February 29, 2012

In Which Ashe Has a Truth to Be Heard

March 3, 1178

"You're home!"

Ashe hardly had time to shut the door behind him before Rona had sprung from the bed and launched herself into his arms, her own tight behind his neck. He wasn't sure what to make of it. Her cold spells had ceased since the wedding and she'd been consistently cordial--maybe even affectionate--but never before had she greeted him with such unrestrained enthusiasm. As easy as it would be, he was probably better off not getting used to it. "Yes, I'm home--though I didn't expect you to be. Weren't you going to stay another few nights at Riona's?"

She shook her head, golden curls brushing against his neck. "I missed you."

"Missed me? I paid you a visit yesterday." She hugged him more tightly. Not minding at all, he turned his head to kiss her hair. "I know what you mean, though. I missed you too. I take it the birth was this morning?"

Rona nodded. "Another little girl. Give it fifteen years and Isidro's hall will be lined with the heads of all their suitors. Hopefully our boys have better sense than to try."

"Umm... all right?"

Children. They'd talked about them once, sort of. She'd caught him off-guard and his only response was that he 'didn't not want them'. He'd spent that night on the couch, trying and failing to get comfortable, wondering whether or not he should feed her some cock-and-bull story about an accident. Given the circumstances, who knew if he was even capable of fathering children? Not that all or even most couples conceived so early in their marriages, but if it got to the point when Rona started to worry, she deserved to know it was almost certainly not a problem with her.

"Guess what?" She pressed a quick kiss to the base of his jaw and bounced out of his hold, her hands still resting on his shoulders.


"That's not a guess, silly." She tossed back her hair, her pretty laugh echoing throughout the room. He couldn't remember ever seeing her so giddy, not even back in the carefree pre-Lonriad pre-tournament pre-Ashe years. "But that's all right, because that means I get to tell you. Just before she left Riona's, Arydath gave me a wink--and she said she'd see me in November!"

Ashe blinked. November counted back to February and it had been February mere days ago. Rona's family were among the many who swore by the midwife's eerily accurate predictions, but guessing the sex before a labor was one thing; declaring a pregnancy before the supposed mother could even know was quite another. Had Arydath just been toying with her? It was hardly a harmless joke.

"Uh... have you even missed a course yet?"

"Not yet, but I've been a little queasy--besides, Arydath told my mother about my last three siblings before she'd even suspected them and clearly she was right all three times."

But for all the hype, surely she was wrong on occasion? "I just don't want you to get your hopes up. It's still early."

"I know--but I have a good feeling about this."

He knew that smile. Her mind was made up and there was no point in arguing with her. He'd just have to hope that she wouldn't be disappointed. "You and your good feelings."

"Mm-hmm." Eyes alight as ever, she took to twirling a lock of his hair. "Ashe?"


"If it's a girl, could we name her Aspen?"

His horror must have hit her before he'd had a chance to fully register, as she'd let her hands drop and taken a step back. Those once-sparkling eyes were hurt, alarmed even, and all he could do was gawk wordlessly until he could come up with something halfway believable. "Er... we both have mothers, don't we?"

Rona frowned. "I guess... but my mother already has a granddaughter named Celina, and she wouldn't mind waiting for our second or third daughter. What was your mother's name?"



One blond brow rose and folded into a sharp hook. "Wasn't that your aunt's name? Aspen's mother?"

Why did he have to keep blurting these things out? As if it wasn't a miracle that she believed the 'shared' birthdays to be a coincidence. "No... no, Yvanette was definitely my mother. Not Aspen's."

"What was your aunt's name, then?"


"I... can't remember." She was staring at him like she thought he was an idiot, but at least that was better than a liar. "But it wasn't Yvanette. That would be ridiculous."

He grimaced, expecting her to inquire further but she didn't. Not about that, at least. "Still. Why not Aspen? Don't you like that name?"

He didn't want to say it, but it might be the only out he got. "Honestly? Not really, no."


Any light that might have lingered in her eye had been snuffed like last night's candles. Dear God, what had he done? He'd come home to this budding flower of a girl and he'd crushed her to a mess of wrinkled petals. He never would have guessed the name meant that much to her. "Rona--"

"No. It's all right." She took a few steps back and let herself sink to the edge of the bed. She hadn't looked so worn and resigned since Aspen had been fired. "Yvanette's a nice name."

