August 31, 2010

In Which Danthia Inspires a Baffling Response

September 16, 1168

It might not have made sense to be sad. It might have even been a little selfish to be sad. Danthia's mother had spent the last months of her life in such incredible discomfort that her soul must have leapt from her agonizing prison of a bed at the sight of Death and embraced him like an old friend. Wherever she was now, at least there would no longer be such a thing as pain. At least she would be able to sleep without waking up to cough blood onto her pillow.

And yet, it was only human to be sad. She would miss her mother; she missed her already. She wondered if they'd had enough time together and if there was even such a thing as too much. She would have liked her own daughter to get to know her, and her brother's new baby girl had scarcely had a month with which to do so. She was sad--how could she not be? But not all of her emotions were directed at her mother; she was also angry.

She felt her sister-in-law wrap a warm hand around her own and squeeze. "I'm so sorry." Danthia knew that her mother wasn't the only reason Lileina was saying that. "I still can't believe he isn't here."

She had to have been lying; Searle's absence couldn't have come as a surprise to anyone. Danthia shook her head. "I figured it would have been stupid to expect him to show up."

It took a moment for Lileina to respond. She pursed her lips and bowed her head before a defeated sigh broke her facade of naivety. "Really, I'm sorry about everything my brother's put you through. He should be here."

"He probably doesn't even know. I can barely even remember the last time I saw him." How long had it been? Lileina had told her that he'd shown up for King Farilon's funeral, but had kept his distance from the crowd; Danthia herself hadn't caught a glimpse of him, nor had anyone else, it seemed. That had been five months ago now, and she did not think he had been home since eight or nine months before then. All her widowhood lacked was its official status.

Bitter, she nudged the dirt beneath her boot and sunk back against the crypt wall. "It's just as well that he didn't come, really. My mother lost her liking for him years ago."

"And I can't imagine that your father sees him any differently," Lileina added, her voice so neutral that it must have been forced. It had to hurt to admit such a thing of one's own brother.

Sisterly as she might have been to Searle, she pulled Danthia inward and offered a small bit of comfort in the guise of a hug. Danthia cringed as Lileina's growing stomach pressed against her own. Was it mad to be jealous of a pregnant woman? Particularly since she herself had suffered the pregnancy from Hell only a few short years prior?

People were talking, she was well aware. She wished they could understand that there was really nothing to talk about. She and Searle hadn't had any trouble conceiving Tivalia once they'd bothered trying; there was nothing wrong with her fertility. The problem was that on the rare occasion Searle was home, he did not care to bed her--and even if he did, she did not care to let him. She didn't miss the sex. She supposed it might have been pleasurable with a man who actually seemed to give a damn, but all she'd ever had was Searle. A suit of armor might have been a more emotionally-invested lover if only it possessed the required anatomy.

"Do you think he'll ever come back?" She asked simply because it seemed proper to do so; she was past the point where she actually cared.

"Of course," Lileina answered automatically. It was an interesting way to say 'no'.

The brief following silence was broken by the creaking of the hinges as the heavy door was pushed open, the figure of a man emerging from behind it. "Danthia?"

It was her cousin, Nythran, his mustache still visible despite the dim light and its blond color. Searle had only ever managed stubble. "Good, you're still here. Your brother was worried that you might have left already."

Danthia sniffed. "Of course he would be. Marsden can't even keep track of chairs at the dinner table, let alone this whole extended family; he should count himself lucky that his balls are attached."

Nythran's booming laughter echoed throughout the otherwise dismal room. Surely there was nothing like four years of frigid Riona to make a man appreciate every instance of a woman saying the word 'balls'. Surely there was nothing like six years of woebegone Searle to make a woman appreciate masculine laughter. "Amen to that. Anyway, your father was looking for you--wondering if you and Tivalia wanted to stay a few days longer."

"Of course we will," she told him. "It isn't as if we have anyone waiting for us back home."

Her cousin's limp hand clenched into a sudden, tight fist. "If your husband lacked the decency to show his face here, then he should just keep making himself scarce if he knows what's good for him."

"Oh, I would kill him if I found him there," Danthia assured him with a grimace. "I don't think we have to worry about that, though; we all know that home isn't one of his usual haunts."

"Hasn't been around for a few months again, then?"

Rolling her eyes, Danthia nodded. "I haven't seen him since..." She paused, forcing herself to remember when she'd last seen Searle. It took her a couple of seconds to find an approximate date. "Some time in July of last year, at the latest."

An odd sort of light sparked in Nythran's hazel eyes. Danthia frowned; she hadn't known what sort of reaction to expect, but the quiet thoughtfulness it seemed to have inspired in him was rather baffling. "You mean... you haven't seen your husband in over a year?"


