June 30, 2012

In Which Lucien Mentions Everyone Else

April 13, 1179

If Jadin and Isidro were to be believed, the best window of time for a new father to monopolize the baby was just as the birthing party was filing out or resting elsewhere until the time the first wave of visitors arrived. The midwife would be paid and gone; the mother would have gotten a satisfactory fill of her child, then would likely want to close her eyes for a while. With everyone else out of the way, if the father wanted a minute alone with his kid--and what father wouldn't?--this was the time.

Lucien lifted his son out of the crib with the caution he reserved for crumbling old scripts in the archives. He'd spent the last few months handling Vera's smallest nieces and nephews whenever possible and he'd thought he'd gotten the hang of it, but his own baby required another technique entirely. For all newborns were flesh and not glass, he feared the boy falling and shattering with the same crash as Remiel's knocked-down vials. "Uh... is this comfortable for you?"

The baby blinked. Lucien wasn't sure what to do with that, but at least there was no crying. "All right, then?"

Another blink. Was that an infant's 'Yes'? Lucien couldn't guess. He'd never known any infants before Vera's family.

The boy was dark like Vera, but he lacked her sapphire eyes. He didn't have the lighter blues that some of his cousins had either. His were a cloudy, star-like grey that Lucien couldn't place. His own father's? That could have been it. If he didn't even know his father's name, then who was to say what color eyes he had?

He hoisted the baby to his shoulder and rocked slightly as a little hand lost itself in his hair. "You're small. You're not as small as I thought you'd be, but you're still tiny. I wish you could tell me how to avoid breaking you."

A compact foot dug into his torso. Lucien kissed his son's cheek and sighed. "You know, I never had a father. Never had much of a mother either, to be honest. So... sorry if it takes a while for me to learn how to handle you."

The baby gummed at his shoulder. Did that mean he was hungry? Was it best to wake Vera? Lucien wondered if her father or any of her brothers were still downstairs; they'd know better than he did. "See, I don't know what you mean by that. I'm not used to babies. I'm only used to--"

He stopped. He did not want his first conversation with his son to be about Remiel, or at least not any more than it had to be. He could mention any number of other people now--the boy's wonderful mother, his grandfather, his vast armies of aunts and uncles and cousins. There were so many people who cared about him. Why waste breath on anyone else?

"There are a lot of people who love you, you know." The baby made an odd cooing sound. Lucien rubbed his back and indulged him with a light bounce. "No one's going to let anything happen to you."


June 26, 2012

In Which Garrett Is Not Scared Alone

April 2, 1179

Thunder cracked amidst the soundscape of the pounding rain. Garrett cursed himself for not having the foresight to leave. He lived only a couple hours' ride north of Sir Lonriad's castle, but knowing his luck, the skies over Tetran were clear and silent. He hoped at least Karlspan was enjoying his sleepover. He wondered how it might go over if he tiptoed down to Sevvie's nursery to see if his little baby was scared.

And maybe he'd bring him back anyway, just because Daddy was.

A rap at the door. His little son couldn't have reached so high or knocked with such force, but anyone was preferable to another clap of thunder. "Come in."

"You couldn't sleep either?"

Nanalie's voice was silk in his ears after the hours-long scratchy burlap of the storm. The next bout of thunder might be bearable if she stayed. "I hate storms."

"I do too."

Garrett stiffened. Was she scared too? Nothing scared Nanalie. He would've sworn it in front of every bishop and cardinal in Rome. "My father took my brother and I out for a ride, back before I came here. We got caught in a storm like this. Had to spend the night in a cave." He shuddered. The thunder of the past sounded clearly as that of the present. "I've hated storms ever since."

"It was a tree for me. It was struck by a lightning bolt and fell over. A couple degrees in the wrong direction and it would've hit the house." She stepped into the firelight, shivering. She was more translucent than he'd ever seen her and it wasn't just the nightgown. "Of course Had and Asalaye slept right through it."

"Felron slept through most of the night too." And that was why snoring had always unnerved him. "He still teases me about it, that prick."

"You should call him out on it. Everyone has things that scare them."

And if she was the one to say it, he believed it. "I wouldn't have thought you did."

Nanalie sniffed. "Don't be absurd. Some things scare me more than storms do. They can't be the only thing that scares you either."

God. She was so close and so open and staring right through him. His palms began to sweat. "There's you."

