September 30, 2013

In Which Dania Spends a Day Among Dreamers

February 28, 1183

Not for the first time since he'd joined the navy, Adwyn had made port in Dania's village. And, not for the first time since he'd joined the navy, she'd scarcely opened the door for him when he'd swooped in with a kiss--and a good one, at that, firm and wet and with a dynamic tongue, but not lacking in tenderness. And every time before, given the former pirate's excellent sense of timing, had resulted in him fiddling with her laces as she'd undone his belt, bare backs hitting the floorboards in turn as they switched positions mid-coitus, their love-making reaching climax just in time for them to dress before one of her siblings or children returned.

Today, though...

"Adwyn!" Dania panted as her lover's grasp broke, embarrassed but not failing to smile entirely. "We can't right now."

"Oh?" Adwyn wiped a few beads of sweat from his brow. He must have had a view of the space behind her, but somehow he didn't seem to see. "Did the pub switch your sister to the later shift?"


"What about your brother? Has the apothecary finally had enough of having him coming into work every day in that ridiculous purple doublet?"

Dania laughed. Oh, her poor, stylish mother, having to look down from heaven and watch her son traipse around in that monstrosity of a garment! Then again, knowing Gregor, perhaps it was just a blessing that he didn't go about stark naked. "Somehow, no."

"And the children? Last I recall, Stephen runs deliveries for the bakery while Maura takes a lunch to her uncle? And while I'm sure Elene has grown since I've last seen her, I don't think she's quite outgrown her afternoon nap, am I right?"

"Yes, Stephen and Maura are out, and Elene is asleep." Rolling her eyes, she gestured behind her, only to watch him blink at the sight of a perfectly obvious person seated in the chair by the window. How had he missed him? Well, good to know that after a marriage, three kids and a widowing, she still had it. "I don't believe you've met my other brother?"

"Er... no. No, I haven't." Adwyn smirked himself back to composure, with mixed results. "Good day, sir. Captain Ladell's what they call me, but I'll let you get away with Adwyn."

"And they call me Fred." Actually, most didn't. But there was no need for Adwyn to know that. "You can call me Fred."

"I hope you can remember that," Dania teased as she escorted her fellow to the couch. Now that she thought about it, she wasn't sure if she recalled the last time he'd sat there with his pants on. "So, how are the high seas nowadays? I take it the protection bestowed upon you by King Moron hasn't been revoked by King Arse-Rag just yet?" She threw in a wink Fred's way, if only because he got a little wistful every time Queen Deserves-Better-Than-That-Arse-Rag came up.

"If that happens, it will be because he axes the navy entirely. He's not nearly as interested as his father was, but as long as the fleet still exists, it continues to benefit me." In terms of career, and no doubt as a cover-up for a few little 'hobbies' on the side. Adwyn reclined into a slouch with his usual brand of regal laziness. "Right now, I suspect he's thoroughly occupied with his new little son."

"Son?" Fred's brows sloped and his mouth fell open, leaving a mingled picture of alarm and worry and maybe a little relief. Dania had heard that the king and queen had only two daughters, rather spaced apart in age--and she'd also heard that one of the first things Ietrin had done after being crowned was to send his stepmother and half-siblings back to Dovia. He would have been in need of a son, and if he was like most men, he believed his penis infallible. "Is J--the queen all right?"

"So far as I'm aware. Probably someone would have mentioned if she died."

"Is she well?"

Adwyn shrugged. Dania sighed. If the news was a new prince, she doubted many gossipers had bothered to ask after the queen. "Sorry, little brother. Maybe no news is good news?"

"I hope you're right." But if she knew Fred, that wasn't enough for him to believe it.

"You seem to have quite an interest in the Queen of Naroni," Adwyn mused, prompting a visible swallow in Fred's throat. "Are you a friend of hers?"

"No. I just... find myself invested in her story." Fred laid a fingertip to the chair's arm and ran it along the grain. Dania followed its movement with her eye. Invested in her story. Tell me about it, brother. "A young girl, forced to marry a prince who isn't known for being pleasant, takes eleven long years to bear him the desired heir...

