As I had expected, I got very little sleep that night, and was up almost before the sun the next morning. I bathed and dressed quickly, making my way to Roslyn's chambers, hoping to catch her before she left her rooms for her office. I ran into Liam in the corridor, his own rooms being near his mother's. He seemed surprised to find me there at such an early hour.
"Were you looking for me, Laren?" I hesitated, not wanting to offend him, but also not wanting to share the full truth with him just yet. The fewer people who knew about Aaron and Drew's presence in the manor, the better. Sadly enough, I did not count my husband among those people I could trust with the secret.
"No, my lord," I answered politely, "I woke up with an idea for the party she was thinking about hosting. I was hoping to catch her before she became too busy to see me." I felt a tiny pang of guilt. It was the first time I had outright lied to Liam and I did not like it. Keeping secrets was one thing, that was practically a family hobby among members of the Stag. But lying was another. I feared it was necessary at the moment, however.
"She is never too busy for you, Laren," he said softly. A kind of sadness appeared in his eyes and he frowned slightly. I had a moment's worry that he had realized my deception, and his next comment caught me a bit off my guard. "Whatever our relationship, Laren, you will still be the lady of the House once I assume the position of Head. I would not want you to think your role diminished because you and I aren't always on the best of terms." He patted me aimlessly on the arm, "Besides, you know that mother is quite fond of you. She always welcomes your input and takes it very seriously." A thought seemed to occur to him and he straightened, resuming his normal demeanor, it appeared the moment was over. "I fear I must be going, but I wish you luck with your suggestions. Have a lovely day, my lady wife." He offered me a tiny bow of his head and strode quickly off down the corridor, leaving me staring after him in amazement.
He really doesn't know me at all, does he? I sighed and shook myself. That was a worry for another time. I continued to Roslyn's rooms trying to gather my thoughts. If I was lucky, she would take the news in stride, but I suspected I had something of a contest of wills awaiting me when I told her my news. I did not expect she would be pleased to have a pair of outcasts thrust upon her as houseguests. At her door I took a few deep breaths before knocking firmly.
"Come in," came Roslyn's voice from the other side. I pushed the door open and tried to project a confidence I did not feel. Her sitting room had a much different layout than my own, but it did share in common a small table positioned in front of the private balcony. She was seated at the table eating a simple breakfast and looking over a pile of documents. I let loose a small sigh of relief when I saw that she was already dressed. She had been up for a little while already, at least. "Laren!" She exclaimed, looking up as I entered. I forced an easy smile onto my face. "Well, this is a surprise. What brings you here so early? I do not recall that we have an appointment."
"No, we don't Roslyn. I am afraid I have a rather unsettling matter to discuss with you." She set her cup of tea down carefully and gestured for me to take the seat opposite her. When I did she tilted her head and looked at me expectantly, inviting me to continue. I took a deep breath. "Late last night one of the junior cooks came to my rooms to inform me that a visitor had arrived in the kitchens demanding to see me." He eyebrows rose but she said nothing. "It was my brother Aaron," I told her. "He was badly wounded and not knowing where else they might turn, he and his friend Drew came here, hoping we might offer them sanctuary. I...forgive me, Roslyn, but I had Aaron placed in the rooms above my own and I had Doctor Carson see to him. He is likely to recover fully, but it will take some time." Roslyn looked at me, remaining silent for some time. I sat as still as I was able, fighting the urge to fidget under her gaze, though she displayed no emotions. I could not tell what she was thinking.
"I was not aware that your brother was even in Pelos," she said at last. "I was under the impression that he had left the city after he was disowned."
"He did. He has only been back for a few moons. He was forced to come back by circumstances beyond his control." I could not decide whether I should yet tell her about Riordan. She did need to know that there was a danger of retribution for sheltering Aaron and Drew, but...
"I see. Have you been in contact with him all of this time then?"
