March 31, 2014

In Which Sevvie Is So Small

January 16, 1185

"Come on, Addie." If it wasn't in both of their best interests, Sevvie didn't make a point of telling his little brother what to do. In certain situations, maybe he had rights as the eldest, but he didn't want to abuse them, and if he thought about it--though he'd never say it aloud--Adonis's happiness was more important to him than a seat at the top of some half-imagined ladder. Normally, he took no issue with Adonis doing as he pleased.

But today was different. It wasn't Adonis's fault that he got picked on, and while a firm fist to his tormenters' noses was a more appropriate solution... well, for the short-term, for what the adults called a 'bandage solution', there were a few things Adonis could do to make himself a less obvious target. That thinking put the responsibility with the wrong person, and ninety-nine times out of a hundred, Sevvie would have clocked anyone who suggested it.

But today was their mother's funeral. Today was the one day that nobody--nobody--was going to pick on his little brother, no matter what Sevvie had to do to make sure that happened. Today, like yesterday and the day before, was bad enough.

"Please just put something else on?"



"No. Mama would have wanted me to wear what I want."

Sevvie sighed. Mama wouldn't have wanted them in black. That would have meant she'd wanted to die. "Mama wouldn't have wanted you to get picked on at her funeral."

"Papa won't let any bullies come."

"He has to if their own parents make them come." As for the other thing... well, Adonis was only five. That was too young to deal with the sad truth that the parents of bullies weren't always much better than their children. "Papa can't protect you all day. He misses Mama too." And that went for Sevvie as well. Being the oldest also came with burdens; he'd had to take care of his little siblings, and he needed some quiet time.

He missed his mama too.

"But Mama wanted me to be myself."

So she had. But who could ever be themselves at a funeral? Would they ever get to be themselves again, now that their mama was gone?



It was their grandfather, apparently having left their papa to Aunt Raia and Yvanette's father, their sisters to their other grandfather and Aunt Nanalie. "Everything all right?"

"I'm trying to tell--"

"He won't let me--"

"Boys." Their grandfather shut the door and stepped forward, head bowed. He was so tall. He wasn't the tallest man Sevvie had ever seen--their papa was taller--but his grandfather never had to look up to meet someone in the eye. Maybe that was why he was so calm today. Tall people never had to look up to heaven, meeting the eyes of the dead. "One at a time. Addie?"

"Sevvie wants me to wear something else." Accusing. The poor kid didn't know that Sevvie was on his side. I'm always on your side, Addie. We have to stick together now. "But Mama would have wanted me to wear what I wanted."

"All right." Their grandfather nodded Sevvie's way. He took to rocking on the balls of his feet, nervous. Another problem with being the oldest was that you always took the blame. "Sevvie?"

"I..." He looked down to his grandfather's boots, to the gold trim of his brother's skirt. Death made the world so big. Or maybe it made him so small. "I just don't want him to get picked on today..."

"I see." His grandfather smiled, at least with his mouth--probably the most anyone would manage that day. "Thank you, Sevvie." But the smile didn't fade when he turned back to Adonis and bent over for a hug, with no intention of making anyone change.

"I'll tell you what; you just stick by me today. Nobody will pick on you while your scary old grandfather is around."


March 30, 2014

In Which Morgan Discovers Part of the Why

January 16, 1185

On a logical level, it made sense that Lucien was coping better with the shock of Asalaye's death than Vera was. Lonriad was her brother, after all. Plus, she'd known Asalaye all her life; their parents had been friends, and they'd been close enough in age to make suitable playmates as children and companions as young women. Then Asalaye had married Vera's brother and become an official part of the family, and this had all occurred well before Lucien was ever in the picture. Morgan doubted that Lucien had disliked Asalaye, but they hadn't been any closer than the average pair of people whose spouses happened to be siblings. If only one of them would be in a state on the day of her funeral to dress the children in black and make sure they were calm before they left the house, of course Lucien would be the more likely.

All the same, it wasn't like Vera to mope through breakfast, then dress more quickly than Lucien or Morgan only to slink downstairs to sit and sulk some more. Most unusually, or so Morgan thought, was that her friend's subdued behavior hadn't started when they'd received news of Asalaye's death.

