June 27, 2010

In Which Raia Sees the Ghost of Her Father

April 12, 1167

All Raia really wanted to do was sleep. She was tired and grieving and overwhelmed, and as stupid as it may have been, some small part of her thought that maybe if she just closed her eyes for a couple of hours, everything would be fine. Maybe this was all just a bad dream. Maybe when she woke, it would be days prior and her mother would still be alive.

She had spent the past while trailing after her father as he tucked in each of her siblings, as he was in a phase--at least, she hoped it was only a phase--of forgetting things. Small things, perhaps, but things nonetheless: Lonriad's extra blanket, Riona's little toy rabbit, the last verse of Viridis's lullaby. After making sure that all of her siblings had been settled properly, she figured she had no choice but to stop by her parents' bedroom--her father's bedroom, she corrected herself. The last thing they needed was for him to doze off while leaving a candle lit.

But indeed, he hadn't even gone to bed yet; he simply stood beside it, fully dressed, staring down at the mattress as if trying to decide whether it was safe to touch.

"Father?" she ventured, stepping into the room and making her way around the bed. "Father, why are you still awake?"

A few seconds passed with nothing but the heavy silence of the mind's labored attempt to translate feelings to words. Raia had mentally counted to fifteen before she was given a reply. "She died in this bed."

From the far-off tone of his voice, she couldn't tell if he was speaking to her or to himself or to some obscure presence of which she was unaware. Nevertheless, she clung to every word as he continued; she doubted neither he nor any unseen observer could be bothered to listen. "I've spent the past few nights on the couch in my study. Did you know that?"

Raia shook her head, though her father's eyes never left the bed. "You know, I've slept in this bed for years, but... never without her. It doesn't feel right to get into this bed knowing that she won't be joining me.

"I mean... she died here. I know; I was here too."

Somehow, he had aged a decade in two days--two grief-filled, sleepless days of mourning. It was painful just looking at him; her mother's corpse had appeared more alive. "Father..."

"Don't worry about me, Raia. Just get some sleep, all right?"

Sighing, Raia turned away and followed his gaze to the empty bed. What if Vera or Riona was roused from a nightmare? What if they ran here, tears streaming from their little faces, just to find that their mother was not the only one who had vanished from this room? "You need your sleep too, though. You look exhausted."

He flexed his hand, then began to massage his other wrist. "Sleep is such a task these days. I daresay I've forgotten much of the process."

"I believe it's more waiting than anything else," Raia muttered, tugging at the sleeve of her velvet mourning gown. How did one describe 'sleep'? It seemed the sort of thing one needed Tavrin for--not unlike saving one's mother.

Her father stiffened. "Waiting. I've spent two days dreading my wife's funeral; before that, I spent three days dreading her death. I can't sleep because I spend the night dreading the dawn. I'm not sure I'd give that the good name of 'waiting'." He closed his eyes, forcing himself take a few forced, seething breaths. "I'm just not really sure of anything anymore. I half-expect to cease existing every time I blink."

Raia swallowed as she turned to face her father again. She'd known he was hurting--any fool could have seen that--but he was beginning to scare her. I half-expect to cease existing... What if he wanted to cease existing? What if he grew tired of half-expecting and decided to execute the end himself? She was eleven years old; how was she supposed to be both parents to her six younger siblings? "Please try to get some rest, Father."

He crossed his arms, drumming his fingers against his bicep. "I'm sorry, baby. I probably shouldn't have said anything. I know you're in a lot of pain too."

"Don't apologize," she told him, though she couldn't decide whether or not she meant it. "I'm the eldest. If you have to talk to one of us about any of this, it should be me. The others have already been through more than they should have ever had to at their age."

"So have you," her father insisted as he pulled her in for a hug. "I don't want you worrying too much about your brothers and sisters--and certainly not about me. It's not going to be life as usual, but your mother wouldn't have wanted the bulk of the burden to fall to you."

Raia blinked, a tear breaking away from the surface of her eye and soaking her lashes. "She wouldn't have wanted it to fall to you, either. I'll have one of the guest chambers prepared for you, all right? Mother would have wanted you to try to get some sleep, at least."

Squinting, he released her, patting her on the shoulder before allowing his hand to fall listlessly to his side. "Thank you."

She nodded, but she didn't dare meet his eye. Ever since Lorn had lost his father--and then even moreso after Had had lost his mother--she'd wondered in horrified dread when it would be her turn to lose a parent. It had never occurred to her that losing one may have meant losing both.


