March 28, 2013

In Which Rona's Day Is Ruined

August 3, 1181

"Mama?" Yvanette's sing-song voice was the perfect vocal for the orchestra of nature sounds Rona had spent the last few minutes enjoying. "Are there more cakes?"

Ashe laughed quietly, though Rona could feel it clearly as ever from his chest. Yvanette did have a point, though. The whole family was alive and well and happy, and the skies had been clear and the winds only light and warm for Darry's first picnic. Perhaps they ought to have brought more cakes. Why not make a fantastic day even better?

"Sorry, sweetie. We just brought one for you and one for me and one for Papa."

"And you ate half of mine," Ashe added with a wink their daughter's way. Clearly not sorry, Yvanette giggled.

And she didn't need to be sorry. When she'd gone down for the picnic basket, Rona had noticed another batch of baked treats, all whipped up and ready for the oven. Ashe must have requested them; she certainly didn't remember doing so herself.

"So." His arm tightened around her shoulders, hand running up and down the curve. "Any thoughts as to what you want for your birthday?"

He would bring that up. Rona jabbed one finger lightly into his chest. "Don't remind me."

"I have to. I'm running out of time, and I know you like everything a specific way." Rona sniffed. He made her sound so particular. And somehow he said it with a smile. "Really, what would you like?"

"I'd like to not be twenty."

Ashe laughed again, more audibly this time. Rona didn't see what was so funny. "It's not that bad. Twenty doesn't really feel any different from nineteen. Hell, twenty-one isn't even that much of a stretch."

"Who are you and what have you done with that silly boy who said sixteen and seventeen were a lifetime apart?"

"That was... different." And of course he wouldn't explain how. Instead, he kissed her hair and stared up at the sky above.

She decided not to make anything of it. There was no sense in ruining the day. "That cloud kind of looks like Jadin."

"That one there?" He pointed and she confirmed with a nod. "That's uncanny. Yvanette, look! It's Uncle Jadin."

Rona peered over at her daughter just in time to see her blond curls shaking about. "Nuh-uh. That's a horse."

"Same thing, really." He shrugged, the motion making it difficult for Rona to hold back her chuckle. He gave her a couple seconds to catch her breath before grazing her hand with his thumb. "We'll have to eat light at supper. I've got something planned for after the kids are in bed."

"Won't we need to keep up our strength for that?"

He sighed, his muscles sinking, dragging her hand along. "Candlelight midnight feast. You're not going to want to do the other thing after that."

"Why not?" Was he still feeling self-conscious about that? They'd both gotten so much better! "It sounds like a romantic night. How else could it end?"

"I'm trying not to think about that." He pulled her a little nearer, until her chin rubbed against the chain around his neck. She seemed to recall the metal as colder before he'd taken to wearing it. "Honestly, the main goal is to make you more comfortable." A silent gulp forced itself down his throat; she could see it through the skin of his neck. "I'm telling you my secret tonight."

Rona pulled back and tried to focus on the key again. Not that she didn't want to know, of course, but ever since Darry was born, things had been so... good. Almost perfect, even. Not too exciting, but a string of peaceful days and weeks and months she hadn't dared imagine for herself since girlhood. What if the secret really was as horrible as he made it out to be? What if it ruined everything?

"Uh... are you sure you're ready?"

"No, but I'm never going to be, so I might as well just get it over with." Why couldn't he talk about this without that dreadful fear in his voice? Was it even worth it? She didn't want to make him feel like that.

But she had to know, didn't she? "Ashe..."

The blanket rustled against the grass beneath it. Rona pried herself up a couple inches, just enough to see Yvanette start to toddle toward the trees. "Where are you off to, bunny?"

"I saw something!"

And of course Rona had the one two-and-a-half-year-old who took that as a reason to put more distance between herself and her parents. She trade a quick glance with Ashe, then freed herself of is arm and stood. "Watch Darry for a minute?"

Ashe obliged and took the baby in his arms while Rona hurried off after Yvanette. It was a fairly safe part of the woods, so she didn't see much harm in keeping herself aways back, just as long as she could see the little girl. Oh, that had been so much easier back in the days when she was only crawling! "Slow down a little. Mama can't keep up."

Little help that did.


"It was a cat."

