April 30, 2012

In Which Anna Is Granted a Look Beyond the Title

October 9, 1178

Anna had not taken on her job with the intention of becoming the princess's confidante. Not that she didn't like Mona--not even that they weren't friends, or at least that they wouldn't be if not for the employer and employee status--but she was never sure what to offer in regards to Mona's problems. She'd never had a perfect older sister or a stuck-up half-brother or any 'snot-nosed little siblings'. Her own parents had been loving and functional, and were each a few years dead besides. And it wasn't as if anyone would ever make her marry a king she'd never met, because she was only a servant. Anna's problems consisted of mild springtime allergies and running out of books to read and an inability to strike up a conversation with that handsome guard. There was no way she could relate.

"There's got to be some way out of this without entering a nunnery."

Mona had an odd habit of phrasing her questions as statements. A noble thing, probably--just one more hint that they didn't speak quite the same language. "Uh... you could join the bards next time they come around?"

"Yes, because my singing voice sounds nothing like a cat coughing up hairballs."

It didn't, but one of Mona's brothers had made that comment once and it must have stuck. "Well... if you marry King Adrius, at least you'll be away from your family, right? Isn't that what you wanted?"

"Not like this, though." Mona sighed. It wasn't really becoming of her, but the sentiment wasn't unfitting. "I would have been fine with marrying a noble and being a countess or a duchess or something, but I'm tired of being royalty. You're always on display and no one sees anything beyond your title. My own parents don't even know who I am as a person. I'm just Princess Ramona of Naroni, and soon I'll be Queen Ramona of Carvallon, and no one gives a damn about how Queen Ramona of Carvallon would rather wear her hair long or what her favorite kind of weather is or that she hates her full name. I'm practically a decoration."

Anna choked. If that was how Mona saw it, then it was an awful fate indeed. "Is that really how you feel about it?"

The princess shrugged, unprincesslike. "Why shouldn't it be? It's the truth. Did you know that you're the only person I can be myself around?"

She hadn't. It was such an alien thought but it wasn't without its logic. Everyone else saw Mona on display, dressed up and pretty and perfect alongside the rest of her self-proclaimed 'flawless' family. Anna was the only one who ever saw Mona at her most vulnerable--just before bed, in the bath, throwing up, what have you. Once, she'd had to hold Mona's dress up during a violent bout of the runs; after you'd seen a person in that sort of position, they had nothing more that was worth hiding.

"I... never thought of it that way."

Mona trudged to her bed and flopped down upon the mattress, blond hair and green eyes lost in the sea of purple and black. The purple was unavoidable, but the black had been Mona's choice. She'd always liked black. The family's actual secondary color was white. "The funny thing? I don't even know your last name."

"It's Shell."

After a good couple years of employment, she would have expected that Mona knew that. But it didn't matter much. At least more than one person did.


April 29, 2012

In Which Mona Is Given Her Part

October 9, 1178

At fourteen, Mona had no delusions about her father. She knew what people thought of him, what people said about him when they thought no one could hear, and she knew it wasn't far from the truth. She knew he was pompous, pretentious, and excessive. She knew he was arrogant and self-serving and more than a tad incompetent. She knew what little right he had to call himself a ruler, and how he wasted every last bit of it.

But his eyes were the hard steel grey of kings come and gone, and if her father knew one thing, it was how to use them. When Mona was sitting and her father was standing, those eyes made damn sure that she listened to every word the mouth beneath them had to say--no matter how ridiculous or downright stupid they were.

That wasn't to say that she had qualms about arguing. "I can't say I see the problem. Lady Leonora wears her hair a similar way."

Her father's lip twitched, as it always did when Lord Severin's wife was brought up. It might have been nice not to get such a guilty pleasure out of such things. "That vassal slut is not a lady; you're well aware of my stance on the validity of that marriage. Besides, a glorified commoner in that hedonistic cesspit of a shire is hardly the same thing as a future queen. I won't have you sent off to Carvallon looking like less than a princess. What would Queen Devidra think if you showed up with all those uneven lengths and flyaway strands?"

