They met with the baron that afternoon, who in turn invited them to dine with his wife and daughters later that evening so they could discuss the work he wanted them to do in more detail and fine tune the terms he was offering just in time for a new year. Nyannah had been cordial, acting natural in the company of the baron, but when they were alone again she was colder than the last day of October wind blowing through Lyria.
He didn’t push her. He didn’t want to fight, but soon he’d have to, whether he wanted it or not.
He really didn’t understand what the big deal was. So what if he hadn’t ever spoken of his family. He’d told her everything of importance that had ever happened to him. The details of his family life before he came to Oxenfurt were not important. His life started at Oxenfurt.
Surely she understood that.
But she didn’t, judging from the way she continued to huff while she was stretching into her stockings and then again while buckling her boots. She clicked her tongue against the roof of her mouth several times while braiding and twining her hair into a delightful pile atop her head, and he swore he caught her scowling at him from the corner of her eye while she was darkening her eyes, adding color to her cheeks and staining her lips in front of the mirror.
They went to dinner without a single word to one another, but played the loving couple throughout the evening without trouble. They lied and said they were married and had been for three years, to avoid shocking the baroness, who was more traditional than Nyanna’s mother. They slipped easily into a quaint story about how they’d met while he’d been offering a lecture her final semester at Oxenfurt and fallen instantly in love just like the characters in a romantic ballad, rushing straight to the first priest who would knot their hands together and say a blessing behind them as they leapt the Belleteyn fires and fell laughing into each other’s arms.
Tra la la…
It wasn’t entirely untrue, well, except for the priest and the handfasting part. The rest of it was more or less exactly how it had all come together.
He almost forget how angry she was with him when she cast those shining eyes fondly in his direction and spoke of how he’d stolen her heart, but in the depths of that shine he saw all the things she wasn’t saying. She was livid, beyond annoyed, and that inevitable argument was growing closer by the minute, probably already waiting for them in their shared room above the tavern.
Well, fine, he thought. That gave him plenty of time to formulate a counter dispute about her own strange behavior of late. He abhorred fighting, but if she wanted a fight, he’d be ready for her, damn it!
He grinned across the table with her and told them how fortunate he was to have found love so late in his life, confessing that he surely didn’t deserve a blessing such as her and she never, not even for a single moment, let him forget it.
Treated to a delightful supper of braised lamb with fragrant sprigs of mint and jelly, autumn vegetables prepared in a variety of different dishes, and such desserts the likes of which they’d only dreamed of over the last few months, they hadn’t eaten so well in ages and he was excited by the prospect of spending the winter in a place where he wouldn’t complain about the food. Nayannah’s mother was a terrible cook who didn’t know a thing about spices at all.
Several times he noticed her sullen mood getting the best of her. He caught her staring at the baron’s daughters, that strange, lamenting look in her eyes that she’d been wearing for weeks. Fortunately, no one seemed to notice her distance but him. She spoke pleasantly to both of the girls in that sing-song patient voice of hers, and she made delightful conversation with their soon-to-be employers, but whenever he took over the conversation he caught her from the corner of his eye staring at those children again as though just looking at them broke her fragile little heart.
When the baron asked her to stand up and perform for them after supper, she didn’t miss a beat. She rose, modestly blushed and then dazzled them all with the clear beauty of her voice and the perfect melody of her lute. She sang a love song of her own design, one he’d never heard her perform before, about a brave young woman who’d traveled the world and endured many adventures with her true love to find her inspiration, only to discover it was with her everywhere she went.
He loved her far too much, found himself emotionally struck as he realized it was a song she wrote for him. Detailing some of their most memorable adventures and capturing the innocence of what they shared in ways that made him feel guilty for strategically planning out the points of his argument with her once they were finally alone again.
By the time dinner was finished and they’d all drank their fill, it was agreed the two of them would move into the baron’s cottage the day after next, on the first of November. They would winter in peace, privacy and relative comfort, devoting two hours of their time each day to teaching the sniveling little snot-faced monsters he called his precious little darlings the finer arts of music and poetry.
The rest of his day would be his to do with as he pleased, which made it the perfect arrangement. They’d seen plenty of wonders in their travels over the last nine months, the inspiration of those wonders longed to pour into ballad and prose to be shared with the masses. He could probably have an entire book finished by the time Imbolc was upon them.
Walking home from the baron’s estate, the Saovine burning of Falka in the square filled the night with a delightful, smoky essence that mingled with the pungent scent of fallen leaves and damp earth. It made the chill of the night itself feel that much stronger, as the whistling wind in bare branches made him think of banshees calling out their death cries.
