December 30, 2013

In Which Severin Tries Something Strange

April 9, 1184

Three months in and so far, school was a colossal disappointment.

The students were divided into four classes according to their ages. Severin was in the oldest class, ages thirteen through fifteen, taught by Lady Xeta. On paper, it was a good deal--no annoying kids.

But then he'd had to start spending time with people his own age, only to find that they weren't all that much better. Arguably worse, even. At least little kids were aware that they were annoying, and would cut it out if called out harshly enough--and would even leave you alone if you really got the point across.

People his age, though... not so much. People his age liked to talk smack about each other behind their backs, or to their faces, or in that passive-aggressive compromise between the two; the phrase "Oh, I didn't know you were here!" might have been the most frequently spoken sentence in class. The girls called each other fat. The boys shoved each other about and threw their fists in each other's face. And most of them found all of this social bullshit much more interesting than the actual curriculum, which explained why they were all so fucking stupid.

And why all of the work was so mind-numbingly easy that Severin had stopped bothering to return to class after the lunch break.

Normally he left the school grounds, but he was quickly running out of ways to kill time before he could meet up with his siblings and head back home, and there weren't many more favors he could do for Alina to keep her from telling their mother. This way, if she tattled, at least he was, technically, still at school.

That, and the only reason he still bothered to show up for morning lessons had chosen to linger on the grounds too.

Nearina Tamrion had only been in class for a week, and Severin wasn't sure why he'd made a point to remember her name; there was only one other classmate whose name he knew for sure, and that was only because they'd once spent nine months cramped in the same uterus. She didn't say much, and no one else seemed to find her too interesting. She was a noble, so the commoners assumed she couldn't be bothered with them, but the other nobles seemed to give her her space too. The Kemorin kid--Roddie?--had talked to her a couple times, but that kid had a ton of friends and there was only so much of him to go around, and Nearina had only half-listened from what Severin could tell anyway.

He wasn't sure why he found her so interesting. She didn't seem to do much other than sit there and stare blankly. She wasn't doing too well in school if her non-answers to Lady Xeta's questions said anything, but Severin was telling himself that it was because she'd started three months later than the others; if he had to have a crush on someone, he didn't want it to be anybody stupid. He supposed he liked that she wasn't pretty. Her face was peppered with freckles and she had bags under her eyes more days than she didn't. She was bone thin and he feared her slender neck might snap under the weight of her disproportionate head. None of the other boys had looked twice at her, nor did she get any jealous glares from the other girls.

But she was beautiful. He wasn't sure why, but she was. Maybe it was the eyes, blue as sapphires between her brown hair and her brown dress. Or maybe it was something deeper, something hidden. Severin didn't really want to think about it. That romantic crap made him want to puke.

He ventured another look at her. He probably could have stared all he wanted--he doubted she'd even noticed he was still there--but he got the feeling she didn't like to be looked at, and since he could relate, he'd resolved to limit himself. But for someone who didn't know he was there, she looked damn uncomfortable. Was she sick, maybe? Her face was all scrunched up, and she kept pawing at the ground with her slipper, somewhat like Teodrin's cat did when she was...

No. Not sick. In pain.

"Uh... Nearina?"

She jumped in her seat. Severin cringed; he hadn't wanted to startle her. But if she was hurt...

He rose from his own bench and headed over to hers. Her gemstone eyes drooped, like they couldn't take the sight of him at such close range. "Sorry, uh... you're Severin, right?"

She knew his name? He wouldn't have guessed she'd been paying that much attention. Then again, Lady Xeta did yell at him quite a bit, and rather loudly...

"Yes. But, uh... you looked kind of uncomfortable." And probably felt it. He knew he did.

"Why do you care?"

Huh. That sounded like something he would say. Maybe that was why he liked her--not that he had any prior evidence to go on. "Trying to be nice, I guess?" God, that felt strange.

"Sorry." She looped a finger beneath her hanging belt as her hands met in her lap. He doubted she actually was sorry, but why the hell was she apologizing anyway? It was natural to be suspicious, especially if she'd been hurt in the past--and he got the feeling that she had been. "Most boys don't try."

"Most boys are idiots. Most people in general are." She glanced down, but he thought he saw a tug at her lips. A small smile. Didn't do much for the strain, though. "So... what's the matter? Can I help?"

"Uh, well..." She raised her head, sapphire eyes catching a few sparks of high noon sun. Dark blue, deep blue. He was used to lighter, grayer blues that never sparkled much. "It's my... my monthly..."

