Darid 30, 1015
“We should have a fire in here,” Gino muttered, jumping from his seat on the sofa. The tinderbox was always kept on the mantel, and the servants were good about leaving a fire laid and ready to light now that the weather was cooling. So it wouldn’t take Gino very long to get the fire going.
But that didn’t matter. Sometimes, a man took all the distractions he could get. Like when his wife was in the next room, laboring to give birth to his child.
“Gino, are you sure …” began Gino’s father-in-law. “If you wish, I can …”
“No, no, sir. I’ve got it.” He didn’t really have it — his hands were shaking as he tried to strike the stones to create the spark — but again, the distraction was paramount. If this took him longer, he wouldn’t have to go sit next to Brother Galahad, bored and scared out of his mind at once, for that many more minutes.
He could feel his father-in-law’s eyes on his back with every halting movement he made. “Gino … I don’t think there’s much cause for worry. You know how strong Leona is. And she has Clarice and Jessie in there with her. I don’t think there is anything that could go wrong that they couldn’t fix.”
Gino wondered — should he envy Lancelot for his faith, or shake his head at his naivete? Or was Lancelot truly as serene as he seemed? That was his only daughter back there …
But why shouldn’t Lancelot be serene? His wife and his daughter-in-law both had labored multiple times — and each had had twins! — and they had been fine. Lancelot had never seen how badly things could go wrong. He’d been blessed.
And he had not, as far as Gino was aware, been the cause of the death of his own mother.
Finally a spark caught, turning into a flame small enough to be cupped in Gino’s hand. It didn’t stay that small for long. The flame started to grow, and Gino stood up, stepped back, and grabbed the poker to help the little flame along.
He stabbed the wood, pretending the individual logs were the demons that haunted him. Or the uhane poino, as Liloloa would have had it. They were supposed to have left him when the first part of the aloha hipu’u was completed, but Gino wasn’t sure he believed that they had. If they had ever been there in the first place, which Gino also wasn’t sure he believed.
But children like Gino — children born of uhane poino — were never really cured from their affliction. Most of them were thrown into the jungles to die. Hardly a cure, that. Those who were rescued by shamans, who became shamans themselves … shamans were hardly the most normal, well-adjusted Sims now, were they? Communicating with the spirits always came with a price. Gino wasn’t sure he believed in the spirits, either, but somehow that never seemed to comfort him. He had a feeling that the spirits may well exist anyway, whether or not he expended the energy to believe in them.
And if they did exist, and Liloloa was right, that meant his children — the baby Leona was laboring over now — would have a connection to the spirits through him. He didn’t like the sound of that. Liloloa had always said that the uhane poino that got into his mother through Gino and his father had killed her.
Whether they existed or not, Gino had no reason to believe that spirits would be gentle.
He sighed. “I’m going to make drinks. Anybody want some?”
“Gino, you don’t have to do that, I’ll do it–” started Brother Galahad.
“No, no.” Gino walked over to the wine cabinet without listening to another word of protest. “I’ll take care of it.”
He wished he wasn’t so alone today. Maybe technically, he wasn’t, but … the only men with him were Leona’s brothers and her father. He couldn’t believe they’d extended to him as much of their sympathies as they had. After all, if it hadn’t been for Gino, Leona wouldn’t be in this predicament.
Stop being an idiot, said the part of Gino’s mind that tended to speak in Leona’s idiom. They like you just fine. Or they will soon enough. If nothing else, you are so much better than Elyan.
Elyan, Gino thought. Or “Sir” Elyan, technically. Gino had met him a few times. Smug, superior, dumber than a box of rocks — how the hell had Leona’s family ever thought he would be good for her? Gino knew he didn’t deserve Leona, but even in his most doubting moments, he couldn’t deny that he was worlds better for her than Elyan was.
Though maybe … maybe Leona’s family had seen something in Elyan that Gino didn’t.
For one thing, consider his sisters. Gino had met all three of the adult sisters, and while the nun seemed cut from the same cloth as Elyan, the other two were so sweet and kind that Gino had to wonder if their mother may have pulled a fast one on Sir Bors. It didn’t escape Gino’s notice that Clarice, the sister of Elyan, was the one in there with Leona now. (Another sign that maybe there was more to Lady Claire than met the eye: there was no way that the brains Clarice needed to be such a competent physician came from Sir Bors.) And when Gino had first been introduced to Clarice and her husband, who insisted that Gino call him Freddy, Gino had seen nothing but joy on Clarice’s face. Joy for her friend. Maybe, if Elyan’s own sister (half-sister at the very least) had such a big heart, Sir Lancelot and his sons may have seen hope for Elyan.