"You see plenty of cats." Too many cats! She must have gotten it from Ashe's side. Rona had always been more of a dog person.

"A purple cat!"

Rona rolled her eyes--was it really rude, since Yvanette couldn't see without turning her head? "Oh, well, you haven't seen any of those."

"Nope!" And so she toddled on, in pursuit of what Rona had no doubt was a run-of-the-mill black cat. So much for thinking Yvanette knew her colors by now.

"Oooh! Mama, look!" Yvanette flashed back a smile before running off after whatever she'd seen this time. "Pretty!"

Rona did look. And it was a damn good thing she did.

And it was a damn good thing that she, for one, knew her colors. "Yvanette! Get away from those!"

Not quite white, not quite beige, not quite peach, not quite anything. She couldn't name it but she knew it anywhere. Years ago now, everyone in the kingdom had been made to. "Yvanette!"

Her daughter stopped just short of the rosebush and looked back at her again--with a frown this time, confused. "Yvanette, don't touch those!"

"But they're pretty!"

She started to reach. Rona couldn't take it any more. "DON'T!"

A couple birds took off from their perches in the trees. Yvanette was startled just long enough for Rona to dash over and get a hand between the girl and the plant, to pull her back to safety.

"You didn't touch them, did you?" Rona panted, scanning her baby girl's hands for cuts and scratches.


"They didn't hurt you?"


She found no trace of anything. She sighed in relief and scooped her daughter off the ground, kissing her face again and again as she raised her to her shoulder. She didn't notice the chirp of a nearby bird, or the rustle of a squirrel in the branches. She didn't notice Ashe calling her name, alerted by the scream. She didn't even notice the thorn wedged between two central knuckles of her own right hand.


March 27, 2013

In Which Riona Finds the Mutual Feeling

July 28, 1181

" since he came all the way out here, I invited him for supper."

And that was it. Hardly a climactic end note for a story about a long-lost relative. Riona waited for Isidro to add something more conclusive, but it never came. "So... he doesn't even need a place to spend the night?"

Isidro shook his head. "No, he already paid for a room at Seoth's, and he wants to head back tomorrow morning."

"But he just got here."

"He said he'd accomplished everything he set out to do."

So the man had crossed the Iberian Peninsula for the sole purpose of talking to his estranged nephew. Not that Naroni had much in terms of sight-seeing, but surely a trip that long merited more than a single night's stay?

"Must have been one hell of an important conversation."

Isidro said nothing.

"Really?" Riona kicked off the heel of one slipper and let it dangle from her toes. Her husband usually didn't do the same to her and she hoped the shoe felt no less annoyed. "You're not even going to tell me what he came all this way to say to you?"

"Sorry, I just..." He sighed. He always looked younger when he sighed, which had always struck her as odd, but it wasn't any secret he'd been a miserable, lonely child. "He gave me a map, in case I wanted to follow later. The doctors don't think my grandfather will make it to autumn, and apparently he wants to meet me before he dies."

"Your grandfather is still alive?" A disappointment tugged at Riona's heart as her husband shrugged. "You should go see him."

"Should I?"

Riona flinched. Isidro only ever hissed with such venom when his father came up. "Izzy..."

"You don't get it. Sure, one of your grandfathers is a curmudgeon who hates your father and the other is the most notorious womanizer on the continent, but neither of them shipped your traumatized mother off to marry her rapist, did they? And even if they had, they wouldn't have just forgotten about her, would they?"

His grip on his own arm tightened and he folded into himself. Riona swallowed. Isidro wasn't a large man, but he'd never looked so small to her. "Maybe he regrets it? A lot of old people want to right past wrongs before they go."

"Maybe." But she doubted he believed her. "Or maybe he wants to put a face to his daughter's suffering. Or maybe he's spent my whole life waiting to spit in my face. I don't know."


"I'm serious, Riona. I don't think I can trust him."

She closed her mouth, whatever she'd been about to say a lost stray thought. I don't think I can trust him. Isidro mistrusted people by instinct. He didn't give an inch until they'd proven worthy of a mile and she doubted he even knew that. If he had any workings of a conscious decision not to trust someone, they had to have been merited. "Izzy..."

