“And do you know what I heard, Constance?” Fortunately or unfortunately, Rosette didn’t get a chance to hear what not-Constance had heard, since not-Constance started to whisper.
“No!” Constance gasped. “Truly?”
“But she was a noblewoman! Burned and buried in the prison graveyard?”
Rosette gasped and nearly clocked her head against the shelving.
“That’s what they’re saying,” replied not-Constance. “Of course, the nobs are calling it cremating …”
“But you know why they burn witches,” Constance pointed out.
“Of course. So they don’t …”
Rosette didn’t need to hear why they burnt witches. She’d not spent her early childhood in Glasonland for nothing. If you asked a witch or a wizard why the Church decreed that burning was the only suitable punishment for witches, they would have many answers: to draw a big crowd, to scare the populace, sheer sadism. If you asked a Church member, they would have other answers: to give the witch a foretaste of the fires of Hell, to hurt her as much as her evil magics had hurt others, to offer instruction to the people. If you asked your average Glasonlander peasant, the peasant had only one answer: to make sure the witch didn’t come back.
Rosette cast her fingers through the basket of grain, ostensibly to test its quality. But she was only trying to give herself something to do in order to avoid listening. Failing that, she would settle for looking preoccupied and so not being caught eavesdropping.
“But what did Sir Mordred have to say to that?” asked Constance.
“They say he went and yelled at the King! The King!”
It was only by slapping her hand in front of her face that Rosette avoided gasping, or at any rate audibly gasping. That couldn’t be true — could it? Could that explain why she had not seen or heard from Mordred — barring the usual delivery of her weekly allowance — since before his mother’s death?
Constance’s very audible gasp luckily destroyed any chance of anyone hearing Rosette’s. “What did the King do?”
“Didn’t have him killed, that’s all I know,” replied not-Constance. Rosette could imagine her shrugging. “Can’t imagine why.”
Rosette slowly straightened and tried to control her breathing.
“Well, he is the King’s nephew …”
“If my nephew said to me the things Sir Mordred was supposed to have said to the King, I’d box his ears until they bled! I can’t imagine why a King wouldn’t do worse!”
“Maybe the King did box Sir Mordred’s ears until they bled.”
Rosette felt her fingers start to pick at the loose threads on her sleeve. She watched them distractedly, until she realized that if she kept this up, she’d need to be patching her chemise, or buying a new one. Neither was something she wanted to do. She glanced at the grain and turned away. She had plenty to get her through a few days. She would come back some other time.
“And …” Constance’s musing voice carried through the shop, following Rosette whether either woman seemed to desire it to do so or not. “If the King did box Sir Mordred’s ears until they bled, that would explain one thing.”
“And what’s that?”
“Why Sir Mordred hasn’t been seen outside his castle since the day they buried Lady Morgause.”
Sensible resolutions forgotten, Rosette spun on one heel and gasped.
“He hasn’t?” replied a shocked not-Constance. “Oh, you’re exaggerating! I haven’t heard anything of the kind!”
“Well, you wouldn’t hear about something not happening, now, would you, Joyce?” answered Constance with a smug smile and an equally smug set of hands on her hips.
“No, but …”
“I’ve been balancing Andrew’s books for him,” continued Constance. “In the shop, of course. And do you know who just happened to come by for some new barrels for the harvest?”
“Lukas Pelles, that’s who. The son of Sir Mordred’s bailiff!”
“Why, isn’t he also the son of the woman who …?”
“I imagine so.”
“How is Goodman Pelles still Sir Mordred’s bailiff?”
Constance shrugged. “Good help is hard to find?”
“To find a good bailiff? In this land, where we haven’t had anything but an absentee lord for three hundred years? The only thing the folk around here who were brought up to be bailiffs know is how to steal as much as they can from their lord.”
“Good point. So what did he say?”
“Well … now, mind, you can’t repeat this to anybody,” Constance warned.
“Oh, I won’t!” Joyce breathed, grinning.
“Well,” Constance chuckled, “I just happened to ask Lukas Pelles how things were with Sir Mordred — and do you know what he said, once I managed to get it out of him?”
Oh, Lord, what? thought Rosette.
“That not only had he not been down to his fields to see to the harvest, when Goodman Pelles sent his son up to see whether he would come, the steward only said Sir Mordred was busy in his workroom! He asked some of the girls who worked as maids what was going on — they were close to his mother and willing to talk to him — and they said he hadn’t left it in days! They were leaving food on trays outside the door!”
“Truly?” Joyce looked about ready to clap her hands in glee.
