January 31, 2016

In Which Tarien's Children Are Not Themselves

January 17, 1198

"My God! I don't think I've seen much of you since you were a little ankle-biter--and now you're a baron, of all things." Tarien chuckled to himself, but noted the slight roll of his sister's grandson's eyes. It had been so long since anyone had cooed over how big he'd gotten that he'd forgotten how annoying it could be; Arkon, as any young man his age, would prefer to be addressed as an adult. "Anyway, what are you doing in Naroni a good few weeks before your studies resume? Surely you wouldn't have come all this way to pay your silly old uncle a call."

"Not to insult your company, Uncle, but it's true that I'm here on other business. Is Koradril here?"

"Koradril? He should be. At least, if he's left, no one's told me." Not that Tarien minded, usually--if no one told him, after all, then he could safely plead ignorance in the event of any trouble. But Arkon surely hadn't come all this way for nothing. "I hope he hasn't roped you into any of his shenanigans."

"Not exactly, no." Arkon sighed, drumming his fingers against his hip. "He alerted me to a misunderstanding that I need to get straightened out, but certain details are best left vague in writing. I need him to fill me in in person; I'm surprised he didn't tell you to expect me, actually."

"I can't recall him mentioning you, no." Not in the context of a January visit, anyway. "Must be a fairly private matter."

"Somewhat, but not to the point where he'd need to hide the fact that I was coming. Besides, I don't expect to suffer much; it seems I've been mistaken for someone else, or have been intended to take the fall, but I'll work something out with the involved parties."

Tarien frowned. What sort of accusations would bring a young baron to a neighboring kingdom so suddenly? Surely not the sort of accusations Koradril could have known about, unless he was a much better actor than Tarien could have guessed; the boy had been his same carefree, unfiltered self for the entire duration of his break. "Hmm. Well, best of luck to you there, though I can't say that Koradril has given any indication of anything amiss."

"Really?" Arkon arched his brows, lips pursed. "That's odd. It's not often that Koradril makes an effort to keep his thoughts from breaching his mouth."

"You needn't tell me! The whole kingdom knows half of his early adventures in masturbation, and it's his own damn fault."

"Most of campus knows of his current adventures, given how he insists on keeping his windows open." Arkon smirked, but composed himself at the sight of someone over Tarien's shoulder. "Oh. I suppose we'll resume this particular discussion later, Uncle."

"The discussion of my brother's obsession with his own penis, you mean?" Cladelia, with all the directness one could expect of a daughter of Arydath. Many a father would have been mortified at his daughter's unabashed mouthing of the word 'penis', but listening to Arydath's tales of midwifery all these years, he'd come to realize that sheltering young women did more harm than good. "No need to present any illusion on my part; Koradril slept in the room next to mine around the time he realized it did more than just piss, and the walls aren't as thick as I would have preferred."

Rather than gasp in shock, Arkon chuckled--though, from what Tarien recalled, Arkon's mother Riona wasn't the most bashful of women herself. His sister Nata, here in Naroni as Renata's stepson's widow, surely could have made her fair share of sailors blush.

"Arkon, this is Cladelia--my youngest. Cladelia, this is my great-nephew Arkon, Baron of Rexus."

He turned his head just in time to see his daughter blink. "The baron?"

"I'm still not used to people calling me that, to be honest." Arkon shot her a grin about a half-second longer than Tarien would have preferred boys grin at his sixteen-year-old daughter, but managed to wrangle his mouth back to neutral. "Do you by any chance know why your brother might have written to me, recommending that I come at once?"

Cladelia blinked again--rather unlike her usual spontaneous, confident self. "Cladelia?"

"Um..." Her hand reached to her mouth in some girlhood reflex of nail-biting, eyes darting to the ceiling rather than either of the men in front of her. "About that... I, uh..."


January 29, 2016

In Which Severin Welcomes Back the Bridge-Builder

January 17, 1198

"Good Lord! The Queen of Dovia herself, dropping in on my humble self on her first day back!" Severin joked as he hugged and then released Celina. Nora had returned home that morning, so naturally Celina would have been back in Naroni as well, but he'd figured she'd spend the rest of the day recovering from the journey; Nora, at least, had been napping for a good few hours now.

