April 29, 2016

In Which Isidro Lays Down the Terms

January 1, 1200

"And would you mind telling me exactly how any of that is my problem?" Question or not, Isidro didn't give his father any time to answer. The more chance he gave Domingo to speak, the more likely he was to lose his own edge. He was fucking sick of giving in. "You blew your own damn fortune. You ruined your own damn standing. You got kicked out of your own damn castle. Don't come crying to me as if I owe you a damn copper."

"I don't want to take any money from you. I just need a place to stay, and a means of getting some money for myself."

"Well, you're not staying here." It was a damn lucky thing Nato had had the sense not to let him stay the previous night. With Domingo safely at the inn when Isidro and the rest of the family had returned, he'd had the time to brace himself.

"I don't expect that either. I'm an old man with nothing left, and I just need a quiet place to die in peace. From what I've heard, you have enough standing in this godforsaken place to work something out there."

"First off, only people who know and love this country get to call it 'godforsaken'--and secondly, half the reason I ended up here is that you told me not to bother going back to Galicia. In a sense, I traded you for that standing." That, and a far better family than you were ever capable of being.

"I'm not denying that. Look, I'm getting up in years--and I realize that nothing I can say will ever make you forgive me, and maybe it shouldn't." Domingo sighed. Isidro had to squint at him; it was quite possibly the humblest phrase that had ever leaked out of that mouth. But too little, too late. "If you'd prefer never to see me again after today, then fine. But if you can find it in your heart to put me up somewhere, I'd go to my grave appreciating it."

"Don't. Your appreciation means nothing to me." If Domingo was even capable of appreciation, or any other feeling that half-acknowledged any other person. In that sense, Isidro supposed he pitied him--but he couldn't let that pity get the best of him.

But, was he really any better than Domingo if he let a man go homeless out of sheer hatred? "I can arrange to have you put up in a small farmhouse on the outskirts, but I have some conditions--and if you even think about breaking any of them, I can just as easily have you evicted."

Domingo shut his eyes, a sharp breath of relief freed through his nostrils. "I'm listening."

"Firstly, you are not to approach or contact me or Riona or any of my children or grandchildren, or nieces or nephews. If Riona or my adult children seek you out on their own, then I suppose that's their choice--but you're not allowed to initiate contact. As for Riona's siblings and stepparents, I suppose there's a chance you might interact with them on some professional capacity and that may not be avoidable, but if that happens, you will treat them with the utmost respect. Got it?"

Domingo nodded, though not without a wayward glance to the floor. Isidro gritted his teeth and continued. "Next: keep it in your pants. If you absolutely have to relieve your urges, then you can pay for it at one of the brothels--and you will pay full fare, with tip, and you'd better be the best-behaved, most respectful client any woman who services you has ever had.

"And as for your conduct among the general populace, you will be a model citizen. If you must drink, tell the innkeeper not to let you have too much. Don't pick fights--and if someone tries to pick one with you, walk away. Don't try to haggle down the price of any good or service you purchase, and if you employ any farmhands or household staff, pay them fairly and on time and don't act as if you own them. Understood?"

His father's mouth formed a flat line. Not one of those behaviors would come naturally to him--but, if he was as desperate as he claimed, then he was in no position to negotiate. "All right."

"And don't think I won't hear of any violations of my terms. Very little happens in this kingdom that Lord Severin doesn't hear about, and he won't hesitate to tell me anything he learns concerning you."

"I'll keep to your terms, Isidro."

"Be sure that you do. I'll send someone to the inn to speak with you tomorrow." His in-laws were hosting a New Years' Day banquet tonight; he'd iron out the details with Lord Severin and Lady Leonora then. But for now, he didn't want to give Domingo one more second of attention than necessary, even if he was bound to do exactly that over and over again in his own head. "Now, leave; I'd much prefer it if the first day of the new century didn't end up being entirely about you."


April 27, 2016

In Which Nato Wastes Another Night

December 31, 1199

"So I get that this might be a tough concept for your tiny brain to comprehend, but one lousy cold isn't going to kill your little brother." Nato resisted the urge to glare back at the reckless woman on the couch and instead channeled his frustration into the fire in front of him. The poker drove one log to the back of the hearth, burnt bark crumbling off of it as it hit the wall. "You, however, look worse and worse every time you do this--even if it's just a lousy cold. Damn it, Aspen, what the hell is wrong with you?"

On the bench behind him, Aspen sniffed--sniffled, more like. Damn lucky thing her family had decided to stop by on his before heading over to his Uncle Lonriad's castle for the party, really. If she'd grown worse for the wear there and had to leave the party early, then that would be a ruined night for most of the guests, never mind the already-stressed Yvanette who'd probably end up taking care of her. Here, she at least gave Nato an excuse to stay home.

"Sorry for caring about my family, asshole. Why do you even care, anyway?"

"Because you make no fucking sense and that bothers me." That was the only answer he'd managed to think up when he'd asked himself the same question, at least.

"If I bother you so much, then just leave me with a servant; like you said, it's just a cold."

"Don't tempt me." Not that he would, though. His mother had been the one to take to immediately doting, whisking Aspen off to Shahira's old bedroom--the warmest in the castle--and wrapping her up in a robe she herself reserved only for the coldest winter nights. She would have stayed with Aspen herself had Nato not insisted that she'd enjoy the party more than he would. If he left Aspen with a servant, he'd be dealing with her wrath until he was fifty.

Of course, telling Aspen that was out of the question--but he was spared having to do so by Aldhein's knock at the door. "Nato?"

Nato gritted his teeth. His sister hadn't had any interest in attending the party, but her children had wanted to go, so she'd taken them; her husband, meanwhile, had gotten out of it on the technicality that it overlapped with the tail end of his work hours for the day. Frankly, Nato would have preferred it if Aldhein had gone to the party and Shahira had stayed at the castle for a few hours instead. Shahira could have been a firm-but-sympathetic nurse for Aspen for a few hours while Nato worked off his fury as the makeshift steward. "What is it?"

"There's someone here. He asked for your father--"

"My father's not here."

"Obviously. Would I be asking for you if I thought he was?"

Back on the bench, Aspen coughed out a small laugh. "Hmm. I suppose I'm lucky; my brother-in-law never gives me any mouth."

"And if you start taking on other people's tooth decay, don't expect that anyone ever will," Nato hissed under his breath.

"Still alone in that bedroom together? You know, for two people who say they can't stand each other, you have a weirdly intimate relationship."

"Shut up, Aldhein." Nato abandoned the fire and made for the door, opening it just wide enough to greet his brother-in-law with a glare. "Did this man say what he wanted?"

Aldhein shook his head. "No. He just asked for your father."

"Fine. I'll go talk to him then--and I'm also going to send you off to relieve my sister at the party. Aspen, you stay here and think about what you're doing with your life."

"Does wanting you out of it count as a start on that?"

Nato couldn't be bothered with a response, so he slipped out of the door and slammed it behind him, storming past Aldhein as if he were some inconspicuous statue on his way to the front room. Damn Aspen. Damn Aldhein. Damn whoever it was who'd come asking for his father. Was it too much to ask for, really? Just one night where he didn't have to be the only one around with a shred of sense?

"What is it?" he growled as he reached the front room, the worst of the storm that followed him having made it through the double doors.

The man in front of him squinted; given the apparent age of him, that wasn't surprising. "Isidro?"

"He's out." And while he'd been told all his life how much he looked like his father, his light eyes and unscarred face had proven enough to avoid being outright mistaken for him until now. "Who the hell are you?"


April 26, 2016

In Which Hollie Is Understood

December 25, 1199

"Hello, Hollyhock," Hollie's cousin greeted her. She hadn't expected or even wanted company--but if someone had to join her in Lord Severin's study, then Ricky was among the least objectionable possibilities. "You never were one for dancing, were you?"

"No, not really." Or much of the rest of it. Hollie pushed herself upright; if Ricky was anything like her in that regard, he'd want to sit down. "I hate weddings."

"I do too--and not just because my parents keep pestering me about when mine will be. They're pretty excessive, really. If you love someone, I don't know why throwing a big party would make that much of a difference."

Hollie sniffed. If love was what made the party unnecessary, then no wonder Gennie and Wolf had insisted on such a massive event. "Not everyone marries for love."

"I guess not. But anyway--I wanted to talk to you about something."

And what better time was there to do so than when they were both avoiding the rest of the guests? "All right."

"You start at the university next term, right?"

She did. He knew she did. "Why ask what you already know?"

"I want to know what your plans are for after."

"For a career?" Hollie frowned. "I don't think that's for me, really. I think I'd rather keep studying on my own time and maybe see where that leads--like what Rennie's doing." Careers, or at least any that sounded half-interesting, had more social requirements than she was willing to fulfill.

"Fair enough; some disciplines can be a bit restrictive in their commercial purposes. But do you mind if I ask about any..." Ricky grimaced. "...personal plans?"

"What, like marriage?" Hollie snorted. That might have been a cruel joke, had she been in the habit of denying her own flaws. "As if anyone would want to marry me."

"Actually, uh... I kind of want to marry you."

...huh. She'd never quite realized just how low her jaw could fall. "What?"

"If you're interested, that is. And this wouldn't be until after you've graduated, so you've got a few years to think about it, if you need them."

Her interest. As if that was the problem. "You don't seriously expect me to believe that you don't have anyone better in mind."

"Hollyhock, you're a hell of a lot better than you give yourself credit for. I haven't considered anyone else; we get along, we know each other well, and you have the right combination of brains and political background to make an excellent duchess." Ricky cemented the compliment with a smile--and a blush on his cheeks as his eyes swept over her. "And I hope you don't mind me saying it, but you've really grown into a beautiful woman."

"Um... no, I don't mind." She'd never really seen much reason to agree, but that didn't she minded. "Thank you, I guess. If I told you 'yes', but then I changed my mind--would you understand? I'd understand for you."

"Of course I'd understand." He laced his arm beneath her own and hoisted her onto his lap. "But I'll tell right now that I won't be changing my mind."

She couldn't help it.

She rarely smiled quite so freely. "Then I believe things are looking well on my end too."


April 23, 2016

In Which Dea's Sister Is Not Herself

December 25, 1199

"You look great, really. It's just..." Dea stretched out her arms, as if the gesture would distract from any unconscious cringing. Her sister was a pretty woman--and, more to the point, she'd always found great pleasure in showcasing that. Something wasn't quite right if Dea could notice that a dress wasn't quite right, but the woman Dea relied on to keep her own wardrobe beyond ridicule couldn't. Such an event would have most likely been brought on by Gennie's going blind, but no--Gennie had spent enough time adjusting herself according the mirror to eliminate that possibility.

"I mean--it's a nice dress, but it's not really... you."

"I'm not quite sure what you mean?" There was an obvious force behind Gennie's smile, but not the mischievous smirk some devious part of Dea might have been hoping for--like the real wedding dress was underneath this one, and no one would know until she shed the robe on her way down the aisle. "A wedding dress is supposed to be fancy, right? What's fancier than a white gown with a gold brocade?"

"No, it's not that it's a wedding dress! It's just not what I pictured you wearing. It's a little..." Dea curled back her lip, cursing herself for her failure to transfer basic diplomacy to personal conversations. "...matronly."

"Sorry?" Gennie turned back around and looked her reflection over--but, from what Dea could see of her face, it wasn't a critical inspection, nor a search for reassurance. More... feigned interest? That wasn't like Gennie. If Gennie wasn't interested, she made no effort to hide it.

And on her wedding day? Not everyone married for love, true... but even in a marriage of convenience or politics, surely some emotion stronger than apathy was merited.

"I don't think it's matronly."

"Are you blind?" Hollie groaned from the bed, the first time she'd bothered open her mouth since Dea had dragged her up to Gennie's new room. "Dea's showing more cleavage than you. Hell, I'm showing more cleavage than you, and I barely have any. You're not a forty-year-old widow getting remarried for her children's sake."

"Be nice, Hollie." Though, she did privately agree. "Maybe it's your hair? You have such lovely hair, and you usually wear it proudly; that snood might be suffocating it."

"Suffocating? Dea, I can't believe I'm the one saying this to you, but it's hair." That made two of them who didn't believe it. "Besides, I'm going to be a married lady. I don't want to dress like this all the time, but no one needs to ogling my cleavage on my wedding day."

"Sounds like Wolf's in for a dull night," Hollie muttered under her breath; Dea shot her a silencing glare before turning back her attentions to Gennie.

"You just don't seem like yourself today. I was more excited on my wedding day, and I barely knew Henry back then--and I'd never been one for weddings anyway. Out of the three of us, you're the girly one; I always figured that when you got married, I'd be jabbing knives in my ears to avoid all the gushing over the perfect dress and the perfect hairstyle and how this was going to be the best day of your life."

"Best day of my life? Give your future nieces and nephews the benefit of the doubt; would you really tell Sparron or Jedaline that the best day of your life happened before they were even thought of?"

Dea frowned. That might have been a decent point, had Gennie's reflection not twitched at the words 'nieces' and 'nephews'. "Look, Gennie: Wolf's a good man. If you don't want to marry him, I'm sure he'd understand if you just told--"

"I do want to marry him."

And, to prove it, she and the mirror parted with a scowl as she stormed toward Wolf's desk chair--their shared desk chair, soon.

"Just... give me today to make peace with that."


April 20, 2016

In Which Jeda Looks to the Cosmic Strings

December 3, 1199

"My God, Prior! You're so handsome and grown-up." Jeda stood on her toes to kiss her nephew's cheek--and still had to marvel that he was old enough to have hair on it. "I know you and everyone else your age is probably tired of hearing things like this, but it doesn't feel like it was all that long ago when I was cuddling you as a baby."

"It's all right, Aunt Jeda. For my favorite aunt, I'll put up with it."

"Just don't call me that in Leara's hearing; she's about to be your mother-in-law too now, you know."

"I guess you're right about that." But, if anything, Prior's grin only widened. "But I think she knows you'd have be my favorite aunt, and she probably understands; you were closer with my father than she is with my mother, and closeness like that kind of carries over."

"Well, maybe it does." Her own girls might have been closer with Ietrin's siblings had Ietrin actually bothered with any of them--and they'd all adored and been adored by Sparron. "Ah, my nephew. My brother's son. You're more like him every day, you know--but still your own sweet self."

Prior tilted back his head and blinked at the ceiling. Jeda didn't comment; there wasn't any shame in a private tear, but on Prior's wedding day, she'd let him keep that tear private. "I wish he was here."

"I think he is, in whatever ways he can be." In whatever ways she, at least, hoped he was. How many nights had she spent lying awake, the only thought fighting her dread of the next day the dream that her brother was pulling any cosmic strings he could to help her. Whenever her mind wandered back to that dragon, it carried Sparron's ghost as a rider. "And he will be, until you get to see him again for real."

"I'd like to think you're right. Doesn't make me miss him any less, though."

"Me neither--but it's your wedding day. Even in spirit, I don't think he'd ever miss that."

"Hmm." Prior sniffed. Wedding days were a time of mixed emotions for many, but he'd find his calm when Neva's moment came. Now, though--before he stood at the end of the aisle--Jeda's nephew would let his feelings fall where they would. "I just hope I turn out to be half the father he was."


April 18, 2016

In Which Adonis Decides to Be Serious

November 18, 1199

"So. My brother got married."

Alina's lips twitched as Adonis joined her on the bench in his father's foyer. She hadn't smiled much in the past few months--not since she'd found out about... well, everything. It had taken her a while to tell him, even. And he was her boyfriend! Granted, some times, boyfriends were at the top of the list of people whose reactions could destroy everything. What Alina needed was understanding, and Adonis would have been one hell of a lousy boyfriend if he hadn't been able to give her that.

But, in spite of the circumstances... he hoped he could make her forget about all that every now and then too, if just for a few minutes.

"I know. It was ten minutes ago. I was there."

"Oh, so that was you; I couldn't quite tell from that angle." Adonis winked. "Could have been any beautiful woman from where I was seating. But, then again, I thought she was the most beautiful woman in the room, so I should have known."

"You should have--though, maybe don't mention that in the bride's hearing. Or the groom's."

"Lucky thing they've still got a line of well-wishers waiting to greet them, then. But next time, it'll be our turn."

Alina's pursed her lips slightly as her head shook toward the wall. "Mmmm... I'm fairly sure that Prior and Neva are getting married in two weeks."

"All right: Prior and Neva's turn next, then ours."

"Actually, I think that would be Wolf and Gennie on Christmas."

"Bah!" Too many weddings! But... at least she had mentioned Prior without any distinct hesitation? Prior, her secret twin brother who she hadn't known was her twin brother until very recently? "Well, it'll be us eventually."

"Providing you don't find a prettier woman in some other room," she teased as he slipped his arm around her shoulders and pulled her within snuggling distance. "Perhaps I ought to lock you down before that happens. When do you graduate, again?"

"The end of March, unless Aunt Raia plans to overhaul the entire university calendar in a very short space of time."

"Then I suppose I should marry you in April. I can't imagine have any other plans for your birthday?" She nudged his jawline with her nose and giggled--then pulled away somewhat, a puzzled grimace on her face as she met his eye. "All right, I just need to clarify: are we teasing here, or are we being serious?"

Adonis shrugged. "Do you want us to be being serious?"

"Do you want me to want us to be being serious?"

"Do you want me to want you to want me to--ah, I've lost track already. You do have the brains between the two of us, remember; I just got the gorgeous hair." And, if he hadn't caved to his little sisters' insistence on playing with it, he would have flipped that gorgeous hair for emphasis. But, for once in his life, his hair wasn't really what he wanted to think about. "I think I seriously just want to marry you on my birthday."


April 16, 2016

In Which Ashe Guesses the Quality of Gossip

November 18, 1199

"You look beautiful." Ashe stepped back from his oldest daughter's arms and smiled. He would have known Yvanette anywhere, but he didn't quite fathom how that tiny baby he'd once held with a new father's clumsy grasp and the radiant young bride in front of him were the same person. Had it really been so long since Yvanette had been little? How much had he missed every time he'd blinked?

"Thank you, Father." Yvanette smoothed down the white velvet of her skirt--probably not the most atypical gesture of a young woman on her wedding day, wanting to look her best, but there was something in the tension of her wrist that struck him. "I'm still not sure about the blue trim, to be honest."

"Well, that's your call--but it does bring out your eyes."

"I suppose. Too late to change it now, anyway."

Hmm. It was--but she sounded almost... bitter? Ashe frowned. Cold feet usually weren't much to be concerned about, at least he'd gathered from what quasi-outsiders like him could glean from social spheres like Rona's family's, but the manner about his daughter wasn't nervous or panicked; it was resigned, frustrated, equal parts dread and the need to get a unpleasant task over with. He'd thought she'd cared for Sevvie. He'd seen how he was with her, the way she looked at him.

Had he been wrong?

"Yvanette, if you're having second thoughts--"

She shook her head. "I... I don't know. Maybe I care too much about Sevvie to tie him down."

"Oh." He could understand that--sort of. He'd been in that position with Rona once. But, back then, Rona hadn't known her own position. There wasn't a garden pest on Lonriad's castle grounds that didn't know Sevvie's. "I think anyone who knows Sevvie would be quick to tell you that he's spent the past few years thinking of little else than life with you."

"Is that fair, though? You know I can't add much to his life--not in the ways he's bound to want in the long run."

"If it isn't, then I still don't think you have any more claim to the fairness of life than Sevvie does." Ashe sighed. If Yvanette couldn't give Sevvie the life he deserved, then that was because Ashe couldn't have done the same for Yvanette. She didn't fully know that; perhaps she and her siblings deserved to, but neither he nor Rona knew what to tell them. "But I wouldn't equate being normal with being happy. Most normal people in the world probably bore themselves to misery."

Yvanette bit her lip--probably just because she didn't want to argue with him mere minutes before he walked her down the aisle. "Maybe."

"Don't worry about Sevvie. He loves you to pieces, and he doesn't have a resentful bone in his body." He pulled his daughter into another hug, having to remind himself just in time to be mindful of her hair. "And if it doesn't work out, you know you'll always have a home with your mother and me, or with any of your siblings if we're gone. It would be only a matter of time in this kingdom before the public had something better to gossip about than a knight's divorce, after all."


April 14, 2016

In Which Holladrin Is the Middle Sister

October 16, 1199

"You, uh... you don't really need a story for your dolls, do you?" Holladrin mused as her cousin--her new little sister!--banged one of the dolls against the wall of the castle with a gleeful smile on her face. Holladrin supposed she ought to have been annoyed, given that it was her castle, and her doll... but, she didn't play much with either any more. She was six, after all. She had big girl toys.

Celina could have the little girl toys, if she wanted them. And if they were hers... well, they were hers to be rough with, if she chose.

Really--Holladrin would have traded all of her big girl toys for a little sister!

"That's all right. My brother doesn't need stories for his wooden sword things either, and he's almost eight. Not everyone likes stories, I guess."

"Nope!" Celina agreed, showcasing her teeth before chomping down on the doll's feet. A stream of drool leaked from the corner of her smile as the dangling doll bounced against her chin. "Look! I'm a walrus!"

Holladrin laughed, though maybe she shouldn't have. Her father never yelled, but he wouldn't have wanted her to encourage any toy-biting. "You're too cute to be a walrus. You're more like a kitty--granted, a kitty with big fangs."

"A vampire kitty?"

God, her little sister was weird! A good sort of weird, though. "If you want. Just don't bite me, all right?"


"Is Celina being silly again?"

Lileina! In all of Celina's antics, Holladrin hadn't even noticed her other cousin--her new big sister--come into the room. "She's silly, but it's good silly."

Lileina shrugged. Lileina was nine, and nine was a little old for Celina's sort of silliness. But at least she was nice about it. "Well, thanks for entertaining her."

"No problem. Wedding parties are boring anyway."

"You won't think that when you're older." Lileina winked as she sat down on the rug. "You can dance with boys at wedding parties."

"Boys like my brother? Or... brothers?" Alas, Lileina and Celina did have a brother between them. But, Holladrin supposed she could put up with another brother if she at least got two sisters out of the arrangement. Especially an older and a younger! She'd always wanted to be a middle sister. "No thanks!"

"No, not boys like our brothers. Better boys! They're still stupid, but they're stupid in convenient ways rather than annoying ones. You can make them do whatever you want! Kay gave me his dessert just because I kissed him on the cheek, and I didn't even mind kissing his cheek; he's cute." And Lileina's cheeks were as red as her hair. "I think I might marry him."

Holladrin gagged--though at least Kay Kemorin was nice enough, for a boy. "I think you and Celina are both silly. But, you're my sisters, so I'll forgive you."