August 30, 2011

In Which Riona Is Home

December 24, 1175


Jadin's arms were around her before she'd even fully registered his voice. She'd never been particularly close to her eldest brother--not closer than she was to any of her other siblings, at any rate--so it was a bit of a shock to think he might have missed her. Then again, maybe it wasn't such a stretch. She'd missed him too. "Jadin! Why the hell are you still up?"

"The guard woke me, stupid; Father's had a long day, so I told the staff to come to me instead if anything needed attention." He tapped her on the nose and grinned like some half-drunk doofus. He hadn't changed a bit. "Of course, seeing as 'anything' turned out to be you, he'll probably have me cleaning the stables tomorrow."

"And the hard work might do you good," sighed Jadin's wife as she emerged from the corridor. "Riona."


Xeta's eyes flitted to Riona's stomach, but she didn't comment, opting instead for a polite smile. At least Jadin seemed to have missed that little detail. "Good to see you back."

"Brought home some friends, I see." Jadin gave Riona a quick pat on the arm, then peered over her head at her two silent companions. Alya was probably asleep; it must have been more complicated for Isidro. "You're Sir Domingo's son, right?"

Riona glanced back over her shoulder and took a quick breath. Grim, Isidro nodded. "And you're Lord Severin's."

"Mm-hmm." Satisfied, Jadin's gaze fell to Alya. "And who is--?"


A dark-haired blur bolted into her, bouncing in place as a pair of skinny arms wrapped themselves around her neck. Was this... her little brother? How was that possible? When she'd left, she'd still been able to hold him; she didn't even want to try to life him now. "Roddie! You've gotten big!"

"And you've gotten fat!" The observation earned him a cuff to the back of the head from Jadin. Apologetic, Roddie rocked back and forth on the balls of his feet. "Don't worry. Mama got fat too--fatter than you did."

In spite of Jadin's threatening glare, Riona snickered. Even Isidro had to chuckle. "Nice to meet you, Roddie."

Roddie paid Isidro a quick glance, then turned back to Riona, brown eyes wide as the day they'd opened. "Who's he? How'd he get that neat scar? Can I have one? Also, why did you bring home a baby? Is she yours? Can I teach her how to spit? Please, please, please?"

Behind him, Riona's eldest stepsister rolled her eyes. "Christ, Roddie, I already regret letting you get up. Anyway, welcome back."

"Thanks, Aldara." Riona ruffled Roddie's hair, then met Aldara with a smile. "It's good to be back."

"Oy! Losers! Thanks for not waking the rest of us!"

It was Lonriad, Vera at his side and the other three stepsiblings in tow. Riona had to roll her eyes. "So much for hoping you might have moved out by now."

Vera and Cuthron exchanged a smirk. Jadin laughed into his sleeve as he brushed past Riona to tend the fire. Lonriad glowered. "Nice to see you too."

Idiot. Still... "Get over here."

He did as he was told, Vera at his heels. Riona landed a half-assed punch on his shoulder, then embraced them each in turn. "I missed all you crazy people."

"Wait--you were gone?"

Roddie jumped for a chance to swat Lonriad, but Vera beat him to it. "Quit fooling around! You'll wake Father and Nora."

"No need."

Riona's tongue rolled to the back of her mouth and dropped to her stomach. She'd been so happy to see her siblings again that she'd--somehow--forgotten her dread of the inevitable reunion with her father.

Well, it had just come screaming back to her.


August 28, 2011

In Which Lonriad Does Something Rude

December 11, 1175

"My lady." Lonriad bowed his head and pressed his lips to Rona's hand. Considering her lack of gloves, it was surprisingly warm. "I hope the ride wasn't too disagreeable?"

Rona beamed like the spring sun--a welcome change from all the snow. Lonriad had to swallow back a surge of guilt. As far as he knew, Rona had been led to believe that the afternoon had been his idea, and while he didn't care to lead girls on it did seem like the best way to go about this. Her brother had spent the last few months pestering Lonriad's father about a match, and while that was the last thing the old man cared to do, he'd managed to get Lorn off his back by suggesting a brief period of 'throw them together and see what happens'. So Lonriad was playing along; on the advice of his father, he'd sent word to Lorn requesting an afternoon with Rona, even though he doubted anything would come of it.