"Oh, you and your nonsense! Nothing has changed."

"Except for your title, of course."

"As if you were ever one for titles! You've had yours for over forty years and you still cringe when people call you by it!" Celina folded her hands, one of her wedding bands obvious on her finger. If it was Oswald's she wore, she'd made a point not to let it feel alien or overwhelming; it was a part of her attire, but far from her whole extraordinary self. "I take it Nora's sleeping? She and Renata were both fairly drained by the end. I'll have to have them over for dinner some time this week, to thank them for coming along as my witnesses."

"Yes, she's asleep--but I'll be sure to mention it if she doesn't wake while you're still here." Dovia wasn't so far away as it had seemed in the early days of Naroni, but physical miles could stretch to emotional leagues. Celina, perhaps, had fared better on the journey than her companions, true to her new role as political bridge-builder.

"Thank you. The least I can do is let Nora have her nap, knowing that poor Renata is now playing host to her grandson."

"Oh?" Severin's brow twitched. Given how few visiting Dovian nobles they had each year, it was a surprise to have the first so soon. "Which grandson? She does have rather a lot of them."

"You're one to talk! But that would be Arkon--Riona's son, the Baron of Rexus. He said he had something to attend to before his classes resumed, though he never said exactly what. Nice enough young man, though, and I suppose it's not any of our business."

Severin smirked. "You're a queen now, Celina; anything can be your business if you only say it is."

"You really did learn everything you know about royalty from Roderick, didn't you?" More queenly than she must have realized, Celina crossed her arms with a stern smile. "But if you insist on making more of this than there actually is, than Her Majesty demands that you fill her in on the recent events around here."


January 27, 2016

In Which Cladelia Instigates a Frame-Up

January 1, 1198

Still struggled to stand upright following the ordeal of changing into her nightgown, Alyss giggled. "I can't believe we're drunk!"

"You moreso than me," Cladelia mock-scolded her friend--though she couldn't deny that her bedroom was much blurrier than usual. But, she was the youngest child of older parents who had lost most of their will to discipline before she'd been secured in her mother's womb. Alyss was the third child, whose parents had still been young and eager to do everything just right. She would have been less drunk than Alyss, but not for lack of drink--more for the fact that she'd had considerably more practice.

Not that practice helped some people. "But neither of us moreso than Koradril!"

Alyss blinked, a couple extra seconds required to match the face to the name. She got it in the end, though. "Oh! Your brother! He's very drunk. Cute--but drunk."

"And yet we're the ones who get sent to bed right after midnight!" Because her lenient parents just had to spend New Years' with Medur and Ellie. Because her perfect older sister and her killjoy husband just had to be here instead.

"Hmm..." Alyss reached for her chin, but missed. "He's older; he's allowed to be as drunk as he wants? And he's a man!"

"He's not that much older--and drunk men are rude and violent. Drunk women are just fun, like us."

Alyss squinted. "We are?"

"Obviously!" Not that they had much opportunity to get up to anything fun when they'd been unceremoniously banished to her bedroom! Meanwhile, Koradril was still in the hall, translating their grandfather's book of hymns into armpit farts. "It's not fair. We ought to punish Koradril."

"But Mernolt's the one who sent us to bed!"

"My mother will deal with him--but we need to show that drunk men can do stupid things to. We should frame him for something."

"Oooh! A frame-up!" Alyss clapped in giddy pleasure, but then dropped her hands with a frown. "Wait, what are we framing him for?"

"Something only someone drunk and stupid would do. But what can we do from in here...?" Cladelia scanned the room in search of anything potentially incriminating. The parchment and ink at her desk was the only thing that came to mind. But, what could the parchment implicate him for? Stupid Koradril. Stupid older brother, with his manliness and his drinking privileges and his college friends who were--

"I've got it!" Cladelia rushed--or tried to, what with her damn feet and the slanting floor getting in the way--to the desk and sat down, her stumbling friend close behind. A steady chair did little for the motion of the room, but at least she could focus on the blank sheet in front of her.

"We're going to prank the Baron of Rexus."

