July 30, 2010

In Which Holladrin Notes the Gravity

February 13, 1168

Holladrin warmed her hands by the fire's last fading embers. There were few greater delights than a roaring fireplace, and now that the better part of winter had passed, she figured she might as well take advantage of the cold while it remained. She would have a fire in every room she visited; in the absence of servants, she would light one herself. Oh, how wonderful it was to be able to perform simple tasks again! Only five days prior, she'd hardly been well enough to stand for more than a few minutes.

It might have been nice to have someone to share the fire with, though. Her husband had been called away about a half hour prior--something about some butcher refusing to pay his taxes or whatnot. The twins were at Roderick's castle, and her girls were in the nursery, playing with Riona and Vera.

It had been kind of the pair of them to drop by, really. They were a little older than Pandora and Athalia, enough that they might have found the younger girls something of a bother, but for whatever reason, Severin's two youngest daughters had always been more than willing to spend time with Holladrin's children. These days--though Holladrin hated to admit it--they probably saw Pandora and Athalia as a welcome escape from the gloomy structure their home had become.

Vera, Holladrin had noticed, had seemed a little quieter than usual. Riona was her usual boisterous self, of course, but Vera had scarcely said three words so far as she'd heard. Then again, Holladrin hadn't seen much of the little girl since Alina's death--she hadn't seen much of anyone, really, as she'd been through rapid cycles of illness and recovery for most of that time--so it was feasible that Vera had become more withdrawn following her mother's passing. Still, perhaps she ought to go talk to the girl; after all, she did know what it was to find oneself the youngest of a group of motherless siblings.

Someone knocked on the door. Holladrin straightened to her full height. She certainly wasn't expecting Octavius or the twins to return so soon, nor did she imagine Severin would be here to collect his daughters so early in the day. "Who is it?"

"It's just me."

Odd. Normally, Florian would have announced himself with something along the lines of 'Medusa here, wondering if you've seen my head--who do you think?'; something was amiss. "You seem a little... serious."

Florian cracked his knuckles as he waited for Holladrin to turn around. "You likewise."

"Well, with you coming in here like that, what can you expect?"

Shaking his head, Florian took a few tentative steps toward her and looked her in the eye. In all her years, Holladrin had seen sorrow on the faces of many, and none wore it better than Florian. At the same time, none wore it worse.

Behind her, the fire crackled a final time before the last of the flames flickered out. "My lady, I've just spoken with a messenger from Dovia. He had to rush off to your brother's castle, but... well, needless to say, it's bad news."


July 29, 2010

In Which Roderick Is Told What Everyone Knows

January 17, 1168

Despite his disappointment, Roderick couldn't say he was surprised; he'd scarcely seen Severin since the whole ordeal with Deian. The man was effectual enough in times of desperation, as soon as he'd cooled off from that last incident--as soon as he'd felt he was no longer needed--he'd collapsed back into his grief, shriveled into the same morose figure he'd been since Alina's death. From what Roderick could gather, he spent most of his days sleeping--perhaps only trying to sleep.

Wherever Severin was and whatever he was doing, however, Roderick was not impressed. "You're looking quite pretty today, your lordship."

Raia set down the stylus and looked up at him, her brown eyes as tired and exasperated as her father's ever were. "His lordship is indisposed. Can I do something for you, your majesty?"

Roderick sniffed; he had not ridden all this way to deal with a twelve-year-old girl. "Indeed. You could get him for me--or at least the steward or your brother."

"Falidor has the day off, and my brother is out," Raia told him as she rose from the chair and emerged from behind the desk, "as are my other two brothers and my father's page, before you ask for them. Unless you think whatever you personally came for is better discussed with a groom or a kitchen boy than with the daughter of a lord, you're just going to have to get past the fact that I'm a girl."

He felt the corners of his mouth pull his lips into a tight scowl. It was a man's business, but even before that, it was a noble's; he could not discuss this with some peasant. "If you must know, my priest has informed me that your shire's tithe barns were found empty this season. They were empty at harvest-time as well, but that was a time of turmoil and he was grieving, so I decided to let it slide; this time, however, I will not be so lenient. Where are the tithes?"

