Clatan 28, 1013
“Mama, where Gwandma?” asked Lilibeth as soon as Joyce put her lunch on the high chair’s tray.
“She’ll be here soon, sweetie. An’ guess who else is comin’?” asked Joyce, crouching down to her daughter — her middle daughter’s — level.
Lilibeth’s eyes, golden like the Lilé she was named for, went wide. “Who?”
“Auntie Meg, that’s who!”
Lilibeth squealed and kicked her feet against the high chair. “When? When, Mama?”
“Soon, love, soon!” laughed Joyce. For once, she was confident that her definition of “soon” would match even the most impatient toddler’s … which, to be fair, Lilibeth sort of was. She had been quiet as a mouse in the womb, but the minute she got out, she was ready and raring for action. Leah had been a much more stationary baby and toddler, usually content to play with her toys in one place, only moving if she absolutely had to. Lilibeth, on the other hand, had always wanted to be moved around when she was being held. Once she learned how to roll, Joyce couldn’t put her down anywhere without hemming her in well. Once she was crawling, no floorspace in the house was safe. And once she started walking, the floorspace was in even more danger, because sometimes Joyce didn’t even have time to swoop in and remove something that was a danger to Lilibeth or to which Lilibeth was a danger before she got there. Poor Sable was the biggest target, but at least she didn’t seem to mind having her ears pulled and her fur covered in sloppy toddler kisses.
Not for the first time — and not for the last — Joyce wondered which of her sisters little Cliodna would choose to emulate.
Cliodna was sleeping now. She tended to sleep a great deal, more than Joyce remembered Lilibeth sleeping at that age. But Cliodna wasn’t even a month old yet. Babies that young were supposed to spend much of their time asleep, or else crying for a feeding or a diaper change. Her mother said that sleep was good for babies like that. Joyce just wished Cliodna could manage her deepest sleep at nighttime, instead of during the day, so that she and Berach could get a good night’s sleep, but that wouldn’t happen for months yet.
“Mama! Who dat?” Lilibeth asked.
“I dunno, Lili. Let’s go see!” Of course, by “Let’s,” Joyce meant she herself, but Lilibeth still squirmed and craned her neck to see anyway.
Joyce threw open the door and grinned. “Look, Lili! It’s Grandma an’ Auntie Meg!”
An’ Auntie Meg’s stomach, Joyce asked, watching her sister waddle in after her bump. Amazing — Lisette was only nine months old, but here was Meg, four months gone already! She and Pierre must have been making up for lost time between Basil and Felix. Not that Joyce had asked or anything …
All right, maybe she had asked. They were sisters! They were supposed to tell each other everything! But Meg had gasped and smacked Joyce’s arm and told her that was “none of yer business!”
Betsy leaned in for a kiss to Joyce. “How are ye, Joyce?”
“Good, Ma. An’ ye?”
“Oh, fine, fine.”
Liar, liar, Joyce thought. Betsy’s eyes were still shadowed and drawn, and Joyce would bet her last farthing that it had nothing to do with three-month-old Marty’s crying every night in the next room. It had everything to do with another Martin …
And probably with Sir Mordred, too, for all Betsy would never admit it.
But Joyce couldn’t show that she thought that, not right after Betsy came in. Instead, Joyce leapt forward, practically into Meg’s stomach. “An’ hello, Crumpet!”
“I should’ve never told ye I was cravin’ crumpets,” Meg tried to grumble, though grumbling was hard when you were trying to stave off giggles.
“Joyce.” Betsy tapped Joyce’s shoulder. “Greet yer sister, not her tummy.”
“But Ma!” Joyce turned wide, innocent eyes to her mother. “I’m jest greetin’ ye all in the order ye came in! I thought that would be the most fair!”
“Now ye knock that off!” Meg laughed. “My tummy ain’t that big yet!”
“Big enough ter be noticed, Meg! That means big enough ter be greeted! Ain’t that right, Crumpet?” Joyce cooed, leaning closer to Meg’s belly.
Lilibeth giggled. Joyce’s head popped up. “See! Lilibeth thinks I’m funny! Don’t ye think Mama’s funny, sweetheart?”
“Mama funny!” Lilibeth agreed, most obligingly.
“Lilibeth! Ye’re sidin’ against yer own godmother?” Meg pretended to gasp, her hand floating up to her mouth.
Lilibeth’s brows scrunched together, and she turned to her mother.
“Meg! Knock it off, ye’re jest confusin’ her.”
Meg rolled her eyes. “Oh, aye, ye get ter nickname me kid whatever ye want, but heaven ferbid I confuse yers.”
