January 30, 2013

In Which Rona Will Not Focus

December 10, 1180

"Well, everything feels as it should," Arydath declared, hand rising from Rona's stomach with an almost divine confidence. "He's bigger than his sister was at that stage. Good to see he's been easier on you too."

Rona smiled. Her last pregnancy had been the roughest nine months of her life, and while Yvanette had been more than worth it, she couldn't get over the relief of this new baby not wreaking that same havoc on her health. "I should hope that's a trend--each one easier than the last."

"It might be, but I wouldn't recommend getting your hopes up." The midwife's dark eyes flitted over to Hilla and Riona, here for the afternoon on the premises of cakes and morale support. And playtime, apparently. "Hilla, for a woman who was mere weeks ago ruing the day either of her best friends dared have a son instead of another daughter for Gualtiero to choose from, you seem quite taken with that little boy."

"I can't help it, Mother. He's a little charmer."

"I should hope not!" Riona scooped little Nato up to her shoulder, away from Hilla's tickling fingers. "I need to have my fill of him before some other woman steals him away."

"Well, whenever I have a daughter, you know where her sights will be set..."

Arydath sighed. "Are they always trying to marry off their small children?"

"Yes, just like everyone else." And they were welcome to do so if they liked, she supposed, though her own children would not be put through any of that, not after how her brother had ultimately married her off, even if she'd been lucky enough to get someone half-decent. Still, she had to wonder... "So you're sure he's a 'he'?"

"Oh, Rona, don't be silly!" cooed Hilla, not for a second turning away from the baby in front of her. "Mother guessed all of your little siblings, didn't she? And all your nieces and nephews--and your daughter, for that matter. You know she's always right."

Her mother sniffed. Rona doubted Arydath was the sort who took lightly to others answering questions on her behalf, but since it was Hilla, it may have been a good-natured prod that would get off easy. "Well, it's not as if I've never been wrong. But it is a statistical abnormality."

"How do you even guess such a thing?" Riona looked over after leaving a kiss on her son's cheek, possibly the first time she'd looked anyone else in the face that day. "I've always wondered how you do it."

"That makes two of us." The midwife shrugged. "But I've stopped questioning at this point. It's like knowing that grass is green--except when it's brown."

And knowing Arydath's record, it wasn't brown very often. "Well, now that you've said, I suppose it should be safe to start calling him Darry."

Arydath smirked, thought not without a twinge of confusion in her eye. Not that Rona supposed she could blame her, this being Rona and Ashe's first son. "For your husband's Uncle Eldaron?"

"Yes, well... Lorn and Xeta both have sons named after my father already, and when I asked Ashe about his father, he said he'd rather name a boy for his uncle--being a hero and all, you know?" But the twinge remained. "That's not too odd, is it?"

"Given that he was a notable figure? Not particularly, no." Arydath crossed her arms, mouth curving downward in a peculiar half-frown. Whatever she said, it certainly didn't look like she... "Really, I'm still trying to puzzle out why you two named your daughter after his aunt."

...Eh? "What are you talking about? Yvanette was Ashe's mother's name."

"No, I'm pretty sure it was his aunt's. She did live in my territory when her daughter was born."

Well, she had, but... "I think my husband would know his own mother's name."

"I'd think that too, but I'm damn sure that Yvanette was his aunt. The sad fact of this business is that you lose some women, and you don't forget the ones you couldn't save." One of her fingernails slid beneath another, a nervous habit Rona had witnessed once before, during one of her own mother's later and more complicated labors. "And in my own more trivial case, you don't forget the ones you don't guess either, so I'm doubly sure."


"That birth is pretty much a scar on my memory? More or less. The mother died, and the baby I would have bet my life on being a boy turned out to be a pretty green-eyed girl--both rarities, the former a tragedy as well." Arydath's fidgeting hand dropped to the side, her features falling with it. "Yes, I'm sure her name was Yvanette."

Rona swallowed. Everyone in Naroni knew for a fact that the midwife was no liar. If Arydath told you anything, it was wise to believe it. If she corrected you, you must have been wrong. And if she stood by her claim, however impossible it might have been, particularly if the circumstances surround said claim were not a thing easily forgotten...

