“An’ then me ma shrieked, ‘Bran! Ye gurt fool! That’s the bull ye’re tryin’ ter milk!”
Nicole stared openmouthed at Roma for a full thirty seconds after she delivered the last line of her story, or at least, Roma had been planning for it to be the last line. Then she gulped. “Is — is he …?”
“Is he what?”
“Nicole!” Roma smacked her own forehead for want of a better target. “Wright Almighty! Ye think I’d be callin’ that a funny story if Bran weren’t all right?”
“No, but — but he — that was a bull!”
“True, but that bull didn’t hurt him none. In fact, he’s been back ter me ma’s house twice since then.” Roma made sure to deliver her next line in the most deadpan tone she could muster, which wasn’t too bad. Maybe some of Simon’s humor was starting to rub off. “That bull follows him around like a puppy whenever he gets in smellin’ distance, I swear.”
That got the reaction she was looking for.
The other workers looked over their shoulders at Nicole, who was laughing so hard that tears began to roll down her cheeks. Roma only smirked. So Nicole was learning a thing or two — though, she had been a bit worldly even when she first came to Albion. She had matter-of-factly let fall a few things that Roma thought only married women (or else the daughters of midwives) were supposed to know. Apparently the Remans had a different way of raising their daughters than the Albionese did.
But still, a logical alternate explanation was no reason not to tease! “So,” Roma tapped Nicole’s shoulder, “since ye clearly got that much … how are ye an’ yer young man doin’?”
They never mentioned Milo’s name in the confines of the Onion; that was the sacred agreement. None of the other servers needed to know that Nicole was seeing a knight. Milo was an uncommon enough name that somebody might put two and two together, and that would do little for Nicole’s reputation. Nobody would believe that they were seeing each other chastely, or chastely enough.
Hell, half the time Roma didn’t believe it, and she knew Nicole wasn’t that type of girl!
“Roma!” Nicole giggled even as she blushed. “We haven’t … I haven’t been milking him, if that’s what you’re asking!”
“That’s a new way o’ putting it.”
“And I blame you entirely for it.”
Roma snickered. “Aye, maybe. Anyway,” she started, rolling back on her heels to hopefully relieve some of the ache growing in her back, “that ain’t all I was axin’ –”
“Nikki!” called Mya, the cook. “Nikki, come have a look at this sauce. It ain’t thickenin’ right.”
Nicole cast an apologetic smile in Roma’s direction and hurried over to Mya’s side. “What seems to be the problem?”
“I’ve been stirrin’ an’ stirrin’ an’ stirrin’ an’ there ain’t nothin’ happenin’! I don’t get it!”
“That’s … odd …” Out of the corner of her eye, Roma just saw Nicole bend to check on the fire. “Er, Mya?”
“I think the fire’s gone out …”
“The fire –”
Mya doubtless would have had a great deal more to say on the subject of the fire, but Edward tapped Roma on the shoulder before she could hear it. “There’s a group o’ men what took the room upstairs. They want a full-time waitress. Ye’re it, Roma.”
“What, the top floor?” gasped Roma.
“Edward! Ye’re axin’ the woman with over six month’s o’ baby stickin’ out in front o’ her ter be walkin’ all those stairs?”
Edward lowered his voice. “They’re wearin’ real fine clothes. Got Reman accents, too. Either they’re the diplomats, or they’re workin’ fer ’em. Probably got the money fer a real good tip.”
“Ah,” Roma murmured. “Well, thank’ee, Edward. I’ll be right up.” She hurried out of the kitchen.
On the way through the main dining room, she saw Bart Andavri. She liked Master Andavri; everybody did. He wasn’t as much of an entertainer as his father, but he was kind enough. “Hail, Roma!”
“Hallo, Master Andavri!”
“For the last time, it’s just Bart,” laughed the merchant. “How’s life treatin’ you?”
“Oh, well enough, well enough! Now, if ye’ll be excusin’ me, there’s a party upstairs, an’ someone has ter be seein’ ter ’em.”
