It was midday when Mordred entered Rosette’s home — his home — without knocking. Business at the estate had taken longer than he was expected, and there had been messages delivered with news from Glasonland. There had been nothing decisive on the military front — at least, not between Francis and Constantine, yet — but several weaker armies had been obliterated, their soldiers scattered and their leaders rounded up for show trial and ghastly execution. Arthur would be getting the news later, and once he got it, he would probably call a Council meeting. Mordred had thus made himself scarce as soon as he got the messages. He had no desire to be dragged into that. Not today.
And for once, his heart was at ease and his motives were pure. His beloved Rosette’s mother had died scarcely a fortnight ago. Of course he was checking up on her as often as he could. Even Lord Pellinore couldn’t argue with that, not unless he wanted to fling mud on himself and everything he stood for.
And speaking of beloved …
Mordred had barely had time to pull off his cloak before he saw Aimée toddling toward him on her still-wobbling feet. Mordred grinned — the sort of grin that most of his fellow Council members would swear he was entirely unable to produce — and flung out his arms to her. “Aimée!”
She giggled and ran up to him, her dark curls bouncing with every step. She had her mother’s curls, even if she had his own raven-black hair. And she had her mother’s eyes, too, sparkling at him from behind the thick fringe. “Papa, Papa!”
“My Aimée-angel!” Mordred laughed, grabbing her under the arms and swinging her up, high, high in the air. Aimée squealed and pedaled her feet in the air.
Mordred’s smile turned soft as he brought Aimée to his hip. She didn’t stay there long, instead scooting her little body up to clutch his neck and deposit baby kisses on his cheek. Why couldn’t she stay this little forever? With the boys, Mordred had looked forward to how they would grow up and get bigger, so he would be able to teach them things and play with them the rough games a father loved to play with his son. But Aimée … she would be an adorable girl and a beautiful young woman, of that he was certain. He was just not certain why his sweet baby had to disappear, someday, in order to make way for that girl and young woman. Why could they not all exist at once?
“Love you, Papa,” Aimée murmured with another little kiss.
“And I love you,” Mordred replied. “But Aimée …” He pried her away from his neck to better examine her face. “Papa has an important big-girl question to ask of you. Can you answer it?”
“Oh?” She perked up at being called a big girl. No surprise there. The twins had been the same way — they still were the same way.
“Where is Mama right now?”
“Upstairs,” Aimée replied. “Sewing. Papa, she’s still sad.”
“I know, angel. But Mama …” He ran his hands through his daughter’s silky hair. He never understood how it was that hair could be so curly and at the same time so smooth. But why should he be surprised that between him and Rosette, they had produced the world’s first example of perfect curls? “Mama will be sad for some time yet. Mama won’t be able to see her mama anymore, remember.”
“But you said she’d feel better soon,” Aimée accused.
Mordred did not wince, at least, not outwardly. A man who was as much a master of himself in Council, before his serfs and servants, around the help as Mordred did not let his guard down before his impressionable daughter who would take every stray reaction as law. But his heart did flinch. He had forgotten what “soon” meant to a three-year-old. “Soon” meant “right about now” or “in the next five minutes.” “Soon” did not mean, “Rosette has nothing to regret, no anger to bear, so the worst of it should be over within a few months.”
A few months could be an eternity to a child as young as Aimée. Mordred had forgotten that.
“I know,” he replied. He permitted himself a single sigh. “I know, poppet.”
“But then why don’t you fix it, Papa?” Aimée insisted.
Mordred pushed her hair back from her eyes again. Why didn’t he? Well, because some things were simply not given to mortal men to fix. He would have found the pieces of Rosette’s broken heart and glued them back together with his own blood — if he could. But he could not.
Still, it was the poor father who let his daughter know that he was anything other than her hero, her champion, the man who could fix everything given time and the right tools. So instead he answered, “I am still trying to fix it. Tell me, poppet, do your little pictures and block-buildings always come out right the first time?”
Aimée popped her thumb in her mouth — Rosette thought she should be past that habit by now, but Mordred still found it rather adorable, even if the wet thumb was going to land on his clean doublet any moment now — pondered the question, and drew it out again. “No.”
“Then you must give Papa more time. For if Aimée-angel cannot make everything perfect at once, then certainly Papa can’t.”
“But I want Mama happy,” Aimée whimpered.
Mordred gave his daughter a boost, the better to kiss her forehead. “So does Papa. So. What do you say we go upstairs and make Mama smile?”
“I like that!” Aimée clung even more fiercely to his neck as Mordred chuckled, then he brought her up the stairs as quickly as he dared.
But when he got to the top, he didn’t say anything — not at first. He merely watched.
His poor Rosette. She hid her sadness so well. Indeed, at this distance — well, who was to say she was sad? Bent over her sewing table like she was so often, she looked like any bustling, happy woman. Oh, her projects showed more of care and true sensibility than most, there was no question of that. And she had only to ask for him to fill her sewing basket with the finest silks and velvets he could buy.
