May 31, 2011

In Which Searle Catches a Falling Star

July 5, 1174

Her color had returned since he had brought her the daffodils. She was up and awake, and at least alert enough to mind the book in front of her. That was a relief. She would likely be fit for traveling by the end of the summer, or so he hoped--err, if she was willing to travel, of course.

God, he hoped she was. "Enjoying your book?"

Her brown eyes peeked over the tome's edge and sparked at the sight of him. Hastily, she stashed the book under her pillow, then smiled. "I was wondering if you were still around."

"Of course I am." She didn't think he would have left without seeing her properly, did she? Dear God... what if she did? "So... what were you reading?"

"Oh, just an old diary of my mother's." With some difficulty, she slung her legs over the side of the bed and stood, perhaps a little wobbly. Was it the first time she'd been on her feet since she'd taken ill? He had the urge to steady her. "Nothing you'd find interesting, I'm sure--girl things."

"What, things like love?" She nodded. He found himself smirking. What the hell was this? He never smirked. "I'm not sure if you mean to compliment my masculinity or insult my sensitivity. But I think love is just a human thing."

"You know what I mean." A little shaky, Viridis took a few steps toward him and fell into his embrace. Maybe this was how it felt to catch a falling star. "It's nice to see you."

God, she was so close. He could smell a hint of a flowery perfume in her hair. Perhaps her maid had washed it recently. Or perhaps it was simply her. "Viridis? Remember how I told you I'd take you to the sea?"

For a moment, she fell limp in his arms. A brief spell of panic crossed his mind as he worried that she might have fainted, but to his great relief she took a step back and raised an eyebrow. "I thought you told me to forget."

"And I see you didn't, you naughty girl!" A faint blush warmed her face as she giggled. Why the hell couldn't he stop smiling? Not even Riona at her finest had made him so giddy. "Anyway, I had a little chat with your father and I was wondering..."

No longer so steady himself, he reached for her hand and ran his thumb along the line of her finger. Her flesh had a delicate softness to it that put rose petals to shame. "...would you still be interested in going?"

A stunned look flashed across her face, but only for a second. Her breath returned to her in the form of a steady exhale as she relaxed within his grasp, the grin on her face nothing short of glowing. "You know I'd go anywhere with you."

Of all the things he'd never thought anyone would say to him. Of all the things he'd always wished to hear. It was a simple phrase, something a young child could produce if prompted, but from her mouth it was pure poetry. Oh God. He'd spent so many years wandering aimlessly, just looking for a place in the world. He needn't have bothered. He'd had one all along.

"I love you."

Twice before in his life had he said such a thing to a girl. Riona had replied with a reciprocal, yet fearful bulge of her eyes as their father's footsteps had approached. Danthia had seen it for a trivial nicety and declared that lies didn't suit him. He'd never heard the phrase spoken in turn.

But he didn't need to. That shy smile said it all.


May 30, 2011

In Which Severin Denies the Phrase

June 2, 1174

"How does she fare?" There was something in those eyes that was welcome and discomforting at the same time. It eased Severin a little to see someone else so concerned about his daughter. Too bad it had to be Searle.

Ah, but maybe he was being harsh. It was a difficult time.

"Well... better," he replied, moreso to himself than to his nephew. She was awake and alert and responsive, but her improved condition inspired only short-term relief. Every time Viridis got better, it was never long before she got even worse. "For now."

Still frowning, Searle pressed on with a lift of his brow. He was aware of the problem--Severin was sure of it--but he must have felt the need to hear it aloud. Severin could understand that; he just wasn't sure he could say it.

"The problem is that she never stays well for long." Severin glanced toward the coat of arms on the far wall--the bookshelf--the half-finished letter on his desk--anything but Searle. He'd caught a glimpse of a tear in the young man's eye, and those were contagious. But maybe it was useless to worry about that. Maybe he was out of tears. "Her health was never good to begin with, but as she gets older..."

"She gets worse."

The inner edge of his lip met the edge of his teeth as he nodded. "Exactly. Who knows? Maybe a change of climate is all she needs, but I don't think I can find the time to--"

"I have a house in Carvallon."


