December 30, 2010

In Which Raia Proposes a Test

April 5, 1171

Raia watched as a couple of tiny snowflakes hit the surface of the window and melted on impact. Snow was unusual in Naroni, especially past February or so, and she had always been rather fond of the unique beauty of each flake, even though in such a climate they rarely survived the fall to the ground. Or perhaps that was partly why.

Not that there was much sense worrying over snowflakes. They melted and were reabsorbed by the air, falling again somewhere in some form over and over again--just as they had before she had ever been, just as they would long after she ceased to be. She would be best served directing her attention elsewhere.

"Raia?" She turned around to see Falidor return to the room, all nervous gait and goofy smiles as always. "Are you getting hungry? I made you some breakfast."

"You didn't have to do that." Silly man. He should have known by now that she was not the sort who needed to be pampered--not that she minded it, but it wasn't as if she insisted on it. Hell, from what she knew of love--from what she could learn from her sister's secret archive of their mother's diaries--she could tell that petty demands had no part in it. It was compromise. It was cooperation and it was equality. No ridiculous expectations or screaming orders such as those an ill-tempered master gave to a difficult servant; that was not love. That was not even like.

It was a little troublesome, really, just how much of her time was spent thinking about love these days. She hoped she hadn't left her brain at the door.

"I know I didn't have to." He took her by the hand and smiled, the light in his eyes putting the dancing snowflakes to shame. "I wanted to; it's a gesture."

A gesture. She could live with that--a man who made gestures. She wondered how many gestures he might have made to Ailede in some vain attempt to win her love. Several, probably--all scorned and none returned. Raia resolved to surprise him with a gesture of her own some time soon; meanwhile, the least she could do was appreciate this one. "Well, thank you; I'm a little hungry, I suppose."

Falidor smirked. "All right, but I should warn you that I'm a terrible cook."

"Well, that's certainly inconvenient, because I've never had to boil water in my life!" It was the truth; her family had always had a cook in the kitchen, and she'd never been the sort of girl who figured food preparation might have been fun, so she'd never tried and really had no desire to start now. "Maybe you could hire a housekeeper? If it's a matter of money, I could ask my father--"

"Oh, it's not that I can't afford one," he insisted--as if he thought she cared about money! "I can't hire a housekeeper just yet, missy, because you are always spending the night and word would spread like wildfire if someone else was around while you were."

"Well, if you'd like a good meal once in a while, we could find somewhere else to meet."

Falidor shook his head. "No thanks--who needs a good meal when they have you?"

A little weak around the knees, she stood on her toes and kissed him; she thought she tasted honey on his lips. "I just wish I could just live here openly; I don't really care if people start calling me a home-wrecking slut, you know. I'd rather be a home-wrecking slut than a woman who's forcing you to live off your own cooking."

"I'm not sure your father would agree."

Again with her father? She had to laugh. "Falidor, have you not met my father?"

He shrugged. "You'd be surprised what sort of hypocrites men can be when it comes to their own daughters."

"Well, just give him a little test." She pouted as she batted her lashes; she knew she was too lanky and boyish to be truly pretty, but when one spent early adolescence wanting to sneak past guards and weasel her way out of trouble, one learned how to use her only startling features to their full advantage. "My father always says that you should make your own decisions, because people who care don't matter and people who matter don't care. Perhaps you ought to see if he cares or matters."

Sighing, Falidor leaned back and pushed his hand through his hair; she was relieved to see that his hairline showed no hint of recession. "Raia, he's your father--and our lord, at that. Of course he matters."

"Then he won't care."

He didn't look convinced--poor, silly man. Raia inclined her head, resorting to the full effect of her eyes once more. "Falidor, I've told you a hundred times that I'll marry you in January whether my father likes it or not; we might as well ask if we can have a bit of a head-start, or at least give him time to get used to the idea."

A fond-yet-exasperated grin on his face, Falidor's eyes flickered to the ceiling. "I don't know..."

"He could help us, you know."

"Yes, but I can't imagine he would." He took a lock of her hair in his hand and and wove it through his fingers. "But since I can see that you're in a brave mood, we might as well stop postponing the inevitable and go down for breakfast already; I can assure you that my cooking requires almost as much courage as talking to your father."


