Sorry about the long delay between chapters—real life (if grad school qualifies as such) got a little hectic and this chapter has an uncontrolled plot and fluff bunny population. It takes place about 3 months (baby Althea is now nine months old) after the last (in which Vina pulled a dumb stunt and Wyldon and Selena began working on his memoirs). Real estate and certain characters are courtesy of Tamora Pierce. Enjoy!
"I'm going to miss you," Rissa realized as Basim handed her a mug of tea. "Very much."
He kissed her forehead. "And I will miss you." He poured a mug for himself and came to sit cross-legged beside her on his sleeping mat. "Perhaps if you were willing to wait a few months, I might get permission to accompany you."
"No," Rissa said. "I should go now. Before the pages' are taken out for their camping trip and everyone scatters for the summer." Also, much as she would miss Basim, she suddenly knew she did want to bring him back to the palace with her. His friendship had helped her feel at home here in the desert, but her reputation was already rather tattered as it was.
"Ah," he said. "That reminds me. My brother's wife has a cousin training among the pages."
"Jarif?" Rissa said.
Basim nodded. "She'd like you to bring him this letter." He passed her a small envelope.
"Of course." Rissa tucked the letter into her pack. Then she scooted forward until their knees were touching. "And I'll bring his reply when I return."
Basim smiled at her and they sipped their tea in silence until it was light enough for her to saddle her horse and leave.
Rissa reached the palace on a sunny afternoon and found Penelope and Dalton talking to Kel and Dom after the pages' practice had finished for the day.
She rushed to hug them and was somewhat surprised to see Althea in Penelope's arms. She'd heard about her in letters, of course, and known Penelope was pregnant, but somehow it hadn't ever quite seemed real.
"Yes," Penelope said with quiet pride. "We were just trying to see if she would nap, but…" She handed Althea trustingly into Rissa's arms. The baby blinked and grabbed a handful of Rissa's tunic and giggled. Rissa laughed with her, realizing how much things had changed. Penelope hadn't even looked pregnant when she'd left and now her baby was old enough to hold her head up and crawl around spewing nonsense syllables. Rissa kissed her cheek and passed her back to Penelope.
"Where's Vina?" she said once she'd greeted all of them. It felt strange to have to ask. She usually just knew. Even now she had the vague sense that Vina was somewhere near Karyna and her Riders, but no idea where they might be.
Penelope hesitated. "Briarwood," she said finally. "Byrn wrote to request help tackling bandits."
"Oh," she said. She thought she remembered reading something about bandits in his last letter, but she hadn't read it carefully; she been a little upset to read that his new wife was pregnant—he didn't mention her, just that he expected to have an heir soon—and then very upset with herself for being upset by it. "I suppose they can't all be as cute as this one," she added, bending down to scratch Bandit's ears. Then she straightened up. "I have a letter for one of the pages, Jarif, from his cousins."
"He's Fira's friend, isn't he?" said Dalton, who already knew exactly who Jarif was but thought it might be best to latch onto this new topic of conversation.
Kel nodded distractedly.
"Do you know where he—"
"Just up there." Kel pointed to the palace roof, where two figures were moving nimbly along the ledge overlooking the practice courts.
"Why?" Rissa asked, recognizing Fira and Jarif.
"Well," Dom answered, "driving Kel mad is clearly part of the appeal. At least she didn't have an older brother torment her into caution."
"It's nearly a thirty foot drop," Kel said. "If she slips…"
"She won't," Neal said. "But if she does she's got a good chance of landing on one of the storage sheds, though they have thatched roofs so she could just fall straight through…"
Penelope gestured for him to stop. "You still aren't very good at reassuring blandishments, are you?"
"But," Neal continued, "she does have remarkably sturdy bones—always been very good about having her milk and vegetables."
"Here," Rissa said. Then she gave a sharp whistle that made them both stop and look down. "Jarif, I have a letter from Amma."
"Coming," he called. Though he and Fira put their heads together and muttered for a minute before moving.
Dom glanced from his daughter to Penelope and Dalton. "When exactly did you two begin to…"
"There wasn't really an exactly about it," Dalton said.
"Though the night you caught us kissing during the camping trip would probably be a rough indicator," Penelope added.
"And that was your fourth year?"
Penelope nodded, smiling faintly as Dalton's hand settled on her shoulder and pulled her close so that he could check to see if Althea was dozing.
"That's the least of my worries," Kel muttered. "Neal and I were the same way."
