“Mama, when’s breakfast?”
“In a minute, Basil, in a minute,” Meg replied as she drew a knife from the drawer and reached for the vegetables. Breakfast in the Chevaux household, at least when Meg was making it, was always three things: simple, filling, and quick. An omelette for everyone ought to do the trick. Of course it took a lot of eggs — but the good thing was that it used up a lot of eggs before they spoiled, and the chickens had been awfully busy of late.
As Meg’s knife flew over the assorted vegetables and the precious cheese (the cows had not been so generous of late), she called over her shoulder to Basil, “Where’s yer grandma an’ grandpa?”
“Still sleepin’,” Basil answered, scooting himself into a chair. “Papa said ter let ’em sleep.”
Between cracking the eggs into the skillet and beating them within an inch of their lives, Meg could only find time for a nod. Well, why shouldn’t Cerise and Edmond sleep in? They’d be running around after Felix and minding Lisette all day. Let them get their rest in these early few minutes. They could eat their breakfast long after Pierre, Basil, and Meg had run out the door.
“Mama, are ye almost done?”
“In a minute, in a minute!” Meg repeated as she threw the skillet on the stove. At least the eggs cooked fast. It was soon time to toss in the vegetables and bits of cured ham, and then the cheese. Finally, the omelettes were done, and she could pile them onto a plate for serving.
“Yum, Mama, these look good!”
Meg barely had time to flash a smile in Basil’s direction before she heard the creak of the ladder behind her. She looked — Pierre and Felix. Pierre shot her a smile, as he always did, and Meg returned with the smile that was reflex by now.
“Go down by self!” pouted Felix, trying to squirm his way out of Pierre’s arms.
“Not terday, scamp,” Pierre replied. “Ye’re still too little.”
“Yes, ye are,” replied Meg — and when Mama spoke, all argument ceased. Of course Felix continued to pout as Pierre placed him in his chair, and maybe Pierre wore half a pout of his own since Mama’s word was so obviously law.
But when Pierre looked up at her, he was smiling. He was always smiling these days whenever he saw Meg. It wasn’t just a good-morning-how-are-you thing — except for those times when Meg was obviously sad and heartsick, Pierre walked around with the kind of grin on his face that Joyce would call shit-eating.
Perhaps Meg ought to have been annoyed with him thanks to that. It had only been three weeks since her father’s death. She had gone to visit with the little ones two days ago, and she had very nearly asked, “Where’s Da?” when he didn’t make his customary appearance. Life was moving on, slowly edging back to normalcy. But some things would never be normal again.
She ruffled Basil’s hair, as messy as his father’s, when she walked past. Basil scarcely seemed to notice, so busy was he tucking into his omelette. Meg decided to take that a compliment to her cooking.
Besides, he was only five, not quite six. Even though he still asked a lot of questions about Grandpa, such as where he was now, and what he did all day up in heaven, and why he couldn’t come back for at least a visit, he was starting to move past the worst of the grief. It certainly hadn’t yet occurred to him to treasure each moment with the ones he loved, for fear that they would be gone in the blink of an eye.
In the blink of an eye. Meg herself had to blink several times as she sat down — it was either that or let the tear that had leaped upon her without so much as a battle-shout course down her face.
Pierre was sitting down as she sat. Somehow — some way — he seemed to sense what she was thinking, looked up and shot her a grin. The only thing that kept the grin from being an insult was the way it didn’t quite reach up to his eyes. The downturn at the corners bespoke a faint sadness as clearly as a sob could.
He was just trying to make her feel better. Meg could not be angry or insulted for that. He didn’t understand — not quite — what she was thinking, feeling. When, two weeks ago, she had snuggled close to him in bed and whispered that everything was going back to normal, he had whispered back, “But ain’t that good?”
Was it good? Meg could not be sure. On the one hand — of course it was. On the other — of course it wasn’t.
But now — now Meg had her breakfast. And she knew her father would be angry with her if she didn’t eat every last bite. “Come on now, eat up!” he used to scold all of them. “What’s wrong with ye kids? Full plates in front o’ ye — full bellies in a minute! D’ye know how many kids don’t get that? D’ye know how many winters I didn’t get that?”
