June 28, 2011

In Which Riona Gives the Chance

February 16, 1175

The girl locked the door and hurried to the bed, setting herself down on the side nearest the room's lone candle. She must have thought that her client wanted the better view of her naked body--and to be fair, most of her clients probably did.

God, this was awkward. There was a table against the wall opposite the bed and it was probably just as sexually appealing. At least Isidro had provided enough money for a private room; it wasn't the end of the world if Riona made a fool of herself in front of some random prostitute, but in front of Isidro and Bernardo?

If only Casimiro had come along. Why did he have to be such a gentleman? Surely he could have spared her this embarrassment...

"Well? Are you coming or not?"

Coming... Ironic. She would have snickered had she been in a laughing mood, but she only closed her eyes and grimaced. It was all she could bring herself to do. "Uh..."

She had to find a way to get out of this. She was old enough and curious enough to know that some boys fucked boys and some girls fucked girls, but she felt neither the need nor the desire to try it for herself. And even if she had... how did that even work? At least boys had what her brothers laughingly referred to as 'the back entry'. But shit, how the hell did those girls do it? Did they just sort of open their legs and... scissor?

"I don't have all night, you know."

Ah, maybe she'd have to be blunt about it, if only for the other girl's sake. She'd just explain the situation, give her a quick 'thank-you-but-no-thank-you', then maybe wait a couple minutes before leaving, if only to avoid suspicion. Yes... that seemed like the best way out. What reason would this girl have to let her secret out of the bag anyway?

Trying to fit the words together in her head, Riona turned around and looked at her companion--only to catch sight of something around the girl's finger glinting in the candlelight.

"You're married?"

Otherwise stiffened, the girl glanced down at her hand, her eyes quiet and subdued as if the light had been snuffed right out of them. "Widowed."

The word was spoken in an unpracticed whisper, like she hadn't said it often and felt uncomfortable doing so. Poor girl. She couldn't have been much older than Riona herself. Maybe she'd married a childhood sweetheart, lived poorly but happily for a short time and had then been left with nothing. Maybe that was why she was here in the first place. Maybe no one had given her a chance to grieve.

Still not quite sure of herself and maybe a little hesitant, Riona dragged the toe of her boot back and forth across the floorboards. "Do you want to talk about it?"


June 27, 2011

In Which Isidro Resorts to Desperate Measures

February 16, 1175

"Wait, is this...?"

Riona's forced voice wavered before letting the phrase hang. Isidro took to massaging his wrist in an effort to look occupied. It had been cruel to bring her here, but she'd left him little choice. He'd already spent long hours banging on bathhouse doors while lamenting loudly how long she took to wash herself. He'd made observations about hand gestures and the way she walked, only to watch her grow more conscious of such mannerisms. He'd even swiped the rags from her room and watched in agony as she floundered for an excuse as to why she needed them back.

It was so obvious. It was frankly a miracle that none of his idiot cousins had figured out who she was, much less his father--and the longer Riona stayed with them, the more likely it was that one of them would. That was a risk they could not take; as little as he liked Riona, he did not want to know what his father might do if he found out that the 'spirited young boy' tagging along after them wasn't a boy at all.

He didn't want to tell Riona that he knew. He'd have to if he couldn't force a confession out of her, but that would no doubt involve tears and sobs and perhaps his father storming upstairs and knocking on the door, demanding to know what was going on. No, it had to look like a misunderstanding. He had to make her uncomfortable without seeming like that was his intent. He wanted her to reach her breaking point, to pull him aside privately and tell him to stop, to confess when she couldn't give any better reason for asking. If she did that, he could just send her on her way and tell the others that 'Searle' had left on 'his' own accord; no hard feelings, no explosive reaction on the part of Domingo, nothing.

But she had failed to work with him so far and he was running out of patience. This was a desperate measure. "Seems a shame to be on the road for so long without even getting laid, doesn't it?"

"Looks like the night's just getting started too," added Bernardo as he pried his eyes off a blond fondling her client's cock under cover of his tunic. "The clothes haven't even come off yet."

Nodding, Riona grimaced--a good sign. People didn't grimace when they were enjoying themselves. "Err... I noticed."

