A woman in Babette’s condition should be sure to get enough rest. All the older wives said that. Babette figured that went double for a lady. So now that the daily maid was gone, the dog settling down for a nice chew on her bone, and Babette had done all the sewing she could stand for a morning … she took a nap.
But though she closed her eyes and rested her head on her hands, sleep refused to come.
Was it the temperature? The house was nice and snug, but she was trying to sleep in a window. That could be chilly even when there was a roaring fire in the grate. Maybe she should go fetch a blanket. It wouldn’t do for her to catch a cold. Even if she was only staying inside.
All the time.
Seeing nobody …
Panna, the dog, dropped her bone with a clatter that made Babette’s eyes pop open. Then the dog stood up and padded to the door, her tail wagging.
Could — could someone be …
A merry rat-a-tat-tat sounded from the door. Babette bolted upright.
It was! It was! Someone was here!
She barely remembered to smooth her sleep-mussed hair as she hurried to the door. Somebody here! Her penance was over! She had followed her mother’s advice, to stay at home, live quietly, not put herself forward, and look how quickly it had paid off! She was already to be accepted as a lady among ladies, as she ought to be, as Sir Aglovale’s wife!
She threw the door open, all smiles, ready to exclaim and gasp and be flattered that anybody had come to see poor little her. She scarcely kept her smile on her face when she saw the visitors: only her mother-in-law and one of her sisters-in-law.
Then she saw the other visitor and her jaw nearly fell.
Crown Princess Gwendolyn! The Crown Princess! On her doorstep! Eilwen’s gentle smile and Dilys’s shy wave were nothing, twice nothing, compared to that!
“My — my ladies!” Babette squeaked. She was sure that her voice hadn’t hit such heights since she was five. “What a — a pleasant surprise!”
“I hope we’re not disturbing you?” asked Eilwen.
“Oh, of course not! Come in, come in! Shoo, Panna,” Babette replied, moving the dog out of the way and backing into the room herself. “I was — I was just about to start some sewing! But that can wait!”
The three women strode into the house, Eilwen’s gaze never leaving Babette’s face, Dilys’s soon seeking out Panna, and the Crown Princess’s never seeming to fix anywhere for very long. Babette almost tripped over her skirts as she shuffled backwards, and what a disaster that might have been! Still, it was little enough compared to the disaster she had already almost walked into. Had she slighted royalty already, having only been in the same room with one for not even five minutes? Even as Eilwen claimed her mother-in-law’s right of a kiss, Babette watched the Crown Princess.
“And now,” Eilwen said, pulling away, “it’s my pleasure to introduce you to Crown Princess Gwendolyn. Gwendolyn, this is my daughter-in-law, Lady Gwynedd.”
Babette curtsied as low as she could, given the state of her center of gravity and all, and the Crown Princess gasped. “Oh! Oh, no, that’s not necessary. Not — not in your own home!” She smiled a little shakily, thought what could a Crown Princess have to be shaky about?
Babette straightened. “Good — good day, your highness. It’s — it’s such a pleasure to meet you!”
If anything, the Crown Princess’s smile only grew more shaky. “Please, call me Gwendolyn. Your — neither your brother nor your sister stands on such ceremony.”
“Oh!” Babette gasped. First-name terms with a Princess! And not just any Princess, but the Crown Princess! Already! “Then you must call me Babette, G-Gwendolyn!”
Babette felt a shy presence hovering at her elbow and turned to see Dilys twisting her hands and smiling a smile that made Gwendolyn’s look steady as a rock. “And — and how are you … two doing?” Dilys asked.
“Oh, very well! He’s been quiet today, but maybe …” She leaned back on her hips. “Maybe he’ll give a kick for Auntie Dilys.”
It was so silly, and she hardly appreciated having near-strangers paw her belly … but these near-strangers would be her baby’s aunts and uncle and grandparents, and she hadn’t been so silly as to not notice how Eilwen’s look on her had softened the first time she had let Dilys and Delyth touch her belly. Eilwen seemed like a submissive and quiet woman, but she was the only one other than Babette’s own mother who came to see her these days, often with one of the twins in tow. And now she had brought the Crown Princess! Truly, Babette’s kindness was paying unexpected dividends already!