“Stop, ye two.” Betsy shook her head. “Joyce, stop makin’ fun o’ yer sister’s tummy. Meg, stop trying ter turn Lilibeth against her own ma.” Betsy scooted past Meg and Joyce to bestow a kiss on Lilibeth’s head. “Besides, if Lilibeth is gonna be takin’ anyone’s side in here, it’ll be mine. I’ve got — what’s the word? — ah, seniority. An’ she’s me namesake, besides.” Betsy smiled softly at Lilibeth, who returned it with a mush-filled grin.
Joyce turned to Meg, waved one last time at the baby, then looked up. “I’ll make ye a deal, sis.”
Meg raised one eyebrow.
“I’ll stop callin’ the bun ye’ve got in that oven Crumpet … if ye promise ter name it Joyce as soon as it’s good an’ done.”
“Joyce!” Meg shouted, laughing.
“What? I want a baby guaranteed ter be on me side! Besides, this one looks like a Joyce.” Joyce ducked again, squinting at the front of Meg’s dress. “Don’t ye think?”
“Aye, that’s what I said!”
“Mama!” Lilibeth called. She pointed proudly to her bowl. “Done!”
Meg gasped, or pretended to. “What? Lilibeth, ye finished that whole bowl? I don’t believe it!”
“No, ye didn’t!”
“Here,” Betsy interrupted, reaching for the bowl. “I’ll get this out o’ the–”
“Shoo, Ma! Ye don’t do no cleanin’ up in me house!” Joyce flapped her apron and sent Betsy scurrying out of the way, which made Lilibeth break into giggles. “If ye want ter be helpful, make sure Cliodna’s doin’ all right over there, an’ I’ll take care o’ the bowl.”
Betsy did not need much encouragement to visit her newest granddaughter, and Joyce did not need much encouragement to get the dirty bowl swept out of the way.
As for Lilibeth, she barely had a chance to look stricken and abandoned before Meg swooped in on her. “Now, Mistress Lili,” she cooed, “where did all yer lunch go, eh?”
“Hmm … did ye put it on yer chair?” Meg made a great show of examining the chair.
“Maybe ye hid it under the tray …” Meg tried to flip the tray up to be sure.
“No!” Lilibeth laughed.
“Hmm … it don’t seem ter be on the chair …” Joyce could just imagine Meg frowning in thought as she pondered her next move. “I know where it might be! I think it’s in yer dress!”
“Are ye sure?”
“Then where is it, eh?”
“In. Me. Tummy!” Lilibeth laughed.
“In yer tummy? No, it can’t be in there! Yer tummy is too small fer a big lunch like that!”
“Oh, aye, it is!” Meg chuckled. “Why, look … I can tickle yer tummy with one hand!”
The sudden shrieks emanating from Lilibeth’s direction proved to Joyce that Meg was endeavoring to prove her point using the best means available. Joyce chuckled.
It was nice to see Meg relaxing like this — with her own children, she was generally much more strict and uptight. But, as Meg had pointed out, things were different with nieces and nephews. “I know,” Joyce had replied. “Ye can get ’em right riled up, then hand ’em right back!”
Meg should have known she was walking right into that one, since Joyce was well-known for slipping Basil and now Felix sweets and sitting back to chuckle at the havoc they raised. Well, mostly Felix these days. Basil had a superior attitude toward Leah that Joyce felt ill-inclined to reward with sweets. It was something he had doubtless picked up from Cerise, and unfortunately, even though Cerise had passed over five months ago, he hadn’t unlearned that particular habit. Once he did, then Joyce could go back to spoiling her godson rotten with a clear conscience.
In the meantime, she’d just have to let Meg spoil Lilibeth rotten, and hope that everything managed to even itself out in the end.
It was an hour before Joyce, Meg, and Betsy got to sit down around the table to get to what Joyce thought was the real reason for the visit — the chat, the quiet comparison of notes from mother to daughter, from sister to sister, and from daughter to mother again. And Joyce wanted to know how Betsy was doing. She hadn’t said much during the last few months of Joyce’s pregnancy, and Joyce had let her get away with that. She also hadn’t said much in the few weeks since Cliodna had been born, and Joyce let Betsy get away with that, too. When Cliodna was in Betsy’s arms, she looked as happy as she had when Lilibeth was first put into her arms, when Basil was, when Felix was, when Lisette was. In other words, she looked like she had looked before Martin had died. Perhaps, for a few moments, she even felt that way. Joyce couldn’t take that from her.
However, she thought she was well within her rights to start asking questions after Lilibeth had been put down for her nap and Cliodna was snoozing again in her little crib. Still, Joyce would be careful. She’d start slow and lead her way into the favored topic. Hopefully Meg would play along.
