CW: Sex, Emotions, Food Angst, Graphic Horse Death
Two weeks ago, I awoke in the night to Charka keening. Oh sweet goddess, so it was time.
I am embarrassed to say that my first response was a state of panic essentially equal to hers. Charka has never in her odd long life had pups, and I could be of no particular assistance. There were plenty of animals on the family estate, but it was of course not the business of a noble son to be dealing with any of them, especially not so far as to assist in whelping. I scrambled down from the loft to find her waddling around the cottage, cursing wildly, attempting to put a nest together, which quickly turned into her indicating between whines the various soft bits of furnishings she wanted me to drag to her corner. Odiri arrived in the middle of all this, laughing at the general distress of the situation. She took my hand and guided me to my chair by the fire, promising with a kiss that she would handle things from here. My pride might’ve been wounded if not for my overwhelming gratitude for her coming to Charka’s aid. I had no doubt in my mind that she was more experienced in this than I could ever be. I suppose there are some rather unusual benefits to cohabiting with a country sort of girl….
I watched intent with worry as she tended to Charka, easing her and handling her children as they arrived. The birth lasted most of the night and well into the morning. Eight healthy pups, though the last of them came out a little smaller than the rest. Gold, of course, every single one of them. I was too relieved by the aversion of tragedy to be particularly upset about that. When all was over with, Charka drifted into sleep, puppies noisily suckling with the first whimpers of life. I could not help but follow suit into slumber, my nerves torn to shreds by the ordeal. When I awoke again, it was to the smell of fresh bread wafting through the cottage and the sight of Odiri sitting on the floor in resplendent domesticity, cradling a pup in her arms as the rest slept all around her. The warmth, the love in her eyes as she looked at them… She would have been an excellent mother.
For those two weeks, I tended to Charka as I could, watched after her pups. I did not leave the cottage much, not even to hunt. But there was only so much stagnation I could handle, only so much solitude with my thoughts and the constant presence of children bearing down on my conflicted heart. I needed no more reminders of the miracles I had all my life been denied, and now I was surrounded with them. I needed to get out of there, if only for a few days. When I set off for the Rose Shell, it was with no little grief in leaving Charka behind. It would be selfish of me to take her. Outright dangerous, for the pups. No child should have to lose a parent so young. I had to practice reason, but with heavy heart did I set out alone for the first time in so many, many years.
At the Rose Shell, the company collected at our table over Oranssi and Naligor excitedly discussing guild hall plans. Construction of the second story was well underway, infuriatingly tainting the view from my porch. As much as I initially found the project to be considerate for the many members of the charter, it’s grown into something of a sore. Odiri had nearly drunk herself into the table with frustration over it. I knew her efforts in the farmlands, her long days spent enchanting the earth, willing it to grow. The existence of the guild hall on land of better use is an affront to nature and to the continuance of life itself. I fully understand her despair on the matter.
I couldn’t believe my own ears that I would be the one to speak up, but I suggested— really— another addendum to the charter. Before signing, it needed to be read. And if you couldn’t read it, someone would read it to you, in its entirety. It seemed common sense, but after the debacle, it was absolutely necessary to put in writing to prevent further such incidents. I thought it was perfectly reasonable, and the only real objections seemed to be the logistics of the matter, which spiralled into a rather silly discussion to the matter of further enchanting the charter into a sentient creature. The practice of magic is one thing, but playing god is another.
Amidst the commotion, Lady Frivolity entered with her own usual excesses of character, prompting Odiri to ask across the table to Adi about putting a spell of silence on her lady’s bedchamber. Naligor was apparently not aware of Frivolity and Albion’s copulation, which seemed impossible considering the lack of subtlety. Oranssi thought it right to chime in and say that their mythic banging should be considered a “celebration of life”, though Odiri immediately took offense to it, firing back that no life could possibly come of their union. “Been there, done that”.
