October 29, 2010

In Which Thetis Extends an Invitation

June 12, 1170

"So, are you two officially sweethearts now, or are you just practicing up for better people?" Alyssin's question was delivered without the barest hint of a joke; if they hadn't been in the presence of a guest, Thetis might have sunk deep into the couch cushions and tugged at her hair in frustration. Why oh why oh why hadn't she insisted that the girl accompany her father and brothers to the keep while Riala was visiting?

Struggling to keep her composure, Thetis managed to tone her reaction to a mere crook of the eyebrow in her daughter's direction. "Alyssin! Be nice!"

Alyssin's mouth twisted into an ess-like squiggle. "What? She's always over here, but they're never hanging off each other; it's a perfectly valid question!"

Thetis lifted her head to her forehead and sighed; on the other couch, Setran and Riala exchanged a worried glance. "Well, we haven't really talked about that yet," Riala answered after a few seconds' consideration, her pretty voice wavering and unsure.

Satisfied, Alyssin nodded. "Commitment issues?"

Setran slouched back and groaned--as if Thetis had needed that prompt to send the boy's sister a warning glare. "Do you want to go upstairs and relieve Goodwife Noth of the babysitting duties?"

She watched as that pair of blue-gray eyes rolled toward the back of Alyssin's skull. "No..."

"Then keep your mouth shut." She shared an exasperated look with Evera, who was tending to the fire, then locked eyes with Riala. "I'm sorry about all this, dear."

"Oh, it's quite all right," Riala assured her with a sickly-sweet smile. "I have a little sister of my own, after all."

Beside Thetis, Alyssin snorted. "The way your mother goes about, you should probably have more than the one."

That was it--that girl was not leaving the house for the rest of the week! "Alyssin!"

"What?" Her annoyance brimmed with such an understated exaggeration that only an eleven-year-old girl could possess. "It's true and you know it!"

She just wants the attention, Thetis told herself as she often did. If you ignore her, she'll stop.

And yet, Alyssin made it increasingly difficult to do so, especially now that her behavior had obliged Thetis to extend the invitation. "My apologies, Riala. If you'd like to stay for dinner, feel free to do so; I'm sure Goodwife Noth wouldn't mind cooking for one more person."

"Hell, she doesn't even have to cook one more person," insisted Alyssin with a shudder. "Riala can have mine!"

Riala acknowledged her with a passive wave of the hand, then turned back to Thetis. "Thank you for the offer, but I believe I'll just go home for supper; we have a good cook at home."

Thetis ignored that comment--Alyssin, however, did not. "I'm guessing she's not your mother."

She didn't know if she could take any more of this. "Go upstairs."

Oh, how many times must she see those eyes widen in protest? "But I don't want to give the twins my cold!"

"You don't have a cold!"

"It's a stealth cold!"

Thetis tossed back her head and bit her lip; her daughter certainly didn't get that from her side. "Why can't you be more like your sister? She's been nice and quiet this entire time."

Skeptical, Alyssin glanced toward Evera and frowned. "I bet she's not being quiet in her head."

That had been an odd thing to say. Thetis leaned over and strained for a hint of her eldest's face--indeed, she did look rather pensive. "Evera, are you all right?"

"Well... maybe just a little flushed," Evera admitted, placing the poker to the side and stepping back from the fire. "Might I go lie down for a minute?"

Thetis nodded, then watched as her eldest disappeared up the stairs. Now only Alyssin and Riala remained out of the girls; if her stepson left before either of them, Thetis did not think she would be able to bear it.

"Are you sure you'd rather not stay?" she offered once again, though politeness had grown rather difficult over the course of this visit. "It is a long ride."

"Plus Hamrick and Dragon will probably give you their dinners as well," Alyssin added with confident glee.

"Thank you, but no." Riala flashed an obligatory smile, then pulled herself to her feet, Setran following suit. "In fact, I should probably be going now. Thank you for your hospitality, Mistress Tumekrin."

"Any time," Thetis replied, though she wasn't sure she meant it. "Give your regards to your father for me."

"I shall."

Setran laced his arm around Riala's waist and ushered her to the door. "I'm glad you could come," he told her, taking her in his arms for a quick parting hug.

