“There’s a little love. There’s me sweet Aileen,” Cerise crooned. “Toinette, ye have prettier an’ prettier babies every time, I swear. Ye’ll have every woman in the kingdom wantin’ ter scratch yer eyes out if they get much prettier.”
Maybe, maybe not … Toinette stretched and lounged lazily against the sofa. But she had a right, hadn’t she? She’d only given birth a few days ago. Some women were still abed at this time.
But you couldn’t stay long abed when you had four other children ten and under, a shop that needed running, a job that needed doing, a father-in-law who needed looking after, and a mother who needed gossiping.
And speaking of which …
“D’ye think it’s true?” Cerise asked. “What they’re sayin’ about Lady Morgause?”
Couldn’t they just get to know the new baby and leave the affairs of the kingdom to look after themselves for a while? But no, it couldn’t be that simple. Toinette leaned her head back and closed her eyes. “I think she’s dead, aye.”
“No, I mean that she … that she …”
“Killed her own self?”
Cerise shuddered, and Aileen whimpered. Toinette was half off the sofa, but Cerise had the problem well under control. “Oh, shush, shush, it’s all right, that bad witch ain’t gonna come get ye.”
No, not Aileen or any other children. Thank the Lord. Toinette glanced up at her mother, guilty just for the thought — but why should she be? She was four and thirty years old. She could think whatever she damn well wanted to think.
Cerise brought Aileen back up to her shoulder. “Why d’ye think she would do somethin’ like that? That’ll damn ye, it will. Brother Tuck said so jest last Sunday.”
“Oh, Ma, what makes ye think I’d know?” Toinette sighed. “How are Roma an’ Marie, by the by?”
Toinette knew how Roma had been — even though she’d been near ready to pop with Aileen herself, she’d gone with Meg and Joyce to help Roma through her first birth. Of course, Kata Thatcher did most of the work, so Toinette only had to sit on the edge of the bed and hold Roma’s hand while Meg scuttled around like a headless chicken, following Kata’s barked commands, and Joyce looked about to be sick. Roma had pulled through beautifully, and baby Marie was as fat and pink and healthy as anyone could wish. Still, it had been almost a week since she’d seen them last.
“Oh, Roma an’ Marie are doin’ fine. What a sweet little baby she is, too! We need ter get her an’ Aileen tergether. They’ll be best o’ friends,” she lifted Aileen high in the air and grinned up at her, “don’t ye think?”
“Ma, I don’t think ye ought ter –”
“Except, I gotta watch my time fer visitin’.” Cerise brought Aileen down again, and Toinette bit her tongue. “Would ye believe it — Simon axed me ter stay away when Kata Thatcher is near? Me own son, keepin’ me away from me own grandchild!”
“That’s probably ’cause he don’t want Roma bein’ pulled in the middle o’ ye an’ Widow Thatcher’s feud,” Toinette pointed out, perhaps a little too smugly.
“As if we’d fight around her! An’ the baby!”
Yes, yes, ye very well might, Toinette sighed. It had been hard enough figuring out how to keep Cerise away from Roma and Simon (and Kata) when Marie was just coming into the world. Edmond had ended up pretending to feel poorly so that Cerise would stay at home to look after him, and of course look after Basil and Felix as well. She had no idea how they would manage to keep the peace now that Cerise was liable to take it into her head to visit one of her newest grandchildren at any point in the day.
Really, what had possessed Cerise to set up a marriage between her youngest son, her baby, and the only other woman who had come with them from Glasonland who wasn’t afraid to stand up to her?
Maybe it was just process of elimination. Joyce, for all that she seemed to enjoy Berach’s particular species of fecklessness, would never have put up with Simon. Ailís was already married. That left the Thatcher girls, if Cerise wanted a Glasonlander girl (by ancestry if nothing else) to marry her Simon. And she seemed to want that.
“Though I’ll tell ye,” Cerise added in a voice far too venomous to be allowed near the baby, “I wouldn’t be a whit surprised to hear that Kata Thatcher had a feast, or somethin’ jest as disrespectful, when she heard what happened with Lady Morgause.”
