October 30, 2013

In Which Alsina Finds Where the Fault Lies

September 1, 1183

"Oh, good!" Perhaps not as mindful of her suspicious lack of course as she ought to have been, Alsina launched herself into her husband's arms and squeezed him tightly. He'd had to work late the past few days, and by the time he'd come home each night he'd been too tired to be decent company. But even on an ordinary day, after a stream of other ordinary days, she would not have expected to see him for an hour or so yet. "You're home!"

"Glad to know I didn't wander into the wrong house again."

Alsina laughed. Aldhein wasn't old--certainly not old enough to forget which house was his!--but he was older than she was, and while that hadn't always been easy, they could joke about the difference now.

And it was a relief to have that. Much of their shared past was not the stuff of jokes. "It's about time the duke let you off early."

"Yes, well... I need to talk to you about something." He pulled back and looked her in the eye, his face forcedly neutral. Alsina frowned. People in general did not preface good news with 'something'. "Maybe we should sit down."

"All right..." She let him go and took a seat on the couch, expecting him to go for the one beside her.

Instead, he went for the empty chair. "Um. Well, you should probably know that I didn't actually have to work late the past few days. I just needed to figure out how to tell you this."

"Oh." If he was so concerned about the manner of deliver, then it really couldn't have been anything good. "Did it help?"

"Honestly? No. But you deserve the truth." Yes. Really not good. "You know Aydelle Ildaras, right?"

"The duchess's maid?" He nodded. "What about her?"

"She's with child."

"Really?" It was polite to sound surprised, given that her husband worked with this woman--though from what Alsina knew about Mistress Ildaras, it had just been a matter of time. "Isn't she a widow?"

"She was married to the king's old steward, but she left him before he died. He's been dead too long to be the father anyway.

"Anyway, he didn't have much and he didn't leave her and the girls anything, and they'll be starting at the school in January, so..." He swallowed. Was this the part she didn't want to hear? Given the more immediate lead-in, it wasn't the worst thing one's husband could want to discuss about another woman's baby... "...I've decided to lend her some money."


"Aldhein... Fenrick will be starting in January. And Riala will be starting mid-year." And it has been a while since I've bled, she had to remind herself, though she'd yet to see Arydath to confirm. "We aren't exactly without our own expenses right now."

"I know. But--"

"But what? It's a nice thing to do for someone, sure, but it's hardly your fault that--" Her husband flinched. Alsina's spine snapped to an arrow-straight stiffness as she shot to her feet and with her approximation of her sister's evil eye. Aldhein scuffed his boot in a nervous tell, but otherwise did nothing. "Oh, don't tell me."

Sighing, Aldhein took to his feet. "Alsina--"

"Shut up!" He did--not that he had any right to refuse. "How long has this been going on? Do you love her?"

"No!" Damn it. She wouldn't have been happy, but she might have understood it if he did. "She's a friend, and yes, we've occasionally had sex, but--"

"But what? But you aren't in love, so it doesn't count?"

"Alsina, I'm sorry--"

"You damn well better be!"

Aldhein Denvus was not a man of perfect repute. He'd arrived in Naroni up to his eyeballs in debt, hiding from creditors under any skirt lifted for him. He was the son of notorious drunkard. He had a bastard daughter with a dead queen. He'd been fired by the old king, even banished from his shire for a time. His marriage to Alsina had not helped, and perhaps some tiny part of him resented her for it.

But she'd never thought that he would do this to her.

"I'm going to my room. Don't think about joining me any time soon."


October 28, 2013

In Which Aldhein Takes His Time

August 27, 1183

"The duke isn't here?"

Normally Aldhein was the one saying those words in this study, normally as a statement rather than a question. But today that was Aydelle, and ever since she'd enrolled the girls in the school she'd been here from dawn to dusk for the overtime wages, so she'd had plenty of time to hear that the duke was out at Tetran and the duchess was calling on Lady Rona. She'd only asked as a formality.

And what to make of that. Unless she wanted to talk--and Aydelle never wanted to talk--there was only one reason why she'd be seeking out Aldhein, and that... hadn't really been a reason for a while. There had been one instance two months prior, when she'd been in need of comforting and he'd happened to be around, but apart from that, any relapses had been few and far between in the past several years.

And if this was to be one of them... "Um. The duke's study? Is that such a good idea?"

