April 30, 2011

In Which Sparron Presents the Pieces

January 3, 1174

Laveria's mixture left a bitter aftertaste, but at least it had done its job. The pain in Sparron's arm had dulled to a weak throbbing. Curious--or perhaps masochistic--he reclined on the couch and rested his head on the hand of the injured limb; the throbbing strengthened somewhat, but not to any significant point. Then again, he was drugged up. Maybe a suture would split under the pressure. Maybe he didn't care. If his arm was a bloody mess, then at least his stepmother wouldn't be able to slather the wound with any more of that vile-smelling salve Hilla had whipped up.

How had it all gone so wrong anyway? His timing couldn't have been more ideal. His stepmother had been down for her nap and his father had been en route to Veldora, taking the children with him. Camaline had just left for Armion--but as it turned out, she'd forgotten her hat and had rushed back, only to find him lying half-delirious on the bedroom floor, drenched in his own blood. The next thing he knew, he'd woken in bed a few days later, his arm all stitched up and his father and sister at his bedside, anxious and confused and relieved. Nothing had gone according to plan, all thanks to Camaline and her stupid hat. How had someone as meticulous as Camaline forgotten a hat, anyway? It was almost proof that there was a God, and a cruel one at that.

Someone knocked--probably Holladrin with that damned mixture again. Sparron rolled his eyes. "Yes?"

The door opened, but no nauseating smell wafted into his nose. The footsteps were those of leather boots, not dainty silk slippers. Sparron pushed himself up and glanced over his shoulder. "Searle?"

Searle shut the door and locked it before turning back to him. The boy's eyes were wide and fearful, his pouty lip a-quiver. Ashamed, Sparron shifted his gaze to the empty fireplace; there was no greater pain than the face of one's victim.

Searle paced to the other side of the couch and choked back a sob. "Why?"

He didn't answer. He just rose to his feet and sighed. "Searle..."

"I'm sorry!" Searle's words set Sparron's spine ablaze. Why was he apologizing? He couldn't really have thought... "I'm sorry! I didn't mean to make you jealous. I didn't want you to think I picked Lettie over you, I just--"


"I should have come to see you." Searle held back his head and stared at the ceiling, the tears in the corners of his eyes like crystals in the glass-filtered sunlight. "I thought you didn't want to see me, but I should have come anyway. I should have come and told you..." He trailed off, wiping his eyes with his sleeve. The crystals may have been no more, but that dark blue sparkled like sapphires. "God, why didn't I come and see you? I almost killed you!"

What? Alarmed, Sparron stepped around the couch and reached for Searle's trembling hand. Lettie's band burned against his flesh, but it didn't matter just then. "I almost killed me. You did nothing wrong."

Stifling another wail, Searle shook his head. "I was avoiding you--"

"Only because I'm horrible to you."

He'd caught him off-guard--but how? He hadn't said anything Searle didn't already know. "Look, Searle... I'm sorry, alright? I was sinking and I shouldn't have pulled you down with me."

Poor boy just looked confused. As if he wasn't confused enough. As if Sparron himself wasn't the root cause of all that. "What are you talking about?"

"Everything." Biting his lip, he let go of Searle's hand and eased himself onto the bed behind him, curling into a fetal position. He'd given up on things ever getting better for him, but maybe there was still hope for Searle. "I don't want to hurt you any more than I already have. I'm ending this--for real this time. You'll be better off."

Searle's eyebrows drooped to a gentle slope. It must have been agony to have one's heart handed back in pieces, but it was better this way. Sparron couldn't break it any further if it was no longer in his hands. Maybe Arletta could put it back together. "Sparron..."

"Don't." His heart raced and his arm pulsed. He ran his free hand along the site of the stitches, expecting to find blood, almost disappointed when he didn't. "Go home to your wife, Searle. You can still be happy. It's not too late for you."

He hated to see Searle so crestfallen, but it had been necessary. He was weak and damned and the only thing he could do was save this beautiful boy from his toxic love. Searle would thank him some day. "What are you waiting for? Go."

