Whatever anybody else might have to say against Lord Pellinore, Margery would always have this to say for him: he did not scrimp when it came to his children.
Dindrane’s new home was a large house, the sort any wealthy commoner would be proud — overjoyed — to own. Big windows opened wide to the street and gardens, letting in the sun and practically daring passers-by to peek inside and find anything wrong with what was happening within. The glasswork must have cost half a fortune. The fine timber cladding on the rest of the house must have cost the other half of the fortune. And none of that took into account the already-laid gardens Margery could see, the stone fence, the wrought iron gate. And who knew what lay within? It would surely match or top the facade.
But Margery’s stomach was still unsettled at the sight of it.
Dindrane deserved so much more. So much better. She was a noblewoman born and bred! And she had gone on to be a noble wife to a man who would never see her as anything more than a vessel for filling up with heirs, a man who would never love her as she deserved to be loved. She bore him three wonderful children, stayed with him until she had to flee for her own safety, and until he forced it out of her, she never once complained. And this was her reward? A little house on the outskirts of her father’s estate? She ought to have gotten the castle, and Sir Mordred could have gone to live in a piddling little house.
Margery hesitated just outside the gate and took a deep breath. She had to control herself. She had to be strong for Dindrane’s sake. She couldn’t let Dindrane know that she knew just how far she had fallen.
Margery barely had time to push open the gate before a red blur sprinted down the path and practically collided with her. “Sister Margery!”
“Nimue!” The Lord must have heard the prayer she hadn’t dared send to Him. Who could be sad or angry when being hugged by a cute little five-year-old? This was one of the reasons why Margery still taught the little ones, leaving Sister Vyn in charge of the orphanage while she taught. Nobody gave affection as openly and easily as a child.
“You found our new house!” Nimue let go and bounded away. “Do you like it? Isn’t it pretty?”
“It’s very pretty!” Margery agreed, honestly enough — it just wasn’t pretty enough for Dindrane, or her children, for that matter. “You must love the pink shutters!”
Most little girls — most young children, in Margery’s experience — loved pink. But Nimue looked over her shoulder, head tilted to one side, and surveyed the shutters quizzically. “They were Grandma’s idea,” she confided.
Pink shutters — that did sound like something Lady Eilwen would suggest.
“Oh, but Sister Margery! You’ll never guess! I have the best news!”
“Oh? What’s that?”
“Grandpapa let us take Taye with us!”
Taye, Taye, Taye … The trouble with teaching young children was that they did tend to chatter, and young noble children had so many people to chatter about that it was difficult to keep them straight. But a female that Nimue was so glad had accompanied them — there was only one figure who that could be. “Well! That’s wonderful. But I can’t imagine that your grandfather wouldn’t let you still have your nursemaid!”
Nimue broke down in giggles. “No, Sister Margery! Taye is one of Grandpapa’s dogs! But she’s our dog now!”
Goodness, she had gotten that one wrong! “Your dog! Fancy!”
“Uh huh! Mama says she’s all of our dog, but I think she likes me best! I taught her how to fetch a stick and everything! And Mama says I can teach her all the tricks I want to!”
“I think I’m going to teach her how to play dead next,” Nimue confided. “I saw a man at a fair once who had a dog who could do that. And the doggie didn’t just drop and lay still, either! He swayed and moved around — like this –” Nimue began to stagger in what she probably thought was a convincing imitation of a dying man. “And then he droppedright down on the ground –”
“Whoa!” Margery grabbed Nimue’s arm. “Careful, sweetie! You could hurt yourself.”
Nimue sighed. “Mama says the same thing whenever I try that. How am I supposed to teach Taye how to play dead if I don’t play dead?”
Margery had to bite back a smile, but she was used to that. “Pillows, dear. Ask your mama to let you borrow some pillows. Then you can fall on them, and you won’t hurt yourself, and you can teach Taye to play dead.”
“He-ey! That’s a great idea! Thank you, Sister!”
“You are most welcome. But now, Nimue, I have something to ask of you. Is your mama at home, by any chance?”