"Just on the coast. It's only a short walk from one of the larger villages, but if you look out the bedroom window, you swear to God the only two things in the world are you and the sea." He looked almost wistful. Why did that inspire the urge to punch him? "It's beautiful. She'd love it."

Maybe she would. But...

"You can't possibly be thinking of taking my daughter to Carvallon." Or could he? He was. He dared.

Searle squinted, as if the statement had been said in some foreign tongue. "What's wrong with Carvallon?"

...Really? "It's not Carvallon that's the problem. How do I know you won't get some wild itch to chase your demons all around the continent and leave her like you did Danthia?"

It was a valid question. Why the hell did Searle look so offended? "Uncle, with all due respect, it's completely different. Danthia is a wonderful woman, and she was more of a friend than I deserved, but that was the most I ever felt about her. But Viridis--"

"Don't say it." He knew what was coming. It was a phrase that always made it difficult to put his foot down, a tricky little thing that he'd always wished for all of his children but never like this. He did not want to hear those words coming from Searle's mouth. Not now. "Don't even think it."

Searle rocked back and forth in place somewhat, his mouth a flat line and his eyes round and sad as ever. He looked like a puppy that had been kicked too many times and maybe some part of Severin felt a little guilty. But what else could he have said? Yes?

"I wouldn't leave her. I'd even marry her if she found that agreeable. Please, Uncle, just... think about it? The air there would be good for her. She might not live long if she stays here for the rest of her life, and I don't know how either of us could live with ourselves if she died and we never even tried to help."

Well, that made two of them. Severin crossed his arms and stared the boy over. It wasn't hard to look at Falidor. It wasn't hard to look at Xeta or Lettie. Hell, it wasn't even hard to look at Sparron. But Searle...

Then again, maybe it wasn't Searle himself. Maybe it was what Searle and the sea and that little house in Carvallon meant. At least the others were here. "Come back in a few days, when Viridis is feeling a little better. Ask her what she thinks. Then, if she doesn't object, come and talk to me. See if I change my mind."


May 29, 2011

In Which Jadin Eliminates the Options

June 2, 1174

Jadin's tread must have been noisier than he'd thought, for when he returned to the sitting room, Roddie immediately stopped taking swipes at Falidor and shot him a pleading look--rather uncharacteristic of the boisterous little brat, really. "Is Viridis feeling better?"

It had been Jadin's turn to check up on their sister, or so he'd insisted after their father had made three trips up to her room in the past hour. Nora was next. Then Xeta. His father needed to rest almost as much as Viridis did.

"A little. She's up reading now." If only for his father's sake, Jadin put on his widest grin and joined him on the couch. "Her fever's gone down. I think she'll be back on her feet soon, and Grandmother agrees."

Hopeful, he sent a sidelong glance his father's way, but all he got in return was a sigh. "I hope you're right."

A shiver pulsed its way through Jadin's body. He'd never seen his father quite like this--not even when Searle had been so depressed, not even when Raia had gotten knocked up. The closest he could recall was just before his mother's death, and that was unsettling. His father had a toxic way of grieving and Jadin didn't want to know what he might do if Viridis died. Hell... he didn't want to know what any of them would do. His sister was just a kid.

Uneasy, he looked to his wife and daughter for some sort of sign. Lyssa's tiny hand rested on Xeta's collarbone and having lain his own stronger and larger hand there before, it was a painful reminder of just how fragile his little girl was. He couldn't blame his father for worrying. He would have been just as much of a wreck had it been Lyssa.

But it wasn't his daughter. It was his sister. He loved her and didn't want to lose her, but he was only her brother; as painful as it would be for him, surely it would be worse for their father? "She'll be all right."

His father took a minute to respond. Those dark eyes flickered about the room--Xeta and Lyssa, Nora and CeeCee, Roddie and Falidor, back to Jadin--then finally fell to his own hands, folded and trembling atop his lap. "At least your grandmother knows what she's doing. Still, this whole year..." He didn't finish. Jadin got the sense that he couldn't.

Nora too seemed to pick up on this. She lifted the baby to her shoulder and put on a face that must have been intended as thoughtful but came out as being more wistful than anything else. At least she was pretty enough to pull it off. "Maybe it's the weather? It's been a cold year."

