“Are you sure there is nothing I can get for you to eat?” Claire asked her daughter for the second time after seeing to it that her cloak had been taken and she had been seated comfortably. “Or drink? I know it’s a long ride.”
“No, no, Mother, I’m fine!” A broad smile, a relentlessly cheerful tone — but what did that mean? And for that matter, what did her refusal of all refreshment mean? Claire had lost her appetite when she entered her dark phase, but just because Lynn did not want food now did not mean that she was slowly dying on the inside. Perfectly healthy and happy people with normal appetites were not always hungry and often refused refreshment for that very reason. It was impossible to draw any conclusions from that alone.
And unfortunately, Claire was not the type of mother to pull off a question like, “And how are they feeding you at that palace?” without sending the alarum bells sounding in Lynn’s head. The question was just too absurd. Lynn was a princess! Anything she wanted to eat, she could get! Furthermore, Lynn had been married for two years, and, other than when she was pregnant with Elise and when had just begun nursing, Claire had never asked after her eating habits. She had assumed her daughter was a grown woman and could see to it that she was adequately fed.
So Claire sat down beside her daughter and tried a different tactic. “So … what was that news you said you wanted to share?”
“Oh …” Lynn flushed and bit her lip. “I — I hope you don’t mind — but I wanted to wait until Clarice got here …”
“Of course I don’t mind,” Claire replied, nodding sagely even as she tried to piece together what that might mean. Was it something medical? Bad news she only wanted to have to share once? Or was it just something she wanted her sister to hear and watch her face when she heard it?
Lynn looked apologetic, unsure — but not sad. Maybe that didn’t mean anything. Claire had had her mask, and she knew Lynn had hers. But while Claire had hid her sadness by going cold and retreating from everyone she knew, Lynn tended to hide her sorrow behind a smile. Even Claire might have never known it was there if the Prince had not told her so. But all the same … her daughter had a remarkably open heart. Now that she was looking, surely Claire would be able to find some hint or sign if Lynn had to share something troubling.
She didn’t find that sign. So Claire put all thoughts of that to the side and once again, tried something else. “Were you at the last Queen’s audience, dear?” She could camouflage this as a simple search for gossip. There was always gossip that came out of the Queen’s audience.
Lynn flushed. “Yes …”
“Something the matter?” Claire asked before she could stop herself. But the question sounded normal and natural — didn’t it? And Lynn looked as if something was the matter!
“I — I always feel like such a fool at those audiences,” Lynn admitted, all in a rush. “Especially compared to the Queen!”
“Oh, dear,” Claire murmured. But at last — this was something that Lynn was admitting! It was something fixable, too, something Claire could help her with!
… Hopefully …
“She always knows just what to do, just what to say,” Lynn continued. “There — there was a case before her where two women were squabbling over whether one had cheated the other at market day. Because — because, well, the first woman had bought some flowers off the second woman, and the flowers died after a few days, and the first woman wanted her money back.”
Claire blinked. “That … seems unreasonable. Cut flowers always die in a few days. Maybe they last a week, if you’re lucky. And …” Claire looked out the window. The worst of the late snowstorm had melted away, but it was hardly the growing season yet. “How on earth did the second woman have flowers to sell in the first place?”
“They were potted — in soil — and they were being grown indoors, by the window and the fire. And do you know — do you know what the Queen did? She didn’t ask any of the questions I would have asked!”
“Then — what did she ask?”
“She asked if this had anything to do with Goodwife Thatcher — the second woman’s — husband being a Plantsim! She didn’t ask if the first woman had watered the flowers or anything! That’s what I would have done, but that wasn’t the answer at all.”
Claire blinked. “The — the second woman’s husband is a Plantsim?”
“How on earth did the Queen know that?”
Lynn sighed. “He’s the Royal Gamekeeper. And I do — I do know his name. And I would recognize him, if I saw him. But I didn’t even think the flower seller might be his wife. If — if I thought anything, I thought that maybe she was related somehow to the midwife.”
“Lynn, that’s not an unreasonable thing to assume. And Thatcher is a very common surname. How were you to guess that the woman was the gamekeeper’s wife?”
“She sells flowers … in winter … and the gamekeeper is a Plantsim …” She glanced sidelong at Claire. “It’s — it’s completely obvious in retrospect … isn’t it?”
“Perhaps in retrospect,” Claire agreed, “but just because something is obvious once you have all the pieces in hand doesn’t mean it was obvious beforehand. And doubtless the Queen already knew Goodwife Thatcher’s first name, or maybe she had seen her and recognized her face. Lynn, you’ve only been married for two years; you can’t know everybody in the kingdom and how they’re all connected to each other.”
“But they were the aunt and uncle of that — that poor little boy. The one Lady Morgause …”
“Aye, I remember,” Claire replied. Rather hard for her to forget, all things considered. “But Goodwife Thatcher didn’t testify at the trial. I don’t even know if she was there.” Claire had not been looking too closely at the spectators, especially not those in the gallery upstairs. She had been too busy trying to make some sense out of the testimony going on in front of her. “And didn’t the Prince try to keep you as out of all that as he could?”
