Lenona 22, 1013
“Happy birthday, Lynn!”
Lynn barely had time to brace herself for the tackle-cum-hug that came from her sister. But once braced, her only reply was a chuckle. “Thank you.”
Clarice pulled away with a wide grin. “You look lovely! Twenty-six seems to be agreeing with you!”
“Oh, stop,” Lynn laughed. “I look the same as I did yesterday.”
There was a joke waiting to be made about that being wonderful news for an old lady of twenty-six. It didn’t escape from Clarice. Maybe she didn’t even think of it. The Ferreiras, Freddy especially, were wonderful people, but they didn’t have the same appetite for jocularity that the Pendragons had. Kay had made dozens of “old man” cracks on Tommy’s twenty-sixth birthday, until Arthur had given him a smack on the back of the head and asked if Tommy was old, what that made him.
Tommy’s reply to that had been, “Ancient history!” followed by a swift retreat from the room. Kay had followed him, probably so his father wouldn’t see just how hard he was laughing.
Arthur, meanwhile, had looked at Lynn, rolled his eyes, and said, “Well, at least Tom took the trouble to marry an adult, even if he couldn’t trouble himself to be one, despite the fact that he’s attained the ripe old age of twenty-six.”
You couldn’t live long with a family like that before getting an ear for those kinds of jokes, even if you didn’t quite have the courage to make them yourself.
“I mean it!” Clarice insisted. “You look wonderful today, Lynn. I take it the day is going well?”
Lynn blushed and stared at her feet. “Well …”
“Let’s just say … I had a very good morning.” For once — one day out of the year — Lynn didn’t have to poke and prod her husband to get him to wake up. He’d woken up easily and happily. Of course, getting him out of bed was another matter entirely … but Lynn hadn’t been that eager to get out of bed herself. The servants were told not to disturb them until they rang, which they did, about an hour after they woke, for breakfast in bed.
With breakfast had come Bonnie, the children’s nurse, and Vanessa, carrying Wart and Elise respectively. So the children had crawled around the bed, being fed a very messy breakfast (Wart was enjoying every solid or quasi-solid food he could get his little hands on), and Elise, after whispered instructions from her father, had crawled up to Lynn, whispered, “Happy birfday, Mama,” and given her a kiss on the cheek.
“Ah, that kind of good morning. All is explained.” Clarice hooked her arm through Lynn’s. “We should probably get inside before you give me all the gory details.”
“Clarice! I am not giving you all the gory details!”
“I meant what Tommy gave you for your birthday present, of course!” Clarice batted her lashes at Lynn. “Whyever did you think I–”
Lynn gasped and jumped back from the doorway.
“Oh …” Clarice said. “Did I somehow forget to mention the birthday party I was throwing for you?”
Lynn looked around the room. There was Dannie, and Garnet, and Jessie, and — “Heloise!” Lynn gasped.
“Happy birthday!” was Heloise’s reply.
“I–I didn’t even know you were in Albion!” She turned a half-shocked, half-reproachful glance to Dannie. “Why didn’t you tell me Heloise was in Albion?”
“Because that would spoil the surprise, silly,” Dannie laughed.
Lynn blinked. “You … you came all the way from Camford for me?”
“Why not?” Heloise shrugged. A reaction she had never expected from Heloise — the Heloise she had known at Camford had been about as attracted to parties as a cat was to water. And they had only lived in the same house for six months together, too! “Mother Superior was happy enough to let me go once I told her I was invited for a Crown Princess’s birthday party. Oh, by the way, if you’ve got any money that you don’t know what to do with, we’d really appreciate a donation. I think I may have, um, inadvertently left visions of patronage dancing in Mother Superior’s mind …”
“Inadvertently!” Garnet gasped. She smacked Heloise’s arm. “Don’t lie to Lynn on her birthday!”
“And don’t hit her up for money, either!” Dannie added.
“I’m … I’m sure I can arrange a gift,” Lynn murmured. Something small, something that would be difficult to notice. Arthur was still feuding with the Order of St. Robert, so anything that would show up on paper was out of the question. But how else to help Heloise?
