November 26, 2008

In Which Honora Has a Stroke of Genius

December 3, 1155

"So this tiny little thing really did have twins," mused Honora as she stared at young Evera and Byrn Ciramel lying on the wool rug. "And such large twins, at that--why, they're not yet a month old and just as big as young Raia here!"

"Oh, they were fairly small when they were born," Alina assured her. "They grew rather quickly, though. Regardless, I didn't envy Thetis on the day they came into the world."

With her own baby due in less than a month's time, Honora was in no state to leave her own house; needless to say, she had been pleasantly surprised when her company had arrived. She had seen neither Alina nor Thetis since Raia's birth, and she quite liked the idea of having babies in the house every once in a while, seeing as there would soon be one living in it.

"You must have been terribly frightened, dear," soothed Honora, taking note of the girl's withdrawn expression; her eyes were not unlike many of those in Honora's war-torn homeland, those who had witnessed unspeakable brutalities and remained forever haunted by them. Giving birth, of course, was nothing in comparison to such things, but to a fourteen-year-old girl, the terror of the process must have been magnified tenfold.

"Oh, not to give birth to them," Thetis mumbled in reply. "I just dread taking them back to Norwan. Lord Severin has someone checking up on him--apparently he's growing suspicious and might go to the king to get me back."


Alina sent a reassuring smile Thetis's way. "You can stay with us as long as you like, Thetis. Even if Norwan goes to the king and demands your return, you could leave the babies with Severin and I if you feel the need."

Unchanged, Thetis shook her head. "Thank you, Lady Alina, but I'm not sure if that could work. Lord Severin made the same offer, but he said that Norwan might demand that I can't visit you any longer, and I don't like the thought of not being able to see Evera and Byrn. Besides, Norwan expects me to return with at least one baby."

"True," sighed Alina. "I was talking with Severin, and we agreed that if either baby should return to Norwan, it should be Byrn--Norwan might be as brutish to a little girl as he is to Thetis, but he isn't likely to lay a hand on his heir."

Honora nodded. "So arrangements for Evera need to be made, then."

"If Thetis agrees to that, yes."

She sank back in her chair and placed one hand on her pregnant belly. There were a few villages sprouting in Naroni now, and chances are there would be a willing nurse nearby wherever they chose to put Evera. However, as for actually taking care of Evera, most young mothers were busy enough with their own babies. What they needed was someone who had no other children, or maybe older children. An older couple, perhaps, or a couple struggling to conceive, or...

Suddenly, the face of a woman she had met briefly when she and Adonis had accompanied Severin and Alina to see the baron several months earlier came to mind.

"Alina, I know just the woman to care for her."

Before Alina could reply, Adonis strolled in from outside. He had been tending the animals all morning; Honora really wished he'd hire a farmhand. "I thought I recognized those horses tethered outside. Good morning, Lady Alina, Mistress Thetis."

"Good morning, Adonis," Alina greeted him; Thetis merely smiled half-heartedly.

Honora did not even look at him; she would not look at him until he looked at her.

Ever since they had started sleeping together, their relationship had changed drastically. Before, they had been strangers, but it had been a comfortable sort of bond, with no particularly strong feelings from either party. But then, something must have happened; suddenly, they became awkward.

They were still strangers. They still barely knew each other at all--but he loved her. He loved her, and had no idea what she thought of him, this she knew.

It didn't help that she loved him too. It wasn't fair to him, really; Adonis was more than worthy of the love of women worth a thousand Honoras. Because she loved him, she knew that he would never know her now--she would never wound the man she loved with the horrors of her past.

"Hello, Honora."

"Hello, Adonis," she answered in barely more than a whisper.

They exchanged a tentative smile, then Adonis spoke once more as he settled himself on the couch. "Would you ladies mind if I took a nap on this couch? It's more comfortable than the bed. I promise I'll fall asleep instantly and not overhear a word of your mysterious female conversations."

Alina laughed. "Feel free; it's your house, after all."

"Thank you, milady," he acknowledged her.

Adonis was true to his word; not a minute went by between the time he had received Alina's permission and the time he began to snore.

