There’s my sleepyhead, Joshua thought with a smile as he walked into the house.
Isabel had spent a great deal of time curled up on that couch in the waning months of her pregnancy with Darius. She apparently intended to make it a tradition. Joshua was a little surprised that their active not-quite-three-year-old gave Isabel a break for long enough to take a nap … but then again, what were a live-in mother- and sister-in-law for, if not babysitting duty?
She brought her hand up to her nose and rubbed it adorably. Joshua froze. He could just let her sleep, she probably needed her rest …
Or he could give her a proper husbandly greeting, and then let her sleep.
Nobody who knew Joshua would be the least bit surprised that he chose the latter course.
He tiptoed to the couch. “Belle … my pretty Belle, won’t you wake up?”
She muttered an exhale, burrowing her head deeper into the couch’s cushions. Joshua couldn’t allow that to stand.
“Isabel,” he nudged her shoulder. “Isabel, it’s your favorite husband, come home from working so hard all day to take care of you and Baby Goatie …” “Goatie” came from the cravings (for goat’s milk cheese) that Isabel had at the beginning of her pregnancy. Before his birth, Darius had been Baby Bacon.
“Isabel … Bella …”
Something about that last name made her eyes slowly unglue. “Joshua!”
“Hello, my darling smelly one.”
The smile fell away, and she rolled her eyes. “You are a clown.”
“What?” he asked, blinking his eyes in offended innocence. “Isn’t that what that nickname means?”
“I never should have told you,” she muttered as she tried to sit up, even as Joshua grabbed her arm and helped her, “that ‘bella’ means ‘beautiful’ in Simspanish …”
“Is that what it means? Goodness, how do I keep getting that mixed up?”
She did not dignify that with a response, unless rolling her eyes counted as responding.
“… Maybe because I was thinking belly.”
“If I could move quickly,” Isabel replied, a devilish glint in her eye, “you would need to run, payaso!”
“What? That’s one of the most beautiful parts of you right now!” Joshua protested. “So tight and firm and round …”
“Yes, until this baby comes out, then it will be flabby and stretchy and wrinkled, and I will again be miles away from regaining my old figure.”
“Bah, figures are overrated.”
“Like a good jaw?” Isabel replied, eyebrows arching.
“A jaw? What’s wrong with my jaw?”
“That unsightly fuzz on it!”
“Unsightly fuzz?” Joshua gasped. “I’ll have you know that this fine, manly beard is the product of over a month’s hard labor!”
“Yes, hard labor. Now, granted, it didn’t take as long for me to grow this as it took you took you to grow that fine belly you have on you …”
“Nor was it so hard, payaso! Tell me, did this beard of yours have you running to the privy three times a day?”
Joshua grinned. “As it would so happen, it did.”
“Checking the mirror does not count!”
“I resent that! It must have taken at least as much time out of my day!”
“Very well,” Isabel cooed. “Did it swell your feet? Make your back hurt?”
“… Well, my face got kind of itchy.”
Isabel smirked, the kind of smirk she got when she was trying to hold the giggles in. Joshua had no idea what Isabel’s mother had told her about the fine art of training a husband, but apparently too much laughter was detrimental to the process.
Or at least, it would be if she was married to someone other than Joshua, someone who bothered to quit when the laughs weren’t coming.
“Anyway, it’ll be gone soon enough if it bothers you that much.” He helped her to her feet. “Won’t it, Baby Boy-Goat?” he asked her belly.
“And if it is a Baby Girl-Goat?”
“Then, my dear Smella, we shall just have to see whether we can have a Baby Boy-Goat before this beard reaches my knees!”
Isabel pursed her lips and shook her head. “I do not understand why you are so eager for a boy. We already have a boy.”
“And so we need another boy, so Darius can steal his toys and give him noogies and beat up any other boy on the playground who dares to so much as look at him funny!”
“Is that what brothers do?”
“Well, that’s what I did with Rob.” Joshua looked up with a mile-wide grin. “And didn’t I turn out well?”
Isabel snorted. “Payaso.”
“I’ll take that as a yes.”
“But how do you know?” Isabel crooned, “that you did not turn out so well because you had two beautiful little sisters?”
“I don’t, my dear, but right now it’s in my better interests to have sons!”
“Because I know what daughters do to man! ‘Papa, buy me this!’ ‘Papa, give me that!’ ‘Papa, dance with me!’ ‘Papa, I want to bring a boy home!’ And so on, until Papa’s wallet is empty, his brain is turned to mush, and he regards all men between the ages of fifteen and fifty with hard suspicion.”
“Oh, is that what you think happens?”
“That is what I know happens.”
“You know what I think is happening?”
“What do you think is happening?”
“I think,” Isabel crooned, leaning closer to him, “that you really want a girl. But your friends, they would tease and laugh at you and call you not a man if you admitted it. So I think you grow this silly beard to prove you are a man. And I also think –”
It was a gasp that broke off Isabel’s statement — her own. She rested one hand on her belly. “Josh, I think you should go for the midwife.”
