“You know,” Maude remarked to Dannie, “this is partially your fault.”
“Dad getting older? I protest! I have nothing to do with the march of time!” Dannie pursed her lips together. “And I refuse to accept responsibility for more than a third or so of his gray hairs.”
“A third? That’s generous. That’s more than I would ask you to lay claim to.”
“And how much would that be, Granny-dear?”
Maude pursed her lips together and brought her fingers to tap them in a gesture very like her granddaughter’s. “Well! That’s a tough one. I see where you get the third from, but you know, Freddy doesn’t do much for causing anybody gray hairs.”
“Little goody two-shoes bastard,” Dannie agreed amicably.
“… Aye, that’s about right. And then there is Georgie-porgie, who is probably responsible for about half of those hairs.”
“So a third and a half is …”
“Damned if I know; your mother was always the only one with a head for figures in the family. Not quite all. But you see, even I know that doesn’t leave enough for his other stressors.”
“Aye, business — and, well.” Maude grinned brilliantly. “The wonderful family he married into, of course!”
Dannie snickered. “Was Aunt Pamela always such a piece of work?”
“She’s a Parkinson woman, my dear! We’re all pieces of work!” Maude chortled. “She’s just a piece of very, very hard work.”
“And you’re her own mother!” Dannie gasped.
“And so what? I’m supposed to be stupid?” Maude snorted. “If I can’t be honest about my own kids, who else will be?”
“Wasn’t Aunt Sophia a sweetheart?” Dannie mused.
“And still is, unless she’s gotten a knock to the head nobody’s mentioned to me, in my frail and old state — but there’s usually one in every family, dearie,” Maude sighed. “Bound to be. But you know!” she added, brightening, “I wasn’t even blaming your father’s gray hairs on you.”
“Then what were you blaming on me?”
Maude gestured to Bianca and George, surveying each other with identical sets of narrowed eyes and identically shaking heads.
“Well, aye! I didn’t give Georgie-porgie the idea to cut his hair in that stupid way!”
“But you haven’t discouraged it, lass,” Maude chuckled.
“Of course not! He looks like a fool! It’s funny!”
Maude glanced over her shoulder to survey her grandson’s hair again — and snorted. “Admit it!” Dannie pressed. “You think the same thing.”
“I never claimed otherwise, dearie. But you know, you could soothe your poor mother’s heart and tell him how much of an idiot he looks.”
“I do not look like an idiot!” George snapped.
“… because, as you can see, he doesn’t listen to poor old Granny.”
“Granny! You’ll never be poor as long as you have your rich son-in-law to mooch off!”
Maude snorted. “And when I don’t?”
“Then you can mooch off your rich grandson — who is conveniently the one sweetheart of the family!”
Maude smiled. “I like the way you think, dear. And let’s say that rich grandson doesn’t want to care for his poor old grandmother in her old age?”
“Who said anything about caring for you? I’ll take care of that! Freddy can just pay for everything. Besides, Granny,” Dannie patted her shoulder, “you’re not old. You’ll never be old.”
Ah, Dannie my darling, you’re as old as you feel … And looking around, seeing her children with more gray hairs than black or brown, seeing her grandchildren either with children or about to give birth to her first child, Maude felt old.
But it was only the young who thought that to feel young, to be young, was all. By the time you realized that youth and all that came with it was not the be-all and end-all of life, you’d already traded youth in for wisdom, humor, and all those other gifts of age.
Maude was sixty-seven years old. She’d borne three children and buried none; she’d buried a husband but soldiered on without him. She’d watched her daughters get married and had seen most of her grandchildren. She’d gotten to meet four of her great-grandchildren, and with luck would get to see a fifth.
And now she saw her daughter hardened and jaded and bitter, one granddaughter not thirty and already a worn widow, another granddaughter not twenty and already a broken-hearted widow, and now a third granddaughter happily — too happily — married, and expecting her first baby — and who knew how long that would last?
