Claire missed her daughters.
As she played, she thought of them and missed them. She thought of Lynn, her dancing daughter. She thought of Clarice, her little brow puckered as she tried to pick out the melody on her cello. She thought of Angelique, her clear angel’s voice rising above the noise of piano and cello and tapping feet. She thought of the beautiful music they made together, so many times, just the four of them.
Claire had another daughter, but she did not think of her. She had two sons, but she did not think of them, either. For if the Lord Wright and her husband thought that giving her two sons and an infant daughter were ample recompense for the daughters she had lost, they were wrong.
The Lord Wright and her husband were both men, after all. Even if they were superior, both of them, to her — what did it matter? A Sim might be superior to an insect, but what did a Sim know of how an insect felt?
Claire watched as her fingers, all ten of them, skittered over the keys. As they splayed and pressed and jumped, they looked very insect-like indeed.
She closed her eyes and let her thoughts drift. A year ago she would have marshalled them to order, but now she no longer cared. What did it matter, anyway — any of it? Her inside was a ringing hollow emptiness — what did it matter which thoughts volleyed and echoed through the gloom?
She did not miss her daughters, Claire decided, merely because they were far away from her. Surely, if geographic separation was all it was, it would be easier to bear. No, she missed her daughters because whether they stayed at Camford, or came home, or went to the moon, they were not the daughters she had given birth to. The daughters she had given birth to were happy, laughing girls. She remembered Lynn’s giggles whenever her grandmother or uncle would make funny faces at her. She remembered Clarice’s fearless toddling through the halls of the château, always exploring, exploring, exploring. She remembered Angelique’s mischief — upsetting her grandmother’s sewing basket, hiding for hours in one of the kitchen cabinets and giggling in the dark while the household was in an uproar after her, slyly coating the seat of her father’s favorite chair with mud.
Her girls were no longer like that now. Now they were ladies, even Angelique, a novice nun. They spoke in murmurs no louder than the soft swishing of their skirts through the hall. Their smiles, when they smiled, were small and gracious, lady’s smiles. If they thought about anything other than dresses and gossip and their future families, they were careful not to show it. They no longer dared to disagree with a man, or any man that Claire saw them with.
They were, every one of them, miserable. And now Bors wanted her to raise another daughter so that she could watch him crush the joy from her.
Claire closed her eyes and let the dark notes sweep her away.
Her fingers paused on the keys. She did not answer.
“My lady,” the butler repeated, “the — the Lady Morgan le Fay is here. Shall I tell her you are not at home?”
Claire frowned, stroked the silky ivory, and thought. Why would she not want to see the Lady Morgan? They were not good friends, she remembered that. Or perhaps they were good friends. The women whom Claire would have named a year ago were with her all the time, now, endlessly laughing and chattering. They invited her places, they dropped by unannounced, they tried to drag her back into the wide world of sunlight and smiles. Did they not see that all she wanted was to be left alone? But Lady Morgan, she had not bothered her yet …
“My lady?” the butler asked.
“Shall I send her away? She has baptismal gifts for young Lionel and his sister, but we can accept those on your behalf.”
“Why would you send her away?”
The butler blinked. “My — my lady, but I should hardly think you should want to see a woman such as her …”
“Because she is a witch?”
If the man continued to stare at her as he was staring, his eyes would fall from his skull and roll along the floor. “My lady! Because — because of her reputation?”
The butler looked around and said in a scandalized whisper, “She bore a child out of wedlock!”
Oh, that … Claire remembered now. She remembered, vaguely, being shocked when it had happened, for surely the King’s sister —
“She is the King’s sister. Show her in.” If she put up with the King’s chattering wife, she would certainly show courtesy to his more retiring sister.
Without waiting for the butler to reply, she turned back to her piano and began to play again.
She closed her eyes as she played. Bors hated it when she played like this — not from a well-known, recognizable piece, or even a lesser-known but still pre-written piece. He hated it when she just let the notes take her where they would. “Play something a man can follow!” he would bellow, and Claire would reach for her sheet music and try to pick something that would placate him.
