Felix. It was, Toinette thought, an auspicious name for a new little baby. And not just because it meant “lucky,” either, though that was part of it. It was a good name because of the way it sounded: happy, sprightly, tripping off the tongue, full of life and hope.
“Who’s a cute little Felix?” Toinette crooned to her new nephew, holding him nose-to-nose.
Her little brother badly needed some happiness, sprightliness, life and hope injected into his marriage. Pierre might like to pretend that everything was fine and dandy — he might even be believing it himself, sometimes — but there were some problems between man and wife that festered even after they scarred over. Toinette thought what Meg and Pierre had gone through was one of them.
Besides, even though it would be treason to say so before Cerise … Meg, too, needed that happiness and sprightliness and hope back into her marriage.
“Another one with Betsy’s eyes!” Toinette smiled. “Lord, I never thought much about Betsy’s eyes until I saw how sweet they look on me nieces an’ nevvies. I wonder if Joyce and Berach’s babies will end up with ’em, too?”
“How are they doin’, these days?” Cerise asked.
“Well enough, at least I ain’t seen no sign that the newlywed bliss has worn off yet. An’ little Leah’s jest over the moon, which is a lucky thing fer Joyce.”
“Aye, there ain’t nothin’ hard than bein’ a stepmama if yer stepkids don’t want ye there,” Cerise replied sagely. “I don’t suppose …” she started and hesitated.
Toinette glanced at her mother over the baby’s head. “Don’t suppose what?”
“Well, Berach bein’ Lord Pellinore’s man an’ all … an’ workin’ on his lands an’ such … an’ with Joyce bein’ Betsy Pelles’s daughter an’ all …”
Toinette’s shoulders slumped. “Ma! The new baby smell ain’t even worn off Felix yet! An’ ye want ter gossip?”
“I jest want ter know what’s happenin’ in the kingdom, that’s all! The world don’t stop jest because I get a new grandbaby. Much as I might like it ter.”
“Meg’s jest as much Betsy Pelles’s daughter as Joyce is,” Toinette replied, switching tactics. “If ye want ter know the latest, why didn’t ye axe her?”
“She were always a bit … busy when she were here.”
An’ even ye ain’t enough of an old gossip ter want ter bother Betsy when she’s too busy gettin’ ter know her new grandbaby, are ye?
“An’ if she had troubles, it didn’t seem right ter bring ’em up when she was so happy with Felix.”
Toinette paused midway in the act of giving Felix a good belly-kiss. “Troubles?”
“Well!” Cerise said with the sharp intake of breath that wasn’t a gasp — merely a warning to whomever she was talking to that a gasp would soon be necessary. On their part, that is. “I heard that she were fired the mornin’ after Lady Morgause was — was –”
Cerise’s hands fell to her lap. “It don’t seem right.”
It didn’t seem right to Toinette, either, Betsy Pelles being fired for saving a little boy’s life — or at least that was the word around the village. But if Lady Morgause was enough of a monster to try to kill a little boy, then maybe it was lucky that her son was only enough of a monster to fire the woman who had turned her in.
And yet her little sister was the mistress of that monster, and had three little children by him —
“That word,” Cerise continued, shaking her head. “Arrested. Seems so — vulgar. Not like somethin’ that should happen ter a fine lady!”
She was glad that she hadn’t brought Felix down, so her mother couldn’t see her face — but there was no hiding the shock in her voice. “Ma!”
“If she did what they’re sayin’ she did, she ain’t no fine lady! She’s — she’s a worse witch than ye ever made up ter make us mind ye!”
“Well, there is that,” Cerise murmured, as if the fact of Lady Morgause being a witch negated the fact that she was a great lady.
“An’ don’t ye go an’ say nothin’ against those with — with magic,” Toinette replied. “They’re sayin’ that Princess Jessica an’ Lady Morgan — Meg an’ Joyce’s own aunt by marriage! — worked right hard ter bring her in, an’ nearly got killed fer their trouble. Are ye gonna say they ain’t fine ladies? Our own Princess, not a fine lady?”
“I don’t know why ye’re defendin’ all these … these unholy folk,” Cerise sighed. “Back in Glasonland, this never would have been allowed.”