“The mid–the baby? What, now?”
“But — but — you said — not for another couple weeks –”
“Joshua, I think the baby wants to come, and she wants to come now!”
“But — but, what do I do? I don’t know how to –”
“Get on a horse and ride for the midwife?”
“Oh! Oh, I can do that!”
“Yes, you can.”
Joshua ran for the door.
But halfway through the vestibule, he stopped. He turned around. He took his wife’s hand in his. “You should be in bed!”
“I’m going –”
“Bed! Now!” And he did not let go until he had seen her the dozen steps or so from the parlor to their bedroom, and safely tucked in.
“And now, I go!” Joshua cried.
“Wait! Before you –”
Too late. He was already out the door and it was shut.
Isabel chuckled and rolled her eyes. “Payaso.”
Aglovale sighed, leaned against Belacane, and shook his head. “I’m an idiot, you know that?”
The mare snorted and turned her attention back to the tempting grass so near to her nose. If only her master would move a few inches … his feet were resting on some particularly tasty morsels …
“She stood me up,” Aglovale continued, oblivious to the horse’s inattention. “That’s it. End of story. She stood me up.” He sighed. “Not that it matters, of course. Except, well … it’s damaging to the pride. But nothing else.”
The horse snuffled, which sounded to Aglovale’s ears like Elyan’s derisive snort or Kay’s sympathetic tut-tut. “I’m the son of one of the most powerful lords in the land,” he snapped. “Of course I’m insulted to be stood up. I could be seeing any one of a dozen girls, just like Babette — or better! But I chose her. Her. And she can’t even be bothered to keep her appointments.”
Aglovale scuffed at the ground; Belacane’s ears pricked up — and fell as his boots came squarely to rest where they had been before. “Of course, she might have just forgotten. This is Babette we’re talking about. She’s not the most …” Several adjectives came to mind and were discarded. “Intellectual of girls.”
Usually, though, she was punctual.
Aglovale looked up at the darkened house. Well, she must have forgotten. There was scarcely a light burning in the place, except for the front room. He wondered whether it was to deter burglars or whether someone had carelessly left a candle burning. Probably the latter; he doubted a common family such as Babette’s could afford to leave candles burning all night simply to keep burglars away.
Then again, Master Wesleyan wasn’t doing so badly for himself, if he could afford this house. That glasswork alone must have cost half a fortune. Perhaps there was something in this livery stables business. Something more than just making Babette into an excellent (and excellent-looking) horsewoman.
Aglovale sighed, once again annoyed with his own foolishness. She was an excellent horsewoman. He knew she was an excellent horsewoman. So why did he feel the need, when the minutes had turned into quarter-hours and the quarters into halves and the halves into full, to ride the whole route between the hedge maze and here, checking every copse and ditch, calling her name as loudly as he dared?
Even the best horsewoman can have an accident in the dark, whispered the voice of conscience. Aglovale shoved it to the side. He’d been a fool. He’d wasted his time. He was going to be exhausted in the morning, and all for nothing!
The whisper was hardly warning before swift running feet pounded from the front door.
“I saw you waiting outside!” She threw her arms around his neck. “Oh, isn’t it wonderful! I’m so glad you’re here!”
Belacane, however, rejoiced; for Aglovale had been knocked just off-balance enough that she was able to get at those delectable mouthfuls.
“This just makes the night even more perfect!”
You’ll be in for a rude awakening when I suffocate!
“I get to find out whether I’m going to be an aunt or an uncle this time!”
Wait — what? Somehow, Aglovale found the breath to grunt, “Huh?”
“What?” Babette asked. And she let go.
Aglovale fell forward as sweet, precious air rushed into his lungs. Babette giggled. “Silly! If I was hugging you too tightly, you might have said!”
If he could have caught his breath long enough, he might have pointed out the apparent contradiction in that. Might. He had pointed out enough apparent contradictions to Babette to know that doing so only rarely accomplished a practical purpose.
So instead, he only answered, “You’re already an aunt.”
“I know, silly! But my sister-in-law’s having her baby!”
So she had stood him up. Sort of. Or maybe not. Surely “baby being born to near relative” trumped any tenuous plans with him. And it would make it impossible for her to get out in any case. The Lord knew that Aglovale could never hope to get out if he were on the premises when Dindrane was having a baby, and it would go double for Babette.
“But you’re already an aunt,” Aglovale tried again.
“So? It’s still exciting, with a new baby coming into the house! And this time, maybe I’ll be …” She frowned. “Oh.”
Aglovale let his eyebrow do the talking.
She blushed and stared at her toes. “I can’t really be an uncle, can I?” she giggled.
“I know I certainly don’t want to kiss one.”
She tittered. “But I do! You’re an uncle!”
“Yes, yes I am.”
“And you have one of each!”
“Yes.” He could feel his eyes starting to glaze over, but he kept smiling. He was probably doing a public service — taking the edge off Babette’s volubility so that her on-edge brother and father didn’t have to.
