December 31, 2011

In Which Aspen Finds Comfort in the Surreal

July 17, 1177

Insecure, unremarkable, small-breasted girls did not receive many invitations to the infamous pond--and on the off-chance they did, girls like Aspen were unlikely to accept--so the awkward process of asking around for directions had been inevitable. But if this was really the only way she could help Rona, then she supposed the stares and gapes and even the one offer of accompaniment were worth it. She just hoped it was the right place. The water's still luminescence did look magical, she supposed--even if the only thing preventing her search for a more logical explanation was sheer will.

No. No; she couldn't think that way. She had to trust that this would work. Magic was supposed to run on faith, after all.

A quick glance at the stars for luck, she pulled off her layers of clothing and flung them to the side, then pulled her hair out of its messy bun and dipped her feet in the glass-like waters; in spite of the July evening heat, it was a refreshing cool.

The water never rippled as she waded toward the center. The rushes were unswayed and the lily-pads, settled. Time and motion had no meaning here. It was eerie, surreal--and that was oddly comforting. Normalcy would have encouraged her skepticism and that was the last thing she needed right now, not if this had any chance of working.

Just a wish, Iata had told her. A good wish. But what constituted 'good'? Earnest? Selfless? Possible? She wasn't sure she could manage that last one. Even the second seemed a stretch, if she really thought about it; as long as Rona was happy, Aspen would at least be content.

Then again... maybe that was what made a good wish. It was a wish that worked for everyone, if only just.

Let her be happy.

Give her someone she can love. Give her someone who will love her. Rona didn't ask for any of this; give her someone who will make her happy.

Now that she'd thought it, she didn't feel so silly anymore.

Give her someone worthy of her. Give her someone who will treat her right. Just let her be happy.


December 29, 2011

In Which Riona Looks for Keys

July 17, 1177

"Funny little fellow." Casimiro chuckled as Balin landed a lick on his chin. "Is he part wolf, you think?"

Riona shrugged. The crazy dog had only been an official part of the family for a month or so, but it had been long enough that it was pointless to speculate about Balin's origins. Probably. "No idea. He just showed up one day and refused to leave. But whatever; the girls seem to like him, and he's obsessed with Izzy."

"We're not so sure about the girls yet, but the dog doesn't have much going for him in terms of taste." Isidro flashed one of Riona's least favorite smiles, an awkward grimace of self-deprecation. She tried to look away as an anxious queasiness welled within her, but gazing at the girls instead did little to steady it. She just couldn't understand how a man with so much love could find so little to spare for himself.

Casimiro laughed again as he turned away from the dog and drew toward them, though more halfheartedly this time, a quiver in his tone matching the ones in Riona's gut. He must have understood. He did know her Izzy as well as she did--better, possibly. "He might have better taste than you give him credit for, Is."

"I don't know; your taste was never so great either." Isidro reached behind his head and took to massaging the base of his neck while Riona fiddled with her wedding band. As much as she liked Casimiro and as much as he cared about his cousin, perhaps it would have been better if he stayed with Hilla and Bernardo instead. She doubted Isidro realized just how ill-equipped he was to cope with the remnants of his past life. "Anyway, why are you entering this tournament? You could easily get a knighthood back home, you know."

"I know--but I wanted to be closer to you and 'Nardo."

Isidro snorted in disbelief. "Your mother's been pestering you about getting married, more likely."

"Maybe a little." Smirking, he shot a wink toward Riona before collapsing on Isidro's other side. She wasn't sure whether or not she appreciated it. "But in all seriousness, I do like this place. Riona, you're friends with the duke's sister, right?"

"Rona?" Whatever was in her stomach shot straight up to her throat. If ever she felt some people didn't care for themselves quite enough, Isidro was far from the only one. "Yes..."

"Well... what's she like? Tell me honestly."

Honestly. Funny. If Casimiro wanted to marry Rona, then he didn't want to hear 'honestly'. Too bad she couldn't just tell him that without making her friend sound horrible. "She's a sweetheart. A little anxious at times, maybe, and a bit obsessive, but it grows on you. She's adorable, really."

"Adorable." Odd. He almost sounded disappointed. "Worthy of adoration. You don't want me to win, do you?"

"First place?" Casimiro nodded while Isidro frowned. Riona searched and searched for some way to explain herself but found no place to begin but a sigh. "Well... not really. Not that I think you'd mistreat her or anything, but she's a romantic. And she doesn't know how special she is. She needs someone who will show her."

"So you think I'd lead her on."

"No, just..." Just what?