The girl's heavy eyelids drooped, leaving only a thin, piercing sliver of brown between her thick lashes. "My father no longer believes in the importance of tithing. You may deal with that as you see fit, but he will not force his subjects to pay their tithes, nor will he pay any of his own."

Ridiculous. Seething, Roderick tapped his foot against the hardwood. "But tithing is the will of God!"

"So was the death of my mother." She crossed her arms and looked him in the eye, unblinking, unfaltering. "If our family can live without her, then I see no reason why God can't do without Veldorashire's tithes."

Roderick's brow twitched. "And I trust that your father agrees with you?"

"On the contrary, I agree with my father; he did say it first."

This was even less of a shock than stepping into the study to find Raia in Severin's stead; disgusted, Roderick gave a false-dismissive wave of his hand. "Well, I suppose there isn't much I can expect of Severin these days, is there? Why should good Christian decency be an exception?"

"Christian decency?" Raia snapped in repetition. "Robbing the poor peasants of their income just to satisfy a church that already has more money than anyone knows what to do with? Is that what you call 'Christian decency'? Taking from the needy?"

"You can hardly call your father 'needy'; this whole notion of his is blasphemous. Of course, I must have been blind not to see this coming. The crazed liberalism, the general depravity, the necrophilia--"

Enraged, Raia jabbed him in the shoulder with her finger, her other hand curled into a tight fist. "My father is not a necrophile! There's a big difference between loving a dead woman and fucking her corpse!"

"Who taught you such filthy language?" demanded Roderick; he hadn't expected a young maiden to know the word 'fucking', much less 'necrophilia'. "I've half a mind to ban you from playing with my girls!"

Raia appeared unthreatened, the anger in her eyes as resolute as before. "I will not stand to hear false accusations against my father!"

"False or not, your father has abandoned his duty," he stressed; at the very least, she would have to understand this. He would make her understand this. "I'm tired of having to pick up his slack, and I think I speak for Lornian and Octavius as well!"

"Well, I'm sure both of them would agree that he's been picking up yours for a hell of a lot longer!"

Roderick fell rigid with wrath. She hadn't really said that--had she? "How dare you!"

"How dare I what? Say what everyone else already knows?" She allowed herself a second to regain some ounce of calmness, though the fire in her did not cool. "With all due respect, your majesty, we've discussed what you've come to discuss; I see no reason why you should still be here."

How was it that she got the nerve to address a king so rudely? Regardless, this had gone on long enough. "I certainly see no reason why I should want to be!"


Roderick turned on his heel and stormed toward the door, Raia's scowl burning into the back of his head; she was still glaring at him, he was sure of it. "Tell your father that I want those tithes--and the next time I call, I had better be speaking to him personally, or believe me, there will be hell to pay!"


July 27, 2010

In Which Sparron's Worries Prove Needless

December 10, 1167

Some time ago now, Sparron had decided he would try kissing Camaline again--and since then, he'd done all he could think of to insure that it turned out at least somewhat better this time. He'd cut back on foods that wreaked havoc on the breath. He'd listened to Jadin's tiresome stories of his many lip-conquests with a religious dedication--hell, he'd even asked to hear the details of some, much to the horrified shock of Jadin's little brothers. He'd practiced on pillows, the crook of his elbow, even a statue in one of the back alcoves, the last of which would have been embarrassing enough even if he hadn't been caught by a greatly amused Florian. Finally, he'd grown confident in his kissing ability; he could not have been more prepared.

And yet, when the moment had arrived... well, it hadn't been all that much better, for either him or Camaline. He didn't understand. Hadn't he done all he could? Was it a problem with her, perhaps? Or was he just an irredeemably horrible kisser?

Whatever the reason, he was down to his last resort--asking for help. "Father?"

His father looked up and grinned as Sparron made his way toward the desk. The poor man really had no idea what he was about to hear; Sparron could only imagine how crushing it must be, learning that one had raised a horrid failure. "Did you need something, son?"

His head heavier than usual, Sparron nodded. "Can we talk?"

"Of course." His father gestured to the couch by the other wall. "Take a seat, Sparron."

