July 30, 2011

In Which Riona Finds It Isn't Awkward

July 16, 1175

"Nice day, isn't it?"

Casimiro must have been anticipating Riona's arrival. He'd been staring at the door when she'd eased through. He must have been staring at it beforehand. Then again, maybe he hadn't been expecting. Maybe he'd been hoping.

Riona know all about that. She'd been hoping too. "Very."

Casimiro smiled that shy little smile of his. It was cute enough indoors, but to see it in the sunlight was a sight to behold indeed. "I take it everyone else is packing up?"

"Mm-hmm." And good thing she herself was already packed--otherwise Isidro would have been liable to burst through the door and ruin this moment with a scolding. "Izzy's so neurotic. He always thinks he's forgotten something."

That grin told her he knew what she was talking about. Of course he did. He'd known Isidro a hell of a lot longer that she had. Stupid, stupid, stupid... "And yet, he never does."

So true. Riona snorted. "Ironic."

"On the contrary, perhaps it's not so ironic at all." Casimiro flipped his bangs out of his face and placed a hand on Riona's shoulder. "But as long as it gives us time, hmmm?"

Was this it? Was this the part where he told her he'd known all along? Where he took her in his arms and kissed her so hard she thought her lips were about to fall off?

Something like that.

"...huh." Wait... was that it? She'd kissed before--little lip-locks in exchange for small favors, maybe a bit of self-indulgent practice, a few dares and a couple lost wagers--but this... well, this wasn't any different. She'd expected something more. Something earth-shattering. But maybe a person had to start at the bottom of the ladder with every partner? Yes. That was it. The next one would be better. "Wow."

"I know, right?" Casimiro started to wink, but as his eye came to a close, a funny curve appeared on his mouth. "Wait, why did your voice suddenly go so high?"

Uh... what was he talking about? "Err..."

"Wait... Riona?" His eyes widened as he leaned in for a closer examination of her face. "Riona of Veldora?"

Oh. Well. This was awkward.

Then again, maybe not so much.


July 28, 2011

In Which Octavius Tests the Approach

July 5, 1175

Octavius dropped the stylus and looked up from the half-finished letter. It was always difficult to concentrate in the guest chambers, if only because of what his presence there meant. Holladrin was not having one of her better nights. Widow Fedurin had been summoned and the first thing she'd done upon arrival was exile him from the room. A woman's job this, You'll just be uncomfortable that...

Uncomfortable. Of course he was uncomfortable. That was his wife up there. But maybe the knock on the door was a good sign. "Yes?"

"Can I come in?"

It was Sparron. Weary, Octavius pushed himself to his feet. Sparron wouldn't know how Holladrin fared, but some company might not have been disagreeable just then. "As you wish."

The hinges moaned and Sparron stepped inside with a slow, labored tread. Everything he did these days was slow and labored. Even the way he shut the door was reluctant. "Can I ask you something?"

His son's blue-gray eyes had grown more spectral of late and the room's eerie light helped little. Poor boy probably crumbled to pieces every time Octavius turned his back. It was beyond agony, what Sparron's world had become, and while Octavius needed an answer, he had his suspicions and wasn't sure he wanted them confirmed. But whatever the case, who was he to refuse? What sort of father turned his back on a child in need and retained the gall to call himself a man? "Always."

He smiled, or at least as best he could considering Holladrin's ailment and Sparron's troubles. Sparron made no effort to return it--not like that was a surprise. "What happened to my mother?"

Oh. That couldn't have been the whole story. It wouldn't have gone on for so long had that been the case. Or would it? Surely... surely Sparron trusted him enough to ask about Medea? He hadn't kept any secrets. Maybe he hadn't told Sparron and Jeda all the messy little details, but if they had asked...

"You know what happened, son. She went mad."

Sparron wasn't satisfied. How could he be? It was a riddle without an answer. "What sort of mad? Did she ever... blank out? Think irrationally? What about voices? Did she hear voices?"