December 28, 2010

In Which Camaline Consents to the Worst Idea

April 2, 1171

Camaline had been pacing about her room for so long now that it was a small miracle the floor still held. Her maid had gone out for her oh-so-mysterious herbal mixture some hours prior, but Camaline didn't think she could breath easy again until she returned; it had been a few days already, and her nosy stepmother was likely growing suspicious.

Just her luck--that stupid slut couldn't keep her legs shut and she would be the one in trouble for it. It just wasn't fair!

"Camaline?" And so it began; at the sound of her sister's voice from the corridor, Camaline wiped her sweating palm against her skirt. "Camaline, Laralita said she wanted a word."

Damn that useless servant! "Is Issa back yet?"

Silent, Leara stepped into the room. The glint in her eye was ample evidence that she knew exactly what Camaline was talking about. "So you're still doing that, then?"

"Well, it's not as if I have a choice; Laralita was insufferable enough when I hadn't started by this time last year, remember?"

Her sister nodded, her neutral mouth pressing into a downward curve; defeated, Camaline approached her and sighed. "Stupid Issa's late again--third time in the past six months, too. Someone needs to get that girl a chastity belt."

Considering, Leara turned to the side and stared at the unsoiled, spotless bedding. She grabbed the end of her braid and began to twirl it between her fingers. "You know, maybe it would be easier to just come clean to Father and Laralita and just wait for it to happen."

Camaline sniffed; had this not been such a grave matter, such a stupid comment might have been amusing. "You know I can't do that. They'll think there's something wrong with me."

"Oh, they will not!" Leara insisted, though something in her manner betrayed that she was not quite convinced. "Some girls just don't get it until later--Aunt Holladrin said she didn't start until she was nearly seventeen, remember?"

"Yes, but Aunt Holladrin spent half her youth confined to bed; women won't get their courses if they're ill enough." Her fist clenched, she bit her lip and glanced to the floor. Leara just didn't understand--and having been so regular from such a young age, she never would. "I've never been ill a day in my life."

Leara's frown deepened. Perhaps some part of Camaline might have felt bad for her had she not been so thoroughly preoccupied; it must have been frustrating, being so intent on reassuring someone who had lost all hope. "Not that either of us can remember, perhaps, but you probably have--and besides, that can't be the only reason."

As if thoughtless, irrational Laralita would consider that. Not even trying to appear optimistic, Camaline hung her head, her teeth grinding the inner lining of her cheek. The rusty taste of blood filled her mouth--why oh why oh why wasn't there blood elsewhere as well? "Let's face it; if I come clean, then make it to fifteen without a single red spot on any of my gowns, they're going to shut me up in a nunnery and leave me there to rot. God, I wish I lived with Aunt Holladrin--she'd never do that to me."

"Cama--oh!" Leara's eyes widened, the curve of her lips suddenly the inverse of its former self. "Camaline! That's it! The sooner you marry Sparron, the sooner you can live with Aunt Holladrin instead of Laralita and just let nature take its course!"

Camaline felt her eyebrow bend to a steep arch; there were so many problems with that idea that she didn't even know where to start. "You have got to be kidding me."

"But I'm serious!" And she did look it. God! Ever since the date of her and Lorn's wedding had been announced, Leara's brain had been steadily melting into a useless pile of mush; it must have been nearly gone now. "If we ask Father and Laralita if we can have a double wedding, they'll be so excited that they'll never notice if you get to be forty and still haven't started your courses. Then, after September, you'll be safe in Tetran with Aunt Holladrin, who knows perfectly well that not everyone starts at the same time and you won't have to pass off your maid's pads as your own anymore."

Unbelievable. Camaline sniffed; she wasn't even sure she was actually hearing this, it made so little sense! "Yes, and I'm sure the baron would be thrilled to have a daughter-in-law who could very well be incapable of giving him a grandson."

"Oh, Aunt Holladrin will talk some sense into him if he has any problem with it," Leara dismissed, the infernal grin on her face unfading; really, Camaline almost preferred the frown. "Come on--I know you don't like Sparron all that much, but you have to marry him eventually anyway, so you might as well just get it over with. Besides, living with him must at least be better than living with Laralita."

"Well, that would be a given."

"So you agree then?" God, that face was painful--how could she say 'no' to such wide eyes? "When should we ask?"

Camaline shrugged. "I'm not asking. I still think this is the worst idea you've ever had--but you may ask if you like."

