The Blackwells – The Brephochae

“I don’t think I’m so naïve,” she said to herself. Vithian and Jaonos always called her naïve; it had always galled her.

The last time Vithian had returned to Pheasant’s Cross from sequester, Ynaselle had found him and Jaonos sitting up late one night by the fire. Vithian had moved a chair close to Jaonos’s so that their heads were close together. Each held a drink in their hands, and they whispered conspiratorially to each other.

Ynaselle interrupted them, asking what they could find so secretive. And Vithian had told her. One priest – Vithian would not name who – was a counselor. He would listen to the confessions and guilty concerns of all those that would come to him, and then he would gossip with other priests and postulants about what he had been told.

This counselor had an elf – a fourth or fifth child of some merchant – who had come to him with a problem. This elf had been smuggling Saprexun silk into the Court of the Oak and Birch.

“One night he meets his mistress, as they have always done, but she’s distraught,” Vithian said, a grin spreading across his face. “You see, her family sells silk in the Court – legally – and they’ve been having some issues. People didn’t want their silk when they could get Saprexun silk under the table, and she feared her family might be ruined.

“Well, our smuggler also has a bad habit of drinking out of his senses, so he tells her not to be concerned. He was the smuggle selling the Saprexun silk, and when they married, he would be rich. So, what do you suppose she did?”

Vithian paused, as if waiting for an answer. Ynaselle glanced to Jaonos, who sat back in his chair, his drink up to his lips. He watched her glassily and smiled.

“She blackmailed him!” Vithian exclaimed. “You see, she was already married – our smuggler knew this – and she had no intention of seeking an annulment. Why not take the money now?

“Now, that wasn’t the end of his issues. He had hired a caravaner to transport the silk from Saprexus, and this caravaner had had some terrible luck. News had spread about silk and other, shall we say, secret goods, making their way to the Faydark Empire, and brigands were scattered along the highway. The caravaner needed to hire more security, which meant he needed more gold from our smuggler.”

Vithian stood and poured himself another drink. “Jaonos?” Jaonos waved away to offer of another drink. He was already well sauced as it was, Ynaselle saw. Vithian held a glass toward Ynaselle, who shook her head.

“And that wasn’t the end of our smuggler’s troubles. He had a friend amongst the inspectors in the Court, who would just stamp whatever the silk was hidden in through. This friend was being transferred though, and our smuggler would need even more gold so he could bribe another official.

“He went to his lenders for assistance in all of these new costs, and, they were not patient nor particularly generous. Needless to say, our smuggler was in some terrible trouble. So, he sought out help from our counselor friend. What do you suppose the counselor told him to do?” Vithian had asked.

“Turn himself in, I hope,” Ynaselle said. Vithian and Jaonos both laughed at her appalled expression.

“Oh, poor sweet Yna,” Jaonos said. He shifted slightly, moving in his chair like he were floating in it rather than sitting.

Vithian continued. “Our smuggler had never actually seen his lender – I suppose I should have said so sooner – but it made it difficult for our smuggler, because if he didn’t know who his lender was, well, he had nothing over them. So, the counselor told the smuggler to bring his lender, to the sequester. The two would do the whole both drinking from the same cup so no one was poisoned thing and discuss their problems through the veil that the counselor normally sat behind.

“Obviously, the elf couldn’t get any quarter from his lender, and both left angry and bitter. But the elf woke the next day to find that his mouth was purple. What surprised him, though, was that, when he entered the exchange, he found the mother of his mistress. Her mouth was also purple.”

“She was the lender,” Ynaselle said.

Vithian spread his hands before him. “They had both drunk from the same cup.”

“The counselor had put ink into the wine?”

“Well, how else was the lender to be revealed?

“The mother understood that, too, when she saw that him, and told him that she would not be requiring him to make his payments until his smuggling business was back in order.”

“That’s horrid!” Ynaselle declared. “Smuggling, adultery, blackmail, bribery, usury! And they just continued on as they had?”

“Oh, Yna, don’t be so naïve. There isn’t an elf in the Empire who doesn’t break the law when it suits them.”

Ynaselle had turned to Jaonos, who was already half asleep. He motioned with his drink in agreement, sloshing part of the liquor out over his robes. Ynaselle left Jaonos and Vithian laughing, determined to believe that her mother and father would never engage in such activities.