Sparron proceeded in the indicated direction and collapsed onto the couch's central cushion. His father rose from his chair, opting to sit by his side instead; Sparron wasn't sure just yet if that made him feel better or worse about the whole thing. "So... what did you want to talk about?"

Well, here it was. "Father... what does it mean if you kiss a girl and it turns out badly? Is it just a bad kiss, or does that make you a bad kisser?"

He wished he'd known how to phrase the question more subtly, but despite his blunt words, his father didn't seem scandalized. "If we're treating this situation as an independent event, then I suppose it's fair to say it might have just been a bad kiss."

"But what if it happened more than once?"

Perhaps he shouldn't have said it. His father's expression was alarmingly neutral as he turned his head to face him. "Is this about Camaline?"

Damn. He probably should have scripted this beforehand. "Uh, well..."

His father sighed. "What happened, son?"

Frantic, Sparron squirmed further into the cushions. Maybe it had been too much to hope for his father not to catch on, but he'd never expected to be asked for an explanation. "It's not my fault! I mean, she asked for it the first time--she literally asked me to kiss her--and I was caught off-guard and under pressure, so... and then I practiced for the second, but it still wasn't any better, and--"

"Sparrow!" Sparron froze; that pet-name hadn't been used since he was little. "Please, calm down. Really, two lackluster kisses do not make you a bad kisser."

Sparron blinked; he had come for advice but he'd never thought he'd get any reassurance. "Sorry?"

"Don't worry about it," his father insisted. "You're inexperienced at this point, perhaps, but what boy your age isn't? You're eleven years old; most boys your age find the very notion of a kiss disgusting. You'll learn, and she will too."

Unconvinced, Sparron shifted. "But I practiced..."

"Sparron, you'll find that kissing girls is much different from kissing your hand or your sisters' dolls or whatever else you used. Really, the best way to assure yourself of a good kiss is to simply stop fretting about it."

In spite of himself, Sparron felt a small smile tugging at his mouth. "You mean... it's mostly just in my head?" He could live with that, he supposed; he could find a way to get over that.

His father nodded. "So it sounds to me, in any case. Many people underestimate the dangers of over-thinking things, Sparrow; I do hope you won't become one of them."

Sparron shifted. "I'm just glad you don't think I'm a failure--you don't, do you?"

"Don't be absurd," his father scolded him. "If every boy earned his father's scorn for something as trivial as some botched boyhood kisses, then there would have never been a proud father in all of history. On the contrary, I think it was brave of you to come and talk to me, and noble of you to want to better your abilities for your betrothed."

A warm sort of swell was gathering in his face. Flushed, Sparron stood; his blood rushed to his head at an alarming rate, but he was too elated to notice. "So you're saying you're proud of me, Father?"

His father sprung to his feet and engulfed him in a quick hug. "Of course, Sparron--I've always been proud of you. Did I do something to make you think otherwise?"

Grinning, Sparron shook his head. "You couldn't if you tried. Anyway, can I ride over to Veldora and see if Jadin wants to go for a ride before it gets dark?"

"I don't see why not," his father told him, "but whatever you do, don't put much stock in his stories; if he tells you he's kissed a dozen girls, bear in mind that they were probably his aunts."


July 25, 2010

In Which Ovrean Considers the Grand Scheme of Things

September 28, 1167

As the mere stepfather, Ovrean wasn't sure whether or not he had the right to send Lorn to bed early--especially if one considered the fact that the boy was a duke and he himself, only a knight--but the kid had gone without questioning. He knew he'd overstepped a boundary. He knew how hysterical his mother had been when they'd discovered he wasn't in the castle. He knew what he'd done had been selfish, cruel, and unfathomably stupid.

And yet, Lorn had just prevented--or at least stalled--a genocide. The panic throughout the keep over his disappearance seemed almost trivial now; Ovrean just hoped that Celina and the baby were all right.

"He's home," he announced as he stepped into the bedchamber. He heard a sigh of relief from the bed; at least it seemed that Celina had been trying to stay calm, if she had retired so early. "I sent him to bed, but if you want to see him, I could go and get him."

Nodding, Celina ran her hand over her swollen midriff as Ovrean made his way toward the bed. "I'll go to him in a few minutes--I can still walk, and wherever he's been, I imagine he's had a rather taxing day."