Her interest at what was surely peak level, Leara cocked her head to the side. "And if all parties involved agree?"

"Then I shall as well." It was remarkable how a little blood--or a lack of therefore--could cause so much trouble. It must have been so damn easy to be a man. "Like you said, I'll have to marry Sparron at some point anyway."

"Exactly." Leara stepped forward and pulled her into a tight hug; somehow, Camaline resisted the urge to squirm. "Just you wait, sister. This will be so much better for everyone--I promise."


December 27, 2010

In Which Nora Sees a Man Head over Heels

March 15, 1171

"All smiles, as usual," Nora noted with a grin as Falidor bounced Roddie up and down. "He's always so happy to see his Uncle Falidor."

Falidor tugged at the corners of his mouth in what he might have judged to be a satisfactory reply, but his gaze did not shift from the baby's eyes. "He's got his sister's eyes."

Nora raised an eyebrow. She wasn't sure whether he meant Raia or Viridis, but it seemed like an odd thing to say in either case. "They've got their father's eyes."

Her brother's face grew grim, as though he was about to be ill--not that this surprised her much. He'd been wearing that look quite often lately. "You don't say."

"Look, if you're going to be sick, I'd appreciate it if it wasn't all over my baby." She held out her arms and gestured for him to hand over Roddie; flushing, Falidor obeyed. "Maybe take a seat now--I think it's time for somebody's nap."

Nora crossed the room and lowered Roddie into his crib as Falidor set himself down on the couch. As his little eyelids began to droop, she leaned in and kissed the baby's forehead, then stepped back and joined her brother. "You said you wanted to talk to me about something?"

"Yes." He clasped his hands together and sighed, a wave of some unnamed emotion spreading outward to the tips of his fingers and the soles of his feet. "I'm in love."

Well, that certainly explained why he'd been so green around the gills recently! Nora clapped her hand against her thigh and laughed. "It's about damn time!"

"Yes... I suppose." He sunk back into his seat and sighed, looking far less like a man in love than a fading half-corpse. Of course, she supposed, it wasn't as if he didn't have reason to be feeling down; he would still be legally married to Ailede for over nine months, and love did have a tendency to slow the flow of time.

"So, who is she?" It seemed like a harmless enough question--perhaps even one he'd be eager to answer. Instead, however, his features fell even further.

"Uh... I don't want to say."

Nora frowned. "Oh? Why not?"

"She's a bit... inconvenient." He took hold of a lock his hand and held in front of his face, examining it. Nora rolled her eyes; after finding one gray hair a few weeks prior, he'd been just as paranoid about them as any forty-year-old woman.

"Falidor, love is inconvenient." She gave his hand a quick squeeze, then shot him a quick grin; he returned it half-heartedly. "And that's the beauty of it, really. Would you want it to be easy? How can you know how much it means to you if you don't have to work and wait for it?"

"It's not ease or lack of therefore that concerns me." Falidor slumped forward, his arms folding and resting deftly across his knees. "I'm sure she feels at least something for me, but she's quite young and could doubtlessly do better. I really don't know if she'll still be interested by the time I'm free to marry her, and I don't want to trap her in either case."

"I see." She glanced down at her own ring--Severin's, as Jothein's was now housed alongside Lady Alina's in a small shrine at the back of the wardrobe--and smiled to herself. Love always seemed to strike at the worst of times.

Also, the best of times.

"Well, I guess all you can do at this point is wait until January and see how things stand between you and this mysterious lady love of yours then." It was a truth that he already knew, but nonetheless it was all she could say.

At the very least, he smirked--the first true smile she'd seen from him in a while. "Way to tell me what I already know, sis."

Nora shrugged. "If you wanted my opinion, then I was obligated to say at least something, was I not?"

"If my lady feels disinclined, she may ignore this servant's humble requests."

Dear Lord! Before she'd married him, she'd never understood why Severin didn't care for the formal addresses, but now she found them tiresome as well--and her brother knew it. "Damn you."

"Damn yourself." Nora rolled her eyes; Falidor laughed. "My God, you really are spending too much time with that man."

"Why shouldn't I? He makes me feel good about myself." She leaned back on the armrest and glanced toward the baby's crib, smiling to herself. "Doesn't this girl of yours do that for you?"