She scuffed her boot against the floorboards. Maybe this was the part where she dashed out the door and he chased after her, demanded to know what the problem was, heard it told straight. She'd been playing with fire long enough.

But she didn't move. Some foreign emotion tugging his heart downward, Isidro looked her over. She was tall and gangly for a girl her age and flat-chested even without the binding, but he didn't see how that alone had managed to fool everyone. They must have never gotten a good look at her face. She was too pretty to be a boy.

"Are you a virgin, Searle?"

Her thick lashes reared back and the blue of her eyes swelled past their sockets. "...eh?"

"I take that as a 'yes'."

Mortified, Riona's mouth fell agape. She was slipping. She had no idea how to get out of this and they both knew it. The only way out was to run--she must have realized that.

But if so, why were her feet so firmly planted? Was she too afraid to move? Or was she just too damn stubborn for her own good? "Uh..."

"So... are you boys just planning on standing here all night or what?"

The speaker was a girl who must have approached from one of the benches. She was dark and petite, with startling eyes and soft features. She was attractive enough to make a man look like a fool for rejecting her. She'd do.

Grinning, Bernardo sized the girl up, then sent a wink Riona's way. "I bet she's good."

The girl laughed. "So I've been told."

Yes--she'd do. Isidro pulled a small sack of coins from his belt and tossed it back to Riona. She was already spending more than she could afford on private rooms; no reason she should have to fund her own humiliation.


June 25, 2011

In Which Riona Is Mocked by the Eyes

February 16, 1175

"Just a second!"

Riona pulled Lonriad's tunic over her head and pushed the drawer shut. What good was a private room if she couldn't even have ten minutes without someone banging on the door? She'd been about to turn in for the night. She'd been about to curl up in bed with a board and a quill and a fresh sheet of parchment she'd swiped from the market and write home--just a quick note, something vague, telling her family not to worry. Of course, the question would have been how to get it back to Naroni, how to get it to her father without actually addressing it to him... but it was the thought that counted, right?

At least, that was what she'd have to tell herself if the interruptions continued. At least it was probably just Casimiro. "All right, make it quick."

"All right." Damn. It wasn't Casimiro, but Isidro.

Riona groaned. "What do you want?"

"No need to bite my head off." He shut the door and shuffled toward her, his right foot dragging as it often did. "I just noticed that you headed up here a little early and couldn't help but wonder why."

"Oh, I don't know--to get some sleep, maybe?" Christ, couldn't he just leave it at that? The way she was being treated by all of them except Casimiro, she'd figured no one would have noticed her leaving. Then again, Isidro was a bit uncanny. "We have to be on the road pretty early tomorrow."

Beneath the most prominent of his scars, his dark brow arched. "We just had supper."

"Yes, well, I'm a bit tired."

"You're never tired." How could he look so smug without smiling? Asshole. "Look, let's get something straight here. You don't like me and I don't like you, but we're stuck together as long as you choose to stay with my party, so we might as well get used to it. Anyway, I'm here to extend the olive branch."

...Eh? The only olive branch she could think for him to extend was to leave. She wanted to get comfortable. She wanted to figure out what to do about this letter. She wanted to get out of these disgusting clothes. But this was a man who did not like to make things simple. "All right..."

"Bernardo and I were going to head down to this little place just outside the village. Care to join us?"

A chilling panic spread from her core to the ends of her limbs. Just her and Isidro and Bernardo? Bernardo was all right, but it wasn't as if they were friends, and of course Isidro... "Uh... what about the others?"

Isidro shrugged. She might have gotten more of a response had she asked for a fucking bedtime story. "Oh, Augustin and my father have better things to do, and Casimiro doesn't really care for what we have in mind."

Somehow, that didn't sound promising. "Why doesn't Casimiro want to go? Is it something unsavory? Something he's too much of a gentleman for?"

Pushing a strand of thick dark hair to the side, Isidro sniffed. "That's one way of putting it, perhaps... but surely you wouldn't be opposed to bit of youthful hi-jinx? Would you, Searle?"

Maybe this was what Isidro was good for. He seemed to take every opportunity possible to remind her of her supposed identity, to make her think about what this 'Searle' would do. Was Searle opposed to youthful hi-jinx? "No..."