"What?" I blinked in surprise, it was not a question I had expected. "No, my lady. I haven't spoken to him since before he left the House of Jade. I only learned the details of his exile last night. His friend Drew explained their situation after Doctor Carson had seen to them." She nodded, considering.
"Why did you not wake me last night when they arrived?" I sat up straighter. This was the point I had expected to be the most likely to irritate her.
"It was very late, as I said, my lady. He was in need of immediate medical attention, and I could not turn him away. I believed that morning was soon enough to bother you with this matter." She nodded again and I thought I caught a hint of a smile, but it was quickly gone.
"Better to ask for forgiveness than permission, yes?" I blushed but did not reply. She had the right of it. I was counting on the fact that she would not throw an injured man out on the street once her doctor had already assumed care of him. It would be rather uncivil of her. "I assume there is more to the story, since he came here, to the sister he has not spoken to in cycles. He is hiding from someone? The person responsible for his injuries?"
"Yes," I answered. "It seemed prudent to keep the matter as quiet as possible, especially until I had a chance to speak with you about it."
"I see. So who else knows that he is here?"
"Lise and Anwen were in the kitchens when they arrived, and I had Anwen fetch Doctor Carson and Ballard," she gave me a sharp look at that but I pressed on. "We kept to the back routes and were not seen moving him to his rooms. I told them all not to speak of the matter."
"Very good, Laren," she nodded in approval. "Lise and Carson I trust to be discrete, and Ballard as well, of course. I am not so sure about Anwen, but Lise should be able to keep her from gossiping. Nonetheless, I will speak to her myself, to try to impress upon her the importance of keeping this quiet." She sat back and took a long sip of her tea, eyeing me speculatively. I sat quietly and made myself meet her gaze. So far this had gone somewhat better than I had expected.
"I wish that you had come to me as soon as you learned of your brother's presence here," I opened my mouth to speak but then closed it again when she added, "but I do understand why you didn't. It is natural you will want to protect your long lost brother when he arrived in such a state. Especially in the wake of your recent loss. You were very young when he left Jade, were you not?" I nodded once. "I must admit, hosting an outcast is hardly desirable. If he wasn't injured, I would likely turn him away, I'm afraid. But," she held up a hand to forestall my protest, "as long as we can keep his presence hidden, I am content to let him remain until Carson declares him healthy enough to leave."
"Thank you, Roslyn," I breathed in relief.
"Yes, well. It is not entirely for your sake." She smiled wanly, "Carson would likely become unbearable if I refused to let him see to a patient." I smiled back. The normally mild-mannered doctor did have a very fierce way about him when he felt his patients' health was being needlessly threatened. "You handled this very well, truth be told. I am impressed. That sort of quick thinking will be vital when you are running this household, my dear." I bit my lip, not really anticipating that particular challenge. "I can't live forever, Laren," Roslyn said teasingly upon seeing my expression.
"That doesn't mean I am eager for you to be gone," I replied, causing her to laugh. She shook her head and sobered again.
"Now, judging by the fact that you involved Ballard in this matter, I assume that your brother is still in danger?" I nodded slowly. "Do you know who it is that poses the threat?" I could not lie to her, and if he was really as powerful as Drew believed, she needed to know...
"Riordan of Griffon," I answered quietly. Roslyn sat back slowly, her only other visible reaction was her eyebrows attempting to climb her forehead.
"That is...disconcerting." I nodded. "Is the matter something that I might be able to settle by meeting with him?" She asked me. I had briefly considered the idea, but if Riordan was really as unscrupulous as the evidence suggested, it didn't seem likely to work.
"I don't believe so," I answered, shaking my head. "The disagreement is personal. If you were to officially become involved, he might turn on you as well."
"Hmm. I would like to think I am more than capable of handling Riordan of Griffon. However, such a fight would be exhausting, I fear, and might lead to scandal. Very well. Officially, I am unaware of this entire matter. I leave you in charge of it. I will speak to Lise and Carson, however, in addition to Anwen. Hopefully they will agree to a temporary reassignment of duties to tend to our guests."