Well, it was a damn rotten way to once again smack your head on the fact that your husband was a compulsive liar. But Rona wouldn't focus on that. Her baby was healthy and was growing well and was going to be a boy, and she'd soon have one of each. And her friends were here, and they were all well and happy, and they would soon feast on Rona's cook's delicious cakes, and Arydath would join them. And then Rona's mother would return to the castle with Yvanette and they'd have a nice visit. And then her husband would get home and she'd have to get on his case about his compulsive lying.

But no, she would not focus on that now. She absolutely refused to focus on that now. Not just yet. "So... time for cake?"


January 28, 2013

In Which Falidor Seeks the Words

December 6, 1180

Falidor's former sister-in-law seated herself, a reminder of why he ought to have made more of an effort to keep in touch after they'd both divorced their respective Dephwains. Aydelle was a woman who took full ownership of any room she entered. Many of the women Falidor loved most--his sisters, the late Lady Alina, the dearly departed Laveria, and of course Raia--shared that trait, and in a man's world, that sort of confident, no-nonsense strength of spirit was something he never failed to admire in those of the female persuasion.

Ailede had never been like that. She'd never owned rooms, but conquered them. And like most other conquerors, her power was not so much earned as it was taken, any body in her way shown no mercy, any soul in her wake stripped of freedom and marred with bleeding wounds. Some men cited women like Ailede as a reason to loathe any woman who dared be her own person, but Falidor disagreed. Ailede was not an example, but a misconception. Ailede gave strong-willed women a bad name.

But even with Aydelle right in front of him, Falidor wasn't sure why he was wasting thoughts on Ailede. "It's... certainly been a while."

"It has." She shuffled to her right, toward the center of her chosen seat. "Sit with me?"

He did as requested. That was the difference, he supposed, or one of them. People like Aydelle or Raia, like any other civilized human being on the planet, never demanded but requested, and did not indulge so-called demands but fulfilled requests as they saw fit. People like Ailede could only make demands, and could not even consider bending for even the most heartfelt of desperate pleas. "To what do I owe the honor?"

She stiffened. She was colder than Raia, perhaps--for all the rumors seemed to suggest otherwise--but there was only one Raia, just like there was only one Aydelle. Falidor's life might have been quite different if he'd figured out that general premise earlier. "I have news."

"Good news?" She shook her head. "Bad news?"

She swallowed. "News."

Lamp-like eyes turned away from the wall opposite and set their focus instead on his. Her own daughters, if he recalled correctly, both had her eyes, along with most of her other features. Her former husband's face flashed his brain like some long-forgotten childhood nightmare and he remembered just how fortunate a thing that was. "Just news?"

"I suppose it ought to be bad news, but I don't feel it." Her hand curled around the edge of the seat cushion, a few stray snowflakes melting off of her sleeve. "I suppose you ought to know that our former spouses are dead."

"How? When?" He posed the questions on some in-born reflex, but he couldn't claim to care. Frankly, it was a shock to learn Ailede could die at all.

"Fire. Yesterday. Ailede was at Eblor's house, and the neighbors say they were screaming at each other about something their father left one of them, then the next thing anyone new, the house went up in flames. They were both long gone from the smoke before anyone could contain it; seems they were so preoccupied with their fight that they forgot to tend the hearth." Pushing to the point of abandoning basic priorities. An unexpected end, but a fitting one. "Not much survived the blaze, but Eblor didn't have much anyway. The girls were never going to inherit anything from him. They certainly won't miss him."

Falidor fought back a sigh. As far as he knew, Ailede hadn't lived at the old house since Fenrick's youngest was born and had spent little time there before she'd run off out-of-the-blue anyway. His children wouldn't miss her either. He guessed he'd try to at least feel bad about it. Ailede hadn't been much of a person, but she was still just that--a person.

"Does their mother know?"

Aydelle shrugged. "The king said he'd send someone to break the news, but I doubt she cares."

