“Good night, baby,” Rosette murmured, ignoring the kick her littlest one gave her as she bent over the crib. She tousled Melou’s curls. “Sleep tight –“
“Don’t wet the bedbugs bite,” Melou answered before his little mouth opened to twice its normal size as he let out a yawn.
“That’s right!” Rosette whispered; she had to whisper lest Melehan hear them and wake. He wasn’t a light sleeper, not really, but both of her boys had ears finely attuned to the other — if Melehan sensed that Melou was getting more affection or attention or vice versa, there would be hell to pay. The part of Rosette that wasn’t eagerly anticipating the day when she would get to hold her new baby was dreading the reaction her old babies would have to the new arrival.
“Night-night,” she whispered as she backed away from the crib. Melou managed a slow sleepy wave, his hand looking like it was moving through water. It finally fell to the pallet next to him with a soft thud. Melou curled onto his side, sucking his thumb. His breathing was already deep and even by the time Rosette backed away from the crib.
She stood in the doorway for a moment, watching her boys sleep. Then she put out the candles and watched them again by the slanting light of the moon. Once she was convinced that they would stay asleep, then she shut the door and stole down the wooden stairs.
Her steps were slow, leaden. No wonder, she was, as she always was these days, exhausted! She would just get a quick snack, she decided, to tide her over until morning, and then it would be to bed with Mummy as it had been to bed with Melehan and Melou.
She was about halfway down the first flight of stairs when the door below — the one that led into the other corridors of the converted keep — flew open and slammed shut.
Rosette froze like a mouse with the cat’s hungry upon it and her babe jumped within her. What should she do? It was late, so late! No lawful visitor could arrive at this hour! And there were no other sounds from below — surely, even if it were an emergency and someone who knew her was here, wouldn’t they call after her?
Hours seemed to pass as she stood on the stairs, though later time would show that it was only seconds. The hair on the back of her arms stuck up. Her child was kicking.
What could she do? She was one lone woman, heavily pregnant, with two toddlers —
Two toddlers —
Rosette paused only long enough to grab the poker from the living-room fireplace before she ran down the stairs, her heart in her mouth but knowing no one else would protect her boys if she did not.
She dropped the poker as soon as she set foot on the solid ground of the kitchen.
“Oh, Wright!” Rosette clutched at her heart; her spare hand reached for something, anything, with which to support herself —
“What?” demanded the intruder, his voice reaching an angry register she had never before heard from him.
Perhaps that was why it did not give her a warning — or maybe her own right was simply so great that she forgot herself. “Don’t ever do that again!” she gasped.
Now it was the intruder’s turn to freeze. He turned eyes the same size and shape as her son Melehan’s onto her. “Never do what again?” he hissed.
It was only when Rosette saw the fury in Mordred’s eyes that she realized her mistake.
“M-my lord –”
“Never do what again, Rosette? Answer me!” Three floor-eating strides closed the distance between them. Rosette wanted to back away, but once again she was frozen. The only part of her that could move was her right hand, and that placed itself on the curve of her belly.
“I — I — I was surprised –”
“Surprised? How in Wright’s name could you be surprised that I would be here? Don’t I own this place?”
“Of c-course, but –”
“Don’t I pay every one of your damn bills? Your taxes? Don’t I put your boys in fine clothes? Didn’t I put that,” he jabbed at her stomach, “into your womb?”
Rosette stared at him. Some part of her mind was aware of her suddenly chapped lips brushing each other, her dry tongue moved, but no sounds accompanied these movements.
“So do I not have the right to enjoy my property whenever I see fit?”
Rosette’s jaw started to quiver and she crossed her arms over her chest to prevent herself from bursting into tears.
“M-my l-lord –”
“Answer me, Rosette!”
She took a deep breath. She took two. Three.
“I th-thought someone was trying to break in!”
“What the hell is that supposed to mean?”
“The w-way you came in — I — I heard the door slam and then — n-nothing — I thought …” She would not cry; she would not cry; she would not cry —
Mordred’s eyes lighted on her face, then, for the first time, at the poker. Then he glanced at the stairs.
He said nothing to her, but he shook his wand from his sleeve. He pointed to the stairs and murmured something she could not make out. The spell’s effect was too subtle for her eyes and ears to pick out, but whatever it was, it made Mordred nod once before he turned back to her.
For a split-second, the gaze he fixed upon her was cold and terrifying; but she had only to blink and the loving Mordred she knew so well was looking upon her once again. “Oh, my poor Rosette,” he said, his hand brushing a tendril of hair away from her face. “All alone, you are, in this great empty keep … to hear the door fly open in a quiet night … you must have been terrified.”
