February 27, 2010

In Which Dalston Loses a Possible Moment

May 3, 1165

It was not unheard of for men to find their wives less attractive as they aged, but Dalston could not claim to understand this. Celina was thirty-two, approaching thirty-three, and not a day had past that Dalston had not woken to find a woman even lovelier than she who had lain beside him the night before. She was a mother of five children and a wife of ten and a half years, and as was invariably the case, she was not immune to time. Still, it was rare for him to find a gray hair among her thick chestnut locks, or a wrinkle upon her youthful face. He had known many a pretty girl to whom age had been nothing but ruthless, but his Lina was not one of them. If possible, she was even more divine now than she had been ten and a half years earlier.

Over the course of their decade together, Dalston had grown to appreciate these occasions his active self had once dreaded, these moments of having nothing to do--nothing, that was, except for just being with her, her and their children. As much as he had hated this feeling of stasis before his marriage, Dalston too had been prey to time, and he found that each year had made him wiser. There would always be work; there would always be concerned pensioners, irate taxpayers, and census results to be reviewed. In these troubled times, however, he could not say how long his family would remain as content and protected as it was, and as such, he planned to spend every possible moment with his wife and children.

Much to his dismay, however, Aldhein's knock told him that this was not, in fact, a possible moment. Dalston sighed. "Enter."

Aldhein swept inside with all the gloom and foreboding of some spectral messenger, closing the door with a swift brush of his arm against it. As it snapped shut, the flame of the nearest candle vanished. "Your grace, my lord, my lady," the steward addressed Celina and the children in turn before resting his eyes on Dalston. "Your grace... you have to come with me. The baron and his lordship are all ready en route."

Dalston raised an eyebrow. "What has happened?"

"I don't see fit to explain in front of your children," Aldhein dismissed. "I'll tell you on the way. It suffices to say that the king himself has sent for all of you."

Dalston's heart froze abruptly, like a horse approaching a fence it had only just realized it could not jump. Roderick had sent for him? Knowing Roderick's tendency to gravely underestimate the seriousness of dire situations, it must have been horrific indeed. "Well, we shall not keep him waiting."

He pressed a gentle kiss to three-year-old Rona's forehead, then set her down on the floor. "Take care of Mama and your baby brother, all right? Your older siblings should be back soon."

Rona answered with a toothy grin; he couldn't help but wonder how many more of those smiles he would ever see. "Yes, Papa."


February 25, 2010

In Which Alina Makes a Mother's Choice

April 18, 1165

As though the very sight of him could dry her tears, Alina's eyes remained fixated on her husband from the time he strode through the door to the second he lowered himself on the couch beside her. He drummed his fingers against his thigh; she added to the percussive distraction by lifting her heel from her slipper and strumming it against the frame of the couch. Seeking further sanctuary in their makeshift music, Alina began to whistle a tune to the beat, which Severin was quick to accompany with a hummed harmony. In a few minutes, they had a chorus, three distinct verses, and even an interlude--when they finished with those, they cycled through them once again. And again. And again.

Then, Severin stopped, leaving Alina to continue on her own for a few painful seconds. Embarrassed, she shied into the corner of the couch, the flush of her cheeks uncomfortably warm. Her husband pulled her from her cowering position with a gentle nudge of his hand to her chin, then frowned. "We should write to your sister."

It was an unconventional way of starting a conversation about such topics, but it seemed that family deaths had grown so common in recent years that many more typical means of talking about them had already been tried and failed. "Yes, and to Tarien as well. His poor little boys--Haldred will never know his mother, and Primus likely won't remember her either."

Severin rested his head against the windowsill behind him. "Indeed. To think, she was here not much longer than three years ago now. A smiling, youthful thing she was; I would have thought she had decades ahead of her."

"My heart aches for Meraleene," Alina sighed. "She's been going through such a difficult time. She and Oswald still haven't adjusted to life with each other, and now her eldest is dead. I mean... can you even imagine the death of your own child?"

His lip curling inward, Severin leaned forward. "No--nor would I particularly care to do so."

"Neither. Tarien must be thankful that the baby survived, even though he's doubtlessly devastated over the loss of his wife."

"Another incidence for which I am grateful that I can only sympathize, and not empathize."

Alina picked at a loose thread from her sleeve. "One life ends and another begins. Tragically poetic."

"You remind me why I can't stomach poetry."