June 26, 2010

In Which Jadin Sees the Ghost of His Mother

April 12, 1167

Peasants were lucky. Peasants were buried the day of the funeral, put to rest as soon as all initial respects had been paid, but the nobles were not so fortunate. They spent the night in their caskets, above ground, so any late-coming mourners might catch a last glimpse of the deceased. It must have been a great stress, having to entertain even after death; Jadin's mother was looking down from her cloud and cursing at them for not just getting it over with, he was sure of it. It wasn't as if they were expecting anyone else anyway. News of her death could not have reached Dovia yet, and it seemed a horrible disservice to leave her out long enough to rot in full view. She would be buried in the morning.

Jadin was the only one still by her side, though it wasn't as if the rest of his family had been given a choice in the matter. It had taken both the baron and Master Indruion to haul Jadin's father away, insisting that he needed rest if he wanted to be awake and alert for the burial--not that Jadin supposed it would be a problem, since he doubted his father would sleep tonight anyway. Minutes later, Raia had ushered their younger siblings off to bed as well, but she had told Jadin to stay as long as he felt comfortable. As the eldest son, he would make it his duty--not to leave his mother's side until she was well protected by a headstone and several feet of dirt.

And yet, it was unnerving to look upon her face. Perhaps the rigor--if there was still time for that, he wondered--had come into play, or perhaps his eyes were deceiving him, but if he stared hard enough, he thought he could see movement in her face--lashes fluttering, her parched lips creaking open as if to call someone by name. The first few times, he'd let childlike hope get the best of him and checked her pulse--nothing. She was about as alive as the stone walls that enclosed them.

He didn't think he could continue like this. He looked her over one last time--her red curls, her slender figure, the green dress that she'd told the duchess to bury her in and that his father had insisted on dressing her in himself, with only Raia for help--and turned away. He did not wish to spend the night being taunted by a ghost.

Jadin sunk into a seat by the coffin's edge and sighed. Where was she now? Heaven, he supposed, but he wasn't sure he cared to think of her in such a place. Mass always made it seem so boring--who cared to endure an existence of fluffy clouds and harp music and no sex? It sounded like a baby's paradise; then again, his mother had always liked babies. Perhaps she had gone off to be a mother to all the babies who had never been given a chance to know theirs, the unborn siblings Jadin himself had lost included.

But why should she be a mother to them? he thought, even if it was rather impractical to direct bitterness toward the dead. We need a mother too! Why do they get to take ours?

And they'd taken Had's mother--and Sparron's, even if she hadn't been much of a mother in the first place. They'd taken Lorn's father too, and many others. Didn't those babies have all the parents they would ever need?

It wasn't fair. Who said God didn't play favorites? He did--and clearly, Jadin's family weren't among them. Dead babies with hundreds of mothers apparently deserved her more than Jadin and his siblings did. Late husbands with living widows apparently deserved her more than his father did. And why? What had they done wrong?

He'd been told to put out the candles before he left for bed, but he didn't bother. He didn't think he would even move tonight, much less sleep.


June 24, 2010

In Which Severin States What He Doesn't Know

April 10, 1167

Severin didn't understand why they called it heartbreak.

A break, he assumed, would have been sudden, surging, violent. The heart would shatter like a fallen jar, blood rushing from its depths and pooling throughout the body, its pieces still pulsating in rapid beats of shock. It would have been painful--and it would have been quick. After a few days, it would begin to heal, like any other superficial wound. It would take time to recuperate, and brief exercises of like and fondness would be needed regularly before it could ever truly love again, but the pieces would grow back together and the heart would be complete again, all but anew.

But this was different. Over the past few days, Alina's imminent death had taken to gnawing at his heart like a dog with a bone. At times, it only nibbled, while at others, it tore off large chunks and left a mess of fleshy crumbs on the floor, but the fact remained that whatever it devoured was gone forever. It was not a break; it was an amputation.

On the bed, Alina stirred slightly, a ring of blue just visible between her heavily-crusted lashes. "Was that all the children now? I've lost count."

She was trying to make a joke, but his sense of humor had long since been served as an appetizer. He could only stare at her, unblinking, as if his gaze was the only thing keeping her alive. "Yes. That was the last of them."

A labored breath escaping her mouth, she turned her head and attempted to nod. "Will you hold me? I always wanted to die in your arms."