"I don't want sex." But she closed the door anyway.

Aldhein abandoned the desk and stepped around it to meet her in the center of the room. Was it the money, maybe? He could afford to help her out, but he wouldn't have guessed she'd been willing to ask... "Aydelle--"

"I'm pregnant."

"Oh." The money would have been an easier conversation. But perhaps she just trusted him as a confidante? She did have a lot of lovers. Any one of them could have been...

Actually, what were the odds that it was his? She could have had a whole other baby since the time before the last. "Um... how far along?"

"Arydath said about two months?"

Shit. Of course she had. "How many...?"

"That was kind of a low point for me. There was just you and one other at the time, and... well, I know it isn't hers."

...Shit. "I see." And what the hell was he going to tell Alsina? "Look, Aydelle..."

"Oh, you don't have to be involved if you don't want to." That was what she thought he'd worry about? Wasn't there another seven months to worry about that? "I don't expect your time, or your money--"

"Aydelle, I'll give you the money. You work long hours, and your husband left you nothing, and the girls will be starting school." And so will the new one, eventually. "The money doesn't matter. It's the time I'll have to think about." That, and a little more. What oh what oh what was he going to tell Alsina? Never mind his children.

"Then take all the time you need to decide."

"All right." He'd certainly need it. "Um... this might be an awkward question, but do you know if there's any easy way to break this to my wife?"


October 26, 2013

In Which Rona Makes It Better

August 14, 1183

"You were good for Winter while Mama was at the school, I hope?" Rona put her knee to the dirt and tickled her son beneath his arm. Darry giggled, trying and failing to shrink away. "Well?"

"They were all on their best behavior," Winter assured her. She was a cousin to the Armionshire reeve and she'd only arrived from Dovia at the start of the year; Rona and Ashe had been looking for a nanny for a few months before that, so she'd been a godsend by means of Leara. The kids adored her, and she them, but she knew when to be kind and when to be firm. "This little one seemed to want you, though." She bounced Aspen on one hip as Rona stood.

"And yet, now that you've got her comfortable, she won't want to be in anyone else's arms for the rest of the day." She shot her youngest a quick wink. Aspen grinned, a bubble of drool leaking from the corner of her mouth. Winter wasted no time in wiping it aside, leaving Rona to roll her eyes at the current activities of her older daughter.

"Yvanette, sweetie, is that one of those stray cats?" Why couldn't the damn things stay away? They'd have to get a fiercer dog. Of course Lemons was probably off harassing the kitchen staff.

"Yes, Mama."

"Well, let it go. It could be filthy and diseased."

"Auntie Xeta says cats are clean."

Oh, well if Auntie Xeta says it... "They're feral and aloof, and they don't like to be played with. Leave it be."

The words bounced off Yvanette's ears and she squeezed the vile animal a little tighter. Figured.

Winter laughed. "She has a mind of her own, that one."

That she did. Mangy cat or no, Rona had to smile. "Oh, they all do, and any more of them who come along will too. The poor things have stubborn coming at them from both sides. But who knows, maybe Aspen has enough of my mother in her to keep the peace around here when they get old enough to fight."

"Not that I can see any of them fighting, but all right." Winter hoisted Rona's youngest up to her shoulder and kissed her on the forehead. Aspen beamed; Rona's kids were all quite physically affectionate. "She does seem like a born peacekeeper, this one."

Rona nodded. At this point in her life, Aspen may have been all her father in the face, but neither Yvanette nor Darry reminded Rona so much of their grandmother. If another child started crying, Aspen would crawl to their side, not saying much apart from an agitated cooing but the sympathy apparent in her eyes. If Rona or Ashe was having a rough day, Aspen would perch herself in their laps and reach for a cuddle. She'd barely even needed to be taught to share.


Aspen's squirming didn't wait for the scream to end.


The damn cat hissed as it pulled its fangs from Rona's baby's hand. Rona rushed over and scooped Yvanette up, kicking the animal aside. "Scram, you! Stay away!"

The vile thing sprang to an arc and bolted. Rona hugged Yvanette close, her daughter's blood trickling down her neck as the little girl held on, bawling. Why hadn't she been paying more attention?

And why the fuck wouldn't those damn cats leave her castle alone?


