Lenona 30, 1014
“… and last of all, to you, Dad,” said Joshua, lifting his goblet. “For founding the feast, arranging it all, and last but not least, holding this whole screwy family together!”
The last part made Mark bark out a laugh. “Really?” he asked Joshua. “It’s not like the four of you and all your wives and — well, husband — would be coming apart at the seams if it weren’t for me.”
Joshua watched as Cressida and Dannie shared a glance around Aglovale’s head. They were probably dying to say something — like, say, pointing out the obvious — but probably didn’t want to come out and say it. At the end of the day … they were daughters-in-law, and there were some things that you had to be blood to spit out loud.
Joshua wished Heloise was here — she would have pointed out that she and Babette still fought like a pair of ill-tempered alley cats, and that it was only a matter of time before Joshua and Dannie were again at loggerheads over the Guild, which inevitably would drag Rob into it. But Heloise was, of course, at Camford, probably reading some dense book of philosophy with only a candle and a goblet of wine for company. Joshua tried not to sigh. He still missed his little sister, wondered if she was lonely, even if he knew rationally that she was having the time of her life.
Luckily Rob stepped in before Joshua’s mood could get too maudlin. “To Dad!” he echoed, lifting his goblet.
Everybody else followed suit, and a chorus of, “To Dad!” and “To Mark!” filled the room.
Joshua drank, as did everyone else. This was good wine. Joshua idly wondered why Mark had sprung for it — if, that is, it was expensive wine. Joshua knew enough about expensive things to know that quality and cost didn’t always tally, even if he would never be brave enough to point that out in front of Richard Ferreira.
“So,” Dannie asked as soon as the toast was over, “what’s for dessert?”
“Ooh, Dannie!” Babette clucked her tongue. “You’re not pregnant anymore! You can’t be eating whatever you like, now — not if you want to keep your girlish figure!” She batted her eyelashes and tittered.
“First of all, any woman who has had three children and can still describe her figure as ‘girlish’ is either lying or hopelessly deluded,” Dannie replied. Joshua tried not to snicker. Rob didn’t have as much success. “Secondly, I’m nursing — and, by the way, if the midwives say that wanting sweet things means you’ll get a sweet-tempered baby, well, shouldn’t that also count for nursing mothers?” She folded her hands under her chin and batted her eyelashes at Babette.
Joshua tried to look anywhere that wasn’t at Dannie — or Rob — or, hell, Cressida! He’d burst out laughing if he did. So he looked at his father.
He forgot what it was that had been so funny when he looked at Mark’s face. Mark stared at Dannie in what could only be called terrified wonder — but why? — then he cleared his throat and turned to Joshua. “You know … Josh … before we have dessert, I should probably … make the announcement that I wanted to make.”
“Announcement?” Joshua asked. He looked around the table — but to judge by the confused and curious expressions he found there, nobody else had any better idea than he did about what Mark was talking about. Odd.
Mark cleared his throat again. “You see — well — I wanted Heloise to be here too, but her order wouldn’t let her leave, and, well … I’ve already got the news going to her in a letter. So. That’s all right.” Mark tried to chuckle. He managed a wheeze.
Joshua felt his heart start to hammer in his chest. What the hell could Mark had gathered them all here for? And why was he so nervous about it? It couldn’t be — it couldn’t be his health — Joshua would swear that Mark was healthy as a horse —
But wouldn’t he have said the same thing about Helena the day before she told him and Rob that she was sick?
“I’m sure — well — I know everyone around this table is aware of the arrangement I have with … with Wei Li,” Mark continued.
Joshua wasn’t sure whether that was his cue to relax or to panic more.
“And — without going into too many details — after all, we’re all adults here — well — as it happens — Wei Li and I will be expecting a baby in Darid.”
The first thing Joshua thought was, Oh. A baby? That’s all? That’s not so bad.
The next was: Oh, shit.
