February 28, 2016

In Which Darry Dreads That Time

September 19, 1198

"So." The flare in his hiss and the ice in his eyes would have made for enough of a shock if Nato had been in the habit of waiting for Darry outside of his bedroom door. As it was, Nato kept to his own room more often than not, and couldn't be said to have much more than a nodding acquaintance with any of the other seven men at Libra House. The shock of his appearance, plus the venom about his usually indifferent presence, was enough to make Darry forget that he had both the size advantage and the better standing with their housemates. "Mind telling me about this trip home of yours?"

Darry squinted, mouth falling agape. It wasn't difficult to figure out which days someone had classes if that person lived in the same building, but he wouldn't have guessed Nato to have been paying much attention. And it wasn't often that a student left campus on days they had classes, particularly for the span of more than a day, beyond a death or a wedding or some other such event--but, again, he didn't see what reason Nato had for caring. "...Sorry?"

"I happened to walk by the top of the staircase when you and Yvanette were talking at the bottom. You've been gone a few days--and according to my sister, so has she. Family matter, I take it?"

He and Nato might not have been friends, but the same couldn't have been said for their parents--particularly their mothers, who'd been thick as thieves long before either of their fathers were ever in the picture. Darry swallowed. "Surely your mother would have been among the first to know anything urgent."

"Only if your mother told her--or anyone." Which begged the question as to why Nato, of all people, was prying. "Yvanette mentioned one of your other sisters; she meant Aspen, didn't she?"

"Aspen." Darry bit his lip. She had, in fact, met Aspen. "Since when are you and Aspen close?"

"We're not." Not that it seemed to dissuade him from this confrontation. "She made herself sick again, didn't she?"

Darry blinked. Twice. "How do you know about--?"

"Ask her yourself how I know, when she's feeling better. Just tell me what happened this time."

"Why should I? It's none of your business."

"It is if I can do anything to get her to stop doing this."

"Well, you can't." Nobody could. And not for lack of trying. "She's too stubborn, and too good. She sees it as an obligation."

"She is not obligated to make herself ill so someone else can get better." As if that hadn't been what Darry and Yvanette and their parents had been trying to tell Aspen ever since it all started. "Who was it this time? And what does she have?"

"There was a fire in the kitchens. We managed to put it out before it could cause any irreparable damage to the structure, but some of the servants inhaled a little too much smoke."

"So Aspen took it on." Nato scowled--and Darry had to frown. In all his years of knowing Nato as his mother's friend's grouchy, aloof son, he recalled only a disturbance of privacy being able to get much of a reaction out of the man. "Fuck."

"She, uh... she's better now, if it helps." Not that it ever really did, but Darry didn't care to drag this out any longer than necessary. "It's just a light cough now. She'll be fine."

Nato sniffed. "This time."

Darry scuffed his boot across the floor. This time. He supposed Nato had a point there. Sooner or later, it was bound to be... that time. "We do our best to keep her from anyone really sick if we can. We didn't let her near my Uncle Searle when he was dying."

"Damn good thing you and your parents keep track of every dying person in the kingdom, then."

"What, you think I'm disagreeing with you? She's my sister! I care about her, you know--a hell of a lot more than you do." And to that, Nato could say nothing--finally. "What do you expect us to do, even? Do you really think she'd listen if we told her to keep it to minor scrapes and runny noses?"

"No, but perhaps you could persuade her to start here early. There aren't a whole lot of sick people on campus, and you can talk her out of healing hangovers by pointing out that the regular offenders might take advantage. And maybe she can get some perspective while she's here, if she picks the right studies."

Darry sighed. If only it were that simple. "Well, thing is... with powers like these, you do need to use them every now and then..."


February 26, 2016

In Which Lyssa Is as Close to an Expert

August 21, 1198

Lyssa blinked, unsure of what to make of the confession she'd just heard. Renata would have leaned back in her chair and gaped, half impressed by the boldness of it all, half astounded that such an ill-thought-out scheme had survived for so long. CeeCee would have had the whole thing figured out in minutes and would have had several volumes' worth of thought on the conditions that had bred such desperate plots bouncing about her head before Mona even finished the story. Alya would have produced the perfect blend of concern and sympathy, not a trace of pity or judgment about her, and offered to help however she could.

