“Stay with me, Wulfie.”
“Yes, Mama.” Those nuns sure had trained her boy well. Erin still had a great store of bitterness in her for the way which Wulf had been taken away from her, and more than a little jealousy for every moment, every first that they had gotten to witness and she had not. For all that, however, she had to admit that she had no idea how she herself would have gone about teaching a three-year-old to add “sir,” “ma’am,” or “Mama” after every answer. She would have considered herself lucky to have gotten her child to master “please” and “thank you” by that point.
One thing the nuns hadn’t mastered was curbing her son’s natural curiosity, and Erin hadn’t mastered it either. Wulf toddled along by her side with his eyes either drinking in the sky or watching the ground below his feet in fascination. More than “no,” he loved to say, “Mama, what’s that?” while pointing a chubby finger in a vague direction. He seemed to find their daily trips to the well as full of adventure and mystery as a journey to a foreign land. Erin had no idea how he would react when he went to school in not so many months — would he take to the new learning as a duck to water, or would his wonder at the world around him leave him unable to sit still and mind what the teacher told him? It was something to ponder as she hooked her bucket to the rope and lowered it into the well.
At least Wulf didn’t ask to see the inside of the well anymore. He’d cried and carried on like anything when Erin had first told him no. She had almost given in. But the nightmare image of her son squirming — as he often did when he saw something that excited his attention — and eventually falling loose from her grasp and into the well was enough to keep her firm. Even if she had felt guilty denying him that. But telling your children “no” was supposed to be good for them, right? It built character, didn’t it?
Besides, soon — sooner than Erin wanted to contemplate — her boy would be old enough to see into the well on his own. And then, if he wanted to toss rocks to the bottom to see how deep it was, she would do that with him for a whole afternoon if he wanted.
In the meantime, though, her bucket was full and she was turning the creaking wheel to bring it back up again. “All right, Wulfie, we’re good now — we can –” She looked down to see her son–not at her feet. “Wulfie?!”
Before she could truly panic, though, a high-pitched giggle alerted her to her son’s location. That, and a slightly strangled mew.
“Look, Mama! I got a kitty-cat!”
“Oh, Wulfie.” Erin chuckled and left the bucket on the ground.
“Good kitty. Kissy kitty!” And Wulf kissed the top of the cat’s head. Before Erin could squeal about Wulf not knowing where that cat had been, the cat shot her a look that seemed to say, Lady, get this kid off me!
“Ah, sweetheart — I think ye’re hurtin’ the kitty a little, holdin’ him like that. Why don’t ye let him go?”
Wulf gasped. “No! I don’t want ter hurt the kitty!” And then he dropped the cat. At least the poor animal’s head didn’t hit anything harder than Wulf’s knee. “Sorry, kitty,” Wulf murmured, patting the cat along its side.
The cat slowly stood and shook out its fur, shooting a baleful glance at Wulf. Sure you are, kid, sure you are, that glance seemed to say. Even though every cat on the earth probably knew how to look like that — if not worse — the look struck a chord of recognition in Erin. “Wulfie! Don’t ye recognize the kitty? That’s Juniper! Mistress Nicole’s kitty!”
“Juniper!” Wulf called, and seemed about ready to embrace the cat again before he remembered himself and settled for petting him.
“Here, son, I’ll show ye how ter play nice with the kitty, so …” There was no politic way to say, so he don’t run an’ hide every time ye walk inter the room, so Erin left it unsaid. She squatted by the animal and danced her fingers just out of its reach.
Juniper’s lamplight-yellow eyes locked onto the fingers, and every muscle tensed. Was he waiting for the opportune moment to strike? Or merely keeping still, so as to not look like those idiot dogs who chased the sticks the Sims threw — as if the Sims didn’t have legs, and weren’t perfectly capable of picking up their own darn sticks!
“Yes, sweetie?” Erin asked, bringing her fingers just under Juniper’s nose.
“What if he scraches ye?”
“Scratches, honey.” Juniper suddenly seemed to decide that the moment was opportune — or that his dignity was not worth foregoing fun — for he pounced. Erin moved at the last moment, leaving Juniper with only grass between his paws.
“Wow!” Wulf gasped. “Ye’re fast, Mama!”
