September 30, 2011

In Which Riala Is a Good Friend

April 16, 1175

"Cord!" Perhaps a little more eager than was acceptably ladylike, Riala greeted her friend with a quick hug. Fenrick and Eilyssa and the baby were visiting at her father's house and her other siblings were at their grandmother's and Lord only knew where her mother was. Even the cat had been out on the prowl since morning. She'd been alone all day and a face other than her own reflection was a welcome relief.

Besides, she needed some details. "How did it go? Did you end up asking Asalaye to marry you? What did she say?"

Cord said nothing--odd, seeing as there was nothing he cared to discuss more than Asalaye, and certainly that preference had only strengthened since talk of marriage had begun. Suspicious, Riala lifted herself to her toes for a better view of his face. Of course he'd said nothing. His eyes answered every question.

Badly, No, and Nothing, because of the last answer.

"So... Old Man Indruion didn't budge, then?"

Cord's head fell to incline, his fist balled to steady its shaking. She'd never seen him like this--strong Cord, tall Cord, Cord the rock. He was a man on the verge of falling apart and she wouldn't be enough to hold him together. "Not if Nanalie wasn't going to get an offer first."

So not a single one of those boys had come through for him. Cowards. Ingrates. Cord had been running favors all week, anything to get the tiniest chance of cooperation from any of them--and unbeknownst to him, Riala had thrown in her own brand of persuasion too--and it had all been in vain.

And what was wrong with Nanalie anyway? Sure, she wasn't the most personable of people... but she had worked hard and had a good head on her shoulders and might not have been anything horrible to look at if she tried a little harder. Most of those boys could have done much worse--and besides, she might not have even said yes!

"Oh Cord, I'm so sorry." The shaking in his hand intensified somewhat; not sure what else she could do, she steadied it with her own. "I can't believe that not one man asked her."

His fist tensed within her grasp as a tortured sigh escaped him. It was alarming. Cord was not the sort of man who sighed lightly. "One man did."

"And yet, he--oh!" What had she been about to say? Something about Master Indruion going back on his word? That had been dumb. Cord would have found a way to get past that. Stupid, stupid, stupid! "Oh Cord! Why did you do that?"

Why had she asked that? It was obvious. "I thought she'd say no."

Poor boy. His only crime had been falling in love with the second sister and a marriage of convenience was too harsh a punishment. But he knew that--obviously. And there was little he could do now without looking like an insensitive ass who withdrew proposals like lots in a game of dice. He was just here to sit, most likely, to talk while she listened. Or maybe he wouldn't talk at all. Maybe he just wanted someone to hold his hand for a little while, to lend him the strength he never thought he'd lack.

Nodding, Riala pulled him up the stairs and ushered him into her mother's bedroom. It was the warmest room in the house, the coziest--and for once it was unoccupied. She gestured for him to take a seat on the bench by the foot on the bed, then closed the door and joined him.

"Do you want to talk about it?"

"Is there much point?" He slouched into a drawn-out collapse, elbows to his legs, catching his forehead with the palm of his hand. "I may be just a pig farmer, but I'm a man of my word. If I asked Nanalie to marry me and she accepted, then I suppose I have to. I'll marry her and go through life with her and have babies with her, and Asalaye will see me all the time and hate me forever."

"You don't know that for sure." Of course it was the strongest possibility... but that wasn't necessarily a guarantee, was it? "Have you had a chance to talk to her yet?"

Cord shook his head. "Why would she ever want to talk to me again?"

It was a stretch, but she had to give him something. A good friend would give him something. "...closure?"

He sniffed. Poor boy. He'd never wanted to give Asalaye 'closure'. He'd hoped what they had would never need it. So much for all of that now. "I... I don't think I want to talk anymore. Can you just..." he reached across the gap between them and took the fold of her skirt between his fingers " there? You were always good at the, uh... comforting."

