“Ma!” Billy yelled. “Ma, they’re — they’re doin’ it in the front yard!”
“Who’s doin’ what?” Kata replied, not taking her eyes off the bowl of kasha she was mixing.
“Lukas an’ Ella! They’re — they’re –”
For a barely perceptible second, Kata paused in her stirring. Who wouldn’t, hearing that her teenage daughter was “doing it” on the front yard with her young man? But when one got that kind of announcement from one’s eleven-year-old son, well, one went on with the stirring. Billy would have been far more traumatized if Ella had actually been doing “it” with anyone. Now, he was only annoyed and petulant.
“They’re what, son?”
“They’re bein’ all — all gross! An’ romantic!”
No reason to fret, then.
“Are they?” Kata chuckled. She lifted the spoon from the kasha, watched the mixture slip all-too-quickly back into the bowl. Needs more stirrin’, then.
“Ye’re actin’ like it’s — like it’s — funny!”
“Oh, lad, that ain’t what’s makin’ me laugh.”
“What is, then?”
“Jest imaginin’ yer face when ye find yerself a young lady an’ start bein’ gross an’ romantic with her, an’ I remind ye of this conversation.”
Billy snorted. “That won’t be fer a good long time.”
Define long, son!
“But Ma,” Billy continued, coming up to her. “Ma — Ma, this is important!”
“More important than dinner?”
Kata chuckled, but she put the bowl on the counter and turned. “All right, my lad, spill. What’s more important than dinner?”
“They’re actin’ even weirder than normal!”
Kata narrowed her eyes at Billy and knit her brows. “What d’ye mean, even weirder than normal?”
“Lukas was down on one knee in front o’ Ella! An’ he was sayin’ somethin’ in a real low voice, an’ Ella looked like she was either gonna start laughin’ or cryin’ real quick.”
Kata blinked. Well, she hadn’t been expecting this quite yet …
“Indeed,” she murmured.
“Well, Ma? Don’t ye think ye should go out there an’ … an’, I dunno, do somethin’?”
“Oh, lad,” Kata laughed. “I don’t think I’ll need ter do a thing. I think they’re workin’ it all out between themselves.”
Billy’s brows knit, and Kata realized that he truly hadn’t guessed what was going on. Well, he wouldn’t. Going down on one knee, presenting a ring, making a flowery speech — that wasn’t for folks like them. That was for merchants and gentry, maybe even some of the nobility who were able to pick their own brides. In the circles they moved in, both sets of parents and the couple got around the kitchen table and worked it all out. Or else the young woman made a shamefaced confession to her mother, who had a quiet word with the girl’s father, who had an anything-but-quiet word with the young man. But Lukas, apparently, had the soul of a romantic. Kata just hoped he also had his parents’ blessing, though she couldn’t imagine why he wouldn’t.
“Ma …” Billy started.
“Lad …” Kata sighed. “Let me finish dinner, lad. They’ll be in in a minute, they will be. An’ we’ll get everythin’ all sorted out proper.”
Billy made a face, then he stood on tiptoe and tried to see into the bowl. “What are we havin’?”
“What I’m makin’.”
Kata laughed and tousled his head. “It’s kasha, lad.”
“Oh. Like Roma’s friend Nicole makes at the Onion?”
“Oh? Ye like that kasha, then?”
“Ma, who wouldn’t?”
“Oh, I don’t know …” Kata mused, dumping the kasha into a pot and bringing it to the stove. “But they do say that a way to a man’s heart is through his stomach …”
“Admit it, lad, ye an’ Missie Nicole are a match made in heaven!”
“We are not!” Billy protested. “Lord! Can’t a man compliment a girl’s cookin’ without his ma breakin’ out the weddin’ bells?”
Kata almost howled — if his voice weren’t still piping and squeaky, he would have sounded like a confirmed bachelor twenty years his senior. But it wouldn’t do to laugh at him too openly. “No, lad, a man can’t! Nor can a little laddie who likes to fancy himself man o’ the house.”
“Well, Ma,” Billy answered, resigned, “if I won’t be man o’ the house, who will be?”
“There’s always Juniper …” Their only male cat looked up from his ball of thread when she spoke his name, then looked down again when he realized that no food was forthcoming.
Teasing Billy made what was left of the dinner preparations go by quickly — almost too quickly. She was dumping the kasha back into the serving bowl before she realized that Lukas and Ella still hadn’t come in yet. Oh, Lord, what have those two gotten up ter?
She hadn’t long to wait — she heard Ella’s distinctive pounding run up the stairs just as she was serving the kasha. “Ma!” Ella shouted, out of breath. Then she broke off and stared at Lukas, giggling.
