August 28, 2009

In Which Hilla Feels Redemption in the Air

March 20, 1161

Hilla's daughter had told her a few interesting stories over the course of the ten months she had been in Naroni so far, but none had interested her quite so much as the recent plight of the baroness--perhaps because it remained unresolved, especially to Hilla personally.

She did not particularly care for stuffy nobles, but at the same time, she could not let this challenge pass. Goodwife Fedurin had always been regarded as the most talented healer in all of Sarona, if not all of Dovia. Back in her younger days, people had come from settlements several days away, begging her to rid them of their ailments, and she had never let her clients down--save for one.

The Countess of Sarona. The woman had been heavily pregnant with her third child when Hilla had been called, she distinctly remembered. Her sanity had been declining for several years, but it was only as her due date approached that the earl had sought help for his wife. Hilla had come, and she had tried everything she could think of... but nothing could ease the countess's mind. In the end, it had all been for naught, as she had died giving birth to her son anyway.

If Hilla thought hard enough, she could vaguely recall the countess's six-year-old daughter--the current Baroness of Tetran, now suffering from a similar affliction, and most certainly not with child.

Redemption was in the air, she could feel it! After all these years, she would finally know the answer, finally solve the puzzle, finally...

"Uh... who are you?"

An exotic woman had entered the baron's study. She appeared to be about Hilla's age, though considerably taller and rather darker. She was messaging her temple gentle, as though she had a slight headache.

"I'm the healer, of course," Hilla introduced herself. "My name is Hilla Fedurin, and I'm here to see the baroness."

The woman frowned. "Oh really? Well, healer, it just so happens that I am here to see the baroness as well."

"Nonsense!" barked Hilla, leaping to her feet and planting her hands firmly on her hips; who was this woman to deprive her of her one shot at closure? "I'll have you know, I tended to her mother!"

However, the stranger seemed unimpressed. "I also tended to her mother."

Hilla raised an eyebrow. "Liar! No one ever tended to her until I did, just before she gave birth to the current earl--and that birth killed her, you know."

"I assure you, I did!" the woman insisted snappishly. "I went and examined her as a favor to the Duke of Luperia!"

It was Hilla's turn to be unimpressed. "Honey, who hasn't done a favor to the Duke of Luperia?"

The other woman said nothing.

"Oh, I see," Hilla surmised with a sniff. "You're that pagan who actually forced the duke to claim one of his army of bastards. No wonder the earl kept your visit a secret--he didn't want to be associated with the likes of you."

"Perhaps it is to my advantage that he kept my visit a secret," she retorted, "as it seems that of the two of us, I am the one who has managed to stay in business."

Furious, Hilla opened her mouth to fire off an even greater insulted, but she was interrupted by the arrival of the handsome young steward.

"Everything all right in here, ladies?"

Now it was. His silky blond hair... his piercing blue-gray eyes... his straight nose and full bottom lip... there was nothing like a prime specimen of man to put Hilla at ease, that was for sure.

Unfortunately, a small glint of gold of his left hand told her that he was married--as if she hadn't had enough rotten luck today already!

"Has the baron returned?" asked the gypsy on both women's behalf as Hilla instead began to undress the steward with her eyes. As pleasant as it was, there was a certain bittersweetness to the fantasy; to think, if only this other woman wasn't in the room, then perhaps she would undress him with more than just her eyes.

"No. As I told you, Laveria, he went for a ride with his children and Princess Holladrin. I don't imagine he will be back for another few hours."

Laveria rolled her eyes. "Very well. Anyway, it seems that we both came to examine the baroness, but..."

"You're too late!" the steward declared with a laugh. "Both of you! It just so happens that a rather small, rather naked doctor was here this morning."

Suddenly, Hilla found the man fully clothed once more. "What?"

He nodded. "Cured her too, he did, or so it seemed for a few minutes... but then she relapsed. The kid just shook his head and said it was hopeless, and by the time I finished blinking, he'd vanished."

"Relapsed?" Hilla repeated. "So I could still look her over?"

Before the steward replied, Laveria shook her head. "If the kid says it's hopeless, it's hopeless--he's the best physician we have in these parts."

"True," the steward agreed, "but if you truly wish, Goodwife Fedurin, then feel free to try. If you ask me, it wasn't truly hopeless--I think the kid did heal her, then realized he liked the bitch better as a nutcase and undid whatever it was he did in the first place! Not that I would blame him--and in all honesty, I'm not sure the baron would either."


August 26, 2009

In Which Falidor Succumbs to a Smile

February 2, 1161

The twins played as they always did, Fenrick chattering away loudly as he maneuvered the figurines about, barely allowing his sister to get a word in, while Riala rolled her eyes and followed along, occasionally committing some rebellious act such as stealing an animal or 'accidentally' kicking her brother in the leg. It was just another day for them; the little dears didn't even realize that their mother was noticeably absent, giving birth to their sibling on the floor below.

