December 30, 2015

In Which Rennie Assesses the Brightness of Boys

April 6, 1197

"My God! I think he's already gained a pound since I was last here," Rennie's mother mused as she cooed over the baby. It didn't seem quite natural--while she'd done well with her own brood, Rennie's mother had always been more attuned to older children and teenagers than to babies--but she got points for trying, and of course she would try.

Searle was her first grandchild, after all.

"Well, no matter how much he gains, I'm relieved to at least be carrying him externally now. Sev had better not be hoping for a second one any time soon." Rennie still hadn't quite figured out what to do with this one yet! He seemed to just... suckle at her nipples, produce waste, sleep, and cry. At least he didn't cry much. But, he did seem to stare a lot, as if every stupid thing in the world was both fascinating and terrifying. At least he was cute. And warm.

"I hope you've stocked up on herbs, then. Sometimes they happen whether you hope for them or not." Her mother cast a fond-yet-telling glance down at Rennie's little brother, occupied on the rug with Leon and his toy castle.

"Leon, have you been helping Rennie with your new little nephew?"

"Uh-huh," Sev's two-year-old brother muttered, despite having only helped by staying out of her way--possibly only because he thought Searle smelled funny.

"He seems to prefer Sparron to the baby. Sparron's at least old enough to play."

Assuming, that was, that 'playing' constituted banging the figures against the walls and leaving bite marks on their legs. Searle may not have had the assets of mobility yet, but at least he was a low risk for property damage.

"Small boys aren't too bright, are they?"

"No, boys never really are--but they're easy, at least. Girls are tricky."

"Then at least I get to work my way up to a girl, I suppose." Rennie lifted Searle to her shoulder and kissed the side of his head. "Kiddo, if you want to make things easy for Mama, I have no objections."


December 28, 2015

In Which Shahira Suggests the Summertime

March 31, 1197

"So... you live here now?" Izzy asked as Shahira finished pulling his nightshirt over his head, wide blue eyes like his Aunt Alina's every time she'd wanted to tag along after Shahira tagging along after Alya. "Every day?"

"Yes, sweetheart." She hoisted her son to her shoulder and kissed him on the head while he tugged at the neckline of her graduation robes. "I live here every day now."


Izzy leaned in and nuzzled his nose against hers. Inside of her, a wave of relief washed from heart to head. In all honesty, she'd wanted to attend university more than she'd wanted to be a mother. She hadn't been ready to be a mother. But, she loved her son, always had, and had worried what effect only seeing her two or three days out of every week for the first few years of his life might have had on him, or on their relationship.

But, whatever Aldhein or the grandparents had told him about his mama's inconsistent presence, it had clearly worked. He missed her when she was gone, he was always excited to see her, but he seemed to understand that she had to spend some time away, for his sake as well as hers, just like his papa had to hand him over to Shahira's mother when he went to the castle so he could perform his job.

"Very good. And I'll be working from the house, so you can stay here with me some days, or you can go to the castle with your papa some days--whatever you feel like."


"I'm looking forward to it too." She lowered him into his bed and stroked back his hair--raven black, like Aldhein's. It wouldn't be long before they'd have to get him a bigger bed! He was already grown to the point where holding him required a time limit. And when they got him a bigger bed, then it would be time to move him into a bigger room than the nursery joined to the master bedroom. Really, most children his age probably had those bigger rooms already. Most children his age had little siblings in need of a nursery.

"Good night, Izzy."

"'Night, Mama."

She kissed his head again, then watched as he settled himself down, eyelids drooping. She pulled his blanket over his sleeping form, then turned away from the crib, smiling to herself as she made for the door and returned to her own bedroom.

Her own bedroom--where the house's other male inhabitant was swift to greet her.

"Izzy went down just fine, I take it?"

Shahira nodded. "You know better than I do how good a sleeper he is."

"Heh. I don't know, he seems to protest more with me. Maybe when we move him to a new bedroom, he'll be a little more cooperative." Aldhein smirked. "Might realize that it's easier to sneak out of bed and play with his toys for a while when Mama and Papa aren't right next-door."

"Well, he won't have to worry so much about his mama tonight. Four years of university earns you at least one good sleep, and damn it, I'm taking it tonight." And after the endless toasts of the ceremony that morning, and the constant parade of relatives who had been in and out since she'd returned home in the afternoon, she had no intention of breaking that promise to herself. But, for Aldhein--and for herself too--Shahira winked. "After, of course, some playtime of our own."

