February 27, 2013

In Which Jadin Knows His Brother

April 2, 1181

"That was Lonriad's steward." Searle returned to the couch, understandably annoyed if Jadin could guess at the message but no doubt overreacting. He had to give his brother credit for how well he'd managed to bounce back from his post-Sparron vice binge--at least, once Sparron himself had put his foot down--but such a quick reversion to responsible citizen came with an unfortunate newfound irritability. "His kids are sick, so he can't go hunting with us. Asshole."

Jadin sighed and reminded himself once again--one step at a time. That said, he wanted Searle to make the next step. He was tired of having to be the rational one. "Searle, you know you'd do the same if it were your kids. Besides, we can go some other time."

"Yes, but we were all looking forward to today, weren't we?" Pouting, Searle slumped over. He was probably itching to suggest going to the tavern. He got points for not voicing it, Jadin supposed. "It feels like we never do anything any more."

"Well, the two of us can still go."

Searle glowered. "Jadin, what's the one thing Father always told us about going hunting?"

Of course he'd bring that up. Searle had always been the good one, of the boys at least. Jadin was tempted to remind him that they were grown men, but at least Searle didn't live with their father any more; if Searle disregarded any past advice, he wouldn't have to hear about it later. "'Never go hunting unless there are at least three of you. That way, if one of you gets hurt, another can run for help while the third stays to keep an eye on things.' Yes, I remember."

But maybe he could still work with it? They did have friends, after all.

"Say, is Casimiro back from that wedding yet?"

"Not that I've heard." Damn. That ruled out Bernardo too. "What about Izzy?"

"No. I invited him already, but the girls want to go to that new market and Riona doesn't, so guess who's stuck taking them?" Lucky for Jadin that Xeta was willing to go with Lyssa! "What about Abrich or Garrett?"

"Abrich's collecting rents today. I think Garrett's supposed to visit his sister this afternoon, so that rules out Searle too." Not that their cousin of that same name even liked hunting. Still. "Ashe? Lorn? Falidor?"

"Doesn't like going into the forest if he can help it, is a duke with better things to do, and Raia's a better shot." He struggled with a mental inventory of everyone else he knew. Sure enough--nothing. "And I think Raia's busy too."

"Damn." Searle drooped forward, somewhat annoyed but mostly disappointed. So much for hoping to cheer the kid up, give him a much-needed outing. So much for taking him off Lettie's hands for the day, since she already had four wild children to look after. So much for--

"Oh!" Searle snapped back up, tugged by some invisible string of inspiration. Jadin wasn't quite sure he liked that look in his eye. "What about Sparron?"

And that was why. Shit.

"Uh... what about him?"

"Well, he said he wants to be friends and he doesn't get out much. It would be good for him, right?" And ninety-nine times out of a hundred, Jadin would have agreed. But given the events of a few days prior... well, this wasn't one of those ninety-nine times. "We can at least ask him, right?"

"Uh, well..."

"Jadin?" Searle edged a little nearer--sort of hurt, sort of confused, if Jadin knew his brother at all. As if he was ever much else where Sparron was concerned. "Is everything all right? You and Sparron didn't have a fight or anything, did you?"


"Then what's wrong with asking him?"

He did know Searle. And, sadly, he knew Searle was not about to be satisfied with the hand-waving of all things Sparron.

"All right, you can't tell Sparron I told you this, but..."


February 25, 2013

In Which Mona Keeps Her Dignity

March 25, 1181

"Well, it was very nice meeting you, but I'm afraid I have to head back home now." Searle waved, prompting what Mona guessed was an attempted giggle on Telvar's part. Her brother was about the last person she ever would have expected to be good with small children, but Anna's baby, at least, seemed to like him. "I have a little baby boy of my own, you see--just a few months older than you. And there's his big brother, and his big sister... and your Auntie Ren says there'll be another one in the summer! Fancy that: someone smaller than you."

Telvar cooed, his parents trading smiles as he said his voiceless goodbyes to his new uncle. So-called uncle, at any rate. It was perhaps the first pang of regret Mona had felt over the switch. Any babies she had would never have an uncle, at least not on her side. No aunts or grandparents or little cousins either. She prayed a quick apology on the off-chance the not-yet-dreamed-of could hear.

"It was good seeing you again. Brother," Anna added hastily, no doubt over-conscious of Devidra's presence. "I hope it won't be too long before your next visit."

"Oh, my next visits are typically sooner than anyone wishes them." He let out a self-deprecating chuckle Mona doubted he could have managed if not for the baby. "I don't want this little one to forget me now, do I?"

"He won't."

