A Father’s Regret: 3. Little Shadows

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The day of the wedding was bright, with a sharp chill in the air, but calm. There had been no undue drama, no uprisings in the street. Valendrian had been working hard, Cyrion supposed. There was talk—a very great deal of talk—but it only seemed to happen in the dark. With the morning it dissipated like fog, leaving the cobbles bare; no groups of women gossiping on the corners, no old men sitting by their doors, offering their opinions on the shortcomings of the young.

Few gathered beneath the vhenadahl. He wasn’t sure if it was a calculated insult, or just the fact that, this time, he hadn’t laid on half as much ale.

Valora and Soris wore ordinary clothes. It stung Cyrion badly to realise how much of her trousseau she’d given to Merien—a good dress, almost-new boots, and a pouch of hard-scrimped silvers—and how little it had left her with. Likewise, his nephew hardly cut a dash in a broadcloth shirt that didn’t fit, and breeches with an inexpertly sewn patch across one knee.

It shouldn’t have been this way. It was not, he told himself, fair. He’d been planning it for so long. Everything, down to the last detail; it was all supposed to be perfect. It all would have been, should have been…. Cyrion knew he shouldn’t let those thoughts rule him, and he tried to break from them, craning his head back and staring up into the dappled green canopy of the vhenadahl. They were lost things now, pale maybes and feathered hopes, scattered on the wind.

There were no flowers, like the garlands of dried blossoms he’d bought for his daughter. No singing, no dancing. Valendrian’s speech—those well-worn words about the importance of tradition, and community, and the ties that bound them throughout life—stirred faint recollections in him, and he almost glanced to his side, as if he might somehow catch the ghost of Adaia standing there.

Mother Boann had come flanked by an extremely well-built Chanting Brother, and two young templars, their armour flashing in the early sunlight, and their gazes perpetually darting into every corner and doorway, as if they feared they were about to be mobbed.

When she mounted the platform, Cyrion caught a faint distaste in himself, a new resentment of the priest and all she stood for. He tried to quash it, to listen to her graceful, profound words, and to enjoy the verses the Brother—a melodious, agile tenor—sang, but he found it hard to focus, and difficult to stop the joy slipping beneath a dark weight of uncomfortable, terse displeasure.

He had never been particularly religious. Not as far as the chantry was concerned, with all its emphasis on attending services, paying dues, and living by rules that, ultimately, were of human invention. Oh, he believed well enough… just not so desperately that he needed to cling to the words of the Chant, or have the benediction of priests to convince him of life’s worth. And the templars… no. They were nothing but guards in different garb today, more muscle to stand between the human and the palpable distrust in the air.

It was a brief service. The sun slunk out from behind the clouds as Soris slipped the narrow gold band onto Valora’s finger, and pale, watery light suffused the cobbles, sluicing over them all like it was something fresh, some new beginning. She smiled that tremulous, delicate smile of hers, and he kissed her. They all applauded; Cyrion, the hahren, the priest and her pack, and the few other assembled faces. Taeodor was there, along with two of his brothers, newly returned to the alienage. The third was still out there somewhere, they said; allegedly last seen careening off down the West Road on a short, fat little horse he’d liberated from a dwarven merchant. If he was caught, he’d hang for it, but apparently he’d thought the promise of freedom worth the risk. Cyrion wondered at that. Was it freedom, to always be running, afraid to look over your shoulder? To be alone?

He pushed the thoughts aside, unwilling to dwell on them and determined to keep the smile on his face, and have it appear as genuine as he could make it. Eventually, the effort gave way to real pleasure, real pride, and the old tugs of affection and familial attachment swept through him, bearing him up on the tide of this day’s union, and the hope for a future that might yet be reclaimed. Even Shianni was smiling. She’d been leaning on his arm for part of the time, her bruised face and frail gait testament to everything that hung so undeniably over the day, but she’d coped well.

