“Oh, Roma, you’re so young!”
“Young? I ain’t young, I’m seventeen an’ I’m gettin’ married next year!” Roma laughed. “An’ ye’re but two years older than me! If I’m young than so are ye!”
“Well, in years, aye,” Nicole laughed, “but look at it from my perspective. You still live with your mother — you’re still in school — and look at the way you’re giggling over your Simon! You’re acting like –”
“A lovestruck young maid?” Roma said, then sighed — the very sigh of the maid she was claiming to be. “Well, I ain’t gonna pretend ter be otherwise! I only get to be seventeen, an’ practically betrothed, an’ in love once. I aim ter enjoy every second of it.”
“I don’t blame you. I would, too.” She hadn’t enjoyed being young and careless and in love — or at least in lust — when she’d had the chance. Given the opportunity, she would take those years back again in a heartbeat and live them properly.
“Well, what’s stoppin’ ye? Ye’re only nineteen! Sure, ye’re already livin’ on yer own, but why don’t ye fall in love? It can’t be much different at nineteen!”
“Why don’t I …” Nicole hesitated. Why didn’t she fall in love?
“Well, as far as I’m aware,” she answered, slowly, “falling in love isn’t something you can wake up and decide to do — it’s just supposed to happen … isn’t it?”
“Sometimes, aye, but it ain’t like there’s nothin’ ye can do ter help it along! Why, ye’ve got at least three men makin’ eyes at ye a night, jest pick one an’ flirt back! See if somethin’ happens!”
She was so bouncy, so joyful! Nicole laughed. “Just pick one? Really? Will you help me ‘eeny, miny, moe’ it?”
“I’ll catch the tiger by the toe if ye get hold o’ the tale first,” Roma giggled.
“I might hold you to that. So answer me something, miss — why didn’t you just ‘pick one’ and see what happens?”
“‘Cause they don’t make eyes at me the way they make eyes at ye!” Roma answered as if it were the most obvious thing in the world, as she pushed one of the overhanging branches of the willow tree out of their faces.
“That can’t be true! You’re at least as pretty as I am!”
“Aye, but I ain’t eighteen yet, an’ everyone knows that if ye’re caught bein’ too persistent with the underage girls in the Onion, it’ll be Master O’Neill meetin’ ye outside with his ol’ war-cudgel!”
Nicole giggled, even though the thought of Master O’Neill, owner of the Onion, and his cudgel would be a very fearsome one indeed to many hopeful young swain. “And we of-age girls are left on our own?”
“If ye’ve got pas an’ brothers or a husband, they can go after too-persistent suitors themselves — if ye don’t, jest tell Master O’Neill an’ he’ll be yer knight in shinin’ armor fer ye!”
Nicole bent over double, seized by another fit of giggles. “What?” Roma asked.
“Think about what you just said!”
“I said …”
“Think about Master O’Neill in a suit of armor!”
“I … oh!” Roma put her hand over her mouth, clearly imagining their employer, who was shaped after the vegetable for which he chose to name his pub, in a full suit of armor. “Oh, Wright!”
“He’d kill any suitors from laughin’!”
“How convenient!” Nicole managed to get out, before her ducking behind her hand to giggle some more.
When she and Roma finally managed to recover, Nicole said, “It’s amazing how protective Master O’Neill is … no tavern owner in Reme would be. Well, not unless the tavern maid was his daughter or niece or something like …” Nicole trailed off.
“Why not? I mean, like he always says, our parents an’ brothers are trustin’ him ter make sure we don’t get into trouble when we’re with him — seems silly he’d let someone harass us. Then we might quit, an’ he’d have to find someone else ter take our job!”
“Well, in theory, but in Reme … it’s sort of … it’s different.”
“Ye always say that, an’ ye never explain why …”
“I know, but …” Nicole looked from side to side — which was silly, for though the market was full of other people, none of them were looking at the two young women giggling beneath the willow tree — then she ducked close to Roma and whispered, “You see, in Reme, or at least in the big cities if not in the little villages, tavern workers are — are, well, women who are tavern workers have to register as –”
“… Prostitutes …”
Roma’s eyes widened. “Wright! We don’t do nothin’ like that!”
