“Aren’t you just the sweetest little thing?” Guinevere cooed, waving to the baby. And it was true, even if he was Bors’s son, little Lionel couldn’t exactly help that. And it was too early for him to be showing his father’s personality. She stroked the little cheek. “Why, you’re almost as adorable as your sister!” Glancing up, she added, “Your twin sister, that is — your big sisters, while all lovely young ladies, are a bit past the adorable stage.”
“Thank you, my lady,” chuckled Gwendolyn. She balanced the babe in the crook of her arm, tickling him under the chin. “He is a sweet baby. Both of them are.”
I wonder about that, thought Guinevere, but held her peace. Whether they were sweet or not at this stage, they were only babies and did what they had to get the attention of their family. They didn’t have much choice in the matter, after all, since their very survival depended on the adults around them being able to anticipate and meet their needs.
Good St. Robert! Look what’s happened to you, Gwen! Will and Galahad have only been home for a week and you’re waxing philosophic!
Leona was home, too, but Leona was not the type of Sim to inspire philosophy in anyone, unless it was of the Wright-give-me-strength variety. Most of the students from Camford were home, for that brief break between academic years that the faculty used to grade papers and exams, conduct graduation ceremonies, and clean out the dormitories of graduated students in order to make way for the incoming freshmen. For those who lived in fraternities and sororities, it was generally one long alcoholic haze. While Guinevere could see why Gwendolyn and Clarice had elected to come home — the girls each held a tiny cooing reason for a visit in their arms — she wasn’t quite sure what had brought her three back. Oh, well, whatever their reasons, it was nice to have all three of them sleeping under one roof again. Who knew when the next time that would happen would be?
But Wright, she’d forgotten just how loud it could get with all three of them home! Tramping boots up and down the corridors, friends in and out at all hours, going out at hours even liberal Guinevere deemed obscene and coming back with the sun, if they were lucky. Since the royal twins and Lamorak were home as well, there was always a party or a gathering going on somewhere.
Except, of course, at the de Ganis household, unless it was a welcoming-the-babies type of party. Guinevere smiled as she watched Gwendolyn fuss over the baby. “Makes you want one of your own, doesn’t it?”
Gwendolyn looked up and blushed. “Aye — aye, my lady. But — but it won’t be long. Only a couple more years, Wright willing.” She sent a soft smile to the babe, then a half-panicked glance across the room at her father.
No need to panic, Bors was too engrossed in his conversation with Lancelot to notice anything short of Gwendolyn painting her face blue and dancing stark-naked around the room. “Aye, it’s a good thing to have an heir and a spare — but you’d know all about that, eh, Lance?” He nudged Lancelot in the ribs.
“Heh. You could say that,” Lancelot said. The tightness at the corners of his lip told a familiar story — now Bors was straining even his cousin’s usually elastic nerves.”
“So, are you going to jump on the bandwagon and try for more?” Bors chuckled. “Can’t hurt to go for a third, you know.”
“But Gwen and I already have three …” Poor Lance, trying to keep the panic from his face! Shortly after Claire had announced her pregnancy, but before anyone knew just how rough it was going to be on her, Lancelot had asked Guinevere, hesitantly, if she might want to try for another. The look on her face must have spoken volumes, for Lancelot called out, “Oh, thank Wright! I don’t want any more either, I was just afraid you might, now that Galahad and Leona are out of the house!”
“Are you kidding? We just got the right to make love on every flat surface in castle back? Why would I give that up?”
“Excellent point, my lady — and of course Will will be back with his own bride before we know it …”
“So let’s make use of those flat surfaces, before we get competition.”
“Another son, Lance,” Bors said, drawing Guinevere from a string of rather agreeable memories.
“At this point in my life, I’ve decided to just thank the Lord Wright for the blessings he’s already showered upon me, instead of asking for more.”
“Ah. Good way of going about it. Besides, you’ll be dandling a grandbaby on your knees within the next couple years, eh? Of course, so will I, but he won’t be living with me. Bit different, when you’ve got ’em in the house … though, say …” He paused as if a sudden idea had struck him. “Sir William!”
Luckily — or was it? — Will was not so engrossed in the difficult task of refereeing Galahad and Elyan that he could not look up. “Yes?”
“Tell me what you think of this, my lad — I’ve got two lovely young ones here, one of each kind. What do you say that we set one of them up with your first, eh? Unite the houses all over again!”
Bors probably couldn’t tell, but Guinevere could, that to call the expression on Will’s face panicked would have been a gross understatement. Even Galahad was paying enough attention to glance quizzically at his brother, as if to ask, So how do you think you’re going to get out of this one?
You had better not agree, William, thought Guinevere, or I swear I’m taking you out and beating sense into you myself!
Will cleared his throat. “I don’t think I’m ready to start making wedding plans for a child who has yet to be conceived,” he began with a weak chuckle. “Besides — I wouldn’t make plans like that without consulting the child’s mother.”