Voices? Oh God. "Sparron..."

"Do you want to know the earliest thing I can remember?" His lip was quivering. His sandy hair rustled as he began to shake. Octavius tried to steady him by taking hold of his arm, but Sparron pushed him aside. He'd never liked being touched. Medea had been the same way. "It... it's her. I'm in my crib and Jeda's crying and she's sh-shouting at you, something about s-somebody singing. But--but n-nobody was s-sing... sing..."

He didn't finish. He just collapsed into a shivering mass of muffled sobs, face in his hands, tears leaking out from the corners of his eyes. It was the first bit of real emotion he'd dared show in years and Octavius didn't know just what to make of it. The cracks of the world were beginning to split. "Please d-don't let that happen to me."

Oh God. His baby. His poor, stoic, long-suffering little Sparrow. How he wished he could make it all go away. "Sparrow..."

"Help me!" His sobs were growing as his body seemed to shrink further and further within his loose lounge clothes. Not sure what else he could do, Octavius reached around his son's shoulders and pulled him a little closer. He wanted to help. He needed to help.

He just didn't know how.

"D-daddy... please..." Sparron lifted his face, if only for a minute, his eyes moist and salty as the coastal air. All those years of Medea and all these years of Sparron and Octavius had never looked into those eyes to find such desperate, primal horror. "I'm so scared..."

Never before had Sparron swallowed enough pride to admit to that, not even as a child. Octavius was a father of six. He knew that every boy and girl required their own specific approach and he'd thought he'd known how to handle Sparron. Maybe he'd needed to swallow some pride. He didn't even know if he should admit that he was scared too.

"Nothing is going to happen to you, baby." He couldn't promise that. No--he could. He would. Somehow. He had to. "We'll find a way to make it better. You hear that? Nothing is going to happen to you."


July 26, 2011

In Which Jadin Confirms the Other Half of the Story

July 4, 1175

"Barging into my bedroom now, are you?"

Shrugging, Jadin kicked the door shut behind him. Cold avoidance was an art and Sparron was a virtuoso, but one of these days, he was going to get something out of him--and with any luck, that day would be today. "You don't look like you're doing anything."

"No, but perhaps you have something better do to."

"Frankly, I don't." Christ, how had Searle put up with this for years--and on such a larger scale, at that? And at least Jadin had a sense of the other half of the story. He doubted Searle had a clue and he wasn't sure he wanted to change that. "All you do is sit around and wallow in your own misery and drain everyone else like some emotional vacuum and someone needs to put his foot down. So, that's what I'm doing. I'm not leaving until you get something off your chest and that's final."

He felt himself smiling smugly. Lyssa wasn't old enough to be lectured, but for his first time, he thought he'd sounded rather impressive. But his pride was short-lived; Sparron killed it with a roll of his eyes. "Then I guess you'll be stuck here for quite a while."

What a stubborn ass. No wonder sensitive little Searle had come home in tears all those times. But as he would readily admit--albeit for different reasons--Jadin was not Searle. Jadin was a stubborn ass too. "Come on, have you even thought this through at all? If I had a problem with you--you being--what you do--well, you know... ah, whatever. Point is, if I wanted to ruin your life, don't you think I would've done so by now?"

Sparron just looked at him. How did he not see it? He'd been solving complex puzzles with ease when Jadin had still been struggling with subtraction. He played strategy games with the lords and knights and captains and wiped the floor with the lot of them. He was the most meticulous, methodical person Jadin knew. How had he not considered that? "Like I have a life left to ruin."

Oy. Poor Searle. "Aww, Sparrow--"

"Don't call me that." A tense second dragged on before Sparron's gaze fell upon the empty hearth in front of him. Everyone said that Sparron had his mother's eyes. Jadin had never known Sparron's mother but he'd heard enough to make some educated guesses. "You should leave."

