Blanche threw open the back door and plunged into the cooling evening air. Guilt tried to blanket her shoulders — what was she but a soldier avoiding duty? — but she shrugged it off like a too-heavy cloak. The shop could manage for an hour without her. The children could manage for an hour without her. She needed a break!
Her hand rested a moment on the door handle. Where to now? Down to the village, to look at the little shops? Over to the docks, to watch the ships come in and sail out?
No. The shop and the children might very well not be able to manage without her for an hour. She sighed and shut the door. The backyard it was, then.
She walked down the wooden steps, the only sound being the soft scrape and slap of her shoes against the wood. When, before she came to Albion, had she ever walked up or down a set of wooden steps that didn’t creak? Every last stair in the home of her youth and the home of her young adulthood creaked — it had been a game, among her sisters, to figure out which sequence of steps got you upstairs or down most loudly. For her sisters, figuring out the quietest way to go up or down became much more than a game once they hit their teens — for her sisters, it was the only way they ever got to have any fun.
Blanche, however, never managed to get the whole fun thing. You didn’t, when you were the eldest. You especially didn’t when your father was dead and your mother had decided that you were in charge of keeping the shop and thus the only means of sustenance in the family, by marrying the man your mother chose for you. You especially-especially didn’t get to have fun when you told your mother you had no interest in marrying that man, or, to be fair, screamed it at her.
Her steps quickened, trying to outrun her thoughts — if only they could. But perhaps there was a hope for it. Her steps slackened and slowed for a moment when she passed the pond, and her thoughts meandered elsewhere.
A pond! Never in her life had she imagined she would have a pond in her very own backyard. Then again, once she had been sixteen or so, she had come to believe that she would surely die in the same house she had been born in — possibly in the very same bed. Quite possibly while giving birth. It was a sort of mental circle that only served to dizzy the mind and startle the senses, so Blanche retreated from it.
But now she had a pond, with a dock, and a ladder and a diving board. Back in Glasonland, only the lords could imagine having a small pond in their backyards. Uncle Richard, when he showed she and Pamela this place, had said that the pond was natural, not Sim-made, fed by a spring down at the bottom. He’d also had the dock and the diving board built with all the other alterations he had ordered to the house. At the time, Blanche had worried that it was all too much. Now … well, it was still too much, but at least the children liked it.
And did they like it! Stripping most of his clothes and diving into the pond directly after school had been the only thing to make Geoffrey smile and laugh like he used to those first few weeks. As for Henry, he loved the pond too, but Blanche loved it more — loved it because it tired him out and made him easy to put to bed in the evenings. John had always been so much better —
Blanche turned away from the pond and to the swing set.
A swing set! She’d never had one of those as a child, and so had assumed — perhaps foolishly — that her children would never have one, either. The houses in Port Graal were so narrow and cramped, as were the alleys that ran between them and the patches of mud that served as yards, that you were lucking to have enough room to keep a couple chickens or maybe a pig to eat the refuse. A swing set would have been foolish — your feet would be bumping into the houses before you’d pumped high enough to have any fun. But Uncle Richard had had the swing set built, too, along with the dock and the house alterations.
The boys … the boys were all right with the swing set. It would probably be more attractive once the weather got too cold for swimming but was still plenty warm enough for staying outside for long hours. Pippa adored the swings, though. She’d hold on to the chains with her still-chubby little fists and pump as high as her legs would take her, or as high as Blanche or Cressida or one of her brothers would push her. If John could see her now, he would say —
A shout of raucous laughter echoed from the house, and Blanche turned her head only to hurry up the little hill to the back benches. It wouldn’t do to be seen outside and called back in when she’d barely gotten her moment to herself.
She sat herself down and looked at the house, the house that was easily bigger than anything that she had ever dreamed of, and that Uncle Richard thought had somehow been small. Did he really not remember what things were like in Port Graal? Granny’s old house had been smaller even than Blanche’s — Blanche could still remember her mother, in happier times when her father had still lived, bragging about how she’d “caught” her father, who she’d caught mostly for his big house and his busy shop. “That’s how it’s done,” she had said, while sewing a patch or a baby-dress or a seam on a pair of chausses. “I’m not saying don’t marry a good man — because a good man is worth at least ten rich ones — but a good man with a good shop is worth at least twenty feckless young romantics with lots of dreams but scarcely two coins to rub together.”
Uncle Richard must have been that feckless romantic — how, Blanche was not sure, since Uncle Richard seemed to have no more romantic bone in his body than Pamela did — but it certainly hadn’t been Uncle Anthony, Aunt Sophia’s husband, and none of Pamela’s friends that Blanche had ever known had married any feckless romantics. But then again, Pamela’s friends were much like Pamela herself: middling burghers’ wives, who measured the worth of a man with the same calculating eye they applied to measuring their market-day purchases, who were traded romance for comfort and were so insufferably smug about it.
