“I can’t be thankin’ you enough, Master Wesleyan!” said Robinson, shaking Joshua’s hand with just short of the force necessary to tear it off. “You have no idea what this loan means to me!”
“Oh, it’s no trouble,” replied Joshua, doing his best to keep his teeth from chattering as Robinson pumped … and pumped … and pumped his hand. “Best of luck with the new shop, now.”
“Oh, I hope so! It’s just what Avilion needs — another chandler!” Robinson let go of Joshua’s hand — finally — and flung both of his arms out wide. “Do you have any idea how many candles the du Lacs go through in a month?”
“No, I’m afraid I haven’t.” But I’m sure you’ll tell me in a minute.
“Dozens! Hundreds! Thousands!” Robinson gasped. “Between the fact that Lady Guinevere is up until the wee hours reading, and the little babies are always up feeding or crying or needing their nappies changed, and they’ve got a Servo — and Servos don’t sleep, you know, so who knows how many candles it’s going through?”
“Indeed,” Joshua replied. He was going to pull a muscle in his neck if he had to keep nodding for much longer. But it was important to keep the customer happy even after the hands were shaken and the contracts signed. Horse-traders who cackled and rubbed their hands with glee immediately after passing off their horse on the customer — whether the horse was an old nag who had fetched three times what she was worth or a prize steed sold for the high price he deserved — didn’t get much in the way of repeat business. Joshua was beginning to suspect that might go double for bankers.
“Exactly! Exactly!” Robinson seized Joshua’s hand and began to pump it once more. “Thank you once again, Master Wesleyan! You won’t regret this!”
But it was too late. Robinson had already shot Joshua one last grin and was on his way out the door, whistling a jaunty tune.
Leaving Joshua to wonder … would he be regretting this?
No, he decided as he went back to his desk and began to add the details of this latest transaction to the accounts, he wouldn’t. Robinson already had a thriving shop in the heart of Camelot, and rumor had it that he was the best candlestick-maker in the kingdom. If he was going to expand, Avilion would be the logical place to go. Port Finessa may have been built up more, but Richard Ferreira kept a much more … proprietary eye on the businesses in his shire than Sir Lancelot did with those in his. Besides, while there weren’t as many people in Avilion as there were in Port Finessa, they were, on the whole, wealthier. They’d be more likely to want to buy John Robinson’s fine candles than to make their own.
So Robinson would make enough money to pay back the loan, plus the interest, unless something catastrophic happened. And if it did … well, the collateral for the loan was the land and the shop Robinson was going to build on it. Joshua would recoup his investment, one way or another.
The trouble was that it would take time, and more of that than Joshua would like. There was only so much he and his father between them could afford to be lending out. As the interest started to come in, Joshua would of course lend out more. But it was all so slow at the beginning. And with the war in Glasonland …
Well, with the war in Glasonland, things could go well with Joshua or they could go very, very badly. If war came to Albion … well, nobody would be trying to expand his business; everyone would be too worried about protecting his women and his children, and his livelihood after that. Joshua, too, would have a job trying to keep what cash he had on hand out of the hands of marauding armies. But if war didn’t come to Albion …
They would be getting new people. Plenty of them would want help getting onto their feet, having lost everything that they couldn’t carry. Too many of them would go to the lords — sell themselves and their children and their children’s children into servitude in exchange for protection, shelter, and a bit of land to farm. But perhaps Joshua could be there for some of them. More freemen in Albion couldn’t be a bad thing.
Nor could more indentured men, now that Joshua came to think of it. The lords would work themselves into a feeding frenzy trying to get hold of these new peasant families, wouldn’t they? And they might need a bit of extra cash in order to do so … Joshua found himself reaching for the wax tablet and a stylus. He needed to work out some calculations, and he needed to —
Joshua looked up and barely bit back a yelp. “Dar–Darius!” He covered up the surprise with a laugh. “What are you doing here? Shouldn’t …” He glanced at the candle-clock on one end of the desk. “Well, never mind that, you’re done with school, aren’t you?”
“Aye!” Darius grinned, rocking back and forth on the balls of his feet, his hands neatly folded behind him.
“Then what are you — oh, never mind that. Come here and give your old man a hug, scamp.”