She pulled her quill out of the inkwell and marked the date at the top--even if she did have to cross out '1197' as an afterthought. "'My dear friend Arkon'... see, he and Koradril are friends, so Koradril calls him 'Arkon'."

"Oooh! You're so clever, Cladelia." Alyss giggled again. "Now, what's the letter going to be about?"

"Hmm." What did she know about the Baron of Rexus? Well, she knew his name was Arkon. And that he and Koradril sometimes went to brothels. And that everyone in Dovia thought he ought to find himself a wife. "...'It grieves me to inform you, my friend, that a certain female schoolmate of ours... who shall remain nameless'..." Cladelia couldn't quite recall any of Koradril's female schoolmates at the moment. "...'has confided in me that you have impregnated her.'"

Alyss gasped. "Oh, my!"

Whether that exclamation was of shock or amusement, Cladelia continued. "'I can't be sure of the story, as I know we men never speak truthfully of our sexual exploits, but she is very upset and expects that you will claim responsibility for the child. Therefore, if you wish to get to the bottom of the matter, I would advise that you cut your holidays short and return to Naroni at your earliest convenience. Signed, your friend, Koradril Sadiel'."

"Cutting a baron's holidays short! Koradril is in trouble!" Alyss rubbed her hands together in glee as Cladelia set down the quill. "But we're not going to send it, are we? I mean, the poor baron didn't do anything."

Cladelia sniffed. "Everyone's done something."

"But we don't even know the baron!"

"Then we'll get to meet him when he shows up to see his secret lover." Cladelia folded up the letter and stamped it shut with a wax seal--rather more heavy-handedly than she would have sober, but Koradril was pretty heavy-handed. "Anyway, care for some more wine? I have a few flasks stashed away in my dresser."


January 25, 2016

In Which Celina Proclaims a New Era

December 28, 1197

"Well," Oswald started as Celina stood before him, still wrapped in her winter coat. Renata and Nora had both seen fit to accompany her, but Celina had insisted that she speak with Oswald alone first; the steward had surely taken their coats and lit them a fire by now. "I can't honestly say I expected to see you before summer."

"It was an important decision, and I appreciate you giving me the time to make it--but any more and I might have just talked myself out of it."

The king chuckled, a spark of fondness in his eye. Whatever happened, he was still her fond older cousin. That was a comforting thought. "Is that a 'yes', then?"

"It is. After thinking it over, and bouncing it off some trusted parties, I've come to the conclusion that our marriage would benefit both kingdoms, even with me remaining in Naroni." And of course she would. She was to be an ambassador, after all. And she had to keep Searle's castle for little Ovrean. "As for the issue of a lack of trust in me given how much of my life has been devoted to Naroni, I figure the fact that my granddaughter is set to be the next Countess of Bandera should render that point moot; Dovia's best interests are my family's as well."

"Yours and mine both; your granddaughter's daughter is our mutual great-grandchild, after all. Curious, to think that we'd have a mutual grandchild even given--" He brought himself to a halt, an awkward twitch at the corner of his mouth. "That is to say, you... I mean, you still look the picture of youth, but--"

"No need to beat around the bush, cousin. You do flatter me, but I'll assure you that I am several years past the point of bearing you a child."

Oswald sighed. "Thank God. A king shouldn't have too many sons, I don't think; it was difficult carving out positions for my younger four, and I suppose I ought to be relieved that their sons likely won't be my problem."

"Your younger sons' sons are all princes, then?"

"My younger sons' sons and their sons--but I draw the line there." Oswald shook his head. "Not many monarchs before me had younger sons. Whatever you and Roderick and the rest of you woke in the forest when you headed west, it must have cursed us all with more fertility than we can handle. Anyway: would you prefer to wed tonight, or shall we take a few days to plan a proper ceremony?"

"We needn't a large ceremony, but I believe we ought to wed on the first." Celina kept her head high, the rings of Dalston and Ovrean around her neck more charm than burden. "A new year, and a new era."


January 23, 2016

In Which Severin Is Found Fraternal

December 4, 1197

"Ladies," Severin greeted Rina and her visitors as he returned to their home for the day. The sound of high-pitched giggling drew his eyes to the four toddlers on the floor. "Children."

