al­laigna’s song: aria

Pulp Literature - - ALLAIGNA'S SONG: ARIA - JM Lan­dels

Al­laigna’s Song: Aria is the sec­ond novel in the Al­laigna’s Song tril­ogy by eques­trian swordswoman, artist, and edi­tor JM Lan­dels. The first book, Over­ture, was printed se­ri­ally in is­sues 1 through 11 of Pulp Lit­er­a­ture, and is now avail­able in a sin­gle vol­ume from Pulp Lit­er­a­ture Press.

Pre­vi­ously in Al­laigna’s Song

Flee­ing an un­wanted be­trothal and en­raged by her family’s lies con­cern­ing her par­ent­hood, four­teen-year-old Al­laigna has set off to find her true fa­ther. How­ever, her quest is in­ter­rupted a mere three days in, when a chance en­counter lands her in the il­le­gal poach­ing en­camp­ment of her be­trothed-to-be, Tiern Doniver. She is nearly rec­og­nized but es­capes, thanks to new-found al­lies: the sta­ble boy, Rad­dick, and the ken­nel master, Dog.

Four­teen years ago: Lau­resa and her mother Ir­daign have been re­united with the birth of Al­laigna, but years of sep­a­ra­tion, anger, and mem­ory loss leave un­healed wounds. Ir­daign makes her­self a part of the house­hold un­der the as­sumed name of An­ge­ley, while Lau­resa strug­gles to for­give her and rec­on­cile her­self to her new role as mother. For rea­sons of her own, Ir­daign clan­des­tinely re­unites Lau­resa with her lover and Al­laigna’s fa­ther, Ei­navar.

Ir­daign’s Cho­rus

He is al­ready at the pre­scribed ren­dezvous point, where Cloth­mar­ket meets with the New Road. The tav­ern be­side the well is al­ways crowded, though never with cas­tle-folk. Seam­stresses, tai­lors, mer­chants, cord­wain­ers, glovers, and hab­er­dash­ers gather here for small ale, fresh wa­ter from the foun­tain, and gos­sip.

I set my bag, heavy with goods from the apothe­cary and spice mer­chant, down be­tween my feet and be­gin to work the pump han­dle. It is our pre­ar­ranged sig­nal and he crosses quickly to the foun­tain, gal­lantly tak­ing over the chore of pump­ing up a bowl of wa­ter to wet my mouth. “Your High­ness,” he says, prof­fer­ing the bowl. “Not any­more,” I say sharply, then smile to soften the sting. I drink deeply—it is the best well in town, bet­ter even than those within the cas­tle. “Here and now, I am merely An­ge­ley, and you are Ei­navar.”

“It is a bet­ter name than my own.” His voice is cool and liq­uid, like the wa­ter. Not emo­tion­less, just smooth as the sur­face of a deep pool hid­ing jagged rocks be­neath. “It’s … an hon­our to meet you.”

“Oh, we’ve met be­fore, young man.” I flash a mer­rier, more wicked smile

at him, mak­ing him start. “One day I may tell you about it. But let’s sit, shall we? The beer here is ex­cel­lent, thanks no doubt to the wa­ter.”

Once we are equipped with tankards there is an awk­ward pause through which I wait, al­low­ing him to break it.

“I must thank you, madam, for …” He clears his throat and a pale pur­ple tinges his cheeks. I feel a surge of fond­ness for this al­most son.

“No,” I in­ter­rupt. “You must not thank me. Your grat­i­tude would make a pro­curess of me.” I smile again to show I am at least par­tially teas­ing.

His re­turn smile flick­ers, ner­vous and brief, then dis­ap­pears again. Oh, how se­ri­ous and wor­ried he is!

“Ei­navar,” I take his long-fin­gered hand within my own two. It is strangely smooth for one who has spent so much time rang­ing. “I love my daugh­ter above all else — ” It is his turn to in­ter­rupt me, his free hand cov­er­ing our other three. “As do I. But …” He swal­lows, breathes, con­tin­ues. “Be­cause of that I would not bring dishonour or pain upon her. I … we … did not — ”

“Please!” I ex­claim, pulling my hands out from his. “Do not tell me what you did or did not last night.” The mauve tinge on his cheeks spreads and red­dens. “Dishonour is within my skill to pre­vent. Pain …” It is my turn to sigh. “She has suf­fered much al­ready. I would have her gain what joy she can.”

