September 30, 2012

In Which Tivie Is Not the Worst

March 7, 1180

"Has he been asleep for long?"

Tivie glanced over her shoulder to see Neilor enter the room, shutting the door behind him, eyeing his brother with an almost paternal concern. It wasn't anything unusual, or so she figured--her own brothers were too young to be fatherly, but she'd seen older male cousins cast such looks on their younger siblings--but nonetheless it summoned a sharp, jealous pang in the pit of her gut. She had received such glances, she supposed. She had a stepfather, two grandfathers, and a not insignificant handful of uncles and cousins, none of whom she suspected of not caring enough and any of whom might have shot her such a glance when she hadn't been looking, but the thought wasn't the comfort it ought to have been.

When she recalled her father, she did so with the flash memories of a child young enough to occupy herself with toys on a rug. She remembered his legs as he walked past, on those few occasions he'd been home, maybe his arms resting if he sat or the back of his head as he walked away. When she strained to picture his face, it was a blank, flesh-colored oval. Her mother said he'd had eyes like hers, but not once could Tivie remember them ever falling on her.

But it was the sort of thing that could wait for when she actually saw him. However deep her bitterness ran, Neilor was hardly an appropriate target. "Not long. Twenty minutes, maybe. How did your search go?"

He'd been out for the past few hours or so on a quest for information. It was a small village, but it was near several crossroads and did well as a trading post and rest stop; there was bound to be someone around with a better idea of how to get to Carvallon than they did.

And if Neilor's grin meant anything, there had been. "Several people agree that we should cross the bridge and continue along that road. It might take us a day or so longer than staying on this side of the river, but the inns along the way are more comfortable and there's less chance of running into any rogues."

"That's fine." And it was, really. She'd waited her entire life already. What was one more day, in the long run? "Thank you, by the way. I know I already said it, but this means a lot."

"Don't mention it. I know what it's like to have unresolved issues with parents." He tossed back his head with a light laugh, though she didn't miss the acid dripping off of it. Given what she'd heard about his mother, she wasn't surprised. "But never mind that. Can I ask you something?"

"I think you just did."

He laughed again, without the edge this time. In its stead, though, lurked more than a little nervousness, which was odd. She didn't know him well, but she wouldn't have guessed he was prone to such feelings. "If I told you your father slept with my mother, would that make things strange between us?"

She supposed she could see his concern there. Regardless, Tivie shook her head. "I already figured as much to be honest. But it's not like we're related."

"No, but..." His eyes flickered over to Landus again. She thought she knew why, and she thought he knew she knew. But Neilor didn't want to talk about it, and that was fine. They would have to talk about it at some point, but it didn't have to be now. "I don't know. I've just been thinking that it should feel strange, but it doesn't, and I wanted to know what you thought."

Tivie shrugged. "That sounds about right."

"Good." He leaned in for a kiss--just a quick brush of the lips, but enough to set a tingle running through her as he pulled away. There was something almost magical about the way his eyes sparkled in the firelight, the rich amber brightening to an almost starry hue, that left the floor beneath her feet more or less non-existent. It was so easy to forget everything else when looking into such eyes. "It's nice to know I'm not crazy."

"Or maybe we're both crazy." It was hardly a sane world, after all. "But there are worse things we could be."


September 29, 2012

In Which Landus Just Is

March 7, 1180

"Mind if I join you?"

Tivie sat herself down without giving Landus a chance to protest. Not that he cared to, mind--he liked her well enough, even if it was odd that Neilor had dropped everything to escort this girl he barely knew all the way to Carvallon, and odder still that he'd insisted on Landus coming along--but if she didn't need his permission, he wasn't sure why she'd asked. He gave a belated half-nod as a formality, but it didn't seem to phase her. Not much did, from what he'd seen.

"So... you don't talk much, do you?"

Landus shrugged. "I never know if anyone's listening."

"I'm listening."