Afterwards, before the ragged, rather pathetic little procession began to make its way back to his house—his wedding gift, Cyrion had said, and the least he could do for the couple, despite how crowded things were going to be with four of them under the same roof—the priest caught his arm and drew him aside, compassionate enquiry lighting her soft blue eyes.

“You must be very proud,” she said, with a glance to where Soris was being warmly back-slapped by a gaggle of laughing young men. “I am… so glad that we were able to do this, at last.”

He gazed solemnly into the woman’s round, pleasant face. She was lacquered with make-up, her hair finely coiffed. Powder had settled into the subtle lines around her eyes, nose and mouth and, when she smiled earnestly at him, they crinkled like folds in fine lawn. Her prayers had not ignored the dead. In the midst of all these new beginnings, these hopes for a brighter future, she’d offered up words for Nelaros, and Nola… but she had not once mentioned his girl. It was, Cyrion mused, as if Merien was a canker to be cut from the community’s heart and cast away, scapegoat and pariah in one. For a moment, he burned with indignation on her behalf, before recalling that her disgrace was, at the end of it, his.

He inclined his head. “Indeed, Mother. Thank you.”

“Not at all. It’s my pleasure.” She was still looking at him, and her hand remained on his arm in a solicitous gesture that he found distinctly uncomfortable. “And how are you?”

Cyrion swallowed. He was old-fashioned, he knew, but at some level it bothered him for this woman to be standing here, touching him, as if she had the right to do so. Her differences—the fact she was slightly taller than him, well-fed, well-dressed, her figure firm and rounded—were starkly apparent, the floral scent she wore thick and cloying, and he wanted rid of her, even while being annoyed at his own ingratitude.

“Well enough, Mother,” he said, more brusquely than he meant to.

She patted his arm. “If you need to talk….”

He nodded. “Thank you.”

Another warm, kindly smile, and she drifted away. The templars were waiting for her, eager to escape the alienage, Cyrion assumed. He wondered whether they were truly nervous or just embarrassed, keen to put the filth behind them. They all left soon after, when the young men’s laughter grew more ribald, and Mother Boann’s face fixed itself into a polite rictus.

He was angered by that, he realised; angered by the way she nodded and smiled indulgently, as if theirs were quaint customs to be observed and later mocked, or dismissed as backward and crude. There was crudity, of course, but… that wasn’t the point. Stupid thoughts, he told himself. He was becoming an irrational, irascible, foolish old man, spooked by shadows and goaded by nothings. He’d been worn too thin by these long, faceless days, that’s what it was. He needed to rest.

Just for a little while, perhaps.

~o~O~o~

There should have been a great fuss over the procession back to the house. There should have been music, rowdy singing, and a jostle of people cat-calling and whistling. Instead, it was all rather sedate and subdued. Cyrion brought up the rear, Shianni on his arm, and fervently wished—not for the first time in recent days—that Adaia could have been here.

It was a woman’s role to make this part easier, and Valora shouldn’t have had to be completely on her own. He’d done what he could, of course, when they were planning this the first time around… and, Maker knew, that had been hard enough. Cyrion doubted he would ever forget the uncomfortable awkwardness of outlining a husband’s responsibility to Soris, and fielding the red-faced, stumble-tongued questions about how a man actually went about… that… without causing pain or fear. Almost ironic, in the sickest, darkest possible sense, he supposed, given the way things had turned out.

Still, it jarred him into the recollection of the look on Merien’s face when he’d tried to be a good father and broach ‘that talk’ with her. Wide, startled brown eyes, mouth twisted in abject, strangled horror, and then he hadn’t been sure which one of them had been blushing and stammering the worst.

I… know what to expect, Father. It’ll be fine.

The women again, of course. The steel-eyed, iron-jawed leagues of complex and indefinable female alliance; always there, always smoothing things out and making sure the world ran on track, and that the front step had been scrubbed clean.

Sometimes, he suspected the women only let the men think they were in charge. It probably suited some dark, nefarious purpose they had, some plan to be revealed when the world least expected it.