"I'll hold him to it." He flashed Telvar a mock-stern look. "But I suppose I'll see first if my own boy managed to keep that same promise. Lovely seeing you again, sister--and good meeting you, nephew." He nodded toward Adrius and Devidra in turn; Mona supposed that was the closest he ever got to a bow. "Your majesties. It's been a pleasure."

The royals bid him farewell and he left without so much of a sidelong glance Mona's way, and it stung. They'd said their own private goodbyes, of course, with Zareth stationed outside the door, and while it was better than nothing it was hardly preferable. If only Adrius and Anna could have happened openly; surely no one would have faulted her for that? And surely she wouldn't have to hide, even from her own family?

And surely--

"Are you all right?"

Mona blinked. The royals had vacated the throne room in the time of her momentary slip from reality, leaving only Zareth for company. She would not grant him the satisfaction of her vulnerability. "I'm fine."

"You don't seem fine." He did seem concerned, if his eyes didn't lie. She wasn't sure what to make of that. He'd scarcely been around lately, and always coming up with some excuse to leave when he was, and never bothering to apologize. His flashes of gentleness had always been few and far between and she didn't know whether she could trust them.

Mona forced herself to remember the night on the ship. She would not confide in him, but if she kept in mind that shining moment, she could rebuff him as a friend. If they were friends. "I am."


"I insist!" Zareth frowned. Had that been a little too eager? Face warm, Mona shrunk back. "I mean... really. I'm all right. But thank you for your concern. Sir."

He winced. Some vindictive part of her welled with fleeting, hollow pleasure. She'd never called him 'sir' before. She'd never intended to. He must have never intended it either.

"You're not as good a liar as you think you are."

"Who says I think I'm a good liar? Or a liar at all, even, in this particular instance?" Zareth said nothing. Mona would count that silence as a victory. "Now, if you'll excuse me, I have plans with my sweetheart."

He sniffed. "And I with mine, come to think of it. I should be going."

"That you should." She jabbed a finger toward the door and waited for him to move, but he didn't. She hated him for it. Of course he would pick now to stay. "Well? Go on."


He took a step forward and reached around her, a slow yet unexpected hug. It was a comfort she hadn't anticipated, an indulgence that could hurt her cause, but she resolved to keep her dignity. She would cry a quick tear and let it fall to his shoulder, so lightly he'd never even know. A single tear. Just the one.

Nothing more.


February 22, 2013

In Which Renata Recalls a Similar Precedent

March 19, 1181

"So." The last of her grandchildren finally tucked in for the night--their poor mother down with a nasty cold--Renata was not about to waste any more time in regards to that letter. Her son's letter, that was, for all it was an even more pressing concern to her. But God forbid that awful Lord Frandred correspond directly with a mere woman. "I take it he received our revised offer?"

Abrich nodded. "He did."


Her son sighed and Renata fought back a tirade of curses. In truth, she hadn't expected much. As far as a man like Lord Frandred could see it, the new offer was one of instant and short-lived gratification. He could get much more out of the original bargain, never mind the fact that he already had that which he sought to gain. "I'm sorry, Mother."

"Don't apologize. You've done nothing wrong." And if he had, then she was equally guilty. But if Arkon hadn't told her, he wouldn't have told Abrich in any less necessary fashion than his will. "How dare that son of a bitch Frandred take advantage of your father like that."

"I don't want to fault Father either, but we both know he must have been drunk out of his mind."

And she should hope so. The greatest fool in the world wouldn't have agreed to that sober. "That doesn't excuse Frandred's conduct. If you know that no sober man will agree, then you know it's not a deal you ought to be making."

"Frandred doesn't see it that way. As far as he's concerned, it was a perfectly reasonable bargain that any one of his peers might have made. Father's state just made the negotiations a hell of a lot easier."

"Then that's diplomatic cowardice." Hands balled into fists, Renata turned to face the door. It was unlikely at this hour, but she wished someone would intrude--anyone, really. The steward. A servant. The ghost of her late husband, that horrid Lord Frandred himself. She didn't know how long she could hold back all that rage, and Abrich was hardly an appropriate target. "Write him back at your earliest convenience. Tell him I'm willing to take this to Oswald if I must. The Lord God Himself, even."

"Oswald has no jurisdiction over Frandred." Abrich's chair scraped the floor as he stood and pushed it back. The sound might have been a scratch on a slate. "Nor does Adrius. Frandred is a lord without a king. He works within the model of Carvalli law, and from what I've seen, he's within the bounds of that. No authority has the power to make him compromise."