“It’s so exciting, getting another niece or nephew!” Dilys stood up and stammered with a smile that aimed as much to please as Panna’s wagging tail or lolling tongue. “Don’t — don’t you agree, Gwendolyn? I mean, with Princess Jessica and all …”
“Indeed. Even more so, since I may be getting one of each, to hear the Queen and Lady Guinevere talk.”
Princess Jessica was expecting twins? Well, there was gossip. Babette’s mind leapt on it as a magpie might leap upon a bit of shining thread left lying carelessly in the sun — and then realized that she had no one with whom to spread the gossip.
She smoothed her dress over her belly and remembered her duties as hostess. “Well! Ladies, would you like to sit down?”
“I don’t mind if I do, dear.” Eilwen smiled and patted her hand as she moved to one of the cushioned window seats. Dilys looked at her mother, then at Gwendolyn, then at Babette, and finally at Panna. Panna cocked her head and whined.
“I’m sure Panna would like to be played with, Dilys,” said Babette, and somehow forbore from rolling her eyes as Dilys practically skipped closer to the dog. Really, what was wrong with that girl, to prefer a dog when there was a princess in the room?
“And you, Gwendolyn? Can I get you anything — er — can I get anyone anything?” Babette corrected, remembering that it would hardly be polite or politic to forget one’s own mother-in-law.
“No, thank you, dear!” Eilwen called from her cushioned sofa. Dilys shook her head, or at least Babette assumed she shook her head as Dilys didn’t make a request and Babette didn’t turn around to look. She was too busy watching the Crown Princess.
“No, no thank you,” Gwendolyn smiled. “You … may I say that you have a lovely home?” she asked as they walked to the cushions.
May she? May she? A Princess could compliment her decorating until the cows came home and went back out to the fields again! “Oh, thank you! I was a bit hesitant about all the green, but, you know, it was all for dear Aglovale.” She made sure to sigh happily when she said her husband’s name. She was, after all, a newlywed … even if her wedding had been a cut-rate, barely-attended affair; her belly was only just squeezed into her best dress; and her husband had returned to school the morning after and had yet to see her since. A hastily-scribbled note once a week was all she got from him.
“I like the green,” was Gwendolyn’s response, and Babette was in raptures — until she saw the cushioned window seat more clearly. Eilwen had taken the middle cushion! She couldn’t sit next to Gwendolyn! It was half a miracle that she was able to keep a smile on her face as she sat down.
“So!” Babette smiled and slapped her hands down on her knees. “What’s new? I scarcely get out at all these days; you must tell me all the gossip!”
Both Eilwen and Gwendolyn looked pained. Had Babette stuck her foot into it? Were ladies not supposed to talk about the gossip? But what did fine ladies do, if not take out their fine embroidery and gossip over it with each other?
“I — I saw your little nephew last week,” Gwendolyn replied. “He’s an adorable little baby. Have you gotten a chance to see him yet? I mean, er, with your … condition …” The Crown Princess blushed.
“Oh, yes, of course!” Babette replied breezily, even if she was more than a little disappointed that they were choosing to talk about Dannie and Rob’s baby, of all things. Not that little Stephan wasn’t adorable, but … well, she was sitting with a Crown Princess and a fine lady! Surely there must be better things to discuss! “Papa sent a carriage around. So I wouldn’t have to risk … well.” She patted her belly.
“Very sensible of your father,” Eilwen approved. “Have he and your brothers had a chance to see what you and your mother have done to the place?”
“Naturally. Rob was even halfway interested!” Babette tittered.
“Good, good. It’s always good to know that a young woman has the support of her family, still, in times like … these.” Eilwen patted Babette’s knee and smiled. Babette wrinkled her brows. Why wouldn’t her family be supporting her? Oh, it had looked dark at first — but now she was married, a lady! A lady due to give them a grandchild in a few short months! What was there not to support?
