“Sleep tight, Lionel,” Claire whispered into the crib, patting her son’s head. Lionel was the better napper of the twins, easier to tire out and easier to keep quiet for the duration of naptime. Evette was the little whirlwind, never wanting to stop in her playing until she had made her self sick, and always pitching a fit when the nurse went to put her down for her nap. Claire could still hear muted protests from the next room.
But Lionel was her good sleeper, content to stay in his crib and only making noise when he was desperate to get out of it. Soon, however, the time for cribs would be past, and the time for naps would follow. Then there would only be bedtime battles — at least, until Elyan returned home from Camford and got started on grandchildren.
Claire was actually perversely grateful that that would not be for a few years yet. She loved being a grandmother, but she was suspecting that she loved it better at a distance. She loved being with Elise — but being able to hand her back to her parents when she grew fussy or overtired worked much better if you would soon be getting into your carriage and going home.A hesitant hand knocked at the door. That’s — odd … Claire straightened and hurried over, pulling the door only wide enough to slip out between it and shutting it as softly as she could. A worried chambermaid stood and wrung her hands before Claire. “Oh, m’lady — it’s the Crown Prince, come ter see ye!” The Crown — The Crown Prince simply didnot go visiting Sims, even his own mother-in-law. If he wanted them, he summoned them. If he was here … Claire found herself nodding to the maid. “Thank you. I’ll head down immediately.” She scarcely took time to tug on either side of her crispinette as she hurried down the steps. The Prince nervously tugging at his sleeves did nothing to calm Claire when she finally hurried down the hall and spilled out into the vestibule. She stopped, one hand on the doorpost. “Your Highness?” He looked up, a touch guiltily, then flashed her a smile. It was a nervous smile, an unsure smile, but not — Claire watched closely — a despairing smile. Not a panicked one, either. “Lady Claire.” He bowed slightly, Claire remembered to curtsey. “Sorry for disturbing you, but I was … er … in the neighborhood …” If he was apologizing for disturbing her and making excuses, then whatever he had to say or ask could not be a harbinger of catastrophe. Claire began to breathe again. “Nonsense,” she said, mentally wincing to hear her husband’s catchphrase escaping her lips. “You’re always welcome here. Can I get anything to eat? To drink?” “No, no thank you, my lady — liquid courage is about the last thing I need right now.” Out came that sheepish smile — but it was only halfway sheepish. Apparently the Prince had tapped enough into his not-inconsiderable reserves of courage to put up his usual front. “I’ve come to talk to you about something you probably won’t find very pleasant, you see, and I’m afraid I need all my wits about me.” Not … pleasant? Claire’s stomach clenched. “Oh — oh –“ “Everybody’s in perfect health, though,” he hastened to add. “So you needn’t worry about that.” Claire took a gasping breath. “I’m sorry,” she murmured, as soon as the shudder had left her. “I just — when you said that –“ “I know,” the Prince replied, scratching his head. “I know I shouldn’t be bothering you with this, but — I don’t know where else to go. Except maybe Morgan. And she might well have my head for what I’ve already tried to be doing.” Claire blinked. “Morgan? But I thought you said …” “Everybody’s in perfect health,” he repeated, with a rueful half of a smile. “Physical health, at least.” “Lynn?” Claire whispered. The Prince nodded, and she shuddered. “What — what’s wrong?” He sighed. “She wants another baby — of the masculine persuasion. And I think we might both know why …” “But — but, you need a boy,” Claire protested, grasping at any straw she could find. “Aye, we do. But, as I said to her, we don’t need a boy tomorrow. Or nine months from tomorrow.” Nine months from … “But Elise isn’t even a year old yet!” “I know.” Claire took a deep breath. At first, Bors had let her wait a year before trying again — it was only after he had grown frustrated after Angelique’s birth that he had insisted that Claire hand the baby to a wet nurse and they begin trying again as soon as her courses became regular. If Lynn was putting that sort of pressure on herself, without even having Bors glowering at her and hectoring her back into childbed … Wait a moment … “Has her father been speaking with her?” “About that? Not if he values his life,” the Prince replied with a grin that just bordered on feral. Perhaps there was something to be said for that. Bors had improved, somewhat, ever since that fateful “conversation” with the Prince. But she knew that his heart still hadn’t changed. She could deal with that, since his behavior was slowly becoming more respectful. But could Lynn? Bors might not be stupid enough to say a word to her about sons, but he could communicate a great deal in a look. And Lynn could read those looks, none better. “Are you … sure?” Claire asked. “Positive.” He rubbed the back of his neck like a sheepish boy trying to get out of trouble. “I told my mother about what he said, you know. Just after Elise was born. Well, and my father, but I wasn’t exactly recruiting him to the cause. But Bors doesn’t get to talk to Lynn without either my mother or I bursting in at the worst possible moment.” Claire managed to smile at that. She could trust the Queen to keep an eye out for Lynn in this. The Queen had been almost as great an ally for her as Guinevere and Morgan had been. Bors would be able to say nothing to her, and any gesture or offhand remark would surely be seen. But she was forgetting her duties as a hostess. “Please — this