So that was what he was after. Why hadn't he just said so in the first place? Then again, heartbroken boys weren't always the most methodical of people. Maybe he hadn't known what he needed just then. But if he did now...

Well. What could she do? She was his friend, after all.

"All right. I'll comfort you."

She pulled her legs onto the couch and crawled on top of him, the muscles of his abdomen firm beneath one hand and his heart vulnerable beneath the other. At least he knew what he needed. There would be much comforting required.

So there was no sense in wasting any time.

"The fuck?"

"Get your cock out of my SISTER!"


September 28, 2011

In Which Cord Gets It Over With

April 15, 1176


"Cord." Unfazed by his attempt at a smile, she gave a curt nod and a no-nonsense stare. She wanted to get this over with. Well, that made two of them. "My father said you wanted a word?"

She didn't look particularly curious. Had Adonis primed her? Or did she care just that little? Not that it was a problem. "Yes, well... how are you?"

"Well enough."

She stated the word with a resigned indulgence, her mouth giving him nothing but her eyes telling him to make it quick. This was why he had failed. It wasn't her hasty, shapeless pile of hair--which might have been long and silky like her sister's--or her sculpted, hawk-like features--which may have been considered handsome--or even the skinny body in her form-free gown--which really could have been any form at all. This was why none of the men he'd begged and bargained with and even tried to bribe had given in. She was impatient, task-driven, harried; hardly the sort who made a man feel appreciated, no matter what else she could do for him.

"What's this about?"

Ah, but it wasn't as if Cord wanted to be here any more than Nanalie herself did. Nothing to do but take a deep breath, lean in, and get to the point. He'd say his piece, she'd turn him down... and there! Then he was free to propose to Asalaye. "Well... we're both grown people and I have a household that needs running and it gets a little lonely back at my farm; it would be nice to have some company."

Nanalie raised an eyebrow. This was it--she was about to tell him not to bother and to just ask her sister like he wanted to. Boring as she was, she was clever enough; she probably saw right through her father's ploy and thought him a fool for worrying.


All right. Maybe she just needed to hear it for sure. "Well, I was wondering if maybe... you'd keep me company."

There. Done. He could almost taste the sweet freedom. Just a couple seconds now...




September 25, 2011

In Which Isidro Gives His Gratitude

April 14, 1176

"Well, I'll be damned." Isidro eased himself from Casimiro's embrace and glanced back and forth between his two cousins. When the steward had informed him that there were two men here to see him, he'd just assumed it was Jadin and Sparron again, wanting to go for another hunt or some archery practice or whatnot. Instead, here were two faces from the past he'd never expected to see again, two faces he'd missed in spite of himself. "Out with it--how did you idiots know where to find me?"

Bernardo reached in an attempt to ruffle his hair, which Isidro barely managed to dodge. His cousin chuckled. "Well, Cas told me the truth about 'Searle' after we went our separate ways, so we figured you took Riona back here and maybe we could get some information from Lord Severin. Imagine our surprise when he told us you were now his son-in-law." He leaned forward and grabbed Isidro by the arm, smirking at the sight of the ring on his finger. "I hope you don't mind me saying, cousin, but I can't wait to see the look on your father's face when we tell him you got married."

"Yes, well..." Well what? He knew what his father would say. It wasn't all that long ago when he would've said it too. "How was the crusade?"

Bernardo didn't look like he appreciated the sudden change of subject, but he seemed to understand. Casimiro, of course, understood even better. "Not worth mentioning. Some other group beat us to everything your father wanted to do, so we called it quits and headed back. Augustin and your father caught a ship in Italy and we came back through here."

"I take it he went out of his way to avoid Naroni, then."

"Pretty much."

His eyelids suddenly a little heavy, Isidro glanced up at the chandelier dangling above Casimiro's head. Somehow his cousins seemed even taller than they'd been the last time he'd seen them. Were they still growing? It was a discouraging thought, but it beat the idea of him shrinking.