And then he kicked himself. He’d been expecting another bombshell like Helena’s diagnosis, hadn’t he? A baby wasn’t that bad in comparison. And … well …
Lord, it was awkward to realize that in about thirty seconds, you’d have to congratulate your father for siring a child on his mistress. Somehow nobody ever mentioned that these types of conversations would be part of having grown up …
Luckily, he was saved from having to say that by Aglovale’s polite cough. It was the first sound since Mark had made his announcement. “Er … sir … with all due respect, are you sure …”
Joshua could see where this was going — Cressida was staring at him in horror, knowing where this was going and begging him to stop it — Joshua tried to think on the fly —
Dannie shoved her chair back from the table. “You know what? Cressida, don’t you think this would be an excellent time to show Aglovale that new chess set you got?”
New chess set? Joshua wondered.
“Oh–oh, yes!” Cressida jumped up. “Come with us, Aglovale. You’ll love it!”
What new — oh. That was a little slow on his part, Joshua thought ruefully. At least Cressida was quicker on the uptake than he was. And whatever Dannie suggested next for the Guild, Joshua decided, he would be supporting. He just hoped it wasn’t too mad.
“Ladies, I don’t think –” Aglovale tried to protest.
Cressida forestalled that with a hand laid on his shoulder and a pair of sea-green eyes blinking at him. “But, Aglovale … we so wanted your opinion …”
“Oh … well, I suppose … if you really wanted that …” Aglovale stood and followed Dannie to the study. Cressida only paused long enough to wink at Joshua before bringing up the rear.
Dannie held the door open for Aglovale and Cressida to pass. When she went through, it shut with a firm click behind her. If Joshua didn’t know that sound didn’t carry in and out of the study easily, he would have been expecting to hear Aglovale get the tongue-lashing of his life.
Instead, what he heard was Babette take a deep breath. “Papa –”
Then there was the soft shuffle of wood on the new carpet Cressida had put in last week. Rob stood up. “You know,” he murmured as he moved around the table to sit on Mark’s other side, “there’s really no reason for all of us to be shouting down the table at each other.”
“You’re optimistic, son,” Mark sighed.
“No,” Rob replied, “just realistic.” He plopped down and scooted the chair in. “There’s no reason for shouting.” Joshua wasn’t sure who Rob glared harder at that when he spoke: himself or Babette. “As Dad said, we’re all adults here. If we didn’t realize that this was inevitable sooner or later, we were fooling ourselves.”
“Well–not inevitable,” Mark hedged. “We … certainly weren’t trying for a baby.”
Mark might not have been — but was Wei Li? Joshua wondered. Surely it wouldn’t be beyond a woman like that to get pregnant on purpose to tie the man more closely to her. If Wei Li had any reason to wonder if Mark would throw her off … well, she had to know he’d never stop supporting a child. The baby could be her insurance policy.
Or not. She was careful and savvy with money — she was invested in Joshua’s bank! She might have judged that a baby would keep Mark with her while he lived, but he couldn’t live forever …
Joshua sighed and rubbed his temple. He was going to get a headache if he kept trying to parse the motives of someone whom he barely knew. And that wasn’t even taking into account that Mark might be right, and the baby might be a simple accident.
“And by the way, Dad,” Rob added, “as strange and awkward as it is for me to say this — congratulations.”
Mark beamed, and that was when Joshua knew he’d have to stop caring about what Wei Li’s motives for getting pregnant, if she’d had any motives at all, were. Mark was happy about the baby. It was a wonderful thing, to be just happy that a baby was coming. Joshua hadn’t felt that since before Baby Belle was born, though he’d always felt plenty happy after the baby was born.
“Thanks — thanks, Rob,” Mark replied.
“And — and congratulations from me, too,” Joshua added. Mark turned to him in some surprise. Joshua smiled weakly.
“Too late,” Rob murmured.
“Too late? What’s that supposed to mean?” Joshua asked.
“It means I beat you, you moron — and that I win,” Rob replied with a wink.
“You little –”
Mark stared between the two of them. “Is this a joke?” he asked. “Acting childish so I remember how to deal with children?”
