Once upon a time, Mordred had fallen in love with a pair of green eyes. A pair of long, apple-green eyes with a shy sparkle buried at the heart of them. He had fallen so thoroughly in love with those eyes that he could catalogue every little emotion that crossed them, like a monk would catalogue his books. This was fear, this was happiness, this was shyness, this was a sweet charm that only these eyes could express. He had surprised himself by how much he loved being in love with those apple-green eyes. But, having once fallen in love with apple-green eyes, Mordred assumed he would never fall so again. Assuming he ever fell out of love with the first pair (a doubtful prospect in and of itself), he thought he would at least like to spice things up by falling in love with eyes of another color.
Oh, how wrong he had been.
“Hello, my angel, my darling — my angel-Aimée!” Mordred said in the sing-song voice he had heard women, and aye, other men sometimes, use with babies. Though he was the father of five children, it had never occurred to him to use that voice until Kata Thatcher had first put Aimée into his arms. The baby smiled at him and reached her chubby little hands for the locks of hair that fell on either side of his face. Mordred smiled and let her reach.
He could not believe how beautiful she was. He was no good at spotting resemblances on the face of so small a child, but he was certain that she must look entirely like her mother, if only to be half so beautiful. But the brows above her adorable little eyes were black! It did not seem possible. How could any part of so ordinary a creature as himself — for he was indeed ordinary, if only in comparison with the celestial beauty that his Rosette and now his Aimée possessed — grace such a face without marring it? And yet there it was, his raven brows on her face.
Black hair and green eyes would suit his Aimée, Mordred decided. His mother, the Lord Wright knew, did very well with black hair and green eyes. But since his mother’s eyes were not so green, her hair not so black, and her face not so beautiful, Mordred could only conclude that Aimée could do nothing but completely eclipse her grandmother in beauty, as she had already eclipsed her in youth.
“Aimée,” he whispered again, and the baby cooed. Mordred smiled. The name suited her. It was Gaulish, and meant “beloved.” It had been his idea, just as the twins’ names had been his idea. The twins’ names had been a definite statement to all the world — these were his children, and their mother was his woman, and though it would be a folly to marry her, he would care for her and for them just as if they had been married. Aimée’s name, too, was a statement. But it was a gentler statement. It simply said what she was, what her mother was, what her brothers were — what they all were, to Mordred. Beloved. Dindrane’s children were his heirs and his successors, legally, but Rosette and her children would always be Mordred’s beloved.
“Ah, Rosette,” Mordred murmured, bringing the baby close to his shoulder, “if I did not know better, I would assume you had found a prettier man than I to father this baby, for there is no way my old face could have a hand in something so exquisite.”
“I wish,” Rosette only murmured, “that you wouldn’t bring her so close to the balcony.”
Mordred glanced at her with a fond smile. Rosette’s eyes were heavy and shadowed. Despite the old woman Mordred hired to help her out, she still wasn’t getting enough sleep. It was impossible, with a new baby and twins who were resenting every iota of attention that Aimée “stole” from them. Mordred could not blame the twins; has his mother been audacious enough to present him with a younger sister when he was their age, he would have been just as upset and resentful. Why, Mordred was an adult, and Melehan and Melou and Aimée were his own children, and sometimes he begrudged the attention Rosette lavished on them, thinking it much better spent on him!
But despite Rosette’s shadowed eyes, they and her mouth both smiled at the baby, and Mordred knew she was happy enough to bear some teasing. “Ah, Rosette, do you think this little angel would fall? Not a bit. Why, we’d finally get a chance to see her wings!”
“She might catch cold from the wind.”
That sort of logic was harder to argue with. Mordred did not argue with it, instead taking a seat in the sheltered alcove that was the covered bench Rosette sat on. Aimée could not catch cold here.
Aimée still nestled on his shoulder, and Rosette soon brought her head to rest on the part of Mordred’s shoulder that Aimée’s head did not occupy. It was the most charming way of sitting that had yet been invented. The only things missing were Melehan and Melou to occupy his and Rosette’s woefully-empty laps, though in truth Mordred was not sure which twin he would have sharing his lap and thus so near the fragile baby. Perhaps one of them could sit on expanse of bench that he and Rosette did not occupy, and the other on Rosette’s lap.