No... no, he shouldn't. Shaking his head, Jadin took a seat on the empty side of the couch and studied his old friend--glazed eyes, vacant expression, everything. Anger, and then this, and then more anger. It was just as Jadin's father had said, all of it. All of it, and perhaps even more. "That's not the only thing on your mind, is it?"

"There's nothing on my mind." It was a quick answer. Too quick.

Too quick, and not quick enough. "I saw it, you know--last week, when I came to try to talk to you and you stormed out of your father's study. I followed you for a minute."

Sparron's knuckles whitened as his fingers coiled inward. Jadin half-expected a punch--he even winced--but Sparron only closed his eyes. "Why did you do that?"

"Not sure, but I did." Sparron didn't press any further. He'd probably forgotten the incident. Maybe it was stupid of Jadin to remind him, but... "You got to your mother's old sitting room and you paused and looked around, like you thought someone was talking to you." The fist tensed further. Not sure if he could stand to watch it burst, Jadin let his eyes fall to the floor as he mumbled the last few words. "But it was dead quiet..."

He didn't know what came after that, if anything. He wanted Sparron to finish it. He wanted him to protest, to say it was only a mouse or the castle settling or even some sort of tick in his neck, anything.

But Sparron said nothing.

"How long has this been going on?" It didn't matter. It had already been too long. "Does your father know about this? Or Jeda? Maybe someone could still help you at this point."

The words were not believed. Frustrated, Jadin forced himself to look back at Sparron; if he hadn't known better, he might have thought the words hadn't even been heard. "Sparron, please say something. Sparron?"

Sparron stood. He wasn't a large man, but Jadin had never thought him small until just then. Maybe this was how people looked as one gazed at them from a differently world entirely. He never turned around, never bowed his head, hardly even stirred--just drifted further and further into space until Jadin's view was obscured by a passing moon.

Silence. Then--

"Don't tell Searle."


July 24, 2011

In Which Riona Doesn't Get a Present

June 25, 1175

"He actually said that?" Riona raised her hand to her mouth and snickered. "God, your stepfather sounds hilarious."

"He's a character, that's for sure."

"Maybe you should introduce me."

"Maybe I will."

"Maybe you--"

"Keeping my spot warm for me, are you?"

Leave it to Isidro to interrupt a good bit of banter. Riona shot him a glare, but Casimiro chuckled. It was refreshing just how relaxed he was all the time. "Sorry, I figured it was a little early to turn in."

"It is, but my father wants to leave before sunrise." Isidro gestured for Casimiro to get off the bed, then jabbed his thumb in the direction of the door. "You might want to get settled before Bernardo starts snoring."

"If he's already in bed, then he's already snoring." Sure enough, a faint buzzing could be heard from the next room--and only faint because these walls were thicker than most. How did Casimiro manage to stay so well-rested? "Look, why don't you go bunk with Bernardo tonight if you're so concerned about everyone getting a good night's sleep? I can stay here."


"Why not?"

His eyes closed and his fists clenched, Isidro exhaled--long, steady, annoyed. "Because my stuff is here."

Casimiro didn't look convinced, but he must not have cared to argue. Riona wished he would. She got that Isidro was trying to help keep her secret, but it was so obvious--from the way he talked to her, all the time they spent together, everything--that Casimiro already knew. Why couldn't he just let Isidro know that? Hell, why couldn't Isidro just figure it out? "You and your stuff."

"Just get out of here, Cas."

"I'm going, I'm going." Sighing, Casimiro sent Riona a parting wave and stepped into the hall, closing the door behind him. Riona clambered over the bed and punched Isidro's arm as she crossed him on her way to the drawers; he only rolled his eyes and sat down on the bed, where Casimiro had been only seconds before.

"You're wasting your time, you know. You're not his type."

Hmph. Like he knew anything. Riona shot him a rude gesture, then pulled her tunic over her head and flung it into the drawer. "You are not privy to our conversations."

"Yes, but I know Cas and I know you--and I know that if you try something, you're just going to make a fool of yourself."

