Home was a strange place. What troubled Claire was not that this was so, but that the fact was so ingrained in her that it scarcely gave her pause. Whatever qualms she had had about coming home to a strange place had been quashed years and years ago, the first time she had visited her childhood home after her marriage, when she had brought a healthy and kicking infant Lynn, somehow expecting that she would of course be doted on by her grandfather … only to have that grandfather barely glance at the baby and spend most of the visit glaring at Claire’s stomach, each glance a reproach for not having done her duty the first duty and being laggard about getting on with it already.
She had, then, tried to rationalize her feelings as merely those of a grown person coming to the place where she had grown up and coming to know that no matter how wide the rooms or tall the ceilings, that old place would no longer fit her. Now, though, Claire was older and could see the truth of the matter. In a world ruled by men like Bors, women never really had a home. They were permanent houseguests no matter where they were born or where they went, guests who could be turned out of doors the minute they were remiss in politeness to their hosts. Women could not even claim to own the very clothes on their backs or jewels on their necks: both were the property of their husbands. Jewels, especially, were never given, only borrowed. When Bors died, Claire would be expected to give up her pitiful collection to Leona. And when Elyan died, may that day be long in coming, it would go to his eldest son’s wife. And so on, until the second coming of St. Robert.
But what was most amazing out of all of this is that men, who made this world to suit themselves and to keep their women under control, could be so surprised when they did not feel at home in this world of their creation, and had to retreat elsewhere.
Her men, for instance — Bors and Elyan — both stood awkwardly in the vestibule, smiling their silly smiles, trying desperately to make her feel welcome. To smile back at them in return was not an act of love, it was merely pity. Bors was not a cruel man, and Elyan was a good boy in his way, but they would never understand.
Bors took that hesitant smile as all the encouragement he would need. “Well! Welcome, Claire! Welcome home, I should say!” he added, his voice booming through the hall as servants scurried back and forth with Claire’s few trunks and things.
“Thank you,” Claire murmured. Not back five minutes and she was already thanking him. The black pall of dependency came to rest over her shoulders, and Claire felt them slump.
Then she — physically and mentally — shook it off, just as Morgan had taught her. Replace the bad thoughts with good ones. Whether Bors would admit it or not, he was not the sole giver in this relationship, and she was not the sole receiver. She had given him six beautiful, wonderful children, and done her best to raise them into good, happy Sims. She had taken her life in her hands five times to give him these children. To have her bodily needs taken care of was nothing more than her due.
“Well!” Bors added, striding to her, taking her elbows in his meaty hands and kissing her cheek without so much as a by-your-leave, “to think — I almost imagined this day would never come!”
He had no idea how close it had come to not happening. The change had started with her shortly after the wedding, as she had been growing better and better. Even before that, she had been adamant, once her head cleared enough so that she could think again, that she wanted no more children. Morgan had listened to her critically, wearing a little frown, and advised her to wait until the change was a little more fixed before even considering going back to Bors. “He may or may not want to respect your wishes on that,” she had said to Claire, “so the longer you wait, the less chance his … idiocy will have to affect your health. And if he lays so much as a finger on you that you didn’t invite …” Morgan shrugged. “Well, there’s a reason why witches don’t often have more children than they can feed — and it’s not because there’s not a man who will touch us.”
She had a bottle of that herbal mixture Morgan had slipped to her when Mother Julian wasn’t looking packed safely in one of her trunks. She would start taking it tonight. There was no use taking chances.
“And yet, here I am,” Claire replied with a faint smile. Then she glanced sidelong at her son, waiting quietly by her side. “And Elyan …”
“Mother!” His kiss to her cheek was no longer than what politeness required — but that light in his eye would not be hidden. Elyan was only happy, not just victorious. Or thinking he was victorious, Claire reminded herself.
“My boy,” Claire murmured, finally a real smile crossing her lips. This, after all — whatever Bors might tell himself — was why she had really come home.
She was stronger now. She was more capable. She still had three children — well, two really — to raise. And Bors, this time, would not break them the better to cast them in his narrow mold.
“How are you?” Claire asked, drawing back to give her son a critical maternal once-over. “How are your preparations for Camford coming?”
“Well enough,” Elyan shrugged, smiling.
“Oh, but he’s looking forward to going!” Bors laughed, clapping Elyan on the shoulder. “Finally, he’ll get to try his hand at courting again! Been hard on the boy, don’t you know, with his betrothed away at Camford these past years.”
Maybe it was Bors’s angle — or maybe it was just his blindness — but Claire was fairly certain that he would not see the parade of expressions that crossed Elyan’s face. First a smile of agreement, then a faint sneer of disgust, then an even fainter smirked of smugness. It was the last that made Claire sit up and pay attention: there was usually only one reason young men smirked like that when courting was mentioned. It was when they considered that they had been doing just fine on their own.
And what has been going on here when I was too busy with my own problems to be paying attention?
