September 27, 2016

In Which Nearina Finds a Shared Perspective

May 19, 1202

Ten days.

Ten days now, Oswald had been dead. The funeral had come and gone. Nearina had stashed her loathsome black gown back into its place of shame at the back of her wardrobe in obvious favor of her usual green, as if the emerald could bring her husband back by sheer virtue of vibrancy. It couldn't. She was a widow, at twenty-one, not even married a year, left to raise her baby daughter alone.

And her love was dead.

She didn't need any reminders of that fact, but everything was, from his scent on the sheets to the absence of his fingers drumming on tables. It would have been unbearable enough had she not insisted--apparently out of pure emotional masochism--on taking care of the loose ends Oswald had left behind herself. Tenants, hirings, firings, maintenance, working out with her father-in-law what would become of Oswald's castle. It would be part of Holladrin's dowry if she married a man who wasn't heir to his own family's property, but they'd have to revisit the issue if that wasn't the case and Nearina hadn't found other lodging. It wouldn't be much of a negotiation, if it came to that. If her daughter had no future use for the castle, then Nearina would leave, and Octavius or Prior or whoever was baron then could gift the place to someone else. The only reason she didn't leave now was that someone had to keep it running on her baby's behalf.

"My lady?"

Not that she was doing a great job of it, in her current gloom. She hadn't even noticed the guard in front of her. When she pried her head from the surface of the desk, she found she didn't even recognized him--and she ought to have, if she'd seen him before. He was almost certainly some Kemorin bastard. "My apologies. What did you need?"

"Today's my last day. I just wanted to thank you for the job."

Nearina raised an eyebrow. Had this man resigned? Had she processed his resignation? "Uh..."

"Oh, sorry--um, I gave two weeks' notice. Sir Oswald handled all of the arrangements. I just thought it wouldn't be right not to bid you farewell, and to express once again my sympathies. Sir Oswald was a great man."

Not quite. 'Great' implied some sort of renown. Oswald hadn't lived long enough to gain that. But Nearina wouldn't argue. "Thank you."

"I lost someone too, quite recently. My betrothed. That's why I'm resigning; she had a daughter from her first marriage, and I have to take the little girl to Dovia to live with her aunt. I'll be staying there, so I can keep an eye on her too."

"Oh." Given the age of him, his betrothed probably hadn't been any older than Oswald. Her daughter, certainly, would have been far too young to be without a mother. "I'm sorry for your loss as well."

The guard nodded, a hint of a tear caught behind a blink of his thick--Kemorin, no doubt--lashes. "Thank you. It's comforting, being around someone who understands."

It was. Not that she didn't have people in her life that hadn't known the same pain, but it wasn't so fresh for them. She wasn't quite ready for the perspective of someone who'd put this misery behind them, not when it felt so permanent in front of her. "Would you... maybe like to stay and talk, for a while?"

The man swallowed back a breath of air and bowed his head. "I would, my lady."


September 21, 2016

In Which Celina Is Almost Accused

May 9, 1202

Celina gritted her teeth as she sat up, only bothering to rise because the conversation at hand would be counter-productive to relaxation. For the present term, the only students at Scorpio House with no classes scheduled for Thursday afternoons were herself and Dani. On most Thursday afternoons, they had little reason to talk to each other and more or less made a mutual point to avoid doing so.

Most Thursday afternoons didn't follow an ill-timed meeting of Dani's insomnia and Celina's slip-ups on Wednesday night.

"Look, there's no use in trying to blackmail me, if that's what you're thinking. No one in their right mind would believe you."

The other woman sniffed. Not for the first time, Celina fought off the bewilderment that two reasonably attractive people such as Sir Neilor and Lady Tivie had produced a pug-faced perma-scowler like Dani. Her cousin Severin had either terrible eyesight or a gross misconception of Dani's personality, if not both. The room was a less comfortable place for her mere presence in it, even if she'd been minding her own business and Celina hadn't seen her enter. "I have no interest in blackmail. I doubt you have anything I want, and I couldn't care less about whatever the hell it is you do to yourself anyway."

Whatever the hell it is you do to yourself. A phrasing both shockingly apathetic and insultingly unimpressed. What Dani had stumbled across the night before was bound to be the most remarkable thing she'd ever see in her life, and yet here she was, rolling her eyes as if forced to tell yet another distant relation how her studies were going. "Then why bother with this conversation, exactly?"

"Because." With an uncharacteristic swiftness, Dani strode toward her and set herself on the other bench like a judge commencing court. "While I don't fault you your curiosity, I'm compelled to point out the element of non-disclosure in your liaisons."

