October 30, 2014

In Which Atasha Turns Around

October 4, 1187

The last of the midnight church bells tolled from the nearby tower as Atasha hurried away from the count's study. There was a labyrinthine design to the corridors in this wing of the keep, but Felron had summoned her after hours enough times that she could navigate them with her eyes closed. It wasn't an uncommon ability among female staff of her age group. Count Felron preferred his study because sex, to him, was a business transaction. It was something expected of an employee should it be asked.

So if she didn't want to find herself and her son out in the cold, all she could do was as he demanded, lie back and wait for it to be over.

The instances had become more frequent since the old count had died. Count Tertius hadn't seen a servant's body as an obligation to her employer.

Something sounded--leather on wood. A boot. A nerve in Atasha's neck twinged. It was a heavy enough footstep that it was most likely a man. Another woman would have known, would have understood, but a man...

Another step--right from the intersection of the corridors. She couldn't run. Whoever it was, they would have seen her.

So she turned around.

And indeed, it was a man. But not one she'd thought she'd ever see again. "My lord?"

He didn't look at her, didn't even move when she'd called. It couldn't have been. It couldn't have been.

But it was.

And he was heading for his son's study.


October 28, 2014

In Which Celina Says Who Will Be Strong

September 15, 1187

Celina ought to have called at Veldora Keep earlier.

She'd had Rona and her family for dinner the night before, and Rona had mentioned, concerned, that Xeta hadn't shown up at the school that day, and that they'd had to bring in Tivie to cover her classes. There were a few fall colds floating around, and Celina knew that both Lyssa and Dalston had caught it, so she hadn't thought much of it at the time, figuring Xeta would just be down for a couple of days and then bounce back. She'd rested easy.

But then, mid-morning had brought a message from Nora, saying that Xeta was distraught and that she'd locked herself in the sitting room, and that Celina ought to come right away. So, guilty, she had.

"It's not the baby, is it?" That had been her first thought, so it was the one she voiced after a few minutes of holding and comforting, her daughter's tears soaking her shoulder. Xeta's youngest was five now, and she'd been itching for another baby in her arms for a while now. Finicky as her pregnancies tended to make her, a miscarriage of her current one would have been catastrophic.

Xeta shook her head. "It's... it's Jadin."

Celina sighed. Jadin had a good heart, but he was as much a scamp at thirty as he'd been as a teenager. If he'd hurt her daughter, she'd have to lay down the law. "What did he do?"

"No-nothing. He caught that--that disease."

Damn. Lorn had mentioned there'd been a resurgence in infected men, the theory that the sickness had laid dormant in them. Jadin, in hindsight, was... not among the least likely to have contradicted it. Still, he didn't deserve it. He was far too young, and--in spite of his flaws--far too good. "Oh, no."

Xeta nodded, shaking. "Aerina--we're going to get more opinions, but she gave him six months. I thought we'd grow old together, Mama. He can't die yet. He can't!"

"Xeta..." What could she say? She too had lost a husband, but she hadn't been given six months' warning. Was it better, being forewarned? Or did that knowledge just taint the precious little time left? "Maybe they'll find something before then. Some way to cure it."

"They didn't the last time, did they?" So that had been wrong. Poor Xeta. Poor Jadin. And all their poor children. "And before you ask, Aerina looked me over. She says I seem fine, and Arydath says the baby seems fine too. But I don't care about me right now."

"Honey, don't say that." Celina stroked a sodden strand of her daughter's hair. She did have rather a lot of it. Of course some of it had caught her tears. "You have to care about you. You have to be strong, for Jadin and the children."

"Then someone will have to be strong for me, because I can't!"

She could, and would. But Celina knew the feeling. "I'll be strong for you, baby. And your stepfather, and your siblings, and Leara and Ashe and Meraleene. We'll all be strong for you."


October 26, 2014

In Which Jeda Cannot Trade Dreams

September 13, 1187

This had been a bad idea.

The note had come the previous. It had tumbled out of the folds of one of Jeda's freshly laundered dresses, placed there by someone who knew she preferred to put them away herself. The writer expressed his condolences for the death of her brother, then told her he was at an inn by the outskirts, and that he'd like to see her the next night if she could make it. He'd signed that note 'Redfreid Radfrar'.

An obvious anagram. Freddard Farrier.