And that was nice of her. But if he was honest with himself, he didn't have much to say, or nothing he could say without embarrassing one or both of them. He didn't want to ask--though he thought he knew--what she and Neilor did when they snuck out of the various inn rooms, when they thought he was asleep. He didn't want to ask why she looked so much like that man from the tournament, or why she looked so much like him, for that matter. He supposed he had the pieces and he thought he'd put them together, but he didn't want to be sure if it meant offending the only person who could confirm it.

No, that wasn't quite true. He could have lived with offending her, nice as she was. But there was a certain refuge to be found in not knowing. "You can talk too. You seem to have more to talk about."

Tivie smirked. At least, Landus suspected that she smirked. He'd been looking at the fire, but she seemed like the sort of girl who smirked--in a teasing way, but a far cry from mocking. "Or maybe I just don't know when to shut up."

He let out a small laugh, which seemed to ease them both, even if it failed to inspire any words in him. That was all right. She'd cover the words. "I'm sorry that you got dragged along. You must be missing your friends."

"They'll still be there when I get back."

"I suppose. You might still miss out on something fun, though." Tivie picked a splinter of wood from the floor and tossed it into the fire. It hadn't been much of anything and had little effect on the flames as a result. Landus wasn't sure why he'd expected more. "What about girls? Neilor said Lord Severin's granddaughter is sweet on you."

"Lyssa?" Oh, God. Neilor would mention that. "She's six."

"Fair enough. Still... she'll be sixteen one day, won't she?"

Landus shrugged again. He supposed Lyssa would grow up to be pretty enough, but if anything the thought was terrifying. Beautiful women were frightening enough when he hadn't known them since childhood. Well... Tivie wasn't frightening. Then again, Tivie wasn't beautiful. Not in that way, at least. "I guess..."

"We could turn back if you wanted to, you know." A warm hand patted his shoulder and her balance suffered for it. She wasn't graceful, but that was all right. Landus wasn't so graceful either. "We're not that far from Naroni. If you'd like--"

"No. I'm fine." Or was he? Even a state as minimally positive as 'fine' might have required an opinion. Landus didn't have an opinion, not really. He just was. "I'll keep going with you. You don't have to turn around to take me back."

She fell silent for a minute and he feared he'd said something wrong--some misplaced tone or inappropriate pseudo-synonym. But if he had, he was not destined to know it. "If you're sure."


September 25, 2012

In Which Farilon Is Thrown the Word

March 3, 1180

Farilon had a guest, or so his mother said, but she hadn't told him who it was and he wasn't happy about that. He trusted his mother--who else did he trust, besides the little nieces and nephews and baby sister who were young enough to look at him and see something other than 'different'?--and he knew the guests didn't want to hurt him, but they did. There were guests like Rona's friends who tried to be nice but just gawked at him like some animal in a menagerie. There were guests like Lord Severin and Lady Arydath who were also nice on the surface, but were more like doctors than anything else, more concerned with how Farilon worked than how Farilon felt.

And then there were his siblings, and while his mother promised that they loved him, they had funny ways of showing it: Lorn's frequent sizing glances, Xeta and Abrich's stiff smiles, Rona's reluctance to look at him at all. If it was one of his siblings--or any of their spouses, though he didn't think any of them would have come to see him on their own--he hoped that at least Neva or Yvanette or Wolf had been brought along.

But he didn't see any of his siblings, nor any of his nieces or nephews--just the palest man he'd ever seen, seated on the couch next to his father. Farilon shivered, for all his body wouldn't follow. The man was oddly familiar, but such unusual coloring should have been much easier to place.

"Farilon, this is Lucien." His mother nodded toward the pale man, who looked over with a mandatory grin. The name came no more easily than the form. "He's married to Lord Severin's daughter Vera. Do you remember her?"

He nodded, even though it was odd to think that Vera was married when she was only a few years older than he was. Then again, he should have been used to it by now. Everyone was married. Vera probably had babies too, just like everyone else he'd known as a child.