Bastard. Then again, maybe she was being too hard on him. Poor boy probably didn't know affection if it hit him in the face--not with his upbringing. Riona freed herself from the rest of Lonriad's clothes and shuddered. While Isidro had been good about making sure her boy clothes got laundered, her shift hadn't been washed in ages. She'd have to sleep in her bonds. She kicked off her boots and pushed the drawer shut, then left the dresser and proceeded toward her side of the bed.

"All right, now you've watched me change. Time to return the favor."

She stuck out her tongue at him. Isidro rolled his eyes, but relented and disrobed, flinging his clothes carelessly to the floor. God, men were such pigs. "I hope you know that this isn't a fair deal as long as you still have that binding on."

Case and point. "You're not missing much."

"I don't know, it's been looking tighter and tighter lately." Flopping back onto the bed, Riona smacked him across the arm; he smirked. "Sorry. I'm a man; we notice these things."

"I noticed."

"Happy birthday, by the way."

She blinked. How had he remembered? She couldn't even recall having told him. She hadn't even realized it until he'd said it--although, now that he had, she sort of wished he could take it back. "My mother always said she'd give me something special on my fifteenth birthday." She grabbed a strand of her hair between the tips of her fingers and held it in front of her eyes. It was a lighter red than her mother's had been, but it was all she had. "She died a few months before I turned seven. After my last birthday I kept asking my father what she'd meant by that but he didn't know what she'd had in mind." And after all these years, she couldn't even guess. She'd never known her mother well enough to do so. "I guess no one ever will now."

It probably sounded silly to Isidro. He'd lost his mother at a young age too and he probably thought mysterious presents were a petty concern. All the same, he reached for her hand and gave it a reassuring squeeze. "What about your sisters? Did they get something from her?"

Riona shook her head. "Raia was only eleven."

"I see." He shut his eyes for a moment and allowed himself to breathe. Riona didn't make a habit of pondering the workings of Isidro's mind, but she had to admit that she was curious. Maybe he was thinking about his own mother. Maybe she'd had some gift she'd always meant to give him but never had the chance. Or maybe he was hoping she had.

But if he was thinking of her, his thoughts didn't linger long. "You know what?" He eased himself upward and slung an arm around Riona's shoulder, his skin warm beneath the cover of scratchy hairs. "I think you'll get her present. She probably left your father a note or something--'Open on Riona's fifteenth birthday'."

It was the sort of thought that might have sent Viridis into a swoon, but Riona wasn't a swooning sort of girl. Nevertheless, in her own odd, tragically unromantic way, she found she appreciated it. "That's silly."

"Maybe--but I still think you'll get your present." He kissed her on the cheek, then reached across her with his free hand and slipped his fingers between hers. "And when you get back home, your father will throw you a party, even if it's months away from both this birthday and the next."

It was a nice notion, but that could have been all it was. For all she knew, her father hated her now. Riona sighed and let herself fall back against Isidro's form. He was steadier than she might have expected. "What makes you so sure?"

"Just a hunch--but that's better than nothing, right?" He ran his thumb up and down her shoulder blade, then released her and buried himself beneath the covers. "Now, let's just try to get some rest. I know it's still early, but it won't be long before morning. You're at the age when time starts to run just a little bit faster."


July 22, 2011

In Which Severin Has One Less Uncertainty

June 25, 1175

Severin picked absent-mindedly at the fabric of the couch cushion. This was supposed to be a happy day--a special day. There should have been a banquet tonight. There should have been dances and gifts and more sweets than his children should have been allowed. But no... no, it was just any other day, only made worse by the knowledge that it should have been something more. His little girl was fifteen today and he didn't even know where the hell she was. She could have been dead for all he knew and the last thing he'd said to her was to go to bed.

His girls. Viridis was married and abroad and her letters weren't quick, and now Riona had run off and he could only hope against hope for her return. He saw Raia more days than he didn't, but it wasn't the same as it had been when she'd be living at home. It was only a matter of time before Vera left him too. At least he still had CeeCee... for now. And at least while he had no news, he could tell himself that Riona was fine--unharmed, in good company, enjoying herself. The problem was that he knew better than to believe it.

