May 30, 2010

In Which Alina Vows to Rest

February 18, 1167

"You know, I have to say," Honora sighed as she lowered her heavily pregnant form into the chair, "it seems to me that each time is a little more comfortable than the last. I was practically confined to bed for most of the time I was pregnant with Evaleith, and even with Had I was housebound, but this one's given me no trouble at all."

Of course, seeing as she was ready to burst any minute, Honora was certainly housebound now, but Alina chose not to point that out. "I think mine were a little more random. Searle was probably the worst; Jadin and Riona were both much more docile in the womb than they ever have been out."

"And what about this little one, hmmm?"

Well, so much for keeping that suspicion to herself until she started showing. After those two miscarriages, Alina didn't care to spread any news before she could be reasonably sure that the baby would make it, and she might not have even been late enough to ponder in the first place... but she couldn't deny that the way she'd been feeling for the past few weeks was pleasantly familiar. "And what little one might this be?"

"Oh, don't be coy with me!" her friend scolded with a laugh. "My God, Alina, if anyone can tell when she's pregnant, you can! Besides, I know it too--you're always so nauseatingly happy when you've got one on the way."

Was it really so obvious? No one had ever mentioned it before; with any luck, Honora alone had made this observation. Alina decided to pretend that she herself had not. "Am I?"

Honora nodded. "Seems to me, at any rate, even if you do seem a little wary this time. Besides, I was your maid for long enough to know that you have the most predictable of monthlies; if you think you might be pregnant, you probably are."

She was right; for almost twenty years now, it had come every twenty-four days to the precise hour in times when her womb rested empty. Still, she thought it might be wise to keep it between herself and Honora for the time being. Her friends and family had suffered a somber spell when they'd learned of the first miscarriage; she'd told only Severin, Raia, and Honora of the second pregnancy, and when she had lost that baby as well, the burden of secrecy had worn heavily on each of them.

"Well, could you keep it to yourself? The last thing I need is for the whole damn kingdom to know my business."

Honora sent her a smile that Alina supposed was meant to be reassuring. "It comes with the territory, your ladyship. Besides, you have to think positive; if you just relax and enjoy the next few months like you did with your last seven, I'm sure everything will be just fine."

Maybe she had a point; Alina's anxiety had certainly been much higher during the pregnancies she'd miscarried. Perhaps a little rest was all this baby needed. "You know, you could be right."

"Have you not learned by now? I'm always right."

Alina smirked; leave it to Honora to put a smile on her face. "Humble, aren't you?"

"Oh, enough about me!" her friend dismissed, attempting to bounce in her chair but held back by the mass of her bulge. "Since we're both in this state, we might as well talk about names. What are you thinking for yours?"

Names. Yes, there would be a baby to name--at least, providing this whole positive thinking thing worked. "Well... we're out of parents, so I suppose we have to finish up the grandparents now. I guess that leaves either Roderick, Conant, or Ovrean for a boy, and then Celina, Ramona, or Lileina for a girl."

Running a hand over her swollen stomach, Honora rolled her eyes. "Why do you nobles insist on milking the same twenty or so names for all they're worth? Have all the Searles taught you nothing?"

"The fact is that we're all horribly lazy," Alina admitted, prompting a grin from her friend. "Now, tell me--what are you going to be calling this one? It seems to me that you and Adonis have run out of parents as well."

Honora shook her head, her cinnamon hair flipping over her shoulder. "It's a surprise."

Unamused, Alina pouted. "I told you what I might name mine."

"Yes, but you gave me six possible names instead of just two," laughed Honora. "I have a pair names in mind, one for a boy and one for a girl--and, actually, Arydath thinks this one will be a boy, and we both know she's always right."

"If my memory serves correctly, this one feels more like a boy too," Alina stated, her eyes resting on her friend's stomach. "Perhaps they'll be playmates."