She allowed herself a stiff breath of a laugh, then twisted her lip into a frown. "I wonder, though... would she have chosen otherwise, had she been given a choice? If it had meant that she would live, would she have had her son die? I don't think she would have. No mother would--I certainly wouldn't."

He met her comment with a quizzical glance that lingered a few seconds too long for her personal taste; he made up for it with a quick kiss, then shifted his gaze to the bed, a suspiciously grimace-like smile seizing control of his mouth.

"That's enough talk of death for now, I think," he muttered, as though he only half-intended for her to hear him. "Why don't we go for a ride, just the two of us? Falidor's here, and so is Searle, so it isn't as if we would be leaving the children alone. It won't bring your niece back, but it might help clear our heads."

Alina raised an eyebrow. "What do you imagine I would be riding, exactly? My horse, or you?"

"I was thinking one first, then the other," Severin answered promptly, "but I'm getting ahead of myself here. Let's just leave before it gets dark."


February 22, 2010

In Which Nora Answers with a Question

March 30, 1165

Given the circumstances, Nora was surprised at how at ease Alsina seemed with the two-day-old twins, but then again, perhaps it was a relief for her to be around a pair of small people who were so new to the world that they couldn't even sense that anything was out of the ordinary. The poor babies, born during such a time of turmoil for the family--their father's recent death, their aunt's encounter that could very well have been rape for all anyone knew. At the very least, she supposed that things could only get better for them now.

At least, she hoped that things could only get better for them now.

"They certainly do like you," she tried to assure her younger sister as she eased the older of the twins, Ceira, to her shoulder, "and the older two miss you, you know. I hope you realize that you're welcome to visit whenever you like."

Alsina nodded. "I know. Thank you."

Nora locked eyes with baby Ceira, then smiled and gently placed her in her crib with a quick kiss on the forehead. Behind her, Alsina did the same with Esela. She then trudged away, the hem of her dress leaving a just-noticeable trail on the somewhat dusty floor. Cuthron clutched at his aunt's skirts as she brushed past him on her way to the couch, but she paid him no notice; pouting, he turned back to his toy ark.

It was heartbreaking, just watching the girl. She had easily been the most spirited of the five children, more rambunctious and irrepressibly wild than Nora and their three brothers combined. Their mother had always laughed and claimed it would be cold day in hell before anything ever stalled Alsina; Nora had never been so grateful that where their good, kind mother was, she could not test that theory.

Shaking her head, she crossed the room to the couch, stopping only to ruffle her son's hair. She took a seat on the couch next to her sister, then grabbed the girl's hand and gave it a light squeeze. "So... how are things?"

Her question was met with silence. For a good minute, all she could hear was Cuthron's playful banter between Noah and the animals, the wife lying abandoned on the other side of the ark.

Even that ceased shortly. Cuthron took to squirming in indignation as he realized that neither his mother nor his aunt was speaking. "Auntie Sina?"

Nora closed her eyes; she was proud that her son was a bright young child, but she might have preferred that he hadn't picked up on this uncomfortable tension. "Go back to your toys, love."

One eye still on the little boy, she glanced toward Alsina once more. Her sister's hands were in her lap, the fingers on her right fidgeting with the wedding band on her left. It was twisted upwards... downwards... upwards... Nora could no longer stand to watch it. At last, Alsina let the ring slide back into position, then sighed.

"I lost it."

The neutrality of her voice invoked a sudden dryness in Nora's mouth. What could she say to this? 'I'm sorry'? 'Congratulations'? Either one seemed fitting--similarly, either one seemed most shockingly inappropriate.

Indeed, the only way she could think to answer was with a question. "Uh... have you seen Arydath?"

Alsina nodded. "I saw her yesterday. She was very helpful."

Nora frowned. "Does Aldhein know?"

"Uh... not exactly."

She raised an eyebrow; Alsina was not known for giving such vague answers, but perhaps that had only been the Alsina of Old. "What do you mean, 'not exactly'?"

The younger girl shrugged. "Well... no 'exactly', I guess. He doesn't know."

"I see," muttered Nora, absent-mindedly curling a lock of hair around her finger. "What are you going to tell him?"

Alsina took a moment to think about it, then answered, "Maybe he just won't notice."

In a more clearly positive situation, she might have laughed. "Believe me, dear, he'll notice. You have to tell him."

