“Let’s just see how things are going,” murmured Clarice, scooting her stool to Lynn’s side, the better to feel her bulging belly. Her fingers tapped and prodded, far more deft than Lynn had ever imagined they would be.
Lynn leaned back, eyes closed, for a moment content to let someone else take the lead. Soon, she knew, the pains would come again, and despite the presence of the other women, there would be no help for her. Nobody else could deliver this baby for her.
And that, perhaps, was why, despite Morgan’s stubborn insistence that the fate of the kingdom did not rest on Lynn’s shoulders alone — despite the way Tommy, Alison, even Arthur claimed that the sex of this baby was immaterial, no big deal — despite Clarice calming pointing out to her one afternoon over tea that their father’s way of thinking was generally more full of dung than the night-soil wagon — Lynn could not believe it.
Whether the kingdom got an heir tonight or not was all on her. Why couldn’t anyone else see that?
Maybe part of it was the company she was keeping tonight.
Her mother, Alison — both of them were more of a mind to tell soothing half-truths than stern truths. Certainly in times like these, that was their goal. Perhaps Lynn couldn’t blame them. Perhaps they were only trying to make things better, for Lynn could not help but suspect that whenever the time came for determining whether a boy or a girl was, giving birth was not that time. She had heard of women giving birth a month or two early, and losing babies earlier than that, who delivered recognizable boys and girls.
Lynn turned away and sighed, reveling in these few moments she had before another pain came and her labor started anew. She wished she had the company from the last time she had given birth with her: Jessie and Dannie. They might have understood. They were practical, more practical than Alison or Claire or even Morgan. At least Dannie had a happy reason to be staying away. Her baby was due any day now. Jessie …
Lord, she didn’t want to think about that right now.
Lynn looked up and blinked. When did Clarice get over there? Had Lynn blacked out? There had been a time during Elise’s birth when things had gone fuzzy and she was not sure just how much she was able to remember.
But Clarice was grinning at her, a tad nervously, and Lynn had to try to smile back. “Stay with me, sis. How are you feeling?”
Lynn shot her what could only be described as a look.
“None of that.” Clarice tweaked Lynn’s nose and winked. “I’m the doctor. You have to tell me. So, let’s get to this.”
“I –” Lynn began, before another contraction hit her. Her reply turned into a low moan.
And then there was nothing to do but to ride it out, let the pain crescendo like a complicated interlude in one of her mother’s songs and then disperse again. It wasn’t time to push yet, so she could only endure. But soon …
When she could at last open her eyes and breathe normally again, she saw that Alison, Morgan, and Claire had all leapt to their feet. Lynn shot them all a wan smile before she leaned back against the chair, panting. Slowly — Morgan first, Alison following, and finally Claire — they all sat down again.
“I’m going to have a look on what’s going on down there,” Clarice said, “all right?”
Lynn nodded, and Clarice bent — Lynn wasn’t sure how, given how big a bulge Clarice’s own baby was in the front of her dress — to examine her privy parts.
“You always tell me — oh! — exactly what you’re doing,” Lynn murmured.
“Isn’t that only polite?” Clarice murmured as her fingers continued to poke and prod.
Lynn didn’t answer. The only way to keep her legs from snapping shut was to focus on something else — say, the picture that Elise had given Tommy in all solemnity, and that he had pinned to the wall just across from their bed. It was the first thing both of them saw when they woke in the mornings. The day he had done that, Lynn had wept for almost half an hour after seeing it. She had blamed it on the pregnancy, if only to keep herself from feeling as mad as she was sure she looked.
And the worst of it was that she hadn’t even felt sad!
“We’re almost there,” Clarice said, coming up again and straightening herself on her stool. “You’ll be pushing any minute now.”
“… I know, Clarice. I’ve done this before.”
“Aye, so have I. You don’t think I’d come to you without any practice, do you?” Clarice winked.
“No … but Clarice, you haven’t done it from my position.”
Clarice paled at the mention, but it was not long before a determined grin appeared on her face. “Well, I will in about six weeks!” She patted Lynn’s belly. “And come now, aren’t you excited? You’ll meet your baby any time now!”
