For Lea, and also the wonderful group at Lord Theodore's Drop Centre, soon to be the ultimate collection of good Pierce-fic.
K. Ryan, 2005.
Author's Note: Children change lives. An author's inconsistency with characterization can give rise to extremely interesting potentialities.
The baby rested at her breast, quiet now but very much alive. Aly could feel the heat of his little body—still slick and so very, very new—against her stretched, aching one.
"Look at him!" Nawat stood over her, eyes glowing and back straight with pride. "He's feeding already. Strong. He'll live."
A smile for her husband: shaky and faint, but real. "Silly," she murmured. Hesitantly, Aly stroked the fluffy growth of dark hair on her son's head, some of it coming away with her fingers like tiny feathers. "Ysul knows his job. This little man's well looked after."
Nawat leant down to kiss her, mouth gentle and light. "Yes. He's yours."
"If you'll… forgive my intrusion?"
Dovosary Balitang, Queen, stood in the doorway, her head slightly bowed by the weight of her elaborate copper headdress. Her Spymaster's labor had been announced on a day that had required full court regalia. As she looked past Nawat to the bed and the woman on it, lying spent and pale on sheets that she could see were yet to be laundered, Dove quickly slipped three jeweled rings from her fingers and felt extremely young.
"We have a new life, Twice Royal." Nawat bowed his head in respect, but couldn't muster a shred of solemnity.
Dove nodded slowly, a curl slipping; waving back her silent guards into the shadows as she crossed the threshold. "And we are grateful for it."
Aly managed to raise her head. "Your majesty."
The monarch swallowed, attempting to straighten. "Your pack brought good news, duani."
Yes, thought the spymaster of the Copper Isles. I can do this. I can.
"Yes. I can do this. I can."
Aly Crow's gaze, lifted upwards as she finished tying little Tawan to her back with a wide strip of violet fabric, was implacable.
Nawat sighed. "It's not—"
"—not what, laddybuck?" Her head tilted to the side, a birdlike gesture that she did without thinking now. "I am perfectly capable, and I'm—"
"—You are capable, Aly, but listen to me. Wouldn't it be better if—"
"—And I'm needed, Nawat."
The man's shoulders slumped. "You could always work from home…?"
The responding laugh was interrupted by a grimace as Aly felt her son's weight drag on her shoulders, cutting into them. Irritably, she reached back and straightened him up. "You know I can't function like that," she said, reaching up to kiss him. "And I do need to function."
Shuddering, Nawat closed his eyes and pulled her closer, until his hand brushed against Aly's makeshift harness. Slowly, reluctantly, he pulled back.
"Your pack is all grown up now. Your nestling is still a nestling." His face clouded with the slightly quizzical look he had when he tried to think in human time. "Six months. You and he should be here and home."
"Ah…." Half-squawking a crow-curse under her breath, Aly backed away sharply, fumbling at the ties across her chest. "If you don't trust me, you take him, and see if you have any idea!" she snapped, gathering up a now-fussing Tawan and thrusting him into Nawat's arms, turning on her heel and striding away with as much force as her patterned sarong would allow her.
Guilt came with the lunchtime paperwork, along with swollen, full breasts and worry. Standing, Aly looked at the reports on her desk.
"I'll only be gone a little while."
"I'll only be gone a little while."
Tawan's dark hazel eyes were big as he looked at Mama, her tanned, pinched face close to his from her kneeling position. Small fingers clutched at the long rope of beads that she wore around her neck. There was a squeaking noise.
"I don't-wan—want you to go-o a'all, Mama."
"Tawan, no! Don't do that. Puddle doesn't like it." The necklace shrank back, close to Mama's skin.
"Oh! 'Ry, puddle. But why?"
"Because your mama has to do important work for the Queen, nestling."
"The dove-lady with the hat?"
Mama smiled, shaking her head. "The very same. But you know that you're not allowed to call her that."
Tawan pouted. "Still why-y."
