March 30, 2010

In Which Alina's Story Is Interrupted

February 16, 1166

Alina watched through narrowed eyes as Viridis crawled onto her cousin's bed. The girl had taken a slight, childish fancy to Searle during his previous visit, one that had reemerged with his return. When Severin had asked her what she found so interesting about the young man, she had replied, "He's so mysterious and sad and handsome--like a fairytale prince!"

As much as she privately disagreed, Alina figured that with four girls, it could only be expected that one of them would be the type to hang onto those old stories throughout her life. Riona was almost done with them, and even Vera had begun to lose interest; Raia, of course, had never cared much for them in the first place. Viridis, on the other hand, was still a believer, the possessor of a spark of innocence that Alina no longer saw in her other daughters. Perhaps it was because of this that she was the lone member of the household who had managed to make any progress with the wayward cousin.

In turn, Alina was relieved to notice, Searle didn't seem to mind the little girl. Nearly nineteen was an age at which she might have expected a young man to find a seven-year-old rather tiresome, but he tolerated her--indeed, he may have even been fond of her. Maybe he found her somewhat refreshing after three years that had been monopolized by adults and babies. She might have hoped that Viridis would spend more time outdoors while she could--she had just recovered from yet another spell of illness, and Alina was past the point where she could convince herself that there wouldn't be another one in the near future--but she had to admit that the girl's visits with her cousin did seem to benefit them both.

"I take it you want another story?" he asked as she settled herself, his voice taking a neutral tone--knowing Searle, neutral was the best one could hope to hear.

Viridis shook her head. "No. You tell the worst stories ever."

Alina raised an eyebrow. "That's not a very nice thing to say, Viridis."

"But it's true, Mama," she insisted. "All his stories are so sad."

Beside her, Searle shrugged. "If you know such great stories, why don't you tell one?"

"I will!"

She opened her mouth to begin, then promptly closed it once more--only to open it again. Closed... opened... closed...

Searle drummed his fingers expectantly across his midsection. "I'm waiting..."

"Mama," Viridis ventured, shifting her gaze from Searle to Alina, "can you tell us a story? Please?"

Frowning, Alina's eyes flickered to her nephew. He reclined with his legs crossed, boots still in place, just as apathetic as ever, his brief emotional peaks seemingly only spurred by the presence of his little dreamer of a cousin. She wondered if he'd ever been told a bedtime story in his life--knowing his parents as she did, she doubted that either of them could have ever been bothered. "Fine. Any requests?"

Viridis bounced in her excitement. "A love story!"

There were few love stories that Viridis didn't know by heart; Alina would have to make up something as she went. "All right. Uh... once upon a time, there was... a princess."

"Was she pretty?" asked her daughter instinctively.

Alina nodded. "Beautiful. Anyway... her kingdom was at war with another kingdom, a kingdom with whom her own shared a deep animosity."

Frowning, Viridis turned away. "I thought this was supposed to be a love story, not a stupid war story."

"Oh, but it is a love story!" she promised. "So... one day, the princess and her brother were out on their own, relieving themselves from the pressures of royal life, when they were, uh... taken hostage by enemy soldiers!"

Her daughter yawned; perhaps she should have introduced the romance at the very beginning. "They were taken to the opposing kingdom... and who should the princess meet there but a handsome, mysterious man!"

Now she had the girl's interest, she could tell from those wide brown eyes and that giddy grin. "Oooh! Was he a prince? Was he? Was he?"

"No." She didn't know where the answer had come from--it hadn't been the one she had planned--but somehow, it just seemed to fit.

Viridis, of course, seemed to think otherwise. "Well, that's not right! Who ever heard of a princess falling in love with anyone who wasn't a prince?"

Alina sighed. "Sometimes people fall in love with people they aren't supposed to; Lord knows your father and I were never--Searle? Are you all right?"

As she had spoken, her nephew had grown rather tense. She watched as he closed his eyes and exhaled, his foot twitching all the while. "I'm fine, Aunt Alina. Sorry about that."

"Searle--"

"My lady!"

She was cut off as Falidor burst through the door. "Excuse me for not knocking, but... you have guests."