There was no crueler sight in the world than that of a wounded paramour. It had once been a game of Sparron's peers to throw rocks at the sun. He knew now that he never could have knocked it down, but nevertheless he thought he knew how it would have felt. I'm sorry, Searle.

The other boy stood for a moment, shocked and spurned and saddened. Sparron waited for him to say something conclusive before storming out--some groin-shot insult, or some heart-shattering plea--but he only shook his head. "No."

Before Sparron could protest, Searle had joined him on the mattress. He wedged himself between Sparron's legs and ran his hand along the curve of his jawline. He used to like to leave kisses along that ridge, but rarely had Sparron let him do so. "You don't have to be alone."

"It's too late for me."

"No." Searle leaned forward and laid a firm kiss on Sparron's mouth. His honey lips were sweet relief in light of the pungent mixture of a half-hour prior. Their mouths lingered for a moment or so until Searle finally pulled back, running his hand through Sparron's hair. "I used to think you were an insensitive ass. I don't think that anymore."

The fingers on Sparron's left hand twitched. They'd done so on occasion since the injury. He'd tried to keep it a secret, but he supposed Searle had felt them against his side. Poor boy just had to bear the brunt of all his weakness, didn't he? "Why not? I am an insensitive ass."

"No--you're the exact opposite." Fingers far thinner and nimbler than Sparron's own spastic set tucked a stray lock of hair behind his ear. "You feel too much. You feel so many things at once. You feel more than one person can handle, especially someone as rational as you. You get overwhelmed and it's easier to tell yourself you don't feel anything at all. That's what it is, isn't it?"

Sparron stiffened. "Please don't try to get into my head."

"I'm not." Searle reached back and grabbed hold of Sparron's good hand. It was warm and soft and he wanted so badly to squeeze it and never let go. "I'm trying to get into your heart.

"Look... my stepmother's due in March. She's asked Lettie to attend the birth. Come stay at my castle with me? I'll tell the servants I'm going hunting and I'll let them have the time off. No one will ever have to know."


April 28, 2011

In Which Searle Is Flung

January 3, 1174

Searle had once overheard Ietrin confide in Leara that he found the baron rather terrifying. Up until now, Searle hadn't believed him--but here the man was, intruded upon in his own home at a difficult time, face unfathomable and eyes inscrutable, every ounce the unpredictable nightmare Ietrin made him out to be. "Haven't seen you around in a while."

It was almost an accusation. He'd been a lousy friend and Sparron's father knew it. He should have ridden over the day Camaline had told him. He should have tried to figure out what was keeping Sparron's family occupied earlier. Hell, he should have called months ago, just to give Sparron those little reminders--that he loved him, that things didn't have to change. He could have fanned the flames at any time, but instead he'd let the fire die.

"I'm sorry, my lord. I should have come earlier."

The baron's stare seemed to say he shouldn't have bothered coming at all. "He's well enough now--for the most part."

"Can I see him?"

Perhaps it had been a presumptuous question; 'for the most part', after all, was not a 'yes'. Sighing, the baron turned around and stepped toward the couch, setting himself at the center of it. "Sit down, Searle."

He did as he was told. He was confused and betrayed and the last thing he needed was to make an enemy out of someone on a similar quest for answers. "Sir?"

The baron's hazel eyes vanished behind their lids. It was several long breaths before they returned. "Did you know that you're the only one of his friends who still puts up with him?

"He never used to be so troubled, you know. He's always been a little neurotic and somewhat obsessive, but he was a happy enough boy until you two started spending so much time together."

The reigns of Searle's heart gave a sudden tug. It halted and reared and flung him flying, and this was the moment when his head hit the tree trunk. "Sir..."

"I'm not blaming you." The baron placed his hands to his knees and slid himself forward, eyes fixed on a grain in the flooring. Searle knew what it was to study the hardwood. Sometimes, dark flecks were all that kept one sane. "I just want my son to be happy again. I want to know what's going on and I want to understand it."