He was, after all, becoming an old man. How long before he heard their cries on Saovine, announcing his end in the coming year and filling him with terror? He tried not to think about it, returning his thoughts to the good things coming their way. A steady job for the winter, evenings to write more of his memoirs to be compiled into another volume of strange and wonderful tales. The woman he loved, though he was quite certain at the moment she hated him, warming the same bed with him through the long winter nights.
“Everything is perfect,” he declared with a loud clap of his hands once they were safe behind the door of their room above the tavern. “This may just be the best winter we’ve spent together yet. A cushy cottage, plenty of money to fund our travels in the spring and hardly any work to be done for any of it.”
“It is all very perfect,” she said without conviction, “isn’t it?”
“Is that a problem for some reason? I’m sensing by your tone that this arrangement doesn’t make you happy.”
“It’s not the arrangement that’s making me unhappy, Dandelion.”
“Then what, Nyan? What the hell is going on? And if you tell me nothing one more time…”
“What will you do? Shout at me?”
“You’re the one shouting,” he pointed out, raising his own voice just to spite her. Surely the scant few patrons in the tavern below were cozying up for a real entertaining show, “but maybe if I shout back the sound of my voice will finally reach you and you’ll tell me what’s really on your mind!”
“Do you really want to know?” she lowered her voice, clenching her teeth tight together. “Do you really want to know what’s wrong with me? Why I’m lost and so far away? Why my back aches and why I cry myself to sleep at night?” Had she done that more than once? “Why I went to the apothecary this morning looking for a very specific potion?”
“Of course I want to know. I’ve asked you half a hundred times, haven’t I?”
“Fine, I’ll tell you, but you won’t like it when it’s been said,” she declared.
“Let me be the judge of that!”
“I’m with child.”
Well, that wasn’t what he’d been expecting her to say at all, and stunned he just stared at her while she went on.
“Your child, obviously, because there’s been no one else since I met you, and to be honest I’m absolutely sick about it.”
“Because why would I ever want to bring a child into this… this… whatever this is that we do?”
He wasn’t sure the severity of what she’d said actually struck him because his response was not appropriate to the news she’d just given him at all. It was biting to the point of cruel, and though he was ashamed of himself for it, he said it anyway. “Whatever this is that we do?” he asked. “I find it hard to believe someone as articulate and educated as you possesses no words for our companionship in her vast, scholarly vocabulary.”
“Companionship,” she nodded smugly. “Well, there you have it. Why would I want drop a child into the middle of our companionship? Which is quite perfect, by the way, just the way it is, except for the fact that I have no idea who you really are, my lord.”
“I asked you once not to call me that. I will not ask so nicely the third time!”
“I don’t even know who you are! I feel like I’ve been living with a stranger these last three years, and now I’m carrying a stranger’s child inside me and it just makes everything that much worse.”
“I am not a stranger. You know who I am,” he countered. “I’ve told you everything of importance. About the trouble I’ve been in and caused on numerous occasions, my time as a court spy for Aedirn… You’ve been privy to everything, one of very few people in my life who has known exactly who I am. Who I really am, Nyan. I don’t pretend with you and I never have.”
“But you didn’t trust me enough to tell me about your family.”
“So what if I never told you about my family. It isn’t much of a family, not really, and obviously people I don’t speak of aren’t people worth knowing about now are they? Real family are the people we choose to bring into our lives and hold close to us. Zoltan is family, and Triss in that strange way of hers. More than anyone else, Geralt was my family, and you. You’re my family now, unless this is the end.”
“No, wait,” he pointed a finger at her. “I’m not finished. Since you’re so curious about all of this, I’ll tell you what you want to hear and then you’ll never ask again about any of it if you really love me. If you can’t do that, if you can’t give me that one thing, well I just don’t know.”
“Don’t say that. You don’t have to tell me anything, not if you don’t want to.”
“It’s out now, so here you have it: my father was a cruel and spiteful bastard. He hated me. He cursed the day I was born and accused me my entire childhood of killing the woman he loved. I never knew my mother. She died giving birth to me, and my father’s second wife loathed the very sight of me because I made her husband so miserable. He was cruel and rotten, never missing a chance to cut me down and don’t even get me started about the beatings.”
“I left home when I was sixteen years old and never looked back. Everything I am today, all the things I’ve done, they had nothing to do with my family or the title that came with it. This,” he tapped his chest, “is me. I’m no lord, Nyannah. No viscount of anything. I’m just a wanderer and a poet, a lover and a dreamer, that’s all.”
