“There’s no need to pretend to be calm, Mordred.”
“I am not pretending.”
“Your wife is in labor. It’s perfectly natural to be a bit on edge.”
Is it? Mordred wondered, his hand pausing on the spine of the book he finally selected.
“Wright knows I was nervous,” Lot added, hands fiddling with the lower half of his tunic, “every time your mother went into labor.”
“I am sure you were, Father,” Mordred replied, grasping the book and sliding it smoothly from the shelf. “But I am not you.” Before his father could accuse him of insensitivity or worse, Mordred added, “And Dindrane is a strong young woman — not to say that Mother was not — and unlike Mother, she actually seems to enjoy pregnancy.”
Lot snorted. “I doubt she’s enjoying this part.”
“Perhaps not — but …” He paused. He and Dindrane had been married for almost three years now, and somehow he could not feel as though he really knew his wife at all. She was a quiet figure seated on a chair, reading, in the corner of his life. A vessel for his (legitimate) children. Little else.
But on those rare occasions when Dindrane was not reading, Mordred noticed that she practically haunted young Nimue’s nursery — even Agravaine’s, truth to tell. And this maternal affection for Nimue had not worn off even as she grew and the newness of the child had faded. Mordred assumed every day that Dindrane would grow fed up with toddler tantrums and strained peas everywhere and finally hand Nimue back to her nurse. Then Dindrane would return to her books and take no more than cursory interest in Nimue until she grew to a conversable age. Yet to date that still had not happened.
Perhaps the new baby, if it was a boy, would change things. Or perhaps not. With Dindrane’s strange perverseness, she would probably lavish more care and attention on Nimue since she knew that everyone else would be paying attention to the son. Just like how she grew closer (apparently) to Garnet now that infant Agravaine had eclipsed her in relative importance to the family. It was all very odd.
What sort of woman did I marry? Mordred wondered.
If she was like Rosette, obviously devoted to children — Mordred could still remember her clucking over her little brother Simon, and going into raptures when her sister Toinette had her first child — Mordred would not have wondered. But she was not. Mordred could not remember seeing from her any extraordinary affection for her siblings. No cooing over babies in shops or at church. Even when she had been pregnant with Nimue and now, this one, there had been no jawing his ear off about names or musings about who the baby would take after. She barely even mentioned how she was doing with the pregnancy unless someone asked, or if something had bothered her and she consulted with her mother or the midwife — and even in that case, Mordred only found out afterward!
“And you say you’re not nervous,” Lot chuckled.
“You’ve stood there with that book in your hand for the past five minutes.”
Mordred mentally cursed and threw himself into the chair, opening the book to a random page and starting to read.
What had he meant to look up, anyway?
“You’re not fooling me.”
“I have no intention of fooling anyone, Father.”
“Then why is your book upside-down?”
Mordred stared at the page before him, saw that his father spoke the truth, and turned the book around, muttering imprecations below his breath.
“Do you want to play chess? I find it soothes the nerves wonderfully.”
“The last time you were in this situation, or one similar to it, and you played chess, Dindrane had to keep reminding you whether it was your turn or not.” Mordred half turned in his chair. “As of this moment, there is no one sufficiently removed from the situation to remind us whose turn it is.”
“Drat.” Lot contemplated that dilemma. “Perhaps we could play dice. That doesn’t require much thought.”
Remembering what he had wanted to look up, Mordred only snorted as he flipped through the pages, seeking the information he wanted on plague spells. “Not requiring much thought seems to defeat the purpose.”
“Well, perhaps you –”
The door to the parlor blew open, and with the cold wind in came Garnet, and —
“Garnet, why is she not in bed?” Mordred asked.
“Gwampa!” Nimue called out, stretching her chubby hands toward her grandfather. Lot got up to tickle the baby under the chin.
“Easy, squirt.” Garnet kicked the door closed with her heel. “She woke up upset,” she sad to Mordred. “She kept calling for Dindrane.”
“So the nurse should have calmed her down and put her back to bed.”
“She was crying for an hour!”
“Easy, Garnet,” Lot replied. “No one’s criticizing you.” Lot paused. “Though I do have to wonder how you became involved.”
“I was walking by the nursery and heard her crying.”
“Ah, well. All is understood.”
“I’ll just play with her for a bit,” Garnet added, setting Nimue on the ground, “until she tires out again. Then I’ll see if the nurse can get her back into bed.”
“No bed!” Nimue called out, pouting.
“You will go to bed,” Mordred replied, “and soon. It’s far too late for you to be up.”
Nimue stared up at her father with big eyes — Dindrane’s blue eyes, only without their quizzical expression — and began to suck on her thumb.
“Ignore your daddy, he’s a meanie,” Garnet said. Those eyes instantly went to her aunt. “Peek-a-boo!”
