Jaban 13, 1014
The trouble with having babies, Dannie decided, was that they did tend to interfere with Young Mothers’ Club meetings.
The club had four members, and had welcomed three new offspring since the year’s beginning: Cressida’s Paul, Dannie’s Elena, and now Sandra’s Ruth. Ruth was not even three weeks old, but Sandra had packed her and her Susie up for the trek to Dannie’s house, because what with Elena’s birth a week and a half before Ruth’s, it had just been too long since they had a chance to get together.
“All right, Nicole,” Dannie said by way of opening up the meeting. “Cressida and Sandra and I are all off the hook for the rest of the year. So spill. When’s your next one expected?” Dannie leaned back, hands folded behind her head. “No pressure, of course … except, of course, you haven’t got a mother-in-law around to put …”
She stopped. “Wait. None of us have mothers-in-law around to put pressure on us. How did that work out?”
“As if Helena would have pressured either of us about the grandchildren,” snorted Cressida. “She’d probably be telling us to slow down so she could keep up.”
Dannie chuckled. Cressida had a point … but Dannie’s eyes went to Elena, named for the grandmother she would never meet. Of course as luck would have it, Elena so far seemed to look more like her side of the family, but why was Dannie surprised by that? Maude had Rob’s eyes and his thick curly hair, for all that it was a couple of shades lighter. If they ever did get a boy to name after St. Darren, Dannie fully expected him to be their palest child yet, and with their luck, bright red hair to go along with it.
Elena seemed to sense her mother’s scrutiny and blew a spit bubble. “Cheeky munchkin,” Dannie chuckled, and rubbed Elena’s tummy.
“Who, Helena?” asked Cressida, reminding Dannie that there was, in fact, a conversation going on.
“Nah — her namesake.” Dannie tapped Elena on the nose. “Barely a month old and already showing cheek. That’s got to be a record for a …” She hesitated.
Sandra chose that moment to jump in, laughing her rich laugh. “Face it, Dannie — I think to break the record for cheekiness, a Wesleyan or Ferreira baby would have to start showing it in the womb.”
“Oh, that can’t be right,” Nicole replied. “All babies are cheeky in the womb. How else can you explain how they get away with kicking their mothers morning, noon, and night?”
Dannie smirked. Easy for Nicole to say — she’d only had the joy of one. And Marian did not break any records for cheek as far as Dannie was concerned. If Marian had been kicking a lot, it was only because she had a lot of excess energy to work out and no good way to go about it before being actually born.
But none of that was here or there. “Anyway! Ladies, before we go on, I think we need to report on the boring things …” Dannie waited for it, and sure enough, there came a sigh from the general direction of everyone else. “Yes, that’s right, I’m going to ask after our sewing projects for the shipment to Port Graal.”
“Well … I think I’ve made decent progress,” Nicole replied. “I’ve managed two blankets. I know it’s not much compared to the need, but …”
“Bah, we’re four women with a passel of young children,” Dannie gestured to where all the ones who weren’t newborns in cradles or else in school were playing, “and a thousand more urgent things to get to in any day. This is just a … gesture of support.”
“And I still say we should have just donated cash,” Cressida replied.
“Is that your way of saying, despite no longer having a newborn to worry about, that you haven’t gotten anything done, Cressida-dear?” Dannie asked, batting her eyelashes.
“No, because I finished three shirts,” Cressida replied with a smirk. “But I’ve seen your father’s ships, Dannie, and even if we sewed our fingers to the bone for the next year, we’d never make enough blankets and shirts and smocks to fill even one halfway.”
Dannie shrugged. She’d tried to explain before to Cressida that what they were sending wasn’t going to be much, and that it didn’t matter. It was the look of the thing that counted. The money that Port Graal still needed was being provided in part by the Guild. Their projects were just one more way of showing that the people of Albion were thinking about them and wanting to help.