"My pleasure." Riala pursed her lips as if expecting a kiss, but Setran merely patted her on the shoulder and opened the door for her. His gaze followed her off for a silent couple of minutes; then, without saying a word to either his stepmother or his sister, he slammed the door shut and trudged up the stairs.


October 27, 2010

In Which Severin Orders His Concerns

May 4, 1170

It had been quite some time since Severin had last entered the nursery off the corner of the master bedroom. Over three years now--the last time he recalled being in this room, Alina had been with him.

And yet, it looked much the same as it always had. The same cribs--Raia's which had passed to Lonriad, Jadin's which had passed to Riona, Searle's which had passed to Vera, and a fourth that had only ever held Viridis--still stood, though the better part of a decade had gone by since any of them had been used. The old toy ark still sat on the fur rug, its accompanying figures in the same positions the children had last left them. If Severin focused long and hard enough, he could almost see them playing in front of him, hear them laughing and crying and fighting. So many memories...

The most recent was of Alina, mere weeks before he'd lost her. She'd stood over the cribs and pressed her fingers against the tiny mattresses, flitting back and forth between them to determine which was the most perfect for her baby's back--just soft enough, just firm enough. She'd then placed her hand to her still-flat middle and sighed with a contentment he would have never dreamed of shattering back then. Oh, what he might have told her if he'd known then what he knew now!

No. It would not have helped; he'd doomed her the second he'd knocked her up.

He wondered where she was now, and what she was doing. Who was she with? Was he taking care of her? With an anxious dread, he doubted it; he did not think he could trust the Lord God Himself with the protection of his princess. He certainly hadn't pulled through the last time.

"I'm surprised to find you here."

Shoving his melancholy to the back of his mind, Severin sat upright and smiled as Nora stepped into the nursery. "I believe I'm growing a bit nostalgic in my old age."

Nora smirked. "Old age? You won't even be forty for another two years."

"Two and a half, thank you very much."

"Two and five twelfths, more like." She stuck out her tongue, a mischievous sparkle in her aquamarine eyes. "Don't distort the facts by rounding."

Severin laughed. "Damn you."

He hoisted himself to his feet and greeted her with a quick but firm peck on the lips. "You were looking for me?"

She nodded, her smile falling as her head rose. After the initial joking exchange, she seemed to have grown uncomfortable; he hoped it was nothing too serious. "I have to tell you something."

"Oh?" He tucked a strand of her artfully disheveled hair behind her ear and proceeded to stroke the side of her face with the back of his hand. "Good news?"

Nora's frown deepened. "You won't think so."

"Try me."

She drummed her fingers across his wrist and considered. She had a habit of biting her lip when she was deep in thought, which he privately found adorable; she probably would have been embarrassed if he told her that, though. "Nora..."

Her small hand wrapped itself around his arm and lowered it to his side. She met his eyes and exhaled. "I'm pregnant."

Though scarcely more than mouthed, those two words coiled themselves into a thick rope and constricted his heart, choking from it such a burst of blood that he could only step back and stare at her. No. No, this couldn't be right. He thought he'd been careful; he'd promised himself that he wouldn't let his instincts get the best of him. What if this was just like the last time? What if he killed her--what if he'd sentenced her to death already?

He had barely managed to survive the first time, and had still not recovered. He doubted he ever would. He also doubted he could stand to go through that hell again. "Oh, God."

In front of him, Nora's gaze fell to the floor. "I'm sorry."

Severin shook his head; an apology was the last thing he cared to hear from her pretty mouth. "Don't be. I was there too."

She nodded, but she didn't look reassured. Poor darling. She had far more cause to be afraid than he did. "I shouldn't have told you."

Well, this wouldn't do. Troubled as he was by this revelation, he couldn't have her drowning in baseless guilt for months to come; he stepped forward and masked himself with the widest grimace he could manage.

"Well, it isn't as if you could have hid it from me forever," he assured her. "You had to tell me--besides, I'm happy with this if you are." Nothing in her face betrayed her as convinced; he'd have to keep trying. "Are you happy?"

Nora shrugged. "I guess. Are you sure, though?"

"I'm sure." It was a lie and she probably knew it, but it was the best he could offer just then.

"All right, then." She lifted her lips into a ghost of a grin, as if attempting a joke. "Do you think we have space for a twelfth kid?"

He leaned toward her and kissed her lightly on the cheek. "We'll make some."

