Perhaps it is fitting that the idyllic state of my life was well and truly shattered at one of those onerous parties I was so frequently required to attend. The evening started out well enough but quickly turned sour and then went from bad to worse in equally short order. And all of that was even before...well, I am getting ahead of myself.
There was no solstice to usher in spring as there was with the summer and winter. That did not stop the nobility from celebrating the changing seasons, however. One of the biggest parties during the transition was to be thrown by the House of Stars. The heir to the House, Keras, was the closest thing Liam had to a real friend as far as I had been able to discern. Keras' younger sister Kara had been studying with a well known artist in Dumais for almost three cycles and was finally to return home to Pelos. Liam was eagerly looking forward to the party, and I found myself in anticipation as well. For my part I was hoping that Kara of Stars and I would be able to connect through our love and talent for art, and that possibly I might finally find that friend I had been searching for since my marriage. Perhaps if we did grow close it would even afford me more of a chance to spend time with Liam outside of the Stag.
Kara and Keras were alike in build, both slender and a little taller than the average height. There the similarities ended, however. Keras was dark of eye and hair, his skin ruddy in tone while Kara was light personified. Her golden curls shined brightly, her blue eyes sparkled merrily, and her porcelain pale skin glowed. The two were unalike in personality as well. Where I had always found Keras extremely soft-spoken and thought him rather shy, Kara, four cycles her brother's junior, was boisterous and exuberant, talking up a storm and drawing the attention of everyone in her vicinity.
Initially, it seemed as if my hopes of befriending her were well-founded. She greeted me warmly and upon learning of my love of drawing engaged me in a lengthy conversation about technique. She preferred painting, she told me, but the two skills were not so far removed from one another that we were unable to find common ground. I found I liked her quite well, and was rather enjoying the evening until I noticed something peculiar. The reserve that Liam so rarely let go was nowhere in evidence. He was completely warm and open and relaxed, laughing heartily at jokes, genuine smiles of enjoyment filling his face.
"You haven't changed a bit," Liam declared as Kara finished telling a rather rambunctious story about a party thrown by patron of hers in Dumais. I could see laughter in his eyes as he took a long drink from his wine glass.
"I'm sure you can guess how aggrieved Father was to realize that fact," Keras chimed in. "I think he truly believed the time away would calm your temperament."
"If that was really his goal," Kara smirked, "then he should not have sent me off to live with artists. Creative souls are hardly the type to be calm now, are they?" She winked at me, including me in her statement, I suppose, and I tried not to appear too startled by her assertion. I wasn't entirely sure I believed it. I had certainly never been accused to be lacking a calm disposition. Keras shook his head, throwing his hands up in mock resignation. Liam just smiled a small amused smile, watching the siblings over the rim of his glass.
"Perhaps your lord father believed that the discipline of the study would at least help you reign in some of your, shall we say wilder impulses?" Liam suggested mildly, still with that same smile playing across his lips. "I do recall he despaired of your finding a suitable match with your tendency to speak whatever might be on your mind regardless of company."
"Oh I've learned plenty of discipline," Kara retorted with a mischievous grin, "but probably not in any of the areas that Father hoped for." Liam's eyebrows shot up and a strange expression flitted across his face before Keras hastily changed the subject and I was left to wonder what she had meant by the comment.
Even the presence of Nathaniel and Sebastian of Blades had not dampened Liam's happy demeanor. Usually when he realized that they were also in attendance he exuded tension and became almost surly, keeping his eyes on them whenever possible. This time, however, he hardly seemed to care about them at all. When they had arrived, I had instinctively glanced at Liam, fearful that his mood would darken. But his gaze had flicked to them briefly and then away, dismissing them entirely, returning to Kara, with whom he had been discussing something about her stay in Dumais. I was glad, at first, that his high spirits were unhampered. Then I looked more closely, and I saw it. He was happy, truly happy in a way I had never before seen. And the reason once I saw it was blindingly obvious.
Liam was in love with Kara.