But it wouldn't be a total waste of a day. Even if he didn't feel that way about her, she was a pleasant enough girl.

"Of course not," she answered as the last few flakes drifted downward and settled alongside their fellows. "I daresay the crisp air is quite refreshing. Wouldn't you agree, Aspen?"

Rona's maid gave a disapproving sniff. After Jadin had knocked up Xeta, Lorn had forbidden Rona from going out unchaperoned and it seemed that this time, Aspen had drawn the short straw. Had Lonriad been in Lorn's position, he wasn't sure he'd deem a scrawny fifteen-year-old sufficient supervision, but then again Aspen was a different sort entirely. "Sir."

"Mistress Torgleid." She winced. In her mind, his voice must have sullied her name. He wasn't sure what he'd done to make her dislike him so, but then again he supposed it didn't matter. She was only the help, after all.

"So I can't help but notice that the snow ceases upon your arrival." He plastered on a grin and returned Rona's hand to her side. Her blush was nearly the shade of her cranberry coat. "It would seem the seasons turn on the cue of your smile."

Aspen rolled her eyes; Rona, however, giggled. "Then given recent years, I haven't been smiling enough."

"A pity indeed." He could keep this up all day and she would probably let him--even play along. It was an interesting change, but he wasn't sure how long he could go without tiring of it. Maybe he'd miss Asalaye telling him to knock it off and then having to retaliate with some crack about her nose.

But maybe it was better that way, seeing as Rona's nose was dainty and petite and cute as a button. Even had it not been, what could he say to her? She was a sensitive little thing, a lady--not at all like snippy little rancher's daughters who gave as well as they took.

"I trust you've been well?"

"Well enough since last you saw me." That somehow seemed inefficient. He'd have to try a little harder. "Although I could swear you've grown in beauty since then."

Better. The batting of her eyes was a positive sign. "You do flatter me."

She was a sweet girl, really. Had he been born into some other family, perhaps a betrothal to a girl like Rona wouldn't have been much of a tragedy, but he was the fifth child of a pair of star-crossed soulmates and his four older siblings had all married for love with little or no opposition from their father. If he were denied that chance as well, he might have resented his arranged bride--no matter who she was, how otherwise pleasant he found her. He just wished he could have been honest with her here.

"A blonde and a redhead. Typical afternoon for you, I take it?"

Well. Now maybe he had to be honest with her. "Laya?" Sure enough, a pig-tailed, hook-nosed figure had emerged from the front door and filed down the steps, her face mostly ambiguous but more smug than anything else. "How long have you been here?"

"At least an hour, stupid. My father has business with your father and I tagged along to visit your sister. Guess for once my nose slipped in under yours."

Now this... this was what he'd had in mind. If Rona had possessed any... err, characteristic features, he doubted she would have called any attention to them. He couldn't blame her, though. There just weren't many girls like Asalaye.

Lonriad smirked. "That's no small feat."

"And you should be both impressed and ashamed."

"Don't think I'm not." Beside him, Rona squirmed, fighting to keep a straight face; Aspen, meanwhile, looked the closest she'd been to smiling since she'd arrived. "I see you didn't make the mistake of thinking you could leave without saying hello, though."

Asalaye snorted. For a nose that large, it was a rather inoffensive sound. "More like saying goodbye, dimwit. But if you just plan on standing here all day, I couldn't have hoped to avoid you on the way out."

"Fair enough--plus I can't imagine that nose can get past me twice in one day."

"I wouldn't bet on that if I were you." She snickered, the grin on her face contagious to the point where only Rona seemed immune. Satisfied, she tightened the ties of her cloak. "Well, I'm supposed to meet Cord in the village. See you around, Lonriad."

Rona cleared her throat. "That would be Sir Lonriad to you."

"Why should it be? He's not a knight yet." Before Rona could respond, Asalaye had given Lonriad a pat on the shoulder and had brushed past the horses on the way to the gate. It was probably rude to stare after one girl for longer than a couple seconds if there were others present, but sometimes it was difficult to care.


August 26, 2011

In Which Riona's Cool Is Cancelled

November 16, 1175

"Couldn't resist the call of the snow, I see."

A little embarrassed, Riona pulled herself out of her snow angel and faced Isidro with a sheepish grin. She hadn't meant for him to catch her playing in the snow like a fresh-faced little child, but... "It's been ages since I've seen this much. It almost never snows back home."