"Good." Isidro flipped back his hair, the soft candlelight of the room playing on his face in such a way that he was almost pretty; shame that his eyes were mocking her. "Bernardo's waiting downstairs. Grab some money and we'll go."


June 23, 2011

In Which Nora Does All She Can

February 1, 1175

"Finally got them to sleep?"

"Mmmm." Nora glanced back at the nursery door, half-expecting Falidor or CeeCee to start crying again. Her children with Severin had never been the easiest of sleepers, but Riona's disappearance had further offset their rhythms. So much for being too young to understand what was going on.

On the couch, Severin slumped forward. He caught himself with one raised hand and moaned. "Almost a month now and still no word. If they can sleep at all, I envy them."

Nora sighed. They were past the initial panic but the reality was beginning to sink in and waiting for news from the scouts was agony. It wasn't too late to hope that Riona would come back. It wasn't too early to consider that she might not. She collapsed into the empty seat beside her husband and wrapped her fingers around his free hand. "She's tough like her father."

"Her father's not so tough." Severin pushed himself upright, only to slouch back against the frame. She couldn't remember the last time she'd seen him smiling. Hell, she couldn't even remember the last time she'd smiled. "She's so young and so reckless and we don't even know which route they were taking."

She wished there was something she could say to him, but after nearly a month she had yet to find much. His pretty, headstrong daughter was out there somewhere, all alone where he couldn't keep an eye on her and nothing Nora could do could change that. "Severin..."

Severin shook his head, which was fine by her. She wasn't sure what she'd been about to tell him anyway. "Do you think she wouldn't have run off if I'd--"

"No." It wasn't the first time he'd asked it and she hadn't changed her answer. Severin was not a bad father. Riona was headstrong and had often pushed his buttons, but he'd never been cruel. He could have been much stricter with her, but Nora knew firsthand how difficult that could be. It was a sensitive thing, dealing with someone who held such a place in the heart. "You did nothing wrong."

He didn't believe her. He never did and she knew it, but at least he didn't protest. She wouldn't have known how to respond and he probably wasn't sure how to start in the first place. "I just want to keep her safe."

"I know." A tear welled in her eye as Nora edged nearer and wrapped her arms around his neck. It was all she could do and it didn't even make a difference. "I'll tell Falidor to send out a couple more scouts, all right? Maybe they were planning on boarding a ship in France."


June 21, 2011

In Which Riona Invents a Boy

January 11, 1175

All three brothers had the same eyes startling eyes--deep sapphire blue with a ring of gold around the pupil--the sort of eyes Riona's more romantic friends had spent their girlhoods dreaming of. But while Casimiro's were kindly and Bernardo's were playful and twinkling, there was something strange about Augustin's, something a little sinister. A chilling twitch shot down her spine, but she tried to keep a straight face. She'd already taken the painstaking step of stealing some of her brother's training garb; if she had to suffer the indignity of smelling like a boy, then it would be a waste if she didn't look and sound and act like one too.

And boys weren't supposed to tremble.

"Sorry, who are you?"

...Shit. She'd been on the road for two days and everything had gone according to plan. She'd eavesdropped at the door of Casimiro and Isidro's room, learned the route they planned to take. She'd stolen away from the castle that night and gone on ahead of them, made it to this little inn in the no man's land between Naroni and Dovia, seen them arrive some hours later. All the while, she'd managed to pass. She was lanky and angular and flat-chested. She'd spent enough hours of her life faking voices through doors that she could sound like a boy if she cared to. She hadn't had any problem fooling anyone so far.

But no one had asked for her name.

"Uh... my name is... Searle." If nothing else, it was the most common name in the area. It was a noble name, but commoners had been known to name their children for their lords on occasion, and the closest Dovian region was Bandera--where her cousin of that name was earl. "I heard you mention something about a crusade, and you're a small party, so I thought I might offer my services."

Somehow, she could feel Isidro's charcoal eyes boring into the side of her skull. She tried to brush that thought aside and focus on Augustin--who smirked. "How old are you, boy?"

"Fourteen," she answered promptly, realizing a second too late that it might not have been the right answer. Shit. Riona was fourteen... but how old was this Searle? Maybe he was tall for his age. Maybe he was late sprouting hairs on his chin. Maybe she should have given this a little more thought...