More to the point, Dannie had already taken up a collection from the Young Mothers’ Club, and had managed to purchase bulkier yet cheaper provisions that would take up more room in the hold and make their donation look a little less pitiful.
“When’s the next shipment going out, Dannie?” asked Sandra.
“End of the month,” Dannie replied. “But don’t worry. You and I have our excellent excuses for not sending much along.” As if that excuse was in any doubt, Dannie pointed to Elena and then to Ruth.
Sandra chuckled, then, shooting an anxious glance at Ruth, rocked the cradle slightly. Ruth cooed, yawned, and settled back into her nap.
Smiling, Sandra looked up again. Her face soon grew serious. “You know, I was thinking … if we want to make a regular thing of charity … we might want to stick a little closer to home.”
Dannie could guess where this was going, especially given the feast day that had just passed. “Sandra, every woman in this kingdom and her mother gives to the Coralites. They’re probably so inundated in cheap toys and baby booties that they’re drowning in them.”
“They raised me,” Sandra replied, which was … not what Dannie was expecting. Sandra rarely ventured an opinion that could possibly be considered controversial at all, and seemed much more content to be spoken to than to speak generally. But Dannie should have realized that when Sandra did speak up, she meant to stick to what she said.
“She’s got a point, Dannie,” Cressida added. “Everybody else gives just to … well … be fashionable, I suppose. Sandra’s got a right — and we could be a good models for those girls, you know. Everybody expects them to be … er …”
“Whores,” Sandra filled in quietly. “Like their mothers.”
“That wasn’t what I was going to say –”
“But that’s what people say,” Sandra shrugged. “I heard plenty of it myself, growing up. And worse, after I’d grown up. Especially after Chris and I married. People said … well …” She shifted uneasily.
“I’m sure we can guess,” Nicole filled in — in no small part because Dannie knew Nicole had been on the receiving end of those kinds of comments herself. Hell, Dannie had heard Babette making them, and no amount of snarling requests to mind her own bloody business could get her to shut up for longer than a fortnight.
Good Lord, people were idiots. They were accusing Sandra and Nicole of being no better than they should be, simply because the circumstances of their birth didn’t perfectly match with those of the men they married? If anybody in this room was likely to have anticipated their weddings in that regard, it was Dannie and Cressida. The only reason Dannie hadn’t was because she had figured it would be just her luck to get pregnant, despite all reasonable precautions to the contrary. As for Cressida … well, there were some things even best friends and cousins didn’t ask about, although Cressida had dropped some broad hints.
But to make the joke on Sandra and Nicole even richer, both of the men they married were bastards, king’s bastards, but bastards all the same. So the only people who were no better than they should have been were firmly in the previous generation … but nobody cared about that when there was a faux-scandal to be had. Disgusting.
“You know,” Sandra mused aloud, “when Chris first wanted to come to Albion, I … well, I wasn’t thrilled, even if I could see why he wanted to come.” Sandra didn’t bother to hold back a shudder. Nicole bit her lip, and Cressida shivered. Only Dannie could afford to be unaffected. “But now I think it was the best decision he ever made. Here … nobody cares that I first met Chris because I was his maid.”
“Not when they’ve got me to pick on instead!” laughed Nicole. And … Dannie realized with a kind of shock, she meant it.
But why, Dannie wondered, should she surprised that Nicole would let the criticism roll off her back? She had a husband who adored her, a beautiful baby, caring friends wherever she cared to turn. Hell, Dannie realized, if the price for all that was just a bit of gossip from jealous fools — she’d take that. She’d take that any day of the week.
Cressida had her lip caught between her teeth, and after a moment’s thought, she turned back to Dannie. “You know, everything Sandra just said is even more reason to focus more on the Coralites. Not only did Sandra herself make good — we can show those girls that there are plenty of people out there who won’t care about their origins as long as they turn into good people when they grow up. That wouldn’t be a bad lesson for those girls to learn. And …” Cressida smiled a little devilishly. “If we started now, I’m sure we could convince our husband to let us take some of those girls on as maids once they got old enough to be bound out.”
