September 30, 2014

In Which Oswald Is Unjust

April 23, 1187

"Another tax hike in Tagrien?" Oswald scowled. There wasn't a king alive who didn't understand the importance of taxes--they were a good portion of a lord's salary, after all. But in exchange for their taxes, the lord was to provide his subjects with protection, maintenance of infrastructure, support... perhaps even the occasional service. With higher taxes, one was to expect improvements to those aspects.

But since Felron had succeeded his father as count, since he'd driven the tax rate up more months than not, not one Tagrien denizen had reported any such improvements. Indeed, Searle's network had intelligence indicating the opposite. The only purpose those extra coins served was the further weigh down Felron's pocket. "Tell me he's at least put men to work on some new docks at the lake."

"I've had no reports on any construction in that area. Or any other, for that matter."


The worst part of it was that technically, Felron had broken no laws, so Oswald could not punish him. The Shire Autonomy Statute of 1056 gave the lords of Dovian shires the right to do as they pleased with their tax money, with no attempt at policing from the king. It also prohibited a king from deposing a lord unless said lord had been found guilty of a crime by a jury of his peers. If Oswald intervened, even if they understood his reasons, the other lords would grow wary. Threatened. And he wouldn't be able to blame them.


"Poverty in the region is increasing. The people are having to choose between feeding themselves or paying their taxes--and Felron's brutish collectors make it an easy decision. Some of the lords have confronted Felron about it, but he says that if his people want to eat, they ought to work harder. Of course, it's difficult to work when no one's willing to pay."

"Tertius never would have stood for this." But Tertius wasn't around to change anything. And as long as Felron kept to the law, Oswald's hands were tied if he wished to remain a just king. Yet, this was getting out of hand. "The people won't take this for much longer. There will be riots. Felron will squash them. That will lead to more riots. The shire will become a cesspit of violence and chaos, people stabbing each other in the back for a loaf of bread, crowds howling at the castle gates day in and day out. They're my people too; I don't like sitting idly by while Felron drives their home into ruin."

"I wouldn't either, in your shoes." His son-in-law's hand twitched. Some days, Oswald wondered if Searle had been too obvious a choice for the role of spymaster, but at his core, Searle was an honest man. His talents lay in using that honesty in dishonest ways--but never so dishonest as to be treacherous. To those he liked, at least. "Perhaps it would be in our best interests to... move Tagrien along in the line of succession. Make Arkon the count. Nearina would make an excellent regent while he finishes his schooling."

"Searle, if I could have deposed Felron, I would have done so some time ago."

"Indeed. But what if he were otherwise eliminated?"

Oswald clenched a fist. Of course. Searle knew the law as well as any. He hadn't meant that Felron ought to be simply stripped of his title. "You mean if he were assassinated."

"Well, it wouldn't be common knowledge. Natural deaths can be faked. Murders too. There's a whole shire full of people who want Felron dead, after all."

"Searle, I'm not framing one of my subjects for murder."

"And I'm not saying that you have to. I have a plan, and I know of just the man to execute it."

Was this what it meant, to be a just king? Pulling strings in the background, plotting covert assassinations of his own noblemen to avoid doing wrong by the others, to avoid violating his forefathers' own laws? It left a sickly taste on the roof of Oswald's mouth.

Nonetheless, he stepped forward. "I'm listening."


September 27, 2014

In Which Vera Has a Last Visit

March 15, 1187

Vera had thought it was just her. The first time her mother had come, she'd been alone. The second time, Lucien had been asleep. But she'd assumed that these visits--or whatever they were--were for her and her alone.

But her father saw her. Even if he couldn't fully believe it. Even if his blinking eyes and strained face of forced stoicism wouldn't let him. "Alina?"

"Hello, Severin." She smiled. It looked painful. "I only have a few minutes."

"But how are you here?" How she'd blurted it out this time and hadn't managed to ask last time, Vera didn't know. "You're dead."

"You brought me here, sweetie--or, you could have." Her mother stepped forward and reached for Vera's hair, tucking some behind her shoulder. Her hand was solid as that of a living woman. "There's not much separating the living and the dead, and the line between isn't impassable. Think of yourself as a gatekeeper of sorts."

"Gatekeeper?" As in... she was in charge? This was supposed to be voluntary? "But I didn't bring you here on purpose! Not that I'm not glad to see you, but..."

"I know. I know." Her mother's hand took to rubbing her shoulder, as it often had when Vera was little. Definitely solid. Definitely present. "See, you were upset about the color the first time I came to you, and you were upset about not being pregnant when Sparron showed up. Now, you were upset about telling your father about Sparron. If you're upset, a well-meaning spirit can cross if they're determined enough. The not-so-well-meaning ones are held at bay by other forces."

