Osgary 21, 1014
“Thank you for coming to my birthday, Auntie Garnet,” said Elise, then glanced at her mother to make sure she had done right.
Because Mummy had explained it all. Auntie Garnet had been very sad after her husband, Uncle Lamorak, died. And she was going to be sad for a long time because of that. But she was doing her best to be a good auntie, and she ought to be thanked for that.
Mummy was grinning at Elise, so Elise sighed, relieved. Good. She’d gotten that right.
Auntie Garnet was grinning, too, just like she used to grin before Uncle Lamorak died. “I wouldn’t have missed it for the world.” She extended her hand and Elise took it. “Besides — you know our birthdays are very close together, right?”
“I think next year,” Auntie Garnet said, swinging Elise’s hand back and forth, “we should have a big party in between both of our birthdays, and make everybody treat us as the birthday queens.” For some reason she winked at Grammy Alison when she said that. Probably because Grammy was a queen, and not just a birthday queen.
“Oh, dear!” laughed Grandma Claire. “Aunt Garnet, if we start doing that, we’ll have to add in Aunt Morgan’s birthday, too — what a party that would be!”
“It would be the mother of all parties,” agreed Auntie Garnet, chuckling. She squeezed Elise’s hand. “What do you say, sweetie?”
“Um …” Elise didn’t want to say so, but imagining that kind of big party made her go shivery and cold inside. So many people! So much noise! Elise wanted to hide in her nursery just thinking about it.
But she had to say something. “We … we’d probably have to add baby Cedric, too …” she decided to say. Baby Cedric was the reason why Auntie Clarice couldn’t come today. Elise had met him just a week before. He was very small, and very red, and very loud when he cried.
“Oh, my!” gasped Mummy. “Elise, if we keep thinking like this, we’ll have to have a big party for everybody in the kingdom born in Osgary!”
That big a party? Elise’s eyes bugged. Where would they put everybody in the kingdom who had a birthday in Osgary? How many were there? And add all of their parents and their brothers and sisters and their cousins and their friends …
“And I don’t think we want that,” Mummy went on, and Elise breathed out in relief. “I think we should do something special, just for the birthday girl, on her own day.”
Elise nodded. Yes. That sounded much better.
“Maybe I’ll just take you out for a mid-birthday treat,” Auntie Garnet said. Elise found herself nodding before Auntie Garnet could even ask what she thought about that.
“Well! I’m glad you thought of that, Aunt Garnet,” said Grammy. “Otherwise I was afraid I was going to have organize birth-month parties for every month of the year. And that wouldn’t be much fun for the birthday boys and girls, having to share their day with so many other people!”
“But, but, Grammy!” Elise gasped. “Some people already have to share. Like Lionel and Evette, and Chloe and Pascal, and Corey and Celeste –”
“How in the world did we wind up with so many twins born so close together?” Auntie Garnet asked nobody in particular.
“And, and, there’s Auntie Jessie and Daddy too –”
“Daddy?” came a voice from the door. “Are you talking about me behind my back, Elise?”
Elise gasped and spun to face the door. “DADDY!”
She squealed and ran to Daddy, who grabbed her and swung her around. Her feet flew out, high in the air–and almost hit Grandpa! Luckily he jumped out of the way before she could.
“Sorry, Grandpa!” Elise called out as Daddy gave her a big kiss on the cheek and put her back on the ground.
“Don’t you apologize,” said Grandpa as he tried to straighten the vase he’d almost knocked over. “That big lug swinging you around like a sack of potatoes — he should be apologizing.”
“Big lug!” Daddy gasped. “Elise, are you going to let anybody get away with calling your Daddy a big lug?”
“Um …” Elise swallowed and looked from Grandpa to Daddy and back again. “Daddy …”
“Grammy says that it’s not smart to — to –” Elise wrinkled her brows and tried to remember how Grammy had put it. “To get in the middle when you and Grandpa are in-sulting each other. She says you’ll stop much faster if we all just stay out of it.”
“What?” gasped Daddy, putting a hand over his heart like he was very surprised. Elise giggled, even as Grammy let out a loud hoot of laughter. “Grammy! Just where do you get off teaching my firstborn common sense?”