"Because she needs me. I have to go and do secret things for her so she doesn't make mistakes."
The three-year-old clicked his tongue, confused. "Secrets?"
"Big secrets." Mama smiled, starting to stand. Tawan watched her face grow smaller and smaller, and his eyes filled.
"Not fair…you're… Mama! Not dove-lady's secret-mama."
Tawan was flying. Papa had picked him up and held him tight, eyes all smiley and firm-looking. He was the best papa ever. "Let Mama go now, nestling," he said. "She'll be back soon."
Mama put a hand up to her funny necklace, and removed a bead. It grew bigger and made itself a head; which it stretched, making happy sounds. Mama reached up (with Papa holding him, Tawan was tall) and it jumped from her fingers onto his shoulder.
"You can play with Doorling, child-mine."
The warm, black thing peeped at him. "Doorling like Tawan. Doorling and Tawan have fun."
"You're still going away," he mumbled. "Doorling's one of your tell-people-secret things."
"Darkings!" said the tell-people-secrets-thing.
Mama looked surprised, and…proud. She reached up again and kissed Tawan's cheek; he could smell her.
"Aren't you the observant one," she said. Tawan wasn't sure what that meant. Was it good?
"Well," Mama was speaking again, more loudly. "You can play with your Da. And the girls." She walked past him and picked up one of the twins, who burbled in a silly way. Tawan could see that her tummy was getting bigger when she moved.
"Look," she said. "You can play with Atwan." Grinning, she jogged the baby up and down, making her cackle.
"Aly." Now Papa was speaking, in a strange, dry way. Nervous, Tawan moved to look at him, but he was still smiling. "Aly, that's Aawtn."
Mama growled under her breath, and put the baby down, who happily crawled away.
"I have to go."
When the door closed. Tawan wrapped his arms around Papa, who wasn't smiling any more. He was looking ahead and whispering something.
It sounded like: "No, you don't."
"No, you don't."
Aly looked up at her queen, trying to decide between a smile and bewilderment. "I'm sorry, my lady?"
"I don't require you to take part in Jimarij's interrogation proceedings, Spymaster. And there's enough of your folk working on Analysis."
"But—Dove!" Aly's voice was high and thin even to her own ears. "It's just…" she laughed softly. "Just a pregnancy. It's not as if I've never had one before."
"Your presence is not required for this."
Aly knelt, expression unreadable. "Majesty, the information—"
"Can be retrieved without you. Aly, get up off that floor before I get someone to do it for you. It's stupid. Particularly in…in your condition."
"Gods curse my condition!"
Guards shifted, silent. "Perhaps," the Queen murmured, "it is not particularly wise to bring the Gods into this exchange." Dove looked concerned, hands twisting. "You should know that."
Aly shuddered, dragging herself to her feet. "I'm tired," she said, barely above a whisper. "Please—"
"You should be home with your family. You know you will be sent for, kept informed."
Aly bowed low, eyes shuttered. "Majesty."
Dove nodded, dismissing her, watching as she was escorted from the Private Audience chamber.
"Oh, and Aly?"
Aly turned, questioning.
"Your continued…research, into the life of our betrothed is singularly unwarranted. You gave him clearance, after all." Her voice was soft, warm. A slight flush diffusing her cheeks. "We ask you to please desist."
Nawat shifted baby-Elsren to one arm, holding out the other for his mate. Aly slipped into it, laying her greying head on his shoulder. "It's really that important?"
Elsren grabbed at his father's long hair until he was cawed at. "Yes, Aly. It's that important. And only for a few days."
"A few days?" Nawat, I can't have all this lot on their own with me for that long. What if I'm called up? It's bad enough with this new one," Aly patted her stomach absently, "kicking the way it is, but then there's Aawtn's night-terrors—"
"Atwan's. Atwan has the nightmares."
Aly flushed, pulling away. "You just can't leave me alone with five children for a week, laddybuck."
