“So, lad, what is it that ye’re wantin’ ter do today?”
Marigold watched her son with her sunniest smile, hoping it would hide the clouds of nervousness in her eyes. Lord, but she didn’t know what to do with her boy. How could she? She wasn’t cut out to be a mother. Plants might produce seedlings, but they sure didn’t raise them.
But he was looking up at her with those purple eyes and hopeful expression, and that sweet little smile, and Marigold knew she had to do something.
Kata told her to relax and it would all come naturally, but Kata didn’t know the half of it. Maybe normal mothers could relax and let it come naturally, but normal Sim mothers had once been the age of their children, however old the children might be. Marigold had spent a year — a fuzzy, not-well-remembered year at that — as a seedling, then, like the weeds growing up after a thunderstorm, had blossomed into adulthood overnight. She’d never been a child.
But neither had Ash, and somehow he was doing a splendid job with his three children, Thorn, and would presumably do a wonderful job with the bun cooking in Lyndsay’s oven as well. If Ash could it, so could Marigold, if only for a few hours every week or so.
“Can we look around the stalls, Mama?” Thorn asked.
That pleading expression, so sweet and hopeful — and already on the verge of disappointment — what was she supposed to say? But children weren’t often satisfied with just looking, were they? They wanted to bring something home with them. And while Marigold could afford a treat, she wasn’t sure —
“Just to look,” Thorn added to something in the vicinity of his feet. “Not to buy.”
Good Lord, were her thoughts that transparent? “O’ course we can look, honey,” Marigold replied. And as Thorn grinned and ran off to the nearest stall, she started to touch and count the coins in her purse. Thorn would be bringing something home with him, even if it was only a sweet pastry to nibble on the way.
“Mama, what’s all this?”
She looked up. An apothecary’s stall. Well, whatever else Thorn might want, he certainly wasn’t going to be wanting to bring something home from that. The word “potion” or “mixture” generally sent right-thinking children running for the hills or pronouncing themselves miraculously cured, and rightly so, in Marigold’s thinking.
“That’s an apothecary’s stall, Thorn,” she replied.
“But what’s it for?” asked Thorn.
“Er …” Didn’t Lyndsay ever take the boy shopping with her? “Well, the apothecaries mix different stuff up, an’ they give it to people ter talk when they’re sick.”
“Aye … don’t you have to take potions when ye’re sick?” Marigold asked, wondering what it was that Lyndsay and Ash were doing with him. Then again, Thorn was a hardy little kid, episode last year aside …
“Well, aye, but Uncle Ash or Grandma makes ’em,” Thorn replied.
“… Yer Uncle Ash is makin’ medicines now?” Marigold asked, mystified. When had Ash started that? And more importantly, why hadn’t he shared? Marigold never got sick, but the girls were always sending out to the apothecary for this or that. And if Ash had different cures …
“Aye. He makes all kinds o’ stuff. Sometimes Grandma helps him, too. He gives Grandma a lot of stuff fer her potions, too,” Thorn answered. “We ain’t allowed ter play in that part o’ the herb garden.”
Somehow Marigold was not surprised. “Yer allowed to play in a different part?” she asked.
“Aye! Auntie Lyndsay’s cooking herbs!” Thorn giggled.
“Really? She lets ye near ’em?”
“Sometimes,” Thorn replied. “She lets us pick ’em, too! I always get the mint and the rosemary right! But it’s Ginny what knows the oregano and caraway.”
“Smart lass, yer cousin.”
“I know,” Thorn said, without envy, just as a simple statement of fact — but with a tinge of pride, too, in the cousin who was so near in age to him to be practically his twin.
“But ye’re jest as smart a lad,” Marigold continued, running her hand through his hair. Hair. A child of hers had hair. She’d never much liked the hair on the her johns — especially when it covered their bodies like stiff curling wires, ready to poke at all the wrong times and in all the wrong places — but Thorn’s hair was soft and springy, not at all poking and wire-like at all. His father’s hair hadn’t been like that — oh, she hadn’t told the man he’d fathered Thorn, but those purple eyes were rather a giveaway — but maybe her father’s hair had been like that. She rather fancied it had. What a gift, to see one’s parent live again in one’s child.
Thorn smiled back up at her, then he asked, “Mama, what does that say?” pointing to one of the bottles.
“Er …” Marigold squinted and tried to read the label.
