This is a flashback from the early years of Jane Pickthorn’s first marriage to Nolan Pickthorn, a man of about 25. Apparently 18 year old Jane thinks he’s ancient.
She wed in the Spring. Mama and Papa pulled every string they could find so she could be married in the guild hall. Nolan was a master, but only just. He had dark hair and blue eyes, and he spoke kindly enough when he spoke at all. He was shy, she thought. How could someone who was a master be shy? It made her a little less frightened of him and the idea of him. It was easier to think of a shy man seeing her pretty new underthings than it was to think of a man seeing the near transparent lace and the beribboned corsetry.
Her hair was down in public for the last time under a wreath of baby’s breath and honeysuckle. Her shoes pinched. She’d had her maid pull her laces too tight. The wine made her dizzy and ill. She promised Nolan she’d be his forever, and he said the same. Her parents looked relieved and happy. Her mother cried. She ate her cake slowly and tried not to remember the talk they’d had that morning with the mortifying explanations of things. She glanced sidelong at Nolan, who hadn’t spoken three words together, and she blushed, knowing that she was failing in her duties as hostess. “Keep up the conversation,” her tutor had said. “Bright and airy like a breath of spring, always sunshine.”
“The cake is nice.” Said the sunshine with a petrified air.
He looked at her with a half smile and agreed, “It’s nice cake. Hard to spoil cake.”
She forged ahead with, “You might burn it. Or forget to light the brandy. Or make fruitcake.”
A startled expression crossed his face, and then he laughed, looking at her as if she’d come as a pleasant shock. “Fruitcake! Now there’s a thing. Always made and never welcome. They didn’t tell me you were clever.”
She felt herself blushing. “I’m sorry. I suppose …”
“No, no!” He stopped her. “Clever’s good.” He tentatively put his hand to rest over hers, then cringed as a hundred glasses clinked to demand they kiss. “Bother. I…”
“It’s all right.”
“It’s just… public. A first kiss ought to be stolen behind a cart somewhere.”
An arch smile tugged at her lips and she spoke before she thought, “Well, sir. I /did/ kiss Ferdie Locksley behind the table at Yule dinner once.”
He looked taken aback, and she quickly added, “And then he wiped it off and called ‘cooties’. We were seven.”
With another startled laugh, he leaned in and let a chaste kiss linger. More wine and she was stolen away, dressed and propped into his bed like she used to set her dolls. Just like, she thought. Every curl just so, and girls fussing and fussing while her nerves jangled with the wine. She smiled politely as she should and played her part as she longed to be left alone. Perhaps he’d had too much wine. Perhaps… perhaps… nonsense. She was his eighteen year old bride, the reward for years spent plodding away at mastery. He was going to play with his dolly.
In he came, looking… sheepish. They looked at each other… and he laughed. And she grinned tentatively. “Poor thing. Is that… rouge? Why on Arda Marred did they put rouge on you? Aren’t you blushing enough?”
She said, shakily, “I think she thought it would make my cheeks less chubby. Are my cheeks chubby?”
“Chubby? Bother it, woman, you need primping like a lily needs gilding.” He sat at the bed’s edge and pulled off his boots and robe, slowly, tiredly. The fabric of his waistcoat glimmered with the most beautiful designs. Ivy, she thought, and a trellis, but woven cleverly into the golden brown.
“You made that?” She reached with tentative fingers.
He started, then looked pleased. “Yes. It’s a brocade. I can show you how, if you like.” He gave her another of those shy looks, and she melted a little. He must have had women. Of course he had. Men did, being men, and he was of an age where it was expected. But maybe they didn’t bother showing an interest in his work? They wouldn’t, would they. They weren’t his wife.
“I’d like.” And what’s more, she meant it. She liked the way it felt, warm under her fingers and bumpy-smooth. Sensual with curves of design and flesh. She felt her lips curve into a smile. In a moment’s inspiration, she added, “Perhaps you might make me something to wear. I’ve all these new things but… I like your work better.”
He paused, his breath catching incredulously until he met her eyes to see if she meant it, and his face lit when he saw that she did. He looked a different man when he smiled, she thought. “I’ll take your measurements.” His voice grew husky, and he bent over her with slow, gentle hands. She tried not to let her nerves show in the candlelight, and found it less difficult than she thought. Nolan was quiet, and good with his hands.
The winter fell with a chill and Spring came ’round again. Last year’s brides walked the markets with round bellies and cooed over baskets and cradles. Jane watched from the window of the room left empty for a nursery and cried quietly over the last frosty not-a-fight. Nolan didn’t fight. Nolan ran off to his workshop, or his study, or his horses, or anywhere but here with her. She did everything she was supposed to do; everything but the one thing she had been married to do. It was a grey day and her thoughts were grey too as she watched everyone else’s lives go according to nature.