"Anyway, Mistress Indruion," Thetis addressed Honora, "who were you talking about?"

"Do tell, Honora," urged Alina. "The sooner we find someone suitable, the better, so don't waste any time telling us who she is."

"Well, Thetis may already know her, or at least know of her," Honora began. "She and her husband came with King Roderick and his party from Dovia, like Thetis did. Her name is Electra, and she lives in Tetranshire. She has no children because her husband is quite ill--it's doubtful that he'll last another year."

"So she'd be more than happy to have a little baby to care for," surmised Alina, "and Evera could keep her company when her husband passes. Thetis, what do you think?"

Thetis closed her eyes. "I remember her, I think. She and her husband kept to themselves, mostly, since he was so ill. The woman with the long blond hair, right?"

Honora nodded. "Yes, with the long blond hair. She seemed to be a very kind woman, and quite lonely."

She heard a yawn from the couch behind her, then some faint rustling sounds; Honora was suddenly very aware of her husband's presence. "Of course, with Electra's husband gone, your baby wouldn't have a father-figure present," she added grimly, "but I suppose he'll be gone before she can become too attached to him."

The girl took a minute to consider. Then--

"I'll do it!" Thetis exclaimed leaping to her feet and throwing her arms around Honora. "Oh, Mistress Indruion, you're a genius! Thank you so much!"

Honora shook her head. "Oh, please don't flatter me, Thetis; I daresay Alina or Severin would have thought of Electra if I hadn't."

"Oh, not likely!" Alina protested as she took her turn to embrace her hostess. "Apart from our own kinsmen, neither I nor Severin know anyone who came with Roderick; we never would have even heard her name if not for you, Honora."

"Well, you're welcome," muttered Honora gently. "Just glad I could help."

Alina smiled. "I'll send a message to this Electra woman as soon as I get home--come to think about it, it might not be a bad idea to head home now, so Thetis and I can tell Severin the good news. Thank you so much, Honora, both for having us and for your suggestion."

"Oh, no trouble at all, Alina," she assured the lady.

With some difficulty, Alina and Thetis gathered up their three combined babies, then headed out the door with a brief "Good day" to Honora and Adonis. Honora watched through the window as they rode off, then gestured to the empty side of the couch.

"Do you mind?" she asked her husband.

"Not at all," he answered quickly, avoiding eye contact with her.

"So," he began as soon as she had settled, "what was all the fuss about just now?"

He turned his head to face her. He was eight or nine years older than she was, and had a certain maturity about him that she found both attractive and intimidating at the same time. A man her age would have pressed at the first sight of her hesitation, but Adonis merely waited patiently for her reply.

"Oh. Well, to make a long story short, it's almost inevitable that Thetis and her son will have to return to Norwan's house, but she was hoping that her daughter could live elsewhere; I don't think her husband knows she had twins."

Adonis nodded. "So you solved her problem for her?"

"Well, possibly," admitted Honora. "I know of a couple of Tetranshire who might take little Evera in. The man is dying, and the woman will need someone to comfort her when he's gone; they have no children of their own."

She shivered; she did not want to think about what she would do if her own husband died, even if she barely knew him at all.

"Are you cold?" he asked her.

Honora merely stared at the opposite wall. "Maybe a little."

"Come here."

Tentatively, she edged toward him, not noticing that he was drawing nearer to her as well. A sudden sense of comfort came over her as he slung his arm over her shoulders and held her close; for the first time in a long time, she was safe.

"I still can't believe we'll have one of our own soon," he whispered gently, a note of reverence in his voice.

"Just remember our deal," she told him. "If it's a girl, you're hiring a farmhand. I don't care how much it costs--you work too much."

He grinned. She took this as a sign to continue. "And if it's a boy... you're still hiring a farmhand. He won't be able to help you much until he's ten or so."

"Honora?" he addressed her; she wondered why he was changing the subject.

She smiled. "Yes, Adonis?"

As his face drew nearer, she realized that he hadn't really wanted to say anything at all.