As opposed to her peers, Lyssa had always felt more decorative than functional--and, most of the time, she supposed she was all right with that. But the whatever reason the princess had for sharing the tale with her, she didn't think she could be of much use, except as maybe a confidante.

But, the confidante role was reserved for friends, which Lyssa and Mona were not. Why would they have been? When Mona had set off to be married, the biggest stress in Lyssa's life had been the shame of occasional bed-wetting. Even if such an age difference hadn't existed, their families had always been wary of each other and they had little in common personally besides. Nowadays, Lyssa's husband had occasional dealings with the knights and lords of Carvallon, but nothing that would have brought him to the palace; it was possible that he knew this Sir Zareth, or at least knew of him, but not to the point where he'd have heard much about the man's wife, or would have suggested that their wives could make good company for one another.

She supposed all she could do, at this point, was ask. "Why are you telling me this?"

"Why shouldn't I? You and everyone else in both kingdoms will know soon enough; Anna and I have determined that we can't keep up the lie much longer, not with both sets of children as old as they are now. That, and my brother is dead, and from what I know of Dea... I don't believe she'd take any personal offense?"

The pout in Mona's lip gave a hint of a plea to the question. Maybe that was it. Lyssa was of an age with Dea. They may not have been close, but they'd spent their lives attending the same events and had even lived in the same house while at the university. And it wasn't impossible that they'd be sisters-in-law some day, if Lyssa's brother's courtship with Dea's sister progressed as he hoped it would. As far as the population of Carvallon was concerned, Lyssa was as close to an expert on Queen Dea as they could get.

"No, she wouldn't. She's... not always the warmest person, but she's fair, and not without a concept of familial discord; she'd understand your not wanting to be a bargaining chip. And she's far too reasonable to declare war based on a years-old half-slight."

Mona sighed, the tension about her form visibly easing. It was as close to relaxed as she'd been since her arrival, when Xetrica had screamed to Lyssa from the bottom of the stairs that someone was at the door--a lucky thing that nothing short of thunder could rouse baby Jadin from his naps. "That's... that's a relief."

Lyssa couldn't say much in answer to that. From what she knew of the Carvalli Royal Family, she herself would have been much more worried about Devidra. "Does... Anna's mother-in-law know?"

"Um, yes, apparently. Anna went to confess to her a few weeks back, and Devidra told her before she could even start that she'd known more or less that whole time. I suppose she wanted to figure out which of us had initiated the switch before making any calls she couldn't take back." Mona offered a sheepish grin that would have been quite out of place on the aloof-yet-mischievous older princess she remembered from her early years. "I guess she knows what it's like to have your father insist on your marrying a stranger."

"Hmm." It was true that many women of high rank did. Knowing that, Lyssa herself couldn't have asked to be born into a better family than her own, nor to have chosen a better man as the father of her children. Poor Landus's parental issues could have almost rivaled Dea's--but luckily, he was the sort to take such occurrences as examples on how not to raise his own children. "Well, if Devidra's not a concern, and Dea's not a concern, and Adrius isn't a concern either, then I suppose it just comes down to riding out the scandal."

"I hope you're right about that. If nothing else, I... I guess I can be glad for my parents' sake that they won't be around to endure it. I at least got a chance to come clean to my mother before she died, and she took it better than I'd thought she would, but she would have hated being the subject of scandal--and my father will rest better not knowing."

Lyssa nodded--though, privately, she hoped that at least Mona's brother was well aware and downright livid as he looked on from the fires of hell. She may not have been Mona's friend, but she was at least friend enough to Dea that an eternity of suffering didn't seem to cruel a fate for King Ietrin.

"Both of our families will go to Naroni in the Near Year. We'll come clean to the people of Carvallon before we leave, since they really are our people now, and the ones we've affected--but I think I'd prefer it if Dea had some degree of briefing before we arrive. Do you think you could maybe...?"

