Babette needed a new pair of boots.
Well, perhaps needed wasn’t the right word, precisely. She certainly wouldn’t starve without them. And she wouldn’t get frostbite, either, her current boots being … well, serviceable enough. But that was all they were. They weren’t fashionable. They didn’t have cute little heels, like two of the pairs in front of her, or adorable little turned-up toes. They didn’t have gold accents or silver ones. They didn’t even have fur trim, for all they were fur-lined. And was the point of having fur in one’s boots if it didn’t show?
Other than keeping your feet warm, that is. But where was the fun in that?
And Babette thought she could use a little bit — just a little bit! — of fun. She’d been watching Baby Belle every other day for almost a fortnight now, and she’d keep doing it until Joshua and Cressida Tabard got married. (Dannie took them the other days.) She only got a break on Thursdays, when the Gwynedds’ nurse Jeannie came by for the afternoons to give her a break and a chance to get out of the house. Babette knew she ought to be using this time to get to the market and get some flour and some other things she’d been running low on …
But she had to have some fun. And she had an allowance. Why not splurge a bit — just a bit? Just for some new shoes — or a bolt of fine silk for a new dress that she could pester Dannie into making for her — or maybe one of these pretty plumb bob necklaces she had seen here last week …
She was still debating just what her purchase would be when she heard the door open and felt the wind ruffle her skirts. She glanced over her shoulder —
And hurriedly looked back again. Ugh! It was that horrible Carpenter woman!
Babette listened to the footsteps, hoping against hope that the Carpenter woman would see that the shop was full and her prescence wasn’t necessary. Of course no such thing happened. Instead, she heard the woman walking toward the cloak-pegs, then the rustle of cloth as she removed her cloak and hung it neatly. Babette wished she could assume the woman was a slob as well as being no better than she should be (or at least, must be, because how else would she have gotten the King’s nephew to marry her?), but unfortunately she had seen that same blue cloak hanging there perfectly neatly too many times to continue to entertain that illusion.
Now Babette could feel the woman hanging behind her, breathing in her airspace, watching and waiting for Babette to turn around and acknowledge her. Well! She would be waiting for a long time, if she was waiting for that. Babette wasn’t a fool. She knew what was expected of her, as both a Gwynedd and a Wesleyan. Would she be bringing some jumped-up trollop into the home that Lord Pellinore had been so kind to arrange for her and for his grandson (and for Aglovale, too, when he was done with his studies)? She thought not. She turned up her nose with a sniff and continued to examine the shoes, even though she barely saw them now.
After a moment, things seemed to be working. Babette heard what sounded suspiciously like a soft sigh before the other woman walked … somewhere else. Unfortunately it wasn’t up the stairs to the tea shop on the second story. Even more unfortunately, it wasn’t out the building entirely, since if Babette looked out the corner of her eye, she could still see the other woman’s cloak.
No, she wasn’t going to do anything as courteous as leaving. Instead, the Carpenter woman was going to take up the shop-boy’s valuable attention, attention he could have been paying to Babette.
Not that Babette needed him at the moment. Or would need him, ever, except to tell her the price of something or take her money. He wasn’t nearly as helpful as Mistress–Baroness–Ferreira had been, back when she ran her shop herself, and once Babette got used to the best, it was hard for her to forsake it. Still. It was the principal of the thing.
The shop-boy sounded eager to talk to the Carpenter woman, too … well, no wonder there. Breeding — or the lack thereof — did tend to tell. Doubtless he found in that woman a kindred spirit. Babette held her breath and braced herself for a barrage of dropped h’s, “yes” and “yers,” and a long conversation about “walkin'” and “talkin'” and (“an'”) “livin'” generally.
Except … she didn’t. Oh, the boy’s speech was atrocious as ever. But the Carpenter woman’s wasn’t. Her voice was soft and low, almost soothing. The only fault Babette could find with it was a faint Reman accent, and perhaps a bit of hesitation before words with a “v” sound. Rob had told her that the Remans didn’t have that sound in their language, which Babette thought was odd. She had seen enough of Heloise’s and Rob’s Reman texts to know that they had the “v” letter, so why not the sound?
Babette sighed explosively, which had the double benefit of relieving her feelings and causing the shop-boy to look at her in some alarm. Good, he hadn’t forgotten about his most important customer. But none of that helped her main problem: shoes just weren’t going to be doing it for her today.
She wandered over to the display of the necklaces to look them over with a critical eye.
They weren’t made of real jewels — one would have to go to a real jeweler’s for that — but the necklaces were pretty all the same. The chains were serviceable, and the stones themselves semiprecious. Babette just hoped the prices would be reasonable, especially since she was having trouble deciding between a blue one that would match her gown perfectly and a white one that would go with every gown she owned.
She picked up the blue necklace in its box — then put it down and picked up the white one — then the blue one — then the white one —
Babette glanced at the shop-boy and the Carpenter woman. They were talking about — her? Her husband? It was always Carpenter, Carpenter, Carp–
No, wait. She was asking about a Carpenter. Not just herself or her husband, but a man who bore a name like that and had it mean something. Funny, that — Lady Carpenter needed a carpenter. Babette idly wondered what for before she remembered she had more important things to find out. “You! Boy!”