“Fer the St-St-Sti-mull-a-ti-on of the Male — oh! It’s jest a –” She slapped a hand over her mouth before she could finish.
“Jest a what?”
Marigold, hand still over her mouth, let her eyes slide sidelong over to Thorn. He just looked curious. Billy, she knew, would have looked all-too-knowing, half-daring her to finish that sentence. But Billy was six years older than Thorn. And Billy’s mother was Kata.
She was Thorn’s mother, and she didn’t mind if Thorn knew the facts of life — being that they were her stock-in-trade just as much as they were Kata’s, really — but who knew what Lyndsay would say if Thorn started babbling about love potions to Bran or Ginny. There had to be a way out … “Oh,” Marigold said, effecting a shrug, “it’s jest a potion fer yer boy parts. In case they ain’t workin’ right.”
Thorn wrinkled his nose. “Ye mean if ye can’t be goin’ ter to the loo?”
“Somethin’ like that.” Although now that she thought about it … a bit of aphrodisiac wouldn’t be bad to have around. There was nothing worse than a john who had paid his copper and then found he couldn’t get it up. It wasn’t the whore’s fault if he was old and crotetchty and possibly drunk, but of course the john always made it her fault. “Hey,” she asked the lad watching the shop, “how much is that …”
She stopped. She knew that look — unsure and glancing from side to side, as if he was afraid of being spotted with her. Marigold put a hand on Thorn’s shoulder and gently propelled him forward. She didn’t have to buy from men who looked at her as if she was something disgusting on the bottom of their shoes.
Well, perhaps she did, from time to time, but she didn’t have to if she could pester Ash or Kata into making up a recipe for her. She could even grow the ingredients herself if they were plant-based.
Thorn obediently moved forward, even if he did look over his shoulder at the apothecary’s stall for a heartbeat or two long enough to make Marigold feel guilty. Then he looked ahead of him. “Oh, Mama, Mama! There’s a dancer up there! Can we watch ‘er? Can we, please?”
Thank the Lord that was an easy question. “Sure we can, lad.”
Thorn looked up at her with a grin, then he ran off to watch the dancer, Marigold following at a more sedate and she hoped motherly pace in his wake.
The dancer didn’t have much of an audience at the moment, so Marigold had hope that the wide smile for Thorn would stretch far enough to include her. It seemed to — but then, the girl was wearing gypsy garb, too. The gypsies were never that bad to her people. Even Lyndsay — when Ash had still be dithering about how to court her and win her heart, she had simply slyly sized him up with those slanted eyes of hers and asked if it was true that Plantsims had leaves down there as well.
They didn’t, and Marigold was grateful for that — leaves, or, heaven forbid, bark would surely chafe worse than the hair. Still, it had been funny, in a thoroughly stomach-turning way when Marigold remembered that this was her brother she was asking about, that Lyndsay had asked. Ash had even managed to not flub up the return, replying after a moment of slack-jawed astonishment, “Care to find out?”
Her brother did have his moments every now and then.
“Ain’t this great, Mama?” Thorn asked, bouncing foot to foot in his excitement. “It’s almost like watchin’ Goodwife Brogan!”
“Goodwife Brogan?” asked Marigold, mystified.
“Aye! Auntie Ella’s boy’s sister!”
“Ain’t ye met her yet?” Thorn asked, torn between his excitement at the dancer and his conversation with his mother.
“Not … yet.”
“An’ Lukas? Ye met him yet? He says I don’t have ter call ‘im Uncle, since me callin’ his mama Mama Betsy practically makes us brothers.”
Marigold tried not to wince at the title — but she couldn’t blame Betsy Pelles. Good Lord, she owed the woman more than she could ever repay. And so what if she had told the boy to call her Mama Betsy? She’d done what she could to get him calmed down and tell him she was safe, a person to trust. Hell, she’d been brilliant.
And as for Lukas … “No, lad, I ain’t met him yet.”
“Why not?” Thorn asked, gasping.
“Er …” Marigold glanced at the dancer — and found something to gasp at. “Wow, Thorn! Look at ‘er go!”
“Wow! Go, lady, go!”
It was much easier to cheer on the dancer than to even consider answering that question.
She hadn’t met Lukas yet — and for that fact she was profoundly grateful. She didn’t get involved in potential meetings with in-laws, Lyndsay excepted. It was easier that way. Besides, she had already met Simon … professionally … before he had taken up with Roma.