And Erin barely bit back a giggle. Oh, sweetie! Ye ain’t the first ter call me that, an’ ye won’t be the last! Or perhaps he would be. Hell, she hoped he would be. Boys with fast mothers didn’t fare too well in the wider world.
“That — an’ who’s who?”
“Dat,” Wulf insisted, pointing. Erin glanced up.
What she saw made her stand up so quickly that Juniper, pouncing for her fingers, almost landed in her skirts. Erin, however, could only gulp.
What’s Marigold doin’ here?
Marigold seemed to see her then, for she gulped, rubbed the back of her neck, and tried to smile. Her hand made a pass through the leaves of her hair before she lifted it up in a weak wave.
Erin waved back.
Marigold cast a furtive glance around herself, then, seeing no one in the little square, she scuttled to Erin.
Erin’s heart dropped. Marigold, so subdued — it could only be bad news. Something had happened to one of the girls. Wei Li? Erin shuddered, remembering her and Marigold’s last conversation. Wei Li had been carrying her fourth child in as many years — and Erin …
Erin hadn’t even gone to see her …
Then Erin remembered the rumors flying around the kingdom, about the gypsy boy who had been kidnapped, and his heritage, and what the Lady Morgause had done to him or was about to do to him before she was captured and arrested, and an entirely different sort of fear reached up from her stomach and squeezed her heart.
But whatever she expected Marigold to say, to do, it was not to walk up to her, stand there quietly for a moment, then murmur, “I’m sorry.”
“Fer — fer everything I said. Last time we talked.” Marigold shuffled like her namesake flower swaying in the breeze. “I — well — I know what ye’ve been through now. I shouldn’t have judged.”
Erin stared at the ground. Her problem wasn’t nothing to say. Her problem was that too many things crowded at the back of her throat and demanded exit. She gulped, trying to force them down, but they only clamored the louder. Finally, she settled for, “I’m sorry, too. Fer — fer bein’ so quick ter judge ye.”
“Thank — thank’ee,” Marigold replied, her voice unusually thick.
Erin looked up. “Marigold?”
She didn’t answer at first. She was too busy wiping her eyes. A drop of moisture lingered at the corner of each. Erin waited for each to fall — it was more than big enough — but when it did, it moved slowly, jerkily, and left a trail more like syrup than like water.
Erin gasped. She’d only seen Marigold bleed once, when an angry john had slashed at her with a knife, but once was enough when your boss’s blood was green. She’d cleaned up the mess, too, and it would be a long time before she forgot how sticky and sap-like the substance was. Far more sticky than normal Sim blood. The tears looked clear, or at least she thought the only green was from their reflection of the grass, the well-water, Marigold’s hair —
“M-Marigold, are ye –“
“D’ye — d’ye want ter talk?”
Marigold gulped. “They — they wouldn’t let me see him at first.”
“They said it were too dangerous!” Marigold spat. “Even Ash! My brother! An’ he’s got three kids o’ his own! I don’t know how he could do that!”
There was no way Erin could answer that — she could only spread her hands in mute sympathy.
“The trees wouldn’t even tell me where Thorn was! An’ they told Ash, soon as they could see the lad!”
“But — but surely ye could have jest gone ter yer brother’s …”
“He weren’t kept there! Not at first!”
“Oh, Lord,” Erin whispered.
“I thought I was going to go crazy, Erin, waitin’ at home, jest havin’ ter believe Ash when he swore Thorn was all right. An’ he lied! My boy weren’t dead, aye, or hurt too bad, but he weren’t all right! He might never be all right again!”
“No, no, ye don’t know that, Marigold.”
“Lyndsay, that bitch, says that he shivers an’ shakes all night long! My poor baby! I should take him home with me, take care o’ him the way he needs ter be taken care o’!”
Erin only pursed her lips together, for the knowledge of what would surely come if Marigold tried that course was the subject of the nightmares that even now still could make her shiver and shake all night long.
Marigold impatiently wiped her eyes, leaving trails of stickiness over her cheekbones. “An’ — an’ those couple days, before they arrested that awful Lady Morgause an’ let me see Thorn, they was the worst days of my life, Erin. I don’t know how ye kept goin’ all those months after Wulf was taken away from ye.”