The boy spun around, wobbling a bit on his feet. His eyes were practically bugging out of his head. “Me, mi–m’lady?”
Good, he remembered. Babette had had to take more than a few shop-boys (and girls!) to task for not remembering her rank and addressing her accordingly. “How much is this?” she asked, waving the box.
“Er — what, m’lady?”
“This!” She waved the box more insistently. The boy still looked confused. Babette sighed. Do I have to do everything around here? “The plumb bob necklaces,” Babette snarled.
“Oh! Five coppers each, mi–m’lady.”
Five coppers … Babette looked at the display and sighed. She got an allowance every month from Lord Pellinore of three silver coins — for personal expenses, that was. For decorating the house and buying more than just necessities. Lord Pellinore paid the rent on the house and all of her taxes himself, and he gave her five more silver coins to take care of necessities, like food for both of them and clothing for Morien. Still, to take ten coppers — a whole silver piece — from her fun money …
Oh, what the hell! She grabbed both the box for the blue and the box for the white. She hadn’t spent so much as a farthing of her fun money for this whole first week, hadn’t she? So she could buy these necklaces. Heck, she deserved these necklaces.
“I’ll take them both,” she said, stepping up to the cashbox. The boy nodded and started to total her purchase.
Meanwhile, the Carpenter woman was looking at the boxes in Babette’s hand, then the display, and her eyes grew very wide and she went a little pale.
So her husband kept her spending on a tight leash, did he? Well he should! A little minx like that tavern waitress would probably spend him out of house and home. She might not even mean to, but she would. What would a little tavern waitress know about the value of a copper coin? She’d probably assume her husband was so rich that she could go out and buy whatever she wanted, never mind what he had to say about that.
And if Babette’s smug little monologue sounded rather close to something Aglovale had said to her when he went over her accounts and saw how she always spent every silver coin his father gave to her, how she put nothing aside for a rainy day, at least no one else heard it and no one could call her on it.
Taking the necessary flashing silver coin from her purse, Babette paid and pocketed her jewelry. She was in a better mood already! She would go back home, then, as soon as Morien woke up, she would bundle him, herself, and Jeannie up and they would all go out into the snow. Morien would love to toddle through it and have himself a grand old time. Panna would bark and hop and run through it too, and they would all —
Babette froze. Was the Carpenter woman actually speaking to her? Almost without knowing what she did, Babette turned around.
“I just wanted to say,” the woman continued, smiling shakily, “that’s a lovely gown you’re wearing, Lady Wesleyan. The blue suits you so well.”
She was — complimenting Babette? On this old dress, of all things? The one she worn while pregnant and had had to take in when she lost the weight, because somehow or other she never had enough to get a new, pretty gown that she didn’t strictly need?
Maybe this Carpenter woman could be … humored. For a little while.
“Well! I should hope so! I only got the gown from the premier dressmaker in the kingdom!” Or at least, Babette assumed Dannie was the premier dressmaker. She made all of Princess Gwendolyn’s dresses, didn’t she? And Princess Jessica’s dresses, too? Didn’t that have to count for something, even if Baroness Ferreira’s shop still made the gowns for the Queen and many of the older ladies?
And besides, this dress was in an exclusive style, wasn’t it? She’d yet to see it on any of the other ladies of the kingdom. Yes. That had to make it better!
But just as Babette’s pride puffed her up and up, her manners brought her down again. Damn. Now she’d actually have to interact with the woman. “But I’m afraid, even though you — somehow — seem to know my name, that we’ve not been introduced.”
“I’m Nicole — Nicole Carpenter.” The woman smiled sheepishly. “I live in the — the brown house over there.” She gestured to her right. Babette was a little impressed in spite of herself. She would have been certain that the woman would have been gauche enough to proudly claim the largest house on the square for her own. Which it was, but still, it would have been so crude to simply say so. “You’re in the …?”
“Why do you assume I live here at all?” Babette gasped.
“Er …” The woman began to blush. “The … the guards are usually pretty strict about who they let in … so I just — I guess I just assumed …”
“Hmph. You know, I’ve heard that when you assume, you make an–” Babette clamped down on her tongue, hard. Good Lord! She’d not even spent five minutes talking to this woman, and already she was sinking down to her level! There was no use in bringing up Heloise’s “ass out of you and me” comment here! “Ahem,” she coughed, “that is — you shouldn’t assume things. But as it happens, I do live in the square. My house is the one with the green shutters, also to the …” Babette tried to sort out her inner compass and give the direction. The house was to her left, in the same direction (just a bit farther off) as the Carpenters’. Left, left … so that made it … “West,” she continued.
Since the Carpenter woman looked only confused, Babette felt compelled to add, “The second-biggest.” But only because she looked confused.
“Oh.” The Carpenter woman glanced over her right shoulder. “It is … it is in the same direction as my house, isn’t it?”
