October 30, 2011

In Which Cord Starts Somewhere

October 16, 1176

It was a little early to be turning in, but this had been the longest day of Cord's life and he wished it would just end already. His work was done and done again and every attempt to talk to Riala had been met with a silencing glare or her storming out of the room. Dinner had been an icy affair; they'd sat at opposite ends of the table, never saying a word, not even locking eyes. He'd tried a few times, but every time he'd looked up she'd been looking down, nudging her food with her fork but never eating it, finally leaving her plate on the floor for the dog and retiring before the sun had begun to set.

He wasn't sure if she was asleep. He thought he could see her eyes flickering, but it might have been wishful thinking. Knowing his luck, she'd sleep through the night while he spent most of it envying her that, and then he'd wake in an empty bed and this day would stretch to the next. Lord only knew how long that could go on.

How could he have been so stupid? He'd gotten her into this mess. She'd had even less say in the matter than he had, yet she'd never complained, not once. She'd tried to make the best of it and in a matter of minutes he'd ripped those efforts to shreds. And why? Some comments from his idiot drinking buddies? Men who had laughed at his misfortunes while Riala strained to hold him together?

And this was how he repaid her. He'd be lucky if she ever spoke to him again.

And yet, he doubted he could go on without hearing her voice. "Riala?"

She shrunk away beneath the blankets, folding into herself as if to disappear. Maybe he should have gone to the spare room. He hoped she wouldn't get up and do that herself. "I'm sorry. I wasn't thinking."

She rolled onto her side and glanced over her shoulder, her eyes a glimpse of day in the middle of the night, a damp rawness to her face as if she'd been crying. Ah, who was he kidding? She had been. "I know you wouldn't do that."

Her lip quivered, but not to make way for any word. His guilt had been eating at him all day and now her silence was a death blow. "Riala? Riala, please say something. Anything..."

Butterfly lashes fluttered over the blue, but other than that she was still. He heard a swallowed sob lodge itself in her throat as her hesitant mouth eased open. "I'm pregnant."

Cord edged a little closer and draped his arm over her waist. It wasn't much--just a gesture, just an action, maybe just a bit of selfishness on his part, a need to feel the firmness of his child within her--but it was a start. He had a lot of atoning to do and he had to start somewhere.


October 29, 2011

In Which Nanalie Sees What Talk Is Worth

October 16, 1176

If someone had told Nanalie just how often she'd be visiting her sister once one of them was married and out of the house, she would have dismissed the thought with a wave of her hand and forgotten about such nonsense. But what she'd never figured was just how much good living under two different roofs could do for their relationship; indeed, the made beds and clean floors and washed dishes almost made her miss having Asalaye around.

But there was no sense in complaining. Her sister was still within walking distance--and her own house was a hell of a lot neater. "I still can't believe he let you have your pink bedding."

Asalaye beamed. She'd always had a healthy glow to her, or so their father had always said, but had it been night the moon might have been envious. "Kind of a purple-pink, but close enough."

'Purple-pink' indeed--a bold shade, a difficult shade, almost a ridiculous shade. Nanalie couldn't help it. She had to laugh. "It clashes with everything!"

"So what?" Asalaye demanded as Nanalie joined her atop the atrocious blanket. "I have my pink bedding."

"Purple-pink," Nanalie corrected. Her sister clapped and let out a cackle, the shine of her moonbeam face rendering the sun outside insignificant. She'd never looked like this, not even on her wedding day. Not even that first time Nanalie had caught her climbing down the ladder from the hayloft, all giggly and disheveled and hay in her hair. "There's something different about you."

Her sister grimaced, her nose wrinkling in confusion--at least, as far as noses like theirs could wrinkle. "What do you mean? You saw me three days ago; I haven't changed since."

"Maybe not, but it's definitely something." She took a minute to look Asalaye over once again. Radiance aside, she couldn't quite put her finger on it, but Asalaye didn't feel quite like Asalaye. No, that wasn't quite true... "You seem a little more than yourself."

"'More than myself'?" Well, now that it had been repeated, it did sound pretty stupid. Still... "My God, Nan, are you and Arydath conspiring against me?"

