Chapter 1: Bergon
Compared to his father, Bergon sleeps his life away. That is to say, he generally gets more than three to four hours in a night. He can usually even manage half-a-night, or so. But there are also those nights, more than Bergon would like, where he wakes after two and a half or three, unmoored, the bed feeling strangely slippery beneath him.
He does not wake Iselle. She has her own share of nightmares, sleepless nights. He will not add to them, no matter how tempted he is to press his palm to the warm skin of her stomach, feel her grip his hair tightly. Neither of them are children anymore, years past their original meeting, that first flush of young infatuation and even younger love. But age has not changed his need for or admiration of her. If anything, the difficult times, the screaming and tears and quiet anger have only strengthened his adoration for and need of her.
He lets her sleep and makes his way to the stables. The cold earth beneath his feet and the heat of horseflesh has a way of grounding him. The too-sweet smell of hay and sharp snap of air help him focus, be the man he is, rather than the boy his dreams pull him back to.
An hour grooming or riding or even just sitting in the loft is enough most of these nights to have him back in bed. Even if he cannot sleep again, he can rest until the dawn breaks. Tonight, however, an hour of exhaustive tack-cleaning passes and he is still wide-awake and restless in his own skin. Giving up on more sleep, he goes in to dress.
There is always work waiting.
He wants to lean his head against her stomach, have her run her fingers through his hair. She assures him that soon enough, when he touches her midsection, he will feel the kick of the miracle they seem to have managed. It makes not one whit of difference to Bergon how many have done it before.
She sits down in the chair next to him, her eyes roving over the maps and correspondence spread out in front of him. "None of this appears urgent."
The smile he gives her is rueful. Without even realizing the question has been circling his mind, he finds himself asking, "What was Teidez like?"
Iselle blinks. "Where did that come from?"
Bergon frowns. "I'm not certain." The question is a good one, though, so he tries to follow the pattern of his thoughts to a nexus, an answer. Eventually, he tells her, "I think, perhaps, I have been curious as to what it would be like to have a brother to whom you are something more than a threat."
Iselle's expression is complicated, a kaleidoscope of thoughts Bergon cannot hope to follow. She asks, "Is this about the child?"
Bergon tilts his head. "Perhaps, a bit. My own fears for him or her, particularly when we decide to have another. My fears for that child."
Perceptively—and she is always perceptive—Iselle asks, "And the other part?"
Because she is his wife and because he loves her, he looks at the ground and says softly, "The need of a child who still wakes up alone and on a galley some nights, most likely."
Iselle is silent for a long moment, but he can feel her anger and her compassion. She can hide herself perfectly when she chooses, but she does not with him. It is one of the things that makes him happiest. She breaks her silence with, "Let's walk in the gardens."
Still looking at the ground, he smiles. Despite the chill outside, he doffs his shoes to join her. He needs to feel the sharp grass and solid earth against his skin.
"Teidez was…" Iselle's expression is a mixture of fondness and longing, "a boy, I suppose. He wanted adventure and to feel grand."
Bergon is of the mind that both are overrated, but he is also self-aware enough to acknowledge his own experiences have shaped that opinion. Teidez had neither the fortune nor misfortune to have it knocked out of his system.
"But he was also noble, in his own way. He wanted to protect what was his, he simply had the tendency to look before leaping." She chewed one side of her lower lip. "For a while, I thought he would be the one to bring about a new Chalion, that he would grow into a better man, but—"
Bergon reaches down and squeezes her hand. He tells her, "When I was a boy, I regularly dreamed my brother would come to peace with the Fox, and that…." He smiles, "That he would teach me how to have adventures and help me to feel grand."
After a moment, she asks, "Would you give this up for that to have been real?"
Never mind Ibra-Chalion, Bergon would not give Iselle up for eternal happiness. "No." Then, "Would you?"
"It feels like a betrayal to say no." The words come slowly. "But it is my truest answer, all the same."
One night Bergon falls asleep and comes awake to the sound of a lash hitting skin. It takes a moment for him to realize all is silent, that the bed is still beneath him. When he has calmed as much as he will, the first thing he hears is Iselle's soft reassurance, "You are safe." Then, after a moment, "As is Caz, or certainly we would have a frantic Betriz in our chambers already."