"Thank you," I told her again.
"Of course, dear." She glanced at the documents she had been going through when I entered. "Now, unless there is anything else?" I stood and bowed my head to her, recognizing the dismissal. She gave me a cursory nod and I slipped from her rooms. I headed for the nearest stairwell and made my way to the third floor.
Ballard was still standing guard outside of Aaron and Drew's rooms. At first glance he seemed alert enough, but I knew him well enough to recognize that he was on his last legs. Still, he had enough in him to give me a smile that sent a rather indecent surge of warmth through my body. I would need to find a way to make some time alone with him very soon.
"I can stay with them for the day, love," I said quietly by way of a greeting. "Go and get some sleep, please."
"After I've made a few changes to the security detail," he agreed. "You've spoken with Roslyn?" I nodded.
"As I expected, she wasn't happy I didn't take it to her immediately, but otherwise it went very well. She has agreed to let them stay until Carson declares him healthy enough to go. That should hopefully buy us some time to figure out what we do next. Their presence is also to be kept in strictest confidence, of course."
"That will make keeping them hidden easier," he said. I raised my hand to knock but he stopped me, saying, "You can go on in. They are expecting you. Doctor Carson is checking on your brother again."
"Thank you, Ballard," I said, trying to convey the full depth of my gratitude in those simple words.
"Anything you ask of me, Laren, you know that." He grabbed my hand in a quick squeeze and left. I watched until he was out of sight, hoping he really did try to get some sleep after making sure he was satisfied with the security. I tried to remind myself that he was, by and large, a sensible man, but I wasn't fully convinced. His good sense sometimes seemed to go out the window in matters involving my safety, and this was hardly unrelated.
I entered the suites and found Drew pacing in the sitting room. He looked up and smiled at me, his eyes tired but free of the previous evening's tension. At least he seemed to have gotten some rest.
"Has he woken yet?" I asked quietly.
"No, but your doctor thinks he should stir by this afternoon. He says that Aaron seems to be making a good start on recovery already."
"That is the best news I have had so far this morning," I told him, smiling. Even after a night's rest his voice still had a husky quality to it that I found extremely pleasing to the ear. He returned the smile and it was easy to see how my brother could have fallen for him. Despite being my mother's age, and Aaron's as well, I realized, he still seemed quite youthful. Perhaps it was the physical labor he had mentioned that kept him in such shape. His hair, an intriguing shade of brown, was kept short enough to stay out of his face but with enough length that its curls tumbled about his head in waves. I was a tiny bit jealous of how unintentionally artful they seemed. His eyes were green, though a shade or two darker than Ballard's and crinkled at the corners when he smiled. A few fine lines traced around the edges of his eyes and mouth but they only added to the overall picture. His nose and ears were just a little pointed, and his smile impish. It gave him something of an ethereal look. His complexion was lighter than my own, but much darker than Liam's, and despite his profession as a miner, he seemed well-tanned to me. I supposed he must do his fair share of work outside as well.
"Well then, he seems to be doing quite well," Doctor Carson said, bustling out of the bedroom. He spotted me and dipped his head. "Good morning, my lady! I thought I would go ahead and check on your brother this morning to see how he fared the night. You will be pleased to hear I do not yet see any signs of internal bleeding." Drew and I both sighed in relief at that, then glanced at each other, smiling over the shared reaction. "I trust I may report on his progress to my lady Roslyn now?" He asked expectantly.
"Yes, please do. She will be waiting for your update," I answered. "Although please be discrete, for their safety our visitors' presence here is to be kept secret."
