“Well?” Roma asked, gesturing to the sty the way another new bride might gesture to her new dishes, or her wedding linen, or her new kitchen table. “What d’ye think, Nicole?”
Nicole wrinkled her nose and looked out over the sty. “They’re … nice?” she hazarded. “For pigs, I mean.”
“Ain’t it great?” Roma sighed. “Pigs, Nicole! Our very own pigs!”
The pink male, named Curly for its tail, looked up and snorted. “See!” Roma clapped. “He agrees!”
Nicole’s nose wrinkled again. “Are you … sure?”
“Well, sure as I can be, with a pig an’ all. Why?”
“Well … if your plan works … won’t he be bacon and sausage, come fall?”
“Not until he an’ Blackie give us a nice load of piglets, he won’t be!” Roma humphed. “Won’t do us no good ter eat our ticket ter fame an’ fortune until he makes us lots o’ little baby tickets, now, would it?”
Nicole shook her head, and she did smile, but one corner of the smile was turned down and her brows were furrowed. Roma sighed. “Ye still don’t get it, d’ye?”
She blushed. “Not … really.”
“Pigs is expensive,” Roma explained once again. “Ter get inter, that is — once ye got the paddock an’ the first couple pigs an’ ye’re good with food, it gets easier. Now, ’cause they’re so expensive, the meat’s right costly too. So, Simon bought these pigs usin’ the money from the bet he won last fall, ter get us started on a herd. So we can get piglets, an’ raise ’em, an’ fatten ’em up, an’ sell either them or the meat fer more than we paid fer the pigs an’ their keepin’ an’ all. Make sense?”
“I suppose …”
“An’ we can save up enough money, eventual-like, ter buy me an’ Simon’s freedom, an’ our babies’ freedom too. Like Grady Brogan is tryin’ ter do! Only, see, Simon an’ me, we’re startin’ up early, before we have babies, so’s it’ll be cheaper.”
Nicole blinked. “Cheap … er?”
“Sure! Ye have ter pay fer every baby ye want ter make free, don’t ye know? Grady Brogan, he weren’t able ter start his business until his daughter Katie was born, an’ he an’ his wife keep havin’ babies. She’s expectin’ again, ye heard that? So that’s another ten silvers Grady Brogan’s in the hole.”
She gasped, then laughed. “I keep forgetting that your mother is the midwife.” Nicole shook her head. “Goodness! You probably hear about it the moment anyone is late, don’t you?”
“Naw, Ma’s good at keepin’ secrets, if secret is the way the ma-ter-be wants it ter be kept! But still, once the ma-ter-be is ready ter let folk know there’s gonna be a little one, well, then I know,” Roma shrugged.
“And speaking of mothers-to-be …” Nicole asked, her eyebrows lifting.
“Oh, don’t ye start!” Roma laughed. “Not from ye! Wright! I ain’t been married more’an three months!” Roma shook her head. “Ma says don’t expect anythin’ right away. Sometimes babies takes their time.” She brightened and turned her head to one side. “Anyway, ye want some tea, now that ye’ve met the folks?” Roma nodded to the wallowing pigs.
“Tea sounds lovely,” Nicole agreed.
Roma let the way, skipping into the house by way of the side door. “Nice, ain’t it?” she said automatically.
“Very,” Nicole agreed, and Roma was glad to hear it.
The truth was, the house was not that nice. It was on Sir Bors’s land, and though Sir Bors had been able to supply a nice cottage for the elder Chevauxes, the same could not be said for Simon. By the time Simon was old enough to have his own house, what Sir Bors could afford was … well, not so nice. It was gray and dingy, quickly built, and small. She didn’t know what they would do once babies started coming along — and, truth to tell, she hadn’t thought about it too hard until Sir Lancelot had moved her family to the north, and she had seen what a peasant’s cottage could look like when it was built by a lord who felt he needed to ease his conscience.
When Roma was in an optimistic mood, she reminded herself that Simon’s cottage was hers. She was not a long-term guest in what was her mother’s and would eventually be her brother’s home. This place was hers to do and build as she liked, as long as Simon approved.
But when Roma was not in an optimistic mood, she looked around herself and thought, This is why Simon an’ me’ve got ter earn our freedom. When they were free, they could live wherever they wanted to and could afford. Roma was already hatching plans to move nearer to her mother — and surely Sir Lancelot would welcome a new-minted merchant family on his lands! — but Simon seemed convinced that the southern coast, near Port Finessa, was the place to be. They would fight that battle when they came to it.