Rather, it had started some time the night before. "Do you want to talk?"

"Maybe." An indefinite word by nature. Vera's unsure quiver did little to help. "I don't know."

At least the mood hadn't made a liar of her. Morgan lifted her skirts and made for the couch. She doubted she could do much of immediate use, but sometimes just sitting with someone helped. "I'm sorry about your sister-in-law."

"She doesn't feel gone." Vera's fingers flexed at the knuckle, only to fall back into their fold atop her black velvet gown. "None of them ever do."

"Mmm." It was the most sympathetic she could offer without outright agreeing. Her foster mother had left with her last breath, and so had her husband. Her baby hadn't even gotten that. Years later, their absence remained obvious.

But grief was a tricky thing, and it touched no two people quite the same. Who was Morgan to presume that her feelings were any more valid than Vera's?

"I guess... maybe I knew..."

Morgan shook her head. There was always someone who claimed to have known, probably out of misplaced guilt. As if Vera could have done anything to prevent Asalaye's death. "You couldn't have."

"But I did. I always do." What? "I can always sense when someone's going to die. And knowing Asalaye was due, I figured it would be her."

That explained her mood of late. Morgan shuddered. Her foster mother had possessed a not-dissimilar ability once upon a time, or so she'd said, one that had later evolved into something even more uncanny--and Morgan had been the only soul she'd ever told. Was this why her gut feelings had led her to Naroni? Or part of why, at least? "Does anyone else know?"

"Just my father and Lucien. There's not much point telling anyone else, since I can't stop it anyway." She sighed. That was the feeling in a sound, Morgan supposed. It couldn't have been easy, knowing all despite lack of power. "If I have to have something, I would rather something helpful."

Who wouldn't?

And yet... "Maybe some day."


March 27, 2014

In Which Asalaye Is Guided

January 14, 1185

It had been years since Asalaye had cleaned sheets, and she did not envy whoever would next clean hers. Or Lonriad's, as they would be by then--she wouldn't be using them, so what point was there to lay claim?

He'd sleep in another bed tonight. He wouldn't want to sleep in her deathbed so soon after she died, which was just as well because the sheets would be in no state for a living soul. Her extremities had grown numb, but enough feeling remained between her legs to know the blood was still flowing. By the time they moved her body, they'd be better off burning the sheets than washing them. Lonriad could afford better sheets anyway.

She wondered if he could comprehend just how filthy his hosen were bound to get now that he'd climbed into bed with her. Regardless, she was grateful that he had.

"My father went to get the children." His voice was barely more than breath, but it shot loud and clear in her ears as if blown forth from a trumpet. "The older three, anyway. The new little one's with Nanalie."

Her baby. She hadn't left the bed, but they hadn't denied her a look. Her fourth-born, a little black-haired beauty, dark like her father. She'd only held her once. Poor darling. "Name her for my mother?"

He nodded. His shaking chest beneath her head betrayed a brewing storm, but he did well keeping it together and she appreciated it. She didn't want to go out to his sobbing. "They're just in the next room. Nanalie will hear the children come in; you'll get to see the baby too."

Once more. She wouldn't even get to see which nose had won out. "She looks like you so far. I hope she has your nose."

"I hope she has yours."

If the dead had windows to the future, she'd know soon enough.

A figure stood at the side of the bed, though Lonriad didn't notice. Blue skirts, olive skin, soft, wavy auburn hair. Her mother. So this was how the dying went, guided by the dead.

Just a few minutes, Mama. If she thought it hard enough, there was a little more life to grasp. The children will be here soon. Just let me say goodbye.


March 25, 2014

In Which Severin Fails to Translate

January 14, 1185

"Again, I'm sure it's nothing to worry about."

Not that Severin blamed his son in the slightest for worrying. Given Asalaye's history of quick labors, Nanalie had spent the week of the due date at Lonriad's castle, but Nanalie was a couple months pregnant herself and her fatigue had been catching up with her; just in case she wasn't feeling up to it, she'd begged Arydath to spend a couple days with Feoda and Lonel down by the village.