His own brow is creased in that same pain. “Wouldn’t it be bet­ter for her to … to sim­ply for­get me?” The sug­ges­tion is ag­o­niz­ing to him, but he of­fers it none­the­less.

I shake my head. “If she gives her heart to her hus­band, it will be worse.” As I say it, I re­al­ize the Sight has re­turned and set­tled on my brow. I blink, forc­ing away the things I hope won’t come true.

“Love is a rare and pre­cious com­mod­ity, Ei­navar. Cher­ish it when it finds you, and never re­lin­quish it.” An­other shake of the head brings me back to the present. “I would not ac­cept your grat­i­tude, but I will ac­cept your troth. Ceilaf

bound his to me when I was Princess still. He rec­om­mended you to me, and you saved Lau­resa’s life on the Clear­wa­ter Way. More than that.” I smile once more. “You’ve given me a grand­daugh­ter any prince would be proud of.”

I watch the emo­tions flicker through his pale, pale eyes: grief, equal to my own, at the men­tion of Ceilaf; pride nowhere equal to mine at the men­tion of Al­laigna. But that can and will be nur­tured.

“I need eyes and ears within Bran­dis­hear. For this I can pay you.” I’ve al­ready no­ticed the thin­ness of his cloak, the fray­ing on his sleeves. “I may even still have enough con­nec­tions to se­cure you a com­mis­sion. Rangers, I think? Through in­di­rect chan­nels, of course.”

He is about to protest, but I stop him. My plans have no room for false mod­esty and po­lite de­mur­rals.

“Meet­ing here is not safe, though. I will show you a place in the East­ern For­est, and give you a to­ken that will al­low you to con­tact me through a scry­ing pool there.” I can see he is about to protest his ig­no­rance of magic. “It is a sim­ple enough trick. I can teach you.

“And I will, when it can be ar­ranged, show you glimpses of your daugh­ter … and mine.”

The grat­i­tude hid­den be­neath those frost grey eyes nearly stag­gers me, and makes me hope I am not mak­ing an er­ror.

Lau­resa’s Cho­rus

He is gone again, and Lau­resa is left raw and aching once more, the wounds she thought healed bleed­ing freely.

They have agreed it is best for him not to come near too of­ten. But it is im­pos­si­ble for him to never re­turn. He has held the child in his arms and fallen in love with her sweet breath. How­ever cruel it is to Lau­resa to have him reap­pear at sparse in­ter­vals in her life, it would be in­fin­itely cru­eller to deny him pre­cious glimpses of his daugh­ter, who is grow­ing and chang­ing so fast. What­ever her bur­dens and sor­rows, his will be harder to bear.

She doesn’t know whether to curse or thank her mother who ar­ranged this meet­ing. The child­ish, still-ado­les­cent part of her­self is in­dig­nant, out­raged that her mother has even the knowl­edge of Ei­navar, and worse, that she can pro­cure him as if she were a com­mon pan­derer. And yet, now that it has hap­pened, and the pain of say­ing good­bye is even worse than the first time, she wouldn’t have it any other way.

With her heart reawak­ened to him, she is more con­scious than ever of the cuckoo she has brought to her hus­band’s nest. As Al­laigna grows, she looks more and more like her nat­u­ral fa­ther. The child wears a linen cap to cover the straight black hair that is nei­ther Al­le­nis’s dark brown curls nor Lau­resa’s golden ones, and to dis­guise the Il­vani cast to her ears and fore­head. As the years go by and the baby fat falls away from her high-planed cheek­bones and del­i­cate limbs, the dif­fer­ences be­come harder to hide.

So Lau­resa takes to hid­ing the child her­self, keep­ing her away from Al­le­nis’s scru­tiny when he’s at home, which thank­fully isn’t of­ten. And in try­ing to pro­tect Al­laigna, she makes her a stranger to her sup­posed fa­ther.

Verse 4 New Friends, New En­e­mies As un­kempt and ragged as Dog looked, he was fit enough: fit­ter than Rad­dick and I, who strug­gled to keep up as the older man trot­ted through the ill-lit woods, a hound at each heel. The fall from Nag, the bump I’d given my­self on the chin, and Doniver’s blow to the face com­pounded to make me both light-headed and lead-footed. My con­di­tion was made worse by the ut­ter lack of sleep and the bone-drain­ing ex­haus­tion of hav­ing used so much magic. Fi­nally, af­ter half a bell or so of rough jog­ging up the

ridge and east along the tree line, I fell to my knees, retch­ing but des­per­ate not to vomit.