It had been stupid to come. A year ago, Jeda wouldn't have risked it. But she'd been in a hazy grey limbo since Sparron had died, the only swirling lights in the fog her three daughters, and Ietrin's continued ignorance of the fact that she had three daughters. A visit from a friend--even a friend she was foolish to trust--wasn't something she could pass up. So she'd feigned ill and had the trusted nurse sleep in Hollie's nursery. She'd stolen some old clothes from her maid and sneaked out using one of the old routes Mona had made such use of. She'd hired a horse at a public stable and made straight for the inn, not speaking with anyone until she reached it.

She'd given the anagram name to the innkeeper and he'd pointed her to the room. Fred hadn't been there.

But he arrived shortly after she did. "I didn't think you'd come."

"I shouldn't have." A social call to a contract killer. If she ever told anyone about this, they'd think she'd gone the way of her mother. "Why are you here? Is it safe, you coming back to Naroni?"

"I have a job in Dovia. You'll know the details soon enough, but I must ask that you tell no one." He shut the door behind him. The precaution was a formality. If she hadn't said a word about Roderick, whose presence in the land of the living had been to her benefit, why should she mention his involvement in the death of some mark a country away? "I had to pass through Naroni, and I wanted to see you. I couldn't risk coming to the castle, but I--"

"I know. And I hate that castle anyway. I'm glad to be out of it." A smile--she got a smile out of him. It was rare she could say that about a man who wasn't her father or one of her brothers. And it was a lovely smile, but a sad one. He was happy to give her the excuse to leave, grim to know that she'd have to return. "How did you slip the note in, though? Do you have friends in the laundry?"

"I can't name names. If we ever come to live in a better time, when I no longer do what I do and you're rid of Ietrin forever, I'll tell you everything." Oh, what a beautiful time that would be. "How are you? How are the girls? I hear you have a son now?"

Jeda shivered. He would have heard she had a son. Just how much did she trust him, really? She did know his secret...

"Things have been... difficult since Sparron died."

"Of course. My apologies."

"It's fine. It's not as if you can do anything about that." Though, for a moment--for all the lives he'd taken--she thought he'd bring Sparron back to her if he could. No, not thought. Knew. Maybe she did trust him. "Fred, I have to confess something. No one must ever learn of it."

He nodded, slow and gentle, much like the old pony on which she'd learned to ride. That old pony had never let her fall. "Jeda..."

"My son--Fred, I don't have a son. I had another daughter, but I couldn't tell my husband. I couldn't take it any more." Silence. She felt his eyes, but she didn't dare meet them. She didn't wish to see his shock. "I had to lie to him, for both of our sakes. I know it's a huge risk, and that I've probably ruined Hollie's life, but..."

"But you had to." His warm, calloused finger met her eye, taking a tear with it as they parted. "She'll understand when she's older."

Jeda swallowed. Her poor baby. She looked so much like Gennie had at that age. Gennie would have hated to be a boy. "I hope you're right."

"Maybe we should run away. You and me and the girls." He sighed, knowing full well the impossibility of such a thing. "We could go to England. Greece. Turkey. Somewhere Ietrin can't reach us."

For the first time in months, she let herself smile. "That would be a dream."

A pity that they lived in a nightmare.


October 24, 2014

In Which Aerina Gets a Similar Complaint

September 12, 1187

"Nephew!" Aerina greeted Jadin like she did all her nieces and nephews who were older than she was. She hadn't been quite close with any of them--perhaps she'd been closest to Viridis, who'd only be a few months older than she was--but it was still funny enough, the idea of an aunt who was younger than her nieces and nephews, that they usually got a chuckle out of it.

Jadin, however--usually more jovial than Raia or Searle--just grimaced. "Auntie."

"This isn't a social call, is it?"

"Uh... no, not exactly." Figured. Given that they weren't that close, they didn't make a point to make one-on-one visits often. But if Jadin wasn't here to chat, then he had a problem--a problem of her less-than-pleasant specialty. "I've been having some... issues."

A rogue nerve in Aerina's leg twitched. Close or not, there was little worse in the life of a healer than treating one's own friends and family. "What sort of issues?"

"Uh, well... it started with just a rash. I'd had similar rashes before, but they always sort of cleared up on their own after a while." As many rashes did. Many, but not all. "Then I started having some difficulties with, um... elimination. And..."

He flushed. She opted to spare him the trouble. "Other functions of that area?"

"Ye-es. No performance issues--just added irritation when... ready to go." That, Aerina wouldn't have known about firsthand. But Jadin wasn't finished. "Now I've been having some dizzy spells, headaches, fevers, digestive issues--and that's been the best of it. My innards keep flaring up. They're all right now, but sometimes, I swear they're on fire. It's like someone's trying to cook me with my own blood."

