Rosette had told herself, all day, to not be so nervous. She told herself that her boys were over two years old, that they would be fine for a few hours with the nanny. She forced herself to remember that she could not cling to her boys forever, that if she was this nervous over leaving them alone for the space of an evening, what kind of mess would she be when they went to school? And besides — if she had been married to Mordred, if she had still been living in the village near her parents and her sister and her brothers, surely she would have left the twins with somebody by now, to get some “alone time” with their father.
But now, as she fixed her hair, and put a last swipe of cosmetics of herself, and twitched the neckline on her dress, she stopped trying to tell herself not to be nervous. It was useless. She was going to be nervous no matter what. Instead, she just kept telling herself that the boys would be fine — that she would be fine — and anything else she could tell herself, to stave off a blind panic.
So she tucked one last curl behind her ear, took a deep breath, smoothed the front of her dress, and went downstairs to bid her boys good night. Not good-bye, just good night. She would see them in the morning.
And she would not show how she felt in front of them, because that would just make them upset, and make the nanny’s night sheer hell. Since Rosette frankly dreaded what her boys would get up to once they realized that Mummy wasn’t at home, either to comfort them or to make them mind, she was not going to push their patience.
She picked the best and the worst time to say good night to them. The best, because the nanny was already feeding them supper, which meant they were too engrossed in their food to take note if Mummy was acting a little odd. And the worst, because the last thing she needed was their dinner on her best dress, the dress Mordred had bought for her after the boys were born.
“Night-night Melehan, night-night Melou,” she said, giving both boys a quick kiss on the top of the head and then getting out of the two-year-olds’ range. “Mummy will see you in the morning. Be good for Mistress Page!”
Melehan looked up, frowning and putting the remnants of his mashed peas on full display. Melou continued to shovel food into his mouth.
“Don’t ye fret about a thing, ma’am,” the nanny said. “They’re in good hands. Sir Mordred wouldn’t have hired me if he didn’t trust me.”
“I — I won’t,” Rosette lied.
The nanny gave a knowing smile, but before she could reply, both of them heard the clip-clop of hooves against the frozen dirt road. “‘Spectin’ that’s yer ride,” Mistress Page said with a smile. “Ye have a good time, now! Boys, wave bye-bye to Mummy!”
Rosette tried to smile — put her cloak on — waved to her boys, and disappeared out the door, into the night and the waiting carriage.
To express her surprise when the carriage deposited her at the door to the most exclusive restaurant in Albion … would be impossible.
Mordred couldn’t possibly be bringing her here, could he? What if someone saw them? Someone who would tell his wife? Or his wife’s family? Surely this wasn’t safe, surely there was someplace else they should meet, someplace that was nice but not so … exposed …
“This is yer stop, ma’am,” came the rough boy of the coachman, and Rosette, realizing she had little choice, got out. Her hand went for her purse, but the coachman shook his head. “Already taken care o’, ma’am.”
“Oh … oh, well, thank you …” With a quick smile for the coachman, she squared her shoulders, buried herself in her cloak, and stepped into the restaurant, praying no one would recognize her.
… Well, not no one.
“Rosette. You look ravishing.”
He looked just the same as always — but despite that, Rosette felt a blush creep across her cheeks as she smiled. “Thank you, Mordred.”
He kissed her, chastely, on the cheek. Rosette returned the gesture. “I hope — I hope I didn’t keep you waiting long?”
“Nonsense. I arrived early a-purpose.” His hand gently ran down her arm, brushing across the velvet of her sleeve. “How did the boys react to the separation?”
“Of course, love.”
“I’m not sure if they noticed I left.”
Mordred threw his head back and laughed, the sound echoing against the wooden floorboards and panelling, barely muffled by the expensive rugs and delicately painted walls. But instead of glaring at him for breaking the quiet — as they surely would have done to a man of Rosette’s station — the hostess and barmaid smiled indulgently at Mordred. Rosette flushed, and the indulgent smiles were turned on her, too.
“That unfortunate habit, my dear, they do not get from me. I am quite certain of it. I never fail to notice when their mother leaves the room — never mind the premises.”
Rosette giggled. “Ah, but Mordred, I think you have different reasons to not enjoy watching me leave.”
For some reason his mouth twitched at that, but Rosette barely had time to register it before he replied, “True enough. Shall we sit?”
“Oh, yes, please.”
Mordred smiled at her, then went off to share a whispered consultation with the hostess.
When the hostess came back, she led them to a table … not very far away at all. Mordred ushered Rosette into a seat, then seated himself behind her. He nodded his thanks to the hostess as she handed them the bills of fare for the restaurant, then, before she could speak, waved her away. The woman scuttled off.