In any case, it was a time-honoured ritual, the procession. First, the bride and groom were accompanied to their door, and if they weren’t both blushing furiously and sweating like a pair of humans by the time they got there, the job hadn’t been done right. Soris and Valora certainly had the blushing down pat, so that was something in their favour.

After that, when the door closed and the wreath of honeyblossom—and usually the obligatory pair of someone’s underpants—had been hung upon it, it was allowable for those who didn’t wish to stand beneath the happy couple’s window singing all twenty-four verses of Antivan Nights are Hotter until they got too drunk to continue (or were paid to go away) to retire to a safe, and sane, distance.

As he and Shianni headed for the quiet of the hahren’s parlour, Cyrion remembered being on the receiving end of that traditional rowdy humour. He and Adaia, leaning against the wooden door, both convulsed with laughter… more bonded by the ridiculousness of the experience than put off.

Maker’s breath, he remembered it so well. That first day… the first night. His father had gone through that talk with him well in advance, drummed into him the importance of being gentle, kind, respectful; of course, he’d done his best. It was clumsy and embarrassing, but wonderful, in a strange and awkward way. She was wonderful. It brought them close in more than the obvious sense, gave them a fragile, breathless intimacy that didn’t seem as if it could possibly ever have been felt by anyone else before them.

Naturally, it wasn’t love, though it paved the way for it. That came later: a frail, tenuous thing that unfolded slowly, like the silken petals of some delicate flower. Over time, it grew stronger. Life bound them together with a thousand threads, light as air and strong as steel, and by the time the baby came, Cyrion had hardly remembered a time she hadn’t been there, part of every breath he took.

He’d still felt the same when she died… he still felt it now. Felt her presence, somehow, the echoes of her still cleaving to the life she’d left behind. Their life. Their place… their family.

He guided his niece into the low, dim room, and Shianni must have spotted the wistful nostalgia wreathing his face. She laughed.

“Why, Uncle… I think you’re going soft!”

He smiled, glad she was able to make a joke, but unwilling to share the memory. Seemed like those were all he had left, now. Memories and dreams. After all, no joy on this day could erode what lingered over it. No snatched moment of levity or pleasant recollection stopped him from looking for faces in the crowd that he knew he would not find.

They would be on the Imperial Highway by now, he suspected. His little girl, and the man whom he could not help but feel had bought her.

It was in the face of that thought that Cyrion allowed himself his dreams. They were sanity, in a way. Picking up the threads of a broken, unravelled life, and sewing them back together the way they should have been. He should let them go, he knew. Let her go… but he couldn’t.

He sat in the smooth-worn wooden chair he’d occupied on that first night, with Shianni opposite him, and they played endless rounds of Nine Men’s Morris on the makeshift board scratched into the windowsill. It passed the time. Over the years, countless others had sat and played, he supposed, leavening dark nights or wiling away long waits. When Shianni won, she giggled like a little girl… the little girl he could still see through the bruises and the tired, sore eyes.

She was going to be a bigger problem to him than Merien ever had, and that was saying something. Oh, he loved her, but it didn’t mean Cyrion was blind to his daughter’s faults. She hadn’t been the easiest girl in the world to find a match for, not by a long chalk. She was a good worker, of course. Cooked well enough, kept a clean house, and Maker knew she was bright, resourceful, resilient… and too damn independent by far. Stubborn, too, like her mother, and cunning with it. Never one for an outright fight when she thought she could get away with manipulation—even if the results weren’t as elegant as she believed they were. She wasn’t all that subtle. And she had a temper. Oh, it was slow to rouse, but it blazed when it got going, and then it would burn itself out fast, and leave behind ashes and guilt.

She’d been too good at that, he’d always thought, for one so young. He supposed it was losing her mother early that did it; too ready to take blame into herself and stew on it, until it curdled into another burst of anger and frustration. She fought against it, though. Always wanting to be the good daughter she feared she wasn’t, and trying to be the girl she believed he wanted her to be. In time, Cyrion had always hoped she’d learn not to be so hard on herself, and maybe to listen to other people more instead of trying to second-guess what she thought they wanted from her. He could have helped, he supposed. He should have told her— ah, but what? That he would always love her, no matter what she did, that he was proud of her, and that she didn’t need to try so damned hard? Perhaps.