In that case, he wanted too much--but Searle didn't have the heart to say that, especially not when Sparron's own lip was pouting toward him. "Searle, I'm going to ask you this and I'm only going to ask it once: do you know what's troubling him?"

Searle shook his head. "No, my lord." The lie was out of his mouth, but its aftertaste would linger. The baron wasn't the only one who wished for Sparron's recovery, but the man's own uninformed state was the only thing keeping Searle's best-beloved from going off the deep end. One day, perhaps, he would know and understand, but that day was not in this lifetime.

But if the baron suspected a lie, he didn't mention it. "I see. Can I trust you to inform me if you figure it out?"

It was a cruel world indeed if the collision of two loves meant the destruction of a soul. It was even crueler if the only things that held those forces at bay were lies. "I'll keep you posted, sir."


April 27, 2011

In Which Camaline Gives the Right Answer to the Wrong Question

December 27, 1173

As ill fortune would have it, Camaline arrived in Searle's new study only to find him snuggling with his wife. Didn't either of them have anything better to do? She liked Lettie--more than she'd ever express to the girl, perhaps--and of course she had nothing against Sparron's little boy-toy, but given the circumstances, their casual cuteness was vexing. That might have been an unfair judgment on her part--after all, how could either of them have known better?--but lately, it was just easier to be angry with everyone. She was angry with Lettie and angry with Searle. She was angry with Octavius and Holladrin and especially Sparron. Hell, she was even angry with herself.

Not sure how much more bunny love she could stomach, Camaline cleared her throat. Lettie sprung from Searle's lap as the two of them exchanged a naughty smirk. Newlyweds. Thank God she'd never been so stupid.

"Good morning, Camaline," Searle greeted her from the couch, his arm still slung around Lettie's shoulders.

Camaline stiffened. It wasn't a good morning, but she didn't care to argue. "Searle."

"You know, I don't think I've seen you since my wedding." A wistful smile crossed his face as he twirled a lock of Lettie's pretty red hair around his finger. "How have you been?"

Of course he hadn't seen her since the wedding. He hadn't bothered calling--not that it mattered much to her, but Sparron's melancholy morphed into all-out woe whenever Searle hadn't been around in a while. Granted, it wasn't as if Sparron was willing to take matters into his own hands and pay Searle a visit himself. They were stuck in a stalemate of idiocy that was taking its toll on her best friend and Camaline was sick of it. "I've been well enough, thank you very much."

"Likewise," Lettie laughed as she landed a pinch on Searle's thigh. "I can't say I thought you'd ever call here, though. Are you two friends?"

"Friends-in-law, perhaps." She'd meant it as a serious response, but Searle seemed to find it amusing. Stupid kid didn't suspect a thing, did he? "Have you thought about paying Sparron a visit? You haven't called in months."

Well, that seemed to kill his good spirits. Lettie tried to calm him by squeezing his hand, but Searle's hurt look remained. "Does he want me to? Kind of made himself scarce since the wedding, hasn't he?"

"He's confused."

"He wouldn't even talk to me on his way out."

"He's scared."

"He's not himself anymore."

"He--" She caught herself just in time. She might have been angry with Searle--with Sparron, Lettie, everyone. She wasn't a nice person and she knew it. But things were bad enough and she didn't need to make them any worse. "He's been ill."

Searle's back straightened, his head inclining to meet her eye. His own put the blue of his tunic to shame; it was no wonder Sparron admired them so. "What?"

"You heard." Camaline tucked a stray hair back beneath her diadem and sighed. "It happened earlier in the month. He came down with something all of a sudden and we didn't want people to panic. That's why you haven't seen much of any of us lately."

The boy blinked; upon completion, his lashes looked just a little damp. "Is he all right?"

No--no, he wasn't. But to say that outright would have been insensitive even for Camaline. "He'll live."

Searle eased somewhat. Lettie, on the other hand, seemed to get that it was the right answer to the wrong question. "He's not really ill, is he?"

Camaline sniffed. The only way to deal with that question was to dodge it. "It's nothing life-threatening."