Then again, he didn't think he'd ever felt taller in his life. "The thought of seeing my father-in-law again must have scared him off. Neither of you had similar reservations, I take it?"

"Of course not." Chuckling to himself, Bernardo pushed past his brother and stationed himself at Isidro's side, one hand on his shoulder. "You've been here a few months now; you've seen the variety of beautiful women they have here. Hell, maybe I'll start looking for a knighthood around here myself."

Casimiro rolled his eyes, his mouth falling agape as if to respond, but the door to the sitting room had opened before he could. "Isidro, the cooks and the maids are fighting again--oh."

Hilla paused, her black eyes flitting back and forth between the two guests. "I see you have company."

A dazed, goofy kind of look on his face, Bernardo smirked. "Case and point."

Riona's friend raised an eyebrow. She probably had some sense of what he was talking about, but couldn't know for sure--of course, knowing Bernardo, she would soon enough. "Boys, this is Riona's friend Hilla. Riona's been feeling a bit under the weather this past week or so, so Hilla's been staying with us and keeping things running on her behalf. Hilla, these are my cousins, Casimiro and--"

"Bernardo," the older brother introduced himself, taking her by the hand and anointing it with a kiss. "And I see now that your famed Naroni lilies are not the fairest thing in your kingdom after all."

A trace of disbelief in her eye, Hilla giggled. "You must be new in these parts."

"Care to remedy that for me, my lady?"

"And run the risk of a handsome man like you meeting my far lovelier friends? I think not."

"If they are indeed lovelier, then perhaps it's best I don't meet them; surely no sight more radiant than yourself can be met by mortal eyes without leaving them blinded." He pressed her hand to his lips once again, then lowered it to her side, his fingers still lingering upon hers. "But might I at least have a tour of my cousin's castle?"

Amused, indulgent, maybe a little intrigued, Hilla looped her arm around his and grabbed hold of the doorhandle. "That can be arranged."

She charged back into the next room, Bernardo willingly in tow. As the door swung closed behind them, Casimiro snickered. "I'm guessing we won't see either of them for a while."

Still not entirely sure what had just happened, Isidro shook his head. "No, probably not."

Casimiro sent on last gleeful glance toward the door, then turned to Isidro, a little more serious. Had something happened on the crusade, perhaps? Was there something he wanted Isidro to know? "Anyway, I don't know how long we'll be staying, but when we do go back... well, is there anything you want me to tell your father? Surely you must have something to say to his disowning you that you couldn't say to his face?"

Oh. Just that. So much for worrying. "Yes, actually. Tell him I said 'Thank you'."


September 23, 2011

In Which Cord Is Asked the Dreaded Question

April 8, 1176

Asalaye's father was not the sort of man Cord would have normally pegged as intimidating. He was a good man, a kind man--the sort of man who let the village children swim in his pond on hot days, the sort of man who went to shops with uneven coin and let the proprietors keep the change. But today, he could have been anyone. Sitting there, his eyes narrowed and frown swelling and the rest of his body eerily still. He might have been a stranger. He might have been a wild animal crouching in the bushes, just waiting for his prey to make the wrong move.

"I take it this is about my daughter?"

Cord swallowed. He'd been hoping to lead into that with some prelude of chitchat, but the awkward silence must have passed the time Adonis had allotted it. So much for getting comfortable first. Why had he hesitated? Stupid, stupid... "Uh, well... yes."

"I see." The older man rested his hand on the chair's arm and sighed. Cord didn't even have to asked. Adonis already knew. "Well. Forgive an old man for never dreaming this day would come so soon."

It was neither a yes nor a no. Cord struggled against the urge to fidget; indignance probably wasn't of much use to any cause. "Sir, I don't want to rush you, but--"

"Cord, you have sisters." He frowned. What did his sisters have to do with anything? "Suppose Had and Lyraina had never met, and suppose she never had anyone else--impossible, I know, but bear with me. Suppose Hilla had a gentleman caller who one day went to you or your stepfather and asked for her hand. If you tell him yes, then what do you tell Lyraina?"