It was obvious, of course, to what she referred, and the entire table was rendered silent by it. My knee-jerk reaction was anger (which itself concerns me). Not anger that she would speak such a thing, but that she would speak it so boldly in company. Too many people knew as it was what had happened between us. The last thing I wanted was this failure to progress into collective knowledge any further. Neither of us deserve to be subjected to the judgement of our shame, not her especially. But my senses came back to me, and I settled back into my seat, quietly sequestering off with my drink. It may have been my right, but it was by no means my place to have done anything in that moment. I know there is nothing I can say to make things right between us, so it is best not to speak at all. I have sinned so heavily against her already that every misstep is another point of distance, and still I am afraid there is more I can do to lose her.
Frivolity boisterously changed the subject, putting forth the motion that we should seek a path to the Tower of a Thousand Devils. Odiri questioned if her ladyship’s desire to travel there had anything to do with the celestial who had come by the manor, to which Frivolity replied “no” with exactly zero believability. Madam Saru, who had been drinking with us the better part of the evening, rejoined the table to explain that it was a prison created for devils by the Priests of Stars, to bind them to our plane for punishment. Exactly the sort of mind-wiping violence I needed.
To the collective surprise, Madam Saru herself signed the charter with a flourish, commenting snidely that Soveliss couldn’t bitch and moan about her input now that she was an official member. “Madam Celeste Saru”. I wouldn’t dream of calling her by first name. Seems terribly out of line, somehow. Though we may not always see eye to eye, I respect her far too much. I couldn’t help but be concerned that she would be joining us, thought it was more than known she was a capable bard of great magic. I genuinely hoped to be surprised by her, more than I already had.
As we settled plans for the next day’s journey out, Odiri quite adamantly requested Adi to transform her into an elf as he had before, shouting at me to get the horses. I could not help but be less enthused this time around. I wasn’t about to deny her, as the whole thing was a rare treat that the less thinking parts of myself were not about to pass up, but it’s become more difficult to deny what she is up to.
It’s her motion, her brand of aggression. The way she fights to gain purchase over me, to best me, to take, greedy, the only thing I’m sure she has ever wanted of me, the only thing I cannot soil her with. That is the cause of much our violence, I am certain. I could deny her for sense and safety of us both, and yet my will is weak and I cannot. Yes, of course, how can I bury temptation, that old want of thoughtless savagery, that hedonist pursuit of what is long dead and dormant? It’s the tossing and gripping and pressing down until I am on top, until I am there, over her, holding her thin wrists in my broad fist, hum rippling beneath my taut-stretched flesh, engaged by insurmountable control. My head clouds over with what I am no longer sure is lust, and the rush, that rush, is perfect.
I am sickened by it.
In the morning, weary and bruised, we gathered up at the Rose Shell. Madam Saru had stripped down of all her typical fineries to practical clothes. If I had any doubts as to her marital experience, the deft and practiced way she donned her armor convinced me well enough on its own. It did seem a little odd at first that she would even know how to correctly equip armor (unless she had perhaps been playing dress-up with the contents of the case when the company was not around), but a second further of observation revealed the symbol that she wore around her neck. A holy sigil of Faunos, but belonging to an order of paladins in service as temple guardians to theaters. It is only natural that the Madam would have old secrets, but this exact thing seemed terribly contrary to her current person.
When all were geared up, we departed for the wall. As Saru passed through the gates, Tim and Bob gave her their full deferent respects. Good. I would expect nothing less of them. Pausing just off the path, a bit of near-customary scrapping was done over the best path to the Tower. Saru mentioned that we should take the path that R’Kanna and Tempest had blazed the previous week. Oh, so not only had they gone beyond the wall, but they had gone into entirely uncharted territory. Seven hells!! Odiri seemed just as upset about our dragonborn’s safety as I was. R’Kanna’s adventurous spirit is one thing, but would Tempest have not known better?! I intend to have a few words with her about the quality of her guardianship… We did come to an agreement, eventually, on the best possible route and so set off upon it.
