Maybe it was a lucky sign.
Berach ran his nail lightly over the trout’s scales, admiring their golden sheen in the candlelight. Rose-gold and white-gold and yellow-gold — the fish was a marvel of the color. Perhaps that was why it was so prized. Certainly if his brother Grady knew that he was preparing to cook and eat the precious fish, he’d be dragging Berach straightaway to the good Father Hugh to have his head examined.
But this was just one more thing added to the long, long list of things that Berach held dear that Grady would never understand. The idea that cooking up a prize delicacy to serve to a loved one was worth more than selling it barely scratched the surface of it. Hell, the fact that Berach was himself cooking the fish, and taking pleasure in it, would baffle his poor brother’s mind more even than the nature of the fish he was cooking.
But it shouldn’t. Both Grady’s parsimony and Berach’s love of cooking came ultimately from the same source: their father’s inability to care for his family.
Grady had been the lucky one. He was older. When he was little, it had just been him and their ma, and their ma was able to take care of both of them. When Berach’s father had come back from the wars, spewing drunken mayhem in his wake, Grady had been old enough to sneak from the house and escape the worst of it. And when Ailís and Berach had come along, right after the other, and their ma couldn’t and their da often wasn’t working to take care of them, Grady had been old enough to grab the fishing tackle, dash to the pond, and get dinner for all of them, and maybe a fish or two to sell for a copper or so for other things the family might need.
Berach had only been six or so when they arrived in Albion — old enough to begin accompanying his older brother on his fishing trips, when Grady had the energy to go. But in the brief couple years or so before that, when Berach had been old enough to leave the house without his ma without occasioning a village-wide search for the missing child, he’d often followed the wagons of flour from the mill straight into the kitchens of the castle. For a little boy who was far too often hungry, the great cavernous kitchens, full of so many good smells and dizzying sights, were heaven and hell simultaneously.
And he could still remember the cook who had ruled over it all, a sort of benevolent demon. He remembered her flour stained face and great white arms, strong from rolling dough and beating meat to the required tenderness. He remembered her irascible worlds — she couldn’t give charity to ever little starving wastrel who showed up at her kitchen door, they’d eat the lord through house and home and the lord would have her head on one of the pikes that dotted the walls. But giving a portion of the leavings to someone who’d helped cook the meal, well, that was a different story. And so she’d set him to turning meat on a spit.
After that day, as long as he could escape to the castle kitchens when his chores were done, Berach didn’t go hungry. And he’d learned so much, even in those two short years — both of the preparing of food, and of the giving of food. So if Grady wanted to belittle his manhood for enjoying both, then he was welcome to do so. Grady hadn’t seen the power of love and kindness in edible form.
“Papa,” came a small voice, followed by small feet clambering onto a chair, “why’s we in our Sunday clothes, again?”
Berach glanced at her with a smile. His little big girl. Every time he thought he would despair over his money problems, and wonder if he would ever manage to move away from this drafty apartment, he forced himself to remember something. Leah never went hungry. Leah never had to feel her ribs sticking out, brushing against her clothes. And he’d never had to bathe her or dress her and feel those ribs poking him. One of his earliest memories was his mother pulling his tunic off for some everyday task, her mind half elsewhere — and then she stopped and ran her fingers along his bumpy torso. He’d never forget the way the tears stood in her eyes.
“Papa?” Leah asked again.
“Er — oh! Right. Sunday clothes.” That wasn’t a sign so much as it was a talisman for luck. “Well,” Berach mused, “sometimes it’s nice ter get all dressed up fer yer friends an’ family — ain’t it?”
Leah fingered one of the light plaits that had taken him nearly half an hour, all told, to braid. “I like my hair like this!”
“Do ye, now?”
“Aye!” Leah agreed. “Why can’t ye do this everyday?”
“Honey, remember yer cryin’ and wailin’ when I was tryin’ ter brush yer hair through,” Berach pointed out as he swept the cut-up fish into a pan and put that into the kettle to stew for a bit.”
“But it won’t tangle so if it’s twisted.”
“Ye know. One bit twisted ’round the others. Like ye jest did!”
“… It won’t?” This was news to him. If he’d know that, he would have started plaiting Leah’s hair as soon as the little wisps of baby-fine softness grew long enough and strong enough to plait. It would have saved them both a lot of crying and headaches along the way.
“That’s what Joyce said,” Leah replied with all the sage wisdom of a four-year-old. “An’! An’! She says my hair is like hers, so she’d know, right?”
“Well, I guess she would,” Berach chuckled. “Ye know, we’re da–right lucky ter have a smart girl like Joyce around. If she weren’t, yer poor Papa would be even more lost with all yer little-girl things than he already is.”