"Hello, Farilon." The pale man sounded nice enough, but that didn't mean much. They all did, at first. "Do you remember me?" Farilon shook his head. The screeching of his own makeshift neck echoed throughout his hollow head and grated whatever mechanism or sheer act of God allowed him to hear. "That's all right. I don't remember you too well either, to be honest--just a bunch of clanking when Remiel was hauling you about. I used to be his... I don't know. His ward, I guess."

Oh. He was that blind boy Farilon had caught a few glimpses of back in the dungeon days. Only he wasn't blind anymore, nor was he much of a boy. He'd changed. Farilon hadn't.

His mother ushered him to the other couch, then sat down beside him. She was a saint, his mother. She was so polite with all of her guests, no matter what she may have secretly thought of them--if she was capable of an ill thought at all. Maybe it was lucky for him that he had no voice or face. She might have been disappointed if she'd known just how bitter he'd grown, and he didn't want to disappoint the only person capable of seeing him as more than some enchanted object.

"It's certainly a pleasant surprise to see you, Lucien. I hope all is well with you?"

"Well enough, I guess. My son's picked up some interesting words from his Uncle Roddie, though." Lucien shrugged sheepishly. "Vera's not so happy about that. But nothing too remarkable, really."

Farilon's father chuckled. "Should've brought him along to play with the girls. Eldona pitches a fit every time someone says a naughty word."

"I'll bring him around some time, then." But if he agreed, then why the strained grimace? He looked almost apologetic, as if he didn't really plan to bring his son. Farilon wished he would. Small children and their simple ways were about all he could handle. Everything was beneath the surface for adults. "But, uh... I actually don't have time to visit long today. Sorry, I know that's rude of me. But it's the first window of time I've had in a while and I had to see Farilon."

So he was just another observer. At least he was honest about it--not that that didn't leave its own kind of hurt. Farilon's mother frowned. "What do you mean?"

"It's... complicated." It was a word people threw around a lot, more than Farilon remembered. Sometimes he wondered if they really knew what it meant. "I didn't mean to offend, really, or to imply that I just wanted to study you or something. I just..."

Lucien sighed. It was another thing people seemed to do, just for lack of anything better. "I don't know. I think after all Remiel did to me, after all he could do because of me... I guess I just had to see that something good managed to come out of it."

It seemed to satisfy his mother--warm her, even. But Farilon didn't know if he was good. He didn't know if he was anything.


September 23, 2012

In Which Neilor Learns a Little Less Quickly

March 1, 1180

Neilor woke to find the other side of the bed empty, but a narrowed glance over the side of the mattressed showed the girl's dress hadn't moved from where he'd tossed it the night before. He rolled onto his back and sat up. Sure enough--there she was, staring out the window, strawberry blond curls all the way down to her narrow hips. The way she'd been the night before--all charming and witty, leaning into him him, resting her head on his shoulder and even daring nip his ear while still in a crowded inn--had led him to believe she'd know what she was doing, but when he'd taken her home and they'd taken to bed, he'd found otherwise.

Oh, she'd been eager. Not a thing he'd suggested had merited any less than a naughty grin and an earnest willingness to try, but her movements had been awkward and unpracticed, thought that had lessened whenever she'd settled into a particular motion. Not to say he hadn't enjoyed himself, mind--but it had been quite clear that everything she'd done with him, she'd never done before.

What wasn't so clear was why she'd chosen him. He hadn't been the only bachelor at the inn, nor the most handsome of them, nor the highest in standing. He'd never even approached her. She'd been speaking with Lord Severin's stepson when he'd arrived. She'd glanced at him and muttered something to Cuthron, who'd muttered something back. Then she'd latched onto Neilor and before long, he'd been too drunk, moreso on her than on the ale, to question it. It just hadn't occurred to him to wonder, not with a pretty young thing throwing herself at him. Hell, he wasn't sure why it occurred to him now.

"Morning..." Oh God. What was her name, again? "...Tivie?"