"Well! I'm not about to say no to that." Aldhein's fingers spidered down her side until they found her hip. But, curiously, they took a detour and leaped for her hand. "Actually, I've been thinking."

"Oh?" Shahira grimaced. With mention of moving Izzy to another bedroom, she thought she could guess what this was about.

"Yes, well... now that you've graduated, I was wondering if maybe it was time for another baby--a planned one this time!" He chuckled at his own joke; jaw locked, Shahira choked out a breath that he might have taken for a laugh. "Izzy seems to do well with younger children. He's fond of his cousins, and of your little sisters. I think he'd like a sibling."

"I'm sure he would." Izzy liked everyone. Izzy wasn't the problem.

Aldhein frowned. He, at least, got that. "What's wrong?"

"Well... to be honest, I was hoping for at least a little time between my graduation and the next baby. Not a whole lot, just... enough to sort of be myself for a while. And to focus on Izzy, since I've missed so much of his life so far."

"Mmm." Her husband nodded, even if he couldn't quite hide the disappointment in his eyes. At least there was understanding mingled in there as well. "Yes, I suppose that's fair."

"But I do want another one eventually. Maybe we can discuss this again in a few months, even? Summer, perhaps?"

"Summer." Aldhein grinned, if only for a minute. "I like the sound of summer, but that's not really so far off. Will that be enough time for you?"

"It will be some time, at least. I can't make up all of the lost time to Izzy, but that should be at least enough time to doll out some serious doting. Maybe it won't be--but if not, I'll let you know how I'm feeling about it."

"Perfect." He smiled again--not so fleetingly this time. "Whenever you're ready."

"And in the mean time..." She drew herself further into him and nipped him on the earlobe. "...I've still been quite diligent with my herbs."


December 26, 2015

In Which Dora Can't Recall a Stranger Thing

March 17, 1197

"Honestly? I'll be glad to be back at the bank come April. I love my babies, but I still need something that's just mine." Rina reclined with a fond smile, though not without a slight spark of impatience in her eye. Given her own field of work, Dora had to appreciate the attitude. It was difficult to maintain commitment to oneself as an individual when roles such as motherhood came around, especially in the case of someone like Rina who had struggled to conceive. Whenever Dora started her own family--and assuming things continued going well with Adonis, that may well have been sooner than she thought!--she hoped she could manage a similar balance. "My mother-in-law has been a godsend. She's been over more days than not, even spending a couple nights a week. She's upstairs putting the quads down for a nap right now."

"That's a relief. I'd imagine four babies require all the help you can get."

"And then some! At least none of them seem to be particularly demanding. No colic or anything of the like."

Dora nodded. Back in Dovia, a neighboring couple had had a colicky young son. He'd grown into a sweet boy, but back in his early days, his cries had carried well down the lane. "Thank goodness."

Rina laughed. "Good thing Alina isn't here. Her second daughter spent most of her first six months screaming her little lungs out."

"Mmm." No, Alina wasn't here, because she was at the bank. But, now that it had been said... why was no one else here? Dora hadn't thought she and Rina were quite at the point in their friendship yet where a one-on-one visit would be a valid plan. Of course, it couldn't have been polite to say so if Rina felt differently. "She's a well-behaved little girl now, though."

"She is," Rina agreed, though her eyes darted to the corner staircase at the sound of a woman's footsteps upon it. "Oh! Dora, this is my mother-in-law, Thetis. Thetis, do sit down and join us."

"Oh, I don't need to intrude," Mistress Tumekrin insisted. Dora's ear twitched. She didn't think she'd ever encountered this woman before--but there was an uncanny familiarity about her voice.

"Nonsense! Sit down. Meet my friend." Rina clapped her hand against the seat cushion beside her. That was enough for Mistress Tumekrin to relent, shuffling to the couch and sitting down next to her daughter-in-law. "Thetis, this is Dora Floren."

"Ah, the famous Dora." Huh? "Hmm. You know, you're right. She does look rather like Alyssin."

Alyssin. Right--Severin and Alina's sister. Of course Rina would want to introduce Dora to Alyssin's mother. "I still need to meet the famous Alyssin."

Mistress Tumekrin's lips curled to a warm grin. She did have a motherly, embracing countenance about her, even if she did look far too youthful to be a grandmother so many times over--and even if she was probably what scowly, sullen Severin might have looked like had he been a woman. This Alyssin must have looked more like Alina--and the twins' father. "I'm sure that can be arranged, though I'll warn you she can be something of an acquired taste--rather like her father. Then again, she's also rather like Severin, and he seems to think highly of you."