Bergon finds it in himself to laugh a bit at this truth. Turning to her, he asks, "Have you slept at all?"
"Some," she murmurs. He suspects she is lying, but does not press.
Instead he says, "I do not want my child to be afraid of water or his own family."
"His," Iselle needles with a smile, but then takes his hand. "Then we shall make sure that he is not. We are, are we not, rulers of the most expansive kingdom to exist?"
He smiles. "That we are."
She kisses his forehead. "Then sleep, and dream of a child as fearless as our combined powers can make her."
Chapter 2: Palli
Palli likes the movement his career provides, too restless to settle in one place for long, no matter his love of said place. But often, as the Son's season gives into the Father's, he finds himself yearning for the fire-lit halls of the Royal Court. It is not warmth he craves. Fires or no, the palace has little of that to offer. He often pretends that it is, as it is easier to admit such a thing than to acknowledge his true yearning for the people who are there.
Palli is, at best, a cousin in the ramshackle family of those highest in the Royal Court, but he cannot help wishing he was more. It is a strange experience, wanting what cannot be. Palli has never known himself to not make the best of what is. Privately, and without any good reason, he blames Caz. Caz, the fool, would probably consider it only his due.
It is a few days before he can conclude his business and be on his way without leaving the next representative of the Daughter overburdened. He rides faster than he should and stops less than is advisable. As he gets closer, the thrum of home calling is so strong it is hard to keep his hands steady on the reigns.
He tells himself not to be silly, that Court is not home. His heart has no interest in listening to logic.
When he does step inside, Caz is starting to say something when he looks up and says, "You are not dy Medillo."
Palli grins. "Guilty as charged."
Caz has risen from his seat and Palli meets him halfway, the two embracing. Caz says, "We were not expecting you for another day, at least."
"I was tired of the road," Palli said. "I can find myself an inn for the evening."
Caz makes an amused noise, pulling back. "Hardly. Even if I were fond of the notion, Iselle would have my hide. Your room has already been aired, it is the work of less than an hour to complete the rest of preparations."
"My thanks," Palli says. "The others are faring well?"
"Splendidly," Caz tells him. "You shall see them all at supper. For now, retire to mine and Beatriz's rooms, rest from your ride."
The relative warmth of being inside has begun to sneak into Palli's bones, and nothing could sound better than some hot water and a place to lie for an hour or so. And if there is a part of him that always feels just a bit safer, a pinch more settled, in a space that belongs to Caz, it is not as if he can change the way his mind works.
Bergon is ready with a hug that could crush ribs, and news of the latest results in horse breeding they've been playing around with together. Betriz scolds him for not coming to see her immediately, but kisses both his cheeks and holds his hands in hers, grinning, her eyes filled with warmth.
Supper is Palli's first full meal in days. He skipped more than sleep out on the road. He finds himself tipsy quicker than is his habit. When the dining party disperses, Caz hauls Palli from his seat, laughing. "It's a new grape they've cultivated in Ibra. Goes straight to the head."
"It's delicious," Palli tells him, with what he suspects is more earnestness than the situation strictly calls for. This is affirmed when Caz bites his lip in a way so as to prevent more laughter.
Palli thinks he should stop talking, but when Caz says, "It is good to see you, old friend," Palli admits, "I was ready to come home."
He takes his time dressing and goes to find some breakfast when certain the others will already be about their day. He is sipping at a restorative when Betriz appears and sits on his left. Palli chokes a bit on the sip he had just been swallowing.
She taps him on his back a few times to get him through the worst of it. Trying to regain some level of composure, Palli smiles, "Good morning, lady fair."
Betriz gives him a look that always makes him feel as though she can see right into his mind. That said, Palli might not be the most elegant courtier, but he is no bumbling youth, either. If she wants something from him, she will have to take it. After a moment, she asks, "How is your head?"
His smile turns wry. "Still attached."
"That is excellent news, as we do all so like it as it is."
Palli knows he has not the ability to read in between lines that Caz and the others have. His nature is not inclined to subterfuge. He is not so thick, however, as to miss the thread of something woven into Betriz's words. "Betriz—"
She stops him with a gentle hand to his chest. "Caz was touched that you consider this home. We both were."
Palli is uncertain how to answer, feeling as though leaving it at that is a lie, and saying more likely a disaster. She stands then, leaning over to kiss his forehead and whispers, "You should come home to us more often. One need not receive an invitation to visit one's home, after all."
Chapter 3: Betriz
Caz sleeps in a night shirt. Even after they have finished making love—and he will keep a shirt on if Betriz allows him, she tested the issue one evening—it is nearly the first thing he does, to reach out and re-cover that portion of his body. In the first months of their marriage, Betriz dismisses it as modesty.
After a particularly fraught day, however, she goes to rub the tension from his shoulders and lower back. At first she merely works through the shirt, but wanting to go deeper, she begins to peel the layers of his clothing away. It is coming on spring, the slight thaw pervading the castle. And while it is not warm yet, with the fire crackling he will not be chilled. When she reaches the innermost layer, however, he turns, his hands coming to hers.
She pulls her hands free, tilting her head. "I am aware of your scarring. Whatever you suppose it will make me feel, you are wrong."
Caz brings up a hand to cup against her cheek. "It is more my own emotions with regard to them that are the problem."
Betriz frowns. "They are marks of honor. Marks of a man who defended a youth simply because it was the right thing to do, regardless of consequence. Bergon—he finds ways to tell the story, you know?"
Caz makes a face. "I know, but one does not tell one's roya what he can and cannot do."
"He would listen."
Caz closes his eyes momentarily in acknowledgment. "Which is why it's best I not abuse the privilege, yes?"
"Cazaril," she says, not entirely sure how to follow up.
He swallows. "When I first returned to Chalion there was…a misunderstanding. I truthfully informed a boy at the public baths that I was not a deserter."
With a feeling of shock, Betriz remembers the first time she saw the scars, Caz standing brittle and alone in front of his accusers, reliving his nightmares to keep the vultures from diving. And suddenly Caz's reluctance to let her see makes complete sense. In something that feels like a growl, she tells him, "You are no rapist, of children or otherwise."
He smiled a little. "But I bear the marks of one."
"You bear the marks of service to a god," she argues.
There is a moment when Caz looks a bit brittle before he brings his mouth to hers in a chaste kiss. "I love you, my wife."
"And I you," she tells him. "All of you."
She tells Iselle on a night when they are both a bit tipsy, no longer royina and subject, but two friends, two very old friends. Iselle frowns. "He is ashamed?"
"I should not have said," Betriz realizes.
"Perhaps not," Iselle admits, "but I shall think on it, nonetheless."
Betriz knows Iselle, though. "Thinking on it" is synonymous with "mull it over with Bergon," who is probably the last person on earth Caz would wish to know. She's also completely aware telling Iselle to share this with nobody is a lost cause. Bergon always seems to fit under the "nobody" clause.
"The suspicion of his continued suffering in exchange for having intervened on my behalf, and now the knowledge, wears on me," Bergon says quietly.
"I—I am not certain how to explain. At a time when everything was betrayal and terror and having to think quickly, he provided an oasis of kindness and rescue. I watched them throw the whip over and over, and I said nothing, even knowing it was because of me."
Betriz is hardly old, but old enough to say, "You were a child."
"The child of a king."
Betriz smiles a bit. "Do you truly think it matters? We are born no more or less innocent. It is simply in how early we have such snatched away from us."
"Inasmuch, I was no longer a child," Bergon reasons.
"I imagine everyone is a child when stolen from his home, taken away from everything that matters."
"As he was."
Betriz takes one of Bergon's hands between hers and says, "There was purpose. Purpose larger than you or him."
"He is the one who must bear the marks, though."
"Mm, but I have season upon season upon season to make him see their splendor."
She kneads and presses the muscles into relaxing, and when he is too limp to fight overmuch, licks a line straight up his spine, over the valley of destroyed skin. Caz sucks in a sharp breath and mumbles her name. She hushes him and goes to the work of truly exploring this part of him he's never before allowed more than a few touches, sometimes a kiss here and there. She draws her tongue and lips and teeth over the evidence that her husband has survived all the gods could throw at him, that he is a protector, a savior. A saint. Even without the continuing presence of the gods, it is the only word she knows for him.
She hums, "Beautiful," into his skin and he laughs. It is a bit uneasy, but the laughter lets her know he is listening, and that is beautiful as well.