"That would be nice, although truth be told I'm still hoping that one of mine marries one of yours--you must admit that we'd have exceptionally pretty grandchildren."

A slight bit of nausea welling within her, Alina grimaced. "Honora, please! I'm still having babies; grandchildren are about the last thing I care to think about right now."

NEXT CHAPTER:

May 26, 2010

In Which Celina Thinks About It

January 29, 1167

"You know, I could have called for a servant, Ovrean," Celina insisted as her visitor prodded at the flames. "Really, you didn't have to start a fire yourself just because I said it was a little chilly in here."

Passively insistent, Ovrean shook his head; he was facing the hearth, but it didn't take much to figure out he had a smile on his face. "It's no trouble--I do know how to light a fire."

Celina blushed--had she insulted him? "Well... yes, I'm sure, but you said you wanted to discuss something, and I figured you might want to get to it."

He chuckled, as he often did, but there was something different about it this time; she wasn't sure what it was. "It's probably best that we discuss it in private. I need your earnest opinion, and while you're one of the most honest people around, I can't take the risk that the presence of a third party would influence your response; it's important."

She nodded, though she had to wonder what on earth he might have needed from her. Surely anything vital would have been asked of her son, unless he felt she needed to be the one to bring it up with Lorn; Celina got the sense that Ovrean held her in a high regard, and while she appreciated that, she couldn't help but think that she wouldn't be of any use to him in this instance. "Fair enough."

Ovrean returned the poker to its place, then joined her on the couch. "I realize that this may be a little soon, but I've asked several people for advice and no two seem to agree on the precise definitions of 'soon' and 'late' and 'the right time'. So, I hope you don't mind that I've come to talk to you, seeing as yours is the only opinion that matters here; if I offend or upset you, please bear in mind that that was never my intention and I'm truly sorry."

This was beginning to sound a little odd. "All right..."

He smiled briefly before a serious look overcame his face; she would not have thought she would see such a jolly man as Ovrean so grave. "Well, first of all, I hope you know that I enjoy your company greatly, and I need to know whether or not you enjoy mine."

"Of course I do," she assured him, though she was still as clueless as ever in regards to what he wanted. "You're one of the most amiable men I know, but I'm curious as to why you ask."

Ovrean sighed, a hint of relief in his breath. "Thank you. You see... well, I'm not sure exactly how to put this."

"Just say whatever comes to you. I hope you don't feel as though you need to mince words around me."

He tossed back his head and closed his eyes; he'd always been a handsome man, but the glow of the fire made him even moreso. "I don't. I'm sorry. Anyway... the thing is, as inappropriate and ill-timed as it may be, I've grown quite fond of you."

Celina raised an eyebrow. She hadn't been expecting to hear that; a thousand different emotions welled within her at once. "Fond?"

He nodded. Deep in her chest, her heart gave the slightest of flutters, like a soaking young butterfly struggling to emerge from its cocoon. "And... well, I'll be forty next June, and lately I've been wondering who will bury me, and I have this lonely manor all to myself that could really use a family's love.

"I don't know. I realize it may be too soon for you to be thinking of anything, but whenever you feel it's time to start doing just that, I hope you will consider me if you see fit. I wouldn't mind living here if you and your younger children would prefer to stay with Lorn until he's a little older, and I could ride back to my manor a day each week or so, but I suppose there's no sense working out the details until I know whether or not you will even have me."

"Ovrean..." He cut her off with a shake of his head, for which she was admittedly grateful; she hadn't quite figured out what to say.

"I don't expect you to give me an answer right away," he told her, his eyes falling to his hands. "In fact, I might rest easier if you didn't. All I ask is that you think about it, or perhaps talk it over with your children and your friends; when you have made your decision, let me know. If you decide against it, then I'll understand and won't press the matter any further, and I hope we can still be friends."

Nodding, she allowed herself to lean on him; he lifted his arm and gently draped it around her shoulders. "Fair enough--I'll think about it."