The girl snickered. "Sweet of you to remember."

"Heh." He kicked his discarded tunic to the side and approached her. A few scattered freckles dotted her shoulder. He hadn't noticed them in the dark. "You're not cold, are you?"

"Why? Don't like looking at me naked?" She seemed to know that indeed, he did. It was part of her charm, or so he'd found the night before. She seemed to know everything. "I'm fine, thank you. Although I wouldn't mind something to eat before I go--with you as the plate, preferably."

Neilor smirked. He placed his hand on her freckled shoulder and walked his fingers down her back. "That can be arranged."

"Glad to hear it." As was he. It had been a long time since he'd had a virgin, but sex was an instinct. Subsequent encounters with girls he'd deflowered had proven it was a skill set learned quickly. Even a morning-after lay would be a marked improvement over the night before, not that it needed much improving upon.

He had a feeling too that Tivie learned more quickly than most. "Last night was fun."

"It was, wasn't it?" She pulled him into her and landed a kiss on his neck. "I have to confess something, though."

Neilor raised an eyebrow. If it was about her being a virgin until the night prior, he wasn't sure why she felt the need to tell him. Sure, perhaps she'd been a little misleading, but did it really matter? He'd still had sex, hadn't he? "Tivie--"

"Oh, no. I wouldn't have slept with you if I hadn't at least thought you were cute," she assured him with a wink, though assuring him of what, he wasn't quite sure. "But I came all the way from Dovia to find you, and not to sleep with you. You see, I heard my mother mention your name to my aunt--or not your name, specifically, but your mother's name, and that she had a couple children in Naroni--"

Eh? "Uh... what are you talking about?"

The outside sunlight streamed through the window and cast a glimmer on her eyes. They were a particularly deep violet he couldn't believe he'd mistaken for blue. "Sorry. I'm rambling. But I was thinking that maybe you could help me find my father."

He took a step back and studied her eyes from the added distance. They were uncannily like his brother Landus's.


September 22, 2012

In Which Lyraina Aspires to More

February 27, 1180

"Na-an!" Asalaye whined, her voice more like a small child's than that of a woman with two of her own. "How much longer? I want cake."

"I see that. But it's only been in a few minutes, in case you haven't noticed." Nanalie shot an exasperated glance Lyraina's way; Lyraina grimaced, not sure if she had a better option. The elder of her two sister-in-laws was here on her request, and when Asalaye had heard Nanalie would be baking, she'd invited herself, bringing her older son along as if the whole visit was for his gustatory benefit. But Lyraina supposed she didn't mind, so long as neither she nor Nanalie were distracted--and, for the most part, they hadn't been.

"Well, do you have any tricks for speeding the process? There are four hungry children upstairs."

"And three hungry women down here?"

Asalaye grinned sheepishly. "What a coincidence. But never mind that; did Garrett show you how to make his secret icing?"


"Are you going to make it?"


"Will you let us watch?"

"Absolutely not."

It was Asalaye with the visible pout, but Lyraina was no less disappointed. Nanalie made the best cakes in the kingdom and no one could argue otherwise, but Garrett's light-yet-creamy icing was nothing short of divine, and a combination of the two would have landed her the job and then some. But before her marriage and the resulting recipe access, Nanalie had managed a derivative that was excellent in its own right, even if it wasn't quite the original; surely she wouldn't be averse to sharing that, now that she had the real thing?

"Smells good, Nan."

Had licked his lips as he shut the door behind him and stepped into the kitchen, not bothering to remove his cloak. Asalaye greeted her brother with a leer. "Oh, so you just assume it's Nanalie's cake?"

"What can I say? There's no fooling this nose." And he tapped it, as if to prove his point, as if any of them could have possibly missed it. "Nanalie's cakes are what you expect heaven to smell like. Your cakes just smell like smoke."

Asalaye sniffed. "I could have improved."