She blinked. The storm raged on but the world stood silent for a minute. If only the thunder had struck as he'd spoken and she hadn't heard him say it. "What do you mean?"

He sighed. She would just keep looking at him with those clever eyes and he couldn't climb out of that gaze until she threw him a rope. He had to tell her. He had to tell her, and in storms like this, did it even matter? The next bolt of lightning might have been his, never mind the stone on all sides. "I want to give you everything, and I'm afraid it will never be enough."

Her eyes flitted to the hearth. He'd said too much. The next bolt of lightning would have to be his, whether to restart his heart or strike him dead. "Funny. I want everything and I'm afraid I can't have it. And that's why you scare me."

And he'd been shocked to hear she feared storms. "I scare you?"

"How could you not? If I want you, how much would I have to give up in turn?" He took a minute to puzzle out her words, which was just as well as she wouldn't let him speak. "I like my life. I like my work. And in my free time, I like being able to do what I want when I want. How can I have all of that if I have you?"

"You would have it." And why would he have it any other way? She knew what she wanted and she went for it. It was partly why he loved her. "I don't want to be your whole life; a person shouldn't ask that of anyone else. I just want to be a part of it, if you'll have me."

Nanalie stood. Her silhouette against the firelight was more than he could bear. "I don't want to be your life either."

"Would you be a part of it?"

She shook her head. "I don't know. I just know you scare me."

The trailing lace of her nightgown wound around her thumb. He watched it break away from the gossamer fabric as she pulled. "Nanalie..."

"Shh." Her finger hooked beneath her sleeve and yanked it downward, the rest of the gown following. Her shoulders slipped into view, her breasts obscured only by her hair. The white cloth rolled off her slender hips and pooled around her ankles. "Just... don't, all right?"


"Shh." The thunder rang once more as she settled on his lap. It was like the lightning had struck down a star and she'd fallen into his arms. "I don't want to be scared any more."


June 25, 2012

In Which Searle Has an Almost Perfect Morning

March 16, 1179

There must have been some connection between the nose and the eyelids of which Searle had not been aware. As the smell of fresh bread wafted into his nostrils, his lashes pried apart, features of the vaguely familiar bedroom coming into focus. Ornate paneling... furniture in taupe... yes, he thought he remembered it from the night before. He hadn't been quite drunk, but the rush of his impulsiveness must have had a similar effect. "Mmm?"

"Good morning."


Searle propped himself on his elbows to see Casimiro standing by the foot of the bed, grinning at him. He tried to smile back, but he feared his puzzlement showed. Until last night, he'd never slept with a man who wasn't Sparron, and the first thing Sparron ever did after sex was dependent on the location; he'd leave, or he'd make Searle leave, and there was always hell to pay after accidentally spending the night. Casimiro didn't look like he had any intention of kicking Searle out and that was confusing. Was this what men normally did? Or was it just him?

"Sorry for not waking you. I realize you might have wanted to go home, but you fell asleep shortly after we were done and you looked so damn cute I just couldn't bear to disturb you."

Huh. He might have said something similar to Sparron once, but it was difficult to say. Sparron owned so much of his mind that all those thoughts and memories had begun to overlap. "It's all right. Lettie and I have an understanding."

Or did they? Did that understanding apply to everyone? Just men? Just Sparron? It hadn't mattered before.

Casimiro laughed. "How did you manage to land a woman like that?"

God, that seemed forever ago now. Sparron, his father, Aunt Renata, Lettie... he didn't think he could relate the whole story if he tried. "It's complicated."

"Oh." The other man didn't press further. For that, Searle was grateful. "Well, if I ever get married, I hope I can be half as lucky."

"Mmm," Searle hummed as he got out of bed and fished his braises off the floor, though it had been months since he would have called himself lucky. He hadn't called himself much since the night Sparron had ripped his heart of his chest and flung the pieces around the wine cellar, or at least not much good. But maybe he was lucky for Lettie. She put up with everything and he wasn't worth it.

"Anyway. I got some bread from the kitchens." Casimiro gestured to a small table near the doors. Sure enough, there was the source of the scent, still warm, not too dry and not too moist. Sparron had never brought him bread, not that it had ever stopped Searle from wanting to stay. "I know it's not much. I keep things simple around here because it's just me, but maybe when my sister gets here--"

"No, it's perfect." Almost. Searle pulled up his braises and sat himself down. Up close, the bread looked every bit as tasty as it smelled. "Thank you."

