Darid 22, 1013
After the chilly drive from Camelot back to Sarras, the vestibule of the De Ganis chateau was warm — stuffy, even. Claire breathed in deep, her nose wrinkling. There was nothing to smell but the polish on the furniture and faint hints of dinner wafting from the kitchen … but still …
There was something in this house. Something … something not right.
Then Claire shook her head. She was getting foolish, morbid even, in her old age. She started to unwind the cloth she’d wrapped around her head. Doubtless she would feel better when she got out of the smothering head wrap and her heavy cloak.
She handed both to the maid who wordlessly appeared, fluffing her hair and fixing her crispinette by touch, since Bors didn’t see the utility of investing in a mirror in the vestibule. Oh, he’d buy new glass for every window in the house, even when they didn’t need it, but a mere mirror so she — so they all — could double-check their appearances before leaving the house? That was needless extravagance.
Stop it, Claire. She was getting frustrated when she didn’t need to be. And she knew why, too. It had to do with seeing Lynn. And there was only one way to restore her equilibrium.
So when the maid asked her if she had any orders or preferences, Claire shook her head. “I’ll be heading downstairs,” she added to the maid. “See to it that I’m not disturbed.”
“Aye, m’lady,” replied the maid. And with that, Claire walked down the long hall, turned right at the stairs, and headed for a heavy oak door tucked into the recess between wall and stairs, a door that completely filled the space which held it.
Another needless expense — that’s what this was. But it had been put in when Bors first fixed up the house, back before Claire understood what the state of their finances would be. It would have made much more sense for the family to make arrangements to be laid to rest in the crypt in the cathedral, on ground already consecrated — and it was far more economical, too. But no, Bors had wanted a family crypt like all the great families in Glasonland, and since they were to be one of the great families of Albion, they would have a family crypt, too.
When Claire had been at her worst, the thought of the family crypt had been enough to inspire crying fits so bad she’d end them gasping for air. She had seen the crypt as a prison, a sign that she would never leave Bors’s grasp, never leave this house, even in death. Now that didn’t bother her so much. If the Lord Wright was just, he’d see to it that Claire was happy enough in her final destination to not give two figs about where her bones would rest. If he wasn’t, well, Claire had far bigger problems than where she would be buried. They all did.
She advanced down the winding stone steps, dry but not dusty, and into the darkened subterranean crypt. The air down here smelled faintly musty, but other than that, it was not unpleasant. And the gloom would be dispersed as soon as she lit a candle.
It was odd, how the crypt to her seemed so … hopeful. Maybe it was the rows and rows of empty niches. Bors had built for the future. He had seen himself as the patriarch of a progeny that would someday, perhaps — who knows? — grow as numberless as the stars themselves. In comparison to that, the forty or so niches carved into the walls seemed almost pathetic.
But if the only people who came to be buried here were Earls of Sarras and their ladies — as everyone hoped would be — that was still enough for twenty generations. It was still an exercise in folly, by some lights, to build for the burial of twenty generations when Bors hadn’t even gotten the first underway yet.
However, Claire knew that the niches created would be filled long before forty generations were through. She was lucky; unlike many noblewomen, she did not have to sleep above the bones of her children. But some of her successors would not be so lucky. And who knew — Lionel and Evette were still young. Claire could stop being lucky any day now.
That was enough to make Claire gulp and make the sign of the plumb bob over herself as she lit the candles on the makeshift altar.
Makeshift, Claire thought, her finger stroking the familiar wooden surface. It brought up dust. She rolled her eyes, but given how little the de Ganises could afford to pay their maidservants, it did seem unfair to expect them to keep a crypt as clean as they kept the rest of the house. She wouldn’t mention that to Bors, though.
Then Claire cringed. There she was again — falling into the same old traps. When would she ever learn? She had sworn to herself, when she came back, that things would be different. Different for Lionel, different for Evette, different for — and this was important — Claire. And what had changed, really? Oh, Bors still kept the promises he’d made to her. She would have no more children; she had her music; Bors had named Lynn and her husband as Lionel and Evette’s guardians should Bors and Claire both die before they reached their majority. But from the perspective of two years and more past that bargain, Claire was beginning to suspect she had asked for too little. Bors was still the same. Oh, he tried to be gentler now, and Claire herself was less inclined to put up with his — to be blunt — bullshit. But she wasn’t going about it in the right way. She knew that, now.