"And all the while, he never once considers that it might not be her who has the problem."

Adwyn frowned, likely unconvinced. It was Fred's luck, really--his most high-profile job to date, and he'd made the fatal mistake of forming a connection. Dania grimaced. She had to help him out. "He's done this before. He tends to take what he knows of notable figures and fill in the blanks in the most tragic way imaginable."

"I do recall you saying he was an artist--not unlike yourself." Adwyn took her by the shoulder and pulled her a little nearer. Now she could relax. If he'd gone back to teasing her--to teasing Fred like he teased her other siblings--then he'd probably lost interest. Hopefully. "The world may not sleep so much these days, but it's a lucky thing we still have dreamers, isn't it?"


September 27, 2013

In Which Farilon Is Remorseful for the Lizards

February 21, 1183

Unless the decorating consultation with his grandmother counted, Farilon's betrothed was the first visitor to the new house since the family had moved in.

Danthia had called a couple times when they'd been staying with Ietrin, and Farilon had mixed feelings about that. On the plus side, he'd a chance to get to know her a bit, to get used to her--to brace himself, if he was being honest. Then again, not meeting her until their wedding in April would have been one last happy year of blind optimism in regards to the match.

One last year--yes, that would have been nice.

He got the feeling that the distaste was mutual.

"Haven't you a servant to tend to the fire?"

Farilon gritted his teeth and prodded a chunk of burnt bark off the log. "It's the housekeeper's day off." Not that Danthia would have considered that servants had families or friends or lives of their own.

"Then perhaps you ought to hire a second housekeeper." She sniffed, and though he didn't turn his head, he knew that her nose was at an incline. "I have no idea how your brother expects your mother to run a household with only three servants, especially if she insists on giving them days off. We shan't be making that mistake when we move into our castle."

"Manor," Farilon corrected, though it occurred to him a little late that he might have been better off saying nothing.

"Yes, but that may very well be temporary. Your uncle knows that a prince ought to have a castle."

"Maybe." Not sure if he could tease any more out of the flames just yet, he put the poker aside and joined her on the couch, for all he would have preferred to rush out the door instead. "I could get used to a manor, though."

"Yes, but I could not." And if the note in her voice had anything to do with it, that was that. "I hear your sister-in-law had her baby. A boy, was it not?" Farilon nodded. He wasn't the brightest of men and he'd come to terms with that long ago, but he suspected he knew where this was going.

"A pity. If she'd only given your brother daughters, then you would have been king."

"I wouldn't make much of a king."

"Perhaps not, but I would make an excellent queen, and an excellent queen can make a mediocre king seem a great one." She pinched the velvet of her gown between two fingers. It was an odd sensation, empathizing with a piece of cloth. "Ah, but our fortunes may turn yet. Princes may be born, but there's never any guarantee that they will live."

Farilon swallowed, fighting back a sickly flush. He'd confided in his brother Conant that he thought Danthia had the heart of a lizard, but perhaps that had been unfair to lizards everywhere. "You're not wishing my nephew dead, are you?"

"I never said that. I was merely stating a fact. He may be the heir, but you are still his heir."

"And I could die any day too."

"A healthy young man of your age? Less likely--particularly since you're not the risk-taking sort. There's hardly an illness or object in existence that couldn't kill a newborn baby."

"Then maybe we should be concerned for our babies." Especially if your milk is as toxic as the rest of you. At least she would likely prefer a wet-nurse.

"I see no reason why I should be concerned for those who don't exist. But existence is a fickle thing, isn't it?" She shut her eyes, and he averted his own, back toward the hearth. A flame curled upward and tickled the air above while another ember retreated. "Perhaps your nephew will never be king. Perhaps our son will."


September 25, 2013

In Which Taimyra Takes a Cue

February 15, 1183

"Mother! Father!" Taimyra heaved herself out of her father-in-law's desk chair and greeted her parents with successive embraces. In her haste to send off that reply to Jeda, she'd almost forgotten that they would be visiting. "How nice to see you! How is everything back home?"