It may have been selfish, but you didn’t get to be Maude’s age without learning that perhaps there was such a thing as making a graceful exit before you had worn out your welcome. Eventually the hosts would start yawning, looking toward the door, asking about the horses and the coachmen and the danger of the ride back home through the dark. Sooner or later, the party was going to end.
But perhaps, Maude realized when she saw the fabric of Dannie’s dress suddenly bulge and stretch, there was still a bit more dancing and feasting left for her.
“Is somebody starting to play?” Maude crooned, leaning close to the belly. Oh, the fun of being an inquisitive old lady! Folks tolerated so much more out of you than they would if you were twenty or thirty years younger. And of course, inquisitive old ladies got to feel the bellies and marvel at the miracle of life without having to deal with the annoying parts of pregnancy, like swollen feet and stretch marks and carrying a thirty-pound weight off the front of your hips. Then when the babies came, you got to tickle them and play with them and make funny faces — and hand them right back to their mothers when they cried!
Dannie obligingly leaned forward. “He always decides to start kicking at this time of night. I’m not sure why.”
“He’d damn well better be a he.” Dannie patted her belly. “Or else you and I, Granny, are going to have to get into a fight.”
“My firstborn daughter is being named after you –”
“Not while I’m still alive,” Maude muttered. She remembered too well when Pamela had first had her Maude, and the resulting confusion. Never again!
“See?” Dannie wailed. “The baby has to be a boy, unless I can get some sense talked into you before it’s born!”
“You know,” Rob remarked, turning to Richard, “in the interests of family harmony, perhaps a call to dinner might be in order?”
“That’s the job of the lady of the house,” Richard replied.
Both men glanced at Bianca, who had moved from berating George about his hair to trying to reason with him over it.
They couldn’t see George’s face, but his back most certainly did not look amused or tolerant.
“On second thought,” Richard remarked, rising, “come on, folks! The food’s getting cold!”
So the family walked — and in one case, waddled — to the dining room. Bianca sighed. “I wish Freddy could have made it.”
Maude watched Richard shrug. “Aye, but it’s not that big of a deal.”
“Oh, that’s what you say …”
“Maybe he’ll be here next year,” Maude consoled, patting Bianca’s shoulder.
“I hope he is! You can — is that lobster?” George broke off as he slid into his chair.
“Of course. Only the best for your father’s birthday dinner,” Bianca smiled.
“Or his favorite would be an adequate substitute,” Richard chortled.
“And how convenient when the two are identical,” Bianca beamed at him.
Sims liked to rhapsodize about young love … that was because they’d never given much thought about middle-aged love. Or old love. Maude hadn’t had a chance to experience the latter, but middle-aged love had been sweet. Maybe love was like wine, and only grew better with age … even when two of your children were making disgusted faces across the table at each other.
Then again, there was the benefit of middle-aged love. By that point, you’d already traded in your youthful deathly seriousness for a good sense of humor. And if you hadn’t … well, then you probably had a stick shoved so far up your rear it was coming out the other end, and there was no hope for you anyway.
“A toast!” Bianca called. “To our Richard — may the years ahead be as rich and fruitful as the years you’ve already seen!”
“Ugh! Mum! Fruitful?” George wailed. “Is that some sort of horrible … announcement?”
“George!” Bianca gasped.
“Is it?” Dannie murmured.
Rob patted Dannie’s hand. “Blame the baby, Mistress Ferreira.”
“Robert, for the thousandth time, please, call me Bianca — and Mother, smack that boy for me!”
“That’s his father’s job,” Maude demurred.
Richard obligingly smacked George’s shoulder, and George obligingly squawked, “Ow!”
“And now that my toast is well ruined,” Bianca huffed, “to Richard!”
“To you, Dad,” Dannie added.
“Aye, Dad, to you.”
They all drank, and as Dannie put her goblet down, she remarked, “You know, Mum, I wouldn’t have called that ruined. That’s about par for the course in this family.” She grinned at Rob. “Aren’t you glad you married into it?”
“Technically, you married into my family.”
“Bah! You married a Parkinson lass, my boy!” Dannie patted his shoulder. “We do things differently here.”