There was a choking noise.
"What? What, Nawat? Are you…" Aly stared. "You're laughing at me."
Nawat shuddered, and then pulled Aly to him, kissing her roughly, hand almost painful as it gripped the side of her face.
"You'll survive, you know."
"You'll survive, you know."
Tawan looked at the girl who had sat down next to him, who wore lots of pale pink and her curly hair tied up in a peculiar knot. She had lots of sparkly earrings and bangles, all in a rose-shade of gold that shone against pale, freckled skin, and there was something in her light brown eyes that held sympathy. And command.
Tawan blushed. "Survive what, Princess? I mean…er…begging your pardon, of course."
"Of course. Survive whatever's troubling you, silly," said Petranne, grinning as one of the children who were playing about the eldest boy's feet stared wide-eyed at her shiny skirts. "I can see it a mile off. You're Alianne's?"
"I'm Alianne's?" Tawan jumped, staring blankly at the older girl.
Petranne Balitang sighed dramatically, shaking her head. "Do stop parroting me, Master Tawan Crow. I know who you are, you know who I am. I want to speak with you. All clear?"
Shaking his head, Tawan swallowed. "Why would you want to talk to me, Princess? Ease off, Nala! Leave the lady alone." Another blush. "I am…am…ever so sorry. Nala's not yet three and all—"
"—Nothing of it. I like pink, too. Call me Petranne." Imperiously, she held out a hand.
"You're supposed to kiss it! Didn't your mother teach you anything?"
Brushing his lips against her small hand with its long, lacquered nails, Tawan looked her in the face.
"You're interested in my mother, Princess?"
"I'm interested in anyone who works with My Sister often," she answered. "I don't think there's anyone who sees Dove half so much. Are you looking sad? Why look sad? It's an honour."
"I know. It's a big honour. Yes."
Petranne got to her feet, smiling. "You're a strange fellow, Master Tawan. Eight years old?"
"Yes, Princess," he whispered, wide-eyed. "How do you know that?"
"Oh, I'm a princess, and princesses know everything. Including that whatever makes you sad will get better. Everything looks bad when you're eight. Doesn't look much better when you're fourteen, but still…it looks better than when you're eight. Trust me."
Petranne left the courtyard in a swirl of skirts, leaving a bewildered Tawan behind. It had been an odd encounter.
He mused on the princess' words as he stopped Elsren from gouging Lianne's eyes out. Tawan liked the idea of things getting better.
"They fight all the time…"
'And,' she wrote, 'They fight all the time. Tawan, Aawtn and Atwan, Elsren, Lianne, Nala, Rogue…. Not a moment's peace. Ma, I don't know how you managed with three. Of course, you didn't manage us particularly well, but we're all alive and you're as sane as you'll ever be. And at least Da doesn't find something to reproach you about every other minute. I love my crow man, but he was so much more fun when he was younger…when I was younger. Thank you both for the nameday gifts—26, I can scarce believe it.
'…I miss you. Come and visit, soon? Tawan's been asking about his grandma. You might even be in time for a birth…the last for a while, I think. I don't care if Nawat doesn't feel comfortable with pregnancy charms…'
Aly glared at the scrawled page in front of her, and let it crumple in her hand. It would be stupid to send something like that. You never knew who might be reading.
Smoothing the parchment out, Aly reached over and let the candle have it. Another letter unsent.
Ma won't know a thing.
"Don't be stupid. Ma won't know a thing."
Aawtn Crow paced the bedroom she shared with her twin, chewing on a thumbnail. "You don't know that, Ata."
"Yes I do. She won't know. I bet she's never…never…" the angry words trailed off as Atwan, eldest of the two by a full three minutes, started to shake.
"Don't—think she'll—help either, silly."
"Shut up. We have to do something. There's got to be something." Heavy brows knit in concentration, Aawtn joined her sister on the bed, though she sat at a careful distance. "Why shouldn't we ask Mama?"