"But if I wanted to, I could bring someone back without being upset?"

"If they want a few more minutes--though most don't, if they don't have unfinished business. The dead aren't supposed to yearn for the land of the living."

Then what was the use, calling those who didn't want to be called? "How will I know who has unfinished business?"

"If someone wants to cross, they'll let you know. Usually in a dream or something similar. It will mainly be souls asking after people you know; you can't do much for someone whose loved ones dwell on the other side of the globe."

That made sense. She supposed. "Mother, will I see you again?"

"Not while you live, baby." Her mother pulled her into a hug, and a lengthy one at that. No--she would not have held on like that had she planned on calling again. "So, for now, be glad of every day you don't see me. You're young. You have life ahead of you yet."

"I'll miss you."

"And I you--but my place is there, and yours is still here." Her mother gave one last squeeze, then let her go, sighing and smiling all at once. "Say hello to the rest of your siblings for me, and I'll say the same to Viridis and your grandfather from you."

Vera nodded. Her siblings would believe her, even if some needed their father to vouch for it. "Yes, Mother."

"Good." Her mother stepped back. She still faced Vera, but her eyes flicked to her left--where Vera's father stood. "Severin, why are you looking at me like that?"

"I..." He blinked again--once again surprised to see that she remained. "I don't want to see you disappear again."

"I'll warn you when it's about to happen. You can turn around, or close your eyes." Her mother's head followed the lead of her eyes, and her body followed her head in turn. She took his hands in hers, her thumb stroking his knuckle. "I know I'll have to."

They stared at each other a moment, as Vera vaguely recalled them doing every now and then when her mother had been alive, but back then, such moments had been happy--joyous. Here, a thousand conflicting tensions stood between them, the old dreams and the eternal feelings and everything that had happened in the past twenty years. Her father had spent two years getting over her mother, two long drunken years of self-destructive shadow-hedonism that Vera and her siblings preferred to forget. Then he'd married Nora, who'd been a wonderful stepmother, and they'd had their five children. And one by one, Vera's siblings had married and started having children of their own, Vera herself included. Her mother hadn't even lived to see her first grandchild, Raia's Alina, so obviously named for her.

But her mother, from wherever she was, had seen it all, from afar. And she would understand by now that life would go on, with or without her, with or without any of them. That nothing her husband had done meant he no longer loved her, just that they no longer inhabited the same plane of existence. Just that letting go was the hardest thing he'd ever done.

"We won't see each other again for a very long time. Try to remember that that's a good thing?"

Lip caught in his teeth, Vera's father bowed his head. "I don't know what to say."

"Just kiss me once." Her mother drew herself into him, arms to his back. "That will be enough."


September 25, 2014

In Which Severin Hears Another Voice

March 15, 1187

Severin's remaining adult children, he was lucky to say, all lived well within visiting distance of his castle. Rare was the day when he didn't see at least one of them at some point or another, and indeed, Vera and her eldest would occasionally accompany his younger children and Jadin's children back home after school. But most of them kept their visits to daytime hours, and most of them did have their patterns. Tonight was not a night he would have expected Vera.

That usually wasn't the best of signs. "Something wrong?" He'd thought the color, at least, had vanished some time back.

As she broke from his embrace, she nodded. "I saw Sparron."

Sparron. She wouldn't have come if she'd meant that casually. "After the fact?"

"I think so. But before I heard. Before anyone heard, maybe, except those kids and the guards." She shuddered. The death of an heir never failed to shake the populace, but those in the know had found Sparron's demise particularly surreal. All there was to be grateful for, Severin figured, was that he hadn't perished chasing illusions, as Octavius had long feared he would. "He was in my room, but the door was locked. He talked to me, and I thought I was dreaming. But then the next day, Xeta showed up and told us.

"What do you think it means?"

He'd had nothing when she'd asked him that as a child. He'd gained nothing since. "I don't know, Vera."

"Could it have been a coincidence? Just a poorly-timed dream?"

"I suppose so. I hope so." But his gut nagged at the thought. His and Alina's youngest had been born with an inexplicable connection to the world beyond, a connection even she didn't understand. To outright dismiss the possibility of a visit from the dead seemed a little hasty, and far too optimistic. "Has this happened before?"

"Once, maybe." A tear fluttered from her lashes; she caught it on her sleeve, then dropped her arm back to her side. "Just before the color went."

"Who was it?" Did he want to know? Did she want to tell him? "If you remember."

Vera opened her mouth, but the voice that answered was not hers. Nor did it come from her. "It was me."

