“Hello, little fellow,” Aglovale murmured into the cradle. “Daddy’s home. Did you miss him?”
Morien blinked sleepily upward. Then he slowly smiled, two toothless gums exposed to full view. “Ha!” Aglovale called, lifting the baby up. “You do recognize me! And Babette said you were too little!”
He smiled, holding the baby’s nose to his. “You’re getting so big these days — but I guess you get sick of hearing that all the time, don’t you?” He jiggled Morien a little, who laughed, but it seemed he only did it out of a sense of duty rather than true amusement. “But babies grow fast, lad. Every time I turn around, I swear you’ve twice as big as you were the last time I saw you.”
Morien barely seemed to be paying his words any mind at all — apparently he had already figured out the lay of the land when it came to paternal wisdom and paternal advice — instead, he made a lazy swipe for Aglovale’s hair. “Hey,” Aglovale said, trying to toss his hair behind his head, like he saw girls do all the time, but not quite having the knack of it. “None of that.”
Morien’s little face crumpled and he let out a thin wail.
“No, no, no! No crying — here, here, have the hair!” He held Morien close enough for the baby to grab it — and winced. “Good Lord, you have a strong grip.”
Aglovale sighed. It seemed that no matter what he did with Morien, it was wrong. If he wasn’t making the baby cry with his clumsiness and attempts at discipline, he was giving in and spoiling the boy. And he knew it. It was why he didn’t want to hold Morien when womenfolk were watching, because whenever he tried anything, they swiftly told him why he shouldn’t be trying it. Nine times out of ten, they took him away from Aglovale to correct whatever it was he was doing wrong.
And then they wondered why they never saw Aglovale holding Morien!
Like now — Morien was supposed to be sleeping. Routine, Babette insisted, was very important for babies. Her mother said so, and so did Aglovale’s. She had grudgingly permitted that Aglovale, riding in sweaty and exhausted for a weekend at home, or at any rate in Albion, should be allowed to see Morien before dinner. But he was only to look — not to touch — and not, under any circumstances, to wake Morien up or hold him before his whatever-o’-clock feeding.
“I hope you’re wiling to go back to bed once Babette is done with dinner,” Aglovale murmured, “because if you’re not …” He sighed. “Well, never you mind about that. I’m used to doing everything wrong. Babette will forgive anything you do, but heaven help —ouch!”
Morien had chosen just that moment to tug on Aglovale’s hair.
And no sooner did Aglovale get Morien’s hand disentangled from his hair than a call wafted up from the floor below. “Aglovale! Dinner!”
Aglovale sighed. “Guess that’s it for you and me, lad.” He kissed the top of the baby’s head. “Duty calls.”
“Aaah?” asked Morien.
“Ah, indeed,” Aglovale replied. He put Morien back down in the crib. Was it his imagination, or did Morien look disappointed when his back hit the plush mattress. “Good night, lad. I’ll see you in the morning.”
Morien pouted — a pout that adorable simply didn’t belong on a man, even a miniature one. But Aglovale gulped as his heart twisted sideways anyway. “You’re not going to start wailing, are you?”
If Morien was of an age to think — to really feel — Aglovale would have thought that the baby turning his head and letting his hands fall flat against the mattress was a sign that Morien would never, ever forgive him for this betrayal. He nearly thought so anyway. Then he watched how steadily and evenly Morien was breathing. He also leaned forward to get a glimpse of Morien’s eyes — closed. Apparently he had tired the little lad out.
He moved slowly to the door, hand resting on the handle for just a moment as Aglovale watched his sleeping son. “Good night, Morien. Pleasant dreams.”
Then, as silently as possible, he slipped out and hurried downstairs.
Luckily Babette was still setting the table. “I was beginning to wonder if you really wanted dinner,” she laughed.
Aglovale hesitated. Should he lie? Claim he was in the privy? Washing up? Instead, he shrugged. “It can be hard to say goodbye to the little fellow.”
“Hardly goodbye,” Babette replied. “More like ‘see you later.’ You’ll see him all this weekend.”