August 29, 2010

In Which Arydath Speaks Literally

August 11, 1168

Arydath's brain slammed against her skull as if attempting to bust free. Headaches originating just above the right ear weren't usually so strong, but this one had her to the point where it hurt to even think about getting off the bed. She might have tried to sleep if she thought she was capable of undressing, or if the throbbing pain could be ignored long enough to doze out of consciousness, but such was not the case. She had tried several, ordinarily reliable home remedies, but to no avail; all she could do was wait it out.

Just above the right ear, her mother's voice echoed throughout her mind, its shrill, condescending timbre wreaking havoc with her already pained head. That means a pressing question is coming your way. A pressing question--pressing. Just what she needed right now.

Just like that damn knock on the door that no mother of six could ever hope to go without. "Yes?" She wasn't sure whether she'd meant to sound that cranky.

"Mother," her eldest addressed her, stepping into the room and quickly shutting the door behind her; Arydath moaned as the sound registered. "We need to talk."

Here came the pressing question; she had to admit, it had been months in the making. Defeated, Arydath glanced to the window, catching sight of Halford's large, laboring form. "This is about your father, isn't it?"

"The way you say it, it sounds like you think you'll have to punish him," Lyraina noted as she joined her on the bed.

In spite of herself, Arydath smirked. "When do I not have to punish him?"

"I don't know. When he's had ten serious falls in the past six months, maybe? And the chest pains? Trouble breathing on occasion?" She'd said it without the faintest inkling of a smile. Even if that hadn't been the case, Arydath knew that the time for jokes had passed.

"Look, I know you don't want to worry the kids, and for their sake I'm glad you can keep a brave face," Lyraina began, fingering the belt of her pouch in agitation, "but I think I have the right to know what's going on. What's happening to Father?"

Arydath sat in a petrified limbo as the pain in her head faded into a stiffening sensation and overcame her entire being. It had been too much to hope that the children knew nothing, but she had not expected to have to explain--not yet. She wasn't ready to tell. Lyraina wasn't ready to hear. "Lyraina..."

"Mother." Arydath's own black eyes pierced through her like a flaming arrow. When she had been quite young, her brother had once told her a story with the intent to scare her; she couldn't remember just what it had been about, but she knew it had involved a mirror. She'd never understood what was supposed to be so frightening about mirrors, but that had been before. "Mother, I want to hear it from you. And if you don't tell me, I'll ask Father--and if he won't tell me, I'll ask Grandmother--and if she won't tell me, I'll describe the symptoms to Laveria and see what she says. Whether you tell me or not, I will find out."

Through the window, Halford could be seen, cursing at a pair of pigs who had abandoned their food scraps in favor of a bout of loud, obvious fornication. Arydath shook her head, then turned to her daughter; it was unnerving just how like staring at a reflection she was. "Lyraina... you know your father.

"Your father... he's a big man. And he has a small brain--but what he lacks in brains, he makes up for in heart. No one has a bigger heart than your father."

Lyraina's lips pinched into a confused frown. "Well, that's a given, but what does that have to do with these spells he keeps getting?"

Arydath pried the heel of her right slipper off her foot with the toe of her left. "You see... I meant that both figuratively and literally."

Lyraina's face lengthened as her brows perked and her jaw dropped. Arydath could tell by the fear in her eyes--her daughter's eyes, her mother's eyes, her own eyes--that she understood. "Literally? His heart is too big for his body?"

Arydath shoved her slipping wedding band back to her knuckle; it often slid, as it had always been just a bit large for her petite finger. "If you put your hand to his chest you can tell. You can feel it beating from much too big of an area." She tilted her hand upwards to call upon the aid of natural forces. "It's so big it can hardly keep itself going."

Her daughter's silence was a reply in itself. The one advantage to having her mother in the house was that Arydath had a confidante other than Halford who was over the age of twelve, and telling her had indeed been far different. When she had told her mother, she'd felt as if the older woman had taken a part of her burden; now that she had told her daughter, she felt as if she had added part of Lyraina's to her own. She did not care to think about how that worked.

"Don't tell your siblings," she whispered as she watched Halford climb the fence and head toward the front door. "Not a word, you hear? And whatever you do, don't you dare tell your father that you know. It would kill him--figuratively. Literally..." She swallowed as reality's ugly hand curled its fingers around her neck. "Well... it still could."


August 25, 2010

In Which Severin Encounters a Fellow Outsider

July 19, 1168

Against all odds, Severin had been feeling better since his night with Geneva.