"The world's getting colder. It might snow a little more." He trudged onward, pushing up mounds of snow as his boots cut through the unbroken white. Mindful of the angel--obscured somewhat already by the fast-falling flakes--Riona shuffled forth to meet him. "Alya finally wanted a break from her mama?"

In spite of the chill, Riona's face grew warm. A couple weeks back, Alya had taken to referring to her as 'Mama' and she hadn't had the heart to correct her, so the name had stuck. Awkward as it had been at first, though, she'd grown used to it--privately, she found she sort of liked it. Might as well get used to it, she figured as another light wave of nauseous tease washed over her. "She's taking her nap. The innkeeper's little girls are sitting with her. I said for one of them to come get me if she wakes up." A scattering of snowflakes clung to the sleeve of her coat; she brushed them off, then shot him a teasing grin. "She seemed to want you today, though. Kept asking when Papa would be back."

Isidro froze. Somehow, Riona doubted it was the cold. "She's never called me that."

"Well, I'm assuming she meant you." The winter's bite was had introduced to her hands an icy throbbing, so she reached for his; they weren't any warmer, but somehow, the distinct cools cancelled each other out. "She really likes you. I know you worry she doesn't, but she does."

A pinkish tint flashed across his face. She thought it cute but she didn't mention it. He would have brushed it off as the fault of the weather. "I... see."

"Let's keep her."

It was one of those sentences that jumped from the heart to the mouth without making that crucial stop at the brain. She certainly hadn't thought to say it--and from the look on his face, he hadn't expected to hear it. But now that it had been brought up, she didn't think there was any other option. "Why not? We love her, she loves us, and what kind of sick people would we be if we let her lose two sets of parents in the same year?"

She squeezed his hands and waited for him to say something, but he only stared at the sky in contemplation. "Please? My father will probably knight you, so it's not like we won't have the space or the money. Izzy?" Was he even listening? "Izzy? Goddammit Izzy, say something."

He remained silent for a couple seconds, his hands letting go of hers and dropping to his side. He didn't like this idea--that must have been it. Irked, Riona readied herself to protest. She wasn't going to give an inch with this. She couldn't. She would keep this argument up all the way back to Naroni if she had to, and if he didn't want to hear it, then--

Then what? Her thoughts were cut short as he met her eye and smiled. "Well, I can hardly keep her away from her mama, can I?"


August 24, 2011

In Which Isidro Gets a Word of Advice

November 8, 1175

"You're the tailor, I take it?"

The man in the mustard tunic looked up, then turned around, a frown curling on his lip. Talk in the town had given Isidro ample warning of the man's ill temperament, but he hardly cared. After two decades of his own father, most people were helpless, runty kittens. "That depends. Do you have a good reason for barging in here a quarter hour before I open?"

"I do." Isidro shut the door, but not before a crisp autumn gust could announced itself against his cheek. It would be an early winter this year, or so said anyone who could claim any semblance of authority--early, cold, and long. "I'm in town for the week and I was wondering if I might be of assistance."

The tailor sniffed, his skeptical eyes sweeping over Isidro with the thorough swiftness of an October drift; a pity for him it was already November. "You come in here dressed like a squire and ask for work?"

It wasn't the first time he'd gotten such a line. By this point, he knew it was best just to nod. "I've been on the road for several months now and money's getting a little tight. You don't have to pay me in coins, though. There's a toddler in my charge and she needs a cloak. So does my--" His what? After all this time, this was the part that still stumped him. "--my girl."

Maybe that had been wrong. The tailor certainly seemed to think so. "Kid, let me tell you something--there ain't a woman alive about to stay with a man who can't afford to buy her a cloak, especially with a winter this harsh ahead of us. You'd be better off working for a pint of ale and a buxom whore."

"I'll take my chances with this one." He crossed his arms and tried to repress a shiver. Maybe he should have been wearing something a little warmer too. No sense adding that to the bargain, though; his was by far the lesser need. "We're trying to get to Veldorashire in Naroni. Her father is lord there, and if need be he can reimburse you, but right now we're hopping between inns with a two-year-old orphan in tow, and now she's with child and--"

"Is she, now?" The tailor's sneering mouth became a smirk. "Mighty bold of you to be making promises on behalf of her father, then."

