Bianca lay on her side, her hands acting as her pillow, eyes closed. What an exhausting few weeks. The letter from Takemizu, the flurry of preparations, the hurried leave-taking on the quayside. Watching the ship until its sails dipped over the horizon, watching until it was only in her imagination that she could see sails at all. Feeling so young again, and yet, at the same time, so old.
And now Richard was gone and would not be back for months. If he came back at all.
Bianca told herself to stop being a ninny and worrying about things she could neither change nor anticipate, but the ninny in her refused to be silent. The ninny in her, in fact, remarked that it was reasonable enough for her to worry, given just how much of the “flurry of preparations” of the few weeks before had not been packing clothes and planning itineraries and plotting business strategies, but financial preparations. They were just-in-case preparations — wills and trusts and money carefully set aside, all in case Richard did not come back.
He had made the journey to Takemizu four times in his life, once while he was a young cabin boy; once when he was a young captain, when he and Bianca were first married; twice as a merchant of Albion seeking to set up his own trade routes and contacts. Four times he had come back safe and whole and bearing trunks full of trinkets for those he had left behind. But who was to say the fifth time would not be the time he fell victim to storms on the journey there or journey back, or a mysterious foreign disease, or …?
Bianca tossed on the couch, shifting so that her closed eyes faced the ceiling. I never used to worry this much, she thought. Of course, the first time Richard had gone to Takemizu she hadn’t even known him. The second time, she was pregnant and had a shop to run and a carefully guarded nest-egg to invest, so that someday Richard could buy his own ships and send someone else on these perilous journeys. She had so much to worry about, in fact, that she hadn’t had time to worry about Richard’s safety; Richard’s safety had been the one security she clung to to get her through those other thousand worries. As for the third and fourth times, well, she had other shops to run, more children to raise — she missed Richard terribly in the nighttime, but in the daytimes she was run to ragged that she barely had time to worry about what George was going to get into next, nevermind what her husband was doing over the distant seas.
And now? Now her two eldest were off at Camford, taking care of themselves. Now even George was off at a boarding school, accessible to her on the weekends but only then. The shops were being run by managers, as was the shipping company. Why, even the old manor house and tower near Port Finessa that Richard was having fixed up in readiness for Freddy’s graduation didn’t need her attention! Now there was nothing for Bianca to do but sit in the house, and wait, and shrivel away like an old woman–
“You need to get out of the house, young lady.”
Bianca sat up to find her mother looking down on her, one hand on her hip.
“Mother — you should be resting.”
“What, and watching my life flash before my eyes, like you are? Bianca! Bianca, you were my toughest always, don’t tell me all the fight’s gone out of you just because your husband’s gone on a business trip!”
“I’ve been exhausted, Mother. These past few weeks …”
“Of course you have, honey, that’s why I haven’t said a word these past few days. Wright, after forty-odd years of telling you to slow down before you burst a blood vessel, I was glad you were taking care of yourself for once! But Bianca, there’s rest and then there’s moping. You’re moping.”
“You didn’t have anything against my moping when …” Her voice trailed off, knowing her mother would know what you meant.
“No, I was letting you grieve then. There’s a difference.”
“And what would that be?”
“Grieving is venting perfectly natural emotions when something tragic happens. Moping is allowing yourself to wallow in self-pity because something somewhat sad has happened or because something tragic might happen. May Wright forbid it, but if something happens to Richard, you can grieve all you want — until then, I’m not letting you mope.”
“What would you suggest then, Mother?” Bianca asked, smiling in spite of herself.
“Simple!” We’re going out!”
“Out? Out where?”
“There’s a new restaurant in Avilion — you know, near the whorehouse–”
“MOTHER! You shouldn’t even know where that is!”
“Oh, hush. At my age I’ll know whatever I damn well please. If I start becoming a paying customer, then I give you leave to worry and have my head examined, until then I’ll be an old busybody. Anyway, the place is called Aunt Lilie’s, I have no idea who Lilie is or whose aunt she is, but my busybody friends say it’s got good food and good drinks. So I sent a note down the Wesleyans’ way and you’re picking them up at four.”
“I’m — Mother! What if I didn’t want to go?”
“Too bad, you’re driving! Come on, Bianca. Richard wouldn’t want you to spend the next nine months pining away on this couch. For Wright’s sake, he said he’d be back for Dannie’s wedding — hell, Dannie told him he’d be back for her wedding! If he tried to miss it, you can bet your bottom copper she’ll get that Princess-witch friend of hers and they’ll go on a quest to Heaven or Hell to drag him back.”
“Mother!” Bianca laughed. “That’s blasphemy!”