A lady cooped up in a little cottage that was reserved for the wives and families of army houses … a lady whom nobody ever came to see … a wife who hadn’t seen her husband since the wedding …
“We — we must get you introduced to … everybody,” Gwendolyn started, only to finish quite lamely. “Only, it’s quite — quite difficult right now, with all the young ladies away at Camford. And the elder ladies … well …”
“Lady Guinevere and Princess Jessica are quite busy now,” Eilwen excused them, “and your own mother, dear, as we all know, has so much on her plate these days, with your little brother and sister and arranging your sister’s wedding! But perhaps we can arrange a nice get-together the next time there’s a break.”
“Oh, yes!” Gwendolyn agreed with relief. “A — a get-together, with all the sorority girls! And maybe Stephan and Jess–Princess Jessica’s baby or babies will be big enough to travel a little bit by then. That would be so sweet, all of us together with our babies. And Babette, you could be an honorary sister, since you’re Heloise’s sister.”
Babette blinked. She was being allowed into the group as Heloise’s sister? She thanked the good Lord Wright that Heloise wasn’t here to hear this. She would never, ever let Babette forget that once — just once — she was the one with the social connections, and Babette the outsider looking in.
And Babette couldn’t even gloat to her that she knew the Crown Princess and was allowed to call her Gwendolyn, because Heloise had lived in the same house with the Crown Princess for half a year and was allowed to call her Lynn!
“That’s — that’s so kind of you, Gwendolyn. I’d love to! If, that is …” She patted her belly.
“Oh, of course! We’ll arrange it around your convenience,” promised Gwendolyn.
“And, assuming she’s invited, I shall get Dindrane to pry herself from her books to make the introductions, rather than ruin your party with my gray head.”
“Oh, Lady Eilwen! Of course both you and Lady Dindrane would be invited!” Gwendolyn gasped.
“That’s very sweet of you, dear, but it’s hardly necessary. Besides, it will do Dindrane some good to get out.”
Babette buried her hands in her skirts too hide their excited spasms. At last, some real gossip! The juiciest story in the kingdom, and she, so closely connected to it — and so unable to get any details for fear of looking like a boor to her in-laws! “How — how is Dindrane doing these days? And Gareth, of course,” Babette added, to make her request for information seem like a mere polite inquiry as to her sister-in-law’s health.
“Oh, he’s getting so cute!” Dilys broke in — and blushed as all eyes turned to her. “I — I — I mean …”
“He is quite adorable,” sighed the fond grandmama. “And such a sweet temper, for a baby so little. He’s much like his brother was — much like all of my girls were, when they were babies. You’d hardly –” Eilwen started, and stopped.
Damn! And that was looking to get good! You’d hardly — what? Was she about to drop some juicy tidbit on Sir Mordred, on Lady Morgause? Oh, why did she have to stop? They were just girls together here!
… Well, a girl, two married ladies, and an elder matron. But still!
Babette kicked her feet below her skirts, practically squirming in anticipation and dashed hopes. If only there was another way to get some news on Lady Dindrane! She would have the gossip of the century, if she knew firsthand how she was bearing up —
And no one to share it with. That was the rub. But it would rub much less, Babette was sure, if she just knew.
Gwendolyn, however, spoke before Babette could come up with a plan. “Lady Eilwen, if — if you think Lady Dindrane ever needs an afternoon out, to herself, please tell her she’s always welcome to call on the Queen and me. She can bring all the children, too. We’d love to see them.”
“And she’s always welcome to come here, too!” Babette squeaked, kicking herself for not thinking of that idea earlier. “And I’m sure Nimue and Gawaine would love to play with Panna.”
Eilwen turned a gentle, if indulgent, smile in her direction, and too late Babette remembered that there were at least three pampered house-dogs in the Gwynedd castle, and that Nimue and Gawaine hardly had to look far if they wanted to pull tails and ears and get kisses from puppies.
“That is very, very kind of you — both of you,” replied Eilwen. Babette was unsure which of them was being specially included in “both of you” and was equally unsure whether she wanted to know, if it came right down to it. She was a little more certain when Eilwen added, “Nimue and Gawaine do love to play with our dogs, so playing with Panna would be a treat for them.”
“Like their auntie?” Babette asked, and too late realized how those words would sound. Except — except she hadn’t meant them —
All right, she had meant them that way — goodness gracious, Dilys was fifteen and ought to be able to carry on an adult conversation by now! — but she hadn’t meant them to sound that way!