Rad­dick stum­bled to a stop be­side me and called to Dog to halt his steady pace. As I kneeled there, shak­ing and heav­ing, I felt a ten­ta­tive, friendly hand on my back. “You hurt?” he asked, his voice no more than a pair of gasps. I shook my head, even though it made the nau­sea worse, and sat back on my haunches, brush­ing leaf mould from my hands and knees. “My horse,” I breathed. “I need to get my horse back.” It wasn’t just that I was fond of the beast, or that I needed him to carry me over the leagues I planned to travel in search of my true fa­ther. It was that he car­ried too much of me with him. My sword, the one I’d trained for then lost and won again in Rheran; and my bow, the one Rhi­adne had given me, that had been fash­ioned by her fa­ther: both these weapons hung from Nag’s sad­dle, along with all my pro­vi­sions, that cursed pig car­cass, and my spare cloth­ing. More im­por­tant than all these were the lit­tle things I’d taken from home, such as one of Mother’s thim­bles, a pair of herb scis­sors from An­ge­ley’s work­shop, a scroll of Il­vani text from the ar­chives that I had only be­gun to trans­late, and let­ters. The let­ters Mother and An­ge­ley had writ­ten to me dur­ing my stay in Rheran two years ago; they were the worst. I had been fool­ish to bring them with me, for they told far too much about who I was. If I re­trieved my horse and my be­long­ings, I re­solved to burn those mis­sives.

Dog shook his head and made a se­ries of hur­ried hand ges­tures ac­com­pa­nied by whis­tles and clicks. He was mute, I re­al­ized at long last, not deaf as the Bar­rel had claimed, nor the moon­calf I’d taken him to be. Rad­dick seemed to un­der­stand him, though.

Rad­dick nod­ded and said to me, “It’s too dan­ger­ous. Lord Doniver’ll be in a killin’ mood.” That much I un­der­stood with­out trans­la­tion as Dog slid a finger across his throat.

I shrugged. “You don’t have to come.” I stood, turned, and be­gan trudg­ing off to the south, to­ward the for­est edge where I hoped I could pick up Nag’s tracks by morn­ing. They couldn’t be that far off.

Af­ter a hun­dred yards or so, the brush crack­led be­hind me and the hounds caught up, fol­lowed by their master and Rad­dick.

I turned back. “No, re­ally, you don’t have to.” I was be­gin­ning to won­der if this was some sub­tle play to re­cap­ture me. Then I re­mem­bered the blow to Doniver’s head. That was no ruse.

Dog whis­tled the hounds to heel and then stood be­side me, point­ing at my calves. I froze while the pair of them sniffed my feet and lower legs, and flinched as Dog grasped my wrist and held it out, knuck­les for­ward, to the quest­ing ca­nine noses. Of course, my hands were cov­ered in Nag’s scent, as were my legs.

Dog made a sound al­most like a bark it­self and pointed ahead. The hounds surged for­wards, muz­zles to the ground, tails high, weav­ing through the woods for a trace of scent.

When we emerged from the woods at last, they sounded. Dog si­lenced them with an­other yelp then pointed again, this time in the di­rec­tion in­di­cated by the turf torn up by Nag’s shoes. The quest­ing pair loped away, the rest of us strug­gling to keep up. The tracks, un­for­tu­nately, curled back to­ward the camp. The beast could not re­sist the com­pany of the other horses there.

The half-light of dawn was upon us now, and I could see the pal­isade clearly. The gates were open and a sin­gle dog sniffed around out­side. My heart dropped into my aching feet. Nag was back in that com­pound, which to Rad­dick, Dog, and me was

as safe as a bear trap. Across the tus­socky field, a third point of the tri­an­gle, was the place we’d left Doniver. There was no way to tell from here whether he still lay in the dirt, had risen on his own, or had been car­ried away.

“I’ve got to get my horse back,” I hissed at Rad­dick, hop­ing some­how this sta­ble-lad no older than I would have some clever plan for do­ing so. “And my sad­dle­bags.”

“Yer lucky to have yer skin right now,” he hissed right back at me. “There’s no way you can walk in and back out of there with that, never mind the horse.”

Dog made some ges­tures and clicks, which Rad­dick seemed to un­der­stand.

“We’ll get the horse.” He nod­ded agree­ment at Dog. “Doniver doesn’t know who beaned him. Maybe he never will. If any­one has a chance of get­ting past the other hounds, it’s Dog. Maybe they’ll be too busy still to no­tice us or stop us.” It sounded as if he was talk­ing him­self into it.