"Then maybe Jarif's parents should be the ones worrying," Neal said, "given the number of crazy stunts you led me off on."
The pages walked to the corner of the roof, put on a pair of rope harnesses they'd left there—"so that's how they managed," Kel said—and lowered themselves down.
Kel wisely made no mention of their little venture when they stepped up to greet Rissa, aware that it would probably only encourage similar stunts.
Jarif thanked Rissa politely for his letter and then trotted off to read it. Fira meanwhile had immediately and silently challenged her father to a practice bout, thereby staving off a scolding from him.
"Vina said you should use her room until she gets back," Dalton said. "The guest wing is a little crowded now since Alanna and—"
"I'll help you carry your things," Fira offered brightly when she saw that her father was opening his mouth to speak.
Rissa only had two small bags, but she could recognize (and sympathize with) a lecture evasion ploy when she saw one. She tossed one bag to Fira and the two of them hurried away from her parents.
"Thanks," Fira said.
"So," Rissa said, "what—"
"Nothing," Fira snapped. "Why does everyone but Ma have to assume that Jarif and I want to kiss? Why can't they just let us be friends?"
"Because people blink, fight, sleep, eat, and make assumptions," Rissa said. "And ask questions—all I wanted to know was what you're looking for on the roof."
"Oh," Fira said. "There's supposed to be a 3rd century medallion lodged under one of the tiles for luck. We wanted to know if it was really there."
"We went to all that work to find out for ourselves. You can climb up yourself if you really want to know."
Rissa grinned. "Maybe I will."
Fira sighed. "So I can't do anything about people—making assumptions, I mean."
"Well," Rissa said. "You could try not shouting your denials. That tends to make people suspect that their assumptions are right."
"I know," Fira admitted. "I'm just tired of having people assume they know everything about me."
"Me too." Rissa sighed. "But there are really only two ways to deal with assumptions. You can either ignore everyone and continue as you are for years until people get it into their thick skulls that they assumed wrong."
"Like when the other pages started realizing that I'm not any slower than they are just because I'm a girl?"
Rissa nodded. "Or you can shock them into assuming something else."
"Like when people found out about Vina and Karyna and they stopped thinking that Dalton was—"
"Exactly," said Rissa. "I thought you were too young to have picked up on all that at the time but clearly I assumed wrong."
Fira stuck her tongue out at Rissa.
"As for your Da," Rissa said. "I can't decide if he's saying those things to get you to prove him wrong by not kissing Jarif or if he thinks that Jarif wouldn't be so bad compared to all the others and he wants you to think he disapproves to get you to stick with Jarif and…"
"That's devious," Fira said.
"He loves you," Rissa said, though she was rather glad her own father hadn't cared enough to bother learning about Byrn. It had been bad enough knowing Penelope and Dalton were watching…
"I guess I'll have to prove him wrong the slow way then."
"There have to be more than three," Byrn said, surveying the only bandits they'd managed to capture thus far. "We've been getting reports of at least a dozen, so even if folks are exaggerating, we should still—"
"Um, Captain," Jess called, "I think—
She froze when Byrn and Vina (and everyone else) turned to look at her too. "Um." She swallowed. "Back when lady knight Penelope found me, um, there were a few people you didn't pick up and they…"she trailed off guiltily and wrapped her fingers in her pony's mane.
"Jess," Byrn growled, "you have to—"
But Vina tapped his arm. "Wait," she said, glancing at Karyna. "It's her command. Her call."
Karyna nodded at Vina, a business-like gesture that somehow seemed to melt her insides. Then she studied Jess for a long moment.
"Why don't we leave our ponies here and step back for a private chat?"
Jess dismounted and the two of them disappeared.
"So," Byrn asked while they were waiting, "what happened to your neck?"
"Oh," Vina said. She tended to forget about the scar—which was healing but still vivid against her winter-pale skin—unless she saw it in a mirror. "I got in between a bandit and his first hostage after dropping all my own weapons."
Byrn blinked at her. "Why?"
"The hostage was six or so," Vina said.
Byrn nodded. "And did—"
"Well, I saved him. But then I had to be rescued. It was rather embarrassing."
"You have an odd sense of decorum," Byrn told her.
"Says the man who invited his old flame's twin sister to hunt down bandits and stay for dinner with his pregnant wife."
"Well," Byrn admitted, "when you put it that way…"
When they returned, Jess's eyes were red from crying, but her face was calm.