Falidor snorted. "On the contrary, she makes me feel like an idiot."

Intrigued, Nora straightened her posture and looked her brother over once again; suddenly, he did look like a man head over heels. "Well, if I know anything about men, then you must be very much in love indeed."


December 24, 2010

In Which Sparron Is Defeated

March 14, 1171

If Sparron could have found the will to lick his fingers and reach across to the end-table, he might have doused the candles. He might have curled up under the covers of Eilyssa's old bed and held the pillow above his head; it was easy to forget one's existence in the dark.

He'd been dreading Lorn and Leara's betrothal feast since the wedding date had been announced because he knew that every noble in the kingdom would be attending; in one evening, his months-long struggle to avoid Searle would be rendered pointless. He'd considered faking sick, but with his stepmother's recent bout of illness, he'd felt it would be cruel to worry his family. Instead, having learned from Jadin that he and Searle were planning on taking their little brother to the brothel that afternoon and would be late to the party as a result, Sparron had asked his father if they might head over to Armion Keep earlier--if nothing else, he figured he could at least brace himself for the imminent reunion.

When they'd first arrived, he'd endured a conversation with Lorn's sister Rona. She was young, pretty, and pleasant enough--but that was it. After she'd whisked Leara away to inquire about the wedding dress, he proceeded to Xeta. Likewise, he enjoyed her company as well, but that elusive spark never reared its head; he supposed that was just as well, seeing as she was Jadin's girl, but still.

He'd cycled through all the appropriately-aged girls before finally seeming to make some progress with Searle's little sister Riona, much to his own great relief. So what if she wasn't quite eleven and rather immature? So what if she still had her boyish hips and her bony limbs and scarcely any cleavage to speak of? So what if she resembled her brother somewhat in the face? She was still a girl.

But then Searle and his brothers had shown up. Jadin, shameless as ever, had went straight for his sweetheart, as if he hadn't just spent the past couple hours in the company of some cheap whores; Lonriad, a dizzy jig in his step and a goofy grin on his face, seemed to have reorganized his universe so that Sparron's stepmother in her revealing gown was the source of all gravity. Searle, however... all Searle had done was shoot one look Sparron's way, and that was it. The colors of the room swirled and the shapes blurred. Riona became some sort of shallow imitation, an assortment of Searle-like pieces lacking the essence of the original. Sparron himself was reduced to an unstable mass of a thousand emotions, afraid that the slightest disturbance would push him past his breaking point--and he did not want to know what might happen after that.

He'd turned away and hurried off to find his father, who'd been talking with Sir Ovrean about some upcoming tournament. Not sure what else he could do, he complained of a headache; the duchess overheard and told him he could rest in Eilyssa's old room if he wanted some space. He'd thanked her, then hurried off, hoping that no one else had seen him leave. He didn't want to be followed. He didn't want to see anyone. He didn't want anyone to see him.

But just as his luck would have it, the creaking of the door-hinges indicated otherwise. "Are you all right?"

Oh, God damn it! It was Searle, all blond hair and blue silk and heart-stopping smiles. He was the last person Sparron wanted to see--and yet, also the only person he wanted to see. "Your father said you were up here. He seemed worried; are you ill?"

Sparron swallowed. Words may have very well been beyond him at that point, but he had to say something. "Do you mind? I just want to be alone right now."

"But you've been alone for months now!" Searle kicked the door shut and locked it before turning back to Sparron and pouting. How the hell could he have been expected to refuse that? The boy looked like a sad puppy. "Look, I know you've been avoiding me, and that's your decision, but you must realize that everyone's concerned for you. I heard Holladrin talking to Nora about you a few weeks ago, and your father asked if you'd told me anything unusual, and even Jadin said you didn't seem like yourself anymore--Jadin! The most clueless ass who ever walked the earth!"

Rigid, Searle stood in wait; this was a battle he was unwilling to surrender. Sparron sighed and heaved himself off of the bed. "Just get lost, all right? Leave me alone."

The other boy didn't budge. "No."

"I don't want to see you."

"And you never will." Searle crossed the floor and cemented himself only a few feet away; he was within arms reach, more than close enough to touch. "But you have to--if not now, then at some point. Might as well just get it over with; we need to talk."

No--no, they didn't. Uneasy, Sparron looked away. "There's nothing to talk about."