But she never even asked. And even Mordred understood that silks and velvet, or anything his boundless coins could purchase, would not properly bandage this wound.
He felt a tug on his sleeve — Aimée. Her green eyes, as dark and fathomless as her mother’s, widened and she gestured to Rosette. Mordred only smiled and shook his head. Aimée frowned — then all in a moment she got it, grinned, and called, “Mama, look who’s here!”
“Who’s –” Rosette looked over her shoulder and gasped. “M-Mordred!”
“It’s Papa!” Aimée called, completely unnecessarily.
“I see that!” Rosette laughed. Mordred could hear every false note it struck — but no matter. She probably saw very little to laugh about nowadays.
Rosette got up to greet him, and Mordred set Aimée down before she could get to him. “How are you?” Rosette whispered as she kissed him chastely on the lips — the exact kiss a wife would give her wandering husband when he came home for the evening.
“I should ask the same of you,” Mordred replied.
Rosette tried a laugh, a hollow one this time. “That’s not an answer.”
“Neither,” Mordred tapped her nose with a finger and brushed his lips against it, “is that.”
Rosette ducked her head, her own thick fringe coming perilously close to landing on Mordred’s shoulder. “I …” She reached for his hands and took both in her own, squeezing them besides. “I suppose I’m well enough.”
“I am glad.” Of course, he didn’t believe her — unless by “well enough,” she meant, “well enough, all things considered.” Then … maybe he did believe her.
He remembered what she had been for him, once things after his father’s death had calmed down enough for him to escape for an evening to see her. She had been his rock, the jetty he clung to while the tide beat him black and blue. She had not needed to say anything, either. She had merely been there.
Mordred wished he knew how to be the same for her.
She peeked through her lashes and her bangs to smile at him, the same shy smile of the girl he had fallen in love with so — so long ago. What was it, fifteen years? Yes, it must be something like that. It had been ten years ago that they had both set off for Camford together, Rosette the wide-eyed innocent leaping at her chance for an education, and Mordred the cynical lord’s son fully intending to do his required studies and enjoy himself thoroughly with wine, song — and the woman he had brought with him.
His head still reeled every time he considered how much they had lost — and how much they had gained — since those heady, carefree days.
“So, my dear,” he asked, once again, “how are you — truly?”
Her gaze fell. Mordred reached up and pushed some of her stray wisps of hair from her face. As if Rosette’s own hair was conspiring against him, they fell back as soon as the pressure from his hand was removed. Just as he worried that Rosette fell apart the moment he removed his structural support and went back to his cold keep once again.
But maybe Rosette was stronger than she looked. After all, she had come for him, had she not? She had braved Barber’s barbs and who knew what gossip and scorn to come see for herself how Mordred was after his mother’s death. She had not borne up well under both, that he knew without her having to tell him. But she had tried, and to make the attempt was almost as good as succeeding.
Indeed, as if to prove his point, she looked up. Then — the sound was almost a whimper. “Not in front of …”
“Ah. Say no more, Rosette.” Mordred kissed her forehead. “Just go upstairs. We can … talk up there.”
“And … Aimée?” Rosette asked.
“Leave her to me.”
A shadow crossed over her eyes, like that of a hawk over the leafy canopy — but as swift as the hawk’s flight, it was gone. She nodded once and drifted out of the room.
Leaving Mordred and Aimée alone.
“Aimée, poppet, Mama and Papa have to talk about some important grown-up things,” he announced. “You can stay down here and play until we are done, can you not?”
“That’s my angel.” Mordred kissed the top of her head. “If you need me or Mama, come up to Mama’s room — but be sure to knock before you open the door, like all good little girls should.”
Aimée nodded, and Mordred took that as his opportunity to escape and hurry up the stairs.
He found Rosette lounging on her side of the bed — well, where else would she be? Her bedroom wasn’t exactly furnished with places to sit and ponder. Mordred winced. Maybe it should have been. Maybe … maybe he ought to think more closely about moving Rosette and the children out of this drafty old keep.
Still, when Rosette saw him, she smiled. It was the tired smile, the worn smile, the smile smiled more from obligation than from any feeling of genuine happiness. Mordred smiled in reply, something that he hoped was much more genuine. Then, without a further word, he crossed the room to his side of the bed.
His back faced Rosette as it always did whenever he made himself comfortable. First there were the sheets to smooth — excellent. Rosette was far neater than any mere maid at the Orkney keep, but if Mordred did not smooth the sheets first, he entered the bed feeling as incomplete and slapdash as if he were trying to go to sleep without combing his hair or washing his face and hands.
Next he straightened the pillow and leaned it against the headboard. After that, he would kick off his shoes, turn around, and face Rosette.
But when he did, he saw something — surprising. Rosette was loosening the ties on her bodice.
“Rosette?” Mordred gasped in some alarm.
