A silence followed that would prove difficult to read.
Wolfram knew that with Selva, the only quiet to be had between them would be when she slept at his side. She afforded him little peace otherwise– scolding, teasing, flirting, and otherwise playing at being a charmingly noisy wife.
What she meant by this silence he could not determine. Her eyes were downcast, hiding the inner depths of her thoughts.
He did not need to see the conflicted look on Miss Redley’s face and Edmund’s grave expression to know he had said far too much.
They looked upon him expectantly, waiting for him to take his words back. He was not surprised that the two sided with his wife. They were determined to protect her. It would likely always be this way.
And unearthing the past was one particular taboo when it came to his wife. There was likely good reason to avoid the topic, but Wolfram remained unswayed. Peace and harmony were not reason enough to maintain secrets and suspicions. If he risked their ruin, it was because he had now realized the danger in waiting. Confronting the truth might be the only means he had to ensure he could protect the family he wanted to have.
These were the desires and reasons of a pragmatic creature that could not be conveyed to those he spoke to. Instead, he waited for what would come next. He would watch his wife until the stillness broke.
He expected rage or tears. Instead, she shifted the baby in her arms and resumed with admiring her child.
“Selva?” He did not understand. “Did you not hear my question?”
She did not look up. But in a small, low voice, she answered. “Given the scolding I already have received, I do not know what you expect.”
Her words confused him. And then he realized she was being ironic. Perhaps she was angry that he had implied she had gone mad.
Of course. He opened his mouth to speak but saw her raise her head.
Her eyes were full of anguish as she looked across at Edmund holding her youngest child. “How shall I answer Edmund? ” Her mouth twisted as she laid her thoughts bare. “Is it alright for me to entertain that notion? Do I have the right to be that selfish and lay such a claim? Your mother would find it appalling I am certain.”
Wolfram frowned as she turned the question back at him. He did not understand her. “Selva,” he tried to intervene.
“Maximilian.” She offered him what was meant to be a reprimand. However, her voice was not up to the task, shaking while she challenged him. “You have no right to burden him like that. How can you after all he has done for us?”
Their daughter began to cry peevishly as her feeding was interrupted. The others began to follow, crying as if they sensed their mother’s mood.
The resulting scene of outright misery irritated Wolfram. The Count furrowed his brow and crossed his arms across his chest while the children wailed around him.
He closed his eyes and listened. He could hear Miss Redley trying her best to calm his son but failing spectacularly. His wife had her hands full with her wailing daughter in her arms.
And then there was a laugh. It started off hesitantly and then began to continue. Wolfram opened one eye to find Edmund nearly crying in amusement while Miss Redley looked on, mortified by this apparent bout of madness.
She begged him to calm himself. Edmund tried, but his shoulders and body trembled– betraying that he had failed to do so. But instead of being perturbed by the movement, the child in his arm ceased to cry and began to giggle. The others stopped their fussing to watch the fair-haired pair. Soon, they began to echo the young man’s mirth and made strange sounds that would turn into squeals every time Edmund would snort.
What they saw, what they felt, Wolfram could not tell. But the air calmed and lightened around them. Somehow Edmund had pacified the terrible trio.
“Oh Edmund,” Miss Redley was still flustered by his response. “You should not make light of such a serious conversation. And now the children are all awake and rowdy.”
“I know, I know,” he still grinned. “But it is not too often you see the Count’s wishes being ignored. In this case, by his own children.”
His eyes did not lose their mirth as he addressed the Count. “Frankly, I think you two have been fairly irresponsible about the whole matter. We have been tiptoeing around this issue for months now. It seems like you’re each always afraid of something.”
Wolfram was puzzled by Edmund’s lighthearted response to the situation. He had expected him to be openly hostile to discussing his parentage.
But he had lost sight of the boy, failing to see that the boy had truly become a man. Whether it was due to Miss Redley or the lions, he did not know. However, he knew he ought to be grateful for his deft handling of the situation. Edmund had soothed over the rough, unpleasant mood and distracted them all.
Whatever internal anguish his wife suffered from was momentarily forgotten. Selva reached out to touch Edmund’s hand with her fingers.
Some silent communication passed in that gesture and Edmund’s gaze fell upon the Count.
For a moment, Wolfram wondered how much the young man’s sharp eyes could see.
Edmund did not blink. “Since the moment you raised this possibility, I have given a lot of thought to why. But I saw you would benefit from this sort of arrangement. If I were your son you would have an instant heir, grown and ready to fight in your place or hold it against those within your clan. Or perhaps you desire a person to mind the magic that begins to unfold here in this place. These are logical but undeniably selfish reasons.” He gazed down affectionately at the boy he held. “But there is one I could forgive, and that is I as your oldest would become a shield for your children.”