Arydath? That had come out of nowhere. "What about Arydath?"

Asalaye shrugged. "I ran into her at Had and Lyraina's yesterday. She said something similar."

Oh. Yes, Nanalie had heard a few such lines from Arydath before--Lyraina, Avine, her own mother. But if Arydath was making such comments... "Are you pregnant?"

"What? No!" She was almost offended. The look on her face was both endearing and hilarious. "Don't you think I would have told you if I'd missed a course?"

"Maybe it happened since your last course."

"But then I couldn't know about it, could I?"

"Yes, but then you can't say for sure that you're not, can you?" Asalaye glared at her. Nanalie stuck out her tongue, then smirked. "Better start picking names, Sis."

Exasperated, her sister rolled her eyes. "You're just itching to be an aunt again, are you? Christ, you're just as bad as Father."

"Well, would you look at that? There are ladies attached to these noses."

From the looks of it, Asalaye's husband was back.

"Making jokes about noses other than mine?" Asalaye flashed him a look of mock outrage. "How could you?"

Shameless as ever, Lonriad chuckled. "Better jokes about other people's noses than jokes about your womb--right, Nanalie?"

"Just how long have you been listening at the door?" asked Asalaye with a half-annoyed smile.

Lonriad returned her grin with a wink. "Long enough to start feeling a little nauseous myself--no implications intended. Planning on staying for supper, Nan? The cook's making your favorite."

"Thank you, but I'll have to pass." She gave Asalaye a pat on the shoulder, then swung her legs off the side of the bed and hopped to her feet. As much as she hated to leave so soon, she did have to pick up a few spices. "If I'm not home to make supper myself, then the whole family is at the mercy of Avine's cooking."

Back on the bed, Asalaye shuddered. Lonriad laughed. "Fair enough. Just keep in mind that you're always welcome, all right?"

"As long as I'm not debating the state of Asalaye's womb, that is," she joked as she went to give her brother-in-law a parting hug. Over his shoulder, she could see Asalaye scowling; Lyraina always gave her that same look when Nanalie started teasing her about such things too. "Now, you two kids behave yourselves."

"We won't," Lonriad promised, earning him a snicker from Asalaye.

Nanalie sighed. "I'm sure. At least try not to scorch your eyes looking at that blanket."

"What's wrong with the blanket?"

...Men! "Never mind."

She gave him a quick pat on the arm, then headed for the door as he took over her abandoned spot on the bed, whispering something in Asalaye's ear and bursting out in laughter as she swatted at him. God, they were immature. But they were happy.

Nanalie knew that people talked about her. Nearly nineteen and never had a suitor, didn't even seem to be trying. They'd talked when Asalaye had been seeing Cord, talked again when the whole Cord deal fell through, and then Asalaye had gotten with Lonriad and they'd talked all the more. They still talked. The younger sister had married early and well above her station; the elder was still at her father's house, cooking his meals and sweeping his floors. People just couldn't mind their own damn business.

One foot out the door, Nanalie took one last glance at her sister and brother-in-law. Yes, they were young and stupid, but was that really anything to talk about? She loved him. He loved her. What did that have to do with Nanalie?

Whatever it was, she didn't even care. They didn't always get along, but all that talk was well worth seeing her sister smile.


October 28, 2011

In Which Cord Has a Lot to Think About

October 16, 1176

So much for hoping a drink with the boys could ease the stress of the season's end. All Cord had wanted was to take a breather after finally getting the pigs settled for the winter, but no... no, his so-called "friends" hadn't granted him that luxury. Not when half the conversation centered around what wild things Cord must have been doing with his wife and the other half--the more enthusiastic half--was all about what wild things his friends had done with his wife. Like he hadn't even been in the room. Maybe in all the ecstasy of their carnal memories, they'd forgotten he was--at least, until he'd slugged Nedrir Corran across the jaw and stormed out.

And yet... well, it hadn't been all that long ago that he would have been laughing along, maybe even pitching a few jokes and anecdotes himself. He'd always felt a little bad about it--she'd always been his friend--but men talked about women like that. They always had, hadn't they? It didn't girls like that know it? Girls talked about girls like that too.