Jadin's father grunted in agreement. "Maybe I should take her to the sea."

Maybe he should have; too bad it was out of the question. "You're needed here."

Grim, his father closed his eyes. "I know."

Xeta's mouth opened, probably to suggest that Jadin or one of his brothers take Viridis to the sea in their father's stead, but Jadin cut her off with a shake of his head. As next in line for lordship of the shire, he and Xeta were needed here. Searle had his duties as a knight and Lonriad's sense of direction was so poor that Jadin was frankly astounded he could find the village--much less, the coast. No, none of them were options.

But surely there must have been someone...

Knock. It was probably Falidor and Raia, along with the three siblings right after Viridis. There were only so many distractions out there and it had only been a matter of time before they'd found their way back. Jadin exchanged a quick glance with his father, who nodded. "Yes?"

The door opened, but the person who stepped through was not Falidor or Raia or any of Jadin's siblings--and yet, he probably should have seen him coming.

"Uncle... might I have a word with you? In private?"


May 25, 2011

In Which Viridis Opens Her Eyes

May 29, 1174

In the groggy haze between sleep and waking, all Viridis knew was the cold. She flailed around in search of the blankets, but found them as tight as she could have hoped; shivering, she clutched at the edges of her sleeves and pulled them over her hands.

She wished she was still asleep. It had been warm in her dream. A meadow--a sunny Midsummer meadow, with green grass and blue skies and flowers of every color. Just her. Her and someone. Tall, strong, red-haired someone.


The name sounded faraway, but one didn't go through as many faint spells as she had without learning the difference between reality and hallucination. The word had been said and someone wanted an answer. With some difficulty, she rolled onto her back and peeled back her eyelids--if only for a second. "...Papa?"

"Mmm." Her father leaned forward from his seat at her bedside and took hold of her hand, never mind the blanket in between. "Feeling any better, angel?"

It was a struggle to speak, so she compromised with a half-nod. Her father knew what she meant, though. He always did. "Your color is starting to come back. I'd say that's a good sign."

And yet, she was still cold. She must have been nothing short of ghastly. She didn't remember much about the past few days, but she did faintly recall being weaker than she was now. At least that was something.

"Your cousin was here." He sounded mournful, resigned, maybe even defeated. But why? What was wrong with her cousin? And which cousin? Viridis had dozens of cousins--surely none of whom her father disliked? "Searle. He brought you some daffodils. They're on your vanity."

Daffodils... He remembered? They'd gone for a walk when he'd last come to see her. They'd passed a patch of daffodils and she'd told him they were her favorite. It had been an off-hand comment and he hadn't responded. She'd only meant to fill the silence, but the words now filled the vase on her vanity. "Searle..."

"Hush." Her father rose to his feet and hovered over her, pressing his lips to her forehead. "You're a little warm. I'm going to fetch you a cold cloth; just try to rest a little more, all right?"

He hurried out the door and she did as she was told. In truth, she wanted nothing more than to rest. She opened her eyes only once more--only to strain her neck and balance her shaking body on her elbows for just a glimpse of the daffodils.


May 23, 2011

In Which Sextus Knows He Knows

May 27, 1174

Envy this... resentment that... some bit about her sister... Sextus tried to look interested. He understood, of course, that the words of a concerned patron in need of guidance demanded his full attention, but it was difficult to focus on what Ivona was saying when her bodice had been laced to flatter her curvy figure. Of course, he might have preferred it unlaced--or, better yet, on the floor. The same could be said of the rest of her clothing.

She reached a lull in her explanation and stared at him--like she was expecting an answer. What had she been talking about, again? He searched his mind for the last bit he remembered. Oh yes... her sister. "So... are you anything like your sister, sweetheart?"

Her sea-blue eyes bulging for a second, she dismissed the thought with a wave of her hand--and a flash of gold around her finger. "I am happily married, thank you very much."

Sextus smirked. "So's your sister."

"So she thinks, perhaps." Ivona's pretty mouth curled with a nun-like disapproval. Granted, Sextus had known his fair share of sexy nuns. "Frankly, Father, I don't like where this conversation seems to be heading. I came to you for advice and you're not being helpful."

