Hmm, Mark thought, well, I think Cassandra the Goth and Ginger of Newson are safe in the wifehood department — at least as far as my lady is concerned. He chuckled to himself as he turned the page.
Mark had never understood Heloise’s propensity to stay up all night long with nothing with a book for company. He had always been an early riser himself; one had to be up with the sun when one ran the only livery stables in the district. And even though he was now in Albion and had been able to hire plenty of help with the stables, allowing him to rise at his leisure and enjoy a more relaxed pace of life, the old habit remained. Mark had assumed he would always be an early riser. He’d heard tell of older folks getting up earlier and earlier (and going to bed earlier and earlier) as they aged, but never in the reverse.
But then again, he’d never again expected to feel like this, either.
He smiled a little as he tried to puzzle his way through the verses. Reading had never come easily to him. Oh, he could read and write well enough for record keeping, to run his business and keep up-to-date on the news of his day and to read, from time to time, an edifying story from the Book of Wright. But he’d never been good enough at the task to associate reading and pleasure. Thirty years ago — twenty — ten — five — he would have laughed to hear that, in his almost-old age, he would be reduced to staying up all night, reading love poetry by the light of a few candles and a crackling fire.
Then again, his younger self had never been noted for his wisdom. And as he grew older, he wondered more and more things. He wondered, for instance, if he might have turned out differently, had he gotten any encouragement in reading. His parents, far from urging him to keep at those difficult passages and confusing pages, had smiled at his frustration and comforted him when he grew frustrated. “Don’t you worry about that,” his father would say, tousling his hair. “You just learn your ciphering and your ABCs, and I’ll teach you everything else you need to know.”
And so his father had. Or had he? Mark’s own children —
“Oh! Sorry, Dad. Didn’t think anyone else was up.”
Mark looked up. “Josh?” One eyebrow went up. “What is this little man doing out of bed?”
“Monstews!” Darius called, clutching his father’s neck.
“There, there, Darius …” Joshua kissed his boy’s forehead and rubbed his back. “No monsters are going to get you here.”
“Aye, they’d have to go through Grandpa first, and he’s scarier than all the monsters in the kingdom put together.”
Darius’s eyes bulged and he tried to bury his face in Joshua’s shoulder.
“But not to little Dariuses!” Mark corrected. “Grandpa is here to keep Darius safe from all the mean monsters.”
“And Papa isn’t going to let any monsters get near his Darius, either,” Joshua added.
“That’s assuming that the dogs let them anywhere near the house.”
“Aye, aye. Do you think Abelard would let any monster get near his Darius?” Joshua asked, giving Darius a frank look.
Abelard was a bull mastiff, and the sight of him snoozing on the lawn had convinced more than one would-be burglar to try his luck elsewhere, Mark was sure. But though he looked fierce, he was as gentle as a lamb with Darius. The aging canine would put up with any amount of ear-pulling, bruising “petting”, and impromptu lessons in walking achieved by holding onto his hair from Darius. But on the other hand, Mark watched, shocked, as Abelard growled, his ears laid back, when one of Helena’s pinching friends tried to get too close to an already-shaking Darius.
“Here, you play by Grandpa,” Joshua said, putting Darius down at Mark’s feet. He tousled the boy’s hair before sitting down by Mark.
“So, he’s afraid of … M-O-N-S-T-E-R-S now, is he?” asked Mark.
“Aye, he’s been waking up screaming every night for a week,” Joshua sighed. “I usually take him in here, he gets calmed down and goes back to sleep after a bit.”
“Isabel doesn’t take the night watch, then?”
“She needs her rest, Dad.”
Mark only nodded. Far be it from him to tell a woman just beginning the fourth month of her pregnancy to get out of bed in the middle of the night and soothe her son, when she had a non-pregnant husband perfectly capable of doing the exact same thing. Besides, Isabel doted on Darius during the day; it was time Joshua had a turn.
Joshua leaned back against the cushions, blinking. “Anyway, three guesses whose fault this phobia is.”
Rob and Heloise had been home for a brief visit the week before Darius’s newest fear had manifested itself. “Heloise?”
“It certainly wasn’t Rob. Rob still looks terrified when we leave him alone in the same room with Darius.” Joshua sighed and shook his head. “I can’t believe she did that. She likes Darius!”
“Ah, Josh, it has nothing to do with Darius. Think of what you used to do to her when she was Darius’s age. It’s revenge against you, pure and simple.”
“If she wants to get revenge against me, then let her get revenge against me. It’s not right, bringing Darius into it. He believes in the — the M-O-N-S-T-E-R-S!”
“When has doing what’s right ever bothered Heloise in her battles against you — or your battles against her, for that matter?”
“True … I daresay, even if he’s scared of the M-O-N-S-T-E-R-S under the bed, this little man will be a better big brother than I ever was.” Joshua smiled down at his son, who felt his grin and looked up with a toothy smile of his own.
“Ah, Darius will be beat up by his younger brother, not the other way around.”
“It could be a sister.”
“Don’t wish that on your son! Beat up on a regular basis by a girl!”