It was a voice he hadn't heard in years. It was a voice he heard every day.


September 23, 2014

In Which Camaline Is Out of Place

March 14, 1187

"My apologies again for my brother." If Octavius hadn't just lost his son--if Camaline herself hadn't just lost her best friend--she wouldn't have said it. She held no responsibility for Ietrin's behavior. Ietrin himself ought to have apologized.

But Ietrin never did any such thing, and today of all days, Octavius would need apologies where they were due.

"I'm just relieved he finally left. Fourteen may require a more substantial reward, but regardless, tell Dea she can have her pick of the pantries when you see her next."

"If you don't get to her first." But he couldn't have called her to his study just to tell her that. Nor had he apparently wished to discuss Ietrin's content--and after all these years of living in the same castle, they'd never once called upon each other for idle chitchat. "I doubt that's why you wanted to speak with me."

"Indeed, it is not." Her father-in-law--was he her father-in-law, still?--crossed his arms. His eyes, earlier brimming on the threat of a blink, had run dry. "I know we've had our differences, but I want you to know that you will always have a home here if you choose it. I have no intention of casting out the mother of my grandson, even if my son isn't here to hold us together."

Grateful though she was, she was not surprised. Her father-in-law was a better man than some. "Thank you."

"You should also know that Sparron designated a portion of his inheritance for you, and that I will honor this. I'll keep the money in the accounts for now, but if you ever want to withdraw some of it, all you have to do is ask. It will all be released to you in the event of my death, or if you choose to leave my household sooner for whatever reason."

"He didn't need to do that." She was a princess, after all. Her brother might have been an ass, but he would not have had it said that the king's own sister was a penniless beggar.

"He did. Good people make a point to look out for their families, and hell have no mercy on the fool who tells me that my son was not a good man." He brushed a stray hair off his shoulder, then returned his hand to his elbow in a swift slide. "I do believe he cared for you, though perhaps not in the way any of us might have hoped."

"We were best friends. We were not in love, but it was a love nonetheless and I shall continue to cherish it."

"It eases me to hear it." His body and voice disagreed. But she'd overheard him and Renata speaking the night before, and she thought they had been right. Sparron's life had been far too short, but at least, when he'd gone, it had still been his. Perhaps a short life was better than a long one owned by illness, and perhaps--if nothing else--they could take comfort in that.

"Camaline, can I ask you--?"

But he cut himself off with a shake of his head. "Never mind. I'd rather not know."

If he'd been about to ask what she'd thought he might, then it wasn't her place to answer anyway.


September 21, 2014

In Which Dea Is of More Use

March 14, 1187

Not once in her life had Dea ever been her mother's designated comforter after a funeral.

That had always been Uncle Sparron's job.

Dea had no idea how to go about it. There were many things she did well, but social interaction was not one of them--particularly at sensitive times. And while she had been close with her mother in her younger years, there was no point in pretending the relationship hadn't strained since Holden's birth; hell, this may have been the first time they'd been alone since her brother had entered the world, and only because Aunt Camaline had taken it upon herself to keep him occupied, a colossal sacrifice given her usual opinion of children who weren't Prior. Gennie would have been the better choice, but she'd taken it upon herself to stick by Prior's side, and Dea had to admit that he had the most need of a shoulder to cry on out of all of them.

But Dea missed Uncle Sparron too. No one else quite understood her like he had--and even after Prior had been born, he'd never failed to make time for her and her mother and siblings.

But however much she missed him, surely--she couldn't deny it--her mother had to have missed him that much more. And she'd been alone in his old room for nearly an hour now, and Dea had debated remedying that for upward of twenty minutes. When her father had tried to make a messenger of her, she knew she couldn't put it off much longer. "Hello, Mother."

"Hello, Dea." Her mother picked at the laces of her oh-too-restrictive black bodice. "People will say what they want about your uncle, but he didn't have a cruel bone in his whole body. The good hearts of this world don't get nearly enough time." She'd probably spent the past few days wondering why her brother was gone at thirty while her husband was alive and well. Awful thought it was, Dea did not think she would have missed her father much either. Even with Holden, he'd never forgiven her for not being a boy--and she'd never forgiven him for not thinking her good enough.

"No. I suppose they don't."

"When you were born, your father became unbearable." She'd never been told that, but she'd always known it. "Your uncle and I used to make forts out of cushions and blankets, back when we were children. When you were a baby, he came to the castle one day when Ietrin was out and we did just that. We sat there for hours, just you and me and him. You cried when your father got back and made him leave."

"I wish I remembered that." Though, if she thought about it, she recalled flashes of later forts. A laugh in one image of her and Gennie sounded much like Uncle Sparron's.

