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First Candle 5771: Trevena, 1895

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Gregor von Thorwald was already irritated when he walked into the sitting room. He had been glad to part with Demelza, and he had never believed that she loved him, but still, he had thought she would keep her word to tell him if there were a son. She had never been known for dishonesty; she was a difficult woman and she could be subtle, but she rarely told an outright lie. And yet. There was Demelza, sitting with an embroidery frame as if she were really the sort of woman who occupied herself with any of the feminine arts, and there was the child.

The child sat on the floor, absorbed in play, and did not look up at Gregor. It had made a little structure out of blocks and was looking at it thoughtfully, as if it had not decided whether to topple the whole thing and burst into giggles, or add another layer of blocks. Gregor did not like the way the child was dressed, in a long white gown with lace at the wrists and neck. Gregor was pleased that the child’s hair was so fine and so blond, nearly white—but the loose curls that hung past its shoulders. There was something shrewd and sharp about the child’s small face that Gregor recognised, but neither as himself nor as Demelza.

A black cat was watching the child intently, and then the child looked up, but not at Gregor—at the cat. The cat cocked its head to one side and its ear flicked. The child nodded, looking back at the cat as though they had just been deciding the fate of the world. Gregor did not like that, either. No child of two or three, and certainly no cat, should have been looking so intelligent and so clearly conspiratorial. Not even Demelza’s child.

It was like Demelza not to greet him as he came into the room. Gregor leaned back against the moulding on the entrance. Demelza finished her stitch, then did another, and another still. Despite his awareness that this was a game he did not want Demelza to win, Gregor found himself speaking. “I thought you said we had a son, Demelza.”

Demelza stood up and squared back her shoulders, looking down her nose as if she were taller than him, which she wasn’t. “I said I had a son, Gregor. The boy’s not yours.”

Gregor knew he ought not have believed her, but he did, and in believing her, found himself disgracefully relieved. His lip curled a little, despite his desire to school his face, but at least that small failure got to Demelza, who glared at him reproachfully.

“I should hope not,” Gregor muttered. “That child is old enough not to be dressed like that. Cut his hair. It’s disgraceful, he looks like a girl!”

Demelza shrugged, but she was grinning at him. “At two years of age, what’s the difference?” She sat back down, then gestured to an overstuffed couch. “Sit down, Gregor. Don’t wait for me to make a fuss. You’re not a visiting dignitary. You’re my cousin, and not from the side of the family we usually admit to in public. The fact that you were my champion for a year and a day doesn’t change that, since I had to fuck someone else to fall pregnant.”

“Are you still blaming me because Abraxas married someone else?” Gregor sat down. Abraxas would have been fun to take on, but Demelza wasn’t worth fighting for, even in fun. Her lands might have been worth having, but only she could control them, and no-one, not even her father, had ever been able to control Demelza.

“Are you still blaming me for being everything I said I was?” Demelza shrugged again, and the servants brought in the tea trays. They served her first, and then served him; of course she did not serve him, she never served anyone anything.

Gregor glanced over at the child. Was it ever going to acknowledge his presence?

The child stood up and ran over to Demelza. “Why shouldn’t I look like a girl? I am a girl, Mummy,” it said, in a clear, soft voice. “You know I am. I am a princess, and someday I’m going to be queen!” Then it looked right at Gregor, who was beginning to wonder if they were both mocking him.

“You are not,” said Demelza wearily, though she let the child take whatever it wanted from the tea tray. “We have had this discussion before. Girls don’t have penises, and when you are older you will have to have your hair cut short and wear breeches and trousers. It is going to happen. Don’t tell yourself lies you’ll regret.” She glanced sidewise at Gregor. “Besides,” she said. “You will like being a man. When you leave Trevena, you will find that in the world outside, it is better to be a man. I have often wished that I were a man.”

The cat snorted, and looked at Demelza as though it had understood her; the child made an angry face that Gregor would never have allowed a child of his own to make in his presence, and stamped its bare foot. “No,” she—he—it said loudly, and then it glared at Gregor. “I won’t.”

“You will,” said Demelza, not firmly but lightly, as if the defiance were not worth addressing. “We all have to do things we don’t like. That’s the nasty secret of feudalism, my dear. We are all bound to be equally miserable, so enjoy your fun while you can. Until you are seven, you can do whatever you like—but once you have reached the age of reason, I shall expect you to be reasonable.”

