Ever since Freddy had gotten married, he had taken every opportunity that had come his to sit in with expectant fathers while all were congregating in the living room or the dining room or whatever room came to hand. Maybe he had only had two such opportunities, but both of them had confirmed to him that all of these occasions were pretty alike in any case. The men sat or stood, however they preferred to array themselves. There was alcohol involved. There was talking. There was even laughing and joking, never mind the life-or-death struggle going on upstairs. But …
However these occasions might be similar, even dully the same, for men who weren’t the father-to-be … apparently the father-to-be had his own exquisite agony to worry about. And there was no getting around it.
Or maybe there was a reason why Freddy was having such a hard time with this. Maybe it was because — well, no. He hadn’t really lied to Clarice when he had told her that he would come with her when she went to deliver Lynn’s and then Dannie’s baby. She had asked him, shyly, if he would come, and he had replied in some surprise, “Of course! Where else would I be?”
He’d meant it, too. But Clarice had thought he would only be there to support her. And of course he would be there to support her. But there were other motives, ulterior — and not-so-ulterior — motives. He supposed he might give himself a pass for thinking of being there for Dannie and for Rob for Baby Maude’s birth. Maude was his own niece, after all. Why shouldn’t he be there when she was born and have a hope of eventually being allowed to hold her and welcome her to the world?
But being there when the little Prince was born … Freddy started to wander through the room, as he had many times already.
“Freddy,” Richard called, breaking into Freddy’s thoughts, “have a drink, won’t you? It’ll settle your stomach.”
“No, thank you,” replied Freddy, prim as any schoolgirl. Part of him hated himself for that. But he couldn’t eat. It didn’t matter that he hadn’t had a bite since a hearty dinner the night before, Clarice having gone into labor in the middle of the night. If he so much as looked at food, Freddy was sure he’d be heaving into a bucket before long. And while the thought of alcohol wasn’t quite as unappetizing … well, a lot of drink on an empty stomach would also lead to Freddy heaving into a bucket before long. That was not the position he wanted to be in when his firstborn child was brought into the world.
And if something, Lord forbid, went wrong … that was doubly not the position he wanted to be in.
He wandered over to the fire and began to stir the embers with the poker. It leapt into even fiercer life, casting a red glow over his face and chest. Freddy stared into it.
He might as well admit it, at least to himself. Going to help Prince Tom wait out the little Prince’s birth hadn’t been just about being supportive for Clarice and for her sister. It hadn’t even just been about practicing, so to speak, for when his own child would born. It had been about social climbing and maneuvering and the whole stupid race, too.
Freddy was not a panderer. He wasn’t a social climber. Somehow all the ambition that had driven his parents had been neatly apportioned between Dannie and George, leaving Freddy as the one who wanted to work hard and make his mark on the world with something that would keep standing long after he was gone. Something more lasting than mere titles or influence or even wealth. But while Dannie and George’s ambition might make their own lives, their own families, more prosperous and successful, it wasn’t their job to keep the Ferreira legacy intact and growing. That was Freddy’s job.
So when an opportunity came to keep Prince Tom company for hours and upon hours — to help guard his spirits and laugh with him when he needed it most — Freddy figured he ought to take it. He owed that to his family. At least the Prince seemed to like him, and Freddy thought he was a good enough judge of character to have figured out if the Prince didn’t. Prince Tom’s sneers whenever Elyan came up in conversation were quite eloquent on the point of things Prince Tom was too diplomatic to say out loud to his brother-in-law. To their shared brother-in-law.
Freddy barely held back a snicker as he poked the fire again. Maybe that was something he and the Prince could bond over: their mutual misfortune when it came to in-laws, their joint mother-in-law and the sister-in-law each had in the other’s wife excepted, of course. And the children, Lionel and Evette, too.
Freddy cast a glance over his shoulder at his father, at Mark Wesleyan, at Rob. Would it have been too much to ask for one of them to come to talk to him? He’d been rebuffing, or mentally wandering off in the middle of, conversations all day. Maybe it was too much to ask. They probably thought he wanted to be left alone. Rob probably could have read differently if he’d looked in Freddy’s direction, but Rob’s attention was all focused on his father. And no wonder — there had been no end of strange doings among the Wesleyans.
Joshua was betrothed to Cressida. That was a cause for celebration, and Bianca had promised to throw the happy couple a grand dinner as soon as the baby was born and things had calmed down somewhat. At least, Freddy thought the couple was happy. Certainly Cressida looked it, and so did Joshua when Cressida was mentioned or by his side. But there was … something else going on.