Yes, with Babette watching — his mother watching — his sisters watching — Babette’s mother and even her sister-in-law watching. It was hardly the same. “You know we’ll have to have your parents and mine over,” he demurred. “I’ll barely get ten minutes together with him. You watch.”
“About that …”
Aglovale barely bit back a groan as he went to the place set for him. It wasn’t the head of the table. Babette had set his place there once, just after they were married, and Aglovale had shoved his plate to one side. He told Babette it was because he wanted to be able to watch her face as they ate and talked. She was silly enough to buy that.
“I was thinking,” Babette continued as she seated herself, “why don’t we have them all over tomorrow, and get it done with at once?”
On the one hand, Aglovale couldn’t help but appreciate the logic of that. On the other … He looked around the room. “It would get a bit crowded.”
“Well, we don’t have to invite my brothers, or your sisters. And your brother,” she added.
While Aglovale would not argue with the prospect of not having to deal with the clannish Wesleyan brothers, his own siblings … “Then I won’t see them until the next time I come home.”
“Well, you can do that, can’t you? Just for once? So we can have a day when it’s just us?” Babette replied. “And I was thinking … we could have a special dinner, afterward. Your parents and mine. We can justify not including everyone else by pointing out that the table only seats six.”
Babette and Aglovale between them usually justified not serving dinner on the basis that the table only seated six. Perhaps it might be worth it to use the opposite logic, once in a while. Then nobody could call them out for rudeness.
“Or …” Babette started. “We can see everybody … just not here.”
Aglovale blinked. “And … how would we manage that?”
“Your mother could host.”
Aglovale sighed. “Babette …” The poor girl was dreaming again. He could not ask his mother to put together a dinner party for fourteen people — more, if Dindrane and Babette’s siblings brought their children! — on less than a day’s notice. “That is not going to happen.”
“Well, what about your sister? In that big, beautiful house your father built for her? It can be — it can be a double party! A housewarming party for her, and a get-together for you. Don’t you see how well that would work?”
“What? Why not?” Unfortunately for Aglovale, Babette did not sound shrewish or snippy — her voice was wounded, like a child’s being denied a favorite treat.
“Babette, there would be fourteen of us — more, if people other than us brought their children — and either my mother or Dindrane would have only an evening’s notice. You can’t ask that of either of them.”
“… Oh.” Did Babette have to make her voice sound so small and disappointed? Aglovale stared at his plate and bit his lip.
“This — this is very good,” he muttered, perhaps belatedly. And perhaps not too convincingly. With Babette sighing staring disappointed at the table, Aglovale could barely taste his food.
And once again, no matter what Aglovale did, it was not good enough.
“… Aglovale?” Babette asked, voice childlike and small.
Aglovale’s fork paused midway in the journey to his mouth. “… Yes?”
“Why do I never get to go to your parents’ house? Or your sister’s?”
“I …” That was a damn good question. Wait — she didn’t get to go there? His parents rebuffed her? That didn’t sound right. His father was probably still furious with Aglovale over this whole situation, but he had never seen Pellinore be anything but courteous to Babette. As for Eilwen, well, the fact of Morien’s existence seemed to be enough to forgive Babette and even Aglovale for the sins that had gone into making him. “You — did you invite yourself there?”
“No!” Babette snapped. “I’m not completely gauche, no matter what your family seems to think of me! But Lady Dindrane has lived there for almost two months and I haven’t even seen it yet!”
“I’m — sorry?”
“Is it too much just to see the house? I ask you that, Aglovale. Is that too much?”
“I … can’t say.”
“You can’t or you won’t?”
“I can’t,” Aglovale forced through gritted teeth, “because I don’t know what’s going on here. Are you saying that Dindrane has never invited you to her house?”
“Yes!” Babette nodded. “Yes, that is exactly what I’m saying!”
“And who else has she invited there in your stead?”
“Well, you got to see it that one time!”
“That doesn’t count.” Babette planned to go on the excursion, too. But Morien had been feverish and fussy that day, so Babette had to stay with him. As for Aglovale, he hadn’t even particularly wanted to go — it was a house, for the good Lord’s sake, not the eighth wonder of the world — but he had gone, because it was his sister’s house and he knew he ought to be supportive. “Other than me?”
