July 31, 2012

In Which Nanalie Forgives the Sentiments

July 27, 1179

"There!" Asalaye finished fiddling with the hem of Nanalie's shoulder and took a step back to admire her work. Nanalie felt like nothing so much as a piece of pottery fresh from the kiln. "Aww, Nan, you're stunning."

"If you say so." Privately, she was sure she was only as 'stunning' as a little girl playing dress-up. Wearing her hair long only showcased its lank and lifeless form, lacking every bit of her sister's full-bodied bounce. And while she couldn't deny Asalaye's good taste in fabrics, the dress was far too elegant for a woman who'd always been plain and had never aspired otherwise.

Garrett's sister looked her over with a hint of a smile. Valira wasn't any prettier than Nanalie herself--like her brother, she hadn't dodged the misfortune of their father's rock-crushing chin--but she'd applied a wave to her hair that framed her face nicely and she wore her green velvet and brown silk as naturally as her own skin. Not all people were born beautiful, but some were better at hiding the fact, and that was a skill Nanalie had never mastered. "The dusty rose suits you. You should wear that color more often."

Asalaye nodded in keen agreement. Nanalie glanced back into the mirror and nudged a shoulder. She didn't look quite so incongruent as she thought she would, but she couldn't imagine getting so dressed up for mass--never mind all the time. "Maybe..."

"Really. You should." Valira turned to her daughters, seated on the couch by the window. "Girls? Doesn't Aunt Nanalie look lovely?"

"Yes, Mother," they chorused, though neither of them seemed too enthused. Nanalie couldn't blame them; she'd never been the sort to be fussed about weddings either.

But luckily for the two of them, their indifference went more or less unnoticed. "I can't believe Ivilia managed to get her hands on that dye for the accent color. It's such a popular shade these days, and they only make so much of each..."

"You'd think they'd make more of this one. It does go with almost anything."

Nanalie glanced down at the pale blue of her bodice. She supposed it would go with anything, but it was still light enough to be impractical for everyday use. But did ladies worry about that sort of thing? Not that it mattered much. She did. "It's nice..."

Someone knocked at the door--her father, from the sounds of it. Thank God. "Come in."

Sure enough, the familiar lithe form stepped through the door and shut it behind him, dressed well but not over-well, greying hair neat and combed. Nanalie half-expected a disapproving sweep of the eyes as he noticed her obviously-not-white dress, but instead came a quick, cordial nod for the party. "Ladies."

"Adonis," Valira greeted him. The first name familiarity was a shock to the ears, but her father didn't seem to mind and Nanalie guessed it made sense. They'd be family soon, after all. "Is it time already?"

Her father nodded. "Thank you for all of your help."

She replied with a quick grin, then gestured for her girls. "We'd better find your father and brothers before they get into too much trouble. Come along."

The pair of them stood and followed their mother out of the room, a wave for the rest of them apiece. Nanalie's father waited until Renata had shut the door to approach his daughters. "My girls."

"Father." Asalaye greeted him with an embrace and a peck on the cheek. "You look very handsome."

"Not nearly so much that anyone will believe I produced you." He laughed, rubbing her on the shoulder as they parted. "It's not a good time, but the baby's getting a little fussy. Avine and Alina think he's hungry."

"Oh, probably. That kid is always hungry." Asalaye shook her head, eyes rolling back. But there was an odd fondness looming in her face that Nanalie wouldn't understand for a while yet. "Do you think I have time to feed him before the wedding?"

"You should. Had's giving Garrett the 'if you ever hurt my little sister' talk, and you remember how thorough he was with Lonriad."

"Ack! I feared we'd have to postpone the wedding to the next day!" The exaggeration was typical of Asalaye, but it had been quite the wait. Hopefully Had had developed an abridged version for Garrett. "But I'd still better rush."

"And be sure to thank your sister and stepmother for watching the boys."

"Yes, yes. See you two in a bit!" And with a quick parting wave, she was gone.

Nanalie's father planted a kiss on her brow, then stepped back to look her over. "You look lovely."

"Thank you." She brushed the skirt of the dress, not sure how cloth could be so stiff and so soft at the same time. "It might be a bit excessive, though."