"It's all right, baby. It's all right." Probably, at least. She'd have someone run to Mistress Fedurin for some ointment, just in case. "It's all right..."


"It's all right." I'll make it all right. I'll make sure every wretched stray in this courtyard drowns. "It's all right, baby. Mama's here."

Her hair was damp and sticky with her baby's tears. "Mama will make it better..."


October 24, 2013

In Which Vera Finds Relief in the Mutual Discomfort

July 23, 1183

"There you are!" Vera greeted the dog with a pat on the head, and Whisper licked her nose in turn. The larger and hairier of her babies usually had free reign of the house, but Whisper had been stuck down here while they'd moved Morgan's things, and the poor puppy had no idea why. "Aren't you happy that Auntie Morgan and Viridis decided to come and live with us? Yes, you are. Yes, you are!"

Whisper yapped. Up in Morgan's arms, Viridis giggled--though Morgan herself had been a bit quiet most of the afternoon. Vera frowned. She knew that Morgan's first day was unlikely to be perfect, but she did want it to be at least good. "Are you all right? That chat you had with Lucien didn't..."

"Oh, no." Morgan let herself smile; it grew a little more earnest as she snuck a tickle beneath Viridis's chin. "If anything, it shed some light on a few things."

"Like how you know when perfect strangers miles away need you?"

"Yes, that." Viridis leaned to the side and reached one tiny little arm towards Whisper; Morgan set her down to meet the dog, then joined Vera further in the room. That had been rather... easy. There must have been something else bothering her friend. "Does Lucien have any special powers, apart from the elemental manipulations?"

"I don't know. He doesn't really like talking about it." And after Remiel, she didn't think she needed to ask why.


Her little niece must have sensed something amiss and resolved to do something about it--at Whisper's expense, from the looks of that grip. "Dog!"

"Yes, sweetie, that's a nice dog." Morgan shot Vera a wink; behind her back, Whisper put on her begging eyes. "But anyway, I can't blame him for not wanting to talk about it, not after what he went through. What about your family, though?"

Her family. Vera swallowed. At least Morgan wasn't alone in her discomfort now. "My family."

"Well, Lucien said that your grandmother was one of us, so I just thought I'd ask. I'm a bit curious as to the, uh... hereditary aspects. For Viridis's sake, I guess.

"And wondering about my own daughter, maybe."

Greta. How tragic it was, leaving the world before even arriving. Vera's second pregnancy had ended before she'd even shown, a strained few hours of cramping and bleeding and the eventual presence of a tiny, shell-shaped baby in her hand, not even formed enough for her to guess its sex.

Was it better or worse, having gone the whole nine months?

"Well... my father can do the thing with the elements, but air's the only one that doesn't give him headaches, so he doesn't do it very often." Maybe that and wanting to forget the whole thing. If only all powers were voluntary. "And I... uh, well..."

"You don't want to talk about it either."

Vera shook her head. The one good thing about mutual discomfort was that it sometimes left room for understanding--never mind relief.

"That's all right. Let's talk about something else."


October 22, 2013

In Which Camaline Learns of a Village

July 12, 1183

"Happy birthday!"

Prior dropped Camaline's hand and ran toward Alina, intent on a hug. It was returned quite willingly. "You too!"

Back by the door, Lettie turned her eyes Camaline's way, though Camaline did her best not to meet them. After Jeda's most recent birth, she'd felt obliged to once again apologize to Lettie for the whole ordeal with the twins, a little more profusely and a little more earnestly, and things had been uncomfortable since. She'd woken to serious second thoughts about the plans for the day.

But Prior and Alina always spent the afternoon of their birthday together, for all they believed it to be mere coincidence, and for all the visits had to be cut short before dinner because Lord knew that Sparron and Searle dining at the same table couldn't possibly end well. They'd also had fewer and fewer play-dates the past while, so that had added further reluctance to cancel; apparently Lettie had been concerned about the twins perhaps getting a little too friendly, at least until Sparron told her about Prior's betrothal to his cousin Neva.

Camaline couldn't see why it was an issue, personally. Lord knew she'd never developed romantic feelings for any childhood playmates. Not early enough that anything could happen, at least.

The embrace ended and Alina tugged at Prior's sleeve. "Come on, let's go find my sister and brother."

"I'm here!" piped up little Severin from the rug.

"Not you! Arkon."