“I would be.” Kata Thatcher was a lot of things, but she wasn’t an idiot. And even if her lord was the one most likely to be sympathetic to her feelings, no lord would be happy to find that one of his peasants was openly celebrating the death of another lord. “But I bet ye she’s as relieved as anythin’.”
“Don’t see why she would need to be.”
“Ma! What if someone tried ter hurt Paddy, or Nora, or Basil or Marie?” Or even Melehan or Melou or Aimée? “Wouldn’t ye be relieved if they was safe an’ dead, an’ never gonna hurt yer grandchild no more?”
Cerise kissed Aileen’s head. “… Aye, probably.”
“What ye need ter do, Ma,” Toinette continued, warming to her subject, “is make it up with Widow Thatcher. She were jest mad an’ scared fer her grandson, that’s all. An’ ye know darn well that wicked Lady Morgause did everythin’ she was accused o’ doin’. Pa knows it, an’ ye ought ter listen ter him.”
“I still ain’t sure what yer pa was thinkin’,” Cerise murmured into Aileen’s little whorled ear.
“From what he said, that a kid little Thorn’s age wouldn’t lie, leastaways not that well. An’ ye remember what he said about that wizard what talked about Lady Morgause — how he couldn’t get inter her magic room till a fortnight after it all happened? An’ how Sir Mordred could’ve –”
“Toinette Che–Brogan, hold yer tongue!” Cerise gasped. “Don’t ye go makin’ accusations against no nobles!” She rubbed Aileen’s back. “Specially not after yer pa …”
Specially not after Pa found that noble’s ma guilty o’ kidnappin’ an’ all the rest o’ it. Toinette sighed. She couldn’t even say that Lord Pellinore, good and just Lord Pellinore, would protect them, so she could say what she wanted — especially since she was only repeating what had been said in the trial for all the world to hear. Lord Pellinore could try to protect them, but he wouldn’t be able to do so forever. Especially not now that Grady had enough money saved up that he could buy their freedom tomorrow, if he wanted. He didn’t want to, because to be a free man would mean he’d give up all claim on this house and the business, but that was the way of it.
“Well, Ma,” Toinette continued, “I still think ye ought ter say ye’re sorry ter Widow Thatcher. She’ll fergive ye, ye know.”
“Ye said some right nasty things about her grandkids an’ her stepson.”
“Nasty!” Cerise gasped. She held Aileen up above her head, the better to consult with her. “D’ye think yer Grandma were nasty, Aileen? D’ye think yer Grandma who loves ye so would ever be that, Aileen?”
“Ma, I wish ye wouldn’t do that.”
“Do what?” The baby blinked and chortled as Cerise made funny faces.
“Hold her up so high — she’s still right little –”
“Oh, nonsense. She likes it! Look at ‘er!”
“But, Ma –”
Aileen continued to chortle, and Cerise gave her a little jiggle. One little jiggle too many …
“MA!” Toinette shouted, jumping to her feet as Aileen’s chortles turned into plaintive wails.
“Ack!” Cerise brought the baby down and handed her back to Toinette, who quickly started to cuddle and shush her. “An’ I jest got Felix’s last spit-up out o’ this dress, too,” Cerise sighed.
“I was tryin’ ter tell ye not ter do that …”
“Oh, shush, ye. If a little one’s gonna spit up, she’s gonna spit up no matter what ye’re doin’ with her. An’ she was likin’ it. Weren’t ye, sweetie?” She tickled Aileen’s chin, but Aileen was too busy wailing to take much note.
“Ye’d better go upstairs an’ git yerself cleaned up, Ma,” Toinette sighed, “an’ I’ll get this wee lass cleaned up down here.”
Cerise didn’t argue, which was probably as close as she would ever come to admitting that somebody else was right and she was, most unfortunately, wrong.
You didn’t give birth to five babies without learning to keep a spare smock — as many spare smocks as you could buy or make — handy and close to where you would be washing or changing the baby. It was only the work of a moment to get Aileen’s dirty smock and diaper off her and to start to dip the baby into the water that was left to warm all day under the window. Aileen stopped wailing with a gasp as soon as she hit the water, and even started to giggle again as Toinette washed her.
