“Who’s a cutsie-wootsie? Who’s a ickle angel?”
“When’s it going to be my turn to hold the baby?”
“When I darn well say it is!” Kata called over her shoulder, and Roma had to snicker. Marie, however, only stared out at the world with her round blue eyes, and in particular she watched her grandmother.
“Why didn’t ye bring Billy with ye?” Roma asked, if only to keep Ella from asking about holding Marie again. “Wouldn’t he like ter see her?”
“Eh, I gave the lad a choice — come with me ter see yer sister an’ yer new niece, says I? Or go play with Ash an’ the little lads?” Kata looked up with a quizzical eyebrow. “Guess which one the lad picked.”
Roma snorted, and Marie looked up at her in surprise. That’s a snort, love, an’ once ye get yerself some little brothers an’ sisters, ye’ll be makin’ it yerself all the time! “I guess he got his fill o’ Marie when he saw her last?”
“I’m fine with that!” called Ella. “Less competition!”
“Hmmph! Competition! Let me tell ye, lass, eleven-year-old boys ain’t never competition fer babies. They like ter ferget babies exist, most of the time,” Kata replied.
“Unlike their grandmothers,” Ella sighed, resting her chin on her hands and gazing mournfully at the baby.
“Ye know,” Kata pointed out, “ye’re a mighty fine walker, ye are. If ye want ter come see Marie an’ have her all ter yerself, why don’t ye walk yerself out this way instead o’ ter Lothian, eh?”
“Lukas walks me to Lothian!” Ella announced. “An’ he walks me home again. An’ I can play with Bert an’ Davy all I want there, with nobody sayin’ me nay or stealin’ the little ones from me.”
“Lukas must love how much attention ye’re payin’ ter his brothers when he’s standin’ right there,” Kata answered, glancing at Roma as if to ask, Can ye believe what we’re hearin’?
“Oh, he doesn’t mind. Not when I can watch them if his ma has ter run ter the market or somethin’ like that, an’ so he can take a nap or work on the garden or somethin’.”
“Old married couple,” Kata murmured, and winked at Roma. “Ain’t that right, Marie?”
Marie blinked slowly at her grandmother, as if carefully evaluating whether to give her a smile, a frown, or just a scrunched-up face. Roma had to grin. Surely, her baby was the smartest in three shires — in the kingdom, even!
“Ain’t what right?” asked Ella, interrupting Roma’s reverie. “What’d ye say, Ma?”
“Oh,” Roma interjected — because the last thing she wanted to listen to was her mother and sister’s bickering — “I was jest wonderin’ how the Pelleses are doin’, what with … well, ye know. Everythin’.”
Kata said nothing, but Ella piped, “Oh, all right! I mean … all things considered. Ye know?”
“An’ Marigold?” Roma murmured to Kata. She’d heard — everyone had heard — how Marigold had tried to chew out the Lord of Orkney and had nearly gotten herself cursed to smithereens in the process. Roma still wasn’t sure by what means Sir Mordred had convinced himself or been convinced to think better of cursing Marigold; the rumors were so varied. And she couldn’t ask too closely, either, or else other gossipers just might remember that she was the brothel madam’s sister.
Kata didn’t answer right away, or at least, she didn’t answer Roma. “Ella, I think it’s yer turn ter hold this little lass — if her mother don’t mind, o’ course.”
Roma didn’t even have a chance to give her assent before Ella flew from her chair and plucked Marie from her arms. “Who’s a wittle wuv? Who’s a sweetie-weetie? Who’s Marie’s favorite auntie?”
Proving her innate intelligence, Marie did not attempt to answer any of these nonsensical questions, but instead gave her aunt her scrunching look before breaking into a toothless smile.
Ella kept squealing and cooing the baby-talk as Kata leaned closer. “Marigold told me how it was that Mirelle scared that awful Sir Mordred –”
“That awful?” Roma whispered.
Kata snorted, causing Marie to turn her big head in an attempt to see where the strange sound was coming from. Roma almost broke into laughter, would have broken into laughter if Kata hadn’t kept talking. “I call ’em like I see ’em, Roma. If ye’d seen Lady Dindrane stare down that man in court, with her father an’ all the lords watchin’, ye’d be callin’ him awful, too. When yer own wedded wife don’t want ter let ye near yer own children, ye know ye’re in trouble. Or ye should know.”
