The pause that followed was long and meaningful. Selva studied the young man sitting across from her, her face shifting between doubt and hope.
If he knew he was being appraised by all in the room, Edmund did not show any discomfort. His grey eyes did not leave Selva as she searched for a response. But she could not speak.
One hand crossed the space between them and found hers. And then that pinched look on Selva’s face dissolved.
Left with only silence, Wolfram felt impatient. “Well?” he interrupted.
Both Edmund and Selva turned their eyes his way. From the faint look of irritation on Edmund’s face, the Count realized he had spoken too soon.
Selva looked away from them both. “Let me have time to think about it.”
This was not the answer the Count had hoped for. He had noticed there was something in her voice that was soft and reluctant. He might have pounced upon this doubt and questioned her further if Miss Redley had not intervened.
The young woman stood. “Well, there is one more baby to feed,” she gently prompted the children’s mother.
“Aye, aye,” Selva shot a grateful look at her young friend. “I cannot forget my duties, can I?”
And so began the reassignment of children. When Miss Redley handed Count Wolfram his youngest son, he perceived a hint of defiance on her face. He was bemused to have evoked such a reaction. Clearly the woman was displeased with him.
But she did not scold him. Instead, Miss Redley left the two men holding the other children in order to freshen up the room. While the two men sat silent, the two women fell into an easy, mundane chatter about babies.
Wolfram said little. Miss Redley had grown up with a house full of children and he had grown up as an only son. Selva, who had fostered in a village with many children, was receptive to the girl’s advice.
Eventually, their conversation about children would expand to include those under the townspeople’s care. The children who had come from the town to South were still, to his surprise, very much on his wife’s mind. Selva would ask about them by name and Miss Redley would struggle to provide that information.
He was surprised by the nature of their conversations but soon he lost interest. Instead, he focused on the child in his arms– watching him with keenly.
The women were tireless at talking. While the two discussed the other patients under the care of the estate, Wolfram decided to walk about the chamber. The child he carried began to babble.
Eventually Edmund joined him. But unlike her younger brother, the child he carried was asleep.
The gentleman was not all that sure how to talk to his newfound company. “This child fusses,” is what the Count volunteered. “Perhaps he does not like me.”
He considered that the one he spoke to did not like him all that much either. Wolfram was not particularly adept with humans. Morosely, he recalled he always made the human children cry.
“No, I don’t think it’s that.” Edmund leaned over to listen. “I believe he wants to go outside. He seems confused as to why there is no light here.”
The Count narrowed his eyes. “You claim to understand him.”
The young man stepped back and realized he had said too much. “Well, yes.I mean I suppose so. I would gather this might just be kinship.” Edmund glanced Selva’s way.”Or perhaps it is just yet another odd occurrence.”
The Count realized that there were those in this world preternaturally attuned to one another’s feelings. That Edmund, Selva, and his youngest child were among them did not entirely surprise him. He had always known there was something mysterious about these hornless creatures. But his sense of wonder did not make him dull. Edmund’s words required further investigation. His suspicions roused, he asked, “Another? What do you mean?”
The young man was reluctant to speak.
“Well?” the Count prompted.
“Elanore and I had a strange thing happen in your wife’s hothouse.” Edmund hesitated, as if he was trying to decide how much to say. “Well, something was inside it. At first we could not see exactly what but when they did appear, we saw small childlike creatures. They run and fly around.”
Wolfram recalled the boy had mentioned something of this earlier. He raised one brow, listening. “So we have an infestation of pests.”
“No,” Edmund said all too sharply. He corrected himself. “Elanore calls them fairies, although I know it sounds silly. I always had been suspicious of where the vegetables and fruit came from but it appears they are the ones responsible for providing so much of what we enjoy. I suppose one might rest easier now, knowing Selva is not doing this all on her own.”
The Count glanced across the room to where his wife was laughing at something Miss Redley had said. He had long known his wife had an affinity to the creatures of the woods — and they to her. He wondered if she had known of their presence all along.
As for the young man, if he had any suspicions as to his lineage– they could not be ignored now. His gaze returned to Edmund, wondering if the young man was pleased or unsettled by the discovery.
But the opportunity to speak of such things was not to pass. The child in Wolfram’s arms began to squeak and wave his fists around.