Dilys, hearing, straightened, and Babette had the exquisite agony of watching the blush rise up her sister-in-law’s pale cheeks and knowing she was going to be blamed for it. “Babette!” Dilys said, and blushed more deeply, since clearly that was all she had thought to say.
“Yes, dear?” Babette replied with her gentlest tone and smile.
“Have — have you d-done anything more with the house?” Dilys stammered.
“Oh, yes!” Babette hopped to her feet as lightly as she could — anything to make everyone forget any potential humiliation. “I’ve decorated the baby’s room!”
“The baby’s room!” Dilys gasped, and Babette took her chance to make everyone forget her comments and ran with it — well, figuratively speaking.
“Here we are!” Babette said after she led the other ladies up the stairs and into the room. “I thought white would be a sweet color for a baby, don’t you? Especially since we don’t know which kind it’s going to be yet!” Babette giggled and patted her belly.
“It’s very lovely,” Gwendolyn said, sincerely.
“You have excellent taste, Babette,” Eilwen added, in that sort of tone that mothers-in-law took when they took issue with something their daughters-in-law had done but for whatever reason did not want to say so aloud. Babette wondered what it was that she could have possibly done. Was it the lack of green? But Rob and Dannie decorated their nursery in green! She couldn’t look as if she was copying them of all people!
… Even if she had gotten the baby furniture from the same carpenter … especially since she’d gotten the baby furniture from the same carpenter …
Dilys, who had seemed so interested in seeing this room in the first place, said nothing, only observing the quilt on one wall with an unreadable expression. “You like that, dear?” asked Eilwen.
“It’s a nice splash of color without being too dramatic,” Dilys agreed softly. She and Eilwen looked ready to discuss that for hours, or at least a few minutes …
Leaving Babette free to have a moment alone with Gwendolyn. “And how is the little princess doing?” Babette gushed — that was always a surefire way to get any mother’s sympathy and approval, wasn’t it?
“Oh!” Gwendolyn grinned. It was the biggest, realest smile she had seen on the Princess’s face since she walked into the door. “Oh, she’s getting so big! And playing and smiling and pulling her papa’s hair!”
“Truly?” Babette gasped. Of course Josh had let Darius get away with all kinds of hair-pulling and other mischief, but she thought it might have been different for a Prince.
“Truly! And it’s worse with Grandpapa — but as Tommy tells him, it’s his own fault for wearing his hair so long.”
A baby was allowed to grab the King’s hair with her chubby little fists and pull it however she pleased. It didn’t matter that this baby was the King’s own granddaughter. Truly, the world had turned upside-down.
“You know,” Gwendolyn murmured, and smiled as she did, “if you — I know you already have a mother, and sisters-in-law, and plenty of help and advice, but if you ever need help or advice once your baby comes … I at least know what’s to be expected with newborns.”
“Oh, you’re too kind, Gwendolyn! But I’m so glad — I know all about babies. I was old enough to be paying attention when Darius — my nephew — was born and was little.”
Gwendolyn only smiled that infuriating smile of older ladies who thought they knew everything. “I think you might find it’s different when it’s your own baby.”
Babette smiled and shrugged, because it was very, very rude to contradict royalty.
And then her stomach — her terrible stomach! — betrayed her. It growled. Loudly. Babette blushed. Eilwen’s and Gwendolyn’s indulgent smiles only made it worse.
Babette coughed and smoothed her dress. “Er … I always do get a snack around this time … I don’t suppose I could interest you in some tea?”
“Of course, dear. We’ll help you,” Eilwen replied. And so there was another trek down the stairs, and another polite flurrying for precedence when it came time to sit down.
But Babette managed to retreat into the kitchen alone. It took some doing, since Eilwen seemed bound and determined to have Dilys help her, but Babette went in there alone.
She needed to regroup.
One: the Crown Princess had come to visit her.
Two: she seemed almost to like her.
Three: she had avoided doing anything too common or gauche in front of her exalted guests.
Babette felt herself let the breath come from her in a rush.
There was hope for her yet.