“Papa!” Darius ran up to him and folded his arms around his neck. Joshua held him close. His clothes still smelled like the lavender Helena used to fold between them, to keep them smelling sweet — but with Helena gone, how long would that smell last? Their new laundress wasn’t nearly as clever when it came to that sort of thing as Helena had been.
“You’re not old, Papa,” Darius whispered into his ear.
Joshua chuckled. “Glad one of us thinks so, scamp.”
“You’re not old! You’re not!” Darius clung closer to Joshua’s neck, nearly closing off his windpipe. “And neither is Grandpa,” he added, so low that Joshua wasn’t sure if he was meant to hear.
But what was wrong with either of them being … oh, Lord, Joshua thought, barely biting back a sigh.
Darius had started asking questions after Helena died. First it had been about Joshua. Then about Mark. Lastly, he had asked about himself. Was he going to die too, someday? If so — when?
How did you answer something like that? Joshua had stammered out something about death being for old people, people who were done with living, or for special people who the Lord Wright wanted back in heaven. That ought to cover Joshua if, Lord forbid, one of Darius’s classmates didn’t make it until the end of the year. He hadn’t lost any close friends yet, but it was only a matter of time.
But to reassure Darius, Joshua had sworn that the Wesleyans were very prosaic, ordinary people — not so special that the Lord would want any of them back in heaven before their time. But if they were old — then it might very well be their time.
Joshua sighed. “Darius … I think we need to have another talk.”
“I know, Papa. That’s why I came here!”
Joshua startled. “You — what?”
“Aye! We need to have a talk.” Darius nodded so solemnly that Joshua had to bite the insides of his cheeks, hard, to keep from smiling. But it wasn’t long before Darius’s face grew not just solemn, but sad. Joshua lost all temptation to smile when Darius’s worried brown eyes met his.
“Papa …” Darius chewed on his lower lip, then laid his case before Joshua in full. “Nanny’s mean.”
Joshua blinked. “I … see. What makes you say that, my lad?”
“She left Baby Belle in her chair!” Darius replied. “She left her there for a long time! And she kept getting bottles out, and putting them on the counter, and going off to do something else. And Baby Belle was just sitting there, and she was getting hungrier and hungrier!”
“I … see. What happened then?”
“Well, when Nanny wasn’t looking, I grabbed a bottle out of the larder — the ones that she had already taken out were starting to smell funny, Papa, so I didn’t want to give Baby Belle one of those — and I gave it to Baby Belle.”
“Good lad! That’s exactly what you should have done.”
“But I’m not done, Papa!” Darius grinned up at him.
“When Baby Belle was done, I picked her up and got her out of the chair!”
“Darius …” Joshua bit back a sigh and rubbed his temple. “You have to stop doing that. You’re not big enough to be helping Baby Belle out of her chair. You’re going to hurt yourself, or you might hurt her. And you wouldn’t want that, would you?”
“No, but — Nanny will leave her there for hours and hours if I don’t! Baby Belle will start crying! I don’t want her to cry!”
“I know, scamp, I know …” Joshua ruffled Darius’s hair. “And Nanny should be taking Baby Belle out of her chair as soon as she’s done eating. I just don’t want you or Baby Belle to get hurt.”
“But Nanny doesn’t take Baby Belle out! She’d leave her there until just before you got home, so you don’t see!”
Joshua sighed. He wished he could disbelieve Darius, he really could. But he had heard too much bad about the old women who went around the kingdom watching other Sims’ children for them. To make matters worse, Baby Belle was starting to throw a sobbing fit every morning when Joshua and Mark left to go to the stables. For the first few mornings, Joshua had convinced himself — when he wasn’t sulking and knowing himself for a terrible father — that it was a delayed reaction to Helena’s death, nothing more. But with what Darius was saying … and with the horror Baby Belle was showing of her eating chair …
What kind of father didn’t listen, and do something, when his children were in distress? Especially children who didn’t have a mother to also be watching out for them?
“So …” Darius tried to smile up at him. “Now that you know, you’ll fix it … won’t you, Papa?”
Way to turn the screws, kid! Joshua ruffled Darius’s hair. “Of course I’ll fix it, Darius. Thank you for telling me …” He hesitated. “Darius?”
“Does Nanny know you’re here?”