"Thank you," he acknowledged. "I hope you don't feel pressured by any of this."

"I don't."

If she wanted to be honest with herself, she had to admit that she was still in love with Dalston. She probably always would be. But now that she thought about it, she did not think it impossible that she might one day grow to love someone like Ovrean--kind, generous, profoundly respectful Ovrean. Perhaps one could love two people?

"So, now that I've gotten that off my chest, how have you been?" he asked her.

She looked downward, indulging in a small, private smile. "Well enough, thank you."

NEXT CHAPTER:

May 23, 2010

In Which Searle Is Shown the Extent of the Worst

January 17, 1167

There were many attractive young ladies in the employ of Lord Severin, and since that fateful day he had woken up and discovered women, Searle had enjoyed the privilege of one or two of their company. Never before, however, had he had the pleasure of a private audience with the lovely Michela, the prettiest maid in the castle. He'd tried--oh, God, he'd tried--but it was only today that she'd given him a second glance.

And oh, what a great day it was going to be!

"Oh, Searle!" Michela moaned between kisses. "You're so good with your hands!"

Well, I would know, he thought to himself, though he would never admit it aloud. "Why, thank you, darling. Care to see how good I am with some of my other body parts?"

He hoped she didn't notice him cringe; in his head, it had seemed like a suave thing to say, but now that the words were out of his mouth, they were anything but. Fortunately, she only giggled. "Which parts do you have in mind?"

"Oh, I don't know... his earlobes, maybe?"

Horrified, Searle jerked away from Michela and glared at his smirking cousin. "Raia! Wha-- wha-- how long have you been here?"

Raia crossed her arms. "Long enough."

Searle scowled. He liked his young cousin, and usually tolerated or even encouraged her antics, but she had just crossed the strictest line he could have drawn. "Damn you!"

Sending an apologetic look Michela's way, he slipped off the bed and stormed toward the intruder. "What the hell, Raia? I know you're a curious little scamp, but voyeurism? You're an eleven-year-old girl! What would your parents say?"

Tossing her head back, Raia rolled her eyes. "Relax, Searle, I'm not here to watch you get laid. My father sent me to get you; you're needed in his study. The baron's here, and he wants a word with you."

Searle raised an eyebrow. "The baron? What does he want with me?"


"Doesn't a baron have the right to demand a word with a humble squire if he sees fit?" Raia laughed; Searle felt a vein in his forehead bulge. "Maybe it's about his niece--you know, your betrothed?"

"Betrothed?" piped up Michela from the bed--as if the situation hadn't been bad enough.

Frustrated, Searle shoved past Raia and pulled the door open. "Thank you so much for the cock-block, cousin!" he hissed, slamming it shut behind him. God, of all the horrible luck--he'd finally caught the eye of the most beautiful girl around, and it happened to be the same day that the third most powerful man in the kingdom required an audience with him and his idiot cousin didn't even have the courtesy to knock. What ill star had he been born under?

Struggling to hold back his bitterness, Searle pushed open the door to his uncle's study and stepped inside. "Raia said I was needed, Uncle Severin?"

His uncle nodded to him over the baron's shoulder; he wished he could grin back. "Searle. We were just talking about you."

"Anything good?" he ventured out of indulgence, but after his humiliation at the hands of Raia, he wasn't really sure he wanted to know.

Frowning, his uncle turned back to the baron. "Humble, isn't he?"

"He must get it from his father's side," the baron mused. "His mother doesn't have an arrogant bone in her body."

"Yes, but have you not met her fourth brother? He wrote the book on arrogance."

Searle flexed his knee and kicked lightly at the floor. "I'm not arrogant..."

"Oh, we're just kidding around," the baron assured him, turning around and meeting his eye. "Anyway, I have some news for you, Searle."

Well, that certainly told him all he needed to know. "What sort of news, my lord? Judging by your good spirits, I'm disinclined to think it a death."