Alina tilted her head, a frown growing with each degree; they hadn't been expecting anyone. Was it a messenger? Had something happened back in Dovia? "Who is it?"

"Your sister and her husband, your ladyship," Falidor replied, casting a wary glance Searle's way. "Your parents, sir."

NEXT CHAPTER:

March 28, 2010

In Which Jeda Is Done a Disservice

January 29, 1166

"...but I'm not entirely sure," Raia concluded her long-winded answer to Leara's question, an answer which Jeda did not fully understand but somehow felt as though it might have been abridged in the presence of an adult. "I think my father knows, but he says it's none of our business and not our place to ask. I'll only know if my cousin tells me himself, and I'm not sure I can see that happening any time soon."

Behind Jeda, Camaline permitted herself a stiff yawn. "And I don't see why either of you should care why he's here. What matters is that he is a disobedient knight who is breaking his vows to his king by stealing away from Dovia. Your father is wrong to allow him to stay, and our own is wrong for not forcing yours to send him on his way."

While it had been Jeda's idea to come to Leara's room, this sleepover had been anything but. From what she could gather, Leara had invited Raia to spend the night, and Queen Laralita had therefore insisted that Camaline invite someone as well. The problem with this, of course, was that there were few girls with whom Camaline got along. She had invited her, Jeda was positive, as the least of all possible evils; most were too young, Viridis was too excitable, and Lord knew Xeta would want to bring Eilyssa along, whom Camaline despised.

As little as Jeda had wanted to go, it seemed impolite to decline an invitation, especially one from a princess as per the request of a queen. The silver lining on this cloud was the presence of the two older girls--Leara, who was just kind enough and just brave enough to keep her sister from getting too out of hand, and Raia, the only one who ever dared challenge Camaline's opinions.

And indeed, it looked as though she was about to do just that. "His king? I think you're forgetting about his wife and baby; I imagine their need of him is much more pressing than King Farilon's, Cam."

Camaline glared at her. "That would be Princess Camaline to you--and you shouldn't think for a second that family loyalty is the slightest bit more important than allegiance to the monarch!"

"Easy for you to say, as it's the same thing in your case," quipped Raia; if ever was a girl born for the purpose of dealing with difficult people, it was she. "However, let's look at this logically. Danthia only has one husband, and Tivalia only has one father; on the other hand, Farilon has dozens of knights."

"But King Farilon is a king! Lady Danthia is only a knight's wife, a baron's daughter."

Camaline's sister shook her head. "You might not want to look too far down your nose at barons' daughters, Camaline."

Nodding in agreement, Raia glanced over at Jeda and smiled. "In fact, this baron's daughter will be your queen one day. It might be wise to keep yourself in her good graces."

Jeda looked to the floor and watched her toes curl inwards; so much for hoping that she wouldn't be dragged into this. Fortunately, Camaline didn't seem to perceive her as much of a threat. "Oh, Jeda has nothing but good graces--besides, it isn't as if she's queen yet."

"Oh, but maybe she can look the part!" squealed Leara in sudden delight, cutting off whatever rebuttal had been about to sound from Raia's open mouth. Giddy, she sprung from the bed and skipped around the footboard until she was face to face with Jeda. "Jeda dear, may I please do something with your hair?"

Two distinct groans rang throughout the room; it seemed that there was something on which Raia and Camaline could agree after all.

Leara gave them each a dismissive wave, then turned back to Jeda with an eager excitement that she never would have expected of a princess. "Don't listen to them--they're just jealous because they don't have long, beautiful curls like you!"

"Or maybe we just don't want to have to sit around and watch you fret about her hair," Camaline grumbled. "It's a servant's work, you do realize."

Back on the bed, Raia sighed. "Maybe let her get it out of her system--better Jeda than me, at least."

Leara took Jeda by the arm and bounced, unwittingly pinching her in the process. "You are going to be so beautiful when I'm done with you! Raia, can you toss me my brush? It's in the cabinet by your side of the bed."

Rolling her eyes, Raia did as requested. Before she knew it, Jeda's hair was being yanked at, braided, pinned up until she reached the point where it seemed useless to even try to follow. All she knew was that the king's eldest daughter was tugging at her scalp, and would not stop before her urge had been satisfied.