She took a deep breath and shook her head. Perhaps things were not as simple as she had believed, but it unsettled her. Let it be, she said to herself, and continued on to the Brephochae.

The Brephochae towered over the street in glistening glory. Its spiderweb of glass seemed to ensnare a large garden of trees and flowers that grew nowhere else in The Empire. Many were gifts, Ynaselle recalled, from merchants and visiting nobles from elsewhere in the world. The conservatory itself was a miracle of botany. It housed plants that grew in the air and drifted from tree to tree throughout the day, huge carnivorous plants that had to be fed meat regularly, and even a breed of orchids so rare that some believed that the last living ones grew at the Brephochae.

The spiderweb clung to the sides of the white-walled, high-spired living area. Lady Erro would be near the top of one of the spires, where ambassadors from other Courts and even other kingdoms would stay when they visited. The spires were now draped with the banners of the Heliohart and Passerine Courts in celebration of the recent marriage annoucement. Ynaselle couldn’t help but wonder if the Little Prince Lianthorn had been staying at the Brephochae as well. The banners would be salt in his wounds.

Ynaselle entered the Brephochae through its vaulted doors. The interior was as filled with living things as the spiderweb greenhouse. A small river coursed through the floorway where small gold and red fish merrily swam. The carpet was a living moss so thick Ynaselle was always tempted to take her shoes off when she crossed it. Espalier fruit trees lined the walls so that any elf could simply pluck a pear or plum should they wish. Elves sat across the great entry hall in seats made of braided vines or saplings or tree trunks and particularly large, sturdy mushrooms. They sipped teas and spritzers, speaking in low voices. It wasn’t just elves, Ynaselle realized. A small group of humans stood around one large mushroom, somewhat befuddled. They didn’t seem to know what to do with it, while another demonstrated how to balance atop it without tumbling off. He failed, sliding off as soon as he lifted one leg to cross over the other.

A clerk with a high forehead, narrow nose, and yellowish cheeks wove through the crowd, occasionally motioning a servant to take bags to rooms or deliver refreshments. Periodically, he would remove a key from his great ring to give to a servant, then fastidiously place it back on his belt while the servant led the visitor to their rooms.

Ynaselle lifted the skirt of her robes and began to make her way to him. She needn’t have bothered. Almost as soon as she began her way across the room, the clerk turned toward her and was by her elbow in moments.

“Yuven Blackwell, what an honor to have a visit from you today,” the clerk said in a nasal voice. “May I get any refreshments for you?” He seemed to be looking at her through closed eyes, and she wondered how he could navigate the great room without his eyes opened.

“No, please,” Ynaselle said. “I’ve come to visit my friends, the Tarnyns. May I be led to their room?”

The clerk bowed deeply, then waved his hand in no particular direction. A servant wearing the short green and brown robe of the Brephochae uniform appeared, bent at his waste in a permanent bow.

“It would be my pleasure, Yuven Blackwell.” He handed a key to the servant and bowed again. “Should you need anything else, do not hesitate to ask.”

The servant walked through the hall so quickly and smoothly that it seemed like he floated. He dodged around parties without interrupting them as if he were just another part of the room which the guests ignored entirely. He waited for her at the raiser.

The raiser was a crystal compartment, filigreed in gold-leafed steel and carpeted in the same lush moss. Water poured over it from above in a gentle water fall, feeding the small riverlets at its based. The servant opened the door for Ynaselle and the veil of water parted to allow her in.

As soon as the servant stepped in, the raiser rose in an arch over the great hall so that Ynaselle could see the hall in a bird’s eye view.

“Servant,” she said, “is the hall designed after some actual landscape?”

“Yes, Yuven Blackwell,” the servant said. She was surprised by his sonorous voice. It was deeper than she had expected, and she wondered what his singing voice must be like. “It is designed as an exact replica of the river country to the east of the Mural Mountains. The humans there call the land the Dorin Garden, after a local deity. Legend says that those blessed by Dorin will be protected and fed by the rivers, as the rivers will bring them whatever they need.

“The gnomes are the natives of the area, though, but their name for it is yet unknown. If you would like, we can explore the other major halls, all of which are replicas of natural landscapes.”

Ynaselle smiled. “Another time, please.”