Gaze falling to the floor, Isidro looped his finger through the laces of his sleeve. The man was right. If Isidro brought Riona home with a the beginnings of a baby in her womb, Lord Severin would hardly notice whether or not she had a cloak--much less, pay for the damn thing himself. But still... "I'm not asking much. I'll give you anything I can in return. I'm a fast learner; I can help you around the shop, I can run errands for you while you work, I'll even scrub your goddamn chamberpot if it'll get me those cloaks." There was a tiny damp spot on the toe of his boot from a single snowflake that had fallen moments before; Isidro rubbed it against the back of his other leg and met the tailor's eye. "She's the first good thing that ever happened to me."

The tailor sighed, his right hand reaching for the band on his left. Ten or fifteen years ago, maybe he had a similar story. In any case, the room felt just a little bit warmer. "All right, kid--a week of work, and I'll give you the two cloaks. Hell, I'll even throw in something for yourself and I'll cash in that favor the hatter owes me for a nice crispinette for the lady." Perhaps none of the townspeople had taken the chance to get to know this man? None of them had called him generous, but how else did one describe such an offer. Isidro opened his mouth to thank him, but the man silenced him with a shake of his head. "Just a word of advice, kid; if you're willing to do every grueling, tedious, thankless task I'm going to have you do this week all for this girl, then you'd damn well better marry her, because you're not going to find another like that in a thousand years."


August 22, 2011

In Which Riona Is Given Time to Think

October 22, 1175

Isidro placed the cup on the table and took a stepped back, not bothering to give any explanation. Riona could only stare at the thing. He sometimes brought small trinkets when he returned to their rented rooms after a day of odd jobs, but never without some sort of purpose in mind, or some intended sentiment. This was just a cup.

"What is it?"

Isidro placed his hand behind his neck and massaged it. He worked too damn hard. "I got it from the local herbalist."

So it wasn't just a cup. There was something inside of it--but what? It was odorless, which would have been the last word Riona would have used to describe her grandmother's shop. Then again... she supposed something without a scent couldn't have helped an already foul-smelling room? "Is it a tonic of some sort?"

"No." He let his arm fall to his side and glanced at the table. He looked neither excited nor fearful. He just... looked. "I wouldn't advise drinking that."

That was odd. What else did one do with something from the herbalist? Unless... "Is it a salve? You didn't hurt yourself, did you?"

"It's not a salve." Still neutral but a little grim, he leaned toward the railing behind him, his left hand grasping it neither gently nor firmly. "It's an indicator. You piss in it."

What? She cast one last suspicious glance toward the cup, then gaped at him. "Excuse me?"

"You heard." He took his hand off the rail and reached for hers, pulling her toward him. "You've been hurling more than you've eaten and you haven't had a course in over two months. I'm not stupid, Riona--and in spite of your best efforts to prove otherwise, neither are you. I'll get you some water, or maybe milk if you prefer. Then, when you have to piss, do it in that cup. If the mixture turns red--"

"Then what do we do about it if it does?" Her fingers snapped around his palm and squeezed. She was ill. She was ill, and nothing more--or at least, she could tell herself that as long as she had no concrete proof to the contrary.

"Then you can think about what you want to do about it." He placed his free hand on her shoulder and kissed her. He must have been working at the bakery today; she could taste something sweet on his lips. "The earlier you know for sure, the more time you have to decide. I can't imagine it's a decision to be made lightly."

Maybe he was right. Meeker than she could recall feeling, she glanced to the toes of Isidro's boots. She knew he was being stoic for her sake, but she couldn't help but wonder how he felt about this. If there was a problem, wasn't it his problem too? "What do you think?"

"I think it's up to you." He took a lock of her hair between his fingers and twirled it about. Upon release bounced right back to its bland, stick-straight default; if there was a baby, she hoped it had his hair. "But might as well make sure there's something to think about before actually thinking about it, right?"

Behind Riona, Alya clapped two of the borrowed toys together. Isidro peered over her shoulder and chuckled. She found she had to smile. "All right."


August 20, 2011

In Which Rona Arranges a Dancing Lesson

October 20, 1175

"Uh... my lady?" Aspen's mumbling voice barely registered in Rona's ear amidst all the buzzing. The night was always louder under the spell of wine. "Might I ask what you're doing?"

