Hybel 11, 1014
Heloise stared out the large window smack in the middle of Babette’s living room. Why was she here? Well, she knew the ostensible reason: she was home for Agnestide. She was staying with her father and Joshua, but she could hardly be home for a full month without visiting Babette. And her babies.
But spending a whole day? What had she been thinking?
Heloise shook her head and sighed, blowing air from her mouth and nostrils like an irritated horse. She was being mean, but considering this was the inside of her own head, she supposed she was allowed.
She missed Babette when she didn’t see her for months and months. She’d missed her when she was at Camford getting her education, and she missed her now. There was nothing quite like a sister — somebody you had known from infancy, another woman with the exact blood and background you had. There was no substitute for that shared bond, those shared memories.
However, a shared bond and shared memories didn’t necessarily lead to understanding each other. Heloise was humble enough, or at least self-aware enough, to admit that. Babette …
“Hellooo, Elen! Did you miss Mummy?”
Heloise crossed her arms over her chest and watched her sister with her pretty blond baby. Babette doted on Elinor — and Morien — but that was only to be expected. Adults seemed to pose a challenge to Babette, and so did older children, but give her a baby, toddler, small child, or small animal, and she was in heaven. She’d always been the maternal one, even when they were little. Babette cradled her dolls and called them her babies. When Heloise played with dolls, she reenacted famous scenes from history and literature.
The only commonality was that each sister considered it her god-given right to have the other sister play with her. And each assumed that the play would occur according to her terms. And each was willing to defend her way of play to the death … or, more practically, to the point where Helena heard them shouting at each other and broke them up, threatening to take the dolls away from both of them if they didn’t behave themselves.
“There’s my sweet baby,” Babette murmured, kissing the coif that covered Elinor’s head. Heloise knew why Elinor was wearing a coif even though the weather was hot and the poor baby might be sweltering in it: she’d recently had what little hair she had grown since being born all fall out, and Babette, panicking, had started putting a coif on her to cover it up. Heloise couldn’t understand that. She’d spent enough time with Darius, Baby Belle, Stevie, Morien, and Maude to realize that babies lost their hair sometimes. And then it grew back. Seriously, unless the kid was five and bald for reasons that did not include pitch or syrup or an illness that required it all to be shaved off, there was no reason to worry.
“Oooh, look!” Babette crooned. Heloise froze and looked around. “Auntie Heloise wants to say hello!”
The idea of saying “hello,” or anything at all, to an infant who couldn’t understand was ludicrous. However, the idea of explaining that to Babette was headache-inducing. Heloise meandered over and waved to Elinor. “Hello, Elinor.”
“You can’t talk to her like that!” Babette gasped.
“… Like what?”
“You sound like you’re talking to an adult,” Babette sniffed. “That’s not how you talk to a baby.”
“It’s how I talked to Darius,” Heloise shrugged. “He seems to have turned out all right.”
“But it now you’re Elinor’s favorite aunt. So you have to step up if you want to keep that title!”
Heloise turned to Babette with raised eyebrows. “Really.”
“Of course really! Who else do you think would be her favorite aunt?”
“Her godmother, perhaps?” Heloise asked. “Was it Dilys or Delyth? I always get those two mixed up.”
“It was Dindrane, and I can’t see how you could possibly mix her up with the twins!”
“Huh,” Heloise remarked. Why had she thought it was one of the twins?
Probably because Aglovale was closer in age to them. But now that she examined it, that was a faulty assumption if there ever was one. Aglovale had the type of by-the-books mentality that would require him to ask his eldest sister to be a godmother before he asked his younger sisters. And since Babette and Aglovale clearly had some kind of a deal to alternate when it came to godparents — Lamorak was Morien’s godfather, Heloise his godmother, and Joshua was Elinor’s godfather — it seemed Delyth and Dilys might be waiting a while to get their chance at being godparents.
“Do you teach them?” asked Babette.
“Dilys and Delyth!”
“Oh. No, I don’t. Or at least, I didn’t. They weren’t in any of my classes last term.”