"She never did care about much." Perhaps that had been Ailede's problem. She'd lived her life among broken people and didn't know anything but to beat others down to that level. He could feel sorry for her there. "Have you told your girls?"

"No, but I suppose I'll have to after I leave here. You'll have to tell your children too."

He nodded. "As soon as I find the words."


January 26, 2013

In Which Florian Endures the Longest Hug in History

November 3, 1180

"You're sure you haven't seen him at all today?"

Florian nodded--again. "I think we're about three of the same question past the point of my telling you you're over-reacting."

"How am I over-reacting?"

Oh dear God. "Well, for starters, he's an adult."

Ah, but why did he bother? That logic never worked with the baron's kids these days. "He's fragile."

"He is not. I've seen that boy kick puppies." The baron's face folded in about eight different types of disbelief. "All right, there's a slight chance it might have been a dream. Still! He can take care of himself."

"But he hasn't spent a night away from the castle in years! What if he has an episode?"

"And what if he doesn't? Maybe you've been too preoccupied with worrying, but they haven't been as frequent since Prior was born." Florian took a quick pause to stand. Christ, the term 'pain in the ass' was starting to develop a literal component. "You know, I doubt Camaline gives it up very often. Sparron probably just wanted to get laid."

The baron swallowed. Like it was a huge surprise that his married adult son who had a brat of his own might have been interested in having sex. "I think Sparron has more pressing concerns than--"

"Making the beast with two backs? Running the horizontal marathon? Dancing the dance without pants?" The baron's expression was static. What a waste of a clever rhyme. "Of course he doesn't. He's twenty-four. Let him get his kicks while he can, before he's fifty and his ass gets all wrinkly and he starts forgetting where to put it and it doesn't matter because he can't get it up any--"



The baron cleared his throat. "I'm fifty."

Huh. He thought he would have recalled teasing him about that. "And you look damn good, sir."

"Uh-huh." Why oh why was that eyebrow still raised. "Look, alert me the second Sparron comes in, all right? If he's not back within the hour, I'll have to go out and look--"

"Father, I'm back."

Oh, thank God this conversation was over! "Good timing."

"I'll say." But Florian got the sense that he and the baron differed in their reasoning. "Sparrow, where were you? I was worried sick."

"Uh... somewhere I shouldn't have been." Once the lingering shame had a chance to get inside, Sparron shut the door. "I'm sorry, Father."

Florian clapped his hands together. "Ah-ha! I knew he was at a brothel!"

"Florian, shut up." He scowled. But at least the baron seemed happy now. "Well, wherever you were, what matters is that you're home now. Just... try not to scare me like that again, all right?"

"Yes, Father."

Jesus. Florian had an adult son who still lived with him too. Hamrick had to be gone for about a week before Florian got 'scared'. Hell, probably a day or two for Florian to even notice he was gone. Worrying was Thetis's job. Florian's job was to distract Thetis from said worries.

Then again, there was no one around to distract the baron any more.

"Come here, son."

He watched as his boss pulled his son into a longer hug than Florian could remember giving any of his sons past ten or so. Then again, none of his older sons had ever really needed hugs. Setran and Dragon had been independent long before they'd ever left home. Hamrick worked the farm Florian had made a point to neglect and was usually too tired to stand by the end of the day, much less embrace, while Severin didn't seem to like touching anything that wasn't bound in leather and otherwise comprised of old sheets of parchment. Once they'd grown up, his sons had stopped needing him.

Thank God.

"You should probably check on Prior," the baron urged as the longest hug in history finally drew to a close. "He's been asking for you. I told him grown-ups sometimes need to take care of things on short notice, but I don't think he'll feel better until he sees you."

"Poor kid." Sparron sighed. "I don't know if I'll feel better before I see him either."


January 23, 2013

In Which Searle Looks Past the Winter Morning

November 3, 1180

Searle's brain was a dragon about to hatch, his skull the increasingly fragile egg. He hadn't thought--God, it hurt to think!--he'd had that much, but the sharp throbbing said otherwise. The vague memory of Jadin dragging him home agreed.