"You're welcome." Casimiro beamed as he pulled up a chair for himself and Searle struggled not to feel like an ingrate. Sex, a good long sleep, waking up to a smiling face, a fresh breakfast... Casimiro had delivered, that couldn't be denied. But for all he could appreciate the effort, he had voids that would not be filled. "I brought up an apple too. They're quite sweet this year."

And that's sweet of you, he wanted to say--but he didn't want to get the poor boy's hopes up. "This area has the best orchards."

Was that really the best he could have gotten away with? God, what was wrong with him? Here he was, having a nice post-coital breakfast with a generous, handsome man whose only great flaw was that he wasn't Sparron. Or no--that wasn't even a great flaw, not being Sparron. And yet, he couldn't get past it. He didn't need breakfast or smiles or even a place to stay the night, not when he'd had Sparron. And he would have gladly gone without had he been with Sparron. But Casimiro, for all he was good-hearted and strong and almost too perfect to believe...

Casimiro wasn't Sparron. There was only one Sparron. There would only ever be one Sparron, and that Sparron didn't want him any more. No quality or quantity of Casimiro could change that.

"Are you all right?"

A tender hand rested on top of his, fingertips stroking the side. It was a place he'd always wished that Sparron would touch, but Sparron hadn't dared. He'd thought it would be intimate, everlasting, but it wasn't. It was just somebody touching his hand.

But how could he say that to the sweetest person he could never love? "Sorry. Just... got lost in thought."

Casimiro smiled. Searle grimaced in response and hoped his deception would go unnoticed.

"That's all right. It happens to me too."


June 23, 2012

In Which Jadin Considers the Boundaries

March 13, 1179

"He did what?" Of all the times for a new baby to keep Papa home from the inn! Florian's antics had been quiet these past months--mourning the baroness, no doubt, the one who'd always laughed the loudest at the mention of his hi-jinx--but in recent weeks, he'd returned to his hilarity with a newfound vigor. All while Jadin was occupied with the little fellow. Thank God for friends' reports--even if they weren't without their sting. "Of everything I could have missed! Is there any chance of a repeat event?"

Penna just laughed. "You know what Florian thinks about doing the same thing twice."

"Ah, yes--something about patterns and predictability and that unfortunate risk of appearing sane." Xeta's maid gave a knowing smirk. She'd worked at Seoth's place before Xeta had hired her and knew Florian stories that had never before left those walls; on a couple of occasions, she'd even assisted. Some men didn't let their wives choose their own maids, but frankly Jadin couldn't have picked a better one himself. It was just too bad she was happily married. "Do you think Seoth managed to find all those lizard eggs?"

"Half the fun will be finding that out!"

Dear Lord, he just hoped he didn't miss that. "I can't believe some of them found their way into Lonriad's wine."

"You and everyone else; I'm surprised Ashe and Abrich didn't kill themselves laughing." And if it had gotten those two laughing, it must have been priceless indeed. This kid better grow up to be hilarious. "It'll be a few days yet before your sister-in-law's willing to kiss him again."

"With a baby two months away, she's not liable to be generous with kisses anyway."

Jadin grinned as he saw Xeta step forth from the corridor, the baby in arm and Nora a few paces behind. If she'd spoken the truth, then she and Asalaye were two very different women. "You never seemed to mind."

"Well, it's a bit more forgivable if one's mouth is the least erogenous area her husband intends on kissing."

Penna let out an appreciative chortle as she retired to the couch, but Jadin could only manage a grimace. Xeta was never shy with naughty jokes between the two of them, and being Xeta's maid, Penna probably did have some unavoidable knowledge of their sex life... but in front of Nora? His stepmother didn't need to know where he liked to kiss his wife--and didn't want to, almost certainly. And with the baby around? Not that he could understand them, but wasn't it a matter of principle?

Ah, but the kid wasn't even a month old yet. Maybe Xeta was still feeling the lingering effects of the birth and her sense of boundaries had been distorted somewhat. Did that happen to women? Not for the first time, Jadin regretted not paying more attention to his mother and stepmother post-new baby sibling. "I'll grant you that. Shouldn't this little wolf be down for his nap?"

"Not without seeing Papa first--and he has a name, you know."

"Yes, and he shares it with two cousins--not to mention Grandpapa, who actually lives with us."

Nora raised an eyebrow. "Sorry, who's living with whom?"