And yet, the look on Searle's face said it all.


April 24, 2011

In Which Rifden Is Not Immune to the Flames

December 9, 1173

In their younger days, Rifden and Searle had been friends--best friends, even. They were the same age, both neat and finicky and neurotic as far as young boys went, and Rifden's older siblings had been employed at the castle where Searle had been a page, so it had been a convenient arrangement. They got along--better than either of them did with most other boys their age, certainly--had similar interests and lived in close enough proximity to visit whenever they pleased.

But life had a funny way of tearing people apart. Jothein had been killed and Rifden had assumed full responsibility of the shop; not too long after, Searle had been knighted and married and off having babies. They'd tried to keep in touch, but there were cabinets to build and lands to manage and there just weren't enough hours in a day or a week or a month to keep up with old friends of a different class. They'd grown apart. That was that.

But suddenly, they were back in each other's lives. Figured that it would happen under such tragic circumstances. "I thought I'd come by to thank you for making that coffin on such short notice."

What could he say? It didn't take long to make such a small coffin. "Least I could do."

Poor man. In comparison to the rest of the continent, child mortality in Naroni was most fortunately low, but the occasional young death was inevitable and Searle's youngest had drawn the short straw. From what Rifden could gather, the little girl had come down with a sudden, brutal sickness and had expired in a matter of days. This was some weeks ago now and the coffin was far back on his mental list of most recent projects, but it was the first time he'd seen Searle since the incident. This was probably the first time the poor man had left his castle since the funeral; the time they'd found that dead kitten seemed such a small matter now.

"Well... I should be going." Searle turned around without so much as an obliging wave. "I'd rather not leave Valira and the girls alone for too long."

"I understand."

"No--you don't." Already halfway out the door, his former friend looked back it him for a couple seconds, his somber aqua eyes weighed down by lids too heavy to lift. "But thanks for the sentiment."

He was quick to leave, but the remnants of the December draft lingered. Rifden grabbed a nearby flint and sparked the fire, holding his hands so close he thought they might melt. Or maybe they couldn't. There was something sinister about hands that made caskets for year-old children; perhaps they were immune to the flames.

Someone else knocked on the door. Rifden shivered; irrational as it was, he couldn't shake the feeling that every customer who walked through that door was in need of a baby grave. He was a good man, or so he made a point to remind himself. He did not display coffins. He didn't care to sell coffins, make coffins. Certainly such small coffins had no fair reason for existing. "Yes?"


His spine snapped to an upright position as Laveria's pretty young daughter stepped inside. Aerina was only fifteen, but she'd recently proven old enough to catch his eye as she strode past his shop on her morning walk. He knew her fairly well--she was his next-door neighbor, after all--and he'd always found her pleasant, and rather interesting even if she'd only just achieved such status in the physical sense. He'd considered courting her, but he'd made a point to restrain himself since Searle's daughter had died. Young women of Aerina's caliber deserved better than a man who fashioned coffins for babies.

And yet, he couldn't help but look at her. "Aren't you a sight for sore eyes."

She closed the door and approached him, a grimace on her face but something else entirely in her eyes. She was a lady--she was trying to be cordial--but there was a reason she was here and it was no laughing matter. "I could say the same of you, actually."

Rifden's brow raised as Aerina's mouth fell. What did she mean by that? For all he admired her, he doubted she'd given him a second thought in that regard. "Sorry?"

"I just locked up my mother's shop." Her trembling hands interlocked if only to steady themselves; the attempt was in vain. "She had to leave on a call."

Odd. Laveria was as competent as ever, but she was getting up in years and wasn't widely trusted in any case. She was the last resort. If someone had sent for her, then it was urgent. "What sort of call?"

"I'm not allowed to say." Her arms folded and her shoulders hunched, her entire frame collapsing inward, shaky and unsteady all the while. She wasn't a small and helpless girl, or at least she never had been until that moment and maybe she never would be again. Whatever this was, it disturbed her; whoever it was, she was frightened. "I hate to ask this, but... can I stay here until she gets back? I don't want to be alone today."