Ovrean frowned. "So have you."

"Yes, but now that I know he's home safely, I'm fine," she insisted, "and the baby's still kicking, if you were worried about that; in fact, a little stroll down to Lorn's room and back might soothe him somewhat."

"Fair enough." He sat himself down on the bed and adjusted the pillow, swinging his legs onto the mattress and reclining beside her. She was being awfully quiet--perhaps she thought he hadn't been strict enough? "Anyway... do you care to punish him for this?"

Celina frowned. "Other than being sent to bed early, what has he had?"

"Well, Severin gave him an earful--Lorn had Raia with him, as well as Master Indruion's boy--and then we endured a rather painful silence on the way home. Also, his influence might be somewhat compromised now, since I can't see him making any important decisions without the approval of Severin or Octavius for quite some time."

His wife pursed her lips, then closed her eyes as she considered. "As long as he's learned his lesson, then I don't see the need for anything more extreme, but I'm confused as to how his influence plays into this. What exactly did he do? Did he go against a collective decision?"

From what Ovrean understood, he hadn't--not really. Lorn had just done something on an unprecedented level of recklessness, something that could have easily cost him and his friends their lives... and yet, somehow, he'd gotten lucky. Very lucky. His foolish, childish plan had--against all imaginable odds--actually worked, and instead of killing himself and Raia and Had, he'd saved only God knew how many innocent people. Lorn realized now, Ovrean believed, just how incredibly fortunate he'd been; he knew something like that could never possibly work twice, and he would never do it again. And really, in the grand scheme of things...

"Celina, your son just saved the kingdom."


July 22, 2010

In Which Raia Is Witness to the Unlikely Outcome

September 28, 1167

It had been stupid of her to come, Raia had known even before she'd agreed to do so, but as the minutes dragged by, that understanding swelled to the point where she had to consciously force herself not to turn around and fetch her horse from the smaller clearing and ride back home, safely into her father's arms. She didn't even feel as though she was helping--all she and Had could do was try to keep a straight face--but it was too late to run. They couldn't just abandon Lorn like that, especially now that Deian had arrived.

She and Had had agreed to be there, but not fully involved. They wouldn't move, nor speak. They would keep their faces straight. Their role was to let Deian know that Lorn was not alone, but they would not interfere unless they had to; Lorn's plan was risky and foolhardy enough without one of them making an impulsive mess of it.

Raia and Lorn had both grown up among tall men. Her father was tall, and her grandfather was tall; Lorn's father had also been tall, as was his stepfather. But Deian could only be described as towering, monumental; even at Raia's distance, her neck ached from looking up at him. The strain was far worse for the shorter, nearer Lorn, she was certain--but if he was in pain, his voice did not betray the fact. "Deian."

The being's pale lips curled into an unpleasant smile. "I take it you're Lornian, correct? I must say, you don't look a thing like your father."

Lorn's hand twitched; not for the first time, Raia wished he hadn't insisted that they left their stolen weapons with the horses. "I've been told I take after my mother's side."

Deian sniffed. "You would make a pretty little girl, I'm certain... then again, I suppose a lot of men would. Clearly, your leader is one of them," he added, glancing Raia's way; it was warm for late September, but she had the sudden urge to shiver. "But I doubt that's what you care to discuss. If you spent that latter part of yesterday seeking out my grandson to have him tell me to meet you here, I take it you consider the matter at least marginally important."

The young duke looked even further upward. Raia's innards churned; she knew what was coming. Deian would laugh in Lorn's face, she was sure of it--right before he smote him. "Well, frankly, I don't think killing our people would be at all beneficial to you, my good man."

Not to Raia's surprise, Deian didn't look convinced. "No, really, it would."

"How so?" Lorn crossed his arms and waited for an answer. He'd said he would wait all day for one if he had to, and his stance did not argue.

The creature sighed. "Well, if you must know, myself and my woman and sons are the last of our kind, and our ancestors will not allow us to ascend to their plane so long as this valley is otherwise occupied. They claim that if we are willing to live amongst the humans, then we are unfit to live amongst the gods."