She caught Jessie’s eye, who winked and mouthed, We’ll talk later. Lynn breathed a sigh of relief. Thank you.
“Here–a drink for the birthday girl!” Clarice hooked her arm into Lynn’s again and half-dragged her to the bar. “Gaulish white wine!” She poured a goblet and handed it to Lynn with a flourish before pouring a few more for the other young women.
Lynn took an appreciative sip. “I can’t believe that Baron Ferreira can still get this.”
“They’ve opened up a route through Simspain,” Heloise replied.
Lynn looked at her in some surprise. So did everyone else.
Heloise grabbed a goblet for herself and started sipping. “What? You haven’t heard?” A series of heads shaking. “The Gauls are treating with the Smoors. It’s all anybody in Camford has been talking about for weeks.”
“Anybody?” Dannie asked with a raised eyebrow.
“Well, all right, the students don’t much care — except for those from Simspain and Gaul, of course. But the Order of St. Robert has been sh–er, spitting fire about it. If I have to listen to one more sermon about the sinfulness of treating with infidels, I think I’m going to scream.”
“You — you don’t agree?” Lynn asked hesitantly. Her eyes went to Jessie. Jessie had a much better head for politics than she had. But Jessie was only watching Heloise with an expression of carefully neutral, borderline merely polite, interest.
Jessie was not only politely interested. Lynn knew this. She wouldn’t be surprised if Jessie made an excuse to go back with her after the party, and then spend the next hour or two holed up with her father and her brother.
“Aye,” said Clarice, taking up the line of questioning. “Weren’t the Glasonlanders still launching crusades against them only a few years ago?”
“Aye, that’s how Cressida’s husband was killed,” Dannie answered. When Heloise started and looked at her, Dannie rolled her eyes. “Her first husband.”
“Oh–right. Well, the Glasonlanders aren’t launching any crusades now. And from what I can hear, the Gaulish aren’t interested in losing battles.” Heloise shrugged.
“They probably don’t want a two-front war,” Jessie murmured.
All eyes in the room swiveled to Jessie. Jessie crossed her arms. “It’s what has kept my father up nights for years.”
“What, you mean other than your brothers?” Dannie mock-gasped. If it was meant to lighten the mood, it didn’t quite.
But Jessie did chuckle. “Indeed. Other than them.” She tapped Heloise’s shoulder. “But you didn’t say. How’s the feeling at Camford about this?”
“Are you joking?” Heloise laughed, just in case Jessie wasn’t. “We’re a bunch of scholars and theologians! As long as we get plenty of candles, plenty of books and parchment and pens and ink, and somebody remembers to feed us every now and then, who cares?”
That … could not possibly be right. Lynn bit her lower lip. Certainly the people in minor orders, like Heloise, might not be overly concerned. And perhaps there were other orders that did not worry overmuch about the situation in Simspain and Smooria. But the Order of St. Robert must care. They must care deeply. And anyone who wanted any power in the Church — which required being on good terms with the Order of St. Robert — would care too.
Luckily Garnet said as much, so Lynn didn’t have to. “Heloise! You’re a stone’s throw away from the seat of the Church! Of course people care!”
“Well …” Heloise shrugged. “There’s a lot of whispering, of course. I’m sure battle lines are being drawn somewhere. But … well, Mother Superior says that this sort of thing happens all the time. The higher-ups get into a dust up about something or other, and they play their power games, and eventually somebody wins and somebody loses and life continues on as normal for the rest of us. Besides, this is nothing compared to how mad everyone was with you lot this Darid past.”
“Mad with us?” Jessie asked, smoothly stepping between Lynn and Heloise. She smiled her most sunny, brilliant, and patently false smile. “Whyever for?”
“Jessie, don’t play dumb, you’re not that good of an actress,” Heloise snorted. “Your father cut off half of the Robertians’ money. They’re not going to forgive that any time soon.” Heloise drained her cup. “Especially since the Remans one-upped him by confiscating all the money that was due to go out once they got the news of what your father said. They might have negotiated with your father and gotten him to let him have their money again — but the Remans? They might say they took it for ‘safekeeping,’ but we know that the only place that money is going is right into the Emperor’s coffers. What everybody is trying to figure out is how the Remans found out so fast.”
