“It was nice of you to come for the afternoon,” Nicole Saquina said as she sat herself beside Roma, one of the other workers at the Onion. “It’s — it’s been a long time since I had a guest.”
“Aw, it’s nothin’!” Roma said with the kind of cheerful grin that, Nicole thought, one would have to be a stone not to warm up to. “Nice ter get out o’ the house fer a bit. ‘Sides, Ella’s always off gallivantin’ an’ leavin’ me ter watch Billy, I figured it was about time ter give her a taste o’ her own medicine.”
Nicole chuckled. “I wouldn’t know.”
“Do ye not have younger sibs, then?” Roma asked, all innocence. Nicole felt, more than willed, her quick gasp.
But the question was perfectly safe! “I was the youngest.”
“Not so lucky,” Nicole murmured. “The youngest is always the one who gets left out, who gets … left behind. Didn’t your younger sibs ever follow you, shouting, ‘Wait for me?'”
“Ella used ter do that — Billy, not so much. ‘Course, Billy’s so much younger … he’s closer in age ter me niece an’ nevvies than ter either Ella or me.”
“Your — you already have nieces and nephews?” That was odd, she thought Roma had just said she was the oldest — and Roma was only sixteen, surely, if she hadn’t married yet, her younger siblings would not have?
“O’ course! Ye’ve met two o’ em!” Nicole cocked her head to one side. “Ginny an’ Thorn! Lyndsay’s little girl and Marigold’s little boy.”
“Oh — oh!” Nicole replied. “Oh, I see — so — so Kata’s your mother, then?”
“Aye, that’d be she.”
“And — and Ash, Ash Thatcher would be your … half-brother?”
For some reason that made Roma giggle. “Ye could say that.”
“Oh, um …” She wondered if Roma would be the person to ask about the Thatchers’ — the other Thatchers’ — living arrangements. She’d been quite astonished to go to Lyndsay’s home and find it to be nothing more and nothing less than a hollowed-out tree. But the politeness that had been drilled into her head since she was a small child had kept her quiet.
“But that’s all old news,” Roma said, waving her hand dismissively. “Why don’t ye talk about Reme? That is where ye’re from, ain’t it?”
Her eyes were wide and curious, her head tilted a little to one side. “Well, um, yes,” Nicole replied. “I am from Reme.”
“So what was it like?” Roma asked, a smile tickling at the corner of her mouth. “I mean — I’m sorry, I don’t mean ter pry — but, well, ye hear so much an’ ye wonder how much is true. I mean … I mean, Ma an’ — an’ Pa, they used ter talk about Glasonland all the time — an’ Pa …”
Her eyes were misting over, and for once, Nicole didn’t have to ask why. She knew, everyone at the Onion did, that Roma had recently lost her father. It had been one of the first things Lyndsay had told her when the older woman had first made overtures at friendship. “An’ don’t mind Roma,” she had said, “normally she’s a little chatterbox, an’ she’d be glommin’ onto ye before I’d get a chance, but she’s been — eh, she’s been a lot quieter since her pa died. Awful sudden it was, too. I’m surprised she ain’t more of a mess than she is.”
So then Roma’s father, whoever he had been, was also Ash’s father, Lyndsay’s former father-in-law. Nicole was starting to put the pieces together.
Part of her hated that, having to do the actual work of scoping out people’s histories without being nosy and trying to figure out how they all fit together. Back in Reme it hadn’t been like that. Everyone knew everyone back in Reme — well, everyone who mattered knew everyone. Not, perhaps, personally, and maybe not very well, but you knew who they were, who they were related to, how close they were to the throne, what branches of their family had recently–
Don’t even think of that, Nicole!
“Somethin’ wrong?” Roma asked. “Did — did I say somethin’?”
And on came the guilt. Here was this poor girl, still dealing with the vestiges of her own grief, no doubt — and here was Nicole, foisting her grief onto her!
Then again, you could say she was doing the same thing to me.
Nicole bit her lower lip. “I just — well — thinking of Reme is still a bit … bittersweet to me.”
“I see.” Roma straightened her skirts, not meeting Nicole’s eyes. “I — I really do see. ‘Cause … ’cause …”
“You’re going through the same thing?”
“Aye.” She looked up. “Does it get any easier? I mean — talkin’ and thinkin’ an’ stuff like that?”
“I — I don’t know.” She pursed her lips together. “It — it hasn’t been that long for me, either.”
“An’ ye — ye lost yer ma an’ yer pa, an’ had ter leave yer brothers an’ sisters behind.”
“Something — something like that.”