Only once did Leara release her hold on Jeda's hair, just to reach into a nearby vase and pick out some small white flowers, leaving only the larger purple ones. This prompted a raised eyebrow from Raia. "Your stepmother's not going to be happy about that."

The princess merely shrugged. "I'll simply tell her that they look much nicer on Jeda than they ever could in the vase--and you have to admit that they do."

"I'll give you that."

Smiling, Leara released Jeda and looked her over, only to then turn her around so she could meet her reflection. "Done! Do you like it?"

"It's... nice," she muttered in reply as she studied the braided bun. While she did think Leara had done a good job with the hair, she had never cared to wear it up; her face was flat and doughy enough without pulling back her curls to showcase the fact.

Leara grabbed her by the shoulder again. Jeda looked pleadingly at Camaline, only to be met with a smug frown that bore the clear message of 'I told you so'. "You know what you need? A nice dress! Camaline, grab one of my old dresses for me."

Fuming in agitated silence, Camaline stormed off to the wardrobe and pulled the doors open, only to send a quick glare back the way of her sister. "My God! You must have at least thirty gowns in here--most of which you've scarcely worn, if at all!"

She grabbed what Jeda supposed was the nearest one and tossed it to her sister. Clearly displeased with Camaline's irreverent treatment of the dress, Leara stomped up to the younger girl and handed it back. "Not this one--I was thinking that one I wore to Ramona's christening."

"How should I remember what you wore to Ramona's christening? That was ages ago!"

An exasperated growl escaping her mouth, Leara shoved Camaline to the side and pulled out white, gold-trimmed gown, which she then offered to Jeda. "Try it on!"

Her childlike glee had been quick to return; it seemed to Jeda that it was useless to rebel. She pulled off her nightgown and gave it to Leara, who proceeded to throw it to Camaline. She then allowed the older princess to dress her as a maid dressed her lady--laces, ties, shoes...

At last, Leara breathed a sigh of contentment. "Oh, Jeda, you are so beautiful!"

Behind her, Camaline snorted. "The dress is a little short, don't you think?"

"Regardless," Raia insisted, "you do look nice, Jeda. Can we do something else now?"

"Well... what sort of 'something else' do you have in mind, angelface?"

The speaker was neither Leara nor Camaline--and of course, it was not Jeda. Indeed, it was a male voice, coming from the now-open door. Jeda felt her heart flutter against her ribs like a butterfly against a stain-glass window.

Prince Ietrin flashed his dazzling smile across the room. "Hello, ladies. Getting comfortable for the night, I see?"

Leara returned his grin with a glower. "Get out! No boys allowed!"

"You seem to be perfectly fine with Cammie's presence."

If Leara's glare had been threatening, then Camaline's was downright venomous. "It's Camaline--and I'm obviously a girl!"

Ietrin smirked. "You keep telling yourself that, Camalon."

"Camaline!"

Laughing, Raia hoisted herself from the bed and gestured toward Jeda. "Look at your future wife, Ietrin," she told him with a wide grin--probably more to ease the wrath of his sisters than to compliment Jeda, she was sure of it. "Isn't she pretty?"

Ietrin's eyes flickered Jeda's way for a brief second. "Very nice."

Jeda felt a blush swelling in her cheeks as the prince drew nearer. "Thank y--"

But he brushed right past her, crossing between her and Leara and, instead, making his way toward Raia. "Anyway, according to my gender-confused brother, my sister here is quite the kicker; perhaps we can find you somewhere more comfortable to sleep?"

He seemed to have been making a joke, one that Jeda did not quite get. Raia, however, seemed to understand. "I take it you mean your own bed."

Laughing, Ietrin leaned toward her, his torso bending from his hips in such a way that Jeda might have thought him drunk had she not known otherwise. "Well, it hadn't been my intention to be so forward, but if you are the one to suggest it, then who am I to refuse?"

Leara placed her fist under her chin and pouted. "Ietrin, would you mind not flirting with my friend, you obnoxious oaf?"

Flirting? The word stung like an arrow to the heart. Jeda had always known she would some day see Ietrin flirting, but it had never occured to her that she herself would not be the recipient. They had been betrothed since they were babies--wasn't he doing her some sort of disservice just now?