may take a while — won’t you sit down?” The Prince nodded, but did not sit until she did. Then both looked at each other, unsure how to go on. “Do you think she needs Morgan?” the Prince asked, softly, as if to speak too loudly would call down the very fate he was trying to avoid. “I don’t know,” Claire replied, the misery rising up in her again. “I saw her only a few days ago, High–“ “Tom,” he corrected. “… Tom,” she replied. “I didn’t even see that she was … suffering. How can I know whether or not she needs Lady Morgan?” She had not needed Lady Morgan until her despair had grown so great that she knew not how to combat it, that the fact that she was drowning in it was evident to all, even her husband. But could she have been able to cope better if somebody had thought to get Lady Morgan for her sooner? If she had not been left to wallow for so long? “I think she’s hiding it,” the Prince murmured. “She wouldn’t talk to me about it until I bothered it out of her.” “Oh, no.” Who knew what was building up behind that smiling facade? Claire had hid behind smiles and nods for years before all had risen to the point where she could no longer hide from it, or hide it from anyone else. But — but there was no reason for history to repeat itself. Claire clung to that thought like a drowning man clinging to the only rope tossed in his direction. Lynn was not Claire. Lynn was not living Claire’s life. Lynn had a mother, a husband who loved her — parents-in-law who would help her — an aunt by marriage who would surely know the signs of despair and move the counteract them. All would be well. All would be well. Claire let her mind repeat that like a prayer as the rest of her scrambled for something else to say. “Well — perhaps your next baby, once you start trying again –“ “We’ve already started,” the Prince sighed. “That’s why I didn’t want to go to Morgan. I figured she might well kill me. Or castrate me with a glare, which might be about as bad.” “You’ve — already started?” Claire repeated. “Aye.” “Is she — already …?” “No, thank Wright,” the Prince replied, and cringed. “Not that I’m supposed to know that, I don’t think.” He rubbed the back of his neck. “She hasn’t said that she’s not.” “Well, generally women don’t,” Claire replied, a bit mystified. But the Prince might not know these things. Lynn had conceived so quickly after their marriage, and she had been so understandably excited, that she had not thought to wait until she was sure to tell her husband. The news had burst out of her as soon as she suspected. “True,” the Prince agreed. “But it’s hard not to notice when, well … your wife gets a certain, uh, monthly visitor and it brings her to tears.” Claire’s eyes bulged. It was that bad? She’d never once despaired over not getting pregnant quickly enough. After Lynn’s birth and once she and Bors had started trying again, every month that brought with it its visitor was a sign for relief. “I didn’t know,” Claire murmured. “It happened this morning. That’s why I came here.” He sighed. “I didn’t know where else to go. I guess — I might ask — what helped you?” What helped her? Getting away from Bors had helped her — but Lynn already was well away from Bors. If she said the word, Claire knew, the Prince would do everything he could do to keep them from ever meeting again, but that … would not help Lynn. And it would be, frankly, too like something Bors would do. It would be very like Bors to assume that his womenfolk could not fend for themselves and shut potentially harmful influences out of their lives for them. Lynn would have every reason to resent that, and resentfulness would not help her. Besides, the problem, Claire guessed, was not Bors’s voice in Lynn’s ear, but Bors’s voice in her head. The problem for Claire had been not only Bors’s voice in her head, but her own father’s, her stepmother’s, and her own voice listing the ways she had failed as a woman, a wife, and most importantly, a mother. Getting rid of those voices had meant … “I needed to learn to think differently,” Claire replied. “I needed to realize — not everything is my fault. There were only so many things I could control. And what I could not control, I had to let go of.” “What she can’t control,” the Prince repeated. “She can’t control when she has a baby. Or what kind she has.” Claire blinked. “So — you don’t — blame her?” “… For what?” “Well …” Claire shifted and stared out the window opposite. “Bors always let me know it was my fault when I had a girl, not a boy.” The Prince snorted. “Idiot — sorry, my lady.” No apology necessary, believe me. “But in all seriousness — why should I? I don’t know why women have girls when they have them and boys when they have them, but if there was anything they could do to change it, well, there would never be a girl born before an heir and a spare. Or at all, I fear,” the Prince sighed. That was so eminently sensible, Claire was shocked to hear it coming from the mouth of a man, particularly the man who had once been the most trouble-making boy in the kingdom. “What else?” the Prince asked. Claire hesitated. Changing the way she thought had been the biggest part of it. Seeing how her daughters were thriving — how she had not failed — had also helped. “Have you … has anyone let Lynn think that she failed when she had Elise and not …” She grasped for another name. “Edward?” “What?” the Prince gasped. “No. No! We bloody well haven’t! I –” His shoulders slumped and he cradled his head in his hands. “I’ve done everything I can think of to not — not — be him. I bloody well nearly punched him in the face just for being him! Do you think I would –“ “No,” Claire interrupted, a little startled at her own boldness, but Morgan had told that whenever she felt threatened, cornered, attacked, she owed it to herself to extricate herself from the situation