So she had come down to the crypt, as she often did, to ask the advice of the one woman who had had to deal with Bors day in, day out, but who had not let him break her. The one woman who had seen Bors for what he was and spit in his eye for it.
Bors’s mother, Evaine.
Claire lit the yellow beeswax candles as she advanced down the line of (mostly) empty niches. Claire herself had placed Evaine’s urn into the niche it now occupied, the center one at the very back. Bors hadn’t liked it — he doubtless saw that niche as his — but he hadn’t been able to say anything, either. Lynn, Clarice, Anquelique and even Elyan had all been sobbing disconsolately at that point, and there were guests, besides.
Claire took a handkerchief from her dress and wiped the stones in front of the niche. One of these days, she was going to ask for a prie-dieu for down here. Bors could hardly call that extravagance. As it was, today, she would kneel on the floor, take a deep breath, and pray. Pray for strength, for forbearance. For courage.
But mostly, she’d pray for Lynn.
She’s still so sad, Evaine, Claire thought, as if she was picking up the thread of an earlier conversation. Morgan is doing all she can for her, and Lynn herself is trying so hard! And she has so much support, too. More than I ever had. Why can’t we make her better, Evaine?
And what are we going to do if Lynn herself starts to sense this, and that makes her worse?
Claire breathed deep and slowly through her prayer, as Morgan had taught her to breathe when the dark thoughts threatened to rise up and overwhelm her. They weren’t, right now, but it was a good habit to have, and not one she wanted to break. However, it was Mother Julian who had taught her to pray like this, to make it a conversation instead of a poem without an audience — at least when she was praying to a saint. As Mother Julian saw it, saints had been Sims once, and Sims didn’t talk to each other the way they talked to the Lord. They were probably dying — well, so to speak — for a bit of honest-to-goodness conversation instead of the endless petitions.
So Claire did her best to fill in Evaine on what she had seen today.
Lynn was … trying very hard to be cheerful when I visited her. But I could tell that her heart was not in it. Finally, she admitted to me that she had bled today, and that her courses were starting to get a bit more regular. She was shaking as she told me, Evaine! She said that Wart — er, little Arthur — did I tell you that Prince Kay has started calling him “Wart” and it’s, well, stuck? — would be starting solid foods soon, so she’d be feeding him less, and … well, the long and short of it is that she’s afraid she’s going to have to have another baby soon. I told her that the Prince would never force her to do that if she didn’t want to — the Prince doesn’t want to even think about trying again until Wart is at least a year old! — but Lynn only shook her head and said she wasn’t afraid of the Prince wanting her to have another baby. She was afraid of feeling that she had to have another baby.
Evaine, she’s growing afraid of her own thoughts. What am I supposed to say to that? How can I help her? Morgan is doing all she can, but … but …
Maybe I should just talk to Morgan …
Claire’s eyes suddenly flew open. There were footsteps on the stairs. She held her breath, counting the seconds between each footfall —
She knew those steps. The odd acoustics of the stone stairs and the earth pressing on all sides of the walls could not disguise them. It was Bors.
Claire closed her eyes and folded her palms together, hoping her attitude of piety would keep him from speaking to her. Hadn’t she said that she wasn’t to be disturbed? But of course that would not apply to the lord of the house.
Bors advanced up the length of the short room. He came to a stop a foot or two behind Claire. He said nothing — no, wait, he was saying something. Mumbling and muttering. It was the same sound Claire had fallen asleep to — or been kept awake by — most nights of her married life. He was praying.
He’d leave her alone until she was done.
But with Bors there, Claire could not continue her prayer, her conversation. It was no different than if she had been speaking to Evaine in the flesh, and Bors had strode into the room, demanded Evaine’s attention and started on his topic without so much as a by-your-leave. Of course, in life Evaine would have never let him get away with this, but she could hardly —
Claire had been praying, implicitly, for some kind of solution to Lynn’s problem, had she not? She’d been asking for assistance from Evaine. And now, just when Claire was approaching the thorny heart of the problem, Bors appeared. Was Evaine trying to tell her something?
After all, what was — ultimately — the cause of Lynn’s problem?
Claire swallowed, straightened her back, rose and dusted off her skirts. She turned to face her husband. “Bors, we need to talk.”