Erin caught her lower lip between her teeth, then said, “Well … ye all were helpin’ however ye could …”
“Aye. Tambu an’ Wei Li an’ even Mirelle were tryin’ ter help me before they would let me see Thorn. An’ ye know what? Help aside, I’d o’ thrown any one o’ ’em under a runaway wagon if I knew that doin’ so would mean I’d get Thorn back ter me, safe an’ sound an’ now. So — so now I get it, Erin. I really get it.”
What was she supposed to say to that? Agree? She would have done the same thing before she got Wulf back, or now if that was what it took to keep him safe, but … it was wrong. She knew that with her mind even if her heart refused to admit it.
So instead she chose to follow it up with her own extended apology. “Marigold … I’m sorry fer what I said last time we saw each other. Implyin’ that ye don’t –“
Marigold held up her hand. “Don’t say it.”
“I ain’t gonna say ye were right, Erin, but I see why ye said what ye did now. An’ … an’ … fer what it’s worth, I’m sorry fer bein’ so angry with ye fer sayin’ ’em. I know, now, what I must’ve looked like from the outside.”
But she was interrupted by a sudden insistent tug at her skirts. “Mama? Who dat?”
There could be no doubt as to whom Wulf was asking about.
A mute glance of appeal at Marigold, then Erin replied, “Wulf, this is my … er … this is yer Auntie Marigold.”
Before Wulf could exclaim at suddenly acquiring an auntie, Marigold had crouched down and was patting the boy’s head. “Hallo, Wulf.”
“Hi!” he replied. Then he looked up at Erin. “Auntie?”
“Aye, lad. Yer — yer auntie. Maybe …” Erin bit her lip. She couldn’t bring Wulf back to the brothel. She couldn’t risk that. What if some busybody saw and told Brother Tuck? But having the girls here … “Maybe someday, when she’s not busy, she can visit here with yer other aunties.”
Marigold shot her a shocked look, and Wulf too looked surprised. “Other aunties?”
“Aye, lad,” Marigold replied. “Ye’ve got three other aunties. There’s Auntie Tambu, who is clever as clever, an’ Auntie Wei Li, who’s a sweetheart, an’ lastly there’s Auntie Mirelle, who is … herself.”
“I got three aunties?” Wulf gasped.
“No, ye got four, silly! Don’t ye ferget me!”
Wulf giggled and Marigold rose. She and Erin stared at each other for a moment.
Erin tried to smile. “I figured — I figured if I was gonna bury the hatchet, I might as well do it good an’ –“
Marigold didn’t let her finish before she enveloped her in a crushing hug. “Thank’ee. Thank’ee so much.”
“It weren’t –“
“We’re bringin’ our family back together again, Erin. That’s somethin’.” Marigold held Erin at an arm’s length and smiled. Erin smiled back.
Wulf’s gasp brought her back to the real world. “Mama! Look, Mama!”
Erin untangled herself from Marigold, spun around, and —
“Juniper!” squealed an entirely-too-cheery twenty-year-old.
Oh, Wright! Why did this have ter happen now?
At any other time, Erin would have been laughing at her friend. Nicole was so silly about that damned cat. Erin tried to tell her time and time again that cats were meant to roam free, that Juniper would come to more harm locked in the house than he would wandering about the square, catching mice and keeping himself fed without Nicole having to lay out money for food. Nicole never listened. She always panicked whenever Juniper slipped out the back door or the window or through the thatched roof, for all Erin knew. From time to time Erin wondered if they ate cats in Reme — for if not, why else would Nicole be so panicked when Juniper, enterprising kitty that he was, slipped away from Nicole?
But now … now Erin had to glance sidelong at Marigold, who was cringing and running her hands through her hair as if she wanted to hide it. And not for the first time, Erin had to wonder at the courage it took to to walk the streets just being Marigold.
Nicole, however, only waited long enough to take a bit of string from her pocket, tie it to Juniper’s collar, and tie the trailing end to her belt before she faced them both with an enormous smile. “Thank you both! I don’t know how I would have found him without …” She seemed to focus on Marigold for the first time, and trailed off. “… Oh.”
“Nicole,” Erin began, unable to keep her voice from shaking, “Nicole, this … this is my friend Marigold. Marigold, this is my friend Nicole Saquina.”
“Nicole,” Marigold replied, smiling a little tightly. “Pleased to meet you.” She stuck out her hand, but her elbow was tense and curled, ready to whip it away at the first sign of trouble.