Chapter 4: Cazaril
"Does it make me a bad daughter, that sometimes I wish Ista had been more…present, I suppose?" Iselle is in her ninth month when she asks. The heat of summer has been near to stifling, and the effort of carrying the extra weight through it is apparent in the purple shadows around her eyes. She has not once complained about the heat, but he almost never catches her somewhere a breeze won't blow, or without a fan in her hand.
Cazaril sets aside the document he has been trying to parse for at least the last half-hour and tells her, "I imagine we all wanted our parents to be more attentive, and you have more reason than most. Why do you ask?"
Slowly, Iselle shrugs. "I suppose I worry I will repeat mistakes that aren't even mine to repeat in the first place."
"Generally, questioning ourselves is a good indicator that we will not perpetuate these types of behaviors."
She smiles in acknowledgment. "Even so, knowing what not to do is a far cry from knowing what to do."
"You had no experience when you first took the throne, either," he points out.
She makes a face. "That was different. Easier."
Cazaril cannot help himself. He laughs.
No sooner has Iselle been convinced to give the child to his nurse does Cazaril pull Betriz from the room, and away into their quarters. She is soaked to the bone with sweat and nearly stumbling from exhaustion.
He has slept the last two nights, albeit restlessly, but slept all the same. She has not. He plans to gently wipe her skin with the coolest water available, then settle her into bed and catch up on some of the work that has gone undone in the craze of the royal family's first child being born.
When he has gotten her to lie down, however, she says, "Stay, Caz. Please."
He runs a hand through her hair, tucking a strand behind one ear. "Are you well?"
"Mm, tired. Perhaps a bit envious."
Caz's hand stills for a moment. "You never said."
"You're a very busy man, husband mine." Her eyes are closed, but she curls her lips into a fond smile.
"Not so busy as all that," he tells her.
She opens her eyes for a moment, flush with promise. "Then perhaps, if you are still here when I wake…."
Cazaril asks Palli, "Will you stay near Betriz? In case she should wake and need something."
Palli clasps his forearm and promises, "She will be taken care of to her tiniest desire."
"Caz!" Both of them shout his name in a similarly delighted tone that makes Cazaril think sleep can perhaps wait a bit. He makes his way into the dining area, where there is an impromptu meal of odds and ends, no doubt from a kitchen run made by Palli, doing his duty by Betriz. Condensation runs down the third, untouched goblet, promising a cool drink.
"All is made safe for her royal highness?" Palli asks, laughter in his tone.
Cazaril responds with a wry smile. "Until the next crisis."
"You should eat, before that arises," Betriz urges.
Cazaril sits next to her, within reach of Palli. "I make it a habit not to argue with my wife."
Palli looks surprised to find himself there, as if he has not connected their travel to their destination. There is a moment of silence, of stillness between the three of them. Palli breaks it by saying, "I should leave you to rest."
Betriz cocks her head and there is a strange hesitation in her tone as she says, "Only, I think, if you have tired of us."
Cazaril traces his eyes over the lines of his wife, replete and gorgeous in full court dress. She meets his gaze, and together they look at Palli. Cazaril is uneasily aware of long-buried desire, given form during the worst of the siege.
Slowly, Palli says, "My energy, when it comes to you, is unending, my lady. Lord Chancellor."
Betris smiles at him fondly. "Then keep us company a bit longer."
Palli says, "It is late, and—"
Cazaril quiets him with a finger to his lips. "Are you so foolish as to argue with my wife?"
Wordlessly, Palli shakes his head. Betriz laughs in delight.
Chapter 5: Epilogue: Iselle
Betriz begins to show very close to the time Isara murmurs her first word. She begins with different combinations of "wuiyeeeeenuh," and other titles she has no doubt heard hundreds of times a day, but quickly advances to "mama" and "fodder."
Iselle, who is quite busy between motherhood and the requirements of ruling, is the first aside from Cazaril and Palli to notice Betriz's condition, before she wears it on her body, when it is still just a sickness in the mornings and a slight broadening of her curves. Iselle smiles and says, "May my daughter be so blessed in a companion as I was."
Caz smiles one his true smiles, the rare ones which seem to infuse his whole being. "May our child be so blessed in future rulers as we are in current ones."
Palli and Bergon lift a glass in unison. She reaches for hers and the others follow shortly enough.