Darid 10, 1013
Roma gave the cat’s bowl one last swipe with her rag, then took the box of treats and poured it in. Jeremy burbled behind her, content for now in his cradle. He was just six months old, just starting to roll around. Roma couldn’t stop herself from turning to check on him every couple of minutes — Marie had once managed to roll right out of her crib, and even though Simon had fixed the cradle so the sides were higher, Roma still was nervous.
She didn’t sigh. Some wounds cut too deep for that. But like a soldier’s old trick leg that acted up whenever the wind blew from the west, so would Roma’s heart ache whenever she thought of Marie. And she thought of Marie every day, every time Jeremy learned a new trick just when Marie had learned it, or didn’t learn one when Marie had learned it, or perhaps did something Marie had never done.
But like an old soldier, now a farmer, who couldn’t stay home and rest when the wind was westerly, Roma had work to do. So she went on doing it. And unlike the soldier, whose telltale limp or the way he favored his right shoulder would give him away, nobody would even know how Roma hurt inside.
Besides, what reason did she have to be hurting today? Nicole was coming over. She would have a nice chat with her best friend, they would both drink tea, Nicole would hold Jeremy and Roma would tease her about how good she looked with a baby in her arms, and then —
Rat-a-tat-tat! “Yoo-hoo! Roma!”
Drat! Roma had been counting on another quarter of an hour before Nicole came! She still didn’t have the whole place cleaned up yet!
There was, however, no helping that now. “Coming!” Roma skipped to the door and threw it open. Just out of the corner of her eye, she could see Jeremy craning his neck to see the visitor. “Nicole!”
Roma held her friend close, still marveling at the feel of the soft linen under her fingertips. She had never felt linen half so fine before Nicole’s marriage — and she rather doubted she’d ever get to feel it in any other context. She’d certainly never get to own or wear a dress like that. Simon had grand plans, she knew; he was going to raise them up to the status of freemen, get them involved in the guild, but his earnings would never stretch to afford a fine dress like that for her.
Or … dresses. Roma took a step back. “Nicole! Ye’ve got a new dress!” She could hardly help gaping. Nicole had gotten a whole new wardrobe soon after she was married, and Sir Milo had paid for it all with nary a murmur, but from what Nicole said, Sir Milo was awfully careful with his coppers. She wondered how it was that Nicole had managed to get him let her have a new dress.
And then Roma saw why Nicole needed a new gown. “Ack! That’s a wee bump I see there!”
Nicole leaned her hips forward. “It’s so small you can barely see it,” she acknowledged. “Well — unless I was in my other dress. Then I look like I’m about to burst out of it!”
“Nah! Ye’re still right slender, everywhere but here!” Roma rubbed Nicole’s belly. “Ye seen me ma recently?”
“Yer man still tryin’ ter get ye ter go ter that fancy doctor?”
“Not really … although Lady Clarice actually said something to him about it. Sort of.”
Roma looked up, startled. “She — she did?” She knew how these nobles operated. It was all about connections, connections, connections with them. Look at what had happened to Lady Dindrane and Sir Mordred — both shackled in marriage to the last Sim on earth they would ever want to be married to, both by parents who seemed to love and care for them a great deal! If that was what noble parents would do to their children in the name of connections … asking a wife to have a certain doctor rather than a midwife didn’t seem like a sacrifice at all, in comparison.
“Aye,” Nicole laughed. “It was actually rather funny — I don’t even know how the conversation got onto this topic, actually — but somehow, right in the middle, Lady Clarice said that the most important thing when picking a physician or a midwife or any other medical professional is what kind of relationship the physician has with the patient. If the patient doesn’t like and trust the physician, then all the cures in the world won’t do any good. And she looked right at Milo when she said it! Poor Milo,” Nicole shook her head.
“He’s jest lookin’ out fer what’s best fer ye, I guess.”
“I know,” Nicole smiled fondly. “And I already talked to your mother, and she said if there’s any trouble, she’ll have Milo send for Lady Clarice immediately. So everything ought to be fine.”