“Well …” Babette squirmed, and Aglovale stared her down with one eyebrow raised. Babette knew. She had to know. She sent Aglovale letters packed mostly with gossip about people whom he didn’t know and didn’t much care about — and whom he suspected Babette nether knew or cared much about either — she had to know about something that was bothering her.
“Well, that Sister Margery is there all the time! Once a fortnight, at least!” Babette huffed.
“So? They’ve been friends for years. Who else?”
“Well … I hear Lady Garnet got to see it, too, that first time she was home …”
“And? Who else?”
Babette’s shoulders slumped. “I don’t think … much of anybody … but still! I’m her sister-in-law! I ought to get invited, just once, don’t you think?” she pleaded.
“Babette …” Aglovale sighed, wondering how to make this delivery more gentle. He settled for reaching for Babette’s hand, which she took eagerly.
“There’s something you have to understand about my sister,” Aglovale continued. Babette rested her chin, eyes lit up. She was doubtless expecting a tale of the juiciest kind. And she would be disappointed. “She … well, at the end of the day, she doesn’t like people very much.”
“She … what?”
“She enjoys her privacy,” Aglovale continued. “She … prefers to be left to herself as much as possible. And she is probably using … everything with her husband as an excuse to withdraw a bit, to not have to entertain.”
“That’s can’t be true!” Babette protested. “Your mother talked all about that big, beautiful dining room she has! She has to be able to entertain!”
“Yes, and I will bet you … just about anything that the dining room was my mother’s idea.”
“… Oh,” Babette sighed.
“But,” Aglovale continued, barely holding back a sigh of his own, “if you really want to see her house, I’ll tell Dindrane and I’m sure she’ll invite you by whenever it’s convenient for you.”
“Oh, would you, Aglovale? Would you?” Babette squealed.
He assured her that he would, and with that he was able to get through the rest of his dinner in relative peace — mostly by relaying to Babette all the gossip from Camford, but Aglovale took what he could get. And when dinner was over, he left Babette to do the washing up and retreated to stand near one of the big bow windows.
He watched the sky anxiously. There had been clouds and bitter wind on his ride up. If they got snow … he could be stuck here for days. And while the idea of spending a bit more extra time with Morien did not come amiss, he had to get back to school on time. He had too much work to do for long, unplanned visits.
Good luck getting Babette to understand that, though. Aglovale sighed. He knew — intellectually — that it was only right for him to come as often as he could. And if they were in a warmer season, he would come whenever possible. But now, with the weather so chancy … could Babette not understand that perhaps doing what was best for his family might mean not seeing them so often? If he did not do well in school, where would he be when he graduated?
He sighed. At least his professors would probably be understanding, in case of a sudden snowstorm. He was not the only married man at Camford. He wasn’t even the only father. Sometimes, other obligations trumped schooling. That was life.
Besides, between his father’s library and Dindrane’s, he would probably get more research done here than at —
“Babette!” Aglovale yelped as the pinch closed on his rear.
“Sorry,” Babette said, batting her eyelashes up at him. “It was just … there … and it looked so lonely …”
Aglovale blinked. Then he grinned.
There were, after all, benefits as well as disadvantages to coming home … and even, perhaps, to being snowed in …
Of course it was practically no time before Aglovale had guided Babette backward and both of them flopped onto the cushion in the window. Sometimes, Aglovale shied away from that big window — the neighbors could see right into their house, practically! — but not tonight. It was late. And dark. And anyone who could see what he and Babette were doing on that cushion, and watched anyway, had more wrong with them than he and Babette had wrong for doing it in the first place.
Besides, Aglovale would find a way to move things upstairs before the clothes started coming off in earnest.
But the clothes coming off — somewhere, in between kisses and gasps and his hands moving up and down Babette’s back — something clicked. Something …
Something about being careful …
“Babette,” he breathed, barely holding back a moan as she landed kissed all down his jaw and his throat, “you’re still on the herbs, right?”
“No,” she replied, fiddling with his belt.
Aglovale batted her hand away. “What — oooh — what do you mean, no?”
“They make me feel sick. So I stopped taking them.” She nuzzled the side of his neck.
“But — but — what are you doing instead?”
“Instead of what?”