The women gasped at his words. In their innocence they had not realized all these things. But Edmund– sharp and able to see the truth–had figured out Wolfram’s thoughts so clearly.
He would not deny his insight. “This is not only my wish but it is theirs. My clan has no idea of my thoughts but it will only be a matter of time. It is almost certain that they will ask, for several suspect.”
Edmund did not appear to care. He reserved his concerns for Selva, who looked truly worried for her kinsman. “I know you want what is best for me. And you wish for my happiness. If you must know, I would not be burdened by any expectations you hold of me. But the truth is that the friar believes my real parents dead. He claims to have met me before they were killed when their entire village was plundered and destroyed in fire.He rescued me from the ruins and brought me to the Ormonds shortly thereafter.”
“I see. I did not hear of such a fire.” Selva looked deeply mortified. “Edmund, that is terrible. Do you remember this village?”
He sat still, trying hard to recollect his thoughts. Eventually, Edmund shook his head. “I feel I ought to given what happened.”
“His age or an encounter with an Unthing could have created holes where there should be memories,” Wolfram offered.
“But darling, you survived with most intact,” Selva countered. “And the other memories returned to you, did they not?”
He frowned at her as both Miss Redley and Edmund straightened up, interested in hearing the tale.
Thankfully, Selva realized she had said too much. She took care to distract them, asking for Elanore to bring her middle son to her.
While the boy suckled at her breast, she considered her husband’s thoughts. “You would have me hold out hope for our firstborn to have survived the same fate.” Selva’s thoughts drifted off for a moment– perhaps reliving that moment in her mind. Softly she spoke to herself. “There were many who were lost to darkness that day.”
“Lady Selva,” Elanore spoke gently. “When you first saw Edmund, were you drawn to him? Was it merely that unconscious recognition of him being like you? Or was there more to it?”
Once again she glanced at Edmund.“I knew he did not look like the others.”
“I am aware of that,” Edmund said dryly.
“You said you might remember your mother,” Elanore pressed. “Did you look like her?”
“No,” he corrected her mildly. “All I have of my mother is an impression of how she smelled and spoke. “ His face softened as he recalled that memory. “I have not returned to it often. I suppose I did not need to, for I was blessed to grow up in a good home. Even then, I would think about her every so often when I needed a source of comfort. Until I met Elanore.”
The girl paced about, embarrassed to have been called out so suddenly. It was evident she was moved by his words, as was Selva. The two ladies looked upon him now with a mixture of pride and love.
Wolfram wryly observed that the young man was most unlike him in that regard. If Edmund was his son, he had inherited the best from both of his parents. He possessed sense as well as sensibility. As such, Edmund was far better at handling the women than he.
He was also much better at handling these children.
Edmund had miraculously lulled the child in his arms to sleep. The other two followed, dozing off while the adults around them labored to redefine their relationships.
When he spoke again, it would be with the authority of one who had already thought out his response. “To be honest, I do not expect to learn the truth of who my parents are. I suppose there might be magic out there that could offer answers. But I want to know about that place where my mother came from. I want to see it and understand why talking about it makes the friar so afraid.” He saw the concerned looks the women exchanged. “I need to know that it is not something to still fear now.”
“That, too, might be unprovable,” the Count warned.
The young man shook his head. “No, I know that. But I will have a feeling. In absence of fact, those feelings might be enough to allow me to face whatever expectations others have of me. I know there are many.” He glanced Elanore’s way. “And I am thankful for them.”
His words did not sound ominous but hopeful. Selva continued to study Edmund. Her husband watched her in kind, seeing her confusion only mounting by the minute. Somewhat impatiently, she interrupted Edmund. “If you would indulge me, you had started to talk of your mother. Would you tell me more?”
He opened his mouth, suddenly unnerved to find so many pairs of eyes upon him. But he took a deep breath and closed his eyes before he began to speak. “I am lying on my back. It is warm beneath me. Soft. Her lap is soft. The smell of milk and pine is upon the air. The sun makes it hard to see her face. But she sings and speaks to me, her voice gently wrapping me in comfort.” His chin lifted as if he imagined himself a small child staring up at the sky. “ I can hear the wind rustling through the leaves above. Or is it the sound of water, running nearby? I can’t be sure. But I have a small stone in my hand. I like it very much because it is cool and smooth.”
Selva’s voice was tight and small as she interrupted. “Do you know what it looks like? What might be on it? Did it glow white?”
He thought for a moment. “Yes,” he said finally. “White like the moon.”