"Oh." Well... he wouldn't presume to know anything firsthand about that. But he had a mother, and sisters, and sisters-in-law--and while they could usually power through it, they'd all had times when they'd had to sit down for a while, even lie down for a while. And the staff were all women; they'd understand, wouldn't they?

"Do you want me to take you to the infirmary?"


"So... is she all right?"

It wasn't Severin's first time seeing Lady Camaline--technically Princess Camaline, but all of the staff used 'Lady' in the school--in her office, but it was the first time Lady Xeta hadn't sent him. It was also the first time she'd seen him after the lunch hour in quite some time, but with Nearina's condition, she hadn't mentioned that.

"She, uh..." Lady Camaline sighed. Severin got the sense that she didn't know quite what Nearina was going through. Maybe she was one of the lucky ones who just got four days of light bleeding and no cramps? Not that he was itching to inquire about his principal's courses. "I haven't heard of anyone dying of a course, but she does seem to be in a lot of pain. I don't think she'll be able to return to class any time soon."

"Will she be able to get home all right?" She'd said as he'd taken her inside that she lived with her uncle, Sir Garrett. His castle wasn't too far, but it wasn't across the street either.

"On her own? I wouldn't send her out just now." Lady Camaline's eyes flickered to the door. "Severin, be honest with me: are you planning on returning to class today?"

Well, if anyone could say a good thing about him, it was that he was honest. "Wasn't even considering it."

"Do you know how to ride?" He nodded. "Good. I want you to take my horse--the white mare--and ride to Nearina's uncle's castle. Tell Lady Nanalie to head over here immediately, and to bring the wagon. After that, ride to Sir Tarien's and tell Lady Arydath to pay Nearina a visit, some time today if she can. Then go home and have your mother scold you for cutting class, and commend you for helping someone in need. Your father can return the horse tomorrow morning."

Maybe he'd skip the part with his mother. But the rest, he could do. "All right."

"And before you go, I want you to explain to Lady Xeta that you'll be out on a favor to me, then tell her to report to the infirmary. I'll cover her classes until Lady Nanalie arrives; Lady Xeta will be a better help to Nearina than I would be."


December 29, 2013

In Which Sev Meets His Housemates

April 1, 1184

It was Sunday--so technically, the spring term started tomorrow. But most of the new students were moving in today, and Sev's new housemates were not exceptions.

He'd briefly met Landus, who'd shown up that morning with his brother and his sister-in-law and his adorable little niece. Landus seemed like a good sort--maybe a little quiet, but Sev was quiet too, and that was hardly an undesirable quality in a housemate anyway. He'd helped Landus and Neilor move Landus's things into one of the empty bedrooms, then the family had left and Landus had asked Sev for directions to a few of the buildings noted on schedule, not keen on being lost and late on the first day of classes.

The right thing to do would have been to accompany Landus as he went to explore, just in case he got disoriented or forgot something or Sev had misremembered, but he did have an essay to work on; his classes were only half over, after all, thanks to the staggered semesters. That, and he was curious enough that he didn't want to miss the arrival of the other two newcomers.

Though one of them, at least, he doubted he would have missed. "See, Orrick? This fellow's not so rude as to complain about my singing!"

The young man on the couch rolled his eyes as his brother smirked Sev's way. If the seated one was Orrick, then the other was Senwick. Sev supposed he ought to have known that, having grown up well within walking distance of the pair of them--never mind their family connections to the Kemorins, who in turn were connected to Sev's family through his sister--but Sev had spent most of his youth helping his no-longer-young father, and this particular branch of the Wythleit family had not had the easiest of childhoods and seemed to keep to themselves.

Though Sev now suspected that Senwick, at least, would have preferred otherwise. "Your singing sounded fine." That got a laugh out of the him, though his sterner twin was less amused. "Though, I don't understand why you're singing into your hand."

"See? I told you people would question that." Orrick sighed, no doubt not wanting to answer but not trusting Senwick to do a better job of it. But even if he was serious... Sev knew cruel, knew brotherly hostility, and this wasn't it. Orrick did care. Maybe Orrick was what Congren could have been if their mother hadn't died. "Forgive him. He's convinced that one day, people will sing into their fists."