"Just so," he replied. "Well, as I told the young master here," he indicated Drew, who seemed to be fighting a smile. Doctor Carson was not much older than him, if at all. "I expect the patient will wake up this afternoon, most likely by lunch. He will be quite hungry and you should let him eat whatever he may keep down, though do not let him gorge. I will make up a tea for Lise to bring him for when he wakes. He should drink all of that. It will help with the pain." I nodded. "Now, when he wakes, I would really rather he stay in bed, at least for another day. Though if he grows bored or proves difficult, he might move out here to the sofa or table. Keep him off his feet as much as possible today and tomorrow, and then some moderate exercise should be recommended. I will come back this evening of course, just to check in on him."
"Thank you Doctor," I said as he bustled to the door.
"Yes, thank you!" Drew echoed, and then Doctor Carson was gone. I went in to the bedroom to see Aaron for myself and Drew followed eagerly. In the light he looked even worse than he had the previous evening. Every bit I could see of him was bruised, swollen, cut, or scraped. Still, he seemed to be resting peacefully enough. I brushed a lank lock of his ink black hair from his face, studying it for a moment, trying to imagine it without the blemishes from his attack. Drew laid a tentative hand on my shoulder and I stepped back. He took my place for a moment, staring down at Aaron. His emotions were unguarded and it almost broke my heart to see the loving way in which he gazed upon my brother. I slipped out of the room to give him a few moments of privacy.
A sharp knock on the door heralded Lise's arrival with breakfast and Drew came into the sitting room, pulling the bedroom door shut behind himself. I explained the doctor's expectations of Aaron's revival and appetite and she promised to bring enough for him as well at lunch time, and things that would keep in case he woke later. Drew and I sat down at the table and shared our breakfast. I told him about my discussion with Roslyn. He confirmed my suspicion that having her go to Riordan would be a mistake that would only escalate the issue. After that we talked for a while and he told me stories about Aaron, and about their adventures together in the mountains.
"So...you and Ballard?" Drew asked me eventually. I blushed and looked away. I had already made the decision not to hide the affair from him, or from Aaron, though, so after a moment I turned back to face him.
"It happened gradually. He was assigned to guard me after my abduction, and we got to know each other." I shrugged. "I never expected to be unfaithful to my husband, but...well, I never had much of a chance in securing his affections." Drew cocked his head in question and I went on to explain. "There is another woman, Kara of Stars. I believe he has loved her for a very long time," I added softly. "Circumstances prevented them from marrying each other, but when she returned to Pelos after Liam and I had been married, well..."
"Aaron wondered if those rumors were true." Drew said softly. It was my turn to pose the silent question. "Part of our work for Riordan is gathering gossip, as I told you. Liam's infatuation with Kara of Stars is a source of speculation in many circles."
"Ah. Well, he has never been as discreet about it as his mother or I would like."
"You seem rather ambivalent about it, if I may say so."
"I wasn't always, Drew. I realized his feelings for her the very night I was abducted, and by the time I had recovered, he had become fully engaged in the affair." I shook my head. "I was hurt, and certainly felt betrayed at first. But I knew from the outset that this marriage had a chance at being less than ideal. He would have married her if he had been allowed to do so, I have no doubt. Politics seem to so often get in the way of happiness. So long as he gives me my space and does not make a complete fool of himself, I cannot truly complain, I suppose." A stray thought struck me, and curiously I asked, "What is said about me, I wonder?"
"Well," he drew in a breath. Trying to determine how much to tell me, I guessed. "There is some talk about your illness over the spring and summer. I have heard it often remarked that you seem much changed from how you were before that, although as far as I can tell the consensus pegs the change as for the better." That was a bit of a surprise to me. I nodded for him to continue. "With the rumors about your husband and Kara, well, the circles seem divided on whether or not you are aware of it. Those that think you know believe it is only a matter of time before you choose your own lover to get back at your husband," his eyes strayed to the door and he smirked, "but there is as yet no indication that anyone actually thinks you already have one." Well that was certainly good to hear. As Roslyn had pointed out to me moons ago, Liam's reputation had much more leeway before it was damaged than mine did. If there was even idle talk about Ballard and myself.... "Of course," Drew went on, sounding amused, "then the speculation moves toward who you might actually choose for your lover."
