“Just Milo is fine.”
He could smile while he said that, because he didn’t understand. Not that Nicole would have understood if she was in his position. How was it that the distance between them could seem so small and easily bridgeable from one end, and as deep and wide as the great ocean from another?
But it could be. Nicole had stood on his side of the gulf before and seen the chasm before her as only a stream with handy skipping stones. How many times had she crossed it, or thought she had, when she went down to the kitchens to flour her hands up to the elbow and poke her head into the ovens? But she saw now she hadn’t crossed it at all, not then. You didn’t cross it until you jumped the chasm permanently, looked over your shoulder to see how far you had come, and realized you would never, ever go back.
So Nicole only lowered her eyes and smiled when he said she could call him Milo, just as the slaves had when Nicole had told them that in the kitchens, she was only Nicole.
“You must think this is a — a terrible presumption,” he stumbled. It occurred to Nicole, briefly, to be surprised at his discomfort, but she pushed the surprise aside. Unlike Erin, or Roma, or Lyndsay, she knew very well that knights and lords and ladies could be just as bashful as other Sims.
“But I … I … I couldn’t leave it, the way we left it — last time,” he continued. “And I couldn’t — I didn’t want to make things harder for you at work. So I came here. I hope you don’t mind.”
Nicole had to smile. It was a smile born from sadness. Sims like him — Sims like she had been — they didn’t understand, did they? They tried to make things easier and only managed to make them harder. They could sympathize, but never empathize.
“Say something, Nicole,” Milo pleaded.
Nicole blinked. “Thank — you?”
And that was the kicker. They made your life harder, and you had to go and thank them for it.
He watched her with a puppy-like hopeful look on his face. Then he asked, “Maybe a little … more than just thank you?”
Nicole bowed her head, but she complied. “I don’t know what else there is to say, sir.”
“I’m not what you think I am.”
Nicole looked up. “Again?” she squeaked, the word out before her brain could reel them back in.
“Er — well, not like … that. I mean, I am Sir Milo Carpenter, of Glasonland formerly. But what I mean is that I am not … a lecher. A seducer. I am not like that.”
“You said as much the last time we met.”
“Yes, but you didn’t believe me then. And you don’t believe me now.” It was not a question. Nobody sounded that hurt when they asked a question, unless they thought they already knew the answer.
“It’s not a question of … believing or not believing …” Nicole groped.
“Then what is it?”
“It’s …” She looked around for inspiration and saw it wafting on the breeze. “You’d — you’d never hurt a butterfly, would you?”
“A butterfly? Of course not. Why would I?”
“Not purposely. But — accidentally?”
“Well, I suppose it’s possible –”
“Because you’re so big. And it’s so small. One wrong swipe of your hand could kill it.”
“True, but –”
“Well, you’re you. And I’m …” It was, she realized a little late, perhaps a bit egotistical to compare your own self to a butterfly. That was the sort of thing she should have waited for him to do. But it worked — it worked so well! And she certainly wasn’t going to go around comparing herself a beetle or even a ladybug when there were butterflies around. “… the butterfly.”
She saw the smile poke at his mouth before fading away. Perhaps he had been thinking the same thing she was! And she cursed herself for the tingle that stole over her at the notion. How was she supposed to chase him away if she was so darn excited every time something brought them closer together?
“I assure you,” he replied, “I am always very careful with butterflies.”
Nicole squeezed her eyes shut. Why would he not understand? It wasn’t a matter of being careful! She’d been careful, too, or so she thought when she sneaked into the kitchens. But how many times had somebody had more work to do, or had their meager supper ruined, or been whipped because of something she did?
She opened her eyes. She would have to explain. “Sir — could you put yourself in my shoes for a moment?”
Milo raised an eyebrow, but nodded.
“I — I told you, when we saw each other last time, that I had to be … careful. Sensible. Afraid, because it would be foolish to be otherwise.”
“You don’t have to be afraid of me!” he protested.
“And then you showed up at my house.”
Milo blinked and drew his head back. For the first time in their interview, she looked into the starry midnight of his eyes. She could almost see the clockwork gears working …
“Oh, Lord!” he gasped. “But I — that’s not what I meant!”
You wouldn’t mean to hurt the butterfly, either, she thought, but lacked the courage — or the cruelty — to say.
Milo rubbed the back of his neck, looked around, and took a deep breath. He looked in Nicole’s eyes. “Nicole … I’m not going to hurt you. I promise. Please — let me come in and explain?”
Nicole stared at him in blank incredulity, wondering if he really was that slow — if it was that impossible for him to get it. She hadn’t been that foolish three years ago, had she?
“I know how idiotic that just sounded,” he answered before she could even formulate a response. “In light of what you just said. Believe me. But what I want to tell you … it’s not something I want the whole square to hear. Can you trust me? This once? And then decide if you’re to trust me any more?”
“You didn’t trust me,” Nicole replied, “that time at the Onion.”
“That wasn’t about trust. That was about trying to keep you safe.”