He shook his head. "It's not excessive. And even if it were, it's your wedding; a little excess isn't about to hurt anyone."

"Tell that to my purse."

Her father chuckled. "Oh, I raised you right. But my offer still stands, you know."

"No. If I can afford it, I see no reason why I shouldn't pay for my own dress. No sense wasting your money on something I'll only wear once, especially when you still have three daughters at home."

"Fair enough." He pulled her in for a quick, tight hug, then released her with a sigh. "I'm going to miss having you around."

Nanalie sniffed. "It's not like I'm moving across the continent, Father."

"I know, but still. It's an adjustment." He shot her a strange sort of smile--a little bemused, a little proud, and just the slightest bit melancholy. "Ah, but you'll have to forgive an old man his sentiments. Are you ready, sweetheart?"

Nodding, Nanalie returned the smile. Her father's seemed to shift at the sight of hers. "Whenever Had and Garrett are."


July 29, 2012

In Which Anna Is Still Not the Princess

July 16, 1179

"...and guess who he asked?" Mona paused, as if she did expect a venture, but Anna didn't see the need. There was only ever one answer to that question in that tone. "Me!"

She'd half-laughed the reveal, bouncing about with such giddiness that Anna feared she may faint. She didn't think she'd seen Mona so excited since... well, ever, really. Where Mona had grown up, at least the way she seemed to see it, there'd never been anything worth getting excited about. Robbing her of that would be a whole new level of cruel.

"Well? What do you think? Do you mind if I go?"

Anna ground her teeth in an attempt not to sigh. She wanted to say that she didn't, that she was happy for her... but the entire charade, however long it lasted and however it ended, was dependent on Mona's presence. If Mona were to leave and Anna were discovered, that would be the end of it; she would be locked up in the dungeon as a fraud, if not hung for some obscure treason. The way Devidra would see it, Anna was a common servant aspiring to steal her throne from beneath her frequently-flared nostrils, Mona being nothing more than the other wronged party, Adrius's rightful betrothed. So long as Mona wasn't here to explain otherwise, Anna's word wasn't worth a pair of old socks.

Why did the whole new level of cruel also have to be a whole new level of impractical? "I, uh... I realize that you want this, but..."

"Yes, yes, the whole thing. I've already taken care of it."

Anna blinked. Mona was a creature of spontaneity, a dreamer of sudden reckless schemes initiated immediately and without further thought. To plan in advance was a break in the pattern. Either she was losing her mind--doubtful--or she had adjusted to suit her needs. Or maybe she'd just said it and Anna was a fool for considering otherwise. "Um... how, exactly?"

"Simple. I wrote a note. If anything happens, just give it to Devidra."

Simple indeed. "Uh... kind of too simple. As far as she knows, I could have forged it."

"Wrong!" Grinning like a maniac, Mona clapped once and twirled about, something Anna would have never guessed she'd ever see her do. Ever. "You've been teaching her ladies in waiting how to read and write, haven't you?"

Eh? "Yes..."

"So they've all seen your handwriting." Another clap, smile swelling to the point where her head ought to have burst. "And a while before we came her, my father made me write to Adrius, so he's seen mine. If Devidra thinks it's a forgery, just have Adrius confirm it as Princess Ramona's handwriting and have the ladies confirm that it's not yours."

"What if I just painstakingly copied yours?"

"Could you?"

Well, that was a different question entirely. "You press so hard that you tear every third sheet and you dot your i's with stars. Besides, you've seen how I draw; I can't copy a stick figure."

"Exactly. If they ask, demonstrate that--and even if they're not convinced, they should at least have enough conflicting evidence to hold you for questioning until I get back." God. She wasn't allowed to win this argument, was she? Mona was still the princess. If things were to be done, they would be done her way, regardless of who happened to be wearing the nicer dress. "So... I can go, right?"


July 28, 2012

In Which Mona Is Presented with a Question of Worth

July 16, 1179

What was the title of that book again? Mona had never been one for recreational reading--it was all well and good, but she preferred doing things, thank you very much--but there was little else to do once her chores were done, and lamenting that fact to Anna had only prompted a book recommendation.