If I were an adult, I would never have al­lowed it. But for all my fierce in­de­pen­dence I was still a child of four­teen, used to bow­ing to the author­ity of age, at least when un­cer­tain of my­self. I was a daugh­ter of no­bil­ity, ac­cus­tomed to hav­ing peo­ple at my dis­posal and un­used to ask­ing why. It didn’t oc­cur to me that that same def­er­ence shouldn’t ex­tend to the ragged and blood­stained trav­el­ling singer I ap­peared to be. It wasn’t till many years later that I fully com­pre­hended why this odd pair de­cided to align themselves with me, and risk their own necks in do­ing so. At the time, I ac­cepted their al­le­giance with­out ques­tion, and with­out the sense of re­spon­si­bil­ity that should have gone with it.

Stretched belly-down be­hind a low hedge of rock and gorse, I was hard pressed not to fall asleep as the morn­ing sun crept up be­hind me and warmed my back. De­spite the worry that gnawed at my gut, my ex­haus­tion from the sleepless, ter­ror-filled night was over­rid­ing. I didn’t drift off en­tirely, just far enough for my mind to make up strange day­dreams. When the sound of hoof beats broke my reverie, they were the stam­pede sounds of a full cav­alry charge. In those in-be­tween se­conds Teil­lai—or was it Rheran?—was stormed by a van­guard of an­cient Im­pe­rial troops aboard grey charg­ers.

My eyes snapped open to re­veal only Nag, and not two, but a dozen hounds cours­ing be­side him. Rad­dick and Dog clung to his back. I scram­bled to my feet as they skid­ded to stop. Dog flung him­self out of the sad­dle and of­fered me a leg up be­hind Rad­dick. I wasn’t too proud to take it. Dog prac­ti­cally flung me over, and I had barely grasped my arms around Rad­dick’s waist be­fore he kicked Nag for­ward.

There was a hue and cry from the en­camp­ment, the sec­ond that day, and two men emerged, hurtling af­ter us on foot.

“The others’ll be out soon on horses,” Rad­dick panted, as if in an­swer to my un­voiced ques­tion.

Dog was wav­ing us on, and Rad­dick turned Nag to­ward the trees.

It was then I no­ticed that I was sit­ting right on the sad­dle’s skirts, be­hind the can­tle. The pig car­cass was gone—good rid­dance — but so were my sad­dle­bags. “Back!” I screamed at Rad­dick. “We have to go back!” Whether he heard me or not I never knew, and Nag con­tin­ued to thun­der on.

Lau­resa’s Cho­rus

Al­le­nis never makes any ac­cu­sa­tion that Lau­resa came to him al­ready preg­nant. She al­most wishes he would, so she could build a lie and use the stories she’s cre­ated to de­fend her­self and her cuckoo child. His ab­so­lute si­lence on the mat­ter is un­nerv­ing.

Al­le­nis doesn’t share the bed­cham­ber she, Al­laigna, and An­ge­ley sleep in. He did, dur­ing the first months of their mar­riage, but af­ter the baby’s birth he re­turned to his bach­e­lor rooms and study on the east­ern side of the keep. When he is at home, that is.

Tonight, though, he steps into Lau­resa’s room, softly pulls back the bed cur­tains and watches as Lau­resa fin­ishes nurs­ing the child to sleep.

Lau­resa tucks her breast back un­der her dis­ar­ranged chemise and pulls the cov­er­let up to Al­laigna’s gently ris­ing chest. She starts slightly as she sees Al­le­nis, and puts an ad­mon­i­tory finger to her lips, warn­ing him not to wake her.

He shakes his head. He’s had this warn­ing many times. He of­fers her a hand as she rolls off of the bed and oddly does not let go once she’s stand­ing. Puz­zled, she fol­lows him as he leads her out of the cham­ber, won­der­ing what house­hold cri­sis now needs her at­ten­tion.

They walk wid­der­shins around the gallery, con­ver­sa­tion made im­pos­si­ble by the tu­mult of evening noise com­ing from the great hall be­low.

She has been in his study four, maybe five times in the three years since com­ing here. Most of their con­ver­sa­tions about the cas­tle hap­pen in her study.

There is wine on the side­board, and a pair of gob­lets. He pours and hands her one.

“She’s beau­ti­ful, our daugh­ter,” he says, as if he’s ap­prais­ing a mare or a hound. Though per­haps then his voice would be more an­i­mated.

He clears his throat, as if to say more, but stops. Lau­resa can see colour creep up his throat. With a bolt of re­al­iza­tion she dis­cov­ers his voice is flat, not be­cause he is dis­pas­sion­ate, but be­cause he is ner­vous, and it melts her heart. She nods, sud­denly shy in front of this stranger of a hus­band. “Nearly as beau­ti­ful as her mother.” It’s not what he was go­ing to say orig­i­nally, she is sure. Now it is her turn to blush.

He holds forth his chair for her and takes the smaller stool him­self.

“I have been …” The throat clears again. “Less at­ten­tive to you than a hus­band ought.” She’s glad she’s sit­ting down as he con­tin­ues. “I … I con­fess I didn’t want this mar­riage. And I sus­pect you felt the same. And with cause, per­haps still do. None­the­less, you have ful­filled your du­ties as chate­laine and mother be­yond my ex­pec­ta­tions. And if your du­ties as wife have been small … that is my fault, not yours.”

She is both flat­tered and wrong-footed by this speech, and dreads what will come next. Al­though the mar­riage is, in all prac­ti­cal senses, non-ex­is­tent, she is happy with that. She man­ages the juggling balls that keep her se­crets and her du­ties in care­ful bal­ance, and she is afraid he is about to toss her an­other one. Can she jug­gle them all with­out drop­ping some?

She feels she should speak, say some­thing to pre­vent that hap­pen­ing. But even that may send them all fly­ing.

He must see the fear in her eyes, and he takes her hand,

be­com­ing pa­ter­nal.

“My dear, I’ll not ask for my mar­riage rights tonight. That would be sud­den and … unchival­rous.

“But per­haps, since we had no courtship, nor have I been home long enough to be a proper hus­band, I thought we should sim­ply start by mak­ing closer ac­quain­tance.” He raises his gob­let, the ques­tion lin­ger­ing in his hazel eyes. Ten­ta­tive, ter­ri­fied, she ac­cepts the in­vi­ta­tion and raises her own.

It is the strangest sort of courtship. Al­le­nis is all so­lic­i­tude and chivalry, which makes Lau­resa ner­vous. Where has his change in dis­po­si­tion to­ward her come from? She feels as if she is be­ing led into a trap, and thus guards her tongue and feel­ings more closely than ever. It only seems to make him try that much harder.

He takes meals with her and Al­laigna in the small hall, or even in the oc­tag­o­nal room off the guest cham­ber. He dan­dles Al­laigna on his knee, which fills Lau­resa’s heart with ter­ror. The girl, though wary of most other adults at that capri­cious age of two and a half, takes the at­ten­tion in stride.

Un­der the lov­ing eyes of two par­ents and a grand­moth­er­cum-nurse, Al­laigna flour­ishes. It is this, more than the kind at­ten­tions, gifts, and sweet words, that opens Lau­resa’s heart to Al­le­nis. For the first time they feel like a real family, and it brings back the gen­tle mem­o­ries of her own child­hood in Rheran. Were it not for the sharp sweet bursts of pain she feels when Al­laigna’s small face turns solemn and in­scrutable like her true fa­ther’s, or when the pupils in her grey eyes shrink to un­read­able pin­pricks in the pale field of her face, she feels as if she would be en­tirely happy.

It is a warm, late sum­mer morn­ing when the mar­riage is re­con­sum­mated. Lau­resa and Al­le­nis have been tak­ing their break­fasts more and more in the oc­tag­o­nal room, far from the heat and noise of the kitchens. Al­laigna, who eats lit­tle and un­en­thu­si­as­ti­cally, has al­ready left them for the com­pany of An­ge­ley and her gar­den of en­tic­ing smells, tastes, and tex­tures.

Lau­resa is warm al­ready, but still she lan­guors in the heat of the morn­ing sun, never as hot here as it is on Bran­dis­hear’s arid shores. Al­le­nis has seated him­self on the shaded side of the ta­ble as usual. To­day they linger longer than nor­mal, and the trav­el­ling sun now kisses the tops of his dark brown curls. There are more grey hairs than there were at their wed­ding, she notes, but in the sun­shine they glint like sil­ver.

She finds, to her sur­prise, a fond­ness in her heart when she looks at the man she ac­cepted only out of duty three years be­fore. And it is with fond­ness and grat­i­tude that she stands and reaches a hand to­ward him, aware of the sun glint­ing off her own hair and the shoul­der ex­posed by the loose fall of her morn­ing dress. He takes the hand, kisses it.

It is not the whis­per dry kiss he be­stowed the day they met, or the equally ab­sent ones of their be­trothal and wed­ding cer­e­monies. Nor is it the rough per­func­tory em­braces of their mar­riage bed. It is warm, hes­i­tant, and lin­ger­ing. He doesn’t let go, but al­lows her to lead him out of the small bright room into the cooler depth of the guest cham­ber. The bed there is made in prepa­ra­tion of a visit from the Duke of Therein to­mor­row. Lau­resa parts the cur­tains and slips her body back­ward be­tween them, lead­ing him like a tame bul­lock. But the hand that reaches through her hair to clasp the back of her head is any­thing but tame, and the kiss that lands full on her mouth, part­ing her

lips, is as pas­sion­ate as any she’s felt. With a shock that sends a shiver through her belly, she re­al­izes she is aroused.

She arches her back to curve into him, ap­palled by her un­reined ap­petite but un­able to re­sist it. What be­gan as an act of fond kind­ness on her part has be­come the sa­ti­a­tion of des­per­ate need. He is not Ei­navar. They are as dif­fer­ent as mid­night and noon. But the need is sat­is­fied, none­the­less.

Af­ter that morn­ing, when they hastily straighten the bed­clothes of the guest cham­ber and put their own clothes in or­der be­fore go­ing their sep­a­rate ways for the day, Lau­resa finds her­self tor­mented by con­tra­dic­tory feel­ings. One minute she is lan­guorous and con­tent, rel­ish­ing the still-warm­ing tin­gle of in­ti­mate touch af­ter so long; the next she is aching with bit­ter guilt and long­ing for Ei­navar. It is ab­surd: she didn’t feel any guilt when she and Al­le­nis first shared a bed. But she hadn’t en­joyed those early en­coun­ters. This time … This time she can hardly wait till the next op­por­tu­nity to avail her­self of her hus­band’s body. She may long for the cool yet burn­ing touch of Ei­navar’s fin­gers, the in­tox­i­cat­ing scent of his pale smooth skin, and the enigma hid­den be­hind his sil­ver grey eyes. And yet Al­le­nis is, in his coarse but gen­tle pas­sion, in the weighty strength and ma­tu­rity of his body, if not equal to her dis­tant lover, en­tic­ingly dif­fer­ent, and more im­por­tantly, closer.

But Al­le­nis is oddly dis­tant af­ter the fact. He sends his page with re­grets to the small din­ing room at din­ner that night, and Lau­resa doesn’t see him at break­fast ei­ther. When they are both in at­ten­dance at the ar­rival of the Duke of Therein and his ret­inue, Al­le­nis barely glances at her. It is as if these last weeks of their re­la­tion­ship have evap­o­rated like the morn­ing mist.

By evening it has aroused her ire. No one treats a princess of Bran­dis­hear, even a for­mer one, like a cast-off play­thing.

When Al­laigna is in bed, and the guests have re­tired, she strides to Al­le­nis’s study and en­ters with­out knock­ing.

He looks up from the pile of parch­ments scat­tered on the desk, star­tled then … what? Guilty? An­noyed?

“Hus­band,” she says, with­out wait­ing for him to speak. “Have I of­fended you?”

He blinks, a mix of emo­tions rip­pling through his red­den­ing face as he stands.

His stam­mer as he replies an­noys her fur­ther. You are the Duke of Teil­lai, she thinks with scorn, not some bum­bling coun­try oaf, some un­washed boy. Speak with author­ity what­ever truth or lie you have for me. But as that thought flashes by she sees some gen­uine pain cross his face. It doesn’t mat­ter the cause, it is enough to soften her mother’s heart, if not her newly re­born lover’s one.

“My … my dear wife. What—what pos­si­ble of­fense can you have caused me?”

She is struck by how dan­ger­ous their ques­tions are. Her daugh­ter, the thing most pre­cious in the world to her, is, by her mere ex­is­tence, cause for of­fense.

Lau­resa’s own tongue trips in the coun­try man­ner she’s just scorned her spouse for.