Richard glanced down the table at Maude. “I’ll have you know, Maude, that you’ve created a monster.”
“A monster? Bah! I’ve created at least five! And speaking of monsters …” Maude lifted her glass. “I’ve got a toast, too.”
“Another toast!” Dannie gasped.
“Aye, and if you’re good, this one will have butter on it.”
“To monsters?” asked George.
“No — but to family, which is about the same thing, I’ll grant you. At least, in this family.” Maude took a deep breath. “To our family! As circle gets smaller, and gets bigger –”
George snickered, glancing at Dannie. Maude waited. It came soon enough — a shake of the table, then, “Ouch!” George glared at his father, then his sister. “Why couldn’t you have both gone for the same leg?”
“Because what’s the point of only making you limp with one foot?” Dannie blinked.
“Ahem!” Maude cleared her throat, felt a cough bubble up, and forced it down. “To family! No matter how many … size adjustments the circle goes through, may it always be as strong, as vibrant … and let’s face it, as funny as it is now.”
“Amen,” murmured Bianca after the healths were drunk. After that, well, there was good lobster on the table … and it was getting cold.
Once they had begun to do some justice to their meal, Rob spoke. “So … Richard,” he forced out, “word on the streets is that the King will be pardoning Lady Morgause any day now.”
Had it been anything else, any other nobleman or woman in trouble, Maude would have lodged a protest against discussing politics at the dinner table. But this … this struck close to home. Potentially.
Potentially very close to home.
“Mmmm,” Richard murmured around a mouthful. When he swallowed, he continued, “Is that so?”
Would you feel better, if that were so? Maude wondered, glancing sidelong at him. You read that guilty verdict … you …
Nah. Lady Morgause put herself where she is. You didn’t have to watch the whole trial to know that. Maude had only watched the defense’s case and she had determined that much.
Rob shrugged. “It’s what most of my customers are saying, sir. My father’s and brother’s as well.”
Richard took up another forkful and slowly masticated it. “And what do sources close to the King say?” He glanced at Dannie.
Dannie looked up. “Not a thing.”
“Nothing?” Bianca gasped.
“All Lynn wants to talk about is Princess Elise, or else … well, it’s mostly Elise,” Dannie replied, though a strange shadow flashed across Dannie’s eyes that Maude made a note to check up on later. “And Jessie … well, Jessie doesn’t want to talk about it.”
“For obvious reasons,” Bianca agreed.
“Eh, I’m not sure — from what Jess has said … she and her aunt were never close. Er, she and that aunt, anyway.”
“But still!” Bianca protested. “As if you wouldn’t be upset if something terrible like that — Lord forbid! — were to happen to your Aunt Pamela!”
“Of course I would be, Mum, but that’s because it would be something terrible that happened to her — because Aunt Pamela wouldn’t do something like that!”
“Damn right,” Maude murmured. “I raised pieces of work, not …”
“Baby-killers,” George murmured.
Something like that, Maude agreed.
“But — but no disrespect intended, but that little boy didn’t die. So most seem to believe that King will pardon her — or commute the sentence to exile,” Rob replied.
“Who’d take her?” asked Dannie. When Rob raised his eyebrow at her, she added, “I’m serious. Glasonland and Reme like witches even less than we like baby-killers.”
“She doesn’t have any powers anymore,” George remarked. “She’d be defenseless if she went there.”
“Eh … she could probably be safe enough in Glasonland,” Maude shrugged. “It was middling folks, like us, who would get in trouble if we were wizards or witches, Georgie — noble folks like Lady Morgause were safe enough, as long as they weren’t trying to plot against the King’s life. Er, usually.”
“Would she still have enough connections to keep her safe?” Bianca asked. “It’s been twenty years and more.”
“Her connections might work against her. The travelers my father talks to say that Glasonland is poised to go sky-high with the least little spark,” Rob replied. “A daughter of Lady Igraine, half-sister to last generation’s bastard would-be king, might be that spark.”
Richard snorted — and that was it. Maude’s eyebrows went up. So you know something about that, don’t you? And it was odd — it should have been him to bring up the latest news from Glasonland. He had more contacts than Mark Wesleyan with his livery stables!