Balin yipped. Grateful for the interruption, Riona paid him a glance, expecting to find him staring after Isidro as he always did but for once he was focused on someone else.


The dog made another small sound, then turned his snout toward Isidro. Riona smiled. Balin could sleep on the foot of the bed tonight if he pleased. "Rona's kind of like Izzy."

Isidro choked, a little red around the face as Riona turned back to the men. The silly man had no idea what she was talking about; Casimiro's grin, however, told her the comparison had not gone misunderstood entirely. "All locked up inside herself, you mean?"

Her husband opened his mouth to protest, but she stopped the words with a touch of her finger and shuffled nearer, her head resting on his shoulder as he draped his arm around her own. "All locked up inside herself."

"And I don't have the right set of keys."

"Not at all." If she glanced out the corner of her eye, she thought she saw a smile on Isidro's face--a real smile. She hoped it wouldn't bite her in the ass later if she decided that her own keys were cut to perfection. "But don't let me discourage you. Odds are, I'd rather see her with you than with any of the other jerks in this tournament."


December 28, 2011

In Which Aspen Is Found

July 16, 1177

Mistress Altharaine was a tough woman. She endured night after night of drunken leers and shameless ogling and paid it back double in cutthroat wit, her insults scathing and clever and just vulgar enough to keep the men laughing and putting money in the family's purse. But in spite of her own effortless composure, Mistress Altharaine was not so inconsiderate as to believe everyone else could handle the men like she did, and after a particularly obvious slip of a hairy hand, one pleading look was all Aspen had needed to win a sympathetic nod toward the door.

She'd been working dawn and dusk and the light and darkness between all this past week, what with all the champions Rona's tournament had attracted. Champions. What an ill-fitting word. Most of these louts weren't worthy of sharing the air Rona breathed, never mind her bed and heart and soul. One ass in particular hadn't been without a cup all night, eying Aspen's hips and gawking at Mistress Altharaine's chest and winking at her eleven-year-old daughter when he thought all backs were turned. He must've been six and half feet at least, two hundred and fifty pounds of solid muscle--and a warrior, at that, if his boasts had any credence. What if he was here for the tournament? What if he won the whole damn thing? Would Lorn really let such a monster sleep beside his sister every night so long they both lived? What girl deserved such a fate?

Not Rona. Never, never Rona.

If Aspen had one regret, it was that nothing she could do was likely to be of any help. She had met a few young men of whom she'd approved--if only just--and she'd convinced some of them to enter, but if she was honest with herself... did any of them really stand a chance against knights and seasoned fighters? Hell, chances were that she could unhorse most of them, and some of the other competitors would be twice her size.

I am fast, though... fast, and I have good technique. Maybe some of my men have that too. Maybe that counts for more than brute strength? If only that thought was as hopeful as it might have sounded.

I'm sorry, Rona.

"You a'right?"

Startled, Aspen sprung back in her seat and stared at the girl who'd appeared between blinks. She stood as tall as a man and her tourmaline eyes rendered her tattoos and nakedness nearly unnoticeable. Was she... one of the forest dwellers? "Who are you?"

"Name is Iata." The girl's mouth curved into a smile. Wary, Aspen tried to return it; she doubted she'd even managed a grimace. "You look lost, yes?"

Lost. At least lost left room for possibilities. "Hopeless, more like."

"Hopeless?" Iata's brow furrowed. It must have been more of the language than she could handle. "Hopeless is... give up?"

Aspen cringed. Hopeless she may have been, she would not have it said that she had given up on Rona. "Well... hopeless is when you might as well give up. It's when you've done all you can and nothing is going to help."

Iata looked unconvinced. Aspen didn't think she could have put it more simply, but it must not have been enough. No wonder she couldn't do anything for Rona. She couldn't even define a word. "I know something might help."

Her voice was genuine and hospitable, but in a wishful way, a childlike way, as if she believed all the world's problems could be solved with a hug. If that was how she thought, then Aspen supposed she envied her. Maybe. "Nothing can help."

"No no--this help." The point of tooth peeked out from Iata's grin. "There pond not far from here, yes? Pond with lilies and rushes?"

A pond? She didn't mean... "The sex pond?"

"Yes! Sexy pond!" The girl clapped, her eyes catching the candlelight so as to become almost blinding. The drunks inside didn't know what they were missing. "But sexy pond not just for sexy, yes? Sexy pond is magic pond."

Magic. Well. Now she'd heard everything.