Truly? Rosette reached for the table, very sure that the sudden lightheadedness and the strange way the shop was spinning around her was not a good side …
“Why, Rosette Chevaux! Fancy meeting you here!”
Rosette stumbled around. She couldn’t look at Constance and Joyce — she couldn’t bear to see if they had heard her name, connected it with Sir Mordred, and were now going to stare at her. “W-Widow Thatcher!” Rosette tried to smile. “What a — what a pleasant surprise!”
“If it ain’t!” Widow Thatcher grinned. “Over a year now and the same shire, and fancy us not running into each other before now! How’s yer little Aimée doing?”
Rosette tried to smile even if her lips were trembling. Why was Widow Thatcher being so friendly? Toinette had told her all about the fight between Widow Thatcher and Cerise … and by “all about,” Rosette meant all about. Surely, surely, Widow Thatcher couldn’t be so warm and friendly with the mistress of the son of the woman who (allegedly) tried to murder her grandson?
Even if Mordred swore that Lady Morgause had done no such thing …
“Oh, very well! Very, very well indeed. She’s so big now! A whole year and a half!”
There was something of a calculating, predatory gleam in Widow Thatcher’s eyes. “A year an’ a half, eh?” she mused. “Eatin’ solids, then?”
That was, of course, the polite way to say “off the breast” — which was, in itself, a polite way to ask if there was any chance of Widow Thatcher getting further custom from Rosette. It was hardly likely — not since she was faithfully taking Mordred’s magical mixture —
Even less likely now that Mordred hadn’t been seen outside of his workroom in days …
“Somethin’ wrong, lass?” Widow Thatcher chuckled. The calculating gleam only shone brighter.
“Oh, nothing!” Rosette gasped.
“Not feelin’ at all green about the gills, is ye?” pressed Widow Thatcher.
“No greenness at all.” At least, not greenness from that source … and for the first time since Aimée had made the final move to solids, Rosette was not at all sad about it.
“Hmmph,” snorted Widow Thatcher. “I’ll be honest, lass — ye ain’t lookin’ good.”
“Heh,” Rosette tried to smile.
Widow Thatcher’s eyes narrowed as she looked around Rosette. “I don’t suppose,” she mused, “that ye’d happen ter know those two ladies standin’ behind ye?”
“Are they staring?” Rosette whimpered.
“Not at the … moment …”
“Oh …” Rosette murmured, wondering why her bodice suddenly felt so tight.
Widow Thatcher put her hands her hips and fixed Rosette with a withering appraisal that might as well have stripped her naked for all that it allowed to remain hidden. Hell, the last time Rosette had been treated to such an appraisal, she had been naked, and in labor, and Widow Thatcher had been surveying the slope of her belly before she pronounced, “Lass, I think it’s gonna be twins.” No wonder she felt so terrified and vulnerable under that gaze.
Finally the widow sighed. “Lass, were they talkin’ about ye?”
Rosette shook her head.
“But they were talkin’ about somethin’ that upset ye?”
Rosette couldn’t move.
“Sir Mordred, I take it?”
“How — how did you –”
“I know gossips when I sees ’em,” Widow Thatcher shrugged. “Them’s gossips. An’ what’s there ter gossip about, now, that’s juicier than Sir Mordred an’ his lady mother?” If it had been polite to spit indoors — or at all politic to spit after mentioning the name of a noblewoman, even a dead one — Rosette was sure that Widow Thatcher would have done so.
Rosette tried hard not to shudder.
Widow Thatcher turned her head to one side. “Ye ain’t on speakin’ terms with yer ma no more, ain’t ye?”
Too shocked to do anything else, Rosette shook her head.
“An’ yer sister, I’m bettin’, has got bigger fish ter be fryin’ at the moment.”
“How — how do you know –” Rosette stammered, before realizing that there was every chance that Widow Thatcher was only talking about Aileen.
“I visit the mothers after the birth,” shrugged Widow Thatcher. “I hear things. That’s how it is, though, ain’t it? Yer ma won’t talk ter ye, an’ yer sister’s got no time.”
“An’ those sort,” Widow Thatcher nodded in what Rosette guessed was Constance and Joyce’s direction, “won’t talk ter ye, an’ the sort that’s lower than ye are, ye won’t talk ter, because ye’re right out o’ that life. Ain’t that the truth?”
“I … suppose …”
“So then, who ye got ter be talkin’ ter — who’s older than, say, five?”
Rosette sighed and looked away.
“As I thought.” Widow Thatcher sighed. “There’s a tearoom jest across the way, ye know. An’ I’m in no rush.”