On the other hand … according to Brother Galahad, Leona’s brothers had given up on Elyan long before their father had. Maybe that was why Sir William had allowed himself to be talked down from his original insistence that Leona had complete control of her dowry and all income resulting from it. Now Gino and Leona jointly enjoyed all the income from her dowry, now they both had to give permission to spend any of the principle. The only thing that was in Leona’s name and Leona’s name alone was the house her father was building for her in Avilion. Sir William had seemed satisfied enough with that arrangement. And Gino? Gino left most of the financial decisions in Leona’s hands anyway. She had the head for it and the experience with those sums of money.
The drinks poured, Gino took a step back from the cabinet. “Come and get it, men.”
He took his own goblet and retreated to the chess set.
Chess. Leona was teaching him how to play — somehow the skill never seemed important when you spent the first dozen or so years of your life in the Twikkiis, and then the next dozen years or so out at sea. Chess was a horribly impractical game for the sea, anyway; every time the boat rocked, half the pieces would fall over. So to help pass the time, Gino had taught Leona how to play every type of poker he knew on the voyage to Albion from the Twikkiis. She was a truly terrible poker player. While she understood the rules of the game and had no difficulty with strategy, the concept of a “poker face” seemed entirely lost on her. Gino supposed that the chess was a form of revenge.
Gino heard the du Lac men rise up, collect their drinks, and sit down again. But not where they had been sitting before. Sir Lancelot took a seat at the desk, by the window that overlooked the sunny courtyard. Leona loved sitting at that desk; she said she couldn’t have a view of the sea, then a view of the fountains playing was the next best thing. Did Sir Lancelot sense that? Had Leona told him? Or did they just share a preference when it came to views?
Maybe he sensed Gino looking at him — he started to turn his head, and Gino swiftly turned away. “She’s going to be just fine, you know,” said Sir Lancelot. “I know she will. She’s a strong young woman.”
“Should we be worried that we haven’t heard anything for a while?” asked Brother Galahad.
“That’s Jessie,” replied Sir William. “She said the first thing she was going to do was to cast a spell to soundproof the room.”
“Oh!” Gino glanced at Brother Galahad. He was nodding, and even — smiling? “I was wondering. I mean, Leona’s got to have called poor Gino every name in the book by now.”
Gino took a sip of his wine. Yes, by this point, Leona would have had some angry words for him. A whole dictionary’s worth.
For some reason that comforted him. It meant that was Leona facing down giving birth the way she faced down every other challenge that confronted her: bravely, boldly, and saucily. Gino had never seen Leona lose when she attacked a problem like that.
“I hope Jess does something for the baby, too,” Brother Galahad continued. “I don’t think it’s a good thing for a baby if the first thing she hears about her father is that he’s a cock-sucking son of a–”
“Galahad!” That was his father and his brother attacking him at once.
“What? You know that’s what she’s saying!” Brother Galahad protested. “It’s not that I think Gino is any of those things!”
“All the same,” muttered Sir William from behind the safety of his hand drawn slowly across his face, “I think we’ll all be happier if we leave what Leona is saying to our imaginations …”
“Well, Gino’s already imagining it, then. I’m sure, if he’s taught her any new combinations, she’s probably using those against him as well.” Brother Galahad shrugged. Then Gino saw confusion flash across his face. He turned to Gino. “You’re — you’re not angry, are you, Gino? I know she’ll forgive you as soon as the baby comes out!”
Gino hoped so. But he had other things to worry about. “… Brother Galahad?”
“Gino! Call me Galahad!”
“Er … right,” Gino replied. He took another gulp of his wine. “You said — she?”
“Um … of course I said ‘she,’ I mean, I must have, I wouldn’t want to call Leona a ‘he’ in case the soundproofing spell only works one way –”
Sir William nudged him. “He means the baby, Galahad.”
“Oh! Leona thinks the baby is going to be a girl!” Brother Galahad grinned. Then his smile fell. “What–didn’t she tell you?”
No, she hadn’t told Gino. Gino knew she had had her suspicions — the way she always paused before saying “he” or, more probably, “she” when referring to the baby, carefully replacing the word with “it” was a tip-off. But she’d refused to share those suspicions with him. She’d teased him, telling him that he’d have to be surprised with everybody else — and then added that if she was wrong, he was the last person she’d want to know about it.
And when Gino had teased her back, asking her if she was sure she didn’t want him to know if she was right, she’d stuck her tongue at him and replied that if she didn’t tell him, she could pretend that she was right either way.
But she hadn’t had any such problems with telling her brother …
“She told you?” asked Sir Lancelot. “She wouldn’t tell your mother and I, either!”
She wouldn’t tell her parents? Gino started to perk up.
“Oh, well, it sort of … I think I might have slipped out …” Brother Galahad murmured. “And … uh oh …”
“What?” asked Sir William.
Brother Galahad glanced over his shoulder at the closed bedroom door. He gulped. “I think she may have sworn me to secrecy … I really hope those soundproofing spells go both ways …”
“I wouldn’t worry about it,” Gino chuckled. Amazing that he could chuckle! “If we — if we all know Leona half was well as we think we do, we all know that she’s making too much noise in there to hear what you’re saying.”
His response was three rueful chuckles. The du Lac men all had such different ways of speaking, and thinking, but when they laughed … it could be the same man laughing three times. Even Leona laughed in much the same way, for all that she did it in a higher register.
They sat in silence for a time, until Sir William finished his drink and went to put his goblet back on the cabinet. Before he went back, he hesitated. He turned to Gino. Then, slowly, he walked over to the table. “You play?” he asked.
“Leona’s been teaching me.”
Sir William nodded. “Want a game? To help you take your mind of … things?”
Gino sighed. If the male members of the de Ganis family were known primarily for their lack of brains, the male members of the du Lac family were known for their overabundance of them. “Try not to kick my arse too far into next week?”
The minute the words were out of Gino’s mouth, he regretted them. But Sir William laughed. “I think I can manage that.”
He reached into the cavity below the chess board and began to pull out the pieces. “Besides, Leona would have my head if you missed meeting your baby because of me.”
“You worry about that?” Gino asked.
Sir William paused, the queen in his hand halfway between the cavity and the board. “Surely you’ve seen her temper.”
“Several times, believe it or not,” Gino replied. “But … well, you didn’t seem to mind how angry you made her …”
When you were arguing with her about the dowry …
Sir William seemed to hear the unspoken criticism. His hand dropped. “You’re still upset about that too, I take it.”
“Er …” Upset? Maybe that wasn’t the word for it. But–you only got one chance to make a first impression, and the first impression Gino had gotten was that his in-laws thought him a shiftless lout who would make off with all of Leona’s money if they didn’t have it tied down. There were men with better senses of self-worth than Gino who would be miffed by that.
“It–it may not have been right for me to judge you by the standards I would have applied to Sir Elyan, but …” Gino watched Sir William bite his lip. “Maybe it wasn’t right.”
Gino kept his eyes on the board.
“You may have every right to be upset with me,” Sir William admitted. “But–I wanted to protect my sister. Sir Elyan — if he could have, he would have taken her whole dowry the minute he put the ring on her finger, and used it to do … Lord only knows what. He’s not as much of an idiot about money as his father is, I don’t think, but the problem is, when you’re cleaning up after a man like that, even if you are smarter than he is, no matter where you choose to put your money … it’s like quicksand, it’s just going to suck it all away.” Sir William sighed. “Not that you would have much sympathy for people born with a fortune that they choose to squander.”
“Honestly, Sir William? I’m just trying to figure out how you manage to squander all that money. Never mind why.”
For some reason this made Sir William snicker. “Other men have tried, Gino, and come out just as stumped as you.”
“Is that supposed to make me feel better?”
“Even Galahad can’t figure it out.”
Gino wrinkled his nose and looked at the back of his brother-in-law’s shaved head. “Sir William–”
“Call me Will. Please.”