Annoyed, Searle took Sparron's chin in hand and turned back his head so that they were face-to-face once more; Sparron's face flushed where he'd touched him. "Don't be an idiot. Yes, something happened and it was a bit... unexpected, perhaps, but that doesn't make it wrong; I hope you haven't been beating yourself up over that."

Did it, though? A couple of weeks after the incident, Sparron had paid his Uncle Septimus a visit by means of the chapel confessional. He'd first tried to avert suspicion by displacing the situation: Father, I saw two servants expressing their love--only, they were both women. Is that wrong? In response, the priest had given a devilish chuckle: Not if I'd been there to see it, it isn't!

That hadn't been helpful, so he'd had to take the next step: Would it have been the same with two men, then?

That... that had turned out somewhat differently. His uncle's laughter had ceased, a grave silence taking its place. Now that, my boy... that would be very wrong indeed.

Sparron knew his uncle wasn't a prime example of priesthood, but it wasn't as if Father Septimus was unfamiliar with the scriptures; he just felt free to ignore all those with which he disagreed. Sparron himself, on the other hand, was not so bold. "Just go, Searle; everyone down there must be missing you."

"They don't need me, though."

"And you think I do?" Not for the first time, he tried to assure himself that he didn't.

But Searle nodded. "A little bit, yes. I just... well, you hurt me, you know. You hurt me really badly, and it still hurts a little, but a while ago it dawned on me that you were hurting just that much more, you know? You keep everything inside until it starts to turn toxic--now, don't look at me like that, I promise you I didn't tell anyone," he added hastily, noting Sparron's sudden panic. "I don't know what it is about you, really. I guess I know how to put on a brave face and start looking for the good things in life again. You, on the other hand... you're a brooder. All you know how to do is wallow in your own misery."

Sparron sniffed. "Is that supposed to make me feel better?"

"Well... no," Searle admitted, in spite of the grin growing on his face, "but I can help you, if you want. I mean, I think we could make that day the start of something good. I know that we can't let anyone know about this, but it'll be easier for both of us if we can get everything out of our systems."

Alarmed, Sparron raised an eyebrow. Surely he did not mean...

"But I wouldn't want it to be just a one time thing." So he did mean... that. Sparron felt the sudden urge to climb onto the bed and throw himself through the stained-glass window--not because the thing had been suggested, but because it actually sounded appealing. "It's not like meeting some stable girl for a quick roll in the hay, you know. I mean, all these months later and I'm still thinking about you, and I know you wouldn't be acting the way you are if you didn't still think about me too--but on the other hand, it doesn't have to be forever either, if you don't want it to be."

Stupid kid didn't even know what he was saying; like his sister's rag doll, Sparron slumped to the floor and leaned back against the night-table. "You don't get it."

Searle sighed. "Sparron..."

"It's different for me, all right?" Different--now that it had been said, the word was free to dance in front of his eyes in flashing colors, more obnoxious every time he tried to look away. Searle didn't understand, and he never would. Searle had just come from a brothel; Searle liked chatting up maids and fucking them in broom cupboards. Sparron wasn't like that. Sparron was awkward and aloof and got about as much excitement from a girl as he might have from a loaf of bread. A couple times now he had tried hitting the sack with the maids, just to convince himself that there was nothing wrong with him, but he'd never achieved that reassurance; instead, he'd found he could only follow through if he pictured Searle's face the entire time.

His eyes wide and his mouth agape, Searle lowered himself to his knees and edged nearer. "It doesn't have to be."

But it did--it did and it was and he could never tell anyone. "Just go away."

"No." Searle placed his hands on Sparron's shoulders and inclined so that their heads met, the tip of his straight, perfect nose rubbing against the bridge of Sparron's own lumpy excuse for a facial feature. "Not until you're feeling better."

Sparron couldn't take it anymore. Defeated, his arms flung themselves around Searle's form and pulled him forward, pressing the other boy to the hardwood as he kissed him.


December 22, 2010

In Which Raia Knows What She Wants

March 13, 1171

"Spending the night at a friend's again, I see." Falidor rolled onto his side as Raia strode into the room and settled herself beside him. "Not that I don't want to see you, but aren't you worried about getting caught? Your father sees Leara's father pretty much every day, you know."