"Severin?" Nora's light tap on the door was a welcome distraction, but only in the seconds after its fall. She would have news one way or the other and he didn't know how he'd feel about either outcome. Maybe he'd ask her to keep it to herself for today. Then again, maybe that was just one more uncertainty. "Can I come in?"

Repressing a sigh, he pulled himself to his feet. His wife had already seen more of his moping around than he would have preferred. "You don't have to ask."

Nora opened the door just widely enough so that she could slip inside, then shut it behind her. "How are you holding up?"

"Well enough, I suppose." What else could he have said? It was a lie and they both knew it, but sometimes lies were all that kept people from falling apart. "Did Arydath leave?"

"Yes, just now."

"What did she say?"

Those pretty blue eyes vanished beneath a pair of heavy eyelids, a touch of moisture on their dark lashes. "January."

A curious thing, really--just how many ways there were of saying 'yes'. "I see."

"I--I hope you're not thinking I mean it to be a replacement." At the sound of the last word her eyes widened, as if she regretted blurting it out--not that she needed to. The thought stung, but Nora was too kind and too clever to have entertained the idea of 'replacing' Riona. This hadn't been planned on either of their parts. It wasn't an inconvenience but the timing was all wrong. "Arydath even said that she was already getting boy vibes--"

He pressed a finger to her lips. His other hand took to hovering about her middle before landing gently on the soft surface of her gown. She was already a little firm. "Do you think they'll ever meet?"

"Of course they will."

He doubted she meant it but that hardly mattered. It wasn't what he thought to be true but it was what he'd wanted to hear and he'd yet to receive any surefire evidence to the contrary. Maybe if he tried hard enough he could trick himself into believing--for all of their sakes. It wasn't much--it wasn't anything--but at this point, it was the only thing he could do.

Struggling against the sudden weight of his own boots, he took a short step forward and placed a kiss on Nora's brow. "Then let us hope it's soon."


July 20, 2011

In Which Riona's Heart Doesn't Skip

May 17, 1175

"Oh." Riona had thought she'd been discreet leaving the clearing, but she must have been noticed if she'd been followed. It seemed that Casimiro too didn't find the arguments all that restful. "I wasn't expecting company."

Casimiro gave a small, half-forced laugh. "Well, I figure better you than... well, them. At least they're talking, though?"

"I guess." Really, the screams were still audible from here. Riona shook her head. "Even I don't fight with my father like that."

"Your dead father?"

Oh. She'd forgotten about that. Her father was alive and well, but Searle's... "When he was alive, I mean." She wasn't sure if it sounded natural, but if Casimiro was still suspicious, he hid it well. "Why do they hate each other so much, anyway?"

The boy bit his lip. She could tell from the look in his eye that he had an answer. He was just trying to decide how to say it--or if he wanted to. "Well... I wouldn't say they hate each other. They think they do, but that would be too simple. It's more complicated than that."

Riona raised an eyebrow. She knew it probably wasn't her place, but... "How so?"

"It's a sad story." Casimiro pulled a loose string from his sleeve and flicked it to the ground, then glanced toward the leaf-obscured clouds above. "My uncle used to be... I don't know. A hero, I guess. Respected, successful, probably happy... I don't know, it was before my time. He had this wife and I don't know how he felt about her, but she had eight kids and the first seven died really young. She died giving birth to the eighth."


"No--Fortunato." A puzzled sort of flush washed across her face. Was she supposed to have heard that name before? Regardless, she let Casimiro continue, though it might have been kinder to stop him. "I don't know if he loved her--Magdelena--but her death kind of pushed him off the deep end. Everything just went downhill from there--his drinking, his lack of tact, everything.