"Please don't say things like that," he urged her in a whisper. Nonetheless, he made his way to the other side of the bed and pulled back the covers; if this truly was his last chance to wrap his arms around her and press her close, he did not think he could forgive himself if he missed it.

"I'm so sorry, Princess," he muttered as he settled himself beside her, slinging his arm around her waist and taking her hand in his.

Alina sighed. "For what? For trying to make me happy? Don't blame yourself for this; it's no one's fault."

"But if I--"

She cut him off with a mere squint. "You're always so keen to change things, Severin, and that's one of the things I love most about you, but you have to understand that... well, there are some things you can't change. People die. I'm going to die, and you're going to die, and everyone else is going to die. And what's the point of changing anything about death, really? There are so many things left to change about life."

She opened her eyes fully for a second, then released her hold on her eyelids as if she suddenly found them too heavy to lift. Severin tried to grant her one last smile, but likewise, his lips seemed too great of a load; at best, they were neutral. "You're so beautiful."

Disbelieving, she sniffed. "Liar. I'm a wreck."

"That's not possible."

Still unconvinced, she allowed her head to loll to the side, following the suit of the rest of her body. Severin edged nearer, desperate to find the right strength with which to grip her--gentle enough not to crush her frail body, but firm enough to keep her with him. "This isn't how it's supposed to be, you know. We were supposed to go together, dying of overexertion after a long bout of disgusting, painful, and mechanically difficult old people sex."

"Well, if you want, you could always die of overexertion after a long bout of disgusting, painful, and mechanically difficult old man masturbation to the memory of me," she offered as a compromise; he couldn't tell whether or not she was trying to be funny. If she was, he still couldn't see why she would.

In any case, he shook his head. "I don't want to be an old man if I don't get to have my old lady by my side."

"I can't see why you'd want to be an old man in any case," she groaned as he pressed a kiss to her shoulder, "but to each their own, I suppose. Anyway, if you look in my jewelry box, I dictated to Celina a list of all the women you're allowed to marry."

The heart-eating monster decided that it had grown bored with nibbling and proceeded to sloppy, chunk-wrenching chomps. "Really... don't say things like that."

She moaned softly as her fingers tensed around his hand. "Don't get married right away, though. Let me have at least half a year or so before you look at that list and pick a name... but if you don't think you can wait that long and have to go fuck around with some prostitute or something, I'll understand. I do know what a long line of satyrs you come from, after all."

It was a jab that would have ordinarily stung, but what remained of his heart had already exceeded its capacity--a little quip at his paternity meant nothing now. "Princess..."

"I have to go soon," she stated. She sounded neither scared nor relieved--she just sounded. "I'm going to turn around, and you're going to kiss me. And you'd better not be crying; I don't want your tears to be the last thing I ever see."

He buried his face in her hair and inhaled; even drenched in the sweat of her body it smelled like cinnamon. "They won't be if you don't go."

Slowly, Alina began to rotate herself, just as she had promised. "Severin... I have to go."

"Don't..." He sighed. In his entire life, there had always been one consistency--one person who had always been a part of it--and her seconds were flitting away like dandelion seeds in the breeze, never to be seen again. "I don't know how to live without you."

She struggled through the final degrees, but at last they were face to face. She looked as young as the night he had married her; she looked more alive than he felt. "You'll be fine. You always... were a fast learner."

Why was she so blase about this? How had she managed to come to terms with it so quickly? She'd done in three days what he didn't think he could do in a lifetime. If anyone had ever said she wasn't the stronger of the two of them, they couldn't have been more wrong if they'd claimed that grass was red. "Princess..."

"Look, are you going to kiss me or not?"

He did. He kissed her for minutes, hours... he kissed her for longer than he could have kept track, longer than he ever had before. He didn't stop until it dawned on him that there was no longer anyone kissing him back.


June 22, 2010

In Which Octavius Watches a Candle's Reflection

April 7, 1167

"I just can't help but feel responsible for this." It was the first phrase out of Severin's mouth in the three or four hours they'd spent sitting on the couch in the front room, waiting in pained tension for Laveria's assessment of Alina's condition. Octavius had muttered the occasional word of reassurance, but never once had he received a response. He'd eventually just stopped trying; so long as he couldn't prove that it wasn't anything life-threatening, that she was going to be all right, he supposed anything he could say would be meaningless.