“I know,” laughed Bart. “It figures that somebody would take over the card table on the one night my wife and I get to go out. They won’t even allow Sorcha and I to join them, can you beat that?”
“No, sir, but I can understand it!” laughed Roma. The Andavris — all of them who frequented the Onion — had an unfortunate habit of cleaning up whenever they played at the card tables. Their reputations must have spread.
Bart chuckled, then he nodded to her, and Roma headed up the stairs.
At least the building was narrow if it was tall, Roma forced herself to remember. If it was one of those wide, sprawling places, she would have had a devil of a time crossing the length and breadth of it in her condition. As it was, she only had to worry about the stairs.
As she trudged upward, the baby sent a kick straight for her kidneys — the ninth of the night. Roma winced and rubbed her stomach. This one had to be a boy. Wedding rings couldn’t tell a girl a damned thing about the baby she was carrying, but there were other ways to tell. Roma’s own ma said that the best indicator was the ma’s own feeling about the baby, since mas tended to be right more often than not. Plus, everyone said, and her own ma half-agreed, that women who carried their babies low were likely having boys. The new baby was much lower than Marie had been.
Roma didn’t have to stop on the stairs and catch her breath, or the tears in her eye, when that thought came. Proof, if there ever was proof, that time could heal all wounds. But nothing could stop the soft little sigh. Maybe half the reason she thought the baby was a boy was because there was a part of her that desperately wanted it to be a boy. There were some who said that the souls of little ones, once lost, came again in the next baby to come. But Roma wasn’t sure she believed it. And if that wasn’t the case … she couldn’t bear to have another little black-haired, blue-eyed not-Marie blinking up at her. Better a boy, or a girl who looked nothing like her big sister.
Soon, however, Roma reached the top of the stairs and had to put on her best smile. The custom didn’t like it when their servers were too involved in their own problems to be cheerful and welcoming.
“Good evenin’ …” It was hard to keep up that cheerful lilt when you got a gander at the custom’s clothing and your tongue stuck to the top of your throat. She’d never seen clothing that fine in the walls of the Onion, rumors about the Crown Prince eating here once or twice be damned!
But still, she had to address them somehow, so she coughed to cover up her confusion and started again. “Good evenin’, me lords!” After all, it was better to be safe than to be sorry, wasn’t it?
The men scarcely looked up. They certainly didn’t act as if being called “my lord” was anything less than their due. Apparently Roma had played that right.
“So!” she said, continuing that cheerful tone as she trudged to the table. “What will ye be havin’, me lords?”
One of the black-haired ones — the one in the white tunic and purple trim — sniffed as he looked over his cards. “We already ordered an amphora of your finest wine. Did you not bring it?”
“Er …” Good Lord, they should have gotten Nicole up here. Roma didn’t even know what an amphora was, never mind how much wine you put into it.
Unfortunately, that was only the least of her problems. “Er, m’lords,” Roma mumbled, “I dunno if Edward told ye … but we don’t have wine here.”
The other black-haired man, the one in the burgundy tunic, froze for a split-second. He slammed his cards down on the table. “No wine? What sort of barbaric establishment is this?”
“It’s — it’s awful expensive, m’lords –”
“What does that matter? Obviously you will charge us more than it costs you to get it!” As Roma stood there staring, the man scowled at her. “Well? What are you waiting for? Go get some!”
“Gordanus,” snarled the brown-haired man, “use your head for once. It’s practically a blizzard out there. And where would they get wine at this hour?”
“They could start with any half-decent taberna,” Gordanus mumbled to his cards.
White-tunic snorted. “They’d have to cross the border for that.” He looked up and squinted at Roma. “And why are you still standing there with your mouth open?”
“I — um — well, is there anythin’ else I can be gettin’ ye?”
“Yes. You can go out and –”
“Gordanus,” snarled White-Tunic, “shut up.” He looked up and addressed Roma again. “We will tell you when we require anything. Until then, you will wait.”
“I see, m’lord. Thank’ee, m’lord.” Roma edged over to the sofa.