“Are you happy?” Mordred asked as Rosette began to rub the baby’s back.
“Oh, yes. Are you?”
“Never happier,” Mordred replied, and found it to be true.
They sat in peace for a few moments, before a knock from below woke them from their reverie. Rosette sat up. “I’ll get it.”
“Oh, leave it. The old woman is watching the boys — and it’s probably not even a guest for us anyway.”
“But what if it is?”
“Then whoever he is can come back at another time.”
“Aye, when the old woman has gone home for her supper, and the baby is screaming, and Melou has given Melehan a black eye? No, my love. There will never be a more convenient time than this.” She patted his leg and began to rise.
“Let me get it.”
“Nonsense, I’ll get it. Besides, you have no idea what a pleasure it is to walk without half a mile of baby sticking out before you.”
“I thought you enjoyed having half a mile of baby within you.”
“Not nearly as much as I enjoy having a whole baby without of me,” Rosette laughed. She kissed the top of Aimée’s head, then the top of Mordred’s head, and made her way down the stairs.
“I suppose it’s me and you now, my Aimée,” Mordred whispered into his baby’s ear, patting her back. It was not bad company — not bad at all.
Or at least it wasn’t, until Rosette’s surprised shriek somehow managed to make it up three flights of curved stairs to him.
Mordred leapt up, somehow still cradling the baby, and began to run down the stairs. Never more than now was he glad that he was a wizard, and not just a mere knight, for a knight could never fight off an intruder while cradling a baby, while a wizard could stand in the stairwell and shoot off spells while keeping the baby at a safe distance —
But when Mordred reached the bottom of the stairs, he found that no spells were necessary, for Rosette was happily in the arms of a white-haired man.
She turned to him, hearing his approach. “Mordred!” she called, laughing. “Mordred, look! It’s Papa!”
Indeed it was. Even if Mordred had never met Edmond Chevaux, or had not recognized his face or bearing, he would have known his apple-green eyes in a heartbeat.
“M’lord,” Edmond said, bowing his head.
“There is no need,” Mordred said in his lordliest voice, before the old man could injure himself by bowing anything more substantial than his head. “I should hope that any family of Rosette’s would consider me as family, as well. Call me Mordred.”
Rosette gave a happy gasp, and Edmond bowed his head again — but in acknowledgement, not obeisance. “That’s very kind o’ ye.”
Indeed it is, Mordred thought, but did not speak beyond that.
Edmond’s eyes fell on the baby in Mordred’s arms. “Fergive me, but — is that — is that –”
“It’s Aimée, Papa!” Rosette replied. “My baby! Or my littlest baby, I should say.” Her lovely tinkling laugh echoed through the warm kitchen as she threw her head back. “You haven’t even met Melehan and Melou yet!”
Edmond did not respond to that. Instead, he gulped, and his eyes were as wet as green apples in the morning dew. “My baby girl has a baby girl …”
Mordred did his best not to shudder. So might Lot have spoken of Garnet’s first daughter …
“Can I — can I –” Edmond asked, his hands before him and visibly itching.
“Of course, Papa!” Rosette called, leaving Mordred with no choice but to hand over his treasure to another man. But in the end, it was not so bad — for letting Edmond hold Aimée left Mordred with a free hand to grasp Rosette around the waist and hold her as close as he could get away with. So might a man hold his wife in full view of company, without fear of embarrassing or offending anyone, and so would Mordred hold his Rosette.
Edmond said nothing as he patted the baby’s back and stroked her little head. But finally he was able to whisper, “She has yer eyes.”
“Your eyes too, Papa.”
And my hair, thought Mordred.
“She’ll be a real beauty, when she grows up,” Edmond whispered. “Jest like her ma.”
“Oh, Papa, I’m no beauty,” Rosette laughed.
“Nonsense,” replied Mordred and Edmond. The two of them froze, and looked at each other over the baby’s head. Edmond cradled the baby closer, and Mordred stroked Rosette’s side even as he pulled her nearer.
“Well, I guess I’m outnumbered!” Rosette replied, either blessedly unaware of the tension, or choosing to ignore it. Mordred suspected the former; Rosette could never ignore tension so well. He wondered what her father thought of the matter.