For a few brief moments I stood rooted to the floor, unable to move or speak, the smile from moments before frozen on my face. I was quite surprised at the bolt of jealousy that stabbed through me at the realization. Furiously, I tried to convince myself that I was overreacting, or that I was simply imagining things. Liam and Keras had been friends since they were children, which meant he had known Kara for most of her life. Of course there would be a closeness between them. I should have expected as much. But as I regained control of myself, thankful that no one seemed to have noticed my epiphany, I could not help but watch the two, and I knew that I was right. I had been married to Liam for almost a full cycle now, and though I did not know him as well as I might like, I knew him well enough to recognize in his eyes feelings for this woman that he had never felt for me.
While I managed to remain calm on the outside, my mind seethed with indignation and jealousy. And hurt as well, another surprise. Liam had been quite clear from the beginning that I was his and his alone. I belonged to him. I owed him obedience and loyalty and fidelity. It was what he expected from his wife, from me. I had accepted it without question. But I had also assumed that I had at least received the same unspoken promise of loyalty and fidelity from him in return. Now I knew the foolishness of that assumption.
As soon as an opening presented itself in the conversation, I excused myself from the group, citing a wish to visit with my cousin, whom I had just spotted on the other side of the room. Normally Liam would have insisted on escorting me to Garrus, or found some perfectly reasonable objection to me leaving the group at all. With Sebastian and Nathaniel about he should have been glued to my side, refusing to give them an opportunity to approach me. He barely even glanced at me, and only to bid me say hello for him, before turning back to Kara and Keras. They wished me farewell as I bowed my head to Liam and left, holding my head up straight as I wended through the crowd, mentally fighting the flush I could feel trying to work its way into my cheeks.
Our marriage had been arranged, I reminded myself as I approached my cousin. He did not just fall in love with her tonight, after all. Kara had been gone for three cycles. That meant that Liam had loved her before we even met. I would not begrudge him his happiness at seeing his love once more. He was an honorable man, I knew that in my bones. Perhaps to spend time with her here would be all that was needed, there was no point in worrying things would go further than that. As much as the revelation might hurt me, it would be petty to deny Liam this evening. But that did not mean that I would stay by his side and be cut to ribbons by his joy.
"I can't imagine how you are getting on in the Stag, Laren," Garrus said to me with a smile. "I understand that manor is even larger than Jade. Most mornings I get lost just trying to find my way to breakfast." He shook his head ruefully and I laughed in friendly commiseration. He had grown up in a much smaller home, I knew, but I didn't for one moment believe that he truly found navigating the corridors of Jade so difficult.
"I manage to find my way," I told him mildly. Speaking with Garrus had helped to calm me down after my unpleasant realization about my husband, and I was thankful for his company. "I must say, cousin," I added after a moment of companionable silence, "I am sorry that we never had the opportunity to spend more time together before your appointment as Father's heir. I feel as if we've missed out on a wonderful friendship."
"Our paths never had much reason to cross before then, did they?" Garrus waved his hand in dismissal of my regret. "There is no point in worrying about what may or may not have been missed in the past. We shall just be sure to make the time together now." No point in worrying about the past. I thought perhaps his advice could be applied to my other relationships as well.
"You're right, of course." I was glad to see that though he was still clearly uncomfortable at such large functions, he otherwise seemed to have eased into his new role with little difficulty at all. Garrus seemed to be picking things up fairly quickly and was already making plans for the future. Our conversation assured me that Jade was in very good hands indeed.
"I know it goes without saying," he added quietly, "but you are always welcome in Jade. I know Adelyn would enjoy having you to tea, and I would love for you to show me some of your favorite hiding places in the manor. I would give much for some quiet time to myself now and again."
"I don't know that Mother would agree with the sentiment," I answered lightly, "but I will keep that in mind. Until I am able to stop by, however, I can think of a few places you might find to escape to." I told him of a few alcoves perfect for reading undisturbed and he eagerly noted their locations. Eventually Adelyn returned and playfully demanded that her husband stop hiding in a corner and dance with her instead. She told us she had enjoyed viewing some of Kara's paintings that her father had on display in another room but was now ready for the dance floor. I watched them leave with a pang of longing, thinking that my marriage would never be as happy and comfortable as theirs appeared to be.
Curious about Kara's art, I ventured into the makeshift gallery to take a look. I had calmed down a bit by this point and felt like I could judge the work objectively. The gallery was blessedly deserted, which suited my mood nicely. I wandered between the paintings and was impressed by what I saw. Kara's style was more abstract than what I normally cared for, but she showed quite a bit of raw talent. Most of the pieces seemed to feature the heavens, vistas of the night sky, specific constellations, the moon, the planets as our ancestors imagined them. I wondered if those were her preferred subject matter of if she had painted these pieces specifically to honor her House.
I was considering returning to the main room when I began to pick up the sound of voices approaching me. They were mixed in with the faint music from the ballroom but were becoming more distinct as their owners got closer. I didn't think much of it until an already familiar giggle drifted to my ears. The giggle was followed by a low reply from a voice with which I was even more intimately acquainted: Liam's. He and Kara were headed for the gallery, alone, by the sound of it, and deeply engaged in conversation. I did not want the two to come upon me alone in the gallery, it would be awkward for all of us and I was not yet ready to confront this new situation.
Out of the corner of my eye I spotted a balcony door ajar on the opposite side of the room from the door through which Liam and Kara would soon enter. Quickly I made my way to the door, hoping the balcony would wrap back around to the ballroom so that I would not be stranded out there until the pair moved on. I shut the door behind myself quietly and moved to lean against the stone railing while I gathered my thoughts. Eavesdropping, I suspected, would only make my night that much worse. As my heartbeat returned to its normal rate I frowned into the night. What in the world is he thinking, sneaking off alone with her? What if someone noticed them? Discretion had never been a quality which I believed to be lacking in my husband, but now I had to wonder. Keras had implied that his sister had a rather reckless nature and now I found myself fearful that Liam's feelings for her would prevent him from acting with his normal level of propriety.
"Rather thoughtless of him, isn't it, ignoring you all evening?" I jumped at the voice from behind, whirling around to face its owner.
"Yes, thoughtless," another voice chimed in, "especially as he is normally so attentive where you are concerned."
They stood in shadows, for this part of the balcony was dark, but I recognized them anyway. As I had hoped, it did extend back down to the ballroom, and further down in that direction it was well lit. But between me and the beckoning safety of the lights stood Sebastian and Nathaniel of Blades. They had finally managed to get me away from Liam, after almost a cycle of trying. Irrational fear began to bubble up inside of me but I gathered all of my will and strangled it quickly. I glanced at the doors through which I had just come. It would be easy enough to go back in, act surprised to find Liam and Kara, and pretend I had just stepped out for some fresh air and a few moments of quiet...
"What would your dear husband think, I wonder," Sebastian piped up, reading my thoughts with eerie precision, "to find his wife stumbling into the private gallery from a dark balcony followed by not one, but two," he grinned at his brother, "gentlemen of whom he thinks so very lowly?"
"So quick to distrust, Liam of the Stag. Especially in matters concerning myself and my brother here." Nathaniel chuckled at me, clearly as pleased with the situation as his brother.
And why not? Sebastian was right, I was stuck. Liam might be distracted enough not to worry about what Sebastian or Nathaniel might try to say to me in a crowded ballroom, true. But he would certainly not be able to ignore finding me as Sebastian threatened. It was a threat, too, I had no doubt of that. Sebastian and Nathaniel would be right on my heels if I tried to escape back into the gallery. I couldn't exactly explain to Liam why I had been on the balcony in the first place, not without doing a great deal of damage. Perhaps Liam wasn't worried about his actions harming the reputation of the House of Stag, but it had been made perfectly clear to me that I must be a paragon of virtue in the eyes of the nobility. Sebastian and Nathaniel would tell anyone who would listen that I had been up to no good with them, and would make sure that the rumors had circulated throughout Pelos before sunup.
"Very well then, gentlemen," I said as calmly as I could. "It would seem you have something you wish to say to me, and you have finally managed to get me on my own. Please, speak." I folded my arms across my chest and gazed at them placidly, waiting.
"Now, now, my dear lady, it is you who finally found us! Still, that is neither here nor there. You are quite right in that we have wished to speak to you for some time." I could make out little of his face in the shadows, but Nathaniel seemed to be enjoying himself immensely.
"Well?" I asked impatiently when he did not elaborate. This time it was Sebastian who replied.
"Admittedly, we have mostly wanted to get you alone in order to annoy dear Liam." I could see he was giving me an assessing look, "Although, I can think of many lovely ways in which we could have passed that private time together." As I had thought, their interest in me was about whatever was between them and Liam.
"And you just assume that I am so willing to tarnish my own reputation?" I cocked my eyebrow at them.
"Your marriage coming about as it did," Sebastian shrugged, "it was not outside the realm of possibility that you might be interested in one final fabulous fling before committing yourself to the Stag. We are capable of discretion, after all. We have no desire to ruin your reputation. The knowledge of our accomplishment would have been enough for us."
"We see now that we underestimated your loyalty, my lady," Nathaniel joined in, "please forgive us."
"But why continue to seek me out, if you know that it will gain you nothing?"
"Oh I wouldn't say we have nothing to gain," Nathaniel replied, "it does still needle Liam so. He worries so much that we will take what he thinks is his. At the very least we usually manage to ruin his evening." I was appalled that they would so actively seek to irritate Liam, and that they apparently had no problem with using me as a pawn in their little game. At the same time, I found their bluntness oddly refreshing. At least they were willing to be perfectly honest about their intentions.
"Besides," Sebastian added, "there is always the chance that you will change your mind." He turned his head to the balcony doors. "I suspect you are not so happy with your lord husband tonight, after all. We would make it quite worth your while, I assure you." He and Nathaniel each took a step forward and I was so surprised I did not back away. He couldn't possibly be suggesting...
"Both of you?" The question came out in a strangled tone. They stepped forward again, as one. There was nothing menacing in their manner, though. In fact, I was suddenly aware of the seductive pull the two men were exuding.
"Of course, my lady," Sebastian purred. "It is the best way to maximize your pleasure."
"Liam is such a selfish man," Nathaniel whispered. They were very close now, I heard him quite clearly. "I can't imagine he is any different as a lover. We, however, are quite generous."
"Yes," Sebastian was whispering as well now. My heart was racing and I could scarcely breathe. I had never been spoken to so in my life. "We would be more than happy to see to all of your needs."
"What are you...?" The whispered question trailed off. I am not even sure what I meant to ask. I had no idea what they were talking about, but my mind was awash in lurid images that made set my face afire with shame. Sebastian reached up and stroked my cheek, gently. His touch shattered the spell and galvanized me. I have often wondered about the course my life might have taken instead had I reacted differently in that moment.
"No." My voice was still low, but I was thankful to realize it was strong once more. The twins stood on either side of me now and I took two strides away from them, putting some space between myself and the twins before whirling around to face them once more. This time they were in the light and I was the shadowed figure.
"No matter my feelings toward my husband at the moment," I told them, glad my voice did not shake from the anger I felt, "I will never accept your offer. You say you have no quarrel with me and so I ask you to respect that my answer in this matter is final." They looked at each other and Nathaniel shrugged. Sebastian nodded his head slowly.
"Very well," Nathaniel told me. "It is clear you have no interest in our proposition. We will leave you be, you have our word."
"I suppose we shall just have to find a new way to get under Liam's skin." Sebastian sighed.
"Why?" The word was out of my mouth before I could stop it.
"Excuse me?" Nathaniel frowned.
"Why must you hound Liam? What is the reason for all of this, this..." Foolishness. Petty childish game-playing. I could think of no way to phrase their behavior that did not sound insulting and so I left it at that.
"You do not know?" Nathaniel sounded truly surprised.
"You mean to tell us that you are his wife and he could not even be bothered to tell you about..." Sebastian was the one who sounded angry now. He ran a hand over his face and turned away, walking to the railing and shaking his head. Nathaniel opened his mouth as if to speak but before he could say anything Sebastian whirled back around and asked, "You know nothing of Leana?"
"I..." I frowned, searching my memory, but the name did not sound familiar to me at all. "No, I am afraid I do not," I replied quietly. My answer clearly agitated Sebastian even more. This time he allowed Nathaniel to speak.
"Leana of the Eagle was betrothed to Sebastian when we were very young," he told me quietly. "It was not an arranged match, mind you, the two were quite smitten with each other." Sebastian had turned back to the railing, his head between his hands. He clearly did not like remembering the story, and it seemed to be one that had obviously not ended happily. "Her father was not the Head of the Eagle, he was a lawyer, and Leana would sometimes accompany him to the courts." I closed my eyes, understanding where the story was headed.
"That's where she met Liam of the Stag," he continued, "and he swept her off her feet. Leana's father had taken quite a shine to Liam and so Liam and Leana had many opportunities to get to know one another."
"She broke off our engagement," Sebastian said quietly. "She was honest with me about the reason, at least. Liam had promised to marry her. She had to break it off with me first, of course, and Liam told her that once an appropriate amount of time had passed he would seek Roslyn's approval for the match and they could be wed. It would not do for them to cause a scandal. So she ended things with me and begged me not to say anything to anyone about the true reason. Fool that I was, wanting only her happiness, I agreed."
Nathaniel was watching his brother in concern. Even I wanted to comfort the man, he was so obviously in distress. Unconsciously I took a step closer to them. I regretted asking them to explain. But now that I had heard part of the story, I knew I needed to know the rest. Clearly there was more, I knew that if Liam actually had married this Leana, I would have been told of it by now. After it was apparent that Sebastian had said his piece, Nathaniel looked back at me and resumed the tale.
"As I am sure you have guessed, the wedding never took place. When Liam asked for Roslyn's approval she denied his request. There was bad blood between the Head of the Eagle and the Stag that Liam had never known about. He tried to persuade his mother that the union might mend the rift but she said it was out of the question. So he told Leana he couldn't marry her." He was quiet for a few moments, I thought he might be waiting to see if Sebastian was going to speak up again. When his brother remained silent, Nathaniel went on.
"She hoped that they would at least continue to see each other in secret, but before long Liam began to grow distant and eventually he stopped speaking to Leana altogether. She finally confronted him about it, and he told her that their affair was no longer 'worth the effort.'" I winced, wondering how Nathaniel could know the details of such a conversation, but not wholly disbelieving. I knew full well that Liam was capable of such coolness.
"She came to me, after that," Sebastian said, surprising both Nathaniel and me. "She told me he had tossed her away. She was beside herself, completely lost. In tears she confessed that she was with child, and she did not know what to do. Even then, I still loved her, and I asked her again to marry me. She refused, saying she would not put me through that, through marrying a woman in love with another man and through raising another man's child. Try as I might, I could not convince her, and she left again."
"They found her the next morning," Nathaniel said, his tone somber. "Her broken body was discovered at the base of the tower from which she had thrown herself, unwilling to live without Liam of the Stag."
"You blame him," I said softly, closing my eyes. I did not want to see Sebastian's grief. I did not want to know this about my husband's past.
"For her death? No." Sebastian said, straightening up and turning to face me once more. "She made her own choices in that. I would have given anything to have been able to stop her, but she shares equal blame with him for the affair."
"But then why--" I started, only to be interrupted by Sebastian once more.
"Because less than a week after her death he was already busy fawning over Kara of Stars at the Solstice Ball! He showed no remorse at all for Leana's death!"
"Why not tell someone?" I asked. "Surely Leana's father would have wanted compensation at least..."
"If the word got out about the affair and Leana's...condition at the end, it would have done her reputation more harm than good." Nathaniel answered. "Surely you know how powerful the Stag is, Roslyn would have been able to twist the facts to paint Leana as a simple girl who mistook Liam's attentions and shamed herself and her House. If Leana's father persisted, Roslyn would have just made the problem go away. The Eagle could never have stood against the Stag."
It made a sad sort of sense when I thought about it. If it was true, although I realized that I did not doubt their story at all. Part of me was sternly telling myself that it did not matter if they told the truth. I was Liam's wife and I should refuse to listen to such horrible things, I should give them no credit. But that part was very small at the moment. I bit my lip, wondering what to do with this new information. It certainly went a long way to explain Roslyn's disapproval of Liam's constant presence in the courts. It was a small act of defiance on Liam's part, continuing to stay even just on the edge of a life she had forbidden to him. A stray though flitted across my mind and brought about another question.
"Then why not make your advances to Kara? In fact, why did he not end up marrying her in the first place? Roslyn clearly thinks quite well of the House of Stars..."
"Kara was betrothed to another," Sebastian told me. "She was meant for Prime Vinnis' brother. It was an arranged match, he was much, much older than her, but she had no way out of it. I had no wish to interfere with the machinations of House Prima. We tried to warn him about Liam's interest, but..."
"He wouldn't see us," Nathaniel finished. "Your dear lord husband has been subtly doing everything in his power to discredit us and our House since the day Leana died. Likely he was worried that if we did speak up about their affair and his role in her death, someone might possibly take our claim seriously. So he has done what he can to ensure that no one ever takes us seriously." I remembered that the first thing Liam had said to me about the pair was a disparagement of their character and nodded without thinking.
"So you see, my lady, what is a little harmless flirting with Liam's pretty new wife against all of that? Maybe we're lucky and we convince her to play with us. It would be a sweet vindication, and if it were to get out...well...the Stag's reputation could use a little tarnish, in my estimation." Sebastian's tone was almost returned to the smooth amusement of earlier. He seemed to be regaining control of himself. "Of course, as we promised, we shall leave you alone from now on. But understand that we cannot just let that man be. Not when the rest of the nobility thinks he is such a model of virtue."
"I...understand." I told them. "Thank you for your explanation. I wish that I...I am truly sorry for your loss." I started to reach my hand out to Sebastian but thought better of it. "I cannot help you, and I must remain loyal to him, you need to understand. There is more riding on it than just my husband's reputation." No matter that he seemed rather unconcerned with it himself at the moment. They nodded, a considering look mirrored on both of their faces.
"I think dear Liam got the better end of the deal in your marriage, my lady. By a long shot." Nathaniel's voice was quite serious and I decided to take the remark as a compliment rather than a jibe. One thing that they had said was still nagging at me, however. I knew that I should turn around and walk away, rejoin the party before my absence was noticed, but I did not know where else I might expect answers.
"You told me that Kara was betrothed, but she is not married..."
"Ah, yes," Sebastian nodded. "As fate would have it, her intended husband's advanced age got the better of him. He died before they could be married. Two moons later she was off to Dumais to study with that artist." He shrugged. "Why Liam did not wait for her to return and instead agreed to marry you, I cannot say."
Likely he had little say in the matter, I told myself, recalling the many occasions on which Roslyn had mentioned choosing me for her son. I remembered her comment on my first morning in the Stag, about not leaving Liam to his own devices and his shown preference for interesting company. I should have realized that she might have been referring to my husband's previous...companions. I had certainly never assumed that I was the only woman he had been with. I just had never expected to be confronted with any of the others, or to have to deal with a potential mistress. A particularly loud song had started up in the ballroom, I glanced back over my shoulder at the lit portion of the balcony.
"I should go," I said, turning back to them. I did not know what else I should say to these two men. They had turned out to be nothing of what I had expected from them. "Good night, my lords." I bowed my head to them and then turned to go.
"Good evening, my lady Laren," Nathaniel replied. "I think my brother and I shall remain here for a bit and enjoy the quiet for a while longer."
I walked back to the party, grateful that the twins had chosen to remain behind. They were tactfully making sure that my reentry could not be connected with their own, and I appreciated it, though it was just another reminder of how badly I feared I had misjudged them. Had I so misjudged Liam as well? My head swam with the evening's discoveries. But no, I had always sensed that there was much about Liam I didn't know. I was not terribly surprised to learn of his past. I hated to admit that, even to myself, but perhaps I had seen more than I realized during our time spent together.
I had almost reached the circle of light from the lamps around the doors to the ballroom. I quickened my pace, suddenly cold, anticipating the warmth of the crowded dance hall. I thought I might seek out Sara, remembering that she was also at the party. She was hardly a confidante, but she was the closest thing I had to a friend. I could not speak to her about my discussion with Sebastian and Nathaniel, but perhaps a truly friendly face could provide the distraction I would need to survive the rest of the evening with my composure intact.
The sound of doors opening behind me registered faintly but I paid it no heed. Would that I had. Without warning my head exploded in pain and then all went dark.