"That's a... vivid description." Vivid, and troublesome. She'd run into a healer from Tetranshire while gathering herbs, and the woman had said a man had recently come to her with a similar complaint. 'Flames in the veins', or something to that effect. Sadly, given the story, Aerina did not think Jadin would be the least likely of her relatives to contract the same ailment. "Could I maybe take a look at this rash?"

"Er..." He cringed.

As she'd thought he might.

"It's in kind of a, er... private area..."


October 22, 2014

In Which Fred Takes a Job

August 26, 1187

"There's a man here to see you."

Dania glanced toward the stairs, lip curling inward. She was the only one of Fred's siblings who knew exactly what it was he did, though he was sure the other two at least suspected something unsavory by this point. It was very rare that a client managed to trace him physically in person, instead of arranging a meeting through one of the usual channels, but on the off-chance someone did, Dania knew damn well just what sort of person that client was likely to be. Fred knew how Dania hated being kept in the dark, and he supposed that her knowing made them all just a little safer. It didn't make him feel any better about the worry he caused. "Are the children around?"

"No. I sent them out for a few things. They were here when he came, but he didn't seem much interested in them, though. Or me."

"Good." Fred never left a job unfinished. But if he did, there were those who would seek to punish him for his failure. The usual channels prevented such people from finding his family, but there was little he could do to conceal them from such parties who came to the home. But if this man hadn't made a point to study them, then he wasn't that sort. "Where is he?"

"Upstairs. He said he didn't intend to stay longer than he had to."

"All right." If that was the case, he'd want to be sure the man was gone before the children returned. If he knew Dania, she'd told them to call on their aunt or uncle while they were out--buy some more time.

He crossed the room and ducked into the stairwell, climbing at what he hoped was an assertive pace. He stepped onto the landing and met the face of his client: a man of slight build, fair complexion, and most inscrutable eyes.


"Curt. Good. You'd like to get this over with just as much as I do."

Fred doubted it. But at least this would be quick. "How did you find me in person?"

"Let's just say we have some mutual friends." The man untied a pouch from his belt and spilled the contents to the floor. The amount was that of someone with considerable incentive. "I come on behalf of someone who has no issue paying so generously."

A nobleman. Or a wealthy merchant. Or a crime lord. Regardless... "And someone with a high profile mark."

"My sources tell me that won't be a problem for you." After King Roderick... he supposed he couldn't protest that. "I have no interest in making your life miserable. If you'd rather not, I'll leave right now and won't bother you again. But I'll have to take that money with me."

"No need. I'll take the job." Fred nudged together a couple of coins with his boot. Perhaps he could buy the children a horse. "Give me the details."

"All right." The man's mouth curved--not smiling, not frowning. Considering. "My employer and I have worked out the details of the procedure. If there's a part of it you can't do, don't be shy about it. We'll figure something out."


October 20, 2014

In Which Thetis Has Some Grim News

August 15, 1187

"Welcome home!" Thetis bolted from the couch and to her husband's arms with the enthusiasm most expected of a newlywed--and certainly not of a wife of twenty-eight years! But it had been a tiresome day, and she'd promised to pass along some rather grim news, and Lord only knew how long it had taken her to get that baby down for his nap. If she wanted to greet her husband with that sort of excitement, she damn well would.

"You've been reading dirty Greek myths again, haven't you?" She smacked him on the shoulder. "Hey! I didn't say that was a bad thing!"

"I know, but the kids are home. Besides, the baby is asleep in our room, and any man or beast who wakes him will be tomorrow's dinner."

"Damn it, as soon as he's old enough to sleep upstairs, I'm putting about a dozen locks on our door. But how was the kid's first outing?"

"Not fun. But the baby was on his best behavior, at least." Poor little Octavius--his first ever excursion into the world having to be one of his brother Teodrin's doctor's appointments! And not even the one conclusive one Thetis and Florian kept hoping for either, perhaps stupidly at this point.

"So this doctor's just as much of a bonehead as the others?"

"They're not boneheads, Florian! They've just never seen anything like it." Maybe Severin would come across something in the university library? People could say what they wanted about her son--well, figuratively speaking, as literal privileges were her own exclusive domain--but no one could claim the kid wasn't smart enough to be a doctor. Of course, that would require telling Severin exactly what the problem was... "I don't think poor Teodrin appreciates us talking about this much. But the doctor had something else to say anyway, at least when I mentioned that you were the baron's steward."