April 22, 2011

In Which Setran Is Made a Joke

November 11, 1173

"I take it you're wondering why I wanted a word with you."

Really, Setran wasn't wondering at all. He'd been the baron's squire for over a year now, and every few weeks or so he was summoned to the study for an updated report on his mission regarding Sparron--which, it seemed, was more of a full-time duty than any task expected of a squire. Frankly, he didn't see why the baron still bothered trying to get information out of him. Setran liked Sparron--he was a decent enough fellow, and he could be worth spending time with if caught between two of his frequent moods--but he was either a closed book or he was written in a language Setran couldn't read.

But there was no sense arguing with a worried father. If the baron asked, then he would simply say once again that he knew nothing. "I'm guessing it's about your son, sir?"

"Actually, no." The baron's stare seemed to pass through him to the wall behind, as if he were some sort of ghost or spirit or perhaps not even there to begin with; he found himself straightening out of his slouch, if only to prove his existence. "I know you have nothing to tell me there. This is about you."

Well, now Setran was wondering. "Sorry?"

"You heard." The other man's eyes shifted back to the present reality; oddly enough, Setran found he preferred the faraway glaze. "You're a good kid, Setran--but frankly, you're a terrible squire."

Setran swallowed. He'd known it--and the baron had known it--but wasn't it still early? He'd been considerably older than most squires when he'd first started. Hell, the newly-knighted Sir Searle was a year his junior! Wasn't he just behind? "Sir--"

"You can barely lift a shield, you can't tell the backside of a horse from its front, you were the first person eliminated in the last tournament, and I wouldn't put money on your victory in a sword fight if your opponent was my eight-year-old daughter. I could try giving you some further instruction, but I doubt there would be any point."

Well, if it was any consolation, he'd always thought Thallie to be freakishly strong. "So you're dismissing me."

"Dismissing you?" If anything, he sounded amused; Setran raised an eyebrow. "On the contrary, I was thinking of knighting you."

...what? "Uh... sir, you know what you just said, right?"

"Of course I do." Was this some sort of joke? The baron was smiling, if that was any indication. "Yes, you have the approximate athletic ability of a half-rotten rodent carcass, but what are the odds of us going to war any time soon? We have no important resources and the worst farmland in all of Europe. No one pays their taxes and all of our exports are stolen from Carvallon first. We're not a target. Mobilizing an army is expensive and we have nothing to offer; conquering Naroni would be economic idiocy.

"But you're a clever boy, and I have lands that need managing--and if there ever was a war, then I would need someone to keep things running here while the rest of us were off fighting, and Lord knows you would be the right man for that job." The light was dim, but his eyes appeared to be rolling--not that it mattered much to Setran. There were advantages to being a knight, even if only a joke of one. "I'll just run it by the king and you can expect to be knighted in a couple of months. How does that sound?"

"Rather good." Setran cocked his head to the side, trying to keep his expression in check. He got the sense that he was half-failing. "Could I marry Evera?"

The baron shrugged. "Setran, you could marry a moldy old pair of socks for all I care. Just manage my God damn lands--understand?"

If they weren't raised already, the corners of his lips pulled his mouth upwards. "Yes, sir."

"That settles it, then." The baron paid him one last grin, then crossed his arms and sighed. "Just make sure your father doesn't try to smuggle any animals into the dungeons of your new castle, all right?"

Setran shuddered. "My lord, you've read my mind."


April 19, 2011

In Which Sparron Is Betrayed

October 8, 1173

It was a fucking perfect day for a wedding.

The June sun was shining in spite of the fact that it was October. The morning birds sung even though it was late afternoon. The autumn leaves shone their rich red-gold as they fluttered to the green grass and blue waters below, the fall gales slowing to a gentle breeze as if out of some divine sense of courtesy. The ceremony had gone off without a problem and everyone seemed to be enjoying themselves at the reception, dining at a table set with a splendid feast and dancing to the stylings of the finest musicians in the kingdom. To top it all off, the queen had gone into labor that morning and she and the king were therefore unable to attend.