"He's not exactly attentive," Alsina mumbled, her voice both hopeful and resigned.

"Regardless, he still has to know."

Again, she took her time. They sat there for quite a while, their eyes fixed on the wall in front of them, until Alsina finally found something more to say.

"What can I do if he loses his reason for putting up with me?"


February 18, 2010

In Which Aldhein Wakes a Sleeping Hatred

February 5, 1165

It had been Aldhein's hope that all the guests would have been gone by now, but it seemed that Lord Severin had other ideas. Admittedly, it was better he than a less agreeable personage, but in all honesty, Aldhein wanted nothing more than to just get this whole damn day done and over with.

Florian took the initiative of acknowledging him before Aldhein did--not that it was much of a problem. "Did her ladyship leave without you, my lord?"

Pulling himself from the chair, his lordship shook his head. "She knows better than to go riding alone these days. No, she'd scarcely put on her cloak when she was overwhelmed with sudden bout of nausea--Aldhein, I hope you don't have too strong a personal fondness for those bushes by the side of your house."

"Not particularly," he replied, staring at the wall as he resisted the urge to gnaw his own tongue off. He'd managed two words--that was enough for now.

Of course, Florian was not of the same school of thought. "Nausea, you say? Is she pregnant?"

Lord Severin shuddered. "Dear God, I hope not."

Florian's elbow met Aldhein's side with a sharp jab, as though cuing him to some witty remark, but Aldhein was not in the mood to joke about matters such as pregnancy. Instead, he chose to simply let his eyes fall to the wooden floor, the rough grain as foreboding as a labyrinth of thorns. "I understand your sentiments, my lord."

He watched as the toe of Lord Severin's boot lifted and fell. "Aldhein, might I request a favor of you?"

With some difficulty, Aldhein raised his eyes to meet those of the other. "Yes, my lord?"

"Just... be gentle with her, all right?" Lord Severin advised, with all the seriousness of wary father. "You're well aware that she still hasn't told anyone exactly what happened that day, so for all we know, she may have endured a horrific ordeal. I realize that you're used to a, uh... wilder sort of woman, but Alsina's in a very delicate state right now, and I doubt she has the resilience of someone like Thetis or Nora. If she doesn't feel comfortable with what the two of you are supposed to do tonight... well, don't force her into anything. Don't become the one who did this to her."

He didn't need to be told all this; all Lord Severin had done was put Aldhein's own fragmented thoughts to sensible words. "I'll be good to her."

"I'm relieved to hear it."

If he had anything more to say, he chose to withhold it. The room fell into an uneasy silence, untouched by even the softest of breathes. Aldhein fiddled with the foreign band on his finger. He'd never expected so tiny a thing to be such a weight; it was a hundred pounds if it was an ounce. How did men carry such burdens for so many years? Would this Promethean binding truly continue to tether him all the way to the grave? Beyond, even?

"Don't worry, Aldhein," muttered Florian, interrupting his troubled thoughts. "I didn't catch most of what he had to say either. It's his own fault, really; sometimes, I swear that man only talks because he likes the sound of his own voice."

Frowning, Aldhein sent an apologetic glance Lord Severin's way. The other man's brow twitched, but he refrained from commenting, no doubt accustomed enough Florian's general lack of manners that he deemed it useless--or even harmful--to put him in his place. Fortunately, his wife bounded through the front door and straight into his arms, relieving the room's tension as only an exceptionally pretty face could.

"Feeling better, Princess?" he asked as the pair of them released each other.

Lady Alina nodded. "Much, thank you. No need to worry--I probably just ate something funny."

"Or maybe you're eating for two," suggested Florian offhandedly.

Her ladyship laughed--somewhat forcibly, at that. "Florian, I've had seven babies; I know when I'm pregnant. Anyway, congratulations, Aldhein," she added, pulling him aside and wrapping her arms around him.

Aldhein returned the embrace with a grimace. He hadn't thought about whether or not to put up with the whole fidelity notion just yet, but regardless, this was likely the closest he would get to a grown, fully-developed woman for quite some time. "Thank you, your ladyship."

She pecked him on the cheek, then spun away, her dainty fingers interlocking with those of her husband. "Oh, but don't mind us--we won't keep you any longer, will we, Severin?"

"Not at all," he agreed, placing his arms around her waist and pulling her away from the crowd. He nudged the door open with his elbow, then flashed Aldhein and his groomsmen a parting grin. "So long, children! Have a nice night."