"Papa!" Renalie acknowledged him. The other three ranged from a turn of the head to no response at all. It wasn't surprising; Rina may have sworn to contrary, but Severin suspected that Renalie was the only one of the quads who liked him much. Either that or she simply felt sorry for him.

"Ladies? Children? That's all you have to say?" From her seat at the table beside Rina, Severin's sister rolled her eyes. "Dora's wearing a wedding dress, you dolt! Tell her how lovely she looks!"

Oh. Right. Dora was getting married later in the month.

Not caring to insult one of the few people on the planet he found at all interesting, Severin looked Dora up and down as Tiada fiddled with some adjustments to the dress's back. "You look lovely."

Dora smiled shyly. Why did she look like someone else when she did that? And why could he not for the life of him fathom who? "Thank you."

"Dora has something else to say to you, too," Tiada urged with a wink and a nudge--for Severin and for Dora respectively.

"Oh. Yes. Yes, I do."

"All right, then." Severin shrugged as Dora stepped forward. "What is it?"

"Would you... maybe walk me down the aisle?"

Severin blinked. He hadn't expected anyone to ask that of him until Thetrica or Renalie married, assuming that he grew on them. Sure, Dora didn't have family--and sure, Rina and Alina had befriended her--but weren't the two of them little more than acquaintances, at the end of the day? "Me? Really? Uh... don't you think Orrick or Adwyn or someone would be a better choice?"

Dora shook her head. "Orrick's my boss, so I don't know how appropriate that would be. And it certainly wouldn't be right to ask any of Adonis's family."

"What about Jothein, then? Or Laurie or Orrin?" Alina's husband or Tiada's brothers certainly would have been more approachable for such a shy woman!

"I thought about them, but my mind just kept coming back to you." Dora clasped her hands together, as if she might fall to her knees and start begging him. "Please? For some reason, I find you... I don't know. A little fraternal?"

He didn't have to look to see Alina's raised eyebrow. That was probably the last word any of his siblings would have used to describe him. "Fraternal?"

"I know it's strange. But... but it's just how I feel, I guess." Dora blushed, shy smile returning. That look of someone else returning. "Please?"

Severin sighed. He supposed there were worse jobs a person could get at a wedding. "All right. If it means that much to you, and if you're sure."

"Really?" That smile was not so shy--and she only looked like herself. Perhaps he'd never seen a smile quite like that. "Oh, thank you so much!"


January 21, 2016

In Which Falidor Is Dull by Comparison

November 19, 1197

Falidor tried to keep a stone face as he mentally kicked himself. Marsden Tamrion was the technical master of this castle, having inherited it from his father, but it should have been obvious that it would be his widowed mother who ran the place. Marsden Tamrion, after all, was five.

Not that he'd thought all that much about who would be interviewing him beyond it being young Marsden's castle. He was only here because his grandmother had pulled some strings with her husband, who was Lady Renata's great-uncle. He was only here because he would be graduating in a few months and he had no other goals or prospects. He'd grown up thinking he'd inherit his father's farm, but he and Ivy had talked so much about how they'd run the place that the thought of an adult life there had died with her. He'd majored in Theology, focusing in Biblical Studies, solely to justify her death to himself and he'd failed--and he'd found little interest in any other subject the university had to offer, or much of anything at all. He doubted he'd make a good steward, and he wasn't even sure he cared. This was a pity interview.

He wasn't sure he cared about that either.

"So." Having studied him for the twenty or so seconds he'd been in the room, Lady Renata pushed back the desk chair and rose to her feet. She was plainly dressed for a noblewoman, wearing more the sort of thing his gentlewoman mother or not-quite-adjusted-to-her-rise-in-station grandmother would wear, a plain dress with a leather bodice atop it. The boyish haircut did nothing to advance her appearance, though Falidor would admit that it suited the shape of her face. "Do you speak at all? Or do you just stand around staring at the floor?"

In truth, Falidor supposed that was about all he did these days. But--if only for his mother's sake--he compromised a verbal response. "I can speak."

"Good; my inkwell's run dry, and I'd rather not have to read your answers off the dust on the mantle. Now, I'll get to the point." She interlocked her fingers and cracked her knuckles. "Why do you want to be steward here?"