If she died, perhaps Nolan might try again. Only she had rather not die, really, as she was feeling sorry for herself, but not that sorry. But it was true that she wasn’t what he’d wanted when he came to her parents last year and worked out her dower arrangements, was it? She wasn’t his reward after all, but some useless ornament who would look pretty at his parties and make it impossible for him to sire sons on anyone else. Perhaps she should run away. Perhaps she should feign her own death, then escape from her coffin. Perhaps…
There was a rattle at the door and she patted at her reddened eyes. “Make an effort,” her tutor had said. “Always look fresh and cheery for your husband when he comes home from a long day of work. Smile, no matter what. Put a ribbon in your hair.” Some seething tiny part of Jane wanted to toss that ribbon into a fire.
Nolan had something cradled in his hands and he dripped onto the rugs without any consideration for the housekeeper. That was unusual. And then, there was a chirp. A peep. And a black and white tousled head with bright eyes looked out. “Jane, love, could you warm up towels by the fire? She’s frozen. A cat got her and I think she’s hurt.”
“She’s a bird!” Jane went for the towels, then laughed, adding, “Well, obviously, but what kind?”
“Er… magpie I think. I found her outside the Hall. Just fledged and fallen from the nest. Her Ma won’t take her back now, poor thing.”
Sentences! Jane could weep. That was more than she’d gotten out of the man in weeks. She built a soft nest of towels and motioned him to join her bent around the bedraggled little thing. “What does she eat?”
“We can certainly try worms. I’ll pop round to the Archives and ask one of the inklings what magpies need, shall I?”
“And a cage. I shall get her a lovely brass cage.”
“A cage! She’s a wild thing, Nolan. We can’t have her in a cage.”
He looked sheepish. A conversation. She could weep! They were conversing. Co-operating. Accomplishing! He said, at last, “I’ll have her a nest built, hmm? Something nice where she’ll keep you company. I know you get lonely.”
She gave him a startled look over the preening fledgling. “I’m not…”
“You’re… not happy.” He ducked his head and looked abashed. “I know I’ve been short and rude. It’s not you. I… I’m just not used to so much chatter. Talking. I can’t do it. Only so much, and I’m tired. But it’s not you, sweet. You’re … well. After all day wrangling with masters cutting me ’round and going for position, I know you, at least, don’t want anything more’n a kind word and food on the table. You’re not like some of those wives that aren’t happy if they don’t have jewels and trips to Trestlebridge and who knows what all. You’re kind. You’re sweet. You just talk an awful lot.”
She blinked. “But…” She looked at him incredulously, then said very, very carefully, “There aren’t any babies.” And there went the red, right up her neck.
He sighed a little and nodded, reaching for her hand. “I’m sorry, Jane.”
She gave him a look more astonished still. “You’re sorry?”
He looked confused. “Well… yes. You want them so badly.”
“Well… I suppose.” He frowned. “But there’s always apprentices to inherit.”
Her own voice sounded rather faint with astonishment, “You’ll… just give the shop to Roger?”
He smiled sheepishly. “Honest? I’m a little relieved. I like my quiet, Jane-love. I like my horses and my color-boards and my time to myself.”
She felt her nose wrinkle as the bird curled into her fingers rather than the towel. “Goodness! Then why get married at all?”
He blushed this time. “Well. You smile like a sunrise. And even I get lonely. Just… not for chit chat. Company. To have you around. To have someone who cares about my day. To have someone else’s day to care about. To share a bed with someone who cares to know more of me than the size of my bankroll or my name’s place on the guild’s roll. To laugh. You say the most astonishing things when you aren’t talking like a trained hostess.”
She blinked, then laughed around sudden tears, saying, “Nolan! You might have bothered to say some of this, you know.”
He muttered, “I didn’t want to hurt your feelings. You get… miffed.”
The bird settled into a sleepy sigh as she smoothed its feathers and she shook her head at him. “Tomorrow, we’ll burn Miss Amelia Sudbury’s Manual of Ladylike Comportment and write up something that works. How does that sound?”
He got that astonished look, then laughed. “You want to write our own manual?”
“Whyever not? If Miss Sudbury can do it, Mrs. Pickthorn might as well, since it seems Mr. Pickthorn is no ordinary Breeland male to which just any old rules may be applied.”
“I’m so terribly…”
“Oh no you don’t go apologizing. If I get to be delightful because I say astonishing things, you get to be delightful because you aren’t just any fellow. And you aren’t.” And as she said it, the bird he brought her an air-light fluff near her heart, she felt the truth warming the grey from her soul. “You’re a kind man who didn’t blame me for not giving you a son. I… I’m not sure what I’ll do instead of raising a house full of children. But I’ll love you forever for not caring that I can’t.”
His head rose sharply and he said with hope, “You love me, Jane?”
“Yes, Nolan,” she said softly. “I love you.”
He leaned over the bird to kiss her forehead, whispering, “That’s all I ever want.”
She named the mockingbird Pippa. She’d always wanted the name for a daughter, but it did as well for that clever marvel of a pet. Pippa lived to be very old indeed and was occasionally seen flitting about the shoulders of Nolan and Jane Pickthorn. She was the model used for Nolan’s mockingbird seal when he served as the youngest Master Weaver in recent Breeland history, and Mrs. Pickthorn often let her perch on her shoulder when she made her rounds in her tireless efforts as the chairwoman of the Weaver’s Widows and Orphans fund.