“And next term?”
Heloise shrugged. “They didn’t sign up before I left for Agnestide. But they can still switch if they go to the registrar. They can even do that up to a week after classes start.”
“Well, they ought to take your classes!” Before Heloise could let her heart warm from the implied compliment, Babette said what she was really thinking. “You’ll give them top marks, and that ought to give them a nice cushion for other classes!”
Heloise’s jaw fell. “No.”
“I don’t give students top marks,” Heloise snarled. “They earn them. And most of them don’t.”
“But … but they’re family!” Babette stammered. “Through me!”
“All the more reason not to give them top marks unless they’ve earned them. My Mother Superior would go through the roof if she heard I was doctoring grades because students were related to me.”
“But … why?”
Heloise looked up. Babette’s lambent blue eyes were wide, her head tilted a little to one side, her cupid-bow lips caught in a cross between a pout and a frown. It was only the fact that the cross was a little closer to the “frown” side that told Heloise that the question was genuine.
She sighed, barely avoiding running a hand over her face. How to even begin to explain …
Better to change the subject. “Is her face supposed to look like that?”
Babette gasped and looked at Elinor. “She –” She narrowed her eyes. “Oh, Heloise! She’s just sleepy.” She brought Elinor up to her shoulder and kissed her head again. “Silly Auntie Heloise! She scared Mama, Elen! You tell her not to be naughty like that!”
Heloise rolled her eyes and wandered over to see what the only other intelligent person in the room — Morien — was doing.
Maybe that was unfair. Elinor was too little to make any definitive judgements about her intelligence — no matter what mothers liked to say about their babies. She could grow up to be smart … hopefully smarter than her mother. She’d do quite well even if she only got the average of Babette and Aglovale’s intelligence.
Morien, on the other hand, managed to get either all of either the Wesleyan or Gwynedd intelligence — Heloise couldn’t tell which. She also wasn’t certain it mattered. Both families had produced some formidable brains … and unfortunately some formidable duds.
“Auntie?” Morien asked, looking up at her and putting his horse to the side.
“Hey, kid.” Heloise flopped down on the floor, not particularly caring what it did to her skirt. Babette wasn’t much of a housekeeper herself, and it wouldn’t surprise Heloise if she had problems holding on to maids.
“Auntie play?” asked Morien, picking his horse up again and holding it toward Heloise.
“Sure thing. What are we playing?”
“Nights?” asked Heloise. “But that’s time for you to be asleep! Are we going to be pretending to go to bed?” Heloise made a pillow of her hands and pretended to snore.
Morien frowned. He had his father’s frown, most definitely. “No!”
“No? But you said we’re playing nights!”
“What do you mean, wrong night? There’s only one kind of night! It’s the time when the moons and the stars all come out, and everybody has to go to sleep.”
“Kid, you’re going to have to do better than that if you’re going to prove me wrong.”
“Oh, for heaven’s sake, Heloise,” sighed Babette as she swished past them on her way to the other window seat , the one that was intelligently placed, giving out onto a pretty view of the herb garden (and then, admittedly, the wall to the fortress), not a front-row seat to the neighbors’ living room. “Don’t antagonize him.”
“I am not antagonizing him. Morien, am I antagonizing you?”
“Heloise! He’s not going to know what that means!”
Babette was right: Morien was staring at Heloise with his little nose wrinkled and his eyes narrowed. “Ant …”
“Antagonize. An-tag-on-ize. Come on, try it, kid.”
Morien narrowed his eyes even more. “An …”
“He’s too young for this,” Babette protested.
“You’re never too young to learn new vocabulary,” Heloise retorted. Or too old. “Come on, Morien. I heard you said just this morning, ‘I want cookies!’ and that’s got the same number of syllables. An-tag-on-ize.”
“An-tag-on-ize,” Morien repeated.
“Good. Now say it again.”
Babette sniffed, and Heloise could almost hear her rolling her eyes as well. “He still won’t know what it means.”
