Hybel 21, 1014
“Well,” said Kata, leaning back against the gunny sacks she had piled into a makeshift chair, complete with backrest. She busily clacked her knitting needles together. “This is nice, ain’t it?”
“Says you,” muttered Rhoslyn as she continued to grind the herbs down to powder.
Kata barely bit back a snicker. Rhoslyn could be a right pain in the arse at times: she had a mind of her own and now that she was out of the nunnery, she didn’t care who knew it. But Kata liked that about her. It was good to see someone so young who thought for herself.
It also made her far too much fun to tease.
“Now, now,” Kata mock-scolded. “Ye know that’s an important part of yer ‘prenticeship — learnin’ the trade from the ground up. Why, if ye were ‘prenticed ter a painter, ye’d be learnin’ how to mix paints. ‘Prenticed to a seamstress an’ ye’d be spinnin’ thread an’ learnin’ jest how a loom works. An’ so on.” Kata let the click-click-click of her knitting needles count the seconds as they passed. “I don’t know why ye’d think bein’ a midwife would be any different.”
“I think the only reason why I’m doing this is that you don’t want to,” returned Rhoslyn. She straightened and wipe her brow. “Phew!”
Her face was awfully red. Kata couldn’t be sure if it was the exertion or something else. Rhoslyn had pale, translucent skin that burned if the sun looked at it funny. None of her her children had had that problem. Kata felt herself start to frown. “Ye know, if ye get too hot, ye move right inter the shade. Ye ain’t gettin’ out o’ the grindin’, but I don’t want ye burnin’ inter a lobster ter do it.”
“Nah, I’m fine.” Rhoslyn was back to grinding. “‘Sides, there’s a nice breeze coming off the water.”
The ocean? But the ocean was miles away. Then Kata looked in the direction Rhoslyn was facing. “The pond?”
Rhoslyn shrugged. “Yup.”
“Rhoslyn! Ye don’t get a cool breeze off a pond ye can’t even drown in!”
“Well, there’s definitely a breeze coming from that direction,” Rhoslyn shrugged. “And sure you could drown in it.”
“Oh, don’t ye start!” Kata waved a knitting needle at the back of Rhoslyn’s head. “I don’t know what’s up with ye kids an’ yer — yer morbid stories. I swear, if Billy comes home with one more tale about some murder that’s been done in a far-away kingdom …”
“You should stop him spending all that time with Artyom Orlov, then,” Rhoslyn replied with her typical insouciance. “That’s where he gets the stories from.”
Kata felt herself glancing in the direction of the Orlovs’ small cottage, for all that she couldn’t see it from here, what with her house being in the way. “I wouldn’t do that,” she answered. “Lord knows …” But she stopped. For all that Rhoslyn could be very mature for her age about some things, she was still only twelve. And she was Billy’s peer.
But there was no reason for Kata to stop thinking it. The Lord knew that Billy needed as many responsible adult male role models as he could get. Ash was a good soul, but Ash was so hesitant and diffident in company that he would have trouble teaching Billy how to be a man — besides, his own son and nephew would be his first responsibility. Lukas was another good soul, but he was swamped with his own family and cares. And Simon … she didn’t want to think about Simon now. He and Roma had made up after that last furious row, or at least, they must have, since Roma had confided in her mother that she thought she’d be having another baby sometime in Darid. But Kata couldn’t help but like him less and less with every passing year.
Artyom Orlov, though, was a good friend to Billy. He was another young man just starting off with his family — Kata had helped Ada Orlov deliver her first, a girl named Darya, just this past Endskel. But he treated Billy like a younger brother, not like a nuisance, and shared all of his stories about guarding and crime. In return, Billy often helped Artyom and Ada with their garden, for between Artyom’s guarding and Ada’s work as the du Lacs’ nurse, to say nothing of little Darya, the garden often was the last of their priorities. That was where Billy was now.
“Kata?” said Rhoslyn.
“Aye?” asked Kata.
“I think someone’s coming to see us.”
“Oh? What’s he look like?”
“It’s a she,” replied Rhoslyn, “and … I think she’s Sminese … and she’s dressed very fine …”
Kata almost dropped her knitting. Sminese — dressed fine — that could only be one person. She jumped up from the sacks and tossed her knitting down. “Wei Li?”