"Not bad. Celina's due in less than a month--and that's not the only new grandchild we can expect within the year, I see." Her mother winked as she pressed one hand to Taimyra's firming stomach. She was barely showing yet, but there was no hiding a pregnancy from Viridis of Luperia. "You and Farilon sure didn't waste any time."

"Yes, well... we love the girls, but we do still need an heir." But unlike a certain other royal, from what she could figure from Jeda's letters--they'd only briefly met in person, but once Taimyra had married, she'd struck up a correspondence, crown princess to crown princess--Farilon did not pressure her for sex, nor did he disregard the possibility of his brothers inheriting should he die sonless.

And he certainly never faulted her for any perceived infertility! Yes, they had been married for ten years now. Yes, they only had two children, ages six years and eight-and-a-half months, to show for it. The people could think what they thought, but Farilon knew full well that it was hardly Taimyra's fault if he preferred his stepmother's brother to her.

"Well, either way, we'll all be delighted." Her mother drew back her hand with a smile. Her father's mouth didn't move--for once--but a twinkle in his eye told her that he agreed. Taimyra's mother only had three children, two of which were twins who were decades younger than their older brother, so her father had not been a man of King Ietrin's variety either--not that he'd had any right to be, what with her numerous half-siblings. Regardless.

Her father gestured to the couch by the wall. "Why don't you ladies sit down?"

"I can stand if you prefer, Father."

"Now, now. I must consider the comfort of my future grandchild--and while I may be old, I'm hardly dead." He stepped between Taimyra and her mother and offered them each an arm, then led them to the couch. Her mother sat, then after a nod of insistence from her father, Taimyra did the same. "So, your brother Severin tells me that your friend Jeda has given birth."

"Yes, to a little boy. Prince Holden."

"Holden." Her father smirked. "I would have guessed Roderick--or Searle, based on sheer statistics. Where the hell did Jeda get an original name like Holden from?"

"Her stepmother, maybe--Holladrin. They were very close. If she'd had a daughter, I bet you anything her name would have been Holladrin."

"She may yet have another daughter," her mother mused. "Now that the stress of providing an heir has been lifted, it may be easier for them to conceive again."

Taimyra nodded, though she couldn't be sure. From the sounds of it, Ietrin had a curiously low number of suspected bastards for a man of his age and reputation, but had never realized this himself. The midwife in Naroni had also examined Jeda multiple times and found nothing abnormal. Did stress affect male fertility as it did female? No one ever spoke of male fertility. As far as most saw it, it was a given that a man could make sons, never mind that every other aspect of health varied from person to person and that it took two to make a baby.

"But you know..." Her father grinned, and she couldn't help but respond. Her father may have been a notorious cad, and while she might have wished otherwise, there was no denying the love there. "Call me an old fool, but your pregnancies seem to take cues from Jeda's. She has a girl, then you have a girl. She has another girl, then you have another girl. Maybe you'll have your boy too."

"Maybe." Somewhere inside her, a tiny limb tickled. "But we'd love another little girl too."


September 23, 2013

In Which Octavius Lays the Blame

February 2, 1183

Sad as it was, it was a blessing that Ietrin was apparently more interested in running throughout the castle telling everyone from the steward to the apprentice cobbler's dog that he had a son than said "son" "himself". He'd held the baby for all of a minute, then handed her back to Jeda and left with a dance in his step Octavius never would have guessed he'd manage. It was an insult to Octavius's daughter and granddaughter both, but Ietrin's absence gave them a chance to talk--and as it turned out, Jeda couldn't have said much with her asshole husband around anyway.

"This is risky, Jeda."

"I know."

But it was too late to rethink it. Ietrin already thought he had a son, and he would not take kindly to the revelation otherwise. All they could do was keep up the lie and pray that the bastard fell on his own sword before any suspicious blood stains appeared on the Crown Prince's sheets.

"I'm sorry if this is a burden for either of you." Octavius took his eyes off his new granddaughter just long enough to watch his daughter wind a curl around her finger. Even as a child she'd done that when troubled, and Dea and Gennie both played with their hair as well. Octavius wondered if Jeda would let Hollie's grow to a length where she could too. "I just thought that you both had the right to know."