"Pardon?" There had to have been a plainer way of saying it. Dani must have figured that roundabout language demonstrated her moral high ground. Bitch. "First of all, you don't even know that I'm having liaisons."

"Actually, I do. One of the guards here on campus also works for my father, and I know for a fact that he's a man of... certain tastes, shall we say? He and I are on friendly enough terms, so I happened to mention a classmate of your description who might have been interested--but, as it turns out, you already were interested."

"What of it? He wasn't any less interested than I was."

"Yes, but that might have been different had he known that you only came to him as a man because he wouldn't have had you as a woman, or that you're only after whatever fun you can have while technically telling the truth when your betrothed takes your maidenhead. Same with some of the other men you might have bedded--and the women, if your obvious drooling over Nearina is anything to go by. Yes, they might enjoy it, but it's occurring under false pretenses."

"It's not--look, do you really think most of them would want to know the truth? Or that I shouldn't make good use of a gift that for all I know is unique to me?"

"It's not as if there aren't people who aren't particular about sex, you know--yourself obviously being one of them. I won't indulge you by pretending to care about how many people you sleep with, but I hope you know you're walking a fine line. Willingness can have its terms, and ceases to be willingness if those terms are disregarded. A violation may as well be--"

A writhing discomfort in Celina's gut guessed at what terrible word Dani had been about to say, but it was left to speculation by a man's knock. Celina bit her lip. She almost wished they hadn't been interrupted, so Dani might have said something less accusatory, or so she could have defended herself had she not. But she wouldn't pretend she'd be sorry to have a less repugnant face to look at. "Come in."

"Celina," her cousin greeted her as he did as she said, fist clenched at his side and his mouth drawn in a wary frown. Celina squinted. Even if Rio--who had already graduated from the university, whose lady love did indeed live at Scorpio House but wasn't there presently--made a habit of calling on her, he wouldn't have done so with such a grim countenance. "Dani."

"Rio." Celina's toes curled inward as he approached. It had to have been bad news, but of what? Of who? She couldn't think of any relatives in particularly poor health. "What's wrong?"

"It's your friend. Nearina."

Her blood froze in her veins and left her flesh for a minute both heavy and numb.

But how smugly self-righteous Dani would have been had she known just how short-lived that feeling wound up being.

"Her husband is dead."


September 16, 2016

In Which Dora Does the Least

May 1, 1202

It took little effort for Dora to rise from the bed and no feverish fog engulfed her. That didn't mean she felt better.

My family. My mother. Oh God. How could I have done that to my family?

And how could she not have? She'd been miserable. She'd had a loving family yes, but what future had there been for someone like her? It was clear to her now that she'd never had a romantic interest in women, not as Teodrin and not now, so any wife Teodrin might have taken would have been doomed to a loveless marriage--and a childless marriage, likely even a sexless marriage. Life as a bachelor wouldn't have been impossible, but with the crippling insecurity and stunted social skills that had resulted, earning a living would have been easier said than done. The best option would have been to work for Hamrick--her brother, Hamrick--as a farmhand, and that was only 'best' in that Hamrick wouldn't have turned down his own brother. Teodrin would not have fancied farming, not to the point where he could have built a life around it and considered himself happy.

And Adonis! She wouldn't have had Adonis's love as Teodrin, she was almost certain of it. Even if Teodrin had come to fancy Adonis consciously, he never would have dared approach him, both for fear of rejection and the emotional torment over what the hell had to be wrong with him to fancy a man so.

And Ceidrid... her baby...

"You saw Ylwa, didn't you?"

A voice she'd known in both her lifetimes. Severin, her and her husband's friend, the man who'd walked her down the aisle for lack of any proper family. Severin, her older brother, clever and aloof and meeting everything he tried with either natural success or such decisive indifference that his failed attempts were almost impressive. To Dora, he was a comfort. To Teodrin, he'd been the distant and terrifying embodiment of everything he dared dream of being.

And he knew about Ylwa. If he knew about Ylwa, he knew all of it. "I--"

"It's all right. You don't have to talk if you don't want to." Severin rose from the bench at the foot of the bed and met her at the side. She didn't know what to expect from him, if he'd greet her as Dora or as Teodrin, if he would have even bothered greeting Teodrin beyond the barest acknowledgment of his existence before returning to whatever more interesting book or puzzle was at hand.

She hadn't expected a firm, fraternal hug--like she might have had she been Alina or Evera. "You have no idea what a relief it is to finally know you're safe."

Her brother. Her cold big brother who on his best of days might have let Teodrin have the larger dinner roll. How torn up inside the rest of the family must have been. "I'm so sorry..."

"Don't--well, I don't know. You don't need to apologize for who you are, and I can't say I've yet thought of any easy way you might have told us. We were worried beyond belief, but I don't blame you for not expecting the best reaction-wise. Not from everyone, at least." He kissed her on the brow, like brothers did their younger sisters, like she'd seen him kiss Holladrin when he'd felt it merited. "I don't think anything could make Mother stop loving you."

"Mother..." Her mother had all the love in the world to give. She'd even given in to Dora despite lack of any obligation, despite all the pain she must have still felt over Teodrin. "I must have hurt her so terribly."

"I suppose there's no sense in denying that. I hope you don't mind my saying that you really should tell her, some day." He stepped back, his hand trailing off her arm as it followed the rest of his body. "Not until you're ready, though."

What did it mean, to be ready to tell a thing like this? She wasn't sure she ever would be--but her mother deserved to know. In truth, the whole family did. "What about everyone else?"

"I... don't know." Severin sighed. Dora might have heard him admit to not knowing before, but Teodrin never had. As far as Teodrin had been concerned, anything Severin didn't know couldn't have been worth knowing anyway. "It's not my call. I can't make a guess at how everyone would react. Plus, if Father and all of our siblings know, then who's to say the in-laws and nieces and nephews shouldn't, then family friends, colleagues..."

"My husband."

"Right. Your husband." Her brother bit his lip. Adonis was a good man, but he had no concept of such things--almost nobody, good or not, did! The unfamiliar was often frightening, especially coming from a loved one, a person with whom there should have been no secrets. "Again, that's... up to you. I'm sorry I can't be of more help."

"It's fine." At least, the extent of his ability to help was fine. "I don't think I could expect any more of anyone here."

"You're probably right. Anyway, I don't know if you're up to seeing anyone else yet, but can I at least tell them that you're all right? You as Dora, I mean--with your illness."

Dora nodded. Everyone had spent enough time worrying over her, and it wouldn't be the last of it--not until she figured things out. The least she could do was let Severin assure them of her health. "Please do."


September 13, 2016

In Which Rina Fulfills the Genuine Answer

May 1, 1202

"Thank you for all your help this whole time." Adonis began about half a minute after Rina sat down. She'd been at the bank all morning, but she'd opted to use her lunch break to check in on Dora and her family. Dora's husband must have thought that to be a larger gesture than it actually was. "You and Severin and Thetis."

"It wasn't a problem. Friends do that." A lesson she'd learned later in life than one ought to have, which was perhaps why it stuck so fervently. She also knew what it was to be ill and bedridden, and how little help it was when the best of the people around resorted to avoidance. "Thetis said she was breathing better?"

"Yes. She's still asleep, but it's a peaceful, healthy sort of sleep. Your husband says she'll be well when she wakes, at least in body." Dora's own husband sighed at the incompleteness of that assessment. "I worry about what he might mean by that, though."

"Well... there's still the memory issue, isn't there? That, and I don't think it's unusual to be stressed and agitated after recovering from an illness; there's a feeling of needing to catch up with life after essentially rejoining it."

"Hmm. I suppose that makes sense." But Adonis just drummed his fingers against his leg, enlightened but not reassured. "I just... God. I just want her to be well, you know? Healthy, and happy. I'd pull the stars from the sky if that would make her better, and I hate knowing that there's nothing I can do to help and probably a thousand ways to make her feel worse."

A thousand ways to make her feel worse. Rina knew how that felt. But, she also knew that many of those ways were more about intent than anything else. "Just be there for her, Adonis. She knows that you care about her; as long as you give her no reason to doubt that, you'll help her more than you know. I know that loving isn't always enough, but sometimes it is."

"I should hope so. Sometimes it's all we have, isn't it? Like now." A scuff of his boot against the floor took that bitterly. "Do you think she'll be all right, in the end? More than in body, I mean?"

'Think' wasn't always the best word at times like these. It wasn't a question for the mind, or at least not for their minds. How would they even know, necessarily? If Dora cared to, she could hide her misery beneath a mask of content for fifty years yet, and no one would know the difference.

A genuine answer required a different verb. "I hope so."


September 8, 2016

In Which Dora Is and Isn't Dreaming

April 30, 1202

What an odd dream this was. Dora both knew the pond and didn't. She'd never cared for marshlands, and the only pond of note in the kingdom was one she had no interest in visiting. Neither did Adonis, for that matter; thanks to his bachelor years of moving from inn to inn and tent to tent while his projects came to life at the expense of consistent baths and laundry, her husband was a hygiene-conscious man for whom a filthy pond would have been among the worst venues for love-making.

But, somehow, she knew this was that pond--and, in spite of her unease about the place, she didn't mind. She was alone. The waters were clean and clear enough, lilies of many colors abundant, a number of ducks and geese floating in content. The earth beneath her was dry in spite of the pond's proximity, even as the grass receded and the dirt prevailed. It might have been how she knew it was a dream, the peace and cleanliness of such a place.

That, and it just... felt it. Not even like a normal dream, really, but certainly not reality. And what other possibility was there? That she was dead? She thought she'd know if she was dead.

But if it was a dream, then it was odd that she was aware of it. She'd believed far stranger dreams to be reality while in the process of dreaming them, dreams of impossible creatures and characters from stories and scenes that defied physics. If she spent a dream sitting by a pond, she didn't expect to know it for a dream until she woke.

She wasn't awake. She'd have known why she was here if she was awake--she hoped.

"Hello, Teodora. It's been a while."

She turned her head to see the naked figure of a green-skinned woman standing behind her. That was a sight more typical of a dream.

Or was it? Somehow, she couldn't quite be sure this was her first time seeing this woman. "Who are you?"

"I'm the one responsible for your memory issues, though I'll remind you that you did ask. Now that they're causing you some grief, I've come to your subconscious to sort them out. Try to keep calm while I'm here, but I'm fully expecting that you won't." The woman rolled her cloudy eyes as she flipped two hanging braids behind her back. "The truth isn't always the easiest thing to grasp."


September 7, 2016

In Which Severin Gets the Narrative

April 30, 1202

"See? I knew you'd figure it out. You humans do tend to be smarter than you look, about four times out of five."

"I'd feel smarter if what I supposedly 'figured out' didn't leave me with more questions than answers." Frankly, the most shocking thing Severin had 'figured out' was that he hadn't lost his mind. The pieces of the puzzle had formed a picture he couldn't explain and didn't know what to do with. More than a small part of him had expected Ylwa to smack him across the head and tell him to come back when he had the real solution. "I need a narrative here."

"All right. I'm sure you've read a few autopsy accounts that mentioned... unexpected arrangements of the reproductive organs? Your brother sought me out over a particular medical issue some years back." Ylwa smirked. Severin couldn't tell if it was fond remembrance or present amusement. Both, maybe. "Turns out, your little brother was always supposed to be your little sister. I said I could make some alterations in either direction, but that they wouldn't be necessary, and then I dismissed the kid before any rash decisions could be made; it's not a decision to made lightly, especially when the idea that there could be a decision in the first place is more or less alien to you."

"So then, Teodrin thought it over, and then you went along with the informed decision." And informed nobody else. Not even Dora. "What about the memories?"

"I thought it only fair to offer the option. You humans aren't exactly known to react well to people daring to take control of their own bodies, what with all those poor people you insist on stuffing away in your godless god-houses for the crime of daring to use their own genitals. Dora chose the fabricated past over the pain of having to hide the truth, and living with the consequences of the hiding. You can't really blame her, can you?"

"No, I guess not." 'Blame' wasn't the right word. Yes, the family had been hurt, was still hurt... but 'blame' didn't capture it. He'd talk to Dora later, when she remembered.

If she remembered.

"Look, that fake past you made up for her isn't holding up any more. At first she started feeling it wasn't real, then she just forgot, and then she--"

"Oh. She's ill, isn't she?"

Severin nodded. Ylwa sighed--not expecting, exactly, but aware that something had been possible. "Of course. Well, this isn't common, but clearly she spends a lot of time among people she knew before--so it's not impossible that her brain has rejected the constructed memories. That tends to result in it wreaking havoc on the body for lack of knowing what to do with itself."

"Can you save her?"

"Naturally. I just need to get into her head and restore her original memories. I have mixtures that allow me to do that." As if that ought to have been common knowledge. And as if it were an ethical dilemma. "She might be in something of a state afterwards, though. Her real past is a lot to process."

"I'll take responsibility for that. The important thing is her health." Then, once she was back on her feet... she could figure out how to go about all of this.

He just hoped it eventually involved telling their mother.


September 3, 2016

In Which Thetis's News Is Not So Distant

April 30, 1202

"How's she doing?" Thetis's son asked as he shut the door behind him, little more than whispered as he noticed Dora's sleeping form. Florian had given the side-eye when Severin had settled on a career in medicine, insistent that the boy simply didn't like people enough to enjoy it--not that that was a bad thing, of course, but there was only so much satisfaction a puzzle could give if part of solving it required a good bedside manner.

Thetis had disagreed from the start. The proof of it had shown its face when he'd met Rina; he may have been grouchy and socially-averse, but it wasn't for lack of caring. It may have even been for an excess of caring. Working as a physician gave him an outlet for pent-up concern that he was otherwise ill-equipped to express.

"Mmm... not much different from when you were here yesterday, unfortunately. She was awake for a while this morning, but she had to rest again."

Poor girl. The inexplicable illness was one thing, but even more troubling was her panic over her lost memories. Whenever Dora woke, those around her would take care to keep conversation to the present--or to the future, even, thanks to young Ceidrid's creative variety of (mostly) harmless amusement attempts.

But, inevitably, something would remind her that before arrival in Naroni... well, there was nothing to be reminded of.

"I wish there was more we could do. If parents' background was anything like mine or your father's, I don't know if any church would have records of them, but she needs... I don't know. A starting point, at least. Some hint as to who she is and where she came from. Do you suppose trying to trace our own lines back far enough might yield something? She does look so much like--"

"Alyssin." From the foot of the bed, Severin squinted down at her. It might have been two seconds, it might have been a whole minute; there was a fog about the room that both stretched and squeezed time, made any guessed measurement impossible.

But, however long he'd studied her, the day-wide haze broke with a sudden clear-eyed gasp. "...Mother, you don't have anywhere else you need to be today, do you?"

"No, I think Esela and Hamrick can handle anything that comes up at home." Perhaps her soft spots had grown too broad, but she didn't think she could leave Dora for long without any concrete news for anything short of an emergency. But, if that enlightened, end-tying stare toward the window meant anything, concrete news may not have been so distant a thing. "What is it? Do you know why she's sick? What she has? Why she can't remember?"

"No. Not quite." Or--as she knew innately, as the woman who raised him--not with enough certainty for him to say. Yet. "But I know someone who does."


September 2, 2016

In Which Severin Puzzles Over Pieces

April 29, 1202

"I just... I'm stumped. I've seen amnesia before, but nothing like this." The quill in Orrick's hand was lucky that it was already too thin to distort. This wasn't Severin's first consult with Orrick about a mutual patient, but most of their professional interactions had to do with someone coming to Severin with symptoms of severe stress and him then referring them to Orrick. He hadn't seen anything like Dora's case either.

"Her memory is perfectly fine from the time she established herself in Ravenhold, but everything before that is gone--and even when it was there, now that I think back on it, it always sounded somewhat impersonal. Rehearsed, maybe. She talked about her parents like she would about historical figures, not like she talks about her husband and son."

His tone wasn't quite accusatory. That said, any onus on the patient herself at this point wouldn't help their diagnosis. "I don't believe she's lying, if that's what you're getting at."

"No, of course! We've both known her long enough now to give her the benefit of the doubt there. Besides, it never seemed like a lie either, exactly." Between Orrick's teeth, the tip of his tongue bulged under pressure. "More like... like her brain is compensating. Rationalizing. It did such a good job of it that even Dora herself didn't realize it for years."

"Any ideas as to how that would explain the fever? And the fainting?"

"That, I believe, would be your realm of expertise." Orrick sighed, which more or less summed up Severin's own thoughts on that. "How was she, when you left?"

"Awake, at least. Still warm, but she kept down some soup, and she was reading a story to her son as I headed out." To hear Adonis tell it, Ceidrid's constant need for nighttime cuddles was a large part of why he was still an only child; he'd spent every night in his mother's arms since she'd fallen ill, so if whatever Dora had was contagious, the boy would have caught it by now. "My mother's with her now, and Rina has the quads tidying the house while she and Adonis make supper."

"Good. I'll stop by to check on her some time tomorrow, but let me know if her condition changes any time sooner--or if you have any sudden ideas."

"Right." At this point, though, any ideas wouldn't have been 'sudden'. How long ago had he spoken with Ylwa, again, only to be told that he 'had all the pieces'? Pieces of what, exactly? Was this illness a piece of the puzzle that was Dora? Was it even Dora herself who was the puzzle? "Likewise, if anything occurs to you, don't waste any time telling me either."

Because--one way or another--I'm sure I've already wasted too damn much of it myself.