Our first day of travel passed smoothly, but the second was plagued by all sorts of nuisances. Gryphon Bait put his foot through a half-buried chest in the road. I held him calm as Odiri inspected his hoof, which would need some tending to when we returned to town. No serious injury, thankfully. From what I overheard of the chest’s inspection, the contents were mostly children’s treasures. Very odd.
We pressed on, only for Gryphon Bait to come free of his reigns later in the day. Odiri and I chased after him and managed to reel him in. Collien and I talked him down as we hooked him back into the cart, calming him enough but gathering nothing beyond the obvious: something had frightened him. (I sincerely wish I’d had this ability with animals sooner in life. I might’ve been more sympathetic to my warhorses. Not to say that I was cruel with them. I took as much care of them as I did of my men. But more than a few saw ugly deaths at my command. The unavoidably brutal nature of war.) Madam Saru, much more aware of what had transpired than any of us, pulled an ornately cased, saffron-scented ointment from her satchel and spread it over her eyelids as she touched herself ritualistically on the shoulders. Sighing, having found the unfortunate answer to our dilemma, she next produced a pipe flute, conjuring into visible existence the little green pixies that had laid their trickeries on us. They bantered back and forth in voices like bells, before Saru explained to us that they wanted Adi to come up with a riddle for them. Naligor was quicker to the punch, delivering one that stumped them. The answer had been a present, so the pixies offered to give us one. Pixie gifts are often as bad as any other prank, so Saru quickly convinced them to gift us safe passage instead. They flitted away, satisfied of us.
Night approached, necessitating us to stop and make camp. Shortly after we began to get things set up, the unmistakable croaking of bullywugs echoed in the woods around us. They were not there for us. Rather, they were dressed in rather silly facsimiles of warrior’s garb, engaged in the hunting of a boar. Their presence in the vicinity was just uncomfortable enough to warrant Adi suggesting a spell that would negate the problem entirely.
A portal appeared beside our meager fire, transforming from a small speck of light into a set of double doors, no different or less real than on a brick and mortar home. As we entered through them, the party stepped into a the foyer of a mansion. An actual fucking mansion. I can’t say I wasn’t impressed. Semi-transparent servants in full livery of green and gold came to attend to our belongings, leading us into the grand parlor. It was all tremendously lavish in all the extravagance I expected of Adi’s fantastic wealth. That is to say, a bit garish. The work of nouveau riche, or at the very least someone with the taste of one. Real money doesn’t need to tack claw-feet on every bit of furniture to establish their status. I mean, seriously, who the hell uses pile on pile velvet for curtains? Expensive, sure, but too damn bulky. How bourgeois.
Dinner was a sumptuous affair. Drink flowed freely as courses were ferried in by a fleet of servants. The air jubilant with the joy of excess, I felt a bit transported, relaxed into a feeling so ancient that it frightened me with the familiarity. It seems like another life that I lived this well. I’d nearly forgotten how it felt. It felt as though I were playing pretend, to slip into that old self again. To laugh over fine wine in the company of gilded things. I existed at an arm’s distance from myself.
In the commotion, I hardly noticed Odiri’s mounting discomfort until it was much too late for me to do anything about it. She did not stay long to participate in the night’s exuberances, quietly absconding to bed. Of course. I am a fool for not understanding it sooner. The mansion, the feast, everything. It is by no means a fault of her person, but it is difficult to believe that she would have known anything like it before. Even Frivolity is not so ridiculous in her displays of wealth. Odiri hardly leaves her quarters there anyhow. Her home is with me, and I live well beneath my means. It is unsurprising then that she would feel so uncomfortable in the presence of such excess. She is a country girl, after all, and that bears its own set of experiences to consider.