But she sounded so defeated. He didn't know just how sick she'd been, but he was a little nauseous himself as he made his way around the bed and sat down on the other side. "Rona, if you really--"

"No. You wouldn't make me go along with a name if I said I didn't like it." She swung her legs up onto the bed and collapsed against her slanted pillow. "I just always thought it sounded pretty."

A second earlier and he might have fallen off the bed in sheer shock. Seventeen years of using that name and not once had anyone ever called it 'pretty'. "You did?"

She nodded as he settled beside her. "Fitting, really. She's the prettiest girl I've ever met."

"You're serious?" Inside his chest, his heart started to flutter. No, that wasn't entirely correct. Aspen's heart fluttered.

Another nod. "She has this beautiful red hair and I always wanted to play with it. And don't get me started on her eyes." She sighed, her own eyes hazing over again as she slipped back out of this world and into the last. "She doesn't think she's pretty, but she's wrong. She's so beautiful, and not just on the outside. And I should have told her that but I didn't and now she's gone forever and I'll never see her again."

A tear welled in the corner of her eye, but she blinked it back before he could wipe it away. Whoever's fluttering heart it was, it seized and dropped to the pit of his stomach. "Don't say that."

"That's what Aspen would have said. She also said she'd visit, but that was over a year ago." She picked at her laces. They might as well have been his heartstrings. "Do you think she forgot about me?"


He'd never said a truer thing but he knew she'd never believe him. There was so much he wanted to tell her and so much she'd never believe. Or if she did believe it, any chance of her ever loving him would have vanished with Aspen's ghost. God, how he wished it was otherwise. She deserved to know.

I didn't forget about you. I'm right here, Rona. I'm always right here.

"No one could forget about you."

He doubted she had much faith in that, but if nothing else she did not protest--just stared up at the ceiling as he stared at her, minutes upon minutes passing in silence before she spoke again. "Ashe?" He nodded. She didn't look but she must have known all the same. "Do you think she'll be pretty?"


Eyes his way at last, her hand ran downward along the curve of her stomach. "Our baby."

He was so tired of lying to her, or her not believing him when he didn't. He loved it when he had a truth she would let herself hear. "She wouldn't be yours if she wasn't."


February 26, 2012

In Which Lucien Finds Someone Worth Seeing

February 15, 1178

"You don't think... maybe Vera gave just enough to...?"

The moving lips were a stranger's, but the voice was Laveria's. Was he dreaming? She wasn't as she usually was. When Lucien tried to picture Laveria, he thought of someone a little older--more gray in the hair, probably up in a knot, with a stern scowl and a sterner neckline. She might have shown up once or twice in his dreams, but she'd always matched that approximation; not once had she been loose-haired and bare-shouldered.

Contemplative, Dream-Laveria turned away as Dream-Lucien's trembling legs slipped off the side of the bed. Trembling? He didn't tremble in his dreams. His head throbbed and his eyes seared. Most dreams were not so vivid. The shapes and colors he normally welcomed in the night were more than he could handle, an assault to the nerves against which he could not defend himself. All he could do was blink and it did next to nothing.

He tried to stand but fell to his knees as his shaking legs gave out beneath him. When looking down, all he could see was the grain of the dull floorboards and even that was too much for him. Maybe he wasn't dreaming at all. "Am I dead?"

"No," came a woman's voice from behind him, a little softer than Laveria's. He recognized it as Lady Leonora's. "No, you're not dead."

A foreign wetness on his lashes, Lucien tried to guide his wavery hand to the edge of the mattress but could only succeed when he closed his eyes. He pried himself off the floor in a comforting darkness and followed the edge around to the footboard, but the building moisture needed a release and he blinked on reflex. The attack of the colors returned stronger than ever. "I'm scared."


Vera's stepmother was a curvy brunette in a form-hugging ensemble of velvet and silk. Her overdress was lined with a pattern of curlicues that must have been designed with the sole purpose of tormenting him; he raised his hands and tried to focus on them instead, but they were just as unfamiliar. "I can't--"

He couldn't even finish the thought. He couldn't even recognize his own hands unless he shut his eyes and pressed them to his face.

"You'd think he'd be happy about this," grumbled Laveria from behind him.

"Laveria, it's an adjustment. He's not used to this." A silky underdress swept against the floorboards and a velvet clad arm laced around his shoulders while its opposite hand brushed the tears aside. "Lucien? Is there anything we can do?"

He shook his head. They meant well, but they didn't understand. Nor was there a way to help anyway.