“But ye’re handlin’ it better ‘an I am,” Roma muttered to her skirt. “I …”
She thinks I’m handling it well? Nicole couldn’t even speak or think about Reme without an avalanche of grief and pain!
“Ye’re always so cheerful — an’ happy-seemin’ — at work, ye know?” Roma asked. “I — I mean, I gotta force myself jest ter smile for the customers. An’ that’s half what they hired me fer, ye know?”
“What’s the other half?”
She expected Roma to say something along the lines of “upper body strength” or “balance” — she was, after all, a waitress — but to her shock, Roma patted one hip then gestured to her bust. “Ye know?”
“Roma! You’re only — fifteen?”
“Sixteen then. For — for heaven’s sake, you — you’re too young to be …”
But was she? A slave girl back in Reme, if she was as pretty and well-developed as Roma, would have probably been “broken in” by now. She might even be a mother. And a peasant girl, out in the country … she might be married and a mother or she might not; it would depend on how long her parents clung to her for her help in the house.
And if Roma had been serving as a tavern wench in Reme itself, the mighty city — well, there was no question that she would have been hired for her hips and busts. All Reman tavern wenches were required to register as prostitutes, sex was just such a part of the job description.
But Roma was giggling again. “Ye sound like me ma when ye say that! ‘Ye’re too young ter be so cynical, ye got hired ’cause Lyndsay works there an’ put in a good word fer ye, an’ she knows how good a cook ye are an’ they want ter see how ye grow!'” Then Roma frowned. “Ma wasn’t so happy about me workin’ at the tavern at first.”
“She wanted me ter follow in her footsteps — be a midwife.”
Nicole shuddered. “I could never do that.” She couldn’t even watch the gladiatorial combats back in Reme, even after the Church finally forced through a reform — why, there had only been thirty deaths in the past year!
“Me neither! All that blood an’ …”
“Ugh is right!”
The young women looked at each other, then started to giggle again. “Well, I’m glad ye agree with me.”
“Believe me, it would be impossible for me to do otherwise.” Nicole frowned slightly. “On that — less-than-pleasant note, would you like something to eat? I usually have a light snack about this time of day, when I’m not working.”
“Oh, I can eat after talkin’ about blood — I’d be right scrawny if I couldn’t, considerin’ Mum’s line o’ work an’ all,” Roma replied. “Jest can’t stand the sight o’ it.”
“Me neither.” Nicole stood up. “Well, come on — I’ll fix a salad. Keep me company?”
“O’ course.” Roma followed her to the kitchen — not as if it was much of a walk — and stood across from her as Nicole chopped the vegetables.
“So I see why you complain about your sister going off all the time,” Nicole remarked. “Since your mother is a midwife, I imagine one of you has to be around all the time to watch your brother, in case your mother gets called away?”
“Pretty much, aye,” Roma replied. “Before — before Pa died, it weren’t — it weren’t no big deal, because he’d be around … but now …” Roma shook herself. “Anyway. Ma’s been ridin’ all over the place these days, between one thing an’ another.”
“One thing and another?”
“Aye. Well, Ailís Porter — she don’t live too far from here — she’s about ready to pop, and the Lady Dindrane, Sir Mordred Orkney’s wife, she ain’t too far from havin’ her little one, either.”
“Your — your mother is the midwife for noblewomen as well?”
“Well, aye! It ain’t like there’s much other choice!” Roma smiled.
” … Oh.”
“It — it just feels odd. I mean — here we are, n-normal, ordinary people, talking about these — these great ladies, and yet — your mother knows them. It just doesn’t seem real.” It seemed very unreal indeed. When she had been back in Reme, she would have been on equal footing with any one of those great ladies — hell, probably superior, she had been a lady of Reme, and they were mere earl’s wives in a provincial backwater! Or at least, that was how she would have seen the matter then. Now … now she was the dirt beneath those great ladies’ feet, the one who had to sweat and toil so they could have their carriages and their castles and their finery.
It was all very odd, to say the least.
“Here,” Nicole said, sweeping the chopped and mixed vegetables onto two different plates. “Here’s yours.”
“Thank’ee!” The two young women went over to the table — it was the first time Nicole had had a guest there in, well, ever — and sat, beginning to eat.
“Though I gotta say,” Roma said as she began to dig in, “life fer those ‘great ladies’ ain’t always so great. I mean — ye’ve heard about Lady Claire, ain’t ye?”
Lady Claire, Lady Claire … “They were gossiping about something like that in the kitchen of the Onion the other day … weren’t they?”
“Oh, aye! She’s Sir Bors de Ganis’s wife — the Chevauxes are indentured to him. Anyway, she’s gonna have another baby in a few months — an’ it ain’t goin’ so well fer her.”