"I quite like Severin. I find him... I don't know." They'd been acquaintances for a while now, and she still couldn't quite put a word to it. "Comforting, I suppose. Sort of... fraternal."

"Well, with the number of siblings his father and I made for him, I guess it would be inevitable that he'd end up fraternal in spite of himself." Mistress Tumekrin gave a fond shake of her head, then squinted, studying Dora further. Dora wasn't quite sure what to make of it. It was a prickly, claustrophobic feeling, being examined like a moth pinned to a board, but there was a kindness in those eyes that made it somehow bearable. "My... forgive me for staring, dear, but you even have Florian's eyes. You must be related to his side of the family somehow."

"Maybe?" If they went back far enough? Though, it must have been fairly far... "I'd never heard of any Tumekrins before I met Severin and Rina, though."

"And we'd never heard of any Florens, though it does sound similar to my husband's given name. Perhaps Florian was derived from Floren at some point?"

"Stranger things must have happened?"

But as far as Dora could recall, nothing quite this strange had ever happened to her.


December 24, 2015

In Which Cladelia Doesn't Tell

February 13, 1197

"So... your mother said you were thinking some time in May?" Cladelia was positive that her sister-in-law was tired of discussing her upcoming wedding, and she herself had no idea what to say to Eldona about it. Eldona and her betrothed seemed to be more a platonic match of companionship than anything else, but then again it was difficult to conceive of either party being romantic with anyone ever, so it may have been a moot concern--and, again, probably one Eldona was sick of hearing about.

But, if she didn't talk about something, then she'd start talking about her husband, and she couldn't talk about her husband. Not now. Not while no one else knew just how sick he was.

Not while she didn't want to think about how sick he was.

"Yes, I was thinking the fifteenth. Searle's father and sister said they should be able to come in from Dovia around that time." Eldona glanced over at Cladelia's son on the floor, who wasn't paying the slightest bit of attention to their conversation. It wouldn't be long, if Cladelia's suspicions about her own malfunctioning body were correct, before Ovrean was no longer her youngest. At the same time, who knew if it would be too long for her new youngest to know their father. "But, how is our other Searle doing? I think Mother suspects something."

Cladelia caught her bottom lip on her teeth. Searle had told her not tell anyone yet, as he didn't want to worry them. Part of her wished he hadn't told her either. How was she supposed to go about as if everything was fine when four different doctors had confirmed the presence of that mass in his abdomen? "He, uh... he's taking things easy for now. Not training so hard, and he's been given some relief from any organized duties that might come up."

"Hmm. Well, I'm glad to hear he's not straining himself, at least."

Though it would be nice if he were able to. "I suppose."

"I hear Aerina Frey just released some new tonics. Perhaps one of those might be worth a try?"

There wasn't a tonic in the world that could do much for a mass in the abdomen. But, for the sake of not telling, Cladelia nodded. "Maybe..."


December 22, 2015

In Which Severin Gets to the Point

January 24, 1197

"Queen Celina of Dovia." Severin had to smile at the thought. "Well, no one who knows you could deny that you'd do that title proud."

"Thanks for the vote of confidence, but I don't know if I'd feel right about representing a country I haven't lived in for decades."

"And that's fair."

"But I do love Dovia, and I love Naroni. If Oswald's right and I'd be able to reassure the Dovian populace, then that's to the benefit of both nations."

"True." It didn't surprise him that Celina had already put considerable thought into this before consulting him or anyone else. Since they'd been children, her aim had always been to do the right thing, for as many people as possible, and she wasn't the sort to rush in if she couldn't tell what the right thing was. She had to figure it out first. It was a quality Severin had always admired in her, as he himself tended more toward the impulsive.

And if either path could have equal claim to being the ethically 'right' path, then perhaps that was why she'd sought him out first--not that he could help much here. "I don't know if I can tell you anything you haven't already considered. The intent is good, and I believe you'd do everything in your power to carry out that intent. That said, there could be complications, and this wouldn't be the only way to calm the discontent."

"If you could even call it 'discontent'. Oswald didn't seem especially worried--just aware." Celina twisted her wedding ring about her finger. It hadn't been all that long since Ovrean's passing, really, and Severin doubted she'd thought much of marrying again. Then again, she probably hadn't thought of marrying again after Dalston had died either. "Might I ask what you would do in this situation?"