"Filthy lies! One day, people will sing into noise-amplifying devices that they hold in their fists!" Senwick turned his hand so that Sev could see the side of it; sure enough, it wasn't fully clenched, but instead left a hole just large enough to grip a slender object. "I'm thinking something to do with metal wires and some sort of artificial lightning--maybe from some kind of acidic mixture. But all in a casing, of course," he added, as if that was the most pressing question the whole idea raised.

Orrick groaned. "He's such a child. Our father and stepmother tell us they'll cover our fees entirely, and he takes that generosity and means to train as a bard."

"At least I have plans. You pretty much looked at the options and said 'Psychology sounds interesting'. What the hell even is psychology, anyway?"

"Something with more practical applications than music, maybe?"

Senwick's response to that was a loud appearance of his tongue. Frowning, Orrick turned to Sev. "You're Severin, right? What are you studying?"

"You can call me Sev." He shut the library door and Orrick nodded to the free bench. Not wanting to seem too aloof, he took it. "I'm majoring in Economics."

"Economics?" Senwick let his arm droop to his side, but a musical lilt clung to his voice all the same. Orrick may have thought his career choice frivolous, but in these few minutes of knowing him, Sev didn't think he could see Senwick as anything but a bard. "That sounds about as fun as falling off a cliff into a river of piranhas. Let me guess: your father made you take it?"

"Well... yes. But I'm actually enjoying it." Not that Senwick looked any less impressed. Orrick, at least, managed a polite false-interest. "Plus, if my father can apply what I learn to his ranch's business, then we'll hopefully make enough money to put all my little sisters through university."

Orrick smiled--for real this time. "Now, that's a noble goal. See, Senwick? We should both study something with earning potential. If we can pay our parents back, then they won't have to worry too much about where they'll get the money to send our little siblings."

"Yes, because there's every chance in the world that Raia's children won't get to attend the university where she's the chancellor."

"They'll still have tuition fees. We do."

"They also have a grandfather who's the university's top patron. I think their fees are as good as paid." Senwick took his twin's silence as a victory, but Orrick still didn't look convinced. Maybe that was how one dealt with Senwick? Let him have the last word, and he'd eventually drop it? He didn't seem the type to hold a grudge...

But now that he was living with these two, and would be for a while, Sev supposed it was only a matter of time before he knew for sure.

"So, do you mind helping me haul in my instruments from the front hall? I'll teach you how to play one of them if you do."


December 27, 2013

In Which Aldhein Takes a Cue

March 26, 1184

"So... thanks for helping out today."

It was insufficient gratitude and Aldhein knew it. He'd be going all out with Alsina's birthday present, and her Christmas present, and every random present he could get her between. And then the same all next year, and the year after. He still wasn't sure if that would be enough.

What sort of wonderful soul was so willing to swallow her own bruised feelings and help out with another woman's delivery of her husband's bastard? Especially when she herself was unlikely to conceive again and not pleased about that fact?

But Alsina just flashed a small smile. She was still angry with him--probably would be for a while--but she might as well have said it was the least she could have done. How? "Well... Aydelle and the baby needed the help, didn't they? I may be angry with Aydelle, but I don't want her hurt or dead.

"And little Cenric didn't conceive himself. It would be unreasonable to hold any of this against him, even if I'm not as comfortable with him as I'd like to be one day." As she'd like to be. What in God's name had Aldhein done to deserve this woman? More likely that he didn't. "I mean... he's the closest thing I'll ever have to another child, isn't he?"

"What about grandchildren?"

"Grandchildren are different. You love them and love them and love them, but at the end of the day, you still have to hand them back to their parents."

And she would have known that from watching Aldhein with his grandchildren from Eilyssa. But weren't they practically her grandchildren too? She was the closest they had to a grandmother now--and even though she wasn't much older than their mother, she'd never failed them there. If she really wanted to be a second mother to Aldhein's new little son, she'd do it, and she'd do it well. Alsina didn't do family halfway. That was a cue Aldhein had to take.

"Is there anything I can do to make this up to you?"

"Mmm... just avoid getting in trouble from now on, all right? I'll forgive you eventually." That was sooner than he'd been expecting. God damn. "Nora got me in touch with Lord Severin's stepmother. She went through a similar thing, and she's given me some good advice. Once I heal up a bit more, I hope I'll be able to make the most of it."

"I know you will." He slung his arm around her shoulder and gently tugged her toward him. He wouldn't have blamed her if she pulled away, but she didn't. Guilty though he was, he felt better than he had in months.