“I … I.” She grits her teeth, ir­ri­tated be­yond be­lief at her in­abil­ity to voice her com­plaint, re­al­iz­ing she can­not do it with­out seem­ing a lovelorn sup­pli­cant or a whin­ing cup­board wife. She can’t even turn on her heel and flee the awk­ward and dan­ger­ous ques­tion with­out ap­pear­ing a petu­lant child. There is no choice but to bare some part of her­self. She takes a deep breath.

“Your af­fec­tions, hus­band,” she says softly, de­murely even— any­thing but stri­dent, she hopes — “seem to ebb and flow like the tide. What heav­enly body ex­erts such pull on them, I won­der?”

He blinks, blushes. Blushes, even! “My lady.” He steps from be­hind the desk, takes both her hands in warm square-fin­gered ones, but can­not seem to look her in the eyes. “Please … for­give my inat­ten­tion. Other af­fairs … mat­ters of state … weigh heav­ily on me. I meant you no in­sult.”

She ex­tri­cates one hand and with it gently lifts his chin as if he were a shame-faced child.

“My name is Lau­resa, hus­band. I would that you called me by it.”

She leans for­ward — they are nearly of a height — and plants a del­i­cate kiss upon his lips be­fore pulling away.

“My cham­ber door is open, for when­ever you need to set such weight aside for a time.”

She turns to leave, hears him re­lease his breath in half sigh, half groan. She smiles to her­self, know­ing it will not be long.

Thus the hap­pi­est era of her mar­riage be­gins, and when her next child is con­ceived she can truly say he was born, if not of des­per­ate pas­sion, at least of com­fort­able ac­cord be­tween his par­ents.

It is a far eas­ier preg­nancy than her first. Her mother’s body knows this road now, and per­haps, she ad­mits to her­self, the ab­sence of Il­vani blood within the child’s veins makes it eas­ier as well. Her mother claims half-blood preg­nan­cies are of­ten more difficult, and now she is will­ing to at­test to it per­son­ally.

Spring bur­geons around her: calves in the mead­ows, the lower yard lit­tered with downy morsels of in­fant fowl, spring grass

and flow­ers dress­ing the dull grey stone and win­ter-tired fields of Teil­lai. She is bur­geon­ing her­self. Her hair, al­ways thick and golden, is too dense and curly to draw a brush through. She gives up try­ing to tame it and wears it loose down her back like a maiden’s. Her skin is pink and fresh, her belly and breasts round like mel­ons. Al­le­nis finds her so at­trac­tive he can barely keep his touch from her; even at state oc­ca­sions his hand will steal to her belly or to the soft nape of her neck be­neath its cur­tain of pink-gold hair.

Her gravid beauty does not go un­no­ticed by others, ei­ther. The lo­cal lords, young and old, pay her court as they never have be­fore. She ac­cepts their gifts and com­pli­ments with de­mure smiles, her hand rest­ing com­fort­ably in her hus­band’s warm grip. She is se­cure, loved, ad­mired — she could ask for no more.

The spring air is glo­ri­ous, full of the scents of moist earth, new grass, and blos­soms. The sun warms her back; the breeze off the fish pond cools her front. The tem­per­a­ture is ideal, the air clean and fresh, and yet she can hardly breathe. She is gasp­ing; sti­fled, frozen to the core; burn­ing with in­dig­na­tion, hu­mil­ity, and pain she must not let show.

Al­laigna is trotting to­wards her, some­thing cupped in her tiny hands. At three and a half she has lost so much of the pudgi­ness of baby­hood, Lau­resa re­al­izes. It is an ache within her, be­neath the other, sharper pain she’s feel­ing. Her

baby is a baby no longer, and will soon be usurped by an­other. Lau­resa rubs a hand across her belly, push­ing back at the in­sis­tent kicks, try­ing hard not to re­sent the life within her. I can­not, will not, love it as much as I love her, she in­sists to her­self. Al­laigna has reached her knee, the wor­ried crease be­tween her dark brows break­ing Lau­resa’s heart once more. A pale blue egg lies cupped in her daugh­ter’s tiny hands. “Look what I found, Mama.” Lau­resa nes­tles her own hands around Al­laigna’s. “Where was it, love?” “Un­der the plum tree.” Al­laigna looks back over her shoul­der at the blos­som­ing plum. She turns back to face her mother, her grey eyes clouded with worry.

“An­ge­ley says eggs that fall out of their nests don’t hatch. That … that the mama birds push them out …” Lau­resa in­ter­rupts the wor­ried tum­ble of words. “Let me see.” She takes the frag­ile blue orb into her own hands. It is warm, per­haps from the heat of Al­laigna’s hands, per­haps from the sun. Or maybe it hasn’t been on the ground that long. “Show me where you found it.” Stand­ing on the spot Al­laigna points out, she can just see a nest be­tween the pink and white flow­ers. “If I put you on my shoul­ders, do you think you can reach it?” They try, but Al­laigna’s arms are not quite long enough. The lit­tle girl is in tears. Well, thinks Lau­resa, feel­ing the weight of her seven-month belly, I hope the branches will hold me. “What is this?” The voice booms up at her just as she is reach­ing to­ward the nest. She gives a jerk, nearly drop­ping the egg.

The mother bird, who has been screech­ing at her from the neigh­bour­ing tree, falls si­lent.

Lau­resa holds her breath, stretch­ing her arm out as far as it will go, feel­ing the branch creak and groan be­neath, then lets the egg fall the few inches into the nest. There is no sound. She has no way to tell if it’s the right nest, if the egg is still alive, or if the mother bird will push it out again, but she’s done the best she can.

She inches back down the branch as, from be­low, Al­laigna bab­bles at her fa­ther.

“Mama saved the baby bird, ’cuz it felled from the nest, and its mama couldn’t get it back, ’n’ I couldn’t reach it so Mama climbed the tree, so the baby will be born now.”

Strong arms reach up and lift Lau­resa down from the lower branches, as if she weighed no more than an egg her­self, and was just as frag­ile.

Al­le­nis is frown­ing. “My dear, is this wise, in your state? What of the child?”

Lau­resa’s glance falls on the ex­cited, ra­di­ant face of her child—the only child she’ll ever love—and the tears she has held back all morn­ing burst free. She breaks out of her hus­band’s arms and crouches, wrap­ping Al­laigna to her­self, as if to bring her back within her body once more.

Per­plexed, Al­laigna wipes at the tears with in­ef­fi­cient starfish fin­gers. “Don’t cry, Mama. The baby’s home now. Its mama will look af­ter it now.”

The se­ri­ous so­lace com­ing from this three-year-old throat is al­most enough to make Lau­resa laugh. Or it would be if the hurt wasn’t block­ing the way.

Hic­cough­ing, she wipes her nose on her shoul­der and sends

Al­laigna off to play with the new lit­ter of pup­pies in the ken­nel, though let­ting her out of her arms seems the hard­est thing she’s ever done.

Her hus­band’s hand is on her shoul­der, his voice soft and apolo­getic. “My dear, I didn’t mean to chas­tise you.” She shakes her head, wipes her nose again, and forces a smile. “You’re quite right, hus­band. I’m in no shape to be climb­ing so high.”

In that mo­ment she is re­solved. She will make no ac­cu­sa­tion, nor ad­mit to her dis­cov­ery.

Her knowl­edge of the let­ters, hid­den so care­fully be­neath the floor­board of An­dreg’s study, will re­main her se­cret.

They date from long be­fore their mar­riage, it is true, and she would have no quar­rel with them if the cor­re­spon­dence had stopped then. From the rough, un­tu­tored hand it is clear the au­thor is of lower birth—no doubt an un­suit­able match for the Duke of Teil­lai. And it is clear the re­la­tion­ship is old and well es­tab­lished. There are ref­er­ences to a son as well, though it is un­clear from the con­text whether that child is An­dreg’s or an­other’s. Lau­resa sup­poses she could piece that to­gether with a care­ful study of the mis­sives, but that is too painful a task, at least for now.

It is also clear that her hus­band’s ab­sences over the past four years have not en­tirely been spent on the cam­paign bor­ders or at the capi­tol. The more she thinks on it, the more re­sent­ment grows in her heart. It is true she brought an­other man’s child to the birthing bed, but she has been faith­ful since the wed­ding vows were spo­ken. Her hus­band, it seems, has not been so re­strained.

Anger bub­bles up, and she is tempted once more to throw this in his face, along with what­ever other ob­jects may come to her rag­ing hand. But she won’t. Her pride will not al­low her to ad­mit out loud she has been made into a fool. And more, be­neath that pride, is cau­tion.

For if ac­cu­sa­tions of in­fi­delity start fly­ing through the air, that dreaded ac­cu­sa­tion, the one that could en­dan­ger her daugh­ter, may also spread its ugly wings.

So for now, per­haps for­ever, she will con­tain her pride, her out­rage, her hurt. Even if it means never ad­mit­ting that she had come to love her hus­band.

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