The pansy screens had been moved to catch and hold the warmth of the fire. The burning logs crackled softly, and shadows danced in the room. The baby was close to sleep in her mother’s arms when I set down the table and the tray.
“What’s this?” Molly asked with a startled smile.
“I just thought we might have some quiet time, and perhaps a bite of something sweet.”
Her smile widened. “I can’t think of anything I’d like better!”
“And true for me as well.” I sat down beside them, careful not to jostle her. I leaned around her to look into my daughter’s tiny face. She was red, her pale brows drawn together in concentration. Her hair was only wisps, her fingernails smaller than a fish’s scale and as delicate. For a time, I just looked at her.
Molly had taken a biscuit and dipped it in the raspberry preserves and then scooped a small amount of cream onto it. “It smells and tastes like summer,” she said after a moment. I poured tea for both of us, and the fragrance of it mingled with the scent from the raspberries. I took a biscuit for myself, and was more generous with both jam and cream than she had been.
“It does,” I agreed. For a short time, we simply shared food and tea and the warmth of the fire. Outside a light snow was falling. We were here, inside, safe and warm as a den. Perhaps tomorrow would be a better time to tell her.
“What is it?”
I turned startled eyes to her. She shook her head at me. “You’ve sighed twice and shifted about as if you have fleas but aren’t allowed to scratch. Out with it.”
It was like ripping a bandage off a wound. Do it quickly. “I didn’t tell Nettle the baby was born. Or send your letters to the boys.”
She stiffened slightly, and the baby opened her eyes. I felt the effort Molly made to relax and be calm for the infant’s sake. “Fitz. Whyever not?”
I hesitated. I didn’t want to anger her, but I desperately wanted my own way about this. I finally spoke, my words awkward. “I thought we might keep her a secret for a time. Until she was bigger.”
Molly shifted her hand on the baby. I saw how she measured the tiny chest, less than the span of her fingers. “You’ve realized how different she is,” she said quietly. “How small.” Her voice was husky.
I nodded at her. “I heard the maids talking. I wish they hadn’t seen her. Molly, they were frightened of her. ‘Like a doll come to life, so tiny and with those pale-blue eyes always staring. Like she ought to be blind but instead she’s looking right through you.’ That’s what Tavia said to Mild. And Mild said she ‘wasn’t natural.’ That no child that tiny and young should seem as alert as she is.”
It was as if I had hissed at a cat. Molly’s eyes narrowed and her shoulders tightened. “They came in here to tidy yesterday. I’d told them I didn’t need their help, but that’s why they came in, I’m sure. To see her. Because yesterday I took her to the kitchen with me, and Cook Nutmeg saw her. She said, ‘The little mite hasn’t grown a bit yet, has she?’ She has, of course. But not enough for Cook to notice.” She clenched her teeth. “Let them go. All of them. The maids and Cook. Send them all away.” There was as much pain as anger in her voice.
“Molly.” I kept my voice calm as I called her back to reason. “They’ve been here for years. Mild’s cradle was in that kitchen, and only last year she took employment with us as a scullery girl. She’s scarcely more than a child, and this has always been her home. Patience hired Cook Nutmeg, all those years ago. Tavia has been with us sixteen years, and her mother, Salin, before her. Her husband works in the vineyards. It will cause hard feelings among the whole staff if we let them go! And it would cause talk. And rumors that there was something about our babe that we needed to hide. And we’d know nothing of those we hired to replace them.” I rubbed my face, then added more quietly, “They need to stay. And perhaps we need to pay them well to be sure of their loyalty.”
“We already pay them well,” Molly snapped. “We’ve always been generous with them. We’ve always hired their children as they came of age to be useful. When Tavia’s husband broke his leg and had to sit out the harvest that year, we kept him on. And Cook Nutmeg spends more time sitting than cooking these days, but we’ve never spoken of letting her go. We simply hired more help. Fitz, are you seriously saying that I need to bribe them not to think ill of my baby? Do you think they’re a danger to her? Because if they are, I’ll kill them both.”