"What if we got something translucent? A sheer silk scarf or something. What if we covered your eyes with that for a while, then switched to something more transparent once you got used to it?"

He choked in protest as the door creaked open and he feared his ears might explode. Even his familiar senses had betrayed him. "Honey--"

"You're awake!"

Lucien froze. That voice was the one sound he could stand to hear. "Vera?"

Lady Leonora stepped back as another feminine form embraced him, a soft cheek rubbing against his own and before her chin rested on his shoulder. "I was so worried about you!" She raised her head and kissed him squarely on the lips--never mind the presence of her stepmother and grandmother. "I missed you. You were asleep for so long..."

He'd missed her too, even if he didn't know how long they'd been apart. Too long, in any case. "Vera..."

Did he dare look at her?

Yes. He had to know. Bracing himself, Lucien pried his eyes open and forced himself to look, only to find he didn't need forcing at all. Of all the things that had come flying at him in the past couple minutes, her face was the only one not charging forth with a dagger. She wore a smile instead, one that spread past her rose petal lips to her straight nose and her silky black hair and her pretty, long-lashed sapphire eyes. How many times had he tried to perfect the picture of her in his mind? Not once had he guessed anything near her beauty. "Vera..."

"You can see me." He nodded. A soft hand he knew better than his own pushed a lock of dull hair out of his fresh, aching eyes. "How do you feel?"

"Uh..." It was tough to find the right word when she was looking at him like that. "Kind of overwhelmed." Her smiled faded somewhat. It was the most painful sight of the day. "Looking at you helps, though."

He didn't think he'd ever done anything so fulfilling as spurring that smile back to its full glory. "It's all right. You'll get used it--I promise. Let me help you?"

Her hand fell to his side and found his own. He squeezed it harder than he'd intended, but she never said a word.


February 25, 2012

In Which Nora and Laveria Disagree on Sense

February 15, 1178

"Good to see that Vera recovered so quickly, at least," muttered Laveria. Her mother-in-law was only speaking to fill the void, Nora was sure of it, but she didn't particularly mind. She wasn't fond of voids either. "I still think it was damn foolish of her if she knew what she was doing, though--and even more damn foolish if she wasn't."

Not sure she agreed, Nora pushed back one of the logs and watched it roll to the back of the hearth. "She cares for him."

"I've cared for men before. Wouldn't have done that for any of them."

It probably wasn't tactful to suggest that had something to do with Remiel. "She's young. Let her be."

"Oh, I will--just here I was, thinking she was one of the few grandchildren I have with an ounce of sense." Laveria sighed, but out of the corner of her eye Nora thought she saw a small grin. "Here's hoping the young ones grow up with their heads on straight."

"Mmm." Privately, Nora thought that her stepchildren had more sense than their grandmother gave them credit for--at least, most of the time--but it wasn't a good idea to argue with a wise woman while there was a comatose patient in the room. She set down the poker and stepped around to the other side of the bed, eyes never leaving Lucien. "How much longer, do you think?"

"Until he wakes?"

She nodded.

"Not long now." Smiling, Laveria leaned in to stroke back Lucien's hair. "He's more of a fighter than he thinks he is, this one. He'll be just fine."

It hadn't been the first time Laveria had said that in the past couple of days, but it was still a relief to hear it. "For all you think Vera lacks sense, you have to admit she knows how to pick them."

Laveria chuckled. "Severin's girls all do. Well, except maybe Virid--"


Startled, Nora steadied herself with a hand to the bedside table. On the other side, Laveria sprung to her feet.

"Well, I'll be damned! I would have thought at least another day or two!"

Lucien's hand reached up from under the blankets and rubbed his eye. Nora smirked. Perhaps Vera's interference had helped more than Laveria cared to admit. "Vera..."

His voice trailed off into a yawn as Nora and her mother-in-law exchanged relieved smiles. Vera would be over the moon, no doubt--even if she did take a while to forgive her grandmother for chasing her out an hour prior. Was it too early to run and get her? No, it was probably better to wait a few minutes, just in case; no sense getting her hopes up if it was only sleep talk.

Still... "Lucien? Can you hear me?"

"Mmm..." His lashes fluttering, Lucien pushed back the blanket and propped himself slightly on his elbows. He blinked.

Laveria squinted. "What the...?"

His eyes widened, shocked beyond belief but otherwise inscrutable. Nora had no doubt that her own had done the same.


February 24, 2012

In Which Severin's Answer Is Silence

February 10, 1178

"So the guard said your daughter was ill."