“I ain’t a little girl, I’m a big girl now!”
“O’ course — o’ course — how’d I ferget?”
“I don’t know, Papa. But ye keep doin’ it,” Leah replied with the complete seriousness only a child too young to understand sarcasm could muster. It was a seriousness that made him both smile and want to blink away a tear at the same time — because Leah was right, she was getting to be a big girl, and for how long would these remarks go over her head?
He heard the clatter of little shoes banging against chair legs and table legs as Leah swung her feet. “Papa? When’s Joyce comin’ ter live with us?”
Berach winced. On the one hand, he couldn’t take a step like this without at least consulting the most important little lady in his life … on the other … “Leah, I said she might be comin’ ter live with us, not that she would.”
“My, somethin’ smells good!” came the deliberately cheerful voice from the door, and Berach’s stomach plunged to a depth it had not known since he was fifteen.
No — no, nineteen. For he had been nineteen the first time Joyce had tugged on his ponytail and sauntered off, wiggling her new-won hips, then glanced over her shoulder and winked at him. Even at thirteen, she’d known what she wanted. He could only pray that she still wanted it.
“Joyce!” Leah called out, clambering from the chair in a tangle of limbs and swaying hair that reminded him of nothing so much as a little foal shaking its way to its legs for the first time.
And as Leah wrapped her arms around what Berach sometimes thought was the neck of her favorite person, he could only hope that his little daughter — big enough to have an opinion but little enough not to know how to hide it, big enough to know what a secret was but little enough to accidentally tell it, and enough of Joyce’s foster-daughter already to know exactly what it was she wanted — didn’t spill the beans.
“Hallo, sweetheart,” Joyce murmured. Berach looked around the corner and watched the two of them. Was it his imagination, or was Joyce holding Leah tighter than usual? Leah didn’t seem to mind in the least, squeezing her back with the same intensity.
But Joyce was doing that a lot — holding things to her long and tight. Her dog — Leah — an old pillow — Berach, when they were alone. It wasn’t the holding that worried Berach so much as it was the look on her face when she got to holding things. Scared and pale, that’s how she seemed.
Not for the first time, Berach wondered if he was being a fool, asking her so soon after what had happened to her. But as always, his heart told him that too much time had passed already. After what had happened with Clarence … they’d heard so much about him in the fortnight following his arrest, been told of so many of his crimes, and heard hints about enough other things that Berach’s stomach turned whenever he realized he’d let that monster into his house, with his baby daughter. And his fist itched with the urge to punch Simon, who’d admitted to knowing something of Clarence’s past and yet had recommended him as a lodger to Berach anyway.
Rape was the least nightmarish of the things Clarence could have done that night. The guards had enough on him that a simple accusation, not even prosecuted, just enough to get him arrested, could prove fatal — and was likely to do so. If Berach hadn’t heard that scream and rushed in … if Joyce hadn’t been such a good kicker …
It didn’t bear thinking of.
Berach swallowed. “Supper’s ready. Leah, won’t ye help me set the table?”
“Yay! I’m hungry!”
“Ye always are, sweetheart,” Joyce laughed. It sounded like a real, natural laugh — and the tug she gave on Leah’s braid as she skipped off was certainly a real, natural tug.
The table was set in a trice, Joyce and Berach seated and Leah climbing onto her seat in two trices. “That’s ’cause I’m a growin’ girl,” Leah answered. “Grammie says so.”
“Yer grammie’s a right wise lady, so I betcha she’s right,” Joyce answered.
“Oh,” Leah sighed.
“What?” Berach asked. “Ye don’t wanna be a growin’ girl? Ye wanna stay this little ferever?”
“I ain’t little! I’m a big girl!”
“Right, right. Don’t know how I keep fergettin’ that.”
“Now, don’t be goin’ an’ gettin’ too upset with him, Leah,” Joyce said with a wink in Berach’s direction. “It’s jest ’cause he’s a man, it is. My ma says men are such creatures, they’d ferget where ter put their own heads at night if they didn’t come bolted ter their necks!”
Leah pressed her hands above her mouth and squealed with laughtered.
“Now, that ain’t fair,” Berach protested. “I can’t help bein’ a man! An’ besides,” he turned to Leah, “how often do I ferget things, eh? Important things?”
Leah frowned to give the question the consideration it was due. “He don’t ferget much,” she admitted to Joyce. “Jest that I’m a big girl now, mostly.”
“Ah, is that all? Well, yer pa is an exceptional man, then.”
“It means real special, sweetheart,” Berach murmured.
And Leah grinned her big grin, that had been toothless such a short while ago and might be going toothless again, or half-toothed half-toothless, before he knew it. “He is! My Papa is the specialest Papa in the whole wide world!”