“Don’t be silly, Dad,” Joshua answered. “The baby won’t be able to bicker as well as we do for years yet.”
“Though he’ll probably inherit the Wesleyan knack for it,” Rob added.
“Good Lord …” Mark shook his head. “Though …” He glanced between his sons. “Might I hope that perhaps, someday, this baby might get to bicker with his brothers and sisters?”
Joshua felt his throat start to dry. Good Lord, couldn’t Mark be waiting on this question? Let the news sink in a bit? Joshua still hadn’t formally talked to Wei Li since Mark set her up and got her out of the whorehouse, even though he knew it was inevitable that they’d have to talk about her finances sooner or later. Was he a horrible person for not wanting to be involved?
Then again … now there was the baby to consider …
“Well,” Joshua tried to hedge a bit, if only to give himself more time to consider it, “it’s — it’s a little bit difficult to bicker with a sibling over thirty years your junior …”
“Especially since it’s so embarrassing when you lose,” Rob smirked.
“You shut up!” Joshua replied, trying not to laugh and failing miserably. “Good Lord! Dannie was smart enough to get herself out of the room, and now you’ve got to go saying all the things she would have said!”
Rob shrugged. “It’s a tough job, but somebody has to do it.”
“Oh, for …” Joshua shook his head. He wasn’t going to go down that road, much as it might make them all feel better. After all, if Aglovale was going to be getting raked over the coals — was still getting raked over the coals, if Joshua was any judge of the combined powers of Dannie and Cressida — for getting involved in things that weren’t his concern, they might as well discuss things that were of no concern to Aglovale. “Can we — can we get down to brass tacks, Dad? What’s this going to mean?”
Mark swallowed. “For …?”
“Everything,” Joshua replied. He added before Rob could protest, “We do do the finances for the family together.”
“Aye. Aye.” Mark took a deep breath and pushed his hair back from his forehead. “Well — for starters, I’ll need to increase Wei Li’s allowance. We’ll need to buy a nursery — and I want to make sure she has everything she needs. Clothes and good food and a good midwife and all the rest of it.”
Joshua nodded. He’d be the last Sim on earth to deny an expectant woman any of that.
“Dad,” Rob asked, “would you like me or Dannie to talk to Lady Clarice about seeing to Wei Li?”
Joshua wanted to protest — but he bit his tongue. Literally.
Mark’s eyes lit up at the suggestion — then, after a moment’s thought, he shook his head. “I–I don’t think that’s the best idea. Lady Clarice is still — well –”
“Far too good to be meddling with the likes of her!” Babette exploded.
Joshua winced and slowly turned to face his sister. Babette’s expression was just as mulish and furious as he had feared.
“Babette –” Joshua started.
“I can’t believe you went and did this, Papa! And with her! How do you even know the baby’s yours? A woman like that –”
“Babette!” Joshua interrupted as the blood drained out of Mark’s face. “For the love of Wright, I think we can trust Dad’s judgement! He knows th–Wei Li better than any of us do.”
“It’s still not right!” Babette insisted. “It’s no different than what Sir Mordred is doing with his mistress!”
“It’s a hell of a lot different, Babette,” Rob replied, rolling his eyes. “Dad isn’t dishonoring or humiliating anybody.”
“And what about Mother’s memory?” Babette challenged. Her lower lip was starting to quiver. Joshua patted her back, or tried to, but she shook him off.
“I don’t think your mother would have begrudged me this, Babette,” Mark said with surprising gentleness. Or was it really that surprising, coming from Mark?
“Why not?” Babette asked. “You’re humiliating all of us, going around like some besotted — fool!”
“We’re humiliated?” Rob asked, glancing at Joshua.
“Oh, Rob, don’t be an idiot –” Babette started.