And why had the guard told Remiel that? Trying to guilt him for all of this? Annoyed as he was, Severin supposed he couldn't blame him; he himself had only come down here to gloat, after all. "Not so ill as my other daughter was."

"Then it must have been given freely, whether she realizes it or not." The monk gave a knowing, nonchalant shrug. "They all catch on to that eventually. They learn that they won't be stuck in bed for weeks if they cooperate."

A hint of a smirk lurked on his lips. Severin frowned. "You are one twisted son of a bitch."

"Oh, I wouldn't say that; you don't know half of what I've done." He was begging to be asked but he wasn't about to answer, so Severin kept silent. He wasn't sure he cared to know anyway. "But enough about me. Fire still giving you headaches?"

Again, Severin said nothing. But it was a quiet Remiel could read. "Yes, then. The water as well? That's strange; water was your mother's strength, you know. Maybe it's not hereditary. Or perhaps you take after your father--not that he has a drop of that blood in him, but he's always struck me as an air man."

"My father?" His father knew Remiel too?

"I only met him once. Thought he was harboring your mother. Turns out I was right." Scowling, Remiel hucked a wad of spit to the stone floor. "Lying piece of shit doesn't know how much trouble he caused me."

Lying piece of shit. Hello kettle, meet the pot. "My father is a hundred times the man you ever were."

"Your father is a disgusting sinner. You know your mother was working as a whore when she met him, don't you? You never would've been born if he hadn't had his purse on him." A dry, hollow cackle rasped from within the cell. "Ah, but I can't imagine they told you that. Same reason your mother never told you about her heritage, no doubt. You're already a bastard; you know what it is to be unwanted and abhorred."

Severin's lip curled and his toe twitched in agitation. This was hardly what he'd come for. "I just wanted to tell you that we found your stash. Lucien may be up again in a few days."

"And why do you think I care?"

"I don't." For the first time that day, Severin smiled. "I just wanted to thank you for your oversight."

Remiel's mouth fell agape. Satisfied, Severin turned on his heel and started to leave.


He wasn't immediately allowed to finish. "That would be Lord Severin to you."

Another chuckle. Another scowl. "Call yourself what you like, boy. But I'm curious; before all of this, did you ever do something unnatural? Something you couldn't explain but you knew deep down was always your fault? Perhaps something that made you happy--even if it shouldn't have?"

No--he had not come down here for this.


February 23, 2012

In Which Vera Does Not Disturb

February 8, 1178

After running out of tears, Vera had spent most of the night pretending to sleep and she suspected that on the other side of the bed her stepmother had been doing the same thing, at least until her father came back. Nora had risen and they'd spoken in hushed voices, though not so hushed that Vera couldn't make out what they were saying. She'd asked about the essence and he'd told her they'd found some under Remiel's old bed. Vera's grandmother had administered it and Lucien seemed to be doing better, even if he still hadn't woken. The situation was--to quote her father quoting her grandmother--'as hopeful as it was ever going to get'.

Of course, Vera couldn't take the news secondhand, not when it was Lucien. She'd waited in feigned slumber until her father was settled on the couch and Nora was tossing about beside her, then slipped out of their room, her tread swift yet light as she hurried back to her own.

He does look better, she thought as she joined him on the bed after a couple minutes' look. By nature he was pallid but the little color he had seemed to have returned, and he was no longer the comatose sort of still he'd fallen upon Remiel's touch, or even the tossing and turning sort of asleep he'd been after receiving her grandmother's essence. No--now he was peaceful, resting. He was recovering. Her father had said it might be a few days before he woke, but at least he seemed to be on the mend.

Lucien stirred somewhat, but it wasn't the restless jostling of before. He was probably just reacting to her weight on the mattress. He was still fast asleep, so she hadn't really disturbed him... had she?

No. He'd just rolled over, just like everyone else she'd ever shared a bed with and probably everyone she hadn't. He didn't know she was here. He wouldn't know. He wasn't about to wake before he was ready to do so.

Fingers trembling, her hand wavered toward him and stroked the side of his face. He didn't respond, but she flinched as something flowed out of her, some strange energy she hadn't known she possessed. Her head was light and her limbs were heavy. The room was a little darker, a little fuzzier. She knew she was stationary but she felt she was spinning.

She tried to steady herself as she slipped off the bed. Lucien needed his space, and she supposed she could make it back to her parents' bedroom if she stayed close to the walls. She'd never felt quite like this before, but her instincts told her to rest. She was not well.