He didn't really know why that was, and all he achieved by thinking about it was even further confusion. It had been... relaxing, as surprising as that was. Cleansing, perhaps, or at least some sort of temporary sanctuary. All throughout that night, he'd scarcely had to think; he had been in desperate need of an escape from his troubled, grieving mind, even if his longing for Alina had only strengthened after the fact.

She hadn't stayed long after they'd woken, and he hadn't seen her since, but never before had he noticed just how many women there were in his direct vicinity. Widowed cooks, unattached chambermaids, dissatisfied wives of neglectful merchants--they were everywhere. If ever he found himself slipping back into his previous depression, his productivity receding to such levels that would have formerly required a lengthy withdrawal to his favorite guest chamber, all he had to do was chat up the nearest willing lady and steal away to an empty room for a quick bout of mindless, fully instinctual passion. It was the only sure way to clear his head.

He'd spent the better part of an hour that morning in the company of the feisty little redhead who served as maid to his two older daughters, and found he'd been able to complete all of his paperwork for the next three weeks. It would have been nice to finish off the month, but his inkwell had run dry and he could not find a spare anywhere in his study; fortunately, he knew for a fact that there was one in his preferred sleeping quarters.

But upon entry, he found much more than an extra inkwell. "Oh. I'm sorry."

"Don't be; I had just finished dusting," the woman dismissed. She was simultaneously solid and spindly, with the beginnings of spinsterhood sags and a face that would be best described as comical, but there was something about her that was undeniably captivating. Perhaps it was the impossible blue of her eyes, or the shimmering hair that might have been spun of sunlight; most likely, however, it was her air of casualty, her assertive, unyielding stance. "I take it you're Lord Severin?"

He nodded, closing the door behind him and taking a few steps toward her. "And you are...?"

"My name is Marelle. I've been working here for a while now, but our paths haven't crossed; your son Searle hired me while you were indisposed."

"In that case, you should be flattered. My son has much stricter hiring standards than I do; I've been known to hand out jobs to every incompetent fool who asks for one, but Searle refuses to settle for second best." He watched as she turned away, stifling a giggle; she had a charming blush. "Have you been in Naroni long?"

"A few years," she answered, rolling her eyes as if the memory exhausted her. "I came along with one of the local merchants when he moved his family out here. I was his mistress for quite some time, but he traded me in for someone younger and prettier."

It was said with all the neutrality of one describing the weather. Severin blinked; he could not remember ever hearing a woman so bluntly admitting to an unconventional lifestyle before. "I'm sorry to hear that."

Marelle laughed, brushing the notion to the side with a flick of her slender wrist. "Water under the bridge, you know? I'm just surprised you didn't overlook my honesty and order me out of here on account of sins other than lying."

"What sins?" he demanded; he wondered if society would ever be over this wretched double-standard. "I see no ring on your finger, and I can't imagine this man's actions were against his own free will."

"Exactly." She took hold of a stray lock of hair and curled it between her fingers. "I'm sorry if I'm saying too much. You see, I'm a very open person, but most people seem to take offense to that; it's refreshing to talk to someone who seems to think otherwise."

"Between you and me, I believe that people could stand to be a little more open," he did his best to assure her. "The world would be a better place."

She nodded in agreement. "That it would. I can't imagine a single one of those judgmental pricks out there has nothing to hide."

"Indeed, the root of judgmentalism is insecurity." For whatever reason, his father's face flashed in front of his mind's eye.

Marelle leaned back and studied him, a grin swelling on her moist lips. "That may be the most startling piece of wisdom I've ever heard."

"For the sake of the next generation, I hope it won't remain so," he laughed. "You can't be very old; you have many years ahead of you, and if civilization is to progress at all, you'll surely hear many wiser musings than that one."

That rosiest of hues returned to her cheeks; she didn't seem like the blushing type, but her blood had a mind of its own. "In any case, the standard has been set pretty high."

"You flatter me. I assure you that I am nothing more than an outsider looking into a world not my own--bastard second son and all, you know."

She replied with a wink. "In that case, we are akin. The world wants nothing to do with filthy mistresses either."

He sent her what he hoped was a reassuring smile. "There are worse things one can be than a mistress."

"And in your opinion, my lord, what might those things be?"

Her question had caught him off-guard. Had the conversation gone differently, he might have given her many possible answers. Cowards. Lechers. People who fell unquestioning into predetermined patterns and did nothing to break free. The possibilities were endless, if not for one technicality. "Any answer I give is a judgment, is it not?" Any answer was a judgment. Any judgment was an insecurity. Any insecurity was a fear--or worse, an admission he did not care to make.