Sure enough, about a quarter-hour in, Asalaye's maid had emerged from the bedroom and rushed out the door, only to return with Arydath ten minutes later. Severin had been telling himself that it was nothing too out-of-the-ordinary--just one young, pregnant midwife a little too tired to take the reins for long, summoning another professional for assistance--but of course the father-to-be would assume the worst if the most experienced midwife in the kingdom had to be called in mid-labor.

"If you think about it, I guess." The trouble with thinking, however, was that it was all too often overpowered by the heart. "And she's done this three times before, right? And if anything's wrong, there's not much Arydath hasn't seen before. I guess."

That was a lot of guessing--though to Lonriad's credit, no man who wasn't a doctor could do much more when it came to childbirth. Even those who were doctors couldn't claim to know much for sure. "It's natural to worry.

"Honestly, I'd wonder about you if you didn't."

"I know, I know." Regardless, Lonriad sighed. "How many kids before you stop worrying?"

"More kids than I have." A phrase that could not be used lightly. "I wish I could comfort you."

"No. You know better than anyone how pointless that is." His son dragged himself forward and rose to his feet with the mechanical lifelessness of a string puppet. The only cure for that ailment was a healthy newborn in the arms and a recovering wife in her bed. "I'm going to check on the children."

Probably for the best. The boys, at least, were old enough to understand that a new baby could be a dangerous ordeal, and Alina might have contracted some of her brothers' gloom. They needed their father, and their father needed them. "Very well. Perhaps get yourself a drink on your way back--calm your nerves somewhat."

"You've read my mind, Father."

Lonriad pained him one last strained grimace, then shuffled off in the direction of the children's bedrooms. Poor kid. Of all of Severin's children, Lonriad himself had been the most difficult birth; his mother had pulled through better than some, but the baby himself had lived an uncertain first few days. So far, Severin's children had been lucky in regards to their own offspring, but with the number of children Severin had, and the number of children some of them were bound to have...

If the probability of disaster always approached one, then with those numbers, it approached at a quicker rate for his family than for most.

Alina, if you're watching... well, you know this is our twenty-third grandchild. Twenty-third. Twenty-two births, no serious complications. Think our luck can hold out a while longer?

The bedroom door opened, and a slow tread followed the creak. Severin knew Arydath's well enough to know that it defaulted toward the swift. "Nanalie?"

He looked up. Sure enough, there she was, but she was alone. She held no red-tinged, swaddled infant in her arms, nor was there a smile on her lips or life in her eyes. God damn it. "Where's Lonriad?"

"He's with the children." Or most of them. Or--his heart twinged at the thought--the living ones. "Nanalie..."

One quick swallow, and her sleeve brushed her eyes. Oh God damn it all.

He got up and offered an arm to her shoulder, a little tentative, not sure if she was the sort who cared for touch. She didn't shrug him off. He wondered if she even noticed.

"What's wrong?" Was that the right way to start? But when she was this distraught--for any of the possible reasons--what could he say to comfort her? To comfort himself? "Is it Asalaye? Or the baby?" Surely not both?

"The baby's all right. A little c-colicky..." Another catch in her throat. If it wasn't the baby, then that meant it was the mother. Shit. "But Asalaye won't stop bleeding."

God. So much for hoping the good luck would go on. "Can Arydath help?"

Nanalie shook her head. "I don't think so. She slowed it a little, but she's already lost so much..."

She trailed to a sob and buried her eyes in her hands. She had no more to say. There was nothing more to say.

The language of grief translated poorly to words.


March 23, 2014

In Which Sparron Hears the Halfway Song

December 31, 1184

"Well." Searle finished smoothing his cowl, then reached for Sparron's hand and squeezed. Sparron tried not to think too hard about the possibility of having forgotten to lock the door. "That's one way to relax before a party."

"Tell me about it." It was Sparron's father's turn to host the New Years' Eve party, which had inspired even more anxiety than parties usually did--and that said something. Jeda and the girls had been around all week, which helped somewhat--and getting Hollie away from Ietrin for a while put one source of stress on hold entirely--but that did nothing to change the fact that every lord and lady and knight and all of their children would be here tonight, drinking and dancing and making noise, and maybe even engaging him in conversations he wasn't itching to have.

