Anyone watching might have been forgiven for assuming that it had been years, not days, since Roma and Ella had seen each other. But anyone who so assumed did not know sisters, and certainly did not Roma and Ella. Or — at the very least — they did not know Ella.
“How are ye?” Ella asked, bounding away from Roma. “An’ how are ye?” she asked Roma’s belly.
“We’re both fine,” Roma laughed, although it still wasn’t the effortless laugh of old. It was the chuckle of a woman grown, who had seen her share of hardships and cried her share of tears. It was the laugh of a woman who knew who fragile laughter was, who had had her laughter broken once upon a time, and who wasn’t too keen to risk breakage again.
No matter how old she got, no matter how many losses she faced, now matter how terrible her life seemed to become — Ella decided that she would never laugh like that.
Unfortunately, that realization did nothing for her tact. “Gosh, Roma, yer belly looks small!* Ye sure ye shouldn’t be goin’ ter Ma about that?”
“Aww, it’s nothin’ ter worry about. It’s jest this coat.” Roma rubbed her belly. “It swallows me up like nothin’. Ye should see me with the coat off!”
Ella glanced up at the sky. The brief — so brief it seemed hardly worth noting — dumping of snow on their heads seemed to be over, but still, somebody had to watch out for Roma’s health. Parading around in the cold without a coat could not be good for her. “Eh, I’ll see it some other time. But if ye don’t feel right, ye should –”
“I know, I know! See Ma,” Roma laughed. “Lord, Ella, I should be the one buggin’ ye about this, not the other way about! That is …” Roma narrowed her eyes and did her best to look wise. “If there’s anythin’ I should be buggin’ ye about?”
Ella only grinned in response. “I’m hungry. An’ if I’m hungry, ye ought ter be starvin’!”
“Well, I am a little –”
“That settles it! We’re gettin’ something ter eat. Me treat!” And brooking no further argument, Ella grabbed Roma by the arm and half-dragged her through the food tent to the food stand.
Roma shook her head. “Does Lukas know how much ye’re treatin’ folks?”
“Aw, ye don’t know how much money Master Wesleyan is payin’ me!” Ella turned to Roma, tossing her hair proudly. “An’ ye know what Lukas tells me?”
“It’s all mine!” Ella skipped backwards as she walked, only avoiding tripping over a bench or a table by sheer luck. And it was good luck, too, for a fall now could have been disastrous. “I don’t have ter be givin’ him me wages fer anythin’! Me money is me money, fer spendin’ as I please! How’sthat fer good husbandin’?”
“Good husbandin’? Is that even a word?” Roma chuckled as both sat at the counter.
“It is now!” Ella grinned.
Roma shook her head silently, and for a moment, her smile flickered. Then the cook came to take both of their orders.
And as they waited for the food to come, Ella kicked herself. She had promised herself — since things between Roma and Simon still seemed so chancy — that not one word of real or perceived criticism of Simon would cross her lips. Having Billy glower and stamp at the ground like a stubborn mule whenever Simon’s name was mentioned — and in front of Roma, too! — was not helping the young couple patch things up. And they had to patch things up. They were husband and wife, and that was the end of it. Besides … while Ella knew Simon wasn’t a patch on her Lukas (who was?), he was still a good enough sort.
Except, of course, Ella knew that Roma gave all of her wages to Simon, for him to “invest” (whatever that meant), and then he gave her back an allowance for her housekeeping and her personal needs. Ella knew that Simon kept such close tabs over the money because he wanted to get them out of Sir Bors’s indenture. Ella didn’t think she could blame him for that, given all she had heard of Sir Bors. But all the same, scrimping and saving all the time couldn’t have been that much fun for Roma.
The clattering of the plates against the wooden counters woke Ella from her reverie. “Well, anyway!” Ella continued, trying to sweep her earlier indiscretion away, “that’s only gonna last until we start havin’ babies. Then I’m givin’ all me money ter Lukas. He’s got a head fer it, an’ once we start havin’ babies, we’ll have ter be watchin’ our pennies!”
“Indeed,” Roma murmured to her food, prodding it halfheartedly with her fork. “Babes can be expensive.”