His throat was parched, the harsh taste of lingering ale wreaking havoc on his tongue. He might have puked if he'd had enough moisture in him. How the hell did liquids manage to be so dry?

"There's a pitcher of water on the bedside table."

He wasted no time in going for it. It was only after that wave of pure refreshment splashed the back of his throat that he recognized the voice. "What are you doing here?"

Sure enough, there was Sparron, prodding at the first fire the hearth had seen since March. He didn't turn around. "Lettie asked me to talk to you."

"She had to ask?"

"I didn't know how bad it was until she filled me in on the ride here." At the poker's whim one log slid from the back of the other. Searle took another drink and set the pitcher on the floor, a little shaky as he made for the foot of the bed, one tentative step at a time. "I don't really leave home much these days. I hadn't really heard.

"I didn't mean to hurt you, you know. Or I did, but not like this. I just wanted you to move on with your life."

"Why didn't you just say that instead?"

"Because you would have taken it the wrong way." A legion of sparks burst to life as two logs collided. Sparron sighed. "You would have found a way around it. I only did what I did because it had to be a clean break. I wanted you to be better off."

"But I'm not."

One last prod at the flames, then Sparron laid the poker to rest at the side of the fireplace and sat down on the couch. "Sit with me."

Hangover half-forgotten, Searle allowed himself one more sip of water before obeying. He slumped down on the empty cushion, legs resting over the arm and head in Sparron's lap, some unforgotten reflex of intimacy from years prior. His condition may have been to his advantage. Sparron had a habit of pushing him away for far less.

But, whether consideration for Searle's health or some precious moment of intimacy, Sparron didn't react, not even to recoil. He even propped up Searle's head with the side of his hand. Not sure if he'd ever get another chance, Searle reached up to run his fingers through the thick hair that haunted his memories, each snag and tangle a reassurance that he wasn't dreaming. "I don't understand."

"I don't expect you to."

"Because you think I'm stupid."

"No." He let his free hand rest on Searle's stomach. It was an indulgence, but Searle reached out and clung to it anyway. "Because we're very different people. We've never understood each other. That's not going to change."

"It could."

"No, it can't."

"But it has to." His grasp on Sparron's hand tightened. Against all knowledge of the finite things in life, he never wanted to let go. "You're the love of my life."

Sparron sniffed. "You haven't met every person on the planet, you know."

"I know, but I don't have to." Searle let his arm fall back to his side and took to studying Sparron's eyes. They were the same blue-gray he remembered, almost greenish when the light was right. They were pure ice, a cold and looming misery like a cloudy winter morning, but that was why he loved them. They made that hint of sunlight bursting through all the more precious. "We had fun together."

Sparron nodded. "I remember."

"Even if you were a paranoid ass." He didn't get a reply for that one, but that was fine. That wasn't his question. "Do you love me?"

Mindful of Searle's head, Sparron pried himself free and stepped back toward the hearth. Some scattered consciousness of his aching brain rushing back, Searle eased himself up, head spinning with the rush. "Sparron?"

"You need your rest." It hurt, but it wasn't surprising. He'd asked that question countless times, each one meriting yet another non-answer. "Go back to bed, get a good night's sleep, and apologize to Lettie and the children in the morning. And don't put them through this again."

For all Sparron refused to turn around, Searle nodded. He would stop with this. He owed it to Lettie, a thousand times over. And the kids deserved better. He could be that, he guessed. Or at least, he could try.

He returned the bed, colder and larger than he'd left it. As he sat on the edge, he reached for the pitcher and gulped down the remaining water, returning it to the table when he'd finished. He lied down and pulled up the covers, trying and failing to get comfortable. "Sparron?"


"Stay with me tonight?" At least that got him to turn around, even if the shock stung a little. "No sex, I promise. I just want you to hold me."

Sparron's statuesque stoicism hovered in Searle's mind around a dreaded and inevitable breaking point, most likely the act of his turning away and leaving with little more than a curt good night. He thought he might die of happiness when a warm body settled on the other side of the bed.