“Uh … Will, then.” It did feel strange to call him that. He looked again at Brother Galahad, who had been joined on the couch by his father. “Somehow … well, it’s got to do with people, hasn’t it? Not so much the coppers and farthings of it. So in that case …” Gino shrugged. “I can’t say I’m entirely surprised.”
Sir William looked at his brother. “… Good point.” He smiled.
Gino grinned back. This was probably the first time he’d felt … well … not entirely at ease with his brother-in-law … but … comfortable.
“I am sorry, though,” Sir William added. “For judging you that way. I should have — even though I didn’t know you, I should have known that Leona would have better taste than that.”
Gino dropped the pawn he was attempting to move.
“You–you mean that?”
“… Yes?” Sir William’s brows wrinkled.
Watching the puzzled look creep across his face, Gino realized that nobody had ever seriously doubted Sir William at his word before. That said something. Not so much about Gino — Gino doubted Leona sometimes, when she said she loved him — but about Sir William. If people didn’t doubt him …
Then he must not give the cause for doubt very often.
“Thank–thank you,” replied Gino.
Sir William smiled again. “I should be the one thanking you.”
“Thanking him?” asked a female voice. “Will, I brought you up better than that. When a healthy baby is born, you can congratulate the father, but you thank the mother!”
Gino looked up with a gasp. Lady Guinevere was standing there — and the baby in her arms —
Was looking right at him.
“Mum!” shouted Brother Galahad, tumbling to his feet. “Is it a girl?”
“And how is Leona?” added Sir Lancelot.
“Yes, though I don’t know how you knew that — and she did beautifully, Lance. We didn’t even need Jessie in there. Frankly, I’m not sure we needed Clarice.” Lady Guinevere grinned at Gino. “But while Leona’s having a bit of a rest, she thought that Aulia might want to meet her father.”
Gino was already making his shaky way to her feet, but he stopped midway. “Au–Aulia? Aulia Luana?”
Leona had named the baby for his mother. Maybe not perfectly — but as Leona had pointed out when they were discussing names, she didn’t want any daughter of hers to get into fights on the playground until she could win them. Giving her an unusual name — Auli’i Luana — that was sure to get her teased was a good way to thwart that goal.
But Aulia Luana was just normal enough that she wouldn’t have to prove her boxing skills until she was ready …
“Yes — but I think that’s a bit of a mouthful for a little lass like this,” replied Lady Guinevere. “Maybe she’ll grow into it when she gets older, but for now …”
Gino crept closer to the baby.
She was — well, if Gino had doubts about the provenance of Sir Bors’s elder daughters, he need have no such doubts about his own. She had his dusky skin, what hair she had was brown like his, not black like Leona’s. And were those — were those his eyes?
But hopefully she’d have more of her mother’s features when she grew older. Leona was a stunning woman, and surely her daughter would be every bit as much of a heart-stopper.
It occurred to Gino that it was a good thing there seemed to be a detente between him and Sir William, because he might be in need of fencing lessons sooner than he liked …
“Lilu,” Gino whispered.
“What?” asked Lady Guinevere.
“Lilu,” Gino repeated. “You’re right–that name is a bit too big for her–but Lilu–that’s just her size.”
“So it is! Lilu!” Lady Guinvere repeated. “Cute as a button, just like her!”
“Aye,” Gino agreed. He brought one finger up to stroke her cheek.
“Well, don’t just stand there gaping at her,” Lady Guinevere chuckled. “I think she wants to meet her papa, not just be stared at by him.”
“But–what?” Gino asked stupidly.
“Hold her.” Lady Guinevere held the baby out to him. “Say hello.”
“But–but what I break her?”
“Oh, you won’t break her. You’ll be fine. Babies are sturdier than they look.” Without waiting for Gino to protest again, Lady Guinevere deposited Lilu into his arms. “There. See? That’s not so hard.”
“And if you have any trouble, you’ve got all of us right here to help you out,” Lady Guinevere continued. “That’s what family’s for.”
Yes … family …
Gino brought Lilu to rest against his shoulder.
She was part of their family now … and he … he had a family …
Maybe he now had a bigger family than he’d ever dared to hope.
“Welcome, Lilu,” Gino whispered to his daughter. “Welcome to the world.
“And …” He whispered even more softly. “Despite what your mother might have been saying when you made your entrance … I promise you, I am not a cock-sucking son of a sea serpent.”