Aimée turned her little head and yawned, and Rosette murmured, “Uh-oh.”
“What?” asked Edmond.
“It’s yer–your–shirt, Papa. She’s been sucking on it.” And indeed there was a wet spot just where Aimée’s mouth had been resting. “Somebody’s getting hungry!” Rosette said in that baby sing-song, lifting Aimée from her father’s arms with practiced ears.
“Aww, ’tain’t no matter,” Edmond drawled. “Lord knows I’ve had little ones suckin’ on me shoulder before …”
“Aye, Papa,” Rosette chuckled, “but ye–you haven’t heard the lungs on this one. She’ll make her hunger known to everyone on the block soon enough, if I don’t feed her. Well, up we go, my little angel!” And with that, Rosette brought the baby upstairs for feeding, leaving Mordred and Edmond alone in the kitchen.
Mordred could feel Edmond’s eyes on the side of his head, but whatever questions, whatever arguments Edmond might have, Mordred was in no mood to listen. “Well,” he said in the same faux-cheerful voice he would use to deal with Sir Bors or Brother Tuck, “would you like to meet your grandsons?”
“M’lord, I wouldn’t be much of a grandfather if I didn’t want that.”
“Hmm. Then one wonders why you did not come here at any time in the past three years. Provided you came as a grandfather should, the door would have been open to you at any time.” Not looking at the other man, Mordred began to mount the stairs. He thought he heard Edmond sighed, but the old man was wise enough to say nothing as he followed Mordred up.
But Mordred, though he was the King’s nephew and a wizard, was not all-powerful or omniscient. He did not possess eyes in the back of his head, nor was he using any spells that mimicked the effect of having eyes in the back of one’s head. (He had tried those spells on several occasions. Generally, they only served to make him feel dizzy and give him a headache sooner or later.) Thus, he could not see the half-quizzical, half-despairing look Edmond gave to the back of his head.
Before long, they were upstairs, where the old woman was watching the toddlers (she made herself scarce as soon as the men walked into the room), and Mordred sat himself in a chair while Edmond began the hard work of getting acquainted with Melehan.
Mordred sighed and leaned back, listening as Edmond talked nonsense and let Melehan and Melou — who were never shy at the very worst of times — warmed up to him quite quickly, and soon were dragging him over to their toys and showing this kind old man who called himself a “grandpa” everything there was to show.
Mordred smiled. It would do the boys good to have another male presence in their lives. A grandfather, especially. Every child deserved at least one grandfather. His own father was unable to live up to his duties, but Rosette’s … yes, Rosette’s would do nicely. He would spoil the little ones, and share in their ever triumph and tribulation, and be their support when they were down and their cheering squad when they were up —
“M’lord, might I speak to you a moment?”
The only improvement, Mordred suddenly realized, that Edmond needed to make as a grandfather would be to realize that it were his grandchildren he should be focusing upon, and not their father. But saying that would win him no points, no sympathy. “Yes, Edmond?”
Edmond took a deep breath. “M’lord, what are yer intentions regardin’ me daughter?”
Mordred’s eyebrow went up, and he smiled. “Edmond, I believe that after three children and many years of living together — or close enough — it is a little too late to be asking about intentions.”
Edmond did not even blink. “Ye’re a married man, ye are, I know that.”
If you did not, you would be the only man in the kingdom so ignorant.
“So ye can’t be makin’ an honest woman of me daughter in any case — so there ain’t no use even axin’ ye about that.”
“I am glad you understand the way that the situation stands.”
“But jest because, m’lord, ye can’t marry her, it don’t mean ye ain’t got no intentions.”
Mordred felt his eyebrows begin to slowly rise upward.
“It’s like this, y’see, m’lord,” Edmond continued, “I ain’t gonna go into what ye’re doin’ ter my baby’s soul. That’s between ye an’ her an’ the Lord Wright. But I’m lookin’ around … this is a mighty nice place, ye know.”
Bloody hell. Despite the toll Rosette’s family’s abandonment — with the exception of her sister and one brother — had had on her, Mordred had seen a distinct advantage from it: namely, the fewer family members who were on speaking terms with Rosette, the fewer who would feel emboldened to ask him for money or other favors.