From the unblinking stare, Falidor got the sense that Lady Renata was a woman who wanted the truth--and knew bullshit when she smelled it.

"I don't." His blunt answer brought no more damage than a raised eyebrow. "I mean... I don't much want to do anything, really. But I have to keep myself alive somehow." For all he had little reason to be alive in the first place.

"Right. Well, if you must know, I've been having a rather more difficult time finding a steward than most would, given my son's age. I want a steward who would be willing to live here at the castle, and who would be willing to impart some instruction on running the castle to Marsden once he had grasped the ropes of the job himself. And if I'm ever out of the castle for whatever reason, the steward would have to act as lord of the manor in my stead--but not without getting a swollen head and forgetting any direction I might have left him. Can you do that?"

Falidor shrugged. "I don't object to any of it, so I suppose I could at least try."

"Good. You can start as soon as you leave campus." Lady Renata flashed a grinned. Her no-nonsense hiring approach aside, it seemed that she indeed had a jovial side and enjoyed indulging it. She'd be tired of him in a matter of months, he was sure of it. "And given how many men turned this job down, don't you dare give me any reason to fire you; I'm damn sick of doing the work of two people myself, and I don't just mean in the--"

She cut herself off, but without blush or contraction. Whatever she'd been about to say, she'd left it off for his sake, not her own. She had little to no problem saying anything that popped into her head. "My apologies. I forgot that this was a professional conversation. Or perhaps you're so inherently dull that I felt compelled to liven the dialogue for the sake of my own sanity."

Huh. He ought to have been insulted.

But--for what felt like the first time in years--he smiled. "I suppose life in a castle run by a five-year-old and his firebrand mother would render much of the world dull by comparison."

"Since I want you to keep this job, I'll let you keep thinking that. Now, don't you dare get any better offers before the end of March, you hear?"

Falidor nodded. "There's not much risk of that. Thank you, Lady Renata."

"Oh, no--none of that 'lady' nonsense. Given how much time we'll be spending together, it's easier for both of us if you just call me Nata." She winked, then brushed past him on her way to the door. "Now, come along and meet Marsden; I suspect he'll have plenty to say about that nose of yours."


January 19, 2016

In Which Celina Places the Piece Upward

October 22, 1197

"There now," Celina soothed her newest granddaughter, determined to keep her focus more to the baby herself rather than the fact that Searle would never have another child. "Everyone gets the hiccups sometimes; you're doing quite well with breathing despite being so new to it."

The baby hiccuped again, face scrunched in a wail of discomfort against Celina's shoulder. Her face was as ruddy as either of her siblings' newborn faces before her, but her hair--what little of it she had--was more of a strawberry blond, as opposed to Lily and Ovrean's tomato red. Some part of Celina might have hoped to see Searle's auburn hair, but perhaps the lack of it was for the best; it was easier to see the baby as herself this way, and not just as Searle's baby. Baby hair could be fickle, but if it was to turn auburn, the girl would have grown into a personality by then.

On the bed, Cladelia rubbed at her now-vacant womb. The poor woman. She'd been so protective of this baby, so keen to keep to strict dietary regimens and the recommended bracket of activity and everything else the midwives had to offer, even though this hadn't been much of a risky pregnancy to begin with. The last month had brought this to an even higher notch, with Searle dead and buried. This baby was the last Cladelia had left of him.

And she still was. But a baby in the belly was a different matter from a baby in the arms, as Celina knew better than most. Once outside the womb, a baby was a separate creature, a whole new human--not just some surviving piece of Searle for Cladelia to keep inside of herself.

But, she'd come to realize--Celina hoped, at least--that there was still a piece of Searle inside of her. It just sat rather upward of the womb.

"There--I think that was the last of them." Celina patted the baby on the back, the hiccups now reduced to a steady pant of recovery. "She's a good weight for a baby--bigger than the other two were. But not big enough to give you any more trouble, I hope?"

"No." Cladelia shook her head, though she didn't dare look toward the baby. "No, she was good. Easier than Ovrean, actually. Very good."

