It was so much easier to just hide and play with the babies.
“Where’s Nimue? I can’t see her!”
Even if they weren’t really babies anymore. Three weeks ago, Nimue would have stuck her little nose in the air and pretended not to see any aunt who dared to play as juvenile a game as “peekaboo” with her. Ever since her grandfather’s death, though, Nimue was happy enough to play along. It was odd; Nimue was the oldest of the little ones, but still not quite old enough to understand what had happened. Besides, her grandfather had been sick for so long, she could hardly be expected to remember a time when he doted on her and was a large part of her life. But then again … even three years old was old enough to pick up on sadness and tension. Wright knew there was enough of that surrounding the little girl. She was probably taking any chance to laugh she had.
How awful. Why can’t we just take the babies for a visit until things here calm down?
She had suggested as much when her mother had broached the idea of her staying at the Orkney keep for a few weeks. Her mother had gasped and shook her head. “We can’t take Mordred and Dindrane’s babies away from them when they’re suffering so!”
Delyth had been at the keep for only three days, and she had yet to be convinced that her mother had spoken with any wisdom. Dindrane would have missed her babies, and Dindrane was suffering. Both could have been as easily ameliorated by Dindrane coming home with her babies as Delyth coming to the Orkney keep. But Sir Mordred? He barely seemed to register that even his wife or his babies existed, to say nothing of the bratty sister-in-law. He probably would have been just happy to see the back of them.
And then there was the matter of Lady Morgause …
“Auntie! I see you!”
“Peekaboo!” Delyth shouted, sending Nimue into delighted streams of giggles. “There’s Nimue!”
“An’ there’s Auntie!” Nimue called.
“Here I am,” Delyth agreed, wiggling Nimue’s foot. Nimue squealed and tried to jerk her foot away, but Delyth wasn’t having any of that.
Really, Delyth was lucky the kids were so darn cute. Gawaine was absolutely adorable with his sweet smile, even if he had buried his face in his mother’s shoulder and refused to look at her when she’d first come. “He’s just shy,” Dindrane had said, trying to pry the little leech of a baby off her, and now Delyth could believe it — once Gawaine got used to her, he was as friendly and happy a baby as anyone ever saw, always ready for a cuddle or a tickle. Nimue, Nimue was the opposite of her brother in almost every measure. Fearless where he was shy, standoffish where he was sweet, she even seemed to have dignity — dignity! — or something that didn’t make her amenable to as many cuddles and tickles as her brother.
And then there was Agravaine. What a little terror he was! A hell-raising little streak of a two-year-old, bent on mischief with every step. But so funny! And he’d already figured out that he had an advantage in those big blue eyes of his, for whenever his nurse’s or Dindrane’s or Delyth’s patience with him seemed ready to run out, he’d look up at them with those eyes so big and watery, and it would take a harder heart than the nurse’s or Dindrane’s or Delyth’s to stay angry.
… And how did I get to thinking about Lady Morgause again?
She hadn’t, and that was the problem. Thinking of Agravaine and his antics did not bring his mother to mind. And it ought to. Even noblewomen, even if they weren’t necessarily the ones running themselves ragged behind the two-year-olds, ought to display some sort of interest in (and, if necessary, exasperation with) what their little ones were up to. Sometimes Delyth wondered if Lady Morgause would even care if Agravaine fell down the well. It was mean, but there it was.
“Mama’s …” Actually, Delyth had no idea where Dindrane was. She’d escaped to the nursery as soon as breakfast was over and had paid no attention to where Dindrane disappeared to. Which was another thing that was odd about this house. Now, Dindrane might have needed a dictionary to understand the purpose of “socializing,” but things simply didn’t work that way in the Gwynedd household. Meals were not eaten in frigidly polite quiet, discussing only the weather and other neutral topics. By the end of breakfast at the Gwynedd household, you generally had a pretty good idea of where everybody was going to be for the rest of the day, as well as their thoughts on life, the universe and everything. But here? Delyth couldn’t even tell Dindrane’s child where her mother had gone to.