"So," Karyna told Byrn and Vina, "there's a cave a half mile up this creek and three hundred paces east. A few years ago the bandits who lived in it were capable of barricading the front and using a smaller back exit."
"So we need to be sure to cover both," Vina said.
Karyna nodded. "But be prepared for the possibility of an ambush as you approach the front."
"Okay," Byrn said. "And you trust Jess's—"
"Absolutely," Karyna said.
"Right. Can you take a handful of Riders around the back in case they need to be headed off? We'll give you a head start and then come in from the front."
She nodded and then glanced at Vina's neck.
Vina sighed. "I'm not going to make the same mistake twice in a row."
"I know, that's why I'm worried about what it will be this time."
Rissa was too intrigued to even consider declining when Penelope invited her to come hear Wyldon dictate the last of his memoir. She was, however, rather surprised to find that they were walking towards the infirmary.
"Wouldn't it make more sense to work in the library or his study?"
"Well, we started in here," Penelope said, putting Althea down on the rug with a toy cart, "probably because Neal found it amusing to watch Wyldon struggle for words."
"And then we accumulated a bit of a crowd," Dalton added, gesturing around the room. Fira and Jarif and several other pages sat cross-legged on the floor. Kel and Dom occupied a nearby pair of stools. The queen had one of Neal's armchairs and Owen had the other. And a handful of squires were perched on the nearest cot.
"And at this point, it's probably the best place for Selena," Jeck added as he appeared behind them.
Rissa glanced at Selena, who sat at the table preparing pen and paper. "When is she due?"
"This week," Penelope said. "But she isn't done recording the memoir so—"
Selena suddenly gasped and raised a hand to her mouth. They all turned to stare at her before realizing that she was staring at the guest who was strolling through the door with deliberate casualness.
Alanna waved at Neal, smiled at Penelope and Althea, and nodded at Wyldon before leaning against Neal's bookcase to listen. George followed her in, presented Althea with a small stuffed dog that resembled Bandit, ruffled the real Bandit's ears, and then sat down on the end of an empty cot.
Selena read his last sentence from the previous day. And then, without any ceremony, Wyldon simply resumed recounting his experiences from the Immortals' War.
"They attacked at dawn, just as Lord Raoul and I were considering how to best…"
He'd actually gotten comfortable over the many weeks of dictating and fallen into the mode of storytelling he'd once used with Fira and, long ago, his own daughters. Everyone was enraptured, except for Althea, who grew fussy after the first twenty minutes.
Penelope reluctantly stood to take her outside, but Dalton put a hand on her shoulder, nudging her back onto the workbench she was sharing with Rissa and Jeck, and scooped Althea and her toys up. Bandit padded silently after them. Rissa found watching the whole business—the two of them silently coordinating not a battle, but the care of their infant—incredibly strange and she was almost glad to have Wyldon's story distracting her from it.
Dalton took Althea to her favorite bench in the courtyard. Benches had been the best way to keep her entertained since the previous week, when she'd figured out how to pull herself upright and cling to the end of a bench while she took careful steps along its length. Bandit hopped onto the bench with Dalton.
"Down boy," he muttered half-heartedly.
Bandit laid down on the bench and licked Althea's cheek before settling his head between his paws to watch her.
Dalton shook his head and started investigating the toy dog from George. It had several very clever hidden pockets.
"Well," Alanna said when Wyldon had finished. "That isn't precisely how I remember the Battle at Walnut Creek."
The entire room went silent before she added, "but I suppose I'll have to write my own version in my own memoirs and give the historians something to fight over."
"Quite," said Wyldon. "They might grow complacent otherwise."
They grinned warily at one another and then Wyldon cleared his throat and patted Selena's shoulder before standing up to dismiss all of them.
"Hey," Dalton said. "Look who's coming."
Althea's eyes lit up when she saw Penelope and Rissa coming. Bandit barked and trotted towards them. And Althea simply followed after her dog, apparently unaware that she had run out of bench to cling to until she had left it far behind. And by then Penelope was kneeling a short ways in front of her and she was toddling into her mother's arms.
"Hello, sweetheart," Penelope murmured, lifting her up to kiss her cheeks. "Look at that surprised face Uncle Neal is making."
She set Althea back on the ground and made sure she was steady on her feet. Althea promptly took off towards Dalton's bench, Bandit pacing alongside her.
Dom whistled, Kel grinned, and Neal pointed out that such precocious behavior in a nine-month old was probably indicative of an intractably headstrong personality. George cleared his throat and held out a hand until Neal put a coin into it.