"You've already been better about this than any of us could have hoped for. Aydelle and Cenric won't forget that. I know I won't."


December 25, 2013

In Which Alsina Is Not Alone

March 26, 1184

The usual timing suggested it had to be soon, and Alsina had been bracing herself for a week now. Her husband was going to be a father again. She would try to cope, even try to care about the baby. What else could she do? She could be as angry with Aldhein and Aydelle as the situation merited, but nobody asked to be born. Surely no one asked to be born a bastard to a married man and a fast woman! If there was another victim here, it was the baby.

She'd had months now. She'd thought she was as ready as she'd ever be. But she hadn't anticipated walking past Aydelle's house on her way out of the shire and meeting the screams along the way. "Aydelle?"

"Oh, Alsina!" Near the couch, Aydelle turned about, body tensed and face strained. She must have found that pacing about helped; Alsina had noticed the same in the early part of her last labor. "Thank God you're here!"

Aydelle and her were not so close that a mere social call brought such a response. "The baby's coming, isn't it?"

"It is." She reached behind her head and rubbed at her neck. The slight crouch that followed did little to minimize her full middle. "Don't look in the kitchen. Just... don't."

Alsina shuddered. Aldhein could clean that up when he arrived. His presence couldn't have been the first priority, though. "Do you want me to run and fetch Arydath?"

"No. Stay with me. It should be a few hours yet, but... just in case." So there was a chance, however remote, that she alone would be here to deliver her husband's bastard. Great. "The girls will be home from school in a few minutes. Leina can run for Aldhein, and Hanna can take the horse to fetch Arydath. And maybe she could get Princess Camaline too--she's a friend."

"All right. I'll tell them when they get here." And with any luck, it wouldn't be long. It seemed about the time Fenrick got home; surely Aydelle's girls wouldn't have taken any longer?

"Thank you--ooooh!"

Her teeth gritted, Aydelle clutched her stomach--the first contraction of Alsina's visit. It didn't sound like a big one. Good. She couldn't escape involvement in this, but at least she wouldn't have to do it alone. "Let's just get you comfortable, all right?"


December 23, 2013

In Which Rina's Comfort Is Wasted

February 23, 1184

Uncle Garrett's soup had done what it could, and Rina had to admit that it had done more than she'd expected it would, for all her standards were barely off the ground in that regard. Her grandmother had been pleased to see her finish the whole bowl, even if she'd declined the offer of a second, but the sating of her hunger and a momentary warmth aside, Rina herself didn't feel much better. Nanalie--Aunt Nanalie, she supposed--had shown her to her bedroom, and of course it contained a mirror, and like an idiot Rina had looked. She didn't recognize the girl she saw there.

Any delusions she might have had of her own beauty were long gone, but she had at least been visibly alive the last time she'd dared face a mirror. Many she and her father had passed on their journey had averted their eyes, and now she knew why. She hadn't just been sickly and unkempt and downright messy. She might as well have been a walking, breathing corpse.

As far as her father was concerned, that was all she was now.

She didn't miss him. Her entire life, he'd made it very clear that he valued her as nothing but a bargaining piece. She knew very well how little point there was in loving him. But he'd spent the past fourteen years defining her and redefining her, and now that the Reverend Mother had denied him that right, he couldn't do that any more. She supposed she ought to have been grateful, but the lack of him begged the question of what next. She had no way to define herself, and nothing with which to start.

She supposed she would sleep. It was practically all she'd done since she'd arrived in Naroni, but what else did she have to do? She was useless and lifeless as salted ground. She could lie there, dormant. No one could say she wasn't good at that.

She took to the dresser and swapped her dress for the green nightgown her aunt had set aside for her. It was softer than the one the nuns had lent her, and warmer too, but its comfort was wasted on her. Her raw wrists burned as she bent them to close the drawer and the scars within her seared, her core a raging wildfire with no better kindling than its own ashes. Beads of sweat glued her hair to her brow and a cramp gnawed at her abdomen. She was due for a course. The doctor monk back in Dovia had said they'd be nearly unbearable now, all smug and superior like it was the least of what she deserved.

She stepped back to the bed, pains punctuated with each movement, a metronome of nervous surges where her heart had once been. She didn't know why she was still alive. She'd barely recovered from her illness when her father had forced her out of bed to take her to another land in the dead of winter. She hadn't been allowed her own horse, instead tethered to the back of his by the wrists like a slave. She'd had to sleep in stables with the horse, and he'd kept the horse better fed. He'd said it was to make her grateful to God, to oblige her to serve Him should He let her survive.