"Oh, Lord. Even if I were currently detached, I'd be shocked if Oswald had any interest in marrying me--and not just because I hog the blankets." He winked at his own joke, but Celina only indulged him with a polite grin. She wanted him to get to the point. Fair enough. "All right. If I were you... hmm. Well, I don't think I'd do it, and not just because I'd go mad at the thought of being monogamous with someone I'd only see once or twice a year. I just don't think I could continue going about my life in Naroni knowing that all of Dovia will be scrutinous of my every move."

Celina nodded. "That they will be."

"That said--I'm not you, and you're not me. Good luck finding ten people in Dovia who prefer me to a pair of old socks, but all these years later and they still hold nothing but love for Princess Wondrona's only daughter. You also now have a granddaughter poised to become the next Countess of Bandera, whose children will inherit her father-in-law's title; it's in your own family's best interests to serve Dovia well."

"You know... I don't think Oswald had considered my granddaughter, oddly enough." That merited a much truer smile than any tasteless joke about sex with Oswald could. "But the people will. Thank you for reminding me of that."

"Not a problem. But whoever else you talk to, just remember that this is your decision, and you're one of my oldest friends, and there are few people in this world whose judgment I trust more than yours." He reached for her hand and squeezed it, as if support could manifest as physical pressure. "Whatever you decide will be the right choice, and my family and I will back you no matter what happens."


December 20, 2015

In Which Alina Gets a Reprieve

January 5, 1197

"So, what's this I hear about you pestering my parents' household every day this year so far?" Alina smirked as Gualtiero kissed her hand. "If your goal is to make it through next New Year's Eve, don't get your hopes up. My father would have had you barred from this place yesterday if my mother hadn't intervened."

"Well, that's a little harsh. It's not my fault that you never told me you'd be spending an extra few days with your sister after she gave birth."

"Well, it's not my fault that you never thought to stop by at Alya's."

"With a new baby there? The last thing they need is me causing any trouble."

Alina rolled her eyes. In truth, her new nephew was quite possibly the easiest, calmest newborn she'd ever come across. "You do realize that my parents have two babies here."

"Well, yes... but they can at least support their own heads."

"Doesn't change the fact that there are two of them."

"So the house with the childbirth and the days-old infant was a reprieve. So much for being on break." Gualtiero sighed, finally dropping Alina's hand. "I miss seeing you every day."

"Don't be clingy, Gualtiero. It doesn't suit you." His grin slumped somewhat--so she had to prop it back up with a wink. God, men were so insecure. "But I like seeing you every day too. Most days, anyway."

"Most?" Odd, how such a large man's features could contort like a confused puppy's. "Eh, I'll take what I can get. Anyway, since you've been stuck taking care of babies all break, do you maybe want to go down to the inn for a drink? Head-supporting or not, there shouldn't be too many small children around there."

"Now that sounds like a reprieve." And if she wanted to spend some time with Gualtiero, then it would probably be in everyone's best interests if it were somewhere away from her parents. "I'll go get my cloak."


December 18, 2015

In Which Celina Is Thrice More Surprised

December 20, 1196

"I must say, though, cousin," Celina started as Oswald released her from their hug, "the only thing more surprising than your previous letter stating you intended to spend Christmas in Naroni is the fact that you've apparently chosen to come and see me before Dea--or any of your nieces and nephews."

"Don't worry about my nieces and nephews; I'll have ample time to see them all, and their children. But you are my first cousin, and we did grow up side by side. Besides, in truth--" Oswald straightened his stance, now less a cousin and more a seasoned king. "--the reason I chose to come here in the first place was to discuss something with you."

"Oh?" Now there were two things more surprising than his letter. "I can't say I immediately see what business with a twice-widowed mother of a duke would be urgent enough to make the King of Dovia spend Christmas abroad."

"International relations. I will of course relay to Dea all of which you don't deem to keep private, but I thought it disrespectful not to talk to you first. I don't know how much you here in Naroni hear about sentiment in Dovia below the ruling class, but until the university opened, most in my kingdom scarcely paid yours a thought." Not unsurprising--apart from the occasional scandal, not much that happened in Naroni could have been of particular interest to the average Dovian merchant or farmer. "However, now that the university has become prominent and the people have a reason to consider Naroni's existence, they've grown somewhat wary of it. Some think you've forgotten your Dovian roots, or perhaps are trying to surpass us intellectually. The more paranoid of the populace are even talking about a potential attempt to conquer Dovia."