Rosette managed to nod once, despite the tears blurring his face.
“Come here, my love,” he whispered, locking his arms around her. Rosette came, amazed that she still fit within Mordred’s arms, hugely protruding stomach and all. “My poor love,” he added.
Rosette did not weep or sob like a frightened little girl; for now was not the time to be a frightened little girl. She was a mother, if not a wife; a college-educated merchant woman if not an honest peasant woman. But a woman she was still. She needed to be strong, to not give into every little emotion. Still, though, tears streamed down her face, but they were silent and made no more noise when they fell onto Mordred’s tunic as would so many raindrops.
“Why didn’t you send the dog down?” Mordred whispered.
“Aye. If you were frightened?”
“I think — I think Chevy would deal with an intruder by trying to lick him to death.”
Mordred snorted. “Wright. And to think I was depending on the dog to protect you and the boys!” Rosette felt rather than saw her lover shake his head. “I will buy — no, I will make something for you. Something to protect you, in case one of these days it is not I throwing open your door and marching into your home.”
“What — what kind of something?” Mordred had assured her, long ago, that his powers were nothing demonic, that the Church was wrong and that magic was just a talent some Sims had, like how some Sims could sing and others could dance and others, like her, could draw and sew. And she believed him, for the most part. But during their years at Camford, she had seen … felt … things that did not put her at ease at all … things that, if it had not been her Mordred doing the magic, would have made her swear that the monks and nuns were right, and that magic was nothing more or less than the raising of demons.
“Something that will send for me, instantly, if you ever are frightened by something you hear.”
“I would like that.”
“I know you would.” He let her go and slipped slowly from her grasp. “Does that make you feel better?”
“Yes, of course.”
“Everyone’s all better?” he asked, patting her belly.
“Indeed, Mordred,” she giggled. “I don’t think our little one was frightened at all after he or she heard your voice.”
Mordred’s eyebrow went up. “Little one?”
Rosette blanched. “Mordred, don’t even joke about things like that — I love our boys but I don’t think I could handle another set of twins!”
“Maybe this one will be triplets.”
“Bite your tongue!” she shouted, and blanched. How could she have said that to Mordred — to Mordred? Mordred, to whom she owed everything? A wife could say that to her husband, but surely not–
It didn’t matter how inappropriate she had been — Mordred was laughing. Head thrown back, full belly laughs. “Oh, Rosette! I was only teasing!” He shook his head. “Do you think I want you to have triplets? I already have to share far too much of you with our boys, I can’t imagine how I would be able to sate myself with only one-sixth of your affection!”
“Oh, Mordred, you know I love you as much as ever!”
“Indeed, my love, I do, but though your love may be infinite, your time and energy, alas, are finite.”
Rosette giggled. “I can’t argue with that.” Mordred gave her stomach one last fond pat and smiled up at her.
She smiled back. “But — you came here for something, did you not? Up … stairs, perhaps?” she asked, gesturing.
The boy she had fallen in love with, who had so briefly reemerged, faded, replaced by the careworn man who had replaced him when Lord Lot had his collapse. Rosette had only a very hazy idea what the problem with the lord was; when Mordred came to see her — which was less and less often these days — he never wished to talk about it.
“I just wanted to get away for a bit, Rosie,” he whispered.
“Oh, oh, of course! Of course, you are always welcome here …” She bit her lip. “Would you like something to eat? I have pie …”
“Do you think –” he snapped, or started to; then his eyes fell onto her belly. “You’re probably hungry, aren’t you?”
Blushing, Rosette nodded.
“Then I will be glad to share your meal with you.”
That was all it took for Rosette to grin and fetch the pie from the larder. She set a plate before him and one before her, then slipped into the chair and began to eat.
They ate in silence. Rosette was so accustomed to a lack of sensible conversation that she barely noticed the silence until she realized that it was the scraping of forks against wooden plates, and not the babble of toddlers, that was the main noise at this meal. She saw, too, that while her slice of pie was half-demolished, Mordred had barely made a dent in his. “Mordred?” she squeaked.
“You know I love you, don’t you?”
“I should know very little if I did not know that.”
“Then — you know you can trust me, don’t you? With your troubles?”
“I do not want to burden you.”
“A burden shared is only half as heavy,” Rosette replied. “I know — I know I’m not of much use to you in … politics and things like that, but I’m sure I can understand the burden of caring for a sick parent.”
Mordred looked up. “I don’t think you would understand in this case.”
He looked so bleak, so hopeless! “Oh, Mordred — at least I can try. You — you do so much for me, won’t you let me try to help you?”