Toinette sighed. Sometimes her mother forgot that she, unlike her younger siblings, was old enough to remember rather well what things were like back in Glasonland. Sure, back in Glasonland a commoner who was openly practicing magic — and ran afoul of the Church or her neighbors — would find herself tied to a stake and roasting in a short amount of time. But a great lady, like the Princess or the King’s sisters? They were allowed to do what they would, so long as it didn’t cross certain lines. All King Arthur had done was even up the score.
“It ain’t bein’ allowed here in Albion, neither, Ma — that’s why Lady Morgause got arrested.”
“I meant the Princess an’ the King’s own sister actin’ like — actin’ like –”
“Aye! ‘Tain’t right!”
“Lord, girl, ye want the whole world ter go topsy-turvy? I remember when I was a girl, I do. We was told that the world was made a certain way, that folks were put in their places, that everything was the way it was ’cause that’s how the good Lord Wright wanted it ter be. What’s happened ter that, I want ter know?”
“Aw, Ma, didn’t ye never want ter make life better fer us kids? I know I want life ter be a darn sight easier fer Katie, Paddy, Nora, Sean an’ this little kicker,” if her arms hadn’t been full of baby, she would have patted her just-protruding belly, “than they was fer me an’ Grady.”
“‘Tain’t our place, ter live a life of ease.”
Toinette didn’t say what she wanted to say — why not? She was too afraid Cerise might have an answer, and a good one. Toinette still didn’t have an answer, not even all these years after Grady had posed that selfsame question to her, when he’d told her his plans and Toinette had offered up the same protests Cerise was offering now. If Cerise had an answer … well, that would mean that all her work, and everything she had sacrificed, was all for nothing.
She did, though, bring the baby down to her shoulder and rest his sweet cheek against hers. He nuzzled against her neck, his mouth opening and closing in the manner of all babies searching for something to suck. “Ma, when’s the last time this little guy was fed?”
“Not five minutes before ye came in.”
Then he should be all right. Toinette patted his back as she had patted the back of all her babies, as she would pat the back of her little kicker, as she’d patted all her nieces and nephews by blood and by marriage. Well, other than the one that had given Pierre and Meg such trouble. She’d not met that one. Or any indiscretions that Simon had managed to get when the rest of them weren’t looking.
Still, Toinette could feel the heavy weight of Felix’s little head on her shoulder … the little lad was probably about ready to fall asleep. And it wouldn’t do to interrupt Meg, who the midwife was seeing, and who, if Widow Thatcher was done with her, was getting some well-deserved rest of her own. So Toinette put the little one into his basket. “Nighty-night, Felix.”
Felix blinked a couple of times, then his head fell to the side and he began to breathe slowly and deeply. Toinette let herself stroke his cheek once … then she went to beard the lioness in her den.
In other words, she sat beside her mother.
“Ma, tell me truly. Why’s it bother ye so much if some fine lady goes an’ gets herself arrested? ‘Tain’t no skin off our nose, either way.”
“Aw, it’s jest because I’m … I guess gettin’ older,” Cerise grinned. “Don’t like change, ye know!”
Her mother never smiled that brightly when there was something to smile about.
“Ma,” Toinette asked as gently as she could, “is it ’cause of Rosette?”
Cerise stiffened and looked away.
“Ye can say if it is,” Toinette continued. “I mean, Wr–goodness! Lady Morgause is Melehan, Melou and Aimée’s grandma, jest the same as ye are. No one would blame ye fer bein’ worried. I’m worried fer –”
“I ain’t worried.”
“I ain’t!” Cerise tossed her head back like a rearing filly and gave a snort that was definitely equine. “Rosette … well, she made her bed. She’s got ter lie in it.”
“Ma, Katie makes her bed all the time, pickin’ on those little girls at school. Don’t make me happy when she’s got ter lie in it.”
“I never said I was happy.”
“Ye’re workin’ real hard, though, ter make sure nobody picks up the … the thought that maybe ye’re sad.”
“Why should I be sad? She — well, I did everythin’ I could.”
If she’d been in the mood for a fight, Toinette would have disagreed with that. Loudly. Vehemently. But she wasn’t. “Most mas are sad when it looks like their children are about ter be sufferin’.”
Cerise didn’t say anything for a long moment. But she did blink. And when she stopped blinking, her eyes looked suspiciously glassy.
Then she spoke: “Well, Rosette — Rosette never made Lady Morgause’s bed!”
Toinette only nodded.
“An’ Rosette’s marked out a hard enough road fer herself. An’ her children. Even if Lady Morgause was like — like — like Lady Eilwen, yer lady. Ye ain’t never heard an ill word against her, have ye?”