January 21, 2013

In Which Sparron Determines What Is Not a Cause

November 2, 1180

Sparron rarely received visitors. Certainly never unexpected ones. Or after dark, so late that Florian had gone home and he was informed instead by one of the guards. And, the lone exception of Jeda aside, almost never of the female persuasion.

But tonight, well after nightfall, just as the guard had said, here was Lettie. She'd called before, of course, but always in the day and usually with some notice. And while it was Sparron she typically asked for, he knew he wasn't the person she wanted to see. In this case, though...

"Prior's asleep." Surely she'd known that? Her other children would have been asleep by now too, even the older ones.

Lettie shrugged. "Good thing I came to see you, then. I need a favor."

"And you couldn't think of anyone else to bother?" He thought he saw her flinch. Perhaps that had been too harsh. If he were honest, he wasn't even sure if he'd been kidding or if he was genuinely annoyed, but Sparron was no stranger to mixed emotions. "Sorry. What do you need?"

She swayed back and forth for a couple seconds, the veils of her crispinette fluttering with the anguish of a butterfly caught in a spiral breeze. He wanted to hold her steady, but he feared he might crush her. "Lettie..."

"I need you to talk to Searle."

And there she was, lying in his weak-willed hand, as if helpless looks could stave off the looming fingers. "I can't."

"No, you're the only one who can." She didn't sound bitter or even jealous. Just resigned. "You took a piece of him when you left. He needs to know you didn't destroy it."

"I took nothing."

"Speaking practically, you and I both know that. Searle doesn't."

Searle had always been impractical. "He still doesn't realize what I did? I set him free."

Lettie sighed, blue-clad shoulders slipping as if guided by ice. "He doesn't want to be free of you."

"If he knew what was good for him, he would." And to that he would hold. Why a charming, beautiful idiot like Searle still wanted anything to do with a useless waste of space like him was something he couldn't understand. Especially after everything. Especially since he'd been so horrible he could hardly stomach himself, and that was when he managed to forget everything else. "Look... tell him I'm sorry, all right? Tell him I didn't mean what I said, and that I don't hate him. I know he thinks I do, but I don't. I just hate what he makes me."

"Do you really need Searle's help to hate yourself?"

Whatever trace of a heart he had seized. Defeated, Sparron shook his head. Searle was a catalyst. He wasn't a cause.

"Sparron, I'm not asking for you to... resume things, not if you don't want that. I just want you to talk to him. This is going to sound--" Her face scrunched, failing the search for some gentler word. "--stupid, but Searle's whole sense of self-worth is tied up in your opinion of him. If you don't talk some sense into him, he's just going to keep destroying himself, and I can't let that happen. My children need their father."

Her children, four of the five of them. One of the four being Sparron's own, for all it was wrong to think it. He did not want to see Searle again. Or he did, but he didn't want the disastrous round of drama that was bound to follow. so, really, he didn't. Searle was no good for him. More importantly, he was no good for Searle.

He thought of Prior, asleep in his little bed upstairs. What if he woke and wanted Papa? What if he called and called and called but Papa never came?

He thought of Alina and wondered who was there to answer her calls.


January 19, 2013

In Which Lettie Contemplates the Difference in Beliefs

November 2, 1180

If Lettie could rely on the testimonies of her in-laws, men in her husband's family rarely snored if they went to bed sober. Based on Searle himself, she could believe it. She'd never heard a thing in the earlier nights of their marriage, not even if the evening had been spent in celebratory revelry after a wedding or birthday party or holiday feast.

Since Alina's birth, however, she'd been forced to seek refuge in the room they'd been saving for Arkon if she wanted any wink of sleep. Now that Arkon was settled there, she'd claimed the largest guest chamber for her own and set up a makeshift nursery in the next room for the younger two. As fascinating a study of the effects of early sleep experiences she could have performed with the older two as a control, she didn't care to subject her own children to such dubiously ethical experiments. They already had enough stress in their young lives with the increasingly distant, increasingly inebriated father.