“Mmph — now?” he asked, peering at her with one half-opened eye.
“Are you –”
“It’s about Lynn.”
Both of Bors’s eyes popped open. “What — what about her?”
Claire narrowed her eyes and watched him. How much did he know about Lynn’s condition? They had all been trying to keep most of the knowledge from him, reasoning that Bors was likely to only make things worse. Perhaps that had been a mistake. But to judge by his sudden pallor and the sweat beading below his mustache, he knew something.
“She’s not doing well,” Claire said. “She’s — suffering, as I suffered.” She watched Bors’s Adam’s apple bob up and down. “We’re all trying to help her, but …” She hesitated — how to say this? “I think she needs you to talk to her.”
“To talk to me? Of course! I’ll ride right over–”
“No — no, Bors. You … I think you need to say something … some things to her.” Claire gulped, but if she didn’t plunge right into this, how was she ever going to say it? “Starting with … an apology.”
That worked about as well as Claire might have expected it would.
“An apology? For what?”
Claire could think of many replies to that, many Morgan would have wholeheartedly endorsed, many the Prince would have cheered, some that would have even made Mother Julian smirk and snigger, try as she might to hide it. But none of those were Claire’s response. And none of them were likely to get Bors to do what she wanted him to do. “To begin with, for the things you said to her after Elise was born.”
Bors flinched. “I already apologized to her for that. Years — years ago!”
“Did you mean it?”
“What? What kind of question is that?”
“A simple one, Bors, and I would ask for a simple answer in reply,” Claire answered. “What I mean is this: did you truly apologize to her for saying something insensitive and hurtful and for, frankly, sticking your nose where it didn’t belong — or did you only apologize because you knew very well that Prince Thomas wouldn’t let you near Lynn again if you didn’t?”
“I — I went entirely the wrong way about speaking to her, that day,” Bors stammered. “And so, I apologized for it. I was wrong, and I admitted it.” Bors stuck his nose in the air, as if to say, There, I did what you wanted — are you happy now?
Except Claire wasn’t happy. She was thinking.
I was wrong, and I admitted it …
“Have you ever?” she wondered aloud. “Have you ever, really? Even now … you’re not apologizing for what you said, are you? You’re apologizing for how you said it.”
“I — what? I upset her! Even I can see that, now! What I said, how I said it — what does it matter? I knew she was sad, and I –”
“No. No, Bors. You don’t get to be the injured innocent here. Today, you will listen to me if it is the last thing you do. You –”
“The last thing I do? Ha! Fine words, woman!” Bors spat. “And how do you–”
“SHUT! UP!” Claire screeched.
The words bounced off the walls, the floors, the carefully-carved niches. They bounced into Bors’s open mouth. He swallowed. Then his eyes narrowed and his lips curled in a sneer.
“No! No, you don’t get to speak now, Bors! For once in your life you will listen to me!” The anger bubbled up, buoying her along. When was the last time she had asserted herself like this? Had she ever raised her voice to her husband? Or had she always cowered in the corner, wincing while the words washed over her, bruising and scarring her in their wake?
Well, there would be no more of that. Never again.
“You did this! You did this to Lynn, and by the Lord, you did it to me! And you will fix it, so help me, if it’s the last thing you ever do! Do you hear me, Bors? Do you hear me?”
“I did nothing to Gwendolyn! I–”
“You warped her, you bent her, you broke her! You made her feel as if she was worthless if she had no sons — worthless! Our sweet, caring daughter, who only wants to help others, to be the best mother and wife and someday Queen she can — you made her feel worthless! She still feels like that! She doesn’t feel worthy of her husband’s love, of this kingdom’s love, of her own children’s love! And that is because of you, Bors!”
“I taught her to do her duty, no more, no less!” Bors roared. “She’s a woman! She has to have sons! And a Princess, besides! If she failed–”
“If she failed, there’s Prince Kay and Princess Jessica besides! They’re both young and healthy, and Princess Jessica already has a son of her own! There’s Lady Morgan and Lady Ravenna! There’s even Sir Mordred, if it should come to that! The kingdom isn’t going anywhere!”
“Ha! Listen to you! An unreliable, unthinking woman!” Bors snorted. “Logic like that is what got Glasonland into the mess it’s in now! Is that what you want, Claire? To see Albion turn into Glasonland?”