Lyssa exhaled. Dea, she knew well enough, would have no more difficulty with the situation than any of her other peers. Less, even. But, between queens and alleged queens, perhaps some degree of insight from a not-unfriendly source couldn't have hurt. "I'll write to her tonight."


February 24, 2016

In Which Celina's Summer Meeting Concludes

August 7, 1198

"I must say: from what I've seen here, our arrangement seems to be working as planned in both kingdoms." Oswald gave a ruler's self-indulgent smile, the corners of his mouth lifting just enough to convey his pleasure. Roderick had done that when he'd been alive, but it had only ever looked forced and foolish on him; Oswald wore the regal grin as if he'd been born with it. "You've kept me as informed as I'd hoped to be on the workings of the kingdom, but not to the point where anyone's trust has been shattered--and I daresay both your son and the queen trust me more than they would have without such an explicit endorsement from you, knowing I have no interest in infringing on their lands."

"The people are somewhat more at ease about that too," Celina added--though it had made her feel shamefully out of touch to learn that a Dovian reclamation was such a concern among a primarily Dovian populace! Well, beyond the extent to which war always was a concern, that was.

"The people of Dovia as well. I don't expect much to change by December, but regardless, we should still reconvene then."

Celina nodded. Under the laws of both kingdoms, they only needed to see each other once a year in order to keep their marriage valid, but to err on the side of caution--just in case something kept the would-have-been traveling party in the kingdom unexpectedly--they'd opted to meet biannually. Oswald had arrived in July, just in time for Celina's birthday, and stayed the whole month to get a scope of things here. Oswald's birthday was in early December; Celina doubted she'd stay nearly so long, to the point where she was confident she'd be home by Christmas, but the birthdays were well-spaced enough that they made logical target dates, and they'd keep to them as long as they worked.

"Has anything else come up on your end that you want me to keep in mind before we meet next?"

"Nothing comes to mind, no." Oswald--eager to hit the road, most likely--pulled her into a quick embrace and pecked her on the cheek. The kiss leaned far more toward fraternal than sexual, and while the marriage had been consummated, it was far more comfortable that way. "Any last concerns over here?"

"Nothing major--though, Leara apparently got a letter from her sister in Carvallon. Ramona plans on visiting some time next year."

"Ah, yes. Well, from what I've heard, she's a much more... stable figure than Carvallon's previous queen, if perhaps not as politically inclined." Oswald bit his lip, but a twinkle in his eye gave a bare hint of amusement. "Devidra did rule that country well as her son's regent, but her personal discipline leaves much to be desired. I do believe the last time I saw her was... thirty years ago? Roderick and I both visited Carvallon; I had young Searle along with me, and Roderick brought Severin. We had a productive conference, and she both stunned me with her smarts and shocked me with her language. That, and Severin was between marriages at the time, and I suspect Devidra spent most of the meeting with her foot in his crotch under the table."

Celina raised an eyebrow. Whatever Severin had done between his two marriages... well, that was in the past now, and at least he hadn't been breaking any commitments, and Lord only knew he how much he loved and respected both Alina and Nora. That said, it was odd to be reminded that such a time had existed, and odder still to be reminded by Oswald. "I hadn't pegged you for a gossip, cousin."

"And I usually strive not to be, but the events surrounding a sleepless night spent in the bedroom right beside the one in which your cousin loudly copulates with a dowager queen tend not to leave the memory as quickly as one might prefer." He sighed, then took a few seconds to regain his composure. "My apologies for the lapse in decorum. I shall write to Ramona myself and tell her to notify me when she has a specific time in mind; I suppose Dovian and Carvalli royalty are overdue for a meeting, it might as well take place in neutral Naroni."

"That would probably be for the best." Assuming, that was, that Devidra opted not to come along with Ramona. If she did, then perhaps the Queen of Dovia would have business elsewhere--business that only Lord and Lady Veldora could tend to. "Write me when you reach Dovia as well; I at least would like to be assured of your safe return."