“… Um …”
Joshua smacked his forehead. “Darius! You can’t just come here without telling Nanny!”
“You said I could come over whenever I wanted!” Darius protested.
“Of course you’re always welcome to come here — but not without telling Nanny. Tell me, would you ever have come here without telling Grandma?”
“There you have it, then.” Joshua nodded.
“But Grandma would have never told me I couldn’t! Nanny would!”
And no wonder, added the traitorous voice in Joshua’s head, if half of what Darius says is true.
You, shut up, said Joshua’s normal voice, and as for Darius … “I understand, but you can’t just leave places without letting a grown-up know where you’re going. What if you went out for a walk and fell and hurt yourself, eh? We wouldn’t even know where to start to look!”
Darius’s shoulders began to slump.
“But in the meantime …” Joshua bent down and gave Darius a quick kiss on the cheek. “Buck up, scamp. How about you draw a picture for Baby Belle at the table over there, eh? Something to cheer her up.”
“All right!” Darius grinned. Joshua had to smile back — and hope that Baby Belle was this easy to cheer up, once she got to Darius’s age.
“Now I,” Joshua began, reaching for the doorknob as Darius skipped over to the table under the shelves where his drawing supplies were kept, “need to go talk to Grandpa. You stay right here until I get back, you here? Don’t move for anything?”
“But what if I have to go to the privy, Papa?”
Trust a kid to always think of that. “Then go to the privy — but come right back, you here? I don’t want you playing with any of the tools or getting too close to the horses.”
“All right, Papa, I won’t.” When Joshua left him, Darius was kneeling on the chair and reaching up to the scrap parchment and the chalk that was kept on the shelves.
As for Joshua, now he had nothing to do but hurry down the ladder and try to find his father.
The good news was that Mark was exactly where Joshua thought he’d be — trying to convince a customer to rent a fine piece of horseflesh for the day (what remained of it), the week, or the month. At least he seemed to be almost done.
Goldie, their palomino mare, stuck her head over the stall door and nickered. Joshua absently scratched her nose while he waited for Mark to finish. He could feel her sniffing around his sleeve, probably trying to see if he had an apple left over from lunch. Joshua decided that if he could hunt down an apple or a carrot, he’d let Darius feed her before they left. But in the meantime. “Ah, you women,” he sighed, patting her neck, “always out for what you can get, aren’t you?”
Goldie snorted and shook her mane — no doubt a vehement disagreement.
Mark chose that moment to shake the young boy’s hand — whoever he was dealing with — and turn to Joshua. “Josh!” he yelped. “Sorry,” he laughed after a moment, holding his hand over his heart, “you startled me there. What do you need?”
“Darius just showed up,” Josh replied without preamble. “He … well, to make a long story short, apparently the nanny’s been imprisoning Baby Belle in her feeding chair for hours on end. We’re going to need to find a new nanny in a hurry.”
“You sure?” asked Mark.
“Dad! Of course I’m sure! I’m not going to leave my kids in the hands of a woman who does that!”
“No, no! That’s not what I meant — of course, if you believe Darius, we need to find a new nanny fast. What I meant was …” Mark pushed his hand through his hair. “Are you sure Darius is … right?”
“Darius wouldn’t lie about something like that.”
“Kids can act out in strange ways after they lose someone close to them,” Mark replied. “It doesn’t make them bad kids. It just makes them … hurting. Look, Josh,” Mark added, probably because he could see Joshua’s blood about to boil and come shooting from his ears, “Darius is a good kid, and we both know that. I just want to make sure he’s right before we toss that poor woman out and have to find ourselves a new one.”
“You have a better explanation for why Baby Belle sobs when we leave? And why she hates to be in her feeding chair?” Josh snapped.
Mark blinked, taken aback. “On … second thought,” he murmured, “do … do you want to fire her now … or shall we wait until we close up?”
Now he’s talking. But as much as as Joshua would have liked to march over there and give the old bat a piece of his mind, there were practical concerns to be considered. “We can’t fire her until we have someone else to watch Baby Belle. Darius can stay here after school, but we can’t be bringing her here.”
“We could ask Dannie and Rob,” Mark suggested. “Just until we get things straightened out.”