Nicole shook her hand readily enough, but the look in her eyes was puzzled, wondering. Then suddenly they cleared. “Oh! I …” She hesitated. “You — you wouldn’t happen to be Marigold Thatcher, would you?”
Erin was shocked to see Nicole grinning. “I know your sister! Roma! And your sister-in-law, Lyndsay, too.” Erin was fairly sure she was the only one she saw Marigold wince at Lyndsay’s name. “They’re some of my best friends! I’m so happy to finally meet … oh,” she murmured. “Oh, dear.”
Marigold stuck her hand on one hip and tilted her chin up.
“That …” Nicole sucked her bottom lip. “That, that was your little boy who all that … horribleness happened to, wasn’t it?”
Erin watched Marigold’s shoulders slump in relief, then grow stiff again. “It was.”
“Oh. Oh, I’m so sorry. Well, I mean, I’ve already told that to Lyndsay and Roma, but … but I’ve met Thorn before, and he’s such a sweet little boy, and it’s just awful what happened to him.”
“I don’t even know what to say … I hope he’s all right, soon, if not quite yet.”
“I hope he is soon, too.”
Erin heard Wulf giggling, looked down, and saw what made him so merry. Juniper had already wound his string three times around Nicole’s legs. Erin herself had to bite back a chuckle to watch that.
When she looked up, Nicole and Marigold’s awkward conversation seemed to be wrapping itself up. “Well, it was nice meeting you …” Nicole faltered.
“Same ter ye. Erin? I can bring the — the girls by some night?”
“Aye, aye,” Erin murmured. “Anytime.” Marigold hugged Erin, patted Wulf’s head, and turned away.
“I never even got to compliment her on her raspberry tea,” Nicole murmured. “Oh, well. Maybe next time?”
Erin looked up. “Next — time?”
“Well, if she’s Roma’s sister … and your friend … I’m bound to see her again, aren’t I?” Nicole bit her lip.
“Nicole …” Erin sighed, not sure how she was going to explain this to the painfully naive girl in front of her.
“I know what she is,” Nicole said too hard, too fast. “Er,” she hesitated. “Well, anyone can see what she is. The leaves are … a bit hard to miss. I guess — I guess what I mean is, I know what she does.”
“Roma told me.”
“Ah,” Erin murmured.
They stared at each other in silence for a few moments, a silence broken only by Wulf’s coos — he’d captured Juniper once again and was steadily petting him. At least this time he wasn’t hugging the poor cat within an inch of its life.
“… Erin? Can I say something?”
“Ye can say anythin’ ye like, Nicole,” Erin sighed, bracing herself, now that she had gained one friendship — or one set of friendships back — to lose another.
“I — I’m not a complete idiot, you know. I can … well … most respectable women don’t have much to do with … with women like …”
“Nicole, if ye’re gonna call me somethin’, I’d appreciate it if ye came right out and called me it.”
“But — but I don’t want to call you anything!” Nicole protested. “That’s — that’s what I’m trying to say. Sort of. I guess what I’m guessing is — well, you’ve got a past, haven’t you?”
“We’ve all got a past.”
“The type you don’t want to talk about, I mean. Because, because I …” Nicole hunched into herself and twisted her hands together. “Well, I’ve got a … a past too.”
Erin looked up. Nicole? Naive little Nicole? Nicole who wouldn’t even let her cat off its leash? Nicole had a past?
“So — so if you ever want to talk about it … or if you ever want to not talk about it … well, I guess what I’m trying to say is, I’ll understand.” Nicole tried her hardest to smile. “Believe me. I will understand.”
Erin swallowed and felt her lips start to quiver. When she’d first emerged from the cocoon of the brothel into the harsh world of respectability, the last thing she’d expected to find was … was this. Acceptance? Friendship? “Thank’ee.”
“No trouble,” Nicole murmured. Impulsively, she hugged Erin. Just as impulsively, Erin hugged her back.
Then — then Nicole had to untangle her enterprising cat’s leash from around her legs before she could hurry back into her cottage, unwilling Juniper at her side.
When she was gone, Erin picked up Wulf again. “Well, my lad,” she murmured to him, “I guess — I guess today we both learned somethin’. Ye learned how not to hold a kitty, an’ I learned …
“I guess I learned there’s more goodness in the world than I thought there was.”