She had paused at the gates leading to the back garden and was smiling hesitantly. If Kata hadn’t been acquainted with Wei Li’s new outfits and fancy way of doing her hair, she would have known her from that smile alone. “Hello …” She rubbed the back of her neck. “This is not a bad time, is it?”
“A bad time? Ain’t no such thing as a bad time fer an old friend!” Kata flung her arms out wide. Wei Li came willingly enough into them.
Kata pulled back and gave Marigold’s old girl a good once-over. Mistressdom was treating her well. She was rosy-cheeked and healthy, and that new hairstyle looked very nice on her. There was also a contentment in her eyes that Kata had never before seen, and an absence of fear that was new, too.
She also looked to be gaining weight, which Kata wouldn’t count as a bad thing — Wei Li had always tended on the too-skinny side for her taste. The last time Kata had seen her this plump was ..
Wait a minute …
Wei Li seemed to sense the scrutiny and started to blush.
Before Kata could ask anything, however, she sensed a presence behind Wei Li. Or saw, really. It was Rhoslyn, waiting behind Wei Li, presumably for an introduction. She wore no sign of impatience. She also wore no hint of hiding her curiosity.
Oh, bloody hell … Rhoslyn would be going back to school at the beginning of Lenona, and though Mother Julian obviously knew that Kata treated with the whores — Kata had only brought the vast majority of the orphanages’ occupants to the orphanage — but somehow Kata doubted that she wanted Rhoslyn treating with them just yet. So Kata turned to her. “Rhoslyn, I need ye ter go check on the cows.”
Kata felt Wei Li start behind her. Kata ignored her and hoped that Rhoslyn hadn’t noticed. Since Rhoslyn was giving her the classic adolescent I-cannot-believe-you-are-this-stupid look, Kata thought she had reason to assume her hope was justified.
“The cows,” Rhoslyn repeated.
“Aye,” Kata agreed.
Rhoslyn looked from Kata to Wei Li to the barn. “And after I see to the cows, what do you want me to do?”
“Go down ter the market,” Kata improvised, “an’ … buy some flour. An’ some honey. An’, let’s see …”
“Some apples?” Rhoslyn asked, blinking innocently.
“Aye, ap–” Kata stopped. Their apple tree had just borne its fruit. They just hadn’t gotten around to picking it yet. “Fresh kid,” Kata muttered.
Rhoslyn shot her a dazzling smile.
“Jest go ter the market an’ walk around fer a bit an’ enjoy yerself — how does that sound?” Kata replied. “An’ while ye’re at it, ferget the cows.”
“Done and done,” Rhoslyn replied, smirking. She sidled past Kata on her way out. On the way, she nodded to Wei Li. “It was nice not-meeting you,” she said.
Wei Li didn’t answer. She watched Rhoslyn hurry out of the gate and down the lane. “Kata, is she not …”
Kata sighed. “Let’s jest get inside, shall we?”
They passed through the back garden and into the house, Kata thinking furiously and Wei Li merely thoughtful.
But as soon as they were seated, Wei Li waited no time to pounce. “Rhoslyn!”
“She … she is Mirelle’s, is she not?” Wei Li blurted out.
Kata nodded. No point in denying it.
“I thought so,” Wei Li murmured. She leaned back as much as it was feasible, given they were both seated on stools. “She … she is much like her mother, is she not?”
“She’s a smart-arse teenager is what she is,” was all Kata would reply to that.
Wei Li rested both her hands on the table. She blinked, studying the grain of the wood as if it was written in Sminese characters spelling out the meaning of life. “But … but Mirelle has much that same manner. That same air. That same sense that … that she knows so much more than you do, and that putting up with someone who is so ignorant is a sore trial to her patience.”
“Oh, Wei Li,” Kata laughed, “ye ain’t spent no time around girls Rhoslyn’s age since ye were one, eh?” She shook her head. “They’re all like that at that age.”
The look Wei Li shot to Kata was so disbelieving and hopeful at the same time — Kata had to backtrack. “But — but I do see her mother in her. I try not ter, though. It’s annoyin’ enough when folk look at ye an’ say, ‘Oh, ye’re jest like yer ma!’ when ye know yer ma an’ have ter admit that they’re right. I try ter see Rhoslyn as herself. Not as her ma’s daughter.”