She didn't press the matter, but if she made the connection, she didn't let it phase her. She brushed past him as she made her way to his other side. "You know, my lord... I've spent my whole life running. I ran from my family after my uncle caught me in bed with my stepfather. I ran from my village after I took a mixture to free myself of his seed. I ran from Dovia when the neighbors were growing suspicious of my relationship with the man I followed here."

Glancing down at his wedding band, Severin sighed. "I don't imagine any of us ever stop running."

"Agreed." She took a seat on the edged of the bed and grinned. "Care to catch me?"


August 21, 2010

In Which Aldhein Takes a Side

June 8, 1168

"Oh, and you're never going to believe who I ran into at the silversmith's shop yesterday," Alsina chattered on, her rich red hair ignoring her previous flip and falling back in front of her shoulder. "Master Indruion!"

It was the same routine, one-sided conversation that occured every time Aldhein's wife saw her sister; so-and-so was in town, and by the way, he's available. Aldhein liked Nora, but Alsina's constant need to meddle in the other woman's love life made him almost wish she'd stop visiting. Yes, Alsina was young and giddy and wanted what was best for her sister, but it was so obvious that Nora didn't appreciate her meddling--how did she not see that?

That, and Aldhein would have been lying if he said he wasn't embarrassed on Alsina's behalf.

Just as he could have predicted, Nora's face scrunched into an uncomfortable mask of silent panic. She was far too clever to miss the motives behind her sister's wiles. "He's a good man. How is he doing? He lost his wife last February, remember?"

He lost his wife last February. The literal translation of that was He's nice and all, but I'm not interested. Alsina had been forced to grow up quickly. She still spoke girl; she'd never had time to learn the language of women.

Trying to think of some way to help both of them without being too blunt, Aldhein bounced his son in his arms. "I heard he's been frequenting the castle at Tetran lately--apparently some pretty young maid has caught his eye." It was a lie, but a glare from Alsina and a grateful nod from Nora told him that it had served its purposes.

"I heard that too," Nora played along. "The poor man's been through so much lately; I hope he can find some happiness."

Alsina's hands fell to her lap as she began to gape at her sister. "How did I not hear about this? Thetis was here just yesterday, and she always brings all the juiciest gossip from Tetran."

"It seems that poor Sparron's failed attempts to woo my sister are all anyone can talk about there," piped up Eilyssa, much to Aldhein's surprise. He couldn't be sure whether she had been reading the situation or had relayed honest information that just happened to be convenient as well; he would have to ask her later.

Nora nodded. "Exactly. I get the same news from Florian and Thetis; I learned about Master Indruion's girl from the baron himself the last time he met with Lord Severin."

A new light shone from Alsina's face; Aldhein's hold on Dalston tightened, much to the boy's annoyance. "Speaking of his lordship..." She trailed off, as if expecting her sister to fill in the blank.

It was clear from every aspect of her posture that Nora knew what Alsina wanted her to say. It was just as clear that she did not want to say it. "What about him?"

"Well, he's going to have to start looking one of these days himself, isn't he?"

Aldhein opened his mouth to interrupt, but Nora beat him to it--taking the very words he'd been thinking, at that. "I can't even begin to tell you how many problems there are with that idea."

Silence--Nora had said her piece, and Alsina had to rethink hers. Aldhein rubbed Dalston's back after the boy let out a small hiccup. "Son, moments like this are why women usually try to keep talking for as long as possible."

Alsina raised an eyebrow. "What did you say?"

With fortunate timing, the baby's stomach grumbled. "Alsina, I think Dalston's hungry."

Sighing, Alsina pulled herself out of her chair and crossed the room, allowing Aldhein to transfer the child into her arms. "You know, you wouldn't be so hungry all the time if you would just start eating real food already."

After several attempts at weaning Dalston, the boy was still refusing any form of nourishment other than his mother's breast. Alsina was quite tired of nursing and Aldhein didn't like seeing her so frustrated, but at least it gave her a reason to leave the room and give her sister a moment's peace.

He watched as she carried their son into the bedroom, then turned to his daughter. "Lyssie, why don't you go see if Xeta's home?"

Smiling, Eilyssa leapt from the couch, her face alight with delighted surprise. "You mean I can ride to the keep all by myself?"

"Of course you can," he told her. "You're a big girl now. Besides, it's only a few minutes away and there are no more homicidal humanoids running around unchecked; you'll be fine."

"Thank you, Father!" She kissed him on the cheek, then hurried out the door, leaving him alone with Nora.

Anxious to set things straight, Aldhein collapsed onto Eilyssa's now-vacant half of the couch and groaned. "Sorry about Alsina."