Yes, it was about trust. But it wasn’t, perhaps, the same kind of trust that Milo was seeking from her now. It was lack of trust in her abilities, not lack of trust in her will to help and to keep him safe. Nicole sighed.
Then she looked over her shoulder and around the square. It was, as far as she could see, deserted. There may have been a dozen old biddies crowding in their windows — Erin might be perched on the ledge of the bathtub and shouting at her to chase Milo away — but she couldn’t see them now. So Nicole could pretend they did not exist.
She pushed past him and opened the door. “Come in, then.” She shooed him inside.
She hung back in the doorway, imagining what it must look like to him. The rough woods and plain homespun curtains. The simple spinning wheel and skins tossed on the floor. The checkerboard balanced on a barrel — a barrel! — and not even a proper table!
Nicole blushed. She almost slammed the door and ran back to hide in Erin’s house. It was only the knowledge that that would be supremely foolish that kept her lingering in the doorway.
Milo turned back to smile at her. Nicole gulped. “Won’t — won’t you sit down?”
He gestured to the bench, and Nicole nodded. She closed the door as he went to sit. Her hands went to lock it — but no. She was trusting him enough just letting him in. She didn’t have to trust him so much that she would willingly cut off her only escape route.
She padded to the bench and remembered that she was the hostess here. “Would you like something to eat? Something to drink? I’ve got some small ale and I could easily fix you –”
“Sit by me?”
“I — what?”
Milo managed a lopsided smile. “Well, it would be silly for you to sit all the way over there,” he gestured, “wouldn’t it?”
“I … don’t think that would be a good idea.”
He winced. “I won’t bite, Nicole.”
“I …” But she’d let him in, hadn’t she? How much worse could sitting next to him be? She’d been just as close to him those nights at the Onion. At least this way, no matter how their conversation went, her feet wouldn’t be hurting for the duration. Nicole sat.
And found herself at a loss for anything to say. She babbled to fill the silence, “I could fix you some tea. My friends give me these wonderful raspberry leaves, you won’t believe how wonderful they are until you’ve tried them …”
“Maybe later,” Milo demurred. “Nicole …” He rubbed the back of his neck. “Do you know who my father is?”
Nicole blinked. “I’m sorry?”
“I … I hadn’t … Milo, you’ve never talked about your father.”
“Not my … my natural father,” he replied. “But you haven’t heard the … story?”
“Hmm,” he murmured. “Well, it would explain … but I thought … well, never mind. It doesn’t matter. Nicole, my father was … is … King Vortigern of Glasonland.”
Nicole gasped. Even given the amount of emperors the Remans went through in a year, to sit next to the son of one! She’d never imagined —
Wait. She wasn’t entirely stupid, and even in Reme, Sims talked. King Vortigern had more bastards than many merchants had gold. “Oh,” Nicole replied.
“And my mother was … this was a long time ago, mind.”
Nicole raised her eyebrow. “Er … I would imagine?”
“Before Albion even got started. When King Arthur was just the bastard son of good King Uther.”
“I … see?”
“My mother was his maid. King Arthur’s.”
Nicole tilted her head to one side, then gasped. “Oh! Oh, my goodness!”
“My mother … wasn’t exactly given a choice in the matter,” Milo almost spat. “It wasn’t … it wasn’t rape. At least, I don’t think it was. It’s not like my mother liked to talk about the experience.”
That sounded an awful lot like rape to Nicole. But then … Milo hadn’t grown up in Reme, among the poor big-bellied slave girls who weren’t given any choice in the matter of how their babies got put in there. You couldn’t rape a slave under Reman law — at least, not your own slave — because a slave could refuse nothing her master asked of her. But according to the rogue monks and preachers who wandered the slave quarters and back allies of Reme, you could. She’d heard many an indignant sermon and tirade before somebody realized that the daughter of the house was listening and either hustled her out of there or shushed the monk.
She supposed it might be the same for chambermaids who were approached by the King. It wasn’t rape, not legally, but only because they did not have the right to refuse consent.
“I’m … sorry to hear that,” Nicole replied.
“But — but you see? You see why I … wouldn’t?” he asked. He sounded so desperate to hear her agree.
But it wasn’t that simple! He didn’t call it rape. That showed that he didn’t understand. Not the way he had to understand if he was to even think of taking up anything with her. She could not allow herself to get close to a nobleman who did not understand, in his bones, how vulnerable she and all her ilk were.
“I won’t be my father,” Milo went on. “Nobody could tell him no, and if somebody had tried … I don’t know what would have happened. He’s had men killed for denying him his pleasure. Maybe he would have done the same to a woman. Maybe he would have been too shocked to do her harm. But in any case, it never happened to him — and at this point, well,” he snorted, “I have theories, but they’re not the sort of thing you say in a lady’s presence.”
Nicole could only shrug. It was all she could do to stop herself from grinning as her heart sang, A lady’s presence! He called me a lady!
If she was enough of a lady to not … well, she wasn’t quite sure what he was not going to say, but if she was lady enough, still, that he would not say it in front of her, perhaps she was still lady enough that he would not try to damage her honor.