From what Mona had heard of Queen Devidra, she had no doubt that the woman wore her own hair chopped hastily to chin-length like some salty old sea captain. But her father's idea of a queen was her mother, and all other queens would be measured with that stick. It was precisely why Mona had never desired a crown, and it figured that of all her siblings, she would be the first to don one, possibly the only one aside from Ietrin. All those years of wishing to get away had backfired. "Would she care? The Carvalli are a bit--"

"Savage?" She'd meant to say 'fancy-free', but it was a synonym so far as her father was concerned. "Well, yes, but that's part of it. The Carvalli haven't had a real princess in decades; they ought to know what one looks like."

"Then perhaps you should have sent Riona."

And oh--how he would have, he couldn't deny it. Her perfect older sister would have been, in his mind, the queen every queen aspired to be. Pity she couldn't have gone instead. "We've been over this. She wanted to marry sooner than Devidra would agree to, and your mother and aunt wanted her to marry one of your cousins--"

"Yes, a cousin who's a father and two brothers and two nephews away from the throne." And while she knew little else about her cousin Lonriad, that one thing would have made him perfect for Mona herself. It was tiresome enough to be a princess; it would only be moreso, being a queen.

Her father glared at her. "I should hope you won't talk back like that to your husband."

"If he dares talk forth to me in the first place. He's supposed to be some sort of stuttering bookworm, isn't he?"

"And it will be up to you to make a king of him." He folded one arm beneath the other, matter of fact, as if someone had once bothered to do the same for him. "That is part of what a queen does."

Then it was a pity for Adrius that Mona was no queen.


April 27, 2012

In Which Alsina Is Not Good

September 18, 1178

"You're not angry, are you?"

It didn't seem like an unreasonable question. Alsina's husband had never raised a hand to her, but that didn't mean he lacked a temper. After all their years together, Aldhein had come to remind her of the old tomcats that used to wander her grandfather's fields; harmless if unprovoked, maybe even friendly if you approached with caution, but not incapable of sending a girl stumbling backward with a well-timed hiss.

"No." But why was that vein on his forehead still throbbing? For all the rest of his face was set in stony stillness, that tiny bulge pulsed with an alarming ferocity. "It was an accident. And even if it wasn't, I suppose I'd hardly be blameless."

Alsina swallowed. An accident. Yes... it had been an accident, or at least she hoped that was the case. It was a more comforting thought than that of her grief-stricken heart guiding her without the checks and balances of the mind, manipulating routine actions to some nonsensical agenda of normalcy. This was hardly normal anyway. For all it might have been desirable in her darkest moments, she feared now she didn't even want it. What difference would it make? Her children were still dead. "Thank you for understanding."

He grunted, head turning toward her. Aqueous eyes swept over her and left a chill in their wake. "Are you all right?"

She nodded, not sure if it was a lie or not. She wasn't even sure if it mattered. These days, there wasn't much that did. "I'm fine."


But for all he could say that word, that hardly made it so.


April 25, 2012

In Which Nanalie Gets an Invitation

September 3, 1178

"Not exactly your usual self, are you?" Nanalie teased as little Karlspan tugged at the sleeve of her tunic. She got the laugh she'd wanted, but it was hardly Garrett's usual hearty chuckle--just a forced, almost pained choke of a snicker. A dull ache throbbed within her gut. Not that it wasn't nice to know that Garrett had a serious side, but this was... confusing, to say the least. "What happened?"

"You really want to know?" She nodded. He watched as she bounced his son in her arms a couple times, his mouth caught midway toward a grin but weighted down with some bitter anchor--sort of like the way her father used to smile for her stepmother when he was thinking of her mother. "Kiddo's birthday is coming up and instead of a nice toy or something, his grandmother got it in her head to get him a new mama."

Whimpering, Karlspan clung to Nanalie's shoulder. She tousled his fine gold hair before shooting a frown toward his father. "The queen set you up?"

"Well, I'm a grown man and she's not my mother, but she's trying." And if that sigh was anything to go by, she was going to keep at it. "I guess I get it--she wants her daughter's only child to have a mother--but I wish she wasn't trying to get an alliance out of it too. The woman she brought over yesterday? Niece to the Queen of France."

For a count's second son? A mere knight? "Maybe you should have gone for it. Is she pretty?"

Garrett shrugged. "Pretty enough. She didn't seem all that comfortable around little Karl, though. And while I'd like him to have a mother, I don't think it was be much of a service to him if I married just for the sake of that. A kid should get to see what love is, you know?"

