April 29, 2013

In Which Isidro Is Reminded of the Easy Word

August 21, 1181

Imran had helped Zaahir to the couch after the others had left, but he too was gone too soon to stoke the flames. Isidro didn't mind, though. If he had to watch the flames, then he didn't have to look at his grandfather, and not looking was easier than the alternative, at least while he was still trying to puzzle this out. Now that he'd seen him--just a frail, sickly old man, seemingly more concerned with the comfort of his guests than that of himself--he was even less sure of what to think. The towering monster he'd always imagined would have made for a less trying ordeal.

"I did read your mother's letters." The tired voice barely carried over the crackle of the fire. "I have no excuse for my lack of response, as I then lived in the mindset of a young fool who had yet to sort out his priorities, but to my credit I did read them, though many a peer advised otherwise. I know it's a small comfort, but I did light a candle for each of your siblings when I learned of their deaths, and several for your mother. I reread your letter every night that month."

Isidro pushed one log off of another and watched the sparks fly. And here I thought you hadn't read it once. "That letter was more for myself than for you."

"What letter isn't? What better release for the bubbling stores of pent-up feelings than the quill, and who can claim a greater excess of crippling emotions than a motherless child? My children lost their own mother when they were young, you know. Amani and Imran never even knew her." The old man sighed, the rasp of his illness ever obvious in a longer breath. His children would lose their father soon too. At least they were old enough now that the cruelty of the world was no longer surprising. "I hope your children never know such anguish. You do have children, do you not?"

"Four." Another log fell to the touch of the poker. Another flame flared and withdrew. "Three girls. One boy."

"I see. Any chance of any more?"

Isidro straightened. Nato was young enough that he and Riona had yet to discuss another one, and it didn't feel right, giving a concrete answer on her behalf. Four was enough for him. It might have been enough for her, but she might have wanted more, and he needed to know first if she did. He never wanted to be the sort of man whose wife had babies and stopped having babies at his own unquestioned whim. "I suppose it's not impossible."

"I should hope not. A little boy ought to have a brother."

Perhaps Zaahir had never heard about the original Fortunato, who would have been alive and well today had he not had a brother.

"His sisters are as good as any brothers."

"I did not mean to imply otherwise. Forgive me."

People did misspeak, but it couldn't have been wise to respond in the same terms. He may have been a paranoid wreck, but he didn't want to chance that it may have been bait, a primer for some greater pardon he was not ready to give. "May I ask why you wanted to see me?"

"Mostly just to meet you, but partly to apologize." A gesture toward the empty side of the couch was the first thing Isidro noticed upon putting down the poker and turning around; he tried to imagine that Riona was still in the room as he took it.

"I consider myself to be a devout Muslim. I have striven all my life to be a righteous and godly man, but it was only after Shahira died that I realized that the path to any God is not mapped by man-made dogma. Like many of any faith, I accepted what was said to be sacred without question, any scrutinous thought waved as blasphemy. I lived my life by what I had always believed to be true, and treated others accordingly.

"When your mother was attacked... well, the blame was place with the wrong person. When she failed to bleed, word got out and she was branded a harlot, shunned by the community. I was told by so-called Muslims and so-called Christians and so-called Jews alike that I ought to stone her, but I knew I could never do that to my daughter, even if my then-beliefs about what had happened shame me now. I know you will think me cruel, but in my heart, I truly thought that wedding her to your father was a mercy.

"Your letter all those years later brought both tragedy and epiphany. My beloved daughter was gone, the thought of a hell unknown more appealing than that of the one she was already living. For years I hated the God I had once loved, cursing him for my blindness and her suffering both." His head turned, candle glow shifting on his silver hair. "Did you ever come to believe in God, Isidro?"

Isidro bit his lip. He'd been too inherently Christian for his Muslim mother, too inherently Muslim for his Christian father. Those like him, so he'd learned, had no business with any god. "It's not something I often think about."

"Then that is your choice and I shall let you have it. But I will tell you that the God I serve is not cruel. He is not the sadistic monster your father's priest warned you about, lurking in every shadow, eager to damn you for the slightest misstep. God--my Muslim God, the Christian God, the Jewish God--any god worthy of the name--is love. He is peace. He is compassion and acceptance. I eventually came to realize this, though not soon enough for you and your mother. Had I known then what I know to be true now, I would have protected her, and you. I would have kept her here with me and challenged anyone who dared shame her, and I would have raised you like any loving grandfather would raise a fatherless child."

And perhaps, on the surface, it was a beautiful thought. It didn't change anything. "The community wouldn't have treated either of us any better."

"Sadly, you're probably right. God and all accounts of Him are often twisted for the vilest of purposes--to attack to the most defenseless of us all, for little more than the preservation of ways that perhaps ought not to be preserved at all." The old man shivered, arms crossed over his silk nightshirt in spite of the warm hearth. "Even if that weren't the case, my daughter would have been haunted by the assault until the day she died. It came across in her letters, the poor girl, even when she tried to keep them mundane. The letter announcing your birth..."

He stopped. Isidro cursed himself for caring, but already the masochistic curiosity had begun to mount. "What did it say?"

His grandfather frowned, no doubt regretting he'd said anything at all. "Are you sure you want to know?"

Isidro nodded. "You're not the only who could use the closure."

"All right. Well..." Dark eyes fixed themselves on the fire, no doubt so they didn't have to look at Isidro. Not looking was always easier. "It was a difficult birth. You didn't seem to want to leave her womb, no matter how hard she pushed or what the midwives gave her. Nearly two days and you finally emerged. Most babies cry upon being born, as I'm sure you know now, but you didn't make a sound. Your mother thought you were dead, and she wrote..." He took a minute in attempt to mince the words, but it soon became apparent that he couldn't. "...that she felt guilty for praying you would be."

So that was it, then. He'd long suspected she'd never loved him. Now he knew for sure, and the worst of it was that he felt nothing. That part of his heart was long dead. "I see."

"You mustn't fault her for that. She feared you'd be a monster like your father. But after they'd cleaned you up, and they gave you to her, you just looked up at her, sad and serious as no baby has any business being. She said she thought you were apologizing to her--apologizing for your mere existence. I don't think she ever knew what to do with you after that."

And why should she have figured it out? He'd never been worth the trouble. "She never liked to look at me."

"She rarely wrote about you either, I'm afraid, but I believe that her feelings for you were more complex than you give her credit for. Your mother never hated you, Isidro. Hate is not complex. It is simple, and it is easy, and that is why it is a coward's way."

And it had been so easy to pen the word in his nine-year-old hand. I hate everyone. "You must not have thought highly of me when you read my letter."

"You were a little boy who had lost his mother under the cruelest of circumstances. You had every reason to hate everyone." The old man unfolded his arms and let them fall to his sides, not quite at peace but perhaps close enough. "But I see now that you also love. And love is the first step to overcoming hate."


April 27, 2013

In Which Riona Finds Another Lost Soul

August 21, 1181

If Isidro's uncle planned on giving a tour of the family home, he'd chosen to save it. On a logical level, Riona could understand it--his father was dying and bedridden, perhaps it was one of his bad days, why not introduce the grandson he'd never known straight away?--but it was a morbid thought and her head spun in somersaults trying to ignore it, even though her own father was still relatively young and in excellent health besides. Had it been her in Imran's place, she would have given the tour, if only for the sake of hope and the spurring of such.

Then again, she tried to tell herself, perhaps Imran was the sort of man who was all about efficiency. He had left Naroni the day after speaking to Isidro, after all. Perhaps he thought the tour frivolous and unnecessary, at least while the pressing task was still at hand.


A raspy breath rattled from the bed. Riona peeled her eyes away just long enough to see that Isidro hadn't managed the same. A quick look back and she caught Lonriad and Ashe exchanging a glance; good to know that they cared enough to be worried, she supposed.

"Father, Isidro is here."

"Is he?" The voice from the bed wavered and waned, yet it was stronger than Riona had expected, like the echos in the seashells Viridis had sent her, mere ghosts of the physical but the wisdom remaining. "You at least offered him a cup of wine?"

"I... thought I'd introduce you first." Sheepish, Imran turned back to Riona and the men, rubbing at the back of his neck. "My father prides himself on being a gracious host. I'll have some wine brought up from the cellar, if you like."

Isidro just kept staring at the bed. Riona shook her head, not in the mood for wine and not sure if she could keep down anything she was offered anyway. It was Lonriad who finally spoke. "I think we'd all choose water over wine right now."

"Of course. I'll send a servant for water shortly." But it seemed he'd locked his priorities in order, as he first started toward his father's bed and gestured for Isidro to follow. In turn, Isidro looked back at Riona, eyes briefly wide and pleading, not so much his own in that second as Shahira's the first time Riona had held her, overwhelmed by so much big new world at once. Imran hadn't beckoned for her, but she followed.

She had to.

"Father." Imran continued on to the outer edge of the bedside table, leaving Isidro to fill the space nearest the old man. Riona supposed Zaahir already knew what Imran looked like. "Here he is. He has his mother's eyes, doesn't he?"

The old man turned himself about and peered through a narrow slit of a weary eye, the day's worth of crust cracking from his lashes. "You did not lie. Welcome, son."

Isidro winced. With a neglectful mother and an abusive father, he'd never grown used to that address. Riona's father called him 'son' on occasion and he never seemed to grasp it; his grandfather yielded no different reaction. Isidro didn't speak until Riona looped her hand in his and squeezed. "Thank you... sir."

"I still have your letter." Riona heard no anger, but the hand she held twinged. "I'm sorry I never replied, but I hope you will forgive an old man a past blindness--though truth be told, I would be surprised if you did."

"Father--" Imran started to protest, but Zaahir cut him off with a shake of his pillow-bound head.

"Regardless, I'm glad you humored me and came." The other eye eased open, this one fixed on Riona. It was also like Isidro's, her Shahira's, the ill-fated first Shahira's. Whatever ill effect it had on Isidro was lost on her, as she saw only what she saw most other times when she looked into those eyes: a lost little soul, just trying to find a place in the world. "You, my dear, must be Riona?"

Riona nodded, though some part of her had filled where she hadn't realized she was empty, the glory of a second of her own in someone else's minute no matter how little it meant to anyone outside of herself. She did not know if she could trust Zaahir, not yet, but she knew that--now, at least--he saw people for themselves, not for anyone else. Most men would not have asked her if she was Riona. Most men would have asked Isidro if Riona was his wife.

And most men would have commented on her looks, for all she had little in that regard, but Zaahir smiled and told her, "I don't doubt that my grandson has many complex feelings about this trip, and it takes both strength and spirit to keep a loved one grounded in such times. He is lucky to have you."

Isidro squeezed her hand again, but not on nervous reflex--more to remind himself that she was there, and to thank her for being so. Or so she preferred to guess. "I'm glad we can begin with an agreement."

"There is no better way to begin." Zaahir's eyes fell shut again. Riona wondered how many more times those lids had left to blink. "Now, forgive an old man his rudeness, my dear. You and your companions will sup here with me tonight, but it has long been a last wish of mine for a word with my grandson alone."


April 23, 2013

In Which Celina Ponders a Logical World

August 18, 1181

"Taking care of Rona for me, are you?" Celina's fingers dove into the dog's soft fur and set to work on what she hoped was a desired scratch. Lemons responded with a happy wag of her tail. "That's a good girl."

Behind her, the bedsheets rustled. Rona must have shifted. "She's always been good. Darry's giving me more trouble. He never seems to want a nap any more."

"And Yvanette's still perched by the door, I noticed." Ever since her father left, the little girl had kept a constant vigil in the front room. So far as Celina knew, Rona could only manage to drag her away for sleep, meals, and hygiene. The most she could do was bring her toys. "She pretended to be happy to see me, sweet little thing she is, but I know disappointment when I see it. She wasn't there waiting for me."

"No, she wasn't." Rona wouldn't say any more, not even to muse how many more days would pass before Yvanette gave up waiting. She might not have even been thinking it. She had enough on her mind as it was. Some said that a mother's sole duty was to her children, but Celina had never agreed; how could one hope to be a halfway decent mother if she never took the time to sort out her own troubles?

Rona had a lot of troubles. Celina's first glimpse of Yvanette upon arriving had reminded her of nothing more than a young Rona, always with the brave smile, never truly at ease. Years later, those smiles had grown too much for her, so she'd dropped them, and it had only been recently that she'd found them again--for real this time, or so Celina had dared hope.

That hope had been premature.

"Mind if I join you?" No answer. As Rona's mother, Celina took that as permission to settle herself on the empty side of the bed.

She got herself as comfortable as the air would allow and turned to study Rona's face. She would never say it aloud, and of course all of her girls were beautiful, but if some villainous cur had a sword to her throat and demanded she tell him which of her daughters was the most so... it had to be Rona, the only one with Dalston's heart-shaped jaw and his petite nose and Celina's mother's golden curls. And yet, Rona had never once been satisfied with her looks, and it seemed now to Celina that her physical insecurity had only been a symptom of some deeper esteem issue. Wherever that had come from, Celina couldn't pinpoint, nor could she help but feel rather guilty. Between her father's early death and Celina's remarriage and so many siblings vying for her and Ovrean's attention, Rona's crippling self-hatred could have stemmed from any number of things. If only someone could have caught it sooner.

Today, as it had the day before, her pretty face bore the marks of fatigue, the bags under her eyes and the redness they brought along. The recent and current stresses were all factors, but Celina also doubted that Rona had slept much since Ashe had left. Of her other nine children, not one had crawled into Celina's bed half as often as Rona had, even in their youngest years--and once Rona had grown older, more often than not Celina would find Aspen sleeping beside her during her routine checks, probably not by her own suggestion. Rona hated sleeping alone.

"I think you miss him too."

Rona clenched her jaw and fidgeted with her wedding ring. She hadn't worn it the day before; its mere presence was an admission of sorts. "It's complicated."

"Of course it is. You wouldn't miss him if it wasn't." Celina's frown lined as her daughter said nothing. For the past few days she'd tried to explain Rona's distance with her as a result of her having known who Ashe really was and not telling her, but she'd come to dismiss that theory; Rona would not have stood to hear it from her, if she'd even believed her. And with the exceptions of her children, she'd been just as distant with everyone else, if not moreso.

"He should have told you sooner. We both know that, and he knows it too. And while it is a difficult story to believe, it's not any less plausible than what you ended up telling yourself. Certainly not as problematic."

"I'm not sure I really believe what I thought any more." But she looped her finger through her laces and tugged, to the point where Celina was sure one would snap. "But I don't know if I believe him either. Even if I do, that's still a lot to accept."

"He's still the same person deep down, Rona."

"Then why has he spent all this time trying to convince me otherwise?"

Celina sighed. If the world ran purely on logic, Rona would have known that better than anyone. "The same reason we all do many things, dear. He was scared and confused."

"And now we're both scared and confused. Lot of help that did." What help did inaction ever do? But not everyone readied for action so quickly, nor was it wise to act before they did. If only timing could have respected that. "What should I do when he comes home?"

"That's up to you. If you can't get past this, then it's not fair to either of you or to your children to live a lie." Celina reached across the bed and took her daughter by the hand, as she had many times when Rona had been a little girl, if not quite enough. "Though if you don't mind my saying so--if some part of you didn't want him back, you wouldn't have called your castle his home."


April 21, 2013

In Which Lonriad Kicks the Memory

August 13, 1181

"All right, I get that you have no qualms about making me uncomfortable," Ashe muttered, head turned slightly as Lonriad returned to the room. "But what did the people downstairs do to deserve the sight of you half-naked?"

"They've been fine upstanding citizens, that's what. Plus a body like this ought to be seen." Lonriad gave an obvious flex of his back as he kicked the door shut. "You, though, might want to rethink that shirt. The last thing I want to wake up to is the stench of your sweat."

"And I'm not keen on waking to the sight of your shameless bare torso. The shirt stays."

"Oh, first you won't go to the brothel with me, and now you won't take your shirt off. Training to be a nun?" He regretted the jibe as soon as he made it. Who knew what Ashe was planning to do if Rona didn't take him back.

But Ashe must have been burnt out for the night, as all he did was shift his face toward the empty hearth. "I take it you think you're clever."

"And where would you get that impression?" He crossed the room and collapsed onto the floor by the foot of the bed, some feet away from his friend but probably as close as he could get. "All I've been doing this whole trip is trying to cheer you up. I can't even keep an eye on my little sister with you here; if you listen hard enough, you can hear her having sex in the next room." The next inn, he'd be requesting a room on a separate floor.

"Your sister has four kids. It's nothing she hasn't done before."

"Not the point." He tapped a foot against the floor, rather audibly. Ashe didn't so much as blink. Lonriad supposed it was no surprise if he hadn't heard. "The point is, you're all mopey. Even for you. And I get that, but that's still your problem. That's always been your problem. You just take whatever the world throws at you and mope around about it."

"And if you're trying to make me feel better, then stop it. You're doing a horrible job." Ashe slumped forward, hands sliding along his thighs until his forearms grazed his knees. Not like anyone else was about to do a better job. "Lonriad?"


"What if Rona's right?" Shit. He'd hoped that wouldn't come up. "I mean... not like I'd know the difference. Maybe I am just some deficient duplicate."

"You're not a deficient duplicate. The main thing was feelings, right?" A nod. "Well, no offense, but it's pretty obvious that you have feelings. She'll figure that out soon enough."

"But what if she's right and they're not real feelings? What if everything I feel is just a watered-down version of what Aspen would have felt?" What if it was? As far as Lonriad was concerned, Aspen's watered-down feelings were twice the feelings most could handle. "Am I a horrible person? Should I have just told Lorn to leave her be? She would have found someone else. Someone who could love her properly."

"Don't be stupid. You do love her properly." Lonriad slid over and grabbed Ashe by the arm, then pulled himself to his feet and his friend along with him. "And you do have feelings. Real feelings."

"How would you know?"

"What reason do I have to think otherwise?" Not that that was ever enough for Ashe. It was a lucky thing that Lonriad had more. "Do you remember the feelings you had before? Back when you were Aspen?"

Ashe shrugged. "If I ever really was Aspen."

"Yes, but you'd still remember, right?" Silence. It took a couple seconds of an intense stare to finally bring forth that nod. "How do your feelings then compare to your feelings now? They don't feel any weaker, do they?"

Another lull. But at last-- "No."

"Then how could they be watered-down? See, you do have feelings--real feelings," Lonriad had to add once again. "Even if she's somehow right about everything else, she's wrong about that."

"But why would she tell herself that?"

"Why do I tell myself that my handsome steward is fat and balding and my wife hasn't checked out his ass once?" Not even a snicker. If he could get one laugh out of Ashe this trip, he'd consider it a success. "Maybe it's just easier for her if she believes you don't love her."

"How would that be easier?"

How indeed. "Some people don't like to risk disappointment. Rona had plenty of that before you showed up."

"And even more after." Ashe sighed, shoulders falling, neck following, mane of red hair swaying to one side as a harbinger of a resigned slump. "I'm never going to be able to make her happy, am I?"

If he thought that, then he'd forgotten what happy was. Maybe Rona had too.

But sometimes, all the memory needed was a swift kick at the right moment. "Should I remind you what you wished for?"


April 19, 2013

In Which Riona Keeps Pushing

August 13, 1181

"How the hell are you so tense?" Riona's fingertips met the opposition of yet another stubborn muscle. She'd thought Isidro had been more or less all right today--joking with Lonriad during the ride, indulging them all with a stop at a small market, picking out little trinkets for the children and wondering aloud what each would do with their present--but upon reconsideration, he'd shown signs of trying too hard. "God, Izzy, this is bad even for you."

"Sorry." As if he had a damn thing to be sorry for! His uncle had been right about him being too quick to apologize. "I don't know. I'm still not keen on this trip."

"Well, your uncle seemed nice, at least--a little otherworldly, but nice." She kissed him on the shoulder; her lips seemed to have more of an effect than her hands, but that wasn't saying much. "And even if your grandfather turns out to be a complete ass, he's a bedridden geezer! We'd need to strap you to the wall to make it a fair fight, and you'd still win."

"It's not a fight I'm worried about." He took her hand for a second and squeezed it, but quickly let go, favoring a slow retreat to the bed. "It's... you know. Everything else."

"I know." And while she couldn't relate, she could understand. For years, all he'd known about these people was that they couldn't be bothered to acknowledge him and his mother, and now out of the blue, his grandfather wanted to meet him. He'd probably end up meeting his aunt and his older uncle as well, and their spouses and children, plus Imran's children.

And Imran himself, Riona recalled as she joined her husband, seemed to see right through him, which had to be unnerving. The night he'd been in Naroni, he'd taken Isidro up on the dinner invitation, and that had gone fairly well, or so Riona had thought until she'd returned to the sitting room after tucking in the children, just in time to catch an interesting slice of conversation.

So you had some sort of accident not long after your mother died? Imran had asked, and Isidro had nodded in response. Do you mind if I ask what happened?

Riding accident. Isidro hadn't taken his eyes off the hearth, though never was it lit in summer. My brother was killed. I broke my leg and messed up my face landing in some rocks.

Imran hadn't spoken for a minute or so after that; he'd only studied Isidro's face, contemplating every angle as he grew confident in his reply. I would not have guessed that that was the result of rocks.

Isidro hadn't said anything. Riona had just turned around to fetch another bottle of wine.

"Izzy?" She pulled herself toward the center of the bed. He likewise shuffled himself toward her, one arm catching her around the back.


"Just so you know, whatever happens with your family..." Maybe she shouldn't have started with that. But it had to be said. "Whatever happens, nothing's going to change between you and me, or with the kids, or with my family. You're ours now, and we love you."

"I know." He pulled himself out of his recline and kissed her, his lips barely touching and only for second, but lingering after they'd parted, as they always tended to do. "And thank you. I don't know where I'd be if you didn't keep rescuing me."

Of all the silly things to say. Riona looped her arms around his neck and lowered her back to the mattress, pulling him down with her. "I never rescued you once, stupid. I just give you the pushes you need to rescue yourself."

"Well, then." His fingers wove through her hair until they found that spot on her neck that never failed to spark her. "Thank you for pushing me."


April 18, 2013

In Which Ellona Is Given a Plausible Tidbit

August 11, 1181

"Well, everything seems to be progressing as expected," Nanalie declared as she finally withdrew her hand from Ellona's stomach. This was probably the number one reason Ellona was grateful for her lifelong good health; a few key exceptions aside, she could frankly do without people touching her all day. "Though if you don't mind my saying, you're lucky that you can still fit into that dress."

"And I feel as though I'm about to burst out of it. I won't make the mistake of wearing it tomorrow." Or even later in the afternoon, if the cook happened to produce a heavy lunch. But she was still thin enough to get out of it without risking a tear, and even if she wasn't... well, it wasn't as if she couldn't replace it. Casimiro may not have been a prince, but he was certainly no pauper. Some of the merchants at the market place had noticed the same thing. "Can I ask you something?"

"I'm here on your dime, aren't I?"

Of course. The money. "Are people saying that my marriage is a sham? That I only married Casimiro for his money? I mean, after Ietrin, they probably--"

"Yes, I see what you mean." Nanalie shrugged. Her lack of concern was borderline vexing. "But I wouldn't worry too much about public opinion. From what you told me last time I checked up on you, you did what you had to do, and to hell with anyone who thinks you shouldn't have."

Ellona tried to suck in the bulge of the baby, little good it did. On a logical level, of course, Nanalie was right. It was silly to worry about what strangers thought. It was silly to worry about what people she didn't even like thought. But it was easier said than done, especially when she had her kids in mind. At least they had some friends, just like she'd gained a few through Raia and Casimiro both. "My apologies if that was a stupid question. But since we've been married a year and I'm still not quite showing, they must have figured that it wasn't a love match."

"Perhaps, but there are reasons for marrying other than love and money, and sometimes even the randiest of couples take years to get pregnant if they ever conceive at all. With the sheer number of people in the world and the vastness of any one gossip's social circle, people ought to have figured such things out by now."

Ellona sniffed. "Those gossips do tend to know more people than any reasonable person would care to keep track of."

"And perhaps that's precisely why they don't know these things--they're not reasonable." Nanalie rolled her eyes with the half-patronizing, half-mourning dismissal of one who saw the world as a lost cause. Perhaps it would have been worth spending time with her outside of her duties as a midwife. "But for all most gossip is of little valid use to anyone, I did hear one plausible tidbit that may interest you."

She doubted it. But if it was plausible, perhaps it was worth giving a chance. "Oh?"

"Yes, I heard it from my brother. It seems that word got out that you and Casimiro--"

"What?" Shit! Casimiro's secret hadn't gotten out, had it? Who would have told? How could they do that to such a sweet man? She'd tear them apart! "Nanalie--"

"Relax, it's not really about either of you. It's just..." Just what? Why the pause? "Well, I'd already had my suspicions as a professional. But somehow it got out that you and Casimiro only started trying for a baby shortly before you succeeded, and given the gap between your other two, plus the gap between the young princesses..."

Huh. Perhaps not all of the gossips were the drooling morons as she'd pegged them for, at least not all of the time. She wondered if Princess Jeda knew that people were finally starting to make that connection. It had taken the world long enough.

"I think I know what you're going to say," she asserted as Nanalie trailed off with a smirk. "But even so, it would satisfy me greatly to hear the words outside of my own head."