"My mother wrote to him every week. Him, and her brothers, and her sister. Those letters were the only thing she had that my father hadn't ruined." He turned away. Riona's fingers twitched. She wanted to wrap them around his hand and pull herself nearer, wanted to tell him that wasn't true because his father hadn't ruined him, but he would never believe her and maybe he was right. She loved him as he was, but maybe he'd once been meant to be someone else, maybe someone he thought superior. "They ruined them, though. They never wrote back, not even after my siblings died. And she still kept writing.

"I found a half-finished letter in her drawer on my ninth birthday, a few days after she died. I knew it wasn't mine to read, but I read it anyway. I read it again, and again. I still remember every word. It was just an ordinary letter, about the weather and dinner with Aunt Eliana and some new dress pattern she thought her mother would have liked. She never mentioned how miserable she was. She never even told them off for not writing her back.

"I told them off for her. I was stupid and angry and I hated everybody, and I knew I shouldn't have done it but I did. I finished that letter. I told them about the screams that kept me up at night, and how her face was always bruised. I told them how she looked when I found her dangling from the ceiling. And I told them they'd never deserved her letters, not after what they did to her and not after they never replied. I told them how much I hated them, and how I wasn't a real Christian or a real Muslim but I still wished they'd burn in the hell I didn't believe in.

"I sent the letter with the fastest courier I could afford. My father didn't notice I'd left the manor and all the doors were locked, so I spent the night on my mother's fresh grave. When I pictured her in her coffin, she turned her head to avoid looking up at me, because she never liked to look at me, and I spent hours wondering why she loved her family so much when they hated her, and why I loved her so much when she hated me. By the time my father's boot woke me, I hated myself too."

He slumped, his body almost melting into the bed, the deadened effigy of a man haunted by his own ghost. "That was the only contact I ever had with any of them. I never heard back from them either. For all I know, they never read a word I wrote."

"Then go and say it to their faces." One brow folded, a troubled eye squinting up at her. She could not fathom it. She could not fathom any of it. Isidro hadn't understood how anyone could not love his mother. Riona felt the same way about him. "Could you go if I went with you?"

Obsidian eyes made a slow orbit of her face, their glints like trapped starlight, fighting to get loose and dying away in vain. "I could only go if you went with me."


March 24, 2013

In Which Isidro Is Led by a Familiar

July 28, 1181

Balin, despite having the agency to more or less invite himself to join the family all those years back, was not a dog who was prone to escape. On the off-chance, however, that he did get out, getting him to come back was never easy. He was a large dog, large enough that Isidro had enough trouble dragging him where he didn't want to go, too strong for the girls or even Riona to make him budge much at all. He was also quick, with an excellent sense for the speed of his pursuer; if Isidro ran, Balin would run, and Isidro tired much more quickly. If he wanted to catch Balin, a brisk walking pace with only the most gradual of spaced-out accelerations was the best way to go about it.

Of course, that meant it was never a quick job. "Stupid dog. Usually I can't get you to leave me alone."

Balin gave no sign of having heard and trotted along the side of the inn, single-minded, almost like he had a fixed destination in mind. He'd even walked past the sausages this time without so much as a sniff. "Balin, what are you up to?"

Strangely, the dog stopped and turned around, answering with a good-natured pant. Isidro seized his chance and caught up to him. "You're such an oddball."

He took a knee and rubbed between Balin's ears while a wet nose pressed against his chin. "That's a good boy. Come on, now--let's go home."

The dog yapped and resumed his original trajectory. Should've grabbed him. "Oh, you've got to be--hey!"

With little more than sheer will, Balin had pushed open the inn door and strutted inside.

"Come back! Seoth doesn't allow pets in there!"

The dog held the door with a swish of his tail and Isidro followed, though Balin stood still no longer than whatever human manners he'd picked up dictated. "Crazy dog..."

Balin stopped and turned his head. Isidro followed his gaze to the only other person in the room, a stranger seated at the far table. With barely a tilt of his head, the man's dark eyes met with the dog's.

"Uh... he's not bothering you, is he?" Isidro offered in some roundabout apology.

The stranger shook his head. "Oh, not at all. Just making sure that he remembers me."

Remembers? Isidro frowned as Balin rushed to the man's side and greeted him with a lick to the fingers. The man repaid him with a scratch behind the ear.

"Sorry, how do you know my dog?"