"I see." Carvalli law. Renata's father was a count and a justiciar. His libraries were packed with legal texts and as a girl she'd perused many. That had been years ago now, but she thought she recalled some similar precedent. She would ride to Valcria first thing in the morning to confirm. "Perhaps we can work with that."

"How?" Resigned, Abrich stepped around the table. Poor boy never did have a lot of fight in him, just like Renata's dearly departed. At least he didn't compensate with drunken bravado like his father had. "I'm a lesser lord than Frandred. Even if I could afford to pay him off, he has no obligation to accept my offer."

"Then it's obvious what we must do."

"Mmm?" Her son frowned, eyebrows crunching as if caught in a press. "What are you suggesting?"

"I think you're cleverer than that, dear. If Frandred has no obligation to you, all we have to do is find someone else to take your place in the arrangement--someone of a higher rank."

"Do we know anyone eligible?"

"Would I have suggested it if we didn't?"

Abrich sighed. No doubt he didn't want to involve anyone else, for all there really wasn't much choice. She hoped he would see beyond that soon. It was his sister at stake. "Mother, you don't have to--"

"Don't be ridiculous. I was fully prepared to do much worse, was I not?" She had him there. Even if she hadn't, she hardly had much choice in that matter. Yes... tomorrow, she made for Valcria. Some time after that, before it was too late, Naroni. "You have daughters of your own, Abrich. Try telling me you wouldn't go to any extremes to save any one of them."


February 20, 2013

In Which Mona Is the Favorite

March 16, 1181

Mona's half-brother had a cold gaze that, if he willed it, could set any heart convulsing as it spiraled downward to the pelvis. He'd never turned it on her, but she'd seen it used before and the results had not been pretty. She turned her head somewhat as she stepped toward him, eyes nearly closed. Perhaps she was safe if she could not see it.

Searle sniffed. "I can't say you look particularly queenly."

"And you're not exactly regal yourself." Even through the blur of her lashes, his split ends obvious. So much for hoping she wasn't that much her parents' daughter after all. "But now that you're here, there's no sensible way to keep you from finding out: I'm not the queen."

"Really, now?" She had to pry open one eye. He wasn't giving her the death glare, or any glare at all, really--more like a shaded, cross-armed stare of mingled contemplation and amusement. "Odd. Since I crossed the border, it seems no one has much interest in anything besides the new little crown prince. Correct me if I'm wrong, but is a queen not required in the creation of a prince? Surely Devidra and her son aren't that close."

Mona tried not to linger on that thought, though she supposed such dark jokes weren't the worst of signs. Ietrin never would have mused such a thing aloud in her presence because he thought her a child. If Searle could, then he respected her as an adult, and therefore was more likely to hear her out. "Oh, of course not. Adrius's queen is my friend Anna--and for the record, that's what you have to call me in front of other people, everyone except Anna and Adrius and Sir Zareth."



"I see. You and your maid switched places en route."

It was good to know she didn't have to explain that part. "Yes. It was my idea. I didn't even ask her before I did it; she only went along with it because I made it difficult for her not to. Please don't get her in trouble. None of this is her fault, and she and Adrius are so in love--much more in love than he and I could have ever been."

Her brother snorted. "From what I know of him and what I know of you, I don't doubt it. But you don't have to worry; I can't see how I could benefit from blowing your cover, so you can consider your secret safe--except perhaps from Ren, but she won't go telling anyone either. Besides, everyone in this blasted country is so excited over this new little not-nephew of mine. Might as well let them have this.

"Besides, even if you should hope they never find out about it, it's perfect revenge against your parents. To think, their little princess is interchangeable with a servant!" Was she supposed to take offense to that? Coming from him, it didn't sound any more insulting than the average musing. "You know, I always did wonder why exactly you were my favorite half-sibling."

Eh? "I'm your favorite half-sibling?"

"Yes, but to be fair, your competition isn't exactly in good form. Unless perhaps my father has some spectacular bastards of which I am unaware." He winked--something she never would have guessed him capable of. Leara was still her favorite half-sibling, at least after poor Elhina's death, but maybe she and Camaline had some competition after all. "Just be sure to invite me whenever you actually do get married."

That seemed fair. "Of course."

And with that--someone knocked.

"I'll handle this. I'm sure I was enough for one day." Grateful, Mona took a seat while Searle faced the door with his head held high. "Yes?"

"My lord," Devidra greeted him with a stiff nod, forest eyes glinting as Mona caught their attention. "I see you've met Anna."

"Yes, my sister sent her down when Sir Zareth went to get her. Ramona wasn't comfortable telling Zareth, but Anna informs me that Prince Telvar's midday meal couldn't wait, and that Ramona will see me once that's over and done with." Believable, yet unlikely to spark any further questions. Not the worst lie he could have picked.