“Ma, Lukas an’ me …” Ella took a deep breath and started giggling. “Oh, Lukas, ye tell ’em! I can’t, I’m too excited!”
“An’ I ain’t?” Lukas laughed, putting an arm around Ella’s waist and squeezing her to him.
“Oh, Lord! At this rate, nobody’ll know till we come home from the — oh, I can’t even say it! Ma, this is the best day o’ me life!”
“Yet,” Lukas filled in.
“Oh, aye, yet. The best’ll be — ooooh!!” Ella bounced up and down and Lukas kissed her forehead.
“Oh, fer the Lord’s sake,” Billy sighed, clambering onto his chair, “would ye jest spit it out already? It can’t be that good.”
“Language,” Kata reproved, eyebrows arching. Billy scrunched down.
“Lukas an’ me are gettin’ married!” Ella finally shouted. “Ye hear that, Ma! Gettin’ married!”
“Married?” Billy yelped. “What, now?”
“Soon as I’m eighteen!” Ella replied. “Oh, Ma, ain’t it wonderful! Can ye believe it? We’re gettin’ married!”
Kata smiled. “Aye, an’ aye.”
Lukas’s eyes narrowed. “Ma’am? Is somethin’ wrong?”
“Oh, nothin’ wrong, lad! We jest all celebrate different ways, that’s all. Congratulations ter the two o’ ye.”
“I know we shoulda talked ter ye before …”
“Bah! That don’t matter. What matters is that ye’ve worked it out between yerselves, an’ ye’re happy. An’ I’m happy fer ye.” She kissed the top of Ella’s forehead. “Now let’s eat.”
“… That’s all ye’re gonna say, Ma?” Ella asked, one eyebrow going up. “Good fer ye, now let’s eat?”
“Honey … when ye get ter be me age …” Kata nudged her stool out from under the table. “Ye’ll learn that there’s very little in life that ye ought ter let stand in the way of dinner.”
Besides, when Ella got to Kata’s age — or possibly younger, since she’d be getting an early start on the whole “marriage” and “children” thing — and had daughters, she would realize that an engagement brought with it a host of troubling side-problems, especially here in Albion. In Glasonland, or in Reme, it wouldn’t have mattered. But in Albion, where you couldn’t marry until you were eighteen … oh, that was over half a year away for Ella, and over half a year was a long time to wait when you were seventeen and your young man was eighteen. Especially when even the church said you didn’t need to wait, that a betrothal was as good as a marriage in their eyes.
Except, it would be rather embarrassing for the midwife’s daughter to go down the aisle with her belly sticking out half a mile in front of her. And that was only the least of the potential problems.
“Says the midwife,” Lukas laughed, drawing Kata out of her thoughts. What’s he — oh, aye. Dinner.
“Well, bein’ born, havin’ the baby, or helpin’ it inter the world would be one o’ those things,” Kata chuckled. “Which is why I’m not too keen on missin’ or pushin’ back dinner when I don’t have ter!”
Ella giggled and Billy smiled. Lukas looked sidelong at Kata before cracking a grin.
Oh, ye’re a sharp one, ain’t ye? Good. A sharp husband ain’t no bad thing, so’s long as he ain’t tryin’ ter be sharp with ye.
“So, Ma,” Ella said, taking a deep breath, “now that I’m officially engaged –”
“No, ye can’t quit school.”
“Ma! Ye didn’t even know that was what I was gonna axe ye!”
“Then what were ye gonna axe me?”
Ella pouted. “All right, maybe that was it, but –”
“Then the answer’s no.”
“Why d’ye want ter quit school so much, anyway?” Billy asked. “It ain’t that bad. Ye an’ the big ones get ter leave two hours earlier, anyway!”
“There’s so much better things I could be doin’ than goin’ ter school!” Ella answered.
Kata glanced sidelong at Lukas, but Lukas studiously stared at his plate. Hmm … better things, eh? Lukas did spend all of his workdays working Sir Mordred’s fields … but there were ways to take, say, an extended lunch when your father was the bailiff …
“Like what?” Billy asked.
“Well, fer starters, I could work some more at Sir Lancelot’s, earn more money, get some saved up fer –”
“Don’t ye worry none about yer dowry or that, Ella,” Kata broke in. “That’ll be taken care of.” And you didn’t need that big of a dowry for a girl whose young man was inheriting his father’s farm. Oh, Ella would get plenty to help her get set up, but Kata didn’t have to worry about trying to convince young women to get with child so she could give her daughter the dowry she deserved.
“I was gonna say,” Ella replied, “I could get some money laid by fer ye fer when I ain’t livin’ here no more.”