It wasn’t the fact that she’d met Simon before that she minded. Better he get his urges taken care of with her girls before he got married than any reasonable alternative. It was the fact that, wife and darling little baby notwithstanding, he still kept turning up at the whorehouse from time to time. Like a bad penny, really. Marigold owed it to the girls to not turn away custom, especially since he always gravitated to Mirelle, but her stomach still twisted whenever she saw him. And if he ever pinched her on the arse again, she would clock him one, custom be damned.
No, let Lukas not pay for his pleasure, let him get his teenaged fumbling done with Ella. That was how it should be. That was how she hoped it always would be with those two.
“Mama?” asked Thorn, drawing her from her thoughts.
“Aye — yes, lad?”
“Hungry? Well, why don’t we get ye some food!” And it wasn’t much work to find food on this square. A coin tossed to the dancer, and all Marigold and Thorn had to do was follow their noses to get to the nearest stall. She let Thorn order what he would and slipped onto the stool beside him.
“Ain’t ye eatin’ nothin’, Mama?” asked Thorn.
“Eh, I’m not hungry right now, lad.”
“Oh. Like Uncle Ash? He don’t eat much, either.”
“Jest like Uncle Ash, sweetie.” Marigold let a slow sigh of relief escape her. Of course he knew all about that, living with Ash.
“Uncle Ash says meat makes him feel sick,” Thorn remarked, “and eatin’ veggies an’ fruits feels like — c-c-cabbinalism.”
“Cannibalism?” Marigold laughed. Good Lord, Ash said that in front of the kids? Then again, they probably got a kick out of it.
“Aye! That’s it!” Thorn laughed. “But he says he’s fine with bread an’ Auntie Lyndsay’s sweets an’ stuff. She has ter chase him away with her spoon, sometimes!”
“So yer Uncle Ash has a sweet tooth, then!” Marigold chortled.
“Aye!” Then Thorn frowned. “But I think he’s got a lot o’ other teeth, too. I dunno why. ‘Cause he don’t eat much.”
That might well be why, Marigold thought, remembering the stinking and rotting mouths she’d kissed for the sake of that bloody copper. And that was just one of the things that food did that to you. She couldn’t understand why all the other Sims weren’t lining up at the door, begging to be changed and be able to make energy from the very sunlight around them. It would be perfect if they would. Nobody would ever starve again; droughts might be a problem, but she didn’t drink much more than a fully-grown Sim, even if she did bathe almost every day —
“Anyway, lad –”
“Barkie! Hey, barkie!”
But she wasn’t going to be that person. No. She’d pretend that she hadn’t heard. Thorn didn’t seem to have noticed, so maybe Lyndsay and Ash had shielded her from the worst of that.
“What were ye axin’, Thorn?” Marigold said, forcing the words from gritted teeth.
“Thorn?” asked the grating voice behind her. “What kind o’ name is that? Good Lord, is that a barkie kid? Where’s yer leaves, kid?”
Thorn’s eyebrows knit and he started to turn — Marigold grabbed his shoulder and held him firm. “Don’t look.”
“Jest pretend she ain’t there.”
“Why? She’s bein’ right rude!”
Oh, son, that ain’t the half o’ it. “Aye,” Marigold agreed. “An’ we don’t talk ter rude folks. Ain’t no point, right, Thorn?”
Thorn cocked his head to one side. “Well, I guess, but …” The cook deposited his plate in front of him, and he grinned at her. “Thank ‘ee!”
The cook spared a smile for him, but shot Marigold a glance saying, clear as the summer sun, Have him eat fast and get the hell away from my stall.
Marigold sighed and slipped a copper onto the table. It was more than she owed, but maybe it would keep the cook off their backs.
“Hey! Go back ter yer tree, barkie!”
Then Marigold saw the cook wince and shoot her a look that was — sympathetic? Maybe the cook wasn’t so bad, after all. But having a shouting girl — it had to be a girl, from the voice — at her stall was probably driving away the custom. Marigold could understand that.
“Mama …” Thorn murmured.
“Ugh! He is yer kid!” put in the unwanted peanut gallery. “What kind o’ disgustin’ mess is that?”
And that was it.
“Ye sit tight, Thorn, an’ eat up. Mama’ll fix this.” She patted his shoulder and slipped off the stool. Then she marched over to the girl.
