May 31, 2014

In Which Haldred Readies His Blessing

October 26, 1185

"Cherry!" After answering the door, Haldred had retreated just far enough into the house that his next-door neighbor would feel obliged to follow. Maybe that was a little over-eager, and Cherry was a smart lady, so probably transparent too. But the only times she'd ever popped in, his father hadn't been home.

Until now.

"You seem pretty excitable today. Don't tell me some kid at school gave you any funny herbs."

"Oh, no. It's just a good day." It wasn't a lie. How many times had he caught his father smiling nervously whenever he met Cherry's eye through their respective windows? Still glancing well after her back was turned, only to jump back to reality whenever Haldred prodded? That was probably why his father had nailed shut the curtains in the upstairs bathroom--it looked right into Cherry's upstairs bathroom--though Haldred liked to think his father was better than that anyway.

He was, definitely, more awkward than that. For that, he needed Haldred's help.

"Anyway, what brings you to my humble abode?"

"'Humble abode'? Well, I guess it makes sense that the best poetry can't be taught in schools." A laugh rolled in the undertones of her voice, as it often did. Whatever she'd meant, at least she thought it was funny. "But I actually just need to borrow some salt."

"Oh." Then she was probably cooking. That meant she'd have to leave right away. Perhaps he could call his father down now? No, that would have been too obvious. Whether he'd thank him later or not, his father would find subtlety embarrassing enough. "Uh... sure. Are you making dinner?"

"A little early for that, don't you think?" Cherry smirked. Haldred wasn't sure what that meant either, but he'd content himself with the knowledge that she had nothing on the stove at home. "I actually use it in some of my paintings."

Heh? That hadn't come up in art class. "Salt? Paintings?"

"Yes, it has some interesting effects with certain kinds of pigments, or if you use a lot of water. Does wonders for texture too."

"Huh. I wonder if my father's heard that. He used to paint a little, though never as well as you." It may have been wishful thinking, but he thought he caught a spark of interest in her grin. Imagined or not, he'd go with it. Haldred would be eleven in December, and his mother had been dead all his life. For all he knew, Cherry would have no interest in his father as more than a friend, but that was fine. Maybe the outcome here was almost a detail. He often wondered if his father had refrained from remarrying for his own sake; if that was the case, then he owed his father some sort of blessing. He wanted his father to move on.

And crazy as it was since he'd never known her, he was damn sure his mother wanted the same thing.

"Really? There aren't many masters of arms who paint. Your father is a rare breed of man."

"The rarest," Haldred agreed. "Actually, I was just going to put on a pot of tea for me and him. Would you like to join us?"

"I suppose it couldn't hurt." Hopefully his father would see things the same way. "Just give me a minute to run home for some biscuits. I hope you and your father like cinnamon."


May 28, 2014

In Which Arydath Believes in Pork Pies in Heaven

October 11, 1185

"Tarien said he can keep up the host duties on his own. Bernardo and Had are helping him anyway." Not quite there--but moreso than Arydath--Hilla fiddled with her wedding ring. She'd married a good man. All of Arydath's daughters had. Arydath herself had married two good men. Even her mother had approved of Tarien, and her mother approved of almost nobody.

He did her mother well, holding everyone up now that she was gone.

Hilla--always the apple of her grandmother's eye, the granddaughter who bore her name--also deserved credit. She and Celina both had given birth only a month ago now, and little Eliana had been the toughest of Hilla's labors yet. She still hadn't quite regained her energy, but at least she was on the mend. After Lyraina's death, Arydath hadn't been able to breathe easy until her other girls held swaddled proof of safe delivery.

Her mother, at least--unlike her eldest--had lived a full long life. "Thank you. I'll have the cook make his favorite tonight."

"I'll tell him that, then."

"And you and Bernardo and the kids are welcome to join us. I know it's your favorite too."

"Grandmother's pork pies?"

Arydath nodded. "A close enough approximation, at least. She showed the cook a few years ago, just in case... well, you know."

"Because we all loved them."

They all did. Arydath, Tarien, Halford, old Hilla herself. The younger children, who'd grown up on those pies. Cord and Medur, now men grown, who'd more than once sent their wives to their grandmother to beg for the recipe. Lyraina, who'd enjoyed her last a week before she went. Celina, who'd just welcomed her firstborn into the world, and Feoda, still spending her spare moments stressing over when her firstborn would come. And of course, this Hilla--young, beautiful Hilla, her father in the face but with her grandmother's eyes--who stood before her now, a rock like her stepfather and father before her. And her grandmother.

If Ardyath dared think she knew one thing about heaven, she was certain it must have had pork pies.

