I remained at the House of Jade for almost a moon after the memorial service. Garrus had actually settled in quite well to his new duties and the House suffered very little for Father's loss. I took it as a testimonial that he had chosen his replacement well. Adelyn on the other hand was truly overwhelmed by her new responsibilities in running the manor household itself. I had learned much from Roslyn on that front in my time at the House of the Stag. That in addition to my familiarity with the House of Jade and its staff let me help her transition into her new role with a bit more ease.
About a week after my parents' deaths I was tucked away in a spare office going over the plans for Garrus' ascension banquet. It would officially confirm him as the new Head of Jade. Ascension banquets were normally somber events, given that they usually followed close on the heels of funerals, but they were still a necessary part of any House's affairs. I in the middle of determining seating arrangements when Sebastian arrived, knocking on the open door. Ballard was curled up under the window reading a book and he looked up at the noise. Sebastian noticed him at the same moment and they shared mutual scowls of dislike. I fought the strong urge to roll my eyes.
"What is it Sebastian? I'm arranging--"
"Forgive the intrusion, Laren," he interrupted me. "I wanted to stop by and see how you are holding up. I wonder if I might persuade you to take a stroll around the grounds with me? I am sure some fresh air would do you good."
I glanced out the window. The morning's frost did not seem to have melted at all and it was nearing lunch time. "Fresh" was hardly the word I would use. Still, it was good to see Sebastian, and I could use a break. Trying to place nobles for minimal chance of friendly "debate" was tiring.
"Of course, Sebastian." I stood up and stretched. "Let me just get my cloak."
"I took the liberty of sending someone to fetch it, my dear," he said, glancing at Ballard who was now standing as well. "I had rather hoped we might be...unaccompanied on our walk." He directed a pointed glance at Ballard, who glared back in return.
"I go where she goes," Ballard said softly. Soft or not, his voice was steel.
"I'm sure you do," Sebastian snapped back, "the page who escorted me here made it quite clear that you haven't let her have a moment's peace to herself since she arrived." I wanted to interject, to stop this before it got out of hand, but I didn't get the chance. "Is Liam so worried about what she'll do when out of his sight that she can't even mourn her parents in private?"
"Sebastian!" I cried in surprise at the accusation. I felt as if I had been slapped and Ballard turned a deep red, his fists clenching. I realized what he intended a moment before he moved. I jumped around the desk and flung myself between them, hands outstretched in either direction to keep them apart.
"How dare you?" Ballard hissed, trying to find a way through me that would leave me unharmed. "My allegiance is to my lady!"
"Oh, aye," Sebastian retorted, "but which lady?" Ballard and I both went very still. Sebastian thought he was reporting to Roslyn on my actions. I had been guilty of the same thoughts, but not for some time. I couldn't blame him for thinking the same thing, could I? I had turned to face Sebastian at his question and so I could not see Ballard's face when he replied. I saw the moment of understanding in Sebastian's eyes, however.
"There is only one." Ballard answered softly. The intensity in those four simple words slammed into me like a horse at full gallop and I forgot to breathe for a few moments. I closed my eyes and tried to bring the world back into balance.
"So it's like that, is it?" Sebastian said after a heavy pause. I opened my eyes and looked back and forth between the two men, my two dearest friends who had been at each other's throats only moments before. Both had relaxed and a look of understanding seemed to be passing between them. Sebastian turned to me and asked, "Do you trust him?"
"Of course." There was no hesitation in my answer. How could there be? Trusting Ballard was like breathing. Just then a maid arrived carrying my cloak, and Ballard's as well, unsurprisingly. She entered the room humming a little tune and stopped dead when she saw the three of us. Realizing she had clearly walked in on something awkward, she mutely held out the cloaks. "Thank you," I said to her, dropping my arms hastily as Ballard stepped forward to take the garments. She cast a frightened glance around the room and then scurried out as if she had walked in on a pit of vipers. We all watched her go in silence, the tension in the room much relieved.
"Well, alright then." Sebastian said, his normal jovial air returning. "Dear Laren, would you and your...companion care to accompany me on a walk around the grounds before lunch?" I glanced at Ballard. His head was tilted to one side and he was regarding me as if there was something there he hadn't seen before. After a moment he nodded and offered a small smile.
"We would be honored, Sebastian." I fastened my cloak around my shoulders and the three of us made our way out of the manor, Sebastian at my side and Ballard a step behind, ever watchful still.
The air outside was just a hair too cold to be called brisk, but we walked leisurely down to the large man-made pond that was the center of the grounds behind the manor. When we reached it, Ballard gave Sebastian an assessing look and then, seeming to come to a decision, fell back and took up a position off to one side where he might keep watch on us and make sure we were not approached by anyone else. To keep warm, Sebastian and I took to the path around the pond, circling it several times as we talked.
"Now he decides we may have our privacy," Sebastian chuckled. He shook his head in amusement. "No wonder you have not objected to a guard, with such a devoted admirer." I blushed and glanced back at Ballard, biting my lip.
"It isn't...we haven't, Sebastian, please." I said finally, unable to explain, hoping he would leave off with the teasing. There was no denying that something had grown between myself and Ballard, and that we seemed to have reached a pivotal point where the true nature of relationship must be decided once and for all. But I had no idea how to voice that.
"Oh aye, not yet." Sebastian said, grinning, though his smile was not unkind. "But that one no longer cares for Roslyn's wrath, or Liam's, I'd wager. I suppose the real question is whether or not you feel the same for him, although I suspect I already know the answer to that." I heaved a sigh, unable to deny the truth of his suspicions. His voice turned serious as he said, "It will not be easy, you realize. I know you Laren, enough to realize that you will still put preserving your House's reputation over your own desires. I...I can help the two of you," I turned to him in surprise. "Nathaniel and Madge would be willing as well, of course, if you trust them enough with the information. You need only ask."
"I...thank you Sebastian. I still don't know that we, well," I sighed again. "No, you are right, it is only a matter of time. I don't like the idea of sneaking around behind anyone's back, but...well, help in keeping it a secret would be welcome."
"Of course, my dear," he said. His joking tone returned as he added, "I do have quite a bit of experience in sneaking around behind the backs of unsuspecting husbands, after all." I couldn't help myself, I laughed at that, long and loud. It felt good to laugh, the past week had been so wearing. "Now," Sebastian began, turning serious once more, "you have been keeping a secret for moons, and I was promised that I would be told the truth of it. We are finally alone, with no one else around, save your loyal guard. Laren, will you please tell me what happened to you, that you need such a guard in the first place?" The concern in his voice was almost too much to bear.
I had known it was coming ever since I promised him the story. While I had not actively avoided providing an opportunity to reveal what had happened, I hadn't sought one out either. Still, speaking with Ballard about the events had lessened the pain of the memories a little. Perhaps sharing with Sebastian would as well. So I told him about my abduction, from parting company with him and his brother right up through my miscarriage and learning that Roslyn had ordered it done on purpose. Ballard hadn't even known of my pregnancy or the miscarriage until I had told him once we started discussing the events. Sebastian was understandably horrified, and like Ballard, angry on my behalf. Like Liam, he seemed particularly offended that my abductors had raped me after negotiating my ransom, although I suspected his motivations for that emotion stemmed from a different source than my husband's had.
"Damnation, Laren! That you had to go through such an experience!"He caught me up in a tight hug, lifting my feet right up off the ground for the briefest of moments. Out of the corner of my eye I saw Ballard twitch and then visibly force himself to calm down. He had accepted that Sebastian was not trying to romance me, but he did not fully trust the man yet. Sebastian let me go and held me at arm's length, studying me carefully. "You are stronger than I believed, to come through that so whole," he told me quietly. "I can understand why Roslyn would want you kept under guard, now. Even if she didn't want to track down those responsible for secrecy's sake," the scowl on his face said what he thought about that decision, "she is smart enough to know that their delay in asking for your ransom meant something else was going on." A thought occurred to me then, and I was surprised it had not come moons ago.
"Sebastian," I asked, "did you or Nathaniel see anyone or anything strange after I left you that night? If you were still on the balcony..." My hopes fell quickly though as I saw him sadly shake his head.
"I'm afraid not, my friend" An embarrassed look crossed his face. "I was...frustrated by your refusal, completely justified as it was, because with Kara's return I deeply wanted to get to Liam that evening. Seeing him fawn over her just brought back so many memories, and after speaking with you, well....We told you we were going to remain on the balcony, but as soon as you were out of ear shot, we slipped back in through the gallery doors, to interrupt whatever he and Kara might be up to..."
"I understand Sebastian." I did. I patted his arm. "They were quite smart about the whole thing, likely you wouldn't have seen anything if you had remained behind. I just suppose I needed to ask."
"Of course," Sebastian replied. A new thought seemed to come to him, "Liam has not taken this whole course of events very well, has he? That is why he doesn't even try to pretend at discretion any more, isn't it?" I believed as much as well, and nodded. "The more fool he is, then," Sebastian said in disgust. "He has only himself to blame for pushing you to another man's arms," he glanced back at Ballard then, gazing at the other man for a moment before turning back to me. "I hope that he is worthy of you, Laren," he said softly, "though I doubt you would risk so much on a man who wasn't." I did not know what to say to that. "Liam has no idea how lucky he is that you are the wife he was given. Any woman other than Kara of Stars never could have hoped for his full attention and would have sought a more attentive lover eventually. At least you will have honor in it, and he never need fear seeing another man's features on the faces of his children. If you are in need of advice in preventing conception while leaving yourself still capable of it with Liam..."
I blushed furiously, such thoughts hadn't even begun to cross my mind. But he was quite right, I would never risk bearing a child that was not Liam's, as much as I might prefer a different father for my children. It seemed strange to think of maintaining honor while undertaking an affair, but I supposed that it was something that would arise from these sorts of circumstances. Still blushing, I nodded mutely, unable to trust myself to speak. He explained a few methods to me and I filed the information away, managing to stutter out a "thank you." Goodness, when did my life become so complicated? I couldn't help but wonder. We walked around the pond a few more times, our discussion turning to much more innocent topics, and then turned back toward the manor, heading inside for lunch and warmth. I smiled shyly at Ballard as he joined us, reaching out and squeezing his arm quickly before he fell into step behind me once more.
Sebastian stayed to lunch with us, I had the meal sent to my office and we gathered around the desk, speaking easily of nothing of consequence. I was relieved to find what little tension that remained between the two men dissipating rapidly over the course of the meal. Sebastian left shortly after that, promising to visit again soon and imploring me to send a message if I needed any additional company. He parted with a rather salacious wink behind Ballard's back, indicating his doubts that I would be wanting for companionship any time soon. Once more I found myself blushing and I quickly bowed my head over the papers on my desk hoping that Ballard would not notice. He did not ask what Sebastian and I had discussed, nor did he bring up the earlier altercation. He simply picked up his book and went back to reading. Grateful, I once more tackled the plans for Garrus' banquet and we passed the rest of the day in comfortable silence.
I retired for the evening much later than I had intended and by the time I had reached my room, I had almost talked myself out of confronting Ballard about our feelings for one another. It has to be done, Laren, I told myself. Better now when we are away from the Stag than to let it simmer and boil over where we both might regret it. As we entered Ballard quickly searched the room (his own small chamber included) for any hidden intruders and then made a last check in the corridor. I remained standing in the center of the room, breathing deeply and gathering my thoughts. When he slipped back inside and shut the door, I walked over and locked it behind him, sliding home the bar that rested across the doorway. He looked a question at me and I took his hand in my own, walking backward and pulling him further into the room, away from the door.
"I think after all of this time, Ballard, you can call me Laren," I said with a wry smile. His brows crinkled and I could see he was beginning to realize my intentions. Nothing to do but jump right in, I suppose. Another deep breath, and then, "Do you want this Ballard?" I reached up for his other hand and met his eyes. "Do you want us?" He tensed slightly, his grip on my hands tightening.
"We can't," he said, turning his head and breaking the eye contact. I had seen the emotions warring behind those eyes, though.
"That's not what I asked." He swallowed and closed his eyes, taking a few deep breaths himself before opening them and facing me once more.
"You already know the answer, Laren." It came out in a low rasp and sent a thrill of heat jolting through me. I bit my lip, but held his gaze. Didn't he know I needed him to say it? He must have sensed something of my thoughts because he spoke again, his voice a little clearer but no less passionate. "I have wanted you for so long, almost since you came to the House of the Stag. I would see you in the courtyard reading or drawing and I wanted to know you. I would see the kindness with which you treated everyone you met and hope that kindness might be directed at me. When you were taken, I would have torn Pelos apart searching for you had I been allowed. While you were gone I worried every second that you might not return to us while your husband," he injected those two words with more vitriol than I would have thought possible, "seemed hardly concerned, daydreaming over another woman."
"When I was finally allowed to go after you, and I found you so..." he looked away again and shook his head before going on, "I was so scared you were already lost. But you stirred, even better, you fought. I held you the whole way back and I wanted nothing more than to kill those who had done this to you," his grip on my hands was becoming painful, but I did not try to break the contact. "I waited while you healed, hoping beyond reason that you would not be broken by that tragedy. You emerged from the other side, whole and healthy. Sad, yes, but strong. Stronger than I could ever have imagined." He looked at me again, and his eyes shone brightly, captivatingly. His voice had not risen despite the intensity of his words, but now it dropped to a whisper. "When Roslyn assigned me to guard you, I was so thankful. The more time I spent with you, the more I realized just how amazing you are...and then you wanted to know me, to be my friend...I...I love you Laren. More than I ever could have believed myself capable of loving anyone." My breath stopped. For the second time that day I was utterly staggered by the realization of his feelings for me.
"Ballard," I said softly, pulling my hands free and reaching for his face. I stepped closer but he gripped my upper arms, freezing me in place.
"We can't Laren."
"Why not?" I wanted to scream in frustration but I kept my voice low as well.
"You are not mine to take," he answered. I remembered Liam's constant choruses of "mine" throughout our marriage. My eyes narrowed, and he went on, "I will not let you risk your honor for a tryst--"
"My honor!" I hissed. "That is your objection? I am legally obligated to provide Liam with heirs, and I will do so to the best of my ability. I will also fulfill the other duties of my role in the House, but I belong to no one but myself, and it is my choice to whom I give my honor. My heart was never his, and if I choose to give it to you freely you have stolen nothing." Ballard's eyes widened and he released my arms, stepping back a pace. "Do you really think I would so lightly compromise my loyalty for a mere tryst?"
"I..." he seemed at a loss for words. "I thought you were only--" He ran a hand across his face and then raked it through his hair. "I didn't realize you felt--" I took a step forward, once more closing the gap between us.
"For the sake of clarity, Ballard," I said, reaching once more for his face, pulling it down close to my own, "I happen to love you too."
"Oh!" It was all he had the chance to say before I stretched up on my toes and kissed him. For a moment I feared he would resist regardless, he stood so still. But a heartbeat passed, and then two, and then he began returning the kiss, his arms wrapping around me and pulling my body right up against his. I sank into him and let the heat of his passion wash over me, feeding it with my own. I fumbled at his shirt, pulling it loose from his trousers and then over his head, reluctantly pulling back to allow it to pass between us.
All of Ballard's hesitation had disappeared. He gave me a wicked grin that had me shivering in anticipation and began to tackle the buttons on my skirt. In short order we had managed to undress each other and I pulled him into the bed. I was more than ready by then and expected him to enter me, craving the connection, but he did not do so immediately. Instead he set about exploring my body with his hands and mouth and tongue. I had never experienced anything like it in all of my previous encounters with Liam. Ballard had me shivering with delight, the slightest touch sending shocks racing through my body. It was all I could do not to scream out my pleasure. When he finally joined with me I sighed in relief, eliciting a brief chuckle from him. I could sense he was holding himself back, moving as slowly as he could bear. When pleasure began to wrack my body and I had to bury my teeth in his shoulder to keep from crying out, he let go of himself and made quick work of finishing his task.
He kissed me as he pulled out, slowly and deeply, and then pulled me close, lining up our bodies together. He stroked my arm, my stomach, anything he could reach, placing soft small kisses along my neck. Every nerve in my body was singing and his touches occasionally brought forth a fresh tremor. Eventually he seemed satisfied and he wrapped his arms around me. I turned within them, placing my lips on his in a slow languorous kiss of my own.
"I still think this is madness, my lady," he told me, placing a finger on my lips when I would have protested his use of my title. "But maybe even the Ancestors would have understood. I am yours, Laren." The sweetness of those words followed me down into sleep.
My remaining three weeks at the House of Jade were a confused jumble of emotions. I felt grief at the loss of my parents, pride in seeing Garrus assume Father's place as he had been chosen to do, and complete delight at the hands of Ballard each night. It was easy enough to maintain the affair in my family's home. No one was watching us, and by that time the household staff were quite used to Ballard shadowing me everywhere. We maintained discretion as much as possible, with that being made easier by his occupation of the servant's room attached to my own. But we both realized the unspoken truth that finding such time together would be infinitely harder once we returned home, and we made love as much as possible during those days. After the first night I recalled what Sebastian and Nathaniel had said to me about generous lovers during our first real conversation. I had not known what they were talking about at the time, but now I felt I had a fairly solid idea. Ballard very rarely hurried through our lovemaking. He took the time to give me as much pleasure as I could stand. Wanting to be on equal footing, I asked him to teach me how to do the same for him, and he (of course) agreed rather eagerly, taking great joy in his role as instructor.
Sebastian had provided a key piece of information that allowed such intimacy to continue, and though I had no idea how to thank him without being overcome by embarrassment, I was nonetheless eternally grateful. He had told me of an herb used to sweeten tea that had a bonus side effect of tricking a woman's body to prevent conception for several hours after ingestion. It did not do any lasting damage, which made it ideal for extramarital encounters. Even better, it was a fairly common and innocuous herb, unlikely to draw attention to its purpose, unlike many other herbs and teas used for contraceptive purposes. I had not asked how Sebastian was so familiar with its lesser known use, but I could guess easily enough. Without it, I would have likely forced myself to abstain from Ballard's attentions once we returned home, at least until I had given Liam his heir. I remained firmly convinced that once that happened his nighttime visits would cease entirely.
To Ballard's utter bemusement, Sebastian turned out to be our staunchest ally once I had returned to the House of the Stag. We could hardly conduct the affair while on the estate itself, neither one of us trusted Roslyn's understanding that far, and so my couplings with Ballard were far less frequent than either of us would have liked. Yet somehow Sebastian managed to engineer invitations for me to go on outings requiring Ballard's presence as my guard on a fairly regular basis. The invitations were not just to the House of Blades, as that would likely raise suspicions of a different sort. Still, wherever we were, Sebastian arranged matters so that Ballard and I could always find a few moments of time to ourselves at these events without fear of discovery.
As happy as I was, I felt I was walking something of a knife's edge as winter progressed. I looked forward to spring with great longing, anticipating long days alone in the woods with Ballard. I still had not found myself with child and I felt both relieved and irritated by this fact. I was quite ready to have that particular duty to my House fulfilled. One evening on the tail-end of winter found me curled up in my rooms, silently bemoaning the arrival of my womanly burden, once more signaling that my womb remained empty. I was in a particularly foul mood because on top of the fact that Ballard and I had not been together in almost two weeks, the previous evening had seen me attending a dinner party with Liam at the House of Stars. It was a more private gathering than a true party, and as such, Liam did not even bother with discretion, all but rubbing his affair with Kara in my face. I knew I had no right to feel hurt by his actions, but I did feel anger at the way in which I was treated. The insult had been clear enough to me, and more than once I had seen a look in his eyes that said he knew exactly how he was making me feel.
While I stewed over those thoughts I was interrupted by a soft knock at my door. Liam had already come and gone after learning of my condition, and I had not sent for anyone. So it was with great curiosity that I opened the door, finding a very frantic looking junior cook standing in the corridor, eyes wide with fear.
"Begging your pardon, my lady," she said, bowing her head so deeply she almost toppled over, "I do not mean to intrude, only he insisted, and Cook said I had best be about it and--" I placed a hand on her shoulder gently, cutting her off.
"Best be about what, Anwen?" I tried to make my voice as amiable as possible.
"I..." She took a deep breath and seemed to calm a bit, "I was sent to fetch you, my lady. There's a man in the kitchens. Two, actually. And they are asking, well, demanding, to see you. Said they won't go away 'til they speak with you. Cook seemed to think it best I bring you down there, if you please." She bowed her head again.
"Of course, just give me one moment." I grabbed a robe and slipped it on over my night clothes, not bothering to find any shoes. Closing the door behind myself, I stepped out into the hallway and gestured for her to lead on. Despite her clear nervousness, she beat a hasty path for the kitchens in what I knew to be the most direct route, leading me down the servants' stairways and halls. We arrived in the kitchens and the head cook looked up sharply, breathing a sigh of relief when she saw that it was only Anwen bringing me along.
The kitchen was deserted except for the two cooks, myself, and two men standing by the fireplace. One looked barely conscious, and I could see he had been badly beaten. He could barely stay on his feet and the other man was holding on to him tightly, supporting him. I gasped in shock upon closer inspection of the injured man. It had been well over ten cycles since I had last seen him, and there were lines that had not been there before, but I recognized him all the same.
"Aaron." I breathed. My brother looked up at me and then went limp as he finally gave in to full unconsciousness. The other man gripped him even tighter, keeping him from falling to the floor. He looked up at me, pleading with his eyes. I did not recognize him.
"We had nowhere else to go, my lady," the mystery man said.