The sound of a clearing throat came from behind her and to her right. It was too gruff to be from Casimiro; it must have been old Scarface behind him. "Do your parents know where you are, Searle?"

There was something about the way he said the name that alarmed her--but she couldn't dwell on it. She had to be alert, had to be aware. Did Searle's parents know where he was? No. He was an orphan. "Don't have any parents."

"Oh?" It was a sneer. In spite of herself, she couldn't help but look at him, standing there behind his more personable, more attractive cousin, some spectral shadow leering at her from behind the cover of his own lack of humaness. "Are you from the southeast corner of Naroni, by any chance?"

The blood in Riona's veins chilled to thick red ice. How had he guessed...?

"Because you know who you look like?" he continued, the look in his eyes oddly reminiscent of her cat's when he caught a mouse and toyed with it--right before wolfing it down. "That redhead whose wife Bernardo kept ogling at breakfast yesterday. What's-his-face--Lord Severin's son."

"Jadin?" Wait... was it strange that Searle knew his name? No--no, maybe not. If Searle was from Veldora, then he would have known who Jadin was... surely?

By some stroke of fortune, the brothers didn't seem suspicious; there was something about the way Isidro nodded, however, that unnerved her. "Yes, him. From the looks of you, he could be your brother."

Augustin sniffed. "Maybe Lord Severin has a few bastards running around."

Riona's nails ground against the skin of her palms as she clenched her fists. Her father probably did have a few bastards running around--what man didn't, after all? But none her age... no. No, he had loved her mother too much. He wouldn't have... would he? No. "I don't like what you're implying, sir."

If anything, this only seemed to amuse Augustin further. "Can't say I blame you there. The man seemed downright mad when we met him, didn't he, boys?"

Bernardo and Casimiro exchanged an awkward glance as Riona tried to restrain herself from punching their brother. How dare he insult her father. Furious but not wanting to appear so, she turned back to the other boys. Neither of Augustin's brothers seemed intent on saying anything, but Isidro's misshapen mouth cracked open. "Who isn't mad these days? Anyway, I think we're fine as we are. Go home, kid."

Figured that he would say that. Annoyed, Riona glanced at Casimiro--nice, reliable Casimiro--who indulged her with a smile. "I don't know, I kind of like him. 'Nardo?"

Bernardo shrugged. "It might be nice to have someone to boss around. Augustin? What do you think?"

The older brother took his time in answering. Riona's eyes darted amongst the party--Bernardo, Casimiro, her new arch-nemesis--before settling once more on Augustin. Another moment passed before he finally answered. "I never thought I'd say this, but I agree with Isidro. Sorry, kid. You seem like a fine enough boy, but crusades are for men."

Ah... maybe she should have seen it coming. A girl her age could pass for a boy, but a grown man? That was another thing entirely--and yet, no one was going to let her join them if she didn't. If she wanted to go any further, then her only way was to ride on alone...

"On second thought--" Interrupting Riona's mental process, Isidro stepped around his cousin and planted himself in front of her. Good Lord, such monstrosity was distracting. His face made it difficult to focus. "--maybe we should keep this one around a while longer."

...eh? "Err... you mean it?"

Isidro's scarred lips twitched. He'd probably never been closer to a smile in his life and she didn't think that meant anything good. "Of course I do. I'm sure you could make yourself useful somehow."

There had to be a catch to this. Isidro wouldn't have been being so nice to her if there wasn't. But at the same time... well, it did beat going alone... "Thank you, Izzy."

On the side, Bernardo snickered; Isidro raised an eyebrow. "What did you just call me?"

Well... at least she had a button to press later? Still, it probably wasn't the best immediate repayment. "Sorry, I... I just thought 'Isidro' was a bit of a mouthful."

His cousins continued to chuckle to themselves. Scowling, Isidro crossed his arms and stared a her. "It's three syllables. Your own name arguably has the same number... see-AR-ul." The word was so forced she couldn't have considered that it was what he'd wanted to say. It was uncanny. It was frightening...

...and yet...

"Don't apologize. But for the record--call me that again and you're on your own."


June 20, 2011

In Which Bernardo Lets It Stay

January 11, 1175

"Looks like Isidro's horse has made a friend," mused Bernardo as his cousin's pinto nuzzled the perlino mare to his right. "Christ, have you ever seen a more even-tempered stallion? I've seen old milk cows more aggressive than this one."