“Ah, Berach, ye always knew how ter wind the girls around yer finger,” Joyce chuckled.
“Those days are over now,” Berach answered — the seriousness in his tone made Joyce widen her eyes. “There’s only two girls in this whole wide world what I care about.”
“Who?” Leah asked.
Berach almost jumped, Joyce blinked, and Leah tried to climb up onto her knees before she remembered that she wasn’t supposed to do that at the table and so remained seated on her rear.
But Berach recovered finally, long enough to squeak out, “Ye an’ Joyce, o’ course!”
Leah’s eyes went wide. “But what about Grammie? An’ Auntie Ailís? An’ Auntie Toinette?”
“Ah, that’s different, sweetie!” Joyce interrupted. “Fer lots o’ different reasons.” She winked at Berach.
“Aye, sweetie. Fer one … yer Grammie’s a right smart lady, she is. She won’t let no man wrap her around his little finger. Especially not no man whose diapers she used to change, if ye know what I’m sayin’.”
Leah burst into peals of giggles, as she always did at the thought of her big, strong, handsome Papa (or so Berach liked to imagine) once having diapers like her baby cousins, or being all arms and legs like Paddy, or going to school or having to eat his peas or doing any other of childish things.
“An’ Auntie Ailís? An’ Auntie Toinette?”
“Well, yer Auntie Ailís is a big sister, she is. Now, I’m a big sister too, so I know somethin’ about sisters. Lemme tell ye somethin’, me little brother Lukas could walk inter Reme and defeat the whole Reman army single-handed, an’ I sure as all get-out wouldn’t be impressed, because ye can bet yer last clipped copper that along the way he did somethin’ right stupid that I’m a-goin’ ter be shakin’ me head over.”
“Lukas ain’t little!” Leah protested.
“Ah, there’s another thing! Ter a big sister, a brother who’s younger than she is is always little, no matter how big he gets — even if he gets bigger than her!”
Leah’s eyes, normally so narrowed, turned almost as wide as two big brown saucers. “Really?” she asked Berach.
“Certainly seems ter be true so far as yer Auntie Ailís is concerned. She don’t seem ter realize that I’m bigger an’ stronger than her now. ‘Course, she says it’s cause I won’t ever be bigger an’ stronger than her in brains, an’ that’s what matters … ‘cordin’ ter her.”
“Is Auntie Ailís right?” Leah asked Joyce.
“Oh, big sisters is always right,” Joyce answered.
“But … me Papa ain’t dumb!”
“‘Course he ain’t. But he’s still a little brother, an’ a little brother ain’t ever gonna be as smart as his big sister.”
“An’ even if Auntie Ailís weren’t me big sister, I’d still never be smarter than her,” Berach admitted.
“Oooh,” Leah murmured, nodding once, then twice. “So what about Auntie Toinette?”
“Oh, yer Auntie Toinette’s worse! She’s a sister-in-law!”
Leah frowned. “Papa, what’s a sister-in-law?”
“It … well, a sister-in-law is either someone what’s married ter yer brother, or is yer husband or wife’s sister.”
“Well … yer Auntie Toinette is my sister-in-law, ’cause she’s married ter yer Uncle Grady.”
“All right … but why’s it called ‘in law’? What’s law got ter do with it?”
“Er …” He glanced at Joyce, who could only shrug. “Well, when a man an’ a woman get married, it’s like … they join each other’s family. Like …” He watched Joyce until she raised an eyebrow at him, and then he took the plunge. “If Joyce an’ I got married, her pa would be like my pa.”
“But ye already have a pa!”
“I know, but pas are right special, an’ it can’t hurt no one ter have two — right?”
“No,” Leah replied. “I like my one.”
“That’s cause yer pa is right special,” Joyce murmured, her eyes smiling as she peered at Berach through her lashes.
“An’ yer pa isn’t?”
“Well, he is, o’ course,” Joyce answered, “but … if he’d been left raisin’ say, Meg an’ me on his own, without me ma ter do most o’ the hard work, he would have lost his poor mind, he would’ve.”
“Ye think that?” Berach asked.
“Oh, I know that.”
Berach smiled even as Joyce began to blush.
“So why don’t ye get married?” Leah asked.
“What?” Joyce gasped.
“What?” Berach asked hard on her heels.
“Ye two. Get married!” Leah replied, as if it was the simplest thing in the world. “That why my Papa can teach yer pa ter be more … special! An’ then ye can come here an’ live here all the time, an’ ye can bring Sable too, an’ we can be a family!”
When she put it like that …
“Oh, I couldn’t do that,” Joyce demurred, scarcely daring to glance up.