“Mmph–no!” Joyce would reply, usually with her mouth full of food. Joyce never had to be scolded for not cleaning her plate, though Betsy would often taken her to task for her table manners. Martin, on the other hand, never seemed to mind.
“I’d rather have kids what talk with their mouths full than kids who can’t talk with their mouths full, ’cause they ain’t never full,” he would say.
Meg smiled faintly, popping a bit of omelette in her mouth. An’ thanks ter ye, our mouths were always full an’ our bellies were never empty. Thank’ee, Da.
Perhaps the best way to thank him would be to make sure that Meg’s own children could always say the same. She glanced at Basil’s plate and Felix’s. Sure, they were full now — but Sir Bors’s lands were never that good, and he seemed to spend money much faster than it came in. Such a to-do there had been earlier this year, when he ordered brand-new windows for his whole house! He hadn’t even waited for the taxes to come in, or the taxes he owed to go out. Rumor had it that Lady Claire had walked around for weeks looking like she had bitten into a lemon.
Meg absently cut off a bit of omelette with the side of her fork, though she stared at her plate as if it held the secrets of the very earth. Sir Bors had yet to try to eke money to cover his lifestyle out of them — she had no idea why he kept the taxes so reasonable — but who knew how long that would last? Would they, too, someday be reduced to folks like the families in her parents’ old village, the one who worked from dawn to dusk to coax every last bit of grain from the giving earth, reaped an abundant harvest, and still saw their children go to bed hungry every night?
Say what you will about Sir Mordred — and Joyce certainly had a lot to say on that subject, even if Lukas was too confused and Betsy too afraid — but at least he never —
“Mama, Papa,” asked Basil, “Davy says he an’ Grandma an’ Uncle Lukas an’ Aunt Ella an’ Bertie are gettin’ a new house at the beginnin’ o’ the year. Is that true?”
Well, she could guess: from Davy, if Basil was telling the truth. Which left the question: how had Davy found out?
“I’m only axin’,” Basil added with the grandiosity of a man forty years his senior — Meg had to hold back a snicker and didn’t dare look at Pierre while she did so — “’cause it were Leah who first brought it up.”
Leah? Well, that explained things — a lot of things. First, it explained why Basil was asking them if Davy had already said something about it. Basil wouldn’t believe the sky was blue if Leah was the one who told them. Secondly, it explained how the knowledge would have come into Davy’s hands in the first place. Joyce must have told Berach, probably with her theories about Sir Mordred and his intentions, and Leah must have heard her telling him. Joyce could hold her tongue in public — barely — but she would never understand the virtue of quiet in her own home.
As for Meg, she took a good long time chewing before she dared to venture a response, “Well,” she said slowly, “Sir Mordred did tell Grandma that he was buildin’ up a bunch o’ houses in a little village, right near his castle, an’ he wants Grandma an’ Uncle Lukas an’ Aunt Ella an’ the kiddies ter all live in one o’ ’em. The biggest one,” Meg added, to convince — who? Of what?
Pierre heard the note of convincing and shot Meg a worried look. Meg couldn’t even smile back. Amazing. Her father was scarcely cold in her grave, her mother was still went through every other day as a drained husk of herself, Lukas was trying to bear up his crumpling mother and hugely pregnant wife — who was picking up what slack she could, which wasn’t much — and his two shocked little brothers, and this was what worried Meg.
But if Joyce was right … what else was there to worry Meg in comparison?
“An’ they’re right lucky ter be gettin’ that big house,” Pierre said to Basil. “I’ve heard tell that we’re gonna be gettin’ lots o’ new families movin’ ter Albion, what with things bein’ so rotten over in Glasonland. A few o’ them are bound ter be indentured ter Sir Mordred, an’ he could be keepin’ that big house ter get other families ter say they want to belong ter him. But no! He gives that ter Grandma an’ Uncle Lukas. Ain’t that good o’ him, Basil?”