Perhaps he hadn’t even known all those things himself until it was too late.

~o~O~o~

They left it until well into the night before they walked back. The young couple would have more time alone than they knew what to do with, and Cyrion hoped they’d enjoyed it. As he recalled, it was the last opportunity they could expect to be uninterrupted for a while. Life had a way of bearing in on one, honey-month or no.

It had rained again. Shianni held his arm, and he let her think it was so she could stop him from falling.

“The stars are bright,” she observed, peering up at the patterned blackness above.

The towers and parapets that criss-crossed their sky—the parts of the old city that abutted and overlooked the alienage, and were rendered less valuable by so doing—were less obvious at night. They were shadows within shadows, different shapes against the darkness and, between them, chinks of blank sky were peppered with clear, hard specks of light.

There were a hundred stories about stars. What they were, how they came to be… tales and poems strewn with the names of ancient lovers whose hearts glittered up there in eternal stillness, preserved for all time as testament to their affairs, and their tragedies. Perhaps no great love ever ended happily. Cyrion mused on that thought, but not for long.

Rats scampered in the dark, and they had to pick their way both past the slops and rubbish spilling from the open gutters, and around the huddles of furry bodies. Alienage rats grew strangely fat and fearless on the lean pickings here, and black eyes glared from the darkness, thin yellow teeth bared at those who dared to disturb a meal.

“Ugh.” Shianni shuddered and pressed closer to him, and Cyrion relished the brief moment in which he could squeeze her shoulders, be her protector.

Taeodor and his brothers had brought Soris’ things round, not that there was much. A box of odds and ends, a few clothes, and a rag rug his mother had made a couple of winters before she died.

It wasn’t a lot, but there wasn’t all that much room in the house. They’d find another pallet, of course, budge up a little tighter and make that extra bit of space. Cyrion had been insistent. The least he could do, he’d said, and Maker knew it felt as if he’d been skating by on the very least of everything this past week.

“We’re back,” Shianni called out, the false sing-song of a strangled alert as her fingers closed on the door handle.

Cyrion almost wanted to chuckle, as if the past twenty years were nothing but a whisper, and he was once more a young man, caught on the twin prongs of excitement and terror that had marked his wedding night. He could hear Adaia’s helpless laughter as he blushed furiously at the raucous crowd below the window, and recall every burn of the shocked admiration that had swallowed him when she leaned out and threatened to empty the pisspot over them if they didn’t, as she’d put it, bugger off.

Valora met them at the door, rose-cheeked and softly smiling, Cyrion was pleased to see, though he doubted the house could have had a much more different mistress. She promised tea and soup if they wanted it, and ushered them in, as if she was eager to shut out the night.

Inside, everything seemed very quiet. The fire crackled low, lending that familiar room a diaphanous, shifting warmth that, to Cyrion, seemed at once both tempting and deceitful. Years of memories tugged at him, and he wanted to fall into them with the eagerness of youth, to relive every comfortable, cosy moment he’d spent in this place. Yet it had changed… was changing. Different, now. Still a home—still his home—but bending around a new family, and he supposed this awkward transition would have to be endured; a time of no one quite knowing what to be, or how to feel.

Shianni closed the door behind them, and the quiet clunk of the latch made him blink, rousing resentful proddings at the back of his mind. It was supposed to be a joyful day. He was supposed to be proud, pleased… could he not even do that anymore?

“Uncle.”

Soris was sitting by the fire, stripped down to shirtsleeves and a slight glow of triumphant relief. Cyrion joined him, aware that he had a certain role to fulfil here, but keeping one eye on the girls. It wasn’t fair on Valora, he thought, though naturally it was always hard for girls who came from other alienages. They had no sisters, no mothers, no friends already among the womenfolk, and no one they could… discuss things with, or whatever it was that women did which so clearly went above simple talking.