But reading did sound better than nothing, so Mona had taken it. Anna had told her which shelf and which row and she remembered those instructions just fine, but the title of the book? It had a phrase, a short one. It may have started with 'That'. Or 'This'? She hadn't quite been listening until after she'd agreed.

Hmm... there didn't seem to be any of 'This'. Or any of 'That', for that matter. 'There'? 'The'? 'Then'? None of the titles before her jumped. 'These'...?

To hell with it. Even if the suggestion was forgotten, she supposed anything beat boredom. She picked a book at random and pushed herself out of her squat. It would have to do.

"Love poetry? I wouldn't have thought you the type."

Love poetry? Was that what this shelf housed? Embarrassed, Mona shoved the book into a spot slightly too tight and turned to see Zareth lingering some feet away. "I, er... I like the parts when they die."

A rough sort of grunt charged from his mouth as he rounded the shelf and set himself across from her. It was probably how he laughed. "I need to ask you something."

"To-the-point, aren't you?" Zareth said nothing. Mona tucked her hair back before meeting his eye. "Fine. What do you need?"

"My sister is sending me to recover one of our ships. It was stolen by some escaped pirates during a mass break from one of the island prisons." An odd thing to be asking her about, but regardless, she nodded. Zareth crossed his arms and took a half-step forward. The room seemed to shrink around her, but somehow, the world seemed a little larger than before. "They have a head start and it may take weeks to find them, so I'm allowed to bring one servant. Yours was the first name that came to mind."

Huh. That came out of nowhere. "You want me to hunt pirates with you?"

He sniffed--no doubt his way of saying 'Yes'. "Given everything you've passed up in recent times, I take it you find life unsatisfying; if some degree of adventure is what you want, then that is what I offer."

Adventure. Yes, that was what she wanted--something to remember when she was old and dying, something she could tell her grandchildren that was worthy of more pride and prestige than something so commonplace as her wedding or her coronation or some other ritualistic passage. And she wanted that rush, that freedom of not knowing where she was or what she was doing or when she'd be back again. And she wanted to accept.

Meanwhile, Anna would still be here, in her place, all alone save for Adrius and the books. And for all she wished it would, the thought refused to leave. "Doesn't An--her majesty need me here?"

It may have been the first time she ever saw him smile. "Hardly. I can't imagine you're any good at what you do. Even if you are, there are dozens of other girls around here who could do just as well--if her majesty needs a maid at all, self-sufficient as she seems."

"But she might get lonely."

"She has my nephew; apart from this library, each of those two is all the company the other seems to need." His grin vanished. She ought to have known it wasn't long for the world. "You feel guilty."

"No!" The word was cheery, enthusiastic. Too cheery, too enthusiastic. "I mean... no. Why should I feel guilty? I just--"

"Do you think there haven't been a hundred girls before you who would have done the as you did if they hadn't lacked the guts?" His nostrils flared, eyes thin as those of needles. She tried to blink but nothing came of it. Breathing was all the struggle she could handle. "You pulled a risky trick and it's only a matter of time before the truth gets out; if you're going to spend whatever weeks or months you have making beds and tying laces, I'll never believe you if you say it was worth it."


July 25, 2012

In Which Devidra Finds Cause for Displeasure

July 15, 1179

"It's true, then."

Zareth stopped, stunned. He wouldn't have come himself had it just been a rumor muttered by that incompetent steward at the morning session. Had it been mere hearsay, he would have sent one of his men and confined himself to his study as usual. If he hadn't thought Devidra knew that, then she was insulted. "Yes. A messenger arrived in the night; I rode to shore with a small force to investigate."

"And you didn't see fit to inform me."

Awkward, her brother looked away. He'd never coped well with failure, but it had been years since he'd had to; Devidra was not a woman easily satisfied, but Zareth rarely displeased her. "You don't like to be woken. I didn't deem it important enough to rouse you."

"Yet it was urgent enough for your haste." He said nothing. He'd chosen the lack of words well. "Assemble a crew. Two days from now, you'll be boarding a ship and setting off to reclaim this one. The seas are rough near Devil's Rock; they won't have gotten far. You can catch them if you approach from the northeast."

"I'm aware of the seas."