That was a point, but Morien was already looking between his mother and Heloise. “What it mean?” he asked.
Oh, he was a really sharp one. He was going to be running rings around Babette before he was five. “It means to bother. Annoy.”
“Oooh.” Morien knit his little brows together. “An-tag-on-ize.”
“And before you can even think too hard about it, no, you’re not allowed to do it to your sister.”
“Heloise!” Babette snapped.
“Now what?” Heloise rolled her eyes. Morien laughed.
“You’re giving him ideas!”
Heloise’s eyebrows went up. She glanced between Babette and her son. “St. Robert on a llama–”
“Don’t swear in front of the babies!”
“Oh for goodness–” Heloise started, and stopped. She took a deep breath. She didn’t want to have to deal with Aglovale or the Gwynedds if Morien decided to let that little phrase drop at an inopportune moment. Though, who knew? They might even think it was funny. Lamorak and Rob had always gotten along well, and the idea of someone completely humorless getting along with Rob was about as preposterous as the thought of … well, St. Robert on a llama. “Fine. Uncle Robert on a llama.”
Babette’s mouth opened. It shut. “You know what?” she sighed. “I think it’s nap time.”
“Noooo!” cried Morien.
“Hey, I’m with the kid! Don’t punish him because you’re pi–antagonized by me,” Heloise amended, winking at Morien.
Morien laughed. “Antagonize!”
“I am not doing that because you’re annoying me.” Babette rolled her eyes as she picked up Morien. “I’m doing it because it’s nap time. And that’s the end of that.”
That was the end of that. She sailed off with Morien struggling in her arms without another word.
“Damn,” Heloise muttered as soon as she thought Babette was out of earshot.
“How the he–heck did you hear that?”
“UGH!” Babette called from the top of the stairs. “I’m a mother! I have eyes in the back of my head and hearing sharper than a dog’s!”
We’ll see about that, Heloise thought as she flashed her sister a rude gesture. Just as Heloise suspected, Babette didn’t say anything.
Good Lord, what is wrong with me? Heloise shook her head. This was why she stopped missing Babette after not very long in her company. Her sister made her heart bubble over in anger and turned her brain to mush. She could forgive the first offense, but the second?
But now Heloise was alone again … except for a gurgle that reminded her of the presence of the only other person in the room. She headed for the cradle. “Hello, Elinor,” she said, pulling her niece out.
Elinor, Heloise realized, was at the perfect baby-age. She was no longer so little that Heloise was afraid to touch her too much and accidentally break her. But she wasn’t big enough to have grown a mind of her own or the motor skills to make her will known. The worst she could do was kick a bit, and maybe blow a spit-bubble and laugh when it popped.
“You are a cute one,” Heloise murmured. “I don’t care if you’re balder than a cue-ball. I know your mother thinks it’s a big deal, but I wouldn’t listen to her if …”
Heloise hesitated. Is that what she really wanted to say? Sow the seeds of antagonism between mother and daughter? When Heloise still regretted all those years, all the bickering and arguing that had passed between her and her mother?
“Oh, boy, kid,” Heloise muttered, bringing Elinor up to her shoulder. Elinor nuzzled against her dress. Heloise really hoped that wasn’t a sign of hunger, because there was nothing she could do about that … and she really didn’t want to have to explain to Babette why she only had to hold Elinor for five minutes to make her start crying.
“Look, I don’t know what to tell you about your mother. You would think I would be able to tell it to you straight, but …” She bounced Elinor gently. Elinor squirmed. “My mother — your grandmother — and I, we didn’t exactly have the best relationship. Don’t get me wrong, we loved each other … and sometimes I think of some of my friends — all right, one of my friends — and … well, maybe I don’t have a right to complain. Or maybe I do. You only get one mother, and I don’t think it’s fair that you’re saddled with that relationship when you’re too young to know your ass from your elbow and it’s too easy for you to screw things up.”