Lukas smiled at her, and Ella raised her eyebrow at Kata, as if asking, Now how are ye gonna beat that one, Ma? Eh?
Unfortunately for Ella, Kata knew just how to counter that. “That’s right generous o’ ye, lass, but I think as long as women are still havin’ babies — an’ there’s plenty o’ ladies that ain’t lookin’ ter slow down anytime soon — Billy an’ me will be all right. Besides, Billy will be workin’ as soon as ye’re eighteen an’ married, so’s we won’t be losin’ any money.”
“He won’t be earnin’ as much, though.”
“Hey! Says who?”
“Says me, ’cause ye ain’t as good as me yet. An’ Ma? He’s gonna eat ye out o’ house an’ home once he gets a little bigger. Ye’re food costs will double.”
Kata tilted her head to one side. “An’ when did ye become the expert on the male appetite lass?”
“Since I started watchin’ Lukas eat!” Ella giggled. Lukas, who was in the process of giving Kata’s kasha the love and affection it deserved, froze.
Lukas shot Kata a sheepish smile. “It’s very good kasha, ma’am.”
“Thank’ee, son. All right, Ella, point taken, but again, as long as young women keep havin’ babies, I think Billy an’ me are gonna be fine.”
“But two o’ those young women will be Roma an’ me, an’ ye won’t be chargin’ us none, won’t ye?” Ella pointed out.
“O’ course I won’t, but –“
“An’,” Ella wheedled, “ye know what I heard from Roma?”
Kata sighed and rolled her eyes. “What did ye hear from Roma?”
“Lady Clarice — Sir Bors’s daughter Lady Clarice — is studyin’ medicine at that fancy college! She’s gonna be a doctor!”
“A doc–” Kata almost yelped, but caught herself. She’d not worried when Brother Andy came and was revealed to be a doctor, because most women didn’t want a monk looking up their skirts when there was a perfectly serviceable midwife about. But a lady doctor …
“Well, most folks won’t be able to afford her,” Kata shrugged. “We’ll be fine.”
“The nobles will,” Ella pointed out. “An’ that’s where ye make most o’ yer silver.”
Kata forced herself to shrug. “Then Billy an’ I will make due with copper. ‘Sides … Roma’s been gossipin’ ter me, too. Ye know what she said? That Lady Clarice is gonna get married ter Master Ferreira’s son, after he becomes a baron.”
“So, if she’s married, she’s gonna spend plenty o’ time not bein’ able ter help with other folks’ babies, on account o’ bein’ too busy with her own. Believe me, I’ll still be able ter be gettin’ plenty o’ silver. Don’t ye worry none about Billy an’ me.”
Ella sighed. “But Ma … I ain’t learnin’ none in school. I could be workin’ on me trousseau!”
“Ella, ye’re learnin’ more than ye know. They have ye readin’ good books now, don’t they? An’ ye work on yer trousseau when they have ye do sewin’. They ain’t gonna care what ye’re workin’ on so long as ye’re workin’.”
“‘Sides, Ella,” Billy pointed out, “it ain’t like ye’re ever payin’ attention much in school anyway. Ye’re usually gigglin’ with yer friends.”
“Billy!” Ella squealed. Lukas, however, laughed.
“Let me guess,” Kata murmured, rolling her eyes, “when ye was still in school, she was doin’ most of her gigglin’ with ye?”
Lukas shrugged and flushed a little.
“No,” Billy replied. “Teacher wouldn’t let ’em sit close ter each other, since they made the rest o’ the class sick with the way they carried on.”
Kata only chuckled. “There’s somethin’ else I’ll be remindin’ ye of in a year or two …”
“Listen, Bill,” Lukas said, in that authoritative tone Kata knew he often took with his younger brother and his young nephew. Unfortunately, while that tone worked wonders on six-year-olds and under, eleven-year-old Billy only surveyed Lukas skeptically. “I won’t pretend we were … we were doin’ the most polite thing, but it weren’t makin’ nobody sick. An’ once ye get bigger — well, like yer ma says, ye’ll understand why we were actin’ the way we were.”
“I don’ think so,” Billy replied, shaking his head. “Anyway, Ella, ye should just listen ter Ma. Ma’s smarter than ye’ll ever be.”
“Billy,” Kata rolled her eyes, “while I appreciate the confidence, that ain’t no way ter talk ter yer sister.”
“Even when she deserves it?”
Especially when she deserves it, Kata chuckled inwardly, but she only replied, “Aye, lad. Now, Ella,” she continued, “I know ye don’t like school. An’ I know ye think it’s a waste o’ time. But … lass, this is yer time ter be young, ter be gigglin’ with yer friends if ye ain’t payin’ no attention ter what the teachers are sayin’. That ain’t somethin’ ter throw away before ye have ter. Don’t grow up too fast, now. Ye’ll only regret it if ye try.”