"Yes. But not as much as we all loved her."


May 27, 2014

In Which Orrick Is Hit by a Thunderstorm

September 17, 1185

Prior to this term, if anyone had ever told Orrick he'd one day have a personal beef with both the King of Dovia and the Baron of Rexus, he would have chalked it up to either delusion or a lazy, unfunny prank. But now that Tivalia was at the university, that delusional, lazy, unfunny person would have been dead right.

Not that Orrick had anything against Tivalia. Indeed, he thought she was a very nice girl, even if she was a little head-in-the-cloudsy for his personal taste. But she was betrothed to Koradril, and despite the match not being their idea, the two were quite infatuated with one another. In both of their fathers' eyes, this was a blessing--but one that came with a heightened need for a chaperone at any afternoon out and evening in. At first, Hanna and Sev had been happy to just make every date a double date, but one offhand mention of this in a letter and the almighty fathers disapproved. Another couple, after all, could easily sneak off on their own, leaving Koradril and Tivalia scandalously alone.

And more often than not, it seemed that of the populations of Aries and Taurus Houses, Orrick was the only available babysitter. Tonight was no exception. Senwick, often out about spreading some hi-jinx or another, had headed back to the shire proper in attempt to woo old Seoth's daughter. Landus had an important exam to study for and Arelle had to finish reading a book. Arlia had plans with some of her... special friends, while her newly-named betrothed, Lorrick, was already halfway to the bottom of the bottle trying not to wonder about those friends. Farilon and Palgrin had a project due in one of their shared electives, and as for Tiada... well, Orrick didn't really know, but when he and Sev and Koradril had arrived at Taurus House, she hadn't been here.

And she still wasn't. That meant he was stuck here. "Koradril, don't you have a paper due tomorrow?"

It was a weak attempt and he knew it. But why couldn't Koradril and Tivalia just adapt a 'What they don't know won't hurt them' mentality like so many others on campus? And worse, why couldn't he bend just enough from his inherent rule-keeping tendencies to suggest it? He feared that come October, things would get even worse when Farilon's betrothed started at the university. Her father was a friend of Orrick's Uncle Rifden, and apparently he was among the strictest of fathers when it came to courtship rules.

"He finished it. He brought it over earlier so Arelle could do a grammar check." Tivalia sidled up a little closer to Koradril--not that Orrick had thought that possible--and rested her head on his shoulder. "She's finished with it, by the way. You can get it from her before you go."


Not so much. Hmm. Maybe Sev had something better to be doing. Sev and Hanna weren't the problem, but if Sev had to leave, then Orrick had no qualms about leaving Hanna to supervise the prince and his lady on her own. Pity that he was too much of an innate stickler to just point out that any concerned parents were a kingdom away.

"Oh, God, you roped in poor Orrick. Don't you sticklers realize that any concerned parents are a kingdom away?"

Smirking, Hanna turned her head and nodded to the newcomer. "Tiada, Sev and I haven't had a date in weeks, so if you're so concerned about Orrick's free time, no one's stopping you from relieving him."

"Ugh, no. I still say that what they don't know won't hurt them. Not my fault that the rest of you saps keep going along with this."

"Hey, I still maintain that a double date should be adequate supervision." Sev subverted his own point as he and Hanna nuzzled noses, suddenly unaware of anyone else's presence. Orrick didn't get it. He could get desire, sure... but to the point where it overpowered restraint and tact? Who did this in front of other people? A double date ought to have just been four people talking.

"Not when you two are the double date! The rest of us could be having an orgy here and you'd just be staring at Hanna with puppy eyes." Tiada had a weird talent for saying exactly what Orrick was thinking. Given how they barely knew each other, this was as baffling as Sev and Hanna's need for public displays of affection. "Come on, Orrick. Let's leave the lovebirds to their oh-so-chaste-and-wholesome nest."

On cue, Orrick twitched--and Koradril cringed. "But our parents--"

"Aren't here. As long as nobody has a baby in nine months, you're fine." Tiada's bony, freckly fingers took Orrick by the arm and yanked him upright. He wouldn't have guessed her strength just by looking at her. "Orrick. Library. You're going to help me with some stuff for my psychology elective."

"Psychology elective?" Granted, he didn't know Tiada all that well, but he never would have guessed her to have the slightest interest in psychology.

"That's your major isn't it?" She didn't slow her pace as she spoke. Orrick caught up and followed her toward the library, past the point of caring exactly how he escaped the love-fest. "I don't get it at all. Believe me, I need you more than they do."

One glance over his shoulder proved her right. "All right."

She got to the door and stepped inside, holding it open behind her. He hurried on through and let her shut the door after. "So, your books are in here, or--?"