Like you so clearly haven’t!
“Ah, well, ’tis just an idea — no need to put things in stone yet. Still, I hope you’ll think of my two when the time comes,” Bors replied.
Will just smiled and looked away.
Uncomfortable silence reigned, at least until Leona started talking — loudly — to the baby in Clarice’s arms. “And you’re going to be a smart little girl! Yes, yes, you are! You’re going to show your brother who’s boss, all right! I’ll teach you everything you need to know about being a twin sister, trust me –”
“Oh, Leona! How much harder can it be than being a regular sister?”
“Lots, trust me! — And don’t listen to your big sister, Evie, because she doesn’t know what she’s talking about. She’s used to having a younger brother that she can pick on whenever she wants, not a twin brother and an older brother who will both try to pick on you if you don’t make sure you’re smarter than they are.”
“I’m sure Will and Galahad never tried to pick on you.”
“Of course they did, Clarice — now, granted, I might have generally been the one starting things, but even Will’s patience has an end point, and even Galahad can get annoyed at you if you if you toss a beanbag at his back enough times.”
“And how many times would that be?”
“Honestly? I lost count somewhere around fifty.”
“Fifty?” Clarice laughed.
Hearing Clarice’s laugh reminded Guinevere of another laugh, a laugh she hadn’t heard in far too long. “Gwendolyn — how is your mother doing?”
Gwendolyn’s face clouded, but all she said was, “Elyan, can you take Lionel for a moment?”
Elyan made a face, but — probably because his father was in the room, and expecting everyone to be as awed and amazed with the miracle that was Lionel as he was — took the babe without a word of complaint. He handed Lionel off to the first servant that presented herself, but for Elyan, it was a rather decent and patient performance.
Gwendolyn turned to Guinevere and took a deep breath. “I — I’m not sure where to begin.”
“Begin at the beginning.”
The younger woman bit her lip. “Mother — isn’t happy.”
“Isn’t happy how?” Guinevere hesitated a moment; she had no idea how much anyone had told Gwendolyn about giving birth and what happened after. “Gwendolyn … you know, it is normal for mothers to be a bit … off in the first few days or week after having a baby — why, when I had Will, I would go from cuddling him and cooing at him to biting poor Lance’s head off to a crying jag in about ten minutes. And the same thing happened with Galahad and Leona. But it cleared up rather quickly.”
Gwendolyn shook her head. “It’s not — it’s not like that. I remember when Elyan was born, Mother was like that then, too. This — this is different.”
Guinevere leaned in closer and listened.
“She — she isn’t sleeping. I’m pretty sure of that,” Gwendolyn whispered. “Father — Father doesn’t seem to have noticed, but the way Mother is acting — and the dark circles under her eyes …”
Figures, the man who sleeps in the same bed with Claire doesn’t even notice.
“And — she’s not eating, either. At least, not as much as she should.” Gwendolyn bit her lip. “Father did notice that. He had — he had some harsh words for her about that. She’s nursing Lionel herself, you know, so Father was on her case about not keeping her strength up.”
“Why am I not surprised?” muttered Guinevere under her breath.
That brought a fleeting smile from Gwendolyn. “But there’s more. She barely wants to hold the babies, either of them. She never goes near them unless they’re brought to her — and when they are, half the time she ends up crying about what a horrible mother she is, and sends them back with the servants. And now, there’s — well, there’s now. Do you remember when Elyan was born, the party we threw after he was a few weeks old? Mother was right there, in the middle of it, and so happy, so proud … and now … well, look around …”
Guinevere didn’t need to look around. There was no Claire here. And she did remember the party after Elyan’s birth. It was the brightest, most cheerful she’d ever seen Claire. That was what did it, really.
“Gwendolyn, where is your mother now?”
“In her bedchamber, I’m guessing. She said she needed to rest.”
“I see. Leona? Come with me, we’re going to pay Lady Claire a visit.” She patted Gwendolyn’s shoulder. “I’ll see what I can do.”
“Thank you,” Gwendolyn whispered. “Elyan, I can take Lionel–Elyan, where’s Lionel?”
Guinevere hustled Leona out of there before Bors could somehow get the idea that Elyan had misplaced his younger brother. “Why are we going to see Lady Claire?” Leona whispered.
“Because — well — I think she needs someone to sit with her for a few moments.”
“All right.” Guinevere raised her eyebrow at Leona’s easy acceptance of that rather scant explanation. “Well, it does beat being in the same room with Elyan.”
It did not take long to make their way to the lord and lady’s chamber; the de Ganis keep was rather small. Guinevere knocked. “Lady Claire? It’s Lady Guinevere and Leona. We were just wondering how you were doing.”
Guinevere came in, but advanced no further than a few steps beyond the doorway. Claire looked up. “Oh … it’s you.”
It was worse than she thought.