No, no, she wouldn’t think so badly of her son, or herself. So what if Elyan had played a bit in the waters with Leona away? A lad was only young once, and unless Leona had undergone a radical transformation of personality — the kind that usually only came about after a severe blow to the head — her response probably would be to laugh and wish the objects of Elyan’s pursuits joy of him. She would not worry about that. Not now.
“Now!” Bors interrupted, his laugh booming off the close walls, “what will it be, my lady? What part of your domain will you inspect first? The larder? The linens? The silver?”
“Actually, I was thinking I would go up to see Lionel and Evette. They’re not napping, are they?”
“Er … well, no …” Bors shuffled and rubbed the back of his neck like a naughty child. Because of that, Claire did not ask, And why are they not down here?
“But –” he began again, and sighed. “Claire … perhaps it would be better to wait? Until they’re a bit more sleepy — or perhaps sleeping?”
Sleeping? He wanted her to wait to see her own babies until they were sleeping? Claire took a deep breath and reminded herself that she did not have to mindlessly obey. She could argue.
At the same time, there was no point in getting into an argument with Elyan standing there and the servants hurrying to and fro. “Is aught amiss, Bors? Are they sick?”
“No, no, thank the good Lord!” Bors said with enough relief to let Claire know it was true.
“Then why can I not–no. Why do you not wish for me to see them now?”
Bors rubbed the back of his neck again. “Claire, it’s only your first afternoon back … wouldn’t you rather spend it resting, relaxing?”
“I know they’re nearly two, Bors, but they can’t possibly be that exhausting. If I get too tired, I can call in the nurses. Please, Bors, trust me to take care of myself.”
“But … but Elyan has so much he wants to tell you!”
Claire glanced sidelong at Elyan, who, as she had suspected, looked faintly surprised at the idea of having so much to tell his mother. She turned back to Bors, one eyebrow raised in that gesture she had so painstakingly copied from Morgan (when the other wasn’t looking, of course).
It must have carried a magic all its own, even disconnected from the force of Morgan’s personality, for Bors quailed. “Look, Claire … it’s … I don’t think it would be best, that’s all. Can’t you just accede to my wishes?”
Claire glanced sidelong at Elyan. Poor boy had a horrible false smile plastered onto his face. He couldn’t want to be watching this any more than Claire wanted him to be watching it.
But maybe it would be good for him. She had never once seen her mother, while her mother still lived, or her stepmother after her mother passed, argue with her father, try to assert her will over his. They would request, plead, cajole — but never demand, never argue. So she had been forty before she had realized it was possible, truly possible. Elyan was seventeen — perhaps it would be better for him to learn now that though he would be lord, he was not master.
Claire took a deep breath. “No,” she replied.
Bors’s eyes bugged.
“Not unless you tell me why — and if I determine that your reason is sufficient. I’m sorry, Bors, but that is how it will be from now on. They are my children just as much as they are yours. Now, why do you want to keep me away from them?”
Bors blinked. “Claire …” he started to warn.
“No, Bors. Unless you are willing to tie me onto the sofa, I am going to see my children whether you will or no. You can either tell me why, or step out of my way now.”
“They’re — they’re –” The vein in his neck started to bulge. Claire watched it with a dispassionate eye. “They’re shy, Claire. And they don’t know you. What if they — what if they don’t want to see you? It’s only your first day. What if they upset you? What if you — if you — you’re still not strong enough …”
So he was only trying to protect her — albeit in his usual ham-fisted, condescending way, but the thought had to count for something. It counted enough for Claire to smile and lay a hand on his shoulder. “Bors, I’ll have to see them sooner or later. I just want to see how they’ve been growing. I promise, if I feel like I’m getting upset, I’ll leave them to their nurse.”
He bit his lip. “… You promise?”
“Aye, Bors, I promise.” Relationships, as Morgan had reminded her many times, were about compromise. This was one she could live with.
And so to not give Bors time to realize that this was not a compromise he could live with, she hurried past him and up the stairs. Once she reached the top, she knew it would be easy to find her babies.
She only had to follow the laughter.
She opened the door slowly and slipped inside.
They looked happy. Claire had no idea how much of a relief this was to her until she felt her body sag against the door. They were all right … they’d not had her, but they were all right. They were stuck with their father, and they were all right. Even Evette looked happy, not abused or forlorn, as she stared at her bunny head. Something in her baby concentration reminded Claire of Angelique.
They both heard the door creak and turned around to see who was standing in it. Evette saw someone unfamiliar and scooted away. Lionel, however, tilted his head to one side as he stared up at her. “… Wynn?” he questioned.
Wynn? Lynn! Gwendolyn! Well, that was something. Everyone had always said that she and Lynn looked alike, but to be mistaken for her … then again, Claire would be a fool not to let her vanity, what little of it she had, be gratified that somebody was mistaking her for a twenty-two-year-old. She might not be able to control events, as Morgan had told her, but she could control her reactions to them.