“That’s Mama’s good girl,” Toinette crooned, “there’s Mama’s sweetie. Now, that ain’t so bad, ain’t it?”
Aileen smiled a toothless smile at her.
“Ye’re a happy little baby, ain’t ye?” Toinette laughed. “Don’t know where ye get it from. Nobody in our family ever struck me as bein’ all that happy. Yer Grandma Lilé, Wright rest her soul, why, she was all beaten down … an’ yer grandpa, well, if there were ever any happiness in him, he pissed it out with the drink a long time ago.”
“An’ yer Grandpa Edmond … well, he’s a good man, I think, an’ a happy one, all things considered. It’s jest, well, he don’t wear his happiness on his sleeve the way ye do, love. As fer yer Grandma Cerise …” Toinette looked over her shoulder, but there was no one else in the room with her to notice or report back to Cerise what she had said. Well, unless you counted the dog. “Well, Aileen, I might as well tell ye this now, so’s ye know what ye’re gettin’ inter once ye start talkin’ an’ understandin’ yer grandma. Yer Grandma Cerise came inter this world complainin’ about somethin’, an’ I reckon that the day she don’t have nothin’ else ter complain about will be the day she goes out.
“Mind ye,” she added, sprinkling a little water on Aileen’s bald head so that the baby laughed, “we ain’t a bad lot, none o’ us. Well, yer Grandpa Finley is … is in a category all his own, an’ yer Grandma Cerise takes a bit o’ gettin’ used ter. An’ yer Uncle Simon can be a bit o’ a rascal when he puts his mind ter it. But that’s life, love. It takes all –”
An outraged shriek rudely interrupted Toinette’s first dose of motherly advice, and indeed made her gasp and Aileen let out a surprised cry.
“Finley Brogan! What d’ye think ye’re doin’?”
Oh, bloody hell. Toinette only waited long enough to shush Aileen and tuck her into her crib before bolting up the ladder. She nearly tripped over her skirts in her haste, and her sore muscles were not at all happy at her by the time she got upstairs.
Her muscles stopped complaining as soon as she took in the scene before her. They knew very well that they wouldn’t be heard.
Cerise stood with her bodice mostly done up again — mostly — which told Toinette more than she needed to know about what state Finley had found her in. She had her scolding finger out and wagging. Toinette was sure it hadn’t gotten so much exercise since Simon had moved out of the house. “Finley Brogan! Don’t ye know enough ter knock before ye go bargin’ open a door ter a water closet?”
“Why don’t ye lock the damn door, then?”
Because the door don’t lock, ye imbecile! We need ter be able ter get at ye if ye’re passed-out drunk on the floor! Toinette only barely managed to avoid smacking her face with her palm. She avoided it because to draw attention to herself at this juncture might well be suicidal, and only because she would be tempted to go down the ladder head-first to avoid notice.
“You throw open a door ter a water closet an’ have the boldness ter insult the — the woman inside –”
“Insult? I didn’t think a compliment were an insult!”
“Ye call ‘Nice t–t–‘ … ye think it’s a good thing ter say somethin’ like that ter a woman who ain’t yer wife?”
Did he … oh, no, please tell me he didn’t …
“Yer husband’s a lucky man,” Finley remarked, “that is, when he can git yer bodice off ye. Which I don’t doubt don’t happen often. Bet ye near bite his fingers off whenever he tries!”
“Why, I never!” Cerise gasped. Toinette wished she could, too, but she’d endured too many similar comments from Finley — it was impossible to avoid them when you were nursing in a home with no lockable doors.
Oh, Lord, an’ I’m due fer some more, ain’t I?
“Ye should be ashamed o’ yerself!” Cerise continued, waggling his finger in his face. Finley tried to bat it out of the way, but he must have been aiming for the wrong finger, for he missed it by a mile. “What would Lilé say if she could see ye now, eh?”
Toinette gasped and held her breath — and for a moment, Finley was silent, too. Then he snarled. “Nothin’!” he barked. “Unlike some women, she knowed how ter hold her tongue!”
“I ain’t got ter hold me tongue before the likes o’ ye! Drunk!”
“Shrew!” Finley snarled back. “It’s fer women like ye that they made the branks!”