"Oh dear!" I said, nearly choking on a sip of tea. He had timed that admirably. "Really?"
"Oh yes," he said, pretending at seriousness. "Even money seems to be on Sebastian of Blades." I managed not to spit the tea out of my mouth, but it was a close thing. He calmly handed me a napkin, his eyes dancing merrily. I had always remembered Aaron as a very serious man. He would fall in love with a trickster.
"Goodness, well, I am sure Sebastian is amused by that. At least he knows that such an affair would be out of the question." I shook my head and Drew perked up with interest, his curiosity piqued. Before he could ask for elaboration, however, our attention was drawn by a sound from the bedroom.
As one, we bolted in to find Aaron awake and attempting to sit up, cursing groggily. He looked up when we rushed in to the room and frowned in confusion for a moment. Drew moved to his side and propped up the pillows so Aaron could lean against them, making quiet reassuring noises as he did so. I hung back, not wanting to intrude. His eyes had widened in surprise when he saw me and had then moved to Drew in suspicion. Now he was looking back and forth between us, impatience becoming clear in his features.
"Drew," he said calmly, grabbing the other man's wrist to stop him fluffing pillows. When Drew finally met Aaron's look, he continued. "Would you mind telling me exactly what is going on? I seem to be hallucinating my sister." I crossed my arms over my chest and narrowed my eyes at him, annoyed.
"You're not hallucinating," Drew said guiltily, "we're in the House of the Stag."
"I told you not to come here!" Aaron said in alarm. "This will be the first place he looks, and if he finds out--"
"He won't," I interjected, my irritation getting the better of me. "No one knows you are here, only a few of the servants, and they will keep your presence quiet. Even if Riordan does realize, the security is being strengthened. He won't be able to get to you." Aaron stiffened at the mention of Riordan.
"Drew, what did you tell her?" He sounded almost panicked.
"The truth," Drew answered. "She took us in with no hesitation, and given that our situation puts her in danger as well, I thought she deserved to know." He slipped his wrist from Aaron's grip and gently laced their fingers together. "It will be alright Aaron, I promise."
"Laren," Aaron said, turning to me. "Thank you, truly, but as much as we owe you, we can't stay. No matter how safe you might think this place is, you don't know Riordan. This will only get worse if you remain involved."
"Worse than it's already been?" I huffed. Aaron squeezed his eyes shut and inhaled sharply.
"Damn it Drew." He muttered.
"She deserved to know," he repeated firmly.
"This manor is a fortress, brother," I said, softening my voice, trying to convince him. "At the very least it will take Riordan time to find a way inside, and the guard will be on the alert for intruders. You'll have a chance to heal, and that time will also give us an opportunity to find a solution to this problem, once and for all." Both men's heads swiveled in my direction, eyes wide. "Do you really think I would allow such a threat to continue to hang over the two of you? Or over me?" I shook my head. "No, he must be stopped. He wants you under his thumb for a reason. We take that reason away, and he has no leverage anymore." They continued to stare at me for some time.
"It has been so long..." Aaron said at last, "I guess I never really considered that you are no longer a child."
"I haven't been for quite some time." I replied, arching an eyebrow. "I appreciate your drive to protect me, Aaron, but I like to think I can at least handle the truth of the situation." He nodded slowly, looking at me as if seeing me for the first time. I stepped closer, moving next to Drew and reaching for Aaron's free hand. "I hate that you had to suffer for trying to protect me, either of you, and I don't intend for it to continue, alright?"
"Well, then." Aaron said, smiling at last. "I suppose we will have to find a way to make it so."
"The two of you aren't alone anymore," I told them. "We will find a way." Aaron didn't really believe me, I could tell, but he did seem willing to humor me at least. That was a step in the right direction. I could accept that for now. I took extra hope from the fact that Drew didn't seem nearly as pessimistic as Aaron. He was beginning to believe.