Maybe that was self-defense. Wright knew Delyth hadn’t mentioned her own plan of hiding out in the nursery this morning. The last thing she wanted to do was make it easy for Lady Morgause to find her.
Not, now that she thought of it, that Lady Morgause ever seemed particularly interested in finding her … other than that strangely gleaming, acquisitive look that had leapt into her eyes when Delyth had first come, but that light had faded almost immediately. Delyth guessed she just wasn’t that interesting. Poor me.
“Huh? Oh — Mama! Mama’s … probably in the library,” Delyth answered, and figured it was true enough. “Or maybe in the gardens. You want to go see her?”
“No …” Nimue murmured. “Mama’s been sad.”
Delyth glanced away from her little niece, at her nephew and Agravaine. They still seemed completely occupied with the table with the blocks and paper and chalk, and even if they weren’t, they were too little to understand where her and Nimue’s conversation might go … right?
“Yes, Nimue, Mama’s been very sad,” Delyth agreed.
“Because … because of your grandpa.”
Nimue’s little nose wrinkled. “Mama says Grandpa’s in Heaven.”
“Yes, he is.” Easier to let the three-year-old think that. Though Delyth didn’t know what Lord Lot could have done that would land him in Hell — except for the whole Accolon thing — but that was kind of the point, wasn’t it? You couldn’t know where anybody ended up after they died. You just had to hope, and believe, and have faith.
“Then why is Mama sad? Isn’t Heaven s’posed to be good?”
“Heaven is good, but … but Mama probably just wishes that Grandpa was here, with all of us.”
“Well, don’t you wish your grandpa was here, too?”
Nimue pouted. “He was always sleepin’.”
“He was very sick.”
“So did he go to Heaven to get better, then?”
“Er …” Great, who had stuck her with the job of explaining death to a three-year-old? The next time someone in the Orkney household died, she was going to crusade to get her mother to have Dindrane and little ones at their house. Then Delyth could get her mother to answer these difficult questions. Or else they could send Dilys to stay for a few weeks.
… Then again, the reason why Eilwen had sent Delyth was so Dindrane would have some company and some help. But if Delyth was unnerved by this place enough to spend all her time hiding with the babies, then Dilys would probably spend her time hiding out in the cottage that the servants swore was haunted by Accolon’s ghost.
“Well, it’s like this, Nimue.” Again Delyth glanced toward the two younger ones — but again, they were paying precisely no attention to anything that she was saying. This was probably a good thing; she’d only be hopelessly confusing one toddler this way.
“Is Grandpa coming back?” Nimue asked, her patience apparently gone.
“No, no, he’s not, Nimue.”
Delyth took a deep breath. “Well, because your grandpa was very sick. So the Lord Wright took him up to Heaven to be with him. He’s all better up there, but he can’t come back. Not anymore.”
“Because … because once you go to Heaven, you can’t come back.”
ARGH!! “That’s just the rule.”
Nimue pouted, but at least she stopped asking why. “So we’re not going to see him any more?”
“No, you’re not.”
“Never ever?” Nimue gasped.
“Well …” Delyth hedged. “Someday, if you’re very good, and once you’re very old –”
“Yes, like Grandpa was,” Delyth agreed.
“And like Pappie?”
It was all Delyth could do to avoid flinching. “Pappie …” Her father was almost as old as Lord Lot had been. But that doesn’t mean anything! He was still healthy, and active, and strong —
Aye, and so was Lord Lot the day before he had his spell.
Delyth gulped. “Pappie’s pretty old, too,” she agreed.
“So will he be going to Heaven soon?”
“I hope not.”
“But it’s supposed to be a good place!” Nimue groaned. She put her little fists on her hips and did her best to glare. Delyth almost laughed, but Gawaine had looked up and was now shooting her a nervous glance. So Delyth had to give her best, most reassuring smile.
That done, she turned back to Nimue. “It is a good place, but we’d all miss him, wouldn’t we, Nimue?”