Lynn was careful to take a long draught of her wine — the better to hide her face. She knew how the Remans had found out. Tommy had held a special meeting with the Reman envoys — as a “diplomatic courtesy” — to let them know, officially, what Arthur had said and what he had threatened. Of course, once the knowledge was officially off, Reman couriers had gotten that news to the capital post-haste. Plenty of Reman roads were still good, and their couriers were still the fastest in the world. Once the Emperor had gotten the news, it would have only taken a few weeks for it — and his orders to confiscate the money — to spread across the Empire.
“Great,” Dannie muttered. Lynn turned to her with a raised eyebrow.
“Well, you know where the money to replace the Robertians’ lost funding is going to come from, aye?” Dannie asked. She took a long sip of her wine. “Us.”
“Oh, dear,” Lynn murmured. She was half-amazed at herself for having the courage to say that much.
“How?” Clarice asked. “We haven’t got any Robertians here. I don’t even know if the King would allow a monastery, given how sour their relations are.” Clarice looked to Lynn, as if asking for confirmation. She would have done better to look to Jessie.
“Doesn’t matter. They simply make the other orders — the Pascalians, the Coralites, all the rest — pay more, and where’s that money going to come from? Us,” Dannie repeated.
“How? They can’t raise tithes,” Garnet pointed out, as Lynn sidled through the other women to get to the bar and pour herself another drink.
“No — but they can raise everything else. Baptismal fees, burial fees, marriage fees — and it would not surprise me if suddenly penances started to include a lot more ‘donations,” Dannie scoffed. She blinked. “You’re all looking at me like you’re shocked. Come on — when do the high and mighty ever pay for their own setbacks? They always find a way to squeeze it out of the least and littlest.”
Lynn hesitated, her hand on her goblet, body half-bent over the bar. It was true, wasn’t it? Whenever his financial difficulties got too much, her own father always wanted to raise rents and taxes. It was only Lancelot who stopped him, and that was because he somehow could show Bors that raising taxes to the levels he thought would be proper would only make him poorer over time. Lynn still didn’t understand how it was that Lancelot managed to win those battles.
She looked around the rest of the women at the party. Clarice’s face was pale — paler than usual. Garnet’s mouth was frozen into a wide O. Even Heloise looked surprised. Only Jessie declined to show any reaction, and she was surveying her nails with wholly uncharacteristic interest, effectively hiding her face from close scrutiny.
Lynn slowly meandered back around the bar, goblet in hand. Jessie came up to the bar, took an empty goblet, and poured herself some cider that Clarice had left out. They both went back to stand by Dannie and Garnet.
“But why are we talking about this?” Dannie tried to laugh. “Come on, it’s Lynn’s birthday! This is supposed to be a happy occasion!”
It wasn’t quite enough to lighten the mood. The women still nervously sipped and nervously stared at each other. They were like children, Lynn thought, children who had looked on helplessly while their older brother broke a vase, and now knew they were all going to be punished for it.
Jessie tossed her cider down her throat. “Well — not to take the focus off you for your birthday, Lynn — but I think I have some good news. Seems that Will gave me a birthday present about two weeks late — and I’ll have it ready for him about three months after his birthday.”
Lynn put that together. A present Jessie would have to work on for … nine months …
“Jessie!” Garnet gasped. She leaped closer and hugged her cousin. “Your baby — my baby — or your babies –”
“Don’t even say that!” Jessie held up her hands. “One set of twins is enough!”
“Oh, stop, Jess,” Dannie slung her arm over Jessie’s shoulder. “There can never be too many twins!”
“You say that after you’ve shoved a pair of them out!”
“All right,” Heloise muttered, “if we’re going to start talking about babies and getting them out, I’m going to need another drink. Or another dozen drinks.”
“Oh, don’t say that, Heloise,” Lynn interrupted. “It’s not as bad as it’s made out to be. Truly!”