The raiser soared up the vaulted ceiling. Floors flashed by, each designed, she imagined, after different locales. The raiser came to a stop at one that looked like a riverbed. Crystal covered a floor made almost entirely of smooth white stones. Water poured over the edge under the crystal, where it would form the waterfall and rivers in the main hall.

The servant stepped out, delicately offering Ynaselle his hand to help her step down. He said no more as he walked her down a hallway of doors to the door that must be the Tarnyns. The servant led her into the antechamber, a small foyer.

It was not carpeted in moss or stones, but in black and orange tiles. The walls were charred wood and lined with beautiful but impersonal paintings. Dark wood tables held blue and white vases of flowers at intervals, while a small sitting space of charred wood and blue cushions huddled in one corner.

The servant entered the main living suite to discreetly announce her presence. She only knew the servant had left when she heard the front door shut again.

Ynaselle sighed. If the servant had reported to Nithnael, Ynaselle expected that she would be made to wait. Rather than taking a seat, Ynaselle began circling the foyer, examining the vases and paintings.

She came to the small table by the door to the living area and saw it held several letters. Ynaselle glanced around to make certain she was alone before she pulled the small pile over so that each address was visible. She recognized many of the names. A tailor, a florist, a lord, which surprised her.

“Do you find my correspondence interesting?”

Ynaselle jumped and spun about, a blush rising in her cheeks. She had not heard Master Tarnyn’s approach. “I’m so sorry!” Ynaselle blurted out. “I hadn’t meant to intrude.”

Master Tarnyn’s face was utterly impassive. With one hand and an economy of movement, he shuffled the pile of letters back into a pristine stack and picked them up. “If you hadn’t meant to intrude, you shouldn’t have gotten caught.”

Ynaselle opened her mouth to apologize once more but stopped. What an odd thing to say. Shouldn’t have gotten caught rather than shouldn’t have snooped. Her brow furrowed briefly in her confusion.

Tarnyn flashed her a secretive smile when he saw she noticed and motioned her to the sitting room. “Unfortunately, you have missed my sisters and Yuven Vetsian. They went out this morning with my wife, so you find me alone today.”

Ynaselle entered the sitting room and took a seat in a small chair. Master Tarnyn did not sit immediately, but instead simply watched her from where he stood. Ynaselle couldn’t read his thoughts on his impassive face. She admired how well he controlled his expressions.

“I had come to invite you and your family to our home for dinner,” Ynaselle said. “I am sorry I have missed them, but I hope that I can leave that invitation with you.”

“Of course,” Master Tarnyn said. He waited a moment as he continued to examine her, meeting her gaze without embarrassment. Usually, to be so closely examined, Ynaselle might feel nervous or upset, but not with Master Tarnyn. She didn’t sense any ill will from him, even if she couldn’t guess his thoughts.

“May I get you anything?” he asked abruptly. “Tea? Spritzer?”

“No, thank you.”

Master Tarnyn plucked a small sprig of rosemary and placed it into a chilled glass. He drizzled a thick, purple syrup over the ice, then poured the sparkling water over it all. Again, Ynaselle was impressed by the economy and efficiency of movement.

When he sat down with glass in hand, Master Tarnyn looked back at Ynaselle. He wasn’t smiling, but there was a slight upturn at the corner of his lips that made Ynaselle a bit more comfortable.

“Did you find my correspondence interesting, Yuven Blackwell?”

“Again, allow me to apologize.”

Master Tarnyn waved his hand. “I’m not upset. I’m curious what you make of what you saw?”

Ynaselle blinked, sitting up just a little straighter. “Well,” she hazarded after a moment, “I can’t make heads or tails of what it is you actually do.”

“Oh?” Master Tarnyn said. He sipped his drink.

“I know something of the Court of the Mirror. The Tarnyns are a well-respected family, but, if you will forgive any impertinence, hardly in the strata that many of your friends seem to be from.”

Master Tarnyn lifted his eyebrows but said nothing. He waited for her to continue.

“The Tarnyns are doctors, lawyers, and perhaps a few have been clerks and secretaries for aristocratic families, but none that would connect them to Lady Erro or Lord Petdove or Lord Zinthyra. And I can’t guess your profession from your correspondence. A tailor, which is hardly unexpected for anyone, a draper. I’m not certain what profession would include letters from a carpenter, a florist, and a silversmith together, though.”

“I am letting a house.”

“But without letters from an estate agent? Or a cabinetmaker?”

“Hmm, perhaps,” Master Tarnyn consented. “What do you make of it, then?”

“That if I want to know what it is you do, I shall have to get to know you better.” Ynaselle smoothed her robe over her knees. “And not get caught again. I hope, then, that you and your family will join us for dinner.”

Master Tarnyn offered her a quick smile and nodded. “Of course.” He sipped his drink and sat further back in his chair. Ynaselle decided she rather liked Master Tarnyn and, if Mistress Tarnyn was anything like her sister Merioleth, would very much like her, too. It was a pity that she rather liked the entire family, except her old friend Nithnael.

“I understand your father is indisposed at the moment. Is he well?”

Ynaselle folded her hands in her lap and nodded. The room suddenly felt a bit colder. “Yes, he is recovering. He shall be well enough for dinner. He is pleased to make a better acquaintance of you and your family.”

“I understand that Alennia made an excellent impression on him.”

Ynaselle could guess that he understood that from Lady Erro, but she smiled and nodded. “On myself as well.”

Master Tarnyn nodded his approval. When he said no more, Ynaselle stood and bobbed a quick bow. “I am disappointed to have missed your sisters, but I shall be happy to see you all at dinner.”

“I look forward to it,” Master Tarnyn replied with his secretive smile.

Ynaselle left curious about her new friends.

© Ainsel Greenwood and AinselGreenwood.com, 2019. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Ainsel Greenwood and AinselGreenwood.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

The Blackwells – Calling Upon Friends

The scent of lilac drifted into the foyer from the front door. Ynaselle paused as she pulled on her white lace gloves. She closed her eyes and inhaled.

“It’s a beautiful day, isn’t it?” Ulesse asked beside her. She was holding up Ynaselle’s veil.

Ynaselle smiled at the maid and nodded. “It is. A lovely spring day.” She tilted her head slightly as she examined the veil, then lifted her chin and started out the door. “No veil today, I think.”

The sunlight glowed warmly on her face and dappled the sidewalk beneath her feet as she walked. Ynaselle always looked forward to spring days like this in Heliohart. Heliohart might turn icy in winter, but in spring, there was no better place to be.

“Yuven Blackwell!” a voice called.

Ynaselle paused to see Master Trisrel seated on an open porch. Her garden was so thick with blooming shrubbery and flowers that the porch seemed to float on a bed of flowers. That was no surprise. Master Trisrel was the fourth child of a wealthy perfume merchant and had inherited the house. Her wife was a florist and had planted the garden that was the envy of the entire street.

She was an older elf. Her gray hair had gone steel gray and her eyes had grown darker with age, but she maintained her proud and regal air.

Ynaselle smiled and kissed her fingertips at Master Trisrel. “Good morning,” she said. “Do I find you well this morning?”

“Indeed, you do, Yuven Blackwell,” Master Trisrel said. “I had heard your father took ill. How does he fare?”

“Much better, thank you. He’ll be back at court soon,” Ynaselle replied.

“Excellent, excellent.” Master Trisrel rested her chin on her knuckles and examined Ynaselle. “I had worried about your family after your mother’s death. I’m glad to see you looking so well.”

Ynaselle bowed her head slightly. “Thank you.”

“Come sit with me, child.”

Ynaselle glanced at the timepiece on the inside of wrist and smirked. She could be a bit naughty and sit with her old friend for a time. She climbed the stairs and took a seat next to Master Trisrel. She poured Ynaselle a cup of dandelion tea sweetened with strawberries and placed a tart made of exceptionally delicate pastry popular among urbane elves.

“I’ve got something I’d like to show you, Yna.”

“Oh?” Ynaselle sipped her tea politely.

With a conspiratorial grin, Master Trisrel pulled a small cone-shaped pot from a pocket and placed it in Ynaselle’s hand. Ynaselle opened it and found a musky, pale yellow paste and smirked. “My father received some of this at Court. It’s dybla. Lianthorn was passing it out.”

“Yes, well, I’m not part of the Court. I wasn’t important enough to get any. I’ve had to call in and give out quite a few favors to get what little I’ve gotten.”

Ynaselle frowned and shut the amber jar. “Why is it so important to you, Veyrin?”