Still. He wished they'd stop now, or at least where Riala was concerned. Every reminder that she'd done such things with those men in the past was a worry that maybe--maybe, when he was off with his friends or she was out and about--she was doing something similar in the present.

"You're home early."

If she was entering through the front door, then no wonder the house had felt so empty. "I see you were out."

"Your horse lost a shoe. I had to take him to the blacksmith." The blacksmith. Now there was a man who'd always had a thing for her. A handsome man too, if the giggling of the local girls meant anything. "Anyway, I'm glad you're back. I wanted to talk to you about something."

She looked so sweet and serene, just standing there smiling at him. He wished his immediate thought wasn't that she wanted to discuss alternate sexual arrangements. "Actually, I should probably talk to you about something too."

"All right." She tucked a strand of hair behind her ear as he heaved himself off the couch. Had she thought it too loose? As if it had been ruffled earlier? "Cord, I--"

"Can we talk about my thing first?" A hurt, doe-like look flashed across her eyes, but she nodded. In an odd sort of way, he supposed he felt sorry for her--she was a nice girl--but now that he was wondering, he had to get to the bottom of it. "Look, Riala... how many men have you been with?"

Riala frowned, one eyebrow nudging skyward. "Does it matter?"

"A little bit, yes." Her pretty eyes widened. She couldn't believe what she was hearing and he couldn't believe that. She wasn't a stupid woman; she must have known what people said about her. "Look, I just... I don't know. I guess I just want a normal marriage at this point, and I want to be sure that you aren't about to--"

"To what?" Her eyes tensed to a slant so dangerous he felt foolish for thinking her fawn-like before. He'd always known she was a tigress deep down, but it was the first time he'd ever felt threatened. "Sleep around behind your back? Call on men in exchange for favors? Make you support children that weren't yours? How could you say that?"

She had a fawn's face but her scowl was practically draconian. The air from her voice might have been fire and he would have been none too shocked. He should have been more careful in his phrasing, perhaps. "Riala, please, I just... well, I know you weren't exactly an angel before we got married, and--"

"And you were?" Cord flinched. She might as well have kicked him in the groin. "At least I had nobody to hurt, Cord! You courted Asalaye for years, years while you spent spare change on prostitutes and came to me for a good roll in the sack every now and then. What would you be saying if you'd married her and she asked you what you just asked me? Wouldn't you have said the same thing? 'Does it matter?'"

Flustered, Cord struggled his way into a grimace. "...does it?"

"Yes Cord. Yes it fucking does!" The flames in her voice shot throughout her body, the aura about her an inferno he could never fan. He shouldn't have pressed the issue. He'd never felt so stupid, not even when he'd burned the old house down. Not even when he'd accidentally jilted both of Master Indruion's daughters. "Christ! A man sticks his cock somewhere and he might as well be trying on a pair of boots, but a woman tries to have a little fun and suddenly she's a whore for life, isn't she? Here I was thinking you were better than that. Fuck you, Cord--fuck you!"

A wad of spit landed on the toe of his boot. Her flare eyes scorched him one last time before she stormed up the stairs, an uncrossable wall of fire springing up on every step she cleared. Her shoes slammed against the floor of the upper level, pausing only long enough for her to shoot him one last jab. "Oh, and did you want to know how many men I've slept with since I married you? One. You!"

The furious steps resumed and the bedroom door banged shut with the force of a cannon. Silenced, Cord slumped back onto the couch. A pang in his gut told him he had a lot to think about.


October 25, 2011

In Which Laveria Does Not Elaborate

October 6, 1176

"Well, way to keep your old mother waiting!" Laveria scolded as she greeted her son with a hug. "I've been expecting you for hours now."

"My apologies. I wasn't aware that we'd established a time."

Severin smiled, but a nuance in his voice betrayed a certain impatience. He didn't appreciate her nagging. He'd meant to be here earlier. "Out with it. Where were you?"

Sighing, he unhooked a button on his sleeve and took to massaging his wrist in irritation. So much for thinking he'd outgrown that nervous habit years ago. "I was stuck at the castle all morning--because Lord knows it wouldn't be my birthday without a shouting match with Roderick. And then of course Laralita's still in a dark place, so I ended up staying with her for a while..."