“The King,” Richard murmured, “might … well, he might have to put family feeling aside in this case.”
“He hasn’t already?” Maude remarked.
“Why?” Bianca gasped.
Richard sighed. “Reme and Glasonland … do not like witches. And the Church … We’re lucky, you know, that the Church hasn’t decided to turn its might against us.”
“They’re still wrestling with the witch problem themselves,” Rob muttered. “What?” he asked when four faces suddenly turned to stare at him (his wife remained focused on her food). “You can’t live a year and a half in the same house with Galahad du Lac without picking something up.”
“Perhaps,” Richard replied, “but do you think any in the Church would agree that it would be safe to let a witch who already tried to murder one child live?”
“She’s lost her powers!” George protested. “Who could she possibly hurt?”
Oh, Georgie-porgie … But George hadn’t been in that courtroom; he hadn’t seen the woman in that dock. Maude couldn’t imagine why Merlin Emrys hadn’t brought him — except, of course, she could. She could still remember the scandal when Lady Morgan conceived her illegitimate child, and now she had seen that woman in the dock. If Merlin Emrys brought George to the trial, he would have to bring Ravenna; it would only be fair. And to put Ravenna in the same room with that woman could only be a mistake, perhaps a fatal one.
“It’s more than that, George,” Richard replied. “Whether she can hurt anyone or not is the least of it. The men of the Church, you see, might not believe that she is incapable of harm.”
“Look,” Maude interjected, “I’m sorry, but calling that woman ‘incapable of harm’ — she won’t be incapable of harm until she’s –” A cough bubbled up, and this time, Maude couldn’t keep it down.
She coughed away from the table — the better not to see how they all stared at her and waited for her to finish.
“Ahem!” Maude straightened, and tried to brighten, as soon as the coughing was over. “As I was saying before I was so rudely interrupted, that woman doesn’t need magic to cause harm. She won’t be incapable of harm until she’s in the ground.”
Richard sighed and leaned back. “Unfortunately, Maude … I can’t disagree with that.”
“That’s all right, Dickie. I’ll find another good rousing argument to give you for your birthday present.”
Richard dealt with such baiting as he usually did — by rolling his eyes and turning to some other member of the family, in this case, his son. “If the King let her live, you see, the Church might turn against us — and if the Church turned against us …”
“Lord preserve us! What about all the rest of us, who had nothing to do with — with anything of Lady Morgause?” Bianca gasped and made the sign of the plumbbob over herself.
“Well, maybe they wouldn’t turn against us,” Richard hedged, “but they’d turn against the King.”
“Which would be just as bad,” Dannie explained. “Or worse, really.”
When George and even Richard looked at her in surprise, Dannie blinked. “What? You can’t live in the same house as a princess and a princess-to-be for four years without picking something up!”
“You don’t mention your one year with Heloise?” Rob remarked.
“First of all, it was half a year, and secondly, I didn’t learn a damn–sorry, Mum–a darn thing about politics from Heloise. Politics involves Sims, remember.” Rob snorted and chuckled, but nodded.
“Anyway,” Dannie continued, “if the Church turns against us, then Glasonland and Reme are finally going to agree on something … and that something will be that Albion’s got to go.”
“Oh, my Lord,” Bianca breathed.
“So you see …” Richard sighed, “the King most likely cannot afford to let her live. He’d be gambling with all of our lives if he did.”
“But the Sim on the street doesn’t believe that, sir,” Rob replied.
“Then I hope the Sim on the street is wrong.”
“Bah! What does the Sim on the street know?” Maude broke in. “Folk will believe what they want to believe. They don’t want to believe they have a king who would have his own sister put to the sword — and they don’t know how much worse it might be, for all of us, if he doesn’t. But enough of that!” She took a deep breath and put on her most cheerful smile, for the kids even if Richard and Bianca would never be fooled. “Let’s talk about something more cheerful.”
There were no protests, so she turned to Bianca. “So, Bianca, dear … what’s for dessert?”