In the meantime, though, Roma shooed Nicole to a seat and wandered over to the kettle. “Marigold’s sent over some more raspberry leaves, ye want raspberry tea?”
Roma boiled and stirred and poured, and brought the mugs over to the table. Nicole grabbed the mug, took a little sip, then turned the tea over her tongue in that funny way she had — as if she was trying to ease out every last hint of flavor. “Mmm,” Nicole murmured, breathing deep from the fumes.
Roma, she sipped slowly, too, but not the way Nicole did it. Roma sipped slowly because the tea was warm and she had no desire to burn her tongue, and that was the end of it.
“I’ve never had such good raspberry tea until I came to Albion,” Nicole sighed. “There must be something here that makes them grow so well.”
“Or it’s jest Marigold,” Roma shrugged. “She bein’ a plantsim an’ all. They’re really good with gardens!”
“It can’t just be your sister — my neighbor has very good raspberry tea, too.”
“The mysterious Mistress Shepherd!” Roma laughed.
“She’s not mysterious!” Nicole giggled. “Just been busy, now that she’s got her little boy back.”
“Aye, so ye say. Me, I’m certain she don’t exist.”
“She does to!”
“Then how come she ain’t ever shown up ter meet Lyndsay an’ me?”
“I don’t know! She’s busy a lot!” Nicole laughed.
“Naw, I don’t believe it. I think ye jest made her up, so’s ye don’t have to admit that yer only friends are Lyndsay an’ me an’ the other girls from the Onion.”
“As if I would have trouble admitting that,” Nicole shook her head. “You’re all wonderful friends.”
“That we’re friends, an’ good friends, ye shouldn’t have no trouble admittin’! But that we’re yer only friends? Come now. Even I’d be blushin’ ter admit that.”
“Even you? Roma, you’re friends with everyone you meet. Me, I’m …” Nicole sighed and swished her tea in her mug.
“Ye’re a right nice girl is what ye are, Nicole Saquina,” Roma replied. “Ye’re so nice, even the drunks at the Onion don’t let nobody pick on ye!”
“I mean it,” Roma murmured. She patted Nicole’s shoulder. “Even Finley Brogan don’t mess with ye. He tried, he wouldn’t jest be havin’ his poor sons drag him out the door — he’d be thrown out arse-first, he would.”
“Finley Brogan,” Nicole shuddered.
“I know, I know — ain’t nice ter think too hard about, is it?” Roma shook her head. “Ugh.”
“Ugh, indeed.” Nicole took another sip of tea.
They sat in companionable silence for a moment, each sipping. Before Roma could break it, though, with an offer of cream or perhaps a bit of cake to go with the tea, Nicole sighed.
And then she said nothing.
“Nicole?” Roma asked finally.
Nicole turned to her. “Do you ever get lonely?” she asked.
There were several ways to answer that. The first one, the easy way — “Of course I do, every Sim does.” The second way, the prying/poking/back-handed criticizing way — “Well, I did, but now I’m married ter Simon, so not anymore.”
Nicole forestalled the second one. “Not — not lonely for a man. I know you wouldn’t be lonely for a man, not now.”
Another girl might have used that opportunity to make a joke about Simon’s manhood or lack thereof, but not Nicole. She was so squeamish about jokes like that, turning ten shades of red whenever they were mentioned. And that wasn’t counting the jokes Roma had to explain to her! What an innocent!
Nicole squirmed and sighed. “It’s just … sometimes I feel … I don’t know. Like I’m an island in the sea, and everyone else is the waves. I’m surrounded, and meet so many people — so many waves on the shore — but at the end of the day … I’m alone.”
“Nicole! Ye ain’t as alone as that! Ye’ve got lots o’ good friends!”
Roma watched her friend’s shoulders slump and her hair stir as she looked away. “… I mean,” Roma stammered, “we girls at the Onion ain’t so bad, ain’t we?”
“Oh, no! You’re wonderful! It’s not — if anything, it’s not you, it’s …” Nicole sighed and looked away.
“It’s me, I suppose.”
“What’s ye? There’s nothin’ wrong with ye!”
