May 30, 2012

In Which Anna Gets a Chance

January 11, 1179

It was no one's duty to keep "Ramona" entertained, but there was no need; the library did that more than well enough.

It was the only aspect of Anna's new identity that didn't have a secret double edge. She could sleep in the large, comfy bed and eat at the high table, but as satisfying as it was she still felt like a fraud. She enjoyed Adrius's company, but it was a guilty pleasure; he was not hers to enjoy and it wasn't fair that he couldn't know that. The books, though... the books were the same no matter who she was, only a lady's maid wouldn't have had the leisure time to enjoy them.

The random pick of the day was a book of folklore, old Carvalli tales paraphrased in child-sized short stories. The reading was easy, but fascinating in its own right, and certainly not without purpose. It was easy to picture an older Adrius with this book, reading a story aloud from the bedside of a child--his and Mona's child. It was a nearly perfect image.

Was she an awful person if it made her ill?


Oh right. That was her.

In haste to make up for those lost seconds of non-response, she jerked her head to see Adrius loitering by one of the shelves. Her face was warmer than it ought to have been in midwinter. "How long have you been here?"

"Just a second." He sounded defensive. Had she given the impression that she was annoyed? She hadn't meant to... "I just got out of a meeting with some advisers. I came here to wind down. There... there's nothing that calms quite like a good book, is there?"

As if she could argue with that. "Not even close."

"May I...?" A little red, he gestured to the seat beside her. Anna swallowed. She didn't mind, but wasn't it crueler in the long run to be kind to him? Even if it was difficult not to be?

On the other hand, he was a king and she was his guest. She could hardly refuse him, even if she wanted to. "Of course."

Adrius stepped around the bench and sat down. Anna tried to keep one eye on him and another on the book; he seemed to be doing something similar. "That was my favorite book when I was little."


He nodded. "Have you reached the story about the lost island?"

"Just finished it a couple minutes ago. I think it's my favorite so far."

"Mine too." The fabric of his tunic rustled as he inched a little closer. She knew she ought to push him away, but she couldn't bring herself to do it. "It's funny. Whenever I used to read that story, I always imagined the princess to look a little like you."

What? Anna shut the book and put it down, shifting her full attention to Adrius, more shocked at his own daring than she herself was. Or maybe shocked was the wrong word. "Uh..."

Adrius shied back to the arm of the bench, his eyes darting around the room but never landing on her for more than a second. "Sorry, I... I don't know. I have trouble talking to women I... I mean, I just kind of say whatever... ah, never mind. Sorry."

It was amazing, really. This hadn't been her idea at all, but she doubted Mona felt a fraction of the guilt. "It's all right. It's flattering, really."

"You don't sound flattered."

No, she didn't. I'm sorry, Adrius. "I am, believe me. I just have something on my mind."

He seemed to get that. It was nice to feel grateful. "We can talk about it if you like."

No, they couldn't. Anna shook her head. "I'm sorry. I hardly even know you, really."

"I know. I'd like to change that, though."

Honestly? "I'd like that too."

She shouldn't have said it, but who knew when she'd get another chance to tell the truth.

A tentative hand approached her shoulder and she encouraged it by shuffling nearer. It wasn't long before there was a black-clad arm around her and for all it was the right thing to do she didn't want to brush it aside. She hoped Mona would forgive her. More than that, she hoped Adrius would.

And more than anything, she hoped she would forgive herself.


May 28, 2012

In Which Roddie Takes a Stab at the Jealous

January 6, 1179

"And you want to know the scariest thing?"

Sev's eyes grew while the rest of him shrunk, mouth agape in that way mouths were when they didn't want to know but had to. As squeamish as his nephew was, though, Roddie couldn't blame him; he'd been damn shocked when he'd found out too. "They can bleed for a whole week--without dying."

At least jumping served to make the kid taller. "No!"


"All of them?"

"Well... not little girls, and not old ladies. And not pregnant women either, for some reason." Roddie hadn't quite figured that part out yet, and he wasn't quite sure he wanted to--not that he was about to admit that to one of his admiring nephews. "But the rest of them do. Almost all of them, anyway," he added, just to cover any exceptions he might have missed.

Sev stood, blinking and blinking like he was about to cry. But to Roddie's great relief, he swallowed back his fear like a man and straightened out of his slouch to protest. "Not my mama."

"Yes, your mother too. Your mother, and my mother, and everyone else's mother. Except when they're pregnant. That's why men are afraid of women; if a man bleeds for a week, he dies."

His nephew's head lulled to the side. "Men are afraid of women?"

"Of course! Why do you think there are so many things women aren't allowed to do? It's because the men know that if they let the women do them, the women would do a much better job and the men would feel inadequate."

Hmm. Maybe words like 'inadequate' were a little big for a six-year-old. Nonetheless, Sev probably got the point. "Are you afraid of women?"

Or maybe not. "Nope. No reason to be afraid of a woman as long as you're on her good side. And things ought to be done by whoever does them best and enjoys them most, not by whoever has the right stuff between their legs--that's what my father says, anyway." Roddie's father knew more about women than any other man alive; enough, he'd claimed, to know that questions about women were better directed to women themselves. "Besides, women don't like men who are afraid of them, and it's important for women to like you."

"Oh." Sev wrung his hands in time with the twisting of his mouth. "Why?"

"Oh, you'll know when you're older," Roddie assured him with a wink, the pretty kitchen girl's week-old kiss still warm on his cheek. "Just don't tell my sister I told you, all right?" Not that that ever worked with Sev, but at least Raia would find it amusing. Who knew, she might even thank him.

Sev nodded. Roddie indulged him with a fraternal pat on the shoulder as the door behind swung open. "Hello, boys."

Sev's big sister led the charge, Alya in tow. Roddie acknowledged them with a raise of his brow. "Nieces."

Alina's brother took a different approach. His greeting took the form of a disbelieving stare, followed by his bolting from the room, the echo of his shout of "You can bleed for a week without dying!" left childishly behind. Maybe he'd been too young yet.

Alina shot Roddie a dark look. "Great. Now I'll have to explain it to him."

He shrugged. "You'll probably do a better job of it anyway."

"Yes, but you still owe me one."

"One what?"

"Oh, favors are better saved whenever possible, but don't forget about this." Alina held out her hand for a shake; Roddie figured it would be better in the long run if he took it. "I just came for Sev, anyway. Our mother's here."

Good. Raia would probably do an even better job of it. "All right. Have a nice walk back to your house."

"Bye, Roddie." Roddie winced. The problem with nieces and nephews nearly his age was that they often forgot the honorific of 'Uncle'. "Bye, Alya."

"Bye," Alya replied as Roddie waved. Alina raised one hand, then slipped back through the door, leaving Roddie alone with the younger girl.

"Roddie? You know everything, right?"

Oh great. She was going to ask what he and Sev had been talking about, wasn't she? And if Sev was too young for it at six, then surely Alya at five...

But she was a girl, wasn't she? She'd take it better, no doubt--if she didn't know already. "Sure do. What do you need, sprout?"

"Roddie, what's a dopted?"

It was strange how quickly fears could become wishful thinking. "You mean... adopted?"

She nodded. "Yesterday, the cook's kids were playing tag in the courtyard, and I asked if I could play too, but they said no because I'm adopted. So what's adopted? Is it bad?"

Why couldn't she have asked before Alina left? "No, it's not bad..."

"It is, isn't it?" Great. At least when Sev cried, he was quiet. "How bad is it? Who else is adopted? Are they bad? Or am I the only--"

"Alya, no! No, it's not bad. It--it's good." She pulled her face out of her hands, the tears still streaming but the frown pulled to a listening line. Now if only he could back that claim. "What it means is... well, it just means that someone loves you a whole lot. A lot a lot, like your mama and papa love you. And some people have a problem with that because they're jealous."

Alya sniffed. "Why?"

"Because they're stupid and ugly and they smell bad." There was probably more to it, but at least it got a little giggle out of her. "Anyway. I can't really explain it any more, but you should ask your parents about it. They'll know what to do." Or would they? Now that he thought about it, all he could see his sister doing was going after those little brats with a belt. "Or... ask your papa, at least. But for now, just know that it's good, all right?"

Just a nod. It would have been nice to see a little more. "How about a smile?"

It took a few seconds, but she managed it. Roddie returned the grin and pulled her into a hug.

"That's my girl."


May 25, 2012

In Which Mona Takes the Worry

December 25, 1178

"Never occurred to you to ask me first, did it?"

Mona pulled her gaze from the wall-length windows to Anna and her discarded book, then back to her own toes. She didn't need a scolding. Having to eat at the servants' table had been enough of a punishment as it was, especially with that leering stable boy to her left and the couple swapping a whole evening's worth of spit to her right. Still. She hadn't envied Anna, seated at the high table with the king and his mother, all eyes on her, expected to take dainty bites and only a moderate amount of wine; Mona had drank twice the wine her father had ever allowed her and had even gotten away with belching at the table. Creepy stable boy or not, it was the only taste of freedom she'd ever had and she didn't regret it at all.

Or maybe she would in the morning. "You would've said 'No'."

"Obviously. Not only is it insane, but it's completely unfair to King Adrius."

"How so? He seems to like you." Probably more than he'd like me.

Anna groaned. "That just makes it worse! I don't know how we're going to get out of this, but it's not as if I can actually marry him."

"Then you may tell him tomorrow." Mona kicked off her slippers and flung them over the footboard with a flick of her toes. With any luck, it would be just as easy to do away with the betrothal. "Not that he'll do much, but I doubt the queen will want either of us for a daughter-in-law after this."

"And you do realize what that would do for any future Naroni-Carvallon relations?"

"So you won't tell him?" Mona smirked as her maid pushed herself off the bench, arms crossed as she approached. In truth, she did feel a little guilty--it wasn't as if Anna had asked for it, after all--but who else could have helped her so? That odd superstition had made for such a perfect arrangement that passing it up would have no doubt been spitting in the face of fate.

"How do we tell him? On one hand, he has to know. On the other, any number of people could be inconvenienced if we offend anyone."

"Anna, it was my idea. Let me worry about the repercussions, all right?" Anna's frown said she wasn't about to, but she must have been too tired to protest further. Not that Mona blamed her. It had been a long day. She was getting rather sluggish herself. "Anyway, after all those weeks on that bunk in the carriage, I'm looking forward to a good sleep tonight. Have you any other concerns that can't wait until morning?"

"Just one."

"I'm listening."

The corner of Anna's lip tugged at her mouth, a sly glint in her eye that Mona had never noticed. "Well, if you're the princess, but I'm you... then why should you get the bigger bed?"


May 23, 2012

In Which Anna Is at a Loss

December 25, 1178

The steward joined the captain at the side of the carpet, robbing Anna of her last barrier between herself and the royals. The queen barely paid Mona a glance but surveyed Anna with the scrutiny that Mona's mother had only reserved for new fabrics. She probably knew--some sixth sense that only great queens possessed. This wouldn't end well. Why had she gone along with this, again?

Ah, right. Because the one day she'd dared sleep later than Mona, she'd woken to find the princess wearing the wrong dress, fawning loudly over 'my lady's lovely brown eyes' and 'your majesty's pretty chestnut curls'. For all they hadn't seen them, the guards had heard enough by the time they'd arrived that Anna had little choice but to go with it; a blond, green-eyed Princess Ramona would have led them to falsely suspect what was actually the truth with a dark-eyed brunette, and any thought of that would have been read as an insult, and good luck insulting foreign royalty without serious political repercussions.

That said, the question of how to sort out this mess was now needlessly difficult.

"Your highness." The king reached for Anna's hand, but it took him a couple swipes to grab it. He was as nervous as she was and that was somewhat comforting. Somewhat not, though; the fact that he cared enough to be nervous would make things all the more troubling when the truth came out. "I... trust you had a pleasant journey?"

It took a second to remind herself that he was talking to her and not Mona. "Yes, your majesty. Thank you."

Adrius flashed a shy smile and placed a kiss on her hand. His fingers beneath her own were soft and his lips were even softer. Must have been the sea air. "I'm glad to hear it."

He kissed her hand again, as if unsure that the first time had been sufficient. Mona smirked and the queen's eyes flickered. Anna tried to decide whether she minded, and whether she ought to. He was quite handsome and she wanted to tell him that, but it seemed cruel to lead him too far off course. "The carriage was very comfortable. My king is too kind."

"The carriage is my mother's own. She was the one who volunteered it." The queen cleared her throat. Startled, Adrius jerked his head in her direction with a hasty nod. "This is my mother, Queen Devidra of Carvallon."