"It's fine," Sparron assured her, leaving Octavius to nod in agreement. "You shouldn't have to do this alone." She shouldn't have had to do this at all, but from what Octavius could guess, Ietrin hadn't left her much choice.

"So Camaline and Leara know, as well as Arydath." In front of him, the baby wriggled in her swaddling. She didn't know. She didn't know what boys and girls were yet, never mind which she was. There must have been a precedent for this at some point in history, and Octavius decided he'd spend the his evening in the library looking for it. He had to be sure that whoever it was hadn't been traumatized upon finding out the truth. "Who else?"

"My maid, and her sister, who I'm going to hire as the nanny. She... well, she was under pressure from her late husband, so she understands." In the interests of the woman's privacy, Octavius didn't ask. He just hoped that neither servant found a reason to betray their queen. "Do you think Hollie will forgive me? Whenever she finds out?"

The baby squirmed again. Octavius grabbed the side of the cradle and rocked it gently. "I'm sure she will, in time. She'll know one day that you're not the one to blame."


September 20, 2013

In Which Jeda Gambles with the Otherwise

February 2, 1183

The baby's cries had subsided, leaving only the occasional breath to break the strained silence. Arydath hadn't said a word as she'd cut the cord and wiped the remains of the birth from the newborn body, nor when she'd retreated to the nursery to diaper and swaddle the child--not something for which Arydath normally required privacy, if Jeda recalled correctly from her previous two labors. And it hadn't been just Arydath. Leara hadn't moved since Jeda had said she could leave her side for a look at the baby, the baby Jeda herself could barely see from the bed even if she strained, and she had made no comment. Camaline, who had been at the foot of the bed with Arydath, had fixed herself in front of the window following the birth, nothing and no one existing for her but the February snow.

And now Arydath was several minutes back, and still nothing. Jeda didn't know how much longer she could take it. What was wrong with her baby? All she could tell from where she sat was that the infant had the right number of heads, and the right shape. "Arydath?"

The midwife looked, but still said nothing. The soundless, senseless void swelled and it was killing her. She had to know.

Jeda stood. This, Leara seemed to notice. "Jeda, you should be resting..."

"I can't."

In her spot by the window, Camaline tensed. Arydath swallowed, and Jeda's baby squirmed--just like any other baby. What weren't they telling her? And why? It was her baby. She had to know. "What's wrong with him?"

Arydath sighed. She glanced down at the baby in her arms, then to Leara, who decided she found the floor more interesting. Finally, and not without hesitation, she turned to Jeda. "There's nothing wrong with her."

Camaline's fingers twitched to a tight clamp around her own arm while Leara slouched, shrinking into herself. They knew full well what sort of man their brother was--and with those several consultations even after she'd declared to King Roderick that Jeda was fine, Arydath must have had a sense too. "Oh."

That was it, then. She had fulfilled Ietrin's condition of getting pregnant within the past year, but with that had come the implicit understanding that the baby was to be a boy. For months, Jeda had dared hope it might be. It had sat a bit differently than her other daughters, kicked with great frequency, brought on a separate set of cravings, but apparently those weren't boy things. And apparently Arydath hadn't lost her touch, back when she'd changed the subject every time Jeda had dared muse about the baby's sex.

And now he'd be furious, because they had a beautiful baby girl. Jeda drew a little nearer. The baby looked just like Gennie when she was born, fair blond hair and hazel eyes, sweet and peaceful, but not lacking in that wriggling infant curiosity. She was plump and healthy and perfect, but for Ietrin, that wouldn't be enough.

So it would begin again. He'd allot her the bare minimum of time to recover from the birth and insist that she not nurse the baby herself. Her courses would return. He'd resume his thrice-daily presence in her bed. Four times. Five times. He'd make another ultimatum, and this time he'd be clear to specify a son, as if she had any say in the matter. And maybe she wouldn't be so lucky.

Maybe he would take her books. Maybe he would take her sewing kit and her stuffed animal patterns. Maybe he would ban her friends, her daughters, everyone. What if he pushed her father and brother over the edge? What if they did something rash and then had to suffer for it? All because of her, all because of Ietrin, all because they didn't have...