But even paying for your comfort with romance made no guarantee that the comfort would actually stay.
Lord, how she missed John!
Now that she was far enough away from the house — now that she didn’t have to keep up a strong, brave face for the children, for Cressida, for Pamela — Blanche could finally admit the thought to herself, and let herself grieve.
She’d never had the romance that, young and foolish, she had thought she craved. She’d been barely seventeen when she was pushed into marriage with her cousin, who she thought nice enough but not … well … anything to set the heart pitter-pattering. She’d wanted more, foolish young thing that she was. She’d wanted flowers and poetry and expensive candies nicked from under the lords’ noses. John, John could only be trusted to get flowers for his mother, John thought poetry was song lyrics missing the music, and John wouldn’t see any value in a candy you could swallow in less than a minute, and it was gone.
But though John wouldn’t know romance if it found him in a dark alley and stole all of his money, John knew how to love.
And for some crazy, stupid reason that Blanche never had and now probably never would fathom, John had decided that he was going to love her.
Blanche had never asked him just how it was that he had come to marry her. Part of her kicked herself, the other part was glad. If she had asked — well, she would know now, and she wouldn’t be wondering if perhaps John had somehow been attracted to her and so had asked his father to pursue the match, or else if he was simply a man good enough to take the “love” parts of the wedding vows seriously. But if she had asked, then she would have been expected to give an answer. If the whole marriage had been Uncle Henry’s scheme from beginning to end, a scheme that somehow magically resulted in their happiness, that would be one thing. But if John had wanted her? Had loved her through all those nights when Blanche screamed at her mother and demanded to know why it was that Pamela was determined to ruin her life? That would have broken his heart. So Blanche was glad that he never knew.
She looked up at the sky, where the monks said John probably was, gazing down on all of them. He probably knew now.
She wished she didn’t. She wished that the Lord Wright could be merciful enough to keep that knowledge away from him, forever. But maybe it didn’t matter to souls in Heaven. Maybe the Lord Wright told John the other part of the truth, what Blanche had hoped and prayed was the important part: that though she hadn’t loved him as more than a cousin at first, she’d loved him with every fiber of her soul by the time they had been married a year.
And now? Well, if Blanche was honest with herself, and she usually was, she was glad she had the children and the shop and her mother and Cressida and Ned — even Uncle Henry and his schemes. If she hadn’t, there would have been nothing to keep her from falling into the aching hole in her soul and never climbing out again. They had kept her going.
It had been almost a year, and somehow the days barely seemed to get any easier. She didn’t have time, as Cressida had taken the time, to cry for days and days after John’s death. She had to keep moving. And now that hole in her soul had widened into a chasm, and what would ever fill it?
And now, once again, Blanche had to keep moving again as her son came running out to see her — even if, technically, she was only staying still.
“Yes, Henry?” Blanche asked, trying to smile.
Henry was the child most of her coloring — and most, she thought, of the high-spirited Parkinson blood, the blood that had made Pamela and her sisters all so difficult to handle. John, bless him, had always known how to handle Henry, instinctively even. When Blanche, worn out and frustrated, her voice practically hoarse from yelling, couldn’t take another minute — why, John would think of a game, or a story, or a something to drain Henry’s high spirits and make him tired and, most importantly, docile enough to obey in things like dinner and bath time and bedtime.
“Oh, it’s easy,” John used to say. “Just get him tired out. But boys are easy — Lord help us if we get a true Parkinson girl!”
“Mama,” Henry started in his best wheedling way — which wasn’t very good, but you had to let the child think he was doing well — “Mama, I’ve been thinkin’.”
Oh, have you? The chasm always filled a little when her children — their children — were their funny selves. It was all Blanche could do to keep from smiling openly. She composed her face into the best possible gravity and asked, “Oh? And what about?”
“I think we ought to go back to Glasonland. Back home! And soon!”
Blanche blinked. “Back — back?”
“Grandma said we couldn’t,” Henry wheedled, “but I thought you might say yes.” He rocked on the balls of his feet and smiled his best innocent smile. “So, can we?”
What a reversal that was — that the children went to her in the hopes that she might grant what their grandmother wouldn’t, and not the other way around. But it was hard to maintain the proper grandmotherly distance when the children lived with you and you would have to deal with every last temper-tantrum and fight and refusal to go down for a nap. Parents could afford to make a mistake here and there — grandparents, or at least Pamela, didn’t have the patience.
And patience was what Blanche was going to need; she could feel it. “Henry … we can’t go back to Port Graal.” She didn’t even want to think about what Uncle Henry would do if she crept back to Port Graal — have her thrown in gaol for “kidnapping” her own children? But why? He’d gotten what he wanted, hadn’t he? “We don’t have the house anymore, remember? We sold it to some nice people.”