"Ah, but perhaps it is a death," ventured Searle's uncle slyly as he made his way to his desk and straightened a stack of books, "and perhaps we're in good spirits because it was someone we hate."

"You two don't hate anyone."

"Are you sure? For all you know, we could be very gifted actors and we might actually hate everyone."

Searle rolled his eyes. "I'm sure, Uncle Severin."

The baron laughed. "Searle, I'm never sure whether or not you intend to be humorous. Anyway, I'm here to tell you that I received a letter from my brother this morning. It concerned his daughter--a certain young lady named Valira. I trust you know the name?"

Indeed he did. He grimaced, the corners of his mouth pulling so tightly that his mouth ached. God damn you, Raia. "Yes, sir."

"Anyway, it seems that her parents are eager for some grandchildren and want her to be married before she turns seventeen," the baron continued, "and your parents wouldn't mind a few themselves. She'll be sixteen in early February, so that leaves little more than a year. Since you're here in Naroni, and you plan on being knighted here instead of in Dovia, Tertius and Nearina have decided to send Valira here. She'll be arriving in April."

He felt his eyes bulged; he'd prepared himself for the worst when his betrothed had first been mentioned, but it appeared that he had been unable to comprehend the full extent of the worst. "They want me to marry her as soon as she gets here?"

The baron shook his head. "No, your mother doesn't want you getting married before you turn fifteen, and even that seems somewhat early for her--I think she's a little wary after seeing how your cousin is these days. Valira will be living at my castle until whenever the two of you get married."

"Which will be some time between August and next February, then?" That time sounded even nearer now that he had voiced it. A cold, frenzied pulse surged down his spine; how was it that his bachelorhood had barely begun and was already drawing to an end?

"Yes. In any case, don't trouble yourself about it; if I know Tertius, he'll have everything taken care of himself. Besides, I imagine you won't even see that much of your betrothed when she comes--I don't doubt that my wife and daughters will be keen to monopolize her every waking moment."

Searle allowed his lips to droop into a frown; perhaps his disappointment would be attributed solely to this last speculation. "What a pity."

"Indeed." The baron's mouth twitched into a parting grin. "Well, I'd best be off--if I leave Florian alone for too long with nothing to do, he starts rearranging all the books on my shelves so that the letters from the titles on the spines spell dirty words horizontally. Have a nice day, Searle, Severin."

"Likewise, my lord," sighed Searle.

His uncle nodded. "Octavius."

The baron made his way past Searle and out of the study, closing the door behind him. His uncle also turned as if to leave, but Searle stopped him by stepping between him and the door.

"Uncle, you can't let them do this to me."

Shaking his head, his uncle sighed. "Searle, you know my opinion on arranged marriages, but I'm afraid I'm powerless where your own is concerned. If it's any consolation, I saw Valira on my last journey back to Dovia, and she is quite the young lady. I imagine you'll like her."

"Well, it's no consolation," Searle huffed, his hand balling into a fist; how was it that even the man who had practically raised him was against him in this matter? "She might be the most wonderful woman in the whole world and I may love her very much one day for all I know, but it's the principle of the thing! Aren't I entitled to a little freedom and variety before I'm forced to settle down? From the sounds of it, I'll be married before my older brother, even."

"I understand your sentiments," his uncle stated. "It seems to me that you're disadvantaged by the fact that your betrothed is older than you yourself. Unfortunately, most members of your class have the idea that the only purpose a woman can serve is to marry young and bear as many children as she possibly can; therefore, they marry their daughters as early as possible. Most men of your station are betrothed to women younger than themselves, and therefore are allowed a brief period of gallivanting before--and, let's face it, often during--the marriage. In this instance, however, the view seems to be that making Valira wait for you would be a waste of some of her most fertile years--utter nonsense, in my opinion, but we all know just how valued my opinions are among the Dovian aristocracy."