“But I’m … willing to hear a man say no. Or a woman,” Milo continued. “So … you don’t need to worry about me. I won’t hurt you.”
Nicole’s hands fell to her lap. She looked away.
“Nicole …” Milo wheedled. “You — you know you have one advantage over a butterfly.”
“And what would that be?” Nicole asked.
“You can talk. If I’m … crushing you, you can tell me to knock it off.”
She looked up. He had a point there.
“And I’ll listen. I swear to the good Lord, I’ll listen. I –” He took a deep breath. “I swear it on my honor as a knight, Nicole.”
Nicole could scarcely remember to breathe.
Because she knew — she knew very well — that if Roma or Lyndsay or, Lord forbid, Erin got a look into her head at this moment, they would call her a fool or worse. They would never understand. To them, a knight’s honor was nothing true, nothing special. It was just something that they swore by, as a peasant woman might swear by St. Agnes’s knitting needles or St. Darren’s paintbrush. But to Nicole …
She saw, just now, how it would be possible to leap over the chasm and meet Milo on the other side. It was because she understood — she could speak both languages. The language of the top and that of the bottom. She could tell, perhaps as Roma or Lyndsay or Erin could not, when a knight was using his honor as a peasant would use St. Agnes’s knitting needles or when he meant it. And that … that could bring her and Milo closer together.
So enveloping was this thought that Nicole scarcely noticed as she shifted closer to Milo, even if she could not help but see his grin as he put an arm around her.
“You trust me, then?” Milo asked. Nicole nodded.
“See? I knew you’d come around eventually.” He squeezed her a little closer. Nicole laughed.
“You … you’re sweet,” Nicole replied. “I … I guess I couldn’t say no.”
“So now it’s your turn,” Milo remarked, almost conversationally.
“I told you my life story! Er … the important bits. All right, some of them. You owe me yours.”
Nicole froze, the smile still in place on her face.
“You — you didn’t tell me who … who was hunting you …” she whispered.
“I didn’t? Well, that’s simple enough. It’s not like it’s because of anything I did — unless you count being born –“
“No, no! That’s just it! You don’t have to. I wouldn’t — I wouldn’t ask that of you.”
Milo pulled away and stared down at her quizzically. “Nicole?”
She clung to Erin’s words as a child might cling to its blanket to chase away the bogeymen in the dark. She owed him nothing — he didn’t even believe she owed him anything, or else he would not have spoken so cavalierly about her owing him one. She certainly didn’t owe him her deepest, darkest secrets. Even if he had told her his.
She remembered what Erin had said: Milo knew what she was. What she had been? That didn’t matter. That was over. That was the past.
And she couldn’t even bring herself to talk about it with Erin, who might understand her reluctance … or with Roma, who knew what it was to lose somebody you loved, and who would probably be so overwhelmed by the horror of losing your entire family at once that she would forget that Nicole was a member of the hated Reman patrician class. So how could she speak of it to Milo?
“Nicole?” Milo asked, drawing her to his lap with surprisingly little effort.
“I … I don’t want to talk about it,” she admitted, stupidly and stubbornly, like a child. Ashamed to meet his eyes but trying to smile for some stupid reason.
“Why not? You can trust me.”
“Trust has nothing to do with it.”
“I think it might.” He started to rub her back, or her back and side — whatever he could contrive to reach. “I’ll tell you all about why they were after me …”
“You don’t have to,” Nicole mumbled.
Milo’s stroking stilled. “Nicole?”
She closed her eyes and tried to bury her head on his shoulder.
Milo dodged her. “Nicole, are they still after you?”
How was she supposed to answer that? It had been three years since she had fled. Everyone would have forgotten the Saquinarii by now. There would have been too many other scandals, other families who been spun to the top by Fortune’s wheel and were now laboring in the muck at the bottom. Or the salt mines.
Her mother, her nieces and nephews — they were dead by now, surely. Moldering in some common grave on the edges of the salt mines. Her father and brothers bones had long since been picked clean by the lions. The lions themselves had probably been slain by gladiators or by other lions. And the gladiators and other lions were probably dead, too, in their turn.
“Because if they are … I can protect you, Nicole. I’m a knight, for the good Lord’s sake. Prince Thomas is my cousin. We’d figure something out.”
And he had to smile as he said that!
“Nicole?” he asked again. “Are you …” He brought a hand up to her face. Nicole shivered. She could not remember the last time she had been touched so gently, so tenderly …
Maybe it had been that last morning, before her world had been torn out from underneath her, when her father had looked up from his distraction when she went into his study to ask him something utterly inconsequential, and he had managed to find a smile for her and call her carissima.
“You’re crying,” he whispered.
Was she? She hadn’t even noticed the tears.
“I don’t want to talk about it,” she finally answered, a little surprised by how hard it was to speak around the lump in her throat.
“That’s … that’s all right,” he murmured. “We don’t have to talk.”
And so they didn’t.