“Bloody hell,” Simon Chevaux muttered below his breath.
Knock-knock! “Simon! Open up! We know ye’re in there!”
Aye, I’m sure you do … Sighing below his breath, he marched over to the door and threw it open to the most ancient and avowed enemy of his kind. There were three of them, two older ones and an enemy-in-training. Oh, surely, they looked like pleasant, decent enough Sims, but appearances could be and often were deceiving. He knew their type too well to be fooled. Once they saw their prey, they would track it until they had it by the throat and then proceed to suck the life out of it. Slowly and carefully.
“Well?” asked the foremost one. “Ain’t ye gonna invite us in?”
Simon smiled his best false smile and stepped aside from the door. “O’course — Ma.”
“Thankee, dear.” She patted his cheek absently, then gestured to the other two women. “Ye know Kata Thatcher, o’course — an’ Roma, naturally. Or if ye don’t know her too well, that’s the whole point o’ today, ain’t it?” Cerise grinned and nudged Kata in the ribs. Roma blushed and stared at her feet.
If Roma hadn’t been as much as — if not more so — the enemy as the other two, Simon would have felt sorry for her. He was perilously close to it even though she was the enemy. Poor kid, she was probably being dragged as much into this as he was — and just because Kata Thatcher was eager for grandbabies, and his own mother was eager for more grandbabies. Why did she have to meddle, anyway? If Toinette’s four — four! — and Pierre’s one (and likely to remain one) weren’t enough for her, well, Rosette had two and another one on the way. The only thing that was stopping Cerise from having seven, soon to be eight, little grandchildren to dote upon was Cerise herself. Why did she have to get on Simon’s case to start producing more?
Oh, well. Trying to figure out the mind of a woman, according to some philosopher, was harder than … actually Simon couldn’t remember what it was harder than, but he would bet it was something hard indeed.
“Aww, look, he’s smitten already. Won’t stop staring at little Roma,” Cerise practically squealed as she nudged Kata once again. Kata glared and Roma’s blush deepened.
“Cerise, please. Give the two of ’em a rest,” Kata said, rolling her eyes. If she wasn’t as deep in this conspiracy as Cerise herself was, Simon would have thought she was exasperated. But it had to be an act. Two guards, Simon had heard, would do the same sort of thing if they caught a thief. One would be tough, demanding, harsh. The other one would pretend to be reasonable and just, willing to listen, the suspected thief’s new best friend. What Simon wondered was this: did the women learn this technique from hearing of the guards’ practice, or did the guards learn it by watching their wives, sisters, daughters and their lady-friends?
… Probably the latter, Simon thought.
“Well, ain’t ye gonna greet each other?” Cerise asked, looking significantly at each other. “An’ do yer duties as the host?”
Only his mother would expect him to serve tea and sconces while he completed the preliminaries to voluntary lifelong imprisonment.
“O’course, Ma — Mistress Thatcher — Roma — have a seat. Er — can I get ye somethin’?”
“A greetin’ fer Roma would be nice,” Cerise replied.
Simon rolled his eyes, but managed a small smile for Roma. He kissed her cheek, then glanced at his mother as if to ask, There, happy?
Cerise grinned and patted the seat beside her. Roma slipped into one next to her mother. The four of them sat, silent and stiff as day-old corpses. “Ye sure ye don’t want somethin’? I’ve got good ale — spirits, too, if ye’ve got the head for it.”
“Wright-a-mercy, Simon, it ain’t even noon yet! Far too early fer that strong stuff! I’m sure ye’ve got tea or cider on hand — somethin’ fit fer servin’ ladies,” Cerise answered, her eyes darting purposefully in Roma’s direction.
“Aw, Ma, I don’t entertain ladies here often — so why should I have somethin’ on hand fer feedin’ ’em?” Simon asked. “An’ before ye say nothin’, think about the alternative.”
Cerise sighed and turned to Kata. “He’s a good boy, he really is — jest likes to yank on his Ma’s chain.”
“I’m sure,” Kata replied.
“So how have things been with ye, Kata?” Cerise asked. “How are yer — um — clients doin’?”
Oh, Wright, if they start tradin’ birthin’ horror stories, I swear one of ’em’s goin’ out by way of the window.