“Which is why I’m gettin’ me fun out o’ the way now, before it gets too late! But they’re fun, right?” Ella poked Roma’s shoulder. “Even if they’re expensive an’ a lot o’ work? They’re worth it, ain’t they?”
The expressions flickered over Roma’s face like the candle-flame flickering on the wick. But while Ella had promised herself not to criticize Simon — well, to try not to criticize Simon — she couldn’t promise herself to never mention or even glancingly refer to Marie. And why should she? Marie had lived! She had been little, but she had made a big impact. What kind of auntie would Ella be if she pretended that her sweet little niece had never existed?
And if she couldn’t ask these kinds of questions about babies and get an honest response out of her sister, then who could she ask?
“O’ course they’re worth it,” Roma replied. “They’re worth every second o’ it.”
“Good,” Ella replied. “Even the birthin’ part?”
Roma patted her belly. “I’ve been tryin’ not ter think ter hard about that. Ye know? ‘Cause …”
“‘Cause?” Ella prodded.
“Well, ’cause obviously! Ella! I’m gonna have ter be doin’ it soon. An’ it ain’t fun. No, it ain’t no fun at all.”
“Aye, but –” Roma suddenly stopped, her eyes narrowing. “Oh damn?”
Ella smiled and blinked the most innocent of blinks. Then she glanced oh-so-nonchalantly at her plate and brought a forkful over to her mouth.
“Is there a reason why ye’re oh-damnin’ the very thought o’ givin’ birth?” Roma prodded.
“Gosh, Roma, I don’t see why there’s gotter be a reason,” Ella replied. “I mean, I’m gonna have ter to do it eventually …”
“Jest eventually? Or … sooner than that?”
Ella grinned. “Before the end o’ the year!”
“Ella!” Roma squealed and embraced her sister. “Oh, Ella! Ye told Ma yet?”
“No,” Ella giggled. It felt daring and dangerous, to be carrying such a burden and a blessing, and for her mother not to know — yet. She would let her know soon. But for now, the baby was just hers, hers and Lukas’s. The feeling was, she thought, the closest she would ever come to taking flight.
“Ella!” Roma smacked Ella’s arm. “Ye should tell Ma! She won’t be happy if she finds out ye ain’t told her!”
“Aw, come on! Give me at least a little while ter jest be happy,” Ella replied. “The minute I tell Ma, it’ll be, ‘Do this, don’t do that, be sure ter eat plenty o’ green vegetables’ — blah, blah, blah, without endin’ until the babe comes — an’ then there will be all the advice with the babe! No, thank’ee!”
“That ain’t right, Ella, an’ that ain’t smart. Think o’ how hurt Ma will be if she finds ye kept it a secret from her!”
Ella winced. When it was put like that, her conscience sent up an annoyed twinge. “I ain’t keepin’ it secret … I mean, ye don’t have ter tell nobody until ye feel the baby move, aye? An’ I ain’t felt that yet.”
“Ye don’t have ter tell yer husband until ye feel the baby move,” Roma corrected. “But yer ma, who’s a midwife? Ye tell her as soon as ye’re sure ye missed yer course!”
Then I guess I got that right backwards, thought Ella as she tried not to blush.
“Well, I’ll tell her soon enough!” Ella grinned, trying to bounce back to happiness. “I jest, ye know. Want ter have a bit o’ fun first.”
“She ain’t gonna be stoppin’ all yer fun,” Roma chuckled, shaking her head. “Unless yer idea o’ fun is that,” she pointed to the log rolling, “or that,” her finger moved to the axe throwing.
Ella giggled, scandalized. “Roma! Ye know I ain’t stupid! Besides,” she added, glancing askance at the log rolling, “it’s more fun ter be watchin’ a nicely cut young man — or better yet, Lukas — be doin’ the log rollin’ than doin’ it yerself.”
Roma shook her head. “Suit yerself, sister, but I never liked watchin’ me husband doin’ that.”