"I can't believe you bought that." She grabbed him by the arm again and pulled him away from the door, not letting up until they were only a few inches apart. "No offense, but there's not enough money in the world to make me take a psychology course."

She'd said 'no offense', but as it turned out, she didn't leave him quite enough time to be offended.

It wasn't Orrick's first kiss, but based on the others, he wasn't quite sure that this was a kiss. Usually they started shyly, leaving a long moment's pause in case one party backed out, slowly drifting closer and closer together until finally, the lips touched, like soft rain. Tiada hit him like a freak thunderstorm. Her mouth was open and dynamic and his teeth bowed to the force of her tongue. His knees buckled. He didn't think his knees had ever buckled in his life, but they were buckling now.

What the...?

It was a thoughtless, blurry minute before she finally let go. "Interesting."

"Um... yes, you're telling me." Whatever it was, 'interesting' wasn't the worst word to describe it. Not that it answered any questions. "So... why...?"

"Just kind of wanted to see what all the fuss was about. Just, you know, without all the cuddling and crap."

Huh. "I would have guessed you'd done that before."

"Never. Felt like it was about damn time, though." She flipped some of her wild curls over her shoulder and beamed at him. He wanted nothing more than to freeze time and count the freckles on her face. He'd met this girl, sure... but he didn't think he'd quite seen her before. "Sorry if you were averse, though."

"Not averse. Just... surprised, I guess." To put it mildly.

"All right. Glad to hear that." Her dropped her arms to her side and rocked back and forth on the balls of her feet. The awkward, almost lazy movement was oddly mesmerizing. "So... how about another go?"


May 24, 2014

In Which Aldhein Considers That Which Miracles Answer

September 1, 1185

Aldhein had hoped that Alsina had been able to occupy herself that day. Nora had attended the execution, so visiting with her had been out, but surely Evaleith or Thetis or one of Alsina's other occasional companions would have been free. Most people didn't care to watch an execution, as demonstrated by Alsina herself when she'd told him she had no intention of going. Alsina had more reason to want that man dead than most, and even she didn't want to see it done. The knowledge that he was gone would be more of a comfort without seeing him again.

As for Aldhein himself, he had to see him. He hadn't been informed of the connection until after the man was behind bars, so he'd been denied the opportunity to rip him to shreds himself. The consolation prize had been watching him hang.

"Have you been here all day?"

"No." But instead of elaborating, Alsina just rose to her feet and shuffled through the gap between the chair and the couch, then looped around to greet him. Like most of their touches since Cenric had been born--the handful of times she'd allowed him to make love to her included--her embrace was slow, tentative, even a little hesitant. Today of all days, that was even more fitting. It was a remarkable strength to touch at all.

"So, he's..."

"He's dead," he assured her after she trailed off. "I saw it with my own eyes. I even saw them prod him with a lance just to be sure. He can't hurt anyone else."

Alsina sighed--a light sigh. Like she'd spent years tangled up in some ball and chain and only now had she been liberated. "Today is the best day."

Aldhein raised an eyebrow. He'd known she'd be relieved, but he hadn't thought she'd be happy. He was--he had enough monster in him to take pleasure in death, so long as the deceased was repulsive enough--but Alsina was all human. She would know firsthand that the world was better off without Grayer Maesflein, but to delight--outright delight--in his death? That wasn't her.

"I'm sure there have been better days..."

She shook her head. "Something miraculous has happened."

"Miraculous?" If that was the case, it was about damn time. But miraculous was never the case--was it? "Alsina..."

"I went to see Arydath." It had been some months since he'd seen that light in her eyes. "I mean, it's been half a year since my last course, but I've been a kind of sick the past month or so, so I thought... maybe somehow..."

She trailed off again, though not anxious this time. Blissful. Savoring a bite of something sweet after an overlarge meal of vegetable mush.

Aldhein reached for her face and ran his fingers down her cheek. Her flesh pinkened at the cue of his touch, but she did not brush him aside.

"Are you pregnant?"

She nodded. "Arydath said it's not unheard of, but she hadn't wanted me to get my hopes up before."

He couldn't blame Arydath for that. Midwives had no say over miracles.

But with Maesflein gone and this new little life in the making, for the first time in his life, Aldhein wondered if something out there did.


May 22, 2014

In Which Thaya Knows for Certain

August 15, 1185

"My lord?" Thaya recognized the baron mainly by the family colors of his well-kept tunic. She'd never seen him before, not in the brothel, not in the market... not once. Lord Severin had shown up too frequently for her taste between his two marriages, back when Rissa had still been alive, but if the baron had ever called, it would have been before his marriage to Princess Holladrin--and before Thaya had ever worked here.

Florian had said he'd call once the healers had reported to the baron. He would ask how those who'd been infected were, keep calling until they were all better and the brothel could be reopened, bringing along their reimbursement all the while. Maesflein's former business partner, mortified by the new-found knowledge of the cruelty and mismanagement, had pledged to continually pour what would have been Maesflein's share of the butcher shop's profits into a health fund for the women of the brothel. It would likely be a few weeks yet before they could reopen, but even if they couldn't work, they were better off financially than when Maesflein had been pulling the strings.

The baron must have known that, at least through hearsay. He must have called just to see for himself. "How may I help you?"

"Mistress Madrun, correct?"

Thaya nodded--though not once in her life had anyone called her 'mistress'. "Yes, my lord."

"I thought you and your colleagues ought to know the results of Grayer Maesflein's trial." That had been yesterday. If her still-recovering friends hadn't needed her, she would have sought the results herself. "Stop me if I'm wrong, of course."

"You're not wrong, my lord." Thaya looped her finger through the cord bracelet on her left wrist. One of Rissa's bracelet. She'd left the nicer one to Ilvina--the poor girl would be buried with it tomorrow--but she'd given this one to Thaya just before she'd died. Wherever Rissa was, Thaya hoped she didn't know just how much had died with her. "I won't sleep unless I know he got what he deserved."

"Then rest well, as he did. Maesflein will hang on the first of next month."

And Thaya would watch him. Such relief was an alien feeling after all the grim years of Maesflein. She ought not to have missed relief--relief only occurred where dread and anxiety had been--but she found she had. "Good."

"You are the most senior woman here, correct?"

"I am, my lord." But she found no joy in it, as all those before her were dead.

"Then when this brothel reopens, you shall be its madame. Such enterprises ought to be run by those who know the business--not men who wish to bleed the world dry."

"I... suppose not." But what did a madame even do? It had been so long since Rissa! And for all Rissa's face still hovered in her mind, she recalled little of her shrewdness, her leadership, her generous heart--not enough to know how they worked. She would have to go to Veldora, once a few more of the others had recovered. She would talk to one of the madames there, ask how she ran her brothel. She wouldn't be Rissa, but she could be helpful.

And at least, Thaya knew for certain, she couldn't possibly do a worse job of running the place than Maesflein. "Thank you, my lord."


May 20, 2014

In Which Severin Sees How Some Are Born

August 13, 1185

"What do you want?"

Maesflein hucked a wad of spit over the side of the bed. This, Severin had learned, was how to tell which prisoners were there temporarily and which would only leave by the sweet release of the death sentence. The ones who would be released made a point to be at least marginally polite--or at least silent--when anyone higher up than the usual guard came around, especially if they had a chance at a shortened sentence on the basis of good behavior. There was light at the end of their tunnels, and most knew better than to push their luck.

But the ones with nothing to lose... well, they knew it. So what difference did it make, how rude they were?

In Maesflein's case, Severin was grateful. A show of good manners wouldn't have made him like the man at all, nor did he care to feel obligated to be polite in turn. The rudeness made for a more honest exchange. "I'm here to inform you that your trial has been moved up to tomorrow, if that's what you're really asking. As for what I want--that would be to see you convicted."

"What, for your slut wife and her slut sister?"

"As a slut from a long line of sluts, I know one when I see one. Neither my wife nor her sister comes close to that distinction, but that's neither here nor there. How about we abandon the discussion of so-called 'sluts' and instead speak of moral degenerates who force their tiny little cocks on unwilling parties--and who abandon their employees to sickness and poverty." And to that, he saw not a hint of remorse in the prisoner's eye. "At least we both know that you'll never take the same pleasure in the former."

Maesflein scowled. Nora had, in fact, destroyed only one of his balls--but Aerina had advocated removal of the other, 'in case of infection'. Medically necessary or not, Severin couldn't claim to take issue with that decision. His children had all made habits of throwing their toys at one another. What had Severin done in such instances? He'd taken the toys away.

Maesflein's parents, had they done just that, hadn't achieved the same results. Some people were just born rotten. "You haven't felt a shred of guilt the entire time you've been in here, have you? Not even for your poor daughter?"

"Who's to say she was mine? Her mother was a whore."

"Irrelevant. You still would have been the closest she had to a father. You still owed her a better fate than that."

"She owed me for all the months' work she missed! And for the recovery time after that monstrous stillborn spilled out of her cunt! It's not illegal to demand recompense!"

"But it is illegal to rape a person, as it is to merely attempt it, and it is illegal to employ anyone under eighteen as a prostitute--and for a business owner to demand more than a certain percentage of income from a venture they finance but don't actually run. And while I don't know of any specific precedents of such negligence leading to a public health concern, I would assume that such a thing would be at least frowned upon.

"And now that a teenage girl has died, don't be shocked if the jury votes to send you to the noose."


May 18, 2014

In Which Roddie Doesn't Know

August 12, 1185


He must have lost track of time. He hadn't expected Alya and her siblings to be back from school yet. It felt like he'd barely been back at Isidro and Riona's since his mother had forced breakfast down his throat back home. She'd said he didn't have to go to school if he didn't feel up to it. Maybe the time had passed on the road. He didn't quite remember leaving his parents' keep.

But Alya was here, now. She and the others must have come in through the stables. They must have spent their breaks wondering where he was, dodging Roddie's classmates' questions about why he wasn't there. Alya or Shahira might have gone to Lady Camaline to explain, if she didn't already know. The baron was her father-in-law, after all. She'd probably guessed.

In all likelihood, so had Alya. "Ilvina died."

"Oh." Sure enough--sympathetic, but not surprised. Like his mother, his father, his Aunt Aerina, Riona and Isidro both. Why had he been shocked? "I'm so sorry."

People always said that, as if it were ever their faults. Ilvina's father was the one who ought to have been sorry--but so far, all Roddie had heard about his incarceration was that he'd spent it scowling at the guards and berating some doctor and cursing Roddie's mother for some reason. He'd likely forgotten he had a daughter. Asshole.

"I... I barely knew her, Alya. I met her barely over a week ago. And now she's dead." He'd never really know her. Had anyone really gotten to know her, in the short time she'd had? "It's just... I don't know."

"No one knows." He heard the scuffle of her skirt against the cushion as she sat down, though he hadn't heard her footsteps drawing nearer. "I just... I hope wherever she is, it's better than here."

Amen. Whatever Ilvina's afterlife, it couldn't have been worse than what she'd endured in the land of the living. If it was, then whoever was in charge was a heartless, sadistic son of a bitch.

For all awful things happened, Roddie didn't want to think someone like that was calling the shots.

"I hope so too."


May 16, 2014

In Which Nora Postpones the Scream

**Trigger Warning

August 8, 1185

"Well. Don't think I've seen you here before." The man's weasel eyes scrunched in a series of squints, thin lips writhing like worms in rainwater. "Think I would've remembered you."

Nora's legs tensed. A squad of armed guards hid around the house, ready to barge in at the first sound of trouble. Her husband had insisted on joining them. He'd been against her going, but she needed to look her sister's rapist in the eye, and he'd understood in the end, at least as well as she could have expected. "I need some pork."

"Don't we all. Damn shame, though; my business partner just left to buy some pigs." Business partner. That explained why any incidents had been few and far enough between that word of his depravity hadn't leaked before now. The presence of a business partner would make for a leash, particularly if he was a man of principle capable of backing said principle. "But I'm sure I could interest you in something else."

Not even trying to be subtle. Disgusting.

Good thing she had that knife in the back of her belt. "No. Just the pork."

"I don't think you're quite sure about that."

Before she could ask how he'd possibly guess that, a claw-like grip took hold of her backside. "Care to try some sausage?"


He had the size advantage, but he was apparently unused to his victims fighting back, so she swatted him away with relative ease. For now, she kept her voice to a low hiss; she would call for the guards when he got rough, but she was not done with him yet. "How dare you touch me!"

"How dare I? And what of you?" He grabbed her by the chin and pulled; for the sake of her neck, she had to step forward. "Parading in here, unaccompanied, all that pretty hair spilling out of its bun and those breasts bouncing about beneath that apron?"

"I don't need help buying meat, and there's nothing forward about what I'm wearing. And hell, even if I came in here stark naked--"

"You might as well have!"

He took her by the shoulders and drove her to the wall, an urn by the fireplace smashing in the wake of her leg. The clay edges scratched at her flesh and one large shard dug in with the force of the wall, a warm drip of blood trickling to her shoe. She made a point not to scream. "Stop it!"

"I see it in your eyes, you filthy strumpet! You don't think I know your womanly sins? I married a whore, you know; you're all the same, you bitches. Every last--"

"I told you--" She drew the knife from her apron and jabbed. Wild eyes bulging, he let go of her, stumbling back and buckling over at once. "--to STOP IT!"

The door burst open and in spilled her husband and a half dozen others. Shaking with mingled fear and fury, she sought refuge in Severin's arms while the guards dealt with their convict, now lying on his dirty floor, bleeding and oozing from where no man ever wanted to take a blade.