“Oh, knock it off, Tom.” Uncle Kay elbowed Daddy. “She’s half Lynn, you know. She doesn’t need anybody teaching her common sense.” He turned to Elise. “Speaking of people who are half Lynn, who has a kiss for her favorite uncle?”
Elise laughed, and when Uncle Kay bent down, she kissed him. “And you too, Grandpa!” she gasped, running to grab Grandpa around the waist.
“Thanks, sweetheart.” Grandpa kissed the top of her head. “And don’t let your daddy and your uncle get to you.”
“I don’t!” Elise laughed. “They’re funny!”
“Funny?” Daddy pretended to gasp.
“Ah-ha! And the Pendragon half comes out!” Uncle Kay grabbed Elise’s hands and started to sway her back and forth. “Pendragons always get the joke!”
“As opposed to the de Ganises …” Daddy mumbled, then he stopped. Elise looked over her shoulder to see Mummy giving Daddy a look. She looked up at Daddy.
Daddy’s mouth was wide and he was sort of smiling, but it was the big smile he always wore when he’d said something that Mummy wasn’t supposed to hear. “Hi, honey!”
“Hello, dear,” said Mummy, rolling her eyes.
“Daddy’s in trouble,” Uncle Kay whispered, and Elise laughed — maybe a little too loud, because now Daddy was looking at her, and Mummy was too.
“Aww, what does it matter?” asked Daddy, tousling Elise’s hair. “It’s nothing you haven’t seen before, is it, sweetie?”
Elise giggled. “Nope!”
“And so it goes, and so it always shall go.” Daddy took a deep breath and put his hand over his heart, the way he did when he was going to say something funny but pretend it was serious. “The Pendragon men say something stu–foolish …”
“Speak for yourself,” Grandpa grumbled, and Elise had to put both hands over her mouth to keep from laughing out loud.
“And their womenfolk correct them,” Daddy went on, pretending Grandpa hadn’t said anything, “because while it’s a tough job, somebody must do it.”
Grammy’s eyebrows went up, and she looked at Grandpa. “You know, dear, every now and then, our eldest son does say something profound.”
Grandpa smacked his forehead with his open palm, and that was when Elise started laughing. The grown-ups all laughed, too, and even Wart looked up from where he’d been playing on the floor and started to laugh.
“And now that the preliminaries are out of the way,” Daddy said, turning back to Elise, “I have to ask the most important question of the most important person in the room today.”
“Daddy?” Elise asked, wrinkling her brows.
“Are you ready for your birthday surprise, baby?”
“Birthday surprise?” Elise gasped. “But — but Daddy, you already said you’d take me to the next horse fair!”
That had been Elise’s promised birthday present: a pony that she would get to pick out for herself and learn to ride on. She’d known that was going to be her present for months.
So what could this be about?
“Of course I’m taking you to the horse fair, sweetie — but that’s not your birthday surprise. You knew it was coming, so how could it be a surprise?” Daddy tucked his fingers under Elise’s chin and tilted her head up. “I’m only allowed, what, two days a year to surprise my daughter — are you going to say I can’t?”
“Oh, no, Daddy!”
“Good! So let’s go!”
“Go?” Elise asked. She looked around and everybody was getting up. Grandma had already stood up and grabbed Wart, whom she handed to Mummy once Mummy was standing.
“Aye — but don’t worry, it’s not far. Just upstairs.”
“All right!” Elise held out her hand, and Daddy took it and led her out.
Still, as they left, Elise looked over her shoulder. Her nose and brows wrinkled as she tried to think. “… Daddy?”
“… Does everybody else know what the surprise is?”
“What do you think, sweetie?”
Elise didn’t answer. But she smiled at Daddy, and Daddy winked, and Elise knew that he knew what she was thinking.
They headed upstairs, down towards Elise’s nursery, then to the stairs that were between Elise’s nursery and Wart’s. Daddy put his foot on the bottom tread, and Elise gasped. “Daddy!”
“What?” asked Daddy.
“Nurse Bonnie says we’re not allowed to go up there!” Elise swallowed and tried not to bounce from one foot to the next. “She says there’s workmen up there, and they’ve got hammers and nails and — and — and other sharp things! We could get hurt!”