"Well, you couldn't have gotten any worse, that's for sure." Had pulled up the seat on Lyraina's right and flashed her a smile. "Think you'll try yourself after we all inhale this one?"

"As long as Nanalie sticks around to watch." She glanced to her sister-in-law, who nodded, though her eyes flicked upward in a half roll. "Sorry, Nan. I just don't want to fall into any bad habits."

"I'm sure you won't. You're as good a baker as any."

Had nodded in agreement, and if the spark in face meant anything, not just because he was supposed to. Still, she wasn't quite reassured. It wasn't every day that Lord Severin was looking for a new head pastry cook, after all, and the hours were reasonable and the wages quite good--and for all it was still a little early to be telling even Had, Lyraina suspected they'd have another mouth to feed before the year was up. A flexible job with decent earnings would go far.

Not that Had didn't make enough to support the family on his own. And not that they didn't have a strong family that would be willing to help them if they needed it. But what could she say? There was a certain satisfaction in work, at least if it was work one enjoyed. Raia managed both the toy business and Little Rio and she was as happy as Lyraina had ever seen her. Aerina helped out at her mother's shop more days than she didn't, Nanalie and Garrett had passed over a kitchen staff in favor of cooking for themselves, even Lady Leonora sold a few whittlings by means of her brother. If they could find the time for everything--if they could have it all--who was to say Lyraina couldn't aspire to that as well?

Other than, of course, the panel of hungry keep residents. "Not as good as you."

"We won't know that until we've all had a slice of each cake. Besides, you were paying attention while I was making mine, and I didn't have to teach you any new techniques; icing aside, I'll be surprised if there's much difference at all."

Lyraina scanned her sister-in-law's face for some tell-tale sign of a lie. If it was there, she never caught it. "You think so?"

"She knows so," Had corrected as his sister nodded, resting his hand on Lyraina's own. "We all do."


September 19, 2012

In Which Ellona Gives Due Credit

February 16, 1180

"And that," Kaldar finished, grinning a little widely to be taking his own 'spooky' story seriously, "is why no one ever returns from the swamp--at least, alive."

Ellona snorted. On the floor, Ella reacted similarly. Good to know that she wasn't the type to believe anything she heard. "I think you have to work on your storytelling, kiddo."

Her son sighed--not the sort of world-weary sound she expected of a seven-year-old, but it was reassuring nonetheless. If Kaldar could admit to fault, could admit that he could be better, could admit that he could be wrong, then he would let himself learn. He would grow up. He was not his father.

"I don't get it. I'm not good at telling stories, but that's really just lying, isn't it?"

"Cynical way of looking at it, but I suppose you have a point." Did he? Ellona wasn't sure. She wasn't much of a storyteller herself. She'd always thought herself too pragmatic. Then, she'd finally ditched Ietrin and in hindsight, it seemed more likely that she'd always been too stupid. "You're not so good at lying either, though."

A little devious, Kaldar beamed. "Or so I let you think."

"Oh, really?"

He nodded, confident smile still in place. Ellona returned it with one of her own, unconcerned. Her boy had no problems with his self-esteem so far as she knew, but a truly skilled deceiver wouldn't have put her on high alert had he not been downright arrogant. She did not think Kaldar was arrogant. She did not want to.

"Well, keep practicing with the stories, but I'd think twice about lying to me if I were you; I let you think certain things too."

For safe measure, she added a wink. Kaldar opened his mouth, no doubt some clever-for-a-kid quip on his tongue, but whatever he had to say was overridden by the knock at the door. "Ellona, seriously, Neilor needs a new steward."

She knew that voice. Ella, apparently, did too. "Uncle Cas!"

"He's not our uncle," Kaldar corrected her--thank God he'd taken to leaving the word 'stupid' off the end of such sentences. " he?"

Ellona shook her head as Casimiro stepped in, someone else at his side, a young girl Ellona couldn't place for the life of her. Frankly, Ellona was more interested in Casimiro's reaction; to her relief, he'd taken it in stride as he always did, never mind that her children hadn't known him nearly long enough to dub him 'uncle'. "You're welcome to call me what you like, both of you."

