It was that time. The time when the burial was over and everyone still stood around, speaking in hushed voices, murmuring useless platitudes about mourning and grief and giving their useless sympathy. Joshua could not remember well this time from the last funeral he had attended — Isabel’s — and for that he was grateful. It was not, after all, sympathy that most people had to give: it was pity. He knew he had been pitiful in those first few days and weeks after Isabel’s death. But he was not sure how well he would have handled pity.
But now … now it had been a long day for Darius, and this was only the second funeral he had attended. The other children were occupied with each other or with their cousins. Nobody would mind if he took Darius to the side, out of everybody’s way.
They had a visit to make.
“So … this is Mama?”
“Aye, son. This is where she is.”
Darius looked at the rosebush, then slowly craned his neck upward to stare at the statue that marked the grave — the statue, Joshua was suddenly realizing, that only had a hint of any garments at all. He wondered what Isabel would have said to that. He wondered if Isabel would have covered Darius’s eyes with her hand, as Joshua half had a mind to do himself. Then again, perhaps not. He had brought Isabel to the art galleries in Camford once or twice when they were courting, and she had never blushed at anything, even when Joshua had wanted to cover his own eyes, never mind those of the innocent maiden (even though he knew she was hardly innocent and, at least a few of the times they went to the galleries, no longer a maiden) beside him.
“But I thought,” Darius murmured, “that Mama was in Heaven?”
“Well, yes, she is — her spirit is. Her … her body is here.”
“Oh.” Darius’s eyebrows knit together and he looked again at the statue, then at the rosebush, then at the grass below his feet. “How come Mama doesn’t get a house?”
“A — a what?”
“A house. Like Granny.” Darius gestured to the above-ground grave that housed Maude’s mortal remains. “I think that would be …” Darius looked again at the earth over his mother. “Warmer,” he decided.
Well, Joshua had a feeling he knew why Maude had the above-ground grave: if and when Richard got that barony and control of Port Finessa — and if and when Bianca wanted her mother close when that happened — it would be easier to disinter Maude and bring her there. But that was not a reason a four-year-old would understand.
“I — I thought,” although that wasn’t quite true; Joshua had not been able to make arrangements when arrangements needed making, “that your mother would want to be closer to the trees and the birds and the flowers.” Joshua looked again at the roses. “She — she loved flowers.”
Joshua swallowed, remembering when they had both been students at Camford. Remembering the first time they had made love in that big, wide bed she had. The curtains, the bedspread, the wall-hangings — roses, all roses. He remembered when they had come back to Albion and Isabel had scoured the flower shops for a certain flower from her homeland, the boca de dragón. She never found her dragon-flower. Joshua wished he could have given one to her, just once, to make her smile.
“Papa?” Darius asked.
“Why do you want to talk about Mama?”
Joshua blinked. “Why wouldn’t I want to talk about Mama?”
“Because you’re always sad when you talk about her.”
Out of the mouths of babes, indeed.
“We don’t have to talk about her if it makes you sad, Papa,” Darius continued. “I don’t mind.”
Good Lord, where to begin? “Does talking about Mama make you sad?” he asked.
Again Darius knit his brows in that puzzled or thoughtful way he had. He shook his head. “No.”
“Good. It shouldn’t make you sad.”
“But it makes you sad.”
“I …” Joshua sighed. How to explain this to a four-year-old? There was not a day that went by that he did not think of Isabel. There was scarcely a thing that happened with the children that he did not wish she was around for — either to see and be happy, as he was, or to help him figure it out. She had been laying here for a year and a half, but in a way, she was still with Joshua. And not in the sentimental way that the monks and the pious assured each other that the dead were with them always. Isabel was with him as an old battle-scar was with him. The wound had scabbed over — it had, to the layman’s eye, healed — but any wound would continue to hurt if you kept prodding it. The universe conspired to keep prodding Joshua’s old wound.
“It’s like this, Darius,” Josh continued. He could hear the soft crunch of sensible shoes on gravel behind him, but chose to ignore it. “I loved your Mama more than anything, besides you and Baby Belle. And I still miss her, every day. But … but I want to keep talking about her. Because she made me very happy — she made you very happy, too — when she was alive. And I want to feel that happy again.”
“But Grandma and Grandpa don’t get sad when they talk about her,” Darius replied. “At least, not anymore. Didn’t they love her too?”