“An’ there ain’t no way,” Edmond continued, “that my baby would be able ter afford this all on her own, even with all her schoolin’, unless she were ter turn ter things … things my baby wouldn’t do.”
“You mean prostitution?” Mordred asked.
Edmond flushed under his tan and looked away.
“You know,” Mordred remarked, watching the other man’s face, “there are very few men who would see what Rosette and I have together, and see prostitution, and be able to find any difference between the two.”
“M’lord, when ye get ter be me age, ye’ll know there ain’t no shortage of fools in this world.”
Edmond gave Mordred a long look. “Ye ain’t gonna like what I’m about to say.”
“All the more reason why you should say it. I am now intrigued.”
“Very well,” Edmond signed. “M’lord, as far as I’m concerned, ye seduced my daughter, plain and simple.”
Mordred’s jaw dropped and his hands went up in the air to protest, but Edmond shook his head.
“Let me finish, m’lord. I ain’t sayin’ ye did it heartlessly. I ain’t sayin’ that ye lied ter her or nothin’ like that. But I think that ye saw her, an’ ye wanted her, an’ ye set out ter get her, no matter that ye couldn’t offer her marriage, an’ no matter what it might cost her.”
“Cost her? Cost her? From where I’m sitting, Rosette has done better for herself by being my mistress than she ever could have by marrying a man of whom you approved.”
“Not every cost has ter do with money, Sir Mordred.”
“And what, pray tell, have I cost her? I gave her three beautiful children. I give her every last drop of love that I can squeeze from my heart. I assure you, as long as I live, neither Rosette nor her children will ever want for anything!”
“That’s good ter hear, m’lord, but that don’t mean ye ain’t cost her nothin’.”
“Then what? What can I possibly have cost her?”
“Other than ye, how many friends does she have?”
Mordred blinked, then replied in his best lord’s voice, “Rosette has never been the type of woman who needed half-a-dozen yes women to make her feel good about herself.”
“Not havin’ half-a-dozen yes women ain’t the same as havin’ no friends, Mordred. There ain’t many women who would still befriend her. The women she grew up with are downright ashamed o’ her –”
“And whose fault is that?”
“No one’s, or everyone’s, but not yers, specifically,” Edmond admitted. “I ain’t done yet, though. Do ye know, she ain’t spoken with her ma since before yer boys were born.”
“I fail to see how that is my fault — or Rosette’s. I am certain Rosette would only be too happy to welcome her mother back into her life, provided that her mother accepted Rosette’s life as it is now.”
“I don’t always agree with what Cerise does, or how she does it,” Edmond answered, “but I do approve o’ why she did it, in this case — she were trying ter do the best fer her daughter.”
“And that would have been separating herself from me when she was pregnant with twins — my twins?”
“Well, in Cerise’s defense, she didn’t know there were gonna be twins. I wager Rosette didn’t even, then,” Edmond pointed out. “But twins or no twins, the best thing ter have done, back then, might have been ter get Rosette away from ye, so she could learn ter stand on her own two feet, since no man would have her now.”
“I have her. She needs no other man.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Many things, Sir Mordred. But mostly, it means that I can’t trust ye,” Edmond replied. “Ye ain’t married. I can’t have the church or the law on ye fer not treatin’ her right. So, what I want ter ask ye is — will ye treat her right? Will ye take care o’ her, now that ye’ve gotten her good an’ stuck with ye? Will ye be a man, an’ stick by yer woman an’ the children ye got by her? Or might ye someday be a coward, an’ run away an’ leave them all alone?”
It was all Mordred could do to sit there and stare up at him, eyes blazing, fingers literally itching for his wand. He would show this impertinent old man, he would make him see–
“Did you two have a nice chat?” came Rosette’s cheery voice. Mordred almost jumped.
What he did do, though, was slowly get up, slowly stalk across the room, and slowly put his fingers under her chin.
“Oh, yes, my Rosie. My Rosie,” he replied, pulling her face nearer to him. “We had a very nice chat. A very nice chat indeed.”
And then, as her father looked on, he wrapped his arms around her, pulled her to him and kissed her.