Not something she would have expected to hear from a noble who'd been set up with a queen's niece, especially if he'd already married another queen's daughter. Then again, maybe he was low enough on the ladder that politics weren't everything, or at least not for a second marriage. Lonriad was a knight, after all, and a lord's third son; God knew he hadn't married her sister for the connections. "I see."

Garrett's mouth twitched, but his eyes didn't seem to want to press the matter. Fair enough; if he'd gone out of his way to visit on a lonely day when she would have otherwise had the house to herself, she supposed the least she could do was change the subject. "So... you have a birthday coming up?" she asked the toddler, prompting a smile--a real one, she was pleased to see--from his father. The little boy nodded. "Fun! How old?"

He held up two fingers, which was a little surprising in spite of the math; most two-year-olds Nanalie had known were not nearly so reserved. Nearly a year of knowing him now and she'd only recently earned the trust required to hold him. Then again, maybe she ought to have been flattered. The only other person who ever got to hold him was his father. "Two! Practically a man!"

He flashed her a quick view of his tiny, gap-ridden teeth. Behind him, Garrett twisted his wedding band. "I think he wants to invite you to his party."

"I wouldn't have guessed this little fellow liked parties."

"He doesn't, but Grandmama insisted." Garrett shook his head, his lips settling into a sheepish grimace. God damn, he smiled a lot, and not just when he was happy. And yet... would he have looked like himself, not smiling? "He might enjoy himself a little more if you come, though. He really likes you--don't you, Karl?"

The child answered by tightening his hold on Nanalie's shoulder, a wad of cloth bunched up in his tiny fist. It had always bothered Nanalie when her little siblings tugged on her clothes, but in spite of old experience, she didn't mind so much with Karlspan. "I'll be there."

Big surprise--Garrett beamed. "Great."


April 22, 2012

In Which Ashe Catches a Raindrop

August 15, 1178

Going by how Rona had looked when Ashe had crawled out of bed that morning, he hadn't expected to find her standing, fully dressed and playing with the puppy he'd brought home one day for what he hoped was no apparent reason, the barely-there bulge of her middle much less prominent than he would have expected for six months. Despite her claims, Rona had never been fat, but the poor girl never had looked thinner than she did now; even her stomach didn't seem to be so much growing as it was the only part of her that wasn't shrinking.

A few times, he'd caught her running her hand over the bump, the worry in her eyes obvious even in the peripheral. It hadn't swollen much over the past month or so, if it had at all. For all they knew, the baby was already gone; here they were, awaiting an inevitable stillbirth, something she'd never get over, something for which some part of him would always blame himself.

Not that he would dare say any of that aloud--not with what else he had to say to her, which had been enough of a debate on its own. She has to know. Lonriad's right; it's only fair. She has to know what you dragged her into. Damn you for not telling her at the tournament. "Feeling a little better?"

"A little." She flashed him a brief smile as she always did, but turned back to the dog with enough haste to sting. "I thought it might be good for the baby if I walked around a little. I think she's getting bored with all my lying about."

It was probably better if he didn't ask how she might possibly know that. "Yes. Well... your comfort comes first, you know."

"I'm comfortable enough." That makes one of us. "How was your day? I thought I heard Lonriad outside, chatting with the steward. I would have greeted him, but I was down with a headache at the time."

"Yes, well... he didn't stay all that long." It wasn't really a lie; Lonriad's mind, at least, must have left while Ashe had broken down and sobbed into his shoulder like he hadn't since he was a five-year-old girl. Even if it was a lie, what was one more at this point?

Well... maybe more than he thought, if he was really going to do this. After Lonriad had left, he'd gone over it countless times in his head. It wasn't great timing, not with the baby and all--hell, not after she'd been misled into marrying a fraud and a liar--but surely it could only be worse if she found out after the baby arrived? Even if it arrived alive and well?

She'd probably want to leave him. It was her right, after all. If she chose to do so, then he would let her keep the castle and the baby and everything that came with them. He owed her that much, if not more. He didn't know what he'd do beyond that. It didn't matter anyway. "Uh... can we--?"

"Were you crying?"

She put the puppy down and waddled toward him, concerned. Ashe flinched by reflex. "No..."

"You were." A small, silken hand brushed his cheek, hovering by the corner of his eye. "Why?"

"Er... allergies?"

Rona shook her head. "Silly boy. You don't have to keep things from me."

If only she knew the half of it. "Can we talk?"