Roma wasn’t so sure of that — at least, the sending for Lady Clarice as soon as there was trouble part. Most of the time, the only person Kata would send to for help if there was trouble in the birthing room was a monk — and not a monk-doctor, either. But perhaps it would be different, now that there was a woman doctor in the kingdom. It would probably be even more different, since if Kata got the slightest sense that things were going wrong, she could send for Lady Clarice at once, knowing that Sir Milo wouldn’t have to starve himself or Nicole or the baby to pay for it.
“Aye. Still — I can’t be believin’ that Lady Clarice said that ter yer man!” Nicole always flushed and looked uncomfortable when Roma called her husband “Sir Milo,” and Roma always felt like a sneak and an imposter if she dared to call the king’s nephew just “Milo.” “Yer man” was a fine compromise. “Simon always said that –” Roma remembered just what it was that Simon always said, and clamped her mouth shut.
“What?” laughed Nicole.
“Oh, come on! You can’t begin with a lead-in like that and leave it hanging!”
“Well …” Jeremy yelped, and Roma turned to him with a gasp.
But he seemed fine — just antsy. And he was blowing raspberries at Roma, which was his clear symbol for, Pick me up, NOW.
Roma turned to Nicole with a raised eyebrow. “I’m guessin’ this little lad wants a closer look at somebody …”
Nicole grinned as Roma picked Jeremy up. “There, lad. There’s Auntie Nicole! Ain’t she pretty?”
“Auntie …” Nicole murmured. “I can’t believe it. I thought … I thought, for a while, that I’d never hear anyone call me auntie again. And then … first there was you, and then there was Sandra and her children …”
“If Master Tower could hear ye say that,” Roma chuckled, “he’d probably be axin’, ‘What am I, chopped liver?'”
“Probably!” Nicole laughed, making a funny face at Jeremy, who laughed. “He’s got a sly sense of humor, underneath all that carefulness in his manner. Have you met him, by any chance?”
“No!” yelped Roma.
Nicole looked up, eyes wide and startled. “I — oh. Oh. I’m sorry. It’s just — well, he is a kind man, you know. And I thought, since we all lived in the same shire … and I know you try to sell your pigs … well, never mind that.” Nicole pushed her hair behind one ear and shot a false smile at the baby.
And Roma kicked herself. Of course Nicole would be thinking of Master Tower primarily as her brother-in-law, the nice man with the pretty, friendly wife and the three adorable children. The fact that he happened to run the jail wouldn’t be as important to Nicole as all of that. But a peasant would never forget that.
“Roma?” Nicole murmured.
“He does what he does to keep us all safe, you know,” Nicole answered. “He’s not just here for the nobles, or the wealthy. He’s meant to protect us all.” Nicole managed a small smile. “After all — who saw to it that Lady Morgause didn’t escape?”
From all Roma had heard of strange magical devices and powerful curses enacted when Lady Morgause was captured, she would guess that Lady Morgan or maybe even Princess Jessica had more to do with that than Master Tower. But the point still stood. Roma bounced Jeremy, who laughed. No, Master Tower had proven that he worked for all of them when he held Lady Morgause in his cells and wouldn’t let her out. Roma would be the last one to argue against that.
Or at least … she was sure she would have been, if her husband hadn’t been a smuggler, and if she didn’t sometimes have nightmares of him being caught on the wrong side of the Reman or Glasonlander border …
Thank goodness Nicole was playing a peek-a-boo game with Jeremy and couldn’t see her shudder.
But Jeremy could feel it, and he whimpered. Nicole’s hands dropped. “What’s the matter, Jemmie? I didn’t scare you, did I?” She tickled his stomach, and Jeremy laughed, happy once again.
Roma took a deep breath. That had been a close call. She shifted her hold on Jeremy. “Nicole? How would ye like ter hold this little fellow fer a minute while I finish a last thing or two? Then I’ll make some tea, an’ we can have a good long gossip.”