“I know, I work at the Onion too, you know!”
“Still! At the Onion we don’t serve up nothin’ more than good drink, good meat an’ maybe a saucy wink ter go on the side — if ye’re — what?” Roma asked as Nicole collapsed giggling again.
“A saucy wink!”
“What — oh, Wright!” Roma smacked her forehead. “That was awful, wasn’t it?”
“It was if it was on purpose!”
“Well, it weren’t! I hope I can think up better jokes ‘an that, if I really try ter think o’ ’em!”
“Sure, Roma, sure.”
“Oh, you shush, like ye can think o’ nothin’ better!”
“I never said I could — just that yours was bad!”
“Now ye’re jest bein’ mean!” But it was hard to say that convincingly when the words had to be forced out through chuckles and snorts.
“I’ll stop picking on you, if you like. Still — a saucy wink!”
“Lyndsay makes the sauce special fer our best customers!”
“And what do the worst customers get?”
“They get Mistress O’Neill’s saucy winks!”
Since their boss’s wife was shaped more like a leek than an onion proper — a short, skinny body with a massive quantity of frizzy hair atop that seemed to stand straight up on the top of her head — that did nothing to cure Roma and Nicole’s giggles. Nothing, in fact, cured it, until Roma’s stomach growled and she blushed.
“I think that’s a sign for us to get lunch,” Nicole said.
“Ye want ter try out the stall over there? My treat.”
“Roma, you don’t have to –”
“Nonsense! Ye’ve got ter pay fer the house an’ all yer food an’ all that — me, I’m jest settin’ stuff aside fer me dowry, Ma still ain’t reached the bottom o’ the bag o’ silver Sir Mordred gave her when his little son was born. Come on!” Before Nicole could protest, Roma grabbed her arm and proceeded to drag her over the hard-packed earthen paths to the food stall.
She was stronger than she looked — far stronger, and Nicole had no choice but to follow along. But peasant girls did tend to be strong. No sooner had the thought crossed her mind than she blushed. What was she, after all, other than a peasant girl, now?
But she hadn’t been before — and though that shouldn’t make any appreciable difference in how she treated Roma, or how Roma treated her now, it did, it appeared, make quite the difference in innate strength.
The girls slipped into two seats at the counter of the food stall, the smell of catfish frying and chicken roasting setting the juices working Nicole’s stomach. She never would have thought, back in Reme, that such simple foods would raise the slightest hint of appetite in her. Oh, she would try them, if she had to, because she would try anything — one had to, if one wanted to know what tasted good. But after tasting the masterpieces that came from the flour-covered hands of Julia and the other slaves of Reme’s best kitchens, how could simple market fare have ever hoped to satisfy her?
They placed their orders, and suddenly Roma’s breath went in. “Don’t look now,” she whispered, “but –”
Nicole turned her head to find a dark-haired young man staring at her as she would stare at her chicken pot pie, once it arrived.
“Nicole! I told ye not to look!” Roma laughed.
Her admonition came too late, for Nicole had already turned away. “Is he still staring?” she whispered.
“He’s still lookin’, aye. Ye should talk to him!”
“Well, why not?”
“No! No, I couldn’t!”
“He ain’t too bad-lookin’ …” Roma said, trying to see around Nicole.
“That has nothing to do with it — I just — I couldn’t.”
“Why not?” Roma turned her head to one side.
“I … I …” Nicole flushed. “I don’t know how.”
“Don’t know how to talk?”
“To — to a …”
Roma’s eyes bulged. “Wright! Ain’t ye never flirted before?”
“I — well, I’ve never — I’ve never started to flirt — I … I’ve been flirted with before, of course, by my betrothed –”
“Nicole! Ye had a betrothed an’ ye never told me?”
Roma stared at her, looking so bewildered, so hurt … Nicole shook her head. “No, no, it’s not — it was never like that.”
“Then what was it like?”
She was so curious, like a little magpie — like Nicole herself wanted to be, but was afraid to be, for if she asked questions she might have to answer them … “Well, you see, he was … was just somebody my father picked out for me.”