“Yes, it’s us,” Guinevere replied with a sunny faux-cheerfulness. She prayed that Leona wasn’t giving Claire a funny look; that was the last thing the woman probably needed. “How are you doing? Enjoying having your girls back home for a bit?”
She looked away, staring at the wall. “My girls aren’t all back home.”
Oh, Wright, Guinevere thought. The emptiness in those words … how was it that Bors did not notice that his wife was in such bad shape? Why hadn’t he had the midwife here to check her over? Or even Father Hugh? Somebody?
Maybe he does know, and just doesn’t want to admit that there’s a problem.
“Lady — Lady Claire? Are …” Leona began, quavering.
Claire looked up again. “Oh … how rude of me. Please, sit down, both of you.” Guinevere thought it impossible to hollow out words that had no real substance to begin with, but somehow Claire managed it. Guinevere took a seat on the bench beside Claire, and Leona perched on the end of the bed.
She watched Claire’s face. So still, so unmoving — was she even there, mentally? Did she remember they were in the room with her? Did she care? And what about the party going on downstairs without her? Did Claire care about that, or was it just one more occurence in her life over which she had no control?
Guinevere was not a patient woman. Though she could be tactful, it was a learned trait with her, it did not come naturally. She preferred to give her tongue a free rein and let the chips fall where they may.
So perhaps it was not surprised that Guinevere asked, blunt as a blow to the gut, “Claire, are you all right?”
She answered, but it was not to the point. “I had another girl.”
“And a boy. Twins,” Guinevere chattered. “Goodness, do you realize, this means that every woman of noble or royal blood has had twins? Well, except for Lady Morgause. And none of the identical, either. You’d think out of four sets, we’d get one pair of identical–”
“I had another girl, Lady Guinevere.”
Guinevere shut up.
Claire turned to Guinevere. “Do you think he’ll send her to the convent, too?”
“I — I don’t know. Lady Claire, surely it’s far too early to be thinking–”
“He wanted to — to gift Angelique to the convent right after she was baptized.”
“He wha–” Leona began, but a wave from Guinevere’s hand shut her down.
“Do you think maybe he’ll forget about her?” Claire asked, turning to Guinevere without warning. “I mean — he has Elyan and Lionel to occupy him now. Maybe he’ll — maybe she’ll just get lost in the shuffle.”
“I — I don’t know, Lady Claire,” Guinevere answered. “Is that what you want?”
“You’ve seen what happens when Bors pays attention to the women in his family.”
Claire certainly had a point there.
“But — but surely it won’t be so bad. I mean — you know what to look for now. You can surely do … something …”
“Like what? I’ve been married to that man for twenty-two years … I haven’t won a skirmish yet, let alone a battle … and I’ve already failed her sisters.”
“Don’t say that, Lady Claire. Gwendolyn, Clarice and Angelique are beautiful, clever, wonderful girls. How can you think you failed them?”
“All I can think of,” Lady Claire replied, “is how much more clever, how much more wonderful they would have been if their father hadn’t crushed every ounce of spirit they had since they were born.”
“Well, that’s bull.”
Guinevere and Claire glanced at Leona, startled, Guinevere for one having forgotten she was in the room.
Leona sat with her chin on her hand, one leg pulled up slightly. Not precisely ladylike, but Guinevere would be damned if she complained about that now. “Lynn and Clarice have plenty of spirit. Clarice was giving Dannie Ferreira as good as she got the other day! And aye, Lynn’s usually sweetness and light, but isn’t that a form of spirit? If her father crushed it all out of her, she’d be a little wallflower, she’d barely talk to anyone. But she’s bright, she’s friendly, heck, when she’s not around him, I’d even say she was happy most of the time. No, despite Bors’s best efforts, I think Lynn’s still got some spirit in her. And of course Clarice has plenty when she lets herself show it.”
“You — you really think so?” Claire asked.
“Of course I think so. I wouldn’t lie about something like this,” Leona shrugged. “And, by the way, you’re forgetting something.”
“And what would that be?” Guinevere was almost afraid to ask.
“Me,” Leona replied. “I mean, assuming that Elyan doesn’t hit his head and drown the next time I push him into the hot springs, I am going to be married to him in … I don’t know, six years or so? Evette will still be pretty young. You might not think you can do much against Sir Bors, but what about me?”
“Oh, Leona, no woman could stand against him.”
“Ha!” Leona answered. “Watch me. Does Bors think every female is a doormat, ready to lay down and be walked all over? He’s an ass — well, we already knew that, but he’s an ass and an idiot as well. He thinks he can rule over every female, well, he hasn’t seen a darn thing yet. And neither have you — and neither has Evette.”
Leona shrugged. “So I wouldn’t worry too much, if I were you. Bors isn’t going to trample over this daughter the way he trampled over you and Lynn and Clarice and Angelique. Just wait, you’ll see.”