“And where are you going?” snapped Gordanus.
Roma jumped. “I — I were jest gonna sit down –”
“And who gave you permission to do that?”
The brown-haired man rolled his eyes and smacked the back of Gordanus’s head. “Did you get a look on the belly on that pediseca? Of course you may sit down,” he said to Roma, in a tone he no doubt thought was exceptionally kind.
Roma sat. She didn’t bother to thank him. With Gordanus in the bunch, complaining about everything, she doubted they would be tipping well anyway.
“So, Rodnius,” murmured Gordanus, “what think you of … everything, so far?”
White-tunic — who must have been Rodnius — shrugged. “It could be worse.”
“Aye, we’re not in the salt mines. It could always be worse,” replied brown-hair. “But what think you so far?”
Rodnius glanced over his shoulder at Roma, who did her best to look bored, as if she hadn’t been paying the least attention. Well, she was bored, so there was little acting ability necessary to carry off that illusion. “It seems,” Rodnius murmured, “that old King Uther made either a very clever, or a very foolhardy decision a score or more years ago, now.”
“Meaning?” asked brown-hair.
“Meaning that if everything I heard of late King Vortigern is true, King Arthur is by far the shrewder of the two brothers. Which makes King Uther’s installing him into Albion either very wise, or very foolish. If King Uther was looking to keep us busy for years at a time, chasing that old fox around and never getting into Glasonland, he was very wise. However, if he was only seeking to keep the peace in his land, he was very foolish. He merely delayed the civil war one generation.”
“Well,” Gordanus chuckled, “there’s no denying that King Arthur’s the wiser of the two men. He kept his wife happy long enough to produce a spare. Any man who doesn’t have the brains to do that doesn’t deserve a latifundia, let alone a kingdom.”
“Indeed,” replied brown-hair. “But beyond that, Rodnius?”
“Beyond that …” Rodnius let his sentence trail as he examined his cards. “Nobody could appear that aghast at the idea of civil war in one’s neighbor and rival and actually mean it. And Gouen … were you watching the Crown Prince?”
“Aye, sir, as you told me to,” answered brown-hair, or Gouen. Funny, thought Roma, that name don’t sound very Reman.
“Tell me,” Rodnius asked, “how did he look when we brought up the idea?”
“Er …” Gouen looked over his shoulder at Nicole, then, scarcely lifting his gaze from the table, he mumbled something in the Reman tongue.
Rodnius nodded and replied in that same language. Roma only barely avoided slumping against her seat and pouting. Damn! And this was finally getting interesting!
Gordanus, however, seemed to catch up on the little reaction Roma couldn’t help. “Wench!” he snapped. “Go get us some wine!”
“M’lord, we don’t got –”
“Go get us some wine! Enough excuses! Go!”
Should she stand up for herself? Explain to this jackass that there was no way she’d be trudging out into the snow for his wine, and if he wanted it so badly, he ought to go someplace else and get it himself? No … She’d heard horror stories about how the Remans beat their slaves half to death for the smallest infraction. Best just to scuttle downstairs.
She met Edward once she got back down to the main dining hall. “Edward! Those jackasses up there are axin’ fer wine!”
“Oh, blast,” muttered Edward. “I don’t suppose you told them we don’t have any?”
“Aye. Did ye?”
“Aye. Fat lot o’ good it did us.” Edward sighed. “Look, get Nicole — maybe she can talk some sense into them. If not, we’ll somebody across the lane. They probably have wine.”
They, Roma could sense, was not the Rumdinger’s Roadhouse across the lane, but the brothel — Marigold’s brothel — right next door to the roadhouse. “Aye, Edward,” Roma replied. Hopefully they wouldn’t send her — but then again, the men here never did send a woman to the brothel if there was any possible way to avoid it. Roma wondered if some of them even knew that she and Lyndsay were sister and sister-in-law to Marigold respectively.