“So, Ma!” Joyce started. “I want ye ter start spillin’ the beans. It’s been months an’ months since I heard from ye proper-like!”
“I — what, Joyce?” Betsy half-laughed, half-quavered.
“Ye said,” Joyce continued to accuse, making her voice as strident and petulant as she could manage, “two months ago now, that a new family moved inter yer village, from Glasonland, no less! An’ ye ain’t said nothin’ more about them!” Joyce pouted, arms crossed, and leaned back in her chair. “It ain’t fair, Ma! I’ve been starved o’ gossip in here!”
Betsy laughed. “Oh! Oh, Joyce! I thought … goodness me! I don’t know what I thought.” She shook her head. “So, ye want ter hear more about the Jagers, eh?”
“Aye, Ma, we both do,” Meg said. “There’s still barely any refugees comin’ in. I’d like ter hear more about the ones we’re gettin’.”
“Oh, that’s easy,” replied Betsy — saying far more than she knew, given the way Meg and Joyce’s eyes both slid to each other. “Well, let’s see. The family’s got a father, an’ five — five! — young kids. The eldest, a girl, let’s see, she’s about fourteen … an’ the youngest, another girl, is only fifteen months!”
“An’ the ones in between?” asked Joyce.
“All boys, an’ they’re … let’s see, Torben, the middle one, is seven, he’s closest ter Davy. An’ the other two, one is ten, an’ the other is four. Poor Roy Jager has got his hands full!”
“What happened ter their ma?” asked Meg. Joyce turned a sharp look at her sister. That was almost too pat, too perfect …
“Poor woman!” Betsy shook her head. “She died when they were fleein’ Glasonland. None o’ ’em are much on details, but poor Torben, he were talkin’ ter Davy an’ I couldn’t help but hear … she got wounded somehow, an’ the wound got infected, an’ … Lord help us all,” Betsy finished.
“How awful,” Joyce replied, since that seemed to be the bare minimum necessary … and hopefully, if Meg and Joyce were just giving the bare minimums, Betsy would keep talking and maybe forget they were there.
“Poor Roy Jager,” Betsy murmured. “Ter lose her like that … so sudden-like …”
“Out o’ nowhere,” Meg put in.
“Aye. Aye. Here one minute … the next …” Betsy paled and shook her head. “I can’t imagine.”
Joyce said nothing. What could be said? Betsy didn’t have to imagine. She’d lived that, was still living that.
“How’s he bearin’ up?” Meg asked. She nudged Joyce’s foot under the table, a hint for her to keep up her end of the conversation.
“Oh, he’s a quiet man. If ye didn’t know, ye’d never guess. But sometimes … he’ll trail off in the middle of a sentence, an’ his face will go awful blank, an’ I jest know he’s thinkin’ o’ her.”
I bet ye do, Ma …
Betsy blinked and shook her head, as if she was awakening from a doze. “I mean — goodness! What was I sayin’? How silly o’ me. O’ course I don’t know what he’s thinkin’ … I jest …” Betsy watched her daughters carefully, then she sighed, head bowing. “He looks like I feel sometimes, is all.” One eyebrow arched, and Betsy surveyed them both from her lashes. “Which is what ye were axin’, weren’t it?”
“We worry about ye, Ma,” Meg replied. She took Betsy’s hand and squeezed it. “Ye try ter carry everythin’ on yer shoulders. Ye don’t have ter. Ye’ve got me, Joyce … even Lukas.”
“Ye, Joyce, an’ Lukas all have yer own burdens ter bear. Ye don’t need mine.”
“I’d believe that, Ma,” Joyce answered, “except ye keep tryin’ ter take ours on top o’ yer own. So, the way I’m thinkin’, we’re all carryin’ a light load these days, thanks ter ye …” Joyce thought that over again, remembering how Meg’s family was still reeling from Cerise’s death, how Lukas was overwhelmed more days than not. “Well, I know I’ve got a light load these days, thanks mostly ter ye, so I can take a few pounds off yer shoulders.”
“Joyce, ye jest had a baby.”
“So? Cliodna’s me second. I ain’t half so overwhelmed an’ nervous as I was with Lilibeth. Hey!” Joyce clapped Meg on the shoulder and winked. “I even know which way is up, now, can ye believe it?”
“Each baby brings her own challenges,” Betsy replied.
“Yes, Ma. But between Berach an’ me, there ain’t nothin’ that Cliodna can do fer the next five years or so that we can’t handle. So, I can be helpin’ ye some, if ye want.”
“Helpin’ me what?” Betsy sighed.