Lorn nudged his foot against the dry grass of the forest floor. "Then why don't you just go somewhere else?"

"You think we haven't tried that already?" Deian snorted, though Raia doubted he found the situation at all funny. "No, that hasn't worked. By driving you out, and slaughtering you all if we don't, then we may be able to prove ourselves worthy."

Lorn leaned back and opened his arms, as he was about to point out an obvious flaw. Raia braced herself; this wasn't going to end well. "But I can't imagine that would be much fun for you, you know."

Deian raised an eyebrow--or at least, the part of his face where his eyebrow would have been if he'd actually had one. "What are you talking about? Of course it is."

"Yes, but what would you say is more fun? Crushing a roach with a brick, or cutting off its head and following it around for a month as it attempts to survive without the ability to eat?"

The creature fell silent. This, Raia hadn't been expecting--but perhaps Deian was just toying with them. "I can't say I follow."

"If you kill us all now, it'll be over too quickly," Lorn clarified, "and then what will you do to amuse yourself? I doubt being a god would be all that enjoyable without the ability to torture all those worthless mortals who kept getting in your way--you know what I'm saying?"

Against all logic, Deian actually seemed to be considering this. Raia exchanged a quick glance with Had before looking back at Lorn. It was too early to be sure of anything; it was possible that Deian was stringing them along, just as he had done to her father. "I see... however, how do you propose that we manage to leave this accursed realm, in that case?"

Lorn shrugged. "Surely another way can be found--and surely it will be worth it. It would make your divine revenge that much sweeter, would it not?"

"So if I go out of my way to find some other way to achieve my ends, I'll be rewarded with the pleasure of making your lives miserable," Deian mused, his head cocked slightly to the side. "I admit that this does sound rather more appealing in the long run. But what if another way cannot be found?"

The duke froze; he had not thought so far ahead. Raia hadn't meant to speak, but Lorn was stumbling, and someone needed to help him find his feet. "Well, you won't know that unless you look first, will you?"

Renewed, Lorn nodded vigorously; Raia didn't know if she'd helped yet, but at least he seemed appreciative. "What she said."

Deian fell silent for a moment, his cloudy eyes narrowed as he took a moment to consider. "Hmmm. Perhaps I will try to find this other way of which you speak--but if I cannot, don't think for a second that I would think twice about returning to my original plans."

"Oh, we would never make that mistake," Lorn assured him. "Best of luck, and if you need our help, don't hesitate to ask."

"Don't think I will."

Relieved, Raia allowed herself a rather long blink; when she opened her eyes, Deian was gone. "Lorn... how the hell did that actually work?"

Had shrugged. "Who cares? At least it did."

Shaking her head, Raia approached the young duke and gave him what she felt was a well-deserved hug; sure, he'd done something stupid and reckless that had only had about a one in a million chance of actually working, but now that it was over, it didn't really matter. After all, he'd just saved the kingdom. "I think your father would have been proud of you, Lorn."

"Not to trivialize your victory, your grace, but I'm not sure I'd agree."

Shocked, Raia released Lorn and turned around, the boys following her suit.

It was her father, her Uncle Ovrean and Master Indruion at his heels. Rarely in her life had she seen him angry, but somehow, that made the fact that he was seem all the more frightening.

"Now, don't think I don't appreciate what you did for the kingdom just now," he seethed, the angle of his brow steepening with each word, "but I believe it goes without saying that the three of you have a lot of explaining to do."


July 20, 2010

In Which Had Understands

September 27, 1167

Lorn ushered Had and Raia toward the couch, then cast a long glance into the hallway, as if to make sure that there was no one else in earshot. After a minute or so, he seemed satisfied; he closed the door, then turned back to the pair of them. "Thank you both for coming."

Had knew he was more advantaged than boys of his age and class in larger kingdoms--hell, his best friend was the daughter of a lord and he'd spent his childhood playing alongside a boy who was now a duke--but never had he thought he would ever receive an official ducal summons. An invitation for a ride or a training session from Lorn was one thing, but an actual meeting in his study? Something wasn't right, and his gut told him this had something to do with the return of whatever creature had killed Lorn's father.

