Melehan clambered onto the chair in his usual heedless manner. “Mama, is dinner almost ready?”
“Yes, dear.” Rosette waved some of the steam away from her plump bird. Did she dare to to take a taste, a test? After all, it wasn’t every night that Mordred came for supper … or at least, came for supper and gave her advance warning that he planned to do so. Today, she had had time to slaughter the fatted calf and everything.
Well, maybe it was a chicken. And maybe the lady she had bought it from had been kind enough to kill it, since it was too much trouble to bring home a live chicken and slaughter it at home when it was going right into the oven as soon as she got there.
But she couldn’t taste it, not unless she was able to make sure it wasn’t obvious. She started to carve and apportion the bird and the sides. And if she took a little taste as she did so … well, nobody would know, would they?
“Mama!” Melou laughed. “I saw you!”
“Saw me? Saw me do what?” Rosette laughed, blinking innocently, as she brought the chicken around the table.
“I saw you taste that! And you always yell at us for sneaking a taste,” Melou answered, smirking.
“Ah, but your mother is allowed to taste whatever she pleases,” said Mordred, coming to Rosette’s rescue.
“Huh? Why, Papa?” asked Melehan.
“Two reasons, son. First, she is the cook, and woe betide the cook who does not taste her food before she serves it! And does it meet inspection, dear?”
“Oh, yes.” And it did. Who knew if it was as good as what the fancy cook Mordred doubtless had on retainer would have served him — but it was good. It was as good as anything she had served Mordred back in Camford, and he had quite enjoyed her cooking back then.
“So, there is one. And the second reason …” Mordred looked up at her, eyes sparkling. He winked. “Your mother is your mother, and she is allowed to do things that you are not thereby.”
“But Papa!” Melehan protested. “That’s not fair!”
“Not fair? Not fair? Your Mama works and slaves and takes care of you boys and your sister,” Mordred leaned just a bit to the side, just far enough to smile at Aimée, who laughed, “and you say that her being able to do as she pleases every now and again is not fair?”
Mordred, I wish you would come to dinner more often — if only to tell the boys that!
“Well,” Melou replied, “Mama is the best mama in the world.”
Just as Rosette’s mother-heart melted, Mordred replied to Melou, “All the more reason for her to be able to do as she likes, then.”
“I guess,” Melou answered. He glanced at his plate. “This smells good, Mama!”
“Thank you –”
“Can we start?” Melehan asked.
“Not yet. We do not eat until everyone is served,” Mordred replied.
Rosette, halfway back to the counter with the remainder of the bird, froze. She hadn’t taught the boys that … it was easier to just let them eat while she took care of the baby, and Rosette herself only ate once everybody was fed.
But they knew better than to argue that with their father, or at least, they knew better than to argue using that tactic. “But it’ll get cold!” Melou tried.
“No, it won’t.”
“Papa,” Melehan answered a little hesitantly, “I think it will …”
“It would in the normal course of things,” Mordred replied, “but I shall cast a spell so that it will not.”
“Oh, a spell, a spell!”
“Can we see?”
“Can we hold your wand, Papa?”
“Can we try?”
With that sort of enthusiastic reception — and with Aimée done with her meal and begging with her eyes to be released from her prison — Rosette deemed it the better part of valor to not wonder aloud whether a spell might dry the chicken out.
Still, Aimée was soon taken out of her chair, and with her dolly she was happy enough to play on the floor while the rest of the ate. Finally Rosette herself could sit down and appreciate the fine meal she had made.
And as she sat, a thought hit her. Thanks to Mordred’s spell, she would actually get to enjoy her meal as if it were hot and fresh from the oven tonight. When was the last time that had happened?
Mordred was the first to pass judgement on the good — or, at least, he was the first to comment. She supposed the way the twins shoveled in their food, just barely minding their manners, counted as judgment of a sort. “It’s delicious, Rosette.”
“Aye, Mama, it’s really good!” Melou chimed in.
Melehan didn’t voice any opinion, but the smile he gave with his cheeks bulging full of chicken told Rosette just what he thought of her cooking.
“Thank you, boys,” she replied. She turned and smiled at Mordred. Yes, tonight he could be her boy — just like when they had been Camford, and Mordred ate her cooking every night. He used to smile back at her then just as he was now …
And it hit Rosette with a jolt: when was the last time she had seen Mordred smile so? So boyish, so carefree. It had to have been before everything with his mother — before his father died — before his father got sick, even — maybe even a long time before …
Was it before he had been married?
The chicken in Rosette’s throat seemed to grow and lodge itself there — or maybe it was that her throat shrunk, what with the lump in it and all. She swallowed with an effort. And then, doggedly, she pursued that troublesome thought to its end. If Mordred had not looked so happy since before he had married Lady Dindrane …
Then maybe it wasn’t their relationship that had made him so careworn and old before his time. And maybe — just maybe — of the two women in Mordred’s life, she wasn’t the one doing wrong.
Unfortunately, she barely had time to dwell on this happy possibility before she noticed the twins fidgeting and poking each other. “You ask,” Melehan was whispering.
“Boys?” Rosette asked. “Something wrong?”
Melehan and Melou glared at each other for a moment, then Melou huffed and turned to his father. “Papa, we got a question for you.”
“You have question for me.”
“Aye, that too,” Melou replied, oblivious to the lesson, and Rosette had to duck her head to hide her laughter. “Me and Melehan were wondering –”
“Melehan and I –” Mordred hesitated, watching Rosette’s quaking shoulders. He rolled his eyes, but a smile appeared and vanished all the same. “Never mind. Go on.”
“Well, at school the other day,” Melehan broke in, “Sister Margery was asking us all what we were going to be when we grew up. And we were wondering …”
Rosette’s stomach dropped, as did her fork, and her eyes flew wide. They were going to ask. They were going to ask if they could be knights like their father. Of course they wanted to be that. They talked of nothing but slaying dragons and rescuing fair maidens all day long. They were going to want to know if they could grow up to be like Mordred, and now was when he and Rosette would have to destroying their innocence —
“You were wondering?” Mordred prodded.
“Can me and Melehan be wizards like you?” Melou asked.
And Rosette could breathe again. Wizards! They only wanted to be wizards! And there was nothing to stop them from being that. So all was —
Could they be wizards?
Rosette turned to Mordred. But Mordred already had an answer, as he ever did. “Yes.”
… But why did he turn to her with a half-guilty look as he replied?
“Yes!” Melehan squealed, dancing in his chair.
Melou just smirked. “Told you so,” he simpered to his brother.
“But,” Mordred interrupted, “I would not tell Sister Margery that. It might upset her.”
“Because,” Mordred replied, “Sister Margery is a dear, sweet woman — but she is a nun. And surely you know that not all monks and nuns like witches and wizards. They think that we are evil, and even though they are quite wrong — and I believe Sister Margery knows this — it still might make her feel a bit caught in the middle if she hears some of her students say that they want to be wizards.”
“Oh …” Melehan murmured.
“But then, Papa, what are s’posed to say?” Melou asked.
“Anything you like,” Mordred answered. “And,” he lifted a finger to forestall a protest, “it will not be lying. You can be a wizard and be many other things. Just like a man can be a father when he grows up, and still be many other things. So you may say whatever it is you would like to be, besides a wizard.”
“But, Papa!” Melehan called. “All the other boys in the class already knew what they were gonna be! So what are we gonna be, other than wizards?”
“Again — anything you like,” Mordred replied, smiling. “Those other boys are …” He stroked his chin. “Pedestrian. Ordinary. Let me guess, they all said that they would be what their fathers were before them, is that not so?”
“Darius Wesleyan said he was gonna run a toy shop. And a horse stables. And anything else his papa builds.”
“Precisely,” Mordred replied. “Darius Wesleyan has to do what his father did, just as his father does what his father did. But you boys are special, because you are my sons and your mother’s sons. That means, besides being wizards — which you both will be, just like me — you may be anything else you like to be.”
“Anything else?” Melou asked.
“Like a sea captain?”
“Or a pirate?”
“Or a hero, like in the stories?”
“Anything you like,” Mordred replied. “Anything you like at all.”
Quite a long time later, when the boys and Aimée were all in bed and Rosette had time to lower herself down and relax a bit, she was still reeling from that statement.
Her boys could be anything — anything they desired, and it was all because of Mordred and her relationship. She had never thought of it like that; she had always assumed that her irregular life would close her boys’ horizons, not open them. But Mordred had a point. Sons were expected to follow in their fathers’ footsteps. What path, other than that of a farmer, had ever been opened to Pierre? Simon becoming a miller’s apprentice and now his assistant had been radical enough. And Rosette’s own path … she had never dreamed this when she was younger, even after she had grown to know and love Mordred. But her boys — from this age, they now could be anything.
Anything, that was, but a knight and a lord — like their father before them was. But hopefully being a wizard would be enough consolation for that.
“Everything all right?” Mordred asked, worry biting the back of his tone.
“You look a bit dazed, dear,” Mordred replied. He brushed a stray tendril of hair from her face. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to spring that on you. But the boys … well, they sprung that on me.”
“I’m sorry? Spring what on me?”
“That they will be wizards someday. I thought … I thought I would only tell you when their magic started to show itself.”
Rosette blinked. “You — you mean it hasn’t, yet?”
“I cannot say definitively. Of course, they do get into a great deal of mischief, and some of it may be magically aided … but I cannot be sure unless I am there when they do it, or unless they do something which is inexplicable by ordinary means.”
“But, if they haven’t gotten into magical mischief yet, how do you know that they might have magic?”
Mordred cringed and shifted. “There are … tests one can perform … spells one can use …”
Tests — spells — Mordred had cast spells on their boys? Without telling her? What kind of spells?
“On their hair! On their hair!” Mordred hastened to say, as if he could read her thoughts. Perhaps he could. “Once it was unattached from their heads — and that naturally enough, I assure you. They’ve always got a bit of hair sticking to their collars or their shoulders. I simply plucked a few strands and tested them — and then destroyed the strands utterly, I promise you. I do not play games with our children’s safety.”
Oh. On their hair. That was not so bad. Certainly better than him casting all sorts of spells on the boys without even telling her. And he had — he had destroyed the strands?
“So … it’s true?” Rosette quaked.
“That — that if an evil wizard were to get hold of some of your hair, he could … control you?”
Mordred pursed his lips together. “Control is, perhaps, too strong a word. He could not turn you into an automaton … but a wizard so inclined could perform many spells … many of them with unpleasant consequences.”
“Hush, hush,” Mordred said, sliding along the bench to rest an arm over Rosette’s shoulder. “Any witch or wizard would have to be mad — entirely mad! — to attempt such a thing with you, or with our children. The first one who tried would be tangling with me, and all know that.”
“But you have enemies …” Rosette whispered. If there was anything Mordred had ever let slip about his other life, his life as a knight and a lord, it was that.
Mordred did not say anything for a long moment. Then, “Yes,” he agreed. “I do. But … most of my enemies are neither witches nor wizards. And those who are would not be able to perform the spells which would cause you to lose a wink of sleep. So do not worry, love. You have nothing to fear.”
“Are you sure?”
“But what if you’re underestimating them? The boys — like you said, the boys shed hair all the time –”
“Rosette, Rosette. It is not a question of overestimating or underestimating their power. It is … look, I have told you that there are Light Wizards, and there are Dark Wizards, and there are wizards who choose neither path, have I not?”
“Yes, of course.” Mordred had also told her that he took the Dark path. But Dark did not mean, he had hastened to reassure her, evil. Was the black of night any more intrinsically evil than the bright of day? Of course not. Light and Dark were just ways of organizing things, nothing more.
“Well, only Dark Wizards can perform those kinds of spells. And all of my enemies who are wizards are Light Wizards. So, even if they got a bit of the boys’ hair — and I doubt they would try — they could do nothing with it that could harm any of you.”
“Why wouldn’t they try?” Rosette asked. “If they’re your enemies?”
“Because Light Wizards … tend to be strict, stricter than Dark Wizards, about involving innocents in their conflicts. You and the boys are undoubtedly innocents, ergo, you have nothing to fear.”
“Are you sure?”
“Very sure. Trust me — if you had anything to fear …” Mordred pursed his lips together again, stroking his chin. “I daresay, if I had reason to think that you or the children were in any danger, I would move you to the Orkney Keep, Lord Pellinore and all the Gwynedds with him be damned.”
Rosette let out a slow breath … then her heart seized up again, for she remembered that Lord Pellinore, Chief Justiciar of the kingdom, was her Mordred’s enemy. And what could he do to them that even the wizard Mordred could not protect them against?
