If Bors’s daughter had still been at the convent and not on her four-year sojourn into Camford, he would have been wondering at how it was that an unaccompanied man was able so easily to get into the nunnery proper. However, since it was his wife and not his daughter there now, Bors had more important things to worry about.
He could not recall the last time he had been so nervous. Even the births of his children paled in comparison to this. Part of that was his sober state; whenever Claire’s first pain had come, so had the first goblet of wine. But more importantly, when his children were on their way into the world, there was nothing Bors could do. His part in the business was done, had been done months before. He could only wait and pray.
Now, all depended on him and him alone.
For perhaps the first time in his adult life, the possibility of immediate and everlasting failure dogged his heels like a particularly persistent terrier. Claire had requested this meeting. Part of him had rejoiced at that. But then part of him had despaired, too, for then he had heard the reason why: she wanted to discuss the circumstances of her return. If she would return at all.
He had raged, too, upon hearing that. Who was she to decide if she would return? She was his wife! She was mother to six children! It was her duty to return! It was one thing to go for a rest — but she had rested more than enough now! She needed to come home!
But then he had gone to visit Gwendolyn and Elise, and he had tried to encourage his daughter to get back on the horse and try again, and he been subject to a royal tongue-lashing the likes of which he had never before seen or heard. If the Crown Prince had rested his argument solely on Gwendolyn’s rank, that would have been one thing. But some of the things he said …
“You practically drove Lynn’s mother mad …”
“Twenty years of your abuse …”
“Abusing Lady Claire or your other daughters …”
Bors no longer raged.
They were in the library, he could hear the faint gaggle of female voices. As he never had before when facing a mere woman, Bors paused outside the door to collect his courage. Then he knocked.
“Enter!” called Mother Julian.
She looked well. Bors thought her style of dress, which on some women gave them the look of being with child, was immodest, but she looked well. Then again — women wore that style of dress to advertise their fertility, and if any woman had a right to advertise her fertility, it was the mother of six living children.
Bors was no silver-tongued charmer; he never had been. Words were a weapon he could use but ill. Twenty years of Council meetings with the articulate King, crafty Lord Lot, careful Lord Pellinore, and even tactful Lancelot had taught him that. But never before had he felt that his tongue had swollen to twice its normal size and that the words in his mind were hopelessly inadequate than he did now. Even when they had been courting … but he and Claire had never courted, not really. He had presented her with little trinkets and tried some love-talk, but he had done it calmly and without too much thought, because he had known that it was not Claire’s opinion of him that mattered, but her father’s.
Perhaps, he thought as he sat down after polite greetings were exchanged, that had been a mistake.
No sooner had his rear hit the chair than Bors realized he had absolutely no idea where to begin. At the end of the day, his tongue was but a cudgel, not a rapier. It did not have the subtlety to fly forward and back, moving with a speed the eye could barely detect, able to find the tiniest chink in armor. He could only strike once with blunt force and pray he hit his target.
Thankfully Claire started before he quite panicked. “How are Lionel and Evette?”
Anger bubbled within him. She should know this. She shouldn’t have to ask. She should have been there. They were her children!
Bors clamped down on it. If he showed it now, she might never come back at all. “They’re doing well. Thank you. Have you seen Gwendolyn and Elise?”
She said nothing. No — she glanced sidelong at Mother Julian. The Mother pursed her lips together before nodding. Claire turned back to Bors. “I … heard …”
He wanted to bellow. She had to bring that up? Rake his very soul over the coals? What had he done to deserve that?
He gulped. “Yes.” It was all he could say.
“You haven’t been back … since?” she murmured.
“… No,” he sighed.
Claire watched him, her delicate brows knit, head tilted to one side. Lord, but she looked like Gwendolyn. Except — older, wiser.
Had he made her that way? The Crown Prince seemed to think so.
“Bors …” Claire began, and sighed herself. “Please — please, find it in yourself to forgive Thomas. If you do nothing else for me ever again, do that.”
“So — you think he needs forgiveness?” Bors perked up. She didn’t agree! She didn’t blame him for her troubles! She too thought the boy was an upstart and had overstepped his bounds!
“I …” She looked again at Mother Julian, perhaps for strength, before she went on. “I think he was trying to protect Gwen–Lynn. I think, too, that he … Bors, he loves her. No man wants to see the woman — the women — he loves being hurt.”
She and Elise had the same eyes. Amazing how he only noticed that now. When he had first looked at the boy, he had seen the grayish color and assumed they were her father’s. But they were Claire’s. Stupid. He had lived with this woman for three-and-twenty years, they had six children together, and he did not instantly recognize her eyes in his first grandchild?