"Pleasant." Laveria rolled her eyes. She'd only met the queen a handful of time, most of which had been before she was queen, but after all these years she'd heard more than her fill of stories. Still... "Poor thing, though. I can't even imagine."

"Likewise." Ah, but he didn't want to talk about that. Not when his niece lay beneath a tombstone and her sickly little son struggled to take from the breast of any willing nurse. Not when his own daughter visited the crypt more days than she didn't and had somehow convinced herself she should have prevented it. Not when his sworn nemesis was too distraught to even be his nemesis. "Far too young, that girl. She should have had decades ahead of her."

Decades. Laveria had decades to spare. She'd had all the decades in the world once, but she'd given most of them up. A pity that girls like Elhina couldn't have snatched the ones she'd discarded. "Shouldn't they all."

Nodding, Severin's eyes followed a moth to the other side of the room and Laveria let hers do the same. The creature flitted back and forth between shelves, hovered over a stack of books, then rested on the wall. It didn't look like it intended to move for a while. As if by innate agreement, they both let it be and shared a glance. Severin coughed. "Anyway. After that, I had to stop by the chapel at Armion. Lorn wanted me to meet the new clergyman."

"The monk?" She couldn't stop her nose from wrinkling in distaste. She knew it was unfair to judge an entire class of men based on the actions of one person, but... well. Those hadn't been the most harmless of actions.

"Yes--the monk."

There was something about the way he said it that was a little unsettling. Granted, Laveria wasn't the only one with a certain distrust of clergymen. But no. No, this seemed to be something a little more than moderate skepticism. That was too general. It wasn't monks he was objecting to; it was this monk. "What's he like?"

"Well... certainly more pious than Quartus ever was." He sniffed. 'Pious' was not necessarily a compliment--more likely not than necessarily in this case. "But to be honest, I didn't get a great feeling from the man. He's a bit..."


Severin frowned. Close... but not quite. "Yes, but there's a little more to it. Surreal, and not the good sort of surreal. Erie. Kind of makes you feel like there are spiders under your skin. You know--I never thought I'd say this--but I'm almost tempted to go to the next mass at Armion. It would be interesting to see how the people react to this Brother Remiel."

...what had he said the man's name was?

"Remiel?" The better part of a lifetime now and the name still felt like a dagger in her mouth. "Remiel d'Aquino?"

She caught herself a moment too late. Severin squinted, his brow creeping upward. Why had she blurted that out? "An acquaintance of yours, Mother?"

All she could do was sniff. She couldn't cool his curiosity now that it had been sparked, and of course swallowing back the words was out of the question. Her only options were half-truths. "I may have heard the name once or twice."

"Really?" The brow peaked a little higher. God, he looked like Lonriad when he was fighting back a scowl. "Care to elaborate?"

No. No, she did not.

"You should go home. Your children probably haven't had a chance to wish you a happy birthday."


October 23, 2011

In Which Karlspan Learns What Big Brothers Do

September 22, 1176

Karlspan wasn't supposed to be in his father's study when his father wasn't actually there, but it was the only safe place; surely his father would understand? He was supposed to be in bed, but he couldn't sleep yet--not when he hadn't had the chance to do anything all day. This was so unfair. His father had received a letter at breakfast and that had been it. Karlspan's parents had taken to exchanging sympathetic glances and wondering the halls like ghosts. His mother had spent the better part of the day in the chapel and his father had all but barricaded himself in the library.

And--lacking her usual sources of attention--his stupid sister had taken to following him around all day.

All day. Everywhere. When he and his father's page had been swiping at each other with sticks, when he'd wanted to take his pony out for a secret ride, when he'd tried to swipe some pastries from the kitchens... even the privy hadn't been safe! Every time he'd stopped moving, she'd grab his leg or tug on his clothes--and then every time he'd started moving, she wouldn't let go!

He'd ended up wasting all his precious after-supper time playing dolls with her. Dolls! Stupid girl games. Thank God his sister was a few years younger and had an earlier bedtime. Not much earlier, though. Stupid sister, wasting his whole day...