"I was predicting she'd walk at ten months," he admitted. "Which would still have been early."
"Yes." Wyldon came to ruffle her hair. "But why would you expect ordinary earliness from such an intrepid little creature?"
Penelope and Dalton grinned wryly at one another, fairly certain that Wyldon had never given either of them such a high compliment.
"Enjoy the claps and whistles now," Rissa told her. "In twelve years or so they'll all be telling you every time your left foot is a half inch too far out or your fingers are just a smidge too close together."
Four of the bandits surrendered as soon as Byrn and Vina and their Riders came within sight of their cave. Unfortunately, this was simply a ploy to get some of them dismounted and distracted while their companions attacked from above with slingshots. Vina, who was still on her horse, used her arm to deflect a stone from Byrn's head and then tried to push further uphill.
It was ugly and chaotic and they all earned some bruises, but fortunately the bandits didn't have any arrows and it was possible to start herding them down the hill to be tied up with the others. Except for the two with knives. They both headed straight for Byrn, trying to pull him from his horse.
Byrn knocked one down with the hilt of his sword and then spun his horse around, which sent the other flying in Vina's direction. He took advantage of her surprise to hook a hand over her elbow and drag her halfway from her horse before she could jerk free and punch his face. He lashed out with his knife, slicing through her reins, and then darted back into the cave.
Vina cursed, rolled the rest of the way off her horse, and ran after him.
"Vina!" Byrn called after her, but she ignored him. This would be the only way to make sure it was completely clear this time.
The cave was almost pitch black and she tripped almost immediately, falling to her hands and knees in rough gravel. But she could hear him scuffling along ahead of her so she pushed herself upright and followed after him, trailing one hand against the cave wall so she wouldn't bump into it. And trying to ignore the fact that she could practically hear Dalton telling her just why it was a really bad idea to corner someone with a knife in a dark cave that he was familiar with and she wasn't. Because that had to be an auditory hallucination.
Then suddenly it was so bright she was almost blinded and all she could see was the knife coming at her face. She ducked just in time and forced her way out of the cave only to realize that they were on a narrow ledge beside a very steep hill. He grabbed her arm and swung wildly with the knife.
Vina ducked and tugged at his elbow, letting his own body weight send him crashing down the hill into a shallow creek. His knife landed with a soft clang on some stones near his feet. She probably would have gone tumbling after him if Karyna hadn't grabbed her shoulder.
"All clear on your end then?" Karyna asked. "That fills your reckless stunt allotment for the next six months by the way."
Vina nodded. "What about this side?" She glanced down guiltily at the man she'd chased. "He isn't moving."
"His face is out of the water." Karyna tugged Vina's arm and pointed to the trail she'd used on the way up. "We caught three sneaking out the back. I sent Jess and the others around with them. So we'll have to haul this one out ourselves and throw him over my pony."
Vina nodded. "Byrn should be about done tidying up over there by the time we make it around." She stepped into the creek and found that it barely covered the toes of her boots.
Karyna took the man's pulse. "Definitely not dead," she said. "Let's get him out of here before he wakes up."
Vina nodded and rolled up her sleeves, glancing absently at the scar on her right arm.
"It's been five years," Karyna said quietly.
"A little over," Vina said smiling. It had been that long since she'd had her arm sliced up, which meant that it had also been that long since she'd wandered out of the infirmary with her arm throbbing and Neal's warning that it was going to take a long time to heal ringing in her ears and stumbled into Karyna's arms for their first kiss.
"If you want to be precise," Karyna said, lifting the man's feet.
"I do," Vina said, smiling again, because she thought she suddenly knew how to say to Karyna what she had been thinking for months. "Because it's been too long for even Great Aunt Angraine to write you off as a youthful rebellious phase." Vina swallowed and lifted from under the man's arms. "We've lasted almost as long as—"
"Vina." Karyna's voice was almost even. "We aren't courting at a ball. How about if we skip the polite hedging and just avoid getting killed so we can grow old together?"
This time Vina's grin threatened to split her face in half. "You mean that?"
Karyna nodded. "If you do. I think we're past the courting stage."
"Yes," Vina said. "And onto just being with each other. So we might as well plan on it."
"Agreed," Karyna murmured, her voice uncharacteristically soft.
Vina glanced in frustration at the man they were carrying. She was pretty sure Penelope would have already dropped his head and rushed over for a kiss, but she suspected Dalton would still have had a miserable chivalrous grip on the guy and she wasn't sure which model to follow.
Karyna, who was only holding his feet, had no such qualms and she promptly dropped them in the mud and stepped hurriedly to Vina, wrapping her hands over her shoulders and kissing her.
"Unghugh," the bandit moaned, waking up.
"Great," Vina informed him as she and Karyna parted, "now you can walk."
Unfortunately, he could also talk and most of the words he directed at them were variants of 'foul' and 'unnatural'.
Karyna got fed up and gagged him after a few minutes. "You're lucky I'm in a good mood today," she added. "Or I might consider cutting out your tongue." The bandit glared at her and she grinned back.
"So," Vina said, "how did you talk Jess into telling us?"
Karyna smiled. "To quote George, 'that, my dear, would be revealing trade secrets."
Dinner was excellent not only because the food was wonderful, but because Byrn had made it clear that Karyna (who was gradually getting used to this sort of invitation) was to join the nobles at the family table. Vina spent the first few minutes of it watching Byrn's new wife Lady Maria. It wasn't just that she was very pretty, with a waterfall of chestnut hair, and very pregnant; it was that she might easily have been Rissa.
After they'd finished eating and Byrn's mother retired to her record-keeping, they took advantage of the mild weather to stroll in the garden. Maria sat on a bench after a short while and, after a pleading look from Byrn, Karyna sat on the bench opposite her so that Byrn could casually draw Vina away for a private conversation.
"This is strange," Byrn said. "I used to imagine you'd come to Briarwood to visit us. But I always thought the us would include Rissa. And now, here we are."
"Maria's lovely," Vina said. "Not my type, but lovely."
"You don't have a type, you have her." Byrn glanced back to where Karyna and Maria were discussing—for lack of a better topic—their shared dislike of putting bare feet on a cold stone floor first thing in the morning. "And you'd be too polite to tell me if she looked like a hag."
"True," Vina admitted also glancing back at Karyna. "But I think she's also good-hearted, if a little naïve." Maria's expression had been very puzzled when Byrn directed a servant to carry Karyna and Vina's things to the same room and she'd raised an eyebrow in sudden understanding when Karyna's hand drifted to Vina's neck as she walked behind her chair. But she hadn't frowned or asked barbed questions or said anything about the fact that Karyna was the only commoner at the table.
"I suppose I should have warned her about the room," he said, "but it just occurred to be at the last minute that one of you"—she realized her meant her and Rissa—"could be beside the right person tonight."
"Thanks. It's nice to have someone just assume we belong together instead of snidely asking why I can't at least consort with women of my own status."
"Those people are obviously just jealous," Byrn informed her.
"You only say that because you're in love with my identical twin," Vina said. She hadn't meant to, it was just banter, but once she'd said it she knew it was still true. "Sorry," she added.
He shrugged. "I wouldn't want to deny it."
"So." Maria's eyes narrowed as Byrn and Vina slid out of earshot. "I just want to clarify a few points."
"Such as?" Karyna tightened her jaw, preparing not to react if she were insulted.
"Were they ever lovers?" she tilted her head towards Vina and Byrn.
"No," she said, shocked into candor. "Vina's mine."
"I can see that," she said, not unkindly. "So he's just asking about her sister…"
"Rissa," Karyna filled in.
"He still loves her, doesn't he?"
"Sorry," Karyna said.
"It's alright," Maria said. "At least now I know I'm not crazy." She sighed. "To be honest, I married him because my brother—who's a complete idiot—was about to take over my parents' estate and I didn't want to be around to watch, you know."
"Um," said Karyna. Luckily Maria didn't seem to want a more elaborate response.
"Anyway, I've always wanted to have children and I didn't see other suitable husbands lined up and anything was better than waiting around at home and I could tell that Byrn wasn't a bad sort, you know, I wasn't all that interested in him anymore than he was interested in me. So I thought I might as well marry him before I wound up stuck with someone worse."
It was around this moment that Karyna concluded that all noblewomen, not just the ones who wanted to be knights, were crazy and brave. And that she was very lucky Vina was also extraordinarily stubborn about defying convention and not nearly so talkative.
"Now I wonder if it wasn't a little reckless. I mean, I spend most days with Byrn's mother and I adore her. She's such a sweetheart, don't you think?"
"Yes," Karyna said, because Lady Amicia had always been good to Jess.