Transfixed, he swallowed. “I … never meant to hurt her. Or them. Or anyone.” Or you.
“No-o,” Claire murmured. “No. I will grant you that much, Bors. You never do mean to hurt.”
You’ll grant that? he raged within. Who are you to grant me anything? You are my wife!
And yet, if her shadowed eyes and tight mouth were any indication, he had hurt her, and he had been hurting her for over twenty years now.
“But in a way … that makes it worse. Because, you see, if you meant it, then you can stop. Now … how can you stop that which you do not mean to do in the first place?” Claire murmured.
“I can try,” he replied.
“I don’t know if that will be good enough.”
“Then why did you call me here?” he snapped, before he could clamp down on the anger and force it somewhere else.
Claire folded her hands in her lap and cast her eyes down. Part of Bors thrilled. This was victory! She would submit herself to his will, as all good wives did, and all would be as —
No. No, it would not. Even if she became dutiful and submissive again, nothing would be as it was before. Now, whenever she cast her eyes down, he would wonder if it was to hide tears from him.
But when Claire lifted her eyes again, there were no tears in them. Instead, there was — if she had been a man, Bors would have called it a steely expression.
“Because,” Claire replied, “we have four daughters, and only one of them is married, thus far, to a man strong enough to stand up for her rights.”
“Somebody has to protect them.” Claire’s bosom visibly rose and fell with every word. “Somebody has make sure that they do not turn into me. I have to make sure that they do not turn into me.”
“But Claire, there’s nothing wrong with you!” Bors cried out. For his every complaint about Claire had been brushed away. At the end of the day, he could not imagine a better role-model for his daughters than their own mother.
“Oh, Bors,” Claire sighed. “I’ve been at the nunnery for a year to keep from going utterly mad. Do you truly think there is nothing wrong with me?”
“The twins … women sometimes, after they give birth …”
“No. No, Bors, it wasn’t the twins. They … my carrying them, their birth, yes, it did … contribute. But it was not the cause.”
“Twenty years of your abuse …”
“Well, it wasn’t me!” he snapped. “I — I didn’t –” His bluster faded with every word. “I … didn’t, right?”
Claire closed her eyes and did not answer.
Her eyes popped open. “I will not discuss this.”
“I will not lie to you, Bors. But you make it too hard to tell the truth.”
So she did think that he had done this. But it’s not fair! he wanted to shout. I never meant to! I never laid a hand on you! I only demanded that you do your duty as my wife. What is so wrong with that?
“I will, however, return to you,” Claire began, and with that all thought of shouting ceased. “But …” She glanced sidelong at Mother Julian before going on. “I … have some conditions.”
Conditions? Conditions? You are my wife!
“What — what conditions?” Bors croaked.
“First,” Claire took a deep breath, “I will not bear you any more children.”
“Claire!” he gasped before he could think better of it. “How can you say that?” That was the whole purpose of marriage, to bear children! That was her purpose, as a woman! How could she —
“Sir Bors!” Mother Julian snapped. “She has every right to make that demand! She’s borne you six living children, two boys among them. That last pregnancy nearly killed her. You’re now grandparents, for the love of St. Brandi! I will only say this once: if, knowing all this, you deliberately impregnate her against her will and she dies, you will be morally guilty of murder. You cannot force a woman of her years, who has already given you six children, to take that risk again.”
Before Bors could cough and sputter and come to mind the opinions of several scholars and Church fathers and even Scripture that said he could do precisely that, Claire spoke. “He won’t,” she replied with a shrug. “The change of life is on me.”
Bors blinked rapidly. “Well — why — why did you not say so in the beginning?”
“Because I wanted to see how you would react. Because I wanted to know if, for just one moment, you could see past your own desires and your own vision of how the world must be and try to appreciate it from the perspective of another. But I see you cannot.”
Bors felt his lower lip start to tremble like a child’s. “Does … does this mean you won’t return with me?”
“No. Not yet,” Claire replied. “If anything, it gives me more reason to return to you. But I have other conditions.”
“… Go … go on,” Bors gulped.
“You will not make definitive plans for Lionel and Evette’s futures without consulting their wishes.”
Bors knit his brows together. “They’re not yet two. How am I to consult them?”
“You will wait.”
“Claire! But — I might die before they are old enough to consult! We might both die!”
“That brings me to my third condition,” Claire continued. “If we both die before they attain the age of majority, I want Lynn to be their guardian.”