"Your dog?" The man shot him a wayward smile. "He's my dog."

Isidro swallowed. Four and a half years was a little longer than most owners of lost dogs would have searched, but... "Shit. I'm sorry. We thought he was a stray. My children--"

"It's all right. You may keep him if you wish. I get the sense that he likes you."

As if to confirm, Balin turned back to Isidro and looked up, begging for a stroke. More than a little puzzled, Isidro obliged. "How would you get that from just now?"

"We share a certain bond, he and I. I can't explain it much better than that." The man took a sip from the cup in front of him, then placed it back on the table with a tender care this inn rarely saw. "He's more of a dear friend than a pet. Almost a familiar, really. That's why I could trust him to keep an eye on you."

Balin licked Isidro's face, but in the shock of the words, he barely noticed. "Uh... sorry?"

"You apologize quite a bit. Given your upbringing, though, I can't say I'm surprised. Your father didn't value you much more than he did your mother, did he, Isidro?"

What? "How do you know my name? And why would you send your dog to find me?" Balin wagged his tail. Isidro guessed he could appreciate the attempt to ease the tension, but it did little to help. "Who are you, anyway?"

The man pushed back his chair and drew himself to his feet. "I'm your uncle."


March 22, 2013

In Which Riona's Plans Are Ruined

WARNING: Not safe for work!!

July 28, 1181

There was little fun to be had in captivity and confinement, or so the beautiful princess of far-off Whereverland had come to learn lo these long days since the castle had been seized. Not that she ought to have thought it might be beforehand, but damsels in distress weren't exactly known for their genius, so of course she'd fancied the romantic tension worthwhile.

"Alas!" she sighed aloud, though she lacked someone--anyone--to hear her. "The only tension here is between my silken, youthful thighs!"

Silence. Mildly annoyed, the princess cleared her throat. "That was your cue."

More silence. "Izzy?"

Nothing. Then--

"This is stupid."

"That's half the point!" Was it? At least, Riona had never heard of a halfway novel-worthy scenario for this sort of thing. But what was wrong with the occasional bout of good stupid fun? "Besides, it's just you and me here. No one will ever know."

"Is that what Hilla told Bernardo before she told you?"

Probably. But Riona knew better than to share her own stories, or at least the true versions. She enjoyed every minute of sex with Isidro, but even if she had nothing but compliments for him bedroom-wise, he had little enough self-esteem without half the country knowing everything they did behind closed doors. "Do you really think I'd do that to you?"


"Isidro." Full name. She might have won right there. "I didn't tell anyone about that last new thing we tried, did I?"

"Gah! Fine." And yet, the--thankfully otherwise empty--nursery door didn't budge. "Um. How do you want me to do this, exactly?"

"I don't know. Just act like one of the sleazy pricks who ruled the bars during the tournament."

"You want sleazy?"

"No, the princess wants sleazy. I want someone who can ridicule sleazy in a way that seems sexy."

"That's a lot of pressure."

"You think that's pressure? You should see what I'm wearing."

That did it. Leather footsteps crept away, then rushed the door. It opened more suddenly than Isidro had anticipated, given the way he stumbled in, but he seemed to recover in form if not in face. "All right, sleazy. Uh... hello, beautiful. Mind if I set my basilisk loose in your caverns?"

Well, at least he wasn't the only one cringing now.

"...Too sleazy?"

Riona grimaced. "Maybe a little. Why don't you just tell me how you took back my castle?"

"Right. Uh, well... there were guards. And I killed them. And then I killed their leader. Oh, and they had a dragon. I killed that too. The head came off just like a sliver of butter."

"Oh, my!" Riona swooned as he took a step closer. Or, the princess swooned, more like--Riona never swooned. Next time, she saved him. "What an impressive feat of strength! I daresay you must have a natural knack for... swordplay."

"What can I say? I've had plenty of intensive training under the finest masters." He tried to wink and she snickered. "...That came out wrong, didn't it?"

"What's wrong with wrong?" Or... would the princess have noticed that? She had a whole new respect for mummers now. "Never mind, brave warrior. I'm not so naive as to think you saved me for only the most noble of purposes."

"Are all the scenarios Hilla gave you as degrading as this one?"

"Let's just do this, all right?"

"And by 'this', you mean the physical stuff?"


