December 28, 2016

In Which Viridis Tries Being Bold

April 12, 1203

Viridis liked Thetis Tumekrin, to the point where she wouldn't have hesitated to call them friends. Refusing people didn't come easy to her, but she would have found a way out of this if she didn't genuinely enjoy Thetis's company. She didn't know Gualtiero too well, but she had nothing against him either, and he seemed pleasant enough--plus, he was Reyes's twin brother and Thetis's betrothed. Thetis's non-arranged, entirely voluntary betrothed. Viridis had known Thetis long enough now to trust her judgement of character.

All the same... she would have much preferred a double date with Alina and Falidor, or even with Honora and Francois. Alina and Falidor had been courting since their youth and were practically married already, and had by now mastered the art of realizing that other people were in the room. Honora and Francois weren't quite at that point, but they were both reserved enough that overt displays of affection in the presence of others weren't a particular risk.

But Honora and Francois had already made plans with Francois's sister and her betrothed, and Falidor had a production to stage tonight, plus Alina had some coursework to take care of anyway. So, when Thetis had asked...

Well, Viridis hadn't said no, and neither had Reyes. And Viridis, at least, hadn't had quite the full idea of how Thetis and Gualtiero typically acted around each other.

Technically, she'd been in some sort of mutual pursuit with Reyes de Cervantes since her freshman year. She was studying economics, but a key facet of that was mathematics and she'd always been good at it, so she'd challenged a sophomore mathematics course for supplementary education. Reyes, a year ahead, had been studying physics, with a focus in mechanics--another area poised to benefit from some extra mathematics. Viridis hadn't quite realized how early one had to arrive for a choice seat, and the only one left had been near the back, at a table with Reyes. They hadn't spoken much throughout that course, but they'd ended up passing notes through most of the term, because neither understood why so many of their classmates needed repeat explanations of simple concepts.

After that course had finished, she'd found herself in the library one day, only to be approached by the quiet, awkward young man from the term prior. He'd asked if he could sit. She'd nodded. Fifteen minutes in, he'd blurted out that he liked her hair, then pulled his book in front of his face as if he thought she could no longer see him--but he could no longer see her, and she was glad of that, because her face had been as red as their mathematics professor's robes.

And that was how it had gone, a series of scattered awkward moments between two people who were too shy for their own good. Viridis was a senior now, set to graduate in June. Reyes had graduated in December. Most of their peers who'd graduated with him, who'd graduate with her, or who'd graduated between them? Engaged, or married--in many cases, after shorter acquaintanceships.

And sometimes, it was easy to envy people like Thetis and Gualtiero, who had no trouble saying what the felt and even less acting on it.

What were they even saying to each other? Whispering, giggling, a squeal of some taboo pleasure as Thetis sprung onto Gualtiero's lap. Viridis heard the words and recalled their sounds, but no meaning registered. It might as well have been another language, some tongue that only lovers spoke.


She blinked. At least she'd understood her own name, but it had come at the cost of missing Thetis's movement. She stood in front of her now, a plea in her eyes, while Gualtiero remained hopeful and eager on the couch behind her.

"I just asked if you wouldn't mind if Gualtiero and I ducked upstairs for a bit? I just want his opinion on my history paper."

A transparent excuse, especially considering that Thetis wasn't even taking a history course. But, Viridis managed a slow nod. "I suppose that's fine?"

"Great! Thanks. I'll try not to keep him for too long." But she grabbed him by the hand and whisked him to the stairs with far too much enthusiasm for a proofread of a fictional paper.

And that left Viridis alone, in the library of Thetis's Pisces House instead of her own Capricorn House, in the company of a man she was fond of but couldn't express herself to, a man whom she thought was fond of her but was equally--

"You know, I uh... I never used to be like this. Not that I was ever as overt as Gualtiero, but I could at least tell girls that I fancied them, once."

Or not. Viridis tugged at the fraying end of one of her braids. If he had an explanation, it would be either frustrating or flattering, but until he said it she'd find it simultaneously both. "...oh?"

"I don't know. You... make me nervous, I guess."

Nervous? That was an effect she'd never expected to have on anyone. She couldn't think of a person she knew who was less threatening than she was, especially if her face was as pink as it was hot. "I don't mean to make you nervous. You make me nervous."

"I don't mean to make you nervous either. I like you. I like you more than I've ever liked anyone." Reyes crossed his hands and fumbled with his own fingers as he looked down to his lap. "I guess I find it hard to say much to you, because if I say the wrong thing and drive you away, I don't know how well I could deal with that. Is that stupid?"