He said “Basil,” but it he may as well have said Meg and been honest about it. But no, Pierre wouldn’t do that in front of the little ones — well, the little ones who weren’t Lisette. When they were alone at night, Meg feeding Lisette or Pierre just holding Lisette as Meg got ready for bed, he wasn’t shy about saying what he thought.
“Meg — ye know I like Joyce, I really do — but she ain’t thinkin’ straight on this one.” That would be followed by the removal of a tunic, or, if he was holding the baby, bringing her up to his shoulder for a burping or just a different look at the world. “Why would Sir Mordred be havin’ it out fer yer family now that yer da is gone? That’s like — well, it’s cuttin’ off his nose ter spite his face, it really is. Meg, think about it. They’re his. No matter what yer ma said or did about Lady Morgause — if he hurts them, he hurts his own self.”
Whenever he said that to her — and he tended to have to say it every time Meg talked to Joyce — he had the same pleading look in his eyes that he was wearing now, even if he gestured to Basil and scarcely seemed to be talking to Meg at all.
And what reason was there for Meg to not believe her man? Pierre wasn’t a deep thinker, like Neil Porter, or too clever for his own good, like his brother Simon. But he had the most solid stock of common sense that Meg had seen in a man. Meg’s own common sense sternly ordered Meg to agree with Pierre and stop worrying herself over nonsense.
But whenever she tried to tell herself this, Joyce’s voice, not nearly as stern but twice as frightening, sounded in her ears. “This is the Orkneys, Meg. Think o’ what Lady Morgause did. What’s sense got ter do with any o’ that?”
The only reply to that was that Sir Mordred didn’t seem half as mad as Lady Morgause must have been. And so, when she and Joyce had had that conversation, Meg had made that reply. Joyce’s response had not been what Meg had hoped to hear:
“Aye, Meg. But Lady Morgause didn’t seem half that mad, neither.”
It was hard to agree with Pierre with Joyce’s rejoinder running through her head. So Meg did the only thing that seemed to make sense. She nodded at Pierre, and she tried to slay her doubts by thinking resolutely of something else.
“An’ ye still will see Davy, at least once a week or more, son! It ain’t gonna be that much farther, all things considered.”
Basil still pouted. “They’re not gonna be closer ter Leah, are they?”
“Now, lad!” Pierre scolded. “What does it matter if they are? Don’t ye think Bert an’ Lilibeth will like ter play tergether once they get a bit older? An’ what about Aunt Ella’s baby an’ Auntie Joyce’s new baby? Why, they’ll be so close tergether, they’re gonna love playin’ tergether once they get old enough!”
“Oh, I don’t mind that,” Basil replied. “It’s jest … Davy always takes Leah’s side! Always! If they move closer tergether, then they’re always, always, always gonna be teamin’ up an’ leavin’ me out!”
Basil slunk lower in his seat. “He always does take her side.”
That’s because ye antagonize her, Basil, and Davy’s shapin’ up ter be a gentleman the way ye ain’t — yet, Meg thought. But how to put this so a five-year-old would understand it?
Pierre seemed to have an idea that would work, “Well, Basil, that’s cause it ain’t nice ter pick on girls.”
Meg grinned. There — that ought to be something Basil couldn’t argue with. He couldn’t use Cerise’s sniffs when it came to Leah’s ancestry (as if she didn’t have at least one grandchild with ancestry as bad as Leah’s — and if she didn’t have several grandchildren with that kind of ancestry by way of Simon, well, that was probably more due to luck than to design), or Edmond’s bumbling attempts to tell the truth in a way a child as young as Basil could understand it, against that. Everybody knew that boys weren’t to pick on girls.
Except, of course, Basil did find a way to argue. “But Papa! I don’t pick on ‘er! I jest say what’s true!”
“If ye’re sayin’ it in a way what’s meant ter hurt her, that’s pickin’ on her, Basil,” Meg answered.
“Ye jest what?” Pierre asked.
“She ain’t me cousin. She ain’t. She’s no blood kin ter me, Papa! Grandma an’ Grandpa both say!”