“Er …” Dannie answered.
“It’s not our husbands we’d have to be convincing. It’s Mother Julian. My parents took one of their girls on as a maid about a year and a half ago. Dad would have been happy to make an agreement binding the girl only for the length of an apprenticeship — he didn’t see a point in much longer — but Mother Julian insisted on her being indentured.”
“Why?” asked Nicole, and the question was echoed on Cressida’s face. But as for Sandra, her eyebrows went up, but she nodded knowingly.
“Because if she’s indentured, then Dad has to provide her with housing and a job, if she needs it.” Dannie shook her head. “It’s stupid, at least from Dad’s point of view. As he put it, if she turns out to be good at what she does, it’s not like he’d be getting rid of her once she turned eighteen or nineteen — and as soon as she gets married, Dad’s going to have to transfer her indenture anyway. Mum saw Mother Julian’s point, sort of, that it would give the girl stability — but Dad still thinks it wasn’t worth the price.”
“Your father has very unusual views on that sort of thing for a nobleman, though,” Cressida pointed out.
Dannie shrugged. She supposed he did. But she could see her father’s point of view. There were some noblemen who were happy enough to view their serfs as chattel, or perhaps as grown men-children. Her father would never be one of them. Perhaps part of it was that he’d worked his way up from the bottom and had no illusions about the intelligence and capability of other men who had happened to be born there. The other part …
“Well, you know Dad,” Dannie replied. “For what he’s doing with his lands, he thinks that serfdom is more trouble than it’s worth, anyway.”
“Which is so … odd,” Nicole replied, stroking her chin. “The — the first thing a Reman general would do, back in the old days, after he won his riches and held his triumph would be to go buy a latifundia — er, a large estate,” she translated hurriedly. “And that is how so many of the patrician families carry on their wealth to this day.”
“How long ago was that, Nicole?” Cressida asked. “I mean — there’s no hiding that today, a great deal of the wealth lies in the cities. There are bankers and mercers in Port Graal and especially Ludenwic who are richer than kings and princes — one of them had to bail out the King of Gaul the last time he tried to mount a crusade to Simspain,” Cressida went on. “Perhaps Dannie’s father has a point.”
“And let’s face it, Dad’s only point is that nobody ever got rich spending all his time doing something he wasn’t particularly interested in and wasn’t very good at — particularly when he’s got something he is interested in and is good at and does make money,” Dannie shrugged. “He’d much rather rent the land out for cash and let the people who know what they’re doing get on with it. Or better, sell at least some of it and collect the taxes.”
“Here I’d think that renting would be safer!” laughed Nicole. “If you get a tenant who is … undesirable … you don’t have to keep renting to him. But if you’ve sold the land — well, then you’re done! Even if you like and trust the person you sell it to, the person he sells it to, or leaves it to, might not be someone you want having on your lands — but if you’ve sold the land, well, what can you do about it?”
That was a good question … except, Dannie realized, that wealthy and powerful men could always find a way to do something about undesirables on their lands. Maybe some were minor nuisances that you just had to put up with, but anyone with sufficient power, wealth, and creativity could certainly figure out some way to prevail. It helped to have no scruples, too.
Cressida laughed. “Well — when Milo gets that estate of his, he’d better make sure you’ve got a hand in helping him manage it! Good Lord, I never would have thought of that!”
Nicole shrugged with a faint smile. And once again Dannie found herself wondering — how was it that Nicole did manage to think of these things? For a woman who had started at the bottom, or what was close to it in Reme, she certainly had an uncanny perception of how nobles’ minds worked.
Nicole’s eyes darted to Dannie — she seemed to sense the scrutiny. Something caught between embarrassment and fear flashed through them; without warning, she turned to Cressida. “Cressida — Cressida! You never mentioned — how are your sister’s wedding plans going?”