Rosette watched her leave, wondering how she saw the dismissal — a slight? A disappointment? Or rather a relief, since she could tend to the other customers without being bothered by this nobleman? Her musing was interrupted by Mordred’s relished pronouncement: “The best seat in the house.”
“Is it?” Rosette asked. She couldn’t understand what made it so good — if anything, to her it felt horribly exposed. Why, anyone who walked in would be able to see them!
“Do you think I would treat you to anything less?” Mordred asked, before he gestured to the barmaid. She scurried over and took his order of a sweet malmsey from Reme, and returned with the bottle and two filled wineglasses in less time than Rosette would have thought possible. Mordred poured, and Rosette slowly sipped her wine.
A nod from Mordred sent the barmaid retreating back to her post. “Is this why this is the best seat in the house?” Rosette asked.
“Is what why?”
“I — well — the ease of getting service.”
Mordred chuckled. “My darling, we could be seated in the most obscure corner of this fine establishment and still get excellent service.”
“Oh …” Sensing that that was the only answer she was going to get, Rosette turned her attention to the bill of fare. Her jaw fell. On those rare occasions, in her former life, when her family had gone out to a tavern, there generally was no bill of fare — you ate whatever the cook put in front of you, or went hungry. If you were lucky, you might have a choice of meats or sides, rattled off by the waiter or waitress so quickly that you could barely keep up. But even in that case, if you ordered fish, per se, you got whatever kind of fish the cook felt like preparing that night — even if you couldn’t positively identify it as fish.
“Oh my,” Rosette murmured as she continued to look over the bill of fare.
“I — er …” Rosette glanced at the barmaid and the hostess, both of whom seemed too busy to be paying them much attention, but one never knew. “Mordred — I can’t even pronounce half these things.”
He laughed, but before Rosette could grow alarmed or even look at the barmaid and hostess, he was all concern. “Don’t worry about it, love — here. You’ll probably like this.” He gestured to the second item on the menu. “It’s just a fancy way of saying veal.”
Veal? She loved veal, when she could get it, which wasn’t often. “Oh, Mordred, but that must be …” Her eyes went automatically to where the price would be, the words “too expensive” already resting on her tongue, ready to come out.
But there were no prices on her bill of fare. Anywhere.
Mordred chuckled, watching her turn the bill over and over, watching as she scanned the items once, twice, three times. “I assure you — there is nothing on this bill that you could possible order, and it would be ‘too expensive.'”
“Oh … you’re too generous, Mordred.”
For some reason, this only seemed to amuse him further. “You are the only person in the kingdom who would ever say that.”
“That can’t possibly be true!”
“Hmm … perhaps you’re right. Would one of the boys be able to get ‘generous’ out?”
“Mordred!” Rosette chuckled. “You underestimate yourself. Truly. But …” She bit her lip, her conversation with Pierre ringing through her ears — Mordred was in such a good mood now, maybe, maybe this was the time to bring it up?
“I — Mordred, can I –”
Their waitress came up, and her question was quickly swallowed.
Mordred handled the order efficiently, though when he was done she wasn’t at all sure what either of them would be eating. He ordered another wine to go with it — and some more food, as an “appetizer.” An appetizer. Rosette was sure she’d never had an appetizer before in her life.
But before she could do more than marvel at that, Mordred had turned back to her. “You were saying?”
She was saying? Oh! “Mordred, can I — can I ask you something?”
To her astonishment, Mordred only smiled. “Ah. I thought this might be coming.”
“You — you did?”
“Rosie, of course I did. I know you — remember?”
“But — but I didn’t think … how could you possibly know about …”
“Rosette. I’ll admit, I didn’t know just when you would get up the courage to ask — or, to be frank, the urge — given how exhausting the two we have are turning out to be.”
What is he talking about?
“But I knew the first minute I saw you with Melehan and Melou — you would never be satisfied with just two babies.”
He thinks I’m asking about another child?
“And if you want another — then of course, the answer is yes.” Mordred smiled. “After all, Melehan and Melou will be in school before we know it.”
“Don’t remind me,” Rosette murmured to the table as she considered Mordred’s proposition.
Another baby. Another little one to love and hold and snuggle. Another little downy head to kiss good night, another pair of hands to clasp her fingers, another set of first smiles and first steps and first words to record. Rosette felt herself beginning to smile even before she’d fully thought it through.
“See? I knew you’d be itching for another one.”
“I — I am,” she said, and knew it was true. “But — but Mordred, that wasn’t what I was going to ask.”
“It — wasn’t?”
“No — no. You see, my brother …” And Rosette slowly, stumbling over her every word, told Mordred everything Pierre had told her.
Mordred’s face had clouded momentarily when Rosette said “my brother” — cleared when she mentioned Pierre’s name — and clouded over again before she finished her recital. When the flow of words dried up, he sighed. “I was afraid they would try to drag you into this.”