Iata smirked. "Years and years ago now, Great Mother put spell on pond--make it wish-granting pond. Bathe in sexy pond on right night and make wish. If it good wish, it come true, yes?"

Uh... no. No, that didn't make any sense. "You lost me at 'magic'."

"Magic no lose; magic finds." Her face remained firm and unblinking. Regardless of her nonsense, Iata was no liar. If she said this was so, then she at least believed it. "Tomorrow is wishing night. When dark comes, go to pond and bathe and make good wish. When light come, wish is true."


December 26, 2011

In Which Ietrin Learns What Siblings Have in Common

July 16, 1177

Everyone was entitled to a fair trial at Castle Dea, but it seemed that the red countess's had not worked out in her favor. But what had she been expecting? She'd poisoned the duke, after all. Of course it was the gallows for her. Frankly, Ietrin wasn't sure what was wrong with the fairytale worlds of other children's doll sets, but Dea had little interest in anything less political than a loophole-peppered treaty. But no matter. An indelicate taste for the dealings of men didn't seem like the sort of trait to be actively discouraged in a four-year-old princess, not yet at least. She'd likely grow into more ladylike inclinations without any pruning from him. And besides--with any luck, she'd rub off on the new baby brother she'd have any minute now.

"The crown sentences you to be drawn and cornered next Monday!"

A hint of a grin played on her grandfather's mouth, probably the first one since he'd arrived. If anything, Ietrin found his smiling was even more unnerving than his usual arsenal of death glares. "Drawn and quartered, pet--but that's a gruesome execution for a noblewoman. Might I suggest a beheading? That would be a quick, merciful death that would also preserve what remains of her dignity; when one has squandered all other rights, dignity is all one can hope for."

Ietrin swallowed. Why had Octavius's eyes flickered his way as he'd said it?

Dea shrugged. "All right, Grandpapa. Beheaded next Monday."

"That's my girl."

"Just don't actually take her head off," Ietrin warned her. "Your toys are expensive, you know."

"Really?" For the first time in several minutes, Sparron looked up. "Is that what you tell Kaldar and Catherelle when they're a little less than careful with their toys?"

Ietrin swallowed. Dea's doll fell to the castle floor as she turned her head and frowned. "Who're Kaldar and Catherelle?"

"No one, love," Octavius insisted, his glare darting between Sparron and Ietrin. "Isn't that right, Ietrin?"

"Er... right." Well, at least Dea seemed satisfied--even if it was a lie, even if it had broken his heart to say it. "Um. Anyway. You think things are going well in there?"

Octavius tensed. Ietrin sort of regretted asking; it seemed his father-in-law hadn't quite gotten over the near miss of Jeda's last labor. "I told Arydath to alert me if they weren't. Awfully quiet, though."

"Well... maybe that just means they're done?" Not that Ietrin knew much about childbirth, but it seemed to make sense. Why scream if the baby was already out, right? And to think... maybe the heir he'd been dreaming of was just in the next room.

His father-in-law shrugged. "Maybe. I don't hear crying, but Dea was quiet too."

And how would you know? It was a bit hard to hear over all your yelling, remember? This was ridiculous. Ietrin was the crown prince and Octavius was only a baron. Why didn't he have guts to say it out loud? "I guess she and her brother have something in common already."

"Uh... Ietrin?"

Startled, he turned his head to see Camaline at the door--with a beautiful hazel-eyed baby in tow!

"Cammie!" God, he'd never thought he'd be so happy to see his bratty little sister. The stress of his in-laws forgotten, Ietrin sprung to his feet and looked the little fellow over, his smile swelling by the second. Healthy coloring... agreeable temperament... just the size a baby ought to be... "Oh, Cammie! Cammie, he's perfect!"

He was and she knew it. She must have. It was obvious.

And yet, her brow was practically halfway up her forehead. "Um... 'he'?"



December 24, 2011

In Which Lorn's Boots Are an Ill Fit

July 12, 1177

"So... wanna go play at the tournament grounds?"

It really said something when it fell to the five-year-old boy to break the awkward silence. Then again, five-year-old boys were... well, five-year-old boys. As far as Ricky was concerned, Auntie Rona had every right to refuse to come out of her room. In fact, it probably didn't make sense that Auntie Rona might view having to leave her room as a punishment, considering how many times Ricky's own room had been a place of exile. It meant nothing to him to just let it be and go about his business.

Similarly indifferent, Karlspan shrugged. Searle's son was a little older than Ricky was, maybe a little meaner too, but that didn't make him any less of a kid. "Fine."