No. She couldn't have that. Her family would not suffer because of her. Ietrin could not take her daughters.

She could not stand for that. "Don't tell him."

Arydath blinked, as did Jeda herself. She'd maybe thought it on a whim when Gennie had been born, perhaps mused at the possibility during this pregnancy, but she hadn't thought herself stupid enough to suggest it. It might not have been stupidity after all. "I mean... what if we told him... otherwise?"

"Otherwise?" A fingernail flitted to Leara's mouth, a remnant of a childhood nervous habit. "Jeda, we couldn't. He'd find out eventually..."

Eventually, yes. That much was inevitable. But maybe all she needed was a stall for time? "Maybe... maybe it will be easier for us both to conceive a son under less pressure? And when that happens, she could tell Ietrin she wants to join a monastery, then... go off and do as she likes?" That would convince none of them. Camaline hadn't even dignified her with a glance.

Leara picked at the most obvious flaw. "But what if you don't have a son?"

"Then I'll be stuck in this castle until one of us dies." Like I will if Ietrin knows that she's a girl. "I can't think about that right now. I need Ietrin to be happy for a while. If he's miserable, then he makes sure I'm even moreso. Me, and the girls."

I'm so sorry, baby. "I can't take it any more."

Still nothing from Camaline. Leara's slipper dragged across the floor, believing, disbelieving. Arydath bowed her head and held out the infant, whom Jeda took with a care reserved for glass figures. I'm sorry. "The diapers..."

"I'll change them myself."

"What about when she gets older? Children sometimes..."

"She won't. I'll make sure of it." Somehow.

"But hunting trips, dips in the pool... what if some friend wants to take her to the brothel?"

"I'll worry about it then! Just please tell Ietrin that he has a son!" And she hoped to God he wasn't listening at the door right then! If he did find out, she would have to work something out, some way to make sure that her daughter was safe should Ietrin seek to punish the innocent. If that happened, Jeda would take the fall. "Tell him his name is... Holden."

And in my heart, I'll call her Holladrin.

"Please, Arydath. I know it's risky--impossibly risky--but please. Just let me worry about it." If she had to worry. Maybe her only 'punishment' would be the divorce she'd dreamed of for so long. Or perhaps Fred would return and kill Ietrin like he had Roderick. "If he finds out, I'll tell him I bribed you, or blackmailed you. I promise."

The midwife crossed her arms, if only to stop the shaking of her head. "Jeda..."


"Jeda, I can't--"


An imaginary needle pricked the base of Jeda's spine and the sting reverberated upwards. Camaline had spoken at last.

"No offense, Arydath, but you've never had any trouble getting pregnant and you don't know what it's like to have anyone on your back about it, never mind a fucking king."

Jeda turned her head just in time to watch her sister-in-law do the same. Her violet eyes were red with fire. "Tell my brother that he has his precious son. There's always a chance that he'll never learn otherwise."


September 18, 2013

In Which Raia Meets with the Recruits

January 13, 1183

"Glad you could all make it."

Raia stopped short of the sitting room rug and surveyed her guests: Lettie, Lucien, and Morgan. A certain percentage of professors would have to come from the church--the books that Isidro had inherited from his grandfather were a good start, but some overflow from the monastery's library would be required, and even Raia's father had to admit that the monks and nuns were probably the most qualified for the teaching jobs--but the administration and the patrons alike had agreed that a mainly secular venture required at least some secular staff.

So Raia and Ellona--absent today as one of the twins had a cough--had spent an afternoon a couple days prior going over prospective candidates, clever people in need of something to do with their days or who might not have been satisfied with their present occupations. Though admittedly these three ran the risk of accusations of nepotism, they did fit that criteria.

And who was anyone kidding, really? If one wanted to find nepotism, all they had to do was throw a stone. And at least no one could make that claim in regards to the art professor her father had hired! "All right, here we have Lettie Mokonri, Lucien Shadeling, and Morgan Kellius. Everyone, this is Andavra Stephane. She's staying with Falidor and me temporarily."