But was that true? There was always, or so Roma thought, a wall around Nicole. A big one and a thick one, like the one they said was around Smina. Nicole would sometimes venture beyond the wall, to participate in talks or fairs or a meal, but there was always a part of her that remained deep inside, behind iron gates and locked doors.
As if Nicole knew this to be true but didn’t want to admit it, she shrugged. “I don’t …” Nicole bit her lip. “I don’t know.”
“Ye don’t what?”
“You’re all so … connected to each other. You’ve known each other, some of you, your entire lives. And I’m … well … I feel like a weed in the rose garden, to tell the truth.”
“Ye are not a weed. Ye’re as pretty a flower as any o’ us!” Roma protested. “An’ as fer all bein’ connected, why, Lyndsay’s family’s made of gypsies! Gypsies, can ye imagine? An’ she fits in as sure as glove fits its owner, an’ so do ye.”
“But Lyndsay’s part of your family.”
“Aye, an’? If –” The words crowding on Roma’s tongue suddenly came to a dead halt, bumping into each other and backing up traffic as Roma’s brain held up a stop sign. “Oh.” Roma bit her lip. “Is this — is this about yer family?”
Nicole stared into the bottom of her cup as if the tea leaves would tell her fortune, even though there were no tea leaves at the bottom of the mug. When she looked up, she asked, “Do you think it ever gets any easier?”
“I still miss my pa every day.”
“Every day. Especially … now … now that Simon an’ me …” Roma looked around her house. “I’d want ter know what he’d think of it, ye know?”
“Your father would be so proud,” Nicole said in that voice of empty sincerity that so many people felt called upon to trot out when Roma mentioned her father. Would he be? Would he really? And how would Nicole know if he was? She’d never even met Jeremiah.
“Would yer father?” Roma asked.
“Would he …?”
“Be proud o’ ye.”
Nicole’s jaw fell, her mouth open so slightly — such a tiny, delicate opening, like a real lady might let her jaw drop in surprise or distress. Nicole swallowed. “I — I don’t know.”
“I don’t know about my pa, neither.”
Nicole turned away. With a shaking hand, she brought her mug to her lips. Roma did the same.
The mugs hit the table with simultaneous clinks. Roma swallowed air to follow the tea down. “Well,” Roma said finally, “I guess there’s no reason ter assume they wouldn’t be proud, is there?”
Nicole said nothing.
“I mean, my ma’s proud o’ me — got a man, a nice little cottage, pigs — we could go far, ye know. An’ if me pa weren’t proud o’ me, well, my ma would let him know what-for an’ he’d be proud o’ me if he knew what was good fer ‘im,” Roma continued.
Nicole looked to the side door.
“An’ yer pa — an’ yer ma, an’ yer brothers an’ sisters — well, why wouldn’t they be proud? Ye’re taking good care o’ yerself, ain’t ye? Got plenty ter eat, a roof over yer head, a respectable job … an’ ye’re a freewoman! Ye didn’t have ter go indenture yerself ter no lord ter keep yerself fed an’ clothed! That’s somethin’, ain’t it?” Roma shifted in her chair. “… Ain’t it?”
“I suppose it is something,” Nicole murmured. “But …”
“But it’s not –”
The door flew open, and in walked Simon, face like a thundercloud.
He pulled up short when he saw them, a dog who had reached the end of his leash. “Ladies!”
The smile — the charming smile that made Roma’s heart go pitter-pat whenever she saw it — tried to find its way onto his face, but something in his eyes stopped it from going all the way up. “Simon?” Roma asked.
The smile morphed from charming to reassuring, or at least to an attempt at being reassuring. “Don’t mind me,” he said, as if it could be possible to do anything else. He patted Roma’s cheek and kissed her hair. “I just need to lay down for a moment. Nicole, nice ter see ye.”
Without another word, he passed into the bedroom — the door shutting behind him with what sounded like a click of doom.
Roma watched the space where he had stood with her lips slightly parted and quivering like a child’s.
“You know,” Nicole said, setting her mug on the table and dusting her skirt off, “this was a lovely afternoon, Roma. But I need to pick up some eggs at the market before I get home. Thank you for having me over.”
“Anytime,” Roma murmured, still watching the door. A good hostess might have protested, asked Nicole to stay for longer — but maybe friends didn’t have to bother with those formalities. Maybe friends could understand when friends were giving them a face-saving way of having the house to themselves and simply take advantage of it.