As for Lettie herself, that breaking point wasn't so far out of reach either. She hadn't gone into the marriage expecting love, but she had expected respect, and it wasn't unreasonable to demand that, not when she'd done nothing to deserve anything less. But to be fair, it wasn't as if anyone else was getting any more. "Thank you for helping me get him to bed."

Her brother-in-law nodded. "Figured it would be rude, bringing him all the way from the village and leaving you to deal with the aftermath."

"You still didn't have to." But a selfish corner of her heart was glad he had. At this point, she would have had no qualms about leaving Searle to pass out in the front room, but it was nice to have another adult in the house again, if only for a few minutes. Five-year-old Rennie was usually the most she could count on in that regard.

"I did, though. He's my baby brother." Odd that Searle got that term when Jadin had four other brothers, all younger than Searle, three of them still children even. Odd, but fitting. "Sorry that he's being stupid. He doesn't even like ale or wine or anything. He has to get drunk to appreciate drinking."

"But apparently the not feeling is worth it." If she got any satisfaction out of that, it was that making her miserable didn't make him happy.

"I don't know. The need for not feeling sounds like feeling to me." Jadin's hand hovered toward her, bridging the gap between them. She didn't reach back but didn't shy away when he took her hand. It had been far too long since another adult had paid her that gesture. "You deserve better than this. And he is better, really. He's just... lost a piece of himself."

Lost a piece of himself. God, that sounded corny. But it also sounded apt. "You can't substitute for that."

"And on his behalf, I apologize for his trying."

If only Searle would wake sober and apologize himself. He'd forgotten Rennie's birthday. He'd forgotten Alina's birthday, or at least as her birthday--he had remembered the day he'd lost Sparron for good, and he'd grieved by locking himself in the wine cellar. After Lettie had received news of her sister's death, it had been a week before he stopped needing reminders as to the reason behind her melancholy. He was better than that. She remembered him as better than that, and he wanted to be better than that--surely he must have?

Lettie was not a romantic. She did not believe that there was one perfect person for everybody. She did not believe that anyone needed to be 'completed' by some missing half. She barely believed in love beyond the natural functions and urges of the human body. She didn't believe any of it, but Searle did, and that was the problem. As far as Searle was concerned, he was broken.

And there was only one person who could fix him.

"You've already done enough, but do you think you could keep an eye on him for a while?" Jadin nodded, not even a blink to hint at questioning. Poor, stupid Searle had once been like that too. "I need to speak with someone."


January 16, 2013

In Which Anna's Composure Is Tried

October 24, 1180

"I can lend you the book of all her tales if you want, if Adrius doesn't already have it. You'd love them." Adinaye crossed her legs and reclined with a fond grin. Anna had to return it; the promise of a book that she had yet to read had once been a rare enough event that even now that it was commonplace, the thrill of the thought remained. "Honestly, there's no finer bard on the continent. She doesn't travel any more, sadly, but even the written copies are better than most other bards in person."

"I'll take your word for it." Though in truth, Anna had always preferred reading anyway. Being told a story was fine... but some bards sped through their songs, and others could spend an hour on a poem she might have read in ten minutes. The human touch was nice, but the experience hinged solely on the performer; the written word, with its accommodation of different paces and its allowance for filling in the blanks, was a much more intimate, personal medium.

But most did seem to love the live performances, and she supposed they had their merits too, so it made the most sense to just keep respecting that opinion while harboring her own and indulging in it shamelessly. Besides, it wasn't as if Adinaye hated reading--far from it! That shared interest was in part how they had become such good friends, or at least as good of friends as two people could be when one of them couldn't risk revealing her real name.

"But who knows? Maybe she can be coaxed out of semi-retirement for the new prince or princess?"

Anna flushed. Her dress had been specifically designed to minimize the bulge, which did cut out the stares, but the kingdom already knew and she'd told Adinaye even before that. Not that she wasn't happy about the baby, or that she even minded talking about it, but... well, pregnant or not, was it too much to ask to be thought of as a person before being thought of as a womb?