"Oh?" Had the man in question held a less important occupation than one of healing, Florian would have barked that the fellow probably had legs, and that it wasn't all that difficult to break into the baron's castle so long as one had the sense not to bring one of his damn kids along (Thetis had yet to figure out exactly which 'damn kid' he meant, and why on earth Florian had thought to bring one in the first place). But for all his eccentricities, he was smart enough to know a genuine concern when he heard of it. "What did he want?"

"You recall that horrible business at the brothel a few years ago?"

"With that ass Maesflein? How could I forget? The dying's so much more painful and drawn out when they miscalculate the length of rope. You know, I bet Lord Severin slipped the hangman some coins for that 'mistake'." He shook his head, smirking all the while. Not for the first time, Thetis marveled at how fortunate it was that Florian worked for the straight-laced baron and that gentle Falidor worked for the good-hearted-but-occasionally-volatile Lord Severin--and not the other way around. "What about it?"

"It seems he's had a number of male patients recently with some serious symptoms, and many of them visited that brothel shortly before the baron had it closed." And God, did she hope none of her sons were among that number! At least Teodrin and downward had been too young for such things at the time. At least Setran, Hamrick, and Dragon were happily married and unlikely to seek companionship elsewhere. And Severin... well, apart from the occasional release of his longing for Rina, Thetis doubted he made a habit of soliciting. "Most of the critical cases at the time were women. He suspects that whatever it is may have a tendency to manifest differently in men and women--affecting women immediately, but laying dormant in men for a time before becoming dangerous."

"So we ought to issue a warning for any men who might have visited that brothel at that time."

Nearly the doctor's words exactly. "That would be for the best."

"Shit." Had one of the kids been in the room, Thetis still might have let the language slide. "Next time I walk past that bastard's grave, I'm spitting on it again."

The only thing that Thetis took offense to in that sentence was the apparent fact that someone had bothered to bury the man. "Throw in an extra wad for me."


October 18, 2014

In Which Melria Is the Perfect Candidate

August 4, 1187

"I should warn you that he's... unreasonable." Willott's eyes darted to the door, as if he could see through it to an eavesdropping, insulted employer. Having already been warned--more than once--Melria didn't blame him. Her stepsister had married a nobleman. Her brother-in-law was reeve in Veldorashire. Her mother-in-law had made dresses for Queen Laralita, and for Queen Jedaline. Not one of them had a good thing to say about King Ietrin, and when Melria had received his summons, none of them had been shy with their opinions.

Her brother the steward had his suspicions about what the king wanted, and he'd told Melria he'd help her if she refused--and that he'd make damn sure that no one judged her if she didn't. She knew Willott to be sincere, but she had not made up her mind. If he was right, then she wanted to know what the king planned to offer her in turn. She was a widow, after all. She had a young daughter, and very few employable skills, and she had not so many assets and prospects that she could have her pick of second husbands from off the street. Her in-laws, since deciding to try to send as many of their children to university as possible, would be in a better state if they didn't have to support her and Ivy, even if they were too kind to say so. Her step-family would help her if she asked, but she did not wish to burden them either. If King Ietrin made a worthy offer, then she would take it.

But if not, then why should she waste her reputation on such a man? Never mind her time?

"If I'm right, and you do tell him no, you and Ivy are welcome to live with me if you feel that badly about staying with Kenvir and Ivilia."

Melria shook her head. "I couldn't, Willott. You work for the man. If he's as awful as everyone says he is, your job could be in jeopardy."

"Nedur and Aldara will take you, then."

"I'm sure they would. But I wouldn't feel right about it." Never mind that her other brother's farm got the bulk of its business from the royal kitchens! "Let's just see what he wants, and if it could possibly benefit Ivy and me. We'll worry about the rest later."

Her brother sighed. "I suppose that makes the most sense."

"Oh, good. You know how I hate being kept waiting."

Willott bowed, and Melria curtsied. She didn't dare resume her stance until after her brother had resumed his, and only then did she get a look at the king. He was a handsome man, with golden curls and a face like a statue of Apollo, and his eyes were a rare and stunning violet that might have put every other color Melria had seen to shame. His voice was not so beautiful, no doubt largely because of the tone. The way he carried himself too had an off-putting arrogance about it. She knew it was neither gracious nor smart to judge a person so quickly, but she doubted she'd ever like him personally.

But she didn't need to like him. If he could solve her problems, then she just needed to tolerate him.

"Lowan. And this must be your sister."

Melria bowed again, more quickly this time. "Your majesty."