Nimue screwed up her lips and narrowed her eyes. “Yes,” she finally agreed.
Great. I’ll tell Papa that you’d miss him if he died. He’d be so flattered.
“So he’s not going soon, then?” Nimue asked.
“Like I said, I hope not.”
“Then who is?”
“I … I don’t know, honey. We can’t know. Not until it happens.”
“Because the Lord Wright sometimes just … decides, without giving us any warning.”
“But that’s no fair!”
It was probably blasphemy, but Delyth could only agree. “No, it’s not.”
“But …” Nimue put her little fists up against her mouth, then spat, “That doesn’t make sense!”
I guess if I needed any proof that she was Dindrane’s daughter, here it is! “What do you mean?”
“The Lord Wright’s s’posed to be right! So how come he’s being no fair?”
All right, Dindrane, if you’re going to decide to walk in and declare nap time, now would be a great time to do it! Delyth put her head a little to one side and tried to puzzle it out. “Well … the Lord Wright is being fair, but you see … do you remember how yesterday, we all wanted to go play in the gardens?”
Nimue nodded, then she frowned. “But it was raining. And that was no fair!”
“It sure looked like it wasn’t fair, didn’t it?”
Apparently three years old wasn’t old enough to pick up on the subtlety of accented words — or maybe it was plenty old enough and Nimue was just stubborn. “It was no fair!”
“It wasn’t very nice for us — but Nimue, you know that the farmers and peasants grow food, right?”
“And they feed all of us.”
Nimue looked up and sighed, proving that she was — unfortunately — her grandmother’s granddaughter, already more than capable of showing her exasperation with other Sims who, for some reason or other, weren’t meeting her standards. But maybe Nimue would grow out of it.
“And, Nimue, you know that the plants need water to grow, right?”
Nimue turned back to her, her brows furrowing again. “Yes …”
“And where does the water come from?”
“Other than that?”
Nimue turned her head to one side and stared at the ceiling. “… The rain?”
“Yes! The rain! So, what would be more ‘no fair’ — not being able to play outside for an afternoon, or having to be hungry because the farmers didn’t get the rain to grow food for all of us?”
Nimue pouted. “I still want to play outside.”
Aye, and I’m betting that Dindrane would rather have Lord Lot still here, too.
Delyth looked up to see Gawaine clapping and pointing to his picture.
“What is it, Gawaine?” Delyth asked, getting up and walking over. Gawaine pointed to the picture.
It seemed to be … some sort of animal. Delyth tilted her head a little to one side and studied it more closely. A llama? A dog? A —
There seemed to be the beginnings of a stick figure on top of the animal.
“Gawaine! Is that your daddy on his horsie?”
Gawaine gave a huge grin.
“Well, aren’t you clever?” Delyth gasped, sweeping the little boy into her arms. Gawaine, once there, clung to her neck and giggled. “Drawing your daddy already! What a smart little boy you are, Gawaine!”
“I’m smart, too!” Nimue chimed in.
“Well, of course you’re smart. You’re a girl, Nimue. All girls are smart.” That was enough for Nimue to stop being jealous and to burst into delighted giggles instead. Gawaine, too little to understand that his whole sex had just been insulted, kept smiling. Even Agravaine was looking up with a grin.
“Auntie Delyth just said you’re dumb!” Nimue laughed.
Agravaine pouted. “Nuh-uh!”
“I didn’t say that, Nimue — I just said that all girls are smart. And some boys are, too, just not all of them.” Before Nimue could reach the conclusion that Agravaine was or wasn’t one of those smart boys, Delyth swooped down and grabbed the picture. “Let’s go show this to your daddy, huh, Gawaine?”
Gawaine kept grinning, but Nimue’s eyes went wide and Agravaine’s legs seemed almost to give way as he hit the floor with a thump. “Show … him?” Nimue gasped.