It had all begun so suddenly--one moment, she had been conversing with Holladrin, chattering away like a chirping bird in the early summer's breeze, then before anyone could have guessed there was anything amiss, she had slammed headfirst into a clear glass windowpane. She'd been on the floor, blood streaming from between her legs, her eyes rolling back in their sockets; somehow, everyone had blinked and her descent had gone unnoticed.

Severin had carried her to her bed while Garrett made haste to Laveria's house, then had settled himself on the couch in the bedroom as he waited for his mother to arrive. As soon as she had, the first thing she'd done was chase him to the foyer, where he had remained ever since.

"Severin, there's no possible way this could have been your fault," Octavius insisted. Really, how could it have been? So far as he knew, the only ways a man could cause his wife to miscarry were to beat her to that point or to otherwise place her under excessive stress, and Severin and Alina's marriage was anything but the sort that included such brutalities.

If Severin had heard him, however, he didn't seem to believe it. "I knew there was something odd about this pregnancy, but I never said anything to her. She just seemed so happy; I couldn't take that away from her." He drummed his fingers against his knee and sighed. "In fact, I think I knew even before. I knew something would happen if she got pregnant again, but when she said she wanted another baby... God, the look in her eyes. How could I have refused her?

"All I've ever wanted to do with my life is make her happy."

Damned if that sentence wasn't what fairytales were made of; of course, Octavius had lived long enough to realize that 'Happily Ever After' was not quite the same thing as 'The End'. "No one can say you failed her there."

"But what if I've killed her?" Severin demanded bitterly, perhaps more to himself than to Octavius. "Maybe it was selfish of me to bring her here in the first place. Maybe it would have been better for her health if I'd just let her marry my brother like she was supposed to. If I'd just been a man and sacrificed my own happiness for what was best for her--if nothing else, it might have been worthy of some epic poem."

Octavius shook his head. "She loves you. She always loved you--not your brother. Besides, what sort of masochistic cretin would want to live out an epic poem?"

Severin breathed the hollow laugh of a man who could not truly be amused. "Well, all the epic poems in the world can rot in hell as far as I'm concerned. Suffering isn't supposed to be a glorified, beautiful thing. It's ugly. It's vile. It makes death look like a beautiful temptress wearing nothing but a smile."

"So does epic poetry."

"That's because epic poetry is suffering." Severin tossed back his head and closed his eyes. "Why is it them, do you think? Women. So many men believe that a woman's only purpose is to produce children for her husband, yet that purpose has such a high mortality rate. What sort of cruel deity would send a child into the world at the cost of its mother's life? What sick ferryman demands a life as a tip? It should be obvious to anyone with two brain cells to rub together that any woman in the world has just as many purposes as any man, and shouldn't be put at risk just as her husband pleases. Alina's meant for so much more, Octavius--what sort of sadistic God would take her so early?"

Octavius slouched, the image of his pale, unconscious cousin lying in the next room swirling about his mind like leaves caught in a spiraling breeze. "I doubt such a thing could be called an act of God."


Laveria had finally emerged from the bedroom, tired and resigned. Octavius could not find a trace of optimism anywhere in her face; he wasn't sure whether or not he hoped Severin saw otherwise. He stood, then nudged his friend's shoulder in order to bring him to his feet; there were times when a man could not stand on his own.

"How is she?" Severin asked in barely more than a whisper, a misty sort of gloom looming in his eyes as he debated whether or not there was any reason to even dare to hope.

The reflection of a nearby candlelight could be seen as a glimmer on Severin's wedding band. It danced and flickered for a moment as the wick shortened and the wax melted around it--when there was no longer anything left to burn, the flame vanished, taking the glimmer with it.

Biting her lip, Laveria clasped her hands together and frowned. "She's lost a lot of blood, and... well, the flow is rather slow, but it just keeps coming. It's not just menstrual blood either--regular, run-of-the-mill blood. She seems to be bleeding from somewhere inside, and I can't say I can see it stopping any time soon."

Severin's eyes flitted open and shut in a rapid succession of blinks. "Have you seen anything like this before?"

"A few times," Laveria answered, though more bitter than reassuring. "My guess would be two days, maybe three."

"Two days," repeated Severin, shifting the weight of his body from side to side. "So she should just... rest for two or three days. Two or three days, and then the bleed will have clotted and she'll be fine, right?"