Lynn could not answer. Almost without her consciously willing it, her head lolled to the couches where sat Alison, Claire … and Morgan.
Her mother was looking right at her — hardly a surprise, really, given everything. She was grinning as she always had when Lynn was sick or bruised or needed a splinter pulled from her finger. It was the kind of smile that was three parts nerves and one part reassurance. You’ll be all right, that smile said. I promise. I — I haven’t the least idea how I will make you all right — but you will be all right!
This was the first time Lynn had watched her mother smile like that … and watched the smile drop right from her face. “Lynn!” She jumped up and ran to her, her hands caressing Lynn’s shoulders. “Darling, what’s wrong?”
“Lynn?” Clarice yelped. Her head went back down between Lynn’s legs, then popped up again. She started to prod Lynn’s belly. “Lynn, I’m not feeling anything — unusual. What’s the matter?”
“Easy, doctor.” That was Morgan, rising almost languidly to stand next to Lynn. “I’ve got this one. You watch what’s going on below the neck, and I’ll take care of everything above that.” She smiled at Lynn, more gently than Lynn was expecting. “Talk to me, Lynn. What’s on your mind?”
It was amazing how those four words could open up such a floodgate. At least, they had at other times — when Lynn wasn’t in labor, for one. When a pang was coming on —
Lynn felt her mother’s hands tighten on her shoulders as she made shushing noises, and Clarice was calling on her to breathe. Lynn breathed. And for a moment — for a moment, she took refuge in the contraction. She didn’t have to think here. She had only to feel, and to breathe, and to listen to her body.
It was not time to push. Not yet. But any time now —
When the pain subsided and the world came back into focus, Morgan was still standing there, smiling somewhat expectantly. Lynn swallowed. “I’m scared,” she whispered.
“Lynn!” Clarice gasped. “Don’t you worry about a thing. We — we won’t let anything happen to you! Or the baby! Tell her, Mother — Lady Morgan!”
“I think Lynn already knows that,” was Morgan’s only reply.
Lynn hung her head. Yes — she did already know that. She even believed it. It would have been easier if she didn’t.
“I don’t want to fail again,” she whispered.
“Lynn, sweetheart,” Alison called from the couch, “giving birth to a healthy baby is not a failure!”
A healthy baby — Oh, Lord! Lynn thought. What if her baby was a daughter, and wasn’t healthy? What if her own diseased mind had harmed her baby? She’d never forgive herself, and she doubted even generous Tommy would forgive her for that —
Morgan’s voice cut through the clawing thought like a sword severing a rope. “Your baby is going to be just fine. Trust me. He — or she — is perfectly healthy, from everything I can tell. Don’t you worry about that.”
“That’s right,” Claire murmured, massaging Lynn’s shoulders. “That’s absolutely right. Listen to Morgan. We’ll take good care of you and the baby.”
Lynn leaned her head back into her mother’s stomach with a whimper.
“We’re right here, baby. My poor baby,” Claire murmured. “You’re going to be just fine. I promise.”
“But in the meantime, while we still have time for something approaching conversation — Lynn, don’t you think it might be nice to give Elise a sister?” Morgan pointed out. “Look how close you and Clarice are. Don’t you want something like that for your daughter?”
Lynn’s eyes swiveled to her sister, took in her smiling face. “Lynn … you’re the best sister a girl could ask for, you know that? And I know Elise would be just as good as you. She’d love having a baby sister around.”
“And Tommy would love having another little girl to spoil,” Morgan pointed out. “Alison — wouldn’t you and Arthur love another little granddaughter?”
“I hope we get lots more little granddaughters,” Alison replied. And — somewhat to Lynn’s surprise — her grin seemed genuine.
“But …” Lynn whispered. She knew all this. Her mind had known it for a while, and even expected it. She had watched Arthur and Alison closely: there was no difference between how they treated Elise and Celeste versus how they treated Corentin. And Tommy? She didn’t think even Tommy would have the energy to dote on a boy more thoroughly than he doted on Elise.
But knowing all of that did nothing to dissipate the leaden fog that hovered over her soul. It was stubborner than even Morgan. It cloaked her in feelings of failure even when she was doing everything her power to be a good wife, a good mother, a good princess. There was nothing she could do to make that fog happy.