She let her forehead fall to his shoulder and sighed. He figured she realized that space was the least of his concerns.


October 26, 2010

In Which Valira Breaks the Silence

April 29, 1170

Holladrin watched the door with a grimace. It had been a few minutes since Nora had dashed out, and surely she would be returning soon--not soon enough, however, for the inevitable speculation. "That's the second time in half an hour."

Smiling, Valira rolled her eyes. She couldn't say that Nora's behavior had surprised her; when one was married to Lord Severin, it was never all that long before one had something to show for it. "You should have seen her on the ride over. She kept stopping to puke in the bushes, and then whenever I suggested that we just turn around and go home, she'd gallop off. Either she really wanted to see you, or she's in denial."

"Or perhaps both," Holladrin mused with a wink.

Valira laughed. "Can't argue with you there, Aunt Holladrin. Still, I hope she's all right."

"Oh." A thoughtful sort of seriousness glazed over the baroness's face. "Yes, given how Lady Alina died..." She trailed off; neither of them wanted to think about that. The memory of that day was still only too clear--the crash of the sudden fall, all the blood, everything. Valira had not even been in the room and she could still recall and picture every detail.

No--neither of them wanted to think about that.

Fidgeting in her seat, Valira made up her mind to look toward a more positive outcome--the most likely outcome. After all, Nora had already birthed two single babies and set of twins. Lady Alina had birthed seven before that fatal day, Holladrin had birthed three, and Valira herself had had one with no complications. If every pregnancy merited a fatality, the only women alive past their late teens or early twenties would have been nuns. "I bet it's a boy."

Holladrin smirked--she must have been giving herself a similar lecture. "I'll take that bet."

"What bet?"

Nora had returned. "Sorry. What did I miss?" She collapsed onto the empty seat next to Valira and grinned weakly, though she did still look a little green.

"Just us making a wager about the sex of your unborn child, dear," Holladrin informed her with an impish grin. "I think it'll be a girl."

Valira shook her head. "I'm telling you, it's going to be a boy."

"My unborn child?" Her mouth obscured as she gnawed the inside of her cheek, Nora sent Valira a quizzical glance. "I don't recall mentioning anything of the sort."

"You didn't have to." Valira tugged at her sleeve and reclined backward. "The nausea did the talking for you."

Nora's lip quivered in desperate protest. "Perhaps I'm simply ill."

"Riddle me this, then," pried Holladrin from the other couch, running a hand over her own seven months' worth of swell. "How long has it been since your last course?"

Resigned, she glanced down at her lap and began to spin her wedding ring about her finger. "A while..."

"Ah yes--a while." Holladrin sighed. "Do you think Severin knows?"

Nora shrugged. "I doubt it; I imagine he has more important concerns than my laundry."

"Men can be rather unobservant," mused Valira, shaking her head as she recalled all those none-too-subtle hints that Searle had so thoroughly failed to notice. "When do you plan on telling him?"

"I don't know." She sighed, the wedding band still twirling about. "He won't be happy about this. He already has seven children, and add my four... and then with what happened to Lady Alina..." She didn't finish. She didn't have to.

The silence was brief, but overwhelming; it would have been against every urge in Valira's nature not to break it. "It's so easy for them to forget to pull out."

"On the off-chance that even works," Holladrin laughed in reply. "There's only one way to prevent the occasional accident from happening, you know--abstinence."

Valira stuck out her tongue at her aunt-by-marriage. "As if you've ever tried that."

Holladrin giggled again, and even Nora snickered. A smile curled on Valira's lips as she played with a lock of her hair; the room's gravity had not been fully vanquished, but at least they had this moment of relief. Predictably, however, it didn't last long.

"When do you think I should tell him?"

Valira sighed. She was younger than Nora, but still plenty old enough to know that such harsh questions typically merited answers of equal or greater difficulty. "Ideally, never; realistically, soon."


October 24, 2010

In Which Aydelle Is Robbed of a Reply

March 8, 1170

Aydelle drew her exposed legs into the protective shell of her graying nightgown, too tired to cope with the coarse, scratchy texture of the blanket beneath her. She'd once had such soft skin, but she doubted that was the case anymore. She hadn't felt any degree above disgusting since she'd married Eblor and gone to live in this dismal hellhole. To think, she'd only picked him because she'd figured that a steward would be able to provide her with a half-decent home; turned out that the man had a serious gambling problem and couldn't afford any niceties other than simple day-clothes.