She pulled back somewhat as he reached for her pretty hair, smiling in that transparent way she did when she didn't want him to know how uncomfortable she was. She'd used that same smile on Aspen and he wondered if it said anything, but it was foolish to hope that it did. "All right..."

"You have to promise to believe me, though."

Her nose wrinkled, but she nodded nonetheless. "I guess I can do that."

"And while I want you to be honest with me, it's probably best if you don't say anything until I finish explaining."

"All right?"

Well, here it was: the moment that would make or break the rest of his life. All those hours of preparation and he was at a loss about where to begin. It probably wasn't wise to just come out and say it, but how to lead in? So many places he could start and not one of them was ideal. Even opening with an 'I love you' seemed wrong.


She had that same expectant look on her face that she had when they'd first met--back when the duke's daughter had the daring to approach that scrawny little orphan in the kitchens and demand her name. "Sorry, just... you know." A tilt of her head said she didn't. I'm sorry, Rona. "All right. Uh... you see, back when your brother--"


A hint of a tear in her eye, Rona glanced down at her middle, a soft stream of laughter rolling off her lips. He hadn't seen her smile quite like that in weeks. "Ashe, she's kicking!"


"I'm sorry. It's just... she hasn't moved in a couple days and I didn't want to worry you, but she's kicking!" She leaned into him, her forehead laying to rest against the cord that held her key. For a second he felt her heart beating and his own raced to catch up. "Our baby is fine."

Ashe ran his fingers along her shoulder until they left the lace and tread instead upon the soft skin beneath. "Rona..."


Without warning, she grabbed him by the wrist and pressed his open hand against the bulge. Sure enough, something landed a hit on his palm, no more forceful than raindrop but nevertheless there. He didn't think it had occurred to him until now that the baby really existed and he wasn't sure what to make of that.

"That's... that's really something."

"Isn't it?" Rona's face was aglow with a light that put the sun to shame as she took Ashe's face in her hands and kissed him. He'd never seen her quite like this, so happy that she threatened to burst with all that was good in the world. Was it too much to hope that this moment never ended?

"I'm sorry, I kind of interrupted you, didn't I? What did you need to tell me?"

Apparently it was.

No. No, he couldn't spring that on her now, no more than he could shoot down the morning star at the peak of its reign. There would be another time, many other times. Or did she even need to know at all? It was the past, after all; it didn't matter now, didn't make much of a difference. They'd both be better off.


"Uh... you know, it's actually not that important. Or that interesting, even," he added, noting a trace of disappointment that lurked about her smile. "Just some... odd math in the accounts. You know, I might have just miscalculated."

"Might want to check that, then." One hand to her middle, Rona giggled and looped her free arm around his waist. "But it can wait. It's more important that the baby's all right."

He nodded. She planted a kiss on his jaw before burrowing into his shoulder. "You're going to be such a great father. You know that, right?"

For all he didn't agree, it probably wasn't the best time to protest.


April 20, 2012

In Which Lonriad Is Only Quite Himself

August 15, 1178

"I thought I told you to leave me alone."

Lonriad shook his head as he shut--and locked--the door behind him. The protest made a strange sort of sense if he considered that Ashe was in the process of growing up for the second time. It hadn't been all that long ago when Lonriad had been growing up. He was well-versed in the lexicon of scared, angry young men. 'Leave me alone' was most typically used when that was the last thing a boy needed--or, deep down, wanted. "Yes, well, I'm not that good a listener. Besides, you can't expect me to learn something like that and just shrug it off."

He had a point there and Ashe knew it. The narrowed green eyes said enough. "You didn't tell anyone, did you?"

"No." Even if it had been his secret to tell, who would have believed him? As for the Deian thing, he thought he had it worked out--for now. He'd arrange to visit Raia on days when she expected Tavrin. He'd bribe his niece and nephew to distract their mother while he pressed Tavrin about any plans Deian might have made. That wasn't telling anyone; surely Deian's own grandson already knew he was back? And if it was... well, he'd make damn sure Deian knew that Ashe had nothing to do with it. "But it's lucky for you that I found out. Now you have someone to talk to."

"You just said you weren't a good listener."

"Maybe not, but I'm better than nothing." A choice line of Lonriad's father's, even if the usual prompter had been more along the lines of 'You wouldn't understand'. So much for thinking it would be another decade or so before he had to use it. "Here's the thing about men and emotions: we're not made to feel so many things at once. Maybe women handle it all right--you'd know better than I would--but men just... don't. If you don't let a few of those feelings breathe, they're just going to mount until they explode right out of you like some sort of fucked up psychological diarrhea."