"I-- No. No, I don't think it's stupid. I think that's how I feel too." At least, it was as close to finding the words for it as she thought either of them might get. "But if we haven't driven each other away yet, then maybe we should try to stop worrying about it?"

"We should. It's been long enough, surely." Long enough, indeed. They knew people who'd courted a shorter time than them who were married already. "I'm having dinner with my parents on Sunday. You should come. My father in particular is... pretty calming. And my mother never met an awkward moment she couldn't squash."

"Sunday. I think I'd like that." It was a big step, bigger than she'd anticipated happening any time soon, but it was well overdue and perhaps it was the running start required to make the leap. "You should probably come for dinner with my mother and Uncle Lonriad too, soon. I suppose Sevvie and Yvanette would be there as well, if that makes it any better."

He nodded. "That sounds good."

"Good." Plans. Big plans. A start. Progress. "Um... but, what should we do now, while they're... pretending to work on Thetis's paper?"

Reyes chuckled, grey eyes flicking up at her in a shy confirmation of amusement. "Uh-- Well, maybe we could... sit closer?"

"Like... cuddling?" Viridis blinked. Sure, it wasn't anything nearly so bold as whatever Thetis and Gualtiero were doing upstairs--but, for the two of them, it may as well have been.

And perhaps, just this once, she wanted to try being bold. "We could."

"All right, then." He inched his way toward her and draped a tentative arm around her shoulder, his wrist settling at the base of her neck to avoid reaching further down than was proper. In turn, she let herself lean into him--not fully, but close enough that there was definite contact.

Close enough that she felt bold. Not so close that she felt uncomfortable.

"You smell nice."

She smiled. "You're warm."

"I want to kiss you."

Against her side, his body froze--as if his tongue had rushed ahead of the rest of him and he hadn't had time to calculate the slip. But if any part of him had said it, then he'd eased somewhat, just as she had. And he'd ease more, just as she would.

"Then kiss me."


December 21, 2016

In Which Celina Is Grateful

March 27, 1203

"I take it this isn't a social call."

Dani did, in fact, take it right. A mere four days before graduation and Celina ought to have been packing her things, having a few last drinks with her remaining friends and housemates, calling on relations she was unlikely to see again before she left for Dovia on the first of April. True, Dani's husband was Celina's first cousin, but he lived on campus as a faculty member and he taught in her field of study and she therefore saw him often enough--and she knew for a fact that he would be holed up in the philosophy department's office all day, finishing up all the freshman through junior grades he'd put aside to focus on the more urgent work of near-graduates.

Dani, however, had time off at present--which meant that Celina could safely seek her out without Severin ever having to know she'd been there.

"You know that I'm leaving after graduation, right?"

"With your betrothed in Dovia? I'd figured as much."

"Right." Celina sighed. In the interests of brevity, she'd take Dani's lack of need for explanation as a blessing. "I want you to keep an eye on Farr for me. And... Nanalie."

Dani sniffed. "This after you insisted that Nanalie was Oswald's."

"Legally, she is. And for Nearina's sake, it's easier if it's left at that. Besides, she could really be Oswald's, for all we know." And yet... well, even if Nanalie was Oswald's--and she did hope she was!--Celina did owe Nearina some consideration. Even if Nearina didn't know it. "I think I'd just sleep easier if I had some reassurance that she was all right. With Farr, at least Aydelle can write to me too, but you're the only one who knows about Nanalie."

"And it's better for everyone involved if it stays that way."


"Hmm. I don't dislike Nearina, but we're not friends. It would be odd if I started calling on her all of a sudden. But, I'll see what I can do." In Dani's mind, Celina guessed that the connecting social lines were drawing themselves already. Dani was married to Severin, Severin's brother was Arkon, Arkon was married to Honora, Honora was Nearina's sister. That, and there were parties. Many, many parties. A throwaway conversation could lead to something more. "But if you make any more messes up in Dovia, you do realize I can't help you out there--nor would I care to if I could."

"I know. And I've... changed things." Any further children Celina had, she'd sworn when she'd processed Nearina's pregnancy, would be Marsden's. She couldn't limit herself to him entirely--it would have been a waste of her gift--but he'd be her only heterosexual relationship. She'd keep to women as a woman, and to men as a man. No more accidents. No more mistakes.

"Good." Dani slid the nail of her thumb across her index finger. An impatient tick of hers. This conversation had no further purpose to serve. "Congratulations on graduating, and on your impending nuptials. Best of luck in Dovia."

"Thank you." And Celina did mean it. She was grateful.

But the graduation and the nuptials were the least of it.


December 17, 2016

In Which Arydath Isn't the Person to Ask

March 5, 1203

"So you had planned on that happening."