“Exactly. Exactly. If — if Rosette were with Sir Lamorak, an’ Sir Lamorak were … were keepin’ her in that nest o’ luxury like Sir Mordred is, then her life would be hard enough! Ye know what they’ll say about Rosette! An’ her children! What they already say about her!”
They didn’t say such things in Toinette’s hearing. They knew better. She’d give anyone who spoke Rosette ill a right piece of her mind. Rosette wasn’t hurting anyone, living the way she was; not even Lady Dindrane, who from everything Toinette had heard had the approximate emotional capacity of an icicle. If anything, Toinette admired Rosette for her courage, admitting to the world that she loved this man and would be with him in whatever way she could, no matter what the consequences. There were plenty who clucked their tongues and shook their heads over Rosette who didn’t have half that courage, and Toinette had told them so to their faces.
But there was one person who might speak to Cerise, or even Toinette, whom she would not be able to tell off.
“Ma,” Toinette closed her eyes and sighed, “has Sir Bors given ye an’ Papa an earful over Rosette?”
Cerise didn’t answer.
“Well,” Cerise replied finally, “maybe it ain’t true.”
“No! Not Rosette! Unfortunately, we all know that’s true.”
Or hope an’ pray it is, thought Toinette, because at this point, from a moral standpoint, just about any feasible alternative would be worse than what was already happening.
“I mean … I mean Lady Morgause. Maybe …”
“Ma, are ye seriously tellin’ me that Betsy Pelles — Betsy Pelles! Yer Felix an’ yer Basil’s grandma! — made the whole thing up?”
“No, no!” Cerise answered, so quickly that Toinette wondered if she was lying. “Maybe — but she didn’t see that little boy anywhere near Lady Morgause, ye have ter admit that.”
“That boy was right hurt, from what I heard!”
“But that don’t mean Lady Morgause did it.”
“Ma! Why would he lie?”
“Children lie, ye know. An’ — an’, well, I don’t understand why everyone’s believin’ this little boy. His … well, his family …”
“His family?” asked a voice from behind Toinette. Toinette froze. “What’ve ye got ter say about his family?”
“Widow Thatcher –” Toinette started with her instinct, an instinct that had only been honed from her years in the tumultuous Brogan household and raising four wild children, to pour oil over troubled waters.
Her mother had no such instinct. “Aw, Kata! He ain’t even related ter ye!”
“Ma!” Toinette gasped.
“Ain’t related ter me? I’ve dandled that lad on my knee since he was born, an’ ye’re sayin’ he ain’t related ter me?”
“Aye, I am. He were Jeremiah, may he rest in peace, Jeremiah’s kin, not yers. Jeremiah’s kin by — by — by I don’t even know what.” Cerise shook her head.
Widow Thatcher’s eyes narrowed and she moved forward with a stride that uncomfortably close to stomping. Toinette felt herself looking with nervousness toward the door. “Ye want ter say that again?” Widow Thatcher hissed.
Cerise pushed her chair behind her. “That boy is the son of a whore plantsim an’ Lord only knows who! He ain’t no kin ter ye, an’ frankly I don’t understand why ye ain’t rejoicin’ that’s the case!”
“Maybe because I’m too busy rejoicin’ that the lad’s still alive after what that witch went an’ done ter him!”
“An’ what’s the difference between a witch an’ what that lad’s mother an’ uncle are, eh?” Cerise narrowed her eyes.
Widow Thatcher laughed. “Oh, fer heaven’s sake! I only said witch ter save the little ears present!” And she nodded to … Felix?
Well, it was better than her nodding to Toinette, that was for certain.
“Well! Kata Thatcher! Talkin’ that way about yer betters! I wouldn’t have thought it of ye!”
“Any lady who tries ter kill me own grandson ain’t my better.”
“Ye don’t know that!”
“Thorn says it were her, an’ I believe ‘im!”
“I’m surprised ye do! Blood will tell, ye know!”
Widow Thatcher narrowed her eyes. “Blood will tell? Is that what ye say? When yer own grandchildren will be sharin’ blood with Thorn?”
“Oh, it ain’t the blood yer Roma will put inter me grandchild that I’m talkin’ about!”
“Then what are ye talkin’ about?” Widow Thatcher hissed.
“I’m talkin’ about the blood that boy gets from his — his mother, a woman o’ ill repute! An’ his father, whoever he may be!”