Whatever it was, Joshua wasn’t discussing it. And all Rob would say was, “Dad had a mad idea, but luckily, Josh’s mad idea seemed to have forestalled it. For now.” For now — that didn’t sound good. But Mark? Stolid, sensible Mark, the very picture of a wealthy and cautious burgher, having a mad idea? What was the world coming to?
As Freddy wandered to the smaller sofa and sat down on it, he supposed he was too young to be thinking such thoughts. But he was going to be a father any … well, minute now, really. Hours were, after all, composed of minutes. Granny would have said that it was never too soon to be wondering what the younger generation was coming to, the better to annoy said younger generation.
Still, Freddy rather doubted Granny would have blamed him for hoping he’d be more than an annoyance to his child. He ought to get a few good years in before the child hit the age of twelve or so and decided his — or her! — father was the stupidest bore to walk the earth. He ought —
“Is this seat taken?” asked a gruff voice from overhead.
And speaking of stupid Bors! cackled Granny in his head.
“Um,” Freddy replied, no doubt cementing his status as Bors’s least-favorite, least-appreciated son-in-law. “Er. No, of course not. Please — have a seat.”
Bors gave a grunt that Freddy supposed counted as a thanks. Or at least, it counted as a thanks when Freddy was on the receiving end of said thanks. No doubt the Prince would have gotten something more effusive, or at least polite. Then again … the Prince would have had to listen to it, so there was that to consider. Thank heaven for small blessings and all of that.
And while Freddy was on the subject of old and tired proverbs — be careful what you wish for, you just might get it. Hadn’t he wanted somebody to come over and talk to him? He just hadn’t been thinking it would be Bors. But maybe it would all work out for the best. Maybe somebody would see that Bors had glommed onto Freddy and come over and rescue him. And then Freddy would get to talk to somebody who … wasn’t Bors.
In the meantime, Freddy supposed they could both sit in a silence that was growing more awkward with every second that passed.
Then Bors spoke. And it got worse.
“Frederick,” he — said, yes, that was the word for it. Freddy would have called it a growl, but he was beginning to realize that the growling, gravelly sound was just Bors’s normal speaking voice. It was either growling or booming — or yelling, Clarice had sworn, though Freddy had yet to hear it for himself. He hoped he never would.
“If I ask you something,” Bors continued, “will you — will you answer for me?”
“I can … try?” Freddy replied. He normally wasn’t too self-conscious about his voice, or at least, he had ceased to be so as soon as his voice had stopped cracking at the most inopportune of moments, but it was hard not to be, around Bors. Next to Bors, Freddy was pretty sure he sounded like a twelve-year-old. “What do you need, sir?”
Bors didn’t answer at first. He cast a quick glance around the room, then turned to Freddy and said, in a tone that somehow managed to be even lower, “How is the Princess?”
“Which one?” Freddy asked stupidly.
Bors glared at him and huffed. “Gwendolyn — of course!” After half a moment’s consideration, he added, “Of course, I wouldn’t expect you to have news of Princess Jessica and Sir William.” He smiled, no doubt thinking himself charitable and kind, when Freddy had found that to be more than a bit condescending.
Freddy bit back a sigh. He really needed to stop letting the things Prince Tom — and Dannie — and Lamorak — and Princess Jessie — and Prince Kay — and Leona — and Galahad — and Richard — and, well, everybody except Bors’s own children and Will had said about Bors get into his head and prejudice his judgement. He’d judge anyone else in the kingdom on his merits and not on hearsay, wouldn’t he? Didn’t Freddy owe the same courtesy to his own father-in-law?
And maybe, if Freddy couldn’t make up his mind, he’d ask Will when he came back. Will would at least tell the story of Bors to Freddy straight, if he asked him, with none of either the wild exaggerations (Freddy hoped) or diplomatic understatement that characterized their peers’ statements about Bors.
But in the meantime, he had a question to answer. “She … well, Clarice said she’s doing very well and recovering splendidly from Prince Arthur.”
“Oh, I know that.” Bors waved a hand dismissively. “Everyone will tell me all about her physical health! More than even I, her father, want to know! But nobody …” He looked away, his sentence trailing into the distance. Then he whispered. Freddy half expected to have to decode the vibrations of it coming through his boots rather than actually hear it. “She doesn’t seem happy.”
Freddy found himself wishing he was a much, much better liar.