Good to know that he'd paid attention in his lessons. "Very well. You may take some of your men, but some will be needed here. You know where to find sailors. Since you may be a few weeks, I'll also allow you two cooks and one other servant of your choice. I'll gather the necessary provisions while you're recruiting."

"All right."

"And Zareth?"

He looked up. She allowed herself a light hint of a smile. "Bring that ship back, and I'll knight you that very day."

It was a few seconds before he nodded. "Yes, your majesty."


July 23, 2012

In Which Celina Leaves It for Later

July 10, 1179

So that was it. Bizarre and unexpected, but no less plausible than any other explanation that might have crossed her mind. Lorn had been gone an hour after a visit that might have dragged on for years, but Celina had yet to move. Her heart was drowning in every emotion she knew of and then some. There was the joy of having her little boy back, along with the anguish of knowing what his life had become. There was the urgency of needing to do something, frustration of not being able to do anything, and small, secret hope that nothing needed to be done.

And yes, there was anger. Anger at Remiel for playing with the order of things. Anger at Lorn and Severin and Nora for not telling her sooner and also for telling her at all. Anger at herself for not getting off the couch and going to her son right now, kissing his metal forehead and grasping his armored hand and telling him it would be all right.

Even though she was damn sure it wouldn't.

"Are you all right?"

She lifted her eyes just long enough to see Ovrean approach from the corridor. The cushions rustled as he sat down beside her, no doubt staring in sympathy as he waited for her answer. "I'm fine."

She couldn't convince herself of it. She couldn't convince him either. "You're not.

"No one would be."

He was right and there was no point in denying it. Celina fought back a sob as a tear escaped her eye. "My poor boy. He's been through so much and who knows what he's going through. And he's been with us all this time and we never recognized him." And how the poor child's heart must have broken with every reminder of that. "And here I am, wallowing in it all while he's the one living it."

"You're his mother. You're allowed to wallow."

No. No, she couldn't do this. Not now. Her son had been standing right in front of her this whole time and she finally knew who he was. He deserved to know that before she would let herself wallow. "It can wait. I... I'll talk to him first."

Ovrean's tender fingers folded around her wrist. "You're sure?"

Celina swallowed back the rest of her emotional prison and nodded. It was a more tentative nod than Farilon deserved, but it was a nod nonetheless. She would go to him. She would wallow later. "I'm sure."


July 21, 2012

In Which Lorn Looks Up Downward

July 9, 1179

"My lord." Lorn was not unused to visits from the other nobles, but they normally occurred in light of some urgent business, and therefore he could usually expect them. He got along well enough with Severin and Octavius, but the age gap was significant enough that social calls rarely had sufficient purpose; the lords were more likely to visit his mother, while he in turn did the same with their children. "Is something the matter?"

"Yes, though I hope you'll forgive me for speaking to you first." Severin brushed a few strands of horsehair off his tunic and looked up at Lorn, eyes in the precise balance of give and take. He had something to say and he wanted to say it gently. He also wanted to predict how Lorn would react. "Or second, I suppose, after Nora."

Odd way to begin. "Does the order matter?"

"Possibly." The older man leaned forward in his seat, back straightening out of its slouch. Lorn was standing and had about an inch on Severin besides, but in that moment, he might as well have been a kid again, looking up downward, staring at his friends' father, his father's friend, the man who'd shown up at the castle one tragic night to tell him he was half an orphan. "I'm not sure that I want you to know this. I'd never dream of telling any of your siblings; it's your mother who has to know, but I feel that it may be better if she heard it from you than from me."

"What difference does it make, who she hears it from?"

"Maybe none, or maybe more than I considered." Lorn frowned; if Severin noticed, he chose to disregard it. "I care about your mother. She's one of my dearest friends and has been for longer than you've been alive. But while I know her as my friend, you know her as your mother, and while I can guess how she might react as a mother, there's no way that I can know firsthand. That's why I think you might be the better choice for telling her this."

And what was 'this'? If it concerned Lorn's mother as a mother... something about Xeta? No--if something had happened to Xeta, Severin would not have been so vague about it, nor would he have thought that Lorn's other siblings didn't need to know. But if it didn't concern any of his siblings... and he thought he might have known if it was about him... "What is it?"

Severin cast a wary glance toward the door and sighed. "You might want to sit down."