No one ever heard that laugh much. No one ever would again.

"Father said he wanted to head back to the castle." Dea pressed the tips of her forefingers together, unsure if she'd given the right response. Her gut said she did, but who knew if her mother would agree. "I told him that no one was stopping him."

Her mother sniffed. "No one is."

"He's arguing with Grandfather now about the rest of us going back."

"That is the last thing your grandfather needs."

And her obtuse father would never figure that out on his own. "Shall I go and help get rid of him?" At the moment, she thought she might be of more use to her mother at her grandfather's side.

"That would be for the best."

"Yes, Mother."

Dea made her way back to the door and tugged at the handle, the hallway beyond empty in front of her.

"Dea, wait."

She turned her head, and not without blinking first. "Yes?"

"Your uncle thought that you should be queen." Her mother slouch down toward the pillow, her crown slipping off her head and falling to the side. If she noticed, she didn't care. "I want you to know that I think he was right."


September 19, 2014

In Which Lettie Has Something to Tell

March 12, 1187

There was little Lettie could do but slump forward and rub at the top of her forehead, as if massaging the news would make it easier to process. Searle was out training with Lonriad, as had been the case with most Thursday mornings since Asalaye's passing--and Lettie's schedule this term didn't require her to be at the university on Thursdays until the afternoon. Her father-in-law knew all this, but that it was indeed Thursday was some...

...well, not luck. Not luck at all, or at least not good luck. But she could see why it would be easier to tell her before telling Searle. "How did it happen?"

"The guards who got there said they'd been able to fish him out some ways downstream, near the Royal Shire. Of course, it was too late by then. He was always a good swimmer, but the current was just too strong, and the water was too high with all the snow melt."

"But what was he doing in the river at night?" And a river so far from his own home, no less! Sparron hadn't been prone to night wanderings since Prior had been born.

Oh her poor, sweet little Prior. It would take everything she had not to ride to Tetranshire immediately in some misguided attempt to comfort him.

"A boy had fallen in; apparently his mother is ill and Aerina needed a certain herb for the cure, one that only grows on the south side of the river. Figures--she usually goes to gather these things on Thursdays." Her father-in-law kicked at the floor. Probably stumped as to how to tell his sister without making it seem like it was her fault. "His two sisters were with him, and the older one ran to the village for help. She found Sparron."

"Did he get the boy out?"

"Yes, but the current was too swift to pull himself out as well. The girl ran back and found the two guards this time. One of them took the children home, where the boy is recovering now. The other brought Sparron to Father Sextus, who then sent for me." Severin sighed. Age-wise, he had over two decades on Sparron and would have expected by default to outlive him by about that much. Regardless of connection, the old never coped well with the deaths of the young. "I took him back to Octavius then, just before I came here."

"I see." So yes--Prior knew. He'd likely been roused as soon as Severin had left, if not earlier. It was a cruel thing, to keep the death of a child's parent in the dark. Even crueler than telling the child. "Octavius and them--"

"They're taking it about as you'd expect. Octavius can put on a brave face if he chooses, but it's never easy losing a child. Even Camaline wasn't her usual self upon hearing the news. Your poor mother will be carrying that household for the next couple months, mark my words." Her mother. In all her worry about Prior, she'd once again managed to forget that Sparron was her own stepbrother. She'd never gotten used to that fact. "Perhaps you ought to call after your classes today."

Whether he'd hinted purely for her mother's benefit or he too had Prior in mind, Lettie wouldn't ask. But she did nod. "I will."

"And do you think it would be better if you told Searle, or should I?"

Honestly? It would have been better if no one told Searle. It would have been better if there'd been nothing to tell.

But there was, so someone did have to. "Maybe we should tell him together."


September 16, 2014

In Which Vera Drifts Off

March 12, 1187


Lucien's soft snores ruled him out as the speaker. The voice was too male to be Morgan's and too adult to be one of the children's. That, and Vera knew the door was locked. After some months' debate, they'd reached the half-reluctant decision to try for another baby, and tonight had been the first attempt of what--if the past said anything--would have to be many. The stress of it all robbed the act itself of all enjoyment, leaving her guilty and hollow as Lucien would ease himself out of her, looking down with concern as if he'd done something terrible, all too aware of her translucent lack of pleasure.

Why couldn't it have stayed as it was, that hungry, impassioned lovemaking of their engagement and newlywed days, back when a baby had been inevitable and she'd assumed her fertility on par with that of Raia or Riona? Why had it become... this? This chore, this ache? This futile effort?


And why did she have to think of this now, again--and just as she'd thought she'd finally found some semblance of sleep, if the voice said anything?