“Aye! She’s right inside!” Then Nimue’s eyes narrowed. “Am I in trouble? ‘Cause I know Mother Julian says she’ll come to our houses if we’re bad …”
“No, no! I just want to congratulate her on having this fine new house!”
“Oh! All right! She’ll be really happy to see you!” With that said, Nimue popped up and bestowed a quick kiss on Margery’s cheek, then dashed away to the skipping rope she had discarded on the grass when Margery came in.
There was now little left for Margery to do but continue up the front walk and knock on the door. It was opened by a manservant. He scarcely had time to let Margery in before a voice accosted her. “Margery!”
“Dindrane!” Margery laughed. “And little Gareth! My, he’s gotten so much bigger!”
Little Gareth was trying to crane his neck to catch sight of Margery, but Dindrane clucked her tongue and Gareth’s attention was back on her. “Watch Mama, Gareth. Now … one foot in front of the other …”
Margery smiled, watching the little boy try to make his feet move like Mama’s did. One faltering step after the next … then Mama left him to stand on his own, wobbling, backed up, and waved him forward. “Come, Gareth! Come to Mama!”
Gareth looked at his mother … looked at Margery … looked at his mother again … then plopped on his bottom and crawled to Margery.
“You silly goose!” Dindrane laughed. “You could have walked to Sister Margery, you know!” As Margery crouched and patted Gareth’s head, Dindrane walked over. “I guess he’s just not ready to stand on his own two feet yet.”
“Maybe not. But give him time — soon he’ll be running all over the house, and you’ll be hard pressed to keep up.”
Dindrane chuckled. “Don’t I know it. But Margery — how are you?” she asked, giving Margery a kiss on each cheek.
But it was her hands Margery was most aware of — Dindrane’s hands on her biceps, in what should be a loose hold but was really a tight squeeze. Not an uncomfortable squeeze — just a tight one. When Dindrane let go, her hands swept down and just brushed Margery’s fingers.
She smiled, however, throughout, a smile as serene and unflappable as Dindrane’s smiles ever were. “I’m so glad you could come.”
“You know I wouldn’t have stayed away for the world.”
Dindrane’s smile widened, growing softer at the same time — softer and more real. “Thank –” she started. A whine from the floor cut her off.
Dindrane winced and turned an apologetic look to Margery. “I’m sorry — but it’s close to N-A-P T-I-M-E …”
“Oh! Put him D-O-W-N if you need to. I can wait … that is, if you won’t mind …”
The startled look in Dindrane’s eyes told Margery all she needed to know about the possibility of Dindrane minding. “Of course I don’t. You have a seat — this hopefully won’t take long.” She winked. “I try to get him good and tired out before.”
“A wise course,” Margery replied as she moved to the couch and took a seat. Gareth didn’t protest when Dindrane swept him up, and Margery watched both of them head for the stairs.
Tiring the little ones out before naptime. What a novel idea! But it probably worked better when you weren’t as hopelessly outnumbered as she and Sister Vyn were. Dindrane also had Nimue for assistance, and if there was any one thing older children were very good at, it was tiring themselves and all surrounding them out.
Margery leaned back, yawning — but after a moment, she perked up and looked about her. Golden walls — blonde woods — green cushions — who had had the dominant hand in decorating this place? It wasn’t how she would have pegged Dindrane’s taste. Then again … maybe Dindrane was sick and tried of dark woods and blood-red fabrics. Lord knew Margery would have been, in Dindrane’s place. Margery would have banished every stick of black wood and stitch of red fabric from her new home.
Perhaps there was something to be gained from this move, after all …
It didn’t take very long for Dindrane to return again. “See? I told you he was tired,” she smiled. “Now! Might I tempt you with anything? Jucentius picked up wonderful sweet rolls from the bakery this morning.”
“Oh, no, thank you. I didn’t come here to put you to any trouble!” Just the opposite, in fact!
“It wouldn’t be any trouble. It would give me an excuse to eat one before Nimue and Gawaine between them gobble them all up,” Dindrane winked.
“Gawaine is …?”
