She choked on a laugh. “Oh, Fitz. Please. No, you won’t. But I’m going to ask you to pretend that you do. Only when we are in here, together. And in return, when I am not in this room, I will pretend I am not pregnant, as best I can.” She shook her head, her hair rubbing against my cheek. “I am sure that will be much easier for the servants. Except for Revel. Our steward seemed absolutely delighted to help me construct this nest.”
I thought of Revel, tall, almost gaunt in his thinness, always grave and correct with me. “Was he?” It didn’t seem believable.
“Oh, yes. He found the screens with the pansies on them, and had them cleaned before he even told me. I came in here one day, and they were set up around the cradle. And the lace over it, to keep insects away.”
Pansies. From Patience, I knew they were sometimes called heart’s ease. I owed Revel.
She stood, pulling herself out of my arms. She stepped away from me, and I looked at her. Her long nightgown was scarcely revealing, and she had always been a woman of curves. She went to the hearth, and I saw that there was a tray set on a stand with tea things on it. I studied her profile. She looked little different to me than she had five years ago. Surely if she were pregnant, I’d be able to tell. I measured the slight swell of her belly, her ample hips and generous breasts, and suddenly I was not thinking of babies at all.
She glanced over at me, asking, teapot in hand, “Would you like some?” Then, as I stared at her, her eyes slowly widened and a wicked smile curved her mouth. It was a smile worthy of a naked girl wearing only a holly crown.
“Oh, indeed I would,” I replied. As I rose and went to her, she came to meet me. We were gentle and slow with each other, and that night we both slept in her bed in the nursery.
Winter found Withywoods the next day, with a fall of wet snow that brought down the remaining leaves on the birches and lined their graceful branches with white. The stillness that the first snowfall always brings settled like a mantle over the land. Within Withywoods Manor it suddenly seemed a time for wood fires and hot soup and fresh bread at noon. I had returned to the manor’s study and a clear-flamed fire of applewood was crackling on the hearth when there was a tap at the door.
“Yes,” I called, looking up from a missive from Web.
The door opened slowly and Revel entered. His fitted coat hugged his wide shoulders and narrow waist. He was always impeccably attired and correct in his manners. Decades younger than me, he had a bearing that made me feel like a boy with dirty hands and a stained tunic when he looked down at me. “You sent for me, Holder Badgerlock?”
“I did.” I set Web’s letter to one side. “I wanted to speak to you about Lady Molly’s chamber. The screens with the pansies on them …”
The expectation of my disapproval flickered in his eyes. He drew himself up to his full height and looked down on me with the dignity that a truly good house steward always radiates. “Sir. If you please. The screens have not seen use in decades, and yet they are lovely things worthy of display. I know I acted without direct authorization, but Lady Molly has seemed … dispirited of late. Before you departed, you had directed me to see to her needs. I did. As for the cradle, I came upon her sitting at the top of the stairs, all out of breath and near weeping. It is a heavy cradle, sir, and yet she had managed to move it that far on her own. I felt shamed that she had not come to me and simply told me what she wished me to do. And so, with the screens, I tried to anticipate what she would wish. She has always been kind to me.”
He stopped talking. Plainly he felt there was much more he could have said to someone as thick-witted and rock-hearted as I apparently was. I met his gaze and then spoke quietly.
“As she has to me. I am grateful for your service to her and to the estate. Thank you.” I had called him in to tell him that I had decided to double his wages. While the gesture still seemed correct, speaking aloud of it suddenly seemed a mercenary thing to do. He had not done this for money. He had repaid a kindness with a kindness. He would discover our largesse when he received his month’s wages, and he would know what it was for. But money was not what would matter to this man. I spoke quietly. “You’re an excellent steward, Revel, and we value you highly. I want to be sure you know that.”
He inclined his head slightly. It wasn’t a bow, it was an acceptance. “I do now, sir.”
“Thank you, Revel.”
“I’m sure you’re welcome, sir.”
And he left the room as quietly as he’d come.
Winter deepened around Withywoods. The days shortened, the snow piled up, and the nights were black and frosty. Molly and I had made our truce and we both kept it. It made life simpler for both of us. I truly think peace was what we most desired. Most early evenings I spent in the room I had come to think of as Molly’s study. She tended to fall asleep there, and I would cover her well and then creep away to my own disorderly den and my work there. So it was very late one night as we were drawing close to midwinter. Chade had sent me a very intriguing set of scrolls, in a language that was almost Outislander. There were three illustrations in them, and they seemed to be of standing stones, with small notations at the side that could have been glyphs. This was the sort of puzzle that I dreaded, for I did not have enough clues to solve it and yet I could not leave it alone. I was working on the scrolls, creating a page beside the first one that duplicated the faded illustrations, substituting the words I could translate and leaving room for the others. I was trying to gain a general idea of what the scroll was about, but was totally mystified by the apparent use of the word “porridge” in its title.