“Nonsense! King Arthur ain’t let a woman be bridled fer twenty years now — an’ that’s only fer slander, it is! Not fer tellin’ the plain truth!”
“It’s slander if I say it’s slander! Who’s gonna believe ye, ye naggin’ harridan, over me?”
“Anybody who knows ye!”
“Bitch!” Finley lunged. But again, his aim was off, and Cerise easily sidestepped him.
“Ye watch what ye’re doin’, Finley Brogan! Or I’ll have the law on ye!”
“What? Fer disciplinin’ a woman in me own house?”
“Yer house! Fie! I’m surprised ye don’t blush fer shame, sayin’ that!” Cerise snapped. “Yer house! When it was yer wife what got it fer ye, an’ now yer eldest son what’s keepin’ ye in it!”
Could it really be that simple?
No, no, it couldn’t be. Not according to the law. The law would say that the house was Finley’s, and that was the end of that. It would have been his name in Lord Pellinore’s big book, and the only way anyone was going to get him out of it was feet-first, or if he couldn’t pay his taxes on it anymore.
But Lord Pellinore was a fair man. He knew what their situation was like. He would understand — surely? — that though Finley might be the man who owned the house on parchment, he didn’t have any moral right to so much as a stick of furniture in the house. If there was any justice in the world, Lord Pellinore would take their side. Surely, surely, the business at least could be said to belong to Grady!
And if Grady owned the business, then he could sell it, and keep the money, and spend it on whatever he — or they — wanted …
Toinette ended up going down the ladder as quickly as she had gone up it. Cerise and Finley still screamed at each other, but she didn’t care. The children were all well out of range, the older ones at school, the younger ones in their cribs, so let them come to blows if they wanted to. It might do Finley some good to spend a night or two in gaol.
Toinette checked on Aileen before she hurried out the front door — the baby whimpered in her crib, but seemed to calm when Toinette kissed her forehead. Then she dashed across the yard and into the shop.
Grady was with a customer, but what else was new? Toinette smiled her strained shopkeeper’s wife’s smile and waited for the boy to be talked into buying something he probably couldn’t afford. Then, as soon as the lad grabbed the crate of eggplants, Toinette grabbed Grady’s sleeve. “We need ter talk.”
“Sure — jest let me finish –”
Grady paused. “Aileen?”
“Then can it –”
“No.” Toinette crossed her arms over her chest. “Ye know what I jest walked away from?”
“… No?” He didn’t actually say, But I’m sure I’ll hear about it in a minute. That was probably the only thing that kept Toinette from turning into her mother in that moment.
“Yer pa an’ my ma, havin’ a fight. Because yer pa walked in on me ma when she was cleanin’ herself up after Aileen spit up on her, an’ … well, I’m guessin’ ye can imagine what he said.”
“Oh, Lord,” sighed Grady.
“An’ so, I realized then — Grady, enough is enough. We’ve got ter get out o’ this house.”
“What?” Grady squawked.
“I ain’t subjectin’ me kids ter yer father no more. I ain’t subjectin’ meself ter yer father no more! He’s damn well ruined all our lives enough.”
“Toinette, even if we could afford it –”
“What? No, we can’t.”
“Yes, we can. Lord Pellinore’s a fair man. He knows damn well that everythin’ in this house, either ye or yer ma earned. He knows that the shop is all yers! Grady, we could sell everythin’ an’ get another house! Be free! Buy a shop!”
“An’, Grady, don’t the Guild have some money they’ve been layin’ up fer ye?”
Grady jumped. “It — it’s not that –”
“We need ter take it!” Toinette gasped. “Take it an’ get the hell out o’ here, before he hurts ye, or me, or me ma, or Wright forbid, our kids more than he’s hurt them already!”
“But somebody’s gotta take care o’ him!”
“No, no, Grady. He can take care o’ his own self. He never took care o’ ye, or yer ma, or Berach or Ailís.”
“But Toinette –”
“No buts. Either ye figure out a way ter get us an’ our kids out o’ here — or, mind this, Grady Brogan, I will.”
She left him then, the better to let him think about that — stew over it.
And then … well, they would see, wouldn’t they?