February 22, 2016

In Which Cladelia Would Prefer a Better Word

July 20, 1198

"Well... it's nice that Celina still invites me to family dinners," Nythran sighed as he sat down next to Cladelia on the bench. As of a quiet half-minute prior, they were the only two in the room. Cladelia's youngest was down for her nap. Her son was a couple years younger than Nythran's, enough that the older Ovrean likely found his cousin of the same name annoying, but Nythran's Ovrean had a slingshot and had been itching to show it off to an admiring party. When it came to the girls--minus the baby, of course--Cladelia's was the senior of the two, but Lileina fancied herself grown-up enough now to at least try to put up with the antics of younger cousins. She also wished others would fancy her grown-up, so of course she needed an excuse to play with her dolls--and what better excuse was there than a younger guest in need of indulgence? Not that it much looked like indulgence, what with Lileina being the one to drag Holladrin off in glee.

As for Celina and the visiting King Oswald, they were probably still in conference with Lorn. They'd be back soon, and not without Lorn's branch of the family in tow... but as unused as Cladelia was to being alone with her dead husband's dead sister's widower, she didn't want to guess at what her sweet, loving mother-in-law would have thought of that musing.

"Don't be absurd. You know Celina; you'll always be a son to her."

Nythran shrugged. "I know that's her intention, but it doesn't always play out that way. My father and Camaline rarely see each other if they don't have a reason to see each other, and he only sees much of Nata because my stepmother is her grandmother. I won't even get into the mess with Karlspan."

"Well, Karlspan did that to himself--practically abandoning your niece like that. You'd never do that to your children." Nor, if her cousin Ren's latest letter implied what she thought it implied, would Nythran had taken to sniffing out hints about Ren and Searle's twin nieces, who'd at least been spared those visits by virtue of being at the university. Those girls couldn't have been older than Karlspan's own daughter--if they were even as old.

"Fair point. But Camaline and Nata are still good people, and my father thinks highly of them--but if they come to dinner, it's mostly as the mothers of my nephews."

"Perhaps it's different with men; the lot of you do seem to take pride in pretending you don't feel much." The weight of the band around her finger might have been that of a cannonball. Searle, in that sense, had been different. Wonderfully different--to the point where she shouldn't have been surprised that they hadn't had long, because not many things of such beauty dared risk outliving their own perfection. "Celina is a woman, and she and you are the two who loved her daughter best. Riona is at her most alive when the two of you are together."

"Hmm." Thoughtful--oddly enough for a man of their age, most of them so unwilling to heed a woman's opinion--Nythran's lips eased into a faint smile. "I never thought of it that way. Thank you, for that."

Cladelia nodded. He'd been without his love longer than she'd been without hers. If such a realization had been lost on him, regardless of whether or not he'd outgrown the need to stroke his own ego, then what hope could she have had for herself, a few years down the road? "It wasn't any trouble."

"Perhaps not, but I needed to hear it." Nythran's hand moved a few inches outward, only to retreat back, as if he'd meant to pay a reassuring squeeze to Cladelia's own but thought better of it. They were kindred spirits now, she supposed, or would be in time--but for now, she appreciated the respectful distance. "I hope, once some time is passed, that you and her find the same with Searle."

Once some time had passed.

Six more months, another year, another five... the word 'some' could have meant as little as a few weeks, or as long as the rest of her life, and it would have been pointless to venture a guess. Whenever a mind thought it had a formula for the speed of grief, life would throw a new factor into the equation, and Cladelia had never been one for complex mathematics anyway. She preferred words. She would have preferred a better word than 'some'.

But, for now, 'some' was all she had.

"Thank you."


February 20, 2016

In Which Lileina Knows What Eyes She Sees

July 9, 1198

Lileina bit her listless tongue and forced her eyes back to the top of the page. What a pointless exercise it was without Searle. He'd been so patient, so encouraging. He'd smiled throughout each session--not a mocking smile, but a proud one, more sure of her eventual success than she could ever wish to be. He'd made her want to try. Even when he'd fallen sick, he'd insisted on listening to her, cheering her on from his deathbed. Now that he was gone, Lileina had just about given up.