as best she could. Luckily the Prince fell silent immediately. “But … your parents?” “They adore Elise. And do you think they would say anything? Truly, Lady Claire?” “Not … purposely,” Claire murmured. “But … well, you need a boy.” “My mother is happy just to have a grandbaby she can dandle whenever she wants. My father doesn’t bother himself worrying about things he can’t alter.” That did sound very like Arthur and Alison. There was nobody else who would dare to take Lynn to task over not producing a boy the first time around. Bors might try, but the Prince had quashed that. “… There was something she said,” the Prince murmured, slowly, softly, as if he was not certain he wanted Claire to hear. “What?” “That she wanted to — repay me. By … doing her duty …” Claire’s stomach dropped, and she was up and a few steps away before she quite registered the desire to move. “That’s as bad as I was afraid it was,” the Prince sighed, “isn’t it?” “She thinks …” Claire started, and stopped, because she could not go on. “That she’s worthless unless she has a boy,” filled in the Prince. She almost turned to him, shocked and startled. But why should she be surprised that Lynn’s own husband should be able to understand her thinking? Not all husbands were like Bors. And the Prince was a son of Arthur, a discerning man if ever one walked the earth. “I don’t know what to do,” Claire admitted, watching her hands wring and wring and wring together. “I don’t know how to help her — not think that. I don’t know …” She had never had that problem — or rather, she had had that problem, and it had resolved itself naturally. She had had her son, and then she her worth. “You’re bound to have a boy eventually,” Claire murmured, grasping at whatever straw presented itself. “So … so perhaps …” The bench creaked as the Prince relieved it of his weight. “With all due respect, my lady, I don’t think that will fix anything, and I’m not sure you do, either.” No, no, Claire did not believe that. Her own sense of worthlessness had found another reason to manifest itself. And another and another and another, until finally somebody had gotten help for her. Unless … “She has to realize,” Claire said, “that there is — more to her than being a wife, and having children, and bearing sons. She has to see herself as worth more than that.” “But I tell her that!” the Prince replied plaintively. “I tell her that all the time …” Claire’s hands fell from their wringing. Nobody, nobody had told Claire that. Even her children, they loved her, but she was their mother. Her worth was still not separated from doing her duty as a wife and a mother. It was only when Morgan, of all people, had complimented her music that she had gained a sense of herself as a Sim, with talents and preferences and worth beyond what lay between her legs. “That … that could help,” Claire replied, slowly, almost smiling. The Prince blinked. “You — you think so?” “I know –“ The door flew open. “Well!” came a voice all too hearty, considering the trouble he had caused. “Your Highness! To what do we owe this pleasure?” Bors and the Prince were back on speaking terms; Claire knew that. They would remain so, she suspected, as long as Bors behaved himself. The Prince could not afford to be upsetting the most senior man in the army. So she was only a little surprised when the Prince turned to her husband, smiled and nodded. “I was just in the neighborhood and wished to pay your lady my respects.” “And inform her of our prodigy Elise’s latest miracles, I’m sure?” Bors laughed, but Claire could not help but notice how his eyes slid to her, seeking approval. Good. It would do him well to be the one to seek approval for a while — considering how badly he had warped their daughters, made them so dependent on others’ approval. Still smiling, Bors stuck out his hand to the Prince — and the Prince hesitated. It was only the hesitation of a heartbeat. Bors may not have even noticed. But Claire did, and even if she should not, it only gave her relief. There was some part of the Prince that had not, might never accept and forgive Bors. That could only mean good things for Lynn. But Lynn had already spent a year and a half removed from Bors’s influence, mostly, and placed under the Prince’s, and still she felt as she did … The talk of the men swirled around her, and Claire retreated into her thoughts. Not to hide, as she had used to, but to truly think, to tease out a solution from this tangled thread of circumstance. What could she do? If she talked to Lynn … but she had to talk to Lynn. Somebody had to. She wouldn’t listen to the Prince, that much was clear. Maybe she would listen to Claire. Maybe she would hear and understand Claire. Or maybe she wouldn’t. And then what would Claire do? “I say, Claire? Have you been listening?” Claire looked up, blinking. “I’m sorry — husband — what was it that you said?” “Lost in thought again!” Bors chuckled, laughing as he might laugh over one of Lionel or Evette’s antics. Claire did not bother to hide her glare, but Bors saw it not as he turned to the Prince. The Prince at least had the grace to look embarrassed on his behalf. “That’s what happens when you’re married long enough, Highness. Eventually, they stop hanging onto every word you say and start to pay you no more mind than the whistling of the wind.” “Well, it doesn’t help that we men do tend to be full of hot air,” the Prince replied. Bors’s laugh rang from the stone walls; Claire barely avoided wincing. “Well! Claire, we’re going up to my study. Have some wine sent up, will you?” “Of course,” Claire replied. Anything to get rid of him, so she could think again. The Prince sent her a faintly apologetic look as he left, but Bors’s chattering and laughter carried them down the hall as well as their feet did. Leaving Claire alone with her thoughts.