I took for granted so much of what I grew up with. Dinners always had 8 courses. The banquet at my wedding had 22. I only knew where the kitchen was as a child because one of the maids would always leave me sweetmeats on the counter. That was my daily truth until I entered the academy. Until I received my commission. Until I went to war, met men who had not owned a thing in their life but the clothes they traded for the uniform. I shared stews of our own sacrificed horses alongside them when supplies could not break the lines. I went without at times, so my officers might eat a little better and sit a little taller in their saddles as they lead charges into death’s gaping maw. I learned humility by hardship, a foreign word in a house of wealth. The longer I was away, the less and less I could stand it all when I returned. It was a fight to get me to accept invitations to any company. “It’s an honor to have you join us, High Commander.” “You’re doing the work of the nation, High Commander.” “High Commander, please, grace us with a tale of your victories.” Yes, I’m certain you would like me to describe in detail the most genuine victory of killing a wounded boar that chanced across our camp, or the orgastic pleasure with which we consumed its half-raw flesh with impatience because the risk of disease and shitting for three days straight was a willing one in the face of actual starvation. When Allaya attempted to upkeep her social graces with dinners of our own, I was hardly a person. Goodness, the excuses she had to make for me. “My sincerest apologies for my husband’s behavior, Lady Tiresias. He did not mean to compare your daughter to a hamhock.” How could anyone chitter about the most eligible bachelor of House this Duchy that when only some 50 kilometers away, men were being strung up by their guts on enemy banners? I don’t know how it was my father ever kept it together so well.
Suddenly, nothing seemed palatable anymore.
I excused myself, inquiring with a transparent servant where my belongings had been taken. They led me down the hall, to a finely furnished room. In the gargantuan bed lay the unmistakable form of my tiny, fussy halfing, rolled up indiscriminately in both the decorative sheets and the real ones. A glance to the floor confirmed that indeed, there were her belongings beside mine. It’s charming, in a way, that the servants would have enough sense to place us together. Good. As it should be. The moment I crawled in beside her, delicately detangling her from the excessive embroidered bedspread to leave only the soft and simple sheets, she relaxed into the curve of my body against hers, finding true sleep. Satisfied, I soon followed.
We awoke lazily the next morning, reluctant to leave the warm bed and my love beside me. But the mansion was only temporary, so we dressed, chatting benignly on the day’s expectations as we gathered our things. We joined the others at breakfast, nearly as lavish as the dinner. I kept to simple things, keeping my plate unintimidating in awareness of Odiri beside me. The peace was short-lived as a servant came to announce that a package had arrived. How it was possible for anything to be delivered to a pocket dimension was beyond me, but we all rose to investigate.
In the foyer sat a fairly large velvet box wrapped delicately in blue foil ribbon. Something was absolutely certainly alive inside of it, though neither Odiri nor I could get a sense of what it was. A servant was sent to open the box, revealing a mass of wadded padding and a strange iridescent egg. Madam Saru I do not know what could have possibly possessed her in that moment, but Odiri reached to touch the egg. The moment she had put both her hands on it, it cracked open, hatching forth a bizarre moth-like creature that immediately crawled its way onto Odiri’s back. She looked to me, panic in her eyes, for help, but before I could even move, it audibly bit into her with the elastic snapping of flesh, sinking its teeth into her spine. Great wings burst forth from her back! I was too shocked to really know what to make of it. Of all the great and terrible things I’d ever seen in my life, nothing quite like this. I approached cautiously, giving a gentle tug on a wing to affirm both to her and I that they were real. Her pained yelp at my eagerness confirmed that yes, they were in fact real and very much attached to her. That pinch of pain was enough for her to assume control of them, or so I assume it was, because she took off in flight, flitting with endless delight about the circumference of the room. The gift of flight for someone as small as she is must be one hell of a change in perspective.
There she floated while the rest of us discussed what to do about it. Saru performed her ritual of saffron ointment again, attempting to identify the exact nature of the thing. When she came back to her own senses, her expression was grave. The creature was a parasite crafted by priests of a certain order, one of many other forms of parasites, that bonded symbiotically with other creatures in order to use them as hosts for breeding for the purpose of spreading across the dimensional void. Saru bid me to fetch Odiri down, which I did with a tug of her foot, and the circumstances were explained to her as evenly as they could be. She panicked, understandably, and demanded that it be removed. Saru obliged and, in a brief ceremony, the thing disconnected from her and fell to the ground, Oranssi reducing it to ash.