She stopped. “Don’t … don’t you want to …”
She didn’t sound hurt, or saddened. Only surprised. So Mordred felt safe enough to take refuge in some flippancy. “Well, if you’re in the mood, I certainly shan’t object,” he replied, “but only if you’re in the mood.” After a moment, he added, “It did always help me.”
Rosette turned to him in some surprise. “It did?”
“Of course. Aside from the fact that you, my dear, are a cure for all ills,” Mordred caressed Rosette’s cheek, “it … gave me something else to focus on. Someone other than myself — than the estate — than … anything else, to bring all my thoughts and all my attention to bear on.”
“A distraction,” Rosette murmured. “That –” She blushed and turned away.
“It … it was a distraction,” Mordred admitted. Shame — a feeling he had worked for most of his young and most of his adult life to avoid — settled in Mordred’s chest and threatened to move up to his face, his head and neck, like a powerful and unwelcome blush. “If you wish to call it that. In a way. But … but the way I see it, the Sim mind is only built to withstand so much grief and so much pain at a time. If … if there is no way to release the pressure, no relief … then it will break. As simple as that.”
“And you went through so much. So fast. How … how does it get better?” she asked.
At least she wasn’t asking him if it would get better. There were many times — too many times — after his father’s death when Mordred had asked himself if it would ever get any better. After his mother’s … he had no need, no desire, to go through all of that again. So he had forced his pain outward, onto others, where it belonged.
But that was not the reply she was looking for. “Like any wound … eventually the sting must fade. The worst of the damage is dealt, and the body can begin to heal. But … there will always be the ache. Like an old war-wound, perhaps, that is as sound and hearty as it used to be — most of the time. But when the wind is southerly, or the rain comes from the west …”
Rosette sighed. “I keep thinking … of all those years. When we didn’t speak. Before the twins were born, Mordred. That was the last time we spoke. And then … this year, when Aileen died, we started talking again. And now … she’s gone.”
“But you had these past few months. Melehan, Melou, Aimée — they met her. They got to know her. You have nothing with which to reproach yourself.”
“But we lost those years, Mordred,” Rosette whispered. “All those years …”
And what of it? he wanted to ask, as a rhetorical device only — yes, of course, only as that — but that would be too rough for Rosette now. “That was your mother’s doing,” Mordred replied. “Not yours. You would have welcomed her back at any moment, would you not have?”
“Then — you have nothing with which to reproach yourself. Your heart was always open and waiting for her. When she wanted to come, she came. That it took her so long to come around to you …” Mordred could not help — even with all his self-control — the face he made. “Frankly, Rosette, I cannot see that as being your fault. Or anything you could help. You cannot control the acts of other people.”
“But I could have reached out to her! Any day — any time! I only did it when Aileen died, Mordred. And … and I didn’t even mean to reach out to her … I just wanted to help Toinette …”
“Rosette, Rosette …” Mordred shushed her. “What does it matter, whether you meant to talk to your mother or only to help your sister? Your motives were pure. You meant only good — and you were rewarded! Your mother came around of her own accord.”
“After she only saw me once! That was the — the first time we had seen each other since we fought, Mordred. I avoided her for all those years — and the first time we see each other, she bent! If — if I had been trying, instead of just avoiding her, maybe would have –”
“No.” Mordred held up a hand, and Rosette fell silent. “I do not believe that. I do not believe that for a moment. I knew your mother, Rosette. Not nearly as well as you did, of course. But I knew her all the same. She was a stubborn woman. If you had kept knocking at her door, she would have slammed it into your face. Again. And again. And again. You did well to not give her the opportunity to dig her heels in further. I think … I think what your mother needed was time, time to learn something. About you, about her, about life. You gave her that time, and lo! She came around. I cannot see how you did wrong here, Rosette. Not at all.”
“She was my mother. Shouldn’t I have been learning from her?” Rosette whispered. But it was a fading whisper, the last gasp of wind after the blizzard. She was almost convinced.
And that meant she only needed one final push from Mordred to straighten out her thinking and get her to see the light. If Mordred had grown more skilled in anything over the past fifteen years, it was in giving Rosette that one final push. “You know,” he said musingly — not actually going so far as to muse aloud, but seeming to — “I rarely have use for anything that Merlin Emrys says — but do you know what he once said … in my hearing?”
Rosette shook her head.
“That the day you stop learning is the day you may as well stop living,” Mordred replied. “Now, though your mother was, of course, your mother — so what? She didn’t know everything. Neither do you — neither do I. We … we all have things to learn from each other. Why should she not learn from you once in a while, as you learn from me, and as I learn even from that Emrys?”
“I …” Rosette’s brow furrowed. “I don’t know.”
“Exactly, my love.” Mordred wrapped an arm around her shoulder and leaned in for a kiss. “Exactly. It was good that your mother learned from you. For you have much to teach — and though she was your mother, she did have much to learn.”