"Karlspan? What are you doing in here?"

A little guilty, Karlspan looked up. He'd never been caught in here before, but lucky for him, his father didn't look all that angry. Sad, and maybe tired... but not angry. "You should be in bed."

"I know," Karlspan mumbled, sitting up and slinging his feet off the couch.

"Of course you do." Sighing, his father shut the door. "Why are you here, son?"

He shrugged. "Hiding, I guess. None of the nannies ever come in here. I'm sorry, I just wanted to do something before I went to bed."

"You don't appear to be doing anything."

"I know." And that was even more frustrating. Sneaking around wasn't any fun, not really. "Can't I stay up and play a little longer? I didn't get to do anything fun today with Lia following me around."

"I realize that--and thank you for keeping an eye on her, by the way, even if that wasn't your intention." He shuffled over to the couch and sat, the heel of his boot nudging up against the frame. "I hope you'll forgive your mother and me. We were... rather preoccupied."

"With what?" It wasn't a bad question.

At least... it hadn't seemed like a bad question.

Grim, his father closed his eyes. "Your aunt is dead."

Karlspan's stomach turned to ice. Dead. It was one of those words that got thrown around in play a lot--"Zing! Shot you in the heart! You're dead!"--just another word for the sake of story, just another word that didn't mean much and no one thought anything of it. Real life... that was different. 'Dead' did mean something. It meant they were never coming back.

"Wh-which one?" Aunt Rianna with her sweet smiles and tasty biscuits? Aunt Holly and the bedtime stories no five-year-old boy could do without? Karlspan didn't want to know--not really.

"My sister in Naroni." His father blinked as if expecting a tear, but it never came. It had been a long day. Maybe he was out of tears to cry. "Your Aunt Elhina. You only met her once, when you were little--back when I was sick."

A little guilty, Karlspan looked away. He didn't remember much about when his father had been sick, other than being scared all the time. It wasn't something he wanted to remember, but if he'd been offered the chance in that moment, he would have taken it; it didn't feel right, forgetting the only time his aunt had been a part of his world.

"What happened to her?"

"She had a baby--a little boy, tiny runt of a thing. Something went wrong. She was gone before he even pushed through; they had to cut her open to get him out, the poor thing. It sounds like he survived, but they'll be keeping an eye on him." Karlspan squirmed. So much for thinking babies were happy things. Beside him, his father's knuckles were an eerie white. "I scarcely knew her. Your grandmother ran off when I was younger than you are and my sister was just a cramp in her stomach. I only ever saw her a handful of times."

He inched a little closer and buried a set of tickling fingers in Karlspan's armpit. In spite of everything, he couldn't help but cough out a few laughs. "You know why Lia followed you around all day?"

"'Cause you and Mama weren't around?"

"No--because she loves you." His father ruffled his hair, then pulled him a little closer. "That's what little sisters do. And you know what big brothers do?"

"Boss them around?" Not that Lia ever listened.

His father shook his head. "They watch out for their little sisters. The world is a cruel place and chances are, the only people you'll have for your whole life are your siblings. It's a tough role but someone has to fill it--and I already know you'll do a much better job than I did." He was trembling. If Karlspan closed his eyes, it was almost like being caught in a windstorm. "Just take care of her, all right? No matter what happens. Can you promise me that?"

Karlspan nodded. His father rubbed him on the shoulder. "That's my boy."


October 21, 2011

In Which Severin Catches Sight

September 8, 1176

Severin slid the record book back into its place on the shelf and sighed. Not much noteworthy this week--only a couple weddings, one shop changing hands, and one birth. A local tanner's red-haired wife had birthed a baby girl, the curls on her head already bouncing. They'd named her Elena. It wasn't quite the same name but it was close enough to sting, if only just a little.

Alina had been dead and buried for nearly a decade now, but there were parts of the world where she lingered and his heart was one of them. Today she felt nearer than most and for the life of him he couldn't get her off his mind. She was everywhere--in the name, in the book, her hair sparkling in the firelight though the hearth sat cold, everywhere. Thank God for Nora and her own lost love; had he married some maiden, she never would have understood.