“Well, very well,” Kata replied. “Now that Lady Dindrane an’ her little one are lookin’ right as rain, it’s jest a matter of waitin’ fer Lady Claire’s little one to be born — an’ the little ones of some of my … other clients … an’ then I’ll have a breathin’ spell fer a bit. Oh, did I mention? I’ll be gettin’ another grandbaby, come the middle of next year!”
Cerise looked confused, and Simon — panicked. From what he’d learned, Roma was the oldest of Kata’s children, and while she didn’t have any children yet … maybe this was why they wanted her married off? But surely, if that was the case, Kata wouldn’t announce the pregnancy in front of a prospective suitor with such a wide smile on her face!
Simon glanced at Roma, but her grin was every bit as wide as her mother’s. So it couldn’t be her kid. And the only other Thatcher likely to be producing kids was Ella, Roma’s little sister — just as unmarried and with just as little business getting up to any of that!
“I’m — I’m a bit confused, Kata, I thought …?” Cerise started.
“It’s Ash and Lyndsay expectin’ another little one. O’course, he or she ain’t gonna be my blood grandchild, but who cares when ye’ve got a baby to kiss an’ cuddle an’ spoil half-rotten?” Why did she look at him and wink as she said that?
“Oh. I–see,” Cerise replied, in a tone that make it quite obvious that she didn’t see.
“Besides, I’m the only grandparent any of those wee ones are ever gonna know — Lyndsay’s parents passed on before she came to Albion, an’ now Jeremiah …” Kata took a deep breath, and was it Simon’s imagination, or did Roma’s eyes become glassy for a moment? But before he was sure, the glassy look was gone and Kata was talking again. “Anyway, seems like it would be right selfish of me not ter be part o’ those kids’ lives jest ’cause they ain’t related to me by blood, no?”
“Oh, o’course,” Cerise replied, or more likely, lied. “But don’t havin’ — er — not-quite-grandchildren jest whet yer appetite fer the real thing?”
“Not really — oh, I’ll be thrilled when Roma or Ella or Billy have some kids o’ their own — but it ain’t that big a deal. Little ones don’t know or care whether they’re yer blood relative or not. As long as ye’re givin’ out hugs an’ candy, they don’t care neither.” Kata smiled at her daughter. “But as I’ve told Roma time an’ time again — no children until ye’re right ready fer ’em. Havin’ babies to please someone else, don’t matter who it is, only leads to problems.”
That was a philosophy Simon could endorse with his whole heart.
“I–see,” was all Cerise had to say to that. “Well, Simon,” she asked, turning to him, “how’re things at the mill?”
“They’re —ow! Ma!”
“I’m sure Roma would like to know how they are — wouldn’t ye, Roma?” Cerise asked, jerking her head in Roma’s direction. Wright. So now I’m supposed to tell Roma what a good provider I am. St. Robert on a runaway horse, this ain’t fair.
Well, if Cerise wanted him to talk to Roma, he’d talk — but not in the way she wanted. He turned to Roma. “Roma, ye seem like a smart lass — am I right in that?”
Roma went very pink around the cheeks, but at least she was able to reply with some sense. “I ain’t the one ter judge that, Simon.”
“Well, I’m jest gonna assume that ye are, and tell ye — if ye’re smart, ye don’t want to know about work at the mill. Trust me. There ain’t no decent conversation ’bout haulin’ sacks o’ grain.”
“Oh, Simon!” Cerise aimed a swat for his ear that Simon barely avoided. “The work might not be all that satisfyin’, but it pays well, or well enough. An’ Simon’s got a good chance o’ risin’ at the mill, don’t ye, Simon?”
Wright, I didn’t … Out of all the lies he had told about his work at the mill — work he had quit the minute after he moved into his own place and thus could keep his own hours — he was certain the possibility of advancement wasn’t one of them. Fairly certain. A lie like that could be checked out, corroborated. If his parents asked around, they might well find out that he’d quit his job, and then there would be a mess of explaining to do.
But Cerise was blinking at him and nodding, and Simon realized that this lie was hers. Was she that desperate to see him married, and to a kid who wouldn’t even be of age to marry for another year or two? Well, he didn’t have to play along with it. “There’s always a chance of advancin’ anywhere. I’d say there’s a greater chance o’ me findin’ better work somewhere else, though.”