Neither Ietrin nor Raia appeared to have heard Leara--or if they had, they chose to ignore her. "Ietrin, as you're constantly reminding everyone, you're a prince; you may refuse whatever and whoever you like."

Well, at the very least, Raia didn't seem to appreciate his advances. Of course, this may have been a bad omen--Jeda did not know much about flirting and courtship and love, but she recalled hearing that some women used disinterest as a means of showing... well, interest.

"I know," Ietrin assured her, his straight white teeth almost sparkling in the light of the chandelier, "and such is my right to not refuse as well."

"Fortunately for me, I have nothing for you to refuse or not refuse."

Judging by a moment of panicked tension on the part of his body, this was more than Ietrin knew what to do with; much to Jeda's chagrin, however, he decided to try a different angle.

"It's convenient how the body allows for adjustments, is it not?" he mused aloud, his voice both rough and velvet to Jeda's ears. "I need only incline my head to meet your mouth."

Raia's eyes narrowed. "And I need only raise my knee to meet your crotch."

"Oh, there are far more pleasurable ways for you to meet my--ow! Jesus!"

Whatever these more pleasurable ways were, the means of the knee had evidently been good enough for Raia.

Jeda didn't know what to think as she watched her betrothed cringe in pain. She felt sorry for him, and she didn't. He hadn't deserved it, but he had. She didn't know. Perhaps there was some magical gap between nine and ten, and she would understand all of what had been said between Ietrin and Raia in another six months. Or maybe it was simply her, and she would never be able to make sense of such a conversation if she lived to be a hundred.

And when she thought of herself--flat-faced, doughy, and plain--in comparison to the ice crystal Camalines and violet-eyed, fun-loving Learas and sharp, raven-haired Raias of the world, she wondered if the latter was not the kinder scenario after all.

NEXT CHAPTER:

March 26, 2010

In Which Severin is Answered

January 18, 1166

Alina moaned softly as Severin dipped her to the floor, planting a trail of hungry kisses from her chin down her jaw line. "I can't believe we managed to get all of the children out of the castle at the same time!"

"Mmm," he hummed in reply, although he didn't consider this a particularly difficult feat. Now that she had recovered from her most recent spell of illness, Viridis had needed some fresh air and Raia had been more than willing to take her for a ride. Jadin and Searle had gone hunting with their cousin the squire, and Severin's mother was quite happy to take the younger three for the day. Frankly, he didn't know why they didn't do this more often.

And yet, that inevitable knock on the door still came. "Remind me next time to get rid of Falidor too."

Severin glanced up at the door and shook his head. "Not now--I'm trying to finish up some important paperwork."

Alina stifled a giggle. "'Paperwork'? Is that my new nickname or something?"

"Think you need a new one after thirty years of 'Princess'?"

From the other side of the door, Falidor sighed. "You know I hate to interrupt you when you're busy with your... paperwork, my lord, but your nephew is here."

"You'll have to be more specific," muttered Severin as he pulled his wife to her feet; so much for thinking they would have some time alone. "I have more nephews than the king has delusions."

Silence. Then-- "If I told you that you knew which one, well... would you?"

He did. A quick exchanged glance with Alina told him that she did too. "Well... yes. Send him in."

"Yes, my lord."

The steward's feet shuffled away from the door, only to be replaced by another disheartened tread drawing nearer. Indeed, he did know who it was... but what was he doing here? "Come in, Searle."

He felt his eyes widen as the young man opened the door. It had been only three years since Severin had last seen Searle, but it seemed that the boy had aged thirty. He was pale and disheveled, slouching and with dark shadows under his eyes to rival those of any man thrice his age. He dragged his feet with the strain of a gout-ridden geezer and his heavy brows sagged over his troubled eyes. If Searle hadn't been standing upright, blinking and breathing, Severin might have mistaken him for a corpse, or perhaps some tortured specter.

"Excuse my appearance, Uncle Severin, Aunt Alina," he mumbled apologetically as he made his way into the room. "I've been somewhat ill."