Either he was in denial or the stress was taking its toll on his head--Octavius wasn't quite sure. Nevertheless, the sorrowful look on Laveria's face said it all.

"Baby, I think you misunderstand."


June 20, 2010

In Which Searle Anticipates Yesterdays and Tomorrows

April 7, 1167

"Look, I know you aren't too keen on the idea," Searle's uncle sighed, his arms crossed and his eyes narrowed, "but please try to keep an open mind in regards to Valira. You must realize that she has just as little choice in the matter as you yourself." He raised the crook of his elbow to his face and coughed; a brief spell of illness had spread throughout the east side of the kingdom, and only Searle and a handful of servants had remained unaffected out of all the castle residents. Fortunately, the others seemed to be on the mend.

Or unfortunately. Maybe if they'd still been ill enough--and if the baron's family had still been ill enough as well--then he would have been able to sneak off to the pond to see that girl again. Never before had he been kissed just like that, as if their two pairs of lips had been molded for each other, their tongues fibers of the same tight thread. She had been willing, but not easy; when he had reached for her laces, she'd smacked his hand away, giggling as she told him, "Not yet, you silly boy!" Yet--that betrayed an intention.

What if this 'yet' had been meant to happen today? What if she was waiting for him at the pond right now? If he didn't meet her there, would he ever see her again?

His aunt gave him a quick hug, then stepped back and looked him over. "You seem a little edgy. Nervous?"

That seemed like a safe explanation. "I guess so."

In the next corner of the room, his cousin Jadin snickered. "Oh, come off it, Searle. She's just a girl--it's not like you've never seen a girl before."

Searle groaned; Jadin was not quite at the age where he should have started discovering girls, but much to everyone else's misfortune, he was rather precocious in that regard. "And if you really don't like her, just picture her naked. I know that always makes me feel more comfor--ow!" He cringed as his older sister delivered a swift kick to his shin. "What the hell was that for?"

Raia tapped her foot impatiently. "Stop being such a pig--unless of course you want me to tell Camaline you've been undressing her with your eyes?"

"And why should she have a problem with that? It's not like she's the only girl I--"

"Jadin, do yourself a favor and stop talking," urged his father, an unimpressed frown tugging at the corners of his mouth.

Miraculously--or perhaps with the help of a threatening glare from Raia--Jadin shut up. Satisfied, Searle's uncle turned back to him and offered a brief twitch of a smile. "She really is a spirited little thing; I'm sure the two of you will have a lot of fun together if you give each other a chance."

He wanted to believe him, but since he hadn't seen the evidence himself, he found he could barely even nod.

"Papa?" asked Viridis from the couch out-of-the-blue, Vera squirming beside her. "Will I get a party when my betrothed comes to call?"

Searle's uncle smirked. "Got anyone in mind at this point, angel?"

The eight-year-old nodded, her pin-curled hair bouncing about every which way as her head bobbed. "A prince!"

Shaking her head, the girl's mother laughed. "Ah yes, of course--a prince."

Searle caught sight of Riona and the two younger boys making faces on the couch--the idea of their sister's prince was quite the object of ridicule for them, no doubt. He glanced to little Vera to see if she shared their sentiment, but she only stared at the floor, the heel of her slipper rising and falling as she moved her little foot. Was she all right? She wasn't usually so quiet. "Vera..."

Before he could say anything else, someone knocked on the door. "We're here!" came the lilting voice of the baroness from the front room. Searle swallowed; his imminent doom had finally arrived.

"Come in," his uncle bade her and her party--this was it. Searle counted the seconds in his head: one, two, three...

The door swung open and in stepped the pretty baroness, little Thallie in her arms. The baron followed with Pandora, then Sparron and Jeda entered at his heels, flashing smiles around the room before proceeding to Raia and Jadin. "Sorry we're late," the baron apologized. "Holladrin had a bit of a coughing spell just before we left."

Searle's aunt frowned, her head tilting in concern. "Are you all right, Holladrin?"

"Oh yes, thank you," the baroness assured her. "It was just a slight delay--nothing to worry about at all, really."

Thallie writhed in her mother's arms, grabbing one golden curl in her fat little fist and proceeding to gum it. It was a rather nauseating sight; was this what he had to look forward too? Restless babies with nothing better to do than ruin his hair? What sort of a future was that?

His contempt must have shown, for as soon as the baroness turned away, his uncle cuffed him across the arm. "Be nice."