Oh, bloody hell, Aglovale thought. Then — cringing, but knowing no way out of it — he asked, “Where, um, are you in your courses?”
Babette giggled. “I’m not on it now, if that’s what you mean.”
“No — ooh — Babette! Babette, stop!”
She poked her head up, pouting at him. “I don’t want to stop.”
“I don’t care. I’m telling you to stop. Babette. How long has it been since your last course?”
Babette sneered. “Who are you, my mother? What difference does it make to you?”
“All the difference.” He racked his brains for what he had gleaned from the medical textbooks he had flipped through about when a woman was most fertile. Unfortunately, most of it was contradictory, or else he wasn’t remembering it right. “Look, can’t you just tell me?” he asked. Hopefully being told would jog his memory.
“I don’t know,” Babette shrugged.
“You don’t know? What do you mean, you don’t know? Don’t you girls learn to keep track of it when you’re thirteen? Are you –“
He didn’t say it — what he was thinking. He was not that stupid. But Babette heard it anyway, and practically flew off him. Aglovale stumbled to his feet after her. “I haven’t been keeping track — and I don’t see how that’s any business of yours!”
“I’m your husband! That’s how it’s my business!”
“And I just told you that I’m not having it now! So your involvement with it ends there! So — so there!” And she stamped her foot.
“It does not! I need to know how fertile you are before we — we — do anything!”
“What, you expect me to just be able to tell you how fertile I am? Idiot! If women knew how fertile they were on any given day, do you think there would be any babies in this world who weren’t planned for?”
Like Morien? Aglovale thought, but did not say.
And Babette spat it out anyway. “Like Morien! If — if I had known how fertile I was, do you think I would have been with you? Do you think we would have Morien?”
Aglovale barely avoided a shudder. “I don’t expect you to just — just know! But I’ve read things — books — if you would just tell me, then I could tell you –“
“I don’t know! I don’t know when the next one is coming! I just know when the last one came!”
“You — you know? Then why the hell didn’t you just tell me?”
“Because it’s none of your business, and because it won’t tell you anything!”
“It will! I told you, I read –“
“I’m nursing!” she roared at him. “Do you not understand that? It means I’m all over the place! It’s two weeks between them one time, then six weeks the next! What do your books have to say about that?”
… Probably nothing. Aglovale barely bit back a groan. Most of the books, after all, had been written by monks.
But he couldn’t admit that — and let her win! “My Lord! So you don’t know whether you’re coming or going, and you’re not on the herbs, and then you jump all over me like — like –“
“Like what? Like it’s been weeks since I’ve seen you, and I’ve missed you? Although I’m not sure why!”
“Not sure why it’s been weeks since you last saw me–“
“Shut up! Shut up! Don’t you even go there, Aglovale Gwynedd!”
“Why not? Bloody hell! You jump all over me, and then you get angry when I try to — to — think! Do you want another baby? Is that it? Another baby that I can’t afford? Are you trying to unman me completely?”
“No, I don’t want to have another baby, but why does it all have to be on me? Why do I have to make myself sick with herbs and try to tell you when I’m fertile when I have no way of knowing?”
“You’re the one who would be getting pregnant!”
“You’re the one who would be putting the baby in me! You can pull out!”
Aglovale winced. The talk around the pubs was that there was a word for men who used the pull-out method: father. “That doesn’t always work!”
“Neither do the herbs!”
“But if we did them together –“
“And now you worry about this!” Babette stamped her foot. “After you dishonored me! After you couldn’t keep your hose on! After –“
A piercing wail cut off her sentence. “And now look what you did! You made Morien cry!” she shouted.
“He’s probably just –“
“Shut up! Just shut up!” Babette hurried to the stairs; halfway up them she turned around and yelled. “And you know what? You’re in luck, Aglovale! You don’t want another baby? Good! You’re not getting one — because there’s no way you’re getting in my bed tonight!”
“No, sir! If you think that keeping us from having another baby is my sole responsibility, then that’s how I’m fulfilling it! You don’t get to touch me! So there! Have fun sleeping on the sofa!”
And so it came to pass that Aglovale did spend that night on the sofa.
However, he did not have much fun.