Severin nodded, though he couldn't help but doubt that 'somewhat' was the appropriate adverb. "In that case, I hope you feel better soon."

Alina took a few steps toward her nephew and met his eyes, her pretty lips forming a sympathetic frown. "Searle, we heard about your sister. We're so sorry for your loss."

Searle tilted his head upwards, as if to prevent a stray tear from falling. He choked back a sob, then nodded. "Thank you."

"Give our regards to your family," added Severin, though he privately doubted that Haldred and Cladelia would appreciate any sentiments from him; Cladelia had never quite forgiven him for robbing her sister of the chance to become a duchess.

Searle closed his eyes. "I will when I see them next."

Severin looked at his wife, who was rocking back and forth from heel to toe; he had known her long enough to know that this meant she wished to change the subject. Sure enough, it wasn't long before she asked a question. "How are your wife and daughter?"

Her nephew shrugged. "Haven't seen them since my sister's funeral."

Severin raised an eyebrow. "I take it that Danthia doesn't know you're here, then?"

The younger man glanced down at the toe of Severin's boot. "Well... no. She might figure it out, though."

So he'd run off on that poor girl again. For Danthia's sake, Severin almost wished Searle stayed abroad for longer this time; by Dovian law, a year's absence constituted divorce in absentia, and Lord knew that Searle's wife deserved a chance to find some happiness after all the rubbish she'd put up with. "Correct me if I'm wrong, Searle, but I believe you have a duty to both her and your child."

Searle swallowed. "I know, Uncle... but I'm just not strong enough right now. I had to get away from Dovia for a while."

"Strength isn't staying on your feet, Searle," Alina whispered softly, as if more to herself than to her nephew. "It's pulling yourself up when you fall."

He coughed; to Severin, it sounded almost like a hollow, soulless laugh. "I don't think anyone can pull me up now, Aunt Alina; God knows I can't do it myself."

It seemed to Severin that he could only be asking one thing. "I take it you want to stay here a while, then?"

Searle cast an awkward glance around the study, seemingly eager to avoid Severin's eyes. "If you don't mind. I'm sorry to impose."

Alina sighed. "Searle..."

"I won't be here as long as last time, I promise," he insisted, "and I'll spend most of my time on my own, so the rest of you don't have to put up with me. I just need somewhere to stay, and I know you two are the only ones who might have me."

Rolling her eyes, Alina gnawed on her lower lip. "Fine. I'll have a room prepared for you."

She edged past her nephew and left the study, the sway in her hips present even in her annoyance. She stepped into the sitting room, then closed the door behind her, leaving Severin alone with the unexpected guest. All was silent for a moment. Two moments... three...

After about five minutes, Severin's curiosity got the best of him. "Searle, why are you here?"

Searle stared at him, his eyes among the most hopelessly broken that Severin had ever seen. "You're the only one who won't judge me."

Severin frowned. "What do you mean by that?"

The boy straightened his posture, as though struggling against the urge to fall to pieces. Despite his illness, he suddenly looked no older than ten. "Have you ever loved someone all your life? Loved someone you were never supposed to love? Loved her so much that you feel your heart crumbling within your chest every minute you spend away from her?"

Caught off-guard, Severin exhaled slowly. "Yes."

Searle's teal eyes flickered into contact with his own. "Then you shouldn't have to ask."

And yet, he had still been answered; he understood. "Riona was... more than a sister to you, wasn't she?"

Nodding, a tear streamed from the corner of Searle's eye. It was soon followed by several others; he lifted his hands to his face and sobbed. "I love her. I love her so much, and now... now..."

Severin stepped forward and placed his arm around his nephew's shoulders. "Searle..."

"I thought she was all right! That was the only thing that ever kept me going, and now she's dead, and it's my fault! She did what she did because of me!"

Severin raised his free arm and held the boy in a tight embrace; he would have to make sure to scour whatever room Alina had chosen for any potentially hazardous objects. "Your aunt will be back soon to take you to your room. You need some rest, Searle; if there's one thing that can take a lot out of a man, it's love."

NEXT CHAPTER:

March 23, 2010

In Which Nythran's Nightmares Pale in Comparison

December 31, 1165

Three-year-old Cladelia squirmed as Nythran lowered her into her bed. "Papa! Let's play longer! Please?"