"And you, my dear--" He placed his hand on her bare forearm, only to have it yanked from his grasp "--seem to be averse to the idea of fun. Tell your sister to talk to me herself; maybe she'll be a little more cooperative."

He lifted his eyes from her breast just long enough to see a vein throb in her temple. Maybe the blood was finally starting to churn? "You're a horrible priest, you know that?"

"In my defense, I always wanted to a be a pirate instead." She sniffed, but it sounded indulgent. He would have to try a little harder. "How about yourself? Think you might have made a good sea wench?"

"That depends. I suppose it could have been agreeable as long as I was several nauts away from you."

Ouch. But no matter. Sextus was nothing if not persistent; after all, 'sex' was in his very name. "Oh, our ships would have crossed at some point, I'm sure."

Ivona shrugged, then turned around and strode toward the door. He might have been annoyed had the shawl around her waist not shed such light on her rear advantage. "Believe what you will, but you won't be making port in my harbor. Now, not a word about my sister's troubles to anyone, all right?"

"Very well." Shame. A tip about a loose village woman might have earned him a couple of free drinks from his brothers. But that which passed between a priest and his confessors was sacred, and maybe that applied to words as well as bodily fluids. And now that he thought about it, maybe it was best that only he knew of the woman's... difficulties? He placed his hand to his chin and looked to the window, trying to figure out when next his path might cross with that of Ivona's sister...

But the door opened and closed again before he'd had much of a chance to think. Sextus sighed. Today just wasn't his day, was it? "Yes?"

"Father." To his dismay, it was a male voice. Sextus turned around to see a tall young man making his way toward him. His hair was a shocking shade of red and he walked with a slight shuffle. Somehow, he looked a little familiar. "You remember me, right?"

Err... "Uh, well..."

"Searle Andronei."

That didn't help. "Who?"

"The Baron of Hoprine's second son."

Still nothing.

"My mother is your first cousin."

No, that still wasn't ringing any bells... Oh! Laughing at his own lapse in memory, Sextus clapped his hands together. Now he could recall how he knew this youngster! "A-ha! Didn't I buy some magic mushrooms from you on my way back from Rome last November?"

The young man blinked. Then again. Again. Then, finally-- "Sure. Why not?"

Sextus grinned. Even if his charm had failed him earlier, it was good to know that his mind, at least, was sharp as ever. "I knew I knew you from somewhere! Say, do you happen to have any on you right now?"

"No. I just sold my last pouch to some kid in the village." He sighed, his eyes rolling upward to the ceiling. Maybe he'd just downed a pouch himself. "Anyway, I'm staying at the local inn for a few days. Falidor let me in before he left for the night, but I can't find Lord Severin or any of his family, so I figured I'd come here and ask you. Do you know where Viridis is?"

Viridis. That was a nice name. But... "Who?"

The young man's eyes nearly popped out of his sockets. Those must have been some damn strong mushrooms. "Lord Severin's daughter."

"As of March, Lord Severin has five daughters."

The visitor caught his lip between his teeth. "The second one."

"And which one is that?" Their faces flashed across his mind's eye--as they did on occasion--but no names came to mind. "The dark-haired one with the great ass, the blonde with the nice tits, the redhead who'd probably be wildfire in the sack, or the quiet one who's bound to have a secret kinky side?"

Jesus Christ. Not even mushrooms could produce that sort of mind-blown glaze. Damn kid must have had access to something stronger; Sextus supposed he would have to inquire. "...She's the blonde."

Well, that was convenient. He had no idea where the hell the other three might have been. "Oh, she'd be in bed right now. Poor girl passed out during supper a couple nights ago and hasn't had more than a minute of consciousness since."



May 22, 2011

In Which Laralita Is Barred from the Beautiful Place

May 1, 1174

This had once been her bedroom. This had been her bed, her hearth, her poorly-placed stain-glass window. She'd lost her maidenhood in that bed. She'd conceived three children in that bed and birthed two of them there as well. She'd slept in that bed every night for eight years.

