"Mamma? Mamma, stop hugging me." Idden's Mamma relaxed her arms slightly, but she didn't let Idden get down off her lap. She'd been all cuddly for days, ever since she'd come home from the Trinity Campaign, showered in glory like usual even though Aeyptia Zineia at Sanctuary School said they were losing the war. That was why Idden had to hit Aeyptia Zineia in the face, which was why Archangel Bob had said he was calling on Mamma when she came home.
But then Mamma came home a hero, and all snuggling all the time even though Idden was ten, and much too big for laps, and also she had this chuckleheaded baby, and Archangel Bob didn't say anything.
The bubble-brained baby never stopped screaming, and Mamma looked grey and terrible all the time. She kept staring into space and squinting her eyes shut, like something hurt. The solution seemed pretty obvious to Idden, but sometimes Mamma wasn't very bright. Idden was being perfectly reasonable. She used her words like an officer, even, just as Mamma always insisted.
"I don't want a new baby. I didn't want the old baby," she explained.
Mamma made a funny kind of choking sound and squeezed Idden too tightly again. Idden peered closely at her, worried. She'd never seen Mamma show so much emotion (except about easy things, like killing Birdies or losing to Sorrel at pinochle).
"When's Poppy coming home? He always makes you feel better, and you're being weird."
Mamma breathed into her hair. It tickled. "Oh, baby girl," said Mamma. "I don't know when Poppy's coming home. He's a Prisoner of War, you know that."
Mamma didn't believe in sugar-coating things for future Soldiers of Califa. Idden wasn't worried, because she knew there were Ransoms and Prisoner Conventions and the Laws of War. Poppy was a Fyrdraaca; he'd be home soon. But soon enough to make Mamma feel better?
Idden straightened her spine like an officer (if a bit awkwardly, from Mamma's lap). After Flora had been born when Idden was little, Mamma had been moody, and Poppy had snuggled with her and brought her pomelos and hot buttered rum. Idden didn't know where they kept the rum, but she could put up with a little snuggling. For Mamma's sake.
It would be easier to get rid of the baby, though.
"Ugh," said Idden, from the slightly rusty bathtub. "This water is freezing."
"The faster you bathe, the sooner you can get out of it." Mamma's voice, from the kitchen, was as unsympathetic as if she were talking to a soldier.
Idden eyed the ratty remains of her once-fluffy green towel with disfavor. "It's not like I'll be much warmer once I'm done. This house is freezing!"
"Mmm," said Mamma, sounding unconcerned. "Come on, Flora, one more spoonful of carrots, now."
When Idden came into the kitchen, wearing a thin robe and scrubbing at her hair with the threadbare towel, Mamma was clearing up a mess of carrots and creamed corn from the table, and the baby was covered in the stuff.
"Could you wipe Flora clean, Idden?" Mamma was busy squeezing out her gross dishcloth in the sink, and didn't even look at Idden. Idden stuck out her tongue at the dopey baby -- not Flora, whatever Mamma said; Flora Primera was sweet and blonde and old enough to play with and one day Idden would fetch her home -- but she did pick up a cloth of her own.
"Why can't we have Valefor back?" she asked, wetting a cloth for the baby's disgusting face while the kid burbled. "The house was always warm and clean when Valefor was here, and he could watch the baby."
"The fact that you're asking proves you were getting terrible habits," said Mamma. "If you're going to the barracks, you need to learn to put up with a little cold."
The baby shivered and wailed as the cold, wet cloth touched her face, and Idden sighed. "You and me both, kid," she said.
Idden went into her bedroom and sniffed suspiciously. She pulled back the coverlet, took a huge whiff, and ran out of the room.
"Flora!" Her dunderhead kid sister was playing with scraps of leftover sateen from Idden's Catorcena frock. Idden yanked them out of her hands and started yelling. "If you're going to hide in my bedroom -- and don't -- I will thank you not to tinkle in my bed!"
Flora's face scrunched up. "Give it me," she howled, grabbing at the fabric. "I'm need that for the ranger dress for my doll!"
"You can't sew, you bleeding cactus-brain," said Idden, but she threw the pieces at her sister's head. They fluttered in the air before falling unsatisfyingly short of Flora's face.
Flora snatched at the cloth and scrunched it in her grubby fist. "I can use tape."
Pigface, so very much not the point. "Just don't have a wee in my bed, Tinkles."
Flora's mouth dropped open in rage, making her look a little like an anglerfish. "Don't call me Tinkles!"
Idden smiled her meanest smile. "I can call you anything I want, Tinks."
Poppy wandered through the room in a haze of pulque fumes. "Idden, what the hell are you doing, fighting with... that girl? What would Buck say if she knew you were fighting with strangers?"
Flora turned her face up to Poppy, her eyes huge. "Poppy?" said Flora, her voice wavering a little.
Idden growled, glaring at Poppy as he drifted out of the room. "Gimme that." She snatched at the fabric and the janky old Fiorenza the Fashion Doll that had been Idden's and then the real Flora's before it went to Flora Segunda. "You can't sew. How can you make a ranger uniform with sticky-glue?" She smoothed out the paisley sateen in her lap. "Go get my sewing kit, brat."
(y la otra)
Idden and Poppy stood in Califa Harbor to greet the Pato de Oro. Technically Idden was still a fugitive, but, Poppy said, "Buck told me, 'what General Fyrdraaca don't know General Fydraaca can't arrest.'" He shrugged. "Then she said, 'tell Idden ave.'"
"Why isn't she here herself?" asked Idden.
Poppy's smile twisted. "If she were here, you couldn't be," he said, reasonably enough. "Don't you want to reassure yourself that your pesky little follower's still alive?"
Idden shrugged. She trusted her sources, and they all said Flora was alive. If she kept her eyes focused on the docking Pato de Oro, it was only because she wasn't sure of these sailors' competence.
"Doesn't Buck?" she countered.
Poppy turned out his hands philosophically . "This whole situation with the Duquesa is political. It's easier for Buck if it's handled though backchannels."
"Us," he agreed. "And Flora, apparently."
By then the passengers were disembarking. There was Flora, managing to look disreputable and slightly ranger-ish even in her uniform, and that odd-looking Birdie wearing sunshades must be the Duquesa.
Flora saw them only a moment later. "Poppy!" She hurled herself into Poppy's arms. "Oh, Poppy." Her wrapped his arms around her, patting awkwardly.
Idden was surprised when after only a brief moment, Flora lifted her red-eyed face from Poppy's shoulder and pulled Idden into the hug.
"Hey," said Idden, her voice sounding strangely wobbly to her own ears, as her sister sniffled into her favorite weskit. "Hey, Tinks, you're home now."
"Yeah." Flora stood up and wiped her eyes and nose with the back of her hand, ew. She gestured vaguely to the bemused Birdie standing beside her. "Probably good you're both here," she said. "Idden, Poppy, may I present the Duquesa de Xipe Totec? Duquesa, um --" She paused, and Idden wondered if it were occurring to her that introducing Poppy to a Birdie might go over like a balloon full of stolen saltcellars. "--my father and sister."
"The honor is mine, Madama, Sieur," said the Duquesa politely. Then she took off her sunshades.