“Poor woman,” Nicole remarked reflexively, before adding, “But couldn’t that happen to anyone? Great as well as small?”
“Oh, aye, I ain’t disputin’ that. If she was jest havin’ a rough time, well, like ye say, that can happen to anyone. But there’s more. I mean, first of all, she’s got four kids already.”
Nicole turned her head to one side. “That’s not so strange. Or so … unfortunate.”
“Not on it’s own, but get this — she had those four within six years. Four babes in six years! Ye wouldn’t catch no workin’ man doin’ that to his poor wife, not if he could help it!”
“Why — why not? Surely more children is better …”
“Once they start gettin’ bigger, oh, aye! But until then? Until then ye’ve got ter care fer an’ feed ’em — an’ who’s got time ter be runnin’ around after four little ones, the oldest who’s barely old enough ter work in the fields an’ get ’em out o’ yer hair fer a bit?”
“I — I don’t know.”
“Exactly. Anyway, it gets worse — ’cause ye know how old Lady Claire’s eldest is?”
“How old?” Nicole asked, fully expecting Roma to say something like, “Ten” or “eight” or perhaps even “seven.”
Nicole’s fork dropped with a clatter. “No!”
“How old is Lady Claire?”
Nicole frowned. “Nicole? Somethin’ wrong?”
“My — my mother was almost forty when she had me. She was thirty-eight.”
“Wright! How many siblings did ye have?”
“Seven. I was the eighth.”
Roma whistled. “Yer ma an yer pa must have been awful fond o’ each other! Ma — my ma an’ pa loved each other like anythin’, but … well, they didn’t meet until they were older, so there was only so many kids they could have. Ye know?”
“Indeed. Are you done, or would you like seconds?” Nicole asked, gesturing to Roma’s depleted plate.
“Huh? Oh, I guess I’m done — aw, ye don’t need ter take it away, I’ll –”
“Nonsense,” Nicole chuckled. “You’re the guest, the guest doesn’t wash her own dishes.” A quick soap and rinse in the water-butt, and Nicole laid the plates down to dry. “So, you were saying about your parents? How they didn’t meet until they were older?”
“Aye, aye. They were — will ye believe it — both past thirty!”
“And your father already had his children, and probably wasn’t too eager for more.”
Roma tilted her head to one side. “Eh?”
“Well — well, I thought …” Nicole turned to her with a frown. “I mean, when Lyndsay introduced me to your mother — she said that she was her husband, Ash’s, stepmother … so I thought …”
For some reason, that made Roma burst into laughter.
“What?” Nicole asked as her young friend giggled.
“C’mere — I’ll explain to ye.” She beckoned to Nicole and Nicole leaned in.
“Ye see — Ash an’ Marigold, they’re plantsims!”
“They’re — what?”
“Plantsims! Don’t tell me ye ain’t never heard o’ them! They look like regular Sims, ‘cept they’ve got bark an’ stuff on their arms, vines crawlin’ over their bodies — an’ their hair! They’ve got leaves fer their hair! Surely ye’d know one if ye saw one ’cause of the leaves!”
Leaves … “The Simmus viridis?” Nicole gasped.
“The — it’s the Reman word for what you call the plantsims. It means — I think it translates best to ‘green Sim.'”
“Oh, oh, aye! Ye ever see one?” Roma asked.
Nicole shook her head. “No, no — in Reme …”
Roma tilted her head to one side and shot her an inviting look.
“In Reme — the, the government has control over all the plantsims. They work on large farms, growing food for the army — and for the cities, too.”
Roma’s eyes went wide. “Cor! That’s awful! They’re like — like slaves?”
“Well, er, they are slaves.”
“How terrible! Those Remans better not come here! I wouldn’t want ter see that happen ter Ash an’ Marigold!” Roma called out. “Er — no offense.”
“Er … none taken.” It was easier just to say that than to admit what she was thinking — that she had never expected to see someone react so strongly to the mere idea of slavery, to see someone so obviously offended by what was just a fact of life to her …
Or what had been just a fact of life, a long, long time ago.
“Oh!” Roma said suddenly. “Want to know what else is funny?”
“Technically –” She gestured Nicole closer again. “Now, if ye saw Ash or Marigold, ye’d be sure as shootin’ that they’re full-grown folk — an’ they act like they’re full-grown folk, too — but because of the way plantsims grow, they’re both younger than me!” She pulled away with an impish grin. “Can ye believe it? Technically, I’m the big sister!”
Nicole stared for a moment — then, she couldn’t help it.
She giggled. And Roma giggled with her.
And somehow — for just a moment — having a friend to giggle with made everything right in the world.