Lady Alina winked. "I know we will."

Lord Severin responded with a laugh, then ushered his wife out the door, closing it behind them. As they left, three women emerged from the bedroom; Aldhein's veins constricted to what must have been their smallest possible diameter.

Evaleith and Thetis at her heels, Falidor and Alsina's sister Nora glanced toward the men with a half-hearted attempt at a smile. "Well, we're ready. It's your turn now."

"Is she all right?" asked Ceidrid, frowning.

Evaleith shrugged. "Fine as she'll ever be, I guess. Might want to catch her before she falls asleep, though."

"She did seem quite tired," agreed Thetis.

"We'll be quick," Florian assured them. "Oh, and Falidor, kindly take your eyes off my wife's breasts. Thanks."

Falidor went as crimson as his sister's dress while Thetis struggled to hold back a giggle. She then took Evaleith by the arm and led her to the couch; Nora, meanwhile, turned to Aldhein. It seemed to him that every time her blue eyes met his own, they looked even more broken. Her young life had held far too many tragedies for the number of years it had thus far spanned; he might have pitied her if he had any pity left to spare, or if she was the sort of girl who cared for pity in the first place.

"Thank you for doing this," she muttered as she embraced him, the bulge of her child pressing against his core. "I let her put on the nightgown, as you requested. Please... be gentle with her, all right?"

Aldhein pressed his lips to her brow, then nodded. "Don't worry about it." There was no need for her to do that; he was already worrying enough for the both of them.

Nora drummed her fingers across his back, then stepped aside, joining the other two women on the couch and allowing Florian to push him around the corner and into the bedroom. Ceidrid and Falidor followed closely, Falidor shutting the door as quietly as he could.

Florian brushed past the bed, turning his head for the briefest of moments. "No peeking, Alsina."

She didn't reply; in fact, Aldhein suspected she was already asleep.

She lay with the stillness of a glass figurine; she may as well have been a corpse in a coffin. Her flaming hair was not so shiny as he remembered, and the shadows that pooled beneath her eyes served to prove the paleness of her flesh.

When he had first met her, she had been a feisty, spirited little thing, as full of life and potential as the sweetest of spring blossoms. In time, she'd grown--taller, older, but no wiser--into a restless, perhaps reckless young woman, ravishing and fiery as the summer sun. He had married her mere hours ago, hours which she had endured as a silent, trembling creature, troubled and skeletal and exposed as a tree that was fast shedding its autumn leaves; now, here she was, set with an eerie stillness, frozen in the wake of winter's Judas kiss.

Florian needn't have told her not to look. She had no intention of looking. She had no intention of ever sensing anything again, whether it be the sight of her naked husband or the song of a morning bird or the touch of whatever demon had come upon her that day she undoubtedly wished she could forget.

Gnawing at his lip, Aldhein forced himself to turn away from her. The last thing he wanted to do was look at her, but as always, it was difficult to stop once he began.

Behind him, Ceidrid shifted audibly. "Are you all right?"

Aldhein grunted in reply, not fully sure as to whether it was a yes or a no. If Ceidrid had a clearer insight, he did not share it.

In front of him, Falidor gestured for him to turn around. "All right... now we have to get you out of those clothes."

"There's something Falidor hasn't said to any effect in quite some time," jeered Florian as Aldhein hesitantly complied. Under any other circumstance, he might have found Florian's joke at Falidor's expense amusing, but this was a different case. He felt more comfortable with as many barriers between himself and Alsina as possible; any clothing he wore constituted a barrier.

He tried not to struggle as Falidor pulled the shirt off of him, then removed his boots and proceeded to his pants. It was an alien experience... when had been the last time he'd been undressed by a man? Before he'd been capable of undressing himself, he was sure of it.

Finally, Falidor tossed the slacks aside and pulled himself to his feet. "Done."

Florian sneered. "Not quite."

"I can take it from here," Aldhein sighed. "Just... go home, won't you?"

None of the three of them budged; he rolled his eyes. "All right, think of it this way--do any of you honestly want to see any more of me than this?"

He'd never seen a room's population halved so quickly; if only it hadn't been such a bittersweet victory.

Once he had heard the last of the footsteps making their way from the house, Aldhein swallowed and faced his bride once more. She hadn't stirred since he'd last laid eyes on her--not that he had expected otherwise.