Lynn sighed. “I still think I ought to have known.”
“I don’t,” Claire replied. It was a tactic Morgan had often used on her when Claire claimed herself to be a failure as a mother, as a wife, as a Sim. Amazing the wonders those two could work: more than once they had jolted Claire awake, made her look about her with two eyes, forced her to confront the reality that perhaps things were not as bad as her despairing mind had made them out to be.
And by the way Lynn’s head snapped to her and the way she gasped, Claire had to hope the words had worked their magic on Lynn.
“I — think about it this way, Lynn,” Claire coaxed. “Plantsims are … well, they’re very good with plants. I imagine it would take a lot of work to kill a flower one of them had grown originally. So — so asking if her if she had watered it, that would make the woman look a fool, wouldn’t it?”
“I suppose …”
“And when the Queen asked the woman if this had anything to do with Goodwife Thatcher’s husband, that made her look like a fool, didn’t it?”
“Quite the fool,” Lynn agreed, nodding.
“So — so you get the same result, the right result, by two different routes. What’s wrong with that?”
What Lynn’s answer would be, Claire never found out. A knock came from the door, and a housemaid hurried to open it. And there was Clarice, smiling from the threshold.
The maid hurried to take her cloak, and Claire hurried to embrace her daughter as soon as the cloak was gone. But perhaps her hold was too tight; Claire felt Clarice wince when she pulled her to her bosom. However, when Claire pulled away to give her daughter a once-over, Clarice had an apologetic and even faintly embarrassed smiled.
Claire shrugged the wince off. Perhaps she had accidentally touched a sensitive or sore spot. Who knew how many muscles Clarice used in her doctoring, how many occasions she might have to strain something or bump into something, causing a bruise?
She had another reason to cease worrying when Lynn embraced her sister and got the same reaction. Whatever it was, it wasn’t Claire.
“You’re still doing your hair that way,” Lynn said, smiling as she pulled away and pulled at one of her sister’s curling tendrils.
“Do you think it works?” Clarice asked, patting it nervously.
“Do I think it works? It’s adorable! Isn’t it adorable, Mother?”
“It’s very becoming, Clarice,” Claire agreed, simply happy to be able to do so. “And would you like some refreshment, dear?”
“Oh, no, thank you, Mother, I’m fine,” Clarice replied.
She was relatively certain that Clarice was the healthiest and happiest she had ever been — but all the same, Claire was starting to wonder if there was something wrong with her kitchen or her cellars, since neither of her married daughters seemed at all inclined to let her feed them. Maybe by the time their daughters got old enough to go away and come back again, they would understand. Pray Claire lived to see it!
The three of them sat, and Lynn turned to her sister curiously. “Does — does it get in the way? Your hair, I mean, when you’re … seeing to people.”
“Oh, not at all. I put it up,” Clarice replied. “I can’t have it getting everywhere, after all. And so far I’ve not had to deal with any emergencies. Everyone — everyone who has come to see me has done so by appointment. So far,” Clarice added.
“People have come to see you already?” Claire gasped. Clarice had only started putting the word out about her medical practice a month, maybe six weeks ago. And she already had patients!
Clarice nodded, blushing — but grinning even as she blushed.
“Oh, who?” Lynn asked eagerly. “Er …” She bit her lip. “If — if you can tell us, that is. If you can’t –”
“I think I can tell you who. I can’t — I can’t say anything about them, but I can say that much.” Clarice grinned. “My first were Lady Guinevere, Princess Jessie, and Leona. And — and they all want to be my patients! Full-time!”
“That’s wonderful, Clarie!” Lynn squealed. “And you know — you know I’ll be going to you for everything, now that you’re home. Er — is that all right?”
“Of course it is! Lynn! I would be honored!”
“And — and when I have more children … would you — would you consent to deliver them?” Lynn asked hopefully.
“Of course! Er — if it’s possible, that is. You know.” Clarice nervously smoothed her dress. “As long as I’m able to get about.”
“Oh, naturally! I wouldn’t ask you to put your own health, or your own babies, at risk!”
Clarice blushed at the word “babies,” and Claire had to wonder why. Surely she was over some of the worst of the newlywed shyness? And she was a doctor; if there was any woman on earth who would not be shy about babies and all that led to them —
There might have been another reason why Clarice blushed at the mention of babies, comfortable as she ought to be with the concept in the abstract …
Clarice caught Claire looking at her with wide eyes and ducked her head, blushing again.
But Lynn was taking a deep breath, folding her hands in that perfectly composed way that indicated she was anything but perfectly composed. So Claire’s attention went to her eldest daughter. “And I was wondering … I was going to suggest to the Queen that, maybe, when I make my first appointment, she come along, and just — and just see how things work. Lady Morgan has been seeing the Queen recently, but she — well, she’s hinted that she’d much rather be called in for emergencies. I guess she has other things she’s doing …” Lynn turned to Claire. “Do you think that would be all right — recommending Clarice?”
Lynn was asking Claire? What did Claire know about royal etiquette?