“Oh boy!” Cressida laughed. “Well, the good news: Blanche is happy, she’s not worrying too much because she says she doesn’t need a big party, and the Cap’n is pleased as punch, too. And I for one cannot wait to see the dress a certain somebody,” she nodded to Dannie, “is making for Blanche.”
“I’ll be great,” Dannie answered, “and no, it’s not finished yet, so you can’t see until Blanche goes for her final fitting.”
“But Dannie, it’s like you don’t trust me,” Cressida pouted.
“Damn right I don’t. You’d go blabbing way too many of the details to the Cap’n, or worse, your mother –”
“Danielle Maria Ferreira Wesleyan, bite your tongue!” Cressida gasped, her hand fluttering over her heart. “I would never go telling my mother about your plans for Blanche’s dress! For heaven’s sake, I don’t need her thinking she needs any more reason to move in with me!”
Dannie saw from the corner of her eye how Sandra and Nicole both scooch forward, ever so slightly, heads and necks craned closer to Cressida. That was always the reaction when Cressida went on about her mother — probably because Nicole and Sandra didn’t actually have to deal with her.
“Where would you put her, even if she did want to move in?” Dannie pointed out. “Paul’s taken the last bedroom in the place.”
“Oh, Darius and Ned can share, don’t you know,” Cressida rolled her eyes. “Which they could, but … I’d rather they didn’t. And that’s not even getting into how Mark and Josh would react if Mother came to live with us.”
As if this reaction was in any doubt, Cressida turned to Sandra and Nicole and explained, “I fully expect there would be bloodshed within the week.”
“Poor Widow Chausseur,” chuckled Nicole, because somebody had to express at least perfunctory sympathy. “But … I have to ask … there won’t be bloodshed between your mother and the Cap’n?”
“Goodness no. The Cap’n enjoys tweaking her nose too much to even think about it, and if my mother tried anything, the Cap’n could break her in two if he wanted. Or certainly scare her into not trying anything again.” Cressida flipped her hair over her shoulder. “The problem is that Mother is out-armed in that house, and she knows it.”
“But … I can’t help but feel a little sorry for your sister,” Sandra murmured. “Being caught in the middle …”
“She’s not caught in the middle. She’s on the Cap’n’s side, and I’ve told her a hundred times, if she shows any sign of leaving it, I’ll bash her on the head myself if that’s what it’ll take to make her think straight.”
“Cressida!” laughed Nicole.
“What? There’s no earthly reason why Blanche should be caving to Mother again. The last time she did, it ended up setting things up so Uncle Henry could steal our house and our shop out from under us.” Cressida snorted and settled back against the cushions. “This time she might as well make herself happy — and she’s already been to Uncle Richard, and they’ve managed to fix up marriage articles so the shop is still in Blanche’s name, and when she and Mother die, she can leave it to Geoff or Henry if Geoff doesn’t want it. Or even Pippa!”
Sandra gasped, and Nicole’s eyes went wide. Dannie didn’t react — Cressida had already told her this much. But still … the Cap’n was a rare man to agree to that, especially since plenty would have assumed he was only marrying the widow in order to get the shop.
“And — and the Captain — sorry, Cap’n,” Sandra corrected, “he … agreed to this?”
Cressida fell silent. “Aye,” she finally said. “He must really love her. I don’t know if … well, if even Josh would have agreed to something like that. Not without a bit of bargaining first, at the very least.”
“He didn’t insist on your part of the shop,” Dannie pointed out.
“I cashed out, though,” Cressida replied. “And — well — that money’s set aside, but it’s not just for Ned. It’s for Paul and any further children we have, too.”
“And that — that makes sense. But … if the Cap’n and your sister should have children …” Sandra began. “What — what would they have?”
Cressida took a deep breath, then she smiled a crooked smile. “According to the Cap’n — two parents who love them to death and who’ll do whatever it takes to make sure they’re set up and comfortable.”
And that, Dannie realized, was truly all that needed to be said.