And as far as hostessly duties were concerned, well, Roma barely was able to keep her head on straight long enough to escort Nicole to the door, say the right things, and dump the tea things into the water-butt before she scratched the door to the bedroom and slipped inside. “S-Simon?”
He lay hands behind his head, staring up at the ceiling with his feet on the bedspread. There were wives, Roma knew, who would take great issue with that last part. But Roma had already decided that she would not be one of those wives.
As it was, Simon stared up at her in surprise. “Where’s Nicole?”
“She — she had ter pick up some bread at the market.” Or somethin’. Roma crept into the bedroom proper. “So — so it’s jest ye an’ me now.” Her hands wrung themselves together with no input from her mind. “Is somethin’ wrong?”
Simon sighed. “Roma …”
She waited, lip caught between her teeth.
“Roma, it ain’t nothin’ ye should worry yer pretty little head about.”
Roma took her courage in both her hands, crossed to the bed, and started to straighten out the pillow on her side. “I’m yer wife,” she told the pillow. “It if worries ye, it should worry me.”
“Ye can trust me with these things, ye know,” Roma murmured, swinging her legs onto the bed.
Simon did not reply, not at first. He did sit up, though, and kick off his boots. “It’s things ter do with … with business, Roma.”
“No — no, not the pigs.” Simon raised one eyebrow. “Business.”
“Oh.” His smuggling. “That business.”
“Aye, that business.” Simon rubbed the back of his neck. “It’s jest … well, Clarence was good fer one thing, he was. Muscle. Without him … ’tis hard gettin’ pure muscle in the group, ye know?”
Roma looked away.
“Roma …” Simon tucked a stray wisp of hair behind her ear. “I know ye don’t like what — what led him ter get caught. But believe me, he wouldn’t have ever been let inter this house. Ye were always safe from him.”
Roma snapped, “He was in this house the night he was arrested, weren’t he?”
Simon kissed the tip of her nose. “Ye weren’t in here.”
“But why …” Roma started.
Simon rested his head against the headboard, content to drum his fingers on his muscular stomach. Roma watched the afternoon sunlight flash on his wedding ring. She pressed down on the skin of her own stomach — so soft, so flabby compared to his! But Simon said he liked it that way. “Women with hard stomachs,” he would say, “they ain’t eatin’ enough. Ye, I want ye eatin’.”
And maybe soon, soon a baby would start, and her skin would be pulled taut in way that Simon couldn’t complain about …
Curiosity finally seemed to get the better of Simon, though. “Why what?”
Roma jumped. “Why — what?”
“Ye wanted ter axe me ‘why’ about somethin’. Why what?”
“Why were ye friends with — with someone like that?”
Simon sighed. “That’s … complicated.”
Roma wiggled her hips and made herself more comfortable.
He watched the wiggling, eyebrow raised — and before he spoke, he had his arm around her shoulder, his finger tracing down her shoulder and arm. “Clarence … well, far be it from me ter speak ill o’ the dead, but ter be completely honest, he weren’t what I would call a friend. Business partner, maybe, but not — friend.”
He began to stroke her waist with his free hand. Roma wanted to purr like a well-fed kitten. “I jest … well. I felt sorry fer him, fer one. Fer two, he were damn useful as muscle, like I said.”
Simon’s eyebrows went up, inviting her to continue.
“But …” She watched as he shifted, hovering her over, still that eyebrow up and asking its mute questions. “If ye weren’t friends, why’d he run fer ye when the watch was after him?”
“Because I were his protector, Roma.”
“From — from the watch?”
“No …” He kissed her forehead, then below one eye, then below the other. “From himself.”
His lips moved from cheek to nose, his hand from waist to — lower — “Simon! Simon, it’s the middle o’ the day!” Roma laughed.
Simon pulled away, his devilish grin setting Roma’s heart pounding. “So?”
“So — so we’ve got work ter do! Simon! This sort o’ thing — in the middle o’ the day — it’s fer lords, not the likes o’ us!”
“So?” Simon asked again. He pulled her up to him. “Let the lords come in and complain if they wanna; until then, I’ll do what I like. An’ besides …” His nose just barely brushed hers as he whispered, “Who’s ter say we won’t be lords ourselves someday, eh?”
If there was an argument that could stand against that … well, nobody ever taught it to Roma.