But, Searle would have wanted her to keep trying, and the ten months since his death had compounded her grief with the grueling guilt of failing him. So, since she had to man the study anyway today--with her mother escorting her newly-arrived stepfather to his audience with the queen, with Cladelia and the children out on a play-date, with the steward on his day off--for all she couldn't imagine that a single youngster in the kitchens could possibly have been a worse choice to be left in charge than she was--she supposed she owed it to her brother's memory to make the use of being stuck in a room full of books.

"H-how th-th-thankful I am, S-S-Socrates, th-that I h-h-have..."

She trailed off--very aware that she was alone, but the sounds of snickering children dancing around her ears all the same. Suffice to say, she'd never said a word in any of her classes since her disastrous introduction at the age of five; most of her current university peers probably thought she couldn't speak at all, and that was almost preferable. At least that was a choice she'd made.

But--somehow--Searle hadn't seen it that way. And maybe her beloved brother wouldn't have felt so out of reach if she kept practicing. "...ar-r-rived at l-l-last, and, l-like a w-w-weary t-t-t-traveler after a l-long j-j-journey, m-may b-b-b-be at r-r-rest."

She felt herself blush as the echoes of her stammered syllables rang past their lifespan. That entire sentence might as well have been the 'long journey' it had itself reference. If she'd been reading in her head, she could have been done with the page by then--and she would have been engrossed and comfortable rather than foolish and ashamed.

But... Searle...

Lileina took a sharp breath before she continued. "And I p-pray th-the b-b-being who al-w-ways w-w-was of old, and h-has n-n-now b-b-b-been b-by m-m-me r-r-r-revealed--"

Someone knocked at the study door. "Hello?"

Lileina's speech, useless at the best of times, cut silent entirely. It was a man's knock--and the greeting was not of a voice she recognized. Maybe she ought to have recognized it, but the only advantage to being Celina of Armion's dumb youngest daughter was that her absence at events wasn't likely to attract much notice.

"Is anyone in here?"

The study door was unlocked. And why shouldn't it have been? Her five-year-old nephew had nothing worth hiding. Her mother kept all the important documents in her own private rooms. Lileina's best hope was the visitor's own propriety; if she didn't make a sound, then he would take that as the room being empty, and leave.

But, the door creaked open. "I thought I heard--oh. Hello, Lileina."

Lileina froze and burned at once, her spine so brittle that a gust might have cracked it.

Of all people... why oh why oh why did it have to be Severin Mokonri?

Not that he'd ever picked on her before. Or even spoken to her. Lord knew he was about the last person she'd ever dare to speak to, what with his evening sky eyes and his silken hair and that smile that was just crooked enough...

"Uh... what are you reading?" His face grew a little pink as he finished the question--probably remembering just who he was talking to and how unlikely it was that he'd get any response.

But, if only to be polite, Lileina closed the book partway, flashing him the cover.

"Oh. Critias. My mother likes that one." He grimaced, apparently unaware that that was about the highest compliment Lileina had ever thought she'd get from a handsome young man and she was about to die of embarrassment on the spot. "Speaking of mothers, my father has a proposition for yours, so he sent me over to discuss it with her. Is she around, or--oh, shit. Sorry. I... forgot again."

Lileina blushed--but, there was a stack of parchment on the desk, along with a quill and inkwell. She put the book aside and stood, some insane logic about it being more difficult to look down on someone who was standing. She stepped around the desk and dipped the quill, then scrawled him a quick note.

"'She went to the castle with King Oswald.'" He'd read it on first sight with more clarity than Lileina could pay to a book she'd almost memorized--just like everyone else. "Do you know when she'll be back?"

Lileina shook her head.

"Ah, all right. Hmm... do you at least think she'll be back soon enough that it'll be worth my waiting here for a while?"

She shrugged. For all she knew, her mother would be back within the quarter-hour, but there was no one around to keep him occupied until then. That was a sentiment best elaborated, so she picked up the quill again.

"'I can't promise that it will be'," Severin read as she replaced the quill in the inkwell. "Hmm. Well... I don't want that ride from Veldora to have been a complete waste of time. Maybe we could visit for a while?"

Lileina turned to him and stared. Severin blinked as the absurdity of what he'd just said caught up to him. "Uh, well... I mean, we don't need to talk to visit, right? You've got that quill there. Or we could just sit around and read, if you prefer; it's not as if there's any shortage of books in here."

She shrugged again, though she doubted the blush in her cheeks went unnoticed. There were some similarities in his face--the curve of the jaw, the shape of the eyes, the slight bump at the bridge of the nose--to that of her sister Rona's husband, who more than one person had mused could have been a descendant of some obscure Mokonri bastard. As Lileina privately thought Ashe to be the most romantic man she'd ever met, Severin's sudden resemblance to him in his awkward, second-guessing manner was about to make her burst.

"So... you're majoring in Mathematics, right?"

She nodded.

"That's not surprising. Wolf said the only reason he passed mathematics in school was because he copied off you."

Lileina blinked. That was certainly new to her; she'd always excelled in mathematics, yes, but she hadn't thought her classmates had even noticed her presence most days--never mind her abilities.

But Severin reasserted himself with a nod. "Apparently a lot of people did. You might have saved me a little bit of trouble if we'd been a few years closer in age; I'm pretty dense where mathematics are concerned."

But he, at least, could speak properly. Lileina glanced down to the hem of her skirts. She would have gladly forgotten everything she knew about mathematics if that was the trade for getting over her stuttering.

"Oh. Oh, no. I mean... shit, I don't know how to say this without sounding like an ass. Just, you know people don't really think you're stupid, right? No one whose opinion is worth caring about, anyway."

Lileina shuddered. She knew very well that most people outside her immediate family did think she was stupid. Hell, some of her siblings--other then Searle--and nieces and nephews probably did, but were just too kind to say it.

"No, really! And don't think I'm just saying that to be nice, because I'm really not that nice. I mean, a lot of people who spend every waking hour talking never think about a damn thing they're saying--like I'm doing right now, I guess. But all anyone has to do to know that you're thinking is to look you in the eye. You're not stupid. Just because you can't talk doesn't mean--"

"It--" Lileina blinked, caught off-guard by her own daring. Severin, now quiet as she herself preferred to be, stared. Lileina swallowed. She supposed she had no choice now but to finish that thought. "It's n-n-n-not th-th-that I c-c-c-c-can't..."

Her face no doubt as red as his tunic, Lileina turned away, a handful of tears burning on her lashes. That had been more than enough to give him the idea.


She shook her head. She wished he'd just leave. Maybe he, at least--given time--could forget that this had ever happened.

"Lileina, please don't cry. I'm sorry. I should have just shut up."

He raised his hand to the level of her own, securing her inward retreat at her elbow. His fingers had any young knight's fair share of callouses, but there was a softness to them all the same. "You don't have to talk if you'd rather not--but, for the record, I think your voice is rather pretty."

Lileina swallowed, a couple of those tears breaking free. "D-d-d-don't l-l-lie t-to m-m-me."

"I'm serious. There's a rhythm to it. It's like rain--only better, because it doesn't make you all muddy and confine you indoors all day."

She blinked, wiping the tears away as she looked up and met his eye. Those weren't a liar's eyes, or a bully's eyes. She knew because she'd seen enough of both. Still--she couldn't quite believe him. "I d-d-don't kn-n-n-now..."

"Well, I do." Severin shrugged. "And unlike you, I am stupid--so if even I can figure something out, it's bound to be pretty obvious."

Lileina brought her arm back across her chest. If he'd thought like that at five or six, then she wished he had been a few years younger--so he might have told all those children who'd laughed as she'd stuttered her name where to stick it. "Y-you're n-not st-t-tupid."

"Well... maybe just comparatively." He winked. Lileina didn't know what do with that; she didn't think anyone other than her parents and Searle had ever winked at her. "Anyway--I'm sorry for bringing it up. And I'll leave if you want me to. And you don't have to worry about me telling anyone, because it's none of my business."

She bit her lip and watched his eyes for a minute. They were at their bluest just after he blinked, a brilliant contrast to the black lashes and pale flesh that had eclipsed them seconds before.

"Y-y-you c-can st-t-t-tay if y-you w-w-want... Severin."

She squeezed her arm at the shock of the unstammered name. But Severin just smiled and rested his hand on her own again.

"...I'd like that."


February 18, 2016

In Which Anna Is Not Forgiven

June 16, 1198

Anna fought to hold her ground as her eldest joined her in the study. He'd returned home for the break that morning, looking to have fared well during his first two terms at the university, healthy and rested as she could have hoped. He greeted his sisters with hugs and his brothers with ruffles to the heads, complete with the musing that little Caelan hadn't had any hair to tousle last he'd seen them. He'd kissed his grandmother on the cheek, then convinced her and his siblings all to hurry off ahead of him to the banquet table for an early lunch.

Upon their departure, he'd taken the opportunity to ask his parents why his Aunt Leara was under the impression that his mother--her own sister--was a teal-eyed blonde.

To that... well, all Anna and Adrius could do was to tell him to hurry along to the table with the rest of the family, and that Anna would talk to him in private once they had all eaten. Of course he would have run into Mona's family: at the university, through the university, of his own accord, however he'd ended up meeting Leara. They ought to have told him the truth before he'd left, but the question had always been... how? And how many years had it been, now? At some point, their lie had become more truth than not, and every time they'd talked about maybe telling the older children...

So complicated a knot did not easily unravel, even if one knew exactly where to tug--and, at this point, Anna didn't. All she could think to do was to hack away at the knot with a blade, to hell with whatever it held together.

"I suppose I'll start by assuring you that your father knows everything, and that I made sure he did before we were married."

Telvar sighed, unsurprised that she would have thought that a concern. He was his father's son, the clever boy; he'd no doubt mapped it all out in his head already. But, he needed to hear it from her. "All right."

"Look, King Roderick... well, he wasn't the worst man, but he wasn't the smartest." To say the least! "Nor was he the most... enlightened, I suppose. He had expectations of everyone in his life, all based on old archetypes with no place in real life, and he picked for a daughter a life that suited his purposes--not who she was, or what she wanted."

"So she didn't take it." At the very least, he hadn't accused her of stealing it from her. "Where is Ramona now?"

"This minute? At her home, I would presume, with her husband--your Uncle Zareth."

Telvar bit his lip--eyes steeled, but not surprised. Blond hair and teal eyes weren't the only reason he could have guessed that. He'd known who had first accompanied Anna to Carvallon, after all. "Aunt Anna."

Anna nodded. "Though, I suppose you might as well call her 'Aunt Mona' now."

"Then you're Anna."

She felt her skin tense, the sensation of her real name said in her son's voice once a distant dream she'd dared not cling to. It was difficult to imagine a way she wouldn't have preferred to have heard it. "We traded places in the carriage, as the guards weren't to look at us anyway. If it's any consolation at all, it wasn't my idea."

"I never wanted to believe it could have been." But he glanced down to his boots, as if to confess that--if only for a moment--he had. "Does Uncle Zareth know?"


"Anyone else?"

"Your Uncle Searle--and possibly your grandmother, but if she does, she's found it more to her advantage to keep it to herself, and your father and I know better than to mess with her."

"And did you ever plan on telling us?"

Him, and his sisters, and his brothers. Anna sighed. "We wanted to, but... well, as you can see, it's become quite complicated, and the damage wouldn't have been restricted to our own kingdom. King Roderick would have been humiliated, and King Ietrin would have been furious."