She had hoped that would be a hint to Wei Li. But Wei Li didn’t heed it. Or maybe she didn’t hear it. From what Kata knew or guessed, the rare child born to a denizen of a flower house didn’t have his ancestry held against him or, especially, her. She continued the questioning. “Have you told Mirelle?”
“No,” came Kata’s immediate response, “an’ I’ll thank ye not ter tell her, either.”
Kata took a deep breath. “Oh boy.” Where — how — to explain? “Let’s start with she’s a good ‘prentice, so far, an’ bein’ me ‘prentice is a good future fer her. I don’t know how Mother Julian would take ter me introducin’ her ter ladies o’ the night an’ stage-managin’ a reunion with her mother. At best she might pretend she don’t care or she didn’t hear. At worst, she’d take Rhoslyn back, make her a drudge somewhere ’cause that’s the best she can get fer her, an’ I’ll be out a ‘prentice an’ Rhoslyn will be out a future.”
Wei Li blinked. “That …” She stared at the wall. “I am glad I saved Leah from that, if I could save none of my other children.”
Kata’s jaw almost fell; she only kept her mouth closed with an effort. Saved Leah? Her other children? Kata couldn’t even remember the last time Wei Li had mentioned one of her children’s names out loud, never mind …
Good Lord, where was Wei Li going with this?
“What … what d’ye mean?” Kata asked.
Wei Li sighed. “Jade, Tor, Rachel — they are all in the orphanage. They will … they will be at the mercy of whomever Mother Julian or the monks can find to help them grow up, find a profession. But Leah is with her father –”
“I still don’t know how ye glommed onter Berach Brogan as Leah’s father,” Kata remarked, shaking her head.
“Do you deny that he is?”
Well, when Wei Li put it like that … it was obvious enough, now that Leah was that much older, that she was Berach’s. She had the Brogan nose, for one, and she had his temperament. But how Wei Li had gotten that this little girl was Berach’s from the squished features and simple personality of a newborn was beyond Kata’s ken.
“No, I don’t,” Kata admitted. “I’m jest sayin’ I ain’t got no idea how ye figured that out so quick. But ye didn’t come here ter talk about long-past bygones — or Mirelle an’ Rhoslyn, fer that matter. What’s on yer mind, Wei Li?”
Wei Li’s first answer was to simply stare at Kata. Then she finally blurted it out.
“I have not had a course since the beginning of Seryl.”
“Ah,” Kata replied. That was more like it. There was a reason why some of Wei Li’s friends had sniggered over her and called her the “fertility goddess.” The most surprising thing about this was how long it had taken. “Ye think ye’re with child?”
Wei Li was silent. “It–it has been such a long time …”
Kata nodded. Rachel, the last child Wei Li had borne, was over four years old. “Ye think it might be the change comin’ on ye?”
“I … I do not know …” Wei Li threaded her fingers together and fretted. “You–you must understand, in the Flower Houses, a woman’s change of life is not seen as a — a sad event. Many women greet it with joy, because it means the end of — of a great deal of nuisance.”
“Honey, I hate ter ruin yer romantic notions, but plenty o’ women here few the change o’ life as the end o’ a lot o’ nuisance.”
Wei Li didn’t laugh, as Kata had been hoping she would, choosing instead to plow forward. “And — and because of that, they do not talk much about the symptoms. At least, not to the younger women.”
“That’s the same here, too,” Kata nodded. “Most women don’t bring ’em up ter the younger girls, unless o’ course they’re goin’ through ’em an’ want ter complain.” Kata chuckled. “But with younger girls, most women focus — with their daughters, at least — on understandin’ what their body is doin’ now an’ the signs fer a baby comin’. The change o’ life can wait.” Especially since far too many women wouldn’t live to see it. There was another reason why plenty of women were perhaps a little sad but mostly glad their childbearing days were behind them. Babies were a lot of things, but they weren’t exactly good for a woman’s health.
“I see …”
“But enough o’ all that,” Kata interrupted. “Why don’t ye jest tell me how ye’re feelin’, Wei Li, an’ I’ll tell ye which it’s likelier ter be.”
Wei Li nodded. “I am getting … sick at times. Not always in the morning. But whenever I encounter a strong smell, or an unusual taste, and sometimes … for no reason at all that I can determine. And –”
Kata held up her hand. “Hold right there. I can tell ye right now, Wei Li, unless ye’ve gotten yerself a bit o’ a stomach sickness, that ain’t the change o’ life that’s happenin’ ter ye now. Ye’re with child.”