But Claire did know a thing or two about noble and royal marriages. The monks and nuns could preach all they wanted about how marriage was for producing and raising children; the romantics could claim it was about the love between two Sims. But Claire knew better. At their level, it was about alliances between families, hopefully cemented through children. That Lynn and Clarice both had romantic love was wonderful, but that wasn’t, strictly speaking, the point. The point was that families would get together, help each other out, trade benefits. With all of that in mind …
“I believe,” Claire replied to Lynn, “that it would be perfectly appropriate for you to recommend Clarice. In fact … whether or not you convince the Queen, I think you ought to bring Elise when you go to see Clarice.”
“That would be perfect!” Clarice exclaimed. “I’d be very grateful if you could do that, Lynn. Not only do I get to see my goddaughter, I’d like to give her an exam and get a file started for her. I’ve already asked Princess Jessie to bring by her babies whenever it’s convenient, or to tell me when it would be convenient for me to go and see them.”
Claire blinked. If Clarice got started this early on Elise, on Princess Jessica’s babies … perhaps she could eventually count all the royal children as patients. That would be a coup indeed — but did Clarice realize it? Were the Ferreiras rubbing off on her this quickly? Her eyes were sparkling rather brightly …
But perhaps she only wanted more patients for their own sake. And perhaps she only wanted to make sure that her goddaughter and niece was in the best shape possible. It was only natural.
Though why was Lynn frowning? “It — it won’t hurt her, will it?”
“Lynn!” Clarice gasped.
“She’s just so shy,” Lynn apologized. “And the last time he was home, Kay was a little too … enthusiastic when he played with her, and, well. She wouldn’t go near him for days. He was so hurt, too; it was hard to watch them both.”
“Was that because Elise was afraid of him, or was that because of whatever Prince Tom did to him when he found out that his baby got scared?” Clarice replied.
Claire’s eyes went wide and she could not quite hold back her gasp — but Lynn had only the puzzled frown of a woman seriously considering the question. “Probably both,” she replied. “Tommy was not at all happy with him.”
“But Kay survived.”
“He generally does. Sometimes I’m not sure how, though.”
“That makes two of us,” Clarice murmured.
Lynn giggled — and so did Clarice. And, watching her two daughters laugh so innocently, Claire herself chuckled.
“But go on, Clarice! Have you got any more patients? And how — how is it, being a married lady and all?”
“I think we already went over that, Lynn,” Clarice hedged, smiling slyly.
“Not — not that!” Lynn giggled, scandalized, shooting a sideways glance at her mother. Claire was too busy blinking in surprise to react. Were her daughters talking about relations with their husbands?
And if so, why were they both smiling like the cats who had found their way into the cream?
“I meant — more generally. How are the Ferreiras treating you? And that sort of thing.”
“Oh, they’re — very kind,” Clarice replied. “They are, really, Mother,” she added, seeing Claire’s eyes widen. “But we don’t have much in common. They … they are focused on their businesses, and their trading, and –”
“Trade,” Claire murmured, soft enough that she thought Clarice might not notice.
Clarice stopped. “Yes, Mother. Trade. But it’s what’s gotten them everything they have. And — and like the King said when he made Baron Ferreira a, well, a Baron,” she tilted her chin up defiantly, “there’s no lack of courage in going to sea instead of going to war.”
“And Tommy says,” Lynn added, “that — that men like Baron Ferreira are the ones who have the best chance of making Albion great.” She glanced apologetically at her mother. “I think he’s right, Mother. We — we don’t have enough of an army to go conquering places. But if we can build up a good merchant fleet, and a navy to make sure they’re protected …”
Claire glanced between her daughters. The world was changing; Claire had seen it more and more in these past years. Then there were her daughters. Though one daughter had married into the vanguard of the change and the other into the most venerable institution still standing, they were both united in appreciating the changes that were occurring. In the face of that opposition, what could Claire do but capitulate?
Well, capitulate and add a caveat. “Don’t mention that in your father’s hearing,” Claire replied, sighing a little, “or we’ll never hear the end of it.”
“Noted,” Clarice replied, while Lynn nodded furiously.
But all the same, now might be a good time for a change of subject. She tapped Lynn’s elbow. “Lynn, dear, you said you had some news you wanted to share — and you wanted to wait until your sister came …” She pointed to Clarice. “She’s here.”
“Oh! Oh!” Lynn blushed, but she grinned. “I just — I just wanted you two to be the first to know, after Tommy and his parents, that I’m — in six months, I’ll be –”
“You’re pregnant!” Clarice gasped.
“Yes!” Lynn laughed. “Yes, I am!”
“So am I!”
“What? No!” But it wasn’t a shout of “no,” an agonized “no” — it was a joyful squeal, followed by Lynn vaulting out of her seat and meeting her sister halfway in a joyful hug. “When are you due?”
“Our babies will only be two months apart!”
“I know! Isn’t it wonderful?”
“It’s perfect! Oh, Clarie, our boys will be best of friends, won’t they?”
And there it was. Claire’s high — two grandbabies! So close together! — crashed down.
And despite all the squealing, and the giggling, and even the slightly quizzical look Clarice shot in Claire’s direction, Claire only heard two words over and over again: