Lying in bed, counting the dots of starlight on her walls, Jisa mentally relived the events of the day, confusion gradually giving way to clarity… and a need for answers.
First, in one of her History classes, a few of the older girls had been whispering about men at the Court—nothing unusual. She'd had the luxury of early education, and so was placed in a much higher group than her age warranted. The girls were almost all sixteen to eighteen and utterly boy-crazy. At twelve, Jisa understood little and cared little for their talk; she was there to learn. But today had been different… today they had spoken about Uncle Van. She'd overheard the words, "Yes, Herald Vanyel's dreamy, but old, Sasha!" And the other sixteen-year-old tittering back, "I don't care, he doesn't look old!" The final whisper, from the oldest, the daughter of some noble named Lord Corey, "My father fostered his sister, and I heard he doesn't even like girls! He's shaych…"
Jisa had normally paid little note to their gossip, but this was too outrageous to ignore… and had triggered memories of strange, unresolved conversations with her mother.
"Mother, is Uncle Van married?" She'd been eight and curious about her favorite "uncle," the man she admired and worshipped, but whom she knew next to nothing about outside Court.
Shavri had frowned slightly then looked away, her expression troubled. "Ah, no, dearheart."
"Does he have a love, then, like you and Father?"
"No…" Shavri murmured, frown softening to something like sadness. "… no, he's alone."
"Why? Isn't that sad? It seems like all the ladies like him."
"Maybe they aren't what he's looking for," Shavri had replied, before quickly changing the subject.
She had always thought her mother meant he was picky, which made sense; to her, Uncle Van was perfect: the savior of the Kingdom, the picture of the handsome hero, and kind and brilliant to boot. Too perfect for any of the Court flowers, she had concluded, a bit smugly, feeling superior in her special relationship with one of the most sought-after members of the Heraldic community.
But this… she shook her head in bed ruefully. It makes sense, though. I never saw him with any woman, and everyone else always has someone around, even Tantras, who Mother swears will never marry. No history of ever having been married…
She'd followed the girls after class, to see if she could hear anything else, and sure enough, they'd continued their conversation out of earshot of the strict old History professor.
"Maureen Corey, I don't believe you for a second! It's too cruel… the lovely Herald Vanyel, denied to all women?"
"That's not all," the elder girl retorted, seeming to glory in her wealth of desirable information. "There's some sort of tragic love story nobody wants to talk about, but my Father heard it from Herald Vanyel's father when he was in his cups at some Harvestfest."
"A tragic love story?" The girl named Sasha mock-swooned as the trio settled in on a bench in the Palace Garden. Jisa pretended to bury her nose in a book. "Tell us more!"
Maureen spread her skirts around her and dropped her voice to a low whisper. "Apparently Lord Withen—that's Vanyel's father—had far too much to drink and someone said something about how he must be so proud to have such a hero for an eldest son. I guess Withen only grunted or something in reply, which caused the other man to ask if he was upset about losing the valuable heir to his estate to the Kingdom."
The other girls were listening raptly and Maureen paused dramatically before continuing. "Then Withen lifted his head up and said, 'Upset? Only if I'd wanted a big mess of an inheritance coming around next generation… couldn't expect any children or a wife out of him…' which got my father all curious. He was sitting next to Withen when the old man started spitting the whole sad story out, how his eldest son was always a disappointment at home as a teenager, into music and clothes and the like; how he sent him to Haven to make a man out of him and how he wound up only getting worse…"
"When do we get to the love part?" Sasha asked, irritated.
"I'm getting there!" Maureen replied crossly. "This is the worst of it: Withen said, and I quote from my father, 'I came to Haven to find Vanyel playing ewe to Herald-Trainee Tylendel's ram.'"
The girls began to titter then to laugh uncontrollably. Maureen was the first to catch her breath. "After hearing that story, I couldn't believe it! So I asked about Herald-Trainee Tylendel… turns out he killed himself after some sort of family disaster—it's this huge embarrassment to all the Heralds. At any rate, Herald Vanyel is mentioned as his 'closest friend and confidant.' All very hush-hush."
Sasha sighed. "I don't care, he still has the loveliest eyes."
The third girl rolled her eyes. "Can we talk about someone closer to our own age? Like that beautiful Bard who just got advanced from Journeyman status?"
Jisa had heard enough and had walked away discreetly, head spinning. An image had flashed through her mind of her Uncle Van kissing another man whose face she couldn't see, some sort of tall, blonde man, and she had grown distinctly uncomfortable. It's… weird, she had thought. She'd known what shaych meant, but had never really thought about its implications, and… I know there's nothing wrong with it, but it's just not normal.
Then, she'd spend the rest of the day thinking through her reaction, reassessing her prejudices, and realizing two things: one, that the silly girls were almost certainly right, and two, that she really didn't mind. But after having replayed all those conversations with her Mother and all those memories with Uncle Van in her mind, a second, darker question had begun to plague her.
Why is Uncle Van my uncle if we aren't related? She had been thinking all day about all their times together and wondering why him, precisely. He Felt related to her, through her rudimentary skills with her Empathic gift, and she Felt some sort of link between him and her mother. Other thoughts had come to her mind unwittingly, especially one particular conversation with Shavri:
"Jisa, your father is sick… very sick. With a disease that has no cure we know."
She'd been devastated, utterly devastated, and had looked with shock at her mother. "Is it deadly?"
Shavri had put her head in her hands and whispered, "I think so." She'd paused, then, and looked penetratingly at Jisa. "But at least you're safe," she'd said, half to herself. "At least it can't be passed to you," she'd repeated, again, her eyes far away.
Later, Jisa had asked her mother why that was true if Randale was her father—wasn't there some risk? And Shavri had again replied vaguely that there was no need to worry. Then she'd said something truly strange about Randale being but not being her father, which Jisa had dismissed at the time.
Now, though… Why do I feel like Uncle Vanyel is more to me than he should be? And why have I always felt such a link between him and Mother? Is he…?
All the different events of the day crystallized into one idea, then, and she had to know the answer. Slipping out of her room, she walked the well-known path to Uncle Van's, mind a bundle of unanswered questions.
She hesitated before knocking on the door, wondering whether this actually was a good idea. What if I'm crazy? What if he has no relation to me at all? What if it's something worse that I don't want to know? But she'd already raised her hand, and the first knock fell without her even realizing it.
"Come in," came the deep voice inside—that voice she knew and loved so well—and she opened the door to shyly step inside.
Uncle Van was in some sort of old tunic and breeches, a political document in one hand and a glass of wine in the other. He looked up as she entered and she couldn't help but remember the conversation from earlier: he has the loveliest eyes. She'd always thought they were the saddest eyes, made more so by their unusual color and beauty.
"Jisa!" he'd said with warmth and surprise. Something about the way he said it, something about what she'd heard today and all her mixed emotions, caused her to quickly close the few steps between them to leap into his arms. He'd accepted her there without hesitation, and she'd Mindspoke him.
:Uncle Van… I have a question for you.:
:Go on,: he'd replied without hesitating.
:King Randale isn't my real father, is he?… You are.:
The shock and affirmation in return had almost bowled her out of his mind; she could literally feel him reeling mentally. :I… yes… but…:
Feeling his uneasiness, his fear, she'd quickly sent him back all the love she felt for him, all the admiration and respect she had been thinking about all day. In return, she Felt him almost melt in relief and returned love.
Then she'd pulled back a bit from his embrace to look in his eyes searchingly. "But why?"
"I…" He seemed to be searching for the right words. He's never been good at explaining things, Jisa thought, almost wanting to laugh despite the gravity of the situation.
"I was available and safe," he said finally. "Your father—the King—could not father children. Your mother and I now are fairly certain it's because of his illness." Pausing, he laid a hand on Jisa's. "And your mother wanted children so very badly, dearheart. She couldn't imagine life without a child. She was desperate—she didn't know what to do." He took a deep breath and Jisa felt his hand tremble in hers. "She came to me because I was a very close friend- her closest friend. But also because she knew that I would never come between your father and her; that I would never have… an inappropriate attachment to her."
She Felt him struggling to say it, Felt his discomfort and fear that she would turn away. "Because you're shaych," she stated.
"I—am," he admitted, looking at her in surprise. "It doesn't bother you?"
"No," she said simply, and laid her head on his shoulder again. "At first… a little bit. But not when I really thought about it. It doesn't change anything about you."
He smiled, then, a bit hesitantly. "No, it doesn't," he replied quietly. "Although not everyone would agree with you."
"Well, then, they're stupid," she said conclusively.
Laughing, he pulled her tighter. "If you say so, I suppose I must agree."