“Dad! That’s not what I meant.” Joshua shook his head. “I’ll have to teach this little man some dirty tricks as soon as he gets old enough to use them.”
“You’d better start kissing up to Heloise, then. She knows all the dirtiest ones.”
“Like giving nightmares to a defenseless two-year-old? Aye, that’s a dirty one,” Joshua spat. He sighed. “Anyway, I know why I’m awake at this ungodly hour — what about you?”
“Oh — no reason,” Mark said, trying to shut the book.
Of all the things that had improved about Mark over the years — his knowledge, his patience, his insights — speed was not one of them. It took nothing for Joshua to reach over and pluck the book from his fingers. He surveyed the cover, and then one of the first pages. “Love poetry?”
“I, um, couldn’t sleep?”
“Dad, if you couldn’t sleep, you’d go over the accounts from five years ago.”
“… You don’t know that.”
“I’ve seen you.”
“You know your old man too well … well, let me ask you this, son, why would you read love poetry?”
“To improve my self-confidence?”
“Since I never felt the need to write such drivel, I must be much cleverer and more practical than they are. At the very least, I have found better things to do with my time.”
Mark’s face fell. “You never wanted to write poetry for Isabel?”
Darius’s giggles filled the room as Joshua gasped and blinked at him. “Poetry? No, no. I — I couldn’t write poetry for Isabel.” Joshua stared at the leaping fire. “Maybe, if I was a painter like Rob, I could have painted something for her. But poetry?”
“What’s wrong with poetry?”
“I can’t see poetry and Isabel in the same room, for one. She’s far too practical to have her head turned by a pretty rhyme or two.”
“Bah, if you’d written her something, I’m sure she would have seen you in a new light.”
“Aye, she’d have seen me as a foolish drip with nothing better to do with my time!”
“I would assume any woman would take a poem — any poem — dedicated to her as an honor. You have nothing better to do than think up ways to compliment her hair, her eyes, her skin. I don’t know if there is any surer declaration of love.”
“Of course there is, Dad. There is taking care of a woman. Making sure all of her needs are met. Being there for her. Getting up and comforting the two-year-old when he’s scared of M-O-N-S-T-E-R-S in the middle of the night, so she doesn’t have to. Any fool can take a couple hours and write a poem. It takes a lifetime to declare your love.”
“Just thinking that, at my age, it makes very little sense to start loving — if it takes a lifetime to declare it.”
“Start? Don’t be silly, you’ve proven to Mother …” Joshua trailed off.
“I’ve proven my love to your mother by now — is that what you were about to say?”
“I don’t want to get into this, Dad.” Joshua shifted and looked at Darius — who, as luck would have it, sensed the mood and turned big brown eyes over to Joshua and Mark.
Mark smiled for the little one, then said to his son, “Loving someone isn’t as simple as you make out.”
“Josh, let me finish. I understand that you want to — to keep yourself aloof from the troubles your mother and I have. And believe me, I’m grateful that you choose to do so. I’m not asking you to pick a side. Far from it. But I would like … I would like to give you a bit of paternal advice.”
“What — what kind of advice?”
“Just … that you can do everything right, or so you think, and still have everything go wrong. And then, when you’ve gotten used to everything going wrong, when you’ve given up on ever finding that kind of happiness … something comes along and wakes you up. Sometimes,” Mark sighed.
“… Dad … even if you think she’s done you wrong …”
“I never said that.”
“But even if — no, even though you think it, she’s still my mother.” Mark watched as Joshua tried to soften his remark with a shrug.
“And you don’t want to know,” Mark sighed. “Well, can’t say I blame you, son.”
Joshua nodded. His eyes met Mark’s for a second, then flickered to watch his son play with the little rag doll he had brought with him from his bedroom. Mark, meanwhile, watched the flames.
He thought he saw her in there — his own personal wake-up call. Straight, dark hair falling along her back in one long waterfall. Deliciously pink gown in a strange style. That little tinkling laugh. An ability to talk about anything — anything! — with intelligence and tact.
Whereas Helena … Helena was blonde, with hair that, like the rest of her, tended to do as it pleased. She favored blue gowns. He couldn’t remember the last time he had heard her genuinely laugh, at least not at something he had said. Or if she had laughed, it was a cruel laugh, laughing at him and not with him. As for conversation … they didn’t have those anymore, because they tended to turn into fights.
Nobody else would blame him — not even Brother Tuck — would blame him for going to the whorehouse after a quarter of a century with that woman. And Mark thought he had been more than patience. In the end, he’d only gone because, though Helena had let him back into their physical bed (the bed he had bought and paid for), they had not been intimate since before Joshua and Isabel were married. A man could only go without for so long. And Helena, Mark was certain, was not denying herself anything.
So he had gone, intending to scratch that particular itch and no more, and then …
Then he had seen Wei Li. And it was like waking up from a long sleep. Or coming alive again.
There was no fool like an old fool, they said, and Mark knew it would take little to no provocation to make him make himself a fool over her. That was why he had stayed away since that night. He had a family, he had a business, he had obligations and duties to perform. He couldn’t afford to get entangled with a whore who would take him for every clipped copper she could squeeze out of him.