“Yes, it is!” Jessie protested. “Don’t listen to her!”
“You’re just saying that because you had twins on the first try,” Dannie scoffed.
“And you’re wondering why I’m hoping for one baby on the second!”
“The first time is always the hardest,” Clarice added. “At least — that’s what all the literature says.”
“And when are you intending to find that out for yourself, hmm?” Dannie asked, winking at Lynn. “My mother isn’t going to be satisfied with the one baby from you before long!”
“Oh, Freddy and I aren’t trying until Colin is a year old!” Clarice gasped. “That’s what all the best advice says.”
“Morgan says the same thing,” Jessie agreed.
Lynn froze. How would Clarice react to that? She wouldn’t blame her sister for being offended, since Jessie seemed to think that Morgan’s opinion superseded all of the best medical advice …
Clarice did indeed toss her drink down her throat. But when she spoke, it was to Jessie, and taking offense didn’t seem to be in her thoughts. “Jessie … do you think maybe Lady Morgan would … would like to talk to me, sometime? I’d — I’d love to consult her opinion on some … things …”
“Clarice!” Garnet laughed. “As if you’d have to ask Jessie about that! Morgan would love to talk to you.”
“Aye!” Jessie chuckled. “She’d love to have someone to talk to about healing. Garnet and I …”
“Run from the room with our hands over our mouths?” Garnet asked. “Faint? Cover our ears and go, ‘La la la la la, can’t hear you’?”
“Something like that,” Jessie laughed.
“Besides — you shouldn’t be asking us, you should ask your brother-in-law instead,” Garnet pointed out. “He’s just as likely to get you an audience with his girlfriend’s mother as we are.”
Clarice blinked and cocked her head to one side. But it was Dannie whose reaction was the best. “Wait — what?”
Jessie and Garnet both turned to her with open mouths. “You didn’t know?” asked Jessie.
“No, I didn’t know! I don’t even know what I don’t know! What the hell has Georgie-porgie gotten himself into this time?”
“He’s courting Ravenna,” Jessie replied. “It’s been going on for months. Since –” And then, for some unaccountable reason, she froze.
Garnet took up the thread as smoothly as if she and Jessie had rehearsed this. “Since the Day of the Dead — or about there. George … well, George finally realized that what he’d been looking for had been under his nose the whole time. But they kept it quite for a while, because of Delyth.”
“Aye,” Jessie agreed. “Garnet didn’t even find out until she got back from her trip, did you, Garnet?”
“Indeed!” Garnet agreed.
Dannie, however, looked between the two of them, jaw fallen, eyes wider than Lynn had ever seen them. “That little sh–piece of–boy!” Dannie finally settled. “I’m gonna kick his ass next time I see him!”
“Why wouldn’t he tell us?” Clarice asked, biting her lip.
“Because he’s a stupid–boy, that’s why!” Dannie sighed, throwing her hands into the air. “And Mum and Dad are taking him out today! How much do you all want to bet — how much — that he won’t even say a word to my parents about this today?”
“You don’t think …” Jessie bit her lip. “Delyth is Lord Pellinore’s daughter, and her sister and my brother–”
“And Ravenna is your cousin, Jessie — my parents are going to be thrilled. No, that’s not why he’s not telling! Little — little — ugh!”
“Just say it, Dannie,” Garnet advised. “We’ve all got brothers here.”
“Hear, hear!” Heloise raised her glass. “And these two,” Heloise nodded to Lynn and Clarice, “have Sir Elyan as a brother!”
“That little asshole!” Dannie shouted. It probably wasn’t as strong as what Dannie wanted, and it still made Lynn and Clarice both blush. But it seemed to do the trick. Dannie took a deep breath. “That’s better.”
Jessie chuckled. “And on that note …” She slipped her wand from her sleeve and waved it at the harp near the window.
Delicate music wafted through the room. Lynn felt her head start to nod in time to the beat.
Jessie grinned and spirited the wand back up her sleeve. “It’s Lynn’s party. Let’s spend it in a way that will make her happy, aye?”
And they suited the action to the word.