Half-sibling, Falidor corrected himself hastily. How bizarre this was, his wife was about to have a baby that was not his. She hadn't even bothered to pretend that it was, nor did she claim rape or immaculate conception or anything of the like. She had simply been unfaithful--end of story.

Perhaps she knew he was a soft man, and did not fear him. What would he do to her? Nothing. Maybe he should have. Maybe he might have if he honestly cared more.

His thoughts were abruptly interrupted by a knock on the nursery door. "Yes?" he called with a sigh.

"Everything went well," Laveria assured him as she barged into the room, Ailede's baby in her arms, "or, as well as it could have gone, I suppose. Ailede named her Madelheina, for her mother."

Falidor had to admit, he was somewhat surprised that his wife had named a child for one of the parents she so despised--it seemed almost a crime to willingly christen a baby after a person one loathed, a mark of some similar emotion felt toward the child herself. He had spent little enough time feeling sorry for himself, but even that which he had might have been better spent feeling sorry for the baby.

"Madelheina," he whispered as he pulled himself from his seat and made his way toward the pair; the name seemed somewhat prettier when not applied to his shrewish mother-in-law. "Does she resemble Ailede much?"

Laveria quickly glanced down at the infant's face, frowning. "Not really. Looks more like Willott's former apprentice than anyone else. I hear he's set up shop in Chalwin Village in Tetranshire if you feel the need to go pound the stuffing out of him."

"Thanks, but I'll pass," Falidor declined; he did not think it wise to pick a fight with Grayer Maesflein, who was not only considerably bigger than he was, but also a man who tore apart dead animals for a living.

She allowed herself to laugh, for which he was grateful--he didn't appreciate the way most people had come to walk on eggshells around him upon learning of his wife's infidelity. "Come and see her."

Shrugging, he did as he was told. At first, he had no idea what to make of the girl--though he could not claim to love his wife, the baby was a sort of symbol of his humiliation--but as those brown eyes met his and that little mouth formed a small smile, he could not help but return the grin. This tiny angel, he was fully aware, had nothing to do with her own conception. This was a little girl, with a distant mother and no father, and all she could ever want was just a little bit of love.

Falidor was not the smartest of men, nor the strongest of men. He was neither a smith of words nor a great visionary. Even he himself was well aware that there was nothing at all remarkable about him.

And yet, he had a lot of love--more than enough for his wife's baby.

"Can I hold her?" he asked as they continued to gaze at one another.

Laveria nodded, then gently lowered the baby into his arms. She was not a small newborn, but all the same, Falidor could not recall seeing anyone ever so tiny.

"Papa?" asked Riala suddenly from the floor. "Papa, who's that?"

"This is your sister, dear," Falidor informed her--the word 'half' seemed suddenly insignificant. "Be gentle with her, though--she's only a baby."

His daughter nodded solemnly. "All right."

"Good girl," he muttered as he held the baby close. "God, she's warm."

"She's perfectly healthy, if that's what you're thinking," insisted Laveria. "Besides, I'm somewhat warm as well. It may just be the room... or you."

Falidor raised an eyebrow. "Me?"

"Most men are a little colder when presented with their wives' bastards, you realize," she sighed.

He snorted dismissively. "Well, maybe their wives' bastards just aren't as sweet as this little one. Isn't that right, Maddie?"

The baby replied with a small yawn, then snuggled herself into his shoulder. She was such a darling; it was true that he wasn't her father, but he was perfectly happy to be her papa.


August 24, 2009

In Which Lorn Gets a Lesson in Flirting

December 21, 1160

"Ah-ha!" exclaimed Prince Ietrin triumphantly as he released an imaginary arrow. "Right in the heart! You're dead, knave!"

"No, I'm not!" Lorn protested. "I moved--you missed."

"Did not!"

"Did so!"

"Did not--and when we're older, I will be a king, and you will only be a duke, so I'm right."

Such was the logic of Ietrin, whether it was playing pretend or fighting over the larger piece of cake. Lorn was not particularly fond of the crown prince--Ietrin had always been rather pompous and self-important for Lorn's taste in friends--but today, the alternative to playing in the forbidden sanctuary of King Roderick's study was helping his mother and Queen Laralita and Lady Alina make dresses for their babies, so he'd figured Ietrin had been the wiser choice.

"And I just got you through the head!" Ietrin added smugly. "You're twice dead!"

Lorn winced. "Twice dead? That's impossible."

"Maybe for humble sons of dukes such as yourself, Lornie-boy. I suppose I can't blame you; after all, your father is really only a lord's second son, and your mother, while she is the daughter of a princess, is also the daughter of a count's third son, whereas my father is a king and was a prince, and my mother was an earl's daughter."