A kinder deity would have killed her.

She slipped beneath the blankets and eased herself down, the pains dulling as she lay but nonetheless pressing onward. Sleep would be elusive as ever, but once she was down, she would go for hours. The better part of a day, even.

She would have hoped never to wake, but she doubted there was much point. If this streak didn't let up, she'd never be that lucky.


December 21, 2013

In Which Nanalie Knows by Instinct

February 23, 1184

The nun who had called at the baron's had described the girl as scrawny and sickly, with bags beneath her eyes and wrists of raw flesh and matted hair one sister had spent an hour combing out--much unlike the vivacious girl Nanalie pictured whenever Garrett had described his niece, who rode with twice the skill and gusto of any of her peers, loved to discuss money sense, and had once eaten almost an entire pie in one sitting. But Renata was the girl's grandmother, and sure enough, just one glance at the sleeping figure with the rattling breath had been enough for her to confirm. "Oh, Rina."

Nanalie shivered. She and Garrett had been summoned to the baron's after the nun had delivered her message, along with Valira and Searle. The nun had advised giving the refugee a day to rest before visiting, so Renata saw fit to fill the time before she could see her granddaughter by discussing the situation with the geographically convenient two of her son-in-law's siblings. For her husband's sake, Nanalie wished he could have been shocked, but both he and his sister were grimly unsurprised.

Not that Garrett had ever had much good to say about his older brother.

The girl stirred--not waking, but Nanalie took a half-step back just in case. They'd opted not to overwhelm the poor child by all calling at once, and had decided instead that only two would go. Renata would of course be the first of them. Nanalie had thought she would have been the last choice for the second, having never met the girl and being the only one not a blood relation, but Searle had pointed out that she alone had a medical background, and that if Rina was in much worse shape than she'd been in the past, he and Garrett and Valira might have been in for more of a shock than they could handle.

Still, she would keep her distance. The sight of a stranger in an intimate setting was rarely a comfort. "I'm sorry, Renata."

"Don't be. It pains me to see her like this, but at least she got away from her arse of a father." Her lips pursed in distaste, not unlike Asalaye's when she had gone through her spitting phase. Nanalie's hand curled to a fist. Any man who could make a lady so elegant as Renata want to spit was not a man she cared to meet. "I always thought there was something off about that man. Pity that Arkon wouldn't listen."

Political convenience. Nanalie had actually heard the story of Renata's eldest daughter's betrothal, one of the few interesting enough to reach the ears of the Naronian gentry. Lord Beretrin had decided that of his first two daughters--twin sisters--one would marry Felron, heir to Tagrien, and the other would marry Marsden, heir to Rexus, but the girls were to decide between themselves who married whom. The story went that they had engaged in some sort of wager for the right to first pick, and the younger twin, Riona, had won. She chose Marsden, leaving her sister Xetrica with Felron.

Most who didn't know the involved had found this baffling; not only was Marsden the heir to a lesser territory and a lesser title, but he was also rather famously ugly. But having married into the nobility, Nanalie now knew from their mutual acquaintances that Marsden was a kind and generous man who thought the world of his wife and doted over their four children, never caring for a second that three of them were daughters rather than sons. Felron... was not. In fact, Valira had mentioned during their conference that Riona had expressed guilt in sticking Xetrica with him, for all she and Felron had loathed each other since childhood.

"If only Tertius could have stopped this." Renata turned to Nanalie after one last glance at her granddaughter, who trembled at the sound of her grandfather's name. "He and Rina are very close. He never would have stood for this had he not been... compromised."

Nanalie bowed her head. She remembered all too well when Garrett had received the news back in November. His father had fallen pray to an apoplexy of the brain. He'd survived, but not without complications. The paralysis of his legs kept him bound to his bed, and his speech had been reduced to unintelligible strings of nonsense. Fearing it wouldn't be long, Garrett had traveled to Dovia for a quick visit; he had seen nothing encouraging.

From what Nanalie knew of Garrett's mother, she was not a pushover, but Felron held her in low regard; if she had protested, it was not inconsistent with her knowledge that he had ignored her. As for Xetrica... well, she didn't want to ask the woman's own mother, or any of her siblings. It would have been a sore issue, and as a midwife, Nanalie knew that leaving was easier said than done. Even if Xetrica had done nothing to stop it--especially if she had lost the will to try--the problems in the household were Felron's fault. "A pity it wasn't Felron."