"Jus' tryin' to get at my laces." Inexplicably amused, Rona made another swipe at the back of her dress. Again, it was to no avail. "How do you do it? Damn things keep movin'!"

She glanced over at Aspen and waited for an answer. Her vision was a little blurry, but she thought she saw a smile on her maid's face. "No, my lady--you keep moving. Why didn't you come and get me?"

"Oh." That would have been the smart thing to do. "I didn' think o' that."

Shaking her head, Aspen shut the door. "You're drunk."

"I resen' that!" Rona giggled and twirled on the spot, hoping to catch up with the rest of the world. "I am tipsy! Tastefully tipsy, and nothing--hic!--more."

Her maid sighed. Silly Aspen was always good for a laugh. "If you say so. How was the wedding?"

"Lovely." It was true; if there was anything Rona could give the queen credit for, it was that she always threw one hell of a party. Hell, this wedding had even been for her non-royal daughter! Already she was looking forward to Princess Riona's wedding--or she would have been if she wasn't so worried about her own. But at least Lorn had promised to talk to Lord Severin about Lonriad. "Lonr'ad was there."

Aspen fell silent, as she always did when Rona mentioned Lonriad. She didn't like him for some reason. Or maybe she did but didn't want to say anything, which was just as well. No matter what people said, Lonriad wasn't about to marry a gentleman's daughter.

"I... figured he would be." Her maid took a moment to regain herself, then gestured for Rona to turn around. "Here, let me help you with those laces."

Rona obliged; wasn't as if she'd had any luck with them herself. "Thank you, 'oney."

"Just doing my job, my lady." Aspen's nimble fingers danced across Rona's spine, practically cutting through the laces with such ease that Rona felt embarrassed for having missed them--or maybe it was just a post-buzz flush. She was starting to feel a little queasy. Maybe it had been all the dancing.

"You know... Lonr'ad's cute an' all, but 'e can't dance," she mused as Aspen pushed the red silk off of her shoulders. "Maybe you should teach 'im."

Aspen's hands froze halfway through the task of letting down Rona's hair. "Sorry?"

"You're a good dancer--you taught me, 'member?" Rona kicked her gown to the side. God, her thigh looked even fatter than it did when she was sober. Christ, what would Lonriad think of her lumpy body if Lorn managed to talk Lord Severin into the match? At least all she had to worry about for now was Aspen. "I was even worse than Lonr'ad before you taught me."

Aspen laughed. It didn't sound like her usual laugh, but Rona supposed she could chalk that up to the wine. "You taught yourself, silly. I was only standing in for the lead."

"Then I'll come alon'. You dance with me first to demo'strate, then I'll see if he was payin' attention."

"Hmm... maybe we should talk about that in the morning." She gave Rona's hair a last comb-through, then picked up the discarded garments and hurried to the wardrobe and exchanged them for the nightgown--a particular favorite of Rona's, light and lacy and comfortable, even if it did nothing to hide her figure. "Will this one do?"

Rona nodded, though it was a little more difficult than she remembered. Aspen held it out and helped her step inside, then pulled the garment up and tied up the laces. "Tight enough, my lady?"

"Perfect, thank you." She doubted it would go much tighter anyway--not with her build. "God, I'm fat."

"You are not." Aspen took a step back and steered Rona around with a hand to the shoulder. "I wish you'd stop saying that. It's not true at all."

Rona sniffed. "Flattered that you'd lie to me, but no need. I wish I was nice an' slender like you."

"Slender? Try 'stick-like'." Her voice awkward yet oddly final, Aspen gave Rona one last look-over. Even in the dark of the room and the haze of drink-induced stupor the green of her eyes was apparent. "There's nothing wrong with your body, my lady. Now you'd best get some sleep; you're in for a rough morning."

She turned around to leave. That wouldn't do--Rona lunged for her arm and caught her by the hand. "W-wait!"

Aspen paused, then looked back at her, her mouth a quizzical frown. "My lady?"

"It's Rona, silly!" Rona scolded--as if she hadn't told her that a thousand times. "But don' go. What if I get sick in the night?"

A red brow arched. It was the closest shy, serious little Aspen ever came to teasing. "I thought you were only tipsy."