“… Could it be stomach sickness?” Wei Li asked.
“Probably not. If ye’re tummy is pitchin’ a fit, ye usually spend all day on the pot with another one balanced between yer knees,” Kata shrugged. “Chances are, ye’ve got a child on the way.” Kata cocked her head to one side. “Unless there’s a reason why that don’t feel right ter ye? I find women’ve often got a good idea whether they’re with child or not …”
For a moment hope sprang into Wei Li’s eyes. Then it faded. “No. No … I just … I just hoped …” Her voice was tiny and sad, like a little girl denied a puppy or a pony for her birthday.
“Why?” Kata asked. “I ain’t never seen ye this upset about havin’ a little one on the way. Not even when it were yer first.”
Wei Li stared out the window above Kata’s head. Her hands rubbed together, warding off a chill Kata couldn’t feel. She sighed, eyes closed.
Then she took a deep breath. “Mark and I did not discuss this.”
And there was the kicker if Kata ever heard one.
“Ah. Well, ye’re on me mid-grade herbs … were ye takin’ ’em like I told ye to?”
Wei Li nodded.
“Hmm.” Well, it wouldn’t be surprising for a woman with Wei Li’s history to be somewhat immune to the herbs. Not for the first time, Kata wondered how she would have gotten on back in Smina. Their courtesans weren’t supposed to get pregnant every time a man took his belt off at the end of the bed. But she probably would had had access to better herbs … and more importantly, they wouldn’t have had the problem with ridding their women of babies that Kata did.
“All right, next question — has he been bein’ careful?” Kata asked.
“What? No, no — that is …” Wei Li twisted her hands again. “I want to make things — enjoyable for him. And I was on your herbs!”
There was an “aye, but,” waiting to come out. Kata bit down on it. She still delivered everything that followed it, though. “It’s usually best ter be tryin’ two ways ter stop babies at once. If ye’re doin’ that, then if one way don’t work, ye can pin yer hopes on the other.”
“Oh,” murmured Wei Li.
“Though that’s under the bride now,” Kata went on. “What are ye plannin’ ter do?”
“I do not know,” Wei Li whispered. “We never discussed …”
Wei Li and her man would have to remedy that soon, if Kata was any judge. Probably about the time that Wei Li started showing a nice little bulge around the middle. Or preferably sooner.
“Well, he’s a good man an’ he’s got plenty o’ money,” Kata shrugged. “He’ll probably take it all right. Heck — he might even be happy, ye know. I ain’t delivered any o’ his grandbabies fer a while, but I remember him from earlier, an’ he loves the little kids. Another one o’ his own will probably send him over both the moons.”
“You — you think so?” asked Wei Li, looking both pathetically hopeful and pathetically fearful.
“That’s me best guess,” Kata shrugged. It was cold comfort, but what else could she give? However, given how nervous Wei Li looked … “Ye know, ye don’t have ter tell ‘im right away. Certainly not at yer age. Ye’re in good health, but the older ye get, the riskier things get. I’d wait until ye started ter show, or the baby started ter move, before ye told yer man.”
“But–but would it not be better to plan things out more in advance?”
Kata only smiled. “Wei Li … whether he’s happy or put-out when ye tell ‘im … I can guarantee ye he’ll be heartbroken if ye lose the baby.”
Wei Li gasped, and her hand flew to her stomach. “But — but I am not doing anything unusual! Anything different!”
“But ye’re older now,” Kata said gently. “It happens, when ye get older. Ye lose babies more easily. It’s sad … but there it is.” Wei Li’s jaw still hung open in faint shock, so Kata said gently, “Give it another month. That way, ye’ll be sure. An’ ye can plot yer strategy.”
“Plot strategy,” Wei Li repeated.
“Come on — a smart girl like ye, ye must’ve plotted like this before!”
“Not … not over this …” Wei Li flushed and looked away.
“Well, then!” Kata got up and headed for the tea set. “We’ll drink an’ think, then. Worked fer all those philosophers, ‘cordin’ ter Rhoslyn, so it should work fer us.”
“But … but I do not know how …”
Kata turned back, teapot in one hand, loose tea in the other. She smiled.
“Well, then, me lass — it’s high time ye learned.”