Gregor frowned. “You shouldn’t let him defy you like that.”

Demelza shrugged. “Should I let him think his defiance is worth engaging with?” She shook her head. “You are such a little tyrant, Gregor. I hope you learn something from life before your great-grandmother dies. If I hadn’t been to bed with you I’d think you were trying to prove something here, insisting I have a fight with a two-year-old.”

Gregor took a deep breath. “Can he bear iron?”

“Not even a bit,” said Demelza, a shrewd little smile playing at the corners of her lips. “So there, he’s not your son. His father’s called Avallach. Of course that isn’t his name. And my son can’t make up his mind what he wants to be called, but he’s got a name I don’t know, as well.” She tousled the child’s hair.

“I know what I want to be called,” said the child petulantly.

“And you know what the rules are,” Demelza said quietly. “Latin or Cornish, it’s got to be something that the vicar will be willing to put on your baptismal record.”

Gregor rolled his eyes at them both. The child got up and toddled off into another corner of the room, pulled itself up onto a fainting couch, and peered at itself in the glass of a framed portrait. It pushed its long hair back over one ear, pinched its cheeks and then frowned.

“You might as well let him wear rouge,” said Gregor, who had not wanted to glance off after the child, but found it hard to look away. He wrestled his attention back under his control, and leaned in close to Demelza. “Also, that’s the sang real, whatever else it is.”

Gregor was not pleased that Demelza’s child carried the sang real. Firstly, because it wasn’t his, but also, it did not make sense that anyone who carried the sang real should be so contrary to their own nature.

“I should hope so,” Demelza said, and then she frowned, because the black cat had followed the child and jumped up on the couch. “Darling, you can’t let the cats on the furniture.”

“Iago isn’t a cat,” said the child, and then giggled. It hugged the cat, which tolerated this without the slightest discomposure. The cat drew its legs up and did its best to look dignified, which wasn’t convincing.

“What do you mean, that’s not a cat?” Gregor snapped. “That’s not a cat and you’re not a boy? Come on now, be sensible. Of course you are a boy, and of course that is a cat! And cats don’t belong on the furniture!” He walked over to the couch and gave the cat a push. The cat did not budge.

Demelza rolled her eyes at him. “Stop being a petty tyrant,” she said, then glanced at the child. “You and Iago need to go out in the garden. Cousin Gregor and I have grown-up things to discuss, so go out in the garden and play. But not in your dressing gown.”

“You are spoiling him,” Gregor grumbled.

“He’s not your son. It’s none of your business,” Demelza said briskly.

The child clambered down off the couch, and the cat followed it. Demelza made a chirpy sort of noise at it that hurt Gregor’s ears, and the cat looked up at her. “If anything happens to my son,” she said quietly.

The cat hissed at her. Gregor stepped forward to kick at it but Demelza grabbed his arm.

“What’s wrong with you?” he snapped. “Is that his father? Because that would explain a lot, wouldn’t it—”

Demelza lost her grip on his arm because she had burst out laughing. “No,” said the child, its expression violently defiant, and it stepped between Gregor and the cat.

“You don’t need to defend Iago, son of mine,” Demelza said, frowning. “I wouldn’t let you leave the house with him if you did.” She turned back toward Gregor and drew herself up again. “Don’t you forget whose house you’re in, cousin.” She looked no less threatening than she had a few minutes ago, when she had been speaking to the cat called Iago.

Gregor just snorted. “As if that would be possible.” He glanced down at the cat. “Not a cat?”

Iago hissed at him, arching its back, then took the child’s hand in its mouth and tugged toward the door. The child looked up at Gregor suspiciously. “You’re mean,” it announced, and tossed its curls, then allowed the cat to tug it toward the door.

Once the child was gone, Demelza went back to her chair and sat down, then picked up her embroidery frame and glared at it. Gregor sat down. She was going to keep him waiting, he could just tell.

“Well,” she finally said, and picked out a stitch. “My son got at least one thing right today, didn’t he?”

At that Gregor laughed. “And here I thought it was one of the things you liked about me.”

“Perhaps that is simply because we have it in common,” Demelza replied.