“Why not?” Ella gasped. “Simon’s got a great build! Stripped down ter his breeks an’–”
“Ella! I’d appreciate it if ye weren’t lookin’!” But Roma’s laughter was almost as hard — harder, really — than her scolding. “An’ that’s what I mean! I ain’t the only one watchin’! Ye think I want all the floozies sizin’ up me Simon’s nice body?”
“Ooh. I never thought o’ it that way …” Ella murmured.
“That’s ’cause ye don’tthink!”
“Ooh!” Ella slapped the coins down on the counter — they were both about done, anyway — grabbed her sister’s elbow, and half-pulled her from her stool. “Jest fer that, I’m only buyin’ new baby clothes fer me, an’ not fer ye!”
“Ye’re — what?”
“Come on!” Ella skipped off to the cloth pavilion, leaving Roma to waddle in her wake. “Ye don’t think I axed ye ter come ter the market an’ not do some shoppin’.”
Roma shook her head and chuckled as Ella looked through the stacks and bolts of fabric. “I don’t care how much that Master Wesleyan is payin’ ye, ye can’t be makin’ enough ter afford this.”
“Oh, bah! That’s fer me ter know!”
And truth to tell, Ella had been quite sensible — she thought — with the money Master Wesleyan was paying her. Oh, sure, there had been a couple of toys for Davy and Bert — and maybe another toy squirreled away for Roma’s baby when it came — and maybe some gifts for Lukas and Betsy and her ma and Billy …
But she had been saving most of it, for when her baby came! For wasn’t that what her job was for? Extra money, for when she started having babies. Martin and Lukas might insist that between the two of them, they could support the family, but Martin was an older fellow and would be wanting to spend his golden years in the sun sooner or later. And things between the Pelleses and Sir Mordred were still frosty. That was never good. Really, if anybody was scrimping and saving and trying to buy out indentures, it ought to be her husband, not Roma.
But, much to Ella’s dismay, the more she thought about it, the less she could justify buying a bolt of cloth she didn’t need — even if it was for baby clothes. Mistress Wesleyan, who made the dresses for all the noble ladies and who was the daughter of the Ferreira empire, would probably give her some cloth when she found out Ella was expecting.
Best to change the subject, then. “Besides, ye’ll never guess!” Ella called, spinning on one heel.
Roma jumped. “I’ll never guess what?”
“I already spun me weddin’ ring!” Ella bounded upright, hands defiantly on her hips. “An’ ye’ll never guess what I’m havin’!”
“One o’ each?” Roma asked, her eyes twinkling.
“Naw — though, oh! Wouldn’t that be sweet! Twins on the first try! Jest like the Queen an’ the Princess!”
“Twice as much work, though,” Roma mused.
“Aw, if noblewomen can do it, surely sturdy, hardworkin’ girls like ye an’ me can!” Ella stood straight and proud, nodding to all who would care to see. “Naw, when I spun me right, it said I was havin’ a girl! Jest like Ma, jest like Betsy at first, jest like –”
She almost said jest like ye. Almost. But that — even if she wouldn’t forget Marie, or let Roma forget her, either, that — that might have been going too far.
And then Roma went there. “Jest — jest like me.”
“Aye,” Ella murmured. “Jest like ye.”
Roma rubbed her belly. “I ain’t tried me weddin’ ring yet on me belly,” she confessed.
“No? Whynot? Don’t ye want ter know?”
“Well, I did when I was pregnant with Marie,” Roma confessed. “But Ma said …”
Oh, bother, here we go.
“… I could do that if I wanted, there weren’t no harm, but not ter go paintin’ the whole house pink or blue because o’ it. She said yer weddin’ ring is about as likely ter tell ye whether ye’re having a boy or a girl as a coin flip is.”
“Oh, bah. See what I mean about Ma bein’ no fun?”
“She didn’t ruin none o’ me fun!” Roma chuckled. “I had a lot o’ fun, really, tryin’ jest about every silly method I could.”
Ella blinked. “Ye — ye did?”
“Aye. Ma an’ I had a good laugh when I was done. We thought Marie was gonna come out … well,” she snickered.
“We thought –”
“ELLA!” came a call from out in the front of the market. “ROMA! I know ye’re hear! Where are ye two?”