“Glad you brought that up. No, seriously …” Heloise bounced Elinor a bit more. “I think we both know — or at least I know — that your mother is dumber than a post. But –”
“I beg your pardon?”
Heloise looked up. How the hell had she not heard the door open? “Oh. Hello, Aglovale.”
He didn’t look happy.
“What are you telling my daughter?” Aglovale asked, stomping closer, his chain maille jingling with every step. Elinor looked up and tried to squirm around. Heloise shifted her so she could see Aglovale — and to hear Elinor coo when she saw her father was enough to soften even Heloise’s prickly heart.
It even made Aglovale stop in his tracks and smile slightly. He tickled Elinor under the chin, but though she reached for him, he didn’t take her from Heloise. And it didn’t take long for him to resume glaring at Heloise.
Heloise put Elinor back in her cradle, where she started to fuss a little. Then she turned back to her brother-in-law. “Yes?”
“I would appreciate it,” said Aglovale, “if you didn’t say things like that around my children.”
Heloise’s eyebrows arched skyward. She always thought that Aglovale had the measure of Babette. Had she been wrong?
Or … was that not the issue at all?
Heloise shrugged. Did it matter? Was it a battle she even wanted to fight? “I don’t say things like that around Morien. And I was talking more to myself than to Elinor.”
“Still. Babette is still her mother.”
Ah. So Aglovale did have the measure of Babette. He just didn’t want anyone else to. That made a certain amount of sense. Henry was in some ways too impatient and prickly to be a truly good teacher. He could be a wonderful mentor to those students who were brilliant enough to appreciate and reflect his brilliance, but he lacked the ability to make his lessons clear to the dimmest, most guttering candles in his classroom. Heloise knew this. Heloise had even pointed it out, as gently as she could, to Henry once. He’d even agreed. But if anyone else said that about Henry … well, to say that Heloise would scratch their eyes out would be a far too charitable description of the consequences of her aggression.
The only difficulty, unfortunately, was that she couldn’t say this to Aglovale without spilling the beans about her and Henry.
So she kept it short and simple. “All right. I won’t.”
When you’re around, at least.
“Thank you,” Aglovale nodded.
“Though I thought I could give her some advice,” Heloise added. “About getting along with a mother who’s different from you. And appreciating her … while you can.”
Aglovale winced, and no wonder — she’d probably touched a sore spot, given that Elinor was named in equal parts after Helena and Pellinore. But what he said was, “We don’t know that Elinor will be much different than her mother.”
“Oh, good Lord. Don’t even entertain the possibility that she isn’t! Let me have some hopes for my niece.”
Aglovale ground his teeth. “Heloise …”
“Hey. She’s my sister. And I know what she’s like.” Heloise shrugged. “Besides, if she is like her, that might lead to more fights than if they were different.”
Aglovale blinked. Then the only reply he could give to her was a shrug.
But that was Aglovale, wasn’t it? If there was ever a man who would understand the twisted threads that made up the relationship between mother and daughter — or even sister and sister — it wouldn’t be Aglovale. He didn’t have the imagination to put himself into someone else’s shoes like that. And more importantly, as far as Heloise could see, Aglovale’s sisters all got along, more or less, with his mother.
So they stared at each other in mutual discomfort for a few minutes, both desperately trying to think of something to say. Then Babette came downstairs and solved that problem for them.
“Good Lord, what is that smell?”
“I … don’t know?” Heloise replied. She sniffed, and — ugh! “What is that?” Heloise asked.
“Well, let’s see …” Babette shoved past Heloise and brought Elinor — or, more precisely, Elinor’s behind — up to her nose. “Whew! It seems like someone needs a change!”
“Ah,” was Aglovale’s only reply. Heloise decided to take refuge in silence.
“And you two …” Babette shook her head and clucked her tongue while she walked to the stairs. “Honestly! For two such smart people, you can be really dumb sometimes!”
Aglovale said nothing. So did Heloise. But she wondered if her thought was loud enough for Babette’s stronger-than-a-dog hearing.
Damn it, I hate it when she’s right.