“Oh, I’d be right careful about condemnin’ men what go ter women o’ the night if I were ye, Cerise Chevaux!”
“An’ why would that be, Kata Thatcher?”
“Seein’ as ye raised –”
“Oh, ye wouldn’t bring up that with Meg restin’ in the next room, would ye?” Cerise hissed. She brought herself up to her full height, the better to face down Widow Thatcher. “I thought ye were a better woman than that!” she whisper-shouted. “A better woman an’ a better midwife!”
“I ain’t talkin’ about Pierre,” Kata replied with what could only be called an infuriating smugness.
That made Toinette squirm around on her stool and stare at both of them, jaw agape.
“Then what are ye talkin’ about?” Cerise snarled.
“Yer son Simon!”
Toinette turned away and cringed.
“Simon? Not my Simon! He’s a good boy, he is!”
“Not that good!”
“If he ain’t good,” Cerise asked with air of a woman making an unanswerable argument, “why is it that ye came ter me ter axe about him an’ Roma, eh?”
Toinette turned around again to watch Widow Thatcher’s face. It was well worth watching, for all that the Widow only raised an eyebrow. “Because I ain’t no fool. If the worst I could find out about yer son was that he had high spirits an’ spent ’em on women what were already ruined in the eyes o’ the world, then he weren’t no bad boy.”
“Ye jest said –”
“I said he weren’t as good as ye thought he was; there’s a long way between that an’ bad!” Widow Thatcher snorted and shook her head.
“An’ there’s a long way between yer so-called grandson’s home an’ the blood that’s in his veins an’ a good type o’ either!”
“Excuse me? Have ye even met Ash? An’ Lyndsay? Don’t ye say nothin’ about their home!” the Widow cried, jabbing her finger into Cerise’s chest.
“What would ye expect out o’ a plantsim an’ a gypsy?”
“Cerise Chevaux! If ye have the slightest idea what’s good fer ye, ye’ll take that back!”
“I didn’t say nothin’ that weren’t the truth, an’ ye –”
And then she heard a whimper.
Cerise and the Widow were arguing too loudly to take heed of it, or to take heed of Toinette rising from her chair and going to check. They scarcely even noticed as she slipped by them to kneel by Felix’s basket. But once she did …
“Phaugh!” she coughed. “Eh, lad, why ye gotta go stink the place up like that?”
Felix stared up at her with wide, unblinking eyes. He whimpered again.
“Come on, me lad,” Toinette said, lifting the baby to her shoulder. “Let’s get ye cleaned up.”
And then, baby in her arms, looking about herself, Toinette realized something — there was only one place to take this baby. For Basil was already potty-trained, which meant that all the diapers and things were likely to be kept … in Meg and Pierre’s room. And opening the door would let Cerise and the Widow’s argument into the only sanctuary Meg was getting right now.
But it was either that or let the baby sit in his own mess, which Toinette wasn’t willing to do. So she strode up to the door, knocked once, prayed Meg was decent, and slipped inside before Meg could finish the first syllable of, “Come in.”
Even though she shut the door behind her as swiftly as she could, strains of argument still found their way inside.
“What in the world …” Meg started.
“Yer lad needs changin’. Ye don’t mind, do ye?”
“Oh, of course, I’ll –” Meg started, holding out her hands for the baby. But Toinette was already halfway to the table with all of his diapers and things and wasn’t about to make a stop to hand the baby off.
“Toinette, ye don’t have ter do that!” Meg laughed.
“Nonsense. Sean’s potty-trained now. I’ve got ter get back in practice before me own new one comes.”
“Ah,” was all Meg said to that. She tilted her head to one side. “I don’t suppose ye know what they …?”
“Ye don’t want ter know.”
“Hmm,” was all Meg said in reply to that, even after Toinette had put Felix down into the crib.
Then Toinette turned around and twisted her hands together. “Ye won’t mind if I stay, will ye? I mean, rather than going out into …”
In answer, Meg patted the bed beside her, and with gratefulness Toinette clambered into that space.
They both stared ahead of them for a moment, each content to stare into space.
“Well,” Meg said finally, “I suppose it was bound to happen eventually.”
“Yer ma an’ Widow Thatcher. They’re both such strong personalities …”
“Aye, true. Sooner or later, they’d clash.” Toinette sighed. “Still, I wish they hadn’t picked today ter do it.”
“Me too,” Meg agreed. “Me too.”