This whole marriage had been a mistake. She'd gotten two daughters out of the man, but as much as she loved them both, she missed her freedom. She missed not having to get up in the middle of the night to tend to crying babies while the lazy git beside her pretended to sleep. She missed inhabiting a body free of stretch marks and excess flab gained from two pregnancies. Most of all, she missed having sex with other people. Eblor, on the off-chance he could get it up and she could actually stomach the thought of him long enough to let him touch her, was clumsy and careless; she missed sleeping with men who knew how to please a woman, or women who knew how to please a woman. She supposed her only fortune was an ample supply of memories on which to rely while enduring those agonizing sessions.

She frowned as the rank scent of cheap wine wafted into her nostrils. What a disgusting pigsty in which she dwelt! It was bad enough that she herself had to live here; she didn't want her girls growing up in a dump like this.

Someone knocked on the door. Aydelle rolled her eyes--if it wasn't the whining babies or her awful husband, it was the nagging, useless excuse for a housekeeper. "What do you want, Nell?"

"Who's Nell?" came a refreshingly familiar voice from the other side of the door; it seemed that she did remember how to smile. "That fat housekeeper downstairs?"

"Ah, Cammie!" She pressed her hands to the pathetic excuse for a mattress and pushed herself upright. "You can come in if you like, but be warned that this room is just as much of a mess as the rest of the house."

The young princess stepped inside, all silky skin and fur-lined purple cloth and gossamer veils. She was the only trace of color in the barren room of brown and gray; Aydelle had grown unused to such vibrancy. "Aren't you a sight for sore eyes?"

Camaline giggled--it was a sound Aydelle normally found annoying, but somehow, the girl made it seem cute. "It's not that bad."

"Yes, it is." Aydelle pulled herself to her feet and sighed. "You might want to put your cloak and hat in that chest over there, since it's bound to pick up grime anywhere else. I'll put on a fire."

Nodding, Camaline stepped toward the trunk while Aydelle hurried to the hearth and lit it with the old flint. She glanced over her shoulder at the younger girl, who had removed her crispinette and diadem, her pale hair falling as usual over her left shoulder. She took off her cloak and folded it with care, placing it atop Aydelle's own assorted garments and shutting the chest before scurrying to the short stool by the foot of the bed.

"Thank you--it's rather chilly out there today."

"I'd imagine." She leaned forward, resting her head on the mantel; only minutes prior, she might not have cared if she'd fallen into the flames. "Thanks for visiting, Cammie; it does get lonely out here."

Camaline sighed. "I wish you would move back to the castle."

"I would if I could," Aydelle admitted, watching as the fire wreaked havoc upon the lifeless logs. "I doubt your father would care to have my babies around, though--besides, it isn't as if I wouldn't have to see any less of my husband."

She turned around and faced the younger girl, who frowned. "I thought you wanted to be married to him."

"So did I, at one point." She shook her head, then locked eyes with Camaline; that piercing violet always made her own brown eyes seem so bland. "Never get married, Cammie--you'll hate it."

Camaline shrugged. "Well, my father says I have to marry Sparron."

"Then you should run away before the ceremony." She waved her hand in front of her face; she had half a mind to tear off her wedding band and hurl it into the fire. "All you'll get for your troubles are a hoard of snivelling brats to keep you on your feet all day and a snoring man to keep you up all night."

Frowning, the princess clasped her fingers together and stretched her arms in front of her. "I suppose it's some time away, in any case; I haven't even started my courses yet."

Aydelle laughed. "Believe me, you're not missing anything."

"That's what my sister said--but she did say I'll probably have to fake it if it doesn't start before I'm fourteen." She twirled a lock of silky blond hair around her finger as she stood. "I don't think I will, though; it might buy me some more time before I have to marry Sparron."


Camaline grinned, partly thoughtful and partly resigned. "I suppose. Still, I imagine I'll be tired of living with my parents soon; they never let me do anything, whereas Sparron's would let him get away with murder if he had the balls to try."

Aydelle sighed. The poor girl really had no idea what was in store for her, regardless of who she married, regardless of how permissive her in-laws were. "I still think you'd be better off running away."