“Gwendolyn? But Elyan …”
“I want Lynn. She’s the oldest of our children, and in some ways … I know both her and her husband. I trust both of them to do right by our children. Elyan is … Elyan is still young and sowing his wild oats, and I am not certain what kind of mother Leona will make. Clarice would be a good mother, but I’ve never met Frederick. And of course Angelique is … here,” Claire sighed.
Well, when Claire put it like that … besides, the children might derive some benefit from being royal wards, if it came to that. Not just any royal wards, either, but the Queen’s own brother and sister! They would be just one short step down from the princes and princesses, if it came to that.
“I can do that,” replied Bors.
He was rewarded with a brief, fleeting smile — and he was shocked at how unfamiliar that smile had become to him. When was the last time he had seen it? Did he even want to try to recall?
It faded all too quickly. “And my other concession?”
“Having them have a hand in …” Bors sighed. “You ask a lot, Claire. If I die before they are grown, I’d like to die knowing everything is arranged and that they are taken care of.”
“So would I,” replied Claire, “if I could be assured that they would be happy besides. But I would rather die uncertain of their happiness, but leaving their fate in their hands, than die just as uncertain but having tied up their fate without their consent.”
“How can they be happy if they have no stability, no security?”
“Bors …” Claire cast a sidelong glance at Mother Julian, managing another small smile. “A prisoner has stability and security. But would you call him happy?”
“That’s not –” he started to snap, but paused. “It can’t be the same.” You cannot have just told me that you saw our marriage as a prison!
“Yes,” she replied, “it can be.” And by the look in her eyes, she knew precisely what she was saying, and how he would take it … and she meant every word of it.
“But … but they have to make good marriages! If they marry. The have to — to contribute, to do their duty –!”
“Bors, Bors!” Claire held up her hands. “I’m not saying you must let Evette marry the stableboy and Lionel the maid. I’m not … being unreasonable. Of course we — we — must have some say in their future. Or if we cannot, then somebody we trust must. All I’m asking — demanding — is that they have just as much say as we do.”
“They’ll be young,” Bors hedged. “They won’t know their best interests.”
“Lynn knew hers.”
“Do you think your youngest children won’t be as clever as your eldest?”
The way she smiled … he could forgive anything, if that smile came after it. “Perhaps … you have a point.”
“Thank you. Do you agree, then?”
“Aye,” he sighed. If he wanted her back — and he did want her back — what other choice did he have? “Is there … anything else?”
“Clarice,” Claire replied.
“Good Lord, you don’t want me to call off her betrothal so that she can — can — I don’t know what! She’s twenty, Claire! There’s not time!”
“I’m not asking you to do that. Have you told Clarice yet about your plans for her?”
“No, no! The betrothal isn’t final yet!”
“Then I want you — I want us — to tell her. And I want her to have a chance to meet young Frederick, as her betrothed, that is, before the betrothal becomes final. Bors, at least give her the chance to think she’s consulting you. That’s all I’m asking.”
Well … perhaps that was doable. Clarice would be amenable. She was, perhaps, the cleverest of his daughters, and she would soon see that she had no other choice if she wished to remain in Albion. “Very well. Anything … else?” he asked, with dread.
“My music. You don’t interfere with my music. It’s part of me, Bors. It makes me feel … worthwhile, content. You are not allowed to touch it.”
“Will you still care for the children?” Bors asked. “You won’t put your music above them?”
“I only put my music above them when my music was the only thing keeping me …” Claire looked away. “Close to sanity.”
“Then you may have all the music you like, and you shan’t hear a word from me otherwise on it.”
Claire looked up and smiled. “Thank … thank you, then.”
“So …” Bors bit his lip, then stood and held his hands out to her. Claire took them and he helped her up. “Do we … have an accord?”
Claire bowed her head and sighed, but then she nodded. “Yes. Yes … we do.”
“Excellent!” He squeezed her hands. “You’ll be in time to see Elyan off to Camford! And to witness the twins’ second birthday! Ah, Claire, things will be so much better when you’re back!”
“I’m glad you think so.”
“Don’t you? Don’t you miss your children?”
“Of course I missed them,” Claire sighed. “But I needed this, Bors. I needed this, and I shan’t apologize for it.”
“Ah, I wouldn’t ask you to!” Bors laughed heartily, and truly meant it — in that moment. “But give me a kiss, Claire — a kiss to the future! It’ll all be smooth sailing now, you and I!”
And when he kissed Claire, she didn’t protest — so it had to be true, didn’t it?