“Happy birthday!” That was all the warning Milo got before his arms were full of the breathless, laughing form that was his wife.
She’d already told him so this morning — the first thing he had heard after those first few rays of sunlight caught his eyes, when he was still snuggling under the blankets and groping for the pillow to shut out the world. She’d whispered the words in his ear, her breath stirring his hair and her hair tickling his bare shoulder. It was the sort of wake-up that made Milo even less inclined to leave the bed before, but at the same time, not at all interested in sleeping.
Why did men complain about being married, again?
When the need for air finally defeated both of them, they sprung apart, gasping like a pair of silly young things who had only just mastered the art of kissing. Milo kept a hand on Nicole’s waist even as she giggled.
“Thanks,” he replied, grinning.
“You’re welcome.” Nicole looked up as soon as she was finished laughing. “Ready for supper?”
Ah, supper. Nicole made a point these days of having it on the table as soon as he walked in the door, which meant that Milo had to be very careful about getting home when he said he would — or earlier, if he didn’t mind waiting — unless he had a damn good reason to be late. Apparently timing was very important with all this cooking stuff. Milo still didn’t understand half of it, for all that Nicole liked to talk about it. In his experience, food just magically appeared on the plate at mealtimes. Or didn’t, if you were the enterprising type of growing lad who liked to swipe stuff from the kitchen.
Still, Milo was fast suspecting that he was the best-fed man in the kingdom, and when one occupied that lofty position, one didn’t complain and did his damndest to get home on time.
“Of course I’m ready,” he answered. He sniffed. “You made catfish!”
“Of course I made catfish; it’s your birthday.” Nicole shooed him into his seat and he gladly complied. He always sat with his back to the kitchen, since Nicole liked to have a good view — there was usually something warming on the oven, or else dessert was still cooking.
“This looks fantastic,” he added, just to watch Nicole beam. Then he folded his hands and bowed his head, Nicole following suit. He made the prayer short — he generally did — as much for his sake as for Nicole’s. His sake, because the food really did look fantastic. And for Nicole’s sake … well, when they were first married, she always shared breakfast with him as well as dinner. Then, a few weeks ago, she’d started cooking him hearty soldier’s breakfasts, laying off the foreign spices and the strong meats, and going off to work on her sewing or get herself freshened up and ready for the day while he ate. She was much more of a morning person than he was, so Milo didn’t blame her for not wanting to try to hold up a conversation when usually all he could manage at that hour were grunts and grumbles.
That all being said, he couldn’t help but suspect that she wasn’t making herself breakfast, or if she was, it was something light and easy to wash up after. He didn’t ask her about it because, well, she was a grown woman and more than capable of feeding herself. Still, if he was famished, come evenings, she must be even more so.
“Amen,” Nicole said as soon as the prayer was over. She took up her knife and started to delicately carve the fish away from the bone. “So — how was your day?”
“Oh, fine,” he replied. “Checking up on the borders, again.” He popped a bit of fish into his mouth. It was every bit as good as his mother’s cook had used to make — better, even. He had to take a moment to enjoy it before he went on
It was a good thing for him that Nicole would never be offended by that — she only smiled. “Tom went with me — apparently Lamorak’s knee-deep in wedding hell and couldn’t make it. So he decided to spend the whole time ragging me about getting older.”
“He’s older than you are!” Nicole laughed.
“I know! Not that it stops him, though!”
“Still, that doesn’t make sense — even for his sense of humor.” Nicole shook her head.
Milo didn’t reply, but he hoped to mask it by shoveling a bit of rice into his mouth and pretending to be too busy chewing.
It didn’t work. He could see that by the way Nicole’s fork hesitated halfway on its way to the plate, how her head tilted slightly to one side. “Milo? Is there something wrong?”
He sighed and shook his head. “I just hate to be reminded of my advancing age, that’s all. Especially by people six months older than I am.”
It was a lie and they both knew it. Milo thought he knew the reason for the ragging: Will. Will’s birthday was less than a month away. It had usually been the first big party of the new year, back when they were all at Camford, just as Milo’s had been the last before exams hit in earnest. However, unlike Milo, Will was six months older than Tom. It was Will who Tom was wanting to rag, but couldn’t.
Nicole dealt with it by changing the subject — slightly. “Are there many refugees coming across the border?”
Well, that was actually a less touchy subject. “Surprisingly … no.”
“No?” Nicole’s eyes bugged half out of her head. “But — but there’s a civil war! Every time I go to the market, there’s news of another city being besieged or a village razed and burned to the round!”
Nicole went to the market nearly every day. Milo pinched the bridge of his nose. “Some of those have to be exaggerations.”
“Cut it down to a quarter of what the rumors claim, and that’s still a lot of people being displaced.”
“Aye,” Milo agreed — all the more because he and Tom had gone up to one of the watchtowers and had looked through the captain’s spyglass to see just what was on the other side of the wall.
