Radenth 16, 1013
There came a point in every woman’s life when, while wiping the dog dish clean for the fifth time that week, she wondered: Is this really all there is?
Or maybe it was not every woman. Maybe it was just Rosette. Most women weren’t in her situation. Most women had a husband to keep them busy. Most women had another baby every year or two to keep them on their toes. Most women had a farm, or a shop, or a whole estate to run when their children no longer required their care at every moment of the day.
Most women had friends, a social life beyond the family …
Although Rosette told herself she was being selfish and short-sighed. She was on much better terms with her father and Pierre now, and Meg was a wonderful woman if a quiet one. She’d never quarreled with Toinette, so she was always available for companionship. Kata Thatcher, too, was very kind and … open-minded, and Rosette still liked to catch up with young Ella from time to time.
So, really, she had plenty of friends. It was just that, well … Meg worked for the Ferreiras, and had a farm to run and children to raise. Toinette had her children and the fish shop. Kata Thatcher had her son, her farm, and her midwifery. And Ella … Ella and Rosette ought to be even closer, since now Ella was indentured to Mordred and thus couldn’t fear any repercussions from him for befriending her, but whenever Mordred’s name came up in conversation, there was a light in Ella’s eyes that was half calculation …
And half fear.
When Rosette considered that, it was easier to wipe down the counters three times a day than it was to risk a friendship.
For there was no reason — none at all — that Ella of all people should be afraid of Mordred. Mordred wouldn’t … well, he had been angry with Betsy Pelles, there was no denying that. But who wouldn’t be? She’d betrayed his mother, her employer, and had stolen her magic away. Even a saint would be angry. And if Mordred had truly been as vengeful as everyone seemed to think he was, why, he would have done a lot more than simply firing Widow Pelles.
There was the house … but Rosette couldn’t imagine what was wrong with it. Maybe it wasn’t as nice and fixed-up as the old place had been: fine. But Martin Pelles had worked on that old place for twenty years before he died. Who knew what it had looked like when the Pelles family first came to it? Ella and Lukas certainly couldn’t; they hadn’t even been born yet. And Ella even admitted that the new house was much bigger than the old one. With Lukas fixing it up, getting it to the standard of their old house … what was there not to like?
Rosette moved over to the high chair and began to wipe that down. She took a deep breath. Maybe … maybe she ought to …
A knock came from the door. “Door’s open!” Rosette called over her shoulder. It was probably Toinette — her children were in school now, too, and on days when the shop wasn’t too busy, she would walk over for a chat.
The door opened … and someone who wasn’t Toinette walked in.
“Rosette …” Rosette jumped at the sound of that voice. “Far be it from me to criticize anyone on the subject of housekeeping, but Aimée hasn’t used that chair in months. How could it possibly be dirty?”
“Mordred!” Rosette gasped, spinning around. “Speak of the–”
She stopped, the word catching in her throat. Mordred’s face, at first wearing a teasing smile, closed. He was the only person Rosette knew who could make his face a perfect blank. “Speak of the …?”
Rosette tried to laugh. “It’s just — I was just thinking of you.”
“So … speak of the devil?” he asked, one eyebrow just barely arching.
“Well …” Rosette grinned timidly and crept closer to Mordred. “Isn’t that what you say when someone who you were just thinking about, or speaking about, suddenly comes into the room?”
And all of a sudden, the blankness vanished and the man who stood before her was simply her smiling Mordred. “True. I am sorry, Rosette. It’s just …” He sighed and effected a laugh. “When enough people begin to clearly see you as a devil, you start to wonder whether all think of you that way — especially your nearest and dearest.”
“Mordred! Who could think you’re a devil?”
One arched eyebrow answered that question, but Mordred tried to turn his words into a joke. “Well … you must admit that I do look the part. Tall, dark, devastatingly handsome …”
“You don’t have chicken feet,” Rosette laughed. “Or goat’s feet. And I should know that better than anyone.”
Mordred chuckled. “Indeed, you would. Although I must ask …” He cocked his head to one side. “Were you expecting someone?”
“You didn’t even answer the door …”
“Oh! I thought you were my sister!”
“Ah! Then I am sorry to disappoint.” Mordred bowed his head; Rosette smothered a laugh without much success. “However, if you are expecting her …”
“Oh, no, I’m not. It’s just that sometimes she’ll walk over when the children are at school and Grady can handle the shop. Although …” Rosette felt the corners of her mouth pulling down in a frown without consciously willing them to. “Well, that doesn’t happen as often as it used to. But that’s a good thing! It means business is picking up!”
“Business …” murmured Mordred, stroking his beard. But more than that, he wouldn’t say.
Rosette didn’t press. She had long ago learned that that would get her nowhere. So, instead, she changed the subject. “Would you like a bite to eat? I was just about to serve myself some …”
“Luncheon?” Mordred asked offhandedly.
“Er … it’s just bread and cheese …”
Mordred’s eyebrows arched again. “Rosette, I do believe that I am supporting you in better style than that.”