They would owe him a big one at the end of this.
“Which do you prefer?”
“Your niece or your nephew, silly!”
“Um …” Aglovale frowned. “Well, they’re both babies.”
“So? You can have lots of fun with babies!”
“Don’t they just eat and — and — cry?”
“They also giggle and play and talk!”
“… I’ll take your word for it.”
Babette giggled. She tapped his arm. “Do you know what I’m hoping it will be?”
No, but I doubt you’ll let another minute go by without telling.
“A boy,” she whispered.
“A boy? But don’t they already have one?”
“Yes, but …” Babette tittered. “I made lots of pretty baby dresses for this one — but they’d only be suitable for a girl, you know?”
“… So you want the baby to be a boy?”
“Yes! Because if it’s not a girl …” She leaned closer and murmured, “Then I get to keep the dresses — for our babies.”
“And they’re all so sweet! Oh, I can just picture a baby girl with your big blue eyes looking up at me from one of my dresses!”
“You — can?”
“Heh.” Aglovale swallowed and pulled his collar. It wasn’t anywhere near his neck but still managed to choke him. “But — but there won’t be any babies anytime soon, right? Right?”
“Of course not, silly! Babies don’t come until after you’re married!”
“Right — right, of course.” As gratefully as air had poured into his mouth so many short minutes ago, it now poured out.
“Anyway, I just can’t wait for that baby to come! And then I remember how to play with a little one, because it seems that you never learned, and you need to be taught so you can –”
Aglovale’s heart about stopped.
Oh, Wright — her FATHER!
If he had been a brighter man, a braver man, he would have run. Gotten onto Belacane’s back and cantered the hell out of there. It was dark; maybe he could hope that Master Wesleyan had not gotten a good look at his face. And Master Wesleyan was too tubby to hope to catch up. Aglovale could so easily skate out of trouble.
Some men would have called that craven — to run and leave one’s lady to face the wrath of a parent alone. Some men would say that to stay was the braver course of action. They would commend Aglovale for not moving.
They did not know Aglovale. They did not know that some cackling demon had coated his boots with glue and stuck them to the grass. They did not know that the boots made no difference, because his feet within them quaked so that he could not hope to move in any case. They did not understand that when Aglovale looked at Master Wesleyan, his heart thumped like the rabbit’s when the fox grinned down at him.
But Master Wesleyan did not look at him.
He jogged to them — perhaps Aglovale needed to revise his original assessment of the man’s speed — but he looked only at Babette. “Babette,” he said in the cracked voice of a man panicking but trying desperately not to show it, “I need you to do something for me.”
“What is it, Daddy?” Somewhere, in the part of his mind that wasn’t screaming in panic, Aglovale recognized that tone of voice. It was the tone that Babette used with him when she did something foolish and wanted forgiveness. He wished he could see her face. She was probably batting her lashes at her father and pouting.
“I know it’s late, but it’s not far. Look — you can see it right down the road. And — and — there’s no one else. The midwife is doing everything she — and your mother is with — and I can’t leave your brother alone …” Master Wesleyan passed his hand over his eyes and took a few deep breaths.
“Daddy?” Babette whispered.
Master Wesleyan put both of his hands on his daughter’s shoulders and stared into her eyes. “Babette, I need you to go for a priest.”
Aglovale felt his heart jump into his throat.
“But — but, Daddy!”
“Sweetheart, I need you to do this for me.”
“But — but Isabel!”
Master Wesleyan shut his eyes. “She needs the priest.”
“Babette, please –”
“She was fine!” Babette called out. “Just a minute ago, she was fine! The — the — Widow Thatcher would have said if something was going wrong! She would have said!”
“She just did say,” Master Wesleyan sighed. “She — she just came out and …”
“Sir.” Aglovale felt his body move between Babette and her father’s before his mind quite caught up. “Sir, I can go for Father Hugh.”
Master Wesleyan only blinked at him.
“My horse is already saddled, sir, and I — I’m a good rider. And it would be safer for me to go than Babette. And this way, she can stay with her family. And …” Aglovale was running out of things to babble. He looked up.
Master Wesleyan was not even looking at him. He stared at some point beyond Aglovale’s head. Babette, maybe? “Do you know the way?”
“… Um, sir, I can see the monastery from here.”
“Ah. Ah, yes, of course you can.” Was that rictus meant to be a smile? “Thank you, thank you, lad. You’re — you’re a big help.” He tousled Aglovale’s hair as he would a twelve-year-old’s. Now, however, was not the time to protest this treatment.
Aglovale bowed and took a step backward. Then he hurried to his horse before Master Wesleyan could remember that Aglovale had just been seen with his daughter.
“We need to go inside, Babette,” came the husky voice. “Your brother …”
When Aglovale looked back, Babette’s face was buried in her father’s shoulder, and she was quaking from head to foot.
And the night air was exceptionally still and thick, for Aglovale was already riding away but still heard Master Wesleyan say, “We need to go in, Babette. Your brother’s not ready for this.”