“Of course it is! What other west did you think I meant?” Babette huffed, hands on her hips and nose in the air, daring the Carpenter woman to try to correct her.
The woman’s mouth opened, shut, and opened again. Then it shut, hopefully permanently. After all, she didn’t want to attempt to argue her point with the daughter-in-law of an Earl, did she? Of course she didn’t.
And just to make sure that she didn’t, Babette thought it was time to call this conversation to a close. “Well! Unfortunately, not all of us can stand around chatting all day. I do need to get home to care for my son. My very first baby,” she added, “born just … well, let’s not get into that. He did come a bit early, though he’s as strong and healthy as anyone could wish for now.”
The woman looked confused, and Babette smirked. Oh, she was trying so hard to look unaffected, that Carpenter woman, but she couldn’t hide from Babette. Tongues had been wagging for months about how the Carpenter woman must have tricked Sir Milo into marrying her by claiming to be pregnant — and now, almost six months later, her belly was as flat as it had ever been! Oh, maybe Nicole now-Carpenter had gotten herself a ring, but every woman in the kingdom was onto her game. And so was Babette.
“Well, I understand, of course — but before you go, I just — I know it’s a bit late, but I do want to give you my condolences.”
“What?” she hissed.
“My — my condolences.” Nicole frowned. “For — for your mother.” As Babette continued to stare at her, Nicole continued, “I — I know, when I lost my mother, it was … well, it was one of the darkest times in my life. But I got through it, and …” Nicole pushed one sheaf of hair behind her ear, then another. “I — I know that most of your friends probably … haven’t, yet. So if you … if you want to talk, or anything …”
“Who the hell told you all that?” Babette exploded.
“I — I’m sorry?”
“Who told you about my mother? About — about my friends? Have you been gossiping about me behind my back, you — you minx!” Babette shouted.
“I — I’m sorry! I didn’t mean to be rude … I just, well, Dannie — Mistress Wesleyan –“
“My own sister-in-law has been talking about me behind my back?” Babette gasped.
“What? No, no! I mean — of course she mentioned your mother, but — that’s part of her life, too. It’s not — gossip. And — maybe I’m being a bit too forward, but — truly, you have my condolences. And all of my sympathy. I know what –“
“No. You. Don’t,” Babette hissed. “You cannot possibly have the least idea what it was like to — to lose your mother the way I lost mine.” To watch her grow weaker and weaker every day — to dread the moment of loss, while knowing at the same time that the only thing that could possibly ease her mother’s pain was that very loss. To think that you had six months to ask all those questions that a daughter ought to have a lifetime to ask her mother, and to find that you had two months less than that. And now … she was so very alone … Heloise was in Camford, Rob and Joshua both full of their own concerns and having their hands full with managing their father …
And this jumped-up bar wench had the audacity to say that she knew how Babette felt?
“Maybe it wasn’t exactly the same for me,” the woman murmured, “but I think –“
“Well, stop. It doesn’t suit you,” Babette snapped. “Listen, I — I humored you, understand? I decided to give you a chance. And now … well, it’s quite clear just how ill-bred you are. So I don’t think I will be pursuing this acquaintance.”
“I just wanted to –” the Carpenter woman began as Babette swept past her.
“Well, don’t,” Babette snapped. “Take it from me, dear — stick with your tavern friends. You’ll fit in so much better with them.”
With that, Babette marched to the door and slammed it shut behind her.
She hurried across the square — not because she was in a rush to get away from the Carpenter woman, because she wasn’t, but because it was cold. She had left her cloak at the house, silly her. Not that it mattered. It was hardly a far walk.
She hurried into her nice, warm house, wondering if she ought to slam that door behind her, too.
She decided against it, but only because Morien was still sleeping. Jeannie would hear it slam, too. The last thing Babette needed was for Jeannie to hear the noise, investigate, and then decide that she was going to try to soothe and cluck about and generally smother Babette. Or try to mother her, which, in Jeannie’s hands, amounted to the same thing, really.
Babette didn’t need — well, she didn’t need a new mother, as much as her heart ached for her mother most days and nights. She didn’t need friends like that Carpenter woman, either. She was the daughter-in-law of an earl; her brother-in-law would marry the King’s own niece at the beginning of the year to come. Her sister-in-law was practically betrothed to the younger Prince, and Babette had been visited by the Crown Princess in her very own home! What did she need friends like that Carpenter slut for?
Babette had a fine house full of fine furnishings. She had a husband who would become High Constable or Field Marshall or even Chief Justiciar like his father, whatever he wanted to be! She had her sweet little boy, and she — this was important — she had connections. She had everything she wanted, and then some.
She sighed as she wandered to the window and wished her stomach would stop playing havoc with her, twisting and turning. She didn’t need that Carpenter woman. She had so, so much more than that Carpenter woman. And there was nothing — absolutely nothing — that the Carpenter woman had over her.
Now if only Babette could feel that were true, instead of just knowing it … then, then she’d be better able to enjoy her day.