Their food came as Nicole spoke, giving her a precious few moments in which to collect her thoughts. If she was going to be honest, there had been, from the time she was twelve, five different betrothed husbands. But that was the way of things in the upper echelons of Reme. The political winds shifted so quickly, families fell into and out of power with such rapidity that you did not tie your daughters too closely unless you were very, very sure of your bet — or unless the girl was nearing her twenty-first birthday, which was when Reman women could marry without the permission of their fathers. Her own headstrong sister Claudia had been married off three days before her twenty-first birthday to prevent her from choosing her own husband, never mind what her family thought of him!
But even though most upper-class girls went through three or four different fiancés before finally being married off, Nicole had always known that her father was a bit more … extreme than most. Most fathers of four daughters wouldn’t worry too much over each individual match, figuring that out of four, you had to get at least one useful political alliance. But not her father — he wanted every marriage to count, and he wasn’t at all afraid to jump ship if a better potential match came along. It had given him a nickname among the other wealthy men of Reme — Saquinarius Mutabilis. “Saquinarius the Changeable.”
“So what was he like?” Roma asked as she dug into her fish.
“This guy that yer father picked out. An’ that ye didn’t marry.”
She certainly wasn’t going to tell Roma about all five of them! Nicole picked the fourth one, the one she had prayed to every saint she knew to have her father change his mind before she was made to marry him. “He … oh, he was old! Old, and bald, and red-faced, and he smelt of wi–ale, he smelt of stale ale. But he had money, and he was … related to some of the more powerful people in our town. Plus, he’d come into the money rather suddenly and wanted an heir, quickly.” Quintillus Calvus Floridus was indeed all Nicole described, and he was also huge and quite eager to have Nicole wedded and bedded and pregnant. He had been the only one of her suitors to break things off instead of her, for he found her father’s dithering (as he called it) to take too long and wedded a young woman from an offshoot of the recently-deceased Valentinus clan. She didn’t have much of a dowry and the alliance was of no use politically, but she had good bloodlines, was young and presumably fertile, and her parents were so happy to have someone seeking her hand that they were willing to drop her off at the church the next day, literally.
“Wright! No wonder ye ran off rather than get married to him!”
“Oh …” She might as well tell the truth, or a version of it. “He’d already moved on by the time I left Reme … my father wanted to wait until I was a little older to have me marry, and he didn’t want to wait so long. So he found someone else.”
“Oy! Ye don’t have much luck in the romance department, do ye?”
Nicole chuckled. “No, I suppose I don’t … but I haven’t tried my luck much, though. I was content … content to wait for my father to choose.”
“Ye Remans sure are different … I don’t know many girls around ‘ere who’d be willin’ jest ter wait fer their pas ter pick someone fer ’em — ‘cept o’course noble girls, an’ that’s the price they pay fer their pretty dresses an’ fancy jewels, eh?”
Nicole glanced at her. “Huh?”
“Well, that’s what me ma told Ella when we saw Lady Leona, though she was jest Maid Leona then, ridin’ past our farm with her brothers in ‘er silks an’ velvets. Ella wanted to know why she couldn’t have a pretty dress like that, an’ Ma told her that Ella wouldn’t want one … havin’ a dress like that means ye don’t choose yer husband, or what ye’re gonna do with yer life, or, well, anythin’ other than which pretty dress ye’re gonna wear to the next ball. Ye know? O’course, Ma was simplifyin’ things, ’cause Ella was about six at the time, but it makes sense, don’t ye think?”
Nicole blinked slowly at the words sank in. “You know, Roma, I … I never thought about it like that, but … I think you’re right.”
She had lost so much, she thought, when she left Reme. She had lost security, she had lost wealth, she had lost luxury and ease. She had lost her position, and not just her position in the sense of her place at the Reman court and all the stature that came with the Saquinarius name, but her position in the sense of her place in the world, her sense of equilibrium and balance. She had lost her friends and she had lost her family.
But in all those losses, she had never thought that she had gained something. She had never imagined she could gain something in the midst of all those lives. But she had, and it was freedom.
How precious a gain freedom was, Nicole thought, remained to be seen.
PS: Happy belated Independence Day to all the Americans reading this!