"Indeed. It may be blasphemy to say so in a house of nuns, but if that bastard goes before I do, I shall return to Dovia to dance on his grave, never mind how old and feeble I'll be." Nanalie doubted that Renata would ever be feeble, but she'd let the woman keep her point. Thank God her own husband would never choose a man like that for any of their girls--and would heed her warnings on the off-chance he almost did. "But once Rina is settled, I suppose all I can do is write to his mother and tell her to deliver my curses for me; I know for a fact that every letter I send him goes straight into the fire."

But Renata did not want to speak of her vile son-in-law--the vein throbbing in her forehead said it all, and the cold glaze in her eyes echoed. She turned back to her granddaughter, her face softening in profile. Still not wanting to get much closer, Nanalie craned her neck for another look at young Rina.

She was clearly ill, but Nanalie knew by instinct that she was not dying. She may have reached that point, had she not claimed sanctuary and had her father marched her back to Dovia without satisfactory rest of nourishment, but her ailment in itself would not be fatal, so that ruled out an inevitable death as a reason for her father's pushing the nunnery, as if her being sent to one so distant hadn't. The nuns knew nothing, and it was probably unfair to expect that they did; Nanalie doubted Rina wanted to talk about it, and of course the man who had called his daughter a useless cunt on his way out of a nunnery would be no help.

Nanalie hoped she would tell Renata eventually. Rina would actually be going home Nanalie herself, as Garrett was next in line for her legal guardianship and Nanalie was the most able to provide the required care, but Tetran Keep was well within daily visiting distance, and Renata would take full advantage of that. And from the way she looked at her granddaughter, there was nothing in the world Rina could say that would make Renata think less of her.

But whatever had happened... well, it didn't take much for a fourteen-year-old to stop thinking much of herself.

"If she's up to riding in the wagon when she wakes, do you mind if I return to your place with you? I know you and Garrett will keep her as comfortable as possible, but I think I need to see it with my own two eyes."


December 19, 2013

In Which Mother Elwyna Takes the Side of Right

February 22, 1184

Half the convent had woken to the sounds of the man's yelling and the girl's raspy sobs, but by the time Mother Elwyna reached her study, the pair had tensed themselves to silence, broken only by the occasional cough from the girl. No one had mentioned to Elwyna how long or how far they'd traveled--she doubted either guest had told--but the man, at least, looked to be the pinnacle of health, so she guessed no further than Dovia.

But the girl was in rough shape, rougher than most who journeyed from kingdom to kingdom in the winter. What business did she have that required her to come so far in her condition? Had she been in Elwyna's charge, she would have been confined to bed.

But if they'd come all the way here, then surely they would at least tell her why. Elwyna sat herself down at her desk and met the man's eye. "How may I help you?"

"My daughter is here to join your convent."

The man's face was stoic, but his words were ice and fire at once, a subtle sidelong leer toward his daughter as he stated their relation. Elwyna looked over to the girl just quickly enough to catch a scowl. "She doesn't seem pleased with the prospect. Tell me, was this her choice, or yours?"

"I am her father. Her only choice is to obey mine." His lightning eyes threw a bolt the girl's way with a single flick. She shrunk further back into her chair, but not without a sharp breath that seemed to Elwyna like that of a cornered cat. Nothing to gain, nothing to lose, a mere hiss a last defense at certain doom. "Through her own foolish actions, she has become otherwise useless to me. Here, she can at least work toward restoring the appearance of my family's honor."

And just what honor, Elwyna ached to ask, is there in abandoning your daughter in a convent when she doesn't want to be here in the first place? "Forgive me, but I have heard no hint of a scandal in any of the major houses. Your family's honor may yet be salvageable without forcing your daughter into a life she doesn't want."

The man's line of a mouth curved just enough to frown. He had a rock of his face, but she didn't doubt it could be cracked. "With all due respect, Reverend Mother, but I hope you never said such things to your own father when he decided that you would become a nun."

"My father had nothing to do with my becoming a nun. I took my vows of my own free will, because I wanted to serve the Lord." As, she believed, every nun should have. But she'd been around long enough to know that not all did. She'd dwelt in three Dovian convents before coming to Naroni, and she'd seen many young girls whose parents had seen fit to choose their futures for them. Most who were sent to the nunnery while they were too young to want much more grew up to be fine nuns, and some of the older ones did find that they liked the life, or grew to eventually.