"Oh, really?" That mischievous twinkle returned to Kaldar's eye. "Can we call you 'Sir Buttscratcher McFartbreath'?"

Ella fought back a giggle while the older girl snorted. Ellona couldn't say she saw what was so funny. "Kaldar!"

But Casimiro just shrugged, a hint of a grin on his lips and his eyes hardly void themselves. "If it please you--although it might be a bit of a mouthful."

"I guess. I'll just keep calling you 'Cas'--or maybe 'Gas', because that rhymes." Casimiro gave a nod of approval before taking a seat. Kaldar's attention shifted instead to the girl. "Hello. I'm Kaldar del Marinos. You're very pretty, but I'm contractually obliged to inform every beautiful woman I meet that I already have a girlfriend."

Ella rolled her eyes. "You do not!"

"I do so! We even signed a paper. And we got a witness. And he signed it too, because witnesses do that." As if it proved his own point, he nodded matter-of-factually. "And as long as I tell other lovely ladies about us, she can't tickle me."

"Fair enough. My father has plans for me anyway." She held out her hand as if for a shake; Kaldar kissed it instead, but if she minded, she didn't say. "Meeraleene of Hoprine--but please, call me Meera."

"Meera's father is paying suit to my sister," Casimiro explained. "Things seemed to be going well, so we figured we'd give them some privacy."

Ellona let her eyelids droop, his face obscured through the veil of her lashes. "Another stellar chaperoning accomplishment under your belt."

Casimiro chortled. Lacking the context and deciding he wasn't bothered, Kaldar glanced back at Ella before looking up at Meera once more. "I promised my sister that we'd build a snowman today. Would you like to help?"

"Sure." Meera let Kaldar take her by the arm and lead her back to the front room. Half-forgotten, Ella hurried behind as quickly as her stubby little legs would allow.

The sounds of the children scrounging around for their cloaks a little more audible than Ellona had hoped, Casimiro gave a fond shake of his head. "Oh, your kids never fail to amuse."

"Try living with them for a week and see if you still believe that." Ellona flipped a stray curl back over her shoulder. Lucky Kaldar had manageable locks like his Uncle Neilor, but poor Ella was doomed to the same unruly mess that plagued her mother, only in blond. It wasn't quite Ietrin's blond--more like Ellona's sister's--but nonetheless sometimes Ellona wondered if Ella would consent to dying it. Then again, Ellona's color wasn't without its unfortunate family connections either.

But she supposed it was impractical to dwell on that just now. If Casimiro had come, then he must have wanted to visiting--and for all Ellona had never been fond of such activities, visiting was supposed to be pleasant. "So, how is this new suitor? Do you think he might ask for Catalina's hand?"

"Things are looking hopeful. The poor man's a widower twice over and I think he wants a mother for his children more than anything else, but I think that could work for her. After her own little girl's death, I think she just wants to be a mother again anyway." Oh. He hadn't told her that and her face must have shown it. He made the customary awkward glance toward his boots before saying anything more. "That and he's heir to a baron; she could do a lot worse, at least given that she doesn't seem to be after romance."

"Indeed." Ellona rose to her feet, only to relieve them once more when she took the seat next to Casimiro. She wasn't quite sure why she'd bothered with the move. "Romance is overrated anyway."

She'd figured he would have agreed, given his attitude toward Searle. But the look he shot her was almost hurt. "There's no need to give up, you know. You could find another man."

"Hardly. I'm a disgraced ex-mistress with two bastards, a scheming bitch of a mother, and a brother whose only notability around here came from being a favorite in that tournament and losing to some nobody." Not that she didn't hope that her brother would accomplish more--but for now, the point stood. "But as long as I've got the kids, I'll be all right."