There were camps there. Ramshackle camps of tents and lean-tos, or really, whatever people could find to set up as some kind of shelter. But the gates to Albion were wide open. Why were the people waiting? Tom hadn’t understood it any better than he had.
Rumors about the camps would trickle into Albion soon, no doubt. Perhaps they’d come over the border in the next few days, or whenever the guards in the towers changed. When they did — well, then what? Tom had already brought news of what they had seen to the King. Perhaps he understood it better than they did. Perhaps he was already moving to deal with it, even as he and Nicole ate.
He ought to stop worrying and just enjoy his birthday.
“So …” Nicole peeked through her lashes, smiling a little. “Is this supper as good as what the Queen fed you the first time you celebrated a birthday here?”
Milo laughed. “Better!”
“What? You fish for a compliment, then you call me a flatterer?” Milo laid his hand against his heart. “I’m hurt!”
“Oh, stop! You know what I mean.”
Milo grinned. “Well, the Queen’s cook tried to make my favorite, because the Queen got Tom to harass it out of me, but it wasn’t as good as yours, and, well …” Milo scratched the back of his head. “The whole point of the dinner was to distract everyone from … you know. Lady Morgause.”
“I would have preferred a night at the pub with the guys …”
“But you could hardly say no.”
“Exactly. And even if I could — well, I couldn’t.” Milo shrugged. Not after his uncle had done so much for him. It would be a very ungrateful nephew who couldn’t be bothered to give his uncle one measly awkward evening after all of that. “But! I survived, didn’t I? And so did little Princess Elise.”
“What?” Nicole gasped.
“Oh, aye — to crown the awkwardness, somebody — I don’t remember who — thought it would be a grand idea to have me hold the most important baby in the kingdom. Me! Back then! I wasn’t even sure which way was up!”
“Prince Thomas?” Nicole guessed.
“Surprisingly not. I mean, aye, that’s his sense of humor, all right — but not where his little girl is concerned. If I wasn’t already nervous when Princess Lynn handed her to me, I was when I got a look at his face.” Milo blinked. “In fact, it’s a damn good thing I didn’t get invited this year. I probably would have had to hold Prince Arthur — and that would only be even more terrifying.”
“Oh, come on!” Nicole waved her fork at him. “He’s, what, two months old now? He should be plenty sturdy.”
“He’s also the most important baby in the kingdom. I’d rather hold him when he’s big enough to wriggle away from me and not hurt himself if he doesn’t want to be held.”
“If you wait that long,” Nicole pointed out, “he might never let him hold him, since you won’t be familiar to him.”
Milo’s brows knit. “… I’m sorry, is that supposed to be a drawback?”
He had to laugh, watching her face grow redder and redder. She sighed and shook her head. “Anyone would think you didn’t like babies.”
There was something … something swimming in the dark current of those words, a shadow Milo could see in the water but a shape he couldn’t catch. Still, he pushed it from his mind. Better to go along with the joke. “I protest! I like babies just fine — which is why I don’t want to break them!”
“They’re hardly that fragile!”
“Ha! You say that once you’ve been a big brother holding your newest little sister, with your mother watching your every move, warning you to mind her head every two minutes. I was practically certain that babies were made of glass after that.”
“They’re not,” Nicole reached across the table and squeezed his hand. “I’ll have Sandra make you hold Susanna one of these days. You’ll be fine and the baby will be fine, as long as you relax. You’ll see.”
Milo grinned as much as he pretended to sigh. “If you insist …”
“Oh, I will indeed insist if you’re going to be such a big baby about it.” She waved her fork at him, like a scolding schoolmarm, caught sight of herself and spoiled the effect by giggling. Or rather, in Milo’s view, enhanced the charm of the scene.
She put the fork back down and used it for its proper office — at least for a few minutes. “Are you going to want seconds?” she asked.
“There’s seconds?” Milo craned his neck.
“Of course there’s seconds! Do you think the two of us could eat the whole catfish?”
“When you cook it like this …” Milo smiled down at his fish. Then he reconsidered his options. He did, after all, want to fit into his chain mail in the morning. “What’s for dessert?”
“Crepes. With strawberries.”
He was salivating already. “You spoil me.”
“It’s your birthday. I’m allowed. Although …”
Milo raised one eyebrow. “O-oh?”
“I do have a … surprise for you …” She batted her eyelashes at him. “And then we could have dessert.”
Milo’s eyebrows went up. “In-deed.”
It would surprise no one who knew him that Milo ate very, very quickly after that. But why not? His birthday only came once a year — and his beautiful wife was spoiling him. He could imagine quite a lot of things that the surprise could be … all of which he was eager to see.
He was even more eager after dinner was done and the dishes were cleared and Nicole headed toward the stairs. “Oh, it’s an upstairs surprise, is it?”
She turned back and shot him a saucy smile. “It is indeed.”
Milo grinned and followed practically on her heels. He stroked her side with the backs of his fingers. Nicole took his hand and laced the fingers through hers as she hurried up the rest of the steps.