“She should be so much happier,” Bors murmured mournfully. “She’s married to a man …” He cast a nervous glance in Prince Tom’s direction. “She’s married a man who will take excellent care of her, who will guide her in every step — who loves her! Who truly loves her,” Bors repeated, as if the idea was truly that surprising. And why should it be? Did he find his own daughter so unworthy that the thought of any man loving her was an astounding surprise?
“That’s rare,” Bors added, as if he heard Freddy’s thoughts. “That’s so rare. A match with so many advantages — for her! — and he loves her? Already? It’s hard to get that kind of love into a marriage. I thought … I thought I had it. But …”
Bors frowned and stared at his lap, smoothing his tunic over his legs. “But I don’t,” he murmured. “Or if I did, I lost it. And I don’t know how to find it again.”
“I …” Freddy gulped. “I’m not sure I know how to help you with that, sir.”
“Bah, nonsense!” Bors waved his hand again. “You’re a young man. What would you know of an old man’s troubles? Just pray they never come to you, son. Clarice … Clarice isn’t as much like her mother as I would like. So if even Claire can find her love go dry …”
Maybe there was something to be said for that. However, there may well have been more to be said for the idea of Freddy keeping himself from turning into Bors. He’d try for that first, then worry about Clarice’s propensity to keep loving through the years.
“And Gwendolyn,” Bors continued, “is — is rather more like her mother than I would like.” He turned a mournful glance onto Freddy. “She’s just had her son — her firstborn son! The strongest, lustiest baby I ever did see, too, barring my own boys. And she has Elise, too. She should be so happy. So happy. But she’s not. Why?”
“There could be many reasons …”
“Name one, my man, name one!”
Well, there’s one that’s looking right at me. Still, he couldn’t say that. Leave that to Prince Tom, or some other man who knew more of the situation than the rumors he heard from others. “Sometimes women get like that, after they have a baby. It’s …” It wasn’t normal. Freddy would not call it normal. “… natural,” he substituted, even though it wasn’t much better, as substitutes went.
“You mean — like Claire,” Bors replied.
“The women tried to tell me that Claire was only … unwell because of the babies. They had taken too much out of her, and she needed rest to get it back. But Gwendolyn was fine when she was carrying Prince Arthur, and little Elise too. She never got as bad as Claire. Never, never,” Bors whispered.
“And Prince Thomas,” Bors whispered, staring past Freddy’s head and into the fireplace, “said that it was me who made Claire the way she … was.”
Oh, bloody hell!
Because that was it, wasn’t it, causing first Lady Claire’s and now Princess Lynn’s misery? Prince Tom thought so. The King and Queen thought so. Freddy had heard that Lady Morgan thought so. Even Clarice thought so! Clarice, Bors’s own daughter!
And Freddy? Freddy didn’t know what to think. He didn’t know enough. He wasn’t wise enough, like Clarice and Lady Morgan, to be able to look into a Sim’s heart and read all the secrets within it. All he saw was Princess Lynn, a woman who should have had everything in life to make her happy, a woman for whom everything was going right, sad. So very, very sad.
He also saw Bors. He’d seen enough of the way Bors treated Clarice and Lady Claire to have an unfortunate suspicion that Kay and Lamorak and Leona and the rest of them weren’t exaggerating too far when they described what Bors was like. But at the same time, here was a man clearly worried about his daughter …
And how could a man that worried be that cruel?
Somehow, replied the voice in Freddy’s head. And stranger things have happened. Does it matter how?
Still, he needed to say something. “Well …” Freddy murmured, “if she is, then maybe … maybe there were a few things that you said that she … took too much to heart.”
“That I said? I would have never said anything to make her — to make her like her mother, in that!” Bors gasped.
“Well, not on purpose –”
“You can’t cause that kind of — hurt accidentally,” Bors interrupted. “No. Not to my own daughter. Perhaps I was … strict with her in some ways. Aye, strict, for her own good. But I did not — I must not have — no. I taught her to do her duty! And I told her not to flag in it. That was all I ever did, ever said to her. That cannot have … have caused …”
“It might have,” Freddy replied.
“But sir — when and how has Princess Ly–Gwendolyn ever not done her duty?”
“I …” Bors twitched and cast a glance over his shoulder. He watched Prince Tom’s back a moment before replying. “She wanted — she wanted to feed Elise herself. When she was little. And of course that would keep a new babe from beginning, which she could not do. Not as a Princess! Not when she still had to produce a son!”
“So you — you told her to be a bad mother to the babe she already had so she could be a good mother to one who hadn’t even been conceived yet?” Freddy asked.