But the pair of them could have been seated on either side of Sparron, yapping into his ear without relent for all he cared. The food could have been rotting and maggoty and the music could have been provided by his little brothers and a set of pots. A foot of snow could have coated the barren landscape and the wind could have been ruthless. The birds could have been dead, and the sun likewise. He couldn't even be sure that he'd notice. He couldn't be sure of anything anymore.

Not for the first time, he wondered why he'd even bothered coming. If he'd been smart, he might have faked an illness or broken his leg or something. He should've known that he wasn't strong enough to handle this.

Searle--married. What a joke. The sadistic angels above must have been laughing their halos off. Well, Sparron didn't see what was so funny. Supposedly merciful God creates a vile sinner and tortures him just for the shits and giggles--like that was anything to laugh at. Perhaps he would just hang himself and be done with it all. Who would miss him, anyway? Surely not Searle--not when he had a wife. Perhaps his family might grieve, but would that have been true if they'd known any better? Sparron doubted it. No one mourned a degenerate.

The music and laughter from the next room fell like shattered glass into his bleeding ears. The knock at the door would have been a relief had it not heralded someone's arrival. "What?"

The door opened and in stepped Searle's fairytale bride, all white gown and pink flowers. Just looking at her made him nauseous, thinking about her and Searle and all their blue-eyed freckly brats. He'd never even seen her before today and he loathed her already. How dare she intrude on him like this? If he retreated to an empty room during a party, then wasn't it obvious that he wanted to be alone?

"I'm sorry. I saw you come in here a while ago and I haven't seen you since." She fiddled with her wedding band as she spoke; he wanted nothing more than to tear the damn off her finger and crush it to a fine gold powder. "Are you all right?"

Sparron sniffed. "Fan-fucking-tastic."

She didn't even flinch at the sound of the expletive. She was exactly the sort of girl Lord Severin would want for a daughter-in-law. Sparron wondered if he would have wasted her on Searle if he'd known better. "Do you mind if I sit down?"

"I imagine you will whether I do or not." He was right about that; she'd seated herself beside him before he even had a chance to finish.

"You're Sparron, aren't you?"

Sparron's hand twitched. A lucky guess, no doubt. Or maybe she'd met his father previously and just assumed a relation. "And you're Arletta."

"My friends call me Lettie."

"We're not friends."

She turned and stared at him, though she looked neither shocked nor hurt; if anything, she looked like she pitied him. It was insulting. "I know you must hate me right now, but nothing's going to change. Searle and I talked it over, and I told him--"

"He told you?" The blood in his veins chilled to an icy hardness. His heart raced to compensate and his head began to spin. Yes, Searle was reckless, but to have actually told someone? How could Searle have betrayed his trust like that? Didn't he realize what he'd done? "He--"

Arletta sighed. "Please, just listen--"

"Get out."



Shaking her head, she pulled herself to her feet and made her way toward the room's entrance. Either she was defeated or she'd realized that he wasn't worth her time--both, perhaps. "It was nice to finally meet--oh, sorry," she apologized as she collided with another body at the door.

"No, I should have knocked," answered Camaline's voice, unreadable as always. "Congratulations, by the way. I'd say more, but I wouldn't want to keep you from your own party."

"I'll talk to you later, then."

"I look forward to it." Arletta smiled, then hurried back into the dance hall--right into Searle's outstretched arms, no doubt. Camaline watched her for a minute or so before finally closing the door behind her and taking a seat beside Sparron.

"She's pretty."

Sparron slumped forward, catching himself with a hand to the forehead. "I'll take your word for it."

There was a faint rustling as she crossed and uncrossed her legs beneath her skirts. Camaline was much for reassurance, but she was all he had; he couldn't begrudge her for failing if she was willing to try. "You're not comfortable here, are you?"

Was it that obvious? Ah hell, who was he kidding? Of course it was. "Can we leave?"

Camaline took a long breath, then rose from the couch and stepped away. "I'll tell your father you have a headache."