A less resilient child might have pitched a fit as his sister and her friend hurried off without him, but Severin just shrugged and resumed playing on his own. His mother was the more fussed of the two. "Did she even say hello to you?"

"Oh, let them run along and play. She can tell me hello when she comes back--and he can tell you," Camaline added. Most mothers let other women's children get away with more than their own ever could; Lettie, trying to compensate, sometimes took that to a whole new level with Prior. "But enough about the kids and their manners. Have you started planning your curriculum?"

"One sub-discipline done, and making good progress on a second." Good. If the professors were already doing their jobs, then there would be a point to Camaline's. "Have a seat."

"All right."

A wave Severin's way as she passed, Camaline obliged, taking the nearest end of the couch; Lettie sat next to her. "How have your preparations been coming along?"

"Also fairly well. Construction on the school has been finished, and enrollment is in progress." And thank God for that! She thought she was coping well enough, but being busy helped. It always had. "Prime land, right in the center of the kingdom. Nobody should have too difficult a commute."

"A lucky thing for you, then." The university lands were in the far southeast of the kingdom... but since that was still Veldorashire, why should that have mattered to Lettie? "Poor Farilon will probably have to move to Master's Village if he wants to get to work in a reasonable amount of time."

"Master's Village?"

"Yes, Raia wanted some options for staff housing, so both the nunnery and the monastery will have dormitories there, and there will be houses for any secular staff in need of them. It'll just be Cherry and Farilon at this point, but who knows? We'll expand eventually. Besides, a village will attract more businesses to the campus. Artan and Maddie will be running an inn down there; Seoth thinks it will be good practice for whenever he kicks the bucket."

"Hmm. Maybe Morgan can move down there if she doesn't like living with Vera and Lucien."

"It's a possibility." Lettie's lip curled inward, eyes squinted, as if reading a book nailed open on the opposite wall. "Or maybe..."

"Maybe what?"

"Oh, nothing." It sure didn't sound like 'nothing'. "So, how are things with your family?"


October 20, 2013

In Which Riona Dismisses the Passing Fancy

July 6, 1183

As a rule, noble widows with mostly older children were not exceptionally busy--or if they were, it was in the company of similarly-aged women of their class, and Riona saw no sign of any such companion upon arriving at her daughter's house, and given her horse's presence in its usual stall, Laralita wasn't out calling on someone else. Indeed, the housekeeper had ushered Riona to the sitting room and told her to wait.

But it had been Lily, not Laralita, who came to receive her--not that Riona hadn't wanted to see her granddaughter, but when she called at Laralita's house, she expected Laralita. Lily had clued into this and told her that her mother was in the back garden, but instead of having Laralita called in, she'd sent Riona outside.

Why hadn't she predicted that going outside would only raise more questions? "Laralita? Is that you?"

The plainly-dressed woman working in the dirt patch raised the hoe to a standing position and glanced over her shoulder. Sure enough, there were Laralita's sparkling eyes and pouty lips, as out of place against the worker's dress and apron as Riona's aging, arthritic lapdog would have been in the Sahara. "Hello, Mother."

"So you're... breaking earth." Not the sort of thing she'd ever thought she'd say about a woman who couldn't bear to break a nail.

"Well, more of it. It's been a matter of phases; I kind of wanted to get some seeds in right away."

Riona peered over the fence and down at the dirt. Sure enough, there were a few sprouts poking up already... though anything that wasn't a flower or a tree or a shrub had always looked like a weed to her. "What are those?"

"They're tomatoes. The cook said they're an easy plant to start with, and they were a reasonable price at the market." Since when did Laralita go to the market? "I'll send one of the boys to Valcria with some once they're ripe, all right?"

Well, she supposed Laralita's tomatoes couldn't possibly be worse than whatever tomatoes her cooks were using presently. Odd as it was that Laralita had tomatoes. "All right..."

"And who knows? Maybe next year, I'll have strawberries. Or cucumbers. Assuming the tomatoes are all right, that is."

"Yes, yes, that sounds lovely." But Riona privately doubted this would be a hobby that stuck. It was just some passing fancy, perhaps--or some need to bring forth new life now that her husband was gone and the change would be upon her soon? Even sheer sexual frustration was a possibility, for all it was an uncomfortable thought; why else would she have mentioned cucumbers? She'd never liked the taste of them. "Really... lovely."