Some, though... some never did. Elwyna had seen girls stop eating. She'd seen the scars on their wrists from the attempts to feel something, anything; one young woman had even used the sharpened corner of her crucifix when they'd taken away her knife. Some chose to waste away to nothing, any youth they had left abandoned along with the desire to go on. One young woman, the night before she was to take her final vows, had been found dangling from the rafters. "I do not think that your daughter has been called to do the same."

"She has been marked for the church."

And how arrogant did a mortal man have to be to claim that? "The only mark is desire."

The girl raised her head a little, body shaking as her neck struggled with the weight of her matted, tangled hair. Her deep blue eyes swelled to shadows and the skin of her cheeks stretched inward, but she managed to move her mouth just enough that Elwyna got the message. She was grateful. She didn't want to be here, but she was grateful. She'd been alone on her side for far too long.

"You look very ill, my dear. Would you like to lie down?"

"No," her father answered on her behalf. "She should count herself lucky I do not make her stand."

"She..." It was a new voice--quiet, nearly broken, but nonetheless there. "She asked me, Father. Not you."

"I thought I told you! Not another word!" And there it was, the face of rock a landslide of flash-fury. Elwyna's spine stiffened, but the girl did little more than glance back down at her lap. "Were you not your grandfather's pet, I'd tear out your vile tongue."

The painting of Christ that hung behind her flashed itself in front of her eyes. Elwyna stood. Rome may have wished for all its servants to follow the book to the letter, but all too often the official way and the Christian way differed greatly. "Sir, I will not have you saying such things."

"Don't you have any idea who I am?" Said as if he thought it actually mattered to God. "I am heir to the countship of Tagrien!"

"We are not in the countship of Tagrien! This is Naroni, and this is a house of the Lord!" Kicking back her chair, she stormed around her desk and stopped a few feet short of him. He was a large man, much taller than her, but Elwyna feared neither giants nor devils. This man may have had dogma on his side, but she had right. And more importantly, she was in charge here. "Now, I will have you know that as long as I am Mother Superior here, no girl or woman shall ever join this convent unless she decides to do so freely!"

"You would deny Christ of his rightful brides?"

"Christ would not have it any other way! I don't know what heartless god you serve, but mine is not a monster!" And it only angered her more, recalling once again that far too many thought he was. "He is fair and loving and has blessed us with choice! Do not deny your daughter what God has given her!"

"And if you know what's good for you, you will not deny what I am giving you!" The man drove his fist into his own hand, thin lips pulling back to reveal gritted teeth. His breath was every bit as ugly as his words. "This is my only daughter. She has a substantial dowry. You would be a fool not to take it!"

"My integrity is not for sale, and nor are my beliefs in a righteous God!"

"A pity, then." The man's stony brows cast a hood over his eyes, hand flying back as if swatting some invisible fly. "I picked this convent so my daughter could have some distance from the family she dishonored. Thought it would be better for all of us. But if you're unwilling to take her, I'm sure somewhere in Dovia--"


The man scowled, face swinging toward his daughter at the steer of a loathing glare. Elwyna softened her own eyes before gazing to the girl.

"I mean... I know it's not a chapel, but I can still ask that, right?" Her head drooped forward, matted curls scraping against her unsatisfactory coat. Elwyna thought she saw a smear of mud in one lock. "If I say that..."

"Then you can stay here and recover for a while without becoming a nun," Elwyna finished for her. The girl was a sorry sight, but the request stirred in her heart a little hope. If she sought sanctuary, then she hadn't fully resigned herself to her father's wishes. There was fight in her yet. "Yes, I will allow it. Have you any family in this kingdom?"

"A few aunts and uncles, and my grandmother is the baroness."

"Hmph. Garrett and Valira, then Renata and her brood." The man sneered, not much fondness found in any name, though Elwyna caught the familiarity. Knights and nobles, many of them charitable. It would not be hard to find the girl a new home among her kin. "Bunch of bleeding hearts, the lot of them. Reverend Mother, be sure that they aren't blinded by their pity."

"It is neither your place nor mine to dictate how your relations feel about your daughter." But it was Elwyna's place to know how she felt about the girl's father, and those feelings were sinfully unchristlike. There was only one way to fix that. "Now, I will give you a choice not unlike the one I imagine you gave your daughter. You will either leave this place of your own accord, or I will call for the guards and have you forcibly removed."