“But we could buy it back!”
Buy it back? “We don’t have that kind of money.”
“But we could sell this house, and get money from that!”
“Don’t you like this house?” Blanche wheedled, because trying to explain that Uncle Richard had bought the house, that it was his, and that Blanche was doing her damnedest to pay him back was far beyond the comprehension of a seven-year-old, even if he was almost eight.
“The swing set?” Blanche coaxed. “The pond?”
“They’re nice, but …”
“What about all your new friends at school?”
“I liked the old friends!”
“But you wouldn’t want to say good bye to your new friends so soon, would you?”
Henry sighed and scuffed his hand-me-down boots against the grass. “No.”
“And you don’t want to say goodbye to George and Aunt Bianca and Granny, do you?”
“… No …”
“So you see why we can’t leave?”
“But this isn’t home!” Henry wailed.
Had she worked so hard, and sacrificed so much, and run from Port Graal to give her children a fighting chance at being something other than their grandfather’s pawns, only to have them reject this new land and new place and these new opportunities?
No. No. Henry was only seven, not quite eight. He didn’t understand what he was saying. He was probably missing his friends or his cousins — that had to be it. That had to be all it was.
“Henry, sit down a moment with me, won’t you?”
Henry sighed. “Fine.” He plopped onto the bench and started to swing his feet. Blanche had to bite back a smile. Even when her boy was angry and sad at not getting his way, he still couldn’t sit still to save his life, could he?
“Henry, what do you think is the most important thing about a home?” Blanche asked.
Henry knit his little brows together in a gesture that was so like John’s it made Blanche’s heart almost stop. “The walls?”
“Well, I woulda said the roof,” Henry reasoned, “but somethin’s gotta hold it up. Otherwise it’d just be a pile of straw on the floor.”
Blanche smiled. “No, Henry. That’s the most important part of a house.”
“Don’t they mean the same thing?”
“No, sweetie. A house … well, a house is four walls and a roof, and hopefully some windows and doors to let light in –”
“And Sims, and a fire to keep the chill away. A home is … a home has all those things, or hopefully has all of those things, but a home has something much more important. It has family. And look! All of your family is here! So how isn’t this home?”
“Papa’s not here!”
Blanche gasped. “Henry –”
“And how is he gonna find us for New Year’s if we’re not at home?”
“Oh,” Blanche breathed. “Oh, baby. Come here.”
Henry looked at her a little suspiciously, but he was still a little enough boy to come when his mama asked him to, and to snuggle against her side when the opportunity presented itself.
Blanche, however, had to swallow and hold him tight to keep herself from spinning away. She knew, now, what was bothering him. Of course everybody knew that the ghosts of loved ones came around on New Year’s Eve — they came to say hello, to see how their descendents and families and friends were still doing. But a child, like Henry … he must have thought that John’s spirit would only go to the house, and then find a new family, and then what would he think?
The thought of John walking through the halls of the old house, looking in the old bedrooms to find new people in them, looking at their old bed to find a new couple sleeping in it, made Blanche’s breath catch in her throat — even though she knew damn well that John would do no such thing.
“Henry,” she murmured, “you know where Papa is, don’t you?”
“In Heaven,” Henry answered. “With Lord Wright.”
“And you know that the Lord Wright is good, and that he loves everybody, don’t you?”
“Well,” Blanche squeezed him, “don’t you think that the Lord Wright will be sure to tell Papa where we are, so he doesn’t go wandering around the old house?”
“But we’re so far away from where Papa is! He might not be able to get to see us in time!”
Blanche pulled away from Henry, the better to survey him. “Honey, I think … Heaven is a long way, but spirits like –”
“No, Mama, not Heaven! The church! St. Checo’s!”
“Oh, baby! Don’t you worry about that. Papa … Papa will get here in time. It doesn’t matter where his body is. His spirit … well, I’ll tell you a secret, Henry.”
Henry gasped and squirmed like a puppy. Telling him that you were about to tell him a secret was the best way to get his attention — even if the secret wasn’t anything of the kind. It was better if it wasn’t a secret; then it wouldn’t matter that Henry couldn’t keep a secret in his mind to save his life.
“Do you know where your Papa really is? Not just in Heaven, and not in the graveyard in St. Checo’s, either.”
Henry turned to her with saucer-like eyes and shook his head.
“He’s in your heart, Henry. That’s where he’s staying now. In your heart, and Geoffrey’s heart, and Pippa’s heart … and my heart.
“And so you see, it won’t be hard for him to find us for New Year’s. Don’t you see, Henry? He’s with us right now … and he’ll always be with us. Forever and ever. Until someday, a long, long time in the future, when we’ll get to be with him.”
And then, Blanche thought, we can get to be a family again.