Ashe cringed. Under more casual circumstances, Lonriad might have snickered. "Look, we men have no qualms about discussing bodily functions. Get used to it, because it's only a matter of time before some drunk in a bar challenges you to a pissing contest. But anyway--keep this up and you're just going to keep blowing up like you did yesterday. And it's one thing to lash out at me, but what if you did that to Rona? Or the baby? Do you think you could live with yourself if that happened?"

He knew the answer before it was given. Ashe looked up at him for a couple strained seconds before turning back to the sheet of parchment in front of him. "No."

"Thought so. Sit with me." Lonriad jerked his head in the direction of a bench along the next wall, but he didn't move until Ashe stood. He waited until the other collapsed on the near end, then took the empty spot on the far. "So, what happened, anyway? How did you get all..." He couldn't remember ever having such difficulty finding a fitting word. "...stubbly?"

He thought it might have merited some sort of twitch, but Ashe just sighed. Maybe he'd exhausted himself the day before. "I'm not even really sure. It was about a week before the tournament and I was working at Seoth's place and I saw all those goons that were here to compete and I just... well, none of them were good enough for Rona. I had a run-in with one of the forest people and she said to try making a wish at the sex pond, so I just wished that Rona would be happy and..."

"The next morning, you woke up looking like that." Ashe nodded. At least Jadin's sex pond story made sense now--sort of. "Huh. If all you wished for was for her to be happy, it sounds like you two were meant to be together."

"I thought so too, but..." He shook his head as he threw the unfinished thought on a mental peg and left it to dangle.

But really, Lonriad couldn't not grab for it. "But what?"

"It's a little complicated." You don't say. "I mean, she talks about Aspen all the time and she always gets this look--sort of like an abandoned kitten, just all hurt and lonely and she barely even notices when I try to comfort her. She even wants to name the baby Aspen. I told her I didn't like the name, but I think she's still hoping I'll come around on that, and... God, the baby! How the hell am I supposed to feel about the baby?"

Huh. That was a new question. And given that he was talking to a man who used to be the girl who got fired for spitting on him, that really said a lot. "Um... maybe a little scared, but generally good?"

"'Scared' sounds right." He slumped forward, barely managing to catch himself before he fell right off the bench. It didn't seem right, someone like that girl all folded up in themselves like there was no use fighting anymore. He was larger than he'd been, but he'd never been so small. "She's really sick. What if... what if there's something wrong with it, something that's killing her? Do you think I--I mean, what if it was--?"

"No. Sometimes women just have rough pregnancies." This one was admittedly ill-timed--well, which weren't?--but the point stood. Probably. "Sorry that it's happening to Rona, though."

"Yes, well... not like you can do anything about it. Except maybe praying, if you do that sort of thing." Ashe lifted his foot and let it fall back down with a light thump!. Lonriad doubted he was the devout type, but he'd likely taken to prayer anyway--just in case. "I don't know. I just wish I could actually do something for her beyond trying to keep her comfortable. I try to make gestures every once in a while, but I'm never sure how far they go. It's like she'll only pretend to be pleased so that I won't worry so much about her, and that just makes me worry even more.

"The worst part? Aspen could probably make her feel better just by walking through the door."

Lonriad believed it--and his own prior romantic rivalry was suddenly petty and juvenile. Cord had been nothing. He hadn't been a friend, hadn't even been much of an acquaintance, hadn't meant much to Lonriad at all. Surely it was nothing on competing against yourself.

"Maybe you should just tell her."

Barely turning his head, Ashe glanced up at him out of the corner of his near eye. Lonriad didn't get a long enough look to read it, but it might have been for the best. He doubted he knew the language. "If she actually believed me, do you really think she'd want to know?"

Lonriad lifted a shoulder. An outright 'yes' was probably too much of a stretch, but by that logic, so was an outright 'no'. "She does miss you an awful lot, to hear Riona tell it. More than most people miss friends, really. I wouldn't be surprised if she was halfway in love with you before, even if she never knew it."

Ashe sniffed. Lonriad doubted he'd believed him, but at least he didn't outright say it. "Still a shock, though."