The boys gave their parents a quick wave and hurried off. Maybe they had the right idea, not letting Rona's lack of cooperation get in the way of a good visit.

Sighing, Lorn let the doorhandle drop and took the seat next to Leara. Decorum stated that he should have offered it to Searle, but if Searle hadn't seated himself yet, then he probably didn't care. "It seems my sister will not be gracing us with her presence just now."

"It's all right," Ren dismissed, in spite of Leara's lingering frown. "We'll see her at supper."

At her side, Searle sniffed. "Assuming she deems hunger less tolerable than our company."

Was that a hint of offense? Surely it would be from anyone else. Then again, this was Searle. Then again, maybe it was preferable to err on the side of caution. "Sorry. She's usually quite polite. It's me she's angry with, not any of you." Well... maybe you, Searle. It was your idea, after all. Remind me why I went along with it? I told you she'd be upset!

Not that such a thought probably occurred to Searle. No... every thought occurred to Searle. "No matter. Many girls get upset over their betrothals. To hear King Oswald tell it, Ren here was none too pleased to hear that she was stuck spending her life with me."

"Searle!" The back of Ren's hand landed lightly on his arm. "You're three years younger than I am. That was a big deal at the time."

"Well, fortunately for Rona, this tournament has a strict lower age limit of sixteen." He pushed back a lock of hair. Lorn had tried that in front of the mirror a few times and found that the gesture only made him look feminine, but Searle somehow pulled it off. Maybe it was the complete lack of a soul made all the difference. "Speaking of which, how many competitors can we expect? Anyone notable?"

"Uh, well..." More than I was prepared to accommodate, at any rate! Not that he could push the words out of his mouth.

Thankfully, Leara was a bit more coherent. "We have about fifty competitors. Most of them are gentlemen looking to raise their status, but there are a few seasoned fighters with some connections here that have expressed interest. Casimiro de Cervantes has done quite well in some of the Galician tournaments, and Neilor del Marinos has a reputation in Catalonia."

"Del Marinos?" Searle raised an eyebrow. "Any relation to your brother's mistress?"

Lorn nearly choked. He was trying to be civil, and he realized that people's standards of what was and was not acceptable could vary, but bringing up the fact that Leara's brother had a mistress? And with the girls playing in the corner of the room, no less? "Searle--"

"No, it's... it's all right." Leara didn't sound quite 'all right', but Lorn shut up anyway. She was trying to compose herself, and--honorable intentions or not--his causing a scene would be counterproductive. Thank God for Leara. One of them had to know just what the hell they were doing. "But yes. He's Ellona's brother."

"Interesting." And yet, he looked like he was stifling a yawn. "Well, I imagine you can cross off most of the obscure names straight away. These tournaments do tend to go to the regulars." Searle stepped away from his wife's chair and set himself in front of Lorn while Leara exchanged a glance with Ren. "Of course, it's best to wait a few rounds before putting any serious money on the line. Are you a gambling man, Lorn?"

Lorn's toes curled inward, his boots oddly vacant, more like his father's boots whenever his sisters had bullied him into joining their dress-up games than any pair Lorn himself had ever owned. These were a man's boots and he'd never felt more like a boy. "No. Not particularly."

Searle laughed. "A pity. I was hoping you were. I imagine you'd be terrible."


December 22, 2011

In Which Viridis Considers What Can Move

July 4, 1177

It was a small cottage, but a pretty one, a homey one. It was well-maintained, strongly built, and situated with a perfect view of the Carvallon coastline. Searle had quite a bit of money saved up from his roaming years, as well as a few key connections in the nearby villages; they had the finest furniture, the finest woodwork and masonry, the finest linens and silks and velvets. As a knight's wife, Viridis had a wider variety of exquisite gowns than she had ever had as a lord's daughter. She'd taken a risk marrying the reputedly wayward Searle and she knew it, but he'd pulled through for her; he never left her side without good reason, neither hid her from the world nor thrust it upon her, never missed a chance to wrap his arms around her waist and whisper how much he loved her. She had everything she'd ever dreamed of.

Well... not quite everything.

Searle had built that crib himself when she'd first given him the news, four months after they'd been married. Two weeks later and they had no need of it. It happened again that next summer, and then again the following Easter. The fourth time, she'd decided there was little point in telling him; it was a month today now since she'd been proven right.

He'd offered to move the crib out and in truth her heart broke every time she looked at the damn thing, but all the same she couldn't bear to let him. As long as she could see the crib, she could see--if she let herself--the possibility. If the crib left, it would take the last of her hope with it.