"It's because you're strong." He slung his arm around her and pulled her nearer, the way her brother sometimes did on the off-chance neither of them were opposed to unecessary touching. Just this once, she supposed she would indulge him. "You're lucky that way."

Perhaps she was. And perhaps he didn't give himself all due credit either. "You're stronger than you think you are."


September 16, 2012

In Which Leara Says the Right Thing

January 27, 1180

As usual, shy Neva had opted for the solitude of her xylophone over playing dolls with her less inhibited cousin, but Farilon was more than happy to indulge Yvanette in her stead. Leara wasn't quite sure what to make of that. It was true that most of her memories of Farilon involved a friendly little child ready to jump into any game anyone might have proposed... but in those memories, Leara herself was just an older child. She was an adult now, Farilon's brother's wife, mother of three-going-on-four. Farilon was--would have been?--nearing fifteen now. The prospect of having to entertain a year-old niece would have sent most fifteen-year-old boys running back to their tutors, begging for more Latin exercises.

Not that Farilon was most fifteen-year-old boys. "He's certainly good with the kids."

Rona lifted one ankle and crossed it over the other. She'd been looking on with some concern, probably fearing the sharp edges of her brother's borrowed body, but without any realized issue, she shrugged in defeat. "He is a kid."

"Yes, well..." Leara trailed off, not sure if there was a right thing to say to that and failing to find it if there was. Perhaps it would be best to take a cue from Jadin and avoid discussing Farilon with his family. "Yvanette seems to be having fun."

"She does." And for all Rona was concerned, it seemed that was the end of it.

"Good of your husband to take mine today." Rona raised an eyebrow. It was a weak shift in conversation and Leara knew it, but it was the first thing that had come to mind and therefore it was less awkward than the silence. Perhaps there was some merit in what Camaline had said about her fear of silence. "Lorn needs to get out more."

"So does Ashe. That's why I suggested it." She picked at the hem of her sleeve and sighed. In the past couple years, Rona had grown up quite a bit, but she wasn't beyond the occasional relapse into adolescence. She was still the same girl who had sulked in that same chair back in the days leading up to the tournament, and that hadn't escaped Leara's notice. Not that it made up for all the things that did. "I take it Lorn's stressed over what to do about Deian?"

Leara nodded. "He knows that there hasn't been any cause for alarm, but..."

"But he's still concerned," Rona finished for her. "And not without good reason."

I'll say. Not when the creature had slaughtered all those innocents. Not when he had killed Lorn and Rona's own father. Not when he had threatened Rona's husband, for all Ashe had been sparing with the details when he'd finally felt safe in telling at all. But Rona didn't say any more. She no doubt didn't want to talk about Deian either.

"So... what about your man? Why is he due for a good day's hunt?"

"Oh, God. Why isn't he?" And there went yet another topic of conversation. Leara's sister-in-law would never call on her again. "He's always so tense, you know? Like he thinks everything he touches is going to fall apart."

Interesting way of putting it. The fact in itself wasn't so. "A lot of people are tense."

"Not like Ashe is." At the sound of her father's name, the tone no doubt like he'd done something bad, Yvanette glanced back at her mother, eyes wide and inquiring. Rona grimaced and waved her daughter's attention back to Farilon before elaborating. "He... I don't know how to explain it. Like he thinks he's dreaming and he's afraid of waking up, maybe."

Within her, the baby stirred. It was good to know the feeling was mutual. "At least that means it's a good dream?"

"It would be if he let it. That's what's bothering me." Rona peaked back at Yvanette, thoroughly reengaged in her uncle's wordless storyline. According to Celina, the little girl looked just like Rona at that age, but Leara struggled to believe it. It was difficult to imagine a Rona without woes. "I've tried getting him to talk about it, but never to any effect. I think it has something to do with his past, which is another thing he refuses to talk about. And I want him to get past it, because he's so sweet and he loves me so much and I just want us to be happy, but..."

"But you don't know how to help him."

And it seemed, for once, she'd said the right thing. "But I don't know how to help him."