“But Ma, ye said it were because o’ … Lady Morgause, that Lady Dindrane wouldn’t let Sir Mordred near the children.”
“Don’t matter. She were afraid o’ him, that day in court. Afraid fer her an’ afraid fer her baby. I can tell baby-fear at three hundred paces, don’t ye know.”
“An’ she ain’t gettin’ much better, neither. She’s lookin’ near as pale as Lady Claire was, those last days before her last little ones. Though at least everyone in that castle is takin’ good care o’ her — wish I could’ve said that fer Lady Claire.” Kata sighed explosively. “Still, I hope this one don’t have ter spend a year in the nunnery ter recover.”
“I hope so too,” Roma murmured, “but — but what about Marigold?”
“Mari — oh, Lord, how did I get off that?” Kata sighed and shook her head. “I swear, one o’ these days I’ll get so featherheaded, why, I’ll leave me own head behind me when I go visitin’. Aye, Marigold. An’ Mirelle.” Kata cast a sidelong glance at Ella, then murmured, “Ye ever got a good look at Mirelle’s ears, love?”
Roma scrunched her face much as Marie did. “They’re a bit … big, ain’t they? But thin. An’ –”
“Pointed,” Kata finished. “Like … like the Good Folk.”
Roma gasped. “No! Don’t ye be sayin’ nothin’ like that against that …” The idea of calling a whore and a vampire — no matter how far from truly evil she was — a good girl, or even a nice one, rankled too much. “That … decent … Sim!”
“I ain’t sayin’ nothin’ against her.”
“Ma! Ye practically called her — called her –”
“I’m jest sayin’,” Kata continued, slow and unhurried as the tide, “that when she pulled her hair back from her ears — not pulled her lips back from her teeth, mind, but her hair back from her ears — Sir Mordred, he ran out o’ there like the hounds o’ hell were after him.”
“No!” gasped Roma.
“No, what?” asked Ella.
Kata caught Roma’s eye and shook her head. “Oh, I was jest tellin’ yer sister everythin’ she’s gonna have ter do ter get her body back ter what it was like before Marie.”
“An’ I don’t agree!” Roma chimed in. “I mean, look at me! I say I ain’t never looked better! An’ Simon likes it better, too, he says, now that I’ve got some meat on me bones.”
“Well, if Simon likes it, I say that’s all that matters,” Ella giggled. “Even if ye are lookin’ still a bit bigger ’round the middle, Roma.”
“I am not!” Roma gasped. She thought this kirtle, with its bunched skirt, was hiding that! She somehow avoided putting a hand on her stomach and feeling the flab which had definitely not been there, pre-Marie.
“Yes, ye are,” Kata replied, “but it ain’t hardly somethin’ ter be ashamed o’. Lord, ye jest had a baby only a few weeks ago! Ye’ve got a lot o’ hard work ahead o’ ye if ye want ter look like ye did when ye were gettin’ Simon’s eye ter twinkle fer Marie!”
“Oh, Lord …” Roma sighed.
“An’ it ain’t gonna be easy,” Kata continued, warming to her topic with relish. “‘Cause ye’re nursin’, ye see. Ye gotta keep eatin’, keep yer strength up.”
“An’ Simon keeps ye well fed!” Ella put in. “Those pigs outside!”
Kata wrinkled her nose, and Roma blinked. Was that …? Was that why Kata was going on about this? Not for Roma’s sake, who was safely married and would probably be expecting her next baby before Marie had seen her first birthday, but for Ella? Funny thing was, after Roma was married, the birthing horror stories had pretty much stopped, and instead Kata had only talked about the funny stories, the touching stories, the adorable stories. She’d even passed along tips to keep from getting with child! Roma had never heard a word from her on that before she’d been married!
“Well, Simon better!” Roma huffed, winking at her mother. “If I don’t eat good, that means Marie won’t be eating good, neither! An’ what kind o’ man won’t be doing everythin’ he can ter be sure his baby girl is gettin’ everythin’ she needs?”
“Not a good husband,” Kata agreed sagely.
“So tell me, Ma, what’ve I gotta –” A knock sounded from the door. “Door’s open!” Roma called over her shoulder.
The door opened slowly — hesitantly — and Roma knew who it was before the weak autumn sunlight even began to glint off the visitor’s brown hair.