Except one thing: Have a boy.
Yet there was nothing she could do to —
Lynn suddenly yelled as another pain hit her, stronger than all the others. She crashed forward with the force of it.
“Easy, Lynn, easy!” shouted Claire — or was it Clarice? It didn’t matter. It didn’t matter what any of them said now. This was the sign she had been waiting for.
It was time to push.
It was amazing, how that was able to make the fog lift as nothing else in the past months had. But there was work to be done, and no arguing with the taskmaster. Apparently her father was wrong in one thing. When women’s work needed doing, there was nothing that a man could say that would or could gainsay her.
Clarice was telling her to breathe, slow and easy; Claire was telling her to push. Morgan wasn’t saying anything at all. Lynn could hear something coming from Alison’s general direction, but whatever it was was too soft and fast to make out. Perhaps it was a prayer. Later, Lynn would remember to feel grateful for that. In the meantime, she was too busy.
She would not remember very much of the time of pushing after the birth. She didn’t remember much when it had happened with Elise, either. That was probably by design — the Lord Wright’s — because if women remembered too well what it took to bring one child into the world, who was to say that their men could convince them to have another?
Lynn kept her eyes closed through most of it — it was easier to concentrate. She would not see her baby come into the world, but then again, she wasn’t at the best angle for viewing anyway. Clarice had that angle.
“I can see the head,” Clarice said, the first clear voice to cut through Lynn’s haze. “Keep pushing, we’re almost there.”
Lynn looked up for half a second. She had no idea how — or why — but Clarice was looking up at that moment too. Clarice didn’t say anything, only smiled.
If Lynn had needed any more help or encouragement to get her through this, that was it.
She knew when the baby slipped free from her — how could she not? Even if she hadn’t been able to feel it leave her, she would have heard the moment its mouth hit the air. Her baby sent out a hearty wail that was somehow more reassuring than all of Elise’s laughs and coos and lisped words. But that was only to be expected.
There was still work to be done — the afterbirth to come, her body to come to shuddering terms with the fact that it was no longer carrying a child — but the worst was over. Lynn could breathe again, and soon relax.
But she didn’t look at the baby yet. The women were cheering around her, but that told Lynn nothing. They had cheered just as much when Elise was born.
She stared at the ceiling for a moment, just breathing for as long as she could. Then — inexorably — her eyes moved to the wall beyond Alison.
Tommy loved that drawing. Tommy loved that girl. And hopefully — no matter what Lynn had delivered tonight — he would still love her too.
She closed her eyes again, hearing water splash and pour. Hearing her baby loudly protest every last drop. Elise hadn’t been that quite that forceful in her first few minutes. A creeping suspicion rose over Lynn: she and Tommy might just be in a bit of trouble with this one.
“Lynn!” called Clarice, gently chiding. “Lynn, look up! He’s all clean now — don’t you want to see him?”
Lynn blinked. “H–him?”
“Aye! It’s a boy! Seems like he has red hair like Prince Tom — and Mother, I think he has your eyes!”
Lynn looked. Clarice had already put a little shift over him — but unless she was lying —
Lynn had delivered a son!
She waited — she waited for the sun to break through, burn off the fog for good and for all. She had done her duty, as all virtuous women should, she had kept the succession going. Surely, surely, she might be allowed to be happy now? Please — mayn’t I?
But the fog did not leave her. Instead it settled in, twice as thick, surrounding Lynn and hemming her in.
That was when she knew that all her efforts, her pain, her toil, were still not good enough. Not nearly good enough. Virtuous women didn’t just give their husbands a son — they gave them sons.
The last thing Lynn saw before the tears began and the sobs choked her vision away was Clarice leaning her son on her shoulder, shushing him and cooing into his little, perfect ear.
Perfect, but not nearly good enough.
“Wright, Lynn, isn’t he perfect?” Tommy was gushing as he held their baby to his nose. Lynn tried to smile.