“Oh, Simon, if I weren’t yer own ma–”
“Cerise?” Kata asked.
“Why — if Simon don’t mind — why don’t we head up ter the loft fer a bit? These two would probably get ter know each other better if they didn’t have us hoverin’ over their every move and breathin’ down their necks.”
“Oh, Kata, I don’t –”
“That sounds like a great idea, Kata,” Simon said, jumping up and helping — or rather, hauling — his mother to her feet. “Let me help ye up the ladder.”
“But — but –”
Both women, despite their age, were still spry enough; Kata shot up the ladder first, followed by Cerise still trying to protest. As soon as they were up and sounded settled, Simon returned to the table. “So,” he asked Roma, “if yer ma really ain’t all that desperate fer babies — why is she makin’ ye do this?”
Roma giggled, her whole face blooming into a smile. Now, she was no Mirelle and that was damned certain — but Simon had to admit that all in all, Roma was not a bad catch in the looks department. His mother could have certainly picked far worse.
“Ma jest wants ter see me taken care o’, is all,” Roma said. Her voice wasn’t bad, either, very light and pleasing. “What with — what with what happened with Pa an’ all, earlier this year, she’s — spooked. She’s afraid she won’t be around, either, ter see us all grown up. So she wants to get me settled, at least, so — so if the worst does happen, I can take care o’ Ella and Billy.” Roma glanced at the table. “If — if ye wouldn’t mind, that is.”
“How old are Ella an’ Billy?”
“Ella’s fourteen — two years younger ‘an me — an’ Billy’s eight.”
“So they’re old enough to be some help, an’ not a screamin’, cryin’ nuisance — an’ o’ course we wouldn’t be married fer two years–”
“Oh, I’m almost seventeen!” Roma interrupted. “So it’s only a little more than a year …” She blushed. “If–if ye’d agree, that is.”
Simon tried to smile. “Well, in any case, by the time we were married, Ella would be fifteen, sixteen maybe, and Billy would be nine or ten — even older an’ less bother.”
“So ye might think.”
“I wouldn’t mind ’em bunkin’ here,” Simon said, shrugging. “How would yer lord feel about it, though?”
“I’m Sir Bors’s man — if they moved in with us, they wouldn’t be earnin’ nothin’, or nothin’ worth reportin’, an’ so they wouldn’t be sendin’ taxes ter … who is your lord?”
“Sir Lancelot. An’ — well, I see it like this. If the monastery had to take Billy in, he still wouldn’t be gettin’ any taxes, no?” Roma asked. “So why should he care if Billy was here, or with Ash an’ Lyndsay, or the monastery?”
“Good point.” Simon sighed. “Nice ter know yer lord’s reasonable.”
“He’s Sir Bors. ‘Reasonable’ ain’t in his vocabulary,” Simon replied. “Come on, yer ma’s tendin’ on Lady Claire. Surely she’s told ye some horror stories?”
Roma blanched, confirming that horror stories had, indeed, been told.
“But I wouldn’t worry about him none. If all goes well — an’ if we do end up gettin’ married — we won’t be his peasants fer long anyway.”
Roma tilted her head a little to one side.
Simon hesitated for a moment, then he beckoned Roma closer. “I’m tryin’ ter raise money ter buy out me indenture,” he whispered. Roma gasped. “But ye can’t tell no one — not yer friends, not yer sister, not yer ma, and Wright knows, not mine. If Sir Bors knew I was tryin’ ter break free, he’d find a way ter stop it — jack up the price or raise me taxes or tell me I’ve got ter work fer him, and pay me squat so I can’t save up nothin’ fer buyin’ me — our — freedom.”
“Oh,” Roma whispered as they pulled apart. “How’re ye gonna do that on a miller’s assistant’s s pay?”
Simon paused. Should he tell her? They might not end up getting married at all, and if she knew what he really did … there was no way she would keep that secret. But at the same time, she had to know, or she would get suspicious …
But who said she had to know the truth?
He beckoned her closer once again. “I ain’t workin’ fer the miller no more — ye can’t tell nobody this, mind. Nobody. I’m workin’ fer smugglers.”
Roma gasped. “Smugglers! But ain’t that illegal?”