"Oh, good! But you probably just came for an afternoon visit?"

Riona nodded. "That was the idea, yes."

"All right." But instead of dropping the hoe, Laralita just lowered it and resumed poking at the soil. "I'll just finish another row, then I'll be right in. Be a dear and tell my maid to lay out a clean dress for me?"


October 17, 2013

In Which Anna Sees How It Would Appear

June 28, 1183

"And Telvar's not the only one getting bigger, I see!" Mona's hands, ruffling Telvar's hair moments before, now rested on Anna's stomach. Seeing as it was Mona, Anna supposed she didn't mind... but she was getting rather sick of all the near-strangers who saw her stomach and felt it was their God-given right to touch, never mind that she was their queen. The midwife said to expect the baby within the week; Anna wasn't sure if she could wait that long. "God, you must be getting tired."

"Only when I'm awake, except when I'm not." Her friend replied with a good-natured smirk. She never would have guessed it would happen when they first arrived in Carvallon, but now that Mona was married and Anna had a less familiar (if admittedly more competent) maid, she missed having her around. Mona visited when she could, as did Adinaye and many of Anna's other friends, but it wasn't quite the same as having an available companion living under the same roof. "So, how have you been?"

"Well enough, I think. A little sick, though."

Oh, really? "Sick, you say?"

Mona laughed. "Oh, you would assume it's that!" But she left it there, though the seconds-long pause left ample room for protest. "Thanks for forwarding my letters, by the way."

"It's no trouble." In all honesty, she just felt guilty about reading the things before she passed them along, but Mona had insisted and she did have a point; Anna was still supposedly Mona, after all, and therefore had to stay in the loop. "I haven't heard from your mother yet. I hope she doesn't take the news of Searle's new daughter too hard."

"Mmm. She might be hurt, but I doubt she was expecting him to name a daughter after her. Besides, grandparents get passed over for names all the time, even without bad blood there."

And yet, 'all the time' didn't seem to be frequent enough for these noble types. Her feet starting to ache, Anna sat down, her bump somehow more prominent than minutes before. "Speaking of names, you don't expect...?"

"Hmmm? Oh, no." A wink Telvar's way--for whatever reason--Mona shook her head as she joined her on the bench. "I don't think anyone expects little Carvalli princes and princesses to be named for the Dovian royals, even if their mother is from Naroni. If you'd named Telvar 'Roderick' or 'Oswald' or 'Farilon', I don't know how many of his future subjects would take him seriously."

"Carvallon does hate Dovia," Anna agreed. An odd thing to be grateful for, but thank God. "Do you think we could get away with naming this one for one of my parents? Adrius didn't object."

"I think you could. The only people who might know both lines well enough to question probably couldn't handle the sunlight if they left their monastery basements after all these years."

"I hope you're right. But if not, Adrius mentioned my mother's name to Devidra, and she said she liked it--and that there's not enough room in this castle for two Devidras anyway."

"There's not enough room for two Devidras on this continent!" Mona cackled. Anna had to smile. It was a pity that Mona and Devidra hadn't spent much time together, really; Zareth would have to invite his sister some time, without Anna and Adrius. Only, Anna thought she might like to see it. "But speaking of names..."

"Oh, so you don't deny that your sickness is that after all?" A little smug--and a little vengeful--Anna reached over to her friend's still-flat stomach. From what she recalled of being Mona's maid, it was a little firm.

Or at least, from what she could gather before Mona swatted her hand away. "I won't deny or confirm a thing. But if it is that, it would seem a little strange if I called the kid Roderick or Laralita, wouldn't it?"

A knight's wife naming children for her king and queen? It wasn't unheard of, or so Anna thought. Then again, if said king and queen's own daughter didn't do the seem, and the two had a known close acquaintance, perhaps it would raise a few brows. "I guess it might."

"There's Zareth's parents, but he says there's no urgency, so it would be up to me." Mona slouched, the fabric of her gown wrinkling as she slid, though if the pattern said anything, she'd been mindful of her middle. "What do you think of Lara for a girl? Or Derrick for a boy?"

Lara. Derrick. Shortened, perhaps... but really, there was no reason that either of those couldn't be a name of its own.

Or couldn't appear to be a name of its own. "I love them both."