“Well, why not?” Delyth asked. Wouldn’t Sir Mordred want to see his son’s talent? One of her own earliest memories was dragging Dilys and one of Dilys’s earliest pictures to show their father, and how her papa had put them both on his lap and cuddled them in pride. Even if Sir Mordred had all the emotional capacity of an icicle, wouldn’t he be proud of his son? “Want to come with?” she asked, brooking no argument.
Nimue and Agravaine looked at each other, and Nimue slowly nodded. So with two toddlers on her heels and one in her arms, Delyth made her way to Sir Mordred’s study.
The way in was — interesting. It looked like a blank wall, but if you stepped on the right place, you suddenly found yourself into the study. It always unsettled Delyth’s stomach, though Gawaine, Agravaine and Nimue barely seemed to register it. Maybe it was because they were all so little. Or maybe it was because they all had some of that Orkney magic in them.
“Sir Mordred?” Delyth asked.
He barely deigned to look up from his book. Delyth scowled. “Sir Mordred! Gawaine has something he’d like to show you.”
The infinitesimal movement of Sir Mordred’s eyes actually stopped. “Gawaine is a year old.”
Oh, good, you know how old your own son is! “Yes, and he drew a very nice picture he’d like to show you.”
Was he — He is! He was rolling his eyes! “Let him show his mother or his nurses, then.”
It was hard to stomp when you were afraid the hand-shaped light fixtures were going to reach down and grab you — or the bubbling cauldron overflow and scald you — and when holding a one-year-old in your arms who was starting to cower and tremble, but stomp Delyth did. “Sir Mordred! It’s a very nice picture! You ought to have a look!”
He sighed and waved his hand. The page of the book turned of its own accord. “Have you nothing better to do than bother me, Delyth?”
“I’m not bothering you!”
“I beg to differ.”
Delyth tossed her hair back and shifted Gawaine on her hip. “For Wright’s sake! He just wants to show you a picture! If you’d just look at it for a minute, we’d be gone and you could go back to …” Look though she might, she couldn’t make out what Mordred was reading. “Whatever you’re doing.”
Mordred sighed and tilted his head back. “Delyth, I am the lord and master of an estate, I am a warlock of no mean renown, I am one of the King’s most trusted knights. I do not have time for children’s scribbles.”
Bullshit! Her father had time. And even Lord Lot —
Maybe it was thinking of Lord Lot, and how, even if he was a stuffy old codger, he seemed to adore Nimue and had always had time for her triumphs and tribulations, that made Delyth say what she said. Maybe it was even Lord Lot’s ghost egging her on, having seen his grandchildren being ignored by their own father and trying to do something about. It was certainly a more flattering explanation than the one Delyth suspected was true — that she had temporarily taken leave of her senses.
“Your father would have had time for you!”
Sir Mordred froze. “What?”
He didn’t let her finish. “Get out!”
Delyth was never sure what happened after that. Maybe it was that, with one toddler in her arms and two trailing her, she thought discretion was the better part of valor in the face of Sir Mordred’s wrath, and so valiantly fled. Maybe her courage took leave of her (perhaps meeting up with her senses along the way) and she simply fled with no thought of courage or anything else. Maybe it just happened that when a warlock of no mean renown told you to get out of his study, you got out.
Whatever the reason was, soon Delyth found herself, with Nimue and Agravaine on her heels, on the nearest outdoor walkway. Her arms trembled so that she had to put Gawaine down, where he toddled off a little bit.
“Auntie Delyth?” Agravaine asked. She wasn’t his auntie, but it was easier to let him call her that than explain to a two-year-old all the tangled family relationships.
“Y-yes, honey?” Delyth forced herself to say.
His big blue eyes looked — oddly enough — just like Dilys’s when she was trying not to cry. “Why does Mordred hate us?”
“Oh, honey! He doesn’t hate us, he just …” She reached down to pat his head, to reassure with contact if she couldn’t do it with words. “He’s just very busy. And still very sad about your grand–your papa.”
She wasn’t sure if Agravaine bought it, but the voice in Delyth’s own head sure didn’t.
Liar, liar, skirts on fire.