But maybe, if it it kept making him feel alive again —
Mark blinked to see Darius toddling over to him, the boy’s chubby little hands resting on his old-man knees. “Upsy?” Darius asked, holding out his arms with a winsome smile.
“Upsy it is,” Mark replied, grabbing the little boy and settling him on his lap. Darius grinned and snuggled against him.
Mark rubbed the little boy’s back, feeling the big head grow heavier and heavier as it leaned on his chest, until Joshua spoke again. “Dad?”
“How — how did things go wrong? I mean … just so I know … maybe …”
“Maybe, if things begin to go wrong between you and Isabel, you’ll know and will be able to stop the spiral?”
Mark frowned as he stared into the flames. “I don’t know, son, that I can answer that for you.”
“Because I don’t know if things between your mother and I ever went wrong … they have to be right to begin with, in order to go wrong.”
“Dad! But you — you didn’t marry because your parents made you or anything like that –“
“That doesn’t mean we made a good decision with each other, Josh. You don’t need a sword at your back to … to press you into marrying the wrong person. Believe me, there’s not a Sim on this earth who needs any help in making … decisions with unforeseeable, and not always pleasant, consequences.”
“So you think Mother was the wrong person.”
“Your mother … somehow or other, when I was young, I managed to get a quite erroneous impression of her. I don’t think she ever set out to fool me or anything like that.” That came later. “But … I think, when we were young, I managed to … to take the few sides of her personality she showed me, and to make a whole woman from them. That woman didn’t exist, or if she did, her name wasn’t Helena Troyes.”
“And what about her with you?”
Mark shrugged. “I don’t think I was ever the type of man she was meant for, Josh. She … she was made to be a great, wealthy man’s wife. Lord or not, she was made for silks and velvets and lounging about on couches all day. I don’t want to call your mother lazy or anything like that, but she was made to shine in salons and dinner parties. She wasn’t made for a man with ink smudges on his hands, whose clothes all smelled of hay and horse and other, less pleasant, scents.”
“But she married you anyway.”
“Aye, aye, she did.” To this day, Mark had no idea why. He’d been too bowled over by his luck in the early years to question it, as if, like in a fairy tale, asking the wrong question would make his dreamlike life disappear before his eyes. And later, when the fairy tale had fallen away to reveal the bawdy campfire story lurking beneath, he hadn’t wanted to know what she would tell him.
“So neither of you knew you were wrong for each other until it was too late?”
“Josh, I don’t want to go into detail on this — and I don’t think you want me to.”
“Are things all right between you and Isabel?” Mark asked, sitting up. If they weren’t … he clutched Darius to him.
“Oh, they’re fine, they’re fine!” Josh hastened to reassure. “But …”
“Things between you and Mother were fine at one point, weren’t they?”
“Ah. Aye, aye, they were,” Mark nodded.
“So … I …”
“You’re afraid things will suddenly go bad. Don’t worry. I understand.” Mark chewed his lower lip, and stared into the fire.
“Josh?” he asked, finally.
“I cannot tell you,” he murmured, “how to know when things — when things are going wrong. But I can tell you how to recognize when they’ve gone wrong.” He bit his lip. “Maybe, if you know this, you can avoid some of the mistakes I’ve made.”
Joshua tilted his head to one side, eyebrow raised.
“When … when she doesn’t talk to you anymore. When she has moods you don’t understand … no, no, that’s too general. I don’t mean just a sudden bout of sadness, or anger, or whatever, that happens every now and then and you don’t understand. All women have that. But — but when she has those moods more and more often, and when, what’s more, she doesn’t want you to understand — to understand on all of them, mind, not just one or two, she’s entitled to her privacy — when, in short, you wake up beside her and realize you have no idea how she feels, or what she thinks, or what it is that she wants out of life — and why she won’t tell you what it is, so you can help her get it — then, son, you’ll know that something has gone wrong.” Mark sighed. “If you know something has gone wrong then, then you’ll be ahead of me. I didn’t realize that something had gone very wrong until years after I woke up beside your mother and realized she was practically a stranger.”
Joshua said nothing else, preferring to stare into the fire. Mark stared as well, rubbing Darius’s back to pass the time.
The flames crackled, and their light danced over the walls. Mark wondered just how late it was.
Joshua chuckled suddenly. “He’s about ready to conk out on you.”
Mark looked down to find Darius staring into the fire as well, his eyes wearing the glassy look of a toddler up far beyond his bedtime.
“Well,” Mark murmured, “so he is.” Joshua stood up and stretched his arms out to take the little boy.
Mark held him closer. “Josh?”
“Another word of paternal advice … don’t worry so much about … things.”
Joshua only lifted one eyebrow.
“I’m serious. Whatever happens between you and Isabel, and I hope nothing does … you’ll always have this little man. And whatever little boy or girl is due to make his or her first appearance in a few months.” Mark stood up and kissed Darius’s head. “And believe me, son — you’ll be amazed just how much a few little ones will make up for.”
*Titania, Queen of the Fae. You can read a little bit more on my version of her here.
**Bastardized Adapted from the prologue to Chaucer’s Legend of Good Women.