Bors stared at him with a hanging jaw.
“Because that’s — that’s how it might have sounded,” Freddy stumbled forward. “Being told to ignore her baby so she could go make another one. Because — because the first one wasn’t good enough. So … she was a failure, then. As a wife, and — and probably as a mother, too, if her first baby wasn’t good enough.”
“I never said that!” Bors gasped. “No, never! There was nothing wrong with Elise!”
“Except she wasn’t a boy.”
“Well, aye, of course, but –”
“But then — you did say there was something wrong with her. Even if,” Freddy tried to be charitable, “if that’s never what you meant — it’s how she must have taken it.”
Bors turned away with him with a face like ash. “But I … I never meant to … and she needed a son! There’s not a man, nor a woman, in this kingdom who will gainsay me that! Gwendolyn had — has — a duty. A duty to this whole kingdom! Would she want to put us in Glasonland’s position? Of course she wouldn’t. Her duty to Albion is sacred, more — even more sacred than her duty to Elise, to even Prince Arthur!”
Freddy had no idea how he would even begin to defeat this flight of ill-logic, except with perhaps the least logical argument at all: that while everything Bors was saying might — might — be true, that didn’t make it right to bring up to Princess Lynn. Not when she was so vulnerable, from both just having given birth and from so many years of hearing just this kind of drivel from him. Even if everything Bors was saying was absolutely correct, he still shouldn’t have said it. Not at that time, and not in that way.
But luckily for Freddy, he never got a chance.
He jumped to his feet, jaw fallen at the sight of his mother holding a … well, it looked almost like Stevie from almost two years back. And Bianca was grinning from ear to ear.
“Well, come here, you goose!” she called, channeling Granny at the best of possible moments. “Come here and meet your son!”
Of course a cheer rose up at the word “son” — Freddy tried very hard, as he dashed toward his mother and his son, not to pick out Bors’s voice among the cheering ones.
“Clarice is doing just fine, too,” Bianca added before Freddy could even ask the question. She glanced off to the side and smiled at Rob. “You see I’m becoming an old hand at this.”
“And he’s …” Freddy wordlessly gestured to the baby.
“Oh, wait until you hear him yell!” Bianca laughed. “Both the little Prince and Maude were napping in the nursery, and his yelling when he was born woke them both up!”
“And that’s — good?” Freddy asked.
“Very good,” Bianca assured him. “Well, for now, at least. You and Clarice might be wishing for a quieter lad before he starts talking.”
“I don’t think we’d ever want to see him different,” Freddy answered, drinking in the sight of his new baby. His son. And he has Clarice’s eyes, he saw, his heart melting anew as the baby blinked at him.
Without so much as a by-your-leave — though did he really need one? — he plucked the baby out of Bianca’s arms. “Hello, lad,” he crooned. “Hello — Colin,” he added, trying out the name he and Clarice had picked out. He glanced nervously at Bianca. “Clarice — Clarice still likes the name, doesn’t she?”
Bianca beamed. “She was calling him that from the moment she got a glance between his legs.”
So Colin it would be. And he — he looked like a Colin, in some indefinable way. Maybe it was his mischievous little mouth. Or his eyes, dark as any doe’s. Or the sweeping brows that were, as near as Freddy could tell, more of a brown color than a black like his or Clarice’s. Or maybe it was …
“Good Lord, Rob, he’s as pale as your boy!” laughed Prince Tom, the first of the many comments of reach Freddy’s ears. “I guess that makes it Dannie’s fault, eh?”
“I always figured it was,” Rob shrugged.
There was laughter — and jokes — and lots of both, but Freddy contrived to ignore it all as he studied his son in more detail. After all, any moment now Richard or Rob or Prince Tom or — heaven forbid — Bors would demand his right to hold the newest member of the family. Freddy wanted to enjoy his first minutes with Colin as long as he could.
But Bors’s voice he could, somehow, not ignore. “And now you have a son, my boy!” he laughed — a bit shakily, but a laugh. “The most important thing, and on the first try too! … Eh?”
That — that would be the first comment Freddy would dignify with a response. For Clarice’s sake, first of all, and for Colin’s secondly. But for Princess Lynn, too, and Lady Claire, and little Evette, and for Princess Elise and Prince Arthur, too.
“Clarice is safe and healthy, and our baby is safe and healthy,” Freddy answered, bringing Colin up to his shoulder and letting him nuzzle. “That is the most important thing.”