“Yes, they did — but they didn’t … mamas and papas have a special kind of love, Darius. It’s more … intense. Grandma and Grandpa loved your Mama very much, but they couldn’t love her like that.” Thank the Lord. That’s all this family would need.
“Oh,” Darius replied. Joshua had no idea how much of that had sunk in — probably all of it. Or at least, as much as was possible for a four-year-old. Knowing Darius, he had soaked it all up, and someday, when Joshua was least expecting it, there would come a question that the boy had been mulling over and considering for days or weeks or even months.
“And it’s a good thing, too,” came a voice far too light for a funeral from behind him. “Can you imagine the family fights if everybody loved everybody like that?”
Joshua almost yelped, but thankfully restrained himself. He turned around. Cressida — Widow Tabard. In a feast-day gown — but it was probably the best she had. He knew from Rob that the Chausseurs were still finding their feet. The expense of another set of clothes for funerals was probably too much for them right now.
“Widow Tabard!” called Darius, probably happy for any distraction from the way their conversation was going. “Is Ned here?”
“Darius,” Josh murmured.
“Oh — uh,” Darius rubbed the back of his neck and stared at his feet. Joshua watched Cressida’s face. She was smiling gently, even if there was a hint of what Joshua thought of as that Ferreira half-grin, the one that concealed a great deal of mirth. However, it was probably better called the Parkinson half-grin — Lord knew it had to come from Maude, not by way of Richard.
Darius looked up with his normal nervous smile. “Hello, Widow Tabard.” He stuck his hand out nervously. “How do you do?”
“I’m doing very well, thank you, little man!” Cressida replied. Darius beamed, as he always did whenever anybody called him “little man.” “And to answer your question — no, Ned isn’t here. Your Auntie Babette is watching him.”
“So he’s with Baby Belle and Stevie-weevie?”
Cressida giggled, probably at the ridiculous nickname with which Dannie had saddled Joshua’s nephew when Rob wasn’t around to prevent it. If George, still often called Georgie-porgie at the age of fifteen, was anything to judge by, Stephan would be Stevie-weevie from cradle to grave. Joshua could only be grateful that nobody had thought to give him such a terrible pet name when he was too young to protect himself. And he had reason to be grateful to Isabel, too — Darius was not the sort of name to which one could easily attach a cringe-worthy pet name.
“Yes,” Cressida answered, “yes, he is.”
“Papa!” Darius called, eyes wide and pleading. “Papa, can we go see him after we’re done here? Can we, can we? Please?”
Joshua glanced at Cressida.
“Well,” Cressida murmured, sensing his gaze, “I know Ned would love to see his favorite friend … but that’s only if your papa thinks it’s all right.” She winked at Joshua.
“Well, Papa doesn’t have a problem with invading Auntie Babette’s new house,” Joshua replied, sending Darius into a fit of giggling. “What?” Joshua gasped. “What’s so funny about that? Think about it, son! You, me, Widow Tabard — probably her sister and her nieces and nephews — if that isn’t an invasionary force, I don’t know what is!”
Darius giggled. “Auntie Babette isn’t going to be happy!”
“All to the better!” After all, after the scrape his sister had gotten her into — and which Mark had nearly had apoplexy trying to get her out of — a little bit of annoyance was the least she had coming to her, in Joshua’s opinion.
Darius grinned and hurled himself at Joshua, hands locked around his waist. “You’re happy again, Papa.”
“Heh.” Joshua ruffled his boy’s hair, tried to keep smiling, and sent a half-panicked glance at Cressida, praying she wouldn’t — wouldn’t —
Wouldn’t what? Of all the people in this kingdom, Cressida would at least understand.
Her head cocked a little to one side, then she crouched to Darius’s level. “Darius? Have you ever met my nephew Henry and my niece Pippa?”
Darius looked up and shook his head.
“Well, Pippa is just your age –” Darius made a face, probably at the thought of a girl tagging along after him. “… and Henry is a bit older, but he’s a lot of fun. Why don’t you go down there and meet them? Tell them I sent you.”
Darius glanced at Joshua for permission; Joshua nodded. Darius grinned and skipped off down the hill.
Leaving Joshua and Cressida alone.
“Thank –” Joshua started.
“I –” Cressida began. They stared at each other. Finally Cressida began to chuckle. Joshua joined in.
“You first,” Joshua said, finally, when he could speak again.