"Have you chosen a name for her?" When Arydath had announced the baby's sex, the name was precisely the reason Celina had been relieved to hear she was a girl. A posthumous boy would have been--and should have been, perhaps--named for his father, but Celina didn't think she could handle another little Searle in the house just yet. And she doubted Cladelia would be ready for another little Searle before it was her own grandson.

"Well, I suppose she should have your name; Searle ought to have a daughter named for his beloved mother." Cladelia made a half-hearted attempt at a smile. It was no more convincing than a dairy cow in stallion's tack, but Celina could appreciate the effort. "A good thing we chose Ovrean's name for our son; had we used my father's name, Searle never would have had a son named for his father."

Cladelia, grief-stricken as she was now, was still young and healthy and beautiful. Celina wouldn't dare mention it just yet--surely she would have clawed the eyes out of anyone who'd suggested it when she'd been mourning Dalston!--but she doubted very much that Cladelia would be unmarried for too many years. She would have a son named for her own father yet.

So, knowing that, Celina nodded. "Searle and his father were always close."


January 17, 2016

In Which Severin Assigns Luck to the Comparative Sense

September 30, 1197

"It was good of you to come," Severin's stepmother commended him from the couch, though he didn't find his mere presence a praiseworthy event. The stubborn fire at which he prodded seemed to agree. "I know you and your brother aren't close, and I know your grandson is graduating today."

"Dalston took his vows at the beginning of the month; I was there for that, and he said that was the more important thing." And, in essence... well, that was probably true. But, beyond wishing the boy the best, he didn't much want to think about Dalston's situation.

Nor did he much want to think about Rudolphus's, but at least this one, he could understand.

"The doctors are saying that Rudolphus probably has a good month or so yet; I don't think either of us would have blamed you if you'd waited."

"I might have, though; Naroni isn't so near that I might have rushed over had he taken a sudden turn for the worse." Severin pushed one log off of its balance upon the other, a shower of sparks surging as it hit the metal below. He may not have been close with his half-brother, but they weren't so distant that a lack of goodbyes would have been bearable. Besides--Rudolphus wasn't the only denizen of his keep. He had always been close with Viridis, closer than most were with their stepmothers; if she had to bury her firstborn, the least he could do was stand by her side as Rudolphus took his place beside their father in the crypt. "There's no sense on my visiting Dovia without staying at least a couple weeks. Rudolphus and I weren't always brotherly, but I should like to remedy that while we have the time."

"I think he would like that too--and though perhaps I shouldn't be thinking of myself, it would mean the world to me." Viridis stood, her age apparent in the shaking of her joints as she rose. Eighty-five years were more than most dared wish for; if his attempt at bonding with Rudolphus could fulfill one of her last remaining wishes, then Severin wanted little more than to see it through. He would be at her side when Rudolphus passed. He would not leave until after the funeral. Nora would serve their shire well in his stead, as she always did during his absences--and she would understand.

Severin put down the poker and picked at a splinter in his left forefinger. That could have very well been a message from his father, earned by first picking up the tool with his left hand in his childhood home. It hadn't been until after his father had died that he'd learned he too had been born with the left hand preference. What would he learn about his brother, after his death? "You're allowed to think of yourself. Rudolphus is your son; a parent shouldn't bury their child."

"And you've buried two, and Rudolphus buried one." Viridis sighed. "Perhaps I've been lucky in that sense; I doubt I have many years left myself, and Rudolphus at least lived to be a grandfather several times over."

Lucky. Perhaps--but only in the comparative sense. Severin shook his head. "There's no sense in counting down your own years yet. You're still in good health."

"Yes, perhaps--and I still feel young at heart." Her smile backed up that sentiment as she rubbed him on the shoulder--like she had when he'd been a child, only now reaching upward instead of down. If she still felt young at heart, then Severin envied her. "But I won't delude myself about my mortality at my age. Your father was healthy as a horse until he wasn't, and same with my brother. Same with Rudolphus."

"Hmm. What you and I have to look forward to, I suppose."

"You not for a while yet, I don't think; I know I can't imagine Naroni going on without Severin of Veldora."

"Then it's fortunate that my grandson is also Severin of Veldora." Though here, with his beloved stepmother and her dying son, it was a painful reminder that there ought to have been Jadin in between. "I suppose we both ought to just keep living for now."