July 19, 2012

In Which Ellona Is Made to Say It Again

June 14, 1179

"Thank God you're back!" Ietrin almost squealed as he finally loosened his grip. So much for thinking he might give her some space for the next few days, but knowing him, Ellona supposed she should have figured. "Miss me?"

"I didn't have much time to--a little busy mourning my father and all." That seemed to shut him up. But for all it might have been harsh, it didn't hurt like it should have. She supposed she'd miss her father, but he'd been so distant and frequently absent that all she'd had in him was a parent who wasn't Elarys. It was not the loss Ietrin should have assumed it was. It was not the loss it ought to have been. "But never mind. Why are you here?"

If she even needed to ask. "Are the children around?"

"You would ask that!" Dear God, he wouldn't even pretend to be concerned; she wasn't sure whether to be relieved or annoyed. Or perhaps hints of both were not beyond merit. "No, I only got back this morning and I haven't had a chance to pick them up from Raia's yet. But don't get any ideas; I've had a long trip and I'm really not in the mood."

"That's all right. I'm a little exhausted on that front anyway; Jeda had better be pregnant again soon."

Ellona's teeth barred her tongue as she tried to find a subtle retort. She did not like it when Ietrin spoke of Jeda's fertility; he made it clear that he found it unsatisfactory, but Ellona herself had the same number of children and she'd been sleeping with him longer. Not only did she resent the implication that she too was somehow less than she ought to have been, but it was getting increasingly difficult to withhold any wayward comments about how the one reproductive factor she and Jeda had in common was Ietrin himself. "How old is Geneva, again?"

"She'll be two next month."

And Ella would be three next month. And he thought Jeda was overdue for another baby. Men. "Hmm. Well, if you don't want sex, then why are you here?"

"Mostly just to see how your trip was." He took her hand in his and kissed it, then winked at her. "But I also need a favor. There's a document in your study that I'd like you to sign."

"Well, it was awful." And even if he hadn't sparked her curiosity, she didn't think she'd have cared to elaborate. "What sort of document?"

"Oh, nothing troubling." He waved back a hand, as if to say 'Stupid questions deserve stupid answers'. As if it had been completely unnecessary for her to be aware of just what she was supposed to sign. "It just certifies Kaldar's paternity and names him my heir in the event that I never have a legitimate son."

Well. That scarcely required a second's thought. "No."

Ietrin blinked, his mouth falling to the point where he might have been a fish trying to adjust to land. "Sorry?"

"No." And how could he have even brought it up? Did he not care about their son at all? "Do you need me to spell it for you?"

"Hardly, but I can't see why you would protest." And he said it like he meant it. Either he was too much of an idiot to realize the obvious problem, or he just didn't give a damn. "If you sign this, your son might be king."

"Maybe--but not everyone would respect him as such. Or would continue to respect you, for that matter." That was, if many did respect him now; certainly he wasn't well-liked, and more and more she was reminded of why that was. "As far as some of these people are concerned, I might as well be a whore at a brothel. My son is a bastard, and some would take issue with a bastard king."

"Lord Severin is a bastard. His people seem to respect him well enough."

"Because he's the sort of man who can make them overlook that fact--and while Kaldar could grow up to be that sort, he could just as easily not. And even if he does, it's easier to gain the respect of a shire than that of an entire kingdom."


"No!" And by God, she'd tear out his tongue if he made her say it again! "I will not ruin my son's life just to secure your line. That is not the sort of mother I choose to be."


"You have brothers, in case you've forgotten. And daughters." Why did he always forget the daughters? "I've heard that Medea is quite clever. Naroni could do far worse than a ruler with a brain between her ears."

"But Medea's a girl."


There was really no answer to that, but it didn't stop him from giving one. "That's just not how things are done. Come on, please just sign the document? I'll even take Kaldar to live with me if you do--to prepare him, if you will, and to prepare the people. If they have a chance to get used to the idea--"

"For the love of God, no!" That was it. How dare he. How fucking dare he. "I will not have you take him away to live with your other family! Your wife and daughters will hate him and your parents will treat him like shit and if Jeda has a son, you'll send him right back here with nothing to show for it. And then people will know he's your son and for the rest of his life no one will ever see him for anything else. Just... no!"