Nimue squealed and clapped her hands.
Children, Mordred thought, shaking his head. So easily amused. When will she become more discriminating in her tastes, I wonder? Melehan and Melou were not, he thought, quite so simple in their tastes. Not anymore. They had far more fun with the little “wands” he’d made for them, pointing them at each other and shouting gibberish that was supposed to be curses, then any foolish games like “peek-a-boo.”
Then again, Melehan and Melou were a good deal older than Nimue, or at any rate, there was enough of an age difference between them for Mordred to notice these key differences.
Lot kissed the top of Nimue’s head, then got up, slowly, one hand against his back. “Father?” Mordred asked.
Garnet looked up. “Papa?”
“Easy, easy, children — I’m just getting old, that’s all.” Lot eased himself into the chair. “Grandpa’s fine,” he added to a still-troubled-seeming Nimue.
She smiled a smile that was increasingly crowded with teeth, then turned back to her aunt, ready for further amusement.
“How well do you think she’ll respond to a new little brother or sister?”
Why are you asking me? Talk to her nurse! He knew how Melehan and Melou would respond to their new sibling, due midway into next year — not well, he would bet. The two of them tolerated each other, but they were both fiercely jealous of attention from adults. When the new baby came … oh, there would be hell.
And Nimue, now that he thought about it, wasn’t much better. She had not responded well to everyone giving the attention and cooing to Agravaine that had, in her mind, rightfully belonged to her. If this new baby was a boy, who naturally would attract double the attention of Agravaine … oh, there would be hell.
“Garnet, what is that child doing up?”
It would take a far less observant man than Mordred not to notice how Garnet stiffened when their mother’s voice was heard. And it would take a far more sympathetic man than Mordred to refrain from rolling his eyes. He wished the two of them — or rather, Garnet — would get over this silly adolescent strife. It was ruining the peace of the entire house. And it had been ruining the peace of the entire house for months — over a year, really! When would the two of them get over each other? Really, it would be a blessing when Garnet went to Camford at the start of the new year. Then there would finally be some peace in the house.
“I was trying to tire her out so she would sleep better, Mother.”
“It seemed like a good idea to me,” Lot added.
Damn it, Father, why do you always have to get in the middle of their fights? If Nimue, when she became an adolescent, showed any inclination of getting into such spats with Dindrane, Mordred would certainly make no such error. Getting in the middle only prolonged the pointless arguments.
Before Morgause could do more than glare at her husband, Lot asked, “So, Morgause, any status updates?”
Morgause sighed and threw herself into a chair across from Mordred. Mordred absently dropped his book on the floor. “The midwife says that Dindrane’s pains are coming faster. She expects it will only be another couple hours before the child is born.”
“You hear that, Nimue?” Garnet said in that annoying falsetto so many people used when talking to small children. “You’re going to be a big sister really soon!”
Mordred shifted so he could see Nimue’s face better — by her expression, she seemed no more impressed with the idea than he had been when Garnet was born. Mordred barely stifled a smile. Perhaps there was a bit of her father in her, after all.
“Lot?” Morgause asked sharply.
“Did you take your potion for your back?”
“I — er, well, no,” Lot admitted. “It makes me — er — rather sleepy. I thought I would wait until after the child is born.”
“You look like you’re in pain.”
“I, er …”
“Lot, for heaven’s sake. If you fall into a doze, I promise you we will wake you up as soon as it’ll be your turn to hold the grandchild.”
Lot sighed. “I can take a hint.” And he shambled out the room.
“Men,” Morgause said, shaking her head. “Fancy a game?” she asked, changing the subject in her normal capricious way.
“If you would like one, Mother.”
“Good answer,” Morgause replied. They set up the board, Morgause going first.
“So,” she asked, her fingers lingering over one of the pieces, “hoping to finally get that son?”
“Dindrane and I have only been married for two years, Mother. I should hardly think it would count as ‘finally.'”
Morgause glanced at him with one eyebrow raised.
“I am not Sir Bors. When Dindrane and I have been married for ten years and have naught but five daughters to show for it, I will begin to worry. Until that time, I have better things to do than bother my mind with things that neither Dindrane nor I can control.”
“I would hardly think that five daughters was ‘nothing to show for’ ten years of marriage,” Garnet sniffed.
“That is because you are young and naive,” Morgause dismissed. “Once you are a woman grown, you will understand — you will be frustrated, too, after five pregnancies and knowing you have to go through a sixth.” Morgause sniffed. “And I cannot imagine how frustrated your husband will be.”
Mordred snorted below his breath. Lamorak, frustrated at having to … No, he wouldn’t think about that as it involved his own sister. It was too disgusting. All the same, he could not help but notice the furious look Garnet sent in her mother’s direction.