“Dannie’s got Maude and Stevie-weevie … Baby Belle might be a bit more than she can handle at the moment. And you know she wouldn’t say no.”
“Well, we could ask Richard — no. Damn.” Mark shook his head. “Not with Lady Clarice ready to pop any day now. They’ll want the nurse on hand for that.”
“Aye, aye,” Joshua added. “We could ask Babette. Morien’s getting just old enough that he and Baby Belle could play together.”
“We could …” Mark murmured. “But then … Josh, who the hell are we going to find to watch Baby Belle?”
“It’s only for a little more than a year,” Joshua answered hurriedly, hoping that if he spoke fast enough, the rising panic would be kept at bay. “Until she starts school. After — after she starts school, well, either she and Darius can come here, or maybe Dannie would be willing to watch them. Maude will be that much older. And so will Stevie-weevie.”
“Maybe … but I think …” Mark sighed. “We can’t be depending on the charity of our family forever to help us raise these kids. We — we might as well face it. We … we’re going to need a woman around the place.”
Joshua blinked. And blinked. And blinked.
Then he finally spoke. “Dad — I really, really hope you’re suggesting hiring some kind of live-in nanny or housekeeper. I really, really hope that.”
“Well …” Mark hesitated. “Think of it like this, Josh …”
“No. No, I’m not hearing this.”
“I didn’t even say –“
“You don’t need to say anything!” Joshua exploded. “No! Dad! Mother — Mother’s barely cold in her grave! It’s not even been three months! You can’t possibly be thinking about remarrying yet!”
“Josh,” Mark snarled, “you have no idea what it was like between your mother and me, especially — well, never mind that. But let me tell you something. If she was here, she would be the first to understand what I need — what this family needs!”
“We can find somebody!” Joshua roared. “St. Robert! It’s not that hard to find good help! You don’t have to disrespect Mother –“
“Ha!” snorted Mark — but at least he had enough awareness of where he was to not go farther than that.
“– and make a laughingstock of yourself and this family just to find somebody to watch the kids!”
“Of myself? How the hell would I make a laughingstock of myself?”
“Who do you think you’re going to find to marry you on such short notice, huh, Dad?” Joshua challenged. “Some two-faced, gold-digging who–” Joshua stopped.
And he blinked.
And he thought.
“No,” he gasped.
“No, what?” asked Mark — but the sheepish flush told Joshua that he knew what he was thinking.
“You’re not even thinking of marrying that — that — that woman!”
“Don’t you –” Mark stammered. “Don’t you tell me, sir, what to think and what not to think! You live under my roof, you eat my food, you use my money for –“
“Not if you marry that woman, I won’t! You’re not bringing her near my children — near my daughter!”
He hoped — he prayed — the mention of Baby Belle would bring Mark to his senses. Lord, what he could have been thinking — wanting to bring a woman like that within a mile of his innocent granddaughter? And what about his own daughters? Did he honestly expect them to call a woman like that “stepmother”? Babette and Heloise both would be completely justified in never speaking to him again. And Rob — what would Rob have to say, with his own daughter now and her reputation to protect?
But either Mark’s blood was up too far, or he was simply beyond the reach of sense. He only laughed. “Oh, that’s rich, considering who was raising–“
“Don’t you dare say that about my mother!” Joshua bellowed.
Mark’s jaw set — and then his eyes widened, focused on something behind Joshua’s head. He forced out a sigh. “Look, Josh — let’s talk about this later. In private. When we both can be — rational.”
“Rational? Rational? I’m with you with private, Dad, but rational? If you’re even thinking about this, you’re not being rational!”
“No, no!” Joshua stepped back — laughing as a sudden thought took hold of him. “You know what? You know what? There’s only one way I can think of to stop this!”
“Only one way you — Josh! Where the hell are you going? Get back here!”
“Where am I going? Where am I going?” Joshua pivoted on one heel. “I’m going to prove you right, Dad! Because you are! We need a woman around this place — to stop us from killing each other, if for no other reason! So where do you think I’m going?”
“I haven’t the foggiest idea!”
“I’m going to get one!” Joshua bellowed.
And with that Mark would have to be content — because with that Joshua grabbed the nearest saddled horse, swung himself into the saddle, and galloped down the road.
The road south — to Port Finessa.