May 29, 2016

In Which Dora Fears the Lying Mind

June 7, 1200

"That cat seems to like you," Thetis's voice sounded from the couch, her having apparently returned from putting the tea set away. "She doesn't usually like new people. Or even most familiar people, really."

This sweet animal? Thetis may have been the one who lived with her--but Dora didn't quite believe it. Thetis must not have seen the way she'd allowed Ceidrid to grab at her tail, swat at her nose. An ill-tempered cat wouldn't have had much patience for a toddler's antics. "She must like you."

"She tolerates me. She and Florian are the bane of each other's existence." The older woman chuckled to herself as Dora returned to her own seat, Roux trailing after her skirts all the while. "Maybe she'd be happier living with you and Ceidrid and Adonis."

Dora glanced down at the cat, now perched by her ankles, starting up at her with love in her eyes. "Are... are you seriously offering?"

"Why not? She obviously adores you, and she seems to find Ceidrid much more agreeable than the other children around here." Thetis shot one of those warm, motherly smiles down to where Ceidrid played on the floor, but a sudden melancholy sigh eased the curve of her lips. "Really, I don't doubt that Florian would have given her away years ago if she hadn't been Teodrin's cat."

"Oh." Dora stiffened. She'd been an acquaintance of the Tumekrins long enough to know who Teodrin was, but she'd never asked about the details. She wasn't sure she wanted to know, for all the family must have ached for any hint of closure. The circumstances of such an event couldn't have possibly been pleasant. "I'm sorry."

"It's quite all right. Roux misses Teodrin too; maybe it will be easier for both her and us if we can miss him separately."

Dora turned to her own son, busy by the hearth with Thetis's children's old toys and his own imagination. If--God forbid--Ceidrid ever vanished, she failed to see how any cat or lack of cat would have done a thing to console her. "Maybe..."

"And she'll never really know, the poor thing--not being able to read or speak or understand language. At least we can hold out hope for a letter, some story somewhere, anything.

"Though, it's been long enough that I suppose it's foolish to really believe it's coming."

Dora swallowed. None of the Tumekrins liked to talk about Teodrin much, though Alina had once described him with loving exasperation as a 'mama's boy', and Severin had muttered something about his little brother being scarcely able to walk to the market alone, never mind run away. How had such a gentle, timid young man suddenly up and left? And without so much as a note for his poor, worried mother?

Or what if he was like her? What if something had happened to him, something had made him forget his own mother? For him to remember bits and pieces of some other mother, some woman who didn't exist, just enough inconsistent details to know his own mind was lying?

And what if--somewhere--her own mother ached for her too?

"I... uh, we can talk about something else, if you'd like."


May 26, 2016

In Which Celina Hadn't Considered

May 26, 1200

More for appearances' sake than anything else, Celina had agreed to wait until the wedding night to consummate her relationship with Marsden. That said, not everything in the realm of the sexual was, by strict definition, sex. They had made good use of those technicalities thusfar and would continue to do so. Making out on Celina's bed while most of her housemates had classes? Not sex. Marsden lowering his braises or Celina lifting her skirts for a welcome hand--or a welcome mouth? Not sex. Sexual, yes--but not sex.

Besides, the technicalities only fell between the two of them. Celina was not so naive as to think that Marsden wasn't as prone to the occasional brothel visit as any other man his age (hell, she'd seen him at the nearest one once!), nor did she see much point in caring given her own activities. She doubted he suspected anything, but it didn't matter. She'd be a virgin on their wedding night.

A virgin with men, anyway. Or, if a bit of gossip she'd overheard about Congren Indruion was true, then a virgin with men as a woman.

"Where'd you learn to kiss like that?" Marsden moaned between partings of their lips. The scratch of his beard against her face was enough to make her yearn for it in a much lower region.

"Mmm... I'm a Kemorin." That, she justified as he dove into her neck, was true. "I come by it naturally."

His hand ventured from her side toward her breast, but stopped with the knock at the door. "The walls aren't soundproof, you know."

It would of course be the case that of Celina's seven housemates, the only one home at present was Dani del Marinos.

"Dani, it's not a small house!" Celina laughed as Marsden eased off of her, if only to mask her discomfort. "Surely there's some corner where you can't hear us."

"You'd be surprised--but I'm not here about the noise. You have a visitor."

"Really?" Gennie, perhaps? Somehow, she'd decided that the best way to figure out how to love Wolf was to learn to love the rest of his non-Dalston family. "Who is it? And you can come in, I suppose; the door's unlocked, and we're fully clothed."

"I don't know where you get the idea that I care," Dani muttered as she entered anyway, as if her suspicious amber eyes didn't answer her own question. The rest of the girls at Scorpio House thought Celina as ordinary as any of them, but Dani--whether she knew it or not--had an air about her that betrayed an insight to something unfathomable. "It's Mistress Ildaras. She's in the sitting room."

"Mistress Ildaras?" Neither Dani nor Marsden needed to know that Celina knew Aydelle any more personally. "My Aunt Leara's maid?"

"Apparently." Dani sniffed. Celina didn't blame her; who received social calls from their aunt's maid, after all?

But if the brothel excursions had a less obvious benefit, it was an increased ability as a liar. "Oh! I'd forgotten; my aunt had this new dress a while back, and I just adored the fabric. I asked Aydelle about it, and she'd said she'd see if she could get some for me."

"You must be out of luck, then; she's empty-handed."

"Maybe not, if she's sent it to my grandfather's keep and just wanted to tell me." Odd, maybe--but Dani didn't press further, and Marsden didn't appear to be so much listening as he was waiting for Dani to leave. "Well, if she came all the way out here, it would be terribly rude of me not to greet her. Marsden, do you mind waiting a few minutes? I'll make it worth it," she added to her betrothed with a wink.

Marsden smirked; out of the corner of her eye, Celina watched as Dani prowled off to wherever the hell Dani spent her free time. "I suppose I can manage a few minutes..."

She paid him one more quick kiss, then rose from the bed and hurried down to the sitting room. Sure enough, Aydelle was there, seated on one of the benches. "Aydelle?"

"Celina." The older woman flashed her a smile, then stood. "I hope you don't mind my dropping by."

"Not at all." It was a lie--she was eager to get back to Marsden--but it was the least she could do for her confidante. "What brings you to campus?"

"There's something I thought you should be aware of, and I think we'd both rather you heard it straight from me." Aydelle stepped around the back of the bench and approached, mouth held shut until she was only a few feet short of Celina. "I just came from a consultation with Arydath."

Arydath. The midwife.


--that midwife. "You don't mean--!"

"Relax. You're not... the only candidate. I'm just not sure if it occurred to you that it might be possible."

Well, it had now! "I--I had figured it was just--well, I don't know about anything internal--"

"Well, for all either of us know, maybe there's truth in that and you had nothing to do with this. But you did..." Aydelle improvised some gesture that involved a sudden flexing of the fingers. It wouldn't have been intuitive without context, but it was more than enough for Celina. " know."

"Ah--right." Shit. And here she'd thought her abilities had given her a unique opportunity to have her fun while still postponing motherhood for a few years yet. She hadn't even considered... fatherhood.

It would take quite the performance on Marsden's part to take her mind off of this.

"Obviously, even if I knew for sure it was you, I wouldn't expect anything. Acknowledgment, at least, would have to be out of the question."

"Yes, definitely." Acknowledgment to herself would be difficult enough! "But even if it's not... mine... let me know if you need any money or help or anything. It's the least I can do for your keeping my secret."

And for potentially having knocked her up. If Celina managed to think about anything else for one minute before she could see that baby for herself and whether or not any trace of her was in it, she'd count herself coping well.

And the next time she needed to let off some steam, she'd be going to Congren Indruion's instead of the brothel.


May 24, 2016

In Which Rona Offers Likewise

May 4, 1200

"Well, Nato insists on going back to campus today," Riona began with a sigh as she returned from her son's bedroom. "I wish he'd stay here a few more days. I know his fits aren't as frequent as they were when he was a kid, but I'm not really comfortable with him living out there all by himself.

"But then if he rode out there every day, what if he fell off his horse?" That couldn't have been what Riona wanted to hear--Rona wouldn't have wanted to hear it herself, surely--but it might have been what she needed to hear. Fits or not, Nato was an adult now.

Not that it was so easy to tell herself that about Yvanette. Or Aspen. Aspen--still recovering from her own illness, having refused to leave Nato's side since Isidro had retrieved him from the university. Thank God, however, that she'd been there. "And he's not alone. There are seven other boys in his house, plus all of the other students. And you know how Aspen is; on the off-chance Nato can shake her for five minutes after this, she'll strong-arm Darry into tailing him for her."

"I'm just so relieved she was there. Sorry about his being in her room, though."

"Don't worry about that. Aspen's not a good liar; nothing untoward happened."

"Good. She can stay here until she recovers, if she likes--if she doesn't follow Nato back to campus."

"Thank you, but Ashe insisted that she return home until she's better. I'm sure he had to assign Darry to spy duty to get her to agree to that, but at least she'll be off her feet for a few days."

Off her feet, and free of sick people she can 'cure'. Colds had been rampant on campus lately--but Armion was the pinnacle of good health at this time of year.

"I hope she's better soon. Tell her that if she needs anything--after how she helped Nato--"

Rona nodded. "I will. And likewise, for Nato. I think he's helped Aspen in the past too."


May 23, 2016

In Which Aspen Touches Ice

May 2, 1200

"If you're here to scold me, just get it over with and leave. I'm not feeling up to arguing."

A normal person would have either dismissed her with a quick 'I told you so' or walked out the door. Nato, of course, did neither. "I just don't get why you keep doing this."

"Cat wanted to go to the wedding."

"Cat had a cold. She would have been well in time for the wedding--and you missed the only chance you were ever going to get to see a bride beat her bridegroom with the bouquet because his dress was prettier than hers." Nato crossed his arms and leaned back in his chair. "But it's more than a cold in you. You're much sicker than Cat was. You'll probably be sick for two more weeks. You don't just take people's ailments; you incubate them."

"You think I hadn't figured that out by now?" Aspen blew a few strands of hair out of her face. "I'm not as stupid as you think I am, you know."

"I don't really think you're stupid--but I don't think you're selfless either. I think you're self-destructive."

"Says the man who bites the heads off of anyone who tries to talk to him--and who keeps refusing medical help."

"Medical help?" Nato's brow furrowed. He didn't know what she was talking about. Idiot. "Aspen, I had the flu. So I didn't want to make you sick; that's not a crime."

"I'm not talking about the flu." That did it--if the widening eyes and draining color meant anything. "I overheard your mother confiding in mine once, back when we were kids. She said you were refusing to see any doctors. I'd never heard anyone so upset. She was so worried about you."


"You still haven't seen a doctor, have you?"

He shot to his feet. The pale of his face was enough to fear a forward fall, but he kept steady--if steady allowed for trace amounts of shaking. "Mind your own damn business."

"I will if you mind yours. Don't try to stop me from slowly killing myself if you take issue with me doing the same for you."

"Don't pretend it's the same thing. You're the one who has a choice here. You could live a long, healthy life!"

"You might too!"

"Would it be worth it if I do? I can't have friends. I can't have a family." He shuffled to her bedside on tired feet and grabbed her arm, pulling her aching form to a stand with his trembling fingers. "It's bad enough that I might just drop dead on day on my parents and siblings--never mind anyone who could have just as easily not been in my life and wouldn't have felt a thing if I hadn't been so selfish as to keep them around. Don't go throwing away what I can't have."

"Don't talk like that. You're not dying."

"We're all dying; some of us just do it faster. And you can slow down--so you should."


"Please." He squeezed her hands and leaned nearer. His grasp was so firm, so shivery, so cold. Like touching ice. She must have felt like fire to him. "You can have better. You should have better."

He was inches away and she found herself transfixed with a small scar on his bottom lip. He must have bitten himself, one time or another. She'd read that that could happen. "Stop making it so hard to hate you."

"Then stop making it so easy."

"Liar. You never hated me. You wouldn't be here if you did." The tip of his nose met her cheek and slid downward. She craned her neck in an effort to meet him halfway. "You never hated me..."

"Keep this up and you'll wish I did." Her fevered head was a July heat, but his breath hit her lips like a January snowstorm. "Aspen, promise me--"

His head jerked upright, his chin ramming into hers on the way up. The impact ought to have been enough, but the surreal fog of the almost-kiss had her a few blinks shy of noticing--noticing his labored breath, his bulging eyes, his swelling pupils. "Nato!"

"Don't--" He sprung back for all he was in no state for a quick getaway. That motion must have taken all he had. "Don't touch me."


She dove forward just in time to catch him beneath his arms, his seizing body pinning her to the side of the bed as they both folded to the floor.


May 20, 2016

In Which Sevvie Plays Along

April 28, 1200

"Um, not that I don't think you look great, but..." Sevvie bit his lip. He hated to bring this up on the day before Adonis's wedding, especially when their mother would have (perhaps rightfully so) smacked him for even thinking it--but, he'd damned if what ought to be one of the best days of his brother's life was ruined by senseless ridicule. " you really feel all right about wearing that?"

"It's fine, Sevvie." Adonis pushed back his hair and admired the crisp white fabric. "I'm a virgin."

That hadn't even sort of been what he was thinking. But, it wasn't as if that didn't raise its own set of questions. "Seriously? You and Alina always seem to be all over each other."

"Well, it isn't as if we haven't done other things--plus, we agreed long ago that the look on Grandfather's face if any of his descendants managed to wed in white would be well worth the wait."

"Hmm. I guess I'll grant you that." Yvanette had worn white, but she wasn't their grandfather's grandchild. Sevvie... had not been immune to the occasional bout of paid relief. Not before they'd wed, anyway--though, while he wouldn't dream of acting on it, Yvanette's dread of getting pregnant had led to some temptation on that front. "Mind you, I don't know if I got a good look at him when Lyssa got married."

"True, but Landus was in Carvallon for most of their betrothal." Adonis flipped the thought aside with a wave of his hand, but his grin didn't last much longer than that, the corners of his mouth slowly sinking to sobriety. "Speaking of people who won't be there tomorrow, though: I call Mother's name."

"Sorry?" Sevvie squinted. What did their mother's name have to do with anything?

"You know--for a baby. I call naming my and Alina's first daughter Asalaye. Obviously you'll want to use the name eventually, but I reserve the right to use it first."

"Oh." For Yvanette's sake, it was a relief to know that people weren't quite at the point where they were wondering about their lack of children yet. But--also for Yvanette's sake--he'd play along with Adonis for now. "Yes, that's all right. You were closest to Mother, plus Aunt Lettie could always get a granddaughter from Rennie before she gets one from you; I suppose our first daughter would be Yvanette's mother's first granddaughter, so she should probably have her name."

"Thanks, Sevvie. See, this is why I don't see what other sets of brothers are getting at when they think there's a problem with us never fighting." Mindful of his skirts--his wedding gown, after all--Adonis lunged in for a hug. "I love you, brother."

"I love you too." Sevvie returned the squeeze with a pat on the back--stiff, not so candid, but no less genuine. "And don't think I'll ever stop looking out for my loved ones."


May 17, 2016

In Which Cat's Cousin Calls

April 25, 1200

"Does your nanny know that you're out of bed?"

Cat looked up from her toys to see her cousin standing at the door. She coughed; her papa had probably told Aspen's mama that she was sick, so Aspen stopping by was a surprise.

A good surprise, though! If company was around, then at least she'd get a chance to do something. "I'm not that sick. And I'm bored! Nanny never lets me do anything when I'm sick."

"Sick enough for others to fret, but not so sick that your want to lie in bed all day." Aspen laughed under her breath, though Cat didn't see what was so funny. "That's never fun--not until you're old enough that it gets you out of school, anyway."

"I'm almost old enough for school! Why couldn't this sick have waited until then?" But that wasn't the problem just then--not when the wedding was in four days! "I wish it would hurry up and leave!"

"Adonis and Alina's wedding, I take it?" Aspen wasn't their cousin--they were Cat's cousins on her mama's side, while Aspen was on her papa's--but everyone knew each other. Aspen knew how fun Adonis and Alina were. "Yes, that should be an interesting one."

"I know! If I don't get to go, I'll-- I-- I might die!"

"We can't have that!" Aspen gasped, knee to the floor as she scooped Cat into her arms. "You don't seem very sick to me, at any rate. I'm sure you'll be more than well enough to go to the wedding."

"I hope you're right."

"Older cousins are always right, Cat."

"Nuh-uh! Darry's papers always make Mama curse."

"That's because Darry's an idiot." Aspen brushed some of Cat's hair behind her ear and kissed her on the cheek. "But I'm your older cousin who's not an idiot--so, it's a safe bet that I'm right."


May 14, 2016

In Which Celina Offers Another Way

March 21, 1200

"And here I thought I'd seen it all." Aydelle chuckled, her heavy lids lowered but her eyes still alight. "Funny, how even the most ill-reputed of us are still so innocent in the end."

"You're not ill-reputed, really. Aunt Camaline and Aunt Leara like you too much not to defend you, and no one argues with princesses," Celina assured her as she reverted to her usual self and pulled her dress back on. A handful of encounters later, Camaline had been more than proven right in regards to Aydelle's open mind and trustworthiness; that plus the fact that she had no interest in hoarding Celina to herself made for the half-snap decision to let her in on the secret.

"And don't think I won't be thanking them for that--but obviously, I'm more curious about you at the moment. So, you can turn yourself into a man and then back into a woman whenever you want?"

"Yes. Apparently I was conceived in that magic pond, so that's probably were all of this comes from."

"Hmm." Aydelle's smile tugged for a minute, her mind maybe flickering back to anything else she might have heard about that pond. Or something else. Who was Celina to question her, really? If Celina could change her body at will, then Aydelle could have multiple things on her mind. "Have you told anyone else?"

"No. I was a little afraid of it at first, plus I hadn't gotten over my childhood shyness yet. Now, I just think don't see any reason why anyone else needs to know--but, I figured it would be nice to have one person to talk about it with."

"Well. Consider me honored--and call on me whenever you want to talk. Or, if you want to do anything else." Aydelle smirked, eyes locking with Celina's before sweeping down the rest of her. "Can you only change your entire body at once? Or can you... mix and match, per se?"

"Would you rather I tell you?" They did both have a few more free hours yet, after all. "Or would you rather find out some other way?"

"Interesting proposition," Aydelle purred, her hand drifting up to Celina's shoulder to trace the neckline of her dress. "I daresay this will be the most remarkable day off I've had in a while."


May 11, 2016

In Which Riona Is Approached With the Practical Idea

February 13, 1200

"Thank you for agreeing to this meeting," Haldred began once Riona had shut the door behind them. "My apologies for having King Oswald arrange it on my behalf, but I believe I needed some reassurance of this idea myself, and he seemed the optimal source there--apart from you yourself, of course."

Riona raised an eyebrow. She didn't know Haldred Kelistine well--only as the heir to the Earl of Sarona, and as a man whose late wife had been sister to her late husband. His introduction to this matter was a fair example of why they'd never gravitated to each other beyond that: he was a cerebral man, with enough of a textbook understanding of etiquette that he couldn't be faulted but no real appreciation for his place among the nobility. Privately, he probably found her frivolous, as she herself found him aloof and alien. She'd seen little of him since Holladrin's passing and even less since Lonriad's, and that hadn't been a problem for her. She'd assumed that lack of feeling had been mutual.

"So... what is this about, then?"

"Right; I'll get to the point. I believe we should marry."

"That... might be the sort of idea that requires more build-up." Holladrin had been the pinnacle of a princess, but Lonriad must have been right when he'd said his sister had found her husband's peculiarities endearing; she surely might have taught him more social nuances otherwise. "But, since I'd imagine you put some thought into this and our mutual father-in-law doesn't think it so horrible an idea to forbid us from speaking, I'll hear you out."

"Thank you. I'll admit that I got the idea from my sister Cladelia, when she informed us of her engagement to her sister-in-law's widower. It's unconventional, perhaps, but undeniably practical. The children are cousins, and therefore already have an inherent basis for a sibling-like relationship--and neither spouse will attempt to usurp the place of their predecessor, out of respect for their own first spouse and those they loved."

"That explains why you thought to involve King Oswald."

"Yes. No one can speak for Holladrin or Lonriad, but Oswald is their father--plus, I'd imagine Celina told him about her experience when Nythran and Cladelia married."

Riona nodded, though she kept her eyes to Haldred's face as her head bobbed. Perhaps he wasn't emotionally removed as she'd pegged him? At the very least, he seemed to realize that other people might have their own opinions and feelings--and, if she were honest, that was a thing she herself had always struggled with somewhat. "That's probably true."

Haldred forced his mouth into an unpracticed smile. He'd never much bothered with expressions as far as Riona had seen, but he was a handsome enough man; he wore his own unease well. "I'd understand if you need some time to think about it; Lonriad hasn't been gone all that long, after all. But the issue of the children and our late spouses aside, I believe you'd make a fine Countess of Sarona one day, and I don't plan on seeking out anyone else's hand without allowing you the opportunity to give me your earnest answer first."

"I appreciate that." Lonriad hadn't been the crown prince, after all; 'Countess Riona of Sarona' did have a fine ring to it, she would admit. "You've convinced me to at least consider it. Once I have my answer, I'll waste no time in letting you know."


May 9, 2016

In Which Celina Accepts the Phrase of Intent

January 17, 1200

"Well... I suppose this is it." Celina grimaced at the gold-on-teal Sadiel siren in front of her. There was a definite strangeness in talking to a tapestry, but in lieu of Ovrean himself, his family crest would have to suffice. "Our youngest baby, about to be married."

And how it seemed too soon! Had it really been a year and half ago now that Severin had called on her to express interest in courting Lileina? For that matter, had it really been twenty-one years since Arydath had first placed that beautiful baby girl in her arms?

"I just wish you were here to see it. I know you'll be watching fondly, but you understand that it's not the same for those of us down here. Lileina especially; I won't stand for this not to be one of the happiest days of her life, but I know she'll have a few thoughts for you. I just hope she feels your presence rather than your absence."

A young bride, she remembered only too well, was an easy target for nervousness. Lileina especially would not be immune, not when Celina had gone to her room to bid her goodnight only to find her practicing her 'I do's. Severin didn't begrudge her stutter--by the love-struck glaze in his eye whenever he looked Lileina's way, Celina doubted he even noticed it any more--but it was natural to fear the judgment of an audience.

But, if her father was watching over her--and he was not the sort of man who wouldn't--then surely he could lend her some of his calm.

"I thought Tarien would have been the first choice, but she asked me to walk her down the aisle instead. I'm sure you'll be on her other arm in spirit, darling."

In spirit, in ghost, in memory. Celina had never been quite sure of the physical details of such phrasing, but it didn't matter much. It was a phrase of intent rather than literal denotation.

Wherever Ovrean was, he'd left at least a part of himself in the hearts of those who'd loved him.

"And I think it's safe to say that it's only a matter of time before you have another grandson bearing your name."