But Bors was not here right now; he was off training with the troops as he always was these days. So Claire could follow her fancy. She let the pictures form in her head, the same pictures that had been forming there for weeks and months now.
She stood, as she always did, at the edge of a lake. It was a deep lake, and a dark one, and the night was moonless. There was no sound, other than the lapping of the water on the shore. It gave off dark, deep, slow piano notes as it lapped.
She stepped closer to the lake. Her feet entered the water. It was cold, chilling to the bone. Her skirts dragged along the bottom, but the bottom was not muddy, but sandy and smooth.
Claire threw her head back and played the notes of standing in the water’s edge, letting the cold seep into her bones, and waiting.
She could play like that for hours. She would play like that for hours. Or perhaps she would let herself go deeper. Perhaps she would let the music sweep her away. Perhaps she would take another step forward, and another, and perhaps she would feel her skirts drag her further. Perhaps she would let them drag her. Perhaps she would, as she once had, kneel and watch her reflection in the water. Perhaps she would, as she had then, smile in the secret knowledge that all she had to do was pitch forward and the water would close over her head. She would sink and drift away forever …
“Brava, Lady Claire!”
Like a herd of geese descending into her smooth still pond, honking and flapping their wings and fouling it with their droppings, startled notes rang out as Claire gasped and turned around.
Lady Morgan gasped herself. “Oh! I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to startle you. I just — you were playing so well, I couldn’t resist.”
Well? She was playing well? That was impossible, she did not have her sheet music …
“Did you compose that yourself?”
Claire remembered her father, yelling at her for wasting her time when she would shirk her embroidery to try to pick out a new melody on the old piano. “Women can’t write music! Now go do your sewing before I take the hoop to your backside!” Claire remembered Bors, throwing himself into the chair opposite and growling, “Play something recognizable, for Wright’s sake!”
“… You think I did?” Claire asked.
“Well,” Lady Morgan replied, “you certainly weren’t playing what’s in front of you.” She gestured to the sheet music, and Claire turned to let her eyes focus on it. It was a marching tune, popular with the Glasonlander army.
“No, no, I wasn’t.”
“So you composed it yourself.”
“I … suppose.”
“Then you have quite a gift, Lady Claire.”
Claire blinked. She stared at the woman above her. Lady Morgan only smiled.
And then, before she knew it, she was on her feet, clapping her hands together. “You — you enjoyed it? Truly?”
“I would hardly have scared you half to death with my praise if I hadn’t!” Lady Morgan chuckled.
She liked it! What did it matter if she was a witch and a whore? Someone, somewhere, the King’s own sister, liked her music!
Claire’s shoulders sagged, and she waited for the inevitable criticism. It was not intricate enough, it flouted the rules of theory that she had never been taught, it —
“It’s — it’s rather sad, don’t you think?”
“I don’t want it to be sad,” Claire replied, without thinking. “I want it to be … empty. Deep. Dark. Cold. Numbing.”
“That’s what makes it so sad,” Lady Morgan answered.
“I’m … sorry?”
“You love your music, don’t you?”
“Of course.” Claire blinked. Of course? It was not ladylike to admit to a love of music — a fondness, maybe, but not love. Love was reserved for children and the Lord Wright.
“And yet you want it to make you numb. I find that sad.”
“I …” Claire shook her head. “Alfred said that you brought a baptismal gift for the children — thank you.”
“A rocking horse,” Lady Morgan answered. “My Ravenna loved her rocking horse. I think your Evette might, when she gets a little bigger.”
“May I — may I see her?”
Claire blinked. “Evette?”
“Aye.” Lady Morgan — was she flushing? “I — well, you will think this sounds very silly, but it’s been so long since I was able to hold a baby girl … and I’m sure your Lionel is positively drowning in attention, I think it’s about time his sister took some of her own back, don’t you think?”
Claire stared. She wanted to see Evette … just Evette …
“Follow me,” Claire heard herself say, and she marched out of the room and into her daughter’s nursery. Lady Morgan followed.
When they arrived, Claire moved toward the crib, but hovering over it, she hesitated. When was the last time she had held a baby girl from her free choice, and not from duty or obligation?