“Ah!” Daddy replied. “That’s all true. But, you see, there are a couple of things that Nurse Bonnie didn’t tell you — admittedly, because I asked her not to. The first is that the workmen finished a couple of days ago, and I have been over the floors and walls, etc., personally, and I can assure you that there are no more nails or hammers or other sharp things that could hurt you.”
“That’s three things!”
Someone in the back — Elise thought it was Auntie Garnet — let out a laugh that she tried to choke back, turning it into a snort.
“… Maybe it is,” Daddy admitted, “but the next thing — or things — I have to tell you is that I asked Nurse Bonnie to not tell you that, because your surprise is upstairs, and I didn’t want you seeing it until your birthday.”
“Ooh,” Elise said. “Daddy?”
“Is — is that what you and Grandpa call …” Elise wrinkled her nose and tried to get the strange and unfamiliar syllables out. “Ne-cess-ary sub-ter-fuge?”
Daddy looked up and asked over Elise’s head, “Is it bad that she’s not even four years old and she already speaks politics?”
“It’s inevitable, Tommy,” said Grammy, and that seemed to be enough for Daddy. He nodded and held out his hand.
Elise took it, and once again they started up the stairs.
They hurried down the corridor to a single door set into the wall. Daddy threw it open. “Ta-da!”
Elise gasped. Her eyes went wide. She looked up at Daddy. “… Daddy?”
“Happy birthday!” Daddy kissed the top of her head. “Do you like it, baby?”
Elise looked around, her jaw fallen. She couldn’t speak.
What Daddy had just shown her was a big bedroom, bigger than the nursery downstairs was. The walls were light green, the furniture white, the bedding and curtains gold — all of Elise’s favorite colors. When she looked around, she could see lots of big windows, giving her a view all around. There was a desk in front of some of those windows, so she could sit at it and look out. In one corner was a bookshelf and a couch, in another a wardrobe, in yet another a bed, and in the last, a carpet with three dollhouses.
“Wow, Daddy!” Elise finally was able to say. “Is — is this all for me?”
“Is this all for you? Elise!” Daddy put an arm around her and held her close. “Whose birthday is it?”
“But — but that’s three dollhouses!” she gasped.
“That’s because your loving relatives aren’t very creative, Elise,” said Auntie Garnet, stepping forward. “The castle one is from me and–from me,” Auntie Garnet corrected.
Mummy hurried to add, “And the treehouse is from Auntie Clarice and Uncle Freddy, and the fairie castle is from Aunt Morgan and Uncle Accolon. She says that Chloe has one just like it.”
“Wow!” Elise said again — which for some reason made all the grown-ups laugh. Elise wrinkled her nose at them.
“And I,” said Uncle Kay, sliding forward, “sacrificed my dignity and got you dolls — so, darling, if you’re going to have a whole doll village, you ought to have the dolls to populate it!”
“Thank you, Uncle Kay! And Auntie Garnet — and Mummy — and Daddy …” Elise stopped, biting her lip. “Mummy?”
“Yes, sweetie?” Mummy asked. She put Wart down (he was itching and bouncing, like he often was) and went up to Elise.
“How am I going to thank the people who aren’t here?”
“We’ll write thank-you notes tomorrow,” Mummy promised.
Elise bit her lip, but she nodded. She couldn’t write very well yet — which, since she couldn’t really read, only made sense. But when Mummy wrote thank-you notes, her writing was always so even and pretty, and when Elise wrote her name at the bottom, it was always so sloppy and big. And she didn’t know why Mummy said that wouldn’t bother anybody who got the notes.
“Uh oh,” murmured Uncle Kay.
“What?” asked Daddy.
Uncle Kay gestured — and everybody turned to look at the doll castle.
“Wart!” cried Mummy. “Get that out of your mouth!”
“Oh, Wart!” Auntie Garnet was the fastest, and she swooped in, took the doll from Wart’s mouth and picked him up.
“Noo!” Wart cried, grasping for the doll. Auntie Garnet held it just out of his reach.
“No!” Elise cried out. “Eat your own dolls, Wart, don’t eat mine! I didn’t even play with them yet!”
Then Elise stopped, gasping. Mummy always said she had to be patient with Wart, because he was little and he didn’t know how to be good the way Elise did. She had to wait for him to catch up with her. She looked sidelong at Mummy.