Searle couldn't help himself; he smiled slightly. "I don't see why they don't listen to you, Uncle Severin; anyone who's ever observed a married couple would know how comparatively useless we men are in all aspects."

"Precisely. I'm glad that you understand that, at least--though bear in mind that it does tend to get rather lonely at the top."

"We just discussed this. We're men--we can't be at the top."

"Point taken. Allow me to rephrase: it's lonely at the top of the bottom."

"Yes, but there's always the bottom of the top conveniently near."

"Watch your tongue; I'll have you know that your aunt is the absolute pinnacle of the top."

"Then why the hell did she marry you?"

"She could tell from the mere sight of me that I'm great in bed."

"I didn't need to know that."

"Yes, but it's fun to watch you squirm."

Searle sniffed. "Go to hell."

"Already been--not sure I'd care to return any time soon," he uncle replied with a chuckle. "Oh, Searle, don't you dare tell me you're too big to give your old uncle a hug."

Relenting, Searle threw his arms around him and groaned. "All right... but just one last time!"

"Liar."

"Shut up."

NEXT CHAPTER:

May 20, 2010

In Which Lonriad Is Exposed to the Adult Illness

January 10, 1167

"Hello, Uncle Ovrean!" Lonriad greeted his uncle. "Did you bring me a present?"

His uncle laughed; he laughed a lot. Lonriad sometimes wondered if it was a reflex. "It's a little late for Christmas presents, don't you think?"

Lonriad rocked back and forth on the balls of his feet--grown-ups! "But what about my birthday? I'm going to be eight!"

"That you are--in July," his uncle chuckled, "and don't tell me I didn't get you anything for your seventh, because we both know I did."

Lonriad pouted. "You're no fun! I wager you brought Viridis a present!"

Uncle Ovrean raised an eyebrow. "Now, why would you think that? Her birthday's even further off than yours."

"You brought her one last week!"

The man sighed, the sole of his boot dragging awkwardly along the grain of the hardwood. "Your sister was ill last week, son. I don't have a present for any of you today, I'm afraid; I'm only here for a word with your mother."

Lonriad felt a sly grin pull at the corners of his mouth; he knew exactly how to make this work to his advantage. "Well, in that case, you'll just have to come back in July."

His uncle pursed his lips, whistling a note of a pitch so low that Lonriad could only dream of parroting it. "I see. She's booked solid until then?"

"No," Lonriad assured him, "but she has a new rule. From now on, she only talks to people if they give me a present first."

"Is that so?" his uncle inquired, gnawing on his lower lip.

Worked like a charm. Lonriad nodded. "Uh-huh. She also said that anyone who gives presents to my brothers will have their talking privileges revoked."

"Oh really? And when, pray tell, did I say this?"

It was his mother, making her way into the room from the corridor. Lonriad sent her an annoyed glare. "Aww! He was falling for it, too!"

His mother sniffed. "I'm sure."

"It's true," he insisted, bouncing up and down in agitation; why did she never believe him? "Isn't that right, Uncle Ovrean? Tell her you believed me!"

His uncle smirked. "If I do, does that count as your present?"

"Aww, I wanted a horse!"

"You keep wanting, then," his mother told him as she made her way toward her brother. "Now, Ovrean, what is it you want to talk to me about?"

Uncle Ovrean's face took on a serious expression that Lonriad would have never guessed it capable of; his uncle was a grown-up, but Lonriad had always thought him the only one who had escaped the adult illness of maturity. Well, except maybe Florian, but he was a different case entirely. "I need your opinion on something."

"Well, you're not going to get it if you don't ask me, silly!"

Ovrean inhaled; discomforted by the room's sudden sobriety, Lonriad looked away. "Alina, as a married woman..."

Married. It was a discussion about love. The situation had just gone from bad to worse; the shift in his mother's posture told Lonriad that she agreed. "Yes?"

"Well... suppose one's beloved spouse happens to," he began, pausing as if struggling to settle on the sentence's infinitive, "pass. If such a tragedy befalls a person, then... how to put this? Well--how soon is too soon before one marries again?"

