When Berla heard her grammy and the hermit talking through the open bedroom window, it was one of those beautiful days in early summer when the grass was more turquoise than green, the shadows more silver than gray. The buttercups around the cottage were all abloom. Peaches were ripening on the peach-tree and blackberries were swelling on the bushes. Soon they would go a-picking and bake them up into pies.
Berla was on her way back from the mossy pond with its lily pads and warty toads when a butterfly with bright blue eyespots caught her attention. Following it to a patch of lemony buttercups, she didn’t realize she was crouching outside her grammy’s bedroom window until she heard voices coming from inside. Her grammy had impressed upon her that it was not polite to eavesdrop, but she was so surprised to hear a conversation taking place that the injunction slipped her mind. The cottage seldom had visitors. Who could her grammy be talking to?
The stranger didn’t sound like anyone she knew from town. It was the voice of an old man, rough and leathery and punctuated by juicy smacking noises as if he were biting into a ripe peach. Only later would she recognize it as belonging to the old hermit who wandered the hills. Her grammy’s voice had a peculiar quality that day. Rather than the firm, measured tones she used with Berla, her voice was soft and confessional. A dry whistling filled up the hollow spaces, the result of a severe chest cold that had set in over the past week.
“And the Lady Densa, what of her?” the old man was saying.
“Passed on a few years after I married. Poison, they say. Her handmaid was executed for it.”
“Do you think she did it?”
“It’s possible, I suppose,” she said, pausing to cough into a fist. “Or maybe the Lady Densa poisoned herself. Rhojë knows she threatened to do it often enough. Said she didn’t want to give her enemies the satisfaction of seeing her grow frail and weak-minded.”
“A wise woman. I must confess that I’ve judged her too harshly over the years.”
“I think she just grew tired of living, if you want my opinion. Things changed between us after the wedding. She couldn’t bring herself to surrender control of me even if it was to the man she had hand-picked. She wanted me to remain forever beholden to her, but by then, I was fed up with playing the role of doting protégé. Once I had my independence, such as it was, I served her up a strong dose of her own mule-headedness. Nothing too public or scandalous mind you, but the sort of snubs and slights that a lady of her exquisite perceptiveness could hardly fail to notice. I secretly blamed her for what happened to you.”
“And your husband, was he a good man?”
“Pleasant enough. He never hit me or used me harshly, if that’s what you mean. We never really spoke much. He was obsessed with collecting statues. He would travel hundreds of miles just to see a rare statue, but once it was standing in his courtyard, he would never look at it again.”
“A son, Sir Peter.”
“Sir Peter Contralis, head of the Bankers Guild? Come to think of it, there was something familiar about him. It’s a wonder I never made the connection before. A man of no small ability as I recall. You must have been very proud.”
“Aren’t all mothers proud of their sons’ accomplishments?”
“Sir Peter was no more a son of mine than this bedpost here.” Her voice held a bitter edge. “I don’t deny that he had his good qualities, a host of them to be sure. He was intelligent, handsome, witty, charming and a hundred other things I could mention. And why shouldn’t he be? Blaise saw to it that he had the best of everything. We must have retained half the tutors in the kingdom at one time or another. Sir Peter sucked the marrow out of them, learning all they had to teach and then shaming them with their own erudition. He spoke seven languages, could do figures in his head, and was able to recite entire epics from memory. Many a highborn lady would have sold their soul in a bottle to have a son like that, so brilliant and shrewd and dashing. But there was a coldness to him. He would manipulate people like pieces on a battle-board and toss them aside once they had served his use. I don’t think he ever truly cared for anyone, except for Blaise perhaps. I tried to love him, but it was like loving a chunk of stone. The only time I ever felt any tenderness for him was when he was sleeping. Only then did he look and behave like a normal child.” Her voice trailed away in a cough.
“Here, take some water.”
She paused to take a drink and her voice regained some of its strength. “This one time he went missing for an entire day. He was only eight at the time and we were worried sick. We turned the district upside down looking for him. Come to find out he had sneaked off to see Prince Rutan’s knighting ceremony. When he came home late that night, I must have been crying for an hour already. You know what my own son says to me? Not a word of apology. He looks me right in the eye and says, Fetch me some dinner, woman. Can’t you see I’m famished. Well, I didn’t know what to say to that so I just stood there gawping at him. Then he reaches into his pocket and pulls out a gold crown. He tosses it to me and says, Here’s a crown for your tears. Now will you fix me some food? Can you believe that? He meant to buy away a mother’s tears.” She paused to take another drink. “I know it’s wrong to say it, but I often wished that one of us would die. It didn’t matter which one, just so long as I wouldn’t have to live in the same house with him and look into those cold, heartless eyes day after day. But it was Blaise who passed on instead. One of his statues fell on him while he was having it mounted on a pedestal.”
“I’m not. He got exactly what he wanted in the end. Sir Peter commissioned a statue to be made of him, keeping his father’s embalmed body posed in the solar until it was done. He convinced the king it was a statue of Peligar the Poet and had it placed in Legends Walk. It’s still there today, I imagine, thought it might go under a different name now. I hear the new king isn’t very keen on poets.”
“And after your husband’s death, what then?”
“Sir Peter inherited the estate. Never mind that it had been acquired through my dowry—courtesy of the Lady Densa, of course—but it was all his now, everything but a couple hundred gold I kept stashed away. I always meant to buy a small piece of country somewhere and breed horses.”
“What kept you?”
“Propriety and plain common sense, that’s what. It was a damn foolish notion, something to cling to in my darker moments. A woman of my position and years—where could I have gone? You can’t take a plucked flower from its vase and put it back in the meadow.”
“Did you ever consider going back to Twin Oaks?”
“I thought about it now and again. But never for long. I didn’t want my father to see what I had become. Strange, isn’t it? When I was a girl, there was nothing I wanted more than to become a princess and live in a big castle. But there I was, a well-regarded lady of the court, wealthy beyond my dreams with a son that might one day contend for the throne, and all I felt was shame and regret. It’s hard to explain.”
“Time makes whores and knaves of us all,” said the old man.
“Well, time certainly hasn’t turned you into a prince, I’ll say that much,” she chuckled weakly. “What about you? Did you ever visit the old farm?”
The old man grunted in the affirmative. “Your father lived to a ripe old age. He met a widow from up by Allentown and they were married under the burned oak. She breathed new life into the inn. You wouldn’t have recognized it.”
Berla’s grammy sighed heavily, the air rasping through her lips like a teapot that couldn’t work up the strength to whistle. “That’s nice to hear.”
The old man changed the subject. “You never said why you left Alvaron and wound up here in the armpit of our blessed kingdom.”
Grammy shrugged. “Sir Peter was one of the first nobles to be imprisoned when Malchum seized power. I knew it was only a matter of time before the Grand Inquisitors showed up on our doorstep. So I took my granddaughter and fled the city. I can’t say I ever missed it much. It was such a cold place that house, like a mausoleum really. So quiet and somber. Everything had its set place, even the people.”
“And the girl, she’s Sir Peter’s?”
“Only in the strictest physical sense. I suppose it’s funny in a way. I always wanted to have a girl, a young princess of my very own. I pictured the two of us, just like the Lady Densa and I, staying up nights talking and brushing out each other’s hair. Instead, I had Sir Peter. Sir Peter, he wanted a male heir to establish his dynasty, and Rhojë gave him a girl. He was so upset he refused to hold her or call her by name. And when Berla got older and showed signs of being touched in the head, he forbade us to speak of her to anyone. If someone inquired, we were to tell them she belonged to one of the housemaids. Not that Berla minded. Truly, such a gentle and trusting soul you will never find. Were it not for her, I would surely have thought there was no good left in the world.”
Only then did it dawn on Berla that they were speaking of her and her own family. She remembered Sir Peter, a tall, stiff man with a severe face that lived in the big stone house with them, but she had never equated him to any relation of hers, much less her father. Even now, the words did not fully sink in. It was as if her grammy were speaking of strangers she had only met in passing. A bout of coughing drew her attention back to the window.
“Easy now,” the old man soothed. “You’ve been talking too much. I’ll stack some pillows for you. There now, lie back.”
“And what of you, Moribus Ansol?” her grammy said. “How have you passed the years?”
“Oh, traveling hither and yon and back again.”
“And all the tales I’ve heard? Scores of dragons slain? Young maidens wooed all the way from Pince Vero to Cattaleaux?”
The old man shifted uncomfortably. “You can’t believe half the rumors you hear at court. You of all people should know that.”
“And which half am I not to believe? The slaying half or the wooing half?” A tense moment passed while the old man only smacked his lips in reply. “So it’s true, after all.”
“I suppose there’s as much truth as falsehood in them,” he admitted. “When I lost you, I had this nameless craving that I tried to slake with every kind of adventure and vice. But every time I slew a dragon, I just felt emptier inside. The young maidens ran off or found other paramours, or I simply tired of them. As for fame and wealth, you know how quickly those pass. It’s like the saying goes, when the wine is gone, one must quaff the ale. Only it takes a lot more ale to muddle the wits.”
“And am I to believe then that all this carousing and carrying on was nothing more than a bit of wit-muddling for you?”
“My lady has always believed what she chooses to believe. I discovered long ago that I was powerless to convince her otherwise.”
“You haven’t changed a bit, Moribus Ansol,” she said with a mixture of ire and fondness. “You’re just as contrary as ever. Shush now and don’t give me any more reason to be cross with you. Here, hold my hand.”