"Oh, I don't know," Camaline mused, swaying back and forth as she considered the idea. "It might get a little lonely, though--unless maybe you came along too?"

She opened her mouth with the intention of replying; before she could, however, a crying baby from the next room took the initiative to answer on her behalf.


October 23, 2010

In Which Setran Corrects and Is Corrected

February 11, 1170

"I told you we should have stayed in Tetran!" Setran hissed as he ushered his stepsister into the inn. It was getting chilly, and he figured it would only be common sense to warm up for a couple of minutes before embarking on the long ride home; of course, the weather was the least of their problems.

Evera rolled her eyes, what remained of their teal hue only intensified in the segmented state. "There are boys back home too, you know."

"None so forward! I knew we should have just gone to the village by the keep and waited for Father, by you wanted to go off to Veldora, where Fenrick and Jadin and Searle and their little group of followers might ogle you!"

"I didn't come here to be ogled!" she snarled back, an unpleasant scowl on her usually docile face. "I just wanted a change of pace for once--and who cares if the boys were looking at me? Boys do look at girls, in case you haven't noticed! They didn't mean any harm!"

Setran shook his head. It was true that she spent most of her time at home helping her mother with the children, but he hadn't expected her knowledge of the world to be this lacking. "Evera, they're boys! All they think about is sex!"

"Oh, so that's what you were thinking about when you were checking out Riala and Aerina in Laveria's shop, then?"

Damn. He'd hoped that that had gone unnoticed--he did have some defense, though. "That's different."

Evera sniffed--a very un-Evera-like thing to do. "Oh? How so? Just because it's you and not Fenrick or Jadin or Searle?"

"No!" Why did he have to explain this to her? "They were waving and calling me and batting their lashes! You were just minding your own business!"

"Then if I wasn't doing anything wrong, why are you yelling at me?" She drove her foot into the floorboards as she aimed her glare toward the ceiling.

"You did nothing wrong? You're the one who insisted we come here!" Setran crossed his arms and bit his lip so firmly that he could taste blood. "If you hadn't dragged me down here, then there would have been no ogling and you wouldn't have torn your cloak on that gate and we'd probably be home by now, perfectly happy--and I am not yelling at you!"

"You tell yourself that, kid." Startled, he glanced toward the bar to see the male speaker emerge from the door to the kitchens, a woman at his heels.

The man--presumably the innkeeper--closed his eyes and sighed. "I hate afternoons; the only customers we ever get at this hour are screaming kids."

The woman shrugged, stepping past him and toward Setran and Evera. She wasn't jaw-droppingly beautiful, but there was a certain spark to her that Setran had not failed to notice. "We still generate profit in the afternoons, darling."

"Yes, but is it worth it?" Her husband rubbed his neck, then followed her. "I am a businessman--I didn't come to Naroni to be the daytime nanny for a whole shire. Now, what do you kids want?"

Setran glowered at him; if he took notice, he didn't show it. His wife, however, was observant enough to catch the tear in Evera's cloak even in the dim light. "The new gate, I take it?" Evera nodded; smiling slightly, the woman shook her head. "You're certainly not the first. I can stitch that up for you, if you like."

"Oh, I don't want to be any trouble," Evera insisted. After that fight, it was nice to hear her speaking to someone else--someone she wasn't furious with.

"Nonsense! It'll only take a minute." The woman turned on her heel and headed back toward the kitchen, gesturing for Evera to follow. "Come along--my sewing basket is in the back."

Resigned, Evera shot Setran one last look of poison, then hurried off after the woman. "Thank you; that's very kind of you."

Setran watched as the pair made their way into the back, the door swinging shut behind Evera. She would probably be angry with him for the rest of the day. He wanted to apologize, but why should he? And for what? He'd been right, after all.

"Look, if you aren't going to order anything, you might as well wait for your little sweetheart outside."

Annoyed, Setran took to surveying the innkeeper. Was this the infamous Seoth? If so, he was beginning to see why his father disliked him. "She's not my sweetheart," he corrected him bitterly. "She's just my stepsister."

The innkeeper wiped his brow, then stared down his nose at Setran; he was by no means a tall man, but he still had the advantage of being full-grown. "Son, I've been around for a while now, so believe me when I say this--no boy alive gets so worked up about a girl who's 'just his stepsister'. Now, either buy a drink or get the hell out of my inn."