Still, she was a good girl. She’d make friends soon enough, if the drama of her arrival—and her husband’s role in everything that had followed—wasn’t held against her too much. And she would be good for Shianni, he supposed, not that things were meant to work that way. In… other circumstances, Shianni would have become the surrogate sister, the confidante to everything she needed to talk about—and he assumed there would be things—but that would hardly be the case now. Just something else for Valora to shoulder, along with the hard graft of forging a life here. He hoped she wouldn’t resent it… or them.

Cyrion cleared his throat, satisfied that the whispered hum of feminine conversation over by the clean-scrubbed table was as it should be, and need not concern him. He glanced at Soris, aware of the uncomfortable tinge of embarrassment that hung between them.

“Um. All… all right?”

Soris’ cheeks coloured a little, which could easily have been down to the firelight.

“Mm-hm.” He nodded. “It’s, uh, fine, Uncle.”

“Good. You don’t need—?”

“No,” Soris said quickly. “Uh. No, no…. We’re… uh… ahem. It’s fine.”

“Good.”

And thank the Maker for that. Cyrion relaxed a little, settling back into the chair. Things were as they should be, then. So why did it all still feel so empty?

He knew why, of course. Knew it with every calm, soothing minute that slipped idly past. It was an evening like any other—and like every other would be from now on, he supposed.

Shianni spread the rag rug out in front of the fire, far back enough from the hearth to avoid sparks, and declared it looked good. They all agreed. Valora poured tea. They all drank it. She did a little of her tidy, concise needlework, head bent over the cloth, and the silence was thick and rich as incense.

It was almost as he’d imagined it, Cyrion supposed, and that made Fate an even crueller bitch than he’d thought possible.

He’d pictured it, just the way he pictured it now, holding every detail close enough that he could almost taste it, squeezing himself against the raw, jagged edges of the dream. All those months, writing to Highever and waiting for letters back, scraping up coin to pay the matchmaker and praying that everything they’d heard about the boy was true…. There were stories about corrupt brokers, although naturally everyone expected a slight degree of exaggeration. The theory was that the flush of youth should take the edge off any little imperfections, and it usually did.

Still, he’d wanted to hold out for the right one. Merien deserved that. She’d deserved a future. It wouldn’t have been perfect, but it should have been there. For her, and for Nelaros.

Those first few, blushing glances he’d seen pass between them—pale shadows of the looks that passed now between Soris and Valora—should have been given the time and space to grow into a bond of more than shared nerves and hope. It was awkward at first, of course it was, and no one expected anything different, but time mended that.

She should have been allowed the chance. It was… necessary. A part of the cycle. There should have been life and chaos in the house again. Children, if the young couple were blessed. Cyrion had hoped for it—dared to hope that she would carry better than her mother, if not just for the gift of life, than to spare her the pain of losing it. He and Adaia would dearly have loved more children, but it apparently hadn’t been meant to be. After she lost the third baby, they started to take precautions. He’d wanted it, though. Wanted a house filled with little ones, and family gatherings where there were never enough chairs to go around, and their laughter burned long into the night, brighter than any candles.

There should have been grandchildren. Adaia had talked about that, back when they were still young enough for the notion to be absurd. She’d laughed, her head thrown back, her neck still a creamy expanse of firm skin, her hair spilling down between her shoulder blades, the dark chestnut barely touched with grey. He’d smiled at the thought, laughed with her, but it hadn’t seemed all that strange to him. It was the way things should be, after all. The wheel turned, the cycle moved on. There should have been little ones again, with bright eyes and round cheeks, and his daughter would have been a wonderful mother.

It could still come, he supposed. Different, though no less of a blessing. But it wouldn’t be the same.

Cyrion looked around the room, watching the flicker of flamelight on the whitewashed walls. He could almost see them, if he tried hard enough. Nelaros, sitting where he should be in front of the fire, and Merien, fetching tea and doing her darning by candlelight, as the little shadows who had no names played at her feet.

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A Father’s Regret: 4. Bitter Truths
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