“Sleeping. Upstairs. And Nimue is playing outside.”
“Yes, I saw her when I came in. She is very excited about your new home.” She wouldn’t mention the dog, just yet — Dindrane probably knew all about the dog. Besides, hearing from another source how happy Nimue was would probably soothe Dindrane’s injured soul.
“Indeed. We all are,” Dindrane beamed. Margery barely had time to blink away her surprise before Dindrane followed that up with, “Would you like a tour?”
She would have demurred, told Dindrane not to trouble herself … but there was something so joyful, so eager in Dindrane’s voice, something Margery hadn’t heard from her in years. What could she say to that, other than what she said? “I would love a tour.”
Dindrane’s eyes lit up like Nimue’s when she was given a special treat or extra attention. “We’ll start with the library.”
“Why didn’t I guess that?”
Dindrane lightly tapped Margery’s arm — it couldn’t be called a smack, no touch that gentle could be a smack. “Hush, you.” She led the way down a short hallway, threw open a door, and waved Margery in. “Ta da!”
“Oh!” Margery gasped as she looked around. “Oh, it’s lovely, Dindrane! Did you decorate it yourself?”
“Yes,” Dindrane smiled. “I wanted … I wanted something warm and inviting. Someplace where the children would love to spend time. I think Nimue is going to love the window seat. I would have wanted something like that when I was a girl.”
“It’s very cozy,” Margery agreed. But there was something … She had to keep control of her expression, lest Dindrane suspect whether she was telling the truth. But though it was cozy, there was something off about the room.
“And if I sit there, I can keep an eye on Nimue while I study. And on Gawaine and Gareth, once they get a bit bigger.”
“Indeed!” There it was! That second bookshelf, the one in the middle. Something was a bit odd about it, though Margery could not determine —
“Is something wrong?” Dindrane asked, voice trembling.
“What? No, oh, no! I just noticed … well, you’ve only got three bookshelves in here! That can’t possibly be enough!”
Dindrane laughed. “I’ve got other shelf space — trust me. A shelf in my bedroom, one in each of the children’s rooms … and there’s also my father’s library. I can borrow whatever I like from there. Now, come on, I want to show you the dining room.”
Margery laughed and accompanied her. “There!” Dindrane said, throwing her hands wide. “What do you think?”
“I like the blue!” The table, Margery could not help but note, was rather big, considering only Dindrane and Nimue were big enough to sit at it. But perhaps Dindrane intended to have her parents and siblings over from time to time — yes, that had to be it.
“The paneling is the same pattern that’s in the royal council chamber,” Dindrane continued eagerly, “but I found a blue-green stone I liked …” She trailed off. “I actually said all of that, didn’t I?”
Margery laughed. “Last I checked!”
“I must be mad.” Dindrane shook her head. “I never thought I could go on and on about decorating …”
“You’re — you’re excited about it,” Margery replied, and was surprised to realize that it was true. “And you didn’t go that far.”
“That’s because I stopped myself just in time.” Dindrane led the way back into the parlor. “Anyway — would you like to see — upstairs?”
Her voicedid lift, hesitantly, on that last word — and Margery’s heart began to pound. Surely Dindrane couldn’t mean —
“It’s just that I think I did a rather good job with the children’s rooms,” Dindrane hurried on, and the spell — whatever spell it was — was broken.
“Oh! I would love to, but … but aren’t the boys asleep?”
Dindrane blinked — then she sighed and shook her head. “Of course. Of course — silly me.” She smiled wryly. “And Nimue would never forgive me if she didn’t get to show you her room herself.”
“Oh, would she?” Margery asked, taking a seat on the sofa. Dindrane followed.
“Most definitely. She picked out the colors herself, don’t you know?” Dindrane winked.
“Oh? Did she?” Margery chuckled.
“Yes indeed. Green — a dark emerald green, like this,” Dindrane patted the sofa cushion, “and black wood, with silver accents.”
Margery blinked rapidly. “Black wood?”