November 23, 2008

In Which Severin Knows the Most Important Thing

November 10, 1155

"Girls are so spoilt, aren't they, Lorn?" Dalston asked the baby in his arms as Severin lifted his own from her crib. "Rahileine's papa gave her a whole nursery all to herself, and all you have is a crib at the foot of our bed."

Severin shook his head. "I wouldn't say she has the nursery all to herself; either Alina or I sleep in here on any given night. Sometimes we both do."

"In that case, I hope by sleep, you actually mean sleep," his friend teased.

"Of course. Why would we do such things in a nursery when there are so many other rooms that are much more suitable? Such as the kitchen, or the stables, or my study..."

"What about your bedroom?"

"Well, that's a given."

He locked eyes with his baby daughter, a warm feeling welling up inside of him as she greeted him with a tiny smile. "You know, Dalston," he mused aloud, "it really isn't fair to the rest of mankind that I have the two most beautiful women in the world all to myself."

Dalston grinned slyly. "Your father had the same problem; his wife solved it for him by finding a husband for your mother."

"Don't be ridiculous, Dalston--this little girl's mother already has a husband. Doesn't she, Raia?" Severin inquired of his wide-eyed daughter, cradling her in his arms.

"Raia?" repeated Dalston. "I thought you were calling her Rahia."

"Yes, well, Prince Ietrin found 'Rahia' a little difficult to pronounce, and the name stuck."

"Her resemblance to you is uncanny," the duke noticed.

"You aren't the first to tell me that," answered Severin, closing his eyes for a moment. "If my baby is any indication, I daresay I would have been a very pretty girl."

Dalston took a moment to consider. "I don't know. You have a little too much of a beard for my personal taste."

"That wouldn't have mattered, considering I'm partial to slender redheads, and you are not one yourself."

"That certainly is convenient. Anyway, Severin, I wanted to talk to you about something."

He nodded. "What about?"

"Your daughter's future."

Trying not to frown, Severin slowly turned away from him. He knew what Dalston wanted to discuss, and he was not ready for it; he doubted he ever would be.

Therefore, he chose to answer jokingly. "Raia's future? You're right, Dalston, I should be thinking about her future. When she is about half an hour older, Alina should probably feed her."

"Severin, that's not what I mean," Dalston insisted.

"Regardless, it is important." Severin took Raia in his hands and held her at eye level. "What do you think, Raia? Are you hungry?"

At the sound of his voice, Lorn and Raia both giggled, prompting a small smile from Dalston. "Isn't it funny how you talk to them and expect them to reply?"

"They do reply," Severin assured him, Raia's excited laughter ringing throughout the room, "only without words."

He shifted his gaze to the corner, where Alina stood with Celina and Thetis. The girl and the duchess seemed to have taken to each other quite nicely, he noticed, and of course, Alina and Thetis absolutely adored one another.

Her due date was vast approaching--Severin was dreading the day she returned to her monstrous husband.

Thetis truly was enjoying her time with them, he knew for a fact; she had told him many times. Perhaps he would not send her back to Norwan if she didn't want to go--and of course she didn't want to go.

"Princess," he addressed Alina as he approached the ladies. "Dalston wants to discuss something with me; would you mind holding Raia for a while?"

"Of course not!" she laughed. "The way you hoard her, I'll snatch up any opportunity to have her."

Gently, Severin surrendered the baby, enjoying the sight of his two favorite girls together. Sure, Raia looked like him now, and maybe she always would have his coloring, but he did secretly hope that she would grow into Alina's fine features. He wondered how many more daughters they would have, and how many sons. How many would resemble him? And how many her?

"Be good for Mama while Papa talks to Uncle Dalston," Severin warned Raia sternly, "or else..."

He teasingly made some spider-like motions with his hands; Raia squealed. " may find yourself at the mercy of the tickle monster!"

"Severin, you're scaring her!" laughed Alina. "Just go and talk to Dalston; can't you see he's already waiting for you on the couch?"

"He wouldn't be if he knew the sorts of things we've done on that couch!" he joked. Thetis's eyes bulged, while Celina gave a shy smile; Alina blushed heavily. Chuckling to himself, Severin planted a quick kiss on his daughter's forehead, then another on his wife's lips before joining Dalston on the couch.