"Don't be," Nora assured him, though her voice sounded to be concealing a sigh. "She's happy, and she wants to see everyone else happy as well."

He shrugged. "You don't seem completely miserable."

"I'm not. For the most part, I'm fine." She tucked back a loose lock of hair and shook her head. "People just seem to think that every problem just disappears with a wedding."

"I know what you mean. If only I had a coin for every time someone tried to force a wife on me when Lyssie was younger, you know? And I imagine you've had to put up with worse, seeing as you're a woman."

Nora's brows arched, a knowing smile on her face. "Nobody knows how to mind their own business these days."

"Amen to that."

"I'm just glad someone understands." She clasped her hands together and closed her eyes. "Thank you."

He hadn't really done anything, but he grinned nonetheless; even if he was powerless, Nora deserved someone on her side. "I can talk to Alsina for you, if you want."

"She'll just find some other way to try to improve my life from her point of view," she insisted, rolling her eyes as she glanced toward the bedroom door. She sent him one last smile, then stood, stepping around the couch toward the door. "Anyway, I should probably leave; I can't risk Uncle Rifden teaching the twins any more new words."

Nodding, Aldhein followed her to the entrance and planted a parting kiss on her cheek. "Well, at least you have someone to watch the children, right?"

"Exactly," she agreed. "The kids are supervised and there's food on the table; what more do I need?"


August 16, 2010

In Which Leara Meets Lorn's Competition

May 3, 1168

Leara felt somewhat guilty about leaving her half-sister with only bookish young Xeta for a buffer--neither Ietrin nor Camaline cared for poor Eilyssa, though Leara didn't see how they could think the whole situation with their mother was her fault--but she wanted to see Lorn. He was the reason she'd come, after all, even if she did enjoy the company of the other girls.

But for whatever reason, he'd made himself scarce. It occured to her that he might have been avoiding her--she did think he'd known she was coming--but Lorn was not the sort who did that to his betrothed... was he? Leara didn't want to think about it. At any rate, she'd found him now. "Lorn?"

He turned around and pressed a finger to his lips. Leara frowned; sheepish, Lorn flashed an apologetic grin. "This little turkey's supposed to be napping."

"Your little brother?" Leara closed the door behind her and crossed the room to the crib. Little Searle was getting close to two months old now, but he'd been somewhat sickly and had yet to have many visitors; Leara herself hadn't seen him.

Lorn nodded. "Somehow, we got stuck with the only baby in the world who never sleeps."

"At least he's quiet." Leara's own little half-brother was two now, and it had taken nearly that long for his infanthood cries to stop ringing in her ears.

"Yes, but on the off-chance he falls asleep, he snores like a beast!" Lorn laughed as he reached into the crib and lifted the baby from its depths. "To think, for nine long and horrible months, my stepfather lived the horrific life of the falsely-accused."

Smiling, Leara tilted her head and watched the baby sneeze quietly; she wondered how old they had to be before that ceased being cute. "At least the baby's all better now, right?"

"Oh, he's fine," Lorn assured her. "He's actually getting to be too cheeky for his own good. Aren't you, Searle?"

The baby blinked. Lorn responded by sticking out his tongue. "I know you are, but what am I?" Searle's mouth fell agape; Lorn shook his head. "He's a lost cause, this one. Maybe you can talk some sense into him."

Wait... what? She'd never even been able to talk to her own baby siblings; how was she supposed to talk to somebody else's? How did anyone manage to talk to babies, ever? "Lorn--"

He'd raised the baby to her level before she could protest. Unsure of what else to do, Leara waved awkwardly. "Uh... hello, Searle."

As she could have expected, Searle only stared; Lorn, however, grimaced. "Sorry if he's at a loss for words. You're the first pretty girl he's seen who isn't his mother."

"I imagine he's seen Xeta and Rona," Leara corrected him, not sure whether or not to meet the baby's wide blue eyes.

"They're his sisters; they don't count."

"It won't be long before I'm his sister too."

Lorn fell quiet, raising his brother to his shoulder and patting him on the back. Perhaps her joke had been ill-placed. Maybe he didn't think they'd be married all that soon. Maybe he didn't want to think they'd be married all that soon. "Lorn..."

He silenced her with a surprising wink, then kissed the baby's cheek. "Hear that, Searle?" he whispered into the baby's tiny, shell-like ear. "You're not going to be my competition for very long! Lucky for me, don't you think?"

Searle balled his hand into a fist and tapped it against Lorn's shoulder. "He's disappointed. He wanted you all to himself."

Trying to ignore the blush warming her face, Leara grinned--at least, she hoped she'd managed a grin. "Sorry, Searle. I guess it just wasn't meant to be."