“Ooh, is the big bad barkie gonna start a fight?” the girl laughed. “Me pa’s a woodcutter, barkie! An’ I’ve been helpin’ him since I were twelve!”
And how old are ye now, bitch? Twelve an’ a half?
But if she started anything with this bitch — or if the bitch started anything with her — it would be her fault. And the last thing she wanted her son to see was her being hauled off to gaol by the leaves.
So Marigold sighed. “Look,” she whispered, “what the hell is it gonna take ter get ye to go away an’ leave me alone?”
“Excuse me?” the girl laughed. “I ain’t gotta go nowhere!”
“I didn’t say you had ter. I said, what’s it gonna take to get ye to go?” Marigold growled.
“Ooh, big bad barkie, bein’ all scary. What are ye gonna do ter me, eh, barkie?” The girl laughed. “Gonna spray pollen on me?”
“Ye know,” Marigold remarked, “some say that a Plantsim –”
“Plantsim sprayin’ pollen on ye will make ye turn inter one o’ us.” She leaned back on her heels and watched how the girl took that.
She scoffed. “As if. ‘Sides, the guards’d be haulin’ yer barkie arse ter gaol if ye even thought about tryin’!”
Damn it. It didn’t work. Well, not the trick, she’d tried it on a troublesome john once, and it hadn’t worked then. But the threat, she had founded, tended to generally do all that the trick promised to do and more. Not this time, though.
“Anyway, what the hell are ye doin’ here? Can’t ye got back inter the trees where ye belong?”
Can’t ye go back ter the bitch farm, where ye belong? “Ain’t none o’ yer business, kid. Look, I’m jest axin’ ye — stop bein’ rude. Let me have some time with me son, aye? How would ye like someone comin’ up ter ye an’ makin’ yer life a livin’ hell fer bein’ a …” She eyed the girl. “Redhead?”
Of course, with her luck, it would turn out that the girl put henna into her hair to make a more fetching color.
The girl laughed. “Oh, please! Redhead ain’t bein’ unnatural! Ye — ye don’t belong! Unholy, ye are! Barkie demon!”
“I ain’t no demon!” An’ if I were, ye’d be right stupid ter be yellin’ at me!
“Lyin’ barkie demon,” the girl answered. And looked so — smug.
It was that, more than anything, that made Marigold’s palms itch to smack that little smile off her face. It would be worth being dragged into gaol for it. It would be worth whatever fine they made her pay. It might even be worth having to deal with this girl’s woodcutter father later. Maybe she could sic Mirelle on the father —
But there was Thorn.
“Look,” Marigold sighed, “I’m tryin’ ter reason with ye, lass, but –”
“Reason? Reason! I don’t have ter listen ter no reasons from the likes o’ ye!” And she shoved Marigold.
Marigold barely moved — that’s what came of handling drunk, rowdy johns night after night. You didn’t move when a thirteen-year-old tried to shove you. But you had to do something.
The way the girl was smiling at her … she wanted Marigold to try something. She wanted Marigold to go for it. She wanted to be able to scream for the guards and have them come running — the courthouse was barely ten yards away, after all. She wanted to watch Marigold being humiliated.
Good Lord, what’s wrong with this girl? But wondering that didn’t stop Marigold from needing to do something.
She turned and walked away.
“Ha! Scared barkie! Aye, I showed ye, didn’t I?”
Marigold slipped back onto the seat beside her son. “So, Thorn, what were we –” She stopped. “Lad? Why ain’t ye eaten anythin’?”
Thorn mumbled something that sounded very close to “not hungry.”
“Oh, honey. Ye shouldn’t …”
“Go back ter yer tree, barkie!”
Marigold sighed and gestured to the cook. “Ma’am, ye got a bag fer this?”
The cook nodded and got her one without another word.
Marigold shoved the food into the bag. “We’ll go eat on the beach, lad. Won’t that be nice? Ye can play in the sand an’ –”
“Mama?” Thorn whispered.
“Can we go home?”
Marigold stared down at him, blinking sappy tears from her eyes. “Sure thing, lad. If that’s what ye’re wantin’.”
Thorn didn’t answer, but he held his arms out in a mute appeal. Marigold bent down and wrapped him into the fiercest hug she’d given him since she’d finally been allowed to see him after he had disappeared, a year ago now.
It would have to be enough.