Rosette looked up. “True — truly?”
“Aye, truly. But ye’re buyin’.”
“I — I would love to! Oh, oh, thank you!”
“Good. Ye got anythin’ ye need ter be payin’ fer?”
Rosette shook her head.
“Then let’s get goin’.” With strides longer than her skirt had any right to allow, Widow Thatcher marched off. She glanced over her shoulder, her gray hair rippling over her back. “Well? Ye comin’?”
“Aye — aye!” Rosette gasped, and followed.
Tea! Tea with a friend! Or something like a friend. When was the last time she had done this? When …
Rosette’s stomach turned within her. She didn’t even remember. Oh, Lord …
With Kata Thatcher setting the pace, no walk was bound to take long. Soon they were in the tearoom. Widow Thatcher placed her order, and Rosette placed hers and paid. Her tea was ready first, so she selected a secluded corner by the fireplace. It did not take long for Widow Thatcher to join her. “Well!” Widow Thatcher sighed as she sat down. “‘S good tea, this is.”
Rosette took a sip. “Aye, aye, it is.”
“Ye come here often?”
Rosette shook her head. “I — when I do my shopping, I usually go straight home afterward.”
“Ah. Ain’t much fun, sittin’ around drinkin’ tea by yerself?”
“Well … no.”
“Ain’t nothin’ like daughters fer sharin’ tea with,” Widow Thatcher mused. “Ye’ll get ter learn that right soon enough.”
“Oh, I — I hope so.” Rosette smiled. “But now …”
“Little ones an’ tea don’t always mix.”
“No, no, they don’t.” Rosette took another sip and sighed. But it was a happy sigh, a tension-relieving sigh, a sigh —
“So,” asked Widow Thatcher, “what were they sayin’ that had ye so upset?”
Rosette almost spit her tea out.
“An’ don’t pretend that ye weren’t upset,” Widow Thatcher continued. “Ye looked nigh about ter faint in there …”
Rosette looked away.
“Look, lass, I let ye buy me tea so ye could talk ter someone about yer problems — an’, speakin’ as an expert with all things related ter women an’ health, I’m thinkin’ it ain’t healthy if ye don’t talk ter nobody about … well, about anythin’.”
Rosette closed her eyes.
“So what were they sayin’?”
“They — they were talking about … about my lord.”
Widow Thatcher’s eyebrows went up. “Sir Mordred?”
“That’s what ye call him?”
For an answer, Rosette let her eyes wander around the crowded tearoom.
“Ah. Point taken. Yer lord, then.” Widow Thatcher stroked her chin as a man might stroke his beard. “What were they sayin’?”
“They … it wasn’t what they were saying, so much as … as …”
Widow Thatcher let her eyebrows do the talking.
“They were saying that he hasn’t left his workroom in … days …”
“An’ ye know that ain’t true?”
Rosette wanted to say yes — how she wanted to say yes! But she felt her head begin to shake without any orders from her mind.
“Well,” murmured Widow Thatcher. “When’s the last time ye seen ‘im?”
“Not — not since before … before his mother …”
“Before she killed herself? That was weeks ago!”
“Oh, Lord. Ye ain’t been up ter see him?”
“What? Go up to see him? Oh, no!” Rosette gasped. “I — I could never! I couldn’t … presume … that …”
“That he … that he …”
Widow Thatcher sighed, though the sound was more akin to the impatient huff of a horse than a Sim sigh. “Look, it’s a personal question, this is, but it needs askin’, apparently. Ye love him? Or are ye –”
“Of course I love him!”
“He love ye?”
“Of course!” replied Rosette, too quickly for her to even think about it. Which was exactly how it should be, of course.
“Then why ain’t ye been ter see ‘im?”
“It’s … it’s … you don’t understand …”
“His wife ain’t there, ye know,” Widow Thatcher pointed out. “She’s with her parents. Ye wouldn’t be offendin’ her none, by showin’ up.”
“But I … oh, I couldn’t! And who would watch the children?”
“Who’s watchin’ ’em now?”
“Oh, this is different. This is — this is necessary …”
“An’ makin’ sure yer man is all right ain’t?”
“Why do you — why does it matter to you?” Rosette huffed. “Shouldn’t you hate him? For what — for what you think happened to –”
“Rosette Chevaux,” Widow Thatcher snarled, “if ye ever want ter be able ter say ter yerself that ye’re smarter than yer ma — an’ I hope an’ pray that ye do — ye won’t go on an’ say what I think ye might be goin’ ter say.”
