Jeez,” Lukas said, “it ain’t like I’ve got any money — what would thieves want with me?”
“Maybe ter abduct ye an’ force ye into their gang!” Ella laughed.
“Naw, I’d be a horrible thief — after all, ye remember how — clumsy I am,” Lukas said. For some reason, this sent Ella off into an ecstasy of giggles. Betsy and Martin exchanged first glances, and then a shrug.
They bid Ella goodbye — Martin with more warnings and exhortions for Lukas as he walked Ella back and then came back himself — and Betsy went to put the clean, dry dishes away. Martin absently walked over to his parents’ old bed, smoothing the covers and humming something to himself.
Suddenly Betsy heard him snort. “So much fer not tarryin’.”
“What?” she asked.
Martin opened his mouth — then grinned and crooked his finger at her. “C’mere.”
She came and looked out the window, as Martin gestured. “What — oh!”
“Like I said–”
“Oh, Martin, we shouldn’t be watchin’ this! Give the two of ’em some privacy!”
“Nonsense, they’re on the public street — they know what they’re about. ‘Sides, don’t ye remember when we were that young, would we have cared?”
“We would’ve if it was our parents watchin’.”
Martin frowned. “True ‘nough,” he admitted. “But think o’ it this way, Betsy — they’ll only get upset if they realize we’re watchin’ … an’ the way they’re goin’ …”
He gestured. “That won’t be for a good long time — if ever.”