Err... "To be happy for her sister?"

Adonis's brow furrowed. Great answer, genius. "Cord, I never had any sisters, but I did have a pair of cousins growing up, two girls. The younger was bright, pretty, outgoing. The elder... well, there was nothing wrong with her, but her sister was larger than life and cast a proportionate shadow. The younger girl had four proposals before she turned sixteen. She ended up marrying the fifth man, a man that her sister had once admired. After that, my older cousin stopped eating. She grew so thin and pale that her parents had to send her to a nunnery to recover." He took a sharp breath, brown eyes flitting to the ceiling. "She never did."

He knew where this was going. Somehow, Cord got the impression that Nanalie was made of sterner stuff than her ill-fated cousin, but if Adonis had seen that happen before then there probably wasn't much he could do to reassure him. But if Adonis wanted him and Asalaye to wait until Nanalie had married... well, how long would that be? "I understand your concern, but I don't think Nanalie would take it that way."

"And how can you be sure of that?"

If ever was a question a man never wanted to hear. Cord swallowed. "Well, I guess I can't, but--"

"You can't." For a man of his age, Adonis had retained more of his prime than many could hope for, but the light in his eyes was cool and seasoned. For the first time in their acquaintance, he looked truly old. "But I suppose there's one way to find out."


September 21, 2011

In Which Asalaye Is Not Sufficiently Distracted

April 8, 1176

"Again! Again!"

Asalaye's nephew shrieked with delight as she tossed him into the air once more. "Again!"

"Again? Auntie's arms are starting to hurt." Hal pouted, Had's own lip curling outward. Was this what Asalaye's children would look like to? That was certainly Cord's nose, though Lyraina wore it much better. Maybe Hal would luck out and break it at some point. "You're getting too big for this."


He had his namesake's eyes, or so Lyraina said. Cord had his mother's eyes, inkblot eyes... but then again so did Lyraina. If she could have a baby with blue eyes, then why couldn't her brother? Blue eyes, auburn hair, long and pointy noses.

Double cousins. They'd look like siblings. They practically would be.

Oh, but she was getting ahead of herself. Cord probably hadn't even asked for her hand yet. She hadn't even made love to him. She almost had, once--in the hayloft of her father's barn some months back, but she'd grabbed her clothes and fled. That was her and Lonriad's place; it just felt too odd to make love to Cord while another boy's face kept popping up everywhere.

Poor Cord. He was probably still feeling awkward about that day--like he'd done something wrong. She supposed she'd have to make it up to him.


Oh, thank God for her nephew. Such a welcome distraction, even if he did look exactly like her own future babies. "No, you silly boy... but how about some tickles?"

The little boy shrieked with laughter as he writhed about in her arms, struggling to avoid her fingers. "No!"

"Yes!" A little giggly herself, she pulled her hand from his little armpit and tapped him on the nose. "Oh, you wouldn't have been laughing if you hadn't enjoyed that."

A stubborn scowl formed on his little mouth. He favored his mother in the face, but just then, he was the spitting image of his father--her brother. "No."

Asalaye sighed. There really was no arguing with a not-quite-three-year-old. "Fine, have it your way. Just give Auntie a kiss."

Hal landed a sloppy kiss on her cheek, then wiped his mouth with his sleeve and peered around the room as she bounced him up and down. "Where's Uncle Cord?"

It figured that he would ask that--it really did. "He's, uh... he's with your grandfather."

Puzzled, her nephew frowned. "Under church rock?"

"No." Asalaye swallowed. "Your other grandfather."