Luna's tail thudded against the side of her hand. She was a tiny little thing, the runt of an orphaned litter Searle had rescued some months prior. They'd found homes for her brothers and sisters, but Luna was so enamored with Searle that they figured it would be cruel to give her away. Besides, Prince was getting up in years and more than a bit cantankerous; if Viridis couldn't a baby of her own, she supposed even a furry one was better than none at all.

Searle's knock rang from the other side of the door. Viridis tried to smile as she locked eyes with the puppy. Sounds like Papa's home.

God. Even her sane thoughts were starting to sound mad. "Searle?"

"Who else were you expecting?" he teased as he stepped into the bedroom. "The Pirate King of the Grecian Coast?"

Viridis tried to keep a straight face. So much for eventually living down the one time she'd suggested role-playing. "What did the fletcher need?"

"Oh, just someone who could read. He got a letter from his sister-in-law up north. Turns out he's an uncle."

"Oh." This was stupid. She hadn't known this woman existed until mere seconds ago. She could have been an impoverished beggar with scraggly hair and no teeth and Viridis still envied her. She could have been the sweetest, most charming person in the world and Viridis still hated her. Just because she had a baby and Viridis didn't. Stupid, stupid, stupid...

But Searle seemed to sense her jealousy and refrained from comment. Instead, he changed the subject, or at least tried to do so. "Speaking of letters, what did your sister have to say?"

She placed Luna on the floor and let her weave around Searle's ankles. For his sake, she decided to omit the typical family drabble. All right, maybe that was for her own sake as well. "Well... apparently Lorn's holding a tournament near the end of the month."

"A tournament?" Searle crossed his arms and frowned. "I don't know Lorn all that well, but I didn't think he was the sort of man who cared for tournaments."

"He isn't. Apparently our cousin talked him into it."

A twitch of his mouth told her he knew which cousin she was talking about. "Searle of Bandera."

"Searle of Bandera. And get this--the winner gets to marry Rona."

A stony glaze fell over Searle's face. Viridis couldn't say she hadn't seen it coming. If ever there was an expert on how not to go about one's love life, she had to admit that she'd married him. "What are the odds of that ending well?"

"For Rona?" Viridis shrugged. When she thought of Rona she remembered a silly, giggling little blond who'd tagged along but simultaneously kept a safe distance while Riona got up to whatever hi-jinx happened to be on the day's agenda. But that had been years ago. Riona herself was a woman now, at least in theory. Rona would have grown up too, and not in a way Viridis could have predicted. But in all likelihood... "Not great, I'm guessing. Anyway, my father tacked on a note at the end. He... wants to know if we could make it out for the events."

She'd mumbled the last part, perhaps in hope that he wouldn't hear it. But he must have. He wouldn't have laughed otherwise. "If we went, I think that would be the first time I ever turned up at your father's castle with an invitation."

"Well--yes. Yes, it probably would." It would be the first time she'd been home since her wedding too--if they went. It would be the first time she met most of these nieces and nephews that apparently shot forth like cannon-fire from between her sisters' and sister-in-laws' legs. It would be the first time they'd see with their own eyes that she'd been having regular, carefree sex for nearly three years and still had nothing to show for it. With that in mind, home was not such an appealing prospect.

"Might be a nice change of scenery. It's not as if either of us gets out of the house much."

He wanted to go. He wanted to go and she supposed she couldn't blame him. They certainly weren't hermits, but most of their connections here were based on convenience, and it had been far too long since either of them had looked into another's face to see their own features smiling back at them. He missed the family--and she did too, for all she couldn't bear to face them just now.

But that was the problem. She was still mourning a poor, beloved soul whose existence would never be known to anyone else. She had a private loss, a personal sorrow--something she couldn't share with women who needed herbs to prevent the only thing she herself desired, something that could never be understood by men who could carelessly unload into latrines a larger volume of person than she'd ever managed to keep from expelling. No. No, she did not have the strength for that.

And yet... she was so tired of waking up in the morning and going to sleep at night with that damn crib in the room, that damn crib that could only hurt her more by vanishing. The crib couldn't move. She could. "It's not until the twenty-fifth. We still have a few days to consider."

"Fair enough." Searle traced the neckline of her gown with the tip of his finger as Luna pawed at his boot. "I was thinking of going for a swim. Join me?"