“I’d love to!” Nicole held her arms out, and Roma gratefully deposited Jeremy into them. The baby burbled and blew a bubble between his lips.
Unlike many woman who wasn’t a mother, there was no awkward shyness in Nicole’s hold. Jeremy fit into the crook of her arm like he belonged there. Roma smirked. Nicole was going to be a wonderful mother, once her baby got big enough to hold in her arms and not in her belly. And in the meantime, she could mind Jeremy while Roma scrubbed the cat’s cushion.
Besides, cleaning the cushion would give Roma a moment or two to compose herself while not facing Nicole.
“So,” Nicole giggled, “you never said. What does Simon always say?”
Roma blinked — what had she been talking about? Simon said a lot of —
Oh, no!“No, no! Ye don’t want ter hear that, Nicole!”
“Oh, come now! Whatever it is, it can’t be that bad.”
“Aye,” Roma replied, scrubbing harder, “aye, it can!”
“I don’t believe you,” Nicole teased. Jeremy started to giggle — she must have been tickling him.
“Believe me. Ye know what me Simon’s mouth is like! An’ he ain’t got respect fer his betters!”
Nicole didn’t say anything for a long moment. Then she replied, slowly, “Then I guess it’s best you don’t tell me.”
Roma breathed a long, slow sigh of relief. Good — she’d stop asking. A year ago, Roma would have repeated Simon’s comment — that all the de Ganis young ladies had sticks shoved halfway up their arses — with scandalized giggles and an insistence that Nicole carry the secret to her very grave. But now? Well, now Nicole was going to be one of the offended parties. It didn’t matter that she wasn’t one of the de Ganises. The truth was that most of the nobility had the same flaw Simon pointed out — being haughty, reserved, distant from the rest of the folks. They saw this as the way things should be. They wouldn’t take kindly to hearing that the peasants saw it as a reason to make fun of them.
But … Roma sighed and scrubbed harder. The worst of it? Nicole would have had every bit as much reason to be offended a year ago. She’d been born into the whole mess, hadn’t she? She was a noble from off in Reme. She just hadn’t told anybody about it. It explained a lot about her, of course — her speech, the things that shocked her and the things that didn’t, the hands that had been so smooth when they first met. And that was only the tip of the iceberg.
Still, a year ago, Roma hadn’t known, and so she wouldn’t have had a problem saying anything. Now … she did. And so she had to stay silent.
“Roma?” Nicole murmured.
“Milo and I have been thinking about … names. For the baby.”
Ah, baby-names! There was something safe to discuss. “Ooh! What’cha been thinkin’?”
“Well, if it’s a boy, we’re going to name him Augustus. For my father,” Nicole replied.
“Bit of a mouthful fer a wee lad, ain’t it?”
“Roma! And Jeremy isn’t? It’s the same number of syllables!” Nicole laughed.
“Maybe — but Augustus sounds longer.”
“We’d call him Gus for short.”
“Ah, now that’s a baby-sized name! So what were ye thinkin’ fer a girl?”
“Well … Milo wants to name a girl for his mother — Anna. At least, he wants part of her name to be that. But he doesn’t just want to call a girl Anna. He wants to combine it with something.”
“Lots o’ things ter add ter Anna,” Roma replied. “Like Annabelle, or Annabeth, or Leann …”
“Or Marian,” Nicole added. “That’s — that’s what I was hoping for. If it would be all right with you, of course!”
All right with Roma? Why wouldn’t it be all right with Roma? Nicole could name her baby whatever she liked! And Marian was a …
Marian. Mary-Ann. Or … Marie-Ann …
Roma sat back on her haunches. Her jaw fell. She got to her feet without quite knowing what it was she was doing. And then the tears started to flow.
But she didn’t say anything. She didn’t turn around, either. Her old war-wound was acting up — but she had to get on with the day’s work. She took a deep breath and held it.