"Sorry, angel," Nythran laughed, planting a quick kiss on her cheek. "Your sisters have been asleep for an hour already, and your mama is probably wondering where I am."

The little girl shook her head in protest. "No, she's not."

He had to admit, that probably was the case. Some of Nythran's friends spoke of women who enjoyed their husbands' company, but other than the occasional secondhand piece of information, this species was a mystery to him. In all likelihood, Riona had been fast asleep long before the year-old twins, but he wasn't about to confess his marital woes to his young, impressionable daughter. "Good night, sweetheart."

"Night!" mimicked Cladelia. "Good dreams!"

The base of Nythran's neck shivered. "Sorry?"

The little girl's eyes widened in concern. "You had bad dreams. Hope they go away."

He had been having bad dreams, in fact, but he didn't know how Cladelia would have known about them. Perhaps he'd taken to screaming and moaning in his sleep? In any case, that at least gave his wife an excuse to leave halfway through the night and sleep in the guest chamber, but if the dreams were disturbing his children, then perhaps he should have been the one to take up night-time residence somewhere else in the castle; he doubted relations with Riona's side of the family would improve if three girls under the age of four knew that their father was nightly bound in his own dungeon by their Uncle Searle, who would then proceed to cover every surface in the castle with oil and throw down a torch at Nythran's feet. "Uh... thank you, angel. Sweet dreams."

Perhaps it would help to discuss these dreams with someone, he considered as he left the nursery and stepped into his bedroom, but who was there in which to confide? Surely not his friends, who might think him mad; surely not his family, who had enough troubles as it was. It didn't seem like a good idea to bring it up with Riona, as she always seemed so uncomfortable talking about her twin brother. No, the only reliable listener he could think of was his horse, and Nythran doubted that he'd have much useful insight; it seemed he would just have to deal with the problem himself.

"Riona?"

A glance toward the bed assured him that she had not yet left. She lay above the covers, peaceful and unmoving, as though she had no intention of doing anything other than simply breathing. "Riona? I think I'll sleep elsewhere tonight; I don't want to risk waking the children."

She didn't respond; perhaps she was asleep after all. Regardless, he doubted she would miss him in the morning, so he chose not to wake her.

Even though she wasn't fond of him, however, he figured it would only be rude of him to leave her in a lit room. He did try to be a good husband, even if he was never good enough for her, and he would not have her waking up to a flickering candle--or worse, a burning table.

He made his way to the desk and began by dousing the candles there. He then backed away to proceed elsewhere in the room, but caught sight of his Riona's slanted cursive on a nearby piece of parchment. That was odd--Riona never cared to write if she didn't feel obliged. Nythran's curiosity struggled against his respect for his wife's privacy; he allowed himself a quick glance, only to find that the note was addressed to him anyway.

Nythran,

I'm sorry about everything. Please tell Searle that I am not the stronger one after all.

Searle? Her brother? What could that have meant? For all she was cold and quiet, Riona was as strong a woman as any--much stronger than her sighing, woebegone brother, at any rate. This didn't make any sense. "Riona? Riona, if you're awake... can you please explain this note?"

No answer. He turned around and headed toward her bedside. "Riona, please wake up."

Not even a twitch of her slipper. As he stopped at her side, he couldn't help but notice a half-full glass of wine on the bedside table. In their entire four years of marriage, Nythran could only remember Riona ever having about three glasses of wine over the course of that time, and always in the afternoon--never before bed. Also, this wine had a peculiar, acrid odor he could smell even with several feet between his nose and the source; had it perhaps been exposed to the air too long? "Riona?"

Again, there was no reply. Shaking his head, he turned to look at her, only to stumble an inch or so backward in shock.

He had been led to believe that she was asleep, but her eyes were wide open--moreso than they ever were even during the day. Their teal depths were both glazed and glossy, and her ordinarily neutral mouth was curled into an almost taunting smile. He tried making a sudden hand movement; she didn't blink. So far as he could tell, she wasn't even...

...breathing.

"Oh, God! Guards! Somebody! Help!"

NEXT CHAPTER: