A cool autumn breeze made red and gold leaves dance across the walkway as Ava approached the massive form of the Third House of Whitestone. The fourteen year old girl tucked a strand of windblown brown hair back behind an ear that still held a point of elvish ancestry. She liked this time of year. Even the city smelled of earth and forest.
Once she was outside of the manor, the guards out front gave her welcoming smiles.
"Lady Ava," the older of the two, a red-haired woman by the name of Risse, said as she opened the cast-iron gate. Her strong hand easily gripped the gate’s by the silhouette of a triceratops which acted as both decoration and the bulk of the gate's weight. "Pleasure to see you. The Baroness is by the fountain."
"Thank you." Ava held up the basket she’d brought with her. She flipped back the worn linen cloth that covered it, showing off the honey oat cookies inside. "Here. There are plenty for sharing."
"We’re not supposed to eat on duty," Risse said, though she reached for a cookie all the same.
"I won’t tell," Ava replied, and she gave a wink.
Lady Vex'ahlia, Baroness of the Third House of Whitestone and Grand Mistress of the Grey Hunt was, in fact, seated on the edge of the fountain of the great manor when Ava found her. Both she and her bear had placed themselves in a patch of sunlight that filtered through the trees, both with their eyes closed as though meditating. Or, if the sound of ursine snoring was anything to go by, napping. The Baroness was dressed in fawn colored leathers. Her silver hair was braided and had blue and black feathers peaking out of it in a pattern which suggested either no thought in their positioning or that perhaps birds themselves had placed them prior to nesting.
On anyone else this might have painted an inelegant, even rustic picture. But at nearly two centuries of being herself the Baroness made it look like something more. She looked as though she was as much a royal member of the woods as she was of the city of Whitestone. With her bear by her side, his own muzzle a pale blond with age, she looked otherworldly. Ethereal. A hunter goddess come to spend time amongst the mortals before the weather went cold and animals and humans alike burrowed in to keep warm.
Then the Baroness's eyes opened and her face grew bright with a smile. "Darling! What a lovely surprise!"
With that Ava wasted no time in running to give her grandmother a hug.
Truth be told Vex'ahlia wasn't actually Ava's grandmother. Or rather she was, but by many generations removed. She was, however, one of the few of that bloodline still around and, as she put it, "There's only so many times I can hear 'great' in front of my name before I get bored or think that everyone's trying to suck up to my ego." So Ava and her siblings got to call her Grandmother Vex, which made it clear enough if they meant the Baroness or their parents' parents when speaking.
The Baroness had been a fixture in Whitestone for over a century. Of course she was welcome in the castle whenever she liked and had lived there for a time. But ultimately she had made the manor her main home. She claimed that she had too much to do to hover over the current royal family, and besides she'd built her manor to be precisely the way she liked it and by all the gods she was not going to see that money go to waste.
Not that the Baroness didn't still have her say in the Whitestone Council. Even if she didn't have her official position, her opinion held great weight amongst the population. She might not demand to be the center of attention, but there were those who knew it was unwise to ignore her.
Ava had never understood why anyone would avoid her grandmother. To Ava, Grandmother Vex had always meant strong hugs, and learning to shoot, and cuddling with Trinket, and sleepovers before Winter's Crest, and warmth, and care, and feeling loved and welcome and safe.
("Obviously you've never had to negotiate with the woman," Ava's father had muttered once, when Ava had expressed her puzzlement over her grandmother's stern reputation. Ava's father, it was worth noting, had married into the family.)
Ava basked in the sensation, the Grandmother Vexness of it all, as they hugged. Ava held tight, the hand that wasn't currently holding her basket kept a firm grip on the back of her grandmother's tunic. Beneath them Trinket snuffled awake. He first nosed at the basket of cookies, then licked a wet stripe over Ava's other hand.
Vex pulled back. Not so far that they weren't hugging, but so that she could look at Ava's face. Ava let her. There was no such thing as secrets where her grandmother was concerned. Secrets that her grandmother kept, yes. But secrets kept from her, no. Truth be told it made things easier. It certainly saved time that would be otherwise spent bringing a subject up politely.
"We'll have tea," Vex said. She gave Ava a gentle pat on the cheek and then led the way into the house. "And those cookies you brought with you as though you needed to bribe me for my time."
They sat at a table on one of the second floor galleries. It wasn't cold enough for the glass enclosures to be pulled shut, but a tall brazier was lit to stave off any chill. Fragrant cups of jasmine tea were poured from a shared teapot and five cookies were eaten (Ava one, her grandmother and Trinket two each) before her grandmother spoke again.
"All right, out with it." Vex licked an errant crumb off of her thumb. "What's on your mind, dear?"
Ava twisted a lock of her hair in her left hand. She looked towards the room inside. Various portraits hung on the walls of people Ava had never met, but to whom she was related. Her gaze lingered on one of a young man with white hair. "I - I had a question. About you and grandfather."
"That's a new one." Vex sat up so that she could tuck her feet underneath her. "Something in particular? Personal or required? Hopefully this isn't some sort of school assignment. I can promise nothing I'd tell you would be considered appropriate for your teachers to see."
"Personal," Ava said. "Er - perhaps rather very. Hence the bribe."
As though reminded, Vex helped herself to another cookie. She split this one in half to share with Trinket. "It wasn't necessary but they're delicious so I won't discourage you from repeating this in the future. Go on then. I can't answer if you don't ask."
Even with permission Ava chose her words carefully. The last thing she wanted to do was bring her grandmother any pain. And yet - Ava glanced in the direction of the city's stables - she had to know.
"Grandfather Percy died so long ago," Ava said. So very long ago that not even Ava's proper grandparents had met the man. "But you - you're still here. And you knew. Both of you. You had to. He was human and you aren't and you knew he was going to leave you and yet - "
Vex reached out to cover one of Ava's hands with her own. She squeezed, gently, like when she'd taught Ava how to safely hold a rabbit. "And yet I loved him and married him anyway. That's what you're asking?"
Ava nodded. She felt a tightness in her chest from the nerves she'd been holding onto since the first announcement of that year's Harvest Dance. "How could you love, knowing that you would end up alone?"
"Well, for starters, dear, I knew no such thing." Vex gave Ava's hand another squeeze before sitting back in her chair. "Yes, yes, I know about the lifespans of humans and half-elves. But it may surprise you to know that of the two of us I died first." Off of Ava's look she added. "I got better."
Ava's mouth fell open. She thought of the enormous clock in the manor's main hall which, on the hour, put on a mechanical show of ravens dancing around a cloaked figure. "But… Great Uncle Vax?"
"Unnatural extension of life," Vex explained. "Vampires, zombies, those are the sorts of things his Queen has issues with. Not with doing what amounts to a very powerful healing spell. Nor, fortunately, does she have issue with the blessing of a spirit of the Feywild which means that Trinket shall only pass when I do."
Upon hearing his name, the bear nudged his nose under Vex's hand. She moved it back to scratch behind his ears. Trinket closed his eyes and let out a deep, contented sigh.
"My point is the same," Vex continued. "A lifespan is not the same as a life. Any of us could die at any time. Which I realize sounds morbid but I don't mean it so."
"But you were adventurers," Ava said. Though she thought about it sometimes, she didn't think that was the sort of life for her. "You deliberately took risks."
"The Conclave took thousands who knew no adventure but their daily lives," Vex said. "Those who woke up intending to take no greater risk than building tables, or washing rugs. If my brother's patron has taught me anything it is that death will always come. We cannot deny ourselves joy in life out of fear of its loss. Ask your Great Aunt Keyleth how wise she found that decision to be if you'd care to. She certainly won't lack for time to talk about her regrets."
Ava didn't actually know her Great Aunt Keyleth that well. But Ava did know that Keyleth and her Great Uncle Vax had married many years after her grandmother had married Percy.
"They still have each other though," Ava pointed out. "For now, at least. But you - you never even remarried. Don't you… aren't you… "
"Lonely?" Vex suggested, sparing Ava from having to find the right word. "No. I do have friends, you know. I never remarried because I never cared to. No one captured my heart like your grandfather did. But I don't lack for companions. And even if I did - well. Your grandfather was a very clever inventor. He left me some gifts which made sure my nights were never cold."
It took Ava a few moments. "Grandmother!"
"I told you nothing I had to say about him would be appropriate for a school report."
"Still!" Ava took a few sips of tea to buy time to calm her blushing.
Vex chuckled. "All right, all right. You weren't asking about that anyway, were you? You were asking about the heart of it. Am I lonely because my Percival is not here?"
Ava set her cup down, not sure if she trusted herself to hold it now that they were at the crux of the matter. "Yes. Exactly that."
Vex extended her arm out towards the open air. "Look out that way, darling. Tell me what you see."
Ava turned in her seat. This side of the manor faced the street. From where they sat Ava could see the front gate, and the guards placed there. Beyond that she could see various townspeople walking about, some leading carriages filled with produce for the markets. Some walked alone. Others with friends. There were families with children. Beyond that were houses, and businesses. If she sat just right and squinted Ava could see Whitestone castle in the distance.
Ava didn't know what her grandmother wanted her to notice. "The city?"
"Your grandfather had a saying." Vex's mouth twisted into a grimace. "Well, he was insufferably pompous so he had several sayings, let's be honest. But this one is germane to our discussion. 'I live as long as Whitestone lives.' This is a city, yes. But it's more than that."
"Our family legacy?" Ava guessed. She'd heard as much in her lessons.
"Yes, but still more." Vex stood and went over to the stone railing. She motioned for Ava to stand beside her. "I see a city which went from a pit of despair to a beacon of safety. I see races who hundreds of years ago would never have set foot in Whitestone, yet now call it their home. I see architecture brought about by different cultures who now live together and share the best of everything. I see vibrant trade which keeps our treasury strong and means we will never be cut off and helpless again.
"I see street lamps which mean our city will never be gripped by darkness, pipelines which mean everyone has clean water and sanitation, all invented by a man who devoted himself to creating good things to make up for the black powder devil he invited into our world."
Vex turned. She placed her hand under Ava's chin. "I see my family. I see blue eyes and clever smiles which turn up in generation after generation. I see curious minds which live to take things apart and figure out how to put them back together even better than before. I see hope, and love, and joy, and things and lives which would never be here had my Percy not been here as well."
Vex moved her hand to place her arm around Ava's shoulders. Ava moved into the embrace, glad for the support.
"Yes, he died," Vex said. "And as I am a greedy woman I would have him by my side if it was natural to do so. But no, darling. He's not gone. Not as long as his impact remains."
Ava wrapped her arms around her grandmother's waist, hugging her tight. "Thank you."
A few moments passed. Vex lightly stroked Ava's hair. "Did that help you at all, dear?"
"Very much," Ava said.
"Enough that I get to find out who it is that your heart is aching over?"
Ava groaned. There really was no use trying to hide things from her grandmother. "Natia."
"The lovely tiefling girl who works at the stables?" At Ava's nod, Vex hummed her approval. "Oh good choice, dear. Your grandfather and I could both tell you that tiefling women make excellent company."
Vex's only response to that was a chuckle.