“Hel–oh!” Nicole gasped. “I’m sorry, Roma. I didn’t realize you had company.”
“Company? Shoot, I didn’t have no company until ye walked in! Ma an’ Ella, they’re family, they are, not company.” Roma squeezed Nicole’s shoulder and half dragged her over to the rest of the group.
“How do you do, Widow Thatcher — Ella –”
“Oh, we’re fine, Nicole, an’ fer the last time, jest call me Kata,” Kata laughed. “I ain’t that intimidatin’, am I?”
“Only ter fathers or fathers-ter-be that ain’t livin’ up ter yer expectations,” Ella giggled.
“An’ ye’re neither,” Kata pointed out. “Jest get off work?” she asked.
“What? Oh …” Nicole looked down at her outfit. “Aye, I did. And …” She glanced at Roma, her mouth starting to open.
“Hey!” Ella interrupted, “ye ain’t said hello ter Marie yet!”
“Oh!” Nicole gasped. “Hello, Marie!” Marie smiled her rosebud smile at Nicole, proving that she already knew just who and who not to like. Nicole stroked her cheek and Marie blew a bubble in pleasure. “Has she gotten bigger?” Nicole gasped.
“Ah, babes grow fast in these first few months!” Kata laughed.
“I know, but it’s only been a few days! Oh, Marie!” Nicole giggled. “Soon you’re going to be as big as a house!”
“No, she won’t! She’ll be a slim beauty when she grows up, jest like her auntie! Her best auntie, that is. Won’t ye, Marie?” Ella cooed. Just as Roma was assuming that this was going to go on all day — and perhaps even give her and her mother time to trade a little more gossip — Ella asked, “Bet ye can’t wait ter have some of yer own, can ye?”
Nicole’s mouth formed a tiny O. Then she shot a pleading glance at Roma.
Huh — what’s it that she wants ter talk about? “Ye know,” Roma said, plucking Marie from her sister’s grasp, “I think this little lass is lookin’ a bit tired. I’ll put her in her crib an’ ye all have a set-down. Can I get anyone anythin’? Tea, snacks?”
“She don’t look tired!” Ella pouted, but Kata gave her a look and she sat down. Nicole sat by her side.
Putting Marie into her little cradle was the work of a moment, and soon Roma joined the rest of her family at the table. “So!” she addressed herself to Nicole. “What’s new?”
“Aye!” Ella agreed. “What’s the latest ye’ve got from the Onion?”
“The latest from the Onion?” Kata asked. “Ella, it’s a pub, not a — a –”
“It’s a pub! Where folk go ter eat, drink an’ be merry! An’ I never met no merrymakers that weren’t chatterin’ up a storm. So, Nicole, what’s new?” Ella prodded.
Nicole looked up, around the table, her gaze falling on Roma and faintly pleading. But none of that was preparation for what she said next. “I think … I think I might not be working at the Onion anymore soon.”
Ella’s jaw fell, Kata blinked, but it was Roma who gasped and exclaimed, “Not work at the Onion? Nicole, why not?”
“I — I –” Nicole started to flush. “I might be getting another job.”
“Another job? Where? Why?”
“It — it looks like a good job,” Nicole pleaded. “A very good job. If it works out. And it might not!”
“Hold on, now,” Kata interrupted, speaking very slowly. “Why don’t ye go back ter the beginnin’, sweetheart? What’s this new job, now?”
“I … it’s at the barracks. They … they might need a new cook –”
“The barracks?” Roma gasped. “Nicole, ye all alone with a bunch o’ hungry — an’ not hungry fer food, ye know! — menfolk? With no Master O’Neill ter kick them out the door if they don’t keep their hands to themselves? What are ye thinkin’?”
“But … I’d get to cook all the time. Not just when Mya’s feeling poorly. And — and, Roma, I’m not like you and Lyndsay.” Nicole swallowed. “I’ve only got me, you see, to take care of me. I don’t have a husband with a good job. If this job pays better — I ought to take it, aye?” She turned to Kata. “Don’t you think?”
“There’s more important things than money,” sniffed Roma.
“Mmmph,” Kata murmured. “Roma’s got a point, I think. Ain’t no amount o’ money that’s worth puttin’ yer safety an’ yer reputation at a bad risk — at least, not since ye’ve already got a good, steady job, an’ are keepin’ a roof over yer head an’ food on yer table.”