Master Trisrel laughed loudly. “It’s illegal to sell dybla, but it’s invaluable in perfume manufacture. There’s not a better binder in the world. Without it, perfume hardly keeps its scent, but with it, a perfume can last for decades, and the scent stays on your skin for hours. We perfumers have been trying to find an alternative ever since it was banned.” She shrugged, waving her hand in a forlorn way, then clenched her fist and grinned. “With what little I’ve managed to get, I can corner the market.”

Ynaselle opened the jar and looked at the substance again, frowning at it in confusion. “Why is it illegal?”

“The Phrangene Drought. The plant dybla is made from requires a great deal of water to grow, and during the drought, Faydark made it illegal to buy or sell so Myracine wouldn’t use its limited reserves for dybla rather than its own citizens. It’s not in any official history book, but Myracine allowed hundreds to die before dybla was made illegal. I suppose that Faydark just hasn’t bothered to change the law.”

“Veyrin, will you get in trouble for having this?”

“Potentially. But it’s worth the risk, Yna, trust me.”

“Why not just grow dybla yourself?”

Veyrin laughed, very nearly derisively. There was some bitterness there. “I would love to. We all would. And if there’s a botanist or perfumer out there who has managed to do it, that would be a world-changer. No, it only grows in Myracine. Dybla grown outside that region, its resin crumbles. It won’t hold a scent, and it rots. That’s if they can get the shrub to grow at all.

“There’s something in Myracine that allows it to grow there. No alchemist or chemist has figured out what. It’s something in the soil, I think.” She chuckled again and shook her head. “Perhaps there’s some old magic at work there, something so old we’ve all forgotten.”

“It would have to be very old for elves to forget.”

Veryin patted Ynaselle’s hand, then squeezed. “Perhaps so, child.” Then her smiled broadened and she sat back in her chair. “I shall give you some of the perfume I develop. It will be my gift to you.”

“I couldn’t accept something so valuable!”

“Nonsense. You’re a lord’s child, you receive valuable things every day, I’m certain. No, take it as a token of our friendship. Or, better yet, think of it as my way of trying to tempt you into being my apprentice again.”

Ynaselle sighed. It was a tempting offer. She liked Veryin, she liked her bold and frank attitude, her determination and strong will. In many ways, she aspired to be more like Veyrin. Still, she wasn’t certain perfumery was where her heart lay. “I shouldn’t want to do something where I must break the law,” Ynaselle said.

“Then you shouldn’t want to do anything at all. Oh, don’t pretend to be scandalized. You are a very naïve child if you think the world isn’t run by shadowy deals and illegal acts. If your father hasn’t taught you that, he’s done you a great disservice. No, you’ll always be high enough in society that you shall always have to navigate bribes and espionage and all that. The best way to treat the law is something you break so long as keeping it doesn’t hurt you. And if you’re wealthy enough, getting caught shouldn’t cause too much fuss. The sooner you learn that, the better.”

“That is an awfully cynical way of viewing the world.”

“Perhaps. I should prefer it not to be so, I think. But, you must always ask yourself, ‘Who does this hurt? Who does this benefit?’ Laws aren’t written to make the world better, but to keep it pacified and under control, and so long as we have them, that is how it shall be.”

Ynaselle held up the jar of dybla. “This was outlawed to help the people of Myracine.”

Veyrin took the jar and placed it into her pocket. When she smiled, she showed teeth. “That was a side benefit. Since it only grows in Myracine, Myracine was becoming too powerful to stay in line, and Faydark knew it was becoming a threat. Faydark made the law to cut Myracine off at the knee. Economically, Myracine was nearly ruined, and it hasn’t recovered since.

“Consider, child,” Veyrin continued, even as Ynaselle stared forlornly into her tea, “why does the second child of every prince go to Faydark? The Prince of the Emperor? Oh, it’s our tradition, just as it is our tradition that the first child is the Prince of the Blood and the third is the Prince of the Spirit, but why did it become tradition? Because the emperor wanted wards to ensure that no principality would ever turn against it. So long as the emperor had the princes’ children, it had hostages.

“Heliohart is one of the only courts that doesn’t use this practice in its own court. In nearly every other Court in the Empire, the second children of lords are taken by the prince, so that the prince can know their lords won’t step out of line. In nearly any other court, Vithian would be taken into the prince’s household as a hostage, and you would have to be a priest. That’s not because Heliohart is somehow kinder; Prince Heliohart has his own methods of making sure his lords don’t rise up.”

Veyrin sipped her tea and squeezed Ynaselle’s hand. “Listen to me, I sound like a revolutionary. I shan’t be surprise should you have me arrested. Oh, no, dear, I’m teasing, I know you wouldn’t.”

Veyrin kissed Ynaselle’s cheek and smiled. “Come back this evening, won’t you? Larunia should love to see you again. We’ve missed you since you’ve kept yourself in Blackwell.”

Ynaselle kissed Veyrin back and stood. “I have missed you both as well. I shall come back this evening, I promise. But, I must go. I have a few errands to run today.”

Master Veyrin Trisrel waved at Ynaselle as Ynaselle made her way further down the sidewalk. Ynaselle climbed the crystal stairs that encircled a large, white-barked sycamore tree. Her thoughts crowded in her head, fighting for her attention. They tumbled about so she couldn’t focus on any one of them.

Was she naive?

© Ainsel Greenwood and AinselGreenwood.com, 2019. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Ainsel Greenwood and AinselGreenwood.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

The Blackwells – Dr. Prognes’s Diagnosis

Ynaselle and Othorion sat together on the chaise, together creating a cloud of anxiety. Ynaselle clutched a handkerchief in one hand and clasped Othorion’s knee with the other. Othorion picked at his gloves, working them off and then pulling them back on. Periodically, he’d touch Ynaselle’s hand, offer a nervous smile, and then go back to picking that the fingers of his gloves. Vithian stood oddly stoic at the window, saying nothing. For the first time in Vithian’s life, he was silent.

Jaonos would have welcomed his prattle. It would have covered up the sound of Myrdin and Ulesse’s footsteps in Flinar’s bedroom. Jaonos heard the occasional snippet of muffled voices that floated down the stairs, but he couldn’t make out the words. He glared at Vithian, a headache starting at his temples. He purposefully unclenched his teeth, then unconsciously clenched them again.

Jaonos shifted uncomfortably in his chair, leaning closer in his chair so he could hear what was being said better. Ynaselle caught his gaze for a moment, but Jaonos scowled and looked away, resenting the concern in her eyes.

They all held their breath as they heard the upstairs door open and shut again. It had done so several times as Myrdin and Ulesse entered and exited the room, but this time, the sound of footsteps descending the stairs filled the void. When Myrdin appeared in the doorway, he wore a weary smile.

None of the siblings voiced their questions. Each watched Myrdin, unmoving, anticipating, fearing the worst.

Myrdin took a deep breath and stepped into the room. “Fear not, it’s nothing too serious,” Myrdin began, and Jaonos heard each of his siblings let go of their breath. Jaonos sat back in his chair, still wary.

“Your father had a fainting spell. When he fell, he struck his head. He’ll have a bit of a knot for a while, but he’ll recover,” Myrdin continued.

“Will he be all right?” Othorion asked. He had finally stopped picking at his gloves, but he held his right glove in his left gloved hand, squeezing tightly enough to crack the leather.

“He ought not go out for the next few days, I think. He’s still recovering from his illness this past winter. He overexerted himself with his visits to Court and the ball last night. A few days of peace and quiet will see him well again.”

“Should we go back to Pheasant’s Cross?” Ynaselle asked. Her voice was thin and tense, as if she were still a child. She always sounded like a child when she was frightened.

Jaonos frowned when he saw Myrdin bite the inside of his lip. It was a habit Jaonos had noticed many times in the past. He did it unconsciously when he was nervous or uncertain. Or when he was lying.

“No,” Myrdin said after a short hesitation. “Not yet. He’s not well enough to travel yet. Besides, I still think being the such a, shall we say, familiar place as Blackwell, well, I don’t think that will help his recovery, either. No, it’s best he stays here, in Heliohart, for now.

“Besides, I’ll be by every day. And Ulesse is an excellent nurse. He’ll be up and about before you know it.”

Othorion and Ynaselle murmured their relief, but Jaonos had noticed that hesitation and he had seen Myrdin’s nervous tick, and he was certain there was more that he needed to know. He watched Myrdin with a suspicious scowl, and when their gaze met, Myrdin looked away.

“May we go see him?” Vithian asked from behind Jaonos, causing him to jump. He had forgotten Vithian was still behind him.

“Of course,” Myrdin said, motioning toward the stairs. “He’s breakfasting now. I’m sure he’ll want to tell you all that you’re worrying yourselves too much.”

