5. A Window Seat

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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. Who could her grammy be talking to?

Visitors to the cottage were rare, and 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 over 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."

"Any children?"

"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."

"Must I?"

"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. He had 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.

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