“But …” Nicole murmured.
“An’ it would be a risk — now, mind, I’m not sayin’ it’s a bad risk, right off the bat now, but ye’re a young girl, an’ ye’re pretty, an’ that’s a lot o’ hungry soldiers, as Roma was pointin’ out. Now, I, I say ye better get a good feel fer the place before ye agree ter anythin’. Make sure there’s gonna be someone lookin’ out fer ye.”
“But …” Nicole repeated.
“But what, honey?”
“But there’s a man!” Nicole blurted out. “A — a soldier! He — he’s the one who said he might get me the job!”
“A man?” Roma gasped, leaning her elbows on the table and drinking Nicole in with wide eyes.
“A soldier?” asked Kata, one eyebrow going up.
“He’s — he’s very nice,” Nicole started. “And he — I think he likes me …”
“I wouldn’t be surprised at that,” Kata replied. “Mmm. Not surprised at all.”
“And I — I want to see — if he could get me this job, you see, it might mean he’s interested in me!”
“Oh, he’s interested in something, all right,” murmured Kata.
“Ma! Ye don’t know he’s only after — after — that!”
“Oh, yes, I do, sweetie. If a young man ain’t marryin’ a girl fer money or fer someone ter keep his house or because her pa is puttin’ a crossbow at his back, it’s because he’s after that.” She glanced at Nicole. “Now, mind, I ain’t sayin’ that this means that yer young man is a bad ‘un. Not at all. If he means marriage at the end o’ it — no matter what goes on in the middle, mind — an’ he really likes ye, an’ ye like him, then that’s all right. But be careful. How many times have ye met this man?”
“Oh, dear,” Kata asked. “Is it more or less than ten?”
“… Less …”
“Please tell me it’s more than once.”
Nicole nodded. “Three times! And — and the last time he came to the Onion looking for me!”
“Hmm. So he’s interested in ye, then, fer sure.” Kata stroked her chin. “If he jest wanted a bit o’ fun, well, the whorehouse ain’t too far from the Onion.”
Nicole blushed. “I don’t think he wants … that. He seemed like quite the gentleman!”
“An’ gentlemen are jest as interested in that as common men — trust me, I wouldn’t be in business if gentlemen didn’t want their fun, too!” Kata snorted. “But all the same, ye don’t know ‘im well, even if ye do like ‘im. I say, ye don’t take this job unless ye’re sure there will be someone looking out fer ye, someone other than this young man. Because even if he means well, he ain’t gonna be the only one there who could hurt ye if he had a mind to. An’ ye know what? If he’s really interested in ye, an’ ye tell ‘im the truth of why ye won’t take the job — that ye’re not walkin’ inter a dangerous place without any kind o’ protection — why, if he’s a man who’s worthy o’ ye, he’ll respect ye fer it, he will.”
“Lord, Ma!” Ella laughed. “Ye weren’t half so careful with me an’ Lukas!”
“That’s different,” Roma replied. “Ma knows Lukas, knows Goodwife Pelles — heck, she delivered Lukas –”
“Eeew! Roma! Don’t remind me!”
“Oh, fer Wright’s sake,” Kata rolled her eyes, “ye didn’t seem too upset when it were Bert I was deliverin’!”
“That’s ’cause it weren’t Lukas! I don’t like thinkin’ o’ me ma … me ma …”
“Seein’ yer boy in his birthday suit before ye did?” Kata chuckled.
“Ye better hope that yer boy ain’t young enough fer Ma ter have been deliverin’ him,” Roma remarked to Nicole. “Unless ye want a preview o’ what ye’ll be gettin’ on yer weddin’ night …”
Nicole was roughly as red as a poppy, but she swallowed and said, “He — he’s from Glasonland, so –”
“Where in Glasonland?” Kata cackled. “I was a practicin’ midwife fer a long time before I came ter Albion!”
Nicole looked so horror-struck at that thought that Roma had to double over in laughter. Lord, she hadn’t laughed like this in ages — since before Marie was born! Not that her baby wasn’t funny, but you didn’t laugh much when you were running around after a baby and a husband and a farm full of pigs —
“What’s so funny?”
“Simon!” gasped Roma. She’d barely heard the door open!