The sight of her pulled forth a chain of old memories, one he preferred not to think about, but always found himself dwelling on in the event that it was summoned. He'd been about nine at the time, maybe ten, and every morning, a girl would walk by the house on her way to the well. She'd been a few years older than he was, a small and blond, a pretty little thing. They'd never spoken--to this day he didn't know her name, and he doubted she'd ever known his--but if he happened to be outside when she passed, she would be sure to flash him a smile.

Then, one day, she stopped smiling. She shrunk away into gloom, her pace slowing, her skip fading into a dull trudge. Her stomach swelled, her dresses diminished; her golden hair fell from her scalp and her lovely face became a waxen skull. One day, Aldhein had looked to the old cemetery and caught sight of a few men digging a fresh grave. Innately, he had known it was for her.

After her death, he heard fragments of the story from various villagers, piecing it together after a few days of sorting through twisted secondhand gossip and seemingly common opinions. She'd had some sort of altercation with a man--consensual, rape, too drunk to even remember, he didn't know--and had become pregnant as a result, and the bastard wouldn't marry her. She'd had a weak father and a cruel stepmother, the former failing to find her a husband and the latter insisting she be cast out as a result of this. No one had helped her after that; she had slowly perished in the streets, the baby with her.

Whatever the circumstances, he hated the man who had done that to that girl. He hated the man who had done that to Alsina. Most of all, he hated himself. He'd lusted after her too, this little girl, this mere child; secretly, he was no better than the brute who had inflicted his spawn upon her in the first place.

He must have been breathing too loudly, he realized too late; her eyes briefly flickering open, Alsina rolled over, facing him. "Aldhein?"

It was the first word she had spoken all evening, save the obligatory oath of 'I will'. Shaking his head, Aldhein made his way about the room, dousing every lit candle with a pinch of his fingers. He then shut the window and allowed himself one last parting glance at his cadaverous young wife. "I'll sleep in the guest bedroom tonight. Good night, Alsina."

"Wait," she rasped as he stormed out of the bedroom. "Wait, don't..."

"Good night!" he snapped once more, slamming the door behind him and proceeding to the stairs. Something told him that this would be far from the last night he spent alone.


February 10, 2010

In Which Roderick Cannot Understand

February 2, 1165

As usual, Ietrin needed to be met with his stepmother's elbow in order to be reminded of his manners. "Hello, Uncle Oswald," he greeted his uncle dully, rubbing his arm with a grimace; Laralita did have a good elbow on her, Roderick knew for a fact.

Oswald replied with the subtlest of nods. "Ietrin. Where are Leara and Camaline?"

Ietrin rolled his eyes. "Oh, they're at Armion for the day, them and my stepsister Elhina. They were allowed to go because Father likes them so much more than he does me," he added, the bitterness clear in his young voice.

As often was the case, Roderick had half a mind to smack the boy, but he did not think it worth the five steps required to reach him. "Ietrin, we've been over this; it's not because I like them more than you, but because their behavior has been better than yours, and therefore they were allowed to go as a reward."

The boy slouched and began to grumble. "And I have to stay here as punishment."

Roderick shot his son a warning glare, then turned back to his brother. "Don't mind him; he gets it from his mother's side."

Again, Oswald barely deemed this worthy of a response; it seemed a blink and a slight shrugged were all he thought necessary. "So, how are things in this little kingdom of yours?"

"Well, other than the occasional incident of someone being brutally slaughtered in the middle of a forest or poisoned by some variety of roses or something of the like, I suppose we're doing well enough."

Even this seemed to bounce right off of him; Oswald had never been among the most emotional of men, but in this instance, Roderick might as well have been talking to a statue. The body was present, but the mind seemed to be elsewhere. "I see. And how are things in your own household?"

Roderick nodded toward the two girls playing on the floor. "Perfectly fine, thank you very much. These two are absolute angels--just like their mother," he added with a wink Laralita's way. This merited a rather charming giggle; it was nice to know that his wife, at least, found him worthy of a suitable response. Really, what was Oswald's problem--he was a king, for God's sake! "Anyway, how long are you staying?"

"Until after Holladrin has her baby," Oswald informed him, "which should be sometime within the week, she claims; she asked if I would be the godfather, so I plan to be here for the christening. Are there any other events that might cause me to stay longer?"