Slowly, Claire reached into the crib and drew the baby out.
Evette stared up at her with eyes that did not blink. Claire barely restrained a shudder. Those eyes were cruel. They were not her eyes. They were the eyes of every single one of her children.
They were Bors’s eyes.
Claire remembered how every one of her children had looked up at her. Lynn’s gaze had been nervous, but as she grew older and learned to recognize her mother, Claire had been rewarded with a shy smile. Clarice had never been afraid; she had grinned whenever she was picked up. Angelique, Angelique had been born with a smile on her face and a laugh on her lips, reaching her chubby little arms from the cradle and practically demanding to be held. Elyan had welcomed her snuggles and caresses, but always with a hand pawing at the front of her dress, looking for milk. Lionel, when she held him, gazed at her with indifference — she was just another nurse to him.
Evette was different. Evette gazed up at her with knowing eyes. For, Claire convinced, Evette did know. She knew of the coming betrayal. She knew that however much her Mama kissed and caressed her now, there was a storm coming — the storm of her father — and her mother would leave her to be beaten down by it, all alone.
And that was why Claire did not kiss and caress this child. She could not save her, and so why should she try to love her? It would only break both of their hearts in the end. Better that Evette know from a young age just how terribly alone she was — how terribly alone every woman was. They were, all of them, like stars flung across the vast expanse of the night sky. They were close enough to see each other, but they could never touch each other. They were divided. The men, meanwhile, were one, united — and when they came out, together, they completely outshone and overpowered the women. They were the sun, and the women were only the stars.
I’m sorry, my darling, Claire thought to her youngest daughter, to the last one she would fail. But it is easier this way, for both of us.
Without a word, she passed the baby to Lady Morgan.
Oh, Evette was a different baby in her arms! She giggled, she wiggled and laughed as Morgan’s fingers did a tickling dance across her stomach. And when Morgan brought her up to her shoulder, Evette sighed and nestled in a happy contented baby daze.
And Claire watched.
“Oh, aren’t you precious …” Morgan murmured into the baby’s ear. She kissed Evette’s hairless head.
Keep her! Claire wanted to shout. Take her with you! Get her out of this house before her father breaks her like he did my other daughters!
“I’m sure, considering she’s — is she number five or number six?”
“Number five,” Claire whispered. She could only whisper, the bleak despair that had closed over her head, and now closed over it again, when the midwife had announced a daughter would allow her to do nothing else.
The bleak despair had almost killed her that first time, for though she had heard the midwife exclaiming that another child was on its way out of her womb, that she had to keep pushing, Claire had briefly considered giving up and letting death claim them both.
Then she remembered that mercy would never be allowed to her; if she refused to push, Bors would have her cut open and the child removed. She would be dead and her child, if it was a daughter, would still be thrown into Bors’s hands. Dying would accomplish nothing.
Something changed. Lady Morgan looked over her shoulder at her, one eyebrow upraised. She patted the baby’s back. “I think,” she murmured, “it’s time for Evette to go back down for her nap — unless Mama wants to hold her?”
Claire took a full step back and shook her head, waving her hands before her as if to ward off a blow.
Lady Morgan nodded once, then, with infinite tenderness, she cradled the baby one last time before putting her back into the crib. She turned to Claire.
“Lady Claire, you are not well.”
“I don’t want to make you feel guilty, because I’m sure that’s the last thing you need right now, but your friends are worried sick about you,” Lady Morgan continued. “They see … they see how the life has been sucked out of you. Lady Guinevere came and spoke to me about it.”
Lady Guinevere? She had been the most persistent of her friends in terms of trying to get her to come out and do things …
“She asked me to help you, if I could.”
Claire looked up. “You can’t.”
“Can’t because I’m not able to — or I can’t because you won’t let me?”
Claire did not answer.
“Do you want to get better, Lady Claire?”
How could she get better? How? The world was what it was. Nothing would change. She was just born with an excruciating sense of what the world was, and what it did to women. She loved her girls far more than she should; than any mother should. She loved them too much to have to watch them be bent and broken to better fit the molds of wife, mother and nun.