Conquer Dovia? Celina would have laughed if not for the implications of such unfounded panic. "That's absurd! We scarcely have the military might to defend our own borders, much less launch an offensive. Besides, Dea has no interest in unmotivated warfare."

"You and I both know that, but the people of Dovia do not. I doubt the unrest would settle unless a firm formal arrangement could be reached." Oswald crossed his arms, gold ring a stark contrast with his now-silver hair. "Which is why I propose that you and I marry."

And that was a third more surprising thing. "You and I. Marry."

"I know it must be a shocking idea, but hear me out: there's no need for either of our respective lifestyles to change. I will of course keep living in Dovia, and you will stay in Naroni, and we'll see each other just often enough to avoid divorce in absentia. If the Queen of Dovia--the Dovian-born Queen of Dovia--were to live in Naroni, to work closely with the Naronian rulers, then perhaps the Dovian people will feel as if they have some representation in the daughter kingdom."

"Or they could feel as if a Queen of Dovia--who has lived in Naroni most of her adult life and birthed the Duke of Armion--living in Naroni and working closely with the Naronian rulers could very well be a double agent eager to make this Naronian invasion a reality."

"Not impossible--but, the people trust my judgment, if Searle Minara's intelligence network is to be believed, and they were fond of your mother and fond of you. So long as you wear your new title proudly, they will accept you as Dovia's ambassador. And you needn't worry about me whispering my political agenda into your ear; all I ask is some advance notice on any developments that might affect my kingdom, and otherwise I will leave both you and Naroni to act according to your own judgment."

"Hmm. Fair enough." Though, in all honesty, she hadn't expected to marry again--even if it did affect her own life minimally. "But I will have to think about it."

"Of course. I'll tell you what: if you choose to accept, come to my castle in Dovia before your birthday in the year after this next, and we will marry there. If you choose not to, then there will be no hard feelings, and I will figure out another way to reassure the populace."

Celina nodded. A year and a half was a significant chunk of time. She would have her decision by then. "Fair enough."


December 16, 2015

In Which Severin Is Indulged With Polite Mock-Interest

November 12, 1196

"So?" Severin began, trying his best effort at his 'people person' manner. Follow-up appointments were the worst part of his job. Initial diagnoses at least provided a puzzle, but follow-ups only served to prove him right or wrong. If he was right, then he'd send them on his way; if he was wrong, he'd revise his treatment based on the available information, but needing a second guess was a swift punch to the pride. The fatigue of having four-month-old quadruplets at home--home being directly above his surgery, thank God for his oh-too-willing-to-nanny-them mother--had not made this part any more pleasant.

Dora, at least, was quite easy-going, even if she did look oddly like Alyssin--and, for the most part, in excellent health. "That tea still seems to be working for your headaches?"

"Yes, I think so." She did look to be of a clearer head than the last time he'd seen her. Still would have been nice if he'd known what was causing the headaches, though. "I've even started cutting back on the amount of leaf, and that seems to be going fine."

"Not a bad sign--though be sure to taper off slowly." Hmm. Had it been something serious--like a goddamn tumor--then treatment wouldn't have been so easy. An environmental trigger, perhaps? There might have been some headache-inducing substance in her home; she lived alone, so there were no other cases to confirm, but no anti-cases to disprove either. "Do you remember when the last especially painful one was?"

"Yes, actually. My birthday--the fifth of August."

"Huh." That was far enough back now that he didn't think they ought to be too concerned for much longer. That wasn't why that date struck a chord.

"That's my brother's birthday."

"Really?" Dora tilted her head in what Severin assumed was polite mock-interest. At least, he wouldn't have been interested, in her place.

But why did he keep talking? "You're about his age too, come to think of it."

"That's quite the coincidence." Not really. Except, from the look of her... kind of. "Any chance of meeting this brother of yours?"

Severin sighed. Why oh why had he kept talking? "He actually went missing a while back."

"Oh." Dora recoiled--as if she possibly could have known. It had been a while since anyone had last attempted an active search for Teodrin, and the family hadn't spread the news too far beyond neighbors and close friends. "I'm so sorry."

"Not as if you could have done anything about it," he dismissed with a shrug. "He, uh... he was always a little lost, I guess. He might just have gone to find himself." He doubted it--but it wasn't impossible.

"I hope that's true."

"At this point, it's probably not, but I appreciate the sentiment." Damn. Now that Teodrin had gotten into his head, it would take at least two screaming quadruplets to chase him out of there. "So... any other medical concerns you'd like to discuss?"