"Then I agree." He slipped his arm behind her legs and scooped her up, an affectionate nibble to her shoulders and she clung to his neck. They'd have to try this again at some point--see if they could get some more fun out of the interlude--but if it was wrong to want to get to the point, she didn't want to be right. "Where to, your highness? Bed? Couch?"

"Mmm... I was thinking we could start by that bench over there?" She pointed with her toe and he followed. Of course, the prospect of sitting or lying in this thing... "Wait! Put me down here. It's bothering me."

He did as she asked, though not without that 'I told you so' look in his eye. She really ought to have given this particular plot twist more thought. "I can't imagine why."

"Shut up." How had she scripted this in her head, again? "Alas, good hero! There is but one detail I've neglected to mention."

"Oh, really?"

Some emotion might have been nice, but at least it was a fitting enough line. More anxious to get naked than she'd been in her life, Riona pulled off her slip and tossed it across the room, leaving herself with a single, most uncomfortable article of what could only loosely be called 'clothing'.

Isidro, despite having known full well what it was, gawked at the sight of it. "How the hell did you fit that clunky thing under that silk?"

An inordinate amount of time, plus sheer stupid luck. But she wasn't about to say that. "There has been little to do for excitement since my captivity began, good sir. As you can see, I can't even pleasure myself; dressing myself around this device was a means of passing time."

He snorted. "You pleasured yourself last night."

"So did you, remember?" And if they couldn't get the hang of this, perhaps that would have to be the go-to option for alternative methods. "I mean--surely you jest, brave hero. As you can see, that would be quite impossible in my present state."

"As would anything else. So it's a good thing I found--" He fished around for something on his belt, then slipped it between his teeth.


Well. That was promising. But... "How did you get that?"

"I told you. I found it."

If we ever do this again, remind me to write an actual script. "How?"

"Who cares?" She glared at him. "All right, uh... the dragon had it. Happy now?"

Riona shrugged. "As happy as I'll ever be--unless you care to try for otherwise?"

He smirked--somehow managing to keep the key in his mouth--and nodded toward the bench. Riona complied; much as this thing hadn't been made for comfort, she got a feeling that the process of removing it would be worth it.

Very worth it. "Huh. Good to know you can take liberties with the story that actually work."

"Can you really feel that much through that thing?" he asked through clenched teeth, the key prodding the metal in a strangely enjoyable manner.

"The vibrations feel..." Oh! She had not been expecting that jab! "Satisfying..."

"Good, because this might take a while. Where's the lock on this thing?"

"A little lower, I think." It wasn't. "Lower... lower... oh, no, a little higher... there!" Yes... yes, that was the spot. Odd, really, how sensitive her skin and only her skin could be. "Yes, just keep doing..."



"Seriously, where's the lock? Whatever you're getting from the metal, I guarantee my tongue can do better."

True enough, she supposed. "Fine. It's nearer to the belt."

"I think I see it..."

The key slipped into position; strangely she could feel that too. It was hardly unpleasant either, certainly not when the turning started. "Izzy..."

"I swear, the outhouse graffiti made this look easier."

"No, take your time--" Click! "Or not."

"There!" He spat the key to the side, then took her by the arms and pulled her up and he stood. She wriggled the open belt off her hips and it slid down the rest of her legs, landing on the floor with a clang!, kick to the side with a careless foot. "So. Should I get right back down there, or shall we proceed a little more slowly?"

"You do probably want to get the taste of all that metal out of your mouth."

"That doesn't answer my question."

Riona snickered. Even if this role-play wasn't as she'd hoped, it was never a bad thing to have a husband who was willing to do that. "Start with the mouth. A little prelude never hurts."

"You got it."

She got the distinct sense that his slacks were no longer a comfortable degree of tightness, so she worked one hand down his side to his belt buckle and helped him out there. The pants fell past his knees, stopping at his boots, shaken aside after he'd kicked them off--

Knock! Knock! Knock! Knock! Knock! Startled, they broke apart as two small pairs of fists banged against the door. "Mama! Papaaaaa!"

An awkward smile doing little to help the situation, Isidro sighed. "Can you two wait? We're a little busy in here."

"But Papaaa!" moaned Alya from the other side of the door. "Balin got out!"