"I see."

Devidra looked Mona over again, as scrutinizing as she'd expected of Searle. She forced back that discomfort with a smile for her brother. "Perhaps I ought to leave, my lord. Her majesty may want a word with you."

"No, that won't be necessary," Devidra dismissed. Odd. Would she have come if she hadn't. "I merely wish to welcome our guest--a task I can complete just as well in the presence of another than out of it. With that, welcome to Carvallon, my lord; I trust your journey was not unpleasant?"

"Not in the slightest. The joy over the little prince's birth has made for a most hospitable populace." He swept her over with the quick glance, smiling all the while. "Though if you don't mind my saying, you don't look nearly old enough to be anyone's grandmother."

"I know, but that is neither here nor there." Devidra took one of the chains of her diadem in hand and twirled it about her finger. "I'm sure you're much more interested in meeting the little one than you are in flattering me."

"I wouldn't say 'much', but I am curious about the little fellow. Given Ramona's description and my own sweep of the family records, he seems to take after our grandfather's two grandmothers--sisters, the two of them, daughters of House Kemorin."

House Kemorin! Of course Searle would think to name one of the few traditionally dark-haired Dovian houses. And here she was, thinking he wouldn't even remember what Anna looked like!

"It's possible. But I can see his father in him, and his mother--and perhaps a bit of me, if it isn't just my vanity speaking." And yet, oddly enough, Mona had never seen Devidra looking quite so humble. If anyone could soften her, it seemed it was Telvar. "Anyway, come along; the boy's a quick eater, and I'm sure he's eager to meet his uncle."


February 18, 2013

In Which Anna Is Left to Soothe

March 16, 1181

"Yes, yes," Mona cooed as little Telvar attempted a rudimentary kiss to her nose. "Auntie's nose is much bigger than your cute little one. Auntie's nose is as big as your face!"

From her seat on the couch, Anna offered a strained grimace. Mona's nose wasn't anything to be ashamed of, though certainly it was much larger than Telvar's--but that wasn't the problem. Mona, so far as Anna knew, had no insecurities about her nose or any other part of her body. Anna's discomfort came instead from 'Auntie'. Not that she had any problem with Mona taking the title at this point in their friendship, but she had noticed that Mona was careful not to attach a first name, and she understood why. Regardless of whether Telvar could understand, it couldn't have been in good taste to lie to an infant, but he couldn't know the truth, not when he'd soon be a risk for letting it slip. 'Auntie' could not be 'Auntie Mona'.

It would be many years before Anna's son would know his mother's name.

"I think he knows your nose isn't that big..."

"Does he have a concept of 'big' yet? As far as he knows, I'm just moving my mouth and making funny sounds." Mona lowered Telvar to her elbow and rocked back and forth with a bounce. "Do you like the funny sounds? Yes, you do. Yes, you do!"

Anna sighed. Perhaps she was looking too far forward. For now, she'd try to focus on her relief over Mona being apparently much more of a baby person than she ever would have guessed. "He does seem quite smitten with you."

"Pity he's not a couple decades older, then." Mona kissed the baby's brow, then held him out toward Anna; she rose to her feet and stepped forth to reclaim him. "Sorry, Telvar, but I've already got a fake suitor."

"Oh, don't tell me you're still playing stupid mind games with Zareth."

"I'll stop if he does." Now that was something she could still expect of Mona--that eagerness to present reminders that no, she wasn't so mature after all. "Besides, it's his fault. Just because he has his own place now doesn't mean he can just stop visiting."

"Um... yes it does?"

"Regardless, it's still rude. And selfish! And what problem does he have with me anyway?" Telvar whimpered. Anna could relate. For all Mona knew, Zareth could have had a problem with any one of them. Or none of them! He was of an age where being his own man was a priority, after all. "Did I do something to offend him at some point?"

No, but I suppose it's possible you did something to annoy him. But she didn't say it. Mona was still a princess, after all. Besides, someone had knocked on the door; Anna didn't recognize the hand, but apparently Mona did. "Speak of the devil. It's about time you came back!"

"And I'm not here to linger," he muttered gruffly as he slipped inside, shutting the door behind him. Anna's eyes narrowed. If he wasn't here to linger, then why on earth had he come all the way up to the nursery? So much for hoping he was above Mona's half-imagined contests. "You're lucky I chose today to check up on my sister, or else no one could have warned you while Adrius is stalling."

"Stalling what?"

"Your brother."