“But, ma’am,” Lukas protested, “Ella is pretty much grown already, I think. I mean … well, if the law an’ ye would let me, I’d marry her tomorrow. We’re ready, I think.”
Oh, where to begin? Kata sighed. “Lad … lad, that’s because ye’re in love. O’ course ye think ye’re ready ter get married tomorrow. But ye ain’t, if fer no other reason than that Ella ain’t got her trousseau ready yet. An’ … well … ye’re both young.”
“Ma, ye always say that when ye want us ter do somethin’ we don’t want ter do! Or the other way ’round!” Ella said.
“That’s ’cause it’s true. Look … both o’ ye … an’ ye too, Billy, as long as ye’re here. I know ye all think ye’re so grown-up an’ ready ter face the world. An’ ye know what, Ella, Lukas? Ye damn well might be right — or at any rate, ye’re as ready as ye’ll ever be. But the world ain’t … ain’t gonna be as easy ter conquer as ye think it will be. So, I say, take some more time fer yerselves, ter be young, ter not have ter — ter care an’ worry so much. Enjoy yer time. Don’t spend it all workin’ and tryin’ ter squirrel away fer money. Take the next few months as they come, take ’em easy. That’s … that’s all I’m axin’ ye, really.”
And when put like that, Ella lost the heart to argue.
But there was still one more argument to be had before the night was out. Kata made sure to foist the dishes onto Ella and Billy and made an excuse to see Lukas outside.
“Lad,” Kata sighed, “now that ye an’ Ella are engaged … we’ve got ter be havin’ a bit o’ a chat, us two.”
He’d never called her ma’am half so much before this night. Poor boy must have been shaking in his boots. Good Lord, if she scared him this much, how would Jeremiah have terrified him?
… Possibly not as much. She always was scarier than Jeremiah, even during that short spell when he was green and leafy.
“Lukas …” Kata hesitated. She’d never had this talk with Simon, probably because his and Roma’s marriage had been fixed up by her and Cerise. And she trusted Cerise, with all her faults, to keep her son in line. She had, too; Roma didn’t get pregnant until after the wedding, and that was all that mattered.
“Lad … I know ye’re betrothed now, an’ as far as the church an’ most folks are concerned, ye two can do whatever ye want. However, as Ella’s ma, I’m gonna axe ye not ter do nothin’ until –“
“What? Why not?” Lukas protested. “Er — why not, ma’am? If even the church says it’s all right …”
“Lad, will ye let me finish? I weren’t gonna axe ye ter wait until the weddin’. I were gonna axe ye ter wait until I had a talk ter Ella about some … things. So the two o’ ye don’t get no babies on the way — hopefully — until ye’re good an’ ready.”
Lukas blinked. “Oh … oh.”
“An’ ye better promise me that whatever she tells ye ter do, ye’ll do it. Because ye’ll be needin’ to cooperate fer some o’ em ter work, ye know?”
“I, well, o’ course. But ma’am, do it really matter? I mean, if we’re betrothed …”
“Aye, aye, it do. First o’ all, ye don’t want people snickerin’ behind their hands an’ rollin’ their eyes at yer bride on her weddin’ day. Ain’t fair ter ye an’ it ain’t fair ter her. Second …” Kata scratched her head. “Second, lad — well, like I was sayin’ at dinner, ye’re young. Both o’ ye are. Bein’ married is an adventure, an’ if ye rush things too much … well, before ye know it ye’re both runnin’ ragged after a whole crowd o’ toddlers an’ ye ain’t got no time ter be with each other no more. Best to take the time ye get in the beginnin’, before ye start havin’ babies. An’ that works best if there ain’t no babies started before the weddin’, aye?”
“Well, I suppose …”
“Listen ter me, Lukas. All I’m axin’ ye ter do is not push Ella inter things she might not be ready fer — an’ once ye’ve both decided ye’re ready an’ willin’, do what she axes ye ter do. That ain’t so hard, now, ain’t it?”
Lukas finally smiled. “No, ma’am. Ain’t hard at all.”
“Good lad. Now, before ye leave –“
The door flew open and Ella stepped out. “Ma! Ye weren’t gonna chase Lukas away before I had a chance ter say good night, were ye?”
Kata stepped back. “No, lass. Wouldn’t dream o’ it.”
But Ella didn’t hear her. She was too busy skipping down the steps and catapulting herself into Lukas’s arms. As for Kata, she stepped back.
Her work here was done.