Both young women froze and looked in the direction of the calling voice. “Lyndsay!” Ella gasped.
“What could she –” Roma started.
“Want?” Ella finished.
“I don’t know …”
“Ye don’t think …”
The girls exchanged glances. “Ma?” Ella gasped.
Roma didn’t say anything. She didn’t have to. She was already hitching up her skirts.
She needn’t have bothered. Ella had always been far fleeter of foot than Roma, even when Roma wasn’t carrying half her weight in baby out before her. Ella didn’t even need to hitch up her skirts; she just ran.
“Oh, girls!” Lyndsay gasped as soon as Ella and Roma were in hearing distance. “Ye ain’t gonna believe it!”
“Is it Ma?” Roma asked.
“Ash?” Ella added.
“Billy?” Roma’s voice quavered.
“No, no! Goodness, no! It’s nothin’ bad. Nothin’ bad withour family. Oh — but it’s news, all right!”
“News?” Ella asked.
“News straight from the palace — straight out o’ Ash, I got it! The whole kingdom’s gonna be buzzin’ before nightfall!” Lyndsay clapped her hands and rubbed them together.
Except … except, this was no gleeful rubbing. Ella realized that about half a moment after Lyndsay finished, and her heart sank. But … but what kind of news could be so important that Lyndsay would seek them out, and not be good news? “What’s goin’ on?” murmured Ella.
“Straight out o’ Glasonland, this news is!” Lyndsay murmured. “Oh — oh, comecloser, girls! No use settin’ half the market inter a panic!”
Ella and Roma leaned closer.
“It’s their Princess, it is,” Lyndsay whispered confidentially. “She’s had her baby!”
“Her baby?” Roma whispered.
“Aye — a girl!”
Ella’s eyes went wide. Roma gasped, and her hand went over her belly. “A — a girl?”
“Aye! All that time tryin’, an’ what happens? A girl!” Lyndsay shook her head. “Lord help us all.”
“Oh, Lord,” Roma murmured. Ella glanced at her sister and whimpered low in her throat.
“But it gets … worse,” Lyndsay whispered.
Ella and Roma’s gazes both snapped to her. “Worse?” Ella whispered.
“How can it getworse?” Roma muttered.
“Oh, Lord! Did the baby — did their Princess –?” Ella started.
“No, no, neither o’ them. They’re fine, or so they’re sayin’. It’s …” Lyndsay looked around waved both of them closer. “It’s King Vortigern. King Vortigern is dead!”
They had drawn a crowd, and Ella knew that her and Roma’s shocked reactions were going to draw a bigger one momentarily. “No!” Ella gasped.
“Aye, ’tis true! The messengers were wearin’ black! That’s mournin’, that is!”
“Oh, Lord,” Roma whispered.
“He died jest after he became a granddad …” Ella murmured.
“Bah! Like that King Vortigern ain’t been a granddad fer years! Like he cared!” Lyndsay half-spat. “Don’t ye be forgettin’ all those bastards he has!”
That was true enough.
“An’ there’s more!” Lyndsay added. “They say …” She looked from side to side and leaned closer. “They say he died o’ despair when he heard that the babe was a girl!”
Ella gasped again. Imagine that! Deciding to check out of life just because one had a granddaughter and not a grandson! What waswrong with this Vortigern?
“Who says?” asked Roma.
“Ash heard one o’ the messengers chattin’ it up with a pretty maid,” Lyndsay replied. She smiled sideways. “Roma, lass, ye know me. I wouldn’t be feedin’ ye that line without somethin’ behind it.”
“Aye,” Roma murmured. “What’s this mean?”
“Fer us. What’s this mean?” Roma asked again.
And that was when Lyndsay’s face fell. “Don’t know,” she replied. “But believe me — that’s what everyone an’ their ma is gonna be axin’ until we find out … one way or another …”
“Lord help us,” Ella murmured.
“Amen,” Lyndsay replied. “Amen.”
*I.e., the stupid mesh doesn’t have a pregmorph and I didn’t find that out until it was too late to do anything about it.