"But Byrn…I think he has a sense of humor and he seems to have good stories to tell if someone gets him talking. I don't imagine he'll ever love me like…Rissa." She frowned. "Actually I hope he never stops loving her because it would completely spoil my belief that romantic love exists for some people. But Briarwood is rather isolated and empty so it would be good if we could be friends at least. And I think we would be if we'd met another way. But then I think he feels so guilty about not loving me that he hasn't actually gotten to know me."
"How did you figure all of that out?" Karyna asked, rather impressed.
Maria rolled her eyes. "I spend a few hours each day helping Amicia with the accounts—I've always liked math—and then I go for a walk in the garden and then I spend the rest of the day sewing and thinking. It's possible to do both at once you know."
"I suppose," Maria said. She folded her hands in her lap. "So what I need to know is how to get acquainted." She looked expectantly at Karyna.
"I'm really not the best person to be dispensing advice about men," Karyna said. Her advice to young Riders generally ran something along the lines of be careful not to get pregnant and don't drink unless you trust him.
"I know," Maria said cheerfully. "But there aren't any other available candidates and I think you know something about love and even I can't talk about socks for half an hour."
Karyna grinned. "Alright. Be honest with him about what you've told me." She sighed. "Or try. And then talk about things other than the two of you. He likes ancient history and chess and horses. What about you?"
"Flowers," Maria said, then she winced, "probably not a good—"
"Plant some this spring," Karyna said. "It'll give you something to do besides sewing. What else?"
Karyna shrugged. "He likes listening but I doubt he knows enough to have a conversation."
"Dogs," Maria offered.
"Perfect. Byrn loves dogs. So do I."
"Lovely." Maria smiled. "We'll let Byrn and Vina find us talking about them when they return. When I was four, my father had this great big wolfhound who would let us climb up on his back and…
Vina reached out and took his hand. "How are the two of you? I mean, she's pregnant, so things can't be entirely…"
He shrugged. "It isn't the way I feel about Rissa, but I suppose I could love her someday. Eventually. I mean, I love you and-"
"Um." Vina released his hand. "There are a number of reasons I can't reciprocate. Most of them are people."
He chuckled. "No, I mean the kind of love that grows from knowing someone. Spending a lot of time working together, fighting together, burning each other's food whenever we took turns cooking."
"Oh." Vina kissed his cheek. "That way, of course. Well, that's a start. There are noble marriages that don't even have companionship. I know it's not everything, but—"
Byrn nodded. "I shouldn't complain—"
"That's not what I meant—" Vina said.
"Especially to someone who can't actually mar—"
"Of course not," Vina said lightly, "then she'd have to quit the Riders."
"But—"Byrn sighed. "Sorry."
"Me too, sometimes" Vina said. "But we're permanent."
"Since when?" Byrn asked. There'd been something in her tone that made it sound like an event rather than an adjective.
"Today, actually," she said, suddenly grinning widely as she glanced towards where they'd left Karyna and Maria. "I mean for years obviously, but after this past year…"she lifted a hand to the scar on her neck. "And then we talked while we were bringing round that last bandit."
"I wondered what why it took you so long to collect one prisoner." He hugged her. "Congratulations."
"And your family still doesn't know about her?"
"Rissa knows," Vina said. "And I suppose they'll find out when we visit this summer."
He raised an amused eyebrow and they walked in silence for a stretch.
"So," he said finally as they turned around. "How—"
"I don't know how she is," Vina answered before he could speak Rissa's name. She swallowed. "We seem to be drifting apart. She doesn't write as often as she should. I don't either, probably. I miss her."
"And"—Vina sighed—"I don't sense much anymore unless she's in terrible danger or really miserable or incredibly happy. And she seems to mostly be somewhere in between."
"That's good, I guess."
Vina nodded. "And Byrn, I think there might be someone else, in the desert, I mean."
He nodded. "I'm not surprised. Something she wrote in passing about meeting another twin made me think maybe..." He swallowed. He was surprised by how angry it made him. And not at Rissa or Vina or Maria. "It's only fair," he added, but it felt like a lie.
Vina squeezed his hand and they walked quietly back to the others and found them talking about dogs.
"Where's your sister?"
Rissa recognized Berin instantly, but it took her a second to realize that he assumed she was Vina. He was also standing between her and Vina's door.
"Still out shaming the name of nobility in the dirt-ridden desert or have the tribesmen tired of her teasing and-"
"Which one of us were you looking for?" Rissa asked. Then she took advantage of his momentary puzzlement to punch him in the gut.