“And according to the monks, thinking blasphemy is just as bad as saying it, and I’ve been thinking it ever since we got that letter from that darling daughter of yours, so what’s the harm in saying it aloud? So make sure your hair is pinned up and your dress doesn’t have a wrinkle, for we are going to have a night on the town, whether you like it or not!”
“And what would your order be, my good ladies?” asked the waiter as he flourished his wax tablet before him.
Bianca couldn’t believe she’d been roped into this. But there they all were — she, her mother, Helena and Helena’s daughter-in-law Isabel — sitting around a table in Aunt Lilie’s, as the place was called, with the sunset-light slanting through the window, a waiter taking their order and half the restaurant, or so Bianca thought, staring at them over their bills of fare.
Albion was a liberal place, for the most part, but some things were still rare. One of them was groups of women dining out. It happened in Camford; Bianca knew that, but Camford was … different. There they were all young men and women together; the rules of normal Sim life did not apply. Besides, they were barely past their teenage years, and teenagers were always prone to sneaking out of the house and doing things with their friends — privileged teenagers, that is, which all who attended Camford were. The girls at Camford were just sowing the last of their wild oats before settling into their lives as wives and mothers.
For wives and mothers, though they were certainly not completely confined to the home, were not expected to go off gallivanting with their friends to public places. Shopping, of course, was one thing, and one might grab a bite to eat from a market stall or tea house as one went. Lunch, even, was an acceptable meal to catch outside the home, for the menfolk were at work and the children were at school and no one was there to object if you were shirking your duties. But dinner? Dinner was the woman’s sacred meal, when she showed her virtue and her housewifely skills by providing for her family in the most elemental of ways: by feeding them. If women were leaving the house at sacred dinnertime, what was the world coming to?
Well, as for Maude and herself, Bianca thought they had the perfect excuse in that they were the only ones in the house, and thus no one was around to care what duties they were shirking. As for Helena and Isabel; they had menfolk to feed, but … maybe Babette was taking care of that? Maybe they were catching a meal at the pub? Bianca had no idea how Helena had been able to weasel her way out of the house at dinnertime, or how she had convinced Isabel to tag along.
Maybe Maude had convinced them both.
The ladies gave their orders as the sun dipped finally below the horizon. The candles had already been lit, so the restaurant did not plunge into darkness, but merely became firelit and warmly pleasant.
“Now, Isabel,” Maude said, opening up the conversation, “I am going to be a very impertinent old lady, but you are going to have to forgive me.”
“Have to?” Isabel smirked, one delicate eyebrow arching.
“Indeed. You see, the thing with us old ladies is that we don’t have much time left in the world, and while some of us spend it gossiping and guessing and insinuating, the better half of us decide that, you know what, we’re old, we might keel over before the truth comes out.”
“Mother!” Bianca laughed.
“You see my daughter is young yet,” Maude said, nodding her head at Bianca. “Anyway, I’m one of the latter sort. And those of us of the latter sort have come to the decision that if we want to know something, we’ll just ask and see where it takes us.”
“Ah, you might ask, but who is to say your interlocutor will tell you the truth?” Isabel replied.
“Honey, if you make it to my age and you can’t tell whether a Sim is lying or not, then I’d beg to know just what you’ve been doing with your life.”
“What if your interlocutor chooses not to answer, then?”
“Oh, she’s Camford-educated, all right,” Helena whispered to Bianca. “Can’t speak good Simlish without an accent, but knows more long words than many of us know short ones!” She winked.
“We heard that, Helena. I might be old and your daughter-in-law might have an accent, but neither of us are deaf.” Maude’s eyes were twinkling, though, as she turned to Isabel. “Anyway, to answer your question — sometimes refusing to answer might be as informative as giving an answer.”
“And if it is not, you will just have to speculate with the old biddies?”
“Alas, yes! But will you answer my question?”
“Ah, that would depend what the question is!”
“So I must ask before you’ll answer?”
“That is generally the way of questions, yes.”
Maude chuckled. “Oh, you’re good. You’re almost as much fun as my granddaughter. I can’t wait until you two meet — though I’m sure your husband and her husband-to-be is dreading it!” She shook her head. “Anyway, what I want to know is … your Darius is two years old, isn’t he?”
“Indeed he is.”
“And …?” Maude let one eyebrow go up.
That was all she would ask, Bianca knew, because of her. She didn’t need to be so cautious, though. Though part of Bianca would always mourn for what might have been, she knew that other people would go on having babies whether she wanted them to or no. The next little one to enter her life would probably be her grandbaby by Dannie. And if Isabel had another before then … well, maybe Helena and Isabel wouldn’t mind her “practicing,” so to speak, on that little one. After all, didn’t every child deserve two grandmothers? And Isabel’s children would have at most one still alive.
Isabel looked puzzled for a moment, before her face cleared. “Oh, that! There is nothing to report yet, but Joshua and I hope there will be soon.”