“What?” Leah whimpered, and Berach was glad, for it saved him the trouble. “Why not?”
“”Cause it’s yer papa what’s got ter axe me that,” Joyce answered. “I can’t be agreein’ ter ye, when it ain’t yet I’m marryin’, can I?”
“Is that what it would take?” Berach asked, with his best attempt at a smile.
“Is — is that what what would take?”
“Ye ter marry me. Me axin’.”
“I …” Joyce murmured. “Well, are ye?”
“Aye, Papa, are ye?” Leah piped up.
He watched Joyce’s face for a long, long moment, then gulped. He’d have no better opportunity than this.
“Well, as it so happens …”
He ducked down, the better to fish through his pocket.
“I happen ter have a … a somethin’ I’d like ye ter consider. A proposal. An’ — an’ a present. I guess ye might say.”
He pushed the small wicker box across the table.
“Ooh, what’s inside?” Leah crowed, trying to see around his arm.
“That’s fer Joyce ter see. An’ say,” Berach replied.
“But –” Leah began.
She stopped when she saw the look on Joyce’s face.
“Oh, Berach,” she whispered. “Oh, Berach. Ye can’t — ye can’t be serious. N-now? After all that’s happened?”
“What happened?” asked Leah.
“Aye, Joyce, what is it that ye’re meanin’?” Berach echoed with his best attempt at a smile. “After ye were the best friend a man could axe fer? After ye made me fall love with ye all over again, jest when I thought I was over ye? After ye stepped up an’ were a mother ter this little one,” he hugged Leah’s shoulders, “when she didn’t have no one else ter be a mother fer her?”
“Berach,” Joyce choked, “Berach, ye know what I mean … I’d be deaf if I didn’t hear what those old gossips are sayin’ –”
“I don’t give a flyin’ –” He glanced at Leah and thought better of that. “Er, pig what those nasty-minded old bit–old biddies are sayin’ about ye. I was there, Joyce. An’ I know ye. Ye’d have as soon — as soon — invited that thing’s attention as ye’d have jumped into a bull’s paddock wavin’ a red bedsheet.”
Joyce’s brief smile was wide enough for him to see it beyond the hands that covered her mouth.
“Now, Joyce,” Berach murmured, for he’d had this speech set and he wasn’t going to let her answer until he’d given this his best shot, “I can’t claim ter be able ter provide fer ye, because ye know what kind o’ provider I am. An’ ye can provide fer yerself. I can’t claim ter be protectin’ ye none, either, fer we both know that ye can protect yerself.”
He took a deep breath. “But I can love ye. It’s about all I’m good at, but it’s something. Somethin’ important, accordin’ ter some people who would know.” He rubbed Leah’s back to show whom he meant. “An’ — an’ ye know what I’ll do — what I’ll give up — fer someone I love. None better. So I can promise ye that much. An’ even if I can’t be that good a provider, a protector as ye can be on yer own … I can promise ter try, an’ ter help, an’ ter do whatever it takes an’ I can think o’ ter keep ye safe an’ fed an’ warm an’ dry. Ask this one if I won’t.” He rubbed Leah’s head.
“He will,” Leah replied quite solemnly.
Joyce glanced at him with a big, watery smile.
“So, will ye, Joyce? Marry me?”
The only answer she gave to that was to reach for the box, open it, and begin to draw the ring around her finger.
“That a yes?” Berach whispered.
Joyce nodded. And then she gasped and put a hand over her mouth conceal the sob.
“Aw, Joyce! Don’t cry! Papa will be nice ter ye! I promise!”
“Oh, Leah,” Joyce answered, hiccupping on another sob. “I know that, sweetie. I ain’t cryin’ cause I’m sad. I’m cryin’ ’cause I’m happy.”
“Ye can do that?”
“Aye,” Berach answered. It was all he could say when the tears were starting to sting at his eyes, too.
“How’s that work?”
“Ye’ll understand when ye’re older,” Joyce whispered.
“Oh, boy,” Leah muttered — and both Berach and Joyce managed drowning laughs at that.
Berach smiled. “Ye like the ring?”
“Oh, Berach, it’s beautiful! How — how’d ye get it?”
“That’s fer me ter know, an’ ye –”
“Hey! I gots one more question!” Leah interrupted.
Both turned to look at her. “Yes, sweetie?”
“Does this make us a real family now?”
Joyce and Berach exchanged glances. “I think,” Joyce murmured, “we were a real family before yer pa took it inter his head ter go out an’ get a ring.”
“Aye,” Berach replied, his hand reaching for Joyce’s be-ringed one, the two meeting in the middle. “This …”
He smiled. “This jest makes it official.”