Those pretty eyes swept her over. Unimpressed, if she could guess by his flat mouth--but not repulsed. "Leave us, Lowan. I wish to speak with the Widow Corran alone."

"Yes, your majesty." Willott jerked his head downward in a practiced, almost mechanical motion, then left the room, shutting the door in his wake. His footsteps sounded, but a gut feeling told Melria that they weren't leading him further than the next stretch of wall.

"Melria--might I call you Melria?" She nodded. He strode past her on his way to his desk, grazing her thigh as they met. So Willott had been right. "You may sit."

She did, in case it hadn't been a request. "Your brother tells me you have a daughter."

"Yes. Ivy."

"How old is she?"

"Eight, your majesty. Nine in November."

"So if she is your only child, then your husband has been dead for some time."

"Seven years last May."

"I see. You must be tired of burdening your in-laws. I understand that they have children of their own left at home, and intend on having them educated."

She hoped 'burdening' wouldn't have been the word her in-laws would have used, but she nodded. The king must have drilled Willott before summoning her. "They've been very kind."

"Then you've been lucky. Fortunately, I'm willing to help you if you can help me." The king leaned forward, hands together, elbows to his desk. "I will be honest with you. I am concerned that some members of my household staff may have other loyalties. A risk of being king, of course, but the problem is that my wife and I have no particular taste for one another, so since I parted with my former mistress, I have been... satisfying my needs with various female servants."

Yes--Willott had been right. Any other reason, and he'd have had no business mentioning such a thing. "I see."

"Yes. So you see, I now find myself in need of a mistress. When I found out that Willott had a widowed sister, I asked about you; I found I could not have asked for a more perfect candidate. You have a brother in my employ, and another to whom I am a valued client, so even if we parted on bad terms, you would be unlikely to divulge my secrets to my enemies for fear of retaliation against your family. You're nothing horrible to look at, but you're not among the most beautiful of women either, so I'm unlikely to encounter any rivals for your occupation. You're also in a position to benefit financially from being my mistress, especially considering that you have a child to support."

"And just how might I expect to benefit from you financially?"

"Well, I would put you and your daughter up in a nice new house near the castle. You would have servants and new furniture and pretty dresses, and you'd certainly never go hungry. I would be willing to invest in your daughter's future as well. Does it seem likely that she'd want to attend university?"

"I don't think so." Ivy was not stupid, but school had been a struggle since the day she'd began. Melria's bookseller father-in-law had attempted to help with her reading, the seeming root of her academic issues; he'd found he couldn't help her, and had told Melria he suspected that Ivy didn't process letters like most people did, and it would take a teacher with more skill than he to help her overcome or compensate for it. In any case, it seemed unlikely that Ivy would want to torture herself with four optional years of schooling at an age where other options were available.

"Then I shall make a generous contribution to her dowry, and provide her with steady employment until she marries--and even if our arrangement fails, I will uphold my word where your daughter's future is concerned. The same goes for any children we happen to have, though know that I don't require that of you." The king's back straightened, his violet eyes briefly flung to the mantle before falling back to Melria. "Now, what say you? Are my terms to your taste, or not?"


October 16, 2014

In Which Alina Can Do Nothing

July 22, 1187

It was, from what Alina could gather, a sad day all around.

Of course, neither Prior nor Alina's father had at all happy since Prior's father died, and Alina thought she understood that, even if she was lucky enough not to know exactly how they felt. Prior had lost his father, and her father had lost one of his best friends. Of course they'd be miserable, probably for a long time.

But today, they'd both been further down in the dumps than they'd been since the news had been fresh. Her father had been up all night, according to her mother. He'd spent the morning walking around like he was half-dead himself, not noticing anyone around him without direct prompting. Alina guessed he hadn't improved since she and her siblings had left for school.

As for Prior, he hadn't shown up for school. His mother had, also somewhat more morose than she'd been in recent weeks. Alina had asked if Prior was sick, and Lady Camaline had told her that she wasn't--and then invited her to come see him after school, figuring having a friend around might raise his spirits.

So Alina had told Severin to tell their mother she'd gone to Prior's. Her father had her mother at home, after all, at least after she was done at the university for the day. Plus Lonel, plus her siblings after school. And if the conversation she'd overheard between Rennie and CeeCee had been any indication, her grandfather planned to stop in on her father. Prior needed her more.

She just hoped she wasn't bothering him. Sometimes, people just wanted to be alone. "Hello, Prior."

"Hello." A dull murmur. He hadn't turned his head.