Ah... Nora. She'd ridden to Tetran earlier that afternoon, intent on paying Arydath a visit. She suspected she had another baby on the way. What would Alina have said to that? All those years of his refusal to give her an eighth child and now here he was, four going on five with another woman. But it wasn't like that, he wanted to call to her, as if a ghost could be assured. I tried not to get you pregnant and you were miserable. I tried to get you pregnant and you died. Can you blame me for leaving it up to fate now?

Someone knocked at the door. It wasn't Falidor's knock, hesitant yet firm, nor Jadin's, bold and carefree. It was a quiet knock, a dainty knock. Almost like Alina's knock. "Yes?"

Ah, Vera. His sweet, beautiful daughter--her mother's last child, Alina's sad blue eyes sparkling beneath his own dark brows. He found himself smiling. Of all Alina's children only she and Jadin were still with him, and it wouldn't be long before she left him too; he couldn't waste her last however long on his sorrows, and especially not when she had her own. "Everything all right, baby?"

She shook her head and ran toward him, seeking refuge in his arms like her childhood self had always done when the thunderstorms rolled in. She was shaking; he pulled her closer to steady her.

"Vera, what's wrong?"

She said nothing, responding instead by sobbing into his shoulder. He thought he knew what it was but he didn't want to make assumptions, especially if there wasn't anything he could do about it. "Vera? Is it...?"

Vera nodded.

As she collapsed into a fit of tears, he decided against inquiring further. How strong was it? How near? How long? He had to know but he couldn't ask, not if it would upset her further. "Vera..."

Something nagged at him from the corner of his eye, some amorphous cloud of smoky cinnabar that approached and retreated with sadistic glee. His grip on Vera tightening, he let his eyes follow. If he squinted, he could almost catch it.


October 18, 2011

In Which Sparron Is Unsurprised

August 19, 1176

Camaline had never cared for Sparron's bedroom and made no secret of the fact. 'Too drafty,' she'd claim, or 'Too bare' or 'Too small'. Fair enough; she had her own chambers, and on the off-chance they spent the night together, the understanding was that it would be in her bed. She checked up on him every so often, but she'd usually just stand at the foot of the bed and look him over; if she was joining him, then she wanted to talk about something. "Husband."

"Wife." She smirked; after five years, they'd taken the conventions of an upper-class marriage and spun them into a series of private jokes. "You're home early."

"My stepmother returned from Garrett and Elhina's a little sooner than anticipated; you'll understand that I didn't care to linger." Fair enough. "My father was enough to endure on his own today."

Sparron frowned. As far as he was concerned, that was nothing remarkable, but it was a different thing entirely for Camaline. Yes, the king was a pompous windbag, but he was still her father; what could he have done to drive her away from a mere afternoon visit? "Did something happen?"

"Only if you call the observation that we've been married for five years and still don't have a child 'something'."

Hmm. In all honesty, he couldn't say he was surprised. His own father and stepmother seemed a bit troubled about that as well--or at least, so he could guess from all the glances at Camaline's stomach and the inquiries about their relationship--but they were too polite to say anything outright. Camaline's parents had always been pushier; in hindsight, some point-blank question had been inevitable. "I take it there's been no change on your front?"

She shook her head. "You think I wouldn't have told you if there had been?"

"No, of course not."

This was ridiculous. Camaline didn't even want children. Nor did Sparron, for that matter, or at least not anymore--not if he was going to pass along what his mother had given him. He had two little brothers, his stepmother's boys, neither of whom were at risk for the illness so far as he knew; they could be his heirs as far as he was concerned. It would probably be better that way.

Not that logic was the king's strong suit. Poor Camaline. "I don't know what we can do, then."

"There's nothing we can do." Her resignation was obvious, but regardless she still sounded upset, hurt. Her very purpose had been questioned by an idiot who knew nothing about anything she was going through. Must've been so tough, being a woman; all these years and no one had ever assumed it was his problem. "Not unless there really is a stork."

A hollow laugh rang from her mouth, but even in its contempt it never made it to her eyes. He would have reached over and embraced her if either of them had been the type who cared for hugs.