Still, the first stop was to Nicole. When Roma waddled her way into the kitchen, it was easy enough to see that the fire was burning merrily again, and hopefully Mya’s sauce was thickening. “Nicole! Oy, Nicole!”
“Can ye be givin’ me a bit o’ help?” asked Roma. “The custom upstairs — they’re Reman, an’ they keep bein’ difficult. Keep axin’ fer wine.”
“Oh, dear,” Nicole murmured.
“I know. Care ter come up an’ help me beat some sense inter ’em? They ain’t takin’ no fer an answer.”
Nicole’s mouth opened, then it shut, glancing at Roma’s belly. “Of course. But I hope you’ll leave the beating to one of the boys.”
“Oh, bah! Ye can at least insult their mothers an’ their sisters an’ all their lady-cousins in terms they’ll understand! The boys can’t be doin’ that.”
“And what,” Nicole asked as they made their way out of the kitchen, “will we do once we’ve insulted their mothers and their sisters and their household gods?”
Household gods — that was a new one. Did the Remans still have household gods? Roma had heard they were all good Wrightians now, and certainly Nicole was if anybody was, but at the end of the day you never knew just what those Remans were getting up to in that sinister capital of theirs …
“Roma?” asked Nicole.
“What are we going to do after we insult them?”
“Oh, that’s easy!” Roma replied. “Run!”
“Run?” Nicole threw her a glance over her shoulder. “In your condition?”
“Hey, I’m jest carryin’ a baby, an’ me ma says exercise is good fer me an’ the baby!”
“Notthat kind of exercise!”
“Running from men who could hurt you?”
“What, an’ I’m supposed ter stay still an’ let ’em hurt me?”
“Roma!” Nicole giggled, scandalized. “You know what I mean!”
Roma chuckled as well, but she didn’t reply. They were getting close enough that the men could easily hear them. It wouldn’t do for their first impression of Nicole to be her insulting their manhood, or their mothers, or their sisters, or their household gods.
But all the same, they didn’t get a very good first impression of her.
“Nicole?” Roma hissed as Nicole took a faltering step backward, bumping right into her belly. “Nicole, what’s wrong?”
She didn’t say a word. But she didn’t move away from Roma either. Roma could feel her trembling from the belly up. Her baby sent out an agitated kick in reply.
“Nicole!” Roma hissed again, grabbing Nicole’s shoulders from behind. “What is it?”
The men didn’t even look in their direction, too intent on their game. But it gave Nicole no comfort that Roma could see. Nicole couldn’t help but put Roma in mind of a rabbit she had once startled on her way to feed the pigs. Roma and the rabbit had stared at each for in mutual surprise for a moment. She could see the rabbit’s side fluttering as it panted; the one eye she could see was as wide as it could be and unmovingly fixed on Roma. Then, when Roma made a hesitant step toward the sty — she didn’t mean the rabbit harm, but the pigs still needed feeding — the rabbit showed its white cotton tail at her and bounded off.
Rodnius looked up at the two girls. For a second — half a second — Roma thought she saw his eyes narrow in confusion.
Then Nicole shrieked and ran, much as the rabbit had. “Nicole!” Roma shouted.
Roma cast one glanced at the Remans, who seemed as surprised as she was, before she tore off after Nicole. “Nicole!”
But as much as she had laughed about having to run away, as glib as she had been about exercise, it was not easy to run down a flight of stairs with six months’ worth of baby sticking out in front of her. The only thing that remotely allowed her to keep up was the fact that Nicole’s trembling kept her stumbling, and her stumbling slowed her down. “Nicole! Wait up!”
She didn’t wait.
She ran down the stairs and into the main dining hall, slamming straight into Mistress Andavri and not even apologizing. She barely managed to avoid bumping into Jucentius and his full tray. “Nicole! Wright!” Jucentius yelled. “What the hell’s goin’ on?”
She didn’t answer.
“Nicole! Wait up!” Roma shouted, weaving through the custom and other servers alike. “Nicole!”
Nicole slipped out the door.
But it was to no avail. Cloakless and hatless, Nicole had already disappeared into the falling snow.