It all would have been well and good, had Oranssi left it at that. But he simpered and commented snidely that the whole situation was a shame. That was finally her chance to be a mother. I couldn’t believe him. Odiri immediately went for her belt knife, but I placed my hand on her shoulder, warning her back. She need not endanger herself over this. The hum roiled under my skin. As much as I so grievously wished to in that moment, It was only my respect for him as a fellow soldier, as a man who knew many of the same pains as I, that kept me from drawing my sword on Oranssi. I did fire off more than a few threats on his life that I absolutely intend to keep should he step out of line again. Murder is nothing to me if it is for Odiri’s sake.
The next day of travel was spent in uncomfortable silence. The thought haunted me that in some bizarre, sick way, Oranssi had not been entirely wrong. I tried my best to put my mind off it, but the repeating words kept nagging at me until merciful distraction came in the form of a second night in the mansion. When we entered through the portal, however, we were greeted by a servant scrubbing blood off one of the walls. It once read some sort of message, but the servant could not recall what it had said before the text was cleaned off to the point of indiscernibility. In the same instant, curiosity bid Naligor to open the front door, presenting us with the sight of infinite blackness. Feeling the onset of an existential crisis, I did not look at it long. Even Saru seemed visibly disturbed. The whole multitude of stimuli was unsettling enough that the mansion was shut for the night and we slept more conventionally by firelight. In the morning, we awoke to a severed boar’s head. Ah. An offering from the bullywugs. I suppose they consider us great warriors now. (Aren’t we?)
On the fourth day, we passed through Lady Hana’s Grove. Sweet memories flooded back to me of the last journey Odiri and I had made here. Our pace was leisurely, so I dismounted and walked alongside Collien, picking flowers and stringing them together, for old time’s sake. My thoughts wandered aimlessly. Too aimlessly, perhaps, because they again hit upon the proverbial rock in the road of Oranssi’s words. The implications of them. Of course, there would be no feasible way that I would ever give Odiri the joys of motherhood that she so desperately wanted. Her options were limited, to say the least, and nearly all of them involved leaving my side, whether literally or by metaphysical means, though neither was ideal. All options stood to be miserable in one way or another. The chain of flowers fell loosely from my grasp. It was all just falling apart.
I got back on Collien as we came to the beginning of R’Kanna and Tempest’s path. As upset as I still was about their going out in the first place, they’d done an excellent job of blazing the trail and the going was easy. At least, until we came upon a dead body in the road, caught among spider webs and poisoned by a dart of imp venom. By his clothes, he clearly was not from Shore Blossom, not that a native would have any reason to be out here in the first place. Oranssi revived him, casting through the man’s body a radiant energy that knit his wounds and restored his breath with an exhaled glimmer of light. He came to with a miraculous sputter, shrieking about demons cutting him apart. When we calmed him and assured him that, no, we were not demons, he explained that he had been felled by bullywugs. He was a pirate of the Lulu Belle, sent to shore to retrieve some personal effects for the captain. Namely, a chest of children’s items. We said nothing of our posession of it, though Saru did call him out for his ridiculous story. None of it matched up. How could he possibly be so far inland? And wasn’t the Lulu Belle the vessel that had been pilfering all the merchants in the bay? The man foolishly attempted to run, but Oranssi quickly recaptured him, questioning if we should torture him. Saru vetoed the suggestion, promising that we would not stoop so low. As I bound the man to a tree, I eagerly retorted back that I made no such promises of my own. Saru shot me a deadly look, and in an instant, my own words occurred to me. Had I really just said that? Torture is a nasty business. Though I knew the art of it, it never came with any joy to me before. I stepped away and said nothing more in the interrogation. Albion stepped to the side, claiming that ethical dilemmas made his head fuzzy, and I joined him for some distance.
After gleaning though some lies about the whereabouts of his captain, the pirate admitted that the chest was to be delivered to the “Queen”. Did he mean the Goblin Queen? Why in heaven’s name would she be involved in something so petty? Madam Saru insisted that the pirate be given a second chance, so Oranssi cast truth over him, which only served to confirm what we already knew: he really didn’t want to get his limbs chopped off in hell. Saru cast a spell over him with a glowing sigil burning on his forehead, binding him for a year and a day to follow all of Shore Blossom’s laws. She then penned a brief explanatory note, sticking it to his chest and off he was sent with a spell of teleportation, back to Elder Yen’s.
That night, we camped again. In fireside conversation, as others bickered about the pirate, Saru stated that using spells like that command she had laid onto the pirate made her uncomfortable. Compulsions and things that manipulated free will were particularly frightening for non-magical folk. An understandable concern. Free will is the most preciously coveted thing any person has. My own will, for one thing, has been manipulated enough in a single lifetime even without the involvement of magic.
Our conversation was interrupted by the rumbling of the ground beneath our feet. In the forest around us, animals fled in fear, shouting with alarm, “The earth! It hungers!”. Then, beneath the feet of a straggling rabbit, the ground opened up like a shark’s maw and swallowed it with the sickening crunch of bone buried under dirt. Shit. A bulette. Saru screamed. I grabbed my sword and went to Odiri’s side. If this thing was indeed a bulette, she was in the keenest of danger. The flesh of a halfling was the greatest delicacy of all for such a terrible beast. In the some moment as we realized that the protective bubble Adi had cast around us was only a dome, the bulette drilled up from beneath, catching Odiri in its vice-like jaws. The hum took over me as I struck into it with my sword. Like fucking hell it was going to take Odiri away from me. Saru joined in with her rapier, putting an explosion of leaf-green light and vines through the foul creature. A few more quick strikes from us both and the beast was felled.
Still coming down from even that brief moment of violent fury, I pulled Odiri from its maw and took her into my arms. My body shook with strain as I struggled to keep a grip on myself, to focus myself down from that height of skin-pricking hum enough to heal her. There was nothing to count but the wounds on her legs when my fingers ran over each of them as I tried to run through my mental exercises, reeling my careening mind. Anything, to come back to a place of sanity. She moved so carefully in my arms as I worked over her, aware of the danger in my hands, the buzzing beneath my flesh, careful, I am certain, not to set me off somehow. It’s getting more and more difficult to come back every time I let myself go.
When her skin was mended and I could stand on my feet without swaying deliriously, the rest of the party filled us in on their findings from excavating the bulette. Inside its gullet, there had been a man’s corpse bound in shackles and a brilliant golden cutlass. The captain of the Lulu Belle, seemed like. Oranssi and Adi chittered about the possibility of resurrecting him, but Saru shut them both down quickly. There was no need for “casual necromancy”, as she put it. I couldn’t help but notice as Frivolity giddily squirreled the shackles away in her pouch. Albion’s got a thing coming, poor lad…
Morning dawned on what would be our final day. We managed some distance further along R’Kanna’s path before we heard the screeching of a giant bird above us, followed by a neigh. Looking up, we were met with a roc, ferrying in its talons a horse. With another screech, it released the horse, sending it plummeting down in our direction. I cannot honestly say that I have ever in my life witnessed a horse achieve terminal velocity, but the results upon impact are absolutely horrific. The individual snapping of bones could not be discerned in the sickening splash of flesh liquefying against the ground. The force of an entire fucking horse landing on his head did absolutely nothing to Albion, who stood dumbfounded by what I am certain he saw as an unexpected turn of events, his white fur matted down with viscera and blood. The scent was gag worthy.