For a moment, the look on his face was as hers when she watched one of the boys try to tackle a project too big and too complicated for them. But before she could be sure, it as gone and replaced by a simple bone-weariness. “I suppose I could.”
Rosette said nothing, simply sat and waited.
Mordred sighed. “Rosette, if one of your parents was to become ill, what would be your first priority?”
“Why — getting them better, of course!”
“As you say, of course. Now let us say that your parents had the best — the best medical care available. The finest doctor in the kingdom, round-the-clock nurses — or close enough — to tend to his needs, however many potions and elixers that could possibly help. And yet it all did nothing. What would you do then?”
“I — I don’t understand.”
“Rosette, I am doing everything — everything — in my power to help my father recover. And yet he does not. What else am I to do?”
“I … I don’t know. Pray, perhaps? Have services said for him?”
“Done and done,” he answered. “Now what, Rosie? What am I supposed to do?”
“I don’t know, Mordred.”
“Nor do I,” he sighed. “Except …”
“If one of your parents were to become sick, would the work on your farm go away?”
“Oh, no! Of course not!”
“The work on the estate does not go away, either … but tell me, who in your family has authority to tend to the crops and livestock?”
“Aye. Who is allowed to do that?”
“Why … anyone, I suppose,” she answered. “I don’t understand. Why would any of us not have the authority?”
“No reason,” Mordred replied, which only served to confuse her further. “But an estate is not the same thing as a farm.”
“And there are some things — and by ‘some things,’ I mean ‘practically everything important’ — which can only be handled by the master of the estate. This is not to say that my father would be upset with me for taking care of things that he, in his infirmity, cannot; there are some things which legally he must do or at the very least approve.”
Mordred blinked. “Well — what we are to do with the next harvest, where to house our indentured men and women, approving marriages among the indentured men and women …”
Oh, how awful for the Orkney men and women! Not being able to wed until Lord Lot gets better!
“But the most important is safeguarding our family’s interests on the Council,” Mordred answered. “The King’s Council, I mean.”
“Oh, indeed. But I thought you had a seat?”
“I do, my love — but it is not a powerful one. I am not the head of an estate, I am only the heir. I am expected to watch, to listen and to learn, and to not speak or act.”
“Even with your father so ill?”
“Even so. I do not speak for the estate — I speak only for myself, you see, so long as I am only the heir.”
“But — but surely the King knows that there is no one else to speak for the estate!”
“Indeed, but the point of fact remains that, legally, I am not so empowered.”
“Surely there must be a way to transfer legal ownership of the estate to you, at least until your father gets better!”
Mordred’s jaw worked, and the vein at his neck bulged. “There is,” he announced.
“Lord Pellinore,” Mordred practically spat his father-in-law’s name, “thinks it is too soon to take such drastic measures.”
“I don’t understand.”
“Nor do I!” Mordred shouted, slamming his fist down and sending the cutlery a-jumping. “My father is incapacitated! He may never recover! What else am I to do? Wait for the de Ganises and du Lacs to descend on our estate and tear it apart between them, like wolves on a defenseless lamb? Am I to wait until Bors de Ganis rips from the Orkney family every last shred of influence we fought so hard to win? Am I to twiddle my thumbs until we are no more than a shadow of our former glory, and a sick parody of what we could become?”
“Surely the King — your own uncle — wouldn’t let them take terrible advantage of you …”
“That is what Pellinore said!” Mordred squeezed his eyes shut. “He does not understand! No one understands!”
Rosette said nothing.
“How do you expect anyone to understand if you don’t explain?”
“Explain? They are noblemen! They know the realities of the situation as well as I do!”
“But … but it’s not just the realities of the situation, is it, that have you worried?” Rosette asked. “You — there’s some other reason why you want control, isn’t there?”
Mordred blinked twice. “It would kill my father,” he whispered, “to know that everything he worked so hard for was being slowly stolen away, and I could do nothing to stop it, because foolish old men are afraid to give their sons ideas.”
“So — so you think knowing you were in charge would help your father get better?”
“If he is capable of understanding what is going on at all, yes.”
“Then — then why don’t you tell Lord Pellinore that? You said — you said he was afraid of giving his son ideas … but if all you’re trying to do is help your father recover …”
“He does not see it that way.”
“That’s because you don’t tell him, Mordred.”
“These are matters of politics. Business. Not sentiment.”
“But aren’t they also matters of duty?” Rosette reached forward and took Mordred’s hand. “Maybe — maybe if you told him that, he would help you.”
Mordred stared at their linked hands. “Perhaps,” he finally murmured, “you might have a point.”