Thanks to a particularly tedious paper she'd put off until the last minute, Arydath hadn't attended the party a few days earlier. But, as pretty much everyone else she knew had, she'd heard about Aspen and Nato's drunken nuptials within her first waking hour the next morning--and that, despite his not having told her he planned on attending, her betrothed had been there. Said betrothed being Aspen's own brother, his presence at the party that had birthed the marriage--his presence as a graduate at a party on campus--merited some investigation. Not being one to take the roundabout way, Arydath had opted to ask Darry upfront.

At least he'd been honest with her. "You're an idiot."

Darry sighed. According to Celina, his parents' scoldings hadn't sunk in immediately, but that had been yesterday. He'd had the likely-sleepless night to reconsider. "It honestly seemed like the best option. Or... the least worst option, at least."

"As opposed to just letting her go?" Not that Arydath thought Aspen's plans had been any less horrifying than they were, but it was Aspen's life. "I would have thought that to be the least worst option, though at least we agree on the lack of a 'best'."

"I should hope we'd agree that letting her absorb an island's worth of illness isn't 'best'."

"Might I remind you that you know nothing of what it's like to be Aspen?" Arydath craned back her head and braced herself for whatever wave of stubbornness she was bound to get in response. Darry had been forced to admit his own abilities to her years earlier, when she'd stumbled across him telling off an old oak for complaints about the weather. Of course, admitting that had led to his having to let her in on Yvanette and Aspen's abilities as well. She was half-convinced he'd only started courting her to buy her silence on the issue, but that hadn't been necessary. She could see why his sisters, at least, would have wanted silence on the issue.

And that seemed to have been exactly what Darry failed to grasp. His own power was relatively invisible, didn't have a downside beyond having to put up with the occasional annoying conversation, and remained in constant use even when there were no trees around to overhear. Yvanette's powers, before they'd shifted with the birth of her son, had led to emotional decay and borderline agoraphobia, her lack of control and her ability's insistence on asserting itself making her half an invalid. Aspen's insistence on using hers, therefore, made Arydath wonder about whatever happened when she didn't. "It might be a choice of taking illness willingly, or taking it... unwillingly."

"I-- I'll admit that I didn't consider that until Yvanette mentioned it yesterday." With a pitiable twinge, Darry collapsed onto the bench, arms like a discarded rag doll. "And you either figured it out instantly just now, or you worked it out ages ago and assumed I'd done the same, because of course I should have. I'm a horrible brother."

"Don't say that. You did take Celina to the party, at least."

"Yes, because I needed an excuse to make Aspen go--and I don't think Celina's exactly thankful for the hangover."

Arydath shrugged. "It won't be the last hangover she ever has. As for Aspen... well, no one can claim you don't care, at least, even if you've been an idiot about showing it."

"I hope you're right." But he slouched in resignation, like he didn't think she was. "Do you think there's any chance she'll stay now?"

"I'm not the person to ask about that." Not everyone had Arydath's apparent patience for cute idiots, after all. "If Aspen finds reason to stay, she'll stay. That was the case before, and it's still the case now. Just leave her be for a while."


December 14, 2016

In Which Celina Gives Up on the Word

March 5, 1203


It was a sad excuse for a greeting several minutes after she'd picked the lock on her sister's door and slumped into the bedside chair, most of that time spent with her eyes one her own lap rather than on Aspen. If not for that barest turn of Aspen's head when the door had opened, though, Celina would have thought she'd gone unnoticed. Of course, if anyone had cause to be distracted...

Well, it wasn't Celina herself, even if some of her leftover queasiness hadn't settled.

"I should have figured Darry had some reason for inviting me to the party, but I was too excited to question it. I really should have--and I shouldn't have pushed you. I know you don't like parties."

"Don't apologize." Aspen flicked a finger at the end of her braid, the flash of gold about it not beyond notice. Why was she wearing the ring? Insane as his plan had been, had Darry at least been right about Nato? "I'm not angry with you."

"Just Darry, then?"

Aspen shrugged. There must have been more, then. But if even Celina got a pass, then surely someone who'd had even less of a knowing role...? And if she was wearing the ring...? "You're not mad at Nato, are you?"

Her sister shook her head. "No, not Nato. I'm not even mad at Darry, really. Anger isn't the word for it."

"Oh." Sad? Disappointed? Shattered? Celina gave up quickly on guessing. If Aspen hadn't said the word, then she didn't know it herself. "Are you still going to leave?"

"What else would I do? Stay and be Nato's wife?" She punctuated the thought with a dismissive sniff, but that wasn't--not quite--an outright 'no'.

Or was it? The question of yes or no never seemed as simple as it ought to have been. Or perhaps it was simple and the mind took too much glee in making it complicated. Celina didn't know. She was too young and stupid and still mildly hungover to figure it out.

"I don't know what that means."

Her sister spun the wedding ring about her finger. Celina tried not to read too much into it spinning toward the knuckle rather than the tip. "It means I want to be alone for a while. Maybe a long while."


December 8, 2016

In Which Ashe Withholds the Complexities

March 3, 1203

"Are you out of your damn mind?"

Ashe's experience with parenthood had not been free of occasions that would merit his asking such a question, but he'd always held it back before. As a general rule, his children's poor decisions were more dangerous to themselves than they were to other people, and such behaviors tended to be symptoms of some more serious issue that needed to be addressed, something personal and deep-seeded like Yvanette's anxieties or Aspen's reckless interpretation of purpose. His children, for the most part, weren't cruel--and to that, Darry was no exception.

But whether Darry himself was cruel or not, whether he'd meant to be cruel or not, the fact was that his actions had been. "Begging me to let you put one sister in a setting she's not ready for, insisting that you'd keep an eye one her, convincing me that it would be in her better interests--just so you could get another sister and some man drunk enough to get married? Why the hell would you do that? Don't you care about your sisters at all?"

"Obviously! I wouldn't have bothered if I didn't." His son's scowl widened with every syllable, cross-armed stance tightening in furious sync with the tug of his mouth. "No reason I gave Aspen was good enough for her to stay, so I gave her Nato. I'm not pleased that I was too preoccupied with Aspen to keep Celina from having more drink than she could handle, but she was still with me all night and she'll be fine and I'm not sorry. Excuse me for not wanting Aspen to more or less run off and kill herself."

"And marrying her off against her will was meant to prevent that? Jesus Christ, Darry! All you did was take yourself off of any list of reasons she might have stayed!"

"Nato isn't just some random stranger, you know. Aspen loves him! And he loves her, if you haven't been paying any attention. The only people who didn't know that were Aspen and Nato." Darry gritted his teeth, a low hiss shoving through like he was holding back a growl. "And you, apparently. She'll stay for him, but neither of them would have figured that out."

"My God! Are you even listening to yourself?" How had that idiot Falidor heard all of this with a calm ear and thought it a plan worthy aiding? How had Darry managed to convince someone to get Nato to the party before someone with a shred of sense could have found and revealed the plot? The only way Ashe could push those questions aside was to thank God that at least his new son-in-law hadn't been a conspirator himself. "It doesn't matter how they feel about each other! What matters is how they feel about what happened and how--and given that Aspen's locked herself up at Capricorn House and Nato's mother says he's been destroying training dummies all morning, clearly neither are happy about it! What did you think would happen, Darry? That Nato would insist she stay like some brutish husband and Aspen would be oh-too-happy to oblige? If you thought Nato was that sort, then you have no right to think you were doing Aspen a favor."

"That's a bold jab, coming from the man who won my mother in a tournament."

That did it. Darry was far too old for a cuff to the head, and Ashe had never thought it right to cuff him anyway. But twenty-two was no worse than any other age for a grab of the arm and a firm yank inward, nor did petty jeers or steadfast lack of repentance deserve any better. "You don't know a damn thing about your mother and me, or anything we've been through--but suffice to say that our official relationship didn't start well, and it took one hell of a lot to fix that. With Aspen graduating at the end of the month, she and Nato don't have the time for that amount of fixing--and if she's anything like her mother, the first thing she'll want is to be far away from here. Don't think I haven't sent guards to campus already in case she tries to leave tonight."

"She's not going to leave! She won't waste all that tuition spent by running off mere weeks before she graduates. Besides, they consummated the marriage; she knows there's no going back after that, and it won't take her long to figure out that she doesn't want to anyway."

"She already planned to waste that tuition by running off right after! And you can end a consummated marriage--in absentia. And unlike you, Nato might just respect Aspen's agency enough not to run after her."

"So that's it? You've just given up on your own daughter? Her agency means more than her life?"

"That's it! You don't get to make any assumptions about how I feel about any of this--and not just because that tiny brain of yours couldn't handle the complexities." And now, in addition to everything else that Darry couldn't handle, he had half a mind to toss his firstborn son out a tower window. "Go apologize to your sisters, and to your mother, and to Nato and his parents and everyone else you've left to clean up your mess. And don't let me see your face again before you've done that."


December 5, 2016

In Which Nato Realizes What Else Didn't Happen

March 3, 1203

"So." Dress donned and hair tidied, Aspen yanked the blanket over the telltale stains of the night before. Not that Nato remembered having any part in making them. "As soon as you walk out this door--this never happened. Agreed?"

"Agreed," Nato muttered as he finished lacing up his boots, his own voice too much for his throbbing head. As if either of their lives weren't complicated enough without their apparently having fucked in a mutual state of black-out drunkenness.

At least--he hoped it had been mutual.

"Um... I know this never happened, but I didn't...?"

She shrugged. What did that mean? If he'd traumatized her, she'd surely have been more shaken up. Unless she was repressing it, that was. Fuck. "I don't remember anything. You don't remember anything. For all we know, maybe I did to you what you're afraid you did to me. If one of us is a criminal, maybe it's better if we don't know who it is. If it's someone's fault, then it happened. But it didn't."

Right. It hadn't happened. As far as anyone had to know, all he'd woken up to was the headache to end all headaches. No doubt the only reason Aspen hadn't robbed him of that was that doubling her own hangover would make the non-event less of a non-event. "What time do you think it is? Am I safe to leave?"

Aspen winced as she glanced back out the window. Nato took the hint not to look for any sunlight himself. "It's day, but I think it's still early? My housemates should still be asleep."

"Good." Nato cracked his knuckles, caught off-guard by the cold touch of his own fingers. Damn hungover senses. "Um... so, that was not a thing I expected to not happen."

"Ah, but since it didn't happen, there's no sense in discussing it." Aspen asserted herself with a grimace and gestured to the door with a jerk of her head. "And you were never here, so you'd better get on that."

"Right." He sidled past her, their parting little more than a pat he dared land on her shoulder. It was probably the last time he'd see her, if her plan really was to leave the country, probably heading off to her death. But no--the last time he'd seen her had been the last time, he'd have to remind himself. This time hadn't happened, after all.

Or so he would have spent the rest of the day, the week, God knew how long convincing himself if his plan to slip away from Capricorn House unnoticed hadn't been an instant and spectacular failure.

"Good morning, Nato."

Oh fuck me. "...This isn't what it looks like."

"I think you're right about that." Darry smiled, the impossible sparkle of his teeth more than Nato's sore eyes and the brain behind them could handle. The oddity of such a wide grin on a man who'd just caught someone he barely tolerated leaving the bedroom of his virginal sister didn't exactly ease the strain. "You needn't worry about last night. I saw the two of you heading in there, you know--and believe me when I say you were both most enthusiastic."

And a statement like that might have been a dagger to the forehead. "What are you playing at here?"

"I'm not playing at anything, Nato. Everyone who knows my sister knows just how much she needed a good lay."

"And if you've been standing here with your ear to the door, then you'll know she'd rather people think she still did, because no one else is going to find out about last night."

Darry snickered. "My God, Nato, I didn't realize the two of your were that drunk. Everyone already knows. You kept the whole building up all night, for one--like my poor little sister. She's asleep on the couch in the sitting room, and she'll probably still be out for hours before she has to wake up to her first ever hangover, and to the memory of Aspen and Nato making the floor vibrate. And even before you got back here, you two were all over each other; I'm fairly sure you licked her out under the table at the inn at one point."

And yet, that knife-twisting smirk didn't waver in the slightest. "For a concerned older brother, you seem to find all of this much too amusing."

"Concerned older brother?" Darry laughed again, practically spitting needles into Nato's skull. "Christ, you two really do remember nothing! You and Aspen didn't go right back to Capricorn House after you left the inn, you know. A few of us followed after you two got thrown out, and none of us were ready to call it a night just yet, so we ended up dropping in on the biggest party animal in Veldorashire."

"Who the fuck is the biggest party--?" Nato cut himself off, the flash of a face in his mind's eye twisting his throbbing brain to the halt. That face, the mingled smells of wine and incense and jimsonweed, the acute awareness of a foreign object against his finger. "No!"

"Kind of sad for the rest of us, given his age and all. But, no sense in judging." Darry shrugged--now a much less flattering gesture than the one Aspen used to deny having slept with him. "That's the Lord's job, after all, even if Father Sextus wasn't one of his own men."

Father. Fucking. Sextus.

Fuck fuck fuck fuck FUCK.

His mind a swirling mess of spirits and obscenities and horrified realizations, Nato would never quite know how he'd summoned the presence of mind to shuffle back to Aspen's door and nudge his fist against it. The only thought he'd have in focus when his father arrived to collect him some hours later would be the repeating assurance that--at the very least--neither he nor Aspen were at fault.

"Aspen? I think there was something else that didn't happen last night..."