And just like that — pop! — Dindrane’s buoyancy, whatever was puffing her up, was gone. She shrugged, stiffly, and stared into the depths of her fireplace. “It’s her bedroom. Far be it from me to tell her how she can and can’t decorate it — within reason, of course.” She breathed deep, smoothing her hair underneath its headdress. “And … it is her heritage.”
“Well, yes, but … wouldn’t you rather all forget that?”
“Oh, no,” Dindrane replied. “At least …” She stroked her chin. “I cannot afford to forget it. And I cannot afford to let Mordred forget it. Not if I want to do right by my children.” Her lips shrunk into a thin pink line. “My children first. It was the … the one thing I ever asked of him. I told him, as long as he put my children first, he would never hear a word of reproach from me about his … woman, or her children.” She tossed her head, still staring into the empty fireplace. “He couldn’t — or wouldn’t — even bother to do that much for me.”
“Oh, Dindrane.” Margery rested her hand on her friend’s arm, rubbing it. She would rub the orphans with more vigor when they were cranky or had a tummy ache — how could she think this was enough for Dindrane’s heartache?
Dindrane at least seemed to respond to it — she edged closer. Margery found herself holding her breath until Dindrane stopped with several respectable inches between them. Respectable — where had that come from? What in their relationship could possibly be unworthy of respect?
“Besides,” Dindrane continued, “it’s even more important for all of them to remember that, with the annulment.”
“You’re still going through with that?” Margery whispered.
“My father brought the petition to the monastery yesterday.” Dindrane’s lips pursed together. “The first day the monastery would accept them — and, do you know what?”
“Mordred still somehow managed to beat him.”
“The nerve!” Margery spat before she could stop herself. “Er … I mean …”
“Don’t you dare mean anything else!” Dindrane laughed. “Oh, that felt good to hear!”
“He has nothing to reproach you with. Nothing!” Margery snapped. “You were a wonderful wife to him. And — he dares to pretend that you were doing something wrong!”
“I know — but that is Mordred. He is the only man allowed to be right.”
“I wo–” Margery started, and stopped.
“You …?” Dindrane pressed.
“No. No, it’s too — it’s too cruel. I can’t say it.”
Dindrane’s eyebrows lifted. “Well. Now I simply must know.”
“No, Dindrane. It’s too — hurtful.”
“And if you cannot say things that are hurtful with your friends, with whom can you say them?”
“Nobody — if the people they might hurt are your friends.”
Dindrane’s eyes widened. “I … see.” She looked away. “Why … why would it hurt me?”
“Because it has to do with … with her.”
“Ah.” Good — so they both knew that her could only refer to Mordred’s woman. What Margery wondered was this: what if Mordred wanted to marry her? It would certainly explain why he filed for the annulment so quickly. If he went and married his mistress while his wife was still living — then, hopefully, he would finally get the ostracism he deserved.
But what were the odds that clever Sir Mordred would do something that would only further damage his already-tarnished reputation?
Margery still wondered this when Nimue shot through the front door. “Mama! Sister Margery!” she called. “Will you play a game with me? Please?”
“Nimue, I …” Dindrane paused, then glanced at Sister Margery. “If Sister Margery wants to play, I would be glad to play with you. But you know I have to be a good hostess.”
Nimue did seem to take that in the spirit in which it was meant, instead bounding over to Sister Margery. “Oh, would you please play with us? Pretty prettyplease?”
“I …” Margery glanced at Dindrane, who nodded encouragement, then at Dilys. “Well, what kind of game?”
“The tile game?” Nimue asked, glancing at her mother.
Dindrane smiled. “Mah-Jong.”
“Aye! That! Would you play? Oh, would you play? Oh please, Sister?”
“Well, I …” Margery started, glancing at Dindrane again. But her face was as impassive as ever, barring a slight smile. “I would love to!”
“Yay! I’ll get the board ready!”
And so Nimue got the board ready, and so Margery and the other two sat down to play. And even though Margery didn’t know the game well and so lost every hand, even though it was technically a waste of time, even though she didn’t get anything more from Dindrane that afternoon …
It was still the most fun she had had in a long, long time.