December 19, 2011

In Which Arydath's Fears Are Unfounded

June 28, 1177

Arydath kicked the door shut and took a second to catch her breath. She'd never been so late for a birth before, but in her defense she hadn't anticipated being needed. This was Laveria's territory--not to mention, Laveria's great-grandchild--but it turned out Laveria was down with a bad summer cold. There was Arydath's own mother, but she was getting up in years and her bad hip didn't let her take on many clients outside the direct vicinity. That left Arydath herself, startled when a frenzied groom had shown up at her gates with the news of Asalaye's labor a shire away.

Though in hindsight... well, she would have made it here more quickly had she not tried to convince one of the twins to come with her. She had five daughters, two of whom were grown and two more nearly so now, and she'd always hoped that at least one of them would follow in her footsteps. Celina and Feoda, however, were every bit as uninterested as Lyraina and Hilla before them; it had been stupid of her to press.

"Sir Lonriad?"

The young man stiffened, his gaze never leaving the puppy in his hands. Oh, he was a tall strong lad now... but Arydath had pulled him from Lady Alina's womb with her own two hands, back when he'd been one of the tiniest, sickliest babies she'd ever seen. Frankly, she'd been startled that he'd survived; what if his own progeny was not so lucky? Or what of the young woman birthing it? Four babies before Lonriad and Lady Alina had never looked so faint.

"I... I've only been here about half an hour or so." The puppy pawed toward him as if to cheer him up; the poor thing's efforts were in vain. "I was out fishing with Searle. Stupid of me, wasn't it? I mean, we knew it would be soon..." The puppy yipped. Lonriad lowered it to the floor, then turned around to meet her eye. He had his father's eyes, and his had the same look to them that the other pair had worn ten years prior, for two years on end.

Oh, the guilt. She supposed she could sympathize... not that there was much he could've done anyway. "As a woman who's been married twice, let me assure you that husbands are all quite useless when it comes to childbirth. Now, who's in there with your wife?"

"Nanalie, plus Asalaye's maid and a couple other servant girls." Arydath raised an eyebrow. Despite not having any children herself, Nanalie wasn't completely lacking in delivery experience--she'd helped with Lyraina's last labor, and apparently Avine's last two as well if either Lyraina or Asalaye was in a position to know--but witnessing three births hardly qualified one to take charge of a fourth. Then again, someone had to take charge. And who knew? Maybe one of the other girls was a little more seasoned. "I went in there when I got back, but Asalaye swore at me and Nanalie kicked me out. One of the girls left a while ago and came back with a cup of something, but other than that I..."

He shook his head, the rest of his body responding in kind; in an attempt to steady him, Arydath placed her hand on his shoulder. "I haven't heard her screaming since the girl went back in. That's bad, isn't it? If she's screaming, then at least she's--she's--"

"Oh, she's fine, you dolt. I wouldn't expect sex any time soon if I were you, but she's fine."

Lonriad looked up and Arydath spun to meet the speaker. It was Nanalie, lingering in the bedroom doorway--and not unaccompanied.

"I sent that girl out to get some mint tea. I told Asalaye it would ease the pains."

Arydath frowned. All her years of midwifery and not one had she heard such a thing. "Does it?"

Nanalie shrugged. "Probably not; I just told her it would. I did the same thing with my father when he dislocated his shoulder last fall."

Well. That was... "Clever."

"Thank you." Nanalie landed a tickle on the baby's stomach as she carried him forward. It appeared that Arydath's fears had been unfounded; it was a wide-eyed, curious-looking little thing, complete a good complexion and a not-unhealthy size. "Anyway, Asalaye said you wanted to name the baby after your mother. Personally, I think his future wife will find that hilarious."

"A boy?" Oh, that grin. He wasn't the first man to have told his wife he didn't care what she had, and doubtlessly wouldn't be the last to have lied about it. Or maybe she was being too hard on him. He was probably just happy everyone made it out alive. "Can I hold him?"

"All right, but he might be disappointed that you don't have any cleavage to swat at. We've got ourselves a little breast man here."

As Nanalie transferred her nephew into her brother-in-law's arms, the baby looked up at Arydath with his grandmother's wide blue eyes, like he was telling her everything was going to be just fine. She returned the stare with a smile; at this point, it was always refreshing just to get something that wasn't outright bawling.

"He has my mother's eyes."

"And probably my father's nose, but I guess a little fellow can't win them all." Nanalie gave the baby a quick kiss, then turned back to Arydath. "Asalaye seemed fine to me, but if you wanted to look her over yourself, it probably wouldn't be the worst idea."

"I agree." She gave the girl a quick nod, then started off toward the bedchamber. "Well done, though."

Yes, well done indeed...