Vithian and Othorion hurried up the stairs. Ynaselle paused long enough to thank Myrdin before following them. Only Jaonos remained, and he continued to scowl at Myrdin.

This time when their gaze met, Myrdin didn’t look away, but he allowed his professional mask to fall away. There wasn’t weary but patient professional interest anymore. Now there was genuine concern.

“Jaonos,” Myrdin began, but said nothing else. Instead, he held his hands in front of him, as if he were offering up something that he had no words for.

“What aren’t you telling us, Myrdin?” Jaonos asked. He hadn’t meant his tone to be as harsh as it was, but he made no attempt to soften the effect.

Myrdin winced and took a seat in front of Jaonos. He scrubbed his face with his hands and sighed deeply. “He’s more ill than I thought. This past winter, well, it was just mourning. Your mother had passed away, it was only natural that he would be weaker for it.

“Now, I fear, it’s much worse than that.”

Jaonos leaned forward and beckoned Myrdin closer. “Tell me, Myrdin.”

Myrdin took Jaonos’s hand, turned it over, traced his long, pale fingers over Jaonos’s palm. “It’s his heart, Jaonos. His heart is so much weaker than it was. Your father’s health has never been particularly vigorous. Perhaps if I had pushed you all to come to Heliohart for the winter, it might have been better, but…”

“But?” Jaonos pushed. He reached toward Myrdin with his other hand, his fingertips gently tracing the plane of Myrdin’s cheek. He knew Myrdin loved Flinar as his own family. He could see a dark cloud over Myrdin’s gold eyes, a sense of failure.

Myrdin took another deep breath and shook his head. He was clearly struggling. “He could rally. He could live for many more years to come, but he’s never going to be truly well again. Your mother’s death has just taken too great a toll on his health. However,” he continued before Jaonos could ask, “I’m not certain he will rally.”

“What should we do?”

“Keep him comfortable. Avoid putting too much stress on him. Allow him to convalesce without interference.” Myrdin closed his eyes briefly and once more bit the inside of his lip. “I’ve done everything I can to help him recover, but he’s… simply never going to be as well as he was when your mother was alive.”

Jaonos felt something harden in his stomach. There was more Myrdin wasn’t telling him, and this time, Jaonos was afraid of what it might be. Normally, he would leave it at that. Normally, he would do whatever he could to avoid discomfort. Normally, he would squeeze Myrdin’s hand, smile obliviously, and go to his father’s room and tease him for fainting until Ynaselle shooed him away.

Jaonos fought that urge. Instead, he said, “I think you’re trying very gently to prepare for-“ there wasn’t a good euphemism for his father’s death, but he couldn’t bring himself to actually speak the words lest he invite it. Instead, he said, “-for taking over as Lord Blackwell.”

This time, Myrdin kissed Jaonos’s palm and when he met Jaonos’s gaze, his expression was filled with sympathy. “It is something you will need to prepare for. And, I fear, sooner rather than later.”

There were words Jaonos wanted to say. Both he and Myrdin knew what was at stake when Jaonos became Lord Blackwell. They both knew the expectations that would fall on Jaonos’s shoulders, and what would be expected of his marriage. Jaonos knew that Myrdin wanted to marry, and he hoped that Myrdin understood why he was so reticent. It had been a discussion Myrdin had tried to have, but Jaonos had always, he now realized, avoided having.

For a moment, Jaonos thought of explaining himself, of confessing that while he loved Myrdin, he couldn’t marry him. If Jaonos didn’t take a woman as his spouse, then Ynaselle would have to be his Lady of the Chamber and bare children for him, and he couldn’t bring himself to trap his sister like that. Myrdin had to know that that would have to happen. Perhaps, Jaonos thought, that was why Myrdin never pushed too hard.

A sudden rush of guilt at his own selfishness pierced into Jaonos’s heart, and he pulled away. His father was very ill, dying perhaps. Jaonos, perhaps for the first time, realized how selfish he had always been.

Jaonos stood. He leaned over Myrdin and gave him a cavalier smile. He tilted Myrdin’s chin up and kissed him before saying, “Myrdin, you think too little of your healing ability.”

He couldn’t say anything else, lest he betray his own feelings, so he simply walked upstairs to join his siblings, leaving Myrdin alone in the sitting room.

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