It wasn't a secret. It had been announced the previous day that danger had returned to Naroni. Already, families had begun to pack their things, Had's pregnant sister and her husband among them. His three youngest siblings were with them currently, ready to leave at the first sign of danger; Had's father, still heartbroken after the loss of his mother, had opted to remain on the grounds that it was his duty as one of the kingdom's first citizens, and Had and his sister Nanalie had both refused to leave him. His father was still not in a place of mind fit for being left alone in a dangerous situation--that and the prospect of his own cooking meant yet another dangerous situation entirely.

In any case, Had was here now, as was Raia. Not that he thought anything could really be done; perhaps he was mad in responding to the summons. Beside him, Raia looked up and locked eyes with Lorn. "Lorn, why are we here?"

Lorn sighed. "Well, frankly, I need your help, but I'm not sure if you'll give it to me. Given the circumstances, I understand if you won't, and I hope you don't feel obliged, but... well, it would be nice to have the two of you by my side."

Well, whatever he was talking about, that had certainly been unexpected. Had and Lorn were friends, but he hadn't thought they were that close. Admittedly, though, he couldn't think of any other boys their age Lorn might have trusted more, and given the nature of his comment, he was about to do something risky--something he was reluctant to even bring Raia into, much less Princess Leara. "What do you need us to do?"

As he could have expected, Lorn took a minute or so to consider. Maybe he was rethinking his plans entirely--or maybe he just needed to find the right words. "I'm going to confront Deian."

Silence. The ordinarily verbal Raia didn't so much as stir as she processed the news. Had himself gave even less of a reaction; it was not a thought his mind seemed to care to process.

"You're mad," he stated at last. Secretly, he hoped that Lorn was joking; then again, Lorn wouldn't have had them ride across the kingdom in dangerous times for nothing more than a joke.

"Maybe a little," Lorn admitted, "but I've thought about it long and hard, and I have to do this. I'd like it if the two of you came with me, but if you don't want to, I understand--in fact, I'd have more trouble understanding if you do want to. If you don't come, don't think I won't go alone."

Raia tossed a lock of hair over her shoulder and shook her head. "Lorn, the stress has gotten to your head. Just pack up your family and get ready to leave."

"But you don't understand!" he insisted, though Had didn't really see what there was to understand. If anything, couldn't Lorn at least think of his poor mother? Deian had already robbed her of her husband; she would be beyond devastated if he took her son as well. He was the only one in the room lucky enough to still even have a mother--how could he hurt her so? "Raia, I know what Deian did to your father, and what he said to him. If you put the pieces together, it fits. I have a plan, and I'll admit it's a long shot, but it's better than anything else we have right now. And it's non-violent--your father would agree to that."

Had fidgeted; anyone who knew Raia knew better than to mention her father these days. "My father wouldn't agree to any of your stupid plans, Lorn. My father wants to get the hell out of this valley, and if you had a single bit of sense in that thick skull of yours, you would too!"

Lorn clasped his hands together, shaking them lightly as if to toss a pair of dice. "Look, I know you want to honor your father, and I respect your decision if you choose not to come with me... but please, if you won't help, then at least let me do this.

"I know how much both of you do for your fathers. Please let me do this one thing for mine."

Had exchanged a quick glance with Raia, who rolled her eyes, then pulled herself to her feet. He followed suit; he understood now.

"Fine, we'll come," Raia relented, taking Had's hand in her own and squeezing it tightly, "if only so you have someone to bring back your body."


July 18, 2010

In Which Lorn Has No Advice to Offer

September 26, 1167

"So what you're saying is that we have no option but to leave?"

The king did not sound like a man who wanted to believe--and if Lorn was honest with himself, he didn't want to believe either.

"Roderick, I couldn't even get close to him before I was on the ground," Lord Severin reminded him. "He knocked me down with some sort of shock wave, for God's sake! It isn't going to matter if we have a thousand men for every one of his; we're dealing with something that isn't human, something that could take us down with a mere snap of his fingers if he pleases. If we don't want to lose any more, then we're going to have to leave Naroni, and quickly."