An hour, perhaps two, had passed. Enough time for her to get over that first fit of tears — that the women seemed to chalk down to being tears of joy, Morgan possibly excepted — and feed her son for the first time. He suckled just as Elise had: warm, nesting, knowing just what to do without Lynn needing to do more than make sure she held him near enough to her breast for his little mouth to reach. When he was done, she had to burp him and hold him close for a cuddle, just as she had with Elise. He had been just as soft and sweet-smelling as her, too. Really, with the napkin on, what was the difference between a boy baby and a girl baby?
But then Lynn and her son had been separated; Alison to take the baby downstairs to show to his father, to both of his grandfathers, to his Uncle Accolon and Uncle Freddy. As for Lynn, she had been helped into a big tub full of warm, soapy water and allowed to lounge as long as she liked. Clarice and her maid had helped her wash her hair and her body both. Then, when Lynn had had enough of pruning, she was helped into her favorite nightgown and then helped into bed. That was no different than it had been with Elise, too.
And now, as the churchbells rang up and down the kingdom outside, Tommy was here, and so was her boy.
“Do you still like Arthur for a name?” Tommy asked, bringing the baby up to nuzzle his nose, just as he had liked to do with Elise — as he still liked to do with Elise. “If not, speak now or forever hold your peace, love.”
Lynn did her best to smile back. It was hard, through the fog. “Of course, Tommy.”
Tommy froze. He brought the baby — little Arthur — down. “Lynn?”
Lynn turned away. All she wanted to do was to close her eyes, burrow under the covers, and maybe indulge in a good cry. Why? Lynn cried inside. Why was it that no matter what she did, no matter how hard she tried, it was never, never enough?
“Lynn? Love? What is it?” The alarm was rising in his voice now. Lynn had to say something.
“Do — do you think — Elise will be happy?” Lynn forced herself to ask. Was Tommy even thinking of Elise still?
“A little brother to boss around? Oh, she’ll be thrilled!” Tommy laughed — just as he would have laughed yesterday. So at least that was still all right.
“But the question,” Tommy continued, the laugh suddenly quite gone, “is are you happy, Lynn?”
Lynn didn’t answer.
Without a further word, Tommy kissed Arthur’s head and deposited him in the cradle at the foot of the bed. It was Elise’s very cradle. Tommy had sworn that all of his children, boys and girls, heirs and not, would sleep in the same cradle for their first few days and nights. He said he would only make an exception for twins — or triplets, he had added devilishly.
Then, Arthur safely bestowed, Tommy climbed into the big bed beside Lynn. “Talk to me, love. What is it?”
How was it that Tommy and Morgan could be so different — so very different — and yet still have that talent of making Lynn talk whether she desired it or not?
“He’s not good enough,” Lynn whispered. “We’ll — we’ll need at least one more — or two — or three, or –” Oh, Wright! How many more do I need to have? When can I get to be happy with the babies I have already?
“Lynn. Lynn, no.” Tommy pushed her hair, still damp, back from her face and kissed her cheek. “He’s perfect. Don’t think he’s not good enough. He’s perfect, just like Elise was — and still is, if you ask me — perfect. We’ve got the two perfectest babies in the kingdom.”
“But — but we’ll need more!” Lynn half sobbed. “An heir and a sp-sp–” She couldn’t even say it. She was starting to sob on the very word.
“No son of mine is going to be a spare,” Tommy replied. “And no daughter, either. Lynn, of course we’ll have more children. You want more than just two, aye? You’ve always wanted more than just two, haven’t you? Remember when you told me that seven was your lucky number, and so you wanted that many children?”
“I just want to stop feeling like this!” Lynn sobbed.
“And you will,” Tommy promised. He slipped an arm around her shoulder and edged closer to her. “My poor Lynn. Of course you will. We just — we just have to get you through this, and you will be just as happy as you used to be. And we will get you through his. Me, and my parents, and your mother and your sister and Morgan — we will all get you through this.”
“I’m sorry, Tommy,” Lynn whispered, even as the tears kept coming. “I’m so sorry.”
“Lynn, love, what do you have to be sorry for? You can’t help it.” He kissed her hair and held her close even as she cried against his doublet. “It’s all right, love. It’s all right. We’ll get you through this.”
Lynn could only nestle next to him and pray he was right. For Elise’s sake, for little Arthur’s sake.
And for her own sake, too.