"Anyway, he was down south some years later on some errand and he got an invitation to a party at the home of one of the Moorish generals. He went, had a little too much to drink, ran into the general's daughter and...

"Well, you can probably guess. He raped her."

A nauseous wave welled in Riona's stomach. She thought she understood. Poor girl--and poor baby. "Izzy."

Somber, Casimiro nodded. "I guess you can fill in the rest of the blanks yourself. Shahira's father found out about the pregnancy, made her marry my uncle, and then she had Isidro. She had some other children after, but they all died and my uncle was cruel, so she ended up hanging herself." Riona shuddered; as if just thinking about it made him weary, Casimiro bowed his head. "Isidro was the one who found her body."

Oh Lord. That explained... well, quite a bit. "Oh my God."

"Exactly." Somewhere above, a bird whistled a bitter note and Casimiro's eyes fell with it. "That's not all, though. Not even a year later, Isidro and Fortunato had an accident trying to ride my uncle's unbroken stallion. Fortunato was killed. Isidro got out of it with all those scars and a broken leg and my uncle never forgave him for it."

What? "For surviving?"

"No--for surviving when Fortunato didn't." A quick, cold gust ruffled through Casimiro's hair. He raised one hand to smooth it down, then shook his head. "Fortunato was the sort of son every man hopes for. He was big and strong and charming; everybody loved him, my uncle and Isidro especially. And he was Magdelena's son--he was well-bred, the grandson of a lord, indisputably Christian. Isidro... well, he's runty and reserved and his mother was a Muslim. It's sad, but it's just how my uncle sees things. That's why he's so hard on him."

There was a note of finality in his voice, which was just as well. Riona wasn't sure how much more she could have taken. This was... bizarre. It was bizarre and chilling and horrible. And she missed her father. "Casimiro..."

"Please don't tell anyone I told you." Wary, Casimiro glanced in the direction of the others and sighed. "I think things have cooled down over there. Don't want to keep them waiting, do we?"

Shaking her head, Riona turned and took a few dragging, heavy steps back toward the clearing. Why hadn't she just minded her own business? Isidro would explode if he ever found out the she knew any of that, she was sure of it--and yet, when they got to the next inn tonight, she doubted she'd be able to keep herself from giving him a hug. He'd probably think she--


Riona stopped. She was probably going to end up answering calls for her brother whenever she got home but that seemed like a petty concern just now. "Yes?"

"I know this probably sounds inappropriate just now, but... I feel really comfortable talking to you." Surprised, she turned around to look at him; he'd sounded embarrassed, but nonetheless he wore a smile. "We'll have another chat soon, right? About something happier?"

So. Casimiro liked spending time with her. She'd figured that knowledge would have made her heart skip, but it didn't. Maybe she was just too bogged down with unexpected pity for Isidro to appreciate it--yes, that had to have been it. The joy would hit her later. "Of course."


July 18, 2011

In Which Hilla Needs Another Name

May 11, 1175

"I'm sure she'll bring home a man."

It was the one consistent belief Rona seemed to hold in regards to Riona's disappearance. Hilla wasn't quite convinced of this, but she let it be; if this was how her friend was coping, then why should she ruin that for her? Not that that was a very practical belief. Then again, when had she ever been practical? And when oh when oh when had Riona ever been practical? "Oh... well, you never know."

"But even if she doesn't, I hope she comes back soon." A wide pout formed on Rona's mouth. Hilla sometimes suspected that the girl practiced in front of a mirror at night, but she had to admit it gave an impressive effect. "Her sitting room is my favorite place to chat."

As if that was the reason. No, Rona just missed their friend, just like Hilla herself did--but it wasn't like she needed reminding of that. "Aww, honey, you don't miss Riona's sitting room; you miss going over to her castle so you can flirt with her brothers."

The usual dreamy look returned to Rona's eyes and Hilla allowed herself an inward sigh. Surely any mention of Riona's brothers could cheer up Rona--she was even grinning. "And I bet you miss going to her castle so you can flirt with her father."