Of course, that wasn't Adinaye's intent, and they'd been chatting for a good hour already and this was the first time the baby had come up, so Anna supposed she'd allow it. "Well... I don't know how well a newborn would be able to appreciate a performance? It would have to wait until the baby's old enough to sit through it without falling asleep or crying."

"Well, she'd be performing for an audience of adults as well, but I see your point." She tucked a lock of hair behind her ear and beamed down at her little daughter, playing on the floor with some of Adrius's boyhood toys. "I doubt Emmie could sit through a performance just yet. Isn't that right, honey?"

A figure clenched between her feet, Emmie turned around and stared at her mother, prompted at the sound of her name not unlike a puppy. A few seconds of silence later and she lost interest, returning instead to her private games. "Nearly a year now and she still hasn't said a word. Arthur and I are starting to worry."

"I don't think that's too unusual," Anna tried to reassure her. She wouldn't officially be a mother for a few months yet, but Mona had little siblings and she'd sometimes had to watch them. They hadn't all been verbose at Emmie's age, and if anything the king and queen had been pleased with that. "Maybe the longer she waits to speak, the more she'll have to say."

Adinaye laughed. "I should hope so! Sometimes tell-tale movements aren't quite enough."

"And sometimes, they're still the preferred method of communication once they're past twenty." Anna's spine snapped upright while Adinaye took to sweeping wrinkles out of her skirt. How had she not seen her mother-in-law come in? She was facing the door. "Though to his credit, Adrius can be coherent enough as long as his words are in writing."

"Your highness," Anna muttered in greeting. Her mother-in-law had given her permission to call her by her first name, but somehow it didn't sit quite right on the tongue. "I thought you were in conference with Adrius and Arthur?"

"I was, but a messenger arrived and I had to see what he wanted." She sounded almost... amused? That couldn't have been right. Devidra loved conferences and hated messengers. "And the meeting had been winding down anyway, so I figured I'd see what my favorite daughter-in-law and her good friend the countess were up to."

Anna grimaced, opting not to note that she was Devidra's only daughter-in-law. "That's very kind of you."

"Of course it is. Now, how are you feeling today?"

It was difficult not to shoot a helpless look Adinaye's way. But didn't she outrank Devidra as the official Queen of Carvallon? Much as she may have wanted to, there was no sense in shying away from simple questions, even if their intent was... dubious. "Well enough, thank you."

"Good. Mind if I introduce myself to my little grandchild? Unless it makes you uncomfortable, of course," Devidra added as an afterthought, likely well enough aware that Anna was uncomfortable already. Was the former queen making a point to try the new one's composure?

"No, of course not." Anna stood, torso bared despite the dress's deceptive line. Devidra took a few steps forward, studying the bulge with all the mixed feelings of a woman convinced she was far too young to be a grandmother. But she did ultimately bend her knees and venture a wave at stomach height.

"Er... hello, Ramona's baby." How she would never get used to being called Ramona! "Seems to be growing well. Clever choice of dress, though."

"Thank you." Anna tried to keep her deep breath low as her mother-in-law pulled herself out of her crouch.

"I'm not in the business of lies, dear." Devidra sniffed. "On that note, you might be interested that the messenger I had to endure was your brother's."

Mona's brother. She'd have to let Mona know when she returned, for all none of them were likely to have much to say that would interest her. But, uh... "Which brother?"

"One of your half-brothers in Dovia. The Earl of Bandera." Searle. Anna frowned. Hadn't he and Mona only met a handful of times? Now seemed an odd point at which to start acting fraternal. "He sends his congratulations in regards to the baby."

Odd. Most of Mona's other grown siblings hadn't bothered, instead tacking their names onto her father's letter. Then again, Searle did live in a whole other kingdom. "Well, I shall write to him and thank him for the gesture. And he has a new baby of his own that I ought to congratulate him and his wife for, doesn't he?"

"Yes, your little nephew Oswald. But the that there will be need." Almost smirking, Devidra raised a hand to her hair and twirled one of her diadem's hanging chains about her finger. "It seems the earl himself is planning on visiting some time after the baby is born."