Telvar whined again, fidgeting beneath his blanket. Anna muttered a few soft nothings into his ear, trying to calm herself as well as him. Mona, pointless non-revenge forgotten, took to studying her hands. "Well. Shit."

"Indeed." In some stoic desperation to look at anyone else, Zareth peered past Mona to Anna and her baby. He seemed calmer than she suspected he actually was, and he was probably thinking the same of her. "Adrius has him in the study. When I return, I'll give Adrius an excuse to leave; that will be your opportunity to explain yourself, and you'd better take it, because it won't be long before my sister hears of his presence and wants to introduce herself, though I'll try to hold her off as long as I can. Got it?"

Mona nodded. Zareth paid Anna a parting glance, strong but not without worry, then slipped an arm around Mona's waist and whisked her out of the room.

That was when Telvar started to cry.

"It's all right, love," Anna soothed, landing a series of kisses to his head between words. "We'll be all right. Auntie will take care of it."

He wailed. She wasn't sure if she believed herself any more strongly.


February 15, 2013

In Which Rona Is Promised Within the Year

March 11, 1181

"Oh, no. If you wanted more time to absorb the waking world, you shouldn't have taken so long coming out." Darry squirmed in firm refusal, even after Rona had laid him in his crib. "You're clean and fed and you already met your papa and your grandma and all the nice ladies who helped you out. There's no point in you being awake if I'm not going to be, so go to sleep." Not that there was much point in reasoning with an infant, but Rona hadn't slept in over a day and half and she didn't intend to keep up that streak for much longer. "Sleep."

"Is he protesting nap-time already?" Ashe had returned, apparently; sure enough, just one glance back and there he was, Yvanette in his arms. Rona shot them the most energetic smile she could muster, though it likely wasn't much. "It's all right. I'll stay with him while you get some sleep."

"You'd better--he's half your fault, you know." She leaned in to give her new little son a quick kiss before stepping from the crib as Ashe brought Yvanette forward. The little girl stared into the crib with a wide-eyed fascination. "That's your little brother, sweetie."

Yvanette stretched out one little arm and waved down at him. "Hi!"

"He's very happy to meet you, but you'll have to be quiet; he's supposed to be asleep." Ashe winked the way of the crib as if stressing a hint. "You can play with him soon, but why don't you just play with your toys for now? Quietly, of course."

He placed Yvanette on the rug by her castle and handed her one of the dolls, patting her on the head as he returned to a stand. Rona took the chance to rest somewhat as he embraced her, leaning, almost lying on him like some vertical mattress. With any luck he'd carry her back to bed. It had been great to stretch her legs for a while--such a long, stationary labor would inspire that restlessness--but whatever rush of energy that sweet liberation had granted had all but vanished, and her exhaustion was catching up with her. "All that and he didn't even get your eyes."

"Yours are nicer anyway." Was he up to that again? She was too tired for this argument! "I'm glad you're all right. I was starting to worry there."

"I worried you would." Her forward scratched against the chain of his key. She hadn't quite expected that whole 'never taking it off' resolution to last over three years. "You're so sweet. I'm sorry I've been distant lately."

He shook his head. "No, I deserved it. Look, about that thing I haven't told you--"

Now? She pried herself off of him and dismissed it with a tired smile. Of all the times he could tell her, why now, when she could scarcely keep her eyes open? "Aww, honey, we don't need to talk about that..."

"Oh, no, not now. It would keep you up." Oh. Then yes--definitely not now. "I just meant... I'm sorry for keeping it from you. It's selfish of me, and cowardly. And I should have told you when you found me in the stables before the tournament. It should have been the first thing I said to you."

"So you'll tell me when I wake?"


Eh? "Ashe..."

"It's just... honestly, I don't know if I'll ever be ready to talk about it. But you have to know, and I know that, and I need to figure out exactly how to say it and how to make it easier for you to hear." He took her hand and squeezed it. His grasp had always been so comfortingly warm. "So I won't tell you today, or tomorrow, and probably not the day after that either. But I promise that the before the year is up, I'll tell you absolutely everything and however you react, I'll understand."


"No, I mean it this time. If it gets to be New Year's Eve and I still haven't told you, pester me until I relent. Really, you can even beat it out of me if you need to; I won't fight back."

"I'm not going to beat you." Silly boy. She laid her hands on either side of his face and pushed his hair out of his face, for all it just fell back as she finished. "And some time this year is fine with me. I promise I won't pester you until I have to. Can I sleep now?"

"Of course." He kissed her quickly, then looped one arm beneath her knees and lifted her. She was happy to live with that in place of his deep dark secrets for now. "Sleep all you want. I won't wake you unless Darry needs feeding--promise."