But Searle and his family had stopped by early. Lettie, of course, was visiting with her mother and Camaline and Jeda. Dea and Rennie got along quite well, so they'd gone off to library, leaving the pesky little siblings and cousins to play in the yard. And of course Sparron's father was still going over the preparations for tonight with Florian.

That left Sparron alone with Searle.

And that? Had admittedly not been the worst way to start the end of the year.

"It's odd to see you smiling."

So that was why his mouth ached. "Yes, it feels strange."

"Then stop."

"No." Who knew when he'd get another opportunity? "Last I checked, it wasn't illegal."

"Perhaps it ought to be." And yet, Searle couldn't have possibly looked less happy than Sparron himself must have. How was it that his laugh had commandeered his voice? The sound was halfway to song. "That looks painful."

"Not the basis by which legality is determined, Searle."

"I know, I know." Lips settling to a twinkle-eyed half-grin, Searle let go of Sparron's hand and took a step back. "It's just strange to see you in a good mood."

"Good strange?"

Searle shook his head. "Wonderful strange."

Wonderful. Even if things had been well for the past while--with Searle, with his mind, with his family for the most part--Sparron found reluctance in throwing around such words. His solace had always been in caution, and what merited caution more than the crushing force that was optimism, that most treasured agent of disappointment? 'Wonderful' risked too much.

But he supposed the past months had been... 'nice'.

"You know, I never thought I'd say this--" God, his own voice didn't sound right. How did people speak while smiling? "--but this year wasn't awful."


March 21, 2014

In Which Jeda Suggests the Good Practice

December 12, 1184

As a rule, Ietrin did not like children in his study, nor did Jeda care to bring them along on the dreaded occasion of her needing to be there herself. But given that it was she who was turning up unannounced, and not him summoning her, plus the intended topic of discussion... well, it hadn't seemed like the worst idea in the world to have Hollie around.

"Uh... Ietrin."

"Jedaline." Ietrin put down his quill, frowning at the sight of Hollie. Much as his continued disinterest boded well for her, it did strike her as strange, given how intent he'd been on making a legitimate son. Now that he thought he had one, she would have assumed he'd show more affection for the kid. That had been a grave mistake on her part. Ietrin had no affection for anyone. "Is Holden's nanny otherwise preoccupied?"

"She has a headache. I didn't see the harm in relieving her for an hour or so," Jeda lied, though poor Lena was in for some trouble later. Putting her on her father's payroll rather than Ietrin's had been good foresight. "Is this a good time?"

"No, but now that you're here, there's not much point in waiting for a better one." He nodded to the couch across from his desk. "Sit down."

She set Hollie down on the floor and did as she was told. The temptation to start without his prompting tugged at her, but it would feel more natural if she waited for him to speak first. This wasn't something she'd been particularly eager about in the past; the last thing she needed was for him to suspect anything, true or otherwise.

It wasn't his style to keep her waiting long. "What is it?"

"Well... Holden is going to be two in a few months." All that thinking later and that still seemed like the best way to start--strange as she still found it to be calling her daughter 'Holden'. "He's weaned, and my courses have been back to normal for quite some time now, so I was wondering if you might want to..." She swallowed. God, two years ago, she never would have thought she'd be asking him this. "...try for a spare."

"Try for a spare."

The annoyed repetition couldn't have been a good sign. "Not that we have any reason to assume we'll need one, but... it's just good practice, is it not?"

"So I would have said when we were first married, yes." Shit. "But given past difficulties not aided by the fact the neither of us is getting any younger--plus our undeniable distaste for another--the odds of us being successful would not be worth much effort."

"Oh." She wondered if he listened to himself when he spoke to her. If so, that would have answered any nagging questions about where her side of the distaste came from. "Yes, it would be a hassle, but we're not so old that it's out of the question; I'm not even thirty yet. If we just occasionally--"

"Don't pretend that you suddenly like it. I know for a fact that you don't." At the side of the bench, Hollie had taken to picking at the carved wood; Ietrin stopped her with a sharp glare. "Considering how unlikely it is that we would conceive again anyway, it would be in both of our best interests if I satisfied my needs elsewhere and you... did whatever it is you womenfolk do about that."

And what was that, exactly? Not that he'd given her much reason to enjoy lovemaking. "But surely we shouldn't just dismiss the possibility of ever trying--"

"Knowing my luck, we'd have two more girls before another boy. I'm not shelling out any more princess-sized dowries." As if he couldn't afford it. "So long as Holden is healthy, I see no reason to worry. I'm sure you'll find life much easier if you figure the same."

And there was the tone that said there was no point in arguing. Should have figured, knowing my luck. "I... suppose."

But what now? Get him good and drunk and hope for the best? Find a man who looked passably like him, then seduce him somehow once she knew for sure, and pass it off as premature? Maybe Ardyath could help her, make up some excuse as for why he needed to sleep with her? Surely if she needed sex, he'd rather do so himself than become a witting cuckold...

"Good. Now, I'm very busy, so I'd appreciate it if you took Holden back to that lazy nanny of his, and then..." He trailed off, puzzled for a second before resigning to a shrug. "...go back to doing whatever it is you do during the day."


March 19, 2014

In Which Casimiro Has the Time

November 27, 1184

Casimiro was not any more religious than the average young man of his age--the church was hardly welcoming to those like him, after all, so why should he have paid them any more mind than social obligation demanded?--so he hadn't bothered to make much use of the small chapel in his own castle. Hadn't been much point, really. Neither he nor Ellona were the epitome of so-called good Christians, and having a chapel in their own home would have only served as a reminder of that, like some nagging elderly relation they lacked the heart to evict.

But his little daughter had been sick the week before, sick enough that he'd feared the worst in the darkest hour, but she'd made a turn for the better and was now well on her way to a full recovery, or so Widow Fedurin and Aerina Frey agreed, and that was why he'd ridden over to the chapel at the duke's keep. If God had a hand in that, Casimiro supposed it was only polite to thank him.

But the scratch of paws against the hardwood and the thud of a tail against the pews and the wet nose just in view did little for his concern over whether or not it was the right time. "Um... hi, Jadin."

Jadin yipped. At first, Casimiro had been baffled by Lorn's decision to name his dog after his brother-in-law, but the last time he'd seen the mutt, he'd been attempting to hump a barrel. The resemblance had been more obvious since then.

"Oh, don't mind him."

Huh. How had he missed the holy man? "He likes to keep me company during the quiet hours."

"Right." In his pocket, Casimiro fiddled with his wedding band. The clergyman was young for a parish priest--he couldn't have been more than twenty--but he had a calm air of wisdom about him that Casimiro had yet to see in any other priest in the country. Old beyond his age, maybe. "Uh... I don't think we've met."

"No, I don't think we have. I'm Brother Sieron." He stepped around the altar and approached with a whimsical smile. Old beyond his age, but still young in spirit? "I've only been here a few months."

"And I haven't been here... um, probably since the duke's brother got married." And yet, there was no hint of disapproval or condemnation in the priest's eye. "Casimiro de Cervantes. I live in one of the castles close to the border of the royal shire."

"You're a knight, then?" Casimiro nodded. "I thought so. Strong of body, noble of face."

"Well, my brother Bernardo was always the good-looking one, but thank you."

"Men of God are not called to lie to their flocks, Sir Casimiro." One hand flew to Brother Sieron's chest, maybe in search of a cross hanging beneath his robe. "But surely you didn't come here for flattery. How may I help you?"

He asked of his own accord? That was quite an improvement on the other priests. "Just a prayer, I suppose."

"Of course. What sort of prayer?" Another crooked smile broke out across his face. If Casimiro took in his features, only his eyes were remarkable on their own, but in combination, they somehow sang.

"A prayer of thanks. My daughter was sick, but she's recovering now."

Brother Sieron nodded. "A worthy prayer indeed. Shall I add her health to my list of prayers for tonight, or would you like to pray together now?"

Huh. Half-decent priest or not, Casimiro wasn't sure that anyone had ever asked him that. Certainly no one had made it sound appealing. "I've got time."