He had to admit, he'd stopped listening after 'your father is'.

"All right, fine, I'm twice dead," he sighed, not wanting to have to put up with any more of Ietrin's senseless banter. "Can we play something else now? I'm bored."

"No, you're just a sore loser," the prince argued, "but fortunately for you, I am bored. If only the girls were here--then we could flirt."

Lorn raised an eyebrow. "Flirt? You've never flirted."

"Have so!" insisted Ietrin. "Stupid! I'm six--how can you think I've never flirted? I flirt all the time!"

"With who?" Lorn demanded.

"Whoever I want!"

He could have expected that response, he supposed.

Ietrin frowned. "Although... since you're only five, I suppose I can forgive you for being ignorant. You probably still think girls are gross."

Rolling his eyes, Lorn shook his head. "Do not--I think you're gross."

Someone knocked on the door.

"Who goes there?" demanded Ietrin, though Lorn could tell that he feared it was his father, here to catch them trespassing in his private domain.

The girls didn't answer--they just barged right in, Raia in the lead, Leara following.

"Excellent!" whispered Ietrin to Lorn excitedly. "Watch and learn, Lornie-boy; I'm about to give you the best lesson of your life."

Something about that statement seemed somewhat off to Lorn, and Raia was quick to confirm that--though he didn't quite understand her reply either.

"The best lesson of his life?" she repeated with a laugh. "I'm sorry Ietrin, but I think that will be up to Leara on their wedding night. If you want, though, you can have one of my brothers when they're a little older--my papa says we can all marry whoever we want."

Lorn shared a quick glance with Leara, who seemed just as confused as he was. It had been a few weeks since he had seen her, and it seemed that it was only just now that he was beginning to realize just how much he'd come to appreciate her company--her beauty, her pretty laugh, her good heart. Leara, he knew--he was a big boy of five, after all--was the sort of girl he was willing to kick down doors for.

Raia, of course, was of an entirely different sort. While Lorn liked her well enough as a friend, he could never imagine kicking down a door for her--not that Raia needed it. Raia was perfectly capable of kicking down her own doors. In fact, she didn't even have to bother; doors sensed her presence and opened themselves, fearing what she might do to them if they didn't.

"Good lord! That's all you ladies ever think about, isn't it?" teased Ietrin, his eyes wide. "But anyway, why would I want one of your brothers when they're older when you yourself are already a big girl--not to mention, much prettier than any of them?"

"To be honest, I can't see why you would want any of us," Raia replied, "considering you're already betrothed to Jeda."

"Jeda's just a little girl."

"She's less than a year younger than me, Ietrin. She won't be little for long."

"Yes, but while she still is..."

Whatever sort of lesson this was supposed to be, Lorn wasn't learning much, and Leara seemed to be of a similar opinion. They locked eyes once more, then she pointed toward her brother and mouthed the word "Stupid".

Fully and heartily, Lorn agreed, and he showed it with a nod. Leara smiled; he felt his face grow warm.

God, she was pretty. Could this beautiful girl really be the sister of ugly old Ietrin? Lorn would have had his doubts had they not shared the same violet eyes. Maybe those features were of the sort that only looked decent on a woman.

And to think, he would marry her one day! Being a five-year-old boy, he wasn't particularly excited to get married any time soon... but at least it would be Leara walking down the aisle toward him. The thought of her almost made the thought of marriage sound agreeable.

Meanwhile, Ietrin was still 'flirting'--rather unsuccessfully, from what Lorn could tell.

"Really, Ietrin," laughed Raia, "did you honestly think that line would work? No girl in history has ever fallen for anything of the like, I assure you; perhaps you ought to regroup and come up with some new material."

"But my father's steward used it on my stepmother's maid, and it worked," Ietrin protested.

Raia didn't seem convinced. "Knowing your stepmother's maid, she probably wasn't evening listening to him--she was just looking for an excuse. He didn't floor her; she let herself be floored."

Ietrin opened his mouth to argue, but his response was shortly prevented by the arrival of Lorn and Raia's eight-year-old mutual cousin Searle, Lord Severin's page.

"Hello, ladies," the older boy greeted Raia and Leara, hardly giving Lorn or Ietrin a second glance. "I was just about to go for a ride. Would you girls like to accompany me? I would hate to inflict the sight of my thornish self upon the citizens of Naroni without a fair rose on either side. I asked your mothers, and they said it was fine."

"A ride does sound like fun," mused Raia. "I'll definitely go. Sorry Ietrin, but I've been presented with an opportunity much more pleasurable than your company. Leara, are you coming?"

Leara flashed one last grin Lorn's way, then nodded. "All right."

"Excellent!" her friend exclaimed. "I'll race you, Searle!"

"You're on!" he accepted, and the two then bolted from the room.

"Good day, Lorn," Leara bade him as she followed after the other two.

Lorn gave a small smile. "Good day, Leara."

He couldn't take her eyes off her as she left--even the way she closed the door behind her was mesmerizing.

"Damn girls," Ietrin swore under his breath.

As he turned to face the prince, Lorn couldn't help but grin. "Looks like you need a lesson in flirting, Ietrin."

Ietrin bit his lip. "Shut up, Lorn--just shut up."


August 22, 2009

In Which Severin Finds the Damage Done

October 17, 1160

"Well, well, well," Severin began, stepping into the room to discover the source of the noise that the cook had been complaining about; it was his daughter, jumping on the bed. "It seems that someone is up past her bedtime."

Raia laughed as she continued to bounce about. "But it's my birthday! Anyway, since I'm five now, can't I stay up later?"

"If you can be quieter, then maybe I'll think about it," he told her, "but certainly not this late--it won't be long before it isn't even your birthday anymore."

"All right--when it's not my birthday anymore, I'll go to bed," Raia promised.

Chuckling slightly, Severin shook his head. "You know, technically... the only 'birthday' you'll ever have was five years ago--and as I recall, you slept through most of it."

Horrified, his daughter froze briefly, then swung herself off the bed and stared at him; he was unsure whether it was her eyes that were wider, or her frown. "Did I?" she gasped, as though she had just been told she'd gone temporarily mad and killed a building full of people.

"Indeed you did," he replied in a teasingly grim voice. "Now, go to bed."

Resigned, Raia pulled back the covers and crawled beneath. "Fine. 'Night, Papa."

"Goodnight, Raia," he bade her, planting a quick kiss on her forehead. "Happy birthday."

"But you just said my birthday was five years ago!" she protested as he made his way out of the room.

"I'm old; I'm allowed to contradict myself," he assured her. "Now, put out the candles and go to sleep."

He closed the door softly behind him and strode along the winding corridor to his own bedchamber, where he found his wife awake, staring at the empty fireplace.

"Practicing pyrokinesis?" ventured Severin as he joined her on the couch. "If so, I hear it's easier while snuggled up to one's husband."

Alina giggled. "That would certainly present an easier target."

"Albeit more distracting," he added with a grin. "Anyway, I just told one lady that it was time to go to sleep, and now I think this older lady should do the same."

"Fair enough," she agreed, "but I have to talk to you first."

Severin frowned; he wasn't sure about the emotional note in her voice. "All right..."

"You sound worried," mused Alina, one eyebrow raised. "Don't be--it's good news."

"Good news," he repeated as he placed his arm around her shoulder and pulled her toward him, relieved--he'd had enough bad news lately. "Thank you, Princess."

"Don't just thank me, you idiot," she sighed. "Sometimes it takes more than one person to make some good news. If I recall correctly, you were there at the time."

He found himself smiling as their eyes locked. "You don't say? It's the stables, isn't it? Have my men finally finished extending the stables?"

She rolled her pretty blue eyes--she did this so often it was endearing. "I say I have good news and you immediately think it's the stables? Severin... have you been drinking?"

"No, but I might have to if you don't tell me soon."

Giggling again, she leapt onto his lap. "All right, I'll just tell you. In May... well, we're going to have another baby."

At once, about a million possible replies formed in his head, each one proving more profound than the last. There were so many to choose from; he elected the safest option.


May. That placed the conception date around... August. She'd given birth in June.

It was true that after his mother had married, the majority of Severin's youth had been spent with his father and stepmother, but he had spent enough time with Laveria to hear her telling women that it was more difficult to conceive a child closely following a birth. Two months had seemed within the safe time frame--Alina hadn't even started bleeding again between the birth and the conception. How was she so sure that it had been August, anyway?

But really, it didn't even matter. He shouldn't have counted himself safe--he should have just told her his thoughts on the whole idea.

Of course... maybe it had been inevitable. Was he about to give up sex with her altogether? Not a chance. He'd just have to start pulling out, perhaps, but he realized that--he had been raised by Lonriad, after all--that didn't always work. Oh well; he'd give it a try after this baby was born. For now, the damage was already done.

Meanwhile, Alina's smile was drooping slightly as she studied his face. "Severin? Are you all right?"

"Of course," he lied, hugging her tightly. "Of course, Princess. Like you said, that's... good news."

Fortunately, she didn't seem to notice his hesitation as he choked out the last two words. "I knew you'd think so!"

When would it end? He'd decided that six was enough; now, there was going to be seventh. How many times could he put his reasoning aside and say "Just one more"? If he kept doing that, there would be thirty of them before he knew it.

Last one--no more. No exceptions. After this baby was born, they were done for a few years.

"Princess, it's late. Let's go to bed."