Mordred sighed. “This,” he caressed Rosette’s cheek, “this was why I didn’t tell you immediately, Rosie. It would only make you worry.”
“I’m sorry,” she replied. “But … you’re so powerful … and that brings so many enemies … and we …”
“Are so vulnerable,” Mordred finished for her. Rosette gulped. If Mordred recognized the fact … if he went so far as to admit it aloud —
Good Lord, what could happen to them?
“I know, Rosie,” Mordred soothed. “I know you worry. And so I do not tell you things. But, Rosie … the enemies I have are not, thus far in my life, enemies that would strike at you and the children to get to me. They are … they are either political enemies only, or else they are highly principled men — and women too — who will not harm you or the children, simply because it would not be right. And some, I am happy to say, are both. So you see,” he kissed her cheek, “I am quite lucky, all things considered, when it comes to enemies.”
Rosette laughed. “You’re lucky when it comes to everything.”
“With a woman like you in my life, how can I–”
A knock — not a pounding one, but not a soft, half-hearted one, either — came from below, and silenced both of them. “Were you expecting someone?” Mordred murmured.
“No — not at this hour!”
“Then who can that –” The knock came again.
Mordred rose, and without Rosette really seeing his hand move, his wand was in it. “If you come down,” Mordred murmured, “stay behind me. And be ready to run.”
“But — Mordred!” Rosette hissed. “You just said you don’t have enemies who would go after the children and me!”
“And I spoke truly,” Mordred answered. “But I’ve never met anyone — myself excepted — who calls at an hour like this with good intentions.”
Rosette gulped — but she followed, and as Mordred had instructed, she stayed behind him.
It wasn’t hard — Mordred moved fast, and she could not have overtaken him if she had tried. She hung back by the stairs as Mordred opened the door with a lazy flick of his wand, coiled and tensed and ready to strike at the least sign of an enemy —
The door opened on her father.
“Papa!” Rosette gasped, relief flooding through her. She bounded across the kitchen to greet him. “Oh, I wasn’t expecting you! What brings you all the way …”
She stopped. And cringed. Mordred had said that nobody ever called at this hour with good intentions — or, he might as well have added, good news. “Papa?”
“Rosie,” Edmond replied. He smiled, or tried to. Then he gave up and nodded to Mordred. “M’lord.”
“Goodman Chevaux,” Mordred replied. “What brings you here at this hour?”
Edmond sighed. “Nothin’ good, as I’m sure yer lordship guessed. Rosie …” He turned back to Rosette. “Rosie, honey, I’ve got some bad news fer ye.”
Mordred crossed his arms over his chest, one foot stroking the floor like a horse pawing the earth. Rosette was alone. “Bad news? Is — is someone ill?” If only it would be illness — illness meant hope, illness meant whoever was affected might get better —
Edmond shook his head. “Ye … ye know yer sister Toinette’s little ones have been poorly?”
“Oh, no!” There was only one way this could be going. The only question was — which of them?
“The older ones — Katie an’ Paddy an’ Nora an’ Sean — they, they went down a bit, but they got better … but Aileen …”
“Oh, no!” Not Aileen! Not Toinette’s sweet little youngest! Not the one so close in age to Aimée, and such a similar name, too! It wasn’t a fortnight ago that Toinette had brought Aileen and Sean by, and Sean had played with the boys, and Aileen and Aimée had played together, and Rosette and Toinette had laughed and said their girls would be as close as if they had been sisters together —
She watched her father’s Adam’s apple bob up and down, watched his eyes grow glassy. “Well … at least she ain’t sufferin’ no more, poor little babe.”
And that was all he needed to say before Rosette broke down. First adorable little Marie — Marie, who scarcely any of them had gotten to know before she was taken — and now Aileen! What sort of Lord gave couples children only to take them back so quickly?
An arm came over her shoulder, and a familiar smell of woodsmoke and masculine sweat enveloped her — but Rosette was startled to realize that it was her father, and not Mordred, who was holding her. “I know, baby. I know, I know …”
As for Mordred, he stood off to the side, grimacing, scuffing the floor with first one foot and the other. He said nothing. But Mordred, who was a wizard with his words as well as with his wand, knew as well as anybody that there were some times when there was nothing you could say.