“Why couldn’t you have just said that before? It’s still a part of who you are, whether you want it to be, or not.”
“Because I didn’t want to have to say it. I spent more than thirty years of my life not thinking about that man. A nasty, selfish whoreson who surely scoffed whenever he heard people talk about his only son, the famous bard and poet, and who only thought to send for me to make amends when he was dying. No.” he shook his head fiercely. “He had hundreds of chances over the years. No. It doesn’t work that way. And that isn’t who I am. He’s not a part of me, and when he’s dead, if he’s not already, I can tell you with the utmost certainty I’ll feel nothing about it. Absolutely nothing at all.”
Nyannah dropped her head, staring down at the floor beneath her boots until he reached across the space between them, gripped her chin and tilted her face back up to look at him.
“So you see, I am the man you know me to be, Nyan. I have never been anyone but me, not with you.”
She didn’t say anything, her eyes avoiding his even though he refused to look away.
“Can we talk about more important things now?” he asked.
“So did you…” he stopped himself, not sure he wanted an answer to the question he was about to ask. He wasn’t yet sure how he felt at all about what she’d told him. Their perfect Bohemian life, uncomplicated, straightforward and simple, was about to become… well, thorny.
“Did I what?”
“No,” she sighed. “Not yet. It isn’t something you can just walk in and walk out with. It has to be prepared, and all I did was ask about it.”
It made sense now, the way she’d been staring at those girls at dinner, the shortness of her temper, the tears she’d shed after making love and the distance she put between them. She’d known about it for days, probably weeks even, had been scared and confused, trying to figure out what she wanted, guessing how he might react. She hadn’t known how to face it all, and she’d been doing it alone. He felt awful for not having picked up on it. All the signs were there.
He was such a self-absorbed idiot!
“Is that what you want?” he asked, his voice soft and curious as his mind began to think about things it had never entertained before. “Do you want a child, Buttercup?”
“That’s just it,” she confessed, “I don’t know. I like our life the way it is. I love everything about the way we are right now. The traveling, the adventure, the freedom, Dandelion. We are so free. A child changes everything.”
“Yes,” he agreed, “it does.”
“I don’t want to live in Tretogor with my mother, or get a job teaching at Oxenfurt. And I certainly don’t want to stay here teaching someone else’s children for the rest of my days. We wouldn’t be able to travel anymore. We’d have to settle down.”
“Why wouldn’t we be able to travel?” he asked, grinning as he added, “We’re Bohemians, remember? Any child we brought into this world together would know the road because that is our life, Nyan. We’re wanderers, poets spreading light and beauty through the world one song at a time. We haven’t done a single conventional thing since we’ve met. Why would we change who we are because of this?”
“I don’t know. I hadn’t really thought of it like that.” For the first time since they had softened the tone of their voices she met his eyes of her own free will. “It’s just so… permanent,” she said. “It would tie us to each other for… well… forever.”
“Hmm,” he nodded thoughtfully, “yes, it would, but in case you hadn’t noticed I’m already rather attached to you.”
“Is that something you would want, Julian? To be a father? We’ve never talked about it before, not in a serious capacity. We joke around, and we tell a great lie about being married when we have to, but we’ve never really said what we both want from this companionship of ours.”
“Honestly, Nyan, I like our life together, but I can’t say if I would like it more with a child than I would without one because I’ve never had a child.”
“At least not that you know of.” The jest in her voice actually made him laugh, the subtle sound becoming a cough that he turned into his shoulder. “We’ve both agreed a thousand times this world is a dark and miserable place. Do we bring a child into such a place?”
“I don’t know, Buttercup. I just don’t know.”
“Neither do I.”
“Do you have to decide right now?”
“Not at this exact moment, no, but…”
“Good because such a decision shouldn’t be made in a single night. I know you’ve been thinking it all through for a while now on your own, but we should keep talking about it together. Sleep on what we come up with a few times before we make such a big decision.”
“You’re right, of course.”
“Of course I am. I’m always right, but you do know that in the end, it is your decision? It’s your body, and I can’t tell you what to do with it. I will stand beside you whatever you choose. I’m with you, Nyan.”
Lowering his forehead to rest atop hers, he closed his eyes and sighed as he brought his arms around her and drew her close. She hugged him back, not feeling as far away anymore and for that he was glad, but now there were other things on his mind. Things he didn’t know how to think about.
Of all the things he’d never had to worry about…
Gods, life was a funny thing.