“Well, congratulations in advance,” Bianca said, if only to prove that she could.
A sudden silence descended over the table, and into that silence came their food. After it was served, Maude lifted her glass. “A toast!”
“To what?” Helena asked.
“To good friends, good drink, good meat, good Lord, let’s eat!”
“Amen!” Bianca laughed as they clinked glasses.
“But let us hope that friends are off the menu,” Isabel chuckled after they had all sipped and replaced their glasses.
“As long as they refrain from being irritating,” Maude answered, cutting into her ribs.
“But if they are irritating, are they still friends?”
“Of course they are, Isabel,” Helena answered. “If one’s family can be irritating, then so can one’s friends.”
“And speaking of family, how is Heloise adjusting to Camford?” Bianca asked.
“Oh, she’s taking to it like a duck to water, of course. She writes back pages and pages of letters full of the things she is studying, and only Josh and Isabel can make head or tail of anything of it.”
“You flatter us too much. We merely find the names of the professors, put our heads together to remember who they are, and determine the subject areas from that.”
“It’s more than Mark and I can do!” Helena answered. She shook her head. “But I do worry, for …” Her voice trailed off as a comely young waiter passed by, bearing his tray high past them.
“Helena, do stop checking out the staff — it isn’t polite,” Maude said. “You were saying?”
“What? Oh, about Heloise! Yes, she’s writing all about her classes, and nothing about any of the Sims — all right, the men — in them. This worries me.”
“Why? I would think not hearing about young men would be a relief …” Bianca replied.
“Are you kidding me?” Maude laughed. “Bianca, remember your teenaged years! The less you say, the worse it is!”
“It’s probably good that Dannie writes about Rob incessantly then, isn’t it?”
Helena shook her head. “If I could believe that Heloise’s silence on all things male was a sign of interest in one particular male, I’d be doing cartwheels — but everyone at this table who knows Heloise knows it’s not. That girl had better look sharp if she wants to get herself a husband before she gets out of there.”
“Helena, you worry too much!” Isabel laughed. “She is still so young. Why, Joshua and I did not find each other properly until we were in our junior year!”
“That’s exactly what worries me! You, Isabel, were looking — Heloise isn’t! When will she find her man, hmm?”
“Perhaps one will find her.”
“Or perhaps she won’t need one. For Wright’s sake, this is Albion, not Glasonland, where fifty years ago women didn’t have a legal existence!” Maude replied. “Your Heloise is a smart girl. If she wants to make her own way, she’ll do it.”
“What if she decides she wants to stay at Camford, be a scholar? You have to admit, it’d be a perfect fit for her.”
“I want better than that for her, though!”
“Helena, of course you want her to have the best,” Bianca replied, “but Heloise isn’t you. Getting married and having children might not work out as well for her as it did for you.”
Why did a shadow flit across Helena’s face? “Well … perhaps …”
“And she is young yet. She will find her way. If I could find my way, after …” Isabel’s voice faltered, and she addressed herself to her food.
“And really, Helena, I hope you and Mark didn’t move heaven and earth to send her there to find her a husband — Wright, potential husbands are never in short supply!” Maude replied. “Let her learn, the way she wants to. If a husband is meant to come, it’ll come.”
“And if it isn’t, she’ll be fine,” Bianca added.
“I hope you’re right,” Helena shook her head. “But anyway, enough about my daughter — Bianca, what about your news?” Helena’s eyes glittered as she asked, and Isabel glanced at her, puzzled.
Bianca felt equally puzzled. “My news?”
“You know. The royal messenger who stopped at your warehouse two days ago?”
“The royal — oh! Oh, he wanted Richard.”
“But Richard isn’t here.”
“You know, Helena, I think Bianca might have noticed that,” Maude replied. “I mean, it’s only just possible — but it is still possible.”
“Oh, Maude, let her speak! So what did he want?”
Bianca shook her head. “I don’t know.”
“He wouldn’t speak to me. He wouldn’t speak to the business manager, either — only to Richard.” Bianca sighed. “He was very upset to find that Richard had gone to Takemizu. He said it was urgent.”
“Urgent?” Helena asked.
“He wouldn’t be more specific than that, though.”
“Still — urgent! What a mystery … Isabel, is something wrong?”
Isabel was picking at her meal. She looked up when her mother-in-law spoke, and bit her lip.
“This may be impertinent for me to say,” she replied, “but I have noticed that when sovereigns start needing to send urgent messages to merchants … it is not good. No, it is not good at all.”
A hush fell over the table. “Well,” Bianca said with a forced cheerfulness, “maybe it was about that barony Richard wants.”
“Maybe,” Isabel replied. But her voice did not hold out much hope.