Written for Rachy during the 2014 Fief Goldenlake Wishing Tree event. No idea why I haven't posted this sooner…
It was more than a year after the coronation before Sarai returned to the Isles, Zaimid and infant Mequen in tow. She tried to keep it a secret, a surprise for her family, but she was not at all shocked to see Aly waving mischievously from the dockside as their ship pulled in, a stout-limbed toddler on her hip.
"Do Winna and Dove know we're here?" Sarai asked, as she embraced Aly and kissed her cheek.
"Your doubt hurts me. I told them this morning and they await your presence at Balitang House as we speak. The queen even lent her own personal guard to escort you," Aly drawled, fluttering a hand to indicate the men and horses. "I just came to tell you your trunks will be taken care of, and maybe fan you in your litter. I am ever the loyal servant in that way."
Sarai threw her head back and laughed. Some things, like Aly, were clearly just the same.
"Whatever you say, Aly."
Aly left them at the gates of Balitang House, promising to see everyone later and threatening to bring all of her 'nestlings'. Zaimid looked spooked, and muttered that he hoped they weren't all so taxingly exuberant. Sarai was too busy looking all around, trying to find familiar faces among the staff. She guessed they all worked at the Palace, now that Dove and most of the Balitang household now lived there.
"You should go in and greet your family," Zaimid murmured in her ear. "I'll take Mequen and wait for our trunks."
Sarai felt a sudden knot of nerves in her belly as the effect her elopement two years prior would have had on her family came to mind unbidden. She grasped Zaimid's hand.
"Please come with me."
Zaimid shook his head and smiled gently.
"No. You have to face them sometime, and I think they've long forgiven you."
Sarai sighed and steeled herself. A serving boy led her through familiar rooms to the family's private courtyard garden, where she could hear Winnamine laughing. The boy announced her, and Sarai stood at the threshold of the courtyard staring at the faces of her family. Winnamine, as perfectly poised as she always remembered, and Dove, dressed in red silk and sunlight glinting on her jewels and crown. Then she recovered herself and curtseyed to her royal sister before she found herself buried in their hugs.
It was Dove who remembered her dignity first and drew herself away. Winna kept an arm linked with Sarai.
"You look stunning, Your Majesty," Sarai said once she had recovered her words. She pointed to Dove's crown. "Very sparkly, I'm sure the god approves. Much better in the flesh than in the painting we saw in Carthak."
Dove raised one eyebrow at her.
"Think you could have worn it better?" she asked archly.
"Nuh-uh. No way," replied Sarai emphatically. She laughed. "You'll be a better queen than I ever would have been. Though I'm not sure I'll ever get used to calling my little sister Your Majesty."
"Saraiyu!" chided Winna, half laughing.
"Where are Zaimid and Mequen? You did bring them, didn't you?" Dove asked after they had retired to the shaded cushions and called for refreshments.
"Zaimid wanted to give us some privacy. He said he would help the servants tend to our belongings and put Mequen down for a short nap. Should I call for them?"
"I'm sure he will find us when he's ready, love," Winnamine said gently.
They caught up on goings-on of the families they knew before the rebellion, and the antics of Aly's young brood. Dove whispered the secret of Aly's true identity to Sarai.
"I know," Sarai whispered back. To her sister's enquiring look she explained getting to know the new Empress of Carthak and finding out that she grew up with a Lady Alianne who sounded remarkably similar to their Aly. "And anyway," Sarai continued, "I always thought that Aly talked like a noble."
Zaimid joined them with a groggy Mequen, who was immediately cooed over by Winna, and produced laughs from the adults when he tried to grab Dove's crown. When the moment seemed right, Sarai looked at her husband and he nodded. She cleared her throat.
"I have an announcement," she said.
Winna and Dove looked at her curiously, and Sarai smoothed her hands over her belly, pressing down the folds of the loose Carthaki-style gown she wore to make visible a bump. Winna yelped with joy and leant over to embrace her.
"Zaimid has to return to Carthak in a month, but I'm hoping to stay until after this one is born," Sarai said quietly.
Dove grinned. "Oh good," she said. "Hopefully this one is a girl, in which case she should be born in the Isles. I need heirs."
Sarai scowled at her sister.
"Begging your pardon, Your Majesty, but I am not your brood mare," she said crossly. Then she saw the smile tugging at Dove's lips. "Oh! You tease me!" she cried as Winna and Zaimid laughed.
"Only a little," Dove protested quietly.
Mequen fussed, bored with the adults talking, and Winna picked him up and walked over to the pond at the middle of the courtyard to look at the fish. Zaimid squeezed Sarai's hand and followed. The sisters sat in silence while they watched Sarai's husband show Mequen how to dip his fingers in the water for "fish kisses".
Dove sighed deeply.
"I really am worried I won't find someone I like enough to marry. All of the politically suitable candidates so far are either too vapid or too old," she said plaintively, looking for a moment very much like an ordinary sixteen-year-old girl than a queen.
Sarai felt sympathy as her sister crinkled her nose at the thought of boring suitors. Impulsively, she leaned over and hugged Dove around the shoulders.
"I'm sure you'll find someone," she said, then added wickedly, "Or you'll have to take unsuitable lovers. I'll be disappointed if you don't take lovers."
That surprised Dove into a laugh.
"I'm glad you're back, Sarai, even if only for a while."
"Perhaps especially that it's only for a while?"
"That too. Though Winna wouldn't mind if you decided to stay for good," Dove admitted. "You know there is a home for you here for as long as you want to stay."