“Hallo, Roma — Ma Thatcher — Ella — Nicole. What’s so funny?” Simon repeated.
“Oh, jest the idea o’ me havin’ seen Nicole’s man in his birthday suit,” replied Kata. As Simon’s eyes bulged, she added, “An’ on his birthday, too.”
Ella giggled. “Aye, his very first birthday, no less.”
Simon’s brows drew together, then cleared. Roma’s man had to be the cleverest in three shires — there was no need to wonder where Marie got her smarts from. “Say …” he murmured, “I hope, Ma Thatcher, that ye never saw …?”
“I didn’t meet yer ma until well after we all moved ter Albion, an’ by that point ye were almost out o’ diapers, Simon,” replied Kata.
Just as Simon was about to breathe a sigh of relief, Kata added, “But ye did have a habit o’ tearin’ off yer lioncloth in those days an’ runnin’ ’round the house … an’ yer ma an’ I used ter take tea tergether every so often …”
If Simon had been a little older, Roma might have shrieked and cried, for he looked about to die of apoplexy — or just plain embarrassment. Kata surveyed her nails as if wondering where a stray bit of dirt came from, though Roma could see her peeking through her lashes and smiling at Simon’s face.
Because a good wife always tried to save her husband from embarrassment, Roma called, “Simon, why don’t ye go say hello ter Marie? She must be dyin’ ter see her daddy!”
“Roma, the maille …” But Roma must have looked crestfallen, for Simon looked at her, his mouth twitched, and he strode over to the cradle.
As soon as his back was to them, Ella turned to Nicole. “So, have ye decided what ye’re gonna do yet?”
“Hallo, Marie,” Simon whispered, just on the edge of Roma’s hearing.
“I … I’m not sure …” replied Nicole.
Roma still kept an eye on Simon as her mother and sister and friend continued to talk. It was foolish — so foolish — Simon was Marie’s father! And she never worried when her mother or her sister had Marie, so why should she —
“I think ye should,” Kata put in. “I mean, ye should at least look at it. If yer young man is there an’ can help ye get the job — an’ if ye can be sure there’ll be someone lookin’ out fer ye — then I think ye’re in good shape, I do. An’ even if he can’t … or there ain’t no one ter look out fer ye … well, then, ye’ll have seen ‘im again, won’t ye? An’ shown ye’re interested. Even if ye don’t take the job, he might come ’round the Onion more, havin’ gotten some encouragement.”
“You — you think so?” Nicole gasped.
“Oh, I know so,” replied Kata.
“An’ — an’ that’ll be a good thing,” Roma added, even as she still watched Simon. He was bringing Marie up to his shoulder now, slowly, gingerly, as if he feared that she might fall apart in his hands. “Either way. Aye?”
“Aye!” Ella agreed. “So go fer it, Nicole!”
“You … you won’t be upset?” asked Nicole, watching Roma.
“If I get the job. Then I … I won’t be working at the Onion anymore …”
“Oh …” Roma shrugged. “Well, I — I might not be workin’ there much longer, neither. Dependin’ how things go here. Ye know?”
“Oh!” Nicole replied, sounding relieved. “Oh, well, then — that won’t be so bad. It won’t be like we’re missing each other at work.”
“O’ course not. An’ –”
Marie let out a wail, Simon swore, and Roma leaped to her feet with enough force to send the chair clattering to the floor.
“Simon? What’s wrong? Simon!”
“Argh!” Simon growled as he brought Marie down — still gently, but … “She caught her finger in me maille! Roma, I told ye not ter have me hold her!”
Roma took the baby and brought her to her shoulder for shushing and calming, even as Marie shrieked and writhed. “Shush baby, shush baby, Mama’s here, Mama fix … Simon, which finger were it?”
“Right hand — I think — aw, hell, I don’t know! I told ye this weren’t a good idea with the maille!”
“I ain’t touchin’ her again while I got it on!”
“But Simon, I –”
“But nothin’! I’m goin’ ter change.” Simon stormed away from her, leaving Roma rocking Marie and trembling.
“Roma?” asked Kata.
“It’s nothin’.” The door slammed and Roma jumped. “Really nothin’. He jest … he’s frustrated, that’s all. It ain’t nothin’ ter worry about.” She kissed the top of Marie’s head and rubbed the baby’s back. “Nothin’ ter worry about at all.”