Nicole whispered, “If … if you don’t like it … Milo said he doesn’t mind Annabelle. Or maybe using Anna as a middle name and picking something else for the first name …”
Roma bit her lip and started at her feet.
“But I thought … you’d like Marian … since …”
Roma gasped, and the first of the sobs came.
“Roma!” But that was all Nicole sad before her footsteps hurried in the opposite direction. Roma didn’t even have time to wonder where she was going before they came back, and an arm draped itself over its shoulder. “I’m sorry, Roma. If I knew it was going to upset you this much –”
“I just thought … it’s been over a year, and …” Nicole glanced at Jeremy, then down at her own gown — or was it her wedding ring? “So much has changed,” she murmured. “I thought it wouldn’t hurt you to hear –”
“It doesn’t!” Roma gasped. “At least — not that way!”
“It … doesn’t?”
“I — I ain’t never been less hurt in me life! Ye — ye want ter name yer baby fer mine! Ye — ye remember her!”
“Roma! Of course I remember her!”
“Nobody else talks about her,” Roma murmured. “Not my ma, not unless I bring it up. Not Ella, not unless I say somethin’ about her — an’ ever since she had Marty, if I say nothin’ about Marie, she’s lookin’ at him with so much fear in her eyes … she’s me sister, I can’t be doin’ that ter her!”
“No, no, Roma, of course you can’t.”
“An’ Simon … Simon …” Roma gulped. “He used ter talk about her, sometimes, but now since Jeremy’s been born …”
Roma doubled over with the sobs.
Simon never brought Marie up now. He was good with Jeremy — very good with Jeremy. He picked him up and held him, and talked to him, and even brought him outside from time to time, now that the weather was getting nice. He showed his son the flights of birds and held him up so he could watch the beasts in the fields. When he and Roma got a chance to sit down to dinner while Jeremy was still awake — which wasn’t often — he’d often call, “Ain’t that right, Jemmie?” after making any statement. When Jeremy would coo or burble in reply, he would laugh and laugh.
He’d never done any of that for Marie. And now, when Roma said her name, or remembered something innocuous about her — or about Jeremy, and what they were likely to expect soon! — he would always look so guilty …
How could Roma keep talking about Marie when Simon looked like that? So she kept it to herself — all of it.
And now Nicole wanted to name her baby for Marie …
Roma suddenly looked up, surveying her friend with furrowed brows. Nicole blinked under the scrutiny. But Roma was thinking …
Nicole had brown hair, and her husband had black. Roma had black hair, and Simon had had brown. So — Nicole and Sir Milo’s baby would probably have very dark hair, just like Marie. And even though Nicole had brown eyes, Sir Milo had blue. Their baby could have blue eyes. They were both rather pale, too, like Marie had been. And for their faces … well, none of their faces would be anything alike. But babies that young often looked a great deal alike anyway.
Nicole and Sir Milo could end up having a baby that looked very like Marie. And that would be … if she was named Marian …
It would almost be like Marie had come back, even if she hadn’t come back to Roma.
So, even as her sobs continued to come in galloping gasps, Roma tried to pull herself together. Nicole continued to stroke her hair and murmur soothing words into her ear. Roma took deep breath after deep breath. She wiped her tears on the rough wool of her dress. And she gulped down the hot, salty tears that threatened to keep on coming.
Finally, she could laugh — well, chuckle, sort of. “Yer husband is gonna hate me before this is over,” she said. “‘Cause I’m gonna keep prayin’ ye have a girl, an’ ye know that men would always rather have sons.”
“Even if I do have a boy, I’ll still name my first-born daughter Marian,” was Nicole’s reply. “I promise.”
Roma gasped. She gulped. And then she held Nicole in a great bear hug that probably threatened to squash little Marian — for that was what Roma would call Nicole’s bump, unless it turned out that she’d have to start calling it Augustus. “Thank ye,” she whispered.
Nicole didn’t reply. But she didn’t have to. She was a good friend.
And sometimes, good friends knew just when silence was worth more than all the words in the world.