"That was for insulting my family." She thought a moment and then kicked his chin while he was still doubled over. "That was for insulting our allies to the south." He swung at her but she ducked away. "I'm Rissa, by the way. Evening." And she marched past him and slammed Vina's door behind her.
Rissa gazed around the room and realized she was miserable. There was something about seeing her bags amid Vina's things that reminded her that her sister wasn't there. And something about standing in the last place she'd seen Byrn that reminded her of saying goodbye. And it was all proof that she was a long ways from the desert and the happiness she'd found there.
"I'm going for a walk," she said aloud to keep herself from crying.
Five minutes later she was blotting away tears with her sleeve and knocking on Penelope and Dalton's door.
"Can I come in?" she asked when he opened it.
Dalton glanced from Rissa to Penelope and casually announced that he wanted to take Bandit for a walk. He squeezed Rissa's shoulder on his way out.
"Am I that obviously a wreck?" she asked.
Penelope frowned thoughtfully and sniffed her daughter's rear. "He may also have been ducking out of a diaper change." She gestured for Rissa to sit and talk while she proceeded with this business.
Rissa told her about Berin.
"Not exactly a beacon of chivalry and sweetness, is he?" Penelope murmured, soothingly because she was setting Althea in her cradle and setting it rocking.
"No," Rissa said, grateful that Penelope was generously overlooking the fact that she'd once almost slept with him.
"Also, probably not exactly the reason you came," Penelope said.
Rissa sighed and found that words were falling out of her mouth. "I thought that if I just came back here I could go back—go back to being a squire again or to just after…And that somehow Vina and Byrn would be here and…" She shook her head. "But nothing's the same. You have this beautiful baby and Selena …"
She was crying and she hated it. She'd promised herself she wouldn't.
Penelope wet a handkerchief for Rissa's face.
"Sometimes I imagine that I'll wake up and be fifteen again," she admitted. "No baby, no husband, no responsibilities but Neal's equipment and my horse."
"But fifteen was horrible," Rissa protested.
"I know." She wiped Rissa's face.
"I mean you and Dalton were great to us," Rissa said. "It's just that—"
"It had its fair share of scared, bored, miserable, and confused alongside the happy and excited."
"Yes," Rissa said, "that."
"Nineteen and twenty-three are the same way," Penelope whispered. "The earlier years just seem easier because you've already done them." She tossed away the cloth. "Though I'm still holding out hope that twenty-five will be the year things magically get easy."
"I wouldn't count on it," Rissa told her.
Penelope smiled. "You're just cynical because you're having an especially difficult year.
Rissa smiled back because that somehow made it easier.
"You're going back to the desert?" Penelope asked, because Rissa hadn't brought all of her belongings back.
"Yes." Rissa's gut twisted guiltily at the thought that she was running away again. "I'll wait for Vina to get back, of course, but then…
"You must have found something worth returning to then," Penelope said.
"There's someone I miss," Rissa said carefully.
If Penelope had asked who, she probably would have stopped talking and refused to mention Basim, but Penelope just sat folding up a blanket that had been left on the sofa.
"I didn't realize until I left how much he'd start to matter." She swallowed. "I can't compare him to Byrn. That wouldn't be fair. But he's one of the few people I can really talk to and we hunt together and sleep together." She swallowed again, guiltily. "You must think I'm… loose or something."
"You mean flexibly adjusting to circumstances?" Penelope asked. "I don't see anything particularly wrong with that. Do you think you're loose?"
"But you never—with anyone but Dalton."
"No," Penelope said. "But if he'd run off and married someone else, you might have found me kissing Sir Michael or Jason or Selena or Karyna for that matter—let's not limit our imaginative scope."
Rissa smiled briefly before her face crinkled back into a frown. "And Vina's always—since she found Karyna."
"You two don't have to do everything exactly the same," Penelope pointed out. "For one thing, you're attracted to different kinds of people. And you still haven't answered my question. What do you think of yourself?"
"It feels right," Rissa said, "having his company for now, even though I know we won't settle down together forever. We've been good to each other and I want to go back and spend more time with him—not just him, I mean, there are lots of things I love about the desert."
"Then you should go back," Penelope said.
"But it's not the kind of thing that…" Rissa sighed. "If people knew about it, especially after last winter, they'd say it proved I was a—"
"You aren't a slut, Rissa," Dalton said, startling both of them. "She's fast asleep," he assured Penelope, kissing her temple, "or I wouldn't be using such language."