"Yes, well... still probably good for her to know. You know, with the major impact on her life and all." He snorted, hoping to lighten the mood somewhat. It didn't work, but it hadn't hurt to try--and if Ashe took no offense, if only because he hadn't noticed. "Honestly? If Asalaye used to be a boy, I'd want to know about it."

"And you'd be all right with it?"

It was probably a good thing Ashe wasn't looking; he had to smirk. "Why not? Just as long as she's not one now--which, trust me, she's not."

"Yes, well... I don't know. Rona's not you." No--nobody was quite Lonriad, or quite Rona. "I hate being two different people."

And nobody was quite Ashe. Not even Ashe. "Who says you have to be?"


April 19, 2012

In Which Riona Is Told of the Lonely Fate

August 14, 1178

"Oh, no. Don't you look at me like that. I just finished lacing up again."

The baby made a quick swipe at Riona's thumb--as if that particular part was of any use to an infant--but she pulled her hand away just in time, instead delivering a quick tap on the nose. "Nice try, but you know it's nap time."

Alina kicked in protest. Shahira had been such an easy baby, never demanding and content to be left alone from the minute she was placed in her crib, but Lord have mercy on them all if Alina ever had to suffer a minute of not being the center of attention. For all she loved her daughter, it drove Riona up the wall; her father's continued gleeful inquiries as to who that reminded her of didn't help. "No buts--no more feeding until after your nap. It takes time to replenish that stuff, you know."

In place of the desired understanding, all Riona got was an annoyed cooing sound. Hopeless. Maybe Alya would whip her into shape once she got a little older, the way only big sisters could.

"Giving Mama some grief, I see?"

Riona stepped away from Alina's crib and watched as her husband stepped into the nursery. Odd. She would have expected him to be at least a couple hours more. "Done already?"

Isidro smirked. "Good to see you too, dear."

"Oh, you know what I mean." He shut the door and she met him halfway with a quick kiss to his lips. "Fish for breakfast? Really?"

"I just got in the door and you expect that I've cleaned my teeth already? You know, sometimes I miss the days when you were pretending to be a boy."

"Oh, but if I went back to doing that, you wouldn't get to do much with these," she teased as she pulled herself into him, pressing her breasts against his torso. They weren't much, but he liked to play with them all the same.

"Point taken. You win."

Well, that was a given. "I always win and you know it. Anyway, did you find it?"

"The suit of armor?"

Riona sniffed. "What else?"

"I don't know, some way to be able to touch your breasts without getting nagged about my breath?" She swatted him across the arm. Chuckling to himself, he kissed her cheek and crossed the room to their daughter's bedside. "But yes, 'Nardo and Abrich saw him. Apparently he gave Abrich a hug and wouldn't let go for ten minutes."

At least it was definite proof the thing wasn't dangerous? "Abrich always was a huggy sort."

"No one's that huggy--at least, not with other adults." And with that, Isidro reached down and lifted Alina out of the crib. "Hello, angel. I hope you missed me more than Mama did."

Riona rolled her eyes. "Izzy, I just put her down."

"Relax, I'll put her back. I just haven't seen her all morning. She's probably forgotten what I look like."

"Like anyone could forget a mug like yours, Scarface."

Shaking his head, Isidro shared a quick eye-roll with Alina. God, he could be annoying. But at least he looked cute doing it. "May you be blessed with the knack for original insults that passed your mother over." Alina gurgled. Izzy wiped her mouth with his thumb. "Oh no. Don't tell me you're hungry. You just ate, didn't you?"

"That she did." Riona shot the baby a stern look, relayed by Isidro as he returned to her feet. "Tell me more."

In her father's arms, Alina squirmed. Shrugging, he propped her into an upright position, prompting Riona to land a quick tickle on her tummy. "Not much more to tell, really. Just that he just kind of stood there all forlorn when they decided it was time to head back. Poor thing thought he was being abandoned."

"Aww. Sounds just like a lost little kid."

"Garrett said the same thing. Searle thought Abrich should have taken him home. If I'd seen him myself, I think I might have." He kissed the baby on the top of her head and sighed. "There's not much worse than being a kid with no one to love you, except maybe losing everyone who might."

"No doubt."

Riona dangled her fingers in front of Alina's and a tiny hand wrapped itself around the middle one. Even if she and Isidro died in their sleep that night, there was always her father and stepmother, her grandparents, all of her siblings, all of her nieces and nephews. Her own children were very lucky. They would never know that lonely fate.