The night after the last, she'd tucked her boys into that bed. The baby had fallen asleep as soon as his head touched the pillow, as always. Little Piglet had been more difficult. He'd fidgeted and kicked off the blankets and stared up at her after she'd finished singing his lullaby, asking why he had to go to bed when she didn't. She'd told him she would be joining them in a few minutes, that she was just craving a biscuit and would be dashing down to the kitchen. He'd asked if he could have a biscuit too. She'd scolded him, but told him she'd bring him one.

She did go down to the kitchen that night. She did eat her biscuit, and she did grab a second one for him. She'd made her way through the castle, fully intent on returning to the bedroom and indulging her naughty little child with sweets he shouldn't have been having just before bed. But she'd ended up in the stables instead. She'd been three hours away before she'd remembered the biscuit in her cloak pocket.

The room hadn't changed much--only its occupants. Searle and Ren sat by the fire, on the rug instead of on the couch, quiet after all those hours of intermittent moaning and gasping and the headboard banging against the wall. They were touching, leaning against each other, fondling each other's hair like Laralita and Karlspan had never done. It was nice to see love in this room. They made it seem like a beautiful place, even in their shameless post-coital calm.

"Searle. Ren."

Ren paid her the briefest glance before turning her eyes back to the fire, but Searle's gaze lingered, half-obscured by his wife's forearm. She couldn't see his mouth; just one dark blue eye, unblinking, unwavering, unforgiving. "Mother."

He didn't ask why she'd come, but she felt inclined to answer anyway. "I just wanted to see how you were feeling."

Searle sniffed. "Fine, thanks to your friend."

Talking to Searle had been so difficult when he'd visited Naroni, but she'd learned the trick since then. She saw it with her stepson and his wife every time they spoke. It wasn't what they said. It was what they didn't say. "Searle..."

"I take it you're here for my gratitude?" The accusation left a sting far worse than any hive her brothers had knocked down back in the day. Laralita froze. Searle seemed to take that as a 'yes'. "Then you may have it. Thank you for bringing him here. There--you can leave now."

She didn't move. Every word out of his mouth was an arrow and she was a bright red target, but Searle wasn't the only one with things to say. "I'm sorry."

Ren's grasp tightened; meanwhile, Searle closed his eyes and sighed. "Are you?"

Laralita dug the nail of her thumb into the flesh of her palm. She hated blood and scratches and uneven fingernails, but somehow it was easy to forget that. "What do you mean?"

"You're Queen of Naroni. You married the love of your life. You have a hoard of children who are all more exciting and sociable and beautiful than bland, reclusive, ugly old me. You have a new life and you find it preferable to the one you had with Ietrin and me. You're not sorry at all."

But it was so much more complicated than that! Yes, she loved Roderick. Yes, she loved her children with Roderick. And oh hell yes, she loved being queen. But she loved Searle and Ietrin too. Why didn't Searle see that? "But I am."

"Pardon my skepticism, but I doubt that."

This had been uncomfortable from the beginning, but it was crossing the line into the realm of the unbearable. Laralita tugged at her braid--something she'd never done in her life. "I never meant to leave you."

"But you did anyway."

The phrase was a door slammed shut in her face. She could try jiggling the handle, but she had a feeling it was locked from the other side. "Forgive me?"

Searle said nothing. Laralita wasn't a clever woman and she knew it, but the obvious answer hung in the silence and she couldn't have missed it. "You won't."

His lip curling inward, Searle turned away from her and stared into the imaginary depths of the dancing flames. "I can't."

The room was no longer such a beautiful place. There might have been love here, but it was shaded by something else. Something darker, something heavier, something that took hold of the sides of her heart and slowly tore them to the sides. She couldn't look at him like this, all distant and untouchable and aloof. "I see. Goodnight, Piglet."

"I thought I told you never to call me that again."

"My apologies." She turned around and crossed the same old floorboards to the same old door, stepping out into the same old hallway and pushing it back to the same old frame. She leaned back against the same old wall and listened. Searle might insult her behind her back. Ren might break her silence and rant. Little Karlspan might toddle in from the nursery and ask for another bedtime story.

But the only thing she heard was a muffled sob.