But Daddy came to her rescue before Elise could even notice that Mummy still looked a little put out — and whether at Elise or Wart, Elise couldn’t tell. “Aye! You hear that, lad?” Daddy caught Wart’s cheeks in his hand. “I will buy you all the — heaven help me — dolls you like to chew on, as long as you promise not to eat your sister’s. Understand?”
Wart turned his head to one side — then he burst out laughing. Daddy threw his hands up. “What do I need to do to get some respect around here?”
“Not ask for it from a two-year-old, for one,” laughed Grammy. “Here — Garnet, let me have him. I’ll keep him from eating anybody’s dolls.”
Garnet put Wart on Grammy’s lap, and Elise could look back at Mummy.
“Do you like it, sweetie?” she asked, and Elise saw that Mummy looked almost as nervous as Elise often felt.
Elise hadn’t answered that before? Maybe she hadn’t. “I love it, Mummy! Thank you! And Daddy!”
“Good.” Mummy looked relieved. She kissed Elise’s forehead. “I’m glad.”
“But … Mummy?” asked Elise.
“What about the nursery?”
“Ah!” Mummy replied. “Well, we’re going to have those same workmen come back, and they’re going to get it ready for the new baby, when he–”
“Or she!” said Daddy, the way he always did when Mummy called the new baby “he.”
“Or she,” Mummy added. “When the baby comes in Imsdyn, he or she will use your old nursery.”
“Ooooh!” Elise replied. She patted Mummy’s tummy. “I hope you like my nursery, new baby! I know I did!”
“That’s my girl,” said Daddy, kneeling down to kiss Elise on the cheek. “Irrepressible optimism, that’s the ticket.”
Irrepressible optimism — Elise didn’t know what that meant, but she’d ask Grammy later. She knew better than to ask Daddy what words he used meant when Uncle Kay was around. Uncle Kay would shout out something that made all the grown-ups laugh, but would only confuse Elise more. Then Elise would have twice the words to take to Grammy later. It was better to just save it.
But kissing Daddy, she saw something behind him. “Daddy? Who are all the books from?”
“Auntie Jessie and Uncle Will — because they are not nearly as much as fun as me,” said Uncle Kay, winking at Elise.
Elise looked at Daddy in confusion. “Are they not storybooks, Daddy? Are they big-person books?”
“They’re not all storybooks,” Daddy admitted, “but none of them are grown-up books. Let’s see — Auntie Jessie said there was a bestiary in there –”
“A b-b-best …” Elise tried to repeat, then glanced at Uncle Kay, hoping he wouldn’t say anything.
He didn’t. Daddy was able to explain. “It’s a book full of different animals — er, well, writing about different animals. It would be hard to squeeze all those animals into a big.”
“Animals?” Elise gasped. “Like puppies and kitties and ponies?”
“And more!” Auntie Garnet promised. “Animals like tigers and dolphins and dragons!”
“Dragons?” Elise asked. “Like us, Daddy? Pen-dragons?”
Kay snickered, and Daddy glared at him. “Not quite like us. But close.”
“Ooh, Daddy — can you read that book to me, please?” Elise asked.
And she regretted it. They had guests present. Mummy said that when you had guests, you had to try to make sure they were having a good time. They probably wouldn’t like to sit around while Daddy read to her.
But when Elise looked around … everybody was smiling at her and Daddy. Maybe they wouldn’t mind …
“Of course, baby,” said Daddy, closing the book on that issue even as he went to the bookshelf to open a different book.
He found it quickly, took it out, and plopped to the ground. Elise grinned and sat down in front of him. This was how they sat to read, just the two of them, even though Grammy and Grandpa and even Mummy liked to read to Elise when they were sitting on a couch, or Elise was in bed starting to go to sleep and they sat on a chair.
“So,” said Daddy, wetting his finger and flipping through the pages, “where shall we begin?”
“Begin at the beginning, Daddy!” laughed Elise, because that was something Grandpa often said — well, except for the “Daddy” part.
“The beginning! Very well! We’ll start with the alerion. Ahem!” Daddy cleared his throat. “The alerion is a huge bird, bigger than an eagle, with wings the color of fire. It is the king of all the other birds …”
Elise hunkered down, getting comfortable, grinning. And as Daddy continued to read, she could only think one thing:
This is the best birthday EVER!