“Neither is Aunt Ella, or Uncle Berach,” Pierre replied. “But they’re still yer aunt an’ uncle.”
“But … but they’re growed-ups!”
“So?” Meg asked. “Basil, I know it’s a bit odd-seemin’ … but lots o’ times men what have kids marry women what don’t. Or women what do. An’ then all o’ those kids are kin ter each other, an’ they’re kin ter any nieces an’ nephews the women might have. Jest like the grown-ups become kin ter the nieces an’ nephews. There ain’t no difference.”
“An’ like yer Grandma Betsy is always sayin’,” Pierre added, “bein’ kin ain’t about the blood that’s in yer veins, it’s about the love what’s in yer heart.”
“Aye, Felix, love!” Meg laughed.
Basil didn’t seem to hear any of that. “But I don’t love Leah!”
“Yes, ye do,” Pierre replied.
“Now,” Meg interrupted, “I’ll grant ye, Basil, ye might not like Leah very much sometimes — because we can’t all be likin’ each other all the time,” she shot a dagger-glare at Pierre to keep him from interrupting, “but I’m sure ye love her, at least a little bit. If she were in trouble, ye’d help her, right?”
Basil’s gaze slinked from Meg to Pierre, then back to Meg again. “I … I guess …”
“Then that’s love,” Meg replied — and did her level best to meet Pierre’s own dagger-glare.
Ye jest made that way too complicated fer him ter understand, Meg, said Pierre’s glare.
An’ have ye got a better idea? replied the sauciest gaze Meg could muster.
The argument might have continued in that vein, but for Edmond’s reedy voice calling down the ladder. “Pierre? Can ye come up here an’ — an’ — give me some help?”
“Wonder what that’s about,” Pierre murmured as he pushed back his chair. “Aw, Mama, ye don’t have ter get up.”
“Nonsense, the plates need clearin’. It’s almost dawn. Basil, up with ye too.” Once the dawn came in earnest, it would be time for the real race to begin: the race to get Basil bundled up and ready for the school wagon, the race to get Pierre’s lunch fixed and packed for him, the race for herself to give Lisette one last feed before she had to run to get to the Ferreiras’ drapery shop.
So as Pierre made his way up the stairs, Meg got Felix out of his chair and shooed him off to play with his brother. Basil sighed, but he knew what was expected of him. He got the washcloth and began to scrub Felix’s face. Meg took advantage of that moment to dash into the bedroom to give Lisette her feed.
By the time she made it out again, the sun was well up, and the plates still hadn’t been cleared. Nor had Cerise or Edmond made their way down. She sighed as she bent to pick one of the plates up —
“Oh, Mama,” Basil remarked, looking up from the dog he had been petting, “Papa’s been callin’ fer ye. Usin’ yer big-person name, too!”
He was calling? Well, if he was calling like that, of course she hadn’t heard through the closed door while she was feeding —
Meg dropped the plates and scrambled up the ladder. She’d never heard Pierre call for her — call for anyone — quite like that.
When she reached the top, Pierre was rubbing his hands together at the foot of Edmond and Cerise’s bed. Edmond hadn’t even dressed yet — something of a shock, Meg could never remember seeing him in just his sleeping attire, never mind the six years she and Pierre had been married — and Cerise still lay abed.
Except … “Pierre?” Meg whispered, creeping up to her husband and laying a hand on his elbow. “What — what is it?”
“It’s — it’s Ma,” Pierre murmured. “She … she ain’t gettin’ up …”
Meg looked over at Cerise — but there were some things one needed only a single look to confirm. Like this.
Or the day after …
Edmond suddenly barked out a sob, and Pierre was in Meg’s arms almost before she could blink. “What are we gonna do, Meg?” Pierre gasped. “What are we gonna do?”
“We — we –”
She couldn’t answer. Not in that moment. After she had caught her breath, she would suggest sending Basil along to school — giving him most of the rest of one more day before he lost another grandparent — and then sending Pierre for the monks. Then, hopefully, Pierre could go fetch Simon, who could get Toinette and Rosette. Then they would make their arrangements.
But in the meantime, she could only think one thing.