The queen's mouth twitched into a curve, but her eyes remained sharp and shrewd, not unlike the captain's behind her. She didn't look nearly old enough to be the king's mother, but Anna had pictured her as such. Devidra of Carvallon did not seem the type to be swayed by mere age. "Princess Ramona. We are honored to have you."

Anna replied with a clumsy curtsy while Mona followed suit much more gracefully. She thought she saw the captain's brow arch. "I am most honored to be here, your majesty."

Satisfied, the queen crossed her arms and glanced back at her son. He took the hint with the same fumbling awkwardness of Anna's bow. "I hope you're hungry. We're having a feast tonight. The cooks have been working all day, and everyone who's walked past the kitchens says it smells delicious. And there's going to be a strawberry pie for dessert. Do you like strawberry pie?"

From the looks of it, it was a favorite of his. Anna smiled. "I love strawberry pie."

The king beamed--something she'd never thought possible of a king. The poor man, so obviously anxious yet so pleased that he'd made the right decisions. How would he take it, learning that they'd been for the wrong girl? Mona didn't care much for strawberry pie.

"Adrius, don't get ahead of yourself. Supper won't be ready for another hour." The queen stepped forward and locked gazes with Anna. Her eyes hadn't changed once since they'd arrived. "You must be tired, and perhaps you'd like to change for the feast. I shall show you to your room."


May 21, 2012

In Which Devidra Makes It Clear

December 25, 1178

"Well, it's about damn time!"

Where had the idiot boy been for the past half hour? Adrius knew perfectly well what day it was and what time he'd been expected in the throne room. He should have figured that by now, the steward--whatever this one's name was, the incompetent fools were fired and replaced so often that Devidra no longer bothered to learn their names--would have gone down to the gates to meet with Princess Ramona and her escort. And he definitely should have realized that his future bride would likely take offense if he wasn't there to greet her.

Not that Adrius knew anything about women, judging by his incoherent mumblings and awkward lookings-away every time some pretty young thing batted her eyes at him. It was his nineteenth Christmas and Devidra doubted he'd ever taken a girl to bed. How would the princess feel on her wedding night, being thrust at from every angle by a man unsure of where to put it? Devidra's own husband had been older than her father and had rarely managed to get it up, but at least her wedding night had given her another week to get used to the idea of bedding him before his limp prick would finally allow it. A man who no longer could was one thing, but a man who knew in theory but had no experience in practice? For the girl's sake, Devidra hoped he'd been late because of some loose chambermaid.

Ah, but that wasn't her son. The only loose thing he'd been with was a book he'd read too many times. "Sorry, Mother. I lost track of time with this... this..."

"Book?" A guilty flush betrayed him. Devidra sniffed. She was not disappointed in Adrius's quest for written knowledge--a king ought to be well-read, after all--but it would hardly serve him or the country without the balance of more immediate occupations. His physical training was neglected and the accounts would have been checked minimally had Devidra not felt the need to take care of those herself. And never mind that he'd never met with any of his generals since she'd dragged him to the war room as a protesting seven-year-old. He'd insisted that he was a pacifist; she'd just said that was a big word for his age and that most of his peers were out hitting each other with sticks. "Damn it, you know what day it is! Don't you realize how offended your bride will be if you seem to find her less interesting than a stack of rotting pages?"

Adrius sighed. "She might be interesting..."

"As opposed to what you were reading, which is indisputably interesting?" Her son swallowed; Devidra's mouth curled in some odd, unsatisfied triumph. Adrius had never protested the agreement, but that didn't mean he wanted it--not that it mattered. "Look. Your oldest brother died when he was eighteen, and you'll be nineteen in May. You have no living brothers, and your two remaining sisters are a nun and a women past her childbearing years with only a barren daughter to show for it. If something were to happen to you, your idiot cousin would be king and all of Carvallon will curse you for it. Besides, the Dovians have never liked us and an alliance with Naroni would provide a neutral buffer."

"Mother, we've been over this--"

"Not enough, apparently." She jabbed one finger in the direction of Adrius's throne. He took the hint and climbed the stairs to take a seat; Devidra herself took the one beside him. "Adrius, I don't give a rat's ass if she's the blandest, homeliest, most useless thing alive. You're going to marry that girl. You're going to get an heir out of her, and one or two spares, and a couple daughters. And you'll be good to her. You don't have to like her--you can fuck whores behind her back for all I care--but you will treat her well, because she's the mother of your children and she deserves your respect. Is that clear?"