Augustin sniffed. "'Nardo, it's Isidro's horse. Like that kid would go anywhere near a horse worth the trouble."

"Would you, though?" Bernardo placed his hand on the back of his neck and rubbed. He himself was not the most sensitive of people, but where Augustin was concerned, even he felt the need to compensate. "If what happened the last time he was near a 'horse worth the trouble' happened to you?"

"Of course I would." Augustin sneered down his oversized nose as he always did; it wasn't quite so impressive while he was seated, but the smug sentiment that came with it was the same as ever. "As would any man worthy of his own name. That's why Uncle is considering naming me his heir."

...eh? That was a surprise. Then again, it wasn't. "But what about Is--?"

Augustin shrugged. "What about him? Look, I have a certain amount of... pity for the kid too, but surely it's not so difficult to understand that a man such as our uncle might not want to bequeath everything he owns to a scrawny little half-Saracen with a bit of a limp, a big ugly scar and a morbid fear of horses."

"Yes, but..." But what? Men like Domingo weren't apt to favor boys solely on the basis of them being his sons. On the contrary, perhaps that made boys like Isidro seem like even more monumental of failures. Unable to find his argument, Bernardo crossed his arms and slouched as best he could on a bench without a back. "I don't know. It just doesn't seem right that the kid might get nothing."

His brother replied with a deft wave of his hand. "Maybe. Then again, I can't imagine he expects much out of life at this point."

"No, I really don't."

Bernardo's throat ran dry as Isidro prowled out of the inn, shuffling somewhat as he always did in the cooler months, a grim Casimiro at his heels. How much of that had Isidro heard? Enough. The kid's expression was inscrutable. Maybe Augustin was right. Maybe there was a point past which one simply did not care and it was well behind Isidro. "Cousin..."

"Oh, shut up, Bernardo. My father already told me." Isidro turned away and stepped toward the corral fence and placed his hand on his horse's nose. Bernardo stood and took a few steps toward his cousin, but stopped short near the center of the path. Knowing Domingo, he had already told Isidro--twice, no doubt. Twice... a week... since the accident. And knowing Isidro, he hadn't said a damn thing. He probably wanted it to stay that way. "Anyway, he'll be done puking up last night's dinner soon. You'd better start packing up."

"Already done." With all the grace of a duke or earl, Augustin rose to his feet and spread his gaze amongst the rest of them: Bernardo... Casimiro... "Don't get me wrong, I love a good crusade as much as anyone, but I would prefer it if this one were efficient; I do have a pretty young intended to go home to, after all."

Casimiro's hand balled into a fist. Swallowing, Bernardo cast a wary glance Isidro's way, but his cousin only turned away from the horses and looked Augustin in the eye. "Congratulations, then."

Augustin smirked. "Thank you, Cousin. Now, how about we go upstairs and get our things, then saddle the horses and--"

"Uh... hello."


June 17, 2011

In Which Vera Acts by Pointless Instinct

January 10, 1175

Vera's sister was not the sort of person who required much sleep. She was the last to bed most nights and the first up most mornings and rarely if ever did she break that pattern. Was she ill, maybe? Or was she just waiting for those crusaders to leave? Either way...

"Riona!" Vera banged her fist against the door and stomped her foot. Christ, how long had she been at this? Too long. "Come on, just get up already!"

Not even a snore. "Are you even alive in there?"

If she was, she didn't seem all that concerned about proving it. Vera knocked a few more times, then leaned forward in her exasperation, catching herself by means of her hand against the door. "Riona? Come on, you've got to be awake by now! Stop ignoring me!"

As if that would have worked. God! Riona was stubborn enough on her good days, but now... "Seriously, don't make me go in there."

The silence persisted as if to challenge her. It wrapped around her limbs and gnawed at her being until she couldn't take it anymore; she grabbed hold of the handle and pushed through the door. "All right, Riona, you asked for--"

No--she hadn't asked for anything. Her eyelids oblivious to the laws of gravity, Vera stumbled back and gasped. "Riona!"

It was only by instinct that she called out her sister's name. She knew that she needn't have done so.

There was no one in the room to hear it.