Exactly what he should expect, Severin had no idea. What should I say to him? he thought, praying silently that Dalston was unable to sense his inward panic. How should I respond? What should I do? What if I make a terrible mistake?

You should have never gotten yourself into this position, his father's voice replied. You should have never had a child at all--you should have never even married, and definitely not to her. She was for your brother, from the day she was born; by all rights, he should be the one where you are now. You were never meant for this. You should have never left that monastery.

But I love her! I've loved her for as long as we've both been alive--longer!

Some things are more important than love, son. Believe me.

"Well, Severin, I have to hand it to you," began Dalston with a smile, "you've managed to produce quite a charming young lady. In a few years, every young man in Naroni will be willing to give his right arm for just one glance from the lovely Rahileine of Veldora."

Gravely, Severin turned away; he did not know how he was supposed to reply. "If they try for anything more than a glance, rest assured I'll have their heads as well as their right arms."

Beside him, Dalston laughed softly. "Well, yes, that will be fine for when she's younger, but eventually, you'll have to find her a husband, and maybe you should start giving some thought as to who that husband will be."

"Dalston, I myself haven't even had her for a month yet!" protested Severin. "How can you expect me to start thinking already about what man will have her next?"

"If you arrange something now, her future will be secured and you won't need to worry," Dalston pressed, "but I think you know what I'm trying to say. Severin, I would like to know what you think of the possibility of a marriage between Raia and Lorn."

He had known this; it had been obvious from the beginning just what Dalston wanted to say. But no... he wasn't ready for this. He couldn't be thinking of his little girl in a long white gown, standing at the alter with the duke's heir, even if he was a good boy and the child of his friend and his cousin. He couldn't be thinking of her own babies, brown-eyed and hazel-eyed, dark and fair. No, he wanted more for her--Raia would not be a pawn in this game that his family had played for centuries. Alina had only very narrowly escaped a loveless, purely political marriage, and he, an eternity of service to the church; he did not want their daughter to have to escape as well.

You're wrong, Father; nothing is more important than love.

"What if they don't love each other? Then it would just be a trap for the both of them, would it not?"

Dalston sighed. "I should have expected that you wouldn't understand. I fell in love with Celina after I married her--maybe it will be the same with these two little ones."

After. Maybe. Severin didn't like the sound of those words. "Dalston, I don't want Raia to feel the pain and fear of walking down that aisle and into the arms of a man she does not love, even if she will eventually grow to love him. Everyone else will be happy on her wedding day; why shouldn't she feel that happiness as well?"

"For all you know, she will feel that happiness," argued the duke in a falsely passive manner; as fond of Dalston as Severin was, he could not see him as anything but a villain until this conversation was over.

"I will not take the risk that she won't be," Severin stated bluntly. "Maybe one day, she will marry your son, but if she wants otherwise, I will not force her."

"In fact, that goes for all the children I will have. No son or daughter of mine will ever become my chessman," he declared once and for all.

"Oh, please don't say it like that!" pleaded Dalston, a pained expression taking hold of his features. "Believe me, this is just so I can rest easy about Lorn's future--if it were a matter of politics, I would be asking Roderick about Learianna. I just thought that a daughter of you and Alina would be more suitable for him than a daughter of Roderick and Geneva."

"Well, thank you, but I'm afraid I can't promise you anything."

Dalston looked as though he wanted to argue this, but he was cut off by a sharp moan coming from where the women stood.

"Thetis!" Celina exclaimed. "Are you alright?"

"I... I don't know!" the girl cried. "It hurts... it hurts so much..."

She stumbled slightly to one side--a suspicious fluid could be seen where she had been standing seconds before.

"Oh God, Severin!" gasped Alina as Thetis continued to wail in pain. "Her baby is coming!"

"Dalston, hurry back to your shire and return with Goodwife Diarn," Severin ordered, suddenly unaware of the fact that his friend was a duke and he himself was only a lord, "and for God's sake, hurry!"