"Yes, but they don't talk any more than they have to." She pulled the blanket over herself and squirmed against the mattress; it wasn't any more or less comfortable than her bed at home, but a scratchy old pile of hay with Falidor on it was better than a mountain of silks and pillows without. "Besides, I am spending the night at a friend's--at least, I might as well be." She'd made a point to sound bitter, but Falidor responded only with a dismissive sniff.

Ridiculous. Raia knew for a fact that Falidor had been thinking about it for just as long as she had--maybe even longer--but he'd drawn his lines and was refusing to budge. In some ways, she supposed she had to give him credit for his resolve, but she had trouble understanding the need for all this self-denial. It wasn't as if anyone would find out, or word would get back to her father; so long as they kept their wits about them, what harm could it do? If worse came to worse, she knew that her grandmother could help with that sort of thing.

Frowning, she slid her hand under her pillow and edged toward him. "Leara's getting married in the fall."

He grunted; he wasn't always talkative in bed, but she knew that if he'd really wanted to fall asleep, he would have done so. "The whole kingdom knows that by now."

"Probably." Raia fiddled with the laces of her dress and pouted. "I kind of wanted to beat her, though."

He turned his head and stared in disbelief. "To the alter?"

"No--the other thing."

As she could have predicted, Falidor sighed. "Raia, we talked about this--if your father finds out about any of this, we'll both be in enough trouble without doing that."

She rolled her eyes--men! Jadin and Searle fornicated like rabbits and her father held nothing against them or their partners; if she'd been a boy, and Falidor had been some servant girl, he would have been all over her and no one would have given a damn. Raia liked to think that her father was above such irrational double-standards, and some wary glances and misplaced comments had caused her to suspect that he might have known more than he let on anyway--but in the end, she guessed she couldn't blame Falidor for not wanting to test that theory. "Fine."

"Aw, don't take it the wrong way." He reached around and took hold of her hand, his fingers slipping between hers and squeezing into a firm grasp; though his wedding band was long gone, its indent could still be felt. "Just... hold on until the new year, all right? Then I'll be officially divorced and I can go talk to your father--err, providing that Aldhein and Florian are willing to restrain him, of course."

Unassured, Raia pulled herself nearer and rested her head against his shoulder; considering how hairy he was in the front, she was surprised at how smooth his skin was at the back. "That's so far off, though."

"I know, but think of it this way; if you want to change your mind, you can do that and no one will be any wiser."

She sniffed. "You think I don't know what I want."

"No--you know what you want, but you don't have the patience to wait for it." Without warning, he released her hand and drew at back to his chest; her palm felt empty and somehow incomplete. "Who knows? Maybe some available young man will come along before then and sweep you off your feet. Maybe you'll have a whirlwind dream of a romance and show up at Leara's wedding with a husband and swelling stomach--none of this waiting around for a worthless old wreck like me."

Idiot! Shaking her head, Raia wrapped her arms around his torso and strained herself to kiss his stubbly cheek. "Don't be stupid; like you said, I know what I want."


December 21, 2010

In Which Lyraina Is Alerted to Something Special

March 2, 1171

"Done!" declared Hilla in triumph as she slipped the last pin into Lyraina's hair. "Doesn't she look pretty, Ma?"

Some odd years ago, before the twins were born, Hilla had decided that Lyraina was 'the pretty sister'. Lyraina had protested this fervently, but to no avail; when Hilla made up her mind, it was a done deal. Not that Hilla let her suppositions hold her back though--indeed, since the notion had motivated her to hone her sense of style and absorb everything she could learn about fashions and hair-care, surely her efforts had given her a step up even if she hadn't been the prettier sister by birth.

In any case--she was prettier, Hilla was prettier, the twins had both of them beaten, whatever--Lyraina was glad that at least one of them knew how to doll oneself up; she didn't care much about how she looked most of the time, but every once in a while, there came an occasion for which Hilla's talents came in handy.

From the bed, their mother gave a quick glance and an approving nod; wherever Hilla got her passion for the pursuit of beauty from, it hadn't been industrious, low-maintenance Goodwife Diarn. "Very nice, both of you."