The king looked as if he was about to protest, but he was cut off by the baron. "Look, I don't care to leave either, but I don't think we have a choice. Even if we had a competent army, it wouldn't be any use in this situation; unless you have a legion of trained sorcerers that you've neglected to mention to us, we're not even going to scratch Deian."

"We've had a good run, but this little delusion of ours isn't worth the cost of all these people," agreed Lord Severin, leering out the window at the darkening sky. "If we work quickly, we can evacuate them all in time."

The baron nodded and even the king relented a sigh, but there was something about this that Lorn still did not quite understand. "What does he want from us, though?" It seemed a valid question--after all, who went about slaughtering people for no good reason?

Lord Severin sniffed, both bitter and dismissive. "I asked the same question myself last time, but I hardly think it matters at this point. Now that I've seen him, I'm inclined to believe he's simply sadistic for the sake of being so, and I'm tired of playing his disgusting little game."

"And what will become of us if we go back to Dovia?" demanded the king, drumming his fingers against the side of his chair. "You should consider yourself fortunate if your father decides to name you his steward, let alone grant you lands and titles."

Not turning his head, Lord Severin replied with a sigh. "Roderick, all I have left are my children; as long as they're safe, I don't give a damn about lands and titles."

A quick glance at the other two men told Lorn--though he doubted the king would admit it--that they couldn't argue with that. Lady Alina had not yet been dead half a year. The baroness had only just recovered from yet another spell of illness. If ever these men were equipped to handle Deian, it was not now; for the sake of the people, the sake of their own families, all they could do was surrender.

"Shall we give the order, then?" asked the baron. Lorn stiffened; he knew what it meant to invoke an evacuation order. Peasants and gentlefolk alike would flee the valley, relocate to some other kingdom, rendering himself and the other three powerless. To evacuate would be to destroy the kingdom, Lorn's dukedom included--and with that, his father's legacy as well.

What would his father have done? His father, Lorn knew now, had always been the strongest of the leaders. Would he have sent everyone who followed him on their way at the first sign of danger? No--he would have found a way to fix this. Lorn only wished he knew what that way might be.

The king shook his head. "No--not yet. You may tell the people to prepare themselves for it, though, and if that causes some to flee prematurely, then so be it."

At last, Lord Severin chose to pry himself from the window. Lorn watched as he stepped around the couch and marched up to the king's desk, his arms crossed, his eyes livid. "It seems to me that this would help by reducing panic, but knowing you, I doubt that has anything to do with your reasoning. Would you care to enlighten us as to why you won't just give the order?"

The king opened his mouth, but not a word sounded from it. Lorn took this as an ill omen--as did, it seemed, Lord Severin. "You just want to be king for a few more days, don't you? Unbelievable. If Deian plans to resume his campaign on the fifth, then believe me when I say that you might as well just give the order; with such little time, any warning would be taken as such in the first place."

"Then I suppose you shall have your wish either way, will you not?"

Lord Severin scowled. "Hardly; so long as it's 'just a warning', my family and I are obliged to stay until the rest of the shire is empty. By that time, it could be too late."

The baron nodded in agreement. "Given how unlikely it seems that a compromise will be found, I'd also prefer to get my family out of here as soon as possible." He exhaled in resignation, then locked eyes with the king. "None of us were born to rule, Roderick, and we all know it."

Lorn shifted in his seat. When it came down to it, he did want to see his family escape to safety--his siblings, his mother and the baby she was carrying, his stepfather, his pretty betrothed--but he couldn't shake the feeling that something else could have been done. His father would have known it right away, but he was not his father, nor would he ever be; he would need time to think it through.

Time he did not have.

The king's iron eyes darted back and forth between the baron and Lord Severin. "You both forget who is in charge here, it seems. If I say we won't evacuate just yet, then we won't--if the peasants choose to take a warning as a command, that is their choice, but I am not giving any orders and that is final. Now, I'm sure you all want to just go along on your way, but if you do decide to stay, you shall address me as 'majesty'--I am a king, damn it!"

Lord Severin turned around and left without so much as a parting glance; the baron nodded to both of the remaining two, then stood and hurried out the door after him. Now, it was only Lorn and the king--and he had no advice to offer.

I'm so sorry, Father.