“What is it?” Wolfram looked down at his youngest. But the child’s murmuring did not make itself clear to him. He tilted his head and looked at Edmund. “He is hungry? Tired?”
Edmund had not expected to be so readily consulted. After he recovered from his surprise, he leaned in again and listened to Wolfram’s youngest son. When he straightened up he seemed perturbed. “He says there are others coming.”
Wolfram felt a pang of uneasiness. He noticed the scrunched up look on his child’s face. “And are they a bad sort?”
Edmund peered into the face of the newborn for a minute. “No. I don’t believe so. But,” he began chuckling. “From the smell, I would guess that look means he just soiled himself. You’ll need to change his blanket.”
* * *
To the Count’s relief, he would not be left tending the children’s soiled linens. Lady Tala’s daughters had not ventured too far. Once Selva had finished nursing, they were easily summoned to help the new mother and her babies prepare for sleep.
Elanore and Edmund were dismissed by the Count and left to their own devices. They ought to have turned in for it was far past a decent hour. However, Elanore was not all that inclined to simply leave Edmund alone after such a peculiar day.
She took his hand and ran lightly towards the other side of the estate where they could see the lions. She wanted to tell them of the lovely babies and fairies. But she was disappointed to find they had wandered off elsewhere.
Edmund urged her to stop calling for them. With the guild men gone, the lions had naturally fallen in with the night patrols to help keep an eye out for danger. They were busy doing what they loved most– protecting their home.
Only Gawain appeared. He greeted them with affectionate nudge and, in kind, received more than his share of pats and scratches. His eyes brightened at the news that the new children all were healthy and well.
When his needs for attention were adequately sated, he told a curious Elanore that several of his brothers were out chasing things up trees. He was so eager to join them that she let him go with a promise to stay safe and not stray far from the estate.
Elanore should have turned in then save her mind was still preoccupied with worry for her companion. There were few sanctioned places for an unchaperoned girl to wander off with her beau, so they chose the library — still kept lit for the many residents who made use of its services.
She sat down at a large wooden table while Edmund looked for the book she had asked to see. When he returned, she looked at her fiancee. His entire manner this evening had been too carefree, too glib. He had started to read to her from the book when she blurted out the question on her mind. “Are you okay? What the Count said…”
He closed the book and offered her a wry smile. “He took me by surprise. I tried to not make the situation worse, but did I behave that badly?”
She shook her head. “No! But his questions were so impertinent. And Selva’s face– oh, how could he not see what he was doing?”
Edmund pressed his lips together. They were likeminded in many respects but he did not criticize the Count. Instead, he sighed. “No, I think he was trying to help her.” He dropped his eyes. “I have to believe that– because they both might be my parents.”
Something about his admission made her ache. Rarely was he sad. But if he felt that way, he was also trying to be brave—- not for himself but for all of them. He was always like this–always sacrificing for others. Elanore took his hand and pressed it to her cheek. “It won’t matter to me either way. You are Edmund. You wouldn’t let whatever the truth is change you.”
“I hope so,” he sounded tired and far older than he looked. “I don’t want to change. Not if it means losing those most important to me.”
She quickly rose from her seat and threw her arms around his neck. “You won’t.”
Elanore had intended only to comfort him. And if she had done so in a gentle manner, he might have enjoyed this sudden outburst of affection. Instead, she kneed him in the process.
He exclaimed under his breath at the sudden pain. Quickly, he resettled her next to him where her hands and legs could not accidentally assault him.
She frowned at the sudden distance between them.
He coughed. “Forgive me, but your compassion is dangerous.”
“Edmund!” She would have apologized then but his eyes were glinting with amusement. “Why you,” she feigned annoyance at his teasing. “I think I shall turn in now.”
He tapped on the table. “But I thought you wanted to read about all our odd little guests in this estate.”
She could not decide if he was being sarcastic or not. She started to rise from her seat. However, he would not let her leave. He took hold of her hand and pulled her onto his lap.
Elanore felt her face redden yet again as she looked into his face. His eyes were gleaming. “Now what, Edmund? Whatever happened to reading?”
“I think I changed my mind,” he replied. “I think I shall propose again right now.”