"Ah, technicalities! Point is, we've got two Severins under one roof and we're going to drive ourselves mad if we can't find a nickname that sticks." He landed a fond tickle on his son's stomach. He'd secretly hoped for another girl--for all he'd never admit it aloud, Lyssa had been far more fun an infant than Dalston--but this little one had just as many swipes and smiles in store as his sister before him. With any luck, he'd rub off on his shy, serious brother. "I think the alpha pup agrees with me."

"The alpha pup thinks you're out of your mind." The alpha pup protested by batting a lock of Mama's hair. For all Jadin had been confined to quarters this past month, it was nice to once again have a child young enough to take his side--not that relations with Xeta's side were particularly strained. "But that's all right, because he's going to bed soon. And so are we."

"We? But it's not even lunch... oh." Well. How the hell could he argue with that? But again, with people around? "In front of Nora? Really?"

"Oh, by all means, don't mind me." Nora's eyes dripped with as much annoyance as her mouth did sarcasm. "Once you hit thirty-five, you magically forget what sex is anyway."

"Then how do you and his lordship manage to wear out so many mattresses? Jumping on the bed?"

Yes. Yes, it had to have been the boundaries. "Umm, Xeta... the thought of my parents having sex isn't exactly a libido boost."

"Then I'll just have to remedy that when I get you alone."

Over Xeta's shoulder, Jadin caught Nora exchanging a glance with a no-longer-laughing Penna. Neither of them were stupid. There was something strange going on with Jadin's wife and neither had failed to notice. And if he hadn't loved his wife as much as he did, he might have gotten in on that glance as well. "All right..."

"Nora, could you take the baby for me?"

For all she'd been asked, Nora wasn't given much time to protest. But she took the baby with a gracious smile while the kid himself looked over at Jadin. The adults weren't the only ones who'd sensed something amiss.

Xeta gave the baby a quick kiss, then sprung into Jadin's arms and let him carry her to the corridor. So she hadn't been kidding. Perhaps she just needed to get it out of her system? He hoped that was what it was.

God, he hoped that was all it was.


June 20, 2012

In Which Severin Thinks Out Loud

March 5, 1179

"Up and about again, I see." Severin paid Celina a kiss to the cheek as she greeted him with an embrace. She felt a little warm, but there was little cause to worry if she'd come to receive him; the most hospitable of people would not see guests if they thought they might pass on their illnesses, and there were few more hospitable than Celina. "Glad you're feeling better. Nora and some of the kids are down with that cold as well; they're on the mend, but it's not pleasant."

"You're telling me. Ovrean and Mernolt and Eldona all have it now. I think Ovrean's got it the worst, him sleeping next to me and all."

"Hmm. Perhaps I'll move to the couch until Nora recovers." Celina smirked, always knowing a joke when she heard it. In truth, he wasn't worried about catching anything. After that Remiel incident, he doubted he'd ever be comparatively sick again.

Not that the Remiel business was exactly over.

"Sorry that I couldn't receive you when you called last week. But Ovrean said you did get what you wanted out of that trip?"

"Well, I didn't get to see you--but I did meet that new steel ward of yours." Celina took to twirling a loose lock around her finger, mouth curling into a grimace. He hoped she didn't think he was angry about it. No, so far as he knew the statue was perfectly harmless, for all it was a little... animated. "I can't say I've ever seen such personality in a suit of armor."

Her smile eased somewhat, though the concern lingered in her eyes. Perhaps she'd grown attached. Severin had been rather jaded about unexpected house-guests since Isidro's sorry excuse for a father had shown up, but he supposed he could understand in theory. "Oh, he certainly has no shortage of that."

Umm... "'He'?"

"Well, it's just our best guess, but he doesn't object when he hears himself referenced as male. And 'it' just seems so dehumanizing. Not that he's human, but he's..."

"Close enough," Severin finished for her. Celina nodded. "Anyway. I take it there's been no trouble?"

"Not really, no." For all he'd heard, it was still a relief. It still baffled him to think that a man so vile as Remiel could create something so... not. "Well, he does tend to get excited about meals and then disappoints himself when he can't eat anything, but that's not so much troublesome as it is heartbreaking. And occasionally he won't let me leave without an extra bedtime story, but that's it."

"You tell him bedtime stories?"

She grinned. "He loves them."

