Tereus is leading Paris from the stables, preparing to ride out into the fields. He spots Lavinia and Valeria in the garden with his young niece and nephew — what are their names? Valeria is picking strawberries with the girl, while Lavinia sits in the shade with the little boy. Lavinia is tired and jaded and barely acknowledges his presence. Valeria looks up, smiles and nods, and returns to her work.
He’s piqued to be ignored. Because he’s overflowing with animal energy, he hitches Paris by the stable door, strides over.
“Valeria, I’ve wanted to ask your opinion about the chestnut planting. Do you have time now, before supper?”
Valeria turns back to him, a slight frown on her face.
“If your work is urgent, I’ll leave you,” he says. “But I would like your opinion.”
She schools her face into a smile, says, “No. That is, it’s not urgent. The strawberries are coming in, and I was showing Camilla how to pick them.”
“Can you spare half an hour or so?” He looks politely hopeful.
She glances over at Lavinia, who says, “You needn’t mind me. Please yourself.”
Valeria nods, looks down at Camilla, says, “You can pick the rest for me, then. We’ll have to do it daily for a few weeks now. When these are done, you can start on the raspberries.” The little girl nods solemnly, takes the basket from her mother. “Tereus, if you saddle Firefly, I’ll change into my riding habit. Give me a quarter hour.”
Exactly a quarter hour later, they’re cantering across the field. Tereus almost regrets his impulse. He has no real purpose, and even slight delays annoy him. However, the sun and breeze and Paris’s smooth paces clear the clouds from his countenance. He rarely has occasion to ride with Valeria, but he enjoys it when he does. She’s an excellent horsewoman — tough and intrepid — and he needn’t moderate his pace or change his route to accommodate her.
The two canter side-by-side down a narrow lane. The low fence that divides the arbor from the lane comes into view. He smiles over at her and says, “Will Firefly clear that, or shall I open the gate for you?”
Valeria’s smile is almost saucy. “We’ll show you and Paris the way.”
He laughs and drops back to allow her to take the jump first. Some riders would go hard at it, try to force a high, showy leap. Firefly clears it in stride, demonstrating the grace and efficiency of her riding. Paris and his rider take it easily, and both horses drop to a walk.
“What did you want to show me?”
He had no real intent, so he solicits her input about how to lay out the final planting. They ride over to survey it, and are quickly carried away by the flow of conversation. There’s much to consider, and she’s well-informed about the farm’s workings.
They spend a pleasant hour walking their horses among the saplings, considering this and that. It’s late afternoon, and there’s no shade. As they’re riding back, Tereus loosens his neckcloth, then strips it off entirely. “My apologies,” he says. “The jacket’s next, I’m afraid. You must be quite warm.” And, indeed, her pale, freckled skin is flushed pink.
“The sun does disagree with me. Lavinia feels it more than I do, but any redhead must suffer in this weather, I think. Don’t you mind it? You’re quite fair.”
“I suppose I’ve adapted. All those rough billets.”
“Were they rough? I should think we’d see to the comfort of our generals.”
“Oh, certainly. Mother Liamelia is generous. But part of the trick is to seem to share the lot of the common soldier. Or, rather, the common cavalryman. I wouldn’t go so far as to dismount.”
Her brow knits and then she laughs. “I wish I understood those distinctions better. I suppose I imagine a battlefield to be undifferentiated chaos.”
“That would reflect poorly on my abilities. Even a retreat should be orderly.”
She raises her brows. “You retreated?”
“Not often, but when it was the correct thing to do. Any good commander knows when and how to retreat.”
“What an odd idea you must have of me. Or of my profession.”
“Both, probably. I’m certainly ignorant about how to wage war.”
“Really? You would make an excellent officer.”
She frowns, looks down at the pommel of her saddle. He realizes she’s offended because she thinks he’s engaged in idle flattery.
“I mean that seriously,” he says. “You have an excellent mind, good judgment, physical endurance. You’re perceptive.” Now he’s thinking less about her reaction to his words than he is considering his own intuitive judgment of her. “You’re conservative and calm, which are precious and rare qualities on a battlefield. I’m not, and I’ve often felt the lack.”
She’s looking up at him again, puzzled. “What do you mean?”
“Commanders tend to feel pressured to act. There’s a middle ground between passivity and impulsivity — a quality that allows some people to observe and plan without falling prey to restlessness or anxiety or ego.”
She laughs, a rich alto trill. “I thought impulsivity was required — unremitting recklessness and valor.”
“Those are arguably necessary, but they’re not sufficient. There’s a quality of being able to hold, to reserve judgment. I believe you have it.”
She looks skeptical. “I doubt that very much.”
“You can doubt it all you want, but I assure you, it’s true. It’s something I sought out, and worked hard to cultivate in myself and officers in my command.”
“Perhaps you should have offered their wives commissions instead.”
“Do you really believe that?” He asks almost severely.
She considers. “Actually, I don’t.”
He relents. “That particular quality is more common in women, but still vanishingly rare.”
She cocks her head. “Who else among us would be a good commander? Lucius? Septimus?”
“I think you know.”
“I truly don’t.”
“Lucius is unfit for command. He was born to be an aide de camp or a personal secretary. Septimus is barely a gentleman — boastful, ego-driven. The other women aren’t bright enough.”
She looks stunned. He shrugs. “You asked. How many could be scholars?”
“What a foolish question!”
“It’s one you could answer, however.”
By now, the farm house is in view. She gives a start of surprise. “We’re late for supper.”
“We will be quite late,” he says calmly. “We’ll have to rub the horses down and change out of our riding clothes. Come, now. You won’t escape the question that easily.”
She feels as if he’s trying to tempt her in some way, offering an illicit pleasure. She shrugs. “Since you insist, only yourself.”
“That’s half an answer. Why and why not?”
“Why does it matter?”
“Why are you reluctant to say?”
She looks up, goaded, and says, “Septimus couldn’t — he doesn’t question his own perceptions and judgment, so he thinks he’s brighter than he is. Lucius is quick, but he lacks a certain force of mind — he shies away from difficult conclusions, or evidence that upsets him. The same is true for Valerius, though he’s young. None of the other women is bright enough.” She pauses and adds, “And, indeed, both Septimus and Lucius have moderate gifts at best.”
He laughs heartily. “Clearly you’ve considered this.”
They reach the stables, dismount, remove the horse’s tack and start to groom them. After a moment, when they’re working side-by-side and she seems absorbed, he asks offhandedly, “What about me?”
“What? Oh. Yes. I do think you could. You were a flashy, brilliant, careless scholar in your youth because you couldn’t sit still. You’ve developed patience, however, you’ve come to value ideas, not just facts and objects.”
He’s surprised at her candor, and surprised to realize that she’s observed him as carefully as she has the others.
She continues, “It’s interesting, though. You’re perceptive — uncomfortably so. You have a depth of feeling that pains you, makes it difficult for you to think through certain ideas. That’s your limit as a scholar and a thinker — you struggle to unite thought and feeling.”
Tereus stops brushing Paris, steps back to look at her. She continues working, doesn’t meet his gaze.
“You asked,” she says.
For a linked table of contents, listing all of the Shelawn family adventures, click here.