The new hire waved. "You can all call me Cherry. Everyone does."

"Why Cherry?" asked Lettie as Raia headed for the empty seat beside her, Cherry taking the one by Morgan.

"Oh, I won't get into that now. It's a long, complicated story involving a basket-weaving contest and a band of Norwegian whalers." She smirked at Raia--who had heard it the night before. Long and complicated indeed. "Will you all be teaching too?"

Lucien shot Raia a confused glance, one brow knotting over the other. "Teaching?"

"Yes, that's why all of you are here. I wanted to know if any of you would be interested." And why wouldn't they be? Her father claimed that Lucien was wasted in his current position, it was only a matter of time before Morgan had weaned Viridis, and Lettie was almost as bored at home as Raia herself had been. "But of course, you can say no if you like."

"What would we be teaching?"

"Well, I was thinking that Morgan could teach literature." If Vera was to be believed, there was the start of a book on Morgan's bedside table. "As for you two... well, Ellona and I have a curriculum drawn up with a number of disciplines. You could each have your pick of those, then the rest of the year to familiarize yourself with your chosen subject. Perhaps not the ideal way to train a professor, but... well, we all have to start somewhere, don't we?"

Lettie and Lucien shared a glance, leaving it for Morgan to answer--and not without a hint of a smile. "I'd be fine with teaching literature."

"You know, our grandfather used to be Dovia's Chief Justiciar in his younger days. If I had some time to refresh my legal knowledge, I could maybe teach political science," offered Lettie. "My mother may have brought some of his old texts with her when she married the baron."

"Very well. Lucien, how about you?"

"I'd be willing to teach, but I'm at a loss as to what. I'll have to look over your curriculum."

"All right. Come by tomorrow and we'll talk privately." So that was four secular teachers--a third of the dozen disciplines covered. With any luck, she'd find one or two more recruits, then the church could provide the rest. "Is there any chance that Vera would be interested?"

"Actually, Xeta called yesterday; I think she's roped Vera into a project of her own." He winked, but elaborated no further. Raia made a point to pester her sister about it later.

"All right. Well... keep your eyes open for anyone else who might want to teach and might do a half-decent job of it. We're hoping for at least five secular professors.

"But given that we have four already, I'd say that's not bad at all."


September 16, 2013

In Which Severin Disproves the King's Declaration

January 4, 1183

"So Raia wants to start up a university."

Good to know that Ietrin's ears worked. "That's the general idea."



"Really. Raia."

"Why not Raia?"

Yes, they could have brought in someone experienced and qualified from outside the kingdom, but it was rare enough that someone was willing to move to Naroni, and rarer still that it was someone with prospects and accolades and a lucrative career elsewhere. Making a brand new university in the backwater's backwater attractive to some scholar with a comfortable position at Oxford or Bologna would require a much higher starting salary than Severin was willing to offer.

In terms of present Naroni citizens--well, secular citizens (the church would have to be involved to some extent, but handing one of theirs the top job in a large state project seemed like a ringing endorsement for ecclesiocracy, and Lord knew the church already saw enough of those, whether they existed or not)--who better than a clever young person with a knack for organization, motivation, and large-scale ideas?

While there may have been reasonable grounds for objection, Ietrin didn't find them. "She's a woman."

Whatever Jeda's baby was, this was why the world needed Queen Dea. "So?"

"What do you mean, 'so'? Any man in this kingdom could do a better job of it than a woman."

It was a stretch to believe that Ietrin knew he was a living argument against his own point. "Name one."

The king sneered. "Surely any--"

"You already said 'any'. I'm asking you to name one. One specific man in this kingdom who would make a better chancellor than Raia."

Silence. Severin had thought so. "Look, regardless of whatever body parts the chancellor does or does not have, the university will be a major asset to the kingdom in the long-term. It will put us on the map, for one; I'm sure we'll have students from Dovia and Carvallon, and maybe from France and Spain as well, and some of them may stay in the country after they graduate. The added coin will boost the economy, we'll become more involved in international trade, and we'll actually become politically relevant."