“Better five daughters in ten years than needing over ten years between births,” Garnet snapped. “At least the woman who has that many children is fertile.”
“But the woman who bears a healthy son first need never worry about her fertility again,” Morgause replied. “I daresay Dindrane is praying for a son for just that reason. She’ll be all too eager not to have to go through this again — and certainly not for a waste of a daughter.”
If looks could kill — or had Garnet the grasp of the darker arts that Morgause and Mordred shared — there would have been a funeral as well as a baptism in a few days’ time. As it was, Garnet could only glare, grab Nimue and stomp out the room.
Morgause chuckled. “I knew that if denigrated daughters long enough, she’d put that child back to bed where it belonged.”
“Perhaps,” Mordred replied. “But, Mother?”
“If you must denigrate — do me a favor and refrain from it when my daughter is in the room.”
Morgause turned her cat-green eyes to light on him, clearly amused. “She is your first.”
“My first daughter, indeed.”
“Indeed.” Morgause surveyed the board. “So — how do your boys?”
Mordred smiled. “Very well, Mother. They are driving their mother up a wall — but Rosette is nothing if not patient.”
“Better her than me,” Morgause clucked. “You know how I love you and Agravaine, Mordred, but had I not nurses to take care of the two of you during those difficult early years — well. I should have gone mad, I will not deny it.”
“You would have found some way to summon a servant from the other realm and use it for constructive purposes, not destructive ones, as the followers of the Light do.”
“Perhaps. And speaking of the other realm, followers of the Light …” Morgause peeked at him through her lashes. “Any sign from those two yet?”
Mordred sighed. “I know not. It is — frustrating. Hearing so many of their antics at secondhand — it is hard to tell what is normal toddler foolishness and what is a sign of something … special. You know?”
“I do know. But do not despair. I managed to obtain a sample from that girl –”
“You what?” Mordred hissed. “What kind of sample? Damn it, Mother, you know as well as I do what kind of damage someone could do to Rosette if –”
“Mordred, relax. It was no more than a couple hairs from the collar of one of your tunics. And I assure you, I destroyed them — utterly — as soon as I finished my testing. There is no need to fear.” She moved a pawn. “And do you not want to know what the results of my test were?”
“I’m — listening,” Mordred replied.
“Favorable. So long as your children do not inherit Lot’s lack of magic from you, I expect we will have a few more followers of the tradition ere long.” Morgause smiled. “Now, isn’t that nice?”
“Very nice, Mother — very nice.”
The game continued amicably, with similar desultory conversation, for another hour. It only stopped when a maid ran into the room, wiping her hands on her apron and grinning ear-to-ear.
“Sir Mordred — my lady,” she said, bobbing a quick curtsey, “I’m happy to tell you that Lady Dindrane has given birth … to a healthy son!”
“Well done, wife,” Mordred said some little time later, as he bounced the baby. “Well done.”
“I assure you, producing this little one took no more effort than producing Nimue.” But there was only half of Dindrane’s usual acerbity in her tone, and when Mordred glanced at her from the corner of his eye, she wore a soft look and gazed only at the baby.
“Still, he is a fine boy — and you certainly put more effort into his creation than I did.” Mordred rested the child in the crook of his arm. “He has your eyes. And your hair.”
“Perhaps it is your father’s hair.”
“Perhaps.” Mordred tilted his head to one side. “I cannot trace any other resemblances, though.”
“It’ll come — it’s hard to tell when they’re so little, no matter what my mother and your mother will insist they can see.”
“Indeed,” Mordred replied. “What think you of Gawaine for a name?”
“I think it sounds like a fine one. Besides, it matters not so much what we call the boy, as how we raise him, no?”
“Is that a way of saying you want a different name?”
“No, not at all. I like Gawaine. He looks like a Gawaine. Besides, I got to name Nimue, it’s only fair that you get to name this one.”
“You are being incredibly agreeable, wife,” Mordred said. He brought the child around, closer to the bed, so Dindrane could see him more easily. “You do realize that this is one of the few times when you could demand just about anything and I would have little choice but to agree, do you not?”
“Is it?” Dindrane replied, still looking at the baby.
Mordred wondered, his stomach dropping, just what he had given Dindrane licence to ask for …
“How fortunate you are, then, that you have a wife who wants for very little — and all of what I truly desire, you are either powerless to provide, or already have provided it.”
“Powerless to provide?”
“I doubt even you could serve me up all the secrets of the universe on a platter, Mordred.”
Well, that he could not dispute.
“If I think of something in a reasonable amount of time, I’ll let you know,” Dindrane added. Then she held her arms. “For now, though, I will settle for getting to know my boy a little bit better.”
“That,” Mordred answered, handing the child over, “sounds most reasonable.”