“And don’t you be a snob,” Rob retorted. Joshua’s eyes almost bugged out of his head. He hadn’t seen Rob put Babette in her place like this since … since … when had he seen Rob take Babette head-on? It had never been necessary through their childhood, since Heloise was always the first one charging into that fight. “If anybody even cares about what Dad and Wei Li are up to, they’re probably jealous that Dad has the resources to care for her and have his fun and at the same time isn’t hurting anyone else in order to do it.”
“Are you kidding me?” Babette repeated. “They’re laughing at us all behind our backs!”
“Oh, for heaven’s sake –” started Joshua.
“And how could you be so irresponsible, Papa?” Babette asked. “Surely –”
“Babette.” Rob interrupted. “Really? You’re going to lecture anybody about being responsible when it comes to having babies?”
Joshua almost applauded. He couldn’t have put it better himself. Hell, Heloise probably couldn’t have put it better, and not just because she would have had to run to the privies lest she wet her drawers laughing the minute Babette opened her mouth about responsibility.
Babette paled. “That–that was different!”
“No. It. Was. Not,” Rob snapped. “If anything, what you did was worse. Dad is — how old are you, Dad?”
“Fifty-three years old,” Rob continued. “He’s got more than enough financial resources to care for himself, Joshua and his family, Wei Li, and any more children that might come along. He also knew exactly what he was doing when he set Wei Li up. You just blundered your way into trouble, and you’re damn lucky that it turned out as well for you — for all of us — as it did.”
Babette’s lips parted — then she hung her head like a wilting flower. “It’s still not fair,” she muttered.
“Little in life is,” Joshua replied, patting her hand since she wouldn’t let him pat her back. He turned back to Mark. “So … er … where were we, Dad?”
Later that night — after the discussion had been had, after Cressida, Aglovale and Dannie had been let out of the study, after a very stilted dessert followed by what could only be described as a relieved leave-taking, after Joshua was ready for bed and he knew that Cressida was ready too, he went into the nursery to find her shushing Paul, who had just had his last feeding of the night.
He hadn’t had a chance to talk to Cressida about … any of it. It was a discussion that ought to wait until morning. But Joshua didn’t know how he’d sleep without saying anything.
Cressida smiled at him over Paul’s head. “How did it go with your father?”
At least she wouldn’t make him feel guilty for bringing it up. “Eh … we’ll cope,” Joshua replied. “He’s already decided that he’ll be changing his will.”
“Well, you can hardly blame him. Not with a baby on the way.”
“Hmm.” Joshua had his own thoughts about that. “I told him he ought to wait until the baby is born.”
“Joshua, you’re not going to deny him peace of mind, are you?”
Joshua shrugged. “I just think we’d probably be in a better place if the baby was born, and Dad could decide exactly how much he wants to go to the baby, and how much he wants to go to Wei Li … I don’t know if you can leave things to a baby who isn’t even born yet.”
“I’m sure there’s a way,” Cressida shrugged. “Noble families do it all the time, probably.”
“All right, Cressida, then let me put it like this: he’s probably going to want to change it again after the baby is born, to get everything finalized — and who wants to pay for a lawyer twice?”
Cressida snorted. “Now you’re just being a skinflint. Here,” she said, turning Paul around, “say goodnight to your son before I put him to bed.”
Joshua stuck his tongue out at Cressida. Paul saw it, laughed, and stuck his tongue out too.
“Oh boy!” Joshua laughed. “It looks like we’ve got a character on our hands, Cressida. Did you see that?”
“All the Wesleyans are characters, and so are plenty of the Parkinsons,” Cressida retorted. “We should have known Paul would follow in the family tradition when he was just a bump in the front of my dress.”
That, Joshua reflected, was true. And … it reminded him of something his father had mentioned. “Dad wants Rob and me to go meet Wei Li — formally.”
“You should go,” replied Cressida without a second’s hesitation.
Joshua remembered how Mark had been when Paul was just a bump in the front of Cressida’s dress: a silent strength, firm in his insistence that everything was going to be fine, even if Joshua didn’t know how he could be so sure. And while Mark was still wearing that optimistic face … how could he know?
“Aye,” he agreed with Cressida. “Aye. I will.”