Saru took the lead, commanding Odiri and I to fire volleys up at the roc. Frankly, with how rousingly she spoke, I did not mind one bit being ordered around for a change. We struck it, again and again, until it came down close enough for me to reach it with an arrow of vines. Tangled and unable to fly, it plummeted towards the earth. As it fell, Saru cast a bolt from her rapier, smiting it with a great whiff of energy. By the time the roc hit the ground, it was already dead. Saru’s prowess in battle continues to dazzle me. I’d quite like to spar with her one of these days, if she would grant me the honor. Before we could make any congratulations or even examine the corpse of the roc, the wall decided we had been through quite enough. In a flash of our keys, we were returned to the rest. Odiri and I saddled up on our steeds and headed home, sorely in need of warmth and rest after such an ordeal of an outing.
And yet I am unable to find rest. In no way. Not in any place. Even here, now, smothered in warmth by puppies and quilts and my halfling at my side, true sleep had evaded me for days. I know that Odiri has noticed. She has not asked. In a way, I hope that she never does. There is a consumptive guilt that this should be plaguing me at all.
I’ve been dreaming about her. About Allaya.
It’s… never quite the same each time.
We are together in her father’s borrowed Whitehall boat. The water is still on Lake Orphea, the afternoon listless of wind. There is an absence of birds. I row. She sits across, the fabric of her dress billowing around her, filling her seat, the space between us. Her head is draped on her arm, and her arm is draped over the side, skimming the water, disturbing the fish that kiss the surface. She stares at me, her celestine eyes upturned, anticipating.
We are in the drawing room. She sits on the window casement, legs tucked delicately beneath her. Beyond the open glass, the wooded mountains of the east, crowned with mist. This is as close as she will ever come to them. I have turned around from the harpsichord. The breeze picks up the curtains and fills the room with silk like sails, swallowing her behind them. She is laughing, mirthlessly.
We are in the garden. She is at the bench, face turned away from me. I take a knee beside her, my helm tucked under my arm. Her hair is loose. I am leaving. Her cheeks have turned so sallow. This will be the last time I see her. Her gloved hands share attentions of her sunken belly and a rose. Allaya, please. I am leaving. She pricks her finger purposefully on a thorn.
In the boat, I speak and her brow is marble, expression perfectly unchanging.
In the room, I am screaming and the din of wind is too much, she cannot hear me.
In the garden, I am weeping, begging on my knees, and still she will not look me in the eye.
If my hand drops an oar to reach her, the lake is gone. If I stand from the bench to take a single step, the room is gone. If rise from my knees, the garden is gone. I am awake. She, is gone.
She is beneath the canopy of our bed. Afternoon light is waning, leaving long scars of light along the floor through the shut window. She will not face it. The maids rush out heads bowed when they hear my heavy boots come up the stairs. Our condolences, Master Crowsley. We are sorry, Master Crowsley. The crib is covered with a sheet. It is full. It is empty. I stand at the door.
This aches deeper than any nightmare. I’d rather dream of war than suffer this. I would sooner wake with all my scars again seared open than this. Anything than this. She will not hear me. She will not know me. She will never answer the only question I would ask of her, or any question I would ever ask of her. And yet,
I stand at the door.
This is all I have left of her.
Laying here now, awake with exhaustion, surrounded by goods of breeding, I cannot help but dwell on the significance of numbers. Charka bore eight pups, the last of them the smallest. After seven graves under our garden blackthorn, Tannion was not even a quarter stone when he was born. The sensation of irony pricks my eyes with stinging ash of a fire long extinguished. Perhaps this is the recompense I prayed for.
Lulu has sensed my distress, I think. She’s whining, squirming against my ribs, climbing her way up to my face. Warm tongue. Soft fur. Familiar, though she is so new to this world. Intuitive child… Odiri, too, has stirred. Asleep still, her journal splayed against her chest, but inching closer to me, curling against my ribs. All eleven of us in this bed, still my heart is hollow, counting slats in the ceiling, breathing deep.
I must try to sleep.