"Um." Rissa felt her face glowing as she wondered how much Dalton had overheard.
He wrapped a hand over her shoulder. "Rissa, I know I'm not the ideal person to be giving you advice, but Alanna's just across the hall and you need to go ask her about Liam."
"Liam?" Rissa repeated.
"The Shang Dragon," Penelope clarified. "Go now. She'll still be up."
"Okay." Rissa stood, looking bemused. "Um, thanks."
Dalton clapped her shoulder. "Anytime."
Rissa knocked on the guestroom door and then had a moment's fear that she'd knocked on the wrong one when no one answered immediately. If she'd knocked on a young man's door at this hour, it could set off a whole new round of gossip and…
Then the door swept open to reveal George tucking away the mirror he'd used to check the identity of their visitor. He raised an eyebrow and directed her straight to the sitting room where Alanna sat fiddling with the fastening on a wrist-guard.
"Um," Rissa said, "I'm supposed to ask about the Shang Dragon."
"Hmmm," said George, frowning.
Rissa glanced nervously at Alanna, wondering if perhaps this wasn't a good question to have asked in front of her husband.
Alanna grinned. "He just can't decide how to work this into a bet, that's all."
"Sadly not," George said. "But I really can't think ill of the fellow—he not only kept Alanna alive through several hare-brained—"
"I prefer foolhardy," Alanna put in,
"Foolhardy adventures," George amended. "He also had the good grace to die a convenient and heroic death afterwards, leaving the field clear for me."
George bowed at her and blew Alanna a kiss before stepping out the door. "Evening ladies, I'm just goin' for a little stroll."
"That's the second time tonight I've made someone's husband leave just by showing up at the door."
"Hmmm." Alanna gestured for her to sit. "I wouldn't read too much into it. At least people won't assume you're going around visiting our husbands."
"Liam was…well, he was handsome for one thing, and funny for another. And also a flirt." Alanna grinned and Rissa couldn't help grinning back at her. "And I was a long way from home. And I'd broken things off with Jon, but I hadn't quite admitted to myself how much I loved George. And George was very far away when we met on the road. So we started keeping one another company. I think we knew from the beginning it couldn't last long, but nobody got hurt. Or nobody got their heart broken anyway—I seem to recall there were a few injuries in the process of collecting the Dominion Jewel."
Rissa nodded. "And nobody cared?"
"We didn't care whether or not they did." Alanna grinned. "So what's his name?"
"Basim." Rissa answered almost before she'd registered the question.
"Is he married?"
"Does he expect you to marry him?"
"Of course not."
"And you're getting along?"
"That's not the problem," Rissa said. "It's that…it isn't what—"
"Young lady, I may be getting on in my years, but I'm still quite capable of knocking you over several different ways if you say anything about what 'people think' or 'everyone expects'."
Rissa wisely clamped her lips together for a moment. "I never thought there'd be anyone but Byrn. And now I'm starting to care for Basim. And that makes me not sure who I am."
"I think you're more like I was when it comes to men than Mindelan or Penelope," Alanna said. "You aren't the settling down right away sort."
"No," Rissa agreed.
"And," Alanna continued. "I have this theory that the last thing we do as we're dying is to figure ourselves out. So if you think you understand your place in the universe, you are probably bleeding out."
"I thought you were supposed to be providing comforting advice."
Alanna grinned. "I never do what I'm supposed to. And you shouldn't either."
Penelope stood up and clasped her fingers loosely in Dalton's once Rissa had left.
"Probably the best place for her," she said. "I can reassure and encourage, but that gets a little tiresome unless you cut it with frank advice derived from direct experience."
Dalton nodded and they walked idly towards Althea. "I suppose we can't all be experts in everything."
"I can't believe she's walking already," she said. "I think I'm actually going to miss the sitting and crawling phase."
"Me too," Dalton admitted, "but soon—"
"I'm not ready for another," Penelope said quickly. "I need time to think about—"
"I know." Dalton lifted a finger to her lips to keep her from waking Althea. "I was going to say," he continued in a whisper, "that soon she'll be old enough for traveling. Slowly, obviously, and with plenty of stops. But I think we could visit the Swoop or my mother or your aunt."
Penelope smiled and kissed his hand. "I think I'd like that," she whispered. "I think she'd like that."
So, happy summer everyone! I'm still trying to figure out how this chapter got so long…