“Of course you are! It’s just … I have to keep my girlish figure!” Rosette laughed, even though they both knew that after three children, the first two being twins, her figure was not near as girlish as it used to be.
Mordred continued to survey her with that calculating look Rosette knew well. She tried not to flush. The truth was that still, after all these years, it felt vaguely wrong to have more than a meal of simple oats or bread and cheese in the middle of the day — something that would keep you going but wasn’t extravagant. She would feed the children all the wholesome, rich food she could: they were growing fast and needed every last bite. Her children would never know what it was like to go hungry. But she herself? Well, if she ate more than a bite of bread and cheese at lunchtime, her stomach would often feel queasy and overfull for the rest of the day.
Come to think of it — she probably could have just told Mordred the truth. The vagaries of the Sim stomach were something that no man or wizard could hope to truly understand and indeed could only accept.
Perhaps Mordred saw that on her face, for he only smiled and murmured, “And you do it so well. Very well, if you are about to eat, then I shall join you.”
Rosette grinned and ducked into the larder to get the bread and cheese. As she was laying a couple of plates on the table, Mordred added, “And by the by — I have a proposition for you, my dear.”
“Oh?” Rosette asked, head cocked to one side. “Is this anything like the last time you ‘propositioned’ me?”
“Only in that I hope this proposition is as much to our mutual satisfaction as the last one was,” Mordred chuckled. “But sit first. This is something that can easily be talked out over our meal.”
Rosette sat, wondering what this could be about. What Mordred asked was not at all what she was expecting.
“Rosette … have you ever considered becoming a shopkeeper?”
Rosette blinked. “Have I–my goodness, no! I mean …” She ducked her head and stared at her plate. “Something like … that is quite beyond my stars.”
“Is that my Rosette speaking, or the Rosette Chevaux of fifteen years ago?”
“Can’t they be one in the same?” Rosette asked.
“In theory, perhaps — but in practice, no, I do not think so. The Rosette Chevaux of fifteen years ago could speak in such terms, aye, think in such terms — but my Rosette knows better. She has seen, better than anyone else I know, that a man — or woman — can change her stars.”
Rosette ducked her head. “You flatter me.”
“I ought to. I do devote an inordinate amount of time to each day thinking of ways to accomplish that very task.” He carefully tore off a hunk of bread and a bit of cheese and popped them into his mouth. “But tell me, Rosette — why couldn’t you be a shopkeeper?”
“Well–where would I get a shop? And what would I sell? I’m not an artisan …”
“The way you decorated this apartment would speak otherwise — at least, as to your artistic talents.”
Rosette didn’t snort. That was not how you replied to one of Mordred’s compliments, especially if he meant it. “That–Mordred, that isn’t the same thing as being an artisan. What I mean is that I don’t have a trade, a craft. I … might have good taste …”
“You have excellent taste.”
“Thank you. But — but that’s not the point, not really. I might have some basic skills, and good taste, but … that’s not enough to run a shop.”
“If I am correct,” Mordred pressed, “your brother-in-law Grady has no trade, no craft — but he is able to run a shop. And to guess from what you have said about your sister, he runs it quite profitably.”
That … was true. But that was also, to Rosette’s mind, different. “He sells fish.”
“True, and I understand that you would not want to do the same thing. Certainly not from your home. But–”
Mordred’s mouth froze in mid-syllable. Then, slowly, it shut. Mordred watched Rosette narrowly.
Rosette, not knowing what he was trying to see, could only smile hesitantly.
“Perhaps …” Mordred pursed his lips together. “Perhaps I am going about this … backwards … yes. I believe I am. Rosette, are you aware that the du Lacs have built up a number of houses on Dockside Lane? All with shop space in the front?”
Rosette slowly nodded.
“One, I believe, is already being used as a boarding house for sailors and men of that … type. Another has been bought by a merchant family called the Andavris. The others are currently being rented to various shopkeepers, who may or may not be able to buy the properties. And one was just finished.”
Rosette nodded again, listening closely — and wondering what this had to do with her.
“It is a good house — I have seen it. A kitchen, a dining room, a large living room — and four bedrooms upstairs. Four large bedrooms, I might add. The twins would no longer have to share a room.”
Rosette wanted to protest, But what’s wrong with them sharing? They like it! And I shared with all my brothers and sisters growing up. But she didn’t.
“And the bedroom … well, I suppose you would call it the master bedroom … it is much bigger than the one you currently have, Rosette. And there are only two floors. You would not be constantly going up and down stairs. Plus there is … it is not a big garden, but a fenced-in garden, perfect for the children, and …” He looked over his shoulder, to where Chevy was sleeping in his basket. “The dogs as well.
“And again — there is the space for the shop. That could be quite profitable, you know.”
“But … but Mordred,” Rosette shook her head. “We have all we need here.”
Although the garden was tempting … and the idea of not spending half her life going up and down winding staircases …
“All you need? Of course you have all you need. But Rosette–what a limiting, constraining way to look at life! Why, you could have all you need in a hovel!”
Well, yes–but wasn’t that the point? To live simply, within one’s means, understanding that what was needed were not material things but rather love and companionship?