He thought he had her there, didn’t he? She could see it in the triumphant light in his eyes. Well, he was wrong. Morgan had — unwittingly — prepared her for just this eventuality.
“No, you fool!” Claire yelled — Bors gasped, she doubted anyone, certainly no woman, had called him a fool in his adult life — “Do you know what got Glasonland into the mess it’s in now? Men! Men like you! Men moving their women around like pawns on a chessboard, trying to satisfy an insatiable king! If those men had realized that the women are Sims too and didn’t deserve to be treated like that, then Vortigern wouldn’t have had half so many bastards — and who knows? Maybe Queen Lucilla wouldn’t have stopped sleeping with him! Maybe there would have been another son to step in when poor King Vortimer was injured! But because they wouldn’t …” Claire took a step forward; Bors stumbled back. “Glasonland is going to hell in a handbasket, and it’s the fault of men. Just. Like. You!”
“That is not the case! And even if it was — it’s got nothing to do with Gwendolyn!”
“It’s got everything to do with Lynn, Bors, because it proves you wrong. Yes. You are wrong.” She shouldn’t have been rubbing it in, but Claire couldn’t help it. The words felt so good rolling off her tongue! She could have said it a hundred times! But that would get her nowhere, unless she could convince Lynn to join in with her. “You treated our daughter abominably, and I won’t stand to watch you continue to do so! You are going to fix what you broke, Sir Bors, and you are going to start to be a much better father to Lynn — Clarice — Angelique — Elyan — Lionel — and last but certainly not least, Evette!”
“You say it all as if it was all my fault — well, you’re their mother!” Bors retorted. “Where were you when I was ‘warping’ and ‘breaking’ Gwendolyn, eh? I’ll tell you where you were — standing right beside me, because you know as well as I do that I am right! A woman’s duty in this world is to bear her husband strong, healthy sons! And if Gwendolyn cannot bear to hear that — well, maybe it’s because of bad blood she got from you!”
Claire gasped. Now it was her turn to reel, literally, physically, under the assault.
“Ha! Ah, that’s it, isn’t it? Yes! You all try to blame this on me, but the truth is that it’s you — your bad blood! Because think of this, Claire. We raised Gwendolyn and Clarice exactly the same, didn’t we? And Gwendolyn is sad — but Clarice is not! Clarice knows her duty! She might be amusing herself in other ways, on the side, but she –”
That was where Bors made his mistake. He mentioned Clarice’s “amusing herself.” But Claire knew better. She saw then, quite clearly, why Clarice had not succumbed to melancholy while Lynn had. Clarice had found another source of meaning in her life, a source that was dependent on no one but herself. Lynn hadn’t … yet.
“No! That’s what you don’t understand! Clarice is happy because she learned to not care what kind of babies she had! She found another way to give her life meaning. By the time she stops being a doctor, she will have saved so many lives, healed so much pain — done more good in her life than you could ever hope to!” Claire shouted back.
“What? Are you jesting? I am –”
“A washed-up, foolish, boorish failure as a lord, a husband, and Lord knows, a father!” Claire finished for him. Bors watched her with a hanging jaw. “Everything you touched turned to rot, Bors. You can’t see past your own — your own pride for long enough to even consider that you might be wrong! And because of that — you’ll never grow. Not until you understand what you’ve destroyed, and how you’ve failed. Frankly, I wouldn’t blame any of our children if they wanted nothing more to do with you, ever again.”
“Claire!” Bors gasped. And then Claire realized that she had done it — she had actually hurt the man who had spent so many years battering her soul.
But there was no victory. No thrill in it. Just shock — and a little pity, seeing the naked pain etched on his face. But she wasn’t sorry. Not really. She was a mother before she was a wife, and she had to defend her children before she worried about her husband.
Still, there was no need to be cruel. Even Bors wasn’t knowingly cruel.
So she shrugged. “But they won’t cast you aside. They’re better than I am.” And better than you, too. “But if you want to try to be worthy of them … then I suggest, husband, that you find a way to be a better father to them. You can start by apologizing for everything you ever did to hurt them. All of them. You can try meaning it, too.”
Claire moved past him and headed out of the crypt, head held high.
And then — once I’ve gotten you to apologize — maybe all of my apologies will be worth something, too.