“I just wanted to — to apologize, if that was intrusive …”
Joshua shook his head. “I was going to thank you. That — I think Darius needed that distraction.” He glanced over his shoulder, watching Darius slowly make his way over to the dark-haired boy and dark-haired girl. Poor shy little man. Thank the Lord he’d showed signs of it since he was a baby, else Joshua would be terrified that Isabel’s death had permanently shattered Darius the way it had shattered Joshua. “I … he takes it all in, you know. Everything I say. And so sometimes I don’t know when it’s too much.”
“I understand. Geoff was the same way when he was Darius’s age.” She smiled. “Still is, sometimes.”
“He’s a little man, too,” Cressida sighed. “Only not quite as little. Not quite as cute, either, as your Darius — er — well, he was, when he was Darius’s age. But not anymore.”
“Darn,” Joshua sighed and shook his head, “you mean they don’t stay that adorable forever?”
Cressida giggled. “Well — maybe your Darius might. I hope he does. Geoff is too much of a … little man to be adorable.”
Joshua knit his brows, looking, for a moment, much like his son — but unlike Darius, who tended to file away most questions for later, Joshua realized the right one to ask rather quickly. “He’s convinced he has to be the man of the house, eh?”
“I know!” Cressida replied, fervently enough to make Joshua start. “But Blanche doesn’t agree. She thinks –” She stopped. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t be boring you with our … family problems.”
Joshua snorted. “Please. I think if there are any two families that might … understand each other’s problems, it’s yours and mine.”
Cressida blinked. “You mean that?”
“Of course. Think about it!”
“No, I mean –” Cressida smiled sideways. “I meant the license to talk.”
“Oh, that!” Joshua’s exaggerated realization made Cressida giggle again. Interesting — Isabel never giggled, she always had a full-throated laugh whenever she found something funny. Making that laugh come out had been one of the chief objectives of Joshua’s life. But Cressida’s giggles, easy to coax as they were, were … not unpleasant. Not unpleasant at all.
“Aye, of course, I meant that,” Joshua replied. A bit more seriously, he added, “I wouldn’t have said that if I didn’t mean it.”
“No,” Cressida murmured, “no, you wouldn’t, would you? Anyway …” She pushed a trailing lock of blonde hair behind her ear. “Blanche … Blanche lets Geoff keep thinking he’s man of the house. She thinks it lets him feel less … powerless. Gives him a sense of control.”
“He’s — how old is he?”
“Eleven. Well, eleven and a half, he’d tell you.”
“Hmm. Seems to me that any kid young enough to take ‘halves’ seriously isn’t quite … ready to have a sense of control.”
“I agree,” Cressida sighed. “I think Blanche … well, she hates feeling powerless. So she thinks Geoff must feel the same way.” Cressida put a finger to her lower lip. “Then again … they are rather alike.”
“Maybe she knows best,” Joshua said. He had to say it — it gave him hope that he might just know what he was doing with Darius and Baby Belle. After all, it was just him, now. “After all — don’t you know best with Ned?”
“My mother and my sister know not to argue when I say I do!” Cressida laughed, and Joshua laughed with her.
“Still,” Joshua murmured after a moment’s mirth, “that must be … comforting. To always have somebody to turn to when you’re not sure.”
“You have the same thing, don’t you?” asked Cressida. “With your parents?”
“Hardly the same thing,” Joshua replied — then looked into Cressida’s blinking green eyes and realized that, yes, he had indeed said that out loud. Damn it! “It’s a different dynamic, parents and a son. I … I don’t know how …”
“‘Your son is your son until he gets a wife, but your daughter is your daughter for life’?” Cressida asked.
Joshua chuckled. “Something — something like that. I used to think that only was for younger sons, but now I know … after I married Isabel …”
“Yes,” Cressida replied. And he knew she understood.
Joshua tried to shoot her a thankful smile, but Cressida was looking at the grave — Isabel’s grave — with a slightly puzzled frown. “Isabel … that’s a Simspanish name, isn’t it?”
“Aye, it is.”
Cressida still stared at the grave, blinking. “Edward died in Simspain.”
Joshua looked at the grave too. “Isabel fled because of the Smoors. They destroyed her city — her home. Killed her father. She lost — well, almost everything.”
“Edward was fighting the Smoors.”
Good Lord, this was turning dark. Joshua looked once more at the grave, then gulped. “You know … why don’t we have a seat? There’s a bench over there …”
Cressida needed no further prodding to follow him.