"But Queen Medea knows better than to start a pointless conflict over a teenage rebellion that happened twenty years ago--and being a woman in a man's world herself, she'd be bound to see Ramona's reasons for making the switch even if she wasn't known for her rationality. Twenty years is a long time, Mother; sure, there's bound to be talk, but it's not as if anyone can do much about it now, and there's no one in power at the moment stupid or petty enough to try. If nothing else... Mona's children deserve their place in the Naronian line of succession, even if there's barely a chance of them ever inheriting anyway."

"I don't disagree with you." She'd never met Queen Medea, but what she'd heard had been reassuring. How a pig like Ietrin had produced such a daughter, she'd never know.

And how two liars like herself and Adrius had produced this boy...

"I will discuss the possibility of a public drop of the charade with Mona and your father. For now, know that we will tell your sisters tonight, and Lari and Roderick once we figure out how best to explain such things to children." Caelan, at least, could grow up without the lie.

"I'm glad to hear it."

But there was little emotion in his voice, and Anna suspected it was because he couldn't bring himself to feign his proclaimed gladness. There were many things he ought to have felt about this--anger, sorrow, maybe some triumphant smugness--but gladness couldn't have been one of them. "I hope you can forgive me."

"Forgive you?" Brows knotted, he took a step forward and placed a hand on her shoulder. "I'm not angry with you, Mother. I'm... confused about the whole thing, and perhaps a little annoyed that you didn't tell me, but I'm not angry--and it isn't as if anything that happened before I was even born could have been done with the intention of harming me personally.

"I don't need to forgive you, Mother. There's nothing for me to forgive."


February 16, 2016

In Which Leara Chooses No One

June 8, 1198

"Now, you keep taking good care of my sister and the kids for me," Leara's youngest brother instructed a tail-wagging Jadin as he scratched the dog behind the ears. Dogs had always loved Marsden, and Marsden had always loved them right back. His mother hadn't allowed him to have one as a child--but that hadn't stopped him from raising a litter of puppies that had belonged, nominally, to their cook. "Can you do that?"

Jadin yipped. Marsden moved his hand to the middle of the dog's head and gave an affectionate pat. "I thought so."

Leara pinched the seam of her skirt between her fingers. Her youngest brother--twenty-two years her junior, younger than two of her own children--had finished his studies and would be heading back to Dovia. His graduation had been the week prior, and she and Lorn had hosted him after he'd left his residence, him and Farilon and the twins. Any minute now, the other three would finish saying their goodbyes upstairs, and then they'd be down here, bidding her the same. And all four of them would be off, back to Dovia, even though Dea had formally granted that Laralita's descendants were welcome to return to live in Naroni should they choose.

Too many years too late, alas. Marsden was a Dovian now, as were Leara's other half-siblings. Well... except for Mona. Mona, Queen of Carvallon, who raised some kind-but-strange children who asked peculiar questions they ought to have already known the answers too anyway--at least, if her one meeting so far with her nephew Telvar was any indication. Perhaps his younger siblings were a little more-down-to-earth.

But at least she'd get to meet them, finally--whenever they started. Thanks to the university, she would meet all of her nieces and nephews. Even if they were Dovians, Carvalli... whatever.

"You'll be in Dovia in August, right?" Marsden asked as he turned away from the dog and stepped up to Leara for a hug. "For my wedding?"

Leara smiled. His wedding would inevitably mean more nieces and nephews soon--these ones, younger than at least one of her grandchildren. Lord. She hoped she lived to meet them. "You know it."

"Good. Athalia only has two siblings; she'd never forgive me if she didn't get to meet all of mine."

Leara smiled. There had been times, definitely, when she had not quite been keen on their large family. But... well, she'd made a large family of her own since then. Large families had their downsides, but at the end of the day...

Well... who would she choose to let go, if given the opportunity to downsize?

"I'm sure her two siblings love her very well."

"I'm sure they do too, but they're so much younger--not that you wouldn't know how that feels."

She smacked him lightly on the arm as he smirked. "Where did you get that mouth on you?"

"Probably one of my many uncles on my mother's side," he answered with a grin. "Or perhaps one of the family dogs."