"Because she'll—tell us—to go—away."
Aawtn nodded, glum, and then paled. "Ata! I'm your twin. What if I get it?"
Atwan Crow laughed, tears spilling down her small, round face—laughed until she turned dark purple, with bulging, red eyes and blue lips. Just laughed, and laughed, and laughed.
Aawtn ran for their father.
Left alone, Ata's hysterics began to fade; until she changed position on the bed and saw the reddish stains on her sheets and thighs—until she felt the ache and the unfamiliar, seeping wetness again.
Sobbing, she curled up and wondered if nine-year-olds could make wills. And then Mama came rushing in and was holding her, stroking her hair and looking like she'd been hit with something big between the eyes.
As Aly rocked her backwards and forwards, saying she was 'sorry, so sorry' and that everything was going to be all right now, Atwan thought that it was almost worth it.
It was almost worth it.
Nawat luxuriated in the heavy, comfortable feeling of waking up in the middle of the night while knowing that he could go back to sleep again. Aly was a solid weight in his arms. A little heavier than she once was, perhaps, but still beautiful. In the dark, he could see only shadows, but he thought that her face might be relaxed, head empty of all her concerns and worries. Free from the country she felt she'd saved all by herself.
Aly croaked something Nawat couldn't catch. His mate spoke crow in her sleep, now. He preened her gently, and let his eyes close.
A small, teary voice. Nawat didn't move.
"What is it, Rogue?"
"Try counting birds, remember. Like I showed you. Do you have any sparklies to look at?"
"Ssh, quiet at night."
"I'm scared. The Rittevon's'll get me"
Carefully, Nawat eased himself upright, taking in the black form of this second-youngest son.
"Sleep with you?"
Nawat shook his head. "Not here. You'll wake Mama."
Disentangling himself from his wife, Nawat managed to leave the bed. "Don't worry. I'll go with you."
"Don't worry. I'll go with you."
All the Crow children went through a particular stage.
It struck them at a point between the ages of three and seven, without fail. They'd be perfectly manageable one day and then, suddenly and without any sort of warning, become irrepressible little hellions dangerously obsessed with glittering, shiny objects.
By the time Kypria came into it, five-and-a-half and especially manic, everyone from the usually enchanted Nawat to ever-patient Tawan were too frayed around the edges to cope with any sort of grace. The twins tormented, the others either ignored or were too young to do anything except cry and vomit and giggle. Aly just locked herself up in her office, and the darkings were so busy working that they were no help at all.
Grandma Alanna, however, a purple-eyed, diminutive whirlwind all the way from Tortall, was always interested, showing Kyp all sorts of different sparkly creations with her magic. She was also perfectly happy to help the child excavate a new and fascinating rock from the courtyard, leaving Alianne and Tawan blissfully alone, save a few staff, in their kitchen.
"Gods, I love my mother!"
Aly helped herself to an apple, biting into it loudly, then grabbing a second and tossing it to her thirteen-year-old son. "So, so much. Even if she's just slightly hypocritical in her old age." She shrugged, savoring the fruit. "I can live with that."
"Why is Grandma hypocritical?"
Aly's chewing turned reflective. "Well, look at her now. Honestly, lad, who could tell she was barely in the same room with me when she was younger? Always busy, saving the realm."
Tawan shuddered, mumbling under his breath.
The boy swallowed, carefully replacing his apple. "So, she's just like you, then?"
He was walking away before she could gather herself to slap him, or cry.
He was walking away before she could gather herself to slap him, or cry.
But she could speak. "You did what?"
Nawat paused, leaning against the huge, Yamani dresser they'd had for years. "I spoke to Dove," he said.
"You've some gall." Glaring, Aly heaved herself upright, wincing and cursing her huge, bloated body. "How did you get an audience, even?"
"I'm not unable to stand on my own, Aly." Nawat's stilted words were firm; the woman's eyes filled.
"My mother fought giants more along with child than this."
"Well, you are not your mother!"
"You had no right…"
The two of them were equally surprised when Nawat slammed his fist into the wall.
"What rights do I have, Aly? Tell me…straight. What do I have?"
"Wha…what do I have?"
Faces swam into focus through the pain. Ysul, still and silent in the background. Children. So many children—their faces all blurring into one dark-eyed mass: sharp, long faces; small-nosed round ones, pouting lips and heavy, straight eyebrows.
Nawat's own, close to hers. Was he crying?
Frightened, Aly tried to lift her hand to his face. "Why are you—"
She shuddered. "Something went wrong, Nawat." Her voice was all raw, and Aly had no idea why. "I was just…teaching Padrj some of the low hits—he's got bad…bad aim—and then it just…what happened?"
Nawat was turning away from her, fading away, and he looked furious. Her gentle man—who didn't know what way was up-asking the children to leave.
"But is she all right, Papa?" That was Atwanor Aawtn? Aly genuinely had no idea. The girl was crying; Aly joined in. The sky was falling.
Elsren, always a quiet one, bird-cawed something that his mother was sure he shouldn't know how to say.
She was right. "No need of that, nestling." Nawat, who had already been holding tiny Mina, gathered up Kypria with the other arm, and then Tawan was gasping under Nala's weight.
When they left, Aly staring hard after them, she realized that she was in a silent room.
The sky was falling in.
Nawat came back. He always came back.
"Speak to me?"
Her crow wrapped long arms around himself, lips pinched white. He looked old.
"A boy-nestling," he said, slowly and clearly. "Two girl-nestlings. Too small. No breath to feed. I can't believe you were so stupid, Aly."
The sky was falling in.
"I…I don't believe you."
"I don't believe you!"
"Believe what you want. Besides, it may only be for a small while. Just until things are better."
"How can things be better when you're gone?"
Aly didn't clutch at her husband. She wanted to. She wanted to claw at him. To break things—but he was bottle-feeding Mina and for once she didn't trust her aim.
Nawat smiled faintly, fingers tightening around Mina's bottle. "You'll get some work done, mayhap? Rest more?"
"Hah! Some rest you'll give me, nine little-ones running riot all over the place."
"They won't be," said Nawat.
Aly laughed deep in her throat, leaning heavily against the bed. "I'm not a God—"
"They won't be here, Aly."
"—a God, to—what did you say?"
The bottle was empty. Nawat carefully put it down, shifting Mina over his shoulder. "I said they won't be here. They'll be with me."
Lurching forward, incredulous, Aly pulled her daughter out of his grasp. "You…you just can't!"
Nawat said nothing.
"I mean, Goddess, you can't. I'm their mother! I look after them—"
"—You can't remember their names."
"If you're referring to the twins, that's entirely unfair, Nawat!"
Aly was the only one shouting. Nawat was perfectly calm.
"You're a busy person, love," he said, voice kind. "I'm sure these Isles would be lost without you. But, Aly, you're never here."
"You're actually going to—"
"—You know the names of children that belong to a cousin's sister of someone in the Third Pack."
"Because it's information! It might be important. Nawat, you're being gods-cursed stu"
"How old is Lianne?"
Aly crossed her arms over her chest. "Six."
"Eight. She's eight years old."
Nawat smiled again. "Since three weeks back."
"I thought that was Nala's birthday!"
Mina started to cry.
"Aly, you're holding her too tight."
"As if you'd—" Aly's jaw dropped when she saw how her fingers were digging into the baby's arm. She slackened visibly, Nawat taking up the child before she could drop her.
"You see now, then." Leaning down, Nawat kissed her forehead, sending her reeling with the smell of lavender mixed with talc and milk. "Maybe we only need a little time, hein?" His voice was a low rumble, deeply sad. "We don't want to leave." Aly flinched back.
"I'm the Spymaster! I'll…I'll know where you live!"
The sky was falling in.