“What about all those extra duties Sir Mordred gave ter ye?” Meg asked. “The animals, an’ the orchard, an’ the cleanin’?”
“Oh! That!” Betsy laughed. “That weren’t half so bad as I thought it would be.”
Joyce watched her mother through narrowed eyes … but Betsy seemed calm, relaxed, even genuine.
“Everyone pitches in on the orchard, since we’re divvyin’ up the crop equal-like,” Betsy went on, “an’ the latrines? I don’t have ter worry none about those. We got the privy closet in our own house, so’s I make sure we use our own chamber pots an’ our own tub, an’ we ain’t even in there fer it ter be our problem. Besides,” Betsy chuckled, “jest the other day, I saw Anja Jager marchin’ her brothers inter the latrines, scrub-brushes an’ buckets in hand! So’s I’m thinkin’ that’s all taken care o’.”
Sure it was — for now. But soon enough, the Jagers and the other families in the village would get tired of cleaning the latrines. They’d wonder why the Pelleses weren’t doing their “fair share.” They wouldn’t think that the Pelleses didn’t even use the latrines, and so were, in effect, already doing their fair share. They might even stop cleaning as a protest …
Although, the more Joyce thought about it, the more she realized that that wouldn’t last long. Nobody would want to wash up in a filthy bathhouse. Somebody would break.
But it didn’t have to last long, just long enough … long enough for Sir Mordred to catch wind of what had happened and come down on Betsy for not following his orders. It wouldn’t matter to Sir Mordred that the Pelleses didn’t use the bathhouse. It wouldn’t matter to any nobleman. If they gave an order, they expected it to be obeyed, whether or not the order made any sense.
Of course, no sooner did Joyce manage to reason that out than Meg had to go and ruin it. “Well, Joyce! That don’t sound so bad, do it? Not near as bad as Ma was fearin’.”
“We were gettin’ worried, no mistake!” laughed Meg, turning to Betsy. “After Sir Mordred’s man said all those things ye were gonna have ter do. But now it seems like ye’re jest lookin’ after the animals an’ the orchard, an’ ye’re getting a bit o’ somethin’ fer both. That’s jest paid work, that is. Don’t ye think, Ma?”
Betsy only smiled.
“Ye don’t believe a word o’ that, do ye, Ma?” Joyce asked.
“Joyce!” Meg snapped.
“She don’t! Come on, Meg! Sir Mordred’s up ter no good, an’ we all know it! We may not be able ter say it outside this house, but by St. Robert, we’ll say it in here! Sir Mordred is up ter no good, an’ we need ter be thinkin’ o’ a way ter get Ma an the boys out o’ his clutches!”
Meg rolled her eyes. “An’ how d’ye propose ter do that, Joyce? They can’t run away. Not with Bert an’ little Marty!”
“Let me talk ter Lord Pellinore. Ma,” Joyce turned to her mother, “he don’t like Sir Mordred any better than we do. Think about it! The way he treated Lady Dindrane! An’ he saw what happened at the trial, how ye were so brave an’ stuck up fer what was right, even though Sir Mordred an’ Lady Morgause were terrorizin’ ye left an’ right. An’ ye helped ter capture her! He owes ye one big, Ma. If ye say ye want out o’ Sir Mordred’s lands, if he has any honor in ‘im, he’ll help ye get out!”
“Ma! Ye –”
“No. Joyce, listen ter me. Sir Mordred is … is his mother’s son. There were a time when I thought he might end up like his father, but that time is long gone. An’ if we upset ‘im … especially if we leave ‘im … ye think fer a minute he’ll let that go? O’ course not. He’ll get even madder at us. An’ then what will we do? Then were will we go?”
“Lady Morgan! An’ Uncle Accolon!”
Betsy blanched. “An’ start a wizard’s war? Joyce, are ye mad? Those two families have been at each other’s throats fer almost twenty years! I ain’t startin’ the next battle in the war!”
“No. Joyce, ye ain’t convincin’ me. Ye think — ye think fer a minute that ye’re sayin’ anythin’ I ain’t thought? A thousand times? But I … I can’t take the risks ye’re axin’ me ter take. I’ve got ter keep the family safe. Now that yer da is gone … that comes ter me. I ain’t got no choice, girls. I’ve got ter do what’s best fer all of o’ us, in the long run.”
Meg’s jaw fell. Joyce’s eyes widened. Then Meg gulped and nodded. “All right, Ma. Ye’re right. Like ye said — ye’ve got ter to do what’s best fer everybody. An’ … an’ with any luck, an’ a little faith, everythin’ ought ter come out right in the end.”
As for Joyce, she said nothing.
For the moment.