"Huh." Given how the statue had been when Severin had last called--all excitable and energetic, lacking in personal boundaries, intent on giving a grand tour for all he'd been here a thousand times--that wasn't as surprising as it ought to have been, even if it was every bit as unsettling. He must have finally given up on ever hoping for the best. "Do you think maybe...?"

He managed to catch himself. No, there was no sense in suggesting it, not without any concrete proof. He didn't want to scare her. Nor did he want to get her hopes up.

"Maybe what?"

Maybe I'm going to have to have another chat with Remiel. "Forgive me. Just thinking out loud."


June 18, 2012

In Which Mona Is Told All

March 4, 1179

For all the Carvalli coast was renowned for its heat, the breeze did get nippy in the winter, even with spring almost close enough to touch. Mona had learned to cope, though. The blacksmith's forge was always lit and air in that room was better than any blanket she'd ever owned. The cute apprentice didn't hurt either.

The castle town was crawling with attractive men, actually. The baker had the clearest eyes. Those twin stable boys were built like gods and when that one guard flashed his smile... oh. The best part was that she was free to notice. Adrius wasn't hard on the eyes, but woe behold if Anna's eyes flitted elsewhere. Not that Mona thought Adrius would do much about it, but Devidra...

But! There was no sense thinking about that now. Anna liked Adrius. Adrius liked Anna. And if Anna wasn't Mona, no one was any the wiser, were they? Why should she waste her time worrying about it? It may have been crisp, but the sky was blue and the sun was out, she was freshly warmed and surrounded by dark, handsome men; there was no reason for her not to just enjoy the rest of the day.

At least, until a hand wrapped itself around her arm.


Mona froze. She recognized the voice as Zareth's, even given how little he spoke. But what was he doing here? She'd never seen him out and about in town. Zareth stuck to himself, kept to his rooms when he was off duty, paid local urchins some amount to run errands for him. Why had he come on his own today? Had he followed her? "Let go of me."

"I'm not going to hurt you." His grip eased, as if to make good on his word. The hand still remained. "I just want a word--in private, if you don't mind."

A word in private? One of the guards had asked her that her first week here. She'd been foolish enough to oblige and the next thing she knew, she'd been in the broom cupboard, a tongue down her throat and something that was definitely not a broom handle poking at her leg. Thank God Anna had walked by just in time to save her. "There's nothing that can't be said out here."

"Really?" He didn't press against her, but his head hovered over her shoulder, mouth at ear level. His breath wove through her hair and shot gales up her scalp. "So you'd be willing to discuss it all in public... your highness?"

Whatever remained of Mona's breakfast shot up from her stomach and wedged itself in her throat. The passing people blurred to blobs, their eyes their only distinct features. And every one was turned on her. "I--"

"As I said--in private."

He pulled her back into the alley and through the door behind the baker's shop. The room turned out to be a pantry: small, stocked with barrels and pots and bags of flour, not an occupant to be had before them. "Can we--?"

Zareth pushed her in further and shut the door behind them, hand lingering a minute on the wooden planks. "The baker won't mind, if that's what you want to know. He's an old friend."

It was the last detail she cared about. "You did see us."

He nodded. Mona perched herself atop a barrel and shivered. The warmth of the forge was a world away now. "I hoped you forgot, or the light had been bad..."

"I have good eyes and I forget nothing." She believed it. She didn't know him at all but she believed it. "I meant to tell you sooner, but there were no opportunities. I had to make one."

His eyes were a teal green like hers, but they were darker, meaner, and never moreso than now. They were the kind of eyes to which exteriors were transparent. He could see her toes twitching in her boots and her heart beating in her chest and her thoughts swirling in her mind. He could probably see her naked too. She hoped Anna would hold up better if he confronted her too.

Oh God. Anna. "It--it wasn't Anna's idea. I came up with--"

"I know." Mona exhaled. Zareth crossed his arms and approached, opting to lean against the wall by her back. The only warmth in the room was radiating off of him. "You come and go as you please. If she lets you do so, then she knows you won't tell, and if she knows you won't tell, then it's advantageous to you. You must have arranged it. You never wanted to marry King Adrius, did you?"

Did that make her a horrible person? "It's not that I don't like him..."

"No. You just don't want to marry him." She could do much other than nod. Satisfied, Zareth slumped somewhat. "But I won't tell, if that's what you're worried about. If I'd wanted to tell, I would have told earlier."

Mona frowned. It was true that he'd had plenty of time, but that made it all the more confusing. "What can you possibly gain from not telling?"