"I am--but the room keeps spinnin'!" She let go of her maid's hand and tried to laugh, though she was cut off by few seconds' faint spell. "Don' leave me?"

Aspen took another minute or so to gape at her, her outline blurring and sharpening and blurring again all the while. Then--

"As you wish."


August 19, 2011

In Which Isidro and Riona Don't Have the Time

October 2, 1175

"And that," Isidro finished as the tickle monster made its hasty retreat, "is why good little girls should always eat their vegetables."

Alya pawed at the rim of his surcoat and giggled, her tiny frame bouncing in his arms. He'd felt awkward about holding her before--the last child he'd held had been his sister Sarita, only five years younger than he and eleven years dead besides--but after a couple days it had become second nature. Riona was better with her, and of course Alya preferred her seeing as she spent the stationary days with her while Isidro was out doing odd jobs for what little coin they needed, but the little girl was past the point where she began to panic if left alone with him for too long. This day, Isidro had made a point to earn as much as he could as quickly as possible and return to the inn early for the sole purpose of relieving Riona. She loved Alya, but she was a restless, wild sort of girl and it seemed the only time she had to show that these days was when Alya and the inn's other inhabitants were fast asleep and Riona and Isidro were in bed, dangerously close to waking the baby and all the rest.

That and she hadn't been in the best of health lately. They were in Carvallon now, and the last few villages they'd passed through had been bogged down by some autumn illness. Riona insisted that she must have picked it up somewhere. Isidro wasn't sure that was it, but there wasn't any sense arguing with her--not yet, at any rate.

"Of course, you already knew that--didn't you?" The little girl laughed again, her pretty eyes widening in delight as she made a swipe for Isidro's nose. Smirking, he removed his hand from her dark curly head and pressed a finger to her own dab of a facial feature. "I think yours is the cuter one."

Alya bowed her head. Isidro returned his arm to its place around her and ruffled her hair. "Where did you get all these curls? I know dozens of women who would give their right arms for locks like yours."

"And since when have you had the time to meet dozens of women?"

Riona pushed through the door, still a little pale but a teasing grin in the sparkle of her eye. Isidro chuckled. "We both know I don't have any money to be throwing around right now. And even if I did, why would I? You're not exactly a frigid bedfellow yourself."

"Izzy!" Riona scolded, though laughing all the while. "Not in front of Alya!"

"What? It's not like she's never going to learn anything about the world." Sending a wink Riona's way, he rose Alya to eye level and grinned. "Sometimes, when Riona gets really drunk, she--"

"Izzy! You're disgusting!" She kicked the door shut and hurried toward them, landing a playful swat on his arm. "Besides, we both know that your drunken antics aren't any better." Alya smiled her toothy little smile and wrapped her arms around Isidro's neck; Riona darted to his other side and pressed a quick kiss to his cheek. "You know, I think she likes you."

"Not as much as she likes you." Right on cue, Alya let go and reached toward Riona. Isidro gave her one last tap on the nose, then handed her over.

Riona snickered. "Well, that's a given."

"That it is." He leaned in for a kiss, ducking around Alya and landing squarely on Riona's lips. As she always did when he kissed Riona, Alya clapped. "Feeling any better?"

"A little." Riona drummed her fingers against Alya's arm as Isidro stepped back and looked her over. If nothing else, she didn't look nearly as green as she had when he'd left in the morning. "It's cold, though."

Nodding, he made his way to the fireplace and grabbed the flint off the mantle. He sparked a fire in the hearth and took hold of a nearby poker, nudging a stray log toward the flame. "Better?"

"Much." He tossed the poker aside and turned around. There was nothing quite like Riona's hair in the firelight. "Did you make much today?"

"No more or less than usual. Enough for a few days' board, plus meals and accommodation for the horses. We should be able to leave tomorrow if you're feeling up to it."

Riona sighed. "We'll see how I'm feeling in the morning. If I'm still sick, do you think you can find something to do?"

That wouldn't be a problem. There was always something to do. "Of course."


He looked up, even though she hadn't turned her head. "Yes?"

"You know how we've been playing house these past couple months?"

He nodded. "Yes...?"

Riona bounced Alya to her shoulder, then turned around and looked him in the eye. "Why aren't we bored yet?"

It was a valid question, and not an easy one. Isidro shrugged. "I don't think we have time to be bored."