"Damn dog," Riona muttered before peering over Isidro's shoulder toward the door. "He won't get far. Besides, he knows his way home."

"But he was running toward the village." Shahira's pint-sized know-it-all tone wasn't entirely silenced by her worry. "Papa says Balin's not allowed in the village, don't you, Papa?"

Riona bit her lip. He had said that, at least after Balin had stolen that link of sausages. Not that he looked like he cared to stick to that claim. "Well, it'll be easier to find him in the village than--"


He blinked. Riona took a second to come to terms with what she was about to say, then said it. "You should go get their dog."

Eyes shut, he gave a reluctant nod. It figured, really--just as this was getting to the good part. "You're right. Um... is there any cold water in here?"

Riona stretched her fingers. "I'll exhaust it for you quickly."

"Exhaust what?"

One of these days, they would need a more soundproof door. "Nothing, sweetie! But Papa's going to be a few minutes, all right? We need to get dressed."

"Why? Are you two still in your nightclothes?"

"No, stupid! They're--"

"Yes! Nightclothes!" Isidro hollered back at them. "Definitely nightclothes!"

"And Alya, don't call your sister stupid." Riona tried not to groan. Next time she and Isidro made plans, the kids and the dog would be spending the day with her parents. "Why don't you girls run to the gate and see if you can still see Balin? Papa will meet you there in a few minutes."

"Yes, Mama!" Small, hurried footsteps in the direction of the front door. Finally.

"Umm... we'll resume this tonight, won't we? Just without the ridiculous introduction?"

"Yes, yes." She lowered one hand and flexed it before letting loose her fingers. "But this will have to tide you over for now."


March 20, 2013

In Which Renata Bids Farewell

June 7, 1181

"Your grandchildren won't be in any danger from Frandred, will they?"

"Abrich's children?" Renata shook her head. Thank God for technicalities. "No. Abrich inherited the debt, but not the status of the debtor; his girls are safe because Arkon was never their guardian."

"Good." Octavius took her hand and held it to his lips for a brief parting kiss. It was such a tacked-on formality, so strictly business in nature, but it was better that way. His life was complicated enough without having to deal with hers as well. "If you do end up needing some more money, let me know."

"Thank you, but that shouldn't be necessary. Abrich should have enough by the end of summer." Earlier, with the contribution Searle and Valira had insisted on. Searle had also insisted on accompanying her to Tetran, though she couldn't fathom why. Perhaps she was too old to have married again, but he knew full well that she'd had her reasons, damn good ones--and he understood that. And he knew that she and Alina wanted to be on the road before noon, so this would be nothing but a brief farewell.

She could flatter herself by thinking he simply wanted a little more time with his mother, but she doubted it. More likely he was just trying to wrap his head around the thought of a new stepfather at his age. Abrich and the twins would be in similar shock upon her return, for all Abrich had already known of the plan, but if they loved their sister at all--which she knew they did--they would hold their peace.

"All right. I suppose I'll see you at my daughter's wedding next month?"

"In Sarona? Naturally. The groom is my great-nephew." Never mind that the bride was her stepdaughter now. She wondered if Octavius had told Thallie and her siblings yet, or if he planned to at all. She wouldn't blame him if he didn't.

"Still a strange thought, isn't it? Having great-nephews and great-nieces old enough to marry. I'm just glad my grandchildren are too young yet."

Renata smirked. "Don't get used to it. But at least neither of us are being roused in the night by newborns any more."

"No, I can't claim to miss that at all." Octavius's eye wandered over Renata's shoulder to Searle, a sly teasing twinkle not unnoticed. "Of course, you'll be putting up with that again come October, so perhaps it's unfair of us geriatrics to boast."

"Oh, I don't sleep much as it is," Searle muttered as Renata turned her head. The claim may have had merit, but he looked like he planned to do little today apart from lounging about in bed as it was. "With all due respect, Mother, I seem to recall you wanting to leave early?"

"That eager to get me out of the country, are you?" She shot him a wink, which he countered with a frown, then turned back to Octavius. "But I do suppose I ought to be going, or at least let you get on with the rest of your day."

"Very well." It was the right answer, but some part of her might have preferred some hesitation beforehand. Again, though--for the best. "Have a pleasant trip. I'll see you next month."

She smiled. "Until then."