Lise arrived shortly after Aaron woke, Anwen in tow, bringing quite a spread for lunch. Aaron ate at least half of it on his own. He wasn't too pleased about the enforced bed rest, but Drew helped him move out to the sofa in the sitting room and the three of us spent the afternoon chatting. Aaron and I caught each other up on what we had missed in each other's lives over the last several years, and Drew occasionally threw in a story of his own. As the afternoon wore on I could see that both men were growing comfortable with their new surroundings and with my company. I judged the time to be right, and curiosity seeming to burn a hole in me, I finally worked up the nerve to ask my brother the true story of his exile.
"I have a question for you Aaron, if I may," I began. His turn to be curious, he tilted his head to one side. The gesture was so wholly reminiscent of our father that my breath caught in my throat for a moment. Aaron motioned for me to continue and I managed to compose myself once more. "From my conversation with Drew last night, I gather the reason you had to leave Jade was that someone caught the two of you together," Aaron winced and I held my hand out, quickly assuring him, "I do not need the details of that." Aaron relaxed marginally. "I just...he said that the official reason for your disownment was a broken engagement. One that actually was broken, even if it was years before you left. Who...what..."
I trailed off, uncertain of how to finish the question. I don't know why I needed to know so badly, I just felt in my bones that this was a part of their story that had to be told in order for me to really truly know them. Aaron was watching me carefully, assessing me with a strange sense of calm. Drew, I noticed, was studiously avoiding meeting either of our gazes. After a few silent moments Aaron sat up a bit straighter in his chair and sighed, looking down at his lap before glancing back up to meet my eyes again.
"I suppose I shouldn't be so surprised at your curiosity," he said kindly. "I imagine no one bothered to actually explain to you what was going on at the time, and I know that the details of the disaster that was my engagement were something Father would never have wanted you to find out."
"You know, I think I am going to straighten up the bedroom," Drew said, rising abruptly from his chair and striding across the room. I blinked after him and Aaron only shook his head, looking at the bedroom door with a fond yet bemused smile.
"A topic Drew really isn't fond of?" I asked after a moment and Aaron nodded.
"You could say that." He heaved a sigh and ran a hand through his inky hair, wincing when it passed over a bruise. "When I turned fourteen Father announced that he had begun looking for an appropriate match for me," Aaron began. I leaned forward, anxious to have the mystery finally revealed. This had been not too long before I was born then, it was perhaps more understandable that I had never been told.
"I was ambivalent about the whole thing, to be perfectly honest. I assumed that even if he found me a wife right away, it would be a few cycles before I had to concern myself with an actual marriage, young as I was. Drew and I--well, we were still only beginning to realize what we truly meant to each other. He teased me almost mercilessly when I told him about Father's decision. Until Father told me a marriage contract had been agreed upon. Drew stopped laughing then." Aaron sighed again. "I don't know what Father was thinking, but he told me that the wedding would take place within the cycle, as soon as my bride-to-be and I had both turned fifteen. There had to have been some business deal attached to the contract. It's the only reason I can think of that he would have tried to pressure me into an arranged marriage so quickly and so young..."
I could not deny that it sounded like the kind of logic Father would have ascribed to. Drew had said the match was with a powerful House, gaining that kind of influence would have meant much to Father. I thought of Cantos of Obsidian and his determination to marry Beryl off so soon after she was of child-bearing age. Perhaps the father of Aaron's intended had been of a similar mindset. I was burning to ask him who the intended bride had been, but I didn't want to interrupt the flow of his story. I suspected this would be my only chance to ask him, he clearly didn't like to think on it any more than Drew did.
"Word got out that the House of Jade was soon to be allied by marriage to the House of the Stallion--"
"But that's...!" I sputtered through my interruption, unable to hold my silence. "Aaron, that was Mother's House!"
"I know," he said wryly. "Carren was originally promised to me." I stared at him, stunned into silence. How in the blazes had my father wound up married to my brother's betrothed?!? "Shall I continue?" Aaron asked after a moment. I could see he was taking some amusement from my flabbergasted reaction. The sparkle in his eyes suited him well and I managed a small nod as I tried to wrap my head around this new information.
"Father arranged a dinner party so Carren and I could meet and get to know one another. She was polite enough, and I could appreciate that she was extremely pretty but..." he shrugged, "...it didn't take long for me realize that I had very little interest in her. I am afraid she realized it, too." I winced. I could easily imagine how she might have reacted to that. Aaron saw the movement and nodded. "After dinner we were encouraged to take a walk through the grounds together to have some time alone and get acquainted. Before that walk was over I realized that I wasn't just disinterested, I outright did not like her, and the feeling was quite mutual. Still, our parents had agreed to the wedding and we were both set to go ahead with it and find a way to live with each other. I likely would have gone ahead with it too, had it not been for..."
"Drew." I breathed.
"He...he was there that night that we met. Father knew we were friends and hadn't wanted the party to seem too intimate, so there were a few other people invited. Laren, the look in his eyes when he saw Carren and I sitting togther...it almost undid me. It was jealousy, pure and simple, and it wasn't Carren he wanted." I reached out and took Aaron's hand and he gripped my fingers tightly. "I tried to forget what I'd seen. To tell myself I was imagining things. But the closer we got to the wedding, the further he withdrew from me. He found ways to just miss me when I would pay him visits, letters I sent him would mysteriously fail to have been delivered. I knew he was avoiding me, and I realized that once I was married, it would be as if we had never been friends at all." His earlier amusement had vanished.
"And you could not bear the thought of him slipping out of your life," I said sadly. I thought of my reaction to Ballard's suggestion that a different guard take his position once I had realized who he was. I hadn't known then how I felt about him, but I had known I didn't want to let him disappear.
"Exactly so," Aaron said quietly. I thought he could see the understanding in my eyes and he gave me a small smile. "I decided to confront him about the matter, to confirm my suspicions. It took some doing to even get him to talk to me, but finally I managed to do so. He tried to deny how he felt. I don't think he understood that we were in the boat together, so I..." Aaron blushed, "...I took a chance. I kissed him, and...he kissed me back." Aaron closed his eyes, remembering that long ago kiss, and his face lit up with a smile. "Somehow I managed to convince him that his affections were returned. I am not even sure I knew it until I kissed him but...well." He spread his hands, indicating surrender. "After that, I knew all I wanted in my life was Drew. He tried to convince me to go ahead with the marriage, that we would find a way to work things out. But I could see how much it hurt him to imagine our future that way. I told Father the next day that I would not marry Carren."
"I am sure he took that well." I said, sitting back in my chair.
"About as well as you'd expect," Aaron answered. "He raged at me and begged me and threatened disownment right then, but...even he had seen how much Carren and I detested each other. If she had seemed to like me at all, things might have turned out differently. But Father is not without his honor and he agreed to cancel the wedding. He decided that he should break the news to her himself, suspecting she would not take it well from me." I arched my eyebrows at him, the question unspoken. He answered it anyway. "Mind you, I have no idea what was actually said in that conversation, neither one of them was really inclined to share the details with me. But at the end of it, somehow Carren of the Stallion found herself happily promised to Garvin of Jade rather than to Aaron. I don't know how they convinced her father that it was a better match but they did. Two days after she turned fifteen they were wed in a quiet ceremony, and an appropriate amount of time later, I found myself with a new baby sister."
"Ashes, Aaron, how did you live in the same House as her for eight more cycles after that?!?"