Maybe he wanted her to leave and was too polite to say it. Or maybe he just wanted her to sit with him. Some people wouldn't have had to ask, but Alina wasn't quite so confident. "What's wrong?"

"It's my father's birthday."


That explained it. A birthday would be a glum occasion if the birthday boy wasn't here to celebrate.

And there was nothing she could do to help. "I'm sorry."

He nodded. He still wouldn't look at her, but Alina got it. She had brothers. She didn't fully understand why, but she knew boys didn't like others to see them crying.


October 14, 2014

In Which Winter Makes and Is Made

July 18, 1187

"Winter, Winter!" Aspen skidded to a halt as her mother followed her into the room. The little girl had a tendency to trip over her own feet, so Lady Rona never cared to see her running. "Had's here!"

"Is he?" Landing one last tickle to little Dally's chin, Winter turned and greeted both her charge and her employer with a grin. Had did not make a habit of calling on her at work, which was probably why neither Lady Rona nor Sir Ashe seemed to mind on the off-chance he did. "Well, tell him to come in, silly."

"I did! But he says he doesn't want to keep you from your work long, so he'll just wait in the courtyard until you have a minute, then go run some errands after you talk."

"He wants to talk, then?" About nothing too serious, she hoped! Had wasn't her first suitor, but she'd always been busy back in Dovia, caring for her mother and caring for her father and making ends meet, so none of those courtships had lasted long enough for much 'talk'. But things had been going well, at least she thought, so it wouldn't be anything too horrible--surely? "How did he seem? Happy? A little somber?"

"He seems very happy," Lady Rona answered on her daughter's behalf. "Despite Aspen and Darry ambushing him as he walked in the gates. This one and Had got out unscathed, but the silly boy ripped his tunic."

"Do you need me to mend it?"

"Thank you, but I have Electra working on it right now." Lady Rona winked. Odd; in Winter's experience, noblewomen didn't typically make a habit of winking at their servants. "It's just a little tear. She can mend it while you talk to Had."

"You're sure you don't mind?"

"Of course I don't mind." She held out her arms and gestured for her youngest; somewhat unsure, Winter handed Dally over. "Now, go and talk to him before my middle two can pester him again."

"All right. I'll try to make it quick."

She hurried out of the nursery and made her way to the castle's front steps, nearly clearing two at once in her haste. Sure enough, she found Had at the bottom, on the path the cut through the courtyard.

"Allergies letting up?"

"A little." But God, she couldn't wait for December! She had her ups and downs, but anything below her brain and above her gut was not her own from April on to November. No, it was rented domain of phlegm, and phlegm refused to be evicted. But Had had seen her on some of her worse days in the past year, and if that hadn't chased him away, who knew what would. "I'll be in the clear once the Christmas wreaths go up."

"Good thing I have six months. That will be a tough Christmas present to beat."

"You don't have to get me a Christmas present."

"Oh, so you want to show up on Christmas morning with something wonderful for me, then watch me scramble?" Chuckling, he pulled her in for an embrace, his hand warm and gentle against her exposed upper back. "Not a chance."

"Damn. I was looking forward to seeing you flustered." She kissed him on the cheek, then stepped back, looking him over. He wasn't lacking in comical features--the beak-like nose, for instance--but they blended in such a way that somehow made for a handsome man.

It was the flaws, after all, that made one human. "Now, what did you want to speak to me about?"

"Ah, yes. Forgive me if I'm a little nervous." Nervous? Why on earth would he be nervous? She hadn't thought she intimidated him--and given past suitors, she'd appreciated that. "Thing is... I've been happy this past year. Very happy. And this after a time I hadn't thought I could be happy again."



"It's true, Winter. And the reason I've been so happy is you. Every story about your old employers, the way you can't focus on anything else when there's an open book in front of you, even the sniffles from your allergies. You've been on my mind on a loop for months now, and even though my life is good and I know that now, nothing brings that to light quite like seeing you."

Was this? It couldn't have been...

"Winter Verona." He dropped to one knee, hand to his heart, eyes to her face. Not quite blue, not quite green, some wonderful in-between. "I love you. And, if you'll have me, I'd like to spend the rest of my life trying to make you just as happy as you've made me."

"Oh, Had." She couldn't help it. She leaped, practically sprung--landing squarely in his startled, yet reliable arms.

"You already have."

An exhale--relief. His grip tightened and relaxed all at once. "So... you'll marry me?"

"Of course I'll marry you." As she slipped down from his arms, she wondered if she ought to have been more subtle. But who cared? He certainly didn't. Nor did she. "I love you too."