There could not have been another person in the room.

"Vera, please. You're the only one I can talk to."

Her lashes parted and what the room caught of the moonlight leaked in. Surely, she was dreaming. "Sparron?"

Her brothers' friend--her father's friend's son--nodded. Barring their shared scenes in the university's play, he'd never sought her out, except maybe for that one odd party back when they'd been children when they'd awkwardly flirted before he progressed to the apparently more interesting Riona and then disappeared for the rest of the evening. She certainly couldn't have been, as he'd said, the only.

But she stood anyway. It was a dream, after all. Dreams didn't have to make sense. "What are you doing here?"

"I... I need you to pass on some messages for me. I wouldn't have bothered you had there been anyone else; I didn't want to drag another person into this." But there was not making sense, and there was that feeling of having skipped half the pages of a book. "But I guess it doesn't matter now, does it?"

She might have agreed, had she known what 'it' was. "I don't know what you're talking about."

"You'll know soon enough. I don't want to burden you too much when you're tired. But I need you to tell your brother--Searle--" Why wasn't she surprised that it had been Searle? "--tell him that I'm sorry I never said it."

"Said what?"

"He'll know. And he knows I did, but he still wanted to hear it, and I couldn't say it. I wasn't strong enough."

For what? "Sparron..."

"And tell him and Lettie both that they were better friends than I ever deserved. Camaline too. And my father and Jeda... tell them things are better this way. I think they both know, but they may need to hear it aloud."

"How are things bet--?"

"I'm sorry to keep interrupting you, but I'm running out of time." Was she to wake so soon? Just as she'd finally drifted off? "Most importantly, I need you to tell my son that I love him, and that I always will and always would have, even if I'd lost all concept of everything else. Tell him I'm sorry that it wasn't enough, but that I'm not sorry he didn't have to suffer the burden of me. Tell him he'll make an excellent baron and I'm so proud of him."

Even in her dream... why was he telling her this?

"And my daughter, if she ever finds out about me. Tell her I love her, even though I shouldn't."

Daughter? Sparron didn't have a daughter. "Wait, what--?"

She'd cut herself off this time, anticipating an interjection that never came.

He was gone.


September 14, 2014

In Which Sparron Takes a Chance

March 11, 1187

Very rarely did Sparron have business in the village near Veldora Keep. He showed up every once in a while for a drink with somebody at Seoth's, and that about did it. By this hour, even Seoth would have locked his doors, more than ready to snuff the lights and curl up next to his wife for the night. The only soul Sparron had seen since crossing the gate had been a stray cat.

Well... that was assuming that the fleeting Holladrin who'd led him here was just a hallucination. But Holladrin was the furthest from malevolent he'd ever known, so he'd thought it best to follow.

Just in case.

Of course, it would have felt a much less futile effort if she stayed in sight, rather than flickering in and out of existence.

Holladrin? Perhaps she was around the corner of the next house. Holladrin, where are you? Why am I here?

Just the wind, and the rush of the river just beyond the walls--and maybe a voice, crying out from near and far at once. Not Holladrin's, though. Not one he recognized. Most likely just a trick of his mind.

Holladrin? Stepmother? Are you there?


Sparron froze, though the March wind barely brushed his numb body. Holladrin had no reason to address him as such.

"Sir! Sir, I need help!"

It took a few seconds for Sparron to trace the source of the voice, very close but well beneath the level of his ear. It sounded real enough--but then again, many did.

"Sir! Please!"

A golden-haired, white-clad form flashed in front of him. Sparron braced himself and looked down.

Just a crying little girl. "Please... please help..."

Did he dare? "Are you real?"

She sobbed. Not the right thing to say. "Shit. Sorry. What do you need?"

"It's my little b-brother sir. He--he fell in the river!"

What on earth were two small children doing near the river at this hour? Alone? "The river?"

"Yes! He's holding onto a b-boulder, and my sister's watching, but he's tired and he's little and he can't hold on for long. And none of us can swim!" The little girl shivered. If Sparron squinted, trying to see if she'd disappear, he instead saw that her clothes appeared damp. As if she'd tried. "Can you swim?"

Sparron bit his lip. "Yes..."

"Then can you help? Please?"

Another tear rolled down her cheek. It wouldn't have been the first time he'd seen a hallucination cry.

But if she was real--if she and her siblings had been at the river at this time, without an adult, for some reason--if a little boy did drown, and he could have stopped it...

How did a person live with something like that?

"Please, sir..."

Was it safer, he wondered, to assume that everything was a trick of his head? Or was it necessary--every once in a while--to take the chance that it wasn't?

"Show me where."