"Once we were no longer promised to each other, I apparently was not so detestable to her. It didn't hurt that as my new 'mother' she had a level of authority over me. She never overtly abused it, but as I am sure you are aware, that woman could hold on to a grudge." I snorted in a small laugh of assent. "It didn't bother me so much though, because I had Drew, and I was happy. Which seemed to annoy her, since she didn't know just why I was so happy, which made up for the small torments she doled out."
"But when you and Drew were found out..." I pondered out loud. Aaron heaved another sigh.
"Yes, well. By that time, Father was starting to pressure me harder to find a wife and produce an heir. I had been biding my time, trying to find a way to tell him that I had no intention of doing either. I suppose I kept hoping that Carren would have a second child, give Father another son so that the blow might be softened." I nodded. It was not uncommon in Houses with multiple sons for the eldest to be passed over for or to choose not to accept the role of heir. "But then Carren found me with Drew in a rather intimate exhange," he said mildly. "It took her very little time to put the pieces together. I fear it was more insult than she could bear and she went straight to Father with the information. I think he could have forgiven me if I had promised to marry immediately, to stop seeing Drew and keep the whole affair a secret."
"But of course you couldn't do that." It wasn't a question. I knew he had never even considered that path.
"No. I could not. When I told Father that, he gave in to Carren's urgings and I was formally disowned. On top of the broken engagement, he cited my refusal to fulfill my duties as his heir and continue the bloodline. It was enough for the Prime, and while there was some speculation in Pelos about just why I refused to marry, Father's actions were enough to shunt any of the disgrace from Jade itself. In some ways, it was a better outcome than I could have hoped for, although I will always regret losing those cycles with Father. And with you." He reached out for my hand.
"Was there not talk when Drew disappeared at the same time though?" I asked. "For that matter, was there never any pressure on him to wed over the cycles?" From what my brother had said, it sounded as if Drew was a member of one of the Houses too, not a servant as I had originally believed. Aaron hesitated but was saved from answering.
"Doings in the House of Iron have long ceased to be of any interest to the rest of the nobility," Drew spoke up. Aaron and I both turned to see him leaning in the doorframe between the two rooms. I wondered how long it had been since he had rejoined us. "There's not really any pressure for my line to continue, either, seeing as we're viewed as nothing more than glorified merchants among the Houses these days." A small spark of defiance in Drew's eyes belied the dry humor in his tone as said this. He still had pride in his House despite the low opinion the rest of Pelos held of Iron.
I wondered if that might have had as much to do with my mother's insistence on Aaron's exile as being passed over for Drew in the first place. The House of Iron had ruled Pelos for almost a thousand cycles before Rivers overthrew them. It had almost been a hundred cycles since Rivers came to power, and in that time they had managed to push Iron almost into obscurity. Drew's family survived only because they were instrumental in trade throughout all of Pelos, important to nobility and commoner alike, and because they had contacts in Denara and Dumais as well. Father, in the business of shipping goods, would of course still have dealt regularly with Iron. When it came to business he paid little attention to rank, judging instead on competence. But to my mother, born into a powerful house like the Stallion, Drew was something even lower than a commoner. He was a reminder of how easily the powerful could fall. To be passed over for a member of Iron...yes, I believe that would have stung her pride quite a bit.
"Ashes!" I exclaimed, clamping my hands over my mouth after the outburst.
"Laren...?" Aaron asked in a concerned voice. Both men were looking at me with twin expressions of surprise. I shook my head slightly and then repeated aloud the stray thought that had just occurred to me.
"No wonder Father didn't arrange for me to meet Liam until our wedding night. He didn't even tell me about the wedding until the week before!"
"Somehow," Drew drawled, "I don't think Carren would have been quite so happy for your Father to take his child's place this time if you found your future husband not to your liking." We all chuckled at that a bit and Drew moved over to rejoin us in the sitting area.
The conversation returned to lighter topics. Aaron, having noticed the drawing supplies I had brought with me, asked about my art and I showed them some of my drawings. The mood lightened considerably and we enjoyed the next few hours in happy companionship.