Now Rona was really beginning to sound like herself--a romantic second and a tease first. "Well, can you blame me?"

The younger girl giggled. "But he's so old! He's--I don't know, at least forty!"

"Well, he doesn't look it!" Wary of her friend's raised brow, Hilla turned instead to Rona's maid. "Aspen, help me out here."

"Hmm?" As if only just reminded of her own presence, Aspen jerked her gaze from the empty hearth and returned to her charge of keeping an eye on Rona's niece and nephew. "Lord Severin? Err... I guess?"

Well, if she counted 'hmm' and 'err', then that was four more words than Hilla could usually get out of Rona's maid. Still, some help. If her stepfather ever got her a maid of her own, she'd have to make sure it was a girl of a more talkative variety. How did a dreamy, excitable young lady like Rona not tire of such a stiff, awkward companion? But oh well. Against all odds, Rona actually seemed to like Aspen--and she only had to gesture toward the empty couch cushion beside her to remind Hilla of the fact. "Aspen, dear, please sit with me."

Having been born a peasant and only elevated by her mother's marriage to Sir Tarien, there were many things Hilla had yet to learn about the help, but she didn't think it was customary for maids to sit and chat with their ladies in the presence of company. Nevertheless, Aspen turned away from the babies and shuffled toward Rona's couch, her linen skirts swishing against the floorboards. "As you wish, my lady."

"And none of this 'my lady' nonsense." Rona greeted her maid to the couch with a playful nudge; Aspen's response was little more than a small, tentative smile, but Hilla got the sense that it was more than most people could pull from her. "You know my name."

"Yes, my--uh, Rona."

Satisfied, Rona beamed, then turned back to Hilla, leaving Aspen a chance to look back at the floor beneath their feet. "But really, even if you think her father's the one that's to die for, you must admit her brothers are quite charming--Lonriad especially."

"Yes, but it hardly takes a genius to figure out he's dead gone on Asalaye." Maybe she shouldn't have said it. Hilla's own social standing offered her a wide variety of potential husbands, but young Lonriad was the most coveted of the few remaining bachelors of a suitable age and class for Rona--or at least, if she wanted to stay in Naroni, which Hilla knew for a fact that she desperately did.

But maybe that knowing smirk meant that it wasn't such a horrible transgression? "True. Well, at least that would get her away from your brother and out of your hair, right?"

"Exactly." Hilla tucked a piece of hair behind her ear and glanced toward the ceiling. Oh, how she wished Riona were here; Riona put her foot in her mouth so often that Hilla never found the chance to do so. "But yes, Lonriad is pretty handsome--even though I do still say his father has him beat."

"Good luck getting past Lady Leonora, then." Her eyes rolling to the back of her head, Rona's pout returned. "But really, you're lucky, Hilla. You can have your pick of the men. Lorn won't let me marry anyone lower than a knight. He's already thinking about finding someone for me in Dovia."

She could have seen this coming. They got on this subject every time they talked about boys, even though Rona hated to discuss it. Hilla didn't want to hear about it either. One of her best friends was already gone; she didn't want to lose the other too.

But for now, at least, Rona was still here--and while she was here, Hilla could still reassure her. "Aww, honey, I'm sure any man your brother could find would take one look at you and move his whole life out here if that's what you wanted."

Aspen's apple eyes flickered toward her lady. Meanwhile, Rona sniffed. "I appreciate the sentiment, but you needn't lie to me."

"I'm not lying." She wasn't. The only reason Rona hadn't a man was simply than there weren't many men to have had--and if Aspen's somber look was anything to go by, she knew it too. It was nice to have finally found some common ground there. "You know what? I bet Riona brings back a man for herself--and he brings along a man for you."

That could have been a lie for all she knew, but nonetheless it seemed to give Rona a little bit of hope on two counts. Surely that smile couldn't have come from some horrid sin? Maybe such lies needed a name other than lies. "And a tall, dark, handsome one at that!"