He'd assumed when he'd prepared for this meeting that an economic or political approach would have the greatest sway over Ietrin. The king's grin looked to be a good sign. "I do like the idea of being more politically relevant. And while our economy hasn't been bad, a boost certainly couldn't hurt."

"So you'll give your approval?"

"Of course I'll give my approval. It's true that we're hardly on the map, and this university could just be the thing to put us there--and if it fails, well, I'm not putting any of my personal money into it anyway. Not until my son is old enough to attend, at least."

Kaldar, or the son who won't be born for another month and might actually be a daughter? But it was still early enough that Ietrin could change his mind, so Severin kept the thought to himself. "All right."

"Excellent." The young king clapped his hands together, beaming, much like Severin imagined he had when he'd been informed of his father's death. Or maybe not, but it didn't seem like too much of a stretch. "Well, now that that's done, I have a meeting with an artist. I suppose you may sit in if you like; you might very well want to commission his services as well."

An artist? That couldn't have been Ietrin's usual crowd. "What services?"

"Oh, I'm having a new crest designed. My father might have clung to Dovia's out of some sort of guilt, but I think it's about time the world knew we were our own kingdom." And that Ietrin was king, of course. "I brought in this Master Stephane from Dovia. He did some work for Secundus, and he swears he's never seen anyone better. And while everyone may know not to trust a Tamrion for aesthetic advice, well... the man's young, and he's willing to travel, and his fee was reasonable, so what more can I ask for?"

Severin shrugged, just as the steward took to tapping on the door. Convenient timing.

"The artist is here, I take it?"

"Yes, your highness."

"Good. Send him in."

The door opened and in stepped the artist. Yet, Ietrin had not quite given the right command.

"You're a woman."

"What?" The young lady glanced down at her own breasts and looked back up in mock surprise. Severin liked her already. "I never noticed! Thank you so much for pointing that out."

Ietrin scowled, a vein throbbing in his forehead. Watching him, it was a struggle not to the opposite. "I don't appreciate the sarcasm. I heard you were a talented and respected artist, so I assumed--"

"That I had a penis? I don't know how much you know about art, but most of us actually paint with our hands."

Well, this promised to be good entertainment. Severin took a seat on one of the benches as Mistress Stephane stepped around it, squaring off against the king. "Look, do you want a new coat of arms or not?"

"Well, yes, but..." Ietrin stalled. Severin raised an eyebrow; the artist did the same. "Ah, never mind. It's just, a woman your age... shouldn't you be...?"

"Living my life and making my own decisions as to how I do that? I agree."

The king sighed. If he was anything like his father, that meant he was defeated--even if he didn't know it. "We need more Eves in this world of Liliths."

"Now, now. Lilith is treated most unfairly in the world of literature; no one ever asked for her point of view, did they? And perhaps there was more to Eve than met the eye as well."

"Sacred books are not literature."

"They're still books, aren't they?" Mistress Stephane smirked. She would have to be introduced to Lettie. "Now. This crest. What do you want on it?"

"Mistress Stephane--"

"Seriously. What do you want on it? Because from our conversation, all I can think to put on it is an ass--and don't think I mean a donkey."

That did it. Severin forced the escaped laugh into a cough. Ietrin paid him the briefest of glares, then turned back to Mistress Stephane.

"Damn it, I am a king."

Oh, fuck me. "That catchphrase is all wrong," Severin muttered, though he didn't think either of them heard.

Mistress Stephane, of course, had her own retort. "Well, I can't imagine you're wearing that crown as a fashion statement. Now really, just tell me what you want on the coat of arms. I'll try not to let my womanly bosom get in the way of my paintbrush."

"A manticore, all right? A white manticore." So Ietrin had given up. Triumphant, Mistress Stephane took the seat beside Severin, smug smile still fixed on the king; she would have to be introduced to poor Jeda as well. "But my God, woman. With a mouth like yours, you'd better find a husband soon, because you'll be lucky to ever find another job again."

Done with the king for the day now that his ass had been thoroughly handed to him, Severin turned to the young woman. "Would you be interested in teaching art at a university?"