Most unusually, he sounded almost hopeful; Oswald had never been keen to stay too long in Naroni before. "Uh... well, Celina's not due until late April or early May, and I don't doubt that you'll be needed back in Dovia before then. Other than Holladrin's baby, the only upcoming event of any interest is my former steward's wedding, and obviously that's not too important."

Oswald's eyes narrowed. "I take it that you weren't invited."

Well, at least the man had not forgotten how to joke, Roderick mused as he began to laugh. "Oh, Oswald, you fool! I am a king, in case you've forgotten--if an occasion is announced, then I am automatically invited. In this case, I am simply choosing not to go, as I have much more important things to attend to than a mere gentleman's wedding."

His brother frowned. "Especially if said gentleman once impregnated your late wife."

"Indeed--and would you believe it? He's marrying some girl who's currently carrying another man's child; ironic, is it not?"

Oswald failed to appear amused; if anything, he seemed annoyed. "Roderick, I didn't haul my sorry carcass all the way to your godforsaken, backwater country for idle gossip about who's marrying who and who's pregnant with whose baby. I'm here to inquire as to how things are going for you, and nothing more; I'll stop by before I leave, but I did plan on spending most of my time here with Holladrin and Octavius. Thank you for reminding me exactly why."

Roderick sniffed. "You forget who is king here, Oswald. You should be very fortunate that you are my brother, for there are very few from whom I would tolerate such rudeness."

Behind him, he heard Laralita shift on the couch. "Ietrin, would you mind grabbing one of your sisters? I think your father and your uncle would rather speak in private."

Ietrin snorted as he pulled himself off the couch and grabbed the squirming Riona, leaving young Ramona to his stepmother. "I'm sure."

The girls in arms, they hastily brushed past Roderick and Oswald, Laralita stopping only to plant a kiss on Roderick's cheek and Ietrin not at all. Seeing her stepson into the corridor, she closed the door behind her, the fading sound of her light slippers against the tile following Ietrin's heavier, booted tread. Roderick waited until he could no longer hear either set of footsteps, then allowed himself to lock eyes with his brother. "Is something wrong, Oswald? You don't seem yourself."

He chose not to give an immediate answer, but Roderick refused to break eye contact so long as Oswald remained silent. He was a king, after all; it was his duty to see to it that all questions were answered. Finally, Oswald sighed. "Roderick... do you ever look at your second wife and see a woman who is both pleasant and loving, and then feel horrible for resenting her just because of her one great flaw of not being your first wife?"

Roderick shook his head; what a ridiculous notion! "Honestly, I can't say that not being my first wife is a great flaw."

His brother's lip curled inward, but he remained otherwise motionless. "Then you cannot possibly understand."


February 8, 2010

In Which Aldhein Requests Another Opinion

January 29, 1165

Eilyssa looked as though she was having fun with young Lady Xeta, playing some sort of clapping game on the floor by the foot of the bed. Aldhein's seven-year-old was best friends with the daughter of a duke; seven years ago, he never would have imagined such a thing was possible. Where had he himself been at seven, again? Picking pockets while his father was busy sleeping off hangovers? Sitting alone in the filthy house each night as his earnings were squandered at the local tavern? And who had been his best friend at the time? That old pillow he used to cling to for hours on end, searching fruitlessly for any lingering trace of his long-dead mother's scent?

His father would always stagger through the front door at the crack of dawn, knocking down anything that stood between him and the old couch upon which he made a habit of collapsing. Aldhein would then creep down the stairs, turn him onto his side, and place the frequently-used basin within vomiting distance. He'd pull up a chair and wait, a stolen loaf of bread and plenty of water at the ready. When his father woke, he'd nurse him to as stable a condition as he could manage, then head out with the intention of bringing home any coins he could get his hands on--certainly not what childhood was meant to be, he was sure.

"Papa!" Eilyssa squealed, scrambling to her feet and greeting him with an enthusiastic hug. Against all odds, the girl was growing up well; if there was one thing of which Aldhein felt he could be proud, it was that he had managed to give his daughter a better start than his own father had given him. She too had no mother, but the duchess loved Eilyssa as her own, and her children saw the girl as a sister. Aldhein himself spent far more nights in his rooms in the castle than he ever did at his house, for her benefit; this way, she did not have to sit around alone with the housekeeper while he was working, and everyone she loved could be found in one convenient castle.

She was his sole reason for pressing on, the one thing that made his life worth living; if there were to be any changes, it was only right to give her a say in the matter. "Hello, Lyssie. Can I talk to you for a minute? It won't be long, I promise."

She looked up at him with a slight frown, her eyes--his own eyes--his mother's own eyes--wide as could be and bright as emeralds, regardless of the room's dim light. "Did I do something bad?"

"Of course not," he assured her. "I just need your opinion on something, that's all."

She was positively beaming; according to the duchess, there was nothing a seven-year-old girl liked more than being asked her opinion. "Really?"

Not giving him a chance to nod, she twirled around to come face-to-face with her friend. "Sorry, Xeta. I'll just be a minute, all right? My papa needs to ask me something."

Xeta nodded. "All right. I think I'll go check on my sister--meet me in her room when you're done?"

"Sounds good."

Aldhein took a seat on Eilyssa's little bench as the duke's daughter scurried into the corridor. Eilyssa closed the door behind her, then proceeded to Aldhein. "What did you want to ask me, Papa?"

He really should have thought this through first; how could he phrase this in a suitable manner for a little girl? "Well... you know Falidor, right?"

Eilyssa nodded. He took that as a sign to continue in that vein. "He has a younger sister, and she's, uh... going through a rough time right now. Falidor's a good man, but he's weak, and he has a wife who's both strong and cruel, so he can't quite help his sister as he should. He asked me if I could help her, but I didn't give him an answer because this would affect you, and I want to know how you would feel about it."

Well, that wasn't the only reason... but it was the only one to which he felt comfortable admitting.

More solemn than any child should ever have to be, Eilyssa hung her head and watched as a beetle scuttled across the floorboards. "What happened to her?"

"I'm not exactly clear on the details myself," he admitted, "but it's a grown-up matter; maybe she'll tell you herself when you're a little older, if she so chooses. It suffices to say that she's hurting, and I'm not sure if it's her own fault or if someone else did something horrible to her, but... I went to see her yesterday, at her older sister's house. She used to be so carefree and spirited, but the fires in her have been doused; she's like a completely different person now."

Indeed, the girl who had once so eagerly flung herself into his lap and danced wildly in the firelight had been scarcely recognizable. Alsina was gone, completely, thoroughly--for her sake, he could only hope that the change was not permanent.

Eilyssa's eyes drooped. God, he hated sobering her so; he could only hope that Lady Xeta and Lady Rona would rekindle her spirits when she joined them. "Oh. So... how can you help her?"

"Well, Falidor wants me to, uh... marry her," he muttered, nearly choking on the foreign infinitive. "Admittedly, it's not as if I had anyone else lined up for myself or anything of the like, but if I were to get, er, married, then there would be a few changes."

His daughter's brow arched. "Like what?"

Aldhein strummed his fingers across the surface of the bench. "Well, I don't think I have enough space in my quarters here to permanently house another person--or more, if she has any babies, hypothetically--so we would have to start living in the house. Of course, you could still see Xeta and her family whenever you wanted, or you could come to work with me if you pleased, but it wouldn't be the same as living with them. If you wanted to, you could still live here regardless, but what can I say? I'm a selfish man, and I'd like it if you were to live wherever I lived."

"Well, I must be selfish too," Eilyssa replied shyly, "because I want to live wherever you live... but I still want to see everyone here."

"And you can," he promised. "You will, no matter what. But it's up to you, and I'd appreciate your opinion on the situation in general, and if you need time to think about it, take as long as you need."

She took a moment to consider. Then, she clapped her hands in resolution and grinned. "Can I meet her?"

He had to admit, the possibility had not occurred to him; he felt like an idiot now. "Alsina?"

"The girl you might marry," she confirmed. "If you marry her, she'll be my stepmother, right? And I'd like to meet her before she becomes my stepmother, so I can make up my mind."

It seemed like mixing two separate worlds, the thought of Eilyssa and Alsina in the same room. They'd probably feel awkward; he'd probably feel even moreso. But if he did end up going along with Falidor's half-assed idea, he supposed it was inevitable--and if not, then maybe he'd at least have a valid reason. No matter what he did or did not feel about Alsina, no matter what she may or may not have done, he did not want to marry a woman with whom his daughter did not feel comfortable.

"Yes, you can meet her. We'll go see her tomorrow."