Rosette blinked. “I — I’m sorry.”
The Widow surveyed her with a rueful not-quite-smile. “Look,” she sighed, “maybe ye got a reason ter be wonderin’ why I’m tellin’ ye ter go help yer man, when I ain’t got no reason ter be likin’ ‘im … specially seein’ everythin’ he said about my Thorn, about Ash an’ Marigold, too. But ye see …”
Rosette folded her hands on her lap and waited.
“Well, yer man ain’t his ma. Ye ain’t yer ma. Thorn, he ain’t his ma either. An’ what yer man did, what he said … well, he did it tryin’ ter save his ma. Even if I could’ve clawed that woman’s eyes out meself, ye can’t blame her son fer tryin’ ter help her.”
“That’s … that’s very generous of you, Widow Thatcher–”
“Call me Kata.”
Widow Thatcher — Kata — smiled. “Yer boys would do the same fer ye, ye know. An’ Billy’d do the same fer me, if he didn’t want his behind redder than a poppy flower. An’ ye wantin’ ter help yer man … I’d want ter help Jeremiah, if it was him.”
Rosette closed her eyes and stared at her lap.
“So why don’t ye want ter go after him?”
“It’s … it’s not like it was between you and your husband … I … what if he got angry?” Rosette asked. “What if he — he wouldn’t want me there. I’m sure of it.”
“An’ what’s his wantin’ things got ter to do with anythin’?”
“It’s got everything to do with — everything! He could … he doesn’t have to stay with me. If I don’t show I know my place …”
“Ye said ye loved him.”
“An’ that he loves ye.”
“He — he does! I know he does.”
“Then, lass, didn’t yer ma — sorry — didn’t nobody ever tell ye that sometimes lovin’ somebody means doin’ what’s best fer ’em, even if they don’t like it much?”
Rosette gulped. “He’d see it as an intrusion. I know he would.”
“An’ I’m tellin’ ye that his opinion o’ the matter don’t matter. Ye said he ain’t been out o’ his workroom in days? Who’s gonna go up there an’ talk to ‘im, if ye don’t? His wife’s gone an’ left ‘im.”
Rosette hung her head and sighed miserably.
“An’ his best pal, ye know who he is?”
“Sir Lamorak,” Rosette whispered.
“Lady … well, his lady’s brother. Ye think he’s in a mood ter be helpin’ yer man?”
Rosette shook her head.
“Ye think the du Lacs are gonna help ‘im, considerin’ how they was leadin’ the charge … all right, not leadin’, but definitely followin’ in the rear o’ the charge against that bitch?”
Rosette jumped, but she had to shake her head.
“Yer own old lord — Sir Bors — ye think he’s gonna be much help? Never mind that, that’s a stupid question. The King an’ yer man’s kinsfolk there — after everythin’ yer man’s said an’ done with them — ye think they’re gonna be helpin’ him?”
Rosette shook her head again.
“So who’s that leave?”
“I suppose … that leaves …”
Kata waited with a raised eyebrow.
“… me …”
“An’ are ye tellin’ — not me — yerself, are ye gonna tell yerself, an’ yer children, too, that ye don’t love yer man enough ter help him when he needs it?”
Rosette looked away. She was already a failure as a daughter. She’d never have the chance to be a failure as a wife. Would she be a failure as a mistress, too?
“An’ if ye’re needin’ someone ter be watchin’ yer kids while ye go seein’ him — because I can imagine ye wouldn’t want ter be draggin’ two four-year-olds an’ a one-an’-a-half-year-old with ye — well, my Ella’s right good with little ones, an’ she’s free in the evenin’s — or if she ain’t, she will be when I say she is.”
Rosette looked up with a gasp. “You — you would do that?”
“Volunteer me daughter ter help out a woman what needs it? Sure, why not?”
“That … I can’t remember the last time someone offered to do something so … so kind for me …”
“Oh, lass — lass, come ‘ere.” Kata rose to her feet and pulled Rosette to her feet as well — and from her feet she was pulled into a bone-crushing, soul-building mother’s hug. The kind of hug she’d given, but not one she’d gotten in … in …
She’d start to cry if she thought about it, she just knew it.
“Lord, lass, but ye need some friends,” sighed Kata.
“Thank you …”
“Don’t thank me, lass — or if ye do … thank me when ye’ve gotten yer man back on the right track again.” Kata pulled away and stared into Rosette’s eyes. “An’ once ye’ve gotten him on the right track, ye go an’ get yerself back on the right track too. Because I’m bettin’ ye need it as bad as he does.”