Morgan pursed her lips together. “I see. Lady Claire, is there somewhere we can discuss this in private?”
It was a sign of her lack of interest that she merely turned around and led Morgan to the bedchamber rather than attempt to insist that she did not need, and could not receive, help.
They sat on the bench near the wall, together. Lady Morgan spoke first. “Lady Claire … I do want to help you, if you’ll let me.”
Claire turned her head a little to one side. “Why?”
“Because no one should feel as bad as you do.”
“Why do you think I feel bad?”
“Because when I look into your eyes, all I see are two dark holes staring back out at me.”
Claire faced the opposite wall, away from Morgan. “Do you think I am going mad?”
“No, Lady Claire. If anything, I think you are suffering from an excess of sanity.”
She snorted. “What is that supposed to mean?”
Silence, broken by, “I know your daughter Lady Gwendolyn — did you know that?”
“Of course you two have met …”
“I mean more than that, my lady. I mean that I’ve gotten to know her as — as her future aunt,” Lady Morgan said finally. “She’s a lovely, talented, intelligent young woman. You should be very proud of her.”
Claire couldn’t even smile.
“But when I’ve seen her, spoken to her sometimes … I see this sadness in her. And fear. Lady Claire, while I do not believe it would ever be in Lady Gwendolyn’s nature to take up a sword and go hunting after dragons, that sadness and fear is not hers originally. They were put into her. And they were not put into her by you.”
Claire shuddered. “I failed her. I failed them all.”
“Because you could not prevent your husband from abusing them as he abused you?”
Claire turned to Lady Morgan in shock. That wasn’t what she had meant at all! She had failed her girls because she had coddled them, she had prepared them for their roles as women as she should, and so it was up to Bors and his rough methods to teach them what she could not —
But if that wasn’t what she meant at all, then why was she nodding?
“Let me tell you something, Lady Claire. Lady Gwendolyn is stronger than she seems. I’ve visited my niece at Camford, I’ve seen your daughter. She’s blooming. And I know my nephew — he loves that bloom, he’ll never crush it. And given sun and enough water and shelter from the storm, your daughter’s bloom will grow into quite a hardy flower indeed.
“She gets that strength from you.”
Claire blinked. “No. If she has strength, she gets it from her father. I have no strength.”
“Maybe you don’t feel like you do now, but trust me, Lady Claire, you are stronger than you appear. And your husband is not strong. Truly strong people do not need to crush those who they fear might be stronger than they — that is the action of a weak man, and a coward.”
Claire’s jaw fell.
“But though you’re a strong flower, Lady Claire, you’ve been through some storms recently. They’ve almost been too much for you, haven’t they?”
Claire felt herself nodding.
“You don’t have to succumb, you know. You can grow strong again. But you have to want to do it.”
“You don’t want to?”
“No — I can’t!”
“You can’t do it at all,” Lady Morgan asked, “or you can’t do it on your own?”
Was there any way to do it, but on her own?
“You don’t have to do it on your own,” Lady Morgan told her. “You have help. Your husband is the most useless man to walk Wright’s green earth, but you have friends. You have your elder daughters. You even have me.”
” … You?”
“I’m studying healing, you know — I’m not an expert, but I can help you. And I shan’t preach any nonsense about resigning yourself to the inevitable. I can help you help yourself.
“But,” Lady Morgan concluded, rising, “you have to help yourself. I can’t give you a potion and make you happy again, Lady Claire. And telling yourself that you should be happy shan’t make you happy again, either. But I can help. I can promise you that much. Come to my castle any time — you know where it is?”
“Then come any time, and I will try to help you.”
Such was Claire’s daze after she heard this that she followed Lady Morgan, meek as any kicked puppy, down the stairs and to the door, allowing the servants to help her into her cloak, hearing herself say the proper housewifely farewells as the King’s sister took her leave. She even followed Lady Morgan out the door.
She stayed there a long time.
Lady Morgan couldn’t help her. Surely no one could help her.
Or could she?
The Lord Wright Himself had abandoned her, given her another daughter and laughed at her pain.
Or was there hope for her after all?