But when they arrived at the top of the steps, Nicole didn’t turn to the right — or rather she did, because it was either that or hit the wall — but the important thing was that she didn’t double back and hurry into their bedroom. Instead, she flung open the door to one of the spare rooms. “Ta da!”
She had … decorated one of the spare rooms. The smallest one. He had to hand it to her — it did make a nice nursery.
But … demanded the treacherous voice in his head.
What did they need a nursery for? And …
How much had all of this cost?
He winced to hear himself thinking that, but he thought it all the same. They weren’t … well, he had more money than Nicole had when she got here, that was certain. But they weren’t anywhere near as wealthy as Nicole’s family had been in Reme. Furniture — especially the type of furniture Nicole had bought, with the brass handles on the drawers and the marble top to the table, was expensive. And that silk upholstery on the first dresser and in the crib … how much were they in for?
And she was talking, too, about how she hadn’t picked out material for curtains yet, but that could wait; she wanted as neutral colors as possible, for obvious reasons (on that point they could at least agree); and what did he think of the art? She thought a nice still life would be calming, but she also wanted to get some classical education in early — oh, wait, you couldn’t see the other painting from here, she would show him —
“Um,” was the only reply Milo could make to all of that.
Nicole turned to him with a jaw hanging loose. “You’re not happy!” It was an accusation.
But — but she’d decorated a room. What about that was supposed to make him … happy? And she’d probably spent a good amount of money on it, too, money that he could have been investing or saving up for an estate — because he wasn’t going to be able to marry into one — or — or anything.
“It’s not that I’m not happy, I’m just …” Milo scratched his head and looked around the room again. “Was all of this really — necessary?”
Nicole blinked. “Necessary?”
“I mean — right this second? We … we could have waited …”
“Oh, really? You bring this up now?” Nicole asked.
“You can’t take it back, can you,” Milo murmured.
“Of course I can’t ta–” Nicole stopped, then watched him with one eyebrow raised. “Milo … what were you discussing taking back?”
“Well, the furniture!” Milo threw his hands in the air. “I — I mean, I know, you wanted to surprise me, but … but, Nicole, the dinner was more than enough of a surprise, and — and I’d rather invest, or save, this kind of money until we absolutely need a nursery –”
“And when would that be? After the baby’s born?”
“What? No, of course not! But once …” Nicole’s eyes were getting narrower and narrower. “Look, I don’t see why you’re getting upset! I’m trying to provide for — for our family, and I know you say you know what poverty is, and this isn’t it. I understand that, I really do! But … but there’s a long way between where we are now, and where your father was before everything — happened. There’s a long way between where we are now and where my stepfather is! I want our family to be stable, secure, for our children to have — to have everything! But I can’t give them everything if we aren’t careful now. I can’t guarantee I’ll win an estate, so I might — I probably will have to purchase one, and –” Milo broke off. “You’re still upset!”
“Oh, I’m not upset.”
The look on her face would suggest otherwise.
“At least, I’m not as upset as I was a moment ago,” Nicole continued. “And I hope I’ll be even less upset in a few more minutes. Once you understand …”
“Once I understand? Once I understand? Nicole! What’s there not to understand? You spent — you spent Lord knows how much on a nursery we don’t need!”
“And when do you think we would need a nursery, Milo?” Nicole asked, arms still crossed over her chest. “Before a baby was born, aye?”
“Of course! But not before one was on the way!”
“I agree completely.”
“Then why did you go out and buy the nursery?”
Nicole didn’t answer. She only raised one eyebrow and tapped her foot on the ground.
Milo sighed. Women! He was starting to understand why some men complained about being married. They went and did daft things, expecting you to instantaneously understand why they did them, and then getting annoyed when you didn’t! And then — then, when you tried to be the voice of reason, when you tried to point out a few simple facts, they had the audacity to agree with you with their words when their actions suggested the opposite!
And Nicole was usually so level-headed, too! He never would have thought she’d get him a nursery set when she wasn’t even …
Wasn’t even …
Milo knit his brows. She wasn’t — she couldn’t be — she would have told him if she was, wouldn’t she?
Unless … unless that was … the surprise …
And then, as the ideas formed themselves in his head, all lined up in neat little rows — Nicole smiled.
“You’re — you’re –”
“We’re having a baby? Now?”
“Not now, you goose!” Nicole lightly whacked his arm. “Kata says it’s at least seven months to go!”
“Seven — seven months?” Pregnancy lasted nine, or so he was told. Which meant — “You were pregnant two months and you didn’t tell me?”
“Milo! I didn’t know right away! I had to wait a bit to be sure. And once I was …” Nicole grinned and blushed. “Well … I wanted to wait until your birthday.”
“To — to surprise me.”
Nicole only smiled.
“And I have never,” Milo pulled Nicole closer to him, “been more surprised in my life.”
“Or happier?” she asked, batting her eyelashes.
For an answer, Milo swept her into his arms and spun her around.
“What do you think, Nicole?” He threw back his head and laughed. “We’re having a baby!”
It was the best birthday surprise he would have never thought to ask for.