Adrius opened his mouth and closed it a couple times--possibly to protest, possibly to tell her he didn't want to fuck whores--but all he ended up managing was a simple "Yes, Mother."

"Good." Devidra glanced to the door before fixing her eyes back on her son. She knew firsthand that a political marriage could be hell for a young person, but she also knew that this one was necessary. For all Roderick was a bumbling ass, his daughter did not come without her advantages, and shy, bookish boys like Adrius were not like to find wives for themselves. "Is there anything else?"

Her son slouched somewhat, confused and nervous and not at all kingly. He'd have to correct that before Ramona arrived. "Do you think she'll like me?"

"Of course she will." The answer was a little automatic and perhaps Adrius had picked up on that, but she did have hopes. For all she had to admit that he was a spineless daydreamer, she had raised a good man with a good heart. If the princess could see that, then there was little cause for worry. "Just be nice to her. I know you will be."

He looked like he was about to argue, but he was cut off by the door and the resulting return of his uncle. Zareth strode forward as stoic as ever, indulging Devidra with a bow that was more of a nod than anything else. She felt her eyes narrow. "Brother."

"Sister. Nephew."

One more word than she'd thought she'd get out of him--without prying, at least. "The princess?"

"She'll be here in a minute. The steward and her maid are with her, plus my men."

"And none of your men laid eyes on her before arriving here?"

Zareth shook his head. "They knew better than to look."

"Good." The word itself was not praise enough, but Zareth had rarely been praised before she'd made him captain and not often since and no doubt didn't recognize it in such small doses. She supposed she'd throw him a bone. "Well done, brother. I knew you'd get the job done."

He grunted and stepped to the side. Zareth had his mother's name, but if all these years at court couldn't hammer some manners into him, then he was a true Alderfell indeed.

The door creaked again, more tentative this time. Devidra shot Adrius one last look, then straightened her back and turned her face forward. "Enter."

"Your majesties: Her royal highness, Princess Ramona of Naroni."


May 18, 2012

In Which Mona Cannot Inconvenience

December 19, 1178

The carriage was comfortable enough as a temporary living space for two people--benches, a meat safe, two beds sectioned off by a curtain and a wall segment--but the only entertainment the Carvalli had provided was a bookshelf. The smart thing to do would have been to take a cue from Anna and read, but Mona was too restless for overlong bouts with a book. She wanted to be moving. If only she could have gone for a ride, or even just a walk during one of the not-infrequent stops.

Of course, that would have required leaving the carriage and likely being seen by one of the guards, and it wasn't as if that would go over well. Damn Carvalli superstitions. It would only get worse when she got married, wouldn't it? And there was probably a whole Bible of baby-related stigmas she'd have to keep in mind whenever the children came along. She wouldn't even be allowed to step on the tile grout, would she? So much for thinking no life could be more restrictive than one with her parents.

"You have to get me out of this."

Anna peeked up from her book to shoot her a quizzical look. Sure, maybe it was an unusual thing to ask of a lady's maid, but that was what happened when she wasn't allowed to talk to anyone else. "Hmm?"

"You heard. You're smart. Maybe we can think of a way to escape."

Her maid said nothing. Mona scowled. "You're not very sympathetic to my plight, are you?"

Anna turned her page with a lick of her finger and sighed. "It's not that, your majesty. I realize that this is unfair to you; there's just nothing I can do about it. And even if there was, it wouldn't be practical to do so."

"Practical?" That hardly sounded hopeful.

"Well... Naroni needs the ports, and Carvallon needs a queen and heirs and a buffer zone between them and Dovia. Any plans we make would inconvenience too many people. I'm sorry."

Bah. She was probably right. Not that it helped at all. "You know how I said I wished my life was different?" Anna nodded. Mona slumped, arms crossed, shoes scraping with little mind for the floor. Why should she mind it? This might be the last floor on which she ever tread lightly. "This isn't it. It'll be more of the same, only worse."

"You don't know that." The other girl bit her lip as she shut the book and set it down beside her. "He could be kind. You might like him."

Indeed, she might. She might even love him. But did it really make much of a difference?

"It's not him I'm worried about. It's all of it."