At the same time, she couldn't say she felt poorly.


February 21, 2012

In Which Laveria Leads the Search

February 8, 1178

"So... what are we looking for, exactly?"

The poor duke, woken at this atrocious hour for such an urgent task. He'd probably thought all this Remiel business was over and done with, but he barely knew the half of it. There would be messes to clean up even after Remiel's death, Laveria was sure of it--more than she'd stumble upon in what remained of her lifetime.

"A stash of Lucien's essence. It would be in some sort of container, probably a small one." She took another book off the shelf and looked in side. Solid pages, just like the previous three; none of the cut-out compartments the Remiel of old had so loved. It didn't look like the young reeve was having much more success with the other shelves.

But she hadn't lost hope yet. She could sense something beyond herself and the three men, something that felt suspiciously like Lucien. It wasn't much, but it would possibly be enough--if only they could find it.

"What about these flasks above the table?"

All it took was a glance over the shoulder to dismiss them. "If it's out in the open, it'll be in something opaque. It gains a bit of a glow after a few weeks; if it was in one of those, we'd be able to see it."

She hoped she hadn't sounded too impatient--none of them would have known that, not even Severin--but surely they realized there was something of a rush. The sooner that essence was back inside the boy, the better chance he had of a recovery. "Keep looking. Knowing Remiel, he probably found a loose brick or floorboard, or he hollowed out a book or something. It'll be in a secret place. Or possibly some place deceptively simple."


February 20, 2012

In Which Severin Ponders Price and Purchase

February 8, 1178

"I didn't lay a hand on your precious daughter, if that's what you want to know." Remiel stood, a smirk twisting his thin lips to a sinister curve. So smug a smile had no place in the land of the living. "But I don't doubt that the boy did. Perhaps you ought to thank me for dealing with him."

For the sake of moving this along, Severin brushed aside the surface comment and went for the root of the matter. "He has a name--Lucien. I doubt you ever knew that. You never knew his name and now you've probably killed him."

And to that, all Remiel could offer was a shrug. It was nothing to him. Lucien's life--a child's life--was nothing, if even that. If he hadn't needed answers, Severin would have unleashed the flames without a thought. "Things like that aren't long for this world. He would have outgrown his usefulness soon, anyway; they're only good while they're still fresh."

Fresh. As if Lucien was a vegetable. Severin scowled. "You can't even hear yourself, can you?" Perhaps you did pay for all that stolen youth. Perhaps it came at the cost of your mind.

The monk dismissed him with a sniff. "The boy wouldn't have lived long anyway. His virgin mother was branded a whore for birthing him, and that's not the sort of thing that goes away. She was half mad by the time I found them--and he was sickly, starving, struck dumb by her neglect. You can't say I robbed him of much." Remiel gave a hollow sort of laugh; behind him, a lone stray spark flashed in and out of existence. "Your mother was a similar story. They all were. At least I gave them a purpose to fulfill."

"Keeping you young is hardly a purpose."

"Keeping me young?" Another laugh. Another spark. "That's hardly what this is. I have conquered death. I've been doing this since your father's father was just a twinkle in his father's eye and I have no plans to stop. You're an intellectual; surely you understand the appeal of an infinite lifespan? I shall do everything. I shall learn everything. And then I shall invent new things to learn."

"And how many children will have to whither away in order for you to do so?" Severin's fist was clenched and shaking, ice cold and flame hot. A third spark flashed dangerously close to the fabric of Remiel's robe. "How many dead children will it take for the price to outweigh your purchase?"

He could feel himself fuming. And Remiel barely even blinked. "Children. It seems you and I are quite different. They are not 'children'. They are abominations, hardly better than the demons who spawn them. By taking their essence, I am giving them mercy. The world is crueler in comparison."

The world is crueler. It stung to think that there might be one thing they agreed on, even if their logic varied. But there was no sense dwelling on that now, not while an innocent youth lay dying. "Is there any of Lucien's essence stashed in your old rooms?"

Those eerie orange-gold eyes shifted. "Possibly. Why? You would go out of your way to save a nameless hell creature who shares a bed with one of your slut daughters?"

"My daughters are not sluts." A sharp pain seared throughout his head and a small fire caught on the hem of Remiel's robe; a burst of water put it out before the monk could even notice. "If he was in her bed, then it's a family matter. And it's all the more reason to save him."