There were actually a pair of benches “over there” — and when Cressida took one, Joshua took the other. To do anything else, when the ghost of Isabel — and perhaps the ghost of Edward, too — was so near, felt … wrong. He smoothed the fine weave of his tunic, wondering what to say next.
“I’m sorry,” Cressida said, sparing him that quandary. “I just –”
“You don’t have to apologize.”
“We were having a nice conversation. And I …”
“You can’t help it,” Joshua replied. “I — I can’t help it either, sometimes. Something happens and there — there Isabel is. And I can’t think of anything else.”
“It’s different for you. You lost her … how old is your daughter?”
“Only eighteen months ago,” Cressida continued. “I’ve got another year on top of that — and that was only when I found out. Edward … Edward was gone for months before I knew about it.”
Joshua’s eyes slowly swept over to the grave, to Isabel. To have lived for months, blithely assuming she was fine, only to find out later that she had been dead and gone all that time … if ever Joshua thought the Lord Wright was cruel, it was when he contemplated fates like that. Joshua swallowed. “That time doesn’t count,” he heard himself say, too firmly for his own peace of mind.
“He’s been dead longer than my Ned has been alive. And my Ned has been my world for — forever. Yet sometimes I feel like Edward only left me yesterday. Does that even make sense?”
“Yes,” Joshua replied. And there was another cruelty: parents who did not live long enough to see their own children. He knew that Edward had not seen Ned — had Isabel had a chance to see Baby Belle? He had not been allowed into the room, and he had not had the courage to ask his mother or Widow Thatcher. He hoped yes — he didn’t want to know if the answer was no.
“How?” Cressida asked.
“Sometimes I feel the same way about Baby Belle. She’s been in my life forever — but Isabel only left me yesterday.”
Cressida managed to smile, slowly. Joshua thought he knew what she was thinking: finally, someone who understood. Neither her mother nor her sister had welcomed a child and said farewell to the spouse in such quick succession.
And speaking of the children … “How were you planning –” Joshua started, and stopped.
“How was I planning?”
“It’s … an impertinent question. But it’s not one I can ask anybody else.”
Cressida blinked. “All … right …”
“Ned can’t remember his father. How — how do you go about …?” Joshua started, praying she would understand his drift.
“… Oh …” Cressida sighed. “I used to talk about Edward to Ned when Ned was a baby. It was — sometimes it was the only thing that kept me going. But then …”
“John died. And now — I don’t get much alone time with Ned. We’re all so busy. I try to tell him stories at bedtime, but …” She sighed and stared at her lap.
“It honestly wouldn’t surprise me if Ned thinks that the Papa that Geoff and Henry and Pippa talk about all the time is the same as his Papa.”
Joshua couldn’t help it — he laughed at the ensuing mental scandal. “Some family!”
Cressida’s eyes widened, but after a moment, she laughed too. “Oh, Lord! Could you imagine!”
“They’ll be brought up much like brothers and sisters, won’t they?” asked Joshua. “I mean, I imagine the line between ‘sibling’ and ‘cousin’ isn’t that thick when you’re all fighting over the same toys.”
“More like stepsiblings,” Cressida murmured. “They’ll have one parent, all of them, that they can hope to play off the other — who isn’t their parent, so no guilt there.”
“Good Lord! They’ll have the time of their life, playing on all three of you!”
“Just like your Darius and Baby Belle,” Cressida smiled.
Joshua blinked. Somehow — he had never thought of it like that. But with the grandparents, and Joshua, and no Isabel to keep order …
Good Lord, they were doomed once Baby Belle got old enough and Darius devious enough to start playing on them. It wasn’t as good as having Isabel — but perhaps Baby Belle and Darius would have some fun out of it, anyway.
“Cressida!” The call, creaky as an old gate and twice as irritating, made them both cringe. “Where did you get to? We need to go!”
“That,” Cressida sighed, “would be my mother.”
Joshua nodded. “Let me collect Darius — then we can descend on my sister.”
Cressida chortled. “Aye! That should be fun.”
“It will be. And — Cressida –”
Joshua was never certain just why he did what he did next. It was — sudden. Unplanned. It just sort of happened, his muscles acting on their own without consulting him. Perhaps Isabel had whispered the suggestion in his ear.
But whatever the reason, he found his hand near hers, took it, and raised it to his lips.
He kissed it — the briefest of pecks — but before he let it fall, he smiled at her.
“Thank you,” Joshua said. “It was nice to talk to — someone who understands.”