"Don't start with me, you selfish cunt-faced son of a bitch!"

Ietrin reared back, seething. He looked like he wanted to hit her and she wished he would. She wished he'd box her in the eye and leave it purple and swollen, and she'd ride through the towns with her hair tied back and her battered face for all to see. She'd ride all the way to Raia's house in Veldora and she'd let her children see what their daddy had done, and if Raia asked, she'd tell her. Raia would go to her father. Raia's father would go to the duke and the baron. And the three of them would go to the king and tell him that his son didn't even have the shame to beat a woman where no one could see.

But he didn't. He just kept snarling like some crouching beast. "How dare you vilify me for trying to keep my family's throne!"

"If you want to keep your family's throne, then stop being such a prick to your wife! Just leave my son out of it!" And if he came back to make a further issue of it, he would never see Kaldar or Ella again, she swore it. She would take them so far away that even death could not reunite them. "And get the hell out of my castle!"


July 16, 2012

In Which Nora Ponders the Infinite

June 12, 1179

Nora picked at the embroidery of her dress, a loose thread snapping as she pulled it a little far. God, she was sick of all this rain. She was itching for a ride, but the ground was too soft for her horse and she didn't want to come home drenched besides. And she definitely didn't want to get sick and pass it on to the kids, who had already had their late spring colds.

But that left her... well, bored. The younger children were down for their naps and the older ones were otherwise occupied and had little use for her. Severin was following up on some more Remiel business and Falidor had left early on account of the weather. As for Jadin and Xeta... well, they'd said they were trying for another baby, but good luck ever getting pregnant in that position. She'd looked around Severin's study for any paperwork that might have been incomplete, even waited around to see if any petitioners had complaints worth braving the weather for, but no such luck.

God, she needed a hobby that she could do indoors! Maybe Raia needed an associate for her toy-making business. Or maybe she ought to have some lumber brought in and do some supplementary carpentry for Rifden; wasn't as if Jothein had taught her nothing, after all. Or maybe...

"You look tired."

Severin shut the door behind him and Nora pushed herself out of her recline, yawning. "Arguably. How did the interrogation go?"

"About as well as I expected--namely, not so much." He took a seat on the other couch and cast a wary look at each of the room's doors. "Xeta's not around, is she?"

"No. She and Jadin are... uh, preoccupied." He didn't look surprised. Too bad the knowing exasperation was hardly the prominent feeling. "Why?"

Severin's eyes lingered on the door a second longer before snapping back to her. "Remember that theory I bounced off of you a couple months ago?"

That was it, then. So much for hoping that it was just some sort of golem. That poor little boy. "He confirmed it?"

Her husband nodded. "Such a tragic existence for a child--for anyone, really. If it were me, I'd want to be destroyed." He sighed, raising a hand to rub at his graying temples. It was perhaps the first time he'd ever looked old. "But now knowing what he is--"

"You don't think you could."


Was there a right thing to do here? Nora had met the suit of armor--Farilon--the last few times she'd called on his mother. He'd seemed happy enough. But would he be, after Celina and Ovrean passed? After Xeta and the rest of his siblings? After his nieces and nephews and their children and their children and their children after them? Was there anything but pain in infinity when all else was finite?

And yet... what could be done? And what right had they to decide? "Celina has to know. It'll kill her, but she has to know. She's the only one who might know what to do." Might. And that was a long shot. She had to know anyway.

"I know." And yet, he looked as shocked and confused as he might have if he didn't. She'd be lying if she said she didn't feel the same. "That brings up the issue of how to tell her."

"I don't think there's any kind way."

"Nor any tactful way, no." Severin's fingers coiled around the edge of the couch cushion, his knuckles pale. "That woman has never done wrong by anyone in her entire life, and she already lost her son once. The last thing she deserves is to lose him again. And the last thing he deserves is a life that no sane person could stand to live."

And that was life. People didn't get what they deserved. Life wasn't fair.

But this wasn't just unfair. This was horrific. "We don't have to tell her right away. We should take the time to figure out the gentlest way to break it to her."

"Assuming that such a way exists."

Sometimes, she wished they weren't so frequently on the same page. "God willing."