"Then why would you keep my secret?"

If only to frustrate her, he shrugged. "It's not mine to tell."

Of course it wasn't. Didn't mean it would have stopped most people. "That's not all."

"No," he admitted, weary eyes leering back at the door, "but it's all I'll tell you."


June 16, 2012

In Which Celina Appreciates the Understanding

February 16, 1179

"Ah, but he was a brat since the day he came into the world. I still remember the first time I met him; Alina was ready to pitch him through the window, I swear it."

Celina tried not to giggle. It had been years since she'd been privy to the antics of her late friend's children, but Alina's seething faces could hardly be forgotten. She hoped that Jadin and the others found memories of her smile more prominent. "Oh, they were all a handful. They were never bad kids, though, and they've all grown up well besides."

"Yes, for the most part. I won't deny that my nephew is a scamp, though. At least Xeta seems to manage him?"

"'Managing' is an interesting choice of word."

Ovrean laughed. How a chuckle from him could rob the winter breeze of its bite, Celina would never know--not that there was any sense in complaining. "For all Jadin can be manageable! Oh well. The boy's wild about her underneath it all. The way he was fretting yesterday, one never would've guessed she'd birthed two already."

"And to think, the baby's not even coming yet!" Well... so far as they knew. It could have been any time in the next few days, but Celina didn't particularly like the thought of her next grandchild starting toward the world just as she'd left his mother's side. "I hope he--"

She stopped, her feet taking a cue from her voice. Celina's eyesight wasn't what it used to be--her recent needlework was all the proof of that anyone needed--but she could have sworn... "Ovrean, is that...?"

Her husband stared forward, the corner of his mouth flitting downward. "You know, I think it is."

Given the shape and shine of it, what else could it have been? Or... could he have been, she supposed; it didn't feel quite right, thinking of someone sentient as an 'it'. "Should we approach him? Abrich said he was friendly."

"Hmm. Might be worth checking out."

Ovrean took a few steps, Celina at his heels. The metal figure stood, seemingly turned away, one hand on its hip and the other to what she assumed was his chin, as if he was looking for something. Hide and seek with the forest children, perhaps? Or had they grown to old for that. "Uh... hello, sir."

The statue turned around--and waved. Abrich had not been wrong. "He almost looks like he's smiling, doesn't he?"

She had to squint to make it out, but she thought she could see it. She smiled back. "Nice to meet you--oh."

For all he was made of steel, he wasn't as cold as she might have guessed. That didn't make the hug any less of a surprise. "Oh, well... that's very nice of you."

"I think he likes you," Ovrean teased, amused.

The statue's grip tightened. He was the size of one of her older sons, but his embrace reminded her more of Mernolt than Lorn or Abrich or even Searle. He wasn't hugging her to indulge her, nor to greet her or congratulate her or bid her farewell. He hugged her because he wanted to hug her. He hugged her because he needed her to hug back.

So she did.

"Well, I like you too. And so did my son, when you met him. Do you remember my son?"

Another nod, another chuckle from Ovrean. Celina gave the fellow a pat on the back, but he didn't ease. "Oh... you want me to stay a little longer?"

His metal chin tapped her shoulder twice. She recalled Abrich mentioning the length of his hug and she wasn't quite sure she could go for so long. She and Ovrean had only meant to go for a quick afternoon walk. The older three could fare for themselves and the younger two had a competent nurse, but in spite of that Celina hadn't planned on leaving her children for more than half an hour or so. Already they'd been out later than she'd guessed...

"Um... sir?"

He let go. For a man who lacked a face, he looked oddly hurt.

"No, don't get me wrong--I love hugs, and that one was no exception." He cocked his helmet to the side. She hoped that meant he was listening. "It's just... well, I have a little baby waiting for me at home. She has someone watching her, but it's not quite the same."

Or was it, to him? Suits of armors didn't have mothers. "So I should probably get going. But I would very much enjoy another hug in the future, so I'll come see you again, all right?"

Much to her relief, he nodded. She hoped he wasn't too disappointed. "Thank you. You're very understanding."

She flashed him a last smile and waved, Ovrean following her lead before they turned around and started home. Celina had always loved the sound of snow crunching beneath her boots, but it was obscured by a nearby clanking.

"Er... is he following us?"

Ovrean glanced over his shoulder, then looked back at her, smirking. "Yes. Yes, he is."