September 18, 2011

In Which Holladrin Finds the Bitter Truth

March 5, 1176

If the angle of the sun had anything to say about it, it had been nearly noon when Holladrin had woken--about an hour ago now. Her husband, if she'd even been well enough for him to share the bed, would have left some hours prior. She'd resigned herself to the reality that he might not get a chance to see her until the evening, but it seemed that the heavens were smiling down on her, as he strolled into the room just as she'd considered getting dressed and going about her usual routine. "Glad to see you awake."

His voice was both tired and relieved. Holladrin's heart beat as though filled with lead. She wished she wouldn't worry the poor man so. "I hope I'm not keeping you from anything important."

"Of course you're not." Octavius smiled at her, then nudged the door back into place and set course for the empty side of the bed. "How are you feeling?"

"Just a little light-headed." She nudged herself upward a couple inches against the headboard, the pillow firmer than she remembered against her tired spine. "Much better than yesterday."

"The day before, you mean."

Holladrin raised an eyebrow. Surely he did not mean...? "I slept through all of yesterday?"

A thick lump of everything and nothing formed in her throat and only swelled when he nodded. "Well... maybe not quite all of it. But the important thing is that you're awake now. Anyway, should I send for some breakfast? Or just water, perhaps?"

"Ellene already brought me some water and a bit of fruit; I should be all right for now." Good old Ellene. She'd practically had the meal waiting for her, fresh yet prompt, just the perfect amount. Holladrin wondered what would come of her maid when she passed. She hoped someone would take Ellene on--but with her skills, perhaps that was a needless worry. Maybe Pandora would take her, and then Thallie could have the girl they currently shared all to herself.

Ah, but maybe it was still too early to worry about dying just yet--after all, had she not had worse? And maybe it was a bit selfish to dwell on her own health; there were always others in dire straights, after all. "How is your brother?"

"Quartus?" She nodded. Octavius sighed. "Well... not any worse."

"But not any better."

"No." He let his head fall back against the board, his hazel eyes waning beneath the weight of his lashes. "Old Hilla says a whore in the local brothel and three other men in the area are down with the same thing. I suppose at least he was doing what he loved?"

"I suppose," Holladrin agreed, though the thought seemed bittersweet at best and her husband's melancholy did little to help. But she supposed she could understand; she had brothers too. "Odd, though. He was always so healthy before."

"That he was." An audible breath escaping him, Octavius raised his hand to the back of his neck and gave it a quick rub. "Then again, I suppose no one ever knows."

As if there was ever a more bitter truth. "No. No one ever does."


September 16, 2011

In Which Searle's Heart Flies on New Wings

January 18, 1175

Perhaps the master bedroom of someone else's castle wasn't the best place to seek refuge following a wedding, but it seemed to Searle to be the place where he was least likely to be disturbed. Most of the other guests were still finishing up their supper and the dancing would begin soon; it would be hours before Riona and her ladies returned here, and Searle wouldn't be missed for a while.

He'd been looking forward to this wedding, or so he'd thought. He'd always looked forward to weddings--or so he'd thought. Turned out he'd just looked forward sneaking off with Sparron while everyone else was preoccupied with the party. Now that it had occurred to him that that wasn't going to happen, it was difficult to appreciate anything else. It was even tough to be happy for his sister.

He wasn't sure why he'd felt the need to go off on his own. To fill the empty block of time, maybe. Or perhaps there had just been too much happy in the room for him to bear. Sparron had been seated at the other table, and Searle had noticed that he'd left some time before. Maybe he was doing the same thing.

Sparron. In the months since they'd parted ways he'd only seen him once or twice, and always at some event or another. They hadn't spoken. He'd wanted to, but he didn't know if Sparron would be willing to talk, or even how to begin if he was. By this point, he was an old hand at keeping up a brave face--but there was always that nagging insecurity, that crippling fear of breaking down. He didn't want to risk that at his sister's wedding.

A handle lifted and a door squeaked open. A cold surge shooting through him, Searle looked up, thinking up an excuse a second and each one dumber than the last--and if that hadn't been enough, it was the nursery door as opposed to the bedroom door. The nursery could only be accessed through this room; someone had been here the entire time.