Simon chuckled. “Not in Albion — no, hush, lemme explain. Ye see, I ain’t smugglin’ stuff into Albion — King Arthur don’t charge nothin’ in the way o’ port taxes an’ what-not, so where’s the call fer smugglers? I’m smugglin’ stuff out.”
“I don’t — I don’t understand.”
“Truth to tell, I don’t either,” Simon answered. “But we’re smugglin’ stuff into Reme. Dyes an’ cloth, mostly. Purple cloth of all things. Don’t ask me, like I said, I don’t get it either.” He shrugged. “Anyway, what I do — me an’ a bunch of me mates — is get the stuff over the border into Reme, then some merchants there take charge o’ it an’ sell it fer really high prices — after they give us a sweet little fee fer bringin’ it to ’em.”
“But ain’t it dangerous, Simon? There — there are thieves on the borderlands!”
“Course it is, that’s why the pay’s so high!” Simon chuckled. “But don’t ye worry yer pretty little head about thieves.” Did he just call her head pretty? “See, there’s a few gangs up there, but we — me bosses, I mean — got ’em all payed off. They don’t bother us, they get a little cut o’ the action, ye see?”
“So — so it ain’t that dangerous?” Roma asked.
“Oh, there’s still dangers — Reman soldiers ain’t gonna be too happy with us if they find us — but the thing is, we make the drop-off but a mile from the Albion border — an’ once we get over that border, there ain’t nothin’ Reman soldiers can do to us. An’ the thieves, ye see, are no trouble at all. Hell, sometimes they distract the soldiers so’s we can get through.”
The beauty of the explanation, Simon thought as he watched Roma absorb it all, was that it was all true. Not true for him of course, but true in that there was a gang of smugglers that operated in the Reman-Albion borderland, they did smuggle dye and purple cloth, Simon truly didn’t have a clue why, and they had made deals with groups of thieves — including Simon’s own gang — to be let alone in exchange for a payment. Simon’s gang had accepted the offer instantly; the cargo the smugglers were carrying wasn’t worth all that much in Albion, and besides, Simon had no problem with being paid for not working. They even had drawn the Reman soldiers on a merry chase once or twice. The smugglers had been grateful enough to double the usual fee on that occasion, and Simon hadn’t had the heart to tell them that the armor they’d looted from a soldier who had gotten knocked on the head in the chase was worth just as much as the usual fee.
“But — but it’s still dangerous,” Roma replied. “I — I don’t want to be marryin’ no man who might get killed in the Reman borderlands an’ leave me all alone, an’ maybe with little ones ter feed, too.”
“Roma, Roma, Roma — is that all that’s worrying ye? I could be workin’ fer the miller still, an’ get caught in the gears or somethin’ an’ get killed that way. An’ let me tell ye somethin’; I ain’t no fool. If I were in miller’s work an’ got killed, I wouldn’t be makin’ nothin’, an’ ye’d really be left destitute. Whereas if I’m in smugglers’ work, I’m savin’ up a nice little nest egg fer our freedom, ye see? An’ so if somethin’ happened ter me, ye could use that ter pay bills an’ such, help ye out.”
“It still sounds too dangerous,” Roma whispered.
“Life’s dangerous no matter what line o’ work ye’re in,” Simon replied. “The only question is — have ye the guts ter take danger by the horns, an’ get what ye can from it? Or will ye take the safe route, doin’ what yer parents did an’ their parents did an’ their parents did, an’ never gettin’ anywhere from it?” Simon shrugged and leaned back. “I’ve made my decision — but I can’t answer that question fer ye, Roma. Only ye can do that.”
As Simon watched Roma, her mother and his mother all leave, his question reverberated in his head.
Marrying Roma — marrying anyone — while he was in his line of work was a danger. He could fool her, he was sure. The story he had told her would safely keep her mind occupied for — oh, for years and years, he was sure. Especially once little ones came into the picture and she was busy with them. But still, she would know, by virtue of their close association, more than he wanted anyone else to know. And what she knew, she could inadvertently tell others.
But he would have to marry eventually. It would look suspicious if he didn’t. And his mother might well nag him to death and save the government a hangman’s fee if he turned Roma down.
So — did he have the courage to take danger by the horns and get what he could from it?