“Aye. You have a soft heart — of course you would be touched by a tale like this. And you would ask me to help this woman. But I can’t afford to get involved.”
“But — but Mordred …”
He raised one eyebrow, inviting her to continue.
Rosette took a deep breath. “If Brother Tuck took this woman’s child — what’s to stop him from taking Melehan and Melou?”
“Nothing. That is why I cannot afford to get involved.”
“I — I’m sorry?”
“It’s politics, Rosie — but I’ll try to explain.”
He leaned forward, his eyes very wide. “You see — Brother Tuck is an ambitious man, and he is not a fool. His whole moral crusade is little more than an attempt to gain power, firstly from those who cannot afford to fight back, and sooner or later, he will be encroaching on the power of the nobles. Or attempting to encroach, I doubt he’ll get very far. But at the same time — right now, his star is on the ascendant. He’s quite popular among the common folk.”
Rosette nodded; whenever she was in the market or taking a walk with the boys and heard folk talking, whenever Brother Tuck’s name came up, there was nothing but praise attached to it.
“As of the moment, the nobles are neutral where he is concerned — so long as he keeps out of our business, we will keep out of his. And vice versa. Now, if I were to try to get this woman’s child back — well, it would be nothing short of a declaration of open warfare. Or so Brother Tuck would see it. After that declaration … well. Brother Tuck would try to hit me where it would hurt most.”
His stare at her became deathly serious. “You and the boys.”
“You mean he — he would –”
“I doubt a day would pass before he had half a squadron of guards with him to take the boys from you.”
“Naturally, I would make every effort to get them back — but I would have to restrain myself to, well. Civilized efforts. Arguing at the Council Table, and so forth. And that involves further difficulties — for you see, not all the Council would back me on this one.”
“Why — why not?”
“Politics,” he replied with an inscrutable smile. “But I’ll explain it — you see, Sir Bors de Ganis views himself as the kingdom’s most powerful champion for morality and stability. He is also, as it would so happen, an idiot. He would side with Brother Tuck both because of his predilection for ‘moral’ stances, and because he is too foolish to see what Brother Tuck is attempting to do. Sir Lancelot, for all that he is also soft-hearted, is weak-willed and would probably be convinced — and by ‘convinced’ I mean ‘nagged within an inch of his life’ — to join his cousin Sir Bors. As for the party that would be the most likely to view the matter dispassionately and see the interests of justice … well. That man is my father-in-law.”
“Exactly. Frankly, I doubt even my father would throw his full support behind me — he would support me in public, for appearance’s sake, but I doubt he would be pleased to see me making enemies of all the other noblemen in the kingdom, and alienating the Gwynedds to boot. So you see, I would be entirely dependent on the King’s mercy if I wanted to win my case — which, I will grant you, it is possible that he would side with me. Possible. Though I doubt the King is any more in favor of Brother Tuck’s growing power than …” He broke off as the waitress deposited two steaming dishes before them, along with another bottle of wine and two new goblets.
Mordred waited until she left before he began to speak again, even as he carved his meat. “So, Rosette — you see why I cannot get involved?”
“He would take the boys …”
“And … but Mordred, what if he tries to take the boys anyway?”
“He would have to be colossally foolish in order to do so,” Mordred said. He took a bit of his food, then speared another forkful. “Here — have a taste of this, you’ll love it.”
He took advantage of her open mouth by popping the morsel in, leaving Rosette with little choice but to chew and swallow. “Good?”
“Very — very good,” Rosette agreed. “But, Mordred — you’re sure — you’re sure he would have to be stupid in order to try to take the boys? You’re sure?”
“Positive, my dear. You see, if he did that, he would be declaring open warfare not just on me — and I’ve given him no cause to do that — but on the whole nobility. Sir Bors would probably still side with Brother Tuck, simply because he is that much of a fool, but I imagine Sir Lancelot and even Lord Pellinore would lend me their qualified support. If Brother Tuck shows himself so ignorant of the way the world works as to imagine that he could ever have more influence in this realm than a man of noble blood, the King’s own nephew … well. It would signal to both of them that it was time to squash the bug.”
Rosette shuddered. “Sorry, sweet,” Mordred said, patting her hand. “The metaphors of politics are not always … tasteful.”
Rosette nodded. “But you’re sure — you’re sure — he wouldn’t take the boys?”
“Yes,” Mordred replied, holding her hand and staring into her eyes. “I promise you, he would not take the boys. And if he tried — if he declared war on me in that matter — I would have them back before the day was out. If Brother Tuck attacks what is rightfully mine, then I will take no quarter.”
He squeezed her hand. “Don’t you worry about a thing, Rosette. I’ll take care of you. I’ll always take care of you.”