They were twins, of course. The Countess felt she should have known from the size and the pallor and the hunger Helena had that two children would come from their union.
The midwife was superstitious. She thought it boded ill that they were two – that the girl had been born first. The Countess was merely overjoyed. The two people she loved most in the world – since her husband had gone to a better one – had increased the world by two. Gilbert would inherit Rossillion. Mirabelle would be an heiress to grace a kingdom, if not France then one of the Italian duchies or, possibly, Spain or Burgundy. They were her own most precious grandchildren, and on the day of their birth, she thought how well it had all ended.
When they were three, it became clear that her grandchildren were very different.
Mirabelle was the light of her father’s eye and heart. Her whims were indulged; her smiles courted; her tears soothed. Bertram looked at her and saw himself, saw the freedom of childhood, and treated her more like a suitor than a father.
Gilbert explored. He ran through the manor and its grounds always finding the next thing, thrilled when his mother taught him the name of a plant or showed him how to write. He’d hide in the shadows when someone came to consult Helena, and he learned to keep silent and ask questions when they left.
Bertram was lord of the manor, and did little but breed by-blows. Helena was its lady and brought it renown. She was saddened that they didn’t find the joy in marriage that she had, but they had their children, so it all ended well.
At the age of eight, Helena tried to get her daughter into the stillroom. It was a difficult task; it needed precision. Every good chatelaine at least knew how to do it, even if she had servants to carry out the actual tasks. It was not for Mirabelle. Her screams made it seem it was she who was being boiled to her essence instead of the herbs Helena had picked.
Bertram took his daughter riding instead, and Gilbert, who looked at his sister with the same adoration his mother held for his father, slid his hand into Helena’s and asked if he could learn the secrets of distillation.
Helena smiled. She squeezed his hand and took him in to teach him the first step in the magic of alchemy.
From her chair in the solar, the Countess heard it all, and wondered as she had so many times, whether anything could truly be well in the end.
Mirabelle needed to be married sooner rather than later. Her father doted on her, seeing his own good looks and highborn blood in her. He’d taken her education upon himself as the child didn’t take well to her mother. Privately, Bertram confessed to his cronies, that he agreed with his daughter’s discernment and taste.
But her beauty included a deep sensuality that provoked lust in many of all ranks.
Bertram favored Burgundy. The Countess favored Spain. Helena favored Ferrara, and sent out messengers to the Duke. The messengers returned with a well-favored portrait and the promise of a visit from the heir to the d’Este realm. There were jewels with the portrait and a bolt of silk velvet. Spain sent hams and olive oils and gold. Burgundy sent the most delicate lace and linen so fine, Helena could read through it.
The Countess watched her granddaughter choose by wealth and her grandson look sickly whenever his sister’s marriage was mentioned. She went to Helena, who no longer looked so adoringly at Bertram and suggested it might be time for Gilbert to start looking for a wife.
It took several days, but Helena came to her in her solar and massaged vitality back into her limbs. They spoke of hopes, dreams, and love. In the end, they elected to await the outcome of Mirabelle’s choice so Gilbert’s marriage could be strategically made. They sent quiet inquiries and small gifts to the courts of Portugal, the County Palatine, and one of the great families of Venice. Waiting didn’t mean they shouldn’t be prepared, not if they wanted this business of marriage to end well.
The days seemed to get shorter although it was summer. The Countess attended the wedding of Mirabelle to the heir of the Duc d’Este. He was as handsome as his Borgia heritage and liked the fact that his bride looked better ahorse than in a classroom. There was great joy throughout the land of Rossillion, and her dowry had not been expensive as these things go.
In her solar, the Countess husbanded her strength. In a few more days, Gilbert, who, along with his father, had worn a melancholy face when his sister wed the year before, would marry an heiress from the Low Countries. She was a bluestocking who adored Helena and wanted to learn physicking and herbs and all the secrets of alchemy. When she was around, Gilbert forgot to frown, sometimes he even smiled.
Gilbert had taken over her case from Helena, and he often spent the day with the Countess, listening to her stories. From her tales of love and her late husband, he learned to look, not just see; to listen, not just hear; to feel, not just think.
And in looking at his mother, listening to his grandmother, and thinking about his fiancée, he learned that love comes not from the eyes, but from heart and mind.
Margotte was not beautiful, like Mirabelle, but she was kind. She was not as high born as his father, but she valued learning like his mother. Margotte loved her family fiercely, but was truly willing to become his family – to adopt Rossillion as her homeland.
The Countess told Gilbert the story of his mother and father as she eased her way out of a long life. Helena added her passion to the bare bones as they buried her mere days before the wedding.
Bertram sighed and spoke disparagingly of Margotte’s visage – and Gilbert’s too if the full truth be told.
But Gilbert walked back from the burial with love at his side. Margotte was a woman made to love and be loved, and on this sad day, Gilbert felt the first quickening of joy in his heart. He would marry soon to a woman who was his match, and he could truly say that all was well.