And her reaction right now was to get down to Lionel’s level with a big smile. “No, not Lynn. I’m Mama. Can you say Mama?”
“Mama?” Lionel questioned.
“Yes, Mama!” Claire smiled. Could it possibly be that easy? And to think Bors had been worried!
But just as wave of euphoria rose within her, Lionel put his thumb in his mouth. “Mama sick,” he murmured. And so Claire was cast into the trough of despair.
No. No, she was not. She had known despair, lived with despair as her constant companion. This was just disappointment. So Claire kept smiling. “Who told you that?”
Lynn again. She owed her daughter some thanks — who else would have taken the time to explain to these two just what was happening? Not Bors, who tried to ignore his problems at the best of times, and not Elyan, who would only know what Bors told him. “Mama was sick,” Claire replied, “but Mama’s better now, and she’s home to take care of you.”
… Well, there was a question, wasn’t there? Most of their needs were taken care of by the nurses. Still, she’d raised four children, and there was always one thing that worked …
“By tickling you!”
She got the reward she was hoping for: Lionel squealed and giggled and tried to dodge the tickling fingers. And he smiled a big smile up at her. Elyan used to smile like that when she would forget duty and propriety and indulge in tickle-fests on the nursery floor.
She couldn’t take it any more. She had to have her baby in her arms. She lifted him up to her hip the better to see into his face. “Well! What do you think of being up so high, Lionel?”
Lionel didn’t answer at first — his hand reached for her braid. Claire laughed and let him feel it until he brought his hand down. “Like that, don’t you?”
“Soft,” Lionel replied, reaching for the other braid.
“Does Wynn–Lynn let you touch her hair?”
Lionel smiled and ducked his head into her shoulder. “Is that a no, young man?” Claire asked.
“I’ll take that as a yes,” Claire murmured, kissing his hair. Oh, there was nothing like the smell of a clean little one! There was nothing like the smell of a dirty one, either, but it was not the sort of smell that made a woman want to go out and have more. Or, in Claire’s case, get more grandchildren.
She ruffled his hair and put him down on the ground again. “I’m going to go talk to your sister — is that all right?”
Lionel sucked his thumb a moment, then nodded. “All wight!”
Oh, you little sweetheart. She kissed the top of his head and turned to Evette, who had stubbornly been playing with her rabbit head. “Hello, Evette!”
Evette was quiet. Something, though, in her suspicious look put Claire in mind of Angelique.
“Do you know who I am, love?” Claire asked, wanting to run a hand through Evette’s little waves and wishing she dared. Clarice had had curly hair like that, even as a baby. Would Evette keep her waves as she grew up, or would they straighten with age?
Evette sucked her thumb and said nothing.
“I’m Mama,” Claire continued. “Can you say Mama?”
Evette shook her head.
“No? Why not?”
Evette looked away.
The little girl turned a suspicious pout in her direction. Angelique used to look like that when presented with a stranger …
Well, there had always been one way to get Angelique to respond. Claire brushed off the floor and made herself comfortable. “Would you like to sing a song, Evette?”
She tilted her head to one side and watched Claire.
“Luna in the morning …” Claire started, as well as she could. She had always been an instrumentalist, having never been gifted with Angelique’s angel voice. Years of singing lessons had made Claire’s voice pleasant, but that was all it could do. “Luna in the morning, / Shining brightly … do you know how the rest of the song goes, sweet?”
Evette watched, but after a moment she nodded.
“Would you like to sing it?”
She shook her head.
Why not? Claire wanted to ask, but you didn’t reason with a two-year-old. You rose the waves of their discontent as well as you could, putting your foot down when you had to, being patient the rest of the time. “No?” Claire asked. “Would you mind if I sang it?”
Evette put her two little lips together, then she shook her head.
So Claire took a deep breath and began to sing again. “Luna in the morning, / Shining brightly, / Luna in the morning, / Rain at night.”
And when she came to the end of the little ditty, she started to sing it again. “Luna in the morning, / Shining brightly …”
She sang it again, and again, and again, until even Lionel caught on and started to sing it with her, breaking into great laughter at the end of the song. Evette did not sing at first, but she watched her brother.
And then — suddenly — her little voice joined in. “Wuna in the mowning, / Shining brightly, / Wuna in the mowning / Wain at night!”
“There!” Claire gasped. “You got it! What a smart girl you are, Evette!”
Evette smiled a little. “Do ‘gain?”
“Of course,” Claire replied, though she was starting to want some wine for her parched throat. “Do you want to start?”
“Wuna in the mowning, / Shining brightly …”
Claire came in on the third line, and when this song was over she asked to sing it again. And again. And again. Such was life with a two-year-old.
Eventually, their racket grew to be such that Bors poked his head in the nursery. “Well!” he laughed. “If I did not know better, Claire, I would say that you had never left at all!”
“I wouldn’t,” Claire answered, contradicting him for the second time in one day. But still she smiled and watched her daughter. “But perhaps someday.”