Now Lonriad saw the need for the seriousness; Uncle Ovrean was a laughing man, but his hypothetical situation was no laughing matter. His mother took her time with the question, the corners of her mouth curling downward. A minute or so passed before she finally answered, "Well, Ovrean... I have to say it's never too soon."

Ovrean's eyes bulged; Lonriad figured his own weren't much smaller. "Sorry?"

"Not to be heartless or anything," she sighed, tilting her head as a thoughtful glaze crossed her eyes. "It would take time to move on, I'm sure, but really... the world isn't kind to widows. I know it sounds a little hypocritical considering how I came to be married in the first place, but there's a point where one has to consider practicality over romance; there's plenty of time for love after one's basic needs are satisfied. And if one happens to have children, then the need to remarry is even more pressing--I wouldn't want my children growing up without a father if anything were to happen to my husband, and I'm sure Severin wouldn't want them growing up without a mother if anything were to happen to me."

Unsure of this, Lonriad glanced up at his uncle; he didn't look too convinced either, but he nodded all the same. "That makes sense, I suppose. Thank you, Alina."

Lonriad's mother closed her eyes. "I'm sorry if that wasn't the answer you were expecting."

"In truth, I'm not sure what I was expecting," Uncle Ovrean admitted as he fiddled with a stray thread from his sleeve. "In any case, thank you for the opinion."

She brushed past her brother and lowered herself to Lonriad's height, planting a kiss on his forehead; scowling, he wiped it off. "You're welcome, Ovrean. Now, you be good for your uncle, all right?"

"All right, all right! Just stop kissing me!"

Laughing softly to herself, she ran her fingers through his hair, then made her way back down the hallway from which she had entered. Lonriad waited until he could no longer hear her footsteps, then found he couldn't hold it in any longer; he launched himself into his uncle's arms and began to bawl.

"Why d-did you ask my mama that?" he sobbed, all resolve to start referring to his parents as 'Mother' and 'Father' abandoned. "Is my papa d-dying? Is he d-dead? He is, isn't he? You found his c-corpse, didn't you? That's why you asked my mama that!"

"What?" his uncle gasped as his hug tightened. "No! Lonriad, your father is not dead! The question had nothing to do with your parents--"

Lonriad clenched the side of his uncle's surcoat in his fist, the cold leather a shock to his sweaty palm. "I want my papa!"

Uncle Ovrean sighed. "I'm sorry. Maybe I should have asked your mother to speak privately..."

"Where's my papa?"

"Relax, Lonriad, I'm right here."

He looked up to see his father standing in the doorway, brimming with a grin that Lonriad had feared for a moment he would never see again. "Having fun with your uncle, son?"

Breaking free of Uncle Ovrean's grasp, Lonriad dashed across the room and clung to his father tightly. "Papa! You're alive!"

"Of course I'm alive," his father insisted, placing a hand on Lonriad's shoulder as soon as his grasp eased. "What on earth would lead you to believe otherwise?"

Uncle Ovrean made his way towards them, his long stride covering the distance in only a handful of steps. "It's my fault, Severin. Alina and I had a conversation that Lonriad probably shouldn't have heard."

His father's eyes narrowed. "About my imminent and inevitable death?"

"No," Uncle Ovrean answered. "At least, not yours specifically. It was a... hypothetical question."

Lonriad noticed his father's fingers twitch. "What sort of question?"

His uncle's eyes briefly flickered to the ceiling, then back to the other man's face. "Actually, Alina's opinion was a little extreme, so it might not hurt to get yours as well. Severin... after the death of a beloved spouse, when does it cease to be too soon to remarry?"

The miasmic presence in the room strengthened. Lonriad watched his father's features; like his mother's, they remained motionless for an uncomfortable moment. Then, he muttered in response, "It's always too soon."

NEXT CHAPTER: