August 31, 2013

In Which Sidwein Is Frightened For

September 12, 1182

With the body in Naroni and the family in Dovia, Searle of Hoprine had not been given a proper funeral. Haldred had arranged a memorial service shortly after receiving word from Sidwein's brother Severin, and that memorial service had been half a day prior. Afterwards, Sidwein and Celina and their children had returned to Sidwein's childhood home with his parents, and the hour had grown late enough that heading home was no longer practical. They would be spending the night.

Knowing that, Sidwein had indulged his father with a long night of raunchy jokes and rambling anecdotes, though he'd scarcely paid attention. His thoughts had been with his wife, supposedly nestled in his boyhood bed, a few soft tears for her brother before she drifted off to sleep. He wasn't sure if he loved her, but he did care, and he'd always found her relationship with her brother to be a bit... odd. Not especially close, yet oddly intimate, more like spy and mark than brother and sister. He sometimes wondered if Celina had thought herself Searle's guardian angel. If so, then she thought his death her failing.

Perhaps that was why, when he returned, he found her still awake, still dressed in her black mourning gown, twiddling her thumbs in her chair by the hearth instead of burrowing beneath the covers of the bed.

"You all right?"

"No." She shivered. It wasn't her predominant concern, but he could help with that.

"Do you want a fire?"

Celina nodded. Sidwein shuffled to the hearth and sparked the logs with the flint. The newborn flames glowed the color of the his wife's hair. Her brother's hair. He swapped the flint for the poker and turned one log over another. "Do you want to talk?"

"About my brother?" He didn't need to nod. Celina sighed. "He saved my life."

"I don't remember you almost dying."

"I didn't almost die. I almost killed myself." Sidwein's arm jerked. The top log slipped, a splash of sparks spattering. "Some part of me never forgave him for stopping me. I saw that he was miserable, so I tried to pay him back. Tried to keep him alive when he didn't want to be. Then by the time he wasn't miserable any more, it was just a habit."

Sidwein swallowed. It was a bare-bones explanation and it was wrong to dismiss the dead, but he didn't care about Searle any more. "Why did you try to kill yourself?"

"Because I wanted to die. Is that not enough for you?" Would it have been insensitive of him to shake his head? "How old was I when we married?"

He couldn't guess what that had to do with anything. He answered anyway. "You were seventeen. You wore a red dress, and lilies in your hair." And I saw every emotion in your eyes, each flitting to the next too quickly for me to register. "We were betrothed a week before the wedding."

"I was seventeen. Lileina was thirteen. Riona was fourteen. Learianna was fifteen, and only because her man was younger." What did that have to do with anything? Celina had never seemed the type who was desperate to be married. Certainly not to the point where she would have wished herself dead. "The day our fathers arranged our betrothal was the day after I first bled."

First? "You were seventeen."

"And not one of my sisters was over twelve. You have no idea what that means for a girl, do you?" That she ruined fewer gowns in her lifetime? "At least, a girl with parents like mine? Surely you've heard that phrase before. 'Your little girl is a woman now'. Because apparently bleeding out of your vagina is the only thing that makes you an adult."

But Celina had been an adult long before seventeen. If he remembered much about their childhoods at all, Celina had been born an adult. "What do you mean?"

"I mean that it wasn't the fact that I wasn't married. It was the fact that my parents treated me like a child and refused to stop even when I proved otherwise. When my sisters started their courses, my mother help them dress their dolls and put them away for their own daughters. Guess what I got for my sixteenth birthday?" She let out a dry laugh even though it wasn't funny. Sidwein wasn't sure if he'd ever seen Celina playing with a doll. "My little sister got her talk about the facts of life before I did, while I had to go behind my parents' backs to Aunt Renata for mine. Even after, Learianna would always look at me when someone made some naughty joke, that embarrassed 'You'll know when you're older' look, even though I was older than her and nine times out of ten I caught it before she did.

"But Learianna was a good girl. She only did as our parents wished. They would have sat me at the children's table at feasts if they hadn't thought it would cause a scandal." She tore a loose scrap of lace from the trim of her dress and flicked it into the flames. "How's this for scandal? I've fucked over a hundred men. And four or five women."

Not one lash around her violet eyes twitched as she stared him down, almost daring him to answer. He was supposed to be offended.

For whatever reason, he wasn't. "That's not very childish."

"That was the point. I was fourteen. Some of the girls were having a slumber party. My little sister was allowed to go, but my mother told me I couldn't, because slumber parties were for young ladies, and I was a little girl. But a little girl wouldn't have tracked down that stable boy who'd always had eyes for her and made wild girl-on-top love to him in the loft. A little girl wouldn't have pulled her brother's valet into the wine cellar and let him press her against the wall as he took her from behind. A little girl wouldn't have hid beneath the servants' dinner table and wound her tongue around the steward's cock as he ate.

"Sometimes I enjoyed it, lived it. Others, I just lay there like a stone, looking at the door. It was never locked. It was sometimes wide open. I wanted to be caught, and I never was. They were never any good at paying attention.

"My little sister's wedding day arrived. She asked if I would be one of her ladies, but my mother forbade it, because I wasn't a lady. This when she'd allowed poor Claddie to tend to Riona, because Claddie was a woman flowered even if she always screamed and cried when she saw the blood on her sheets. That was the last straw. I couldn't take it any more. I let my sister have her wedding night. I planned my suicide for the next. I would be in bed, legs spread, naked. My dress would be torn on the floor. There would be roses and candles and a blade lodged in my breast. I told a guard of rumored illicit passions about my plan in hopes that he'd come along as the rigor set and my parents would find him with his cock in my cold dead cunt.

"But Searle walked in, just minutes before it would have been over, even though he was supposed to have left hours earlier. He took one look at me and pried the dagger out of my hand. He snuffed the candles and stole my flint and left. And I abandoned my pursuit of death for one of revenge."

She slumped forward, the barely-there bulge of their third child collapsing to her thighs. Celina had always seemed a force of nature to Sidwein, he who'd always drifted through life like a limp leaf on a river, to the point where he may have always been a little frightened of her. He'd never expected to be frightened for her. "Celina..."

"And now he's gone. And so is my mother, and all of my sisters. And here I am, pregnant again when they'd intended to keep me in the nursery forever. And you're staring at me like I might throw myself into the fire any minute now."

Was he? "I'm sorry they made you go through that."

"Why?" She straightened up again, that curve once again besting the velvet dress for full view. "You never did that."

No. And though he didn't say a word, he promised her--and their daughter, and their son, and their baby of yet undetermined sex--in his heart that he never would. If his daughters carried on intelligent conversations and showed complex thought and good judgment at fourteen, they would be women, even if they never bled until thirty. If his sons knew right from wrong and when to fight and when to hold back, they would be men, even if their chins remained hairless and their voices high. When his children grew up--truly grew up--he would not deny it.

But at the same time, he hoped nothing forced them to grow up too quickly.


August 28, 2013

In Which Sparron Complicates It

September 5, 1182

"Hello, Searle."

Sparron leaned back against the door and waited. There wasn't much to be said for his timing, especially since it had been months since they'd shared more than an awkward nod at a party, but it had been some days now since Searle's family had received the bad news, and... well, was there such a thing as appropriate timing?

There must have been, if even acquaintances on the level of Neilor and Bernardo had called to pay their sympathies. Sparron had called on Searle's parents with the rest of his family, and then he'd worked his way through the siblings. He'd had to brace himself for Searle. "Uh... how are you holding up?"

"What are you doing here, Sparron?"

He supposed it was a valid question. "I was worried about you."


Wasn't that the right word? "Well, things were rough when my sister died, so I know..."

"Shut up."

Searle stood, the legs of the chair scraping the floor with the screech of a nail on rock. Sparron frowned. He hadn't thought Searle had been closer to Viridis than any of his other siblings, nor did it seem like Searle to grieve with distraction and harsh denial. Searle had always known his emotions and never feared to show them. Or maybe not never. Sparron might have taught him otherwise. "Searle..."

"Shut up!" Searle stormed around the finger and jabbed a finger into Sparron's chest. The shock of it blocked the impact. He used to swat that finger away when he woke to find it stroking his side. "My sister has to die before you're willing to talk to me again? What the hell is wrong with you?"

"What are you talking about?" No, they hadn't spoken in a while. But how was this the time to be dealing with that? Searle's sister had just died! "I just wanted to give my condolences."

"And I don't want your condolences!" A leather shoe kicked at Sparron's shin. Again, the fact of it said more than the impact. "I don't have the energy for you right now. My sister just died, and my brother-in-law right after her! I'm having a hard enough time without you coming around to complicate it, all right?"

"I'm not..."

What was this? Why did Searle make everything about... that? Why did he have to complicate everything?

Why was everything so fucking complicated to begin with?

"I have to leave."


August 26, 2013

In Which Morgan Determines the Settling Time

September 5, 1182

"And what are you doing here? Going to help Grandpapa with the tax records?"

The household had spent the duration of Morgan's stay so far in the sluggish sobriety of mourning, but Lord Severin had resolved to keep little Viridis's gloom exposure to a minimum. It was a nice gesture, but Morgan didn't see much of a point in it; at not even a month, how could Viridis ever remember her first days of orphanhood? Morgan didn't recall being a baby--and from what she knew of her early years, that was a lucky thing.

"Of course you are. I'm sure you're a natural with numbers. Quick, what's six hundred and thirty-eight divided by seventy-nine?" The baby blew a couple of spit bubbles; her grandfather clapped in that faux-delight most reserved for infants. "That's right! Eight-point-zero-eight, rounded to the nearest hundredth! Can you say 'decimal number'?"

Viridis squirmed. She was such an active newborn. Morgan struggled to smile as she wondered if her own little girl would have been so restless had she been a live birth. "That might be a mouthful for her yet."

"Probably not for long, given that fantastic collection of Arthurian legends CeeCee and Lyssa keep raving about! I don't think any of the kids here have ever loved a book so much. Present from your bookseller husband, I take it?"

"Yes, Lonan gave it to me shortly after we married." Poor Lonan. She liked to think he told those stories to little Greta now, in time with her readings to Lord Severin's children and grandchildren. Somehow, it made them both feel nearer. "I had to sell most of my things after my father-in-law threw me out, but I couldn't bear to part with that book."

The baby blinked, and Lord Severin took the chance for a sympathetic nod. There wasn't much to say to that, though, and for her own sake as much as his, Morgan didn't want to leave off on such a note. "I've been thinking about writing my own version, though. I'm going to need to occupy myself somehow, and it's probably not the best idea to handle herbs around a baby."

Lord Severin frowned. Had she spoken too soon? She knew that he was Viridis's guardian, but she'd just assumed that as the person feeding her... "Well, if Viridis lives with me, that is. While she's nursing, anyway."

"Of course. It would be impractical otherwise, and I'd be happy to sponsor your writing on top of your wages. And you're welcome to stay here as long as you like." He reached for the baby and tickled her beneath the chin, prompting a coo. "Though I was wondering if you would maybe prefer staying with my daughter Vera and her family? She's about your age, and I think you two would get along. She and her husband also have only one child so far, so her household isn't nearly as hectic as this one, even if the quarters are a little closer. Sorry, I hope it doesn't sound as if I'm trying to get rid of you."

"Oh, no. It might be a good idea, actually--though I'd be sure to stop by to read to the kids in any case."

"Good to hear it." His mouth curved--not quite a smile, but probably the closest he could manage for a knowing adult.

"Though perhaps I might meet Vera first?"

"Certainly. We'll pay her a visit tomorrow."

"Very well." So. Vera. Perhaps they would be friends. After so much time alone, that was such a strange thought. "I suppose we'll work out the arrangements once things settle down a bit."

Once the loss of his daughter was no longer so fresh. Once his son-in-law's father arrived to collect the preserved body from the nuns and bury him beside his lost love. Once Morgan could look at Viridis, the little baby she'd come to love, and not think of the daughter she'd never had a chance to know. It would be a while.

Lord Severin sighed. "I'm sorry that we didn't meet under happier circumstances."

As if it was his fault. But Morgan nodded. "Likewise."


August 23, 2013

In Which Searle Gives the Only Gift

September 2, 1182

It wouldn't be long now.

Searle was alone, but that was as it should have been. Who would he want here, anyway? His wife was dead. His mother was dead, half his siblings were dead, the other half and his father a kingdom away. He'd seen the baby before Morgan put her down for the night, saddened not to have more time with her, relieved that she would not remember losing him. His uncle and aunt and cousins had seen him as well, but none sat with him and he didn't blame them for it. Time would go on with or without him, and so would the toils and patterns of daily life. They were needed elsewhere.

His uncle had taken the liberty of summoning his children. Tivie had called to make some last attempt at peace--still not at arm's length, but if the tear in her eye hadn't just been a speck of dust, more grieved than he deserved. Landus had tagged along; he hadn't spoken more than he deemed necessary, but that was probably for the best, as was Cladelia's last parting mutter of 'Goodbye, Uncle Searle'. Neither would ever know, and they were better off for it. The poor little baby would be better off too.

No one would miss him much.

But he hadn't expected to die having remembered what joy was, and Viridis had given him that. She'd given him eight happy years. She and the baby, her little namesake, had given him ten happy days. She'd even gone with a peaceful smile on her pale face, hand squeezing his until she lacked the life to hold. Though she'd hoped otherwise--and he never thought anyone would hope such a thing about him--he'd known then that he would join her soon.

So he'd given their daughter the only gift he could, the only gift he could give Viridis before reuniting with her. His daughter would not know him, but one day, maybe she'd know that he'd spent his last days escorting her out of lonely, sickly Carvallon and into Naroni, where she would grow up in the care of her doting grandfather, with no shortage of aunts and uncles to spoil her and cousins to play with. Viridis had given him happiness.

The least he could do was pass that along to their baby.

She'll be all right, Viridis. His cloudy eyes drew strength from the thought, the multicolored blur of a room taking shape as they cleared. If he squinted, he could almost see her.

She'll be all right. She'll be happy.


August 21, 2013

In Which Severin's Fear Fades to Fairytale

September 1, 1182

Falidor had not lied.

Rarely did strangers call at Severin's castle on the first of the month. The first of the month was the day the tax collectors went about from house to house, and most of the people were cooperative enough to stay close to home--and those who weren't certainly weren't about to march up to their lord's front door. After the collectors had what they came for, they'd go to the knights, who would have to recount, and then later in the week, the knights would come to him, and he and Nora and Raia would count again and pay everyone accordingly. There were always those who needed more time with their payments, of course, but they most often had the sense to call a few days before the first. The odd visitor from another shire aside, many a first of the month came and went without him seeing a face that wasn't a part of his household.

But today, sure enough, there was a young green-eyed woman, a woolen purple coat for the unseasonable chill, a swaddled infant in her arms. He didn't think he'd seen her before, and she didn't look to be in dire need of a tax break, and something about her gave him the sense that she would have taken care of it earlier if she was. What could she have needed?

For all he was wondering, it was Nora who asked. "Can I help you?"

The woman shook her head. Most people had reservations about meeting lords and ladies with gestures, but the way she was biting her lip, perhaps she deemed it preferable to what she had to say. "Thank you, my lady, but I'm as well as I can be." As well as I can be. What did that mean? "My name is Morgan, but the way. My companion is tying up the horses; I'd explain why we're here, but he told me he'd rather tell you himself, and he does have more right to the story than I do."

More right? Severin frowned. No one claimed to lack 'right' to a pleasant story. "What do you mean?"

Morgan's green eyes fell to the baby as she stepped forward, stopping only a few feet short of him. Severin couldn't claim to be an expert on baby faces, but he saw little resemblance between mother and child. "I'm sorry, my lord. Um... this is your granddaughter."

She bit her lip, likely expecting some stunned silence, and not to be disappointed if she was. Severin stared at her, then at Nora, who'd crossed her arms and lowered her brows, no doubt thinking the same word he was.


Severin leaned in for a closer look at the baby. She had fine, fair hair like little Celina, but other than that she bore little resemblance to any of Jadin's other children. Not that siblings always looked like each other or their parents, but on some strange level Severin suspected beyond the visual, she just didn't fit with the rest at all, even if she was only a half-sibling. And if she didn't look like Jadin's family, why didn't she take after her mother more, at least so much as babies could take after anyone?

She did have Severin's eyes--unlike any of Jadin's children, or any of his blue-eyed children's children at all, if he thought about it. Come to think of it, had he ever seen a brown-eyed child of two blue-eyed parents? Or a blue-eyed parent and a green-eyed parent?

...Lonriad? No--this little one looked even less like Lonriad's children than she did like Jadin's. Less like Lonriad too.

"She's... very cute." She was, but that wasn't the point, and everyone in the room knew that. Luckily for all of them, the baby yawned.

"Sounds like someone could use a nap." Nora shot Severin a quick grimace, then took Morgan by the shoulder and led her past him. "You look a little tired yourself as well. Severin, we'll speak with Jadin and Xeta later?"

He nodded. If the baby wasn't Jadin's, then there was no point in worrying him and Xeta unnecessarily, and he wanted to hear Morgan's side of the story first--or that of the companion who apparently had more right to it. Somehow.

Nora shut the door behind her, her footsteps and Morgan's fading out of earshot as they walked toward the guest chambers. With any luck, they wouldn't run into Jadin or Xeta--or Jadin, at least, if he was the father. Nora had probably already thought up something to tell Xeta if necessary, and surely Morgan would have the sense to play along? She seemed like a sensible young woman...


Severin turned his head. His son-in-law stepped in the door with a look of death beneath his eyes and the mystery fled at the sight of him. Morgan had been right. The baby was Severin's granddaughter.

His mistake had been in assuming that Morgan was her mother.

"Searle." Years now he'd lived in dread of Searle turning up without Viridis in sight, having resumed his old habits and lacking the decency to at least strand her with those who loved her, but if the pieces added up, then the true story turned that fear to a fairytale. "Viridis... never wrote that she was expecting."

"She didn't want to get your hopes up." As if his hopes would have ever been an issue! "She'd lost a few before, and I think she thought that with her health..."

Her health. Searle's health, from the look at him, from the rasp in his voice. Viridis's body had never refused a passing ailment. Poor darling. "Was it the birth, or did she catch what you have?"

"She had ten days with the baby." Ten days. If Severin could guess the age of the baby, then she hadn't been gone much longer. How ever long it was, it was still too long ago, and not long ago enough. "She spent all of them in bed, but I'd never seen her happier. She wanted her so badly..."

Severin clenched his hand and dug a nail into his palm. He wanted his daughter too. "God."

"The baby's name is also Viridis. They have the same birthday, and... well, after the birth, I kind of knew that it wouldn't be long." Searle wheezed, shrinking into himself as his lungs collapsed and sputtered. It wouldn't be long for him either, and Severin suspected he knew it. "Morgan is the nurse. She's a godsend, I swear; she turned up the day the baby was born, even though her own baby didn't make it. She even helped me bury Viridis beneath the tree where we used to picnic." Viridis had shown Severin the tree the first time he'd visited. He'd wondered if her resting place had been her idea. She'd always thought far too much about her own death. "When I die, write my father and tell him to lay me beside her?"

They'd always had that in common, her and Searle. "Searle..."

"It's all right, Uncle. I was lucky. I had more than ten days with her." So had Severin. It meant little. "I don't want another without."


August 19, 2013

In Which Abrich May Have Enough Time

August 29, 1182

Not being an heir--and, therefore, not needing his own--Abrich hadn't thought he'd be one of those men who spent every minute of their wives' pregnancies hoping for a son. He'd never even liked those men. It was obvious to anyone who'd paid a shred of attention to any pregnancy that a woman had no control over whether she had a boy or a girl. And the world needed women just as much as it needed men, didn't it?

But logic be damned, Abrich had wanted a boy since Meraleene had told him she'd missed a course, and not because he didn't want a daughter.

He didn't want the name.

His mother had already insisted on him holding off naming a daughter for her--"Can't have too many Celinas so close together!" she'd told him and Rona both after Xeta's little girl had been born, though Rona had her other plans anyway--and had his wife not been Meraleene, it likely wouldn't have been a problem. But with his mother's name out of the question, then the default choice was... her mother's.


The woman he loved who was not his wife. What dreadful curse was upon his head, Riona sharing her name with his long-dead mother-in-law?

"She seems to like you." But as usual, Meraleene was shy to even look at him. He didn't dislike her--he supposed he even liked her, maybe--but the poor woman got the sense she wasn't loved. Maybe one day he'd get there, but not any time soon. What was wrong with him? He'd never had a chance with Riona, yet still, he yearned.

He couldn't name his firstborn after a woman he yearned for, not if that woman wasn't her mother.

"She kind of looks like a..." He stopped, trading a look with the baby. There wasn't a next word. He'd hoped to find some resemblance to some common-yet-adorable object, something they could call her instead of her official name, but nothing came to mind. She just looked like a baby.

"She looks tired. Maybe put her in the basket."

He owed it to Meraleene, so he did as he was told and put their daughter to bed. "Night... sweetie." Perhaps he could make someone up for a namesake? A beloved aunt? No, if Meraleene didn't know that he had no aunts, surely his mother would set her straight...

"Abrich? Can we talk about her name?"

Shit. Here it was. "All right."

She beckoned him to the bed with a finger and he answered with the slow shuffling of a prisoner en route to the gallows. Here it was. Riona, Riona, Riona. Poor Meraleene would never even know.

"So," she started, waiting just long enough for him to join her on the bed--but not long enough for him to get comfortable. That would have been about another decade. "Arydath guessed that the baby would be a girl, and I've heard how accurate she is, so... well, I've kind of been calling her something in my head a while now."

No surprise. Abrich had been calling his son 'Dalston'. "All right..."

"You don't mind?"

Did he have the right to? Surely he couldn't give his reasons? "It's fine. Whatever it is, I..." He swallowed. God, he was going straight to hell. "...I already love it."

"Great. Danthia it is, then."

...WHAT? Had she just said--? "...Danthia?"

"Yes, for my stepmother." He knew that. What he didn't know was why. Not that he cared. "I know, I know, it would be more conventional to start with my mother, but I never knew her. Danthia is the only mother I've ever known, and I've always wanted to name my first daughter for her."

Huh. If the second daughter was Celina, then... and if there were a few sons in there as well... then that made Riona the third daughter. If Meraleene even wanted Riona. Would the third daughter give him enough time? More so than the first, at least. "Danthia..."

"And I know that Tivie named her baby Danthia, but they've been calling her Dani since she was born; I was thinking we could use Thia as a shortened name for ours?"

"Thia." His little Thia. He would have been happy with any name but Riona, but even with all those hundreds of names to choose from, he couldn't think of one he liked more. "Thia it is."


August 16, 2013

In Which Ceira's Planning Is Perfect

August 13, 1182

"Ceira, you can tell me all the lies you want, but I'm never going to believe that having me for supper at your in-laws' place was Thetis's idea." Clearly, Esela didn't know Thetis very well, as Thetis absolutely would have suggested that Ceira's twin come and eat with them some time. She was right, though; in this instance, it was all Ceira. "Regardless, I suppose I have to thank you, because Eleara has gotten it into her head that I need to be set up again. So, thank you, for getting me out of yet another awkward meeting with an idiot who makes me want to tear my breasts off just so I'd have something to throw at him."

Thetis might have blushed at something like that, but at least Florian would get a kick out of Esela. And so would, hopefully, someone else. "You're welcome, sister. Though believe me--the idea was all Thetis's."

And it must have been so difficult for the brutally honest Podrag not to spill the beans! But he sat by her side, silent like he'd never been in his life, nodding along. He'd get his reward and more when they got home, she'd decided. Maybe they'd even conceive that baby they'd started talking about.

"Of course it was." Esela clicked her tongue. She may not have known Thetis, but she may have known Ceira all too well--twins and all. No matter. "Though you needn't lie to me. I suppose you have the right to pity me if you wish--though I should hope not for some perceived loneliness, but instead for the constant stream of pigs that everyone I know insists on parading in front of me."

"You'll meet the right one some day." Maybe sooner than you think.

"I suppose it's not impossible that I will. I just wish that, if people must set me up, they would at least make a reasonable guess as to my idea of 'right' every once in a while." Esela sighed. And to be fair... yes, many of her suitors had not been the most tolerable of men. But surely she was not yet at the point where those fools tarred the male species as a whole? She was only seventeen, after all.

Then again, she was... seventeen. "I can talk to everyone who keeps setting you up, if you like."

Her sister snorted. "Well, can't have everyone thinking I'm bitter, can we?"

A fine-legged, broad-chested figure made his entrance from the stairs. Ceira smirked. Just in time. He'd go for the door, no doubt wanting to get a little more work done in the orchard, but even Hamrick wasn't unstoppable. "Oh, if they have any brains at all, they'll understand. There's nothing much worse than a dreadful suitor, isn't there? Especially when it's dreadful suitor after dreadful suitor after dreadful suitor..."

That brought her brother-in-law to a halt. Perfect.

"And those after the dozen before!"

And now he was looking. Good boy, Hamrick. "And you're hardly the only one, I'm sure. I mean, Podrag and I were very lucky, finding each other so easily; I'm sure there are plenty out there who can relate to your tales of courtship woes."

"I'll say," Hamrick sniffed, prompting little more than a glance from Esela. Had she perhaps caught on? Surely there would have been a glare... "You know, just last week, my meddlesome little sister had the gall to introduce me to some humorless, mind-numbingly dull woman she works with at Sir Ashe's castle. I spent the entire evening wishing for an earthquake to liven things up. I suppose my sister thought all I'd care about were looks."

"Isn't that how it always is?" Esela agreed as Hamrick joined her on the couch--not that Ceira had left him with much of a choice for seating. "Here, have this attractive person. He's so handsome that you won't care about the sheer lack of anything behind his pretty face!"

"Or the fact that she's an awful person! Why would you set me up with someone actually smiled while kicking puppies?"

"Or who openly believes that the only reason a woman should leave the kitchen is if she plans on pleasuring him in the bedroom?"

"Or who thinks that liars ought to be stoned, but perverts? Oh, how can they be held accountable when the cleavage was right there?"

"Don't even get me started." Esela's face contorted into a mock-apelike look, arms flexing in frustrated exaggeration as she spat in a lowered, thuggish voice, "'Oh, I'm a man! I do whatever my penis tells me to do; it's not my fault that my brain doesn't work at all!'. Yes, it is. And don't piss on all the men who aren't like that. Excuse me for wanting to hope that there's at least one man out there with the decency to keep his urges under control."

"Or 'Oh, I'm a woman! That's why I can't carry on an intelligent conversation; I only like silly sewing circle gossip!'." And there was Hamrick with the shrill falsetto and half-imagined hair flip. Excellent. "Speak for yourself! I'm depressed enough without people trying to convince me that every woman I'm ever going to meet is pretty much a talking rock."

"Thank you! Half of my suitors seem to wish I was a talking rock!"

And so the shared grievances had formed a bond. Almost time to start browsing dress fabrics.

"Your suitors should court my suitors. The less offensive half can get exactly what they want, and the more offensive half can get exactly what they deserve. Your kitchen bastard and my puppy-kicking witch?"

Esela chuckled--a first for the evening, but hopefully not the last. "What did the world do to deserve their offspring?"

"They can perish together in some not-so-tragic accident before they can reproduce."

No--not a last. And had Hamrick just grinned as Esela's famous snort got the better of her? "A not-so-tragic accident! Wouldn't that be perfect?"

Perfect. Now that it was almost time to speak again, Ceira fought to keep a straight face. Not quite as perfect as this, Esela. "So, would you two like to sit together at supper?"


August 14, 2013

In Which Viridis Begins Another Birthday

August 10, 1182

A sharp pang and the weak first light bade Viridis welcome to her twenty-fourth birthday. Given her medical history, not one member of her family had expected her to live so long, herself included. Twenty-four wasn't old, nor was it an age that was somehow remarkable, but it was a milestone for her.

Not the milestone, though--no, that asserted itself with another jolt of pain. Viridis clenched her jaw, grinding her inner cheek in a vain attempt at distraction. After her entire life, she was no stranger to random aches, but certainly nothing of this magnitude. Was this... labor?

But how would she know? She'd never carried a baby to term before. Yes, the miscarriages had stung, physically as well as emotionally, but surely labor...

Searle snored. Figured--something wrong, and the only person around was asleep and wouldn't know anyway. She wished one of her sisters were here, or her stepmother. Or hell, while she was dreaming, her mother. Surely her mother would have known. What mother didn't?

Only Viridis wasn't a mother. Not yet, at least, if she dared hope 'yet'. She didn't know if this was labor. She'd never labored before! How would she have possibly--?

"Holy fuck!"

No. No, whether she recognized it or not, it was definitely labor. "Searle..."

"Mmm?" He stirred, coughing somewhat. A nasty sickness had been making its rounds through the area lately, and Viridis feared he was coming down with it. Come to think of it, she'd had a bad bout of a cough just that afternoon. She was sick, her husband was sick, and she was in labor. On her birthday. And she hadn't even worked up the courage to tell her family back home that she was pregnant.

What would become of the baby if they both died? And that was assuming that the baby was all right in the first place...

"Searle, I'm sorry, but I need you to get the midwife."

"Now?" The blankets rustled. The baby answered its father's question in a way its mother didn't much appreciate.

"Yes, now!" Not to be outdone, the baby sent forth another shockwave. "Please hurry!"

"Of course." He grabbed his coat off the footboard and hurried off, not even bothering to dress the rest of the way. Viridis cringed. If he wasn't sick now, he certainly would be.

But it would never occur to Searle to worry about himself. Sick or not, he wouldn't leave her alone for long.

Not that she would be in any case.

God, she prayed, a worried hand to her middle, a surging agony in her thighs. Whatever happens to me... whatever happens to Searle... please let it...

It. No, she couldn't think that, now that it was so close to being here. They? No, that only made it sound like twins. She couldn't handle twins, not with her health! She'd have to guess. She hadn't dared guess before, but she'd have to. Her baby was not an 'it', not any more.

Another pang came and went. She closed her eyes and her mind took over, an image of a little blonde girl playing by the river under her grandfather's watchful eye.

Her. Whatever happens to us, please, Lord... please spare her.