Though far from distant, their mother had not been the most involved of parents since they'd reached the age at which they could be mostly independent--after all, she had things to do and so did they. For the most part, Lyraina and her siblings didn't have a problem with this, and it even became a further advantage on nights when the young people would gather in some field and dance and drink and laugh unsupervised. Evera and Alyssin, Lyraina knew, had told their parents that they were spending the night at Eilyssa's house--likewise, Eilyssa's parents would think she was at Evera and Alyssin's. Lyraina and Hilla had never had to make such arrangements, though, as their mother was quite lax about such things and saw no harm in the occasional bout of youthful hi-jinx.

As if to further prove this, she winked. "Is Had going to be there, Lyri?"

Lyraina exchanged a quick look with her sister, then laughed. "After all that time Hilla spent yanking my hair around, he'd better be!"

"Oh, I don't mind," Hilla insisted. "If I hadn't done yours, I would've just done my own again, and I like the way mine turned out."

She rolled her eyes; she sometimes forgot that her sister was still young enough to miss the occasional bit of sarcasm. Fortunately, she was spared the awkwardness of having to explain that by a knock at the door. "Cord's probably wondering what's taking us so long--stupid boy." She glanced over her shoulder and smirked. "You can come in if you like."

"Oh, don't mind if I do," came the voice of a man--a man surely older than their thirteen-year-old brother--from the other side.

Hilla grinned. "Sir Tarien!"

"At your service, ladies," he announced himself as he stepped into the bedroom. Lyraina felt herself smiling; she'd at first pretended to warm up to the knight in order to annoy her mother, but she found she'd taken a genuine liking to the man. "I must say, all of you look ravishing today--and not only the ones making an effort, I must say."

Lyraina turned around just in time to see him send a wink her mother's way; it was returned with a raised brow. "So now that you're used to just barging into my house whenever you please, you want to further test the boundaries and waltz into my bedroom uninvited?"

"Ah, but I was invited!" he protested with a nod Lyraina's way. "You mean to say that you didn't invite me--this time."

"This time?" Lyraina's mother snorted. "Don't get your hopes up."

Sir Tarien smirked. "On the contrary, my hopes are heading downward--something else, however, might defy gravity on such an occasion."

"Don't talk about your cock in front of my girls."

"Who said anything about my cock?" He raised his finger and waved it about in mock-scolding. "What I meant was that my whole being would be simply over the moon; my God, Arydath, you do have a dirty mind."

She stuck out her tongue. "That would be 'Goodwife Diarn' to you, shitbrain."

"And that would be 'Sir Tarien' to you, Goodwife Diarn--but if you happen to be partial to nicknames, I suppose 'shitbrain' will suffice until you can come up with something more fitting."

"And what, pray tell, could be more fitting than that?"

"Oh, don't mind her!" Lyraina interrupted before Sir Tarien could reply with another flirtatious remark; she could tell that her mother was getting agitated, although she did suspect that the woman was more fond of him than she cared to admit. "She's anxious from fretting about what horrible trouble we might get into at the dance tonight."

A puzzled frown broke on her mother's face; Sir Tarien, however, laughed. "You don't say--no wonder you're all dressed up! Do you have a sweetheart, sweetheart?"

"She does," Hilla answered for her. "His name is Had, and he's a gentleman's son."

The knight gave an approving nod. "Very nice--and how about yourself, love?"

The younger sister beamed mischievously. "Oh, I like to think there's enough of me to go around."

"It's true--she'll have a dance with every boy there and they'll all be begging for more."

"I believe it." He cocked his head to the side and closed his eyes. "Know why?"

"No." Hilla laced her arm through Lyraina's and rested her head on her shoulder. "Why?"

"I'll tell you--it's because you've got character." Sir Tarien leaned back and surveyed them, a fond, almost proud look in his eye. "Both of you. You're beautiful girls, but a lot of beautiful girls turn out very dull--not you two, though." He took Hilla's hand and kissed it, then did the same with Lyraina's; it was nothing like when Had kissed her there, but a warm feeling lingered all the same. "You've got that something special."

"Yes, that's all very well and good, but I'm afraid all this 'something special' will be on its way soon," sneered their mother from the bed. "The girls and their brother will want to be there before sunset, so they'll have to leave in a few minutes--and then you'll have no reason to stay."

Sir Tarien took one look at her, then shook his head. "Not true; where do you think they get that something special from?"

Lyraina's mother sniffed. "The same place from which you should be getting a hint--now, as I have to tell you every week, get out of my goddamn house."