“Besides, on top of all of those amenities — this house, Rosette, would also be a marvelous investment opportunity.”
It was when Mordred said “investment opportunity” that Rosette knew she had lost.
But she felt compelled to offer her token protests anyway. “Investment?”
Mordred let both of his hands rest on the table. “I want you and the children to be … secure, in the event of … anything.”
“Mordred, what do you mean–”
“Peace.” He held up a hand. “I am a lord, Rosette. A nobleman. We, especially those who will be inheriting from our fathers, are trained to think … in a certain ways. To prepare for all contingencies. Even if–nay, especially if those contingencies are unlikely. So, you understand, if I can find a way to make assurance doubly sure — if I can invest a relatively small amount of capital now, in the surety that it will pay off later–”
“But–but how can it be sure?” Rosette swallowed. “Isn’t that–rather the point of investments? That they might pay off, but might not?”
Mordred nodded. “That is true — but this is a relatively low-risk investment. Lady Leona wants to open up shipping lanes between Albion and Simberia. When that happens, the docks will be built up — even more than they already are — and the price of land in the area will increase. The du Lacs know that, you see. That’s why they’re building now and renting — they know the value of the land will only go up. And along with that, there are any incidental profits you might make from the shop.”
“Mordred, I don’t–”
He held up his hand again. “And if you find that the shop does not work out as well as you wanted it to … why, you can rent out the shop space to some merchant who wants the prime location but cannot afford the house. And either way, you will turn a profit.”
“But … wouldn’t you want return on the investment?” Rosette asked, her last desperate ploy.
Mordred shrugged. “First of all, the investment is not for me — it is for the children. For their security. Secondly, since the shop is likely to be profitable, one way or another, that would mean that you are able to cover more of your living expenses yourself — which means I do not have to.”
He had an excellent point. Rosette felt her cheeks start to burn. She hated to be a burden … a burden Mordred had willingly taken up, true, but a burden nonetheless. And the children … Mordred was already talking about sending them to the Emrys’s school when they were old enough, and Rosette knew that would be an expense. There were also … well … his legitimate children to think about. And his estate … no wonder Mordred wanted to make Rosette as self-sufficient as possible. It would be one less drain on his purse.
“I still don’t know what I would sell, though,” Rosette muttered. “Or–well, I could ask Toinette for tips on how to go about selling things.”
“Indeed you could. And … if you would take a suggestion from me … I was thinking cloth, myself.”
Rosette tilted her head to one side. “Aren’t the Ferreiras already doing that?”
“Not in the way I am thinking. You see, they sell the silks, the velvets, the fine linen and wool — the costly stuff. And let us not forget that they also make many of the outfits for the highest of the high themselves. Whereas you would sell the middle-grade stuff, the type that people will buy because they cannot afford it and do not wish to go through the trouble to make it themselves. And you would not make the clothing — I think that would get you into trouble with …”
Rosette stopped listening. She had started thinking.
Mordred said she wouldn’t make the clothing herself — but — well, that would take would too much time away from the children. Especially since she would be doing it all herself.
But Rosette had a good eye. She knew that. She had good taste, too. And the last time Toinette had been over …
“Rosette?” Mordred asked. “Is something amiss?”
Rosette jumped. She must have been staring into space for some time.
“I–Mordred, would you excuse me? I’ll be right back.” And as soon as he had nodded his dismissal, Rosette was off and racing up the spiraling stairs.
It was a mad idea. But when she had shown it to Toinette, Toinette had gasped. She’d wanted to look at the patterns Rosette had used, so she could make one for herself. She’d liked it.
And so Rosette thought … well, she couldn’t make all the clothes herself. But she could help other women decide what clothes to make for themselves. Women who were used to hand-sewing every last item in their wardrobes. Women who might want a little bit of luxury, but who could never afford to have a dress custom-made by the Ferreiras.
Women like Toinette. Women like Rosette.
So Rosette got what she needed, made sure everything looked good, and raced down the stairs again. “We-ell?” she asked, stopping at the foot of the stairs to grin at Mordred. “What do you think?”
Mordred blinked. Slowly, he stood.
“You’re–you’re right,” she stammered. “I couldn’t make all the clothes myself. But maybe — maybe I could help other women make clothes for themselves. And perhaps measure them and make the tricky things, like the bodices, for them. And then — surely they’d come to me, wouldn’t they? Not just for themselves, but for their families. I could even help them design things that would be darling for their children …”
She stopped. Mordred was grinning.
“I knew you would come around,” he chuckled.
Rosette flushed and shrugged. “I suppose — I always have.”
“Indeed. However, I must admit, I had no idea that you would look so ravishing while doing so.” Mordred crossed the distance between them in a few short strides and caught her by the waist.
“So I fear, my dear, that leaves me nothing do to but ask — what are the odds, you think, of me getting this off you, and then back on again, before the children come home from school?”
Rosette laughed. “I think we’ve got an even chance. But — let me get it back on again, Mordred. I think I’ll have an easier time with the ties.”
Mordred grinned and dipped her. “As my lady wishes.”