"Searle?" He froze. It was the last voice he'd been expecting and the last person he'd wanted to see. Also, the only person he'd wanted to see. "Are you all right?"

God it was strange hearing those words coming from that mouth. Strange... but in its own ironic way, kind of nice. "I, uh... had a headache."

"You're not a very good liar, you know?" Sparron stepped away from the door and strode past Isidro and Riona's bed, then sat down on the empty side of the bench; in the depths of its melancholy cocoon, Searle's butterfly heart fluttered. "What are you doing up here?"

Searle tried to smirk, but the grimace was probably obvious. Oh well. "At least I wasn't in the nursery. Christ, Sparron, what were you doing in there? Even if you had children to check up on, they'd be upstairs."

"I know." Quieted, perhaps a little embarrassed, Sparron took a chance to tighten his belt. Jadin hadn't been lying when he'd said that Sparron had been looking thin these days, in spite of Searle's past hope that he'd been wrong. "I was just dropping off a present for Alya."

"What?" Of all the things he thought he'd known--but maybe it was good to know that predictable, rhythmic Sparron could surprise him.

"Just a little stuffed animal." He shrugged, as if it were nothing worth mentioning. Had it been anyone else, maybe it would've been. "I figured with the wedding and the baby on the way, Riona and Isidro have a lot on their plate and Alya might feel lost in the bustle. It's not much, but it might be good for a smile or two."

Well. That was... huh. "That's very thoughtful of you."

Awkward, Sparron turned away. "Guess I was due for it."

Had he implied that? His flitting heart grew heavy and drooped to the back of its chrysalis. "I didn't mean--"

"No, you're right." A lock of sandy hair flopped back over his shoulder. Searle longed to touch it, but the foot between them was suddenly a mile. "I'm not a nice person. Everyone knows that."

Searle tried not to squirm. When Sparron had put an end to things, he'd promised himself he'd quit acting like a lovesick puppy, but he couldn't--no more than a tree could just stop being a tree. All he wanted to do was reach for Sparron's hand, or rest his head on that shoulder he'd always coveted for a pillow. "You're being nice to me."

Sparron sniffed. "Now, perhaps. Actually, no--I haven't even asked you what's wrong yet, have I?"

He had--just not in those words. But Sparron was a precise, literal sort. Maybe he had meant something slightly different. "It's all right. I don't want to talk about it anyway."

His head cocked to one side, Sparron stared at him, a baffled look on his face. Searle could understand. It was strange for the both of them--Sparron being open and willing to lend an ear and Searle having nothing to say. "You're sure?"

He nodded. "I'm sure."

A little hesitant, Sparron gave him a quick pat on the shoulder--then, as if surprised by his own daring, he turned away and rose to his feet. "I'll just let you be, then."


He paused. "Mmm?"

He didn't look back, but perhaps that was for the better. This way, Searle could pretend that Sparron was grinning as widely as he was, in spite of the fact that he almost certainly wasn't. "I miss you."

The seconds dragged on. The wings of Searle's heart burst forth from their confines, beating faster and faster--either that or time slowed to a crawl. It must have been nearly a minute before Sparron allowed himself to move. "I should go."

The words were all it took to jerk Searle's fluttering heart to a sudden halt. The air around him cool as it fell to an early grave. "I... all right."

Sparron gave a quick grunt of agreement and took a couple steps. But then, he stopped again, unprompted this time--or at least as far as Searle could tell. "Searle?"

It was hard to answer with a dead heart, but he did not think he could bear to give Sparron any less. "Yes?"

Sparron's fingers twitched as he kept a focus on some undefinable point in front of him. He breathed like a man who'd resigned himself to drowning. "Are we friends?"

Searle stood, something flailing about within his core. Maybe it was his heart. Maybe Sparron hadn't killed it after all.

"I'm always your friend."