Defeated, Searle put on the largest, most obvious grimace he could muster and waved to each of the newcomers. His uncle didn't look amused, but he was past caring at this point. What did it matter what anyone thought of him? His life was effectively over anyway.

After a minute or so, the baron's squire trailed in, sending a nod Searle's way. "Searle."

Searle squinted; he normally got along fine with Garrett, but right now he was not so much his friend as he was the brother of his betrothed. "Garrett."

"My sister will be here in a second," the younger boy promised. "She's just looking at the tapestry in the front room."

She can take her time, Searle thought to himself. "I see."

"Oh, I'm sure you do."

It wasn't Garrett's voice--or even a man's voice--but it was familiar, and coming from near the door. Searle peeled his eyes from the other squire and glanced toward the source of the sound. He didn't expect his gaze to linger much longer than a minute, but...

Oh my God!

"What's the matter, Sailor? Feeling a little green around the gills?"

He could not believe it. He simply could not believe it.

"Searle, Valira; Valira, Searle," his aunt introduced them hastily before crossing the room to her younger two sons. "Lonriad! Stop purposely bouncing into your brother!"

That was probably the last thing he heard from anyone else for the rest of his stay in the room; whatever else was going on, he found he could only focus on Valira as she made her way toward him. "You knew it was me, didn't you?"

"That I did," she insisted, gesturing to her brother. "Garrett met my father and I at the border, and we rode back to my uncle's castle in a carriage. You and your cousin Raia were riding nearby and we could see you through the window, so Garrett pointed you out. I was out for a ride myself yesterday when I caught sight of you, so I decided to follow you for a little ways and not introduce myself."

In spite of himself, Searle couldn't fight the small smile any longer. "And what a non-introduction it was. Would you like to talk in private?"

She nodded. He took her by the hand and pushed past the crowed, leading her into his uncle's study and closing the door behind them. The exit probably hadn't looked good from the adults' point of view, but as far as he was concerned, they could think what they wanted; this was his betrothed, after all.

As soon as they were alone, Valira's features came alight with a blend of ease and relief. "I hate parties."

"Me too," agreed Searle.

"They're so stifling."

"And intrusive. When we have our own castle, let's never throw a single one."


She leaned toward him, her white teeth revealed as her grin widened. "I don't see how so many people like them. There are much more effective ways of having fun--take yesterday, for example."

Was she reading his thoughts? "Yesterday was certainly the most fun I've had in some time."

Had that been the right thing to say? He got a wink for a reply--that was a good thing, correct? "Well, I suppose we're just going to have to make a whole hell of a lot of yesterdays, then."

Well, at least one of them knew what to say. Desperate to prove himself, Searle wracked his brain for something clever. "You know... we could make today a yesterday."

Valira blinked. Twice. Thrice. Perhaps it had not been the wittiest thing he could have come up with.

Then again, perhaps it had.

"You know what's got me even more excited than all the yesterdays?" he muttered as they parted after several minutes.

Valira raised an eyebrow. "What?"

He grinned. "All the tomorrows."

Her hazel eyes dazzling, she opened her mouth to respond, only to be interrupted by the frenzied, nervous arrival of Searle's youngest cousin. "Vera?"

"Are you all right, honey?" Valira asked the girl, turning around, her brow furrowed.

The little girl gave neither of them any heed--they may as well have been back in the other room with everyone else. She skitted a few feet inward, then let out a soft cry, shaking uncontrollably. "It's everywhere..."


Her sister Riona had rushed in, the door swinging shut behind her. She too seemed oblivious to Searle and Valira, but for a completely different reason. "Vera, are you all right? I saw you come in here, and you're all shaky..."

She trailed off, as if expecting Vera to fill in the blank--she didn't. "It's all over everywhere. I can't see anything else--"


The aftermath of the crash--for Searle, at least--was made entirely of sound. A woman's scream. A man cursing. A girl muttering the phrase 'Oh God' over and over. Voices blurred together--'What happened?'--'Check for a pulse!'--'Someone go for Laveria!'

Someone had fallen. On the other side of the wall, someone